Sunday, December 11, 2005

All of us need a little [World]space

Despite my intermittent consciousness of the holiday season, Santa Claus hasn’t forgotten about me. In fact, he’s so on the ball that he’s decided to deliver international mail a little bit early.

I need to preface this missal with a little confession: I’m a news and information junky. One of the biggest Peace Corps challenges for many people has been giving up “my music;” now with the advent of IPods, people can bring their entire music collections with them. I, however, have never been desperately connected to a certain kind of music – I have a few favorites, but generally I can depend on what’s available wherever I am. For me the sacrifice has been programming of another sort.

For over two years I was dependent solely on static-y, unreliable shortwave radio reception with its complicated system of frequency changes depending on time and season as my source of timely information from the outside world. For those that have never used shortwave, it’s a fascinating technology because you can broadcast signals around the world which breaks down invisible barriers of time changes and distance. I often listened to broadcasts originating from Great Britian, America, South Africa, China, the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia, and it was interesting to compare what news stories were considered priority in a variety of cultures.

Unfortunately, the huge disadvantage to any technology that works over large distances is that so much more can go wrong with it. Shortwave radio waves are very susceptible to changes in the atmosphere; most PCV communication at their sites in Madagascar is reliant on CB-like shortwave (BLU) radios which are notorious for being able to communicate with points 600 km away while not being able to hear the neighboring town and vice versa. Quality of reception is influenced by the weather, solar and other atmosphere events and – as far as I can tell – the will of God, with very little underlying rhyme or reason. My sum experience with shortwave radio communication leads me to promise that my children will never grow up in the Australian outback attending the “School of the Air” which is administered by shortwave radio. It’s time consuming, inefficient and downright annoying.

Additionally, for reasons I’ve never quite understood, a shortwave radio station does not continuously broadcast on the same frequency throughout the day, or even for all hours of a day. Hence, the BBC may broadcast Africa programming in the morning in the 6000 kHz range, then go up to 21000 kHz at midday and disappear entirely until late evening when it comes back around 11000 kHz. And one day the reception on any on of these frequencies may be clear as a bell, while nonexistent the next. The resulting complex schedule of frequency changes are impossible to track accurately without access to the Internet – and once you do get the program figured out, an equinox arrives and they shift their schedule to a completely new set of frequencies and times. I could spend all day just trying to find a single station.

Finally, after much consideration and urging by fellow expats who have made the switch and will never go back, I made my Christmas request: a small satellite radio with a 1 year WorldSpace subscription. It arrived on Thursday with “Father Christmas” in the form of my officemate’s visitor from the States, I spent Friday setting it up, and when the first sounds came through I almost cried. Even Malagasy FM radio is never this clear. I’ve spent the whole weekend now surfing back and forth between BBC World, BBC Africa, and NPR (and there’s even CNN, Fox and Bloomburg stations), and checking out the world, classical, African and pop music stations. If I’m really driven, I can listen to Radio France International to work on my French or WRN German news and maybe learn a little German.

Perhaps you have to have experienced first hand the two years of fighting with really bad and unpredictable shortwave reception to really appreciate the clarity and reliability of a strong (non-shortwave, or even Malagasy FM) radio signal. Just to be able to know that I can turn on my radio at any time of the day and know that I will find the BBC or NPR or anybody is so worth it! My addiction can now be satisfied and my shortwave radio (which has served well, for what it is) can be retired to the guest bedroom.

It's beginning to look a lot like...Christmas???

A fellow expat was waiting breathlessly for a telephone call from the States yesterday that would make or break her Christmas: her project headquarters in Maine was overdue to wire funds to her project’s Madagascar bank account that would let her pay her field agents’ salaries as well buy her plane ticket home for the holidays. Her staff hadn’t been paid for 2 months and were becoming justifiably antsy and the ticket has to be bought (in cash) by Monday. The phone call finally came as we were just heading out the door to dinner – and Murphy’s Law took over. Her original request for funds had gone astray and yes, it had been found and the transfer would be made post haste…except for the fact that there was a good ole Nor’Easter  blowing its way in – first  one of the year – and it was anyone’s guess as to whether the bank might still be open…

Even after three years of winterless holidays, the reality of Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere continues to come to me in sporadic bursts: a hotel restaurant overflowing with Christmas garlands, a 5 foot fake Christmas tree coated in psychedelic flashing lights, a coated storefront proclaiming a “Joyeux Noël” to all in fake snow. I can still easily forget to mark the Advent season if I don’t have the ubiquitous external clues of snow, cold and obsessive consumerism. The seasonal changes here – intermittent hot sun and cool clouds with gentle rain showers and the occasional thunder-banger and the persistent humidity – have no association with fat Santa Clauses in red fur suits, antlered reindeer, tinseled pine trees, or O Holy Night for me.

And yet, somehow, I don’t feel lost without Christmas in my life – or at least without Christmas-as-I-knew-it. It’s not even a matter of the “Malagasy do it better, simpler, appreciate the holiday more or expect less;” the commercialism may not be as extreme here simply because people can’t afford it, but it’s still there. Rather, since I’m not given the stimuli I am so programmed to respond to, I feel free of the baggage of the Christmas season and free to live it instead.

Now I truly understand the beauty of that Corona beer commercial with the whistled “O Christmas Tree” followed by the lighting of the Christmas palm. And I’m not sure I miss the real snow.

P.S. It probably won’t matter if the snowstorm did close the bank. A thunderstorm knocked out our phonelines three weeks ago and most of our banks haven’t been able to give out money since.




Sunday, December 04, 2005

It's a Lychee Life

Ahh, it’s lychee season again in Madagascar. What is a lychee you ask? Well, it’s this little red fruit that when you peel the skin off there’s a juicy white fleshy part with a big, smooth pit inside. It’s sweet and delicious and incredibly abundant on the southeast coast of Madagascar where I just spent the last week. So I spent a week gorging myself on the little fruits – along with everybody else in the area. And then I brought back two huge bushel baskets full of these fruits. Guess I should go figure out just what to do with all of them! Photo credit: Jon Annis, PCV Ikongo .