Sunday, December 31, 2006

Half a world ahead

So as many of you are just waking up or getting out of church and starting your last day of 2006, I am sitting at my computer calmly contemplating the approach of 2007. Up until now it really didn’t mean much more to me other than the fact that I can finally stop agonizing over my sloppy 6s at the end of my dates – both Malagasy and Vietnamese think my hand-written 6 is a 4, so finally, I don’t have to stress every time I sign and date something.

I wear 2006 like a comfortable and well-balanced necklace. To me, the first five months of the year are the deep-colored jewels of my final months until I finally reached RPCV status in early June. The next two gems are sky blue and forest green. My two full months in Northern Wisconsin were a time of refreshment and renewal - but also a great opportunity to share time with family and especially an aging grandmother. The final months were a return to Madagascar and to a life after Peace Corps. Finally, Vietnam in December is the clasp - firmly attaching the end of 2006 to my future in 2007.

Now with just an hour and a half to go before Vietnam enters that new year, it’s becoming real. In 2007 I will have officially spent 4 solid years living outside of the US. In 2007 I will learn a new language and work my first real, real job. In 2007 I will celebrate my 10 year high school graduation anniversary.

Yesterday we discussed New Years resolutions with the community English class that Ali has been holding. I’m not sure if I’m ready to resolve anything this year – other than keep my head above water in my new job. That for now is quite enough.

It’s raining now – my first rain in Vietnam – the first time for me to hear rain on the tin roof of a new home. It’s one of my favorite sounds. I only wish it were loud enough to drown out the Karaoke bar across the street (Mom, it’s 2007 and do you know where your daughter is? Definitely not at the karaoke bar). But that is also something I will have to get used to in the new year.

I’m sure there will be many more things waiting for us in this next year. I’m sure not all of them will be pleasant – but if all were good, how could we possibly know when to stop whining and enjoy the good parts? I won’t wax philosophical here, but may I wish for us all growth, new understanding and contentment in this new year.

So here’s to 2007 – check in with me on New Year’s eve and I’ll let you know what it looks like from this side of the date.

Culture Shock

This week I made my first excursion out to observe activities at our most distant field site. It was in Khunh Thang district, which shares a border with the most southern province in China. We had planned to take a couple of hours during the day to drive to the border itself where there is a historically significant and beautiful (I’ve seen pictures) waterfall – but unfortunately we didn’t manage to make it quite that far this trip – I was too interested in the field activities to take the time to drive out there. There will be other times – and other blogs.

But I had plenty to be excited about on this trip as it was – first, it was my first long-distance motorbike ride (60 km and 2 hours each way). Don’t worry – I’m still riding tandem with one of our other staff until I get my motorbike lessons and permit. Second, it was my first excursion out of the city into the “real” Vietnam – my first chance to see the mountainous terrain up close by daylight too. Cao Bang is ethnic-minority center of Vietnam, and people at this training would be speaking the ethnic dialect (or language) of Tây (not that I would necessarily know the difference what with my 10 words of Vietnamese at this point). So I was excited to see some of the peculiarities of Vietnamese ethnic life up closer. Finally, it was my first chance to spend the entire with my staff away from Ali’s benign but constant presence – a chance for me to begin to feel what I am getting myself into for real.

So at 6:30 am we climbed onto the project motorbikes, donned the requisite helmets, and set off into the morning damp chill and fog to seek out mountain highways.

And yet, as we zoomed through the winding mountains all that came as a shock to me was how familiar it all was. I had been here before. Everything was the same – from rice paddies divided into manageable portions by earth barriers, to the herds of livestock (cattle, goats, chickens) that blocked the entire road around blind corners, the burdened villager balancing a load front and back on a stick resting on the shoulder, the snaking winding switchbacks of the mountain byways that rose up to reveal impossible valley views, the sudden potholes nearly jarring you out of your seat on the frighteningly narrow pavement to the village market, empty and forlorn on a cold damp morning that was patently not market day and the ever-busy breakfast shop which always finds customers even on the slowest of days. Even the government buildings were shockingly identifiable – mayor’s offices, schools and village health clinics all jumped out from the grey backdrop with their traffic-sign bright coats of yellow paint with red trim.

Perhaps it has been because of this unexpected familiarity that the things that are different are so much more jarring to me. I came here fully expecting a certain amount of culture shock and I had a mental list of those things that would be relatively easy for me versus those that would be very difficult. And sure enough, the things I expected to be difficult have been. Number one on that list is, of course, language. It’s frustrating for me to not be able to converse with people AT ALL, much less with the familiarity that I managed in Madagascar. But I knew coming in here that that would be painful. Too bad knowing and expecting difficulty doesn’t actually make that difficulty and easier. But add to that frustration the fact that I am continuously lulled by my surroundings – only to be jerked out when once again, I can’t even tell a vendor that “I’m just looking.” Or properly greet an authority that I am being introduced to.

Some other things that have, if not surprised me, then gotten my notice since arriving:

  • Good rice: after 4 years of suffering and even learning to like Malagasy rice – eating rice in Vietnam is like eating candy! I don’t even need to put anything on top of it. I never guessed that plain-old, everyday rice could be so different and so good elsewhere!
  • Motorcycles – everywhere! Everybody has a motorbike…or two, or three. The best picture is the “minivan” – little baby up front, dad driving, older sibling standing on seat hanging onto dad’s shoulders and mom hanging onto all of them in the back. Our projects alone have 7 motorbikes (with more on the way), and not a single car. Cars are by far the minority on the streets here.
  • The poor quality of the products available in the market. And I thought Made in China in Madagascar was bad. At least in Madagascar it was high-quality plastic crap that made it to their shores. Here it’s plastic and it is guaranteed to fall apart before arriving home. They’ve learned to cut corners on absolutely everything.
  • And the fact that the poor quality Made-in-China goods are more expensive here than in Madagascar. Go figure that – especially when we share a border town 90 km away. A lot of prices are right in line with what I was used to in Madagascar, but I keep getting shocked by what things are more expensive – a LOT more expensive – here and the things that are much, MUCH cheaper than over there. A sweater that I wouldn’t have paid more than $7 in Madagascar for was going for $15 here – and no less. Yet, fruit, vegetables and basic market goods are so, so, so much cheaper. But there’s really no rhyme or reason to expensive/inexpensive – but I have a lot of relearning of prices to do.
  • One fun difference, for the time being, is their use of Christmas lights. It’s fun for now, but apparently this is a year-round thing. I don’t know if I’m going to get sick of it, or if I’m going to enjoy the holiday spirit year round.
  • Yet, for all the “holiday spirit” there may seem to be, after being in Madagascar, religious center of the Indian Ocean (or so it seemed some days), it’s downright stupefying to realize that there is essentially NO religion here. After living in a place where a religious calendar ruled and organized everybody’s life from school children to postal workers, and religious music blasted from stereos in the same house that played hip-hop, and prayers before public ceremonies sometimes took longer than the entire ceremony itself, religion became such a culturally infused notion for me when thinking about life in a foreign country. Yet here, that whole section of what “culture” is to me is missing. Simply non-existent. Sunday is just a day off because the rest of the world has decided such – mostly activities simply continue on as usual. And I’ve gotten used to the idea of whole cities shutting down for that day. I guess there’s a good reason the Malagasy could have never really succeeded in real communism.
  • Number of children. It took me a while to figure this one out. Why do the streets seem so empty? And church (because I did go to church in Hanoi my first week) – what was missing? The kids. Vietnam had a very strict 2-child policy for many years. The policy has relaxed a little now, but apparently if you want to go very far in a government career, you should still be very careful about your number of children. But in any case, the result is stores, streets, church, meetings and other public places are amazingly empty of children. At least for one who has lived in a country with half the population under the age of 15, and probably ¾ of that under the age of 5. The cultural impact has been enormous. First children are greatly valued and have every advantage that comes from a population that is earning a lot of money and has lots of selection of cheap Chinese goods to spend it on. Second – and this is amazing to me – education is extremely valued and it is almost expected that young women will delay marriage and having kids so she can complete an education to as far as her intelligence and dedication will allow, and then begin working and essentially live a life first before having children. Not to say there isn’t teenage pregnancy and whatnot here, but geez, talk about flipside of the coin.
  • Then there’s a real cultural thing that has surprised me. I knew that Vietnamese and most Asians are reputed for their general reserve in relationships and getting to know people. But as I’ve been introduced to a many people that I will be working directly and indirectly lately, what I have been really shocked by is their seeming disinterest in meeting a new person at all. There’s a small inclination of the head, maybe repeating of the name and maybe, just maybe, a question or two, and then they turn to each other and begin a new topic of conversation. A little disconcerting when the meeting was planned just so you could get to know somebody. At first I chalked this up to a language barrier. But it kept happening. But then I began meeting people for the second time, or in social rather than formal work situations, and the change was so immense I began to wonder if I was meeting an identical, but opposite, twin. As soon as you’re past that introduction stage, the Vietnamese are affectionate almost to the point of embarrassment (at least woman to woman). They are extremely enthusiastic and fun-loving friends and once you’re in, you’re in. And this seems to go for just about everybody.

In general, after these few differences, Vietnam seems simply like a more-developed and advanced Madagascar with a better work ethic. The roads are better, there’s electricity even in the most remote areas that I’ve driven through, and there are very few vehicles on the roads that seem more than 10 years old. Taxis are almost brand new, and even few of the motorbikes are the noisy rattle-trap types. The streets are clean! One of the happiest things about where I live is the big green community garbage cans which are not only conveniently located, but are emptied on such a regular basis that I never have a problem getting my trash to go in. But the surroundings feel so much like where I’ve been before that I wonder if it would have been better/easier for me to go somewhere further away culturally and environmentally. Like Niger or Indonesia or Afghanistan. There I would have KNOWN I was in a new place – and maybe the double shocks wouldn’t have been so bad.

Still, for all the shocks that have been, I can’t at all complain. Things are very nice here – and with time, the language too will come and I will truly begin to feel at home again.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Vietnam races to restore Internet access




Telecom corporations are working to quickly re-establish Internet access after a quake ruptured undersea cables off the coast of Taiwan, with two companies claiming repairs are 80 percent complete.

Vietnam Military Electronics and Telecommunications Co (Viettel) and Vietnam Data Communication Co (VDC) said late Friday that 80 percent of international Internet access had been successfully restored.

Connections to Yahoo, MSN, and hotmail were reportedly accessible with Viettel reporting access pace bouncing back to 310MB per second.

But Internet users are still in the doldrums about sluggish access to many international websites.

A Viettel official said the company had dispatched standing personnel to handle arising problems.

VDC also said they would remain in touch with international counterparts to sort out the problem within the next few days.

But another Vietnamese giant telecom company, FPT reportedly saw little improvement in this manner.

Truong Dinh Anh, FPT general director, said only 60 percent of disrupted Internet connection had been restored.

“[That] is because FPT’s chief partner, the Hong Kong PCCW telecom corporation, was also hit hardest in the Taiwan quake,” Anh elaborated.

He also admitted only when PCCW begins their repair work this weekend will FPT customers see grounds for hope of access improvement.

Vietnam was largely cut off from the World Wide Web Wednesday after a strong earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale hit Taiwan a day earlier, damaging undersea cables.

The unprecedented accident also took tolls on broadband service providers as well as foreign exchange trading in Asian countries.


Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas from half a world away!

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night –


Especially as it is still just after midnight where most of you are at this moment.


Here in Vietnam, we’ve baked cinnamon rolls and Christmas cookies and Hawaiian bread and eaten as much as we could, accompanied by crisp apples and juicy sweet mandarin from the market while huddled around the warm glow of our livingroom space heater.


We’ve opened the presents under our tiny tree perfumed by the two dozen roses a secret staff member gave me as a secret Santa gift.


We’ve listened to the Christmas music on our few CDs and while I drank warm peach tea to warm ourselves when the space heater and the long underwear weren’t enough.


And now it’s time to send my Christmas greetings to all of you who have yet to celebrate the day. Ours has been a blessed one – may yours also be so!


Finally, I’ve had some time to update my blog – so please, check out to see pictures and read stories from my last two weeks of exciting changes. There’re about 5 new posts, so just keep clicking the list of titles on the lower right-hand column. I’ve had much to say, but very little time to say it – now, finally there’s something to read.


I promise there is much more to tell, and I will try to find time this coming weekend before the New Year to update things yet again.


May the blessings of Christmas be upon you and yours during the holiday season!


Love always,




Sunday, December 24, 2006

And now for a bit of fun

So, fortunately, my first week here hasn't been all drudgery. Several exciting things happened that really helped me feel much more at home very quickly.

First, I am quickly learning that I have a fabulous staff to work with - and a huge part of the gratitude for that goes to my predecessor in this job, Ali Crandall. Ali and I went to school at Loma Linda together, and honestly, she's one of the most amazing people I know. For starters, she came into this project when it was in ruins, and, without speaking a word of Vietnamese, not having a proper orientation (like the fabulous one she's giving me), never having administratively managed staff or project budgets like, while still just being in the process of hiring a translator, AND without any social support AT ALL, she took the project and completely turned it around and has now made the 3 projects here some of the strongest public health projects I have ever seen. Kudos to you Ali - I can't thank you enough.

Lam (second from the front, in glasses) with her co-workers as the engagement equivalent of bridesmaids - all her co-workers from the ADRA office!
So, part of that project turn around was Ali's building up and hiring a wonderful staff. Most of them are young, but the youthful energy is well-balanced with some well-placed mature wisdom. Intelligence, drive and commitment are all universal qualities. As is fun-loving and caring. All of them have unhesitatingly welcomed me in and accepted me as their soon-to-be number 1.

And so this week we were taken to a variety of events, starting with Lam's engagement party (an event only the closest of friends are invited to here).

And all the food!

During a monthly staff meeting, one of the staff members decided to give a presentation on traditional Vietnamese mountain culture (from the Tay ethnic group). Visuals included powerpoint with pictures and description of traditional clothes, music and - these staff members modeling the traditional black dress:

BTW: They DO indeed wear those iconic conical hats on a daily basis around here, but not this particular ethnic group. You'll see plenty of pictures of those here in the future, I am sure.

Then there was the festival of floating cakes on December 22nd. Floating cakes are a traditional rice-flour ball boiled in a sugar/ginger syrup that are often eaten around the Winter Solstice to celebrate warmth in a time of cold and dark. One of the staff members decided it would be a great idea if we all went out one night to eat them - and eat we did!! Ate so enthusiastically that I even forgot to take a picture of the finished product!!

Then on Saturday Ali arranged to throw a Christmas party, complete with Santa Claus, but our staff decided that we needed a big Vietnamese feast to carry us through before hand. So they spent all morning cooking up a HUGE storm in our kitchen, while we frantically scrambled to decorate the conference room in advance of the arrival fo 45 (!) Christmas revelers!

(The Christmas hats were a Veitnamese addition...)

Friday, December 22, 2006

Cao Bang - and ADRA in Cao Bang

So, wow, I've officially survived my first work-week in Cao Bang town. At first I was afraid this week was going to be overwhelming and non-stop work - the first day certainly was! But fortunately things got much easier on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and I hit the weekend tired, but feeling much more confident.

On Tuesday afternoon, our first full day in the ADRA office, we had a meeting with peer educator leaders from the local high schools. At the end of the meeting one of the students asked me what I liked best about Cao Bang town. I told him that for now it must be the office - because that was the only thing I had seen at that point! Fortunately, that has changed, but only a little.

So here I'll give you a bit about my work as I will come to know it: I work for ADRA in Vietnam. ADRA is the Adventist Development and Relief Agency. As you might guess, it's associated with the Adventist church, the same church that sponsors the school where I did my MPH degree, Loma Linda University.

ADRA is structured a little differently than other international NGOs, mostly in that each country office is entirely it's own entity and ADRA in Washington DC (or Silver Springs MD to be more precise) is more of an umbrella organization to its numerous regional and country offices. ADRA in Vietnam is a small project, and Cao Bang province is currently its biggest office and project base (they also do cyclone relief projects in the south and they're currently thinking about expanding more permanently in the south by setting up a regional office in Ho Chi Minh City).

Here in Cao Bang there are currently 3 large projects with 14 full-time staff and 2 part-time staff who are shared with the Ministry of Health (2 of the full time staff are also seconded from the ministry). Here's a quick breakdown of the projects as I understand them:

  1. ACHI: Adolescents Choose Health Initiative - by far the largest project involving the majority of the staff and budget and basically our bread-and-butter. It mostly consists of two major components. The first is a youth education including sex education, substance abuse education and life skills education which are carried out by the field staff and peer educators. The second component is a counseling component. Here staff maintain a hotline telephone and website counseling service for adolescents who are encouraged to ask/send questions about love, life and growing up, and our fabulous staff gives them all the answers to life! Wish I were a Vietnamese youth...

  2. ENSADE: Enhancing Safe Delivery for Ethnic Minority Women - this is one of the founding ADRA projects and one that is so well established that we don't have to stress much about it any more. This project is in close partnership with the Ministry of Health and works on improving knowledge and training for rural health care providers in ensuring safe delivery and reaching of underserved and minority populations. Mostly we're just concerned with how to scale up this project.

  3. New Start - the New Start project is the newest project, and it is a tobacco, alcohol and substance abuse research project with the long term goal of establishing grounds for a substance abuse intervention in Cao Bang town. Badly needed, but not a lot of local capacity for dealing with these issues. So this one is going to need more time and attention.

Of course there's a lot more to it than all of that, but I'm still trying to figure it all out myself. Somehow I'm supposed to learn about all of these projects, timelines, budgets, staff, policies and procedures, implementation, etc., etc., etc., by the end of this week so I can officially take over on January 5th. Whew, it's a huge learning curve, but I'll get there in the end. I only hope it's fast enough because, of course, it's not that all could be running smoothly, but there are already bumps in the road that are only going to make it all more challenging. But it's a fantastic opportunity - and a fantastic staff to be working with. I really feel blessed to be in this place at this time.

I only wish I could say hello to the people on the street downstairs...sigh, all in good time...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Hanoi to Cao Bang

Here's some pictures from the ride from the capital city to the provincial capital of Cao Bang - where my office is located. It's about 270 km north of Hanoi into the mountainous highlands on the border with China. The road is generally good - a lot like the drive between Tana and Fianar in Madagascar. About 7-8 hours in the dry season, good paved road for the most part, but lots of wind-y mountain switchbacks and whatnot to deal with. This time we did get out of Hanoi until 1:30 in the afternoon, so I don't have a lot of pictures from the road. The first 1/3 of the trip is very built up and urban, and then it steadily becomes more rural until is almost all mountains for the last half into Cao Bang. It was dark by the time we reached the halfway point, so these pictures are from the first third of the trip. The light was hazy to begin with, so the quality isn't the greatest, but you'll get the point. Basically - it looks like Madagascar with water buffalo!

Saturday, December 16, 2006


I have to say, I think I like Hanoi as a capital city far better than I liked Tana in Madagascar. Now, the initial fascination may still wear off with time, but first impressions are important. I liked Tana well enough - it definitely had character...or something. Depending on how you viewed it, it had the ability to keep you completely enthralled with a single activity the entire day - or you wasted whole days trying to complete one measly errand. I don't know that Hanoi is any more efficient, but relative to Tana, 1) getting around is much simpler (metered taxis!!! I still can't get used to the idea that I can just jump in a cab and go rather than standing in the rain and bargaining to save my pocketbook) and 2) you can actually find stuff here. Streets have names. There are updated tourist maps. And 3) breathing the are is much, much, MUCH more enjoyable. I still am very happy that I am not living in Hanoi. It's fun, full of lights, and offers plenty of gastronomic and shopping orgy opportunities - all important factors for the expat life - but something that could get old very quickly, and probably best left for those regular trips back and not for every single night of the week options. But, for those of you who will best understand me - let me share a few of the reasons that Hanoi will be come my next favorite home away from home: 1) The morning motorbike taxi (xe om) commute to the office...and the tree-lined (!!) streets of Hanoi - this will be far more pleasant in the hot summer months than the treeless streets of Madagascar cities... 2) Who wouldn't love a country where "Young Green Rice" is a popular ice cream flavor?!?! BTW: In Hanoi there really is a surprising amount of French - but basically in the inverse of French/English in Madagascar. Menus in most restaurants are automatically in English, but the good ones have French translation. And I've run into a lot of French-speaking tourists in hotels. Most information is given in both French and English. But considering English is essentially non-existent outside of the capital, you can bet there isn't any French to fall back on either... 3) Okay, so not really a love, but what's up with this architecture? Granted, it can look nice when done right and viewed from the front... 4) REAL international food choices: over my first days/weekend in Hanoi, we ate American deli sandwiches everyday for lunch (yes, Jon, I know what you're thinking of me right now...), and real Indian, Thai, Italian, and Japanese (picture of Ali and one platter of sushi) for dinner. Oh, and then I almost forgot the fruit juices! Smoothies with every meal. And there will be more sampling for my next trip there. 5) Cleanliness. The streets are wide, tree-lined, and CLEAN. Sidewalks exist (although are usually used as motorbike parks), and main roads are wide and well-maintained. There's still narrow cobblestone back alleyways, but they're manageable. Oh, and those metered taxis? They're all practically brand new. No clunker old yellow Peugeots that leave you to wonder if they're actually going to make it to your destination. There are lakes scattered throughout the city, similar to Tana, and those are about as clean as in Tana, but hey, it is still a developing country. You do get more of that open-sewer smell that is ubiquitous in Tana, but it's intermittent enough that you are actually surprised when you suddenly happen upon it. 6) Number of beggars is sooooo much more manageable. And most often they are old, old, old people who walk around a bump you with those funny cone hats turned upside-down for collecting spare change - no annoying children that I've seen yet. I'm sure I will continue to discover things that I love and hate about my new central city, but all went well on the first meeting, and I have plenty reason to anticipate going there on a regular basis! Now...if I can only find some friends to share the city with...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Toto, this definately isn't Madagascar anymore...

I honestly can’t say why I’m surprised – I mean, Bangkok is well-known as a modern city which draws people with attractive prices on everything from designer goods to gourmet food and inexpensive cosmetic surgery. Yet somehow I was completely taken aback by how shiny and new it all is.

Not shiny in the way that I was necessarily expecting either. I wasn’t particularly surprised by the airport shiny-ness, all new and white marble and buffed metal. Even the airport limousine the hotel had sent for me wasn’t that shocking – I knew they’d made me a reservation at one of the nicer corporate hotels, and it does come at a price of 1,200 Baht (about $30). Something I didn’t realize is the Thai drive on the wrong side of the road with their steering wheels on the wrong side of the car – maybe shouldn’t have surprised me if I’d thought about it (former British colony, etc.), but my fuzzy sleep-deprived Madagascar brain wasn’t on top of that one.

No, it was the road that got me. I guess I was expecting golden temples and curvy turrets and narrow old streets – and I’m sure there are plenty of those to be found, but it’s late at night and I only went direct from the airport to the hotel. And within seconds of pulling out of the airport funnel way, I was completely shocked. It was 6 lanes wide, smooth and well marked. Big green signs hung over the lanes giving directions with street lighting illuminating clear striping demarking the mass of car lanes. Off to the side all one could see were modern sky-scrapers and multi-story office buildings and hospitals. In fact, if it weren’t for the gibberish characters on those green signs and the disconcerting seating of my driver on the wrong side of the car, I easily could have been fooled that I had landed back in American summer.

Everything here is shiny. The roads are smooth and shiny. The toll booths are shiny. The huge buildings are modern and shiny. All of the cars and taxis on the road are shiny. The people are smartly dressed and shiny. And of course my hotel is extravagantly shiny. New York City shiny. Suddenly I’m more thankful for those trips with Yvonne to New York for those performing arts conferences – at least I don’t openly gawk when I enter a place like this.

I’m beginning to feel very Madagascar scruffy. My bags definitely look scruffy. One of the bags was the first bag to come with me to Madagascar almost 4 years ago – it’s lived in Bealanana and Fianarantsoa and traveled back and forth from the States 3 times. It’s been prettier. The second bag was a Madagascar-bought little duffel that I hauled around with me on mission. It’s held together with duct tape. Not exactly a class act.

But I only have to get through one day here – and then we’ll see how I feel in Vietnam. I’ll probably still feel scruffy, but I hope it will be less of an insurmountable gap. Now I just have to figure out what I’m going to wear tomorrow.

Last days in Madagascar

I’m sorry I haven’t written any more after my big news announcement, but rest assured, we had a fantastic Thanksgiving (37 people!), and now that the turkey and chicken and potatoes and all else are nothing but a memory, I can say that I sucessfully finished out my time with my two projects, made sure things got handed over, and left the country with no more than the standard variety regrets. Meaning, I’m going to miss my friends and co-workers horribly, but I feel confident that the work will continue. I was blessed with one last weekend together with the people that have meant so much my last two years in Fianarantsoa – and I got to see Kristen and her new baby as they arrived on the Friday evening before I left for Tana. Then I went up to Tana and got down to work getting all of the last minute stuff up there. One of my friends just got a car there, making my last minute errands so, so much more sane. We did one last HASH (weekend hike in the countryside around Tana) with friends, and then, at 5 am on Monday morning, I was off!

And that is the tearless version of how I closed the door on nearly 4 years of my life. Last night as I closed the door to my hotel room behind the bellman, and the last words of volume I were written:

The End

I know this is anticlimactic, but that’s why there’s a volume II.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Big changes

Greetings all!

I hope this finds many of you anticipating Thanksgiving and other upcoming holidays to be spent with family and friends. Here we’re in the midst of planning for what will likely be a riotous Turkey Day with the Fianarantsoa American community plus those Peace Corps volunteers from other regions that will find there way here for what is fast becoming known as the best Thanksgiving celebration in Madagascar – with upwards of 40 people expected (though sadly, no turkeys this year L).

Sadly too, this will be my last holiday with the crew in Fianar and the rest of Madagascar. After Thanksgiving and the Malagasy presidential elections on December 3rd, I will be pulling up stakes, packing my bags, and starting a new chapter in my overseas life.

This year Christmas and New Years will be in Vietnam.

I have been offered a position as health coordinator for a regional office in Cao Bang city, capital of the northern province of Cao Bang, bordering China. The position is with ADRA, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, so I will be going back to my roots a bit, remembering my public health graduate work at Loma Linda University (which is also an institution of the Adventist church). Indeed, for those of you who know my former classmate Ali Crandall and what she’s been up to for the last years – I’ll be taking over her position.

As I said earlier, I will be leaving Madagascar very soon – my flight reservation is for the 11th of December, with a stop-over in Bangkok. I should be in Vietnam by the 15th of December. The contract is for six months, with the option to renew if all goes well.

This is a bit unexpected – I wasn’t due to finish my contract with the NGO SantéNet and USAID here in Madagascar until the end of January, but all of my supervisors have been extremely supportive in my decision to take this position, as it’s going to be a great opportunity to experience another culture, another continent, not to mention a great move professionally. I’m very excited, although also very sad to be leaving Madagascar which has been such a welcoming home for almost 4 years. Yet it is time to move on, and I’m sure Madagascar will always be here for me if I want to come back (and it’s not going to be easy to forget Malagasy even if I do try – I’m sure I’m going to be finding a lot of Vietnamese giving me funny looks as I desperately search for words between Malagasy-French-Vietnamese-English, sigh).

I’m not sure how many of you regularly (or even irregularly) check on my blog (not that I’ve been that regular of a poster, either), but that’s part of the reason I’m sending this note as a mass e-mail as well as a blog posting. The other reason is that it seems as though my current blog site is apparently not one that is very well-liked by the Vietnamese controllers, and I may not be able to continue posting to it once I arrive there. As I may have to go back to mass e-mailing unless I find another option once I arrive in Vietnam, If any of you do not care to get the random e-mail update from me, please don’t hesitate to let me know and I’ll take you off the list. No worries – no offense taken! Also, since I’ve been blogging for so long (and have changed computers in between), I’ve had to scavenge many of your e-mail addresses from other e-mails or places that I’ve hidden them. So, if you have a different e-mail address you would prefer me to use, please send it along.

So that’s a brief update of the big change in my life – one change that may not have to be made is the address to my blog site: – I’m sure many of you will continue to agree that I am quite mad, even if I am no longer living in Mad-land.

All my best wishes for a wonderful holiday season and I hope to hear updates from many of you as well!


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Cabbing it

The little off-white Peugeot taxi cabs of various vintages and quality are a ubiquitous feature of urban life in Madagascar’s capital city. So ubiquitous in fact that I hardly would think enough about them to comment on them beyond griping with my friends about the ever-increasing cab fares and their tendency to run out of gas going up hill on a one-way and one-lane cobblestone alleyway with a whole line of impatient traffic waiting behind. The most noteworthy recent comment made about these little creatures and their anonymously generic drivers was that several of them appeared in the recent “Great Race” episode that took place in Madagascar (which I have yet to see).


So it was this evening that after we emerged from a long evening chat with old friends over pizza that we didn’t really give the routine of looking for a cab much thought as we prepared to go our separate ways. The only time you ever really think about it is when its pouring rain or you’re in a desperate hurry to get somewhere.


As I understand is the case in much of the developing world that has taxis, there’s an important routine to know before getting into a cab. Cabs here don’t have meters – the only way to determine a price to a destination is to argue it out with the driver before you get there. The best technique for this is to not get into the cab until you’ve settled on a price – lest you become an unexpecting hostage extorted into paying the cabby’s idea of a fair price else he might never let you out again. This is another category of my existence here that makes me feel like my life is a broken record. The conversation is almost always the same.


- Manahoana. How much to go to [name of quarter].

- Where exactly in that quarter.

- [Name of quarter] near [name of x place].

- [Name of x place], [some exorbitant amount].

- No way, [name of quarter] isn’t that far. [Some cheap/reasonable amount].

- No, it’s very far. And gasoline is very expensive.

- [Name of quarter] is very close, or at least closer than [name of more distant quarter]. You aren’t going to use a whole liter of gasoline to get there.

- Get in.

- I’m only paying this much.

- But for [some slightly lower price].

- No, I’m only going to pay [reasonable amount], and no more bargaining.


Then the conversation trails off to either agreement or the driver driving away or you slamming the door and walking off to find another, more agreeable taxi. There are several factors that go into these routine arguments: first there’s the cabby that sees a white person and immediately thinks they can squeeze out a prize fare. These most often have us slamming the door of the cab and simply walking away without replying. The second problem is that cab prices are steadily increasing all the time through a variety of inflationary pressures, and it can be really hard for a person who only comes to the capital city occasionally to keep up as there’s no fixed rule or scale for these increases. Several times I have taken offense at an amount quoted to me, only to learn that no, indeed, that’s within the range of normalcy for current rates. Sometimes I’ve named a price that has the cabby pulling the door shut and driving away himself, leaving me in a cloud of exhaust and no closer to my destination.


Tonight was a quiet night, comfortable and no rain, and we were in no particular hurry to find a cab other than it was time to go home. So the first cab pulled up and I went over to ask the price. I named our quarter and then Stephanie, my host for this trip to Tana and slightly distracted by an on-going conversation with our dinner friends, opened the back door and asked the same question. I think it must’ve flustered the cabby for a moment, but then he immediately stated a price that was a good dollar above the general standard fare to get home. Neither Stephanie or I even bothered to respond, but simply closed the door and window and walked away.


We carried on our conversation as we continued down the street. After a short time I noticed that we were being followed at a discrete distance by the little cab, which is slightly unusual because usually if the price is that far off the wall nobody sticks around to discuss it further. He thought he’d get an east extra on the fare, we thought he was scamming us – usually the best solution is to simply go separate ways.


After several minutes no other empty cabs appeared but he was still behind us. We weren’t in a hurry, but while the others were engrossed in a topic, I turned on a whim to the little car and again asked how much he proposed this time. The answer I got back was a meek 50 cents cheaper. I simply shook my head no and he humbly came down another 25 cents. At that point it was within normal range, and he seemed so chagrined that I agreed and asked him to wait while we found our friends going to another quarter a cab.


When we climbed into the cab a couple of minutes later the poor guy had his head on the steering wheel and had to shake himself back awake. Stephanie asked if he was okay. He explained that he was pulling a double shift and was really tired. We were carrying take-out leftovers, so Stephanie asked if he liked pizza. We ended up leaving the whole box with him.


On our way we stopped at a gas station (another necessary element to any Tana taxi ride, no matter the distance) and picked up another passenger going in our direction. Stephanie new here in passing as being a snack-seller on a near-by corner and they took to chatting. Pretty soon we had the cab driver shaking his head and laughing at the verbal antics Stephanie and the snack lady went through as their conversation roamed. Everybody wound up enjoying the ride through Tana’s dark streets.


When we arrived I asked the driver when he would be done, and he replied that he had to work all night yet. I have no idea what his circumstances are that would have him pulling a double shift driving a cab both all day and all night, but we left him with well-wishes for the evening and urgings to take a short nap, and a box full of pizza parts. In the end, it was yet another of those small encounters that made me take a minute to think about all of the parts of life here that have become so routine that they hardly seem to matter anymore. Yet tonight I know there is at least one cab driver with a stomach full of pizza and maybe a bit of a smile on his face as he waits for yet another fare to argue over before he can go home at the break of dawn.

Friday, November 03, 2006

I voted! Did you? Will you?

Voting is something we should all be proud of and do a lot more of. But there’s a special sense of victory when it’s this difficult to get yours counted.

Absentee voting is anything but easy in general, and then when you add in the obstacles of trying to vote from a country with such unreliable communications systems, it’s nearly impossible. I’m still proud to say that I voted twice in the last election, but I’m less than certain that either of those votes were counted.

I’ve voted by absentee ballot far more often than I’ve voted in person. In fact, I think I’ve only made it to the community building once in my almost ten years of voter eligibility. Some elections I’ve missed, but I’ve tried to make all the major ones. But as I went away to college as soon as I was of age, I was mainly voting by absentee ballot. Then I took the next step and became an expatriate.

The idea of voting from Madagascar was more than a little intimidating, but participating in elections is highly encouraged and I have to give some credit to our Embassy over here and to the Peace Corps mission that they do their best to keep you informed about how voting might possibly be done from over here. During the last presidential election I made a point of applying for an absentee ballot as soon as I possibly could, but it the whole process had to be done by mail. Anybody who’s sent me something knows how long that could take. The major difficulty is the turn-around time between the official ballot being approved after the state primaries and the time it takes to mail that ballot. So last election I wound up deciding to send in the generic national ballot with only your choice for president and I think you could write in candidate names for senator, representatives, etc. Yet, miraculously just after that was sent my official ballot arrived in the mail – so I took that and sent it right back. I know it had no chance of arriving in time (and I really don’t know of the generic ballot made it either), but supposedly if the generic ballot is received but the official ballot arrives later, it cancels the generic ballot. But then again, most states don’t count absentees at all unless the final count comes to within a few percentage points.

I was told that during the last election I could have faxed my ballot over and then mailed the hard copy to make sure it got counted, but at that point I didn’t have access to an international fax.

But this year I do – and additionally I found out that Wisconsin is moving up in the technological world – you have to fax in your request for an absentee ballot (so your signature shows), but then the election officials can E-MAIL you an PDF file of the official ballot form. You print that out, fill it in, then fax that back to your election official. The faxing is still a little annoying, but at least it can be done! And having the one step of the process done by e-mail easily knocks 2-3 weeks off the process. Amazing.

I tell you, there’s not a small feeling of pride to overcome all these obstacles and to think that maybe, just maybe, my vote is being counted and making a difference. Then again, I should be more cynical than that, but I can have one corner of naïve optimism, can’t I? Either way, I’ve done my part – will you?

November 7th. Go to folks.

What do you get...

...when you mix a Malagasy-speaking community health advisor, a French-speaking British volunteer, another British volunteer photographer and a BBC reporter with a free day in a regional town that’s hosting a concert from one of Madagascar’s hottest pop stars?

Well, a journalistic contingent intent on seeing the show for free and getting backstage passes to boot of course!

This past weekend definitely ranks up there with one of the strangest weekends I have had in Madagascar. And it’s a honest relief to know that I haven’t completely exhausted the possibilities of strange in this country yet.

It started off with a hot and dusty Kôminina Mendrika festival in one of the towns to the south of Fianar. I’m afraid we really rather overwhelmed the poor community with the sheer number of foreigners there to attend this festival. First there was the NGO who implemented the project in the community, headed by Sam, our dear British friend. She had recently recruited two volunteers for her team – Jaz and Kat – who of course came to take in the festival. And then just for the fun of it, they invited down the newly-installed BBC correspondent to Madagascar on his first trip outside of the capital city.

Add to that that this was a combined festival for dedicating an electrification project just finished at the community’s clinic – solar panels, overhead lights and a solar-powered pump and water basin for supplying water – completed by Electricians without Borders (yes, everybody goes without borders these days, and they do fantastic work). So in all I think there were at least a dozen vazaha (white people) taking part in the day’s festivities.

But the real fun began the next day when we had time to kill in Ambalavao, the regional center, before moving on to the next festival on Monday. And Sunday afternoon was the much-anticipated Jerry Marcoss concert, so of course we just had to go. Sam had to return to Fianar, and the remaining four of us decided that if we were going to this concert, we were going to do it right. So I was appointed the BBC guy’s official Malagasy translator and tasked with getting us into the concert for free. That was all too easily done, and we stood for some time just taking in the sounds (actually pretty well managed by Malagasy standards) and sights (the Brits had yet to see the Malagasy dancers’ ability to shake booty) of a Malagasy pop concert.

But even that thrill wore off all too easily – so next step was getting the on-stage and back-stage pass. So back to employing my most valuable skill, keenly honed after 4 years in country, and immensely effective when shouted over high-decibel music. But it worked – and soon our intrepid photographer and correspondent were sharing the stage with our pop star and getting lots of good up-close shots of those shaking booties. Then, after 4 solid hours of non-stop booty-shaking and top of the lung screaming, we landed the big one – the back stage interview.

Unfortunately after all that the interview wound up being a bit of an anti-climax – our pop star was either too pooped or too intimidated to make much of a story, and he couldn’t seem to maintain a conversation in any single language but kept mixing Malagasy, French and English. But it goes down on the list of things I’ve never done before (and will probably never do again) – translated an interview backstage after a concert with a random performer.

I got to keep my job as translator for the rest of the trip when the SantéNet intern I’ve been working with on-and-off for the last couple of weeks came back, and then the BBC guy decided to attempt a few more stories. This isn’t half a bad gig– maybe I’ll keep this job.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Kaominina Mendrika!

Well, we’ve made it to the official end of the first cycle of my community health improvement project Kaominina Mendrika (Champion Communes)! What now? A big sigh of relief, a little bit of dancing, and a lot of courage to take us into the second cycle!

But for now – the dancing. 23 communes (like a township, smaller than a county) in our province (80 nation-wide) participated in the first year of the project – and as of right now, it seems all 23 earned a festival to celebrate the successful achievement of the communal objectives. So my job, along with my regional coordinator and other workers at SantéNet, during the month of October is to travel to as many of them as I can humanly manage (there’s sometimes 4 in one day scattered across the province).

The general and almost unvarying program:

1) Parade of school children and local community groups ending in a central area 3) Speeches given by authorities (and me…:-P ) 4) Traditional singing and dancing by women’s groups and school children 5) Presentation of certificates to the important workers 6) Unveiling of the community plaque 7) A reception “cocktail” for the authorities 8) A rice lunch for the authorities 9) “Stand” displays of items from women’s groups, parent-teacher associations and local farmers’ cooperatives and radio quiz competition for the kids 10) Sometimes and evening “disco” (hence the dancing…thought I’ve managed to avoid this up to now – usually involves as much drinking as dancing…drunk Malagasy men, especially when they are authorities, are not really my thing)

So there’s a brief look at what I’ve been doing recently – and I promise to try to upload some photos of the events tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A dollar a day...

My apologies for not writing an original blog entry, but I’m really strapped for time right and I really think this item is a worthy substitute for my usual rambles. It’s a radio journal exploring what it really means to “live on less than a dollar a day,” as many people do in developing countries. The story was done in Malawi, which has many similarities, statistically speaking, to Madagascar. Some of the major differences: Malawi has already suffered greatly from the AIDS epidemic – a crisis that is still on the future horizon for Madagascar; Malawi has regular famine issues but Madagascar generally doesn’t have true generalized “famine” as much as chronic hunger. What the family in the story chooses to spend their few cents would of course be different in Madagascar, as would the actual cost of the items bought, but overall, it’s a very good description of the real day-to-day struggle that is life in too many places, especially in Africa. Read, listen and enjoy!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Celestial Shift

Something strange happened this weekend. I started waking up a half an hour later. Or, rather, the world around me started getting up a half an hour earlier.

I can’t explain how it happened. Maryanne and I have this habit of going for a walk in the mornings, a nice little circuit that takes us on scenic overview of the city. We meet on the street at 6 am, watch the sunrise as we pass along the mountain road, then return to town at about 6:45, just as things are getting going and in plenty of time for us to shower and get to work. We have been doing this for months now. As winter waned we watched the sun ascend the mountain tops just slightly earlier each day, but something very strange happened between Friday morning and Monday morning. Friday all was as normal – we met students on their way to school and noted how the town was just beginning to stretch as we passed by. But by Monday, the rest of town had beaten us to the punch – and not by just a little either.

I didn’t notice the full effect until Tuesday because Monday was socked in with heavy clouds and fog. But on Tuesday morning when I emerged on the street at 6 o’clock, the streets were already packed with people going up and down the hill, children on their way to school and taxis and motorcycles threatening to run them all down. As I began walking I found I was dodging in and out of crowds of school children and out of the path of city buses. And the sun was so bright (it had already crested the hill before I even stepped out of the door) I regretting not wearing my sunglasses. Yet the time on my watch was the same as the last week, and the BBC wholeheartedly concurred with it. It was as if the Malagasy had decided that over the weekend daylight savings time, Malagasy style, had come into effect, and all times were now shifted half an hour earlier.

Something else happened too: summer arrived. Just last week we were still wearing turtlenecks and heavy sweaters and complaining about the incessant cold wind. On Sunday night I threw off my long-clung-to covers in exasperation and by Monday I was sleeping with the window open. The fog and clouds on Monday were almost steamy rather than clammy and on Tuesday I wore a halter top when walking outside.

So spring lasted a weekend, and now we’re fully into summer here. And I have started my walks at 5:30 am – I’m sure by next week, or at the very latest, October, it will be 5 am, or else risk getting mowed down by taxis and buses and herds of children on their way to who-knows-where, since school doesn’t start until 7:30.




Monday, September 11, 2006

My life is a broken-broken-broken record

This last week I traveled to the east coast of Madagascar and back – so in the space of a week, I traveled on 4 long-distance public transport busses, took numerous city taxis and “pousse-pousses” (the rickshaws ubiquitous in costal towns in Madagascar), ate in too many restaurants to count, and patronized many businesses. And in almost every case, I had the following conversation.


Malagasy man [after negotiating taxi fare/business service/taking food order]:        Wow, you’re really good at speaking Malagasy.

Me:       Thank you.

M.m.:    No, I mean it, you’re really good.

Me:       Really?

M.m.:    Have you been here a long time?

Me:       Yeah, a while.

M.m.:    Because you speak Malagasy really good.

Me:       Is that so?

M.m.:    Did you study it here? Or over there?

Me:       Here. Nobody teaches Malagasy over there.

M.m.:    So, you’ve been here a while?

Me:       Yeah, 3 and a half years.

M.m.:    Do you like it here?

Me:       I think if I didn’t like it here I’d have left by now. [But don’t think you’re not tempting me to leave now]

M.m.     Are you married?

Me:       No.

M.m.:    Do you have kids?

Me:       No.

M.m.:    Do you have a fiancé?

Me:       No.

M.m.:    Do you have a boyfriend?

Me:       No.

M.m.:    How long have you been here?

Me:       Three and a half years.

M.m.:    And you don’t have a boyfriend? How do you DO it?


There’ve been a few rare variations on the theme. This is my favorite:


M.m.:    Are you married? Do you have kids?

Me:       No

M.m.:    Aren’t you a little LATE?

Me:       No.

M.m.     No, you’re late. How old are you? How to you plan to ever have kids.

Me:       Well, I’m not planning on giving birth 14 times like the Malagasy do.


Then variation #2:


M.m.     Are you married?

Me:       No.

M.m.:    Do you have kids?

Me:       No.

M.m.:    Do you have a fiancé over there?

Me:       Mmmm….

M.m.:    Do you have a Malagasy boyfriend?

Me:       No.

M.m.:    How long have you been here?

Me:       Three and a half years.

M.m.:    And you don’t have a boyfriend? How do you DO it?


As you notice, hinting that I might have a fiancé after all doesn’t really do anything to change the final pattern of the conversation.


Also note, these guys are not necessarily hinting that they’d like to be my Malagasy husband/father of my children/fiancé/boyfriend. Mostly they just can’t seem to understand how somebody could possibly live alone long enough to have learned an adequate amount of language…or maybe learn a language without having a “private tutor.” So this conversation, depending on how much energy I have at any given time, usually winds up leading to a long health education session about protecting yourself HIV/AIDS and other not-so-desirable illnesses. Because while most of these guys weren’t so delusional to think that I might just be looking for them to take home with me, I guarantee not a one would have said “no” had I offered the opportunity. Nor would they have given up their other wives/girlfriends to come and live with me alone. I know, I found some really scary statistics during a research stop on this trip…and I don’t care to have those statistics confirmed in practice.