Saturday, January 28, 2006

Life with the Urban Poor

There’re a lot of things that you get used to when you live in a third-world country for a long period of time. Bad roads and poor (non-existent) urban planning, the inability to find your favorite foods or necessary ingredients when you want them at a price you can afford to pay, bad communication and trash everywhere – these things all become part of the rhythms of daily life. But there’s one aspect to life here that simply refuses to leave me or any of my expat friends alone – the problem of the urban poor.

I’ve been spending a lot more time in the regional capital lately as the rainy season has slowed our frenetic rush to do field visits and we’re shifting resources to other aspects of the project and away from mine for the time being. This means that I have a lot more exposure on a day-to-day basis with the beggars and street children. Additionally, this is the extreme end of the “hungry season” in Madagascar – rice crops have been planted, but the harvest won’t come for another month or so, and the level of desperation on the part of many is palpable. Even those that weren’t begging two or three months ago have joined the ranks of the hungry, making the competition for what little money is passed around that much more vicious.

Being poor in a city is much worse than being poor in the country. First, people in villages are more likely to take ownership of serious poverty issues on an individual basis; the concentration of the problem in the city makes it too overwhelming and to easy to loose the human imperative behind these issues. Second, rural life lends itself so much better to gathering and scavenging than does life in the city. Sure there’re the garbage piles in a city, but watched girls going around town with a knife and bag, cutting edible grasses that came up between sidewalk cracks and on curbsides – not a lot to go around.

This has become center of many of the conversations between expats. This is hardly something we could ignore on a regular basis, but with the situation as it is now there’s hardly a moment of peace. So not only do we get assaulted in the streets as we walk by, but once we’re in the relative safety of the restaurant/office/home we were aiming for, the assault doesn’t stop: we turn to each other to gripe about the situation and to re-explore the well-worn paths of “well, what do you do to handle it?” Nobody seems to have a good answer.

Yes, it’s true that even as a volunteer my living allowance is plentiful almost to the point of obnoxiousness when you look into the faces of the child who probably scrounges up a few pennies a day and a lot of trash to live on. There a very popular “Country Kitchen” style restaurant across the street from the Peace Corps office that is frequented by PCVs and many “middle class” Malagasy. There is a local gang of street children that make their home outside that restaurant, as few as a few other “regulars” who wait at the doorway in hopes of something, anything. If a customer leaves a tempting morsel on his plate the more fleet-footed children will make mad dashes inside to grab it in an adrenaline-pumping rush to beat the cats and the waitstaff to the table. Sparing the scraps of a plentiful meal is unsettling like a particular New Testament parable.

It’s harder when I look into the eyes of my next door neighbor kids whose father begs daily from his wheelchair and whom I found picking through the trash bin the other day. I’ve never seen them do that before – hard times are upon them all.

So, do I give them food, money? That may help them get through this season, but what about next year when I’m not here? And that would only encourage the “white person as a source of financing” mentality. Could I give them work? I’ve searched my creativity again and again and I just can’t come up with something I could even pretend needing. It’s hard to ask somebody like that to clean your house, cook your food or was your clothes when 1) they’re so poor and 2) they’re unfortunately rather dirty and I don’t think my house would be any cleaner for the work. Plus, I already have a helper for those things. I don’t have time to supervise and train them…grr, but as a health worker I so should. Again, no good answers.

So for now most of us are trying to take a middle road – we talk to the beggars, we joke with them, we discourage their begging tendencies, and we try to be as generous as possible without building up expectations of money. We’ve all been here long enough now to know who the local beggars are. Many of the children are just as happy when we call them by name or stop to do the Chicken Dance in the street as when we give them food. Sure, it helps us recognize them as individuals and not just a mass of dirty hands and faces, but I think it works in reverse as well: this way they also see us as human beings and not just walking money machines. It’s not easy and, especially for a natural introvert like me, it takes special effort not to just run into the relative safety of our guarded gates. But if the tiny bit of purgatory I experience when I force myself not to run could possibly balance the energy I am rewarded with, then our God is truly a merciful God.

The children here keep teaching me (as they sing and laugh and play despite their empty stomachs) that generosity is not all about money and clothes and meals – sometimes it’s just stopping to recognize the person who’s asking. It’s not a solution – it’s a step. And meanwhile us expats will keep talking about what we can do to address this problem in a sustainable and socially appropriate way.

Monday, January 16, 2006

2006: Resolving to Resolve the Future on the Beach

Happy New Year and I hope everybody had a very blessed holiday season and has since returned to work, school and life with a new energy and dedication that often comes with the sense of a new beginning.

I can’t say that I’m all that excited to be back in the middle of the island and sitting behind a desk staring at a computer screen again when I know what alternatives are out there. Still, the 10 day get-away we took during the last days of 2005 and the first week of 2006 was all I could have ever hoped for and just the break that both Elizabeth and I were in sorry need of from the stresses of the last few months of 2005.

We decided to explore the south since Elizabeth hasn’t been there yet and my experience there was limited to the time I spent with my family in Ft. Dauphin. First stop was Isalo national park, about halfway between Fianar and Tulear on the newly paved interstate highway. The park was fantastic – a lot like the western United States with high sandstone cliffs and dryland vegetation, but interposed with deep, lush tropical canyons filled with palm trees and extraordinary wildlife including (of course) lemurs.
Looking Up from Bottom of Canyon Originally uploaded by ebrwstr.

Most of the parks I’ve visited in this country have left me feeling a little depressed, mostly because they’re all pretty threatened by slash and burn practices and the areas you do get to visit are short little tourist loops that leave you feeling rather claustrophobic. Not so in Isalo – the area sort of looks like the Badlands rising out of the prairie and the local people have generally left it alone as a “sacred site,” so it’s been protected and it feels protected. Unlike Ranomafana where it’s hard to “get away” when you’re constantly running into some feral cattle that live in the park. You can also hike and camp for days in Isalo without seeing the same thing twice where other parks the real wild areas are (understandably) completely off-limits to tourists.

We spent the night in luxury at the fanciest hotel I’ve ever slept in – it’s a really neat place built into and out of the granite and sandstone landscape and it blends in so well you can’t see it until you’re right on top it. Unfortunately we didn’t get dinner there on account of the menu being “traditional Malagasy food’ which we had no desire to pay 1000x too much for when we could just go into town and get that for a percent of the price. But it was the best night’s sleep on the entire trip.

We left the park and spent one night and half a day in Tulear before getting a taxi-brousse up to the beach resort towns just north of the city. We arrived just before dark, but we didn’t account for New Year’s Eve being an impossibly busy day there. It took us so long to find a place for the night that we missed the sunset over the ocean, as we secured the last two hotel rooms in the town. So we found a place where we could drink a bottle of raspberry-flavored vodka purchased in Duty Free by one of our co-travelers (excellent stuff!), eat a huge seafood dinner (not much we recognized, but it was all good) and generally make a minor nuisance of ourselves before midnight.

But while we were eating, some other tourists came into the restaurant and after a while one turned to us and said, excuse me, but do you live here in Madagascar? In Fianar? Yes? And let me guess, your last name is Brewster? And you’re related to a girl in Wisconsin in the United States? Yes? And your name is Erica?

That’s how I met Brice. He and Sarah studied together last year in Australia – and now he’s living in Madagascar. Sarah had told me this and I’d e-mailed the guy a long time ago with my contact info, but I hadn’t heard anything. Suddenly, there they were: he and the two guys he lives with and a couple of co-workers were sitting at the next table. It was really weird, but funny. We spent quite a while talking, but they had dinner reservations and the raspberry vodka was catching up with us, so we said goodnight and bonne année.

(At that point the vodka had done a number on us, and the tide was out, so we chunked our plans for midnight on the beach and went home to take showers and go to bed instead – just in time for the Malagasy to head out to the all-night dance party that went on well into mid-morning New Year’s Day.)

Then for water sports – our first day we secured a pirogue ride, but as we turned to go back the guy flipped the sail in the wrong direction and we managed to capsize the whole boat. I’ll admit – one of the guys was hitting me on the way out, so when I realized we were going over I didn’t exactly try to stop it. Suddenly us 3 girls and the 2 Malagasy boat guys were scrambling in the water – only to realize seconds later that it was so shallow we could stand. It took a bit to get back upright and then back in the canoe but we got back safely. It was funny because one of our friends was still on shore and saw us tip. She freaked and started yelling for other pirogues to go get us – and they came despite the fact that they insisted to her it was so shallow we could stand.

Snorkeling: we went with a fancy operation the first day, but they guys forgot to put gas in the motor boat, so the dive leader had to swim back and get a pirogue to bring out two gas cans. Then it started to rain when we got out there, but it was warm and beautiful. The equipment was fantastic (for snorkeling anyway), and the fish were beautiful. The coral was rather dull colored, but it was a great experience until the tide went out and we had to go back.

Then the third day we combined sailing and snorkeling by hiring a pirogue sailboat to take us out to the coral reef. The sun came out a little bit but the coral was still pretty dull colored with the exception of a few fancy brain corals. But the fish were far more spectacular the second day – so many more and so colorful! Yes, it looked just like Finding Nemo. Then as the tide went out again, they called us in so we could go to lunch cooked on the beach.

We spent the rest of our time swimming, sunning and reading. Oh, and of course, eating. I think I’m actually getting tired of seafood!
On the Beach Originally uploaded by ebrwstr.

My only regret is that we got the day in Tulear that we should have had before going to the beach on our last day. We did shopping and picked out some fun clothes and looked at swimming suits (decided against buying only because we were leaving the beach area) and considered getting extensions braided into our hair. But the fun of that was greatly lessened knowing we were just going back to cold, boring Fianar. Ahh, well, we got some fantastic ice cream out of the deal! Tulear is the place for fantastic (at least within Malagasy standards…but I still thought it was pretty damn good) food.

So, now I know (two years too late?) that Tulear is truly the place to go for the tropical island part of Madagascar. The infrastructure is much better than in other parts of the country and the resorts there actually know how to be resorts – 4x4 transportation, good food (actually up to French standards), clean, comfortable rooms, and palm trees, sand, great swimming and good excursion equipment. The people are friendly and not obnoxious to tourists, but the place isn’t so overpopulated by tourists (and by tourists who decided never to leave) that you can’t relax. Ahh, well, live and learn!
Tulear Sunset Originally uploaded by ebrwstr.

But I'll make the offer that the next visitors I get could be treated to this lovely little corner of the world!

Malagasy Choo-Choo

My last mission of 2005, and I finally (after 6 months in Fianar) had my first opportunity to take a trip on the Fianarantsoa-Côte Est (FCE) train line that runs 163 km from Fianar to southeastern coastal city of Manakara. Unfortunately for this first trip I only got to go a few stops down the line before arriving at our mission site of Tolongoina, but the little that I saw sold me on trying more soon.

The passenger train leaves the Fianar station between 7 and 8 am on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays and consists of one or two first class cars and a similar number of second class. This time though, since it was lychee season, the number of passenger cars was reduced in favor of cargo cars for the unbelievable number of baskets of lychees being harvested from the orchards on the warm, summery coast.

Tolongoina Dec 13-14 (1) Originally uploaded by ebrwstr.
I’ve often said that Madagascar is like a living museum. Here, metal plows pulled behind oxen for plowing and locally forged hand scythes for harvesting are high technology in the rice fields, so it wasn’t much of a surprise to learn that most of the parts of the FCE train line are hand-me-down technology. Most of the railroad ties and track are secondhand from various European countries and the engines and cars themselves are leftovers from when the track was first built in the French colonial days – and they were passed down from France even then. All-in-all, it gives the train a very antique feel, reminiscent of the (don’t laugh) renovated Camp 5 Logging Camp steam train in Lanoa, Wisconsin, that takes tourists into the Camp 5 logging camp and museum village. The feeling of stepping out of place and time into Old Town America is aided by the fact that first class is usually populated by tourists popping flashbulbs around every bend and gawking at the variety of local snacks being hawked at each stop.

But this train is the real thing. The distance it covers is not that long – only 30 km longer than the monthly trek I used to make from Bealanana to the bank in Antsohihy – yet it traverses some of the most rugged terrain in Madagascar as is drops from the Fianar elevation of 1100 meters to sea level. It also passes through Ranomafana forest corridor and provides access to the outside world for some of the most isolated communities living near and within this precious corridor. These communities use the train to transport the one commodity they have in abundance – green bananas. Without the train line, more than 100,000 people are left at the mercy of the forest…or, should I say, the forest is left at the mercy of the people desperate to eek out a living within it.

There are lots of spectacular views along the track, including the Sahambavy tea plantation and a HUGE waterfall just outside of the remaining forest corridor, as well as some very educational views of the impact of deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices on the landscape outside of the corridor. The engineering in the track is extraordinary – the original construction was completed in 1936, at the expense of and unknowable number of Malagasy lives, but boasting 67 bridges and 48 tunnels, the longest over 1 km in length and just wide and tall enough for the FCE train cars.

We got off at the rundown colonial masterpiece of a station in Tolongoina, but I certainly hope to be able to take the train all the way to the coast one day soon. The future of the train is still (and always will be) tenuous as cyclones have done grave damage to the infrastructure the past; the
Tolongoina Dec 13-14 (15) Originally uploaded by ebrwstr.
train would not be running today without millions of dollars of investment provided by USAID and the World Bank for rehabilitation after some major cyclones and for structural and organizational improvements. Economically this train line is essential to the health and well-being of thousands of people living along it and it is a popular route for tourists to Madagascar, but politically it remains a source of contention and a focal of power struggles.

It’s only 163 km of track, but it’s 163 km well-worth the effort of protecting.