Sunday, August 27, 2006

Charity vs. Justice and what Erica really does

Yesterday was a beautiful day in Fianarantsoa, Madagascar – an extremely welcome relief from the seemingly endless wintry days of the last couple of weeks. Unfortunately, that meant that after the ground warmed up and the air became balmy with springtime moisture, that Sunday morning dawned drenched in a cold fog. I slept comfortably until 6:45 am or so, and then peeked outside only to decide the best place to spend this morning celebrating a day of rest by pretending like the outside world didn’t exist.

So I got cleaned up and made myself a luxurious breakfast for bed, then returned to my cozy bedroom to channel surf on my satellite radio. After skipping through the usual selection of news that wasn’t doing much for my current restful state of mind (and deciding I needed more brainfood than music), I landed on the program “Speaking of Faith,” with the somewhat airy hostess Christa Tippet, on NPR. I tend to have a somewhat ambivalent view of this program with its sometimes ethereal selection of topics, but today her interview was with Dr. David Hilfiger on the topic of urban poverty, especially in relation to our nation’s new awareness of our own urban poor after the Hurricane Katrina debacle.

Dr. Hilfiger has spent the last quarter of a century working (and living) in homeless shelters in the Washington, D.C., area. I figured his experiences on working with the poor might mirror some of the experiences I’ve had over here – especially since moving to an urban center – so I paused to listen. As it was, his interview was very frank and easy to listen to, and I found it simultaneously a relief and discouraging that he still struggles to express many aspects of his experience. I also was taken with the similarities and differences between living with this vocation in the developed and developing world. For example, he cited that one of the difficulties he faces is the difference in his race and socio-economic status (white, blessed with opportunities, and affluent vs. black, limited, and poor), but in his experience, he stated that that difference has never been thrown back in his face. Here we struggle with that same issue, but, whether it be a carry-over from the colonial period, I very often find that very difference being a pivot on which my daily life revolves. It is often the single key factor in what opens and closes doors to me here – and that’s not an aspect of this experience that I enjoy at all.

But as the interview went on, Dr. Hilfiger put into words a distinction that I haven’t been able to explain to myself between charity and justice work. He clearly categorizes the work he’s been doing for the last 22 years as “charity” work. He then goes on to describe charity as the following (necessarily paraphrased):

Charity is mandated – charity is given to satisfy ourselves – we are in control when we give – we decide who we give to and often how what we give gets used.

He describes charity as something we use to address a need in ourselves, to make ourselves feel better about an issue. It’s an immediate response. Justice, on the other hand, is working to change the underlying system that creates the need for charity. Both of these actions are a never-ending process – we have been promised that the poor will always be with us and life isn’t fair – but the type of work is very different.

And I think this is where the fundamental difficulty in explaining to people the “what I do” over here arises from. It would be very easy for me to say that I distribute mosquito nets to protect children from mosquito bites and malaria, or ensure vaccine distribution to protect children from childhood diseases; both of these activities are necessary to saving children’s lives now. But both of those activities fall into the category of charity work. This may also be why people perk up if I mention going into relief work or responding to disaster situations. That’s charity work – and it’s easier to understand.

But I don’t do charity work here. Not that I have anything against it – it’s just not my job description. By this definition, my work here is in justice. Now, there are a lot of times that these things can overlap and I spend some time in the grey areas, but mostly my work is intended to change the way of doing things so that in the long run the system is more fair. We try to make sure that systems are established and educational resources are available and reduce the need for us to distribute mosquito nets or vaccines.

Perhaps this is a valuable definition for communicating what I do to people back home – but it’s also a very useful reflection for myself as I continue my work here in Madagascar and to search out my future path. Sometimes I forget that my work in justice is important. Sometimes it’s frustrating not to be able to say that I distributed 60 mosquito nets and to feel as if I’ve made a concrete contribution to society today. Many days I feel like working in charity would be a lot “easier.” Still, underneath it all I continue to feel called to working for justice and towards that unreachable goal that someday, we won’t have the need to give things in charity.

Finally, a return to that old, tired proverb:

Give a man a fish – that’s charity.

Teaching a man to fish and ensuring that he’s allowed to continue fishing all his days – that’s justice.


So this post is probably going to seem a little ironic, following immediately behind the last one about being called to work in justice, but hey, my life is ironic.


Many of you would think that after working for 3 years in this development that I would have developed some pretty high reaching goals for myself. That I would dream of the day I become the head of a USAID mission to a country, or chief manager of a multimillion dollar Millennium Challenge Account project. Or perhaps of moving back Stateside and putting all of my experience towards research or study to get a PhD or MD or some other impressive combination of degrees and perhaps climbing that ivory tower of thought and philosophical writings on justice and charity and the whys of why the impoverished are a constant in our lives.


But you’d all be wrong.


No, my greatest wish would be to follow in the footsteps of the heroine’s father in that old black-and-white (and more recently remade) film, Sabrina. I want to move permanently to Madagascar and be a chauffeur. Or at the very least, a compound guard.


So often when on mission I find myself contemplating my driver’s role with more than just a twinge of jealousy. Here’s somebody who gets paid to drive a vehicle down the road, which is markedly more exciting than being left to be a passenger in the popcorn-popper and, once you arrive at destination, do nothing other than make sure the vehicle doesn’t get too many nasty words written in the dust on its sides. So you sit. And you sit. And you might wander the village a bit. Pick up some of the local gossip. And sit some more. As a chef de mission, I sometimes find myself feeling guilty for the boredom of the driver while I sit in endless meetings with local authorities and then spend the evenings writing reports or just wanting to go to sleep as soon as dinner is done. And yet, if I were that driver, those hours of boredom would be a glorious boon – think of all the books, magazines, newspapers, journals I could read, all of the books and stories I could write! I could sit and gossip in village coffee shops, then return to the safety and comfort of the vehicle and have hours to contemplate what I heard over a sound nap. I could practice photography. I could do research – rapid rural assessment, find out what people in the towns really think. Yet, I’m the one stuck racing from official forum to official forum with only time for a dutiful nod to all those real people out in the communities. And my driver sits. Every once in a while, sleeps.


Then there’re the office guards and the guards at the nicer compounds in the city. They work endless shifts – true that – 6 to 6, at least 3 days a week, often more. Your job is to make sure misdirected people get to where they’re going, no cars leave the compound without appropriate authorization, and that not too many ragamuffins wander in and out of the place. Occasionally light gardening and maintenance duties are included – but those are mostly to cut down on the boredom factor – and about 90% of that time is sheer boredom. Again, hours of time available for the better pursuits. Only downside to this is, unlike a chauffeur, napping is not allowed (although it does happen). And no regular change of scenery.


I suppose not life is really as good as it appears to be (grass is greener, and all that), but I do find it disappointing that more of the people in these roles don’t take advantage of the opportunities available to them and instead spend their lives in a state of almost constant boredom (except for drivers who split their time between mortal fear and near death-inducing boredom). And maybe, some day, I too will get paid for reading my favorite book. Again.



Monday, August 14, 2006

Today I bougt a pot

It isn’t a special pot – it wasn’t even anything I planned on buying. It was sort of an impulse purchase. I wasn’t even supposed to be in the market today, but there was a message that had to be delivered in person to a training that was taking place near there, and our project car is in for repairs so I went by foot. That meant I had to pass through the heart of the market day throngs, including the pots.

There really wasn’t even a special reason to buy the pot other than it’s been cold here and my current biggest pot just isn’t cutting it for soup making. I keep trying to throw in too much stuff.

So I bought a pot. It wasn’t even a particularly memorable bargaining or general purchasing experience. I probably won’t even remember the faces of the guys who sold the pot to me if I go back there to buy another one (although I’m sure they’ll remember me). But that’s exactly what induced me to comment on the experience today.

I think I’ve been here long enough and I speak Malagasy well enough that I generally have a very genuine purchasing experience. There is definitely an art to buying things in an open market. It’s not all about the purchase, the sale, the final price or the person selling it to you. But it is. Yes, in general there is bargaining involved here, but it’s more of a way to prolong the encounter than it is a barrier to be overcome. The purchaser/seller relationship is generally necessarily brief, but if done right, profound. As I move through a purchase, discussion about whether the item is the right choice, of good (or at least decent) quality, whether there are better options of both product and seller, a discussion ensues. Of course for them the initial excitement is a white foreigner discussing very colloquial things in their own language, but as the conversation continues that becomes secondary as they work to convince me that their product is the best and the price is unbeatable.

I can make them laugh – and they make me laugh. I ask them what the base price for the item is, and what their profit is. I scold them if I think their profit margin is too high. They ask me why I don’t buy two. I tell them what I want it for – they try offering alternatives that they know won’t work. Or, if they truly thing something would be better, suddenly somebody will disappear and suddenly pop up again holding an item in a different size/color/shape. All the time we’re arguing over how much it will cost in the end. Then I demand that they throw in another small item (like today it was a low-quality spoon) for free.

Meanwhile we’ve usually attracted a crowd. Now this I have to admit is main due to my physical appearance, but I have seen a Malagasy bartering battle attract attention too. You have to get over the self-consciousness of using language and the vulnerability of being surrounded by onlookers and appearing to have money before this can be an enjoyable experience. It’s also best either not to be in a hurry so you’re not afraid to walk away from what you find if it’s not right or, be desperate enough that you’ll buy whatever will work and you just walk out of there. A lot of times it’s something you need to be in the mood for – or you hate every second of it.

But today I bought a pot, and the experience was normal. I’m not kidding myself into thinking that I got the best quality item or the best price, but hey, we laughed, we teased, we cajoled, and I got a “cadeau” of a spoon to take with me. They got my money and asked when I would be back. I got a pot (and spoon) and told them when I needed something else.

We parted on good terms.

And now I’m going to make some soup.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Adventures in Charles de Gualle

Quoted from Wikipedia: Charles de Gaulle International one of Europe's principal aviation centres, as well as France's main international airport. In 2004, Charles de Gaulle Airport ranked second in Europe in terms of passenger traffic with 51,260,363 passengers [1], behind London Heathrow Airport (67,344,054), and just above Frankfurt International Airport (51,098,271). In terms of plane movements, Charles de Gaulle Airport was number one in Europe with 525,660 planes [2], above Frankfurt International Airport (477,475) and Heathrow (475,999). In terms of cargo traffic, Charles de Gaulle Airport was also number one in Europe in 2004 with 1,876,900 metric tonnes (2,068,928 US tons) [3], above Frankfurt (1,838,894 metric tonnes) and Heathrow (1,412,033 metric tonnes)...Charles de Gaulle Airport extends over 32.38 km² (12.5 sq. miles) of land.

I don't have any way to prove this as I can't find the numbers for here, but I'm certain that 12 square miles is more than the entire city that I'm living in right now. As I certainly don't have to prove to anybody who's ever had to transit through there, CDG airport is definitely among one of the outer rings of hell (the only reason it wasn't among the inner rings was because it wasn't actively raining/snowing/sleeting/hailing/hot/humid/blazing sun/windy but was rather one of the more comfortable overcast days), but thanks to the grace of God and probably a few very well-trained guardian angels, I survived the process and made my flight the next morning. Barely. And my experience was about as boring as one could get - no delayed or cancelled flights, no bomb scares, random security alerts, no terminals collapsing in on themselves - none of the things that could ordinarily really screw up your day in CDG.
Before I arrived I was pretty much emotionally and physically exhausted, so by the time I got on the plane to Paris in Detroit about all I was ready to do was sleep. So I was pretty mcuh numb for the arrival at CDG. Arriving and getting to my hotel was time-consuming, but relatively painless. The whole customs thing is exponentially easier for France than the US (or Madagascar for that matter) - they barely glanced at my passport and then they don't even bother to look at your bags when you leave the airport. After you wander around the terminal a bit until you get spit outside and wait on the curb for a really long time until the airport shuttle for the hotel arrives to take you away. I managed to find the right shuttle on my first try, got myself over there, hauled all my bags inside, requested my room in French, asked about the shuttle in the morning, got upstairs, looked outside to see that it was just beginning to rain so I decided to follow my instincts and go to sleep. I know, I know, jet lag and all, but hey, if I was paying that much for a room for one night then you'd better believe I was going ot get my money's worth out of the bed.
So I slept all afternoon and got up to eat dinner (this really was the créme de la créme of budget hotels - the hotel restaurant had a huge selection of TV dinners to choose from - and then they'd dump it on a real plate and pop it in the microwave for you and then bring it out to you steaming hot) then fell back asleep. Dragged myself out of bed at 6 the next morning to eat breakfast and then step outside of my comfort zone yet again.
The one good thing I have to say about this entire experience is that every time I addressed somebody in French they responded in French and not in English. So either that means that my basic French phrases now sound natural enough that people assume I speak enough French that they don't have to patronize me by speaking in English or (and more likely), that they can't recognize the accent that I'm speaking with and while it's bad, they assume that French is a second language as an alternative to another language that they have absolutely no chance of addressing me in (like Greek or Japanese or something), so they're willing to put up with my poor attempt at their language.
But that wasn't much comfort in the end. I was fed and checked out and waiting on the sidewalk for a shuttle with about 50 other people (and the shuttle capacity is 23) when it began to dawn on me that this process of just getting to the airport was going to take a lot longer than I'd bargained on. I had to let 2 shuttleloads go by before I got onto one - but then that driver decided it was time for his morning coffee break. Then I also began to get nervous because the terminal I needed to go to wasn't printed on my ticket - at first I thought I'd just look for the Air France terminal. Then we ended up driving in a lot of circles to a lot of random places before we even got to the main terminals anyway. And when we finally did get there, I asked the shuttle driver if that was the Air France terminal and he said they all were - it just depended on your destination. Fortunately he had this handy little book with him that told him the letter terminal that all flights going to a specific destination left from. And by the grace of God, the first terminal that we stopped at, terminal 2C, was the right one.
So I grabbed my bags and dashed inside (well, as much as you can dash with two 60 lb bags), only to find the ticket check-in lines backed up practically out the door. So I joined one, hoping and praying that it was the right one for Madagascar.
Thankfully, it was a lucky guess. A man was doing precheck-in at the end of the line, and he didn't flinch when I said my destination, but he couldn't find my name on the passenger manifest to precheck me. So, I spent the next hour watching the minutes to boarding time tick away while I was was weaving my way through the line closer and closer to the counter worrying about why my name wasn't on the manifest. Finally, I got to the desk just as boarding for my flight was about to begin. Thankfully the girl behind the counter didn't seem to be concerned about my ticket, but she did seem confused as to why I didn't have MORE luggage than the two huge bags I threw up on the scale. So confused in fact that she had to go get her supervisor to check it out. More time ticked off the clock.
Finally I had my boarding pass, and she pointed to the time for boarding that was already 10 minutes past and told me to hurry. I did - but when I got to the security check I encountered yet another line stretching outside the door. The woman in charge was helping another couple - and I couldn't help but notice that their destination was also Madagascar. She told them to go to the other security check in as it would take too long at our current location. So the three of us took off down the concourse looking for another way in to the gate.
So we got to the other security line, got through it, and I dashed down the way to the gate still carrying my belt that I'd had to remove for the sake of the metal detectors. Thank the Lord, not only had I managed to choose the right terminal to get off the shuttle in, the right line to check in at, but also that that line for check in was as close to the gate as possible. Too bad the security screeners were almost at the opposite end of the hall. But I made it to the gate only 20 minutes late for boarding.
To bad I could see my gate, but between all of the pavilions, massage stands, kiosks and other advertising signs - I couldn't figure out how to get through to it!
I finally found the path, wove through the maze of human line control ribbons, handed them my boarding pass and with only a few seconds of worry that I was getting on the wrong plan, proceeded down the gangplank...
...and onto the tarmac.
No plane. Good one.
But, don't forget, this is CDG. The airport where they like to put you on a bus first.
So, I jumped onto yet another bus (again, hoping it was going to take me to my preferred destination, or at least one reasonably close), and spent 15 more minutes driving across the tarmac until we pulled up in front of a plane.
Well, for better or worse, I got on it, found my seat, settled in and woke up 8 hours later to find myself in Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo, Madagascar. So something went right. And I will no longer begrudge the Malagasy air system their disorganization. At least I know where it comes from.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Notes from a Lake

So after one more year of perspective-gathering in Madagascar, I returned home once more to the small town in Wisconsin, where I was born and bred (or is that bread? As in white?) for a little R&R – that being Reconnection and Re-evaulation. The following are some observations from my time at home that might develop yet another dimension the overall picture:

Wow, it’s a fact. I am from Lake Woebegone. Every day I think I’m relatively resigned to the fact, then something else comes along that gives me pause. Perhaps I was more prepared for life in Madagascar than I had thought.

my town likes to sleep late. This I don’t totally understand seeing as retirees (who make up about 80% of the population up here) are always complaining to me about how they can’t seem to sleep in past 5 am. You would think that that a preferred schedule would be more like what I’m used in Madagascar: all things to open early, and perhaps a nap time around noon would be in order, and then things could close in the afternoon so everybody could meet on the golf course. But alas, it is not so. Few offices/shops/businesses (besides the local eateries that serve breakfast) open before 9 am. The best explanation I’ve heard for this is that it’s due to the post office opening time of 9:30 am – no use coming to town much before the post office opens, I guess.

…one of the big highlights of this summer here was the celebration of the town’s 125th anniversary and several parts of the celebration are worth noting here. The first was the scene in the local public library when the News Review newspaper decided it would be a good idea to write an article commemorating the quasquicentennial celebration by featuring 4 local seniors, or “pioneers” of life here, none under 80 years of age.

Exhibit #1:

I happened to arrive at the library just as the four gentlemen were beginning to assemble for the interview. Here’s a general version of the conversation I (and everybody else currently in the library) couldn’t help but overhear:

[Names have been changed]

Mr. Everet "Muddy" Waters [enters library complaining at the volume any 90+ year-old is entitled to complain at] : I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be here for but it’s 11 o’clock and they told me to be here at 11 o’clock. Where’s Mike Malager? They called and told me that Mike Malager was going to be here from the paper at 11 o’clock and I was supposed to come talk to Mike Malager at 11 o’clock at the library. Something about an interview from the paper. I don’t see Mike Malager, but he’s from the newspaper and he told me to meet him here at 11 o’clock.

A younger man sitting at the computers stands up at this initial barrage and hesitates slightly, trying to decide how to approach this.

Muddy: Has anybody here seen Mike Malager? Somebody called to tell me to bet at the library at 11 o’clock to meet Mike Malager from the paper. Notices man standing by computers. Who are you? Do you know where Mike Malager is? He told me to be here at 11 o’clock and here I am but I don’t see Mike Malager.

Younger man: Sir, are you one of the men we’d like to interview about the early days in Three Lakes?

Muddy: I don’t know what I was supposed to come for – all I know is that Mike Malager is supposed to be here and I’m supposed to talk to him about something. Who are you? Where’s Mike Malager.

Younger man: Mike couldn’t make it in today, so I’m going to be doing the interview with you.

Muddy: Who are you? What’s your name? I was told I was going to meet with Mike Malager – and I’ve got Harry Devonski here along with me – he’s supposed to meet with Mike Malager too at 11 o’clock. Where’s Mike Malager?

Younger man: I’m Matt Figgoli and I’m here to interview four gentlemen about the early days in Three Lakes

Muddy: Who are you? What’s your family name?

Figoli: My name's Matt Figoli ---

Muddy: That’s not a local name. Where were you born?

Figoli: No, I’m not from here, but I work with the paper and I’m supposed to interview you about the early day in

Muddy: But where were you born? I’m here with Harry Devonski – he served 44 years on our school board, that’s a record, y’know. Where are you from?

Figoli: I live in -- [a small town about 30 miles away]

Muddy: No, son, where were you born? Figoli...that’s not a local name.

Figoli: I was born in New York.

Muddy muttering as he wanders off into the room of the library where the interview is supposed to take place, followed by a silent Harry Devonski: Figoli? that ain’t a local name. Where’s Mike Malager. I was supposed to meet Mike Malager from the paper here at 11 o’clock….

At this point I went back to greet Muddy who is a very old family friend and who was janitor at the local school (there’s only one building housing the elementary, jr. high and high schools) for something like 40 years (or forever depending on which sources you reference). I also speak with Mr. Devonski until Ed Tret and “Bud” Pulaski, the other two “pioneers” to be interviewed arrive. I know them both because Mr. Tret and I played in the community band together – he still plays clarinet there at the age of 94 (although some might debate his fine tuning skills on the high range) and Bud drove school bus for years, and although I never rode in the school bus, his wife, Beth, was librarian at the school library for as long as I can remember and she and my mom have a close-knit bond as fellow small-town librarians.

Mr. Figoli from the paper wandered back into the room as the four men assembled themselves and briefly assessed the situation. He spied the full coffee pot at the far wall, breathed a sigh of relief and began filling a cup before asking if that was community coffee. I said it was and laughed that he would probably need some. He looked quizzically at me for a moment, glanced at the four men I was greeting, then asked if I was from here. “Born and raised,” I explained, and, as a look mixed with pity and horror washed over his face, I wished him good luck and skipped out of there.

As I was on a quick errand for my mother, I didn’t stick around to see how the interview turned out, but since the article appeared in the paper a few weeks later, I assume Mr. Figoli survived his experience. As to whether I will survive mine, only time will tell.

Exhibit #2:

The Cemetery Walk.

My mother is president of our Genealogical Society. Now, apparently this cemetery walk thing is not exactly a new idea, but it was new to me, so it caught me a little off-guard.

See, the concept here is that you find gravestones of interesting/important people in your local cemetery, then track down some of the (preferably living) ancestors of those people. You ask those people about the people in the graves – learn a little of their life story, whatever, and then, you get all those people together, ask them to dress up as if they were the given ancestor and, one day, all together, have them stand on their ancestors’ graves and pretend to be them as an audience of cemetery walkers troop by and pause to hear what the re-enactors have to say. Kind of a small-time Old World Wisconsin, except that these people are trying to be real people.

Now, in the end, this cemetery walk was a big hit. It attracted more than 500 people during 2 hours on a single Saturday morning, and there may have been more had it not started pouring (the one good summer rain we got all summer until my brass quintet concert in the park almost a month later). I will also say that my father, a generally shy man with no acting training who stood on the grave of and pretended to be his grumpy Grandpa Del, was also a critical success.

[My father standing on his grandfather's grave, as he said, trying to avoid being thrown off as Del tossed about beneath him...]

But I will also say, the concept weirded me out. It still sort of does.

I’m all about preserving history and remember family stories, and I will also say as I made the tour myself (as a fully costumed 1800s pioneer woman tour-guide – yes, I willingly got roped into this one) that I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the stories and seeing all the fun authentic props people brought for it. Still, the idea of doing it in a graveyard while standing on your ancestors’ graves seems to me like something better reserved for Halloween or at least some kind of twisted murder mystery plot. I’m not one to be squeamish about cemeteries, but this just seems to be asking for its own plot twist. But I’ll leave it up to you all to make your own judgments. Chalk it up to Small-Town America.

Exhibit #3:

The Fourth of July and a barn dance that wasn’t.

These were actually both earlier in the week before the cemetery walk, but they’re worth a short note. First a general comment about the 4th of July here. Our town is known in the area for its old-fashioned, small-town celebration on the 4th. The day begins with a parade – one so big that it takes nearly every resident of the town just to be in the parade. Who watches? Only about a 1000+ tourists who come up for a taste of small-town 4th of July. There’s always a theme and always judging of the floats and it’s usually a divisive battle to see who wins the most extreme float prize each year. Either that or the bank always wins with the only commercially purchased float that hasn’t changed (except in color) through several bank corporation name changes.

Then there’s the flea market and beer tent and brat stand in the park with live music that goes until dusk when it’s time for…

FIREWORKS! This town is also legendary in the area for putting on one heck of a fireworks display. I haven’t seen much to rival it, and certainly not at the small-town level. If you don’t believe me, you come on up next year and the most you’ll lose it the price of gas to get you there and at least you’ll gain a couple of good brats.

Then there’s the barn dance.

Now, this is a first time sort of thing for our town – and in concept I’m all for it. There’s a local community-minded family that has a large “barn” that is used for storing large equipment that they offered for community use for a 4th of July week celebration. They filled the barn with stands advertising local businesses/charity groups/special interests, recruited refreshment sellers, and hired two bands for entertainment. And for a first time thing, my impression was that it was a roaring success. Lots and lots of people showed up to park on the ample lawn space, spread out lawn chairs and blankets and play Frisbee and catch in the field, wander through the exhibition hall, eat lots of food and – or so they all hoped – dance. Unfortunately, being where we are, there isn’t a heck of a lot of choice in the way of entertainment. The organizers did a good job on the first selection – a local brass band that plays a lot of 20’s music – swing and two steps and whatnot, but the second selection happened to be a heavy metal band with a high school-aged following in the area. The two bands traded off timeslots, the brass band playing inside the barn where all the exhibits were (and where nobody outside could hear them), and the heavy-metalers stayed outside where they could blast away without threatening the structural soundness of the barn. Unfortunately, the audience was mostly young families and senior citizens – none of which were too impressed with the heavy metal selections. They finally were convinced to tame it down and play some CCR and other classic rock – but still not very danceable tunes. People wandered around unenthusiastically bemoaning the fact that nobody seemed to be able to play a decent polka and get everybody up and moving. Note for next year: book a polka band as a second and have swing dancing lessons scheduled before opening time.

One other cultural note: I noticed one Black man wandering around with his (I would guess) son there. I didn’t get to talk to him, so I can only conjecture about what brought him here, but I did briefly wonder if he felt as out of place wandering around in my own back yard as I often do here in Madagascar

Home sweet home

So in the end, it was amazing how quickly I slipped back into my old life, where everybody knows my name and I feel like I should know all of theirs. Going home is a lot like putting on a favorite pair of comfortable shoes that might be a little worn around the edges and not necessarily so sexy – but they’ll get you there, and only trip you up once or twice. It’s also nice know that (at least for now) it’s there waiting for me, and that changes occur at a reasonably slow pace in the meantime.

First, an update...

On June 9, 2006, 1218 days after first arriving in Madagascar, the staff at the Peace Corps Mission office in Madagascar sent a cable to the United States officially announcing my new status as Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) and I walked out of that office and onto an airplane (actually, 4 airplanes) that eventually dumped me off at 10 pm on June 10.

So I have left Peace Corps behind – fondly, yes – but I have ended that chapter. But the adventure in Madagascar isn’t over yet –

At 10:30 pm on July 31, 2006 the same series of planes in reverse order returned me, déjà vu like, to that original starting point, but with a whole new perspective on my place in this country.

For the next six months (at least), I will be under private contract with the organization that sponsored my third year PCV position, doing the same thing in the same place, just for a little bit more money (like something rather than nothing). To help subsidize my life living on “something” (and to pad my résumé), I’m also working to pick up a half-time USAID contract to head up the field testing and development of a final draft edition for the Malagasy translation of all Peace Corps volunteers’ favorite book “Where There is No Doctor.” In the end, it’s my thanks to both of these organizations for helping me achieve my biggest personal goal over the next three months – to prove to myself that I can really do this on my own and without the safety net of Peace Corps below me. SantéNet is still doing an excellent job taking care of me, for which I am very appreciative, but it’s still nothing like the comparative coddling PC provides (dedicated medical care, transportation to and from country, ability and requisite experience to requisition helicopters from the president of Madagascar at moments of great need), so this time I’m left with much more the feeling that this is really up to me.

And so, here’s to the next 184 days in Madagascar and all the new perspectives that will come with it.