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.