Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanks Given.

It's good to be home.

A year ago I was trapped in Thailand and celebrated Thanksgiving amongst friends in Chiang Mai - the Americans were handily outnumbered by the Brits (English and Scottish and Irish) and Canadians and Thais, and we were hosted by an Englishwoman who did her best to tolerate the Americanisms that happened, but all was joyful - especially since I had found refuge and a homecoming when my best effort to return Stateside were foiled by international incidents.

Two years ago I celebrated American Turkey Day in Hanoi - hosted by an Argentinian family, with two Australians, a West Indian from the British Virgin Islands, a handful of assorted Vietnamese (one who did the most and best "traditional American" cooking), and myself as the sole American representative.

Three and four years ago I celebrated with friends in the southern city of Fianarantsoa, Madagascar. Those were grand occasions with 35-40 Americans of various stripes, a cobbling together of whatever traditional foods we could find (usually involving a couple of calls to Embassy workers in the capital city with desperate pleas for extra cans of cranberry sauce or purreed pumpkin that they'd had shipped with their generous shipping allowances) and lots of improvising with local ingredients (it was also where I learned to make the best pumpkin pie in the world), and lots of held breath knowing there was no "running out to the store" if we ran out of some random ingredient or ruined something. We also had another chance to share the holiday with English and French expatriates and, of course, local Malagasy. But the results were always impressive - and unbelievably delicious!!

Complete with complete Malagasy turkeys!!

Too much food always meant that croquet or basketball or ping-pong was necessary before there was any possibility of dessert being ingested.

Five years ago, Thanksgiving arrived in the middle of a "rice crisis" in Madagascar. Here's a snippet from the letter I wrote home:

Life goes on, and on Monday E- [my "site partner"] boycotted a teacher boycott and continued to teach while all the teachers went to the district governor to complain about the price of rice. I also met with my Club SIDA [anti-AIDS club]... Then on Tuesday it started to become obvious that the rice issue was not going away any time soon. Teachers canceled classes again, this time a real strike. I still met with my Club SIDA, but it was obvious things were getting dicey otherwise. On Wendesday all things came to a head and the teachers announced that there would be no school on Thursday or Friday and possibly the whole following week until the rice issue was resolved.

So, just what is the big deal about rice, anyway? Good question. E- and I were having a hard time getting our heads around this one. Now, we know that rice is important here – it’s the staple food source and people eat more rice per capita here than they do in almost any other country on earth. Morning, noon and night, they simply have no idea what on earth they could possibly eat instead. Oddly enough, there’s no serious shortage of rice in Madagascar – in fact, rice production is up this year despite 2 serious hurricanes coming through right during the harvest time with the serious potential to ruin the year’s harvest. But no, there’s just as much rice as always, if not more, and yet the price of a cup or kilo of rice has increased almost 4 times and there seems to be no sign of it stopping.

I guess I should’ve paid more attention in economics class – the problem has something to do with the rice futures market and speculation. Now, these are terms I’ve only ever heard in relation to oil or gasoline – never rice. It seems kind of absurd, until you look at it this way: the Malagasy feel about rice the way we in the United States do about gasoline. The Malagasy are not nearly so dependent on gas like we are, so when fuel prices go up around here, it hurts because public transportation gets more expensive and transportation of products forces all prices up in general. When the price of rice goes up, however, is reason to panic. The Malagasy are absolutely dependent on rice, the way we are on fuel. There just is no feasible alternative in their eyes.

So I guess what’s happening is the rice collectors are buying up all the rice now during the dry season and either stashing it or shipping it all out to Tana and storing it there (this is a nation-wide crisis, it’s not limited to just our region) and not releasing it to the market in hopes of getting a good price during the rainy season when transportation of rice becomes difficult, if not impossible. I don’t know if this is a result of the cyclones last year that left so many communities cut off from their supply of rice and people are hoping to cash in should that happen again this year. Either way, there’s no rice on the market, but demand is still high, so the price is going through the roof. And it hurts most in here because we’re a net producer and exporter of rice, so there should be a good supply here, but yet the price is still uncontrollable.

So why a teachers’ strike? First, because they’re worried that students are coming to school hungry, or worse yet, having to drop out of school and go home because parents can’t afford the room and board for students to live away from home. Since most of these communities don’t have middle schools and none have high schools, this means students simply are forced to quit school all together. Second, the teachers have to worry about their fixed government employee salary. On the bottom rung are the elementary school teachers who make 600,000 Fmg per month (about 60 USD). Now a sack of rice (a month’s supply for a family) is 300,000 Fmg – half of a monthly salary. The cry is to stop the madness – so far with limited effect.

In the end, the effect on us was that E- got Thanksgiving off. So, irony of irony, we headed off to our sister city to celebrate Thanksgiving, the holiday of harvest and plenty, while people were on strike to protest there not being enough of a staple of life. But at least I can say one thing – we did not eat rice during our Thanksgiving celebration. And yet we still managed to be more than full. I think it’s time to teach people how to make mashed potatoes and gravy – plenty of that to be had cheap!
However, we did not eat turkey that year. Turkeys, while hardly common in Madagascar, were certainly present. In fact, I had a big flock of them that lived in the hospital yard where my quarters were. They would tromp around, clucking, with the big Tom turkey puffing and gobbling ferociously, announcing his authority over his hens and anything else he could see. They were never for sale in the market...and nobody could ever recall having eaten one. So, what were they there for? Nobody really seemed to know.

So, we determined we were going to get one for our Thanksgiving, to be celebrated with four other Americans posted in the region. V-, our loyal Malagasy compatriot in attempting strange American traditions in a foreign land, lead us on a wild turkey hunt, errr, goose chase, all over the Madagascar country side to search out the owners of these or any turkeys to request to purchase one for our holiday. The flock that lived on the hospital grounds belonged, apparently, to some rich folks who owned land locally but lived in a big city far out of communication range. But, she assured us, there were more flocks owned by those who lived locally. And so we set off by bike the Saturday before the big day.

Saturday was an interesting day. I arrived early at E-'s place, was wanting to tell her about the last couple of days – but she announced that we were going on a turkey hunt! Okay, I thought. Apparently she and V- had some leads on turkeys for Thanksgiving, but they were a ways out of town. So we jumped on our bikes and the three of us went on a turkey hunt that quite literally turned into a wild goose chase. We spent the morning wandering all around the countryside chasing instructions from random people (yeah, sure there are turkeys – over there), and even hearing the darn things, but never seeing a single one. We talked to a few people who thought they knew who owned the elusive birds, but there were stories of turkey plagues that killed off breeding pairs and lots of beating around the bush. Apparently turkeys are neither to be eaten nor sold in Madagascar. We gave up exhausted after lunchtime and came home sunburned and dehydrated.

There are turkeys over there...somewhere - we can hear them!


Gah!! Nobody home!! Where are the turkeys? Where are the owners???

E- makes the best of a bad some much-needed shade.

But by Thanksgiving we had found another solution:
Back to our turkey-hunt-turned-goose-chase – we never did manage to get a turkey for Thanksgiving (despite there being many turkeys wandering around our town…), so we wound up with 2 geese. We took them, alive, on a taxi-brousse, spent a night in a hotel with them, and then on a second taxi-brousse all the way to the next town, where we killed, plucked, and ate them. Not exactly the same as turkey, but hey, this is the other side of the world…and the mashed potatoes were still the focal point anyway...
Odd that in a time the country was so panicked about rice being in short supply, we stuffed ourselves on far too many mashed potatoes and vegetables of all varieties.

Maybe we should have been more worried about a shortage of (clean) water?

A dinner guest that remained a guest:
I sorta freaked out some local Malagasy by actually handling the Parson's chameleon - the Malagasy view chameleons with a lot of suspicion as being an magical animal that can see the future and the past and present simultaneously (because of their independently moving eyes).

Six years ago, I celebrated Thanksgiving together as a trainer with the new trainees at the large training center in a remote location outside of the capital of Madagascar. It was another bizarre week, as so many of my holidays overseas were: one of the cooks from the training center staff died suddenly and rather mysteriously at the beginning of the week. Obviously this caused quite a bit of upheaval - plus with questions of Hepatitis C or Yellow Fever being asked, nobody knew whether it was safe to visit or to have the other cooks handling food that week.

Finally it was decided that all would go on as planned. What was beautiful to see, though, was the effort our organization made to support the family of the deceased staff member. In a country where people don't own cars and access to one is unbearably expensive, our organization authorized the use of company vehicles to transport the casket and the family to the capital city for burial, supported funeral expenses, and gave the staff members the day off to attend the funeral, while the American trainers, the training director and a skeleton crew "baby-sat" the trainees.

Then came Thanksgiving. Despite the fact that the kitchen birthday-cake baker died, the crew was still able to pull off a cake for Dr. Victor’s birthday that day. Then the news that here would be cranberry sauce at dinner that night—along with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and gravy and pumpkin and lemon meringue pies...Thanksgiving dinner was a noisy celebration for all the homesick trainees. The menu was bounteous and complete from turkey and cranberry sauce to pumpkin pie.

I am very thankful to have had the chance to spend Thanksgiving among Americans--although I am sorry E- had to be so far away. I am sure the day would have lost most of it’s meaning had it been spent away from here. I am thankful just for this fantastic opportunity to do one of the hardest things I will ever do: work, live, eat, play and breathe the Malagasy way of life for two years. At the moment I am thankful for the opportunity to live and work with dedicated people who honestly love their country. I am beyond thankful for the support of a vast array of family and friends without which I could not continue to be here.

I am thankful for lychee season being upon us and for the chance to know what a “lychee” is. I am thankful to know the meaning of and be able to semi-intelligently use words like mazoto, mahay, voky, reraka, sipa, mahazo, mangala and so many more. I also am thankful for the blessing of knowing that I have the choice to return to the land of good roads, unsmoky kitchens, sofas and couches, grocery stores, internet, TV, reliable mail, books, books, paper and more books! But for now (and for a while) I choose to continue this path. It’s just nice knowing that the choice is there, even if I choose not to use the option.
The Thanksgiving seven years ago was the last one I celebrated at home before leaving to go overseas - a grand traditional family celebration made more poignant and appreciated by the fact that the Thanksgiving before (eight years ago) I had been in Southern California at grad school and unable to return home for the first time ever. For my first transient Thanksgiving, I was adopted by a professor friend who actually hailed originally from my small corner of the world and by chance came to know me during my first trimester of graduate school. He invited me to his home to share a meal at his table - and to celebrate my first vegetarian Thanksgiving.

Our world has turned 360 degrees in the nearly ten years since I have been home. "Tradition" in our family is to celebrate Thanksgiving in my parents' home and my mother's family coming from out of town to take advantage of the cold weather creating a natural outdoor icebox. In the years just previous, the holiday moved to my grandparents' house in another city as my grandfather was homebound and unable to travel for the holiday. With his passing this summer, the holiday celebration has returned, along with me, to my parents' home. My sister and I are both grown, and now graduate school graduates, both gone away and now returned to our ancestral lands. My circle of "family" now encompasses a global community of friends and adoptive family members around the globe. Thanksgiving is probably the greatest gift Americans can bring to their communities in the international world - I am glad I have had the opportunity to deepen my appreciation for the holiday and to know that it is worth far more than just another day to eat a lot of food.

Happy Thanksgiving to all - regardless of where you call home in the world. I am grateful every day for your presence in my life.

No comments: