June 2006 - September 2008

Location: New Jersey

Sunday, September 24, 2006

8/2 Letter

I am writing you from the beach!! Ok, so you are probably reading this from the beach right now, but a couple of months from now you'll be jealous, I know it. We left last friday at 6 am from the Peace Corps training center and it took till Monday afternoon to get here, but I'm actually really glad we got to drive instead of flying because the ride down was just beautiful. You can really see the landscape and vegetation change as you head south, and then again as you move west towards the coast. The trip down pretty much was worth anything I had to go through to get here. I have some pictures, mostly from the coast, and hopefully I'll be able to take some more on the way back. My banking town has internet so hopefully I'll be able to get there now n then and will be able to start posting pictures online and such.

This is just my second full day at my site and we leave tomorrow morning to head back (I get less time at my site than anyone but get back later than all except my traveling companion) but I think I have a pretty good feel for the place. We've spent a lot of time visiting different officials and school people to introduce me to them as well as seeing the different parts of the town, checking on prices for furniture here, etc., but we also took a drive affording (and um, onroading here is like offroading in the US) to look for the biggest baobab tree in this part of the country which was a lot of fun. We even picked up random locals on the way there n back.

My town is really nice and it's just beautiful. The weather is gorgeous right now and everything is sand and palm trees and there's fresh seafood all the time, so I think I'll be happy here. I visited my house too. They're still working on it, but it's really nice. AND I HAVE RUNNING WATER!! And a toilet!!!! You can't imagine how excited I am if you've never been without that sort of thing, but trust me, it's pretty great.

Right now I can think of just two downsides to the place itself. One is the language... I'm learning standard Malagasy but the dialect spoken here is completely different, even for words for basic stuff. So basically I'll be learning vocabulary all over again my first few months here. At least I'll be able to talk to people (they should understand Standard, even if they don't use it). The other is the road. Driving from the nearest major town to my site is more or less an offroading experience as I said, even though it is considered a "main" road on the map. The actual distance is around 250km, which by car in the states would take around 2.5 hrs to traverse. Here, the PC vehicle (4 wheel drive, no stops) takes 8 hrs to make it down. The taxi brouse aka public bus, which is what I would have to take to get to the nearest large town any time after this, stops frequently to load and unload and thus takes a full 24 hrs to get there. And that's during the dry season. During the rainy season the road becomes impassable (there's actually a stream flowing through the road at one point, it's only a couple feet now but then again there's no rain now...) So luckily there is an airport that goes to that neighboring large town and then elsewhere from there, but there are only flights two times a week. With a set teaching schedule I won't be able to wait and fly both ways because I'd miss half a week of class. So transportation is still not completely figured out for me getting down to my banking town. It's not completely necessary that I go every month, but there's not even phone service here so to be able to contact people from home at all I have to get down there. And there is a lot more stuff there (supplies/food) so it would be nice to be able to stock up on necessities once a month.

But it's alright, everything will work itself out if it needs to... I say it that way because (now don't get your hopes up) I have actually been seriously considering coming home for a handful of reasons which I'll explain later if necessary. I'm giving myself till the end of training (~3 weeks) to decide, so probably around the time you see this letter I'll either already be home or I won't be coming for at least a year (If I start the school year I'll finish at least that much). Just keepin ya on your toes...

7/16 letter

Hi all, I'm sorry that I haven't sent many updates but as I've said, training is pretty intense. We just finished three weeks of practice teaching which kept us really busy day and night with lesson planning and such on top of our usual workload. It was helpful though, if for nothing else than to give me a sense of what level of English to expect at the different grade levels here. Other than that, here are a couple highlights from the first month of training:

Site announcement! I know where my site will be! I'm not allowed to post its name online for security reasons, but I do want to say that I'm pretty excited about it cause I'M ON THE BEACH! I'll be on the west coast of the island (Mozambique channel) and I will have electricity (though no running water, but almost noone does & I'm used to that already). I've heard only good things about the place, including from one of our coordinators who lived there for three years. The one downside is that there aren't really any other volunteers near me, but I did find out that there is a marine biology research lab about 45km to the south where various foreigners work so I may run into some other foreigners from time to time. I visit the site in about a week or so, so I'll hopefully have more details next time I write but for now I'm pretty excited!

When animals attack! (This is slightly embarrassing, but too funny not to share with the folks at home.) So I was walking home from training one afternoon and when I got to the gate of my house I found two new friends waiting for me: geese. They had settled themselves right in front of the door such that there was no way to get in without walking right by them. So, knowing that geese can be nasty creatures, I tried to scurry by, but alas was not quite quick enough. The male goose lowered his head, spread his wings and lunged right for me. He caught hold of my pant leg (Luckily not my actual leg) and wouldn't let go. So there I was in front of my gate with noone around to help me and a goose stuck to my leg. Naturally I didn't feel like hanging out with the goose on my leg all day, so I hit him with the only weapon I had at the time: my Nalgene bottle. Right on the beak (And I don't want to hear anything about cruelty to animals... 1) they have very little feeling in their beaks and 2) he attacked my fuckin leg!) So after a few whacks I knock him off and see him bow down to lunge at me again, so I step backwards right onto a big dirt mound which throws me off balance causing me to nearly fall over backwards. (I saved myself before falling completely). Graceful, huh? So I collect myself for a second and make a break for the gate, running at full speed. From a goose. I'm only about 10x his size. Anyway, I made it past my new arch nemesis and into the yard, but the whole thing belongs on an episode of Funniest Home Videos. I almost wish someone had been there to see it. (Ok, not really, I'd never hear the end of it). So needless to say I am now deathly afraid of geese. Maybe I'll get lucky and there won't be any at my site (though who knows what other small attacking creatures might await me there). Sigh, gotta love the wildlife in Madagascar.

Random cultural note (from your friendly neighborhood anthropologist): I've been talking to my host family about politics a lot recently which has been really interesting, and the other night they were talking about coastal people vs. the people of the plateau (the major historical division) but what I found really interesting was that they told me "race" here isn't measured by skin tone at all, but rather by hair type. Plateau people have finer, more Asian like hair while coastal people have thick African hair (think: makes a lovely afro) and racism (haircism?) in the past has stemmed from this difference. Interesting to note, and no I'm still not sure how white (French) people fit into that dynamic.

That's about all I have room to write here, so while you're waiting to hear from me keep sending letters to the address listed in my contact info. They will be forwarded to me even after I move to site, though packages will be faster if sent directly to me once I'm there. I probably won't see internet till the end of training and at that point once a month at most so work on your penmenship (or write the email then print it out if you really can't get past the writing thing.) Miss you all!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

First posting from Madagascar

Hello all! For those of you who haven't happened to talk to my parents I am indeed alive and well and having a great time trying to make heads or tails of things around here. I am currently living in what for Madagascar is a large town, though we would think of it as a small village, about an hour from the capital city. I can't believe it has already been 10 days since I left home, but at the same time it feels like I've been living the way I do here for a long time. My house is small, but very nice and the only main difference between it and a U.S house is the lack of running water, which is pretty standard here. Living without running water isn't as huge of a change as one might think ( I know I was a bit worried) and I actually feel cleaner here than in the U.S. - I wash my hands more often. etc. I'm living with a host family during our training, which will last until 8/23. They are great people, and we often chat in french when we get tired of the two word sentences and naming of random objects which is the extent of my skill in Malagasy at this point. Being able to talk to them is very very helpful so I'm glad I built up my language skills a bit before leaving.
This week has been hectic to say the least. After staging from 6/11-6/12 we were gotten up at 6 on tuesday 6/13 to get our first 3 of many many shots.We then got on a bus to NY and took a 17 hour flight from there to Jo-Burg, where we spent the night. From there it took about 2:45 to fly to Tana the capital the next morning. In Tana we all were herded into cars and taken to the PC center for some more shots and a crash course in how things would go when we were dropped off at our host families that evening. Then we got back into the vans carrying only whatever we happened to have kept in our carry-on and dropped off in small groups by the side of the road where members of our host families were waiting. My host dad then led me up a very large hill (which is now my daily work-out) and after they showed me around the house and explained everything to me in Malagasy (which at that point I could only understand by expressive gestures) we sat down to eat. Our families had been instructed to make us vegetable soup. Veg. soup in Malagasy consists of a full plate of rice with a little soup on it as a topping. Everything is eaten like this.Luckily they let me serve myself so that I can eat slightly more normal portions of carbs vs meat, and so far I like the food.
After being told an overwhelming number of Malagasy words for kitchen items, I went right to bed. I woke up at 3 already well rested, to a pitch black room. Here night is truly black. There are no lights filtering in from other parts of the house or outside as there are most anywhere in the U.S. so that if one wakes up at night here there is truly no visable difference between having there eyes open or closed.The roosters start crowing at 4. At about 4:30 my host familie's alarm goes off, though my host mom doesn't really start moving until 5, when she gets up to do chores and make breakfast. In spite of the early roosters, dawn doesn't actually break until about 6, and I'm not obligated to do anything until 6:30, when we sit down to eat. From there I did my chores and had my first experience bathing with a bucket since Mexico (it's winter here so they do heat the water) and then headed off to training.
My first full day in Madagascar was truly a full day. When I got home from training at 5pm, my host mom first showed me how to sweep then polish the floor of my room with a coconut shell brush. I then asked her if I could wash a pair of pants that had gotten wine spilled on then on the plane, so she showed me how to do laundry. Then they decided that I should learn how to wash and cook food. This was truly traumatic. In addition to the fact that I hate cutting things in the air and so was nervous anyway, she kept asking me to tell her in Malagasy what I was doing, only I didn't know what she was saying, so I would think I was doing something wrong and she would think I hadn't learned the word for what I was doing, even when I had. The overall result of the experience was me being extremely worn out, and my host mom gathering the impression that I had never cooked or washed anything in my entire life! After dinner she taught me how to wash dishes, the just as I was finally thinking I would be able to go to my room to rest she pulls out her sewing machine and tells me to sit with her. She is an excellent seamstress and this was really interesting (although she has a machine she runs it by hand by the way) but I was just so tired. I still am not sure if she intends me to be able to sew on my own by the end of this as well or not. We'll see. After all that I finnaly got to go to my room to sleep around 10, which is late here. I was a bit overwhelmed and completely exhausted. Our host families have been instructed to teach us all these things so that we can survive on our own later (except sewing), but doing everything at once my first night was a bit much. At least my host family is taking it seriously!
It's time for me to go to class now, so I'll update again when I can. Hope all of you are doing well and special thanks to Catmorgan, AT & SE for sending me mail already!

A note from Jen's mom-- Sorry about any spelling or format problem's-- I'll do better as time progresses. I just thought it was more important for everyone to be able to see how she's doing.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Looking forward and looking back

The countdown begins... only 13 days left until training begins and 15 till I get on a plane which will carry me and the other volunteers from NYC to Johannesburg, then on to Antananarivo, Madagascar.

I've been getting a lot of questions lately about pretty much everything, but a lot of people have been asking about both exactly what I'll be doing for the next few months and about when I started to decide I wanted to do this and what it took to get this far. So here's a bit of a time line:

Early August, 05 - Sent in my PC application, began preparing to leave for Argentina.

Aug. 14, 2005 - Received email from the PC asking me to set up my interview in NYC. I was leaving the next day for Buenos Aires, so I told this to them and asked them if we could arrange a phone interview, which the website says you can do. PC responds: eh.... we'll wait till you get back.

Sept. 25, 2005 - Come back from Argentina waay earlier than I had originally intended so that I can do the interview. Figure out that if I really want to do the PC there's no way I will be able to get in all their paperwork if I go back to BA to teach for the year, so I don't.

Oct. 10, 2005 - Interview. Went well, pretty easy for me to draw on previous abroad experience to answer her questions. I was surprised [and happy] that they did not ask any political questions whatsoever. I have since been told that they use to grill you on that sort of thing [to make sure you weren't a communist]. Luckily they got over that.

Late Nov. 2005 - I got nominated and was given a choice between two regions: Africa and Eastern Europe. Can you guess which one I chose?

Dec. 2005 - Lived in my doctor's office to get all of the tests done that I needed to fill out the PC's forms. The legal clearance part was much easier, all I had to do was get fingerprinted.

Jan. - Late March 2006 - Waiting, oh-so-patiently for the PC to clear me. Responding daily to people asking about whether or not I had heard anything.

March 28, 2006 - PC wakes up and asks me to redo a couple of the medical tests. [Apparently the doctor doing them in-house was not acceptable, they must be sent to a medical lab.] More peeing in a cup. Ugh.

First week in April - I clear medical and am invited to Madagascar! I deliberate. I accept!

With another packet of info from the PC in the meanwhile that brings me to...

May 26 - Last day of work.

May 27 - June 10 - scramble to buy stuff, pack stuff, see people, etc.

June 3 - Going away party! Come!

June 11 - Meet my other volunteers for training in Philly [of all places] at the Sheraton. It looks like I might be doing a bit of tour-guiding in our free time and have already been asked if I could lead the way to some good cheese steaks. This I can handle.

June 11 - 12 - Training: Introduction to the PC, safety info, videos, cross-cultural stuffs, etc., etc.

June 13 - bus up to NYC to catch the plane
5:55 pm takeoff from JFK
5:05 pm, June 14 landing in Jburg
12:15 pm on JUNE 15 we finally arrive in Madagascar! I will never ever want to see another airplane again!

From then onward: For the first two to three months we are in training, which will include language training [Malagasy], teaching training, safety training, and all manner of other types of training that I could possibly need. I will be living with a host family during this period [that's mandatory]. After that we'll be shipped out to our various sites across the country. I'll most likely have updated you by that point with more details about training and what I know about my site assignment, so I'll leave off here because my knowledge of this stuff is still pretty vague at the moment.

Hope all are doing well and do try to see me before I go...

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Contact Info!

You should have all gotten an email about this, but in the case that you ever lose it, a link to all my contact info/ideas on what to send me should now show up at the top of the sidebar on this page.

Again, send me your addresses if you haven't already!

Monday, May 01, 2006

About Madagascar

Location: Indian Ocean, off the coast of Mozambique (southeastern Africa)

Size: It is the 4th largest island in the world, behind Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo. Approximately the size of California and Oregon combined.

Capital: Antananarivo or "Tana"

Time Zone: Currently seven hrs ahead of Philadelphia time. [e.g. at 3 pm here it will be 10 pm there]. The country does not operate on daylight savings time.

Language: French and Malagasy

Malagasy’s closest relative is an Indonesian language (Malayo/Polynesian language family). It was first written down by European missionaries, so they use the same characters we are accustomed to. The language does not use the letters c, q, u, w, or x. For your future reference for pronouncing the places/things I am talking about, they often drop the last vowel sound in words, “o” is prounced like the “oo” in boot, and “j” is pronounced as “z” or “dz.”

Talking about Madagascar: The correct word used to describe Madagascar’s language, people, or an adjective meaning something from there is “Malagasy.” As in “I speak Malagasy,” “The Malagasy are of a mixed origin…” or “I really like these Malagasy crafts.” “Madagascarian” is not a word.

Wildlife: As some of you may know Madagascar is the land of lemurs and hissing cockroaches. 80 percent of Madagascar’s wildlife is unique to the island, in theory because it broke off of the single land mass early in Earth’s history. This means that I will not be hanging out with any of the types of animals that most people expect to find lurking about in an African country. There are no elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras, lions, leopards, antelopes, gazelles, deer or monkeys in Madagascar. (That’s right, no monkeys. Lemurs are not monkeys, they are lemurs.) Lemurs are, for those of you who don’t know, the most primitive living primate which can be said to look like an ancestor of man. I’m excited about seeing them.

People: Madagascar supposedly had no human inhabitants until approximately 2000 years ago. The origin of the first people to reach the island is somewhat unknown, but evidence seems to show that they may have originated in Indonesia. The overall historic mix seems to be of mostly Asians and Africans, with some Arab influence in certain parts of the island. The people of the central plateau still maintain mostly Asian features, while the people along the coastal areas are more dark-skinned.

While their culture varies across the island, especially within the varied geographical conditions, some common cultural elements include ancestor veneration, ritual importance of cattle and rice cultivation, and the construction of their houses in a symbolic orientation. Most Malagasy are Christians, though their actual beliefs mix European Christianity and more traditional religious practices.

In the plateau area the Merina have a fairly well-know custom (ok, if you’re an anthropologist) called famadihana or “turning the dead.” An ancestor’s body is removed from the family tomb at a certain interval of years and displayed at a joyous family gathering before it is wrapped in a new shroud and returned to it’s resting place. (Kind of creepy, huh?) Actually this practice has been a bit of a problem in modern times, not because it poses a health risk as some might think, but because the ceremony is very costly for families and can often wipe out a family’s resources, leaving them to survive on very little for a long period after they have held their festival.

European Contact: The island was first “discovered” by Europeans in the 1500s, but none succeeded in colonizing, let alone taking over, until the 1800s. The French ruled Madagascar as a colony from about 1896 – 1960, and their influence is still seen in the country’s infrastructure, including the setup of the school systems (which is where I’ll be working).

FSM (Flying Spaghetti Monsterism) Supporters: From about the last 40 yrs of the seventeenth century into the beginning of the eighteenth century Madagascar was the principle center where pirates congregated in the Indian ocean. I be diggin’ for me buried treasure…

Current Government: Type – Republic, Chief of state - President Marc Ravalomanana (since May 2002).

Adults with HIV/Aids: 1.7% of the population (U.S.: .6%, Kenya: 6.7%, South Africa: 21.5%)

That’s about all the random info I can think of right now. If you have other questions about the country just ask.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

My Assignment

After a looong application process beginning last fall, I finally received my invitation to serve (which means finally getting specific info about where/doing what, etc) on April 3, 2006. I was given a small packet of general information and 10 days to make up my mind as to whether or not to accept (which as you can tell, I did).

Basically it told me I would be going to Madagascar and the name of the city I will be staying in for the training period. I will not receive information about my permanent site until mid-way through training, which lasts approximately three months. During that time I will be going through teaching classes, language classes (probably for Malagasy and not French), getting my immunization and adjusting to the local culture. After that period I move to my permanent site. My official assignment there is to spend approximately 14 hrs a week teaching English classes to either high school or middle school children and 6 hrs a week working with teachers on their English skills and teaching techniques. The remainder of my time will be dedicated to developing my own special projects for the community, which I won't really be able to predict until I'm there.

That's really all the information I have at this point. I should be getting a second packet of info about a month before training begins on June 11, but I'm not sure what that includes. As usual, there's nothing to do but wait and see.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Why blog?

I am writing this blog for three main reasons. The first is to be able to keep friends and family updated on what I am doing without having to write letters to everyone saying the exact same generic things. I hope that you will all read about the generic stuff here so that we can talk more about details/personal things by letter.

I am also writing to provide some information for potential Peace Corps Volunteers. I know that especially after receiving my country assignment I was searching for information on what to expect as a PCV in Madagascar and some blogs I came across were very helpful. If anyone has questions about any part of the PC application process I’d be happy to answer them via letter, email, or comment here, just keep in mind that my response time may not exactly be as fast as you are used to.

My third reason for writing this blog is to teach people a bit about Madagascar itself. I have thus far met one person who knew anything about the country other than that they made a cartoon movie about it and that they have pretty cool wildlife (Joanna!). So in one of my next entries I will give you all a bit of information about what I know so far about Madagascar and its people.

As a few of you know I have rather ambivalent feelings about blogs in general, mostly because I just don’t understand the purposes towards which a good deal of people use them. In brief, I am sure all of us have friends who post every detail of their daily lives, from how many times they hit the alarm in the morning to what they had for dinner, others who use it to anguish over every new crush, etc... I barely read this type of entry, even from my good friends. Most of it is too mundane to hold my interest and if there really is something going on that they would like help with or just be aware of, I expect them to tell me directly, and not just wait a month or so and see if I happen to read about it online. So while I am actually very interested (as a psych question) in why people write these sort of “Dear Diary” entries where any unknown person could read them, and yet possibly no one does, you will find none of that here. While naturally I’ll be talking a lot about what I’m doing, I’ll try to keep it to things that are more relevant to teaching people about daily life in Madagascar, both of the people and of the volunteers. If you are interested in other details, just write me to ask. I expect you to be sending letters anyway ;)