Friday, July 9, 2010


So, if you are reading this blog now it has certainly been awhile since we were in Madagascar. The last post was May of 2008!! This blog came to an abrupt end during our Peace Corps term of service simply because our computer up and died one day. The previous procedure had been to write the entries and then post them when we had internet access. Internet was extremely slow and we did not have the luxury of writing entries in the internet cafe. I (Tony) had written several subsequent entries, but never posted them and at a certain point it seemed anachronistic- at best- to do so.

Nonetheless, our Peace Corps service lasted until March of 2009 when suddenly the mayor of Madagascar's capitol Antananarivo decided to declare himself president and in Madagascar this can work. This man was a youthful fellow and a former DJ who was too young to hold the presidency legally. More importantly, he proved incompetent and out of touch with the true nature and complexity of the problems he spoke of solving in the country. As a result, the international community balked at his unconstitutional coup and withdrew crucial aid money. Turmoil served as and excuse and facade for logging companies who tout de suite plunged into Madagascar's remaining and already threatened forests to perpetrate unmitigated plunder upon the exotic hardwoods therein and thus threatening the already struggling flora and fauna in these unique ecosystems. Tourism has plummeted. As a result of this circus act, Peace Corps Washington decided to evacuate all Peace Corps Volunteers in March on 2009. This was just shy of three months from the date we were to end our service. We had intended to stay a third year, so this was a disappointment to us. It was certainly even more of a disappointment to those who had only spent a fraction of the time in the country that we had. In any case, we found ourselves without an exit strategy and unexpectedly back in the U.S. hunting for jobs. We made our way back to Berkeley where Stacey got a job running an after school program at a middle school and I worked in San Francisco as an English teacher for foreign adult students at a private language school. This was OK at first, but before long we pined to be abroad again. We had both said that we would like to do Peace Corps again at some point in our lives. Then suddenly within two weeks of the one-year deadline for re-enrollment for returned volunteers (a kinder gentler, but still demanding application process than starting from scratch)we looked at each other and said, "why not now?". And so here we are three days away from our staging in Philadelphia and next Thursday just as the World Cup finishes we will find ourselves in South Africa for our second term of service as Peace Corps volunteers: Peace Corps 2.0

If you are interested, please follow us on our new blog. I have entitled it "One More Time" for obvious reasons. It can be found here:

Best Wishes,
Tony & Stacey

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

An Ocean Paradise!

This entry will in some way document a more recent trip we've had and it was a bit ironic that I had just posted the last entry about our trip way back in December as we were setting out on this trip. This latest trip took us to the far south eastern corner of the country where we made our acquaintance with the Indian Ocean for the first time. Some Peace Corps members, who wanted to go to Fort Dauphin, had organized a basketball tournament for local youths.. We called the event "March Madness." Basketball is fairly popular here and such events are useful for bringing young people together. Throughout the event, health PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) give speeches about AIDS, provide condom demonstrations and talk about the importance of hygiene, clean water, etc. etc. The tournament was a success. Additionally, we were fortunate in the accommodations we secured. There is a college in Fort Dauphin where Malagasy adults can receive training on environmental sciences and conservation and prepare for jobs across the country in these fields. It is called the Libanona Ecology Center and it is situated just above Libanona beach. We were fortunate enough to meet one of the founders, Mark Fenn, on our first day in Fort Dauphin. We also met with the academic coordinator to discuss the possibility of working for the center in the future- an extremely positive meeting. For some time there has been a position open teaching English at the Ecology Center for 3rd year PCVs. Although vacant now, there is a house provided by the LEC where PCVs who work there stay. When no one is living in the house, PCVs can stay there when in town (Mark Fenn himself was a former 4- year PCV in Africa many years back). In any case, the house is on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water. In one direction you are facing India and the sunrise, the other- Africa and the sunset. Moreover, the area is covered by trees, so it is shady and cool. The beach is so beautiful that it is actually on the 5000 ariary note which is the second largest unit of currency in circulation. If you are interested in the work of the center, there is a web site ( and if nothing else you'll find a nice picture of the peninsula that I just described. I'm going to back up a step now, because one of the most salient features of this trip was actually getting there and back. Some PCVs flew, but it is expensive to do so. The other option is a taxi-brousse (bush taxi) from Tana. From Tana it is about a 10 hour ride south to Fianarantsoa (Fianar) along the paved national route RN7. The scenery is enthralling and- though long- this is always the welcome leg of any trip heading south from Tana. The brousse station one uses in Tana to go to Fianar is always an experience. One somewhat amusing feature is the restrooms. There is a fee for usage and upon entry, you need to inform the attendant of your intentions: number one (mipipi) or number 2 (micaca). There is a separate price for each, but if you spring for micaca you're provided with a few sheets of paper. For mipipi, I am directed to the trough. For Stacey, it's a stall for both mipipi and micaca. Stacey pointed out that with this arrangement, should she have her own paper, she could declare and pay for mipipi while clandestinely executing a micaca! Maybe next time. So some 10 hours later we made it to Fianar at around 8pm. The next leg was to get a taxi from Fianar to Fort Dauphin. This ride was purported to take a tidy 36 hours. There is a Peace Corps transit house in Fianar where one can stay in relative comfort with warm showers, beds, kitchen, a television etc. We were told upon arrival that there would be a taxi-brousse tomorrow, but it was recommended that we stick around for one tonight that should be leaving at 10pm (this is already starting to sound like a million other travel stories from Madagascar.) The way taxis work here is that they don't actually leave at a set time like Greyhound. They leave when the taxi is full. We decided to forego the comforts of the transit house and wait around at the brousse station as when traveling in M/car we always try to stay as far ahead of schedule as possible. Now, the Fianar brousse station is anything- but luxurious: I would say it redefines the word 'ramshackle' and I'll leave the rest to the imagination. So 10pm came and went. No taxi. One of the agents offered to let us crash in a minivan which we did. The whole night passed and we re-reinquired in the morning as to the taxi's whereabouts. "It's coming soon," we were reassured repeatedly. Finally, we opted to go in search of some breakfast. We had some coffee and bread and the woman agreed to fry me some eggs. For some reason this was taking forever and I assumed there was a misunderstanding and I wasn't getting eggs (one learns to live with such misunderstandings here). Suddenly, the taxi attendant bursts into the hôtely where we were eating and informs us that the taxi is leaving- now! As we get up to pay, the woman proudly shows me that the eggs have been prepared and are waiting expectantly on a distant counter- perhaps for some time now. We had no time, so I paid her for the eggs- I hope someone enjoyed them- and we were out of there. We were informed that the taxi was not at the station where we were. So instead, we were whisked into a smallish car- paparazzi evasion style- which sped off to where we would catch the taxi. Five minutes later, we came to a fork in the road. And there it was. The original Millennium Falcon in all it's glory! Upon previous inquiry, we had been shown an example of the type of brousse that it was by the station agent. What he showed us was new, spacious, comfortable and accommodating. What stood before us was the antithesis of this. It called itself 'Tata'. Stacey protested bitterly refusing to board and wanting a refund. This was essentially an enormous school bus just packed full or people with about 6 feet of belongings on the roof- including a motorcycle. It didn't appear that any seats were available. The last seats to go are always these 'jump-seats' which is essentially a non-seat that is attached onto the side of one of the bench seats that folds up and down to allow access to the annals of the vehicle. Two things stand out about this arrangement. There's always a lot of traffic in your direction whenever the taxi makes a pit stop, and secondly there is often no back support. It's more like a bench. Thirty-six hours on a bench with no back on an unpaved- and at times barely passable- road redefines discomfort. Another feature of most Malagasy taxis is that the seat in front of you ends before your knees do! The Malagasy are overall shorter than Americans. Moreover, there is never any room in the rows. They fit as many people in a row as possible- even if they are practically sitting on top of you. So, you can't move your legs to either side. It's just a match between your knees and the metal housing on the seat in front of you for the duration of the ride. And so, upon further deliberation, a sober examination of the realities and the failure of alternatives to present themselves - while the whole time the entire busload of passengers, who had already been waiting just for us to show up, were still waiting for us to make up our minds- we decided that this was THE way to Fort Dauphin.
And so off we were- neatly packed into our seats with our gear stashed seven feet above on the roof. The road at this point was still paved. Yet, before long we began to learn what it takes to get to this part of Madagascar overland. The paved road ends just past Ambalavao. The going is not too insane at this point and- as it is upon traversing any significant distance in M/car, the scenery begins to change as one exits and enters the various microclimates. We started with grasslands as far as the eye could see. Many hours later lower scrub brush began to appear with some low tree cover- not quite forest. Eventually, some baobabs began to creep up on the horizon and gradually we entered the spiny desert that blankets the southwest and central plateau. The road appeared impassable at times and on more than one occasion it felt like the bus would assuredly tip over- you know when you get that distinct shift in gravity sensation (young people pay for it via rollercoasters and the like). In any case, the Tata remained erect. At other times the rising water was creeping in the door of the bus. Occasionally, we were obliged to disboard while the Tata negotiated a particularly perilous stretch. One highlight was passing through the occasional small village or town where we would stop to eat and have a break- people really do live in the middle of nowhere!! Moreover, they don't see too many white folk along that stretch, so our presence in particular is seldom unnoticed. Sleep is particularly challenging aboard the Tata and only occasional patches avail themselves to the weary traveler. The best night's sleep we had was on the road behind the Tata. It was just after dusk and we were just one hour outside of one the small villages when the driver came to a halt disappeared to the front of the Tata and returned carrying an enormous head gasket. The engine in the bus is right next to the driver underneath this constructed platform on which additional passengers can be transported. They were cleared out. Off came the platform and then the driver and his partner proceeded to perform an entire top-end rebuild of the engine. We were in the front row, so to speak, for this operation. It was an incredible mess- grease everywhere and coming right at us. Why we waited as long as we did to abandon ship, I don't know, but eventually we did conclude that greater comfort would avail itself outside of the Tata- which was going no place soon. Fortunately, we had our sleeping bags in which we crashed until the makeover was completed and we were awoken in the early morning- Tata repaired, time to re-embark. So off again we were. We felt kind of bad for this one fellow. He had gotten on just in the previous town and only to go to the next town. He probably could have walked in less time that it took to repair the Tata. We were approaching the deep south at this point. This became obvious, not only as the dessert became increasingly spiny, but as we began to encounter the Antandroy tribespeople who have traditionally inhabited south central M/car. One giveaway as to there identity is the spears that they carry- throughout M/car people do not routinely carry spears. They also sell roasted goat on a stick- how they get the goat's leg to stay on the stick with the fur still attached all around, I don't know. Our immediate destination was Ambovombe where our friend Travis is stationed. We arrived at around 1am- unfashionably late owing to the rebuild debacle. This was the end of our affair with the Tata. We would spend the next day with our friend and the following day get a brousse East to Fort Dauphin. As for Ambovombe, it is a veritable wild west saloon town. The buildings are wooden shacks, the ground- sand, the fauna- cacti. In fact, the raketa were in season when we arrived. We know these as prickly pears in the U.S. which is, of course, the fruit of a certain variety of cactus which is quite delicious. Everyone was eating copious amounts of these. Our friend gave us a tour of the area and it was nice to see his site as we are good friends from training, but nowhere near one another in the country. We also tried a 'specialty' of the area- Ribibi (sp.?). Essentially, this is soured milk with the whey removed leaving a sour mound of curds with a texture slightly lighter than Ricotta cheese and a flavor that is, well- distinctly sour! I was not a convert. In fact, my tolerance for cheese and dairy type products is quite vast and I did eat nearly a cupful of it! If you're interested, remind me when I'm back in the states- I'll prepare some for you. The ride onto Fort Dauphin was about six hours and it is a rewarding stretch. Initially, you cross through some of the best- the most lush and varied- parcels of spiny forest. Then you pass giant Sisal plantations where Sisal stretches as far as the eye can see. Sisal cultivation carries an interesting story. Sisal was introduced to M/car in the 1920s. The demand for it declined over the years as synthetic substitutes became available. But in the 1990s, there was a surge in the demand for Sisal because green consumers in the west were demanding biodegradable packaging (to save the environment- no doubt) and Sisal is ideal for this. No problem, the Malagasy simply cleared about 100 square miles of endemic spiny forest to meet the demand. As one exits the spiny forest pushing east, there is a sudden and dramatic change. You drive over a mountaintop and suddenly the southern parcel of rainforest that lies in a strip from North to South along the east coast of M/car. This part comprises much of Andohahela National Park. This terrain continues until one is deposited in Fort Dauphin. Upon approaching this coastal destination, the presence of the ocean becomes more and more palpable as the increasing sea breeze permeates the air and cools the lungs.
We landed in Fort Dauphin. We taxied to the market and found a place to eat. I'd noticed a couple cockroaches before we sat down. Within five minutes, we realized that they were EVERYWHERE: on the floor, the walls, crawling over our feet. I killed well over a dozen just by putting my foot down as was required. The local clientele were delighted to see the 'vazaha' reaction to their infestation and could hardly contain their mirth. We absconded. We went to the house that we were to stay at, but no luck couldn't get the key and ended up at not a bad little hotel near the beach. We did get into the house at Libanona the next day. What to say about our time in Ft. Dauphin? Well, we spent a good deal of it, outside of the tournament, exploring the town and walking the beaches. One highlight, was watching the fisherman and children walking down the beach with their catch hanging from a stick. Common were Hammerhead sharks as well as the more common variety. A giant Swordfish passed- so big it was folded in half over the stick that supported its transport. The sword had been removed- experience probably dictated this precaution. On another day, I wandered the market to see what was actually available in the way of fish. I did this solo. I enjoy immensely shopping in the market- Stacey less so. And I admit that even in the states it would be frustrating to shop with me as I DO read all the labels and ingredients and DO search for just the right specimen of fruit vegetable etc. The market abounded with fish. Huge steaks cut from various ocean leviathans. All kinds of tiny fish, crevettes (shrimp/prawns), octopus, squid, things people put in fish bowls to look at, as well as plenty of stuff I've never seen before. I couldn't help but think that if we could live in Fort Dauphin, we could actually afford to eat this stuff regularly. Much is of course available in the states, but at $16.00 a pound it's not going to grace our plates that often. Apparently, the langouste (lobster) is quite good there as well, but it wasn't the season while we were there and we saw only smallish examples of this. We did get to eat some good seafood as well. I had a crab at a bar one night. It was like a bar snack and it was pretty big. It was just the body the claws had been removed, but there was meat stuffed on top of it. It was cheap and looked good so I tried it. It was so full of delicious crab meat I was stupefied. I'd never extracted so much meat from just a body before. A friend of mine decided to follow suit and apparently his sentiments were also positive since his effort involved devouring a good portion of the shell as well! At a quaint little restaurant on the beach, we savored some grilled Tuna kabobs alongside crevettes cooked in garlic, oil, and parsley and also a crèpe stuffed with mixed seafood- definitely the apex of our culinary experience in Ft. Dauphin. We met a lot of people. Some NGOs (non-government organizations- usually aid workers and the like) who work in the area. One of them invited us to a barbecue he was having- food and drinks galore overlooking the beach- a splendid time. We also met many PCVs whom we had yet to meet. Overall, Fort Dauphin was a lovely city and not overwhelmingly touristy at the moment. In recent years, a mine has opened and it has brought a modicum of prosperity to the area. It's conceivably possible to own land there, apparently the miners are buying it up now, and equivalent property elsewhere would be worth a fortune. Save for some sudden influx of cash in foreign aid or the like, the road to Ft. Dauphin is unlikely to see pavement in the near future. For most, it will remain a fly only site and this arrangement may allow it to maintain some if its small town feel. The time came for us to leave Fort Dauphin. For now, I'll confess that I have more than a hunch that it is not the last we will see of this city!! We shared the return trip with some other volunteers. We were alone in opting to brousse both ways. Most coughed up enough dough to fly at least one direction, others had no choice because of their site location. The vehicle we returned in was a notch kinder than the Tata and went straight through all the way to Tana. Unfortunately, the vicissitudes of traveling and consuming unfamiliar food and drink over a period of days had caught up with my stomach. And what better way to start off on a 44-hour brousse ride than with a bout of diarrhea! Fortunately, I was a couple of days into the experience and- realizing it wasn't a routine matter- I had opted to start the Ciprofloxacin- Stacey always carries an arsenal of meds with us- which had me cured at least by the time I returned to Tana. The drawback was this: although not uncontrollable, there was no doubt that I would need to make a deposit with every stop of the taxi-brousse. Peeing in the open is common here. For the other, some cover is desired. Only this meant traipsing through the dense and punishing spiny dessert to acquire some privacy. Aside from the scratches, I did land a thorn in my foot. It was painful and I didn't understand why I couldn't get it out. A few days later, I found that it was protruding through from the underside of my sandal. The trip north was gentler overall and we covered the same amount of territory in less time, made it safely to Tana and then returned to our site a day later. And that was our Fort Dauphin trip!
I'll now turn to a few unrelated musings on things here in Madagascar. If you are reading this now- and assuming it's still a newish post- we are probably at the Peace Corps training facility at Lake Mantasoa for our mid-service conference. This is an opportunity to reconnect with those in our stage whom we met in Washington and trained and lived amongst for the first 11 weeks in country. There is also some training and workshops. When we return to site, we will have about six weeks left until the grande vacance which is akin to summer vacation here, although it's actually winter. As I mentioned we will be away from our site for July and August and will return to resume teaching in September. We are both feeling anxious to complete the school year and enjoy some time away from the site as well as to feel the sense of accomplishment in completing a year's worth of service. When we come back we'll have a fresh start- new classes, new students and much more experience with the same process. We are also set to undertake our most ambitious trip yet in M/car through the entire month of August with our friends Carol and John- (for the first leg). This will be our first foray into the northern part of the country. You're certain to hear all about it! Ok, what else? Maybe talk about food now.
Okay, so I readily acknowledge that there is a distinct food section of every blog. In truth, I have invested quite a bit of time in cooking- stretching out and trying new things. A joke between us is that when other PCVs ask us about our secondary projects, I often respond that cooking is our secondary project- of course, secondary projects are those that are supposed to benefit the community and are usually not self-aggrandizing. Although, there is a newly started English club in town that we are quite a part of- the only native speakers in the town- and there is a cooking class that I teach. So far, I have only taught them to make devilled eggs and only girls showed up. I think it was a bit of a departure to boot that it was I who was teaching the class and not Stacey. In any case, in the U.S. it dawned upon us at one point that we should keep track of the things that we cook. I make things and often forget about them for long periods of time. We thought that it would be nice to have a list of a bunch of things that we have eaten/ do eat so that when we are trying to decide on a meal we'll have some sort of road map. Perusing the back of our Peace Corps cookbook, I just recently glanced the list of things that we have made to date. We have about six more weeks at our site before we are away for most of the summer until September. The following list is- thankfully- not exhaustive, but here are a bunch of concoctions or staples that have provided sustenance for us over the last nine months:

Cardamom Infused Pain Perdu, Fried Rice, Dry-fried String Beans w/ Crispy Beef, Potato-vegi Hash, Ginger Batter-fried Courgettes, Provencal Tomatoes, Vegetarian Bean Curry, Steak Fajitas w/ White Beans, Corn Fritters & Spanish Rice, Pan-seared Tilapia with Garlic-Cilantro-Lime pesto, Cream of Tomato and Basil Soup, Spicy Asian Beef with Chinese Brown Sauce and Celery, Cheeseburgers w/ Caramelized Onions, Filet Mignon w/ Garlic-Worcestershire Butter Deglaze, Italian-style Sauteed Courgette Sandwich, Mashed Potatoes w/ French Onion-Porcini Gravy, Grilled Philly Cheesesteak Subs, Kung Pao Beef, Mine Sao w/ Peanut Sauce, Jasmine Pork with Chick Peas, Pesto Pasta, Oatmeal Pecan Raisin Cookies, Beef Loin w/ Porcini Herb Gravy, Annie's Mac & Cheese w/ Bacon and Leeks, Spaghetti Alla Carbonara, Coconut Curry w/ Jasmine Saffron Rice, Egg Drop Soup, Beef Stew, Spaghetti All'Amatriciana, Vegi Panini w/ Homemade Olive Oil & Herb Marinated Mozzarella, Omelette Aux Fines Herbes et Fromage, Spicy Lamb w/Curried Peppers and Onions, Carrot Ginger Soup w/ Garlic Bread, Bol Renverse, Roast Turkey w/ Pecan Walnut Raisin Stuffing, Lamb Chops w/ Garlic Lime Pesto Rub & Apple Sauce, Wild Mushroom & Caramelized Onion Scramble w/ Stock-simmered Fried Potatoes, Beef Brisket w/ Garlic-herb Mashed Potatoes, Oatmeal Pancakes w/ Fresh Cherries and Honey, Beef Jerky, Egg Salad w/ Truffle Oil on Rustic Bread, Grilled Tandoori-style Lamb, Senge Peanut Stew with Beef, Crushed Cassava Leaves w/ Peanuts, Carrot Cake, Kim Chi, French Onion Soup, Baked Squash, Minestrone Soup, Baked Rosemary Breaded Cotellete (pork chop), Latkes, Bacon, Brine-soaked Herb Roasted Chicken, Beer-battered Onion Rings and Fried Zucchini, Hummus, Baba Ganoush on Garlic Crostini, Slow Simmered String Beans w/ Shitake Mushrooms, Mu-shu Vegetable w/ Crepes and Hoisin Sauce, Cuisse de Nymphe (frogs- lots of them), Sweet and Sour Pork, Wild Mushroom Alfredo, Cheddar Pepper Poppers, Eggplant Parmesan, Caesar Salad w/ Croutons, Biscuits & Gravy, Eggplant with Spicy Garlic Sauce, Fried Pork Chop w/ Tomato Onion Mint Compote, Bean & Rice Fritters, Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca, Meatballs, Fried Plantains, Pad Thai, Guacamole, and more.......
Talk to you all soon!

Sunday, March 30, 2008


Finally, here are some pictures from our last 9 months in Peace Corps:


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

March Blog

Well, we're still here despite there having been a bit of a lapse since our last entry. As of late, it's been rather busy for us. Students periodically take compositions here which are akin to mid-terms or final exams. We are responsible for creating these exams, proctoring, correcting all of them- which is in excess of 200 for each of us- and recording all the grades by hand onto two copies of each student's report card. This all occurs within the span of a week. The good news is that we are DONE, we have a week off, and we're heading to Fort Dauphin- a largish town on the far southwestern tip of the country. It will be our first visit to the Indian Ocean and we're looking forward to a little tropical beach-time. Moreover, some of our favorite fellow volunteers are situated down south and we're looking forward to their company. Unfortunately, this trip involves days on the taxi-brousse and we don't really get to be there for that long, but we're not giving up the opportunity to see another part of the country! In fact, after this trip we will have seen a good portion of the southern half of the island from coast to coast.
The path ahead for us looks a little like this right now: School ends for us in late June. When we return from this trip we will be at our site for about five weeks before we leave again in early May for our week-long Peace Corps mid-service conference at Lake Mantasoa. Thereafter, we'll be back at site until school ends. It looks like for the month of July or some portion thereof we will be working on different projects. I will be teaching English to park guides in the amazing, yet remote, Andringtra National Park. Stacey wanted to participate in some of the training of the new education volunteers who arrive in late June, so she will be doing that for at least part of the month. August is when we plan to take our vacation. Our friend Carol will be here for the entire month and John for some portion thereof. We have a rather ambitious plan for what we would like to do which will take us to the East Coast in the middle of the island from where we'll push north to the tip top of the island. The plan is to traverse some of the virgin lowland rainforest- or what remains of it in any sizeable contiguous parcel- flora and fauna is about 85% endemic. The potential for sighting some unique and rare wildlife- as well as some humpback whales which migrate up the coast from Antarctica in August- is high!
Incidentally, a new species of palm tree was discovered here. If you search for 'New Tree Species Found in Madagascar' online, you will find the associated press article relating to it- it's worth a read. The tree is also known as 'the suicide palm'. It's ginormous, it only blooms once every 100 years, and when it does so, it does so so prolifically that it dies in the process. Apparently, villagers had known about it from oral history, but no 'scientists' knew, so now that they know- it's been awarded new tree species status.
I have yet to write about our big trip that we took over Christmas vacation. We explored four national parks along a national route that took us from the eastern highlands through the southern portion of the country to the Mozambique Channel on the west coast. The first park was Andringtra National Park. This is a truly otherworldly and magical place that I personally feel a strong connection to. I am elated to be returning there for a month this summer. This was the most difficult leg of our journey. There are no regular taxi-brousses in and out of Andringtra and we didn't have the luxury of time to wait around for when one was leaving, so we needed to negotiate a ride there. Fortunately, one member of our team- Travis- has proved to be particularly adroit at acquiring the Malagasy language and went to great lengths throughout our entire trip negotiating with locals, getting information, arranging transport etc. Ambalavao is the town from which one departs to reach Andringtra. Fortunately for us, wine is made in Ambalavao. Although, we can get wine at our site- and it often it is from Ambalavao- it's is a bit too expensive for us- unfortunate, because we're wine drinkers in the states. When we discovered that we could buy a litre of it for 800 ariary- just under a dollar for all of you- we went wild! And in the early morning on a remarkably beautiful day, we found ourselves imbibing copious amounts of this local wine, variously hanging from the taxi brousse or perched upon the roof, and savoring the landscape as we entered the breathtaking Andringtra valley. Once we arrived, got situated, and discussed our game plan, it seemed like we might only have a single day in Andringtra, based on when the locals believed there would be another taxi out. Of course, it didn't come as expected, but needless to say we did get out of there. Our plan was to hike to the summit of Pic Boby which is the highest accessible peak in Madagascar- (there is one peak that is a tiny bit higher, but apparently not nearly as rewarding as this one.) This hike should really be undertaken in two or three days. The guide claimed we could do it in one if we were up and on our way at 5am. So, at 5am on Christmas Eve we left. We were gone over 14 hours, were hiking for most of it, and covered around 15 miles. The last leg to the summit is steep and arduous. The terrain on the way was amazing however. We ascended through a patch of forest with some waterfalls, dipped down into a valley for a spell where we were surrounded by stunning granite peaks that would make a professional climber drool. Along the trail we saw several small, brightly colored, pregnant cameleons digging nests in the soft sand to lay their eggs. As we achieved more elevation, the views became more rewarding as well. The Andringtra valley itself is very beautiful with rolling hills as far as the eye can see- many of them adorned by the locals with carefully manicured stepped rice patties from top to bottom. If I had just seen a picture I would have guessed it was the Himalayas! The hike was punishing. On our last trip, our guide in Andasibe told us that we could bike to Mantadia Park without any mention of how difficult this actually turned out to be. After Andringtra, I think in the future we're inclined to ask more questions up front about what the outing actually entails. We didn't really have the time and regret nothing, but as a two or three day trip, staying at some of the camps along the way, what we did at Andringtra would be fabulous. Fortunately, with this hike came a sense of accomplishment that extended favorably through the rest of the trip and when we left, the most physically challenging leg of the journey was behind us. The day after, we had hoped to either explore additional trails (there's more there including one of the few parcels of high-altitude rainforest in the country and another route referred to as the moonscape as the rock formations there give the impression that one is on the moon) or get out of Andringtra to keep on schedule. We never left camp, but did get a ride out late that night- thanks again to Travis. We were physically a bit ruined from our peak ascent and the fact that it was Christmas seemed to exert a certain influence on people's motivation that day- ours excepted.
The next park that we explored was Isalo National Park. This park is right off the national rte. 7 which makes it easily accessible and accordingly, it's one of the most visited parks in the country. Although only a few hours drive from Andringtra, the landscape is markedly different. One could imagine traveling from Florida to Nevada to see a comparable diversity in terrain. In fact, it wouldn't be far-fetched to call Isalo the Grand Canyon of Madagascar and Andringtra it's Yosemite. Isalo is vast. The great expanse and sense of open space is poignant. Here, peaks and valleys abound. The rock- not granite, but sandstone is eroded into fascinating shapes. Although the impression of this place is one of vast canyons, the truly rewarding part is that after a spell of hiking, we would unexpectedly descend into forested parcels wherein we'd discover Eden-like pools and waterfalls in which we would swim. Standing under the waterfall, the water- crisp and rejuvenating as it tumbled over our bodies- was the perfect antidote to the heat of the valleys. There was a neat campsite that we stayed at in the park wherein we saw a number of lemurs and got pretty close to some brown lemurs- who were trying to ransack our bags for food. One of the highlights of this park- for me- was waking up rather early in the morning to this amazing bird song. It was truly enchanting and lengthy- eighteen notes or so, but incredibly melodic and mellifluous. As I sit here now, I can hear it in my head, but fail miserably if I try to hum it. In fact, I should be able to hum it, but perhaps it's like some fairy tale scenario where I can't prove anything and no one will believe me! Well, I crawled out of the tent. We weren't alone in the camp, but no other campers were yet about. I walked in solitude through the surrounding woods pursuing this song, curiously intrigued. Eventually, I saw the bird that was making the song. I tried to maintain a good mental image of what this bird looked like so I could find out what it was (and I wouldn't be surprised to discover that it is only found in Isalo), but of course I don't have ready access to any bird books and my Malagasy was not so great that I thought describing the bird to the guide (or trying to recreate the song) would be of much avail. If I go to Isalo again, I won't leave without knowing what this bird is! We were in Isalo for three days and on our way out it started to rain like hell and we were walking through pastures trying frantically not to slip as we would have just been swallowed by the mud- or cowshit- that was already engulfing our ankles. Before the rain came, our spirits were high as we had come across some orange mango trees and proceeded to gorge ourselves on some of the sweetest specimens I've ever tasted. There was a lot of hiking in Isalo, but less intense than it had been in Andringtra. The next leg of the journey would be even more relaxing.
We continued east to Zombitse National Park. As it had from Andringtra to Isalo, so again did the terrain change markedly on route to this park. We saw the first Baobab trees of the trip. We reached the park, hit the town for supplies, tracked down the guide, and pitched camp. This park is an example of Madagascar's western dry deciduous forest. The trails were flat and relaxing, and cool underneath the tree cover with plenty of interesting plants and vegetation, and some fairly enormous chameleons throughout. One highlight was that there was a pair of ring-tailed lemurs who had become habituated to tourists. They were all over us the whole time- jumping on the tent, on our backs during the hike, wrestling and messing with us. After having hung out with lemurs at this park, I think that we would all attest to their being quite fascinating creatures. The ringed tail was particularly fun- it's so long- much longer that the creature itself. One fun thing about the stages of experiencing Madagascar is that on one day, you will see something in the wild and you will get a picture of it from some distance. You will be pleased. The next day, you will be twice as close to the creature almost rendering the previous day's pictures obsolete. The following day the lemur will travel on your back and so on and so it goes.
Next, we were off for the coastal city of Tulear where we would spend New Year's Eve. This is the largest city on the southeast coast of the country. There were a number of other Peace Corps volunteers here when we arrived and we pretty much took over this one hotel. Our team shared a hotel room and it was nice to have some fresh faces around with whom we could mingle after an intense number of days with the same six people. We went out on New Year's Eve to this one club. There was a beauty contest, which was kind of strange. The girl I liked didn't win- if only the thong had made it to Madagascar! We didn't stay in Tulear too long. It's coastal, but there are no beaches there of which to speak. A couple hours north we reached the town of Ifaty (Mangily technically). Here we shacked up in a nice little bungalow across from the beach. Ifaty was really what we needed at the end of this trip. There was a little restaurant there as well and the first night we had this amazing calamari in Cajun sauce. The food we ate over the next couple of days was equally rewarding including a giant sea fish- I have no idea what it was, but it was comparable to swordfish or shark in terms of its texture and was extremely satisfying. They brought the entire fish to the table for each of us and I could not finish mine- a rare occurrence at a restaurant when it involves me! Another treat was the wide variety of homemade flavored rums available at one place. We sampled a variety and shared. My favorite ones were the basil and the baobab- pretty exotic! I also wrenched my first coconut ever off of a tree on the beach. I couldn't for the life me get this sucker off of the tree! I had to work hard, but I prevailed. In case you don't know, the coconut as you find it in the grocery store, is not actually as it comes off of the tree. The nut is encased in a giant armor-protected pod. I hauled this goliath in my bag and onto the airplane back to Tana and then on the taxi-brouse all the way back to my site where it sat for some time. Eventually- and I did feel a sense of commitment to producing something worthwhile with the coconut after all that- I busted it open, grated it up, and made coconut milk with it from which I fashioned a Thai style curry. Pretty delicious actually, but it might just be worth it to buy a can of coconut milk otherwise. And back to Ifaty. On our second day there, our group split. Some took a boat out to snorkel and explore the coral reef- not the best on the island, but apparently worthwhile, while the rest of us explored the spiny dessert via oxcart. The spiny dessert was the fourth microclimate that we would experience on our trip and it was fascinating. It was a mixture of Baobabs, thorny shrubs, octopus plants which are like a cactus with many arms going every which way, and a dry sandy climate. It was cool! We enjoyed an extra day in Ifaty, while the other members of our team had to return to Tulear. We had booked our flight early- they fill up fast here. The others had to fly out a day sooner. There were two other Peace Corps volunteers who were there when we stayed who proved to be mellow and welcome company for what was a relaxing and low-key last day in Ifaty. Thereafter, we returned to Tulear for a night. Early the next morning, I was passing by a big pile of trash and glanced this cool giant radiated tortoise shell therein. Back in the room, I thought about it and realized, with some ingenuity, I could fit in my backpack, and bring back to our site to hang on the wall (I'd probably be taken into custody if I tried to take it back to the U.S.). So I went out after it. I turned it over and dumped a bunch of trash, rotting mangoes, and unidentifiable gook out of it. Some locals saw what I was up to and, apparently supportive of my effort, offered to wash it out in a puddle for me. I wish I had let them. Back in the room and upon closer inspection- it was nasty- full of maggots and foul-smelling and sinewy. This had been someone's recent dinner and not a shell that had been kicking about that someone decided to get rid of. I tried washing it out in the shower, but it only made a horrendous mess. What was left of the turtle proper was sticking doggedly to the shell. There was no solution. It was way too gross to take. I left it on top of the trash barrel in the room feeling bad knowing that the person coming to clean the room would discover it and undoubtedly curse the crazy vazaha who'd leave such a thing there- after all, there's nothing special about it to them. Later that day, we flew back to Tana with the intention of returning to our site the following day. We ended up staying in Tana for four days. We arrived on Friday and needed to stay till Monday so we could collect some money owed to us by the Ministry of Education for some teacher training that we did. It was a nice time for us. We stayed at the Meva (the Peace Corps transit house) and mingled with other volunteers. And that was our trip!!!!!!!!!!
So we're back at site. [Warning: here is the perennial food-related section of the blog.] Returning to site is always interesting because with the seasonality of vegetables and the like you never know what you are returning to. The town floor might be blanketed with some new type of fruit pit orally ejected by hungry Malagasy folk. The Lychee were all gone. It had started to rain in our absence. This did change things. Although it's summer here, it has ruined the tomatoes. Summer is king in California for tomatoes, but it's dry. Summer here is wet. But, there were some perks. Frogs- numerous and large- abounded. Apparently, frogs are dormant for a good part of the year until it rains and then they emerge from the mud, some unexpectedly destined for our kitchen. Unlike the frog legs that we raved about eating in Moramanga, the frog here, as it is enjoyed, is simply decapitated and then the whole thing is fried and you can buy it as a snack at the local bar. It is quite striking to see them fried in this fashion as their arms and legs fry straight outward and they look uncannily like a little person. There's actually quite a bit of edible matter on the whole frog. I imagine that some people, not having eaten frog, would assume it to be an unenjoyable dining experience. Yet, flavor wise it is superior to chicken, and if you spent any appreciable time around what passes for a chicken here, I don't think you would be celebrating consuming them! Apples have made their appearances as well as some oranges which are actually green! I like to imagine that there is some joke about me in the market, because if I see something unusual that I have not seen before, then I will buy it and check it out. The joke being that if they see me coming they could put any bizarre oddity onto the table and perhaps the vazaha- me- will come and buy it. I bought this fruit the other day- very bizarre. It woke me up in the middle of the night as it began to ripen. It smelled so pungent- so tropical- that it was maddening and I couldn't sleep. I had to get up and put it in a ziplock bag. I cut it open the next day- it wasn't overripe- and it tasted good, but it was full of rock hard little seeds. I think it would make a good juice, but I'm still afraid to take it out of the ziplock. There's about four or five other fruits that I have never seen before here. I have seen many bizarre fruits and vegetables at places like The Berkeley Bowl- which boasts the largest selection of fruits and vegetables in northern California. In fact, I'm reminded of this occasion in the states when Stacey and I decided- for interest sake- to pick out four exotic fruits we had never tried before and take them home. When we got to the checkout, it cost us fifteen dollars! In any case, I think there's a reason why we do not eat great quantities of some of these fruits. Like the one I mentioned, they have idiosyncrasies. There is one here that is like a grape, but it is so tannic- think of that drying sensation that accompanies black tea & red wine- that it makes one pucker grotesquely with each bite. Another fruit is green and scaly, soft inside with fleshy pods that contain the seeds. The pods have the texture of raw miniature squid if you can imagine that. There is a hint of pineapple, but it is not quite that good. There's some other little green fruit that is kind of like an apple, but maybe more tart. It shows some promise and I may work with it when I see it again. Mushrooms!!!!!!!!! As soon as it rained there were fresh mushrooms in the market. Wild mushrooms, as those are the only mushrooms there are here. Honestly, I have no idea what mushrooms they are- a bit galling after having fancied myself a mushroom aficionado in California. They are clearly a step up from the ubiquitously tasteless button mushroom that frequent American supermarkets. They have a meaty texture and they're whitish yellow- maybe not quite as unctuous as Porcini and without the apricot of chanterelles, but possessing some quality of each. Now that I am abreast of the whole seasonality thing here, I have actually started drying some of these and it should be interesting to see how these pan out dried. A couple other food notes: We have been making beef jerky- that has come out very well- and also, I have been making bacon (no pun intended) which is getting better by the batch. Pickles have come out really well, as did the one batch of kim-chi I made which was delicious! Enough on that.
And so it appears that we have been adopted. We had resolved not to have a dog here. I came here thinking that this would be a good thing. However, dogs are not treated so well here. And the reality is that here- they are not man's best friend. There is no spaying or neutering, all the female dogs sport utters, and new dogs are born all the time. Some are vicious and chase and bite. We have seen to many dogs with horrific burn-like scars. Dogs here scavenge for food, If they don't eat they starve. At the same time, impoverished Malagasy people sell what food they can so that they don't starve. Probably, as a result of helping themselves to some fried finger food off of a Malagasy woman's table, these dogs have been rewarded with a bath of hot oil. Cruel from our perspective, but effective from theirs. Can't afford to have the dog gobble a day's wages from your table, but there are more dogs than can be fed on the natural amount of waste generated here. >>>>>>>>>> And so, this one dog had taken to hanging out on our porch- many dogs had visited. This particular dog is handsome and gentle- apprehensive at first. He's also rather submissive so the other dogs don't bother him so much. We had seen him around and he is kind of cool looking, multi-colored white with blackish squares on is body which led me to refer to him as 'the colored dog'. Concerned that this was not the most appropriate name for the dog, Stacey suggested that we call him 'Milton''. So now, he's Milton. He spends most of the day with us relaxing on the porch, we feed him, and he wags his tail when he sees us. He comes and goes at will however. And, we have wondered if someone else cares for him At this point we're thinking not, since he spends so much time here- or maybe he just prefers the food here. If we go away, he's kind of on his own, but we'll get someone to come over and give him some food. It's usually easy to spot a healthy well-fed dog from a stray. Hopefully, if we keep him a little fat, people will be nice to him. We'll see how this turns out. Right now, he is good company. One day at a time!

Friday, December 14, 2007

More Tamarind Please!


I haven’t been keeping up with the blog as much as I would’ve liked to as of late. I have been blogging in my head quite a bit. So I’ve made a short list of things to blog about in the past month and a half, but I’m not sure I’ll get them all up here before late January. I’ll try to touch on a few of them now. In two days, we are leaving our site for our in-service Peace Corps training where we will reunite with all our stage-mates with whom we trained for our first 11 weeks. This training will last for three days. Thereafter, it is Christmas break until January. One thing that has been keeping us busy has been the planning of this 3-week research trip that we will pursue directly after the training. We are going to visit four major national parks: Andringtra, Isalo, Zombitse and Ifaty respectively (if you have a map, you can find them). We will end up on the west coast of the country in the city of Tulear for New Year’s Eve. A few days thereafter we fly back to the capitol from where we’ll take a taxi-brousse back to site. We would like to teach English in National parks across the country during the long school vacation in July and August. There are not enough well-trained English speaking guides in country. Tourism is the greatest natural resource here and both Madagascar and the environment are badly in need of tourist dollars. We are trying to gather data that will allow us to design a curriculum that will furnish specific vocabulary and language that is most useful for guides and then design a 2 or 3 week intensive program that we can bring to the parks. English in a box- kind of like the bookmobile! There are four other amazing people on our team: Travis, Kateri, John, and Bethany who will be collecting data for similar and related purposes. We are excited to spend time with these people. But, far from strictly business- we’ll be touring the parks extensively and we’ll be getting quite a good look at Madagascar. The parks cut across a variety of Madagascar’s micro-climates and each one is strikingly unique in terms of habitats and their range of biodiversity. In Andringtra, we will explore mid to high-altitude rainforest, granite formations and Madagascar’s second highest peak (peak Boby pronounced: boo-bee- perhaps a good omen) as well as flora and fauna typical of the eastern rain forests. In Isalo, we will explore the palm-savannah and sandstone massif typical of south central Madagascar. In Zombitse, we will see the dry deciduous forest that lies between the southern and western vegetation domains. Finally, we will visit the Spiny Forest at Ifaty in full bloom and at its most magnificent. If we’re lucky, we may even snorkel and see some coral reef- like everything in life: depends on time and money. We’ll have more to say about this adventure when it is finished. Right now we are, of course, excited and just very busy.
In a nutshell, I have been particularly busy because I offered to edit the Peace Corps language text for trainees and to prepare it for the first edition. The draft that we used in training was a few hundred pages and had a lot of non-idiomatic English, confusing learning objectives, and awkward (if at times amusing) translations in it. I’ve been working on it a lot so that I will have it done in time. This is in addition to teaching, correcting LOTS of homework and doing all the other things that one needs to do to live here. Stacey has been uniquely busy designing, proctoring, and correcting final exams for her hundreds of students.
In November, we were able to spend a week away from our site and stay in a town called Moramanga (lit. cheap mangoes) where we were invited to do a week of teacher-training for the Ministry of Education. We had a wonderful time. It’s much livelier than our town. It rests along the national highway connecting the capitol to the east coast, so there are always a lot of people passing through. We taught mornings and afternoons Monday thru Saturday. Evenings we went out mingled and tried to work on our Malagasy and drinking skills. We had a hotel room with a balcony for a week equipped with running water and a warm shower- nice for a change. The greatest thing about the town was this magnificent restaurant: Le Coq d’Or or The Golden Cock. The Ministry paid us a small per diem on top of our living allowance (they haven’t actually paid us yet), so we had a little more money for food this week. In the United States, we would not have been able to afford to eat at the equivalent of the Golden Cock everyday as we did. One of the attractions was the crevettes or giant shrimp from the east coast/Indian ocean. The first day we got the crevettes with Cajun sauce. They were enormous- almost the size of a small lobster tail and the sauce was spellbinding. Another day, the shrimp a la diable arrived spicy, on fire, and cooking at the table in flaming rum- the fluid that oozed from the bodies when cracked open was divine. We also enjoyed a tangy chicken roasted with tamarind sauce. Another day, we devoured the chicken with Coca-Cola sauce- a slightly sweet, but overall savory and immensely satisfying sauce. The pastries there are amazing as well. But, the thing that made us go absolutely gaga was the damn frog legs! We saw a plate go by covered with garlic and parsley butter. I inquired and we promptly ordered them the next meal. Man, I can’t even begin to say how delicious these things are. After this discovery, we just gorged ourselves on frog legs everyday until it was time to leave Moramanga! We now plan to stop in Moramanga again this Saturday to pick up where we left off! Our plates looked a bit like a mass grave when all is said and done- with the pile of little legs and all. Oh well, at least they’re not endangered.
When we got back to site all the damn tamarind had suddenly disappeared. Seasonal only means so much in the U.S. since whatever it is you want- it’s in season somewhere and it can just jump on a plane. Here when it’s done for the season, it’s gone. I was in the habit of making tamarind juice which is delicious and was my new favorite beverage. I tried to make passion fruit juice in its place, but what looked like passion fruit from a distance were actually runt mangoes- delicious by themselves. I asked Stacey to go buy some. When we figured out what they were we should have just eaten them, but I carried on with the juice plan. The juice concoction I produced was the epitome of foulness and engendered a horrific mess! Oh well, more often than not the experiments actually pay off. Although the tamarind was conspicuously absent, the town was now suddenly overtaken by lychee. The little fruits the size of a small plum with a reddish prickly exterior. They taste like a really delicious grape, but with a seed that’s too big to ignore. Anyway, they’ve made there arrival and there getting eaten. The road is littered heavily with their remains. We found two avocadoes in the market randomly the other day. Haven’t seen any since. They must have come some someplace not too far from here though, so maybe there is more to come. They’re quite a bit sweeter here than those in the U.S. / So. America. It still made a delicious sandwich & some guacamole. We baked a chicken. Actually, first we bought the chicken, brought it home, played with it, killed it, plucked it, gutted it, etc. Then I brine soaked it overnight in an herbed brine and then baked it. Of course, the gas tank on our stove decided to run out of gas for the first time in six months half-way through the baking process. This scenario entails taking the tank to the next town to exchange it for a full one. Not an easy task on public transportation here with a big tank in tow. Fortunately, we ran into our French friend Brice who is working for an NGO here to promote sustainable agricultural practices. He dropped us in the town, we got the brousse, back and then we got the guy with the rickshaw to haul it up to the house. Well, we got the chicken back into the oven and I must say, while there is still some room for improvement, it was one of the moistest chickens I have ever had! I’m sold on the brine soaking. I’m going to work to perfect it more. I suppose a few more words about food are in order as I’m obviously on the subject. We found a pineapple in the neighboring town on the trip to fill the gas tank. This find was elevated into an exquisite dinner of sweet and sour pork a few days later. To get the meat, I had to get to the meat market at 7am when they were carrying the pigs in- it’s quite a sight actually the pig is cut right in half down the middle snout to tail as if some sort of belt saw just cut it from end to end. The guy shows up on his bicycle with the pig halves tied to his bike rack. Incidentally, People also travel with the living pig tied to the bike if they need to get it from place to place- the pig squeals like hell! I needed to buy the tenderloins from two pigs to have enough meat. The pig is mostly fat and the pigs here are not the two-ton leviathans that hit the American market or are used to make prosciutto in Tuscany. In any case, the sweet and sour pork was great. Another favorite dish as of late has been the dried fried beef with spicy string beans. We still routinely eat the tenderloin of the beef- anything else is too tough. The other day, I had a thick filet mignon with great marbling that was so juicy it was like cutting into a watermelon- unbelievable. In truth, we are tiring a little of the beef thing. I’d gladly trade some of it for any of the following: 1) Even one of the myriad cheeses that I routinely consume at the Cheeseboard in Berkeley. 2) Saul’s deli hash with poached egg, half- dill pickle, and well-toasted poppy seed bagel with cream cheese. 3) The giant camarones quesadilla from Taqueria Monte Christo stuffed with cheese, sour cream, roasted poblano chilis, giant shrimp and grilled in a spinach tortilla then covered with chipotle cream, cilantro pesto, and tomatillo salsa. 4) A grilled pastrami Reuben with extra swiss and copious amounts of Russian sauce. 5) The lamb tiki masala and butanese chili chicken from Mount Everest with garlic naan. 6) The massive flame grilled chicken breast sandwich with artichoke hearts and mushrooms and cheddar with a basket of spicy curly fries and ranch dressing from Barney’s. 7) Any wine- even Gallo (maybe with some hot coppa in that case). Oh well, the sacrifices we make for our country. To end on a sweet note, I bought a plastic bottle (a former soda bottle) full of honey the other day from a woman in the market. It had a few bee bodies preserved in the honey at the top, so I knew it was authentic. It was unbelievable! Not the honey in the little plastic bear, that’s for sure. I’m turning into a bit of a honey bear since then. Stacey’s new favorite drink is milk & honey: adding the honey to the warm raw milk right after it has been boiled and then downing a mug. Mmmmmm.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Phone Number Correction

Hey, our phone number from the U.S. should be:
011 261 3308 11226
I had the country code mixed up before. Sorry!

Sept/Oct. Entries

I fear I have been somewhat remiss in my blogging duties owing to various factors. We have been installed at our site for over a month now. School is well under way. We are both teaching. Life here is keeping us quite busy. On paper, we are not working a lot each week- though even in the states teachers don’t spend 40 hours in the classroom. Yet, it is simply a lot of work to live here. When we were brought to our house initially we were greeted by a fresh paint job- no doubt as a sign of welcome to the new couple who is coming to town to teach English. As it turns out bismuth pink is a fine color for the interior of a house here. Unfortunately, we found this color to be the antithesis of relaxing. We opted to repaint which was quite a task. The end result is quite satisfying. Our main room is a deep rich dark red and our bedroom a cozy and relaxing electric blue. The floor in our main area is also red owing to the fact that I am a clumsy oaf and in my haste managed to step on/in the paint bucket thereby overturning it. The floor is concrete and the walls are stucco over brick. We have a front porch and a back patio area which provide welcome options for hanging out.
So what is a lot of work? Well, for example: when I buy coffee it is un-roasted. I bring it home. I must sort through all the beans. Amongst them we find various particles that would not contribute to a good cup of coffee: rocks, rice, little hunks of wood, rat droppings, dried rice and beans that got mixed in along the way. Next, I roast the coffee on the stove in a small wok like pan that someone made from an old green BP gas station sign. It’s roasted, now it cools then I need to winnow it once more outside to get some of the burnt skin like particles out of it. Finally, I can grind it and drink it. The normal next step here is to pulverize it with mortar and pestle. I opted to circumvent this tedious and not tangibly rewarding step by purchasing a coffee grinder in Tana- making live just a little easier. Water is across the street. I retrieve it every couple of days with the help of two buckets and store it in a basin that’s here. We buy milk in the market which is quite good- especially with the coffee. It is raw milk, so I must boil it and then cool it down quickly and refrigerate it before use. Sweeping is required daily as the dust is quite assertive here. Currently, it is the dry season; the dust will soon give way to mud. The bathroom facilities here are twofold for most people. There are ‘kabones’ or outhouses here of which we have one. It is a ways out back. We keep a lock on it as the adjacent one is used by the students who manage to create an unfathomably disgusting mess therein. Secondly, people have a ‘po’ or chamber pot. I won’t detail the procedure for cleaning this, but to say it needs to be attended to. If we don’t do it in time then in order to walk it to the kabone to dispose of it we would have to walk past four classrooms full of student with our po in hand. All our water must be filtered before use as from the spigot it is a discernable yellow. We boil water for our bucket showers which are quite enjoyable. The food situation has been increasingly good to us- owing to our own foresight and recognition that cooking is important to us as well as the availability of meat vegetables and the like here. Some of the fruits/vegetables that we find in the market here are: tomatoes, celery greens, carrots, green beans, zucchini, peas, beans (red & white), chick peas, sweet potato, cassava, cauliflower, ginger, garlic, red onion, green onion, chives, bananas, oranges, mangoes, sugar cane, and key limes, potatoes, eggplant, coconut, green peppers, Damn Hot Peppers!, cabbage, pineapples, cucumbers and some other stuff too- but you get the idea. Eggs are certainly among us. In fact, the oversize duck eggs that Stacey brought home the other day made for a good breakfast scramble. She thought they looked a little different- they are an impressive white. Duck eggs are somewhat richer than chicken eggs. I initially though they were goose eggs and while I’m on the topic of geese, I have developed an affinity for geese since I encounter them daily. I think my prior aversion to geese came from the behavior of a few rogue ganders during training who liked to chase me. I know they are still prone to ornery behavior, but they generally mind their own business here. Herbs! There are herbs. I get fresh parsley, thyme, cilantro, and even basil in the market. Fish is on sale in the market: Tilapia, Black Bass, and Carp. The largest specimens are big enough to cut a fillet from. Of course, when you buy a fish here it is as it was when it came out of the lake. We had fish just last night with garlic-cilantro-key lime-butter. It was quite good! There is beef and pork in the meat market. I haven’t experimented with buying the pork here yet. A common Malagasy dish is ‘Hena Kisoa sy Tsaramaso’ which is tender pieces of pork with white beans. There is one small ‘hotely’ or restaurant that we get lunch at from time to time and we often enjoy it there- there is also delicious tamarind juice there that I hope to be making soon myself. We have bought beef in the market after a lingering reticence to do so. In the states, we don’t usually buy meat hanging outside and from stalls. Here they kill the ‘omby’ in the morning, so if you are buying it that day it is likely fresher than most supermarket beef. It is not refrigerated, but I think the air drying does something for it. My first purchase featured me in my broken Malagasy asking for ‘filet’ the tender stuff. It was available and down came the tenderloin from a hook. I got home and cut off medium size slices from the round tenderloin- it was filet mignon: tender and delicious. For a half-kilo (about a pound) it was about one dollar- keep in mind we are not on American currency here at all and the Peace Corps only gives about 25 dollars a week for our needs which is adequate. The rum here is quite good! No surprise- there’s plenty of sugar. We made ginger rum recently (just grate up a bunch of ginger and throw it in the bottle for a day, strain it and voila: rum with a nice ginger kick. I haven’t dealt with chicken yet. I think I have killed three since I have been here. It’s a lot of work and the chicken will be either roaming the backyard or the house until it’s time for the pot. We may make a turkey for Thanksgiving if some other Peace Corps volunteers want to come visit us- I’ll let them pluck and gut the damn thing and then I’ll do the roasting. Turkeys are expensive (as are geese) and both of these generate more meat of the same species than we wish to consume in a few days. Maybe I’ll talk about something other than food.

We both teach Monday through Thursday. On Wednesdays, we have our Malagasy tutor over. The session is quite casual: we nibble, sip and chat. A nice fellow also came for the first time last week to be my French tutor. As many of you know, I have studied French for some time and am hoping to push my conversational skills towards fluency in the time that I’m here, since it is actually spoken here by many. We actually live in the same building that houses the Alliance Francaise in our town. I believe these classes cater to children, so I’m sticking with the tutor. Once every couple of weeks or more we go to our banking town- that is, our bank is there so we need to go there to get money and some of the aforementioned produce such as the eggplant, and basil and also cheese- a life-giving essential is also there. In any case, there is a group of French people there doing work for NGO’s and the like who are a fun bunch to hang around with. Sometimes, we go to the large Alliance Francaise there after hours and watch rugby and hang out. I hope to do more of this as I need to improve my French. The French seem to always speak English though, so if you’re not assertive you’ll just end up speaking English. I should mention our Malagasy- or maybe the lack thereof. It is improving and we can get the things in the market that we need. Some people are much easier to understand than others. All I can say is that it is a work in progress. I do hope that it progresses more rapidly since it is a bit of a barrier to integrating in the community when you can’t carry out a conversation. PCV’s tend to avoid using French as a general means of communication owing something to our identity here and how we are perceived by the community. The French were the colonizers and, although there are a great many French people working here and doing really good things for the country, being American (for once) carries less cultural baggage and people perceive and react to us differently when they realize that we are not French, but American. I should mention that the creeping arm of the American media has not infiltrated this country as deeply. There are only two television stations here- one is governmentally operated. The other may have programming in French. There are small makeshift shacks here and there where people affluent enough to own a TV and DVD player screen various films- sometime American and probably dubbed in French. The last one I noticed was Rambo. It‘s nice to know that we are able to put our best foot forward with important Hollywood epics such as this alive and well in the third world.


I don’t have too much time for this entry, But, since I last wrote we found ourselves in one of those small movie shacks watching ‘Red Sonja’ the classic film with Arnold Schwarzeneggar in barbarian mode and Bridgit Nielson as the unconquerable warrioress. Of course, it is dubbed in French as few people understand English here- although we’re working on it. I must say, Arnold really doesn’t sound as rough, tough, or buff dubbed in French. Right now, we have a week off from teaching for the All-Saints day break and hopefully we’ll do something interesting. If so, you’ll read about it here!