15 minutes

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Oh what? We’re leaving? I, uh, haven’t had enough time to tell myself that I can do this. Teeth aren’t brushed, coffee is un-had, crap. What ever happened to this idea that everything runs a little late in Madagascar? They are 15 minutes early! Those are the 15 minutes I was going to get it all done. 15 minutes can be everything, really. What is it, two minutes to brush, a minute for sunscreen, 5 to water the plants. That’s 7 minutes for coffee and rice cakes. I wasn’t even doing anything before this, why didn’t I just un-tuck myself out of that goddamn mosquito net earlier? You did this to yourself through years of procrastinating. You not getting coffee this morning is a result of an overarching flaw in the way you have lived the last 15 years of your life.

Okay, okay. The amount of caffeine in that chipped ceramic mug probably isn’t anything at all. It’s all placebo these days. That’s it, if I KNOW I don’t need it, I won’t need it. Lunch isn’t that far away. Oh, I bet it’s coconut beans. Sweet. Waterbottle, sunscreen, notebook, set. I’m doing it. I am not going to drink coffee today and it will be fine because I, Alyssa Brodsky, do not need coffee and leaving 15 minutes early is no problem and I am totally cool with that.

“Alyssa, you haven’t coffee yet. Go get coffee and then we will all leave.”

Weightless. Is this what love feels like?

Okay coffee has been had and I can do this. The rice fields are that way? Okay I understand that. There’s going to be a lot of people? Oh, very good. I should feel good about that.

Woah, slow down kids. I gotta take this in. I can see rice fields for miles from here. Spotted with mango trees, the road lined with wild cherry trees, and what’s the word for cashew tree? Oh right, mabibo. Madibo? Mabido? How did I already forget? Mere seconds change mabibo to madibo and back again. Well, there are enough of those that I will really have to learn the word at some point. On the way back they’ll ask me if I remember and I will just say all of the variations I can think of until mabibity boopity bop we have a winner.

Wow, I am really loving this road. No mud, and kids going bananas trying to get all the ripe wild cherries while keeping the pace. Oh you want to share some with me? Yes please you wonderful child.

And now we are breaking off of the path and oh, now I am knee deep in mud. Yes, I need help. No, no, don’t worry about my ego, it will survive, just hold my water bottle please it is throwing my off balance.

We’re here? Sit down under the mango tree. Okay. Where is everyone? Still coming, just rest for a bit. 15 minutes can be nothing, really. Lemama is starting to cut down the rice? Where’s my knife, I am READY! So how do we do this? Just cut it like this, like this, like this. Cut it like this, like this, like this. Like that? No, like this, like this, like this. Like this? Yes, like that.

And there I was, cutting it like this, like this, like this. Has an hour passed already? Yes I will put a long sleeve shirt on. Are you sure you don’t need it? A few people have come. What’s this foreigner doing cutting rice with us? She’s learning malagasy? Hi everyone I am a plant farming and animal raising teacher, but I am still learning malagasy language and culture. She said she is a plant farming and animal raising teacher, did you get that? Let’s start drinking.

No no, cut the rice like this, like this, like this. Set it down softly behind you. The dance of the harvest. Swoop down, gather, chop, and set it all down with a curtsey. Do I understand what they’re talking about? Maybe? Is it about every 5 minutes they’re talking about this wild tuber? Can they really be bringing up majola so consistently?

A bead of sweat just dripped onto my glasses lens. The conversation is getting heated. What in the hell are they talking about? Am I learning too slowly? Should I be saying something, crap. They’re laughing, that makes me smile. Back to my swoop, gather, cut, curtsey. I love this.

Lunch is ready under the mango tree? Hallelujah! Sit here with the kids. The men are sitting over there? Me, here. Them, there. Whatever, get me some hot rice water and that food in my belly.

Well, I have scrapped the last bits of rice off my plate. Other people have laid down for a nap. Can I do that? One leg out, two legs, aaaand I am down for the nap. Wait, everyone has already started working again? Woopty doop!

Yep, they’re definitely a bit more drunk that before. The calling and response singing is wonderful. What does it mean? All they’re saying is I am thirsty? I can do that. Who’s this guy making for damn sure I am joining in on the singing? I love him. And on the other side of me a man communicating with me only in gestures. Is he mute? What the hell is he trying to tell me? I think I also love him.

Holy shit it is only 3:00. My hand keeps pressing my watch button to the next setting. Why the hell did I get a watch with so many settings? I’m getting some hot rice water for a break. Repeat. How much water have I had? 3 liters? Haven’t peed yet.

Aaaand, we’re done. Let’s sit down for a 15 minute rest and wait for it to get dark before heading home. Do you understand what we’re talking about, Alyssa? My whole body, exhausted, advises me to just say yes. No, I don’t get it. Okay, let me explain a little slower. Still don’t get it? I’ll use different words. Examples. Get it? As he speaks he’s constantly checking in, making sure I am following, relentlessly willing to reword. I think we’re becoming friends. Whose to judge the potential of 15 minutes?

Alyssa are you good at walking in the dark? No? Have the 11 year old hold you hand. No no, I don’t need that. Ohp, Alyssa just fell. Kids, hold her hands. How do you say rice in English? Rice, rice, rice, rice.

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Sorry, can you repeat that?

Me: Still good?

Person: Still good!

Me: What’s new?

Person: Nothing’s new. What’s loud?

Me: Ah, always quiet.

Person: Where are you coming from?

Me: Coming from the rice fields.

Person: Whose?

Me: Over there. *points with lips westwards

Person: Whose?

Me: Oh.. Mama Feno’s.

If you’re wondering about perhaps the most consistent thing in my life, it is this conversation. The greeting here in the North of Madagascar is ‘Mbola tsara’, meaning ‘still good’. I moved to my permanent site in May and have been loving the crap out of it ever since.

On the day I moved in, my neighbor, Joseline, came over around dinner time and said “let’s go eat rice”. I walked over and climbed in to sit with her, her husband, and their three grandchildren. They mounded a plate of steaming rice for me and handed me a strip of home-dried beef. The next night was another plate of steaming rice with a side of saucy cow brains. Despite perhaps an odd first two meals, the ambiance of sitting at a table lit by a gas lamp, with three kids so intently staring at me eat I burst out laughing, hooked me and I have been eating with them ever since. (This includes me cooking too or buying vegetables/fish, if you were wondering!)

This is mostly important because the people I share these daily meals with what I now consider my Malagasy family. It can get very confusing asking about how people are related in Malagasy. People maybe call many women their mom, grandma, or sister without there being an actual blood connection. For a split second trying to understand the family can get frustrating. I might think to myself “I KNOW this woman who is ten years older than you is not your mom! I know it! This can’t be true!” But when I think about how welcoming this family is and how full my heart is every night as I leave their house, I can’t help but love the idea of family here. Sometimes people ask me in passing “where is your mom?” It makes me feel a little giddy and a bit grateful that no one is saying something like “I KNOW this woman who is Malagasy is not your mom! I know it! This can’t be true!”

My average day begins with a gang of roosters surrounding my house and all coo-ing at the same time, over and over and over again. Then I get up, perhaps eating an avocado with sugar or a banana, and step outside to get coffee and some fresh, hot, rice-flour-bread-things. This is a pivotal moment each day since I have come up with the theory that once I step outside I most likely will not find myself alone or in control of my itinerary for the rest of the day. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a hard moment at all. First of all, I love coffee and those rice things. Secondly, letting go of my need to know what will happen in a day is very conducive to meaningful conversations and fun.

The rest of the day really varies daily. I may spend the whole day working in the rice fields, working on my garden, walking around and talking to people, or something else entirely. I plan on writing a lot more about the rice fields in the future, just in case you are super curious about rice farming and planned on complaining to me about the serious lack of rice information in this post.

The first three months a Peace Corps volunteer is living in their permanent site, the main goals are just to build relationships, get to know the community, and get better at the language. Every so often, I spend a few hours just walking through town and talking to everyone I see. Walking up to people and introducing myself definitely requires the most courage, especially while I am still trying to build vocabulary in the language. As it is more terrifying, it is also super worthwhile. For instance, I was sauntering around and found myself in a four hour conversation with a few blacksmiths. Then they gave me a papaya the size of my thigh. A different day I was moseying along the road and met the operator of the rice mill. He took me to show me his rice, and there I met another lady on her way to harvest some beans. I hollered to him that I was leaving (probably came out as a garble of gibberish), and I went with her to help her harvest her beans. At the end of that day I found myself with a bag full of beans, some extremely important new vocab words, and two new friends.

A different neighbor, Olga, has become a very good friend. She’s 39 and her children live elsewhere, so she is always up to teach me and hangout. When it rained for the first time and I learned where all of the leaks are in my house (or maybe I should say where all of the roof is on my leaks), she helped me move all my stuff to the dry parts and lent me dry sheets while my bed sheets were still wet. Some days we go on silly walks where she tells me all about what we are seeing around us. She helps me by introducing me to people or teaching me new vocabulary. One of the Malagasy phrases she taught me is “Mandehandeha, mahita raha. Mipetraka amy trano, mahita jof.” This translates to “if you go out and about, you see things. If you sit in the house, you see ash.” (They use charcoal or wood for cooking so there is normally ash in the house).

My last bit of news is that my chicken has started sleeping in the mango tree next to my house. How did I a get a chicken, you ask? Well, it was handed to me from the back of a pick-up truck as I profusely denied interest in raising the chicken.

Shout out to my site-mate, Nate, for finishing his 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer! Best wishes to you and the many dogs that loved you around Sadjoavato. Thanks for all of your help and once again I am sorry for sawing into your arm! Stories involving Nate are yet to come on this blog.

With love from Madagascar,

Alyssa

PS. Some photos too!

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Olga and Joseline (my neighbors) lookin’ bad ass
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Vaviny with Majola- a tuber that grows wild in Madagascar! Peel it, chop it up, and cook it in coconut milk. Yum!
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Sadjoavato (the town I am living in) is down there somewhere!
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This is the yard in the compound I stay in as my neighbors lay rice out to dry. Oh, and that is the family kitty stealing the show. I asked if she killed rats and I got a really sweet “OOOOOOOOOOH she kills rats.oooooooh she kills rats.”

 

Step, hop, jump!

Dear reader,

This blog is mainly for friends and family; but just in case you’re just joining me now, I better introduce myself. My name is Alyssa Brodsky, know to many as Alyssa. You should know that I am currently in the honey-moon phase with the dairy world, and I am milkin’ it for what it’s worth! (You might bring up that dairy hasn’t been proven to be some super food and I counter that with two arguments. #1. Cheese. #2. Dairy isn’t just about the product, it’s about the infinite world of possibilities regarding it’s production.) Other than that, I love food (producing, cooking, eating), learning about other cultures, and laughing at mild to terrible jokes.

I have diagnosed myself with a healthy level of patriotism and an extreme build up of curiosity, and with that I inform you that I  am seeking care by going to join the Peace Corps in Madagascar! I’ll be training for a position as an agro-ecological business advisor. The description is quite broad but I will say that it seems to be working in the complex and exciting nexus of where food production meet environmental conservation meets livelihood generation. Amazing! I received my degree in Animal Sciences but spent two heinous years in the College of Business, so I hope that my foundation is helpful when learning about the Malagasy way of life, agriculture, and everything else. (kidding about the heinous thing, jeez).

I have a plethora of motivations for embarking on this journey, but for brevity’s sake I will mention just one. It does, however, need some assistance from Douglas Adams, the author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In the series, two characters living in London, Arthur and Fenchurch, learn to fly. Only naturally, they make love while in the air. A Boeing 747 crops up and an elderly woman flips up the plane window, witnessing Arthur and Fenchurch. This is her response:

“She was mostly immensely relieved to think that virtually everything that anybody had ever told her was wrong.”

To me, there is relief to finding out the true facts of life are few and far between. I’ve realized recently that cross-examining the status quo and rejecting convention are traits that all of the people I look up to carry. Agriculture and wildlife habitats don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Hunger as we see it today does not have to persist. I felt relief when I realized those things, despite the enormous amount of learning ahead! I can’t wait to see what else come my way to challenge what I know and what I believe.

Feel free to join me as I update this blog along the way with poop jokes and whatever else people blog about. Don’t expect relevant titles and you’ll be fine!

Finally, a quick shout out to my parents, sisters, and friends that helped me prepare. I couldn’t have done it without you. I feel such happiness to know all of you!

Infinite love,

Alyssa