The best analogy I can give to training farmers on improved rice farming techniques is as follows.
A Nebraskan goes to New York City and tries to tell as many people as she can that scientists have analytically shown that Chicago-style deep dish pizza is the most delicious pizza in the world. What’s the nicest reply she’ll get?
And you know what she’ll tell her friends when she gets back to Nebraska?
“It’s true what they say about New Yorkers”
But she believes the science.
Bear with her while she tries to open up a Chicago-style pizza dive in the heart of New York. Stay with this country mouse while she makes friends and a home in the big city- adapting to the nature of the east coast while maintaining her gentle mid-west demeanor.
For a couple of months I was in a real slump, to be honest. Perhaps slump doesn’t necessarily capture the gravity that was holding me down. The rainy season was short and late and no one had the excess energy to spare learning new techniques. I love the cultural exchange, but I have been doing that the past year, you know? Every so often I would run into someone on a bus or something that had a success story- but when I would ask for their advice it would be something along the lines of “start small, do a demo plot”.
Cue sinking feeling.
Demo plots are great and all, but constrained by seasons, that only leaves time for a demo-plot and then a 9 month dry season until the next rainy season to possibly maybe train somebody. And you know, that is something I knew going into this whole thing. So then I would spiral, angry at myself for being so discontent. What the hell did I expect?
I’m not sure I was I lacking motivation- but I couldn’t even figure out what to motivate myself to do. Energy without direction was driving me nuts. I would go to the fields to just do manual labor- it feels so good to be tired at the end of a day.
The nearest volunteer, Joe, was climbing up as I was reaching the bottom, and he extended his hand- so to speak. He was starting an SRI demo plot near his home, and asked if I could help since I had done one back in September (off-season).
I am not sure how to get across how difficult that must have been. With so few tangible sources of accomplishment, it’s almost certainly more tempting to try alone and possibly fail than to share a project.
Feeling little ownership over the demo-plots, I stubbornly maintained my state of pouting. But you can’t farm with your arms crossed. The demo plot gave me something to care about, to dream about. Joe’s passion for the project was incessant and contagious, always referring to it as “ours”. I came to care for the farmers we were working around, and as the rice grew my sleepy muscle of optimism stretched out and with a big yawn began to wake up.
The more I got out and worked, the more people I met and that inertia took me to other towns, developing new and wiggle-with-giddiness relationships.
It’s not an easy role for me- being the one jumping up and down to show the possibility of learning new techniques rather than being the technical training lady I want to be. And even as I have written this post my eyes have welled up a few times- but as I finish up I’ve got a little grin on my face. And I am smiling because when I think about it, this is a job for a tireless dreamer and ooooh baby I have been training my whole life for it.
You see her as she is walking to her bed. Passing a bamboo basket with a single mango and lime, she notices just a second before you do the hole chewed through the lid. “Fucking rats” she says to no one in particular.
She momentarily considers getting rid of all her possessions in anticipation of rats consuming them anyways.
She tucks herself into the mosquito net and as she spreads out she melts in as her bright yellow shirt sinks into her golden sheets. [flash back to a politician handing her a shirt with a soap company logo]
She feels heavy as her feet release. Maybe if you were standing close enough you’d feel the heat as the scratches all over her legs burn. She turns her attention to the sensation in her hands. She is surveying the blisters resting on the uncharted section of her palms, and for a second a flash of confusion crosses her face. How could she have forgotten? “Oh right” she mutters as she recalls the endless hours of digging holes for cocoa tree transplants, bananas, and leveling land for rice. She walked away from the field that day telling herself not to worry- if the rice doesn’t grow, she’ll still eat.
Her feet fight for her attention as she plays around with their positioning to avoid dirtying a wound she noticed was infected and had just cleaned with disinfectant and applied antibiotic cream. You’re happy you weren’t there for that.
She opens her book, and she starts to read. You watch her as she reads as long as possible- the glow of the flashlight quieting the rats.
You swivel over less than ten meters. You see another woman tucking in her mosquito net as she climbs into her bed with her husband. Her grandchildren sleep soundly in their own bed behind the curtain.
She sniffs, bringing your awareness to the stench of the dead rat that she poisoned the week prior but has been unable to find.
She looks around and briefly entertains the idea of getting rid of it all, everything- or maybe that’s what the rats want her to do? She shakes it off- spite has never helped her.
If you were there in the morning, you would have seen her leave an hour earlier than the girl 10 meters away- and get home an hour later where house chores awaited her. She, too, feels heavy as her feet find rest. Her mind wanders to her work that day and you’re taken there too. Cows continuously running in circles to soften the land before transplanting- galloping, stopping suddenly, running away- zebu’s haven’t changed since she was a child. But with so little rain this year the ground dried up only 30 minutes into working it. The rain was supposed to come 3 months ago. What will she do if it doesn’t come? She worries, but she knows what she’ll do tomorrow. She’ll sell her zucchini tomorrow- she didn’t dip into the harvest tonight.
Her ears catch a sound, and you too hear the girl 10 meters away start playing music. She wonders if it’s to block out the sound of the rats. Tomorrow she’ll buy the girl poison.
Sorry in advance: I don’t currently have a strong enough internet connection to upload photos so I will add them soon!
It is one thing to go into something not knowing at all what to expect; it is another to have a plan and then change it- and it is a whole other to step barefoot into a field covered with thorns, knowing full well what awaits you on the other side is a gravel road.
This, my friend, is the game of expectations.
The first 3 months of Peace Corps is training, the next 3 months are for integrating into the local community, and after that it’s about time to start working the technical aspect of the job- training farmers on improved techniques.
Today, each step of my wake-up routine feels sturdy, important. Today is one of the first days I am working on an improved technique. Each squirt of sunscreen I rub in ceremoniously: battle armor to be hidden under long sleeves and a hat.
Late, I walk down the road to meet Marta to get started.
“Alyssa! Where are you going?”
“To meet Marta, we are going to the rice field”
“Marta? She’s down the road, turning east.”
The man points to a figure so far away there is no way he could know it’s Marta, and plus we aren’t headed east today. Does he even know who Marta is?
“You don’t believe me? Fine, I will show you. Let’s run and catch up”
Sure enough it was Marta.
[-20 points for not trusting Malagasy eyes when you should know by now they are superhuman]
“I waited for you, but you’re late. There were 3 houses that burned down last night and we are going to the forest to collect wood to rebuild them. Do you want to come?”
I think for a split second about my routine getting ready- and how perfectly it prepared me for a completely different day.
[+100 points for the smooth transition]
The men start chopping trees, the girls move the fallen trees, and the women cook lunch. My possy is composed of 4 teen girls, all of us kind of scared of each other for the first 20 minutes. As we walk single file in silence through the forest looking for more trees to pick up, I am struggling to figure out how to talk to these young ladies.
We come up to fallen tree on the path that they crawl under but I jump over.
“Did Alyssa just jump over that log?”
“I am tall, okay? Y’all are SHORT!”
(It doesn’t translate well, but cutting through a thick silence doesn’t require a sharp knife)
And thus the silence was broken and questions flowed out like someone shook up a coke and then immediately opened it, throwing out the cap.
[+200 points for facing the fear of teen girls]
I went home that evening with bruises on my shoulders, new friends to think about, and more knowledge about the trees in the forest.
On a Saturday someone coming from Diego tells me Hilary Clinton won the election. I knew the election wasn’t until Tuesday, but since there was early voting and with the easy assumption it was a landslide it made sense to think that the early voting was enough to call it.
On Tuesdays it is taboo to work in almost any field, so as I am sitting on my porch thinking about what to do, I notice that the area around my house is littered with trash and pieces of broken houses. With my neighbor’s help, we build two huge ass piles of things to burn. Joseline tells me to wait for the winds to calm down in the late evening to burn the piles.
In the evening, I start the fire. My stomach is turning with each failed attempt. Maybe it is a sign I shouldn’t be doing this? Even if the water pump is working today, it is so far away and I only have a bucket of water for showering. But Joseline said it was cool?
The piles burn wildly, one catching the branch of a tree on fire. Heart beating frantically, I run to the street to find LeMama, Joseline’s husband. He comes to check it out and tells me it’s all fine, and the fire will calm down soon. It does, and the tree branch that caught on fire goes out too.
[+50 points for trusting Joseline and her husband despite myself]
I go in my house to calm down and for some horrible, unknown reason, I turn on my phone and connect to the internet. My friend Emma has messaged me saying that Donald Trump is the president elect.
“LOL EMMA!” I thought. I already KNOW Clinton won. What a silly joke.
Then I see my friend Esther has sent me a message with a similar tone.
“LOL ESTHER” I thought. My friends are so silly.
Google tells me “Donald Trump has won the US presidential election”
You won’t believe it, but no joke my next thought was
As quickly as the fire ignited, the heat of reality started to burn. My heart rate spikes and I run over to my neighbor’s house, dramatically collapse down on the concrete floor, and sigh.
[-500 points for so easily accepting misinformation that supports my views]
[-100 years for USA]
December comes, and so does news of a wedding in a town west of Sadjoavato that I frequently visit.
Around the same time, I got a health issue that the doctor told me to come as soon as possible to get checked out. The wedding was the only thing keeping me in town before leaving, but I knew I had to go and everyone made it seem like a pretty quick deal.
“You’ll come in the morning and leave in the afternoon after lunch”
We get to the party, where everyone has stayed up all night drinking and dancing. We sit on the hay covered ground while partiers flow in, drop to their knees, then to their bellies, and fall asleep as their face settles to the ground.
The structure of a wedding here in the north of Madagascar is as follows: the family of the bride has a big party that lasts through the night and into the next day. If they have a cow they will kill it to feed everyone. Throughout they sing and they clap, waiting for a few of the groom’s family members to come get the bride. The fetchers come with a dowry (money and/or cows), a cart to carry the bride’s belongings, and a flag.
Once they come, the fetchers kneel down in reverence and ask permission to take the bride from her elders. If yes, they sing and they clap while the bride takes out her braids and they give her new braids. The groom’s family then carries her to the nearest river and she bathes and puts on new clothes. They gather her things (bed, chairs, clothes), and drive away with the bride.
Once she arrives to her new home, she eats a meal with her new husband, and the celebration is over.
I am not going to get into it, but -300 points for how annoyed I was that we had to wait for her to get her hair braided. I am not proud.
100 points each for:
-Resting bitch faces turning into big ol’ goofy grins (x20)
-Having a downer day and then running into those teen girls’ and their big ol’ smiles waving at me from the back of a zebu cart
As in most games, the points are arbitrary and hold little meaning. Thanks for playing.
In the house– my left-hand pressed palm-up on the table while my right hand gripping onto the opposite forearm, stabilizing. Pushing lightly on each other, seven others are squirming to get closer to the gas-lamp lit scene. Joseline stands up from the wood-fed stove and carefully walks towards me with a steaming cloth full of over-cooked rice. As Joseline gets nearer, the kids shove closer. My eyes wince and I turn my head away with anticipation…
Earlier that day– Marta and I are building earthen walls for a rice field- a technique to improve water control in rice fields. The overall project is a demonstration plot with an improved rice farming technique (SRI) positioned next to one technique that is commonly used here in the north.
Quick definition: hard work [hahrd–wur-k] noun: Building dirt walls and leveling land.
Supplies available- Two ladies, two shovels, a cup of coconut-tree booze, and an old rice sack. It should be noted- never underestimate the worth of an old rice sack- and definitely never let the coconut-booze selling lady walk past your field without saying hi.
After hours of digging and moving dirt, Marta chops down a ripe jack fruit and we sit down for a snack, ripping out the small pods of the fruit, covering our fingers and lips with sap. When we head home, Marta checks my sticky hands for blisters. Miraculously I only have one.
“Take the rice left over from the hot rice-water and put it in a cloth and hold it in your hand- then you won’t have a problem digging again tomorrow”
A few months before I had heard this from some blacksmiths, but chose to ignore it due to being sure that I must have misunderstood. I don’t take advice from Marta lightly and we need to be digging again the next day, so I figure I better get my hands on some hot rice.
Casually at dinner– “Hey do you mind if I take some hot rice and put it on my blister?”
As Joseline lowers the cloth of steaming rice onto my palm, silence enters the scene, filling it.
“Did that hurt?”
“No no, do it again”
“Well now I am scared to do it again”
“Do it, do it, do it”
I am not really sure if it helped, but I would be lying if I didn’t note that I have repeated it at least five times since the first.
Saturday– we are at it, digging again. You can see the highway from the rice field, and people frequently holler at us to say hi. After some hollering that I’m not really paying attention to, Marta informs me that a mother still nursing just died in the town over, and that means it is taboo to work in the field.
Interjection: For the rice field that we are working in, it is taboo to work Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday morning. Taboos around farming change from field to field. If you break this taboo, a bird flock from the forest called “Fody” will come and eat all of your rice. Fucking birds.
Back to Marta saying it’s taboo to work-
“We aren’t going to come back in the afternoon, or else we will be embarrassed to be seen working since it is taboo”
“Our transplants will be ready Monday, we will have to get all the prep work done and transplant on Monday or else we will have to wait till Friday to transplant”
Not really worry, but a guilty since of relief overcomes me since I am exhausted. With her big knife that never leaves her side, Marta chops down another jack fruit and we fill our bellies and cover ourselves in stickiness before heading home.
Fast forward through an afternoon of reading a book and eating popcorn.
A fellow volunteer in a town 22km* south of me invited me to a crocodile festival, the next day I leave by bike to get to her town. As I bike, I realize both that it is entirely uphill to Anniverano and something is wrong with my bike.
During the ride I come to a spot where I can’t figure out what the hell is going on with the gears or maybe I can but I am being lazy, so I start walking. Walking past a group of men- they look up, see me, and I say:
“My bikes kind of broken”
“Simple or complex?”
5 men rush to my bike, hands are waved around, and then I bike away, thanking them. Is that what it feels like to be a race car driver?
The crocodile festival itinerary- go to a sacred lake, kill a cow, and feed it to the crocodiles. Why?
“If you come into good fortune, or you make progress in your life- like building a stone house- you should sacrifice a cow and feed it to the crocodiles”
4 crocodiles and 1 cow make it on stage; 4 crocodiles leave the stage.
On the way back to Sadjoavato– I shift gears and the chain stopped moving- and so I chose to follow its lead and stop too. A few people nearby:
“Oh, no news, what’s loud with you?”
“Always quiet. Hey, my bike is broken”
Two men rush over, hands wave, and as quickly as I can explain that, yes, I do speak Malagasy, they are done.
“How did you do that??”
“But how did you do that?”
I think that I still haven’t really figured that question out yet.
I am getting close to Sadjoavato and run into a friend who tells me Marta is in this town. I go to say hi, telling many people I saw 4 huge crocodiles eat an entire cow with no left overs.
Marta- “Want to know the story behind that?”
Her and a few other people explain.
“Before, there used to be a town where the sacred lake now sits. Visitors and people from nearby towns would ask for water from the townsfolk, but they were selfish with their water. They wouldn’t give anybody water. One day, the land cracked open and turned into a lake, swallowing the town and drowning the people. The spirits of the people now live in the bodies of crocodiles. Did you see? These crocodiles aren’t like others. Their snouts are shorter, there hands more human like. They will walk around a group of humans, never attacking and not afraid. Those aren’t just any crocodiles, those are crocodiles with human spirits”
“Is it okay to go fishing in the lake?”
“Yes but if you do, you can’t sell the fish. If you sell the fish, when it is cooked the oil will splatter and burn you”
“No ones tries to kill the crocodiles?”
“Taboo. There was one family that killed a crocodile and slowly, one by one, all of them died. We’re about to have lunch, join us!”
Lunch- Rice, shredded unripen mango salad, cabbage in tomato sauce
Stopping by our rice field– The rice isn’t ready yet. Frantically bike home– consult book on this rice technique and call two people. Should we transplant early or wait an entire week?!
Break screech. We’re going to have to wait till Friday.
While waiting for Friday–
“I didn’t realize you had a pet lemur!
“Yes we do! Her name is Sydney.”
By the way, where is your son?”
“He’s taking a bath in the river over there and hes my husband not my son”
That night we have bugs that look like ant eaters and chicken broth with rice for dinner. (*Not a normal dinner for us, or anyone else I know.)
The next day getting in bed:
What’s that on my bed? A frog? Damnit, frog, not here.
Ah! A rat tail just disappearing in my wall. Let me poke it out. Oh, no, that was a scorpion tail.
Friday comes– we work the field in the morning and transplant in the afternoon. I didn’t put a lot of pressure on anyone to come since this was my first time planting SRI in the northern-Madagascar context and Marta’s first time as well.
The two people that come in addition to Marta:
Probably the oldest man in town and a man I call Uncle– “I came because I wanted to give you my hands to work. What can I do?”
Joseline– “I had to come. If Alyssa is doing something, I will do it. You know how she is getting that village savings and loans group started? When she told me about it I said okay. That meant yes. She didn’t know it meant yes so when we talked about it later I said that okay meant yes I will do it. Whatever Alyssa does, I will be there.”
(With all that poking at my heart I actually cried a bit while we were transplanting- my first tears since I arrived to Madagascar, watering the rice transplants. I was also sleep deprived, so… whatever.)
Misfortune strikes Sadjoavato again on Saturday. This time, a lady that was quite a big part of the community, and the mother of the man that got me to Sadjoavato in the first place.
A funeral here lasts a few days and nobody is supposed to sleep because the spirit of the person is still present, they don’t want anyone to steal the body, and they can get all of their grief out together. A cow is killed to feed all of the visitors and pots and pots of rice are cooked to be served with boiled beef.
I had been hesitant about funerals before- never staying more than a few hours. The less time spent the less likely I will say or do something culturally inappropriate. Hell, I don’t even know what to say in English.
This time, however, the grandchild of the deceased, Cinthia (12) comes to deliver the news to me.
“Hello! Welcome. Come, sit.”
After sitting– “Hello”
“I have news. Anicest’s mom is dead”
This doesn’t really make since, not too long ago we were working in the fields together.
“That’s your grandmother, right?”
“Right. The funeral is tomorrow. Come whenever you want, it’s up to you”
The next day, Cinthia will appear at my house 4 times to make sure I am coming to the on-going funeral. I will be waiting on someone else, who will keep finding themselves delayed. The second time, she will hide her tears while we talk by hanging her head between her knees. The fourth time I will just go with her.
I meet her parents, who don’t live with her- she lives alone with two younger siblings-. First I see the corpse, momentarily uncovering the veil on the face for a last look, and then meet with the children of Anicest’s mom-
“Do you know what’s going on here? Do you know what the problem is?”
“Yeah, the problem”
“You mean that this is a funeral?”
“Yes. Did you see her body? Did you see her face?”
“What did it look like?”
How do you describe the face of a dead mother to their child?
I stay till a little past midnight, socializing, playing cards, and listening to people singing and clapping. There is a speech about the plans for the burial, it would happen the next day in the afternoon.
The next day after lunch I go to the funeral spot again.
“Oh hi Alyssa, its time to eat”
“I just came from eating”
“You have to eat at a funeral, it’s not okay to not eat”
To get the body to the cemetery- the coffin is set on bamboo, rested on shoulders, and then jogged, along with the whole funeral party jogging and singing and clapping, all the way to the cemetery. Almost every minute people are switching out who is bearing the coffin- the jogging, singing, and clapping, incessant.
Sometimes it seems impossible to really know where you are, I think as I stare at the map. I have been sitting on my large woven mat for the last thirty minutes staring at a world map lit by candle light and perfumed by a lavender-scented anti-mosquito coil. I burn it in part to deter mosquitoes and in part because lavender scent reminds me of my parents and the color purple- which reminds me of my grandmother. I asked my family to send me a world map so I could show others where the United States was in relation to Madagascar, but I have found myself unable to look away each time I bring it out, no matter if the viewing party is over. I have never been a map person- I desperately wanted to be in adolescents – my sister was into maps when we were younger and older sisters have that special power to make anything seem cool.
I have been staring at this map, astounded by some of the countries I had completely misplaced in my understanding of the globe. Moving the candle stand around as my interests cross oceans, I can only see a continent and its shadows at a time. I fly my candle back to Madagascar for quick stops between continent switches, hollowed by the lack of information the map gives. 4 cities are identified. I stare intently at the inch on the map between Antananarivo and Diego.
That inch is where my journey over the last few weeks scribbles all over.
The culture around travel here involves something called a ‘volandalana’, or ‘fruit of the road’. It is a gift you should bring with you to show you were thinking of whoever you’re visiting or coming back home to. Luckily, the translation is quite literal and the expectation of the gift is generally fruit, vegetables, or bread. I’m heading back to the training center, so I will be seeing my original host family. I want to bring them something special from my town, so I head across the street from my house to buy a colorful woven basket. I am still looking for rice farmers to ask a few questions, and just as I am walking away I think to ask the man selling the baskets. I see him around town a lot, but never in the fields so I figured he wasn’t a farmer.
“Of course I am a rice farmer”
I ask him a few questions about his fields to verify, just in case he is a land owner but not the farmer. He’s definitely the farmer. His farm in the east. I have been to fields in the south, the west, and the north, but never the east- that explains it. Sometimes you forget you’re completely surrounded by rice fields.
I get my sack and my woven basket all ready and head out to the road to catch the next van to Diego. I get real lucky and just as I step out a van passes.
“Sure we have room!”
They throw my bag on the roof and show me my spot. I squeeze into my quarter- of- a- seat as the music blares. Three people are standing, but strike a chair-pose whenever passing officials. I feel a little guilty for making other people squeeze, but mostly happy to be on the road. The driver stops to get fried fish and beer for his lady friends in the front seat. He stops again to get an alcoholic drink made from coconut trees from the side of the road. Luckily it’s not too late in the day and that means the drink has a low alcohol content. Its scent is sickly sweet and as we hurdle through the craters in the road I feel grateful for the space between the man chest standing next to me and the back of the chair- in other words- the window.
If you’ve gotten out your map, it will probably list Diego as Antsiranana. Move your finger down just a touch and that’s where I live, Sadjoavato. The training center is close to Antananarivo (Tana), right there in the center-ish, so that’s my destination. The drive is about 25-35 hours, non-stop. Notice that 10 hour window of possibility? I get lucky and there is a Peace Corps vehicle making that journey the very day I need to go. That’s a treat worth a million bucks- driving down with your friends, blasting familiar music, stopping to pee whenever.
In any case, I arrived in Tana, physically sick in more than a couple ways. I was just getting over a facial skin infection, which I claimed to be a flesh-eating disease but the doctors didn’t entertain it. Anyways, the next few days were spent wallowing. I am a relatively dramatic sick person.
The training lasted two weeks and included topics such as small-scale chicken raising, raising bees, savings and loan groups, tree planting, and small other trainings on things like grant work and malaria-awareness project possibilities. We all got to choose one person we are working with in our town to come join us at the training center for the second week. This was a pretty exciting idea, to think someone from our towns might see us understanding complex sentences. I asked Marta to join me. It was incredible to see a woman so strong and respected curl up a little at the thought of leaving the country side.
“I’ll go, but it’s not habit for me to leave the North”
At first Marta was quiet during the training. Quick to start writing everything down, I started taking her notes for her so she could listen. The training were all in Malagasy standard, and the northern dialect is quite different (in my opinion). A few days in Marta raised her hand and stood up to chime in. By the end we were supposed to give a presentation on a technique. We chose SRI (system of rice intensification). We spent our breaks making the poster.
“You talk, and if you need help I will say something too”
Low on time, I mostly just read off the poster we made. I don’t really give Marta the time to chime in since I am reading off the poster. She interrupts me to explain something further and much better than I ever could. I look over and she’s beaming, standing proud.
Running off the high of seeing Marta realize how good she could be at training others, I start trying to make plans with her for training SRI in town. Should I make another poster or should we use this same poster? Maybe we can do half in the town hall and half in the field?
“Alyssa, it will not work to do training with a poster or writing, let’s do it all out in the field”
Deep breath Alyssa, listen to your cultural guide. Posters and written instruction aren’t everything.
After training is a great time for volunteers to go on vacation since they already traveled so far for the training. I decided to go on a bike ride with a fellow volunteer, Shannon, from a nature reserve to a port city. Peace Corps lends me a bike and we set out to a take a bus to the nature reserve.
Running a little late, we catch the last bus going to Mahajanga before lunch time. Mahajanga is also on the map. The nature reserve is about 120 km south of Mahajanga, so we figure we can just get out ahead of time. About 4 hours into the ride, we talk to the man next to us to make sure we know where to get off. Wait, we need to get off at Mavetanana and take a different bus? This one isn’t going all the way to Mahajanga? Where is Mavetanana? Oh, we’re here.
Thankfully, Shannon fights a tough bargain and since we paid for the trip all the way to Mahajanga, she got the driver to pay for us to go the rest of the way with a different bus. We waited a couple of hours, and got on the next bus. About 5 or 6 times in the next two hours we inquired about where we were going, double, triple checking there would be hotels. Suddenly, a bus you’re on going to Mahajanga might not be going to Mahajanga at all. What were we supposed to do? Our trust in the system, tainted.
We arrived at Ankarafantsika Nature Reserve and the bus even pulled into the parking lot of the bungalows for us where we were welcomed by the guard, refilling the recently spilled cup of trust in the unknown that is required during travel. Exhausted by all the nerves built up over the last few hours, and to be honest probably the last few months, I passed out on the bungalow bed.
The time spent in Ankarafantsika was wonderful. Shannon and I indulged in long breakfasts, walks with a guide that knew everything about the forest- from breeding rituals of the animals to the origins of trees names (our Malagasy has definitely improved!)
Shannon wasn’t disturbed when I shared with her my serve lack of biking experience.
“What’s the longest you’ve gone?”
“I biked 3 miles to work every day”
“We’re going 120 kilometers, it won’t be too bad”
We got a late start our first morning, when –tssssssssss- I tried to fill my tire and ended up letting the air out without the right device to put air back in. Anyways, the ride was wonderful. With wide open savanna on either side, we glided along.
For our first stop, my bike and I fell down together as I tried to get off it. Turns out when you have a huge sack (ingeniously) tied on back (thanks Shannon!), it might be harder to get your foot over than you think.
We stopped for a 3 PM meal and as we talked with the cook we came to realize we had already arrived the town we planned to sleep in- about 20 km before we expected. My butt thanked those who overestimated the distance. We got a bungalow for 10,000 Ar, which is about 2 and half dollars.
The next morning I stuffed socks in between my underwear and my pants for cushion. Along the way we got cat-called and what not. I got a mild case of diarrhea. We continued to get cat-called. When we ended I only found one sock in my pants. The views continued to be wonderful, even going uphill.
We relaxed in Mahajanga, planning our timetable around acceptable times to eat ice cream. Long talks and giggles that make your eyes water was the medicine we needed. Shannon found a rogue playing card to add her to collection- a fine representation of incomplete decks everywhere.
To get a bus back, I called and made a reservation. Shannon’s bus left at 7 AM, so I went with her to the station. I went to confirm my reservation, finding that the company I reserved with had no buses that ever, ever, go to Diego.
“Wait for me to go with you to find another company, I have a friend at the company going to Diego”
Thinking he was just being nice, I went to look by myself. In the midst of the busy and dirt covered station, an extremely well-dressed and manicured man politely asked me where I need to go.
“Oh you need to go in the direction of Diego, well come over here, we’re going that way. If you need to cancel this reservation, not a problem, just let me know”
I went back to wait with Shannon and the man that told me to wait for him got mad at me for not waiting for him.
“You don’t trust me! They cheated you!”
“It’s not that I don’t trust you. I just haven’t had coffee yet” The things you say in another language when you haven’t had coffee.
He takes me into an empty office where he opens up a book, writes down my name for a reservation, gives me a ticket, and reminds me that I don’t trust him but he knows it’s because of the coffee. I don’t feel great about this reservation considering no one from that company was there, but I trust this guy over the clean, well-dressed man so I take it.
A kid is seating next to me. Maybe its his first time traveling alone, but he seems pretty nervous. The music starts blaring. The man behind me starts coughing that sounds a lot like throwing up. Oh, just kidding, he’s throwing up. There’s nothing like the sound of someone puking every 10 minutes on a lengthy bus ride to remind you that whatever problems you think you have aren’t that bad. The windows have to stay open, so when the kid ends up curling up next to me, it’s for survival.
Arriving in Ambilobe (about 6 hours away from Diego), the bus driver decides that this direct bus is no longer direct.
Drinking coffee in Ambilobe, I started up a conversation with the man sitting next to me and I told him about where I was going and that I was looking for another bus. He asked me if I knew a man that I do happen to know, and they called him and he came and helped me figure out the rest of my travel plants.
I get on the new bus and I feel like I recognize the driver from somewhere, although I push it aside. We fill up the seats to capacity and then some, start the music and are on our way. He stops soon there after to let another passenger in. A familiar voice says:
“Sure, we have room!”
And as people get placed into spots that don’t exist to an American like myself, I chuckle at this almost-perfect circle of going home on the same bus and driver in which I started my journey. I end up falling asleep, not on the person next to me, but over them and onto the shoulder of the person next to them. I woke up and we laughed together, punctuated by a hot wave of embarrassment.
My last bus, finally with Sadjoavato as the destination, wasn’t really a bus at all but a pick-up truck with two benches in the back and a wooden roof on top. The benches swayed back and forth as we slowed and sped. Once again, we’re squished to the brim. As the passengers become fewer, my initial reaction is relief. But with the wind, the cold fills in the empty spots. The woman next to me gets out- I didn’t even realize she was breaking all the strongest wind. It’s funny, you can sit somewhere for two hours and not be aware of the most basic elements surrounding you. I didn’t spread out when she left, instead I continued to squish myself against the man on the other side of me.
PS. Happy birthday to my big sis Ariana! Love you and I hope your next year is full of cat parties, giggles, and a few steps along the autobahn!
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.
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.