Sunday, November 14, 2010
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Slash and burn agriculture is in season here in Madagascar. So far several national parks have been partially burned as well as reserves. This says nothing for the thousands of hectares of private land and farm land that is also burned every year. In the South East (as well as most of Madagascar) this has led to a reduction in the number of trees (combined with good ol' deforestation) and increased savannah. While many adult trees can survive this type of burning, saplings are usually laid waste and thus the next generation of trees never forms. A few plants like ravinala (The Traveller's Palm) end up thriving and become a valuable source of materials since the forests are depleted, if not eliminated entirely.
As I have been travelling lately, these burned areas, as well as fires in progress, seem to be of no particular concern to locals. It's "fire season", not because of any natural fires but rather due to purposefully set fires in hopes of renewing the land for the next year. Having grown up in Southern California the most common fire I saw was a wildfire and this idea scares me. The parks that have burned have been due to out of control fires, largely due to the ignorance of those setting the fires. To stop the fires, everyone must go out and defend their home with whatever they can use to beat back the flames. In many cases this can go on for hours to defend a single community. Since there are no handy fire hydrants nor trucks, nor firefighters for that matter, it is every man for himself. Having walked the perimeter of one of the local fires (using a GPS to measure the size) I am tired of seeing the damage. We'll see about fire education soon.
Travels with French guys:
Imagine trying to go South in a 4x4, the back of the truck entirely filled with people. Next imagine your suprise when 3 young French men also climb in back. Next picture being stuck in an unusual situation where only one of them knows English well, all of your highschool French has blended with Malagasy, and they don't speak a word of Malagasy. To top everything off, the driver will lie about the travel time, leave you in the middle of nowhere, and a group effort of 3 languages is the only way to get out. Essentially everything came in 3's this past week. 3 days, 3 French friends, 3 languages. All in all we kept eachother safe and eventually made it out of a cellphone black hole.
Since my travels happened to coincide with a communications test, everyone was aware how out of cell service I was. Everyone I had been in around before or going towards had recieved numerous contacts from PC staff each day. Thanks for all the concern, but it had me freaked out when I got 15 texts and numerous missed calls when I could finally turn on my phone.
Wholly hotness! I forgot what dry heat felt like for a bit. The kind where you cant work for 4-6hours midday unless you want heat exhaustion. And even then, laying down in the shade, sweating, you still feel exhausted. I did manage to dig a garden with Tatum as well as learn to better transplant Moringa. We walked out to a section of spiny forest (exciting to any botany nerds out there) and experienced first hand the Madagascar hissing cockroaches (this led to some confusion as they sound like a short gas leak or a fart). I also saw a civet, lizards, and two tortoises. I ate my first habobo, which is some form of old milk, on sweet potato with honey and was amazed by the deliciousness. They also produce peanut butter in the South and I was lucky enough (aka: thank you Paul) to aquire some in the whirlwind of my departure.
Travels with Malagasy people:
The return trip from visiting Tatum's site and very briefly seeing part of the South was undoubtably just as interesting as the ride there. After staying at a fellow PCV's house and trying to figure out ride arrangements for the next day, a man arrives at the house to ask if I wanted to go, right now, in a 4x4. Since my other options were less appealing than a WHOLE seat (I am used to squeezing in many many people) I packed up and jumped in. They even gave me a seat with a belt! About 3 hours into the trip something is wrong...the metal rod that connects the wheels to the steering system had fallen off! They rig it with ropes and we are able to get about one kilometer per fix. After hours of this we eventually arrive at a small town and are able to look for a mechanic. This takes a day to fix as the mechanic does not have the correct parts. When the driver finally returns with the part fixed, his eyes hurt. He apparently did the welding himself, without any protective glasses. He is rendered unable to drive until the next morning. We eventually get to Ihosy where the driver announces that the repair cost so much that he can no longer afford gasoline. This leads to a several hour hunt and my eventual return to civilization.
Saturday, October 30, 2010
The new transects were postponed for a little bit so in the mean time I was working on the lemur census. This involved 5km bike to the town, 7km walk to the forest, and then 2.5km hike on an already established transect. Then we do everything in reverse, packing our lunches into the forest. A transect is a very narrow pathway through the forest. Since they do not cut any trees and only can move branches and roots out of the way. There are fallen trees to climb over and under and saplings to avoid as well as the occasional hidden holes covered with leaves. These transects are at specific degrees and distances apart to know exactly where you are in the forest.
We spotted several groups of woolly lemurs as well as brown lemurs. We averaged seeing 2 groups per day (2 transects, seeing more groups in the morning than in the afternoon). On my second to last day in the forest I was given the opportunity to lead as our guide had to pee. Having not seen any lemurs that day I shocked everybody when a minute or two into leading I saw a male brown lemur. Upon finding him we also saw a female and two others in the group. =D Very exciting. By documenting where the lemurs are in the forest, group dynamics, activities, and the type of forest we can hopefully find out the effects of the different pressures on the forest on the lemur populations.
USAID has decided to change their requirements for Child and Maternal health so that my Moringa project will not be receiving funding. Unfortunate but I am still working with what seeds and materials I already have and can probably do a smaller project to a similar effect.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Just kidding, I dont hunt, but I am going into the forest to set up new transects for a lemur study! Ill be minorly unavailable for about 2 weeks or so. I should be out by the end of the month and back online by Halloween =D Send me some silly pictures! I will be working with Durell a wildlife conservation group, my first time camping with only Malagasy people, wish me luck!
Lately I have been getting "Bon jour" and "bon soir" a lot. I am now starting to count how many of these "BJs" I get a day, and for that matter how much "BS" I get too. This generally still occurs after explaining that I am not French and understand Malagasy better than French...if only this explanation yielded anything...oh well, without it we couldnt have set up such a fun game!
More to come with more and better internet!
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Went to Ambalavao and Ishalo/Ranohira on vacation these past few days. Ambalavao has some really interesting paper making with a process similar to papyrus. They pound the material obtained from a plant, then make it in a frame with water, dry it, and press flowers into it while its still wet. Its very pretty.
Ishalo is amazing. A large amount of it reminds me of California and Arizona and was making me rather homesick. I ended up going on a long hike in the park and got to see some very pretty natural pools. Two of them were known for their colors as they have varied depth and were black and blue. There were also sandstone formations and some really neat plants (One is like a mini baobab painted silver with yellow flowers). There was also a tree/bush that doesn’t have leaves, its stem is simply flattened. There is a place known as “La Fenetre” or “the window” in which the sun sets in the middle of a rock formation that looks like an upside-down triangle.
Its so dry here compared to the south-east that my skin got all dry and my lips chapped! I haven’t felt that since Niger. I still feel homesick for hiking around Southern California and dry heat. I’m heading back to my site much tanner than when I left.
Did a small SRI training with my counterpart and his wife. After planting one field with me, he is teaching other people the techniques he has learned. The rice is now several weeks old so there should be rice in a couple months! Working in the fields is extremely difficult. Since we are lacking in the way of tractor or horse/cow power, all the tilling is done with a shovel and a lot of squishing mud globs with feet. There aren’t enough cows to go to all the fields and tractors would have a very difficult time with transportation since there aren’t roads going out to the fields. When the field is finally made smooth and flat, the transplanting begins and several days of leaning over later, a field is planted =D. I wish I actually liked non-sticky rice better.
I got to meet a guy in Ishalo who is French but born in Malagasy. He’s 83 and has more energy than almost anyone I’ve met. He also speaks all dialects of Malagasy so well that he acts as a translator for certain government business if the officials don’t understand that particular dialect. At 83 he keeps an orchard and garden that are better than most I’ve seen in country, with more types of trees and employing techniques other tree growers haven’t even heard of. Learned a ton in a small amount of time and the best part is that he does this all in a part of the country where its hot and dry with poor soil quality. Amazing!
Newbies: part 2!
In a very short amount of time there will be several new volunteers by me. Its super exciting to have more people around and since they’ve already visited their sites we got to meet some of them. I’m looking forward to their arrival and so pretty soon some new names might start appearing in my blog.
So most people in the states have seen squirrels or some other rodent that becomes rather obnoxious in its attempt to get your food. In parts of Ishalo (namely the picnic tables) the local version of a squirrel is a lemur. They had some sort of a brown lemur as well as the ring tailed lemur becoming very forward in their attempts to steal food. Rather interestingly the guides do very little to stop this and seem to almost promote it as a way of getting the tourists to get the opportunity to see lemurs. They successfully stole a banana peel from us before we started becoming VERY aggressive in our defense of PB&Js. I put myself between my sandwich and the lemur who wanted it. In response she put her front hands on my arm until I shook her off. All of this with a baby in tow on her belly! Obviously most tourists aren’t putting up much of a fight for their food, nor careful about the messes they make. While I hate seeing the lemurs acting this way it was the first ring-tailed lemurs I’ve seen and was interesting. I also saw a couple wild Sifka relaxing natural pool-side which were more impressive although a bit farther away (aka not touching me).
Recently at the taxi brousse station in Fianaratsoa there was a classic example of Malagasy style. A boy about 12 years old was wearing large, gold aviator glasses; a red though mis-matched track suit (with small wear holes in the butt); off-red shoes; a briefcase; a cane that can only be described as a pimp stick; and the weirdest pout/frown I have ever seen. Imagine: 12 year old, briefcase, pimp stick, pout.
My village has decided that my hair is long enough to braid. This might be true for the very top of my head which hasn’t been trimmed in 6 months or so. This however is definitely not true for the sides of my hair which at some points are only an inch long. My hair has thus become a cause of much laughter in my village. Cornrows are artfully done on the top of my head, accompanied by thirty or so tiny braids that stick out in any direction on the sides. Most of my neighbors tactfully ask, “Who did your hair?” while others say, “Oh! You have had your hair braided!” or “Nice braids (teeheehee)” or simply laugh. I feel like I am in a nightmare from middle school and can’t take out the braids for a couple days as the friends who braid it are great and its just my hair isn’t long enough to look good braided yet and I don’t want to offend them.
Posting pictures of everything as I am able on alisonthieme.shutterfly.com
Thursday, August 26, 2010
I’ve been planting like crazy. Right now a lot of families are suffering food security wise as well as nutrition. I’m trying to help at least for next year to have that be less by planting more now. There have been some difficulties getting Moringa to transplant from a bag into a new spot but direct seeding has been good. Anyways, I’m planting away here and hoping for some improvement.
Lets get cooking:
Recently helped make 2 mud stoves and repair a manufactured mud stove. They are really easy to make and reduce the amount of firewood villagers use to 1/3 the former amount. Since its free for them to make (they already have the materials available) a lot of people were interested to see what we were doing and are waiting to see how well they work once they are fully dry. Lets hope they are perfect and people start implementing them, saves their money and forest.
I am still waiting to start lemur research but my contact has been out of town recently. If something exciting happens I’ll let you all know.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
After arriving in Ambatondrazaka from Tana, we slept at a friends house then biked to Amparafaravola, our first stop on the HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention bike trip. The first ride was 67km, our longest day and we arrived in the evening to practice for the next day.
Each festival consisted of 2 hours of the public being able to come up to our different booths and discuss various topics. I was mostly at the environment booth talking about diet, nutrition, and Moringa. We handed out tons of seeds for Moringa and hopefully will see a difference if we get back there. Other booths consisted of HIV/AIDS prevention (complete with condom demonstrations), general health (nutrition, malaria, STDS, family planning), family budgeting, “what is Peace Corps?” and a kids song booth.
The next 2 hours we were on and off the stage in each town. We did skits on how to treat friends and family who have HIV or AIDS, how HIV is transmitted and not transmitted, practicing safe sex, and how HIV/AIDS attacks the immune system. We also performed condom demonstrations, followed by group condom races and blindfolded condom races. We also sang songs that were adapted from Malagasy songs to be about AIDS and lowering the risk of transmission.
The last 2 hours were done by PSI, a local group who promotes awareness and prevention They played music videos and Malagasy made movies about being faithful.
After hours out in the sun and long bike rides, we were all generally exhausted. Speaking in a foreign language for hours on end, answer questions and giving speeches over and over, really wears out the mind. Early bike rides took care of any physical stamina we had left.
By several days of biking, festivals, and sleeping in tents we were wiped out. Thankfully Kelly and Sara came to give a much needed morale boost. We pushed through to the last of 9 towns to arrive back in Ambatondrazaka for a day of rest and preparation for our final festival. The last festival was complete with the arrival of Boda, the Health APCD and finally some much needed HIV testing on site. With the ever changing situation of Madagascar, HIV tests have become unavailable throughout the country, making the promotion of testing and prevention rather difficult. We kept having to tell people to go get tested when they change partners but there are no tests available…
Tested 34 people on the last day, none were positive =D
Doing condom demonstrations with gender reversals so the woman would hold the wooden phallus and the man would put on the condom. I did this multiple times to rather humorous reactions. Also realize this is in front of mixed crowds, aka children and old women included.
Some other PCVs struggled with certain parts of the condom demonstrations, just imagine while on stage and in front of hundreds of people, failing to open a condom wrapper or to tie a knot in it.
Having 8 and 9 year old children be able to answer questions about how to prevent AIDS in front of the very same crowd.
Teens and young adults having fun with the blindfolded condom races. One guy tried to put it in her pocket when it had been “used”, another girl was holding the wooden phallus the wrong end forward. Also the group condom races often were a battle of the sexes and the 65 year old woman winning the race to the trash can was often amazing to watch.
The general dialog of our group was one of the best things. Having to ask the group where they put the “wooden phalluses” is rather hilarious. Things kept getting moved around and we were always laughing.
At some point during the trip, there would be a couple of weird pauses in our on stage performances. In order to fill the gaps we implemented group dancing on stage, the official Malagasy “start the party” song, and a solo lip-syncing performance by Stephanie. The audience never knew it wasn’t planned. Since the lip-syncing was performed to a duet, an assortment of men filled the other role.
Someone pooped in a sleeping bag right before the trip (on accident, caused by extreme digestive illness). A sleeping bag that wasn’t theirs and the other person had to sleep with a blanket instead.
We ate rice and beans most nights as its cheap and has protein. We left places smelling like we had eaten beans.
Going to a dentist in a foreign country has to automatically be interesting. Since Peace Corps requires certain gum tests to be done, namely probing for depth, most volunteers bleed profusely from their gums. While that was unpleasant, the woman assistant who insisted on being a part of the action was extremely unnecessary. She was in charge of the suction and the water squirter. This ended up with my face being sprayed, the back of my throat being sprayed, and my lip being stuck to the suction nozzle. Imagine all that while the mirror and poking device are also in your mouth. At one point I demanded her to stop as she kept getting the suction nozzle either stuck to my lip or cheek.
I got to run over to the training site yesterday for a quick meeting with the new stage. I even got to meet the people who have been placed near to me =D Soon we’ll be welcoming 3 new people to my banking town. We were the first volunteers they met so it was a bit overwhelming. Mike and I tried to answer as many questions as possible in the very limited time we had and to quell some fears. They just got in a week and a half ago or so and hopefully I’ll get to greet them again during site visits.
New pictures up:
alisonthieme.shutterfly.com I’ll try to post as I have internet.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Ranomafana Part 2:
After a few more hikes around Ranomafana (and no more leeches), I have seen several interesting things which I am posting in picture form. Enjoy! Tatum came out to visit before the bike trip so we went around to a couple waterfalls.
The best part about seeing other volunteers is that you can combine forces and create delicious food. Since seeing Tatum we’ve continued on the good food binge started with Abe, Brian, Mike and Tod. The past week has held: Tacos, “Chipotle” style steak fajita burritos complete with guacamole, salsa, cilantro rice, pinto beans and lettuce, BBQ steak sandwiches, mashed potatoes and gravy, Ghirardelli Double Chocolate brownies (THANKS SHIRLEY!!!), chili, stew, and tonight will hopefully be pizza (the dough is rising now). Thanks to anyone who has sent me a care packages, especially those with seasoning packets which are making this all possible. =D
So after not using my camera for a while I came back to my house, opened my trunk and found my camera…DEAD. After a week or so of worry (especially since Abe has the same camera and his was DOA) I have recharged it and it works. Hopefully with the power of my camera and his lenses combined we shall form…Captain Planet!…or at least some better quality pictures. I may in the future post some pictures taken on my camera but not by me. If anyone knows of an easy way to post videos I’ll try to do that eventually.
As I travel a bit around Madagascar, meet other travelers, and talk with fellow PCVs, the topic of a COS (Close of Service) trip has come up. Past PC Mad Volunteers have done a variety of trips and I’m considering (aka planning and hoping) doing a trip of my own. There is no foreseen limit to time (other than the desire to see friends and family at home) and the only limit is money. The ideal would be to visit friends in South Africa, make our way over land to some Swahili speaking countries, and then maybe continue back to do “the loop” in West Africa or catch a boat to Asia from Mozambique. Does anybody know of any cheap (but safe) travel options in the Africa/Asia realm? We have heard rumors of some boats and freighters that are slow but cheap but nothing with any confirmation. Thankfully a lot of the countries we want to go to have Peace Corps established there which makes finding things once we get there easier as well as giving us a support system on the ground (and will also hopefully make it so my parents worry less).
Recently I have been learning more about vetiver grass in Ranomafana. The local cell phone tower is on the verge of collapse and to prevent further erosion, vetiver grass is being used. In Ranomafana I went up to the ValBio research center and got to meet with researchers and staff. Many of their projects are fascinating and since they host study abroad groups as well as other programs, they get a broad range of studies while also supporting the local community. Learning from them was great and hopefully I can find some inspiration from any of their amazing projects to apply in my own village.
The bike trip starts this week and so hopefully we can get some good AIDS information out to the public. After the bike trip I hopefully will be starting my SRI demonstration field as the rice planting season in my village is now. Between holidays and my trip, planting has been temporarily postponed until I get back. I’m finally submitting funding forms after having them deleted and having to find a computer to retype them on. Wish me luck!
Friday, July 9, 2010
June 26th is the Madagascar independence day. This independence day marked the nation's 50th anniversary of independence from France. As this is the biggest holiday of the year for Malagasy it comes standard with a holiday season. Most of June consists of some form of preparation for the 26th (Pronounced the French way vingt-six [van-seese] and referred to as such) and starting as early as April people were talking about the coming holiday. Notably the Christmas holiday is a religious and family oriented holiday, not a season. The party in my village started on the 25th with an all-night dance. After being invited by multiple people, I attended with several of them and enjoyed the rarity of music and a light bulb run off of a generator. This all occurred in the open-air market at the top of the hill in my village. I left when most of the children left and the music continued for 12 hours. At night the kids all had poppers which they would utilize when nobody was paying attention in order to receive the maximum reaction from each explosion.
The actual holiday of vingt-six was composed of a lot of waiting. As everything in Madagascar runs on Malagasy time, the festivities which were supposed to start at 9am were delayed until 11:30am. I was invited to sit on the stage as I was giving a short speech. Through Friends of Madagascar I had acquired some soccer jerseys and balls to distribute to my community. I suppose I should mention that I am not comfortable with public speaking. As we sit on the stage and they fix the microphone to work I pay attention just in time to notice that the mayor is introducing me and saying that I will be giving the first speech. Slowly I made my way around the seats to the microphone to find out that the cord is extremely short. I give my speech, bent in half, partially facing the crowd in order to accommodate the length of the cord. By the time I announced the soccer balls for the schools and the jerseys for the community, the crowd of several hundred people were cheering and didn't notice my shaking like a leaf. The rest of the speeches were all about the success of the country and community in the last fifty years. After the speeches they brought groups from the different community groups up to sing and/or dance. These were similar to American wedding money dances. Some of these were to get support for the local churches or children's groups and got huge support. Donations ranged from five cents to five dollars and one guy even through in his phone as a donation to one of the adult groups.
Once the presentations were done, the adults moved to the local middle school to enjoy refreshments. Sodas for the women and alcoholic drinks for the men. With very large groups of Malagasy people consuming free beverages, a sense of urgency quickly develops. Since each table could get another bottle once theirs was empty, the members of each table are pressured to drink as quickly as possible so that they overall can get the most free drinks. I drank ten cups of soda in under five minutes. Once the drinks were finished (five minutes after they started, approximately ten cases of liter bottles) the women leave to participate in other small parties or start making the feast. The men in the community stay behind to voice their concerns to the officials. The teachers invited me to a small party where even more soda was consumed. I got to talk about some future plans for work with the schools and enjoyed the company. One of my coworkers made dinner for me and by then it was nightfall.
The epitome of class:
For the holiday the officials in the community dress to the nines. This means for most of them, dress pants, shirt, tie, jacket and shoes. The jacket and pants generally are not the same color, fabric or pattern. The same ideas follow for the rest of the outfit. In particular take note of the shoes. With a pant-suit the ideal shoes are dress shoes, if those cannot be acquired then there are three options left. They are as follows in order of increasing fanciness: barefoot, flip flops, and jellies. Yes, jellies. The 3rd grade, American girl standard for shoes is also compatible with black tie events in third world countries. Made out of squishy plastics, they are everything you could hope for for from a shoe and more.
After effects of vingt-six:
Since the speaker system occasionally malfunctioned, the introduction part of my speech was difficult to understand. As a result of this, several people in my village think my name is SON! as this is how it sounded to the crowd. Small children now yell hello to me calling me SON in the highest pitch they can manage.
Friends of Madagascar:
Several people have thanked me for the soccer related contributions and I hopefully can redirect some of that thanks to the Friends of Madagascar staff and donors. THANK YOU!!! The elementary and middle school kids are out there every day playing with the balls and the adults now have enough jerseys that they are well represented when they play neighboring communities.
These seasons are made even more different by living off the coast of the Indian Ocean and cyclone season. As of now it is cold and rainy which will continue until September or so when it will become cold and dry and move slowly into heavy rains and a warming trend by November. Its been two solid weeks of rain and its getting hard to find clean clothes. In the rare glimpses of sunshine I run to wash clothes and at least partially dry them before the rains begin again.
As the bike trip quickly approaches, Melissa and I have been training since IST. The race is 220km over 9 days. A tour de lac if you will which seems fitting since it will overlap with the tour de france. We are way more fit than we were and are now able to go more than 30km comfortably. It will be a test since the first day of the trip is the longest and hardest at 60km. Wish me luck!
In Malagasy, Ranomafana means hot water, named after the hot springs in town. Other than these hot springs, most of the water in Ranomafana is cold! Since arriving to work on a vetiver grass project with Mike it has rained every day, bitterly cold. Since the vetiver grass project has had some recent set backs due to terracing issues we went into the forest for the day. I encountered my first LEECHES! EWW!!! They are terrestrial leeches that climb up your feet and pants. My feet were covered in them. We saw a few golden bamboo lemurs and a greater bamboo lemur. Both are some of the most rare species of lemur. They live primarily on bamboo which contains toxic levels of cyanide and is not eaten by other mammals in the forest. We also got to see some spectacular waterfalls, a few birds (it was raining), and a leaf-tailed gecko which was better camouflaged than a chameleon.
The couple volunteers and I have also managed to make hamburgers complete with onion rings and fries. The plan for tonight is chicken tacos. \par
Friday, June 18, 2010
Since the second training work has been pretty constant. Help has been pouring in from SDMad, USAID, CARE, Unicef, and FID. It has been amazing. Starting on an SRI example field soon that was given to me along with using seed given to me. My sweet potato field has been planted and my garden is looking good.
The other week while sitting with my neighbors by the fire... SOMETHING BIT ME!!! I captured it in my pant leg and held it until someone grabbed a flashlight. Upon letting it go and shaking it out of my pants it was a creepy crawly! I called the doctor and he just said it would hurt a lot, probably not kill me. After careful research since, my friends and I have determined it was a centipede that bit me. It hurt a lot.
First birthday spent abroad. I missed all of you terribly, especially since now I am old (23) and reminescing. Danced a lot and played some beer pong. I had a great time and now time seems to be passing faster and faster.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Saturday, May 15, 2010
So the first part of my service is done and most people tend to qualify it as the worst. Things are finally starting to pick up so that of course means i'm not at site for a while doing training again. Picture is on the way from the capital to my site
In my area Mova is the name for the melanin eating fungus that I currently am growing on my face, back, and chest! It looks like normal skin except for weird white spots. My doctor asked if I had dandruff...thanks...but no. Anyways clearing that up, I'm loving tropical diseases! Its better than the toe fleas which are exactly what they sound like.
Diet part 2:
Just so you know, being on the third world country diet also means that everyone, no matter how thin you will become, will always be thinner than you. They will also be ripped starting at age 6 or so. I didnt know a 10 year old could have a 6 pack before I came here.
So after hearing about crocodiles in the local river near us I am always excited to hear about them. Knowing this, on one of the recent market days in my village I get a group of men at my door at 8am. Confused I greet them and a group of kids act as a buffer. Out of a gunny sack out comes a 1 meter long crocodile with its mouth tied shut. So of course I touched it, showed them how crocodiles have 2 sets of eyelids and then refused to buy it to kill it. They were disappointed that I wouldnt pay them (going rate $12.50) but were happy to pose for pictures.
When living in a third world country and somebody invites you to go buy rice with them, ask how far away it is before you agree. After going through rice fields, across a river, up and down hills we arrive at the market in a far off commune. When we finally got back 7 hours later all my villagers asked me why I would ever walk that far. Apparently I walked approx 40km or just short of a marathon.
We got a couple new volunteers to share our banking town and a bunch more in my region which basically means new people to see once or twice a month and other people that I may never see. I was the rumored mohawk trainee who was culturally insensitive =D
Friday, April 23, 2010
If you want to lose weight in a way that is fast, safe, and easy...quite simply it doesn't exist. If, however, you have 27 months to spare, are willing to work for free, and eat only what is seasonally available in your region, you'll probably drop a few extra lbs. Now that I've been out of country 6 months, I've lost a bit over 20 lbs, gained quite a bit of muscle, and am in decent shape. All I needed to do was work for hours in rice fields, gardens, haul manure, and bike or walk everywhere! The foods that are available right now are: potatoes (imported from other parts of the country), leeks, onions, tomatoes, garlic, green onions, avocados, limes, oranges, bread fruit, jack fruit, jaky, carrots, cucumbers, squash, rice, beans, peanuts, pasta, cabbage, chilies, and eggs. Comebine this with almost no fat intake other than a bit of oil for cooking and voila! I mean, I got anemic within a couple months, but who cares about that when you're thin?
On that note, after being called vazaha (white, foreign person) for 5 months, I'm finally becoming white! Who knows why but I'm developing white spots (I call them anti-freckles) on my shoulders. The kids say they arent a big deal and other people in my village have them but I'm calling the doctor. I noticed them this week and the skin looks normal and healthy but unpigmented...
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Since all the women here are all about braiding here and want to braid my "slippery" hair, I've been working on growing it out a bit. The mohawk is officially trimmed and now I've got a boyish cut. The process of getting your hair cut in a foreign country (where most people have a very differently textured hair) and you dont know the right words to be specific about a haircut is HILARIOUS! Lots of gesturing and basic words (cut, shorter, not short, want to grow, yes, yes, no!) later, I had a generally correct version of what I wanted and then it came to taking off the drop cloth. I had hair clippings everywhere!! She then proceeded to lead me to the sink and wash out my hair, then wash of my face and neck since the hair was everywhere. Melissa witnessed the whole thing and asked what was going on when I was getting washed. The response: "She's washing my face...and my neck...and now she's drying them!!" By the end of it we were all laughing hysterically. I dont know if she had ever had to cut hair while laughing so much. She kept questioning whether or not I wanted to keep the grown out mohawk on top and wouldn't believe me when I did, eventually I gave in to her wishes and now its a bit shorter everywhere.
My village is slowly drying out. The water level in the rivers is dropped several meters and its slowly becoming possible to walk out to some of the fields. There has thus far been very limited relief services in my region as we were not as directly hit by the storm and while they arent needed now, it looks like it might be a starvation year in my area if aid is not recieved later in the year. This has already been taken into consideration and so I'm hoping to be able to make a difference when the time comes. In the mean while its back to working in the fields and seeing if we can recover any of the failed rice.
I love to ride my bicycle! I dont know if my legs do, but I certainly do. While many of the roads in Madagascar would be amazing on a motorcycle, since I am working with Peace Corps I cannot ride a motorcycle. Instead I pedal everywhere and have been getting in pretty good shape doing so. The roads are curvy and hilly, I dont think they follow the same regulations as in the states. In the next couple weeks I plan to bike the twenty-something km to the nearest big town. I've gone 17km recently but don't want to go the whole way by myself. Nearest cold beer is 11km away meaning its also 11km to get back home...sigh.
I thought that transportation would be a bit different in Madagascar than in Niger. Alas! I was wrong! It seems to be true for most of Africa that they have what in the states would be called a van (here its a bus) and pile as much as possible in and on the van and then still fit a bit more in. They generally have 15 to 19 seats (including these little ones that fold out into where there usually is an aisle) and a rack on the top. The record so far for any taxi I've been in is 26 people inside and several sitting on top. This does not include any livestock that may be traveling with us. I nearly crushed a chicken that I didn't notice was under my seat. Since goats are less common here than in Niger we dont see any tied on top anymore but I fully expect if any large animal needs transport that thats where it will go.
2 killed. 1 mother with 4 babies spotted and 1 large rat still remain. They now poop in my shower area and since my food is all locked up they have reverted to eating my books and soap (I kid you not there are claw and tooth marks all over my soap!). They are now getting crafty and taking the food out of the traps without setting them off. One also was trapped but not killed so I had to solve that issue...
Prize for anybody who can figure out what this is:
A fruit that here they refer to as jaky. It has the texture of custard, has large spikes on the outside and is about the size of a cantelope. Grows on a tree and has black seeds around the size of a dime. Its green/yellow on the outside with white fruit on the inside. Delicious but nobody seems to know the name of it in another language. Also there is another fruit called Angave which on the outside looks more like a pomegranate but the inside is totally different.
Friday, March 26, 2010
Whoever named this product did a terrible disservice to any English speaker. Thanks Coca Cola! It’s a drink that when translated from French means English Candy. It tastes like old bubble gum that you get on Halloween and only has any flavor for a minute or two. It also is known as lemonade here. Double whammy. Any time people realize that you speak English they assume that you would enjoy this “English Candy”. You may also be suckered in by the title lemonade and it sounds so refreshing after only drinking water for months that you agree. My suggestion: Don’t!
The dancing here mainly consists of booty shaking and hip thrusting. There are many different styles of this as you may be able to discover if you look up Malagasy music videos. Its pretty interesting and it makes going out dancing a fascinating experience. Bringing a suitable guy is necessary or you can get offers to dance by a dozen different men at a time. And by offers I mean practically attacked while you try to dance with your friends. All in all its pretty fun to go out here and the music is a new style to me. Among the confusing songs are ones that sounds like "that's skeevy" or "le vache qui ri".
In the past couple weeks there has been a large tropical storm in the area. A huge amount of flooding has since left my region rather devastated. While most people are physically okay, most of the rice fields are ruined for the season. More than a week after the tropical storm has subsided into regular rainy season, most fields are still under several feet of water. Relief services have not made a visible presence here yet as there are many areas worse off. I haven’t been able to get out to the fields because of the high water level and mud, nor have other farmers.
With the flooding from the tropical storm, my kabone (latrine) filled with water. When it drained it left the land around my latrine weak and as I went to go use it, the ground collapsed. My right leg fell into the latrine and I had to haul myself out. A rather unpleasant experience if you can imagine. Cleaned myself up and only had some minor scrapes and bruises but I think I might be scarred for life mentally.
A group of Washington University in St. Louis students recently visited MBG in Mahabo. I went over there most days to work with them during the tropical storm. It was interesting to interact with people again and to have conversations in English with anyone other than Melissa. I forget that I am an Expat now and it seems strange to have been gone so long. Cultural differences are starting to make more sense to me and I would interpret some of the differences to them. In all, a lot of their plans were ruined or changed because of the weather but they still managed to do some valuable work. I learned how to make a water filter with them and hope to continue some of their work with local farmers.
Saw a huge snake dead in the road a few weeks ago, it looked like a constrictor. I also had a snake fall out of my mango tree yesterday and land outside my door. We stared at each other for a minute then he slithered into the forest behind my house. The very same day I also saw a millipede in my yard. It looked comfortable so I left it alone. Rats are the new bane of my existence. They eat my food, poop in my house, and wake me up in the middle of the night. I hope this changes and I’ve managed to trap/kill one and it still continues. While learning how to fish like a native Malagasy person there was a crocodile in the area O_O I am not allowed to swim in the rivers anyways but now there is extra incentive not to!
Thunder also keeps me up at night. Last night was the loudest and closest I think I’ve ever experienced lightning/thunder. It was basically right outside my house and made my bed shake. It was near deafening and seemed to linger for hours.
Saturday, February 27, 2010
I have a two room house that is big by PC standards. The door faces the back and I have two windows with plenty of light. My yard is big and has my latrine, shower area, a mandarin orange tree and room for several garden beds. I'm near the market that happens on Saturdays and I like the environment.
Who knew about these magical creatures? I sure didn't. Having never seen lightning bugs before Melissa had to correct me the first time i saw one in the hotel room on the way down. I thought there was a kid playing with a laser pointer outside. I love these little guys! Every evening at dusk they light up the neighborhood like stars everywhere. I usually cant see the real stars because of clouds so these are an excellent replacement.
Food here is rather limited in selection so every week or two I try to go into town to pick up vegetables. The market in village basically only has tomatoes, onions and garlic. When we go into town tho there is a ton of food and so Melissa and I have been able to experiment, thus far successfully creating sopas/burritos, fries, guacamole, pastas, and banana pancakes. Its delicious!
My name here is not tektonik, instead it is Vazaha. Even though I explain on a regular basis that my name is not Vazaha it doesnt matter and they refer to me as such at almost all times. The few times they do not they generally call me madame or madamemoiselle. I now have an improvement and have a few people who call me Alison. The other day I was translating shirts that were written in English for the kids. One kid had a shirt that said "I'm not only CUTE, I'm Irish too!". When I told the kids that this meant he had a nice face and was a vazaha. The kids could not stop laughing at him after that.
Soccer for me has been a huge life saver here. I play several times a week and am making a few friends by doing so. Its exciting to finally be able to talk to people and they are impressed because most girls dont play soccer. I can keep up when we have a juggling circle and they taught me a game "Pass-pass" which is liek a normal game but sideways and half court and they use a stick instead of a goal. If you hit the stick with the ball you get a point and this makes it where you dont have to have as many people on each team.
Its slow going when there is nothing here to work with. I was under the impression that there was a group i was supposed to be working with but there are no farmer groups here and no NGOs. I'm trying to start working with individuals and have been working with MBG a bit but mostly focusing on language. Its a headache having to always speak a foreign language, especially when people get impatient. I'm hoping to soon be able to go with the men out to the fields to get a better idea of farming practices here but its still weird to be a foreign woman trying to work with men.
I hope you all are doing well. I'm missing everybody like crazy and am trying to ignore that fact because its hard enough as it is.
Friday, February 12, 2010
For packages and letters:
Alisn Thieme (MBG)
Direction Regional De L'environnement et des Forets Atsimo-Atsinanana
B.P. 27 Fenoarivo
or for letters only:
Sister Alison Thieme
Monday, February 1, 2010
I have finally sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer! After a busy evening of acquiring seeds for a garden and some herb seedlings I had a fitful nights sleep then got ready for the ceremony. We swore in as volunteers at a big televised ceremony. On our trip random people have recognized us and mentioned the ceremony. We were then fed delicious snacks and pizza and allowed to use the pool. After we went shopping in the capital city we went out for dinner (burger and fries!) and toured the city a little bit. The next morning we were packed and ready to go early in the morning and headed out of town. The main roads are good but very windy. It took 4 hours to go 90 km because of the windy nature of the roads.
Last night I took my first steps into the
Apparently in some of the islands off the coast of
While I’m not a big fan of running for no reason anyways, I think that in most of
Here in the South East I may have adopted a new nickname. Everywhere I go with my hair styled children follow me and talk about “tektonik” (spelled the Malagasy way). Apparently a Mohawk in the south is indicative of a person who listens to tektonik music and dances a lot. I may modify this to tekto and use it as a name when I’m dealing with children because they find it hilarious. In 5 towns or so yesterday people called me tektonik and it’s a running joke amongst my group.
Vazaha is the term for white people in
Monday, January 25, 2010
Community Based Training/Family/Food:
Every morning the family would wake up between 4 and 5 am and I would wake up “late” at 6 or so. Breakfast was usually either some egg sandwich fixin’s or a variation of peanut butter banana pancakes. I would then do a crossword while sitting in my window overlooking the rice fields. After class I’d come back for lunch and eat a Malagasy lunch. This usually contains a lot of rice, some vegetables, and maybe bread or fruit. After lunch was more class after which I’d return home to start dinner preparations with the family. Dinner was then always the funniest part of the day and almost always ended in fits of laughter.
A lot of times for me, dinner preparations involved chopping and peeling since I’m not yet mahay (skilled, good at, smart) at using an open flame as a stove. During the first week they asked me if I was a skilled chef and I told them that I know how to cook at home but there we use different instruments. This led to a lesson on how to make and stoke a flame and then how to cook using it. By the first weekend I was able to make dinner: spaghetti with marinara, garlic bread, and salad. After an epic search for tomato paste ending in failure I made dinner which was alright. I realized I have a need for familiar spices in order to make familiar foods. After hearing about my failed search for tomato paste my host mom brought home a can and started to open it then handed it to me. After finishing opening it (not easy without a can opener) it was realized that my family didn’t use tomato paste normally and asked me how to use it. They asked if it was suitable to be spread on bread and after I said no it was promptly dumped into a frying pan and partially fried. When I suggested they put it into a sauce they agreed and it seemed to be okay. When we sat down to eat our pasta with green beans and “sauce” we discovered that the paste was very sour and since there wasn’t much else in the sauce other than cooked vegetables it made the dish nearly inedible. The following weekend I showed them how to make marinara with tomato paste and it turned out very well. Cheesy garlic bread also went over very well.
Dinner is a sort of hierarchy of who eats first. As a guest I usually served myself first and then the mother got food, then she scooped food into her son’s bowl (he’s young) and then the niece served herself. This is repeated for seconds and later courses. In my house we ate the rice/pasta dish first with a topping and bread, next is salad, and last is fruit for desert. Unless there is rice water on the table, most people don’t have a drink with their meal.
Funny Dinner Occurances:
More than the sour tomato paste/bean sauce we laughed about almost everything. Several times we discovered that the humor came from interesting translations, other times we used my limited vocabulary or situational humor. One night after asking what the different items on the table were I inquired as to what candle wax was called. My host mother replied that it was something of the candle. After asking what the first word meant she explained that it was a word also used for something relating to cows and chickens. After looking it up in the dictionary it was revealed that candle wax is called excrement of the candle. Other words which use this are cow manure and bird poop.
The following night there was copious amounts of candle wax because the candle wick was not properly burning. We ended up playing with the wax and when “candle excrement” was repeated to me I said it was the only excrement I would play with. To this my host mom reminded me that as an environment volunteer I played with manure the day before while making a compost pile. We then made figures out of wax which were sometimes in stretched out proportions or bent oddly. With legs and arms constantly falling off it was hard to stop laughing.
Other nights we would end up acting out words with hilarious results. After mentioning that in
A confusing word that most people ran into is that when you reverse the order of words when saying very full it changes the meaning to be pregnant. Several trainees at the end of one of our first few dinners proudly announced that we were pregnant to our host families. For the most part this was understood though very comical.
FINALLY!!! After more than 3 months of being a trainee I will finally become a volunteer. Most trainings are finished within 10 weeks and are spent primarily at community based training. 12 ½ weeks spent mostly together can get frustrating at times yet has brought our training group pretty close. In a few days we’ll set out on our own and are required to stay there and integrate. The first month is rumored to be the hardest yet we are all looking forward to the challenge and the space. I’m finally going to get the chance to rely on what I’ve learned so far and hopefully while the next month will be challenging it will also be fun. I have passed my final language test and am waiting to be sworn in.
Installation at post will take a few days, both because my post is rather far and because we are helping to install people on the way down. In about a week I should be at post with a new number and eventually a new address. I have a currently unfurnished place, I’m still not sure of the size, structure or exact location of my house but I am hoping to make it a little home. I’m going to paint and get some furniture (most importantly a bed).
In the short term I am planning on improving my language and making Malagasy friends. I also hope to find out my communities needs and work towards helping them meet their needs in a sustainable manner. There is a botanical garden and a community group who wants help with protecting their local littoral forest and reforesting where possible. There also is potential to meet a lemur specialist and work with him. I also hope to start a community and personal garden and have talks on nutrition. As a few secondary projects I want to see if it is possible to set up a science camps for girls. There are so many diverse national parks to explore and learn about that it would be a great way to allow interested students to see a part of their own country and relate the lessons back to things in their own community. There are a few other side projects that I have in mind but I have to see what my community is like first to see if they are practical. I may end up helping the community group learn how to write grants so that they can get funding to continue their work.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
A week before I left for Niger I cut off about 8 inches of hair to have a nice, short, and maintainable style. After a few weeks of constantly sweating I decided to cut off my “only beauty” nearly completely. With my new short Mohawk I was quickly informed that in Nigerien culture that Mohawks specifically are not culturally appropriate and given the option to “cover it up or cut it off.” I of course chose the former option and have maintained a Mohawk for the last month and a half until it grew out to a length that was beginning to make me look like an anime character. For the new year, new country idea I had the sides of the Mohawk shaved into a tri-hawk, also known as a Rufio cut. Again I was pulled aside and informed that in Malagasy culture, Mohawks are also inappropriate and even considered militant or commando. Apparently Mohicans have gained fame across the globe and the aerodynamics of their hair styles are universally
unappreciated. As I continue to cover my hair when not in privacy I am beginning to compare the benefits of maintaining an inappropriate hairstyle versus looking like GI Jane. I have since shaved the sides to have a neatly trimmed Mohawk and can’t decide if women other than Demi Moore can manage not to look like a recovering cancer patient.
Words of advice to future Peace Corps Volunteers: Cutting your hair off is fun and you will have time to grow it out in your 2 year service. Mohawks will probably not be allowed in your country of service, particularly during training. Dreadlocks are variable but generally imply a Rastafarian lifestyle and are discouraged. Mullets are surprisingly acceptable in most places, as are rat-tails. Very short hair on women is generally uncommon in most cultures although it is sometimes acceptable or easily covered until it is of acceptable length. On that note if you plan on cutting your hair during your service its nice to have clippers or haircutting scissors and some gel/pomade. You’ll never realize how much you can trust your stagemates until you hand them scissors and watch the hair fall.
In our first trip into the rainforests of Madagascar we ventured into Andasibe where the last of the Indri live. Indri are the largest surviving Lemurs and are mostly white with black on their underside and face. There are approximately 120 left in existence and cannot survive captivity as their diet is too complex to be successfully replicated. I saw two groups of two Indri each. They like to eat the new leaves of trees so they were rather high above head, giving us all a nice view of their bottoms. On the second hike into the forest, as well as seeing the second group of Indri we saw some gold colored lemurs and a baby lemur. They cling to their mothers back for the first months of life and are completely adorable. The mother in this instance was particularly photogenic and came down to pose several times. In a bush there were a few small brown lemurs but they hopped off before we got to see more than the odd hand and dark blur of motion. In
many parts of Madagascar Eucalyptus was regrettably introduced. It has now replaced many of the endemic tree species and now maintaining old forests and their ratios of species is increasingly difficult.
Got rice man? Got rice? All I can say is yes. Malagasy culture largely revolves around rice. Eating and producing rice is life here. It is often said that if you do not eat rice at a meal then you haven’t eaten. Most of the country is able to produce rice and uses farms and techniques passed down from their ancestors. With the ever increasing human population, rice production using ancestral techniques is becoming insufficient and thus SRI has been introduced. Part of my job will be to encourage my neighbors to slowly understand and utilize SRI when it is feasible to get a higher yield with less water usage. Most Malagasy meals consist of a HUGE pile of rice and something to go with it. This is served with a side cup of rice water. Breakfast is often a rice mush akin to oatmeal. Increasing the production of other foods other than rice is difficult to encourage as rice yield is also a status symbol. Few people will refocus their efforts
into producing vegetables instead of rice, even when they would be able to have a more balanced diet and possibly earn more money than if they produced rice. Saying that you don’t like eating vary (rice) can be very insulting to both the people and the culture.
A tree grows in Brooklyn and with some digging I’m pretty sure we could discover who that tree belongs to. In Madagascar, the concept of land ownership is very different and while farmers use the land passed on through their family, they don’t actually own their field. Same with the mango trees outside their window or the vegetable garden they maintain. While it is generally acknowledged whose space is whose it isn’t privately owned. While this mostly means less paperwork, I think it also says a lot about a culture that is not as worried about drawing lines in the dirt, building brick walls to maintain those lines, and recognizing that if somebody wants to plant a garden then they should be able to build it where its feasible and not inconveniencing anybody, whether or not they have a deed to the land under it. This is also how all Peace Corps Volunteers have housing. Each town that requests a volunteer must be able to provide a suitable
space for a volunteer to live and work. This is made much easier when land ownership laws are different than most countries.
To understand better my email situation I provide the following explanation. I get to internet about once a month. When I do I am in a line of 36 people, all of which have their own needs and want to go online. There is generally a 30 minute time limit and it is 30 minutes of the slowest internet imaginable. I have waited 5 minutes for a single page to load before. I will only upload pictures if they are handy and the internet is good. I will barely do more than to check my email (on whichever server happens to load first: Google, Yahoo, or UCLA) and then copy them to a hard drive to be read later before my time is up. This means that emailing me is a very slow process as I may not respond until the next time I get to internet. While this may become faster once I move to post depending on whether or not there is internet in my banking town, I probably wont be doing anything very quickly on the internet.
I LOVE getting mail! Really all of us trainees do. It’s almost as slow as me getting to internet but if you write me a letter you are guaranteed to get one back. I can also include fun things in the mail like labels in Malagasy, Madagascar beer labels, or other small things you request. Mail is also how I’ve been getting some of my news. I am working on getting a radio but until then all the news I get is from other people, mainly through phone calls. Among things that I recently found out about are: Tiger Woods incident, Brittany Murphy dying, and Nigerian bomb scare. News that seems over played and old to you is new and exciting to me. We find out a lot of our news from magazines dated months ago. If you get bored of writing to me then clip out an article or tear one out of a magazine in your doctor’s office because I would love to hear about things at home. If you want to read something really interesting, look up politics in
Madagascar starting a year or two ago. I am not supposed to give any details so let me just promise you that they are fascinating.
It’s amazing how quickly Americans can go from being afraid of insects to being fairly tolerant within a few short weeks. Bugs are not only much more common but also much bigger here. Now instead of killing/removing all bugs that are found inside it is often qualified “it’s not THAT big” and left alone. The corners of most rooms have a spider web which we rely on to catch some of the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes here are out both during the day and at night carrying different diseases at different times. This means bug spray is worn all the time and you still wake up with more bites. A few of us are also discovering that while a mosquito net protects against mosquitoes, it is ineffective once your mattress has bugs living inside of it. This presents about the same amount of problems as trying to get clothes to dry outside when it rains every day.
There are many times of awkwardness guaranteed when you live with another family in a foreign land with a foreign culture and very little language knowledge. In the span of a day I was able to start discussing family with the sister of the woman hosting me. She told me that her second husband is Maty. I asked about the first husband and she said he was also Maty. The confusion starts when I assume that Maty is a name much as it is in Niger. Here when she says that all of her husbands were Maty its not that she has a funny "I am Henry the 8th" situation, its that her husbands are both deceased. Thank you language barrier. Maty=Dead. =/