Sunday, April 19, 2009

the end

The current state of things....

Madagascar is still a bit of a mess. Tourists aren't going, so a HUGE part of their income is simply eliminated (and of course it's the people not the government who suffer because of that). The new President has decided that all schooling must be entirely in French (never mind of the teachers don't speak it well enough to lecture in it, never mind if many students do not speak it and so will not learn anything in class). Rumor has it they just want to make France like them more. This is a step away from the current direction (the goal was to make schooling more and more in Malagasy), which has not pleased people giving Madagascar aid, which means that in addition to generally screwing up the education, the new President's genius plan means that teachers might not get paid. Think about that for a minute. So that's generally what's going on--or what I can gather from miles and miles away. The old President is somewhere in Africa, working with other African leaders, trying to pressure the new government into stop being ridiculous.

As for me, I'm currently working on a campaign for Environment Minnesota, promoting clean energy. And then in September I'll be heading out with the Peace Corps again! I don't know exactly where or when yet, but it'll be francophone Africa and in the business sector instead of education.

In any case, thanks for keeping up with all the things I've been doing. I'm sorry I can't do a more dramatic ending with numerous lists and favorite memories--it's been a little too hard what with that whole evacuation thing, and I'm rather putting off things like that. I hope you enjoyed this little window into another life and that maybe it's taught you a little something. Or that it will at least make you smile a little whenever you see chickens or cockroaches or who knows what.

I like banana.

(the title comes from two students' tests--it was how I knew they cheated, because it had nothing to do with the question so they couldn't have randomly come up with that on their own)

When I visited the States in November, it was a bit too overwhelming to even comment on the differences—I didn’t even know where to begin because it was all rather surreal. But the shock from November has worn off a bit, so I thought I’d give you a list.

Things that have genuinely surprised me here in America. By that I mean things that surprised me so much that I did a double take—things that took a half an hour minimum to think through because it made so little sense to me.

1. How cold the water out of the facet is. I realize that sounds stupid, but I’m very serious. In Madagascar, refrigerated drinks meant not hot drinks—slightly cool, but certainly not cold. But here—when you choose cold water on the facet, it really means cold. I mean ICY. I mean I’ve had iced drinks that are not as cold as that water. How does it do it? Are the pipes refrigerated? I don’t understand.

2. You can’t hear the rain when it rains. No joke, it rained the first day I was back (since then it’s become snow), and I spent a good hour looking outside at the rain, not understanding why I couldn’t HEAR it. If I didn’t SEE the rain pounding on the pavement, I wouldn’t even know it was raining. Now, in Madagascar, school is often canceled because of rain, simply because you cannot hear the teacher—the rain on the tin roof makes too much noise. And at home, I tried listening to Frank Sinatra while it rained for a cozy afternoon—only I couldn’t hear Frank over all that noise. Even with doors and windows shut, it’s loud and clear. (Note: While you want this to be soothing—so you can fall asleep to it—there are often so many roof leaking problems that the sound of rain doesn’t put you to sleep—it makes you stay awake worrying that the rain will start falling on you in bed or fill up your baskets of clothes, leaving you nothing to wear tomorrow.) I was so sad. To be protected from the sound and smell of rain? If temperatures weren’t 20 degrees colder than what I considered cold in Madagascar (isn’t it April?), I’d have opened the window.

3. Mosquito bites. No seriously, where do they come from? It’s been over two weeks since I’ve been in a place where mosquitoes exist at this time of year. I don’t understand. Did they hide in my backpack? And the one on my knee itches so badly it actually HURTS.

4. Shoes. I guess two years of wearing only flip flops has made me forget what shoes feel like. After wearing three different pairs of shoes, I started to wonder if my feet had grown while I was gone, because they all felt so TIGHT. And then I realized that they all fit perfectly. I’m just not used to having something enclose my feet.

5. American Idol. Three hours. Count them. A TV show is capable of having a captive audience for THREE HOURS EVERY SINGLE WEEK. That’s a semi-serious relationship. It’s incredible. I mean, I can’t even judge that—-it’s straight up impressive. They must be so proud. . . .

6. How clean the water is. There’s this filter attached to the kitchen sink—for drinking water, as opposed to other water. And I stood there and compared the water from the regular faucet with the filter water. They look the same to me. Clean and clean. The water you shower with here looks cleaner than the water I filtered and treated before drinking. It’s incredible. No one should die of thirst in America. (I'll be honest, I sometimes drink the water from the bathroom faucet instead--it feels as if it has more substance in it.)

7. How clean your clothes and body can get. It’s like I’m a new me with an entirely new wardrobe. Okay, I DO have an entirely new wardrobe—one that includes sweaters and warm socks. But my old clothes? When I took them out of the drier? OH—-and can I just say, there’s a machine to dry your clothes. First, the machine that WASHES them spins so fast at the end that they’re practically dry when they come out (okay I admit it—-I suck at wringing my clothes before throwing them on the line). Talk about eliminating that whole sun-fading-the-colors problem. Amazing. But to get back to the point. Even my hair. I’m a whole new me. Water pressure is amazing.

8. A reversal of polite things. So in Mahabo, if you had a runny nose (like I did when I got the flu because the temperature got down—DOWN—to 80 in the evenings before I got evacuated), you would close one nostril with a finger, aim into bushes, and shoot that snot out as far as you can (and, let’s admit it, get whatever clung to your nose with your fingers and flick it away as well). Sometimes I would have a handkerchief, and I was totally embarrassed whenever I used it. Like they thought I was some nut for keeping the snot with me. Even worse with kleenex or toilet paper, because now you’re wasting valuable materials as well. Here in Minnesota? Very much the opposite. I get slightly embarrassed just thinking about what would happen if I followed the same social code here. Man. And it's pretty upsetting when you do something because you think you're doing the nice good polite thing only to find people being cranky because their standards and definitions are different. AH.

9. Wounds heal so quickly! No seriously. I think it must have to do with the general cleanliness thing, but I tell you what—-injuries I’ve been nursing for MONTHS have disappeared here so quickly that I forget where they used to be located. It’s incredible. Scar acquisition must be WAY down in America.

10. If you leave a plate or can or anything that’s touched food out—not only for half an hour, but even for multiple days—ants will not appear. I keep waiting for them to make attacks, but it doesn’t happen. In fact, the general lack of bugs thing is kind of bizarre. It’s like if there were suddenly no children in the world. Not that I’m comparing children to bugs, but I’m just saying—an integral part of my life is suddenly gone, and it’s slightly creepy.

Aaaand a bonus number 11. EVERYONE write blogs. And I mean EVERYONE. And their purpose feels very different from mine when I created this one. I mean, I just did this because I figured it’d be easier than e-mailing people updates. I’d just post the updates online, and then you could check at your leisure. But other real live bloggers? That world kind of frightens me and is not at all what I meant to be a part of. Soooo I do not think I will ever do that again. For future adventures, either we’ll have to go back to the e-mail thing, or . . . I don’t know. Whatever. It just . . . doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t even really like saying I have a blog. They’re my updates that’s all. Okay. That’s all I have to say on that.

Also let’s add a number 12. Food is pre-made here. No joke. Like, instead of buying tomatoes, rice, and onions, and doing what you can with it, you buy dishes of things already put together. Instead of saying oh this is a fruit or a vegetable or I don’t know what, you say oh this is . . . greenish and it contains these five things. I find this confusing. Doesn’t this seem complicated to any of you?

So there is my answer to the question of how my return to the States has been. Shocking and . . . shocking. And sad. (I mean, come on—I got evacuated from my HOME.)

All I hope is that you will now think of my every time your hands become frozen because of the ultra cold water in your facets.


So the reason for the delay for all of those posts is (drum roll please): I was evacuated from Madagascar. Right when they thought things were finally calm again, the opposition burst into life. You can check out BBC, but in short, the ex-mayor who wanted to be president (even though he's too young according to the constitution, even though elections aren't for another couple of years--and did I tell you he used to be a disc jockey?) stormed the presidential palace and who knows what else--and with TANKS--I didn't even know they HAD tanks!--and has now claimed himself as President. He crowned himself and everything (and was pretty mad that the US didn't give its approval--in fact, only France seems to be not so angry about this whole coup thing--even the African Union condemned it). Wow, that came out not as simple as I thought.

The Peace Corps realized it was too much to keep the program open for now so we got a message one night, packed our bags, and headed out the next day. We spent a week in South Africa closing our service, then I flew home (and surprised my parents).

Soo...that's why things have been a little crazy and I haven't had time to update you.

a big sigh

[A final tribute to my students? You can see from the following that me being consolidated in Morondava for 3 weeks and then coming back unsure if I'd actually be back for the rest of my service was as stressful for the students as it was for me. They were discouraged and many simply gave up.]

Two explanations are needed. Language and exams. Ranting and raving will come with both, but trust me—I tell you not so I can complain, but to get the most out of something negative—and in this case that means trying to amuse you.

Language. I miss my first year here. There are many reasons. I was naïve and everything was new. Life was challenging in different ways, sure, but it had the distraction of discovery. It had those moments where you suddenly looked around you and got this strange feeling just thinking about how bizarre your life was. You’d think to yourself how crazy and different it was, and that would somehow make up for those challenges. The second time around, you look around you and it all seems familiar. You can’t have that strange feeling anymore. You find yourself more realistic—which is good in the long run, but still slightly less charming.

I also miss that first year because of my relationship with my students. I was so much closer to them, for many reasons. The newness, the fact that I had more time with them (I buried myself in Mahabo, without these month-long breaks away for summer vacations or political crises). Maybe they were better behaved (I like to think so) or smarter (ditto). If I think hard enough, I’ll remember reality and how that’s all a lie. Equally naughty. Equally lazy. Equally number of moments unhappy with the idea of being a teacher. But there are some differences that made my time with them better. That naïve thing, for one. I would sing and dance for them (literally), whereas I now have less time with them so a minute can’t be wasted on that—and they get too riled up and it ruins the rest of the lesson. So that’s pretty much ended. And I was learning to teach English as they were learning it, and that was exciting. We were both attacking together! Their success would be my success! I now know that no matter WHAT you do—how well you teach—learning a foreign language ALWAYS lies in the hands of the student. Good lesson or bad, if they don’t care to learn, they won’t. You just try to be there for the ones that DO.

Okay, so maybe I’m just being a little melodramatic because it’s been a rough week. But still. One thing that IS different is language.

See, that first year, they expect you not to know any Malagasy. You’re new, after all. And it’s GREAT, because ONE word in Malagasy leaves them stunned. They are so proud! Look at our blonde singing and dancing teacher! She learned how to say easy in Malagasy!

The second year? I’m SURE I’ve explained this to you, but consider this a quick review. It’s as if they forget that you’ve ONLY been there a year. Not that long in the big picture. They seem to believe that because they are used to seeing you, you have been there forever—and since you’ve been there forever, you are fluent in Malagasy. During the SECOND year, they are stunned (in a NEGATIVE way) if you don’t understand one word. Who cares if you understood every other word they said. How can you not know the meaning of some obscure word you’ve had no reason to learn at this point? Students about to graduate, who’ve studied English for almost 7 years and can’t speak a word of it except “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “goodbye” will sit and giggle because you pronounced a word funny or because you don’t have grammar down pact—WHEN YOU’VE ONLY BEEN STUDYING IT FOR A YEAR AND A HALF. And of course by studying I mean speaking it and listening to it and hoping that your brain will somehow learn the subtleties. Not to rant, but you can imagine how frustrating this is. You are no longer a cute dog doing tricks and earning treats. You are silly for not being a complete expert.

And after spending a month in Morondava with other volunteers during consolidation, I have lost a lot of my language (it happens when you stop using it). So when I’m spending a week trying to re-adjust to my life here after a stressful 3 weeks of never knowing each day if I was staying or leaving, it is just too much when I get the “Oh, she does NOT know Malagasy comment” after I have to yell at my students because they are being too naughty. It is downright exhausting. Shame shame shame on them.

That’s part one.

Part two is an explanation of exams. Another thing I’m sure I’ve gone over.

I loved exams in high school. Sure you’d get nervous. But when it came down to it, they were almost like games. Like a quiz show, only you already know all the answers. As long as you paid attention in class, tests weren’t that bad. High school teachers just aren’t that mean.

That being said, I forget how much I hate GIVING exams. I think of exam week with excitement. You take it and you clear the slate and start over afterwards. Plus exams usually come right before a vacation. There’s no new material to learn—just proving that you’ve paid attention this far.

But no. Five minutes into the first exam and I am in agony. They don’t stop complaining that they aren’t ready—that we should delay the test. They want to keep their notebooks on their desks—they try to convince me it’s okay since their notebook is for physics, even though they just heard me tell ten others that I didn’t care—no notebooks means no notebooks. It takes a good 15 to 20 minutes just to get through these preliminaries.

Then the test starts. Note that this does not mean handing out exams. It means me writing the test on the blackboard and them copying it into their notebooks. It takes another 5 to 10 minutes to REALLY start, because I have to keep pausing until they’re silent—something they are very very bad at.

The test finally written, the explanation given, you’d think it’d be okay, right? No no no no no. I spend the rest of the time yelling—and I mean YELLING—at them to be quiet, to quit looking at other people’s tests, stop talking stop talking stop talking. They seem to think exams are group activities. When I’m not yelling, I’m answer questions about the tests. There’s always one question I answer five times because they don’t seem to pay attention when I explain it because someone else asked. There are a couple questions that are legitimate and I’m fine with—no problem, let me help you better understand the test so you can do your best. But the REST of the questions are ridiculous—essentially requests for the answers. If being tested on vocabulary, they’ll ask the meaning of those same words their being tested on. If being tested on the comparative form, they’ll ask me what the comparative form is. They’ll ask for example after example, tell me they never learned it, say it is too hard or confusing or whatever. And all over questions that are EXACTLY the same form as the exercises we did in class. My younger kids understood that if they knew how to do the exercises from the lessons, they could ace the tests—and a handful of them consistently did just that. My older kids seem to think they can argue me into simply giving me the answers.

And THEN I have to take tests from them when they go way past the time limit (and honestly, if you couldn’t figure something out in 2 hours, would you EVER?). I have to listen to EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM tell me how hard the test was, both as they turn the test in and then again every time I see them outside of class.

They fight over their grades (if you talk to friends all the time or skip class and don’t even bother trying to study later, do you really think you’ll magically get anything near a perfect score?). They get upset if I give them a zero because they so obviously cheated. They do not seem to connect their actions with the consequences.

Exam week is exhausting.

And I’ll point out that that doesn’t even include writing and grading those things.

It’s exhausting. And I keep asking myself—and them—why they don’t seem to understand that if they would just sit quietly and take the test it’d be fine—that when they talk and try to cheat all the time I HAVE to be mean—and we ALL hate THAT.

Now, the point of these two little lessons—on language and exams. For the most part, I love my life here. It is a great experience and I am very happy. I appreciate the quality of the way I live and I try to make the most out of it all. And I am grateful that I’m doing exactly what I wanted to be doing—spending a couple years simply helping other people, not worrying about myself, but trying to make things a bit better.

But then there are weeks like this one. They have to happen, and it’s as much a part of my experience here as everything else—and perhaps has an even greater impact on the way I change as a person (it’s the hard times that make us grow, right?). But it’s kind of ironic. I mean, many people tell me how proud they are, what great things I’m doing, and kind things like that that make me sound like a superhero.

But what exactly does it mean to help others? See, in college, it meant spending time with the elderly at a hospice or making someone smile as they order their cup of coffee. It meant using little moments to make someone’s day a little better. And that kind of thing feels good. And then here I am—when my job kind of technically IS to help others—and I’m yelling—I’m babysitting lazy students who don’t give a shit about learning English.

And no, that’s not entirely true. I do have some students who are very smart and disciplined and who can make a difference in their country. It’s just hard to see that sometimes when the majority of your students are nothing like that.

I guess what I’m trying to say—or perhaps what I’m trying to get my mind around or simply accept—is that helping other doesn’t always feel good. In some ways, the more you head in that direction, the more complicated it gets—and the less convinced you are that you actually ARE helping others.

And then you find yourself telling other people what you’re doing—in this case, being a Peace Corps Volunteer—and you kind of cringe, waiting for whatever response it will bring. Because the truth is, it doesn’t completely deserve the glamour many people are ready to give. The truth is, this complicated two-year experience is just another way of chatting with someone as you make them a cup of coffee.

it's personal

Not to be a gossip or anything, but rumor has it (aka someone told me last night) that the mayor (who wants to be president) is also rich (like the actual president. The REASON why he is rich is because he used to be the presidents son-in-law. Catch that? The mayor’s ex-wife is the president’s daughter. Hello?? Does anyone else find that crazy? It would seem that our little (big) national problem might should be worked out within the family . . . .

(Okay so a couple months later I'm told other versions of this story and it sounds slightly more complicated--but still--the point is, drama is involved.)

mmm cassava leaves

Just so you don’t think I only eat bugs out here, I though I’d describe a more normal meal. (Note: the flour bugs got so bad that I had to buy something to sift them out to avoid eating more bugs than flour.) Well, kind of normal in any case.

Yesterday I made what is called ravimbalahazo voanio. It’s kind of like . . . puree leaves with coconut. Cassava leaves to bre exact. So in the market, these are the units you use. You pay either for a pile, the individual object, or by the kilo. That’s for some things. For things like rice and beans, you pay for a kapoaka—which is an empty condensed milk can (so . . . a cup). This is also true for ravimbalahazo. They take the leaves of cassava, grind them up to make a nice puree that resembles (and kind of smells like) the grass you chop up when you mow the lawn. And then for only roanzato (about ten cents) they’ll stuff a kapoaka full of it and put it in a plastic baggy for you. Lunch!

I ended up grating a coconut, making coconut milk with the shavings, and added it to my leaves. Then I cooked both that and rice in my solar oven. It was amazing. It looks rather spinachy, but has more of a grassy taste. Not like I’ve eaten grass. But you get my point. I’m not sure if there’s even any nutritional value in the stuff, but we generally believe—whether rightly so or not—that the greener the thing is, the better it is for you. In which case, I feel like Popeye, cramming tons of vitamins in my body. I could probably beat you up.

Just thought I’d give you a little taste of the meals I eat down here.

Note: For those of you who feel bad, thinking I am starving and eating leaves, please don’t. In addition to more traditional meals, I still end up making myself queso and torillas about twice a week. I can’t help it. I’m addicted. I craved it so much, and when I figured out that I could do it at a reasonable price, instead of satiating me, it only makes me crave it more. Note: For those of you who now think badly of me because of my obsession with queso and tortillas, please don’t. At one point recently I lost 25 pounds (no joke—I was literally underweight and my clothes wouldn’t fit—seriously—skirts fell right off of me, it was concerning to say the least) so I am convinced that any means of getting more dairy (and therefore more fat) into my body is a good—and even necessary—thing.

cockroach coffee and other delights

Not to gross you out or anything—or to make you think I’ve completely lost any standards I once possessed—but I most definitely had a cup of cockroach coffee. No, this is not some Malagasy cultural thing. No, no. What that means is a cockroach was unfortunate enough to make the inside of the upper half of my Italian coffee maker. And I in turn was unfortunate enough not to check. I put the coffee grounds and water into the bottom half, threw it on the stove, balanced on two forks conveniently making the burner small enough to hold it. It wasn’t until I’d poured out all the coffee and looked inside to check (you can tell what is and isn’t important to check for me) and noticed that little body squirming. Actually, I think it just rolled, not squirmed. There’s no way it was still alive. In any case, I figured the dead body was in the pot and the coffee was in my cup. Not touching, right? It’s like a warped time-twisting version of the 10-second rule. All I can say is that I am NOT the type of girl to waste a good cup of coffee.

Besides, some tiny insects (species unknown) were in the flour I used to make tortillas for lunch right before that cup of coffee. THEY didn’t cross any lines because you COOK tortillas, and in MY mind, anything cooked is automatically cleansed of any impurities.

I consider this all an important reminder that I am getting enough protein over here.

On a similar note, there are new cockroaches in town. There are golden, but I do not want to immediately group them with the shower cockroaches, because I don’t know them personally yet. In any case, they apparently had a breeding party in one of my spices. I’m not sure which, since they turned what was left of it black. Who knows, maybe they nested in cinnamon—or was it oregano? The world may never know.

The point is, these little buggers (less of a pun than a reminder of the word’s origins) creep and crawl everywhere. Then again, they’re still babies and thus unnoticeable—and gone if you blow air at them just once. Also, I prefer them to the mouse droppings I often find scattered. Wow, you must think I’m disgusting. But what do you want me to do? I cannot spray my town for all things smaller than my hand.

Officially and for the record, it is unpleasant to spend close to a month in another town because your country’s having a political crisis. Living in a cramped hotel room aside, it means you have to re-settle into your quiet town. Which you already had to do when you first moved here. And again after summer vacation. And yet again after your US trip. And when you only have four more months to go, with two trips to Tana necessary in the middle of all that, you feel a little homeless or lost or something uncomfortable. And it doesn’t help when someone you were close to left the country for good (ah, what to do when service comes to an end—and it’s staggered—not like college graduation—people slowly dropping out of your world).

So now you understand why that cup of cockroach coffee was so necessary. Sometimes a girl needs those little things that make her happy. For me that’s coffee. And no cockroach can mess with that.