Saturday, May 2, 2009

ISP = Fini

I've been planning on giving updates for a while now, but it's been an entire month since I've written anything.. azafady. It has been exactly four weeks, the official time of our Independent Study Projects. Today I turned in my paper and presented to the group and I'm finally free. We half about a week and a half left, but my academic work in Madagascar is officially complete. Awesome.

So here's what happened to me in the past month. I left for Analapatsy, the location of my study, and camped in the mayor's backyard for 17 days. There was a lot of interviewing, a lot of walking, and a lot of sleeping on the ground without a sleeping pad. I did over 40 interviews with villagers, asking them about this program, called TONDA, that distributes foreign seeds and modern farming techniques. Every morning and every afternoon I would walk with my translator, Safidy, to villages around the commune or into the fields themselves. We would be invited into farmers' homes and attract dozens who would crowd the doorway to get a good look.

I was there with Safidy, Rita (another SIT student), and her guide Andreas. Rita's from Wisconsin (and Chicago) and she goes to Knox college. She's a brilliant artist and she is barely five feet tall. Thus, I imagine we made quite a couple walking around the villages. Anyways, we brought all our food (basically beans and rice) and we paid one of the women in the mayor's compound to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the four of us. Rita and I shared a tent, and Safidy and Andreas shared another. We got up everyday at 6:30 and were often in our sleeping bags before 8:00... (living the wild life). It was really an enjoyable stay, especially at the beginning. Towards the end, Rita and I were desperate to get back to Ft. Dauphin and we finally found a hill with cell phone service at the top and we sent for a car to pick us up a couple days earlier than planned.

Though it seemed like I did a million interviews, we had quite a bit of free time, waiting for meals or during after lunch nap time. Here are some things Rita and I did to pass the time:
- SO much reading. I read A Tale of Two Cities, and got well into Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe.
- So many cards. There aren't that many great two person games. We probably played this one game called YANIV about 5,000 times.
- Where's Waldo. Rita and I even did the impossible: we found the mystery character in every page.
- 20 questions or the alphabet game, in which you think of a topic and come up with something that starts with every letter. A very popular theme was food: kinds of candy, ice cream flavors, things you want to eat right now, things that can be pizza toppings, etc.
- Watched the greatest baby I have ever seen scoot around the yard hitting geese with sticks. He was the mayor's son (with his second wife) and was undoubtedly the light of my Analapatsy life.
- Talking about all the people in the commune around us. There were approximately three families living in the commune. (It is never clear how people are actually related in Madagascar. There is no word for "cousin".. they use the same word for sister or brother). They spoke no French of course and we don't speak Malagasy and were never told their names so we just referred to everyone by defining physical characteristics, personality traits, or roles. For example, Tall Girl was the loudest person I may have ever experienced, and the least shy about blatantly staring and Rita and me for hours. Cook only came up to my waist, but was very friendly and gave us bracelets at the end of our stay. My favorite kid in the compound was Chuckles, who was always smiling. And sometimes Moustache, Tall Girl's husband, would play cards with Hat when Rita and I were gone...
- At night Rita and I would listen to my iPod for a little while, usually Flight of the Conchords, which we would then sing throughout the day. We did a pretty good job of conserving the battery until the end.
So... basically I'm pretty mahay at entertaining myself without any electricity. But thank god Rita brought the cards.

So a few things happened that were interesting. One of my many many blisters got severely infected and my foot swelled and it was so painful that I couldn't walk for a few days. But Safidy did some ... interesting first aid and I took some antibiotics from the local market and it was better in no time. They don't have the Easter bunny in Madagascar. Usually everyone celebrates by drinking a lot and going to the beach for a picnic on the day after Easter sunday. Well this year, I got to celebrate Easter by watchin Rambo: First Blood Part II (circa 1985) in French outside on a tiny TV that was run by the mayor's generator with about 50 children from the area (who definitely do not speak French). It was GREAT. Rambo under the stars.

So then we got back to Fort Dauphin and I had the greatest lunch I've ever had. The food situation in Analapatsy was not ideal. Rita and I were big fans of the beans: that's why we brought them. But Safidy kept buying weird things at the market and telling the cook to make it. Sometimes we had rice and pumpkin leaves for dinner... That's it. And sometimes we had fish heads, even though we told them we don't like fish. And for breakfast there was very very watery rice, which is a very standard breakfast for Madagascar. I'm down with rice for breakfast, but the rice had a weird and horrible taste of rotten meat. (I will never be able to express how much I miss cereal. Oatmeal. Waffles. Pancakes. Bagels..... oh man. Less than two weeks!) So when we got back, the taste of cold coke was... pretty fantastic.

So for the next week and a half, Rita and I and another girl stayed at a hotel/hostel in the center of town writing our papers and eating at restaurants. Now, in contrast to after Analapatsy, I am very very sick of eating in restaurants. (Pretty much every restaurant has the same menu). Gradually all the other students came back to Fort Dauphin and now we've all (essentially) finished our papers. We leave Fort Dauphin for the last time on Monday. We'll be spending a couple of nights outside Tana waiting to catch a flight to go up north to Diego, where we'll be doing a little more camping and lemur seeing and the like. Diego is supposed to be pretty great, so I'm thinking that it's going to be a good conclusion to the semester. Still, everyone here is counting down the days. We get into Washington D.C. in the early afternoon of May 14, if all goes according to plan. I can't wait for a real shower. And for cereal. And for television (that I can understand).

Ok, to whomever has made it this far through this post... I'm sorry. But thank you very much for your attention. Misaotra betsaky.
à la prochaine.

Friday, April 3, 2009

akory e!
So it's been another insane week. Our Independent Research Projects officially started today, and my whole life has revolved around getting mine set up. In case you don't know, we have exactly four months to do a study of something - anything, really. We have to do a certain number of hours of field work, and then we have to put together a paper at the end, which we will present to our fellow students and professors, etc., in the beginning of May. Due to the crisis, we could only do our projects within 120 km of Ft. Dauphin or within 120 km of Nosy Be, a touristy tropical island off the northern coast. Half of us flew up there on Wednesday. Some of my friends have also already left near here to enter the forest to count trees and bugs and stuff. Predictably, I still didn't know exactly what I was going to be doing until VERY recently. But now, it seems pretty certain that I'll be in the commune of Analapatsy, which is a couple hours away from Ft. Dauphin, on the beach. I will be looking at the agriculture of the area, and specifically the role that the NGO CARE has had in the area. I will be essentially evaluating the evectiveness of their programs. CARE representatives have expressed that my study will be helpful to them, and that's all I care about... that my study will serve some kind of purpose.
I have a guide, who is a ridiculous musician named Safidy. Another student is going to the same place so we'll probably be camping together with her guide.
Today we went to the market at bought all our food for the next three weeks (that we will give to a cook we hire on site). I have a lot more respect for our program coordinator. I have no idea if we have enough, or if we bought enough rice for a small country. I'll get back to you.
So, I leave tomorrow morning, and I'll probably be in the field for almost three weeks. I'll essentially be without phone, and certainly without computer. So I will be completely out of touch, just in case you were wondering.
Ear update! On saturday, my ear was kind of reinfected and still perforated and the insurance company in the states (which SIT enlisted) required that I see a specialist asap. So the insurance company flew someone down to Fort Dauphin from Tana to look in my ear on Monday. Awesome. He was happy because he got a free vacation. And I got to get my head x-rayed. No worries, nothing came of it. All I got was some more medications, and some awesome yellow ear drops that make my hands and ear persistently yellow. But happily, it seems that it's much better because my hearing is so much better. Almost 100 percent. Still won't be swimming any time soon. Or flying. Not for a month at least.

Ok, so wish me luck in the field. Apparently there is NO fruit to be found there, which worries me greatly. And no chocolate or dessert to speak of. Sad.
Maybe when I emerge back into civilization, Madagascar will have another president.
Anyways, hope everyone is well.
Bon soir,

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ok, so I'm attempting photos. These are not my own photos... They're ones that have been posted onto the internet by other people on my program. And I have no idea if this is going to work.
The first one is a picture of most of the girls on the program on the beach at a fishing village we visited a while ago.
The second is the beach in Ft. Dauphin right along the main road.
The next one is of a verreaux's sifaka lemur in the spiny forest.
Then there's one of a village that's not exactly the village in which I did my village stay, but mine looked pretty much exactly the same.
Ok, those are four pretty representative photos of my Madagadcar experience for now. Photos courtesy of Erin Jenny.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Back in Ft. Dau

Salama e,
So it's been a while yet again. At the moment, I'm back in Ft. Dauphin. We flew back from Tulear this morning. We were supposed to leave for our national parks tour a week ago yesterday, but then we had another evacuation scare (because the US government upped the travel warning even more). Luckily, SIT listened to our program directors and we got to stay... again. So we left to drive on our enormous TATA bus west into the heart of the island. We stopped one night in Isalo, which has really cool rock formations. Saw some lemurs and hiked in a canyon. Then we drove some more, spent a night in a town. And then we drove into the mountains into some of the most gorgeous scenery I have ever seen. There's been a lot of rain, so everything is green. There were rice paddies everywhere. So we went on a hike, camped a night on the way, and then climbed the second highest peak in Madagascar - Pic Boby (pronounced booby, no lie). The only problem was that the first day on the hike it rained and all my stuff (that a porter was carrying) got soaked. It was freezing. Really freezing. It was hard to imagine all the times I've been SO HOT in this country.

Ok so then we got back to the bus at around 3 in the afternoon. And then it started raining again. We were driving on dirt, mountain roads. And when the rain started, it got muddy. Really really muddy. We got stuck. Really really stuck. And then even more stuck. The point is, we were all out there pushing with random Malagasy children for hours. Ok, that's a lie, because I myself did more sitting in the bus increasing friction than anything else, but hey. It should have taken us a couple of hours, but we got to our hotel well after 11 p.m. Everyone was wet and cold and so muddy and exhausted and starving. But we were mostly excited we had gotten out at all. Now everyone's clothes are molding in their backpacks. yum.

Ok then we drove to Ranomafana National Park. The first real Madagascar rainforest I've seen. We saw three new species of lemurs. At one point, a young and ridiculously curious lemur came down to within a couple of feet of me. We were sure he wanted to jump on us, but he didn't. We named him Gerald. Absurdly cute.

Normally we would have driven to Tana (the capital), but it is definitely not allowed for us to be there right now, so we drove back to Tulear and flew back to Ft. Dauphin. We'll be here for a week and then everyone will go off to do their Individual Study Projects for a month. Then we'll reconvene here. And then spend the last couple of weeks in Diego, in the very north of the island. That's the plan. But our plans have been changing a lot....

So also, I will mention the bane of my existence, which is my left ear. Indeed, my ear infection is still causing me trouble. When I went back to the ear doctor in Tulear, he told me I had mushrooms - champignons - growing in my ear, and that they must be sucked out periodically until they stop growing. The visual image and the continued pain were.... upsetting. I got more mushrooms sucked out once more, so I got to see the Tulear ear doctor a total of 4 times. But then we went on the road and the directors worked it out so I had to leave very early in a separate car with one of our Malagasy staff - pretty much my favorite guy ever - to go to Fianarasoa, which is a big city in between Isalo and Ranomafana. Eventually we got to see an ear doctor there. He was appalled at the state of my ear. Apparently my ear drum was bleeding. And apparently the Tulear doctor was incompetent. I got way more antiobiotics and drops and stuff. I haven't felt much pain since then which is awesome, but I have yet to get hearing back. I haven't had hearing for about a week, but I think it's coming back. I saw the doctor again after a few days and he says it's way better. I guess it's been an experience in non-western medicine.

Ok, I have more stories, but they will wait. Although I do want to say that they have these rickshaws, called pousse pousses, in Tulear and I wanted very badly to drive one. So finally before we left, we paid some guy, and I got to run around with the pousse pousse with my friend inside. Awesome. He thought it was hilarious.

Salut tout le monde! (and happy healing thoughts to my dadwe).

Monday, March 16, 2009

Evacuations and ear infections

Well, it's been a while.
The last time I wrote was before we left for our week-long village stay. And since then, there has been a political coup of sorts and my stay in Madagascar has reached a turning point.
For one thing, I'm in Tulear now. We've finished our home stays in Ft. Dauphin and moved to Tulear for a little while, which is a much bigger city in the southwest coast of the Mozambique Channel. The days in which we making the transition from Ft. Dauphin to Tulear were pretty rough because it was very likely we were going to be evacuated from the country to be either sent home or absorbed into another SIT study abroad program. So clearly those times I said I was sure all the political drama in the capital (Tana) would go away prove how little I know. Because they definitely did not go away. If you want to know more i suggest you look around the internet for info. The news we get is almost always secondary and contradictory. HOWEVER, I now have first hand experience with how the media can be unreliable. The BBC completely sensationalised the situation calling Madagascar "on the verge of civil war." Not true. Not true at all. So don't believe that. I have never been in any kind of danger or felt unsafe at all. The reason we would have to be evacuated would be because the US government cannot legally recognize a government that is not elected, or 'illegitimate.' The military has taken over, but in a completely peaceful way and because they thought that was the way to keep the peace. That's what the program people have to say. And I trust their insight and experience with Malagasy politics. The Peace Corps was pulled out last Wednesday and the Embassy has called for evacuation of governmental employees. Luckily for me, SIT decided to trust our program directors that we are going to avoid all potentially dangerous situations.

Unfortunately, the same day that we learned we were staying (for now), we also learned that two students in our group who go to big public universities (CU Boulder and UNC Chapel Hill) had to be evacuated because their institutions follow the government's lead by policy. I love both of them and they left today. It was really pretty devastating. Those two students are going to join the SIT program in Botswana, which will be an adventure. Another of my best friends decided to go home as well. She's been having a rough semester and this was kind of her chance to opt out. I'll miss her too. So we're down to 13 students. It's a bit quieter, but there's more room on the bus.

Meanwhile, my last week has been defined by an awesomely painful ear infection. I've now been to the doctor twice to get stuff sucked out of my ear with a contraption that looks like it was made in the 1940s and must be operated with a large generator. As a result, i couldn't go snorkeling today with everyone on the coral reef which was a HUGE bummer. I'm on antibiotics and going back for a check up in a few days.

So the first few days here we spent camping by the mangroves, which are really cool. It is ABSURDLY hot in this city. We had American style pizza and ice cream in the city and we also had a mouton (or sheep) roast to celebrate the full moon on Saturday and yesterday we went to the reef. We're going to spend a few days in the city now, arranging our Independent Study Projects and doing laundry and then we're going on a road trip. We'll be seeing a bunch of rain forest as we drive across the middle of the island towards (but not to) the capital. I'm told I will actually be cold at times. Hard for me to imagine at this point. We will not be going to Tana like we normally would be and we're going to drive south along the coast to Ft. Dauphin to start our ISPs. That's the plan. But recently, everything has been up in the air. Nous verrons.

I'll write about my village stay soon. It was awesome. I did a lot of dancing and singing. And lots of people stared at me.

Happy March mes amis.
- Julia

Friday, February 27, 2009

lemuriens, epines, et akondros.

It's been a few weeks, and we've been doing a lot.

For one thing, I saw some lemurs. Yeah, baby. A lot of lemurs. And five different species, no less.
Last weekend, from Saturday to Tuesday, we took a trip to the commune (a collection of villages) of Ifotaka, which is about 5 hours away from Fort Dauphin. It was a bumpy ride. The roads are truly horrible. We took four different SUV-like vehicles, and about half way the truck in which I was riding started making weird sounds and we kept driving and then it became suddenly clear that something was very wrong with the wheel and we stopped. The wheel had lost all of its knuts (or whatever) and was this close to being completely separated from the car. It was awesome. It was fixed rather quickly though. That truck is also the one that will stall randomly and we have to push it to get it started again. Like Little Miss Sunshine. Kind of.

Anyways, it was so hot I thought I was going to spontaneously combust. We swam/bathed in the nearby Mondrare river, which in other circumstances I would never dream of touching, but it was totally necessary/awesome and I kind of felt clean for a few seconds before I was immediately sweaty and dusty again. We were there to study lemurs, so we went into the forest at around 6 am for a few hours, and laid around in the shade doing nothing during the worst of the heat until 4 pm when we went back into the forest. We were in the spiny forest, unique to southern Madagascar. Believe me, it is aptly named. That is one angry forest. Every SINGLE plant that grows there has huge spines on it. I have little scratches all over my arms and legs. But we got to see lots of Verreaux's Sifaka. (Look up a picture on google, if you care. Because they're awesome looking.) We also went on a night walk to see mouse lemurs and a lepilemur.

On the last day we got to go to Berenty Private Reserve, which is essentially a lemur theme park. The lemurs there are habituated to humans and aren't afraid of people at all. There we saw ring-tailed lemurs, more sifaka, brown lemurs (which aren't native to this area but have been introduced to Berenty), and enormous bats (uh oh, I don't know the name, but they are like flying foxes kind of). Then we had a fancy lunch with cold drinks.

Before that, we took a one-night trip to Andohahela National Park, which is less interesting. We did an exercise in counting species in a plot of transitional forest, which was taxing. The highlight was when we hiked to a waterfall and swam in a lake.

Now, we're all getting ready for the big one-week village stay. We're leaving this Sunday and coming back on Saturday. There are two American students per village and I found out today I got put with a good friend of mine so that's positive. Our village has about 20 homes and we'll spend the week helping them and learning about their lives. They speak no French, so we'll be doing a lot of miming and attempting to use the little Malagasy that we know. It's going to be intense, but I'm excited. We get to ride in an ox cart to the village from the commune center. And at the end - on Friday - we have a huge dance party with all the villages and sacrifice a zebu (a cow). Less excited about that part.

Ack, this is long and boring. We only have a few days left of our home stays. After we get back from the village stay we have four days and then leave for Tulear (and from Ft. Dauphin for good) to do some marine studies stuff (snokeling!). My home stay is still enjoyable overall, awkward though it may be. The 12 year old boy completely ignores me, and the 3 year old plays games with me sometimes. My best friends in the house are the multiple maids, but I rarely see them now because I leave before they get there and get home after they've left.

Last week, my life was defined by the Mexican soap opera Marina. It was on ALL THE TIME, because my mom had it on dvd. Story lines included evil twins, questions of paternity, terminal illness, murder, general backstabbing and plotting, etc. I will remember the theme song for the rest of my life.

Still no meat yet. Just a LOT of fish. This week, there was a tortoise dish, which I politely refused. Tortoise, by the way, is illegal to eat here because it is endangered, but most of my classmates have encountered it in one way or another.

Many of us have gotten sick so far, but it has not yet been my turn. Just a matter of time, I suppose. I've been feeling more well rested than I have in years. Both in my home stay and when camping I go to bed at around 9 pm. I get up around 6 am. When we're in Libanona, class starts at 8 am, and it takes me about 45 minutes to walk there. I eat breakfast of bread (baguette) and butter and tea (which means plain hot water with sugar and sweetened condensed milk) alone, because I leave earlier than everyone else. When on field trips, we have sandwiches (peanut butter and jelly or cheese/ground zebu/eggs/tomatoes/cucumber/ mayonaise/mustard. Although our guides put all of those things on one sandwich. Meaning, the peanut butter and and the jelly with the meat and the tomatoes and the mayonaise. Ew.) For lunch on our campus in Fort Dauphin or wherever someone's cooking for us there's always a TON of white rice, some kind of meat thing, and one or two vegetable or bean dishes. The food is really tasty. And fruit for dessert. Mostly bananas. Aka akondros. And here ends the food section.

Ok, this is becoming a novel. Wish me luck in the village stay. Happy March to everyone.

Friday, February 13, 2009

It's friday, which means only a half day of class!!!! So we all went out to get weird Malagasy pizza. It's weird, but good. Very thin crust. The omnipresent beer here is THB and today I tried THB Freche, which has sugar in it and only 1% alcohol. I am such a big fan. It's like beeralicious sprite.
So in the past week, I have done a some things. They include:

- Eating raw coconut meat/juice, which is one of the only things that I have found completely disgusting, (I mean, besides the meat). My host family, however, is a huge fan.

- Going to the enormous new mining project just outside of Ft. Dauphin which caused (and continues to create) a great deal of debate. They're mining ilmenite, which is used to make things like paint, plastic, and toothpaste white. Ironically, it comes from black sand. Sadly, the cost is loss of 70% of the littoral forests in the area. Some endemic species will be lost (at least, in a natural context). We vistited the conservation areas that the mine has set up. I saw my first live chameleon (there have been multiple squashed ones on the rural roads) and a fossa (a giant mongoose relative that eats lemurs) that was in a cage.

- Watching a lot of weird tv at my home stay including : American movies dubbed in French ranging from Atonement and the Other Boelyn Girl to High School Musical 2 and Les Aristochats, Mr. Bean, Dora the Explorer (in French), a terrible movie about a magical healer in Malagasy, a Chaka Khan concert, many many Malagasy music videos, and a spainish soap opera (dubbed in french, of course) on dvd.

- Sitting through hours of boring lectures and ridiculously frustrating language classes. There was one exceptional lecture from the founder of the biggest NGO in the area that was enlightening (and was also in Australian English). Most of them, however, are in mumbled French (with the weird Malagasy accent) about uninteresting topics and go on forever. My Malagasy classes are downright terrible because the teachers are so poorly organized, and throw words and grammar at us constantly. We have Malagasy every day and I still feel like I know nothing. The French classes are similarly frustrating, but only because they expect us to understand them when they explain directions or have lectures in French, but as soon as we get in a class designated "French" our teachers speak to us as if we just started learning the language.

- Eating fish and shrimp for the first time in a long time. My fam still doesn't know expressly that I do not exactly eat meat, but they must know by now that I vastly prefer fish.

- Eating avocado with sugar. That's how they eat it here. Like sweet guacamole. Apparently, I'm going to be making dinner on Sunday and I thought I'm make some guac to show them how we do it.

- Visiting a fishing village (yesterday). We interviewed the fishermen in small groups with translators. I felt like I was in a documentary. The scenery was gorgeous. The roads here are truly horrendous and we drove on the sand for a bit and there was a moment where we were doing some sliding and I was downright terrified. But it was also awesome.

- Getting soaked on the way to class. The hot weather has been replaced by rain, and clouds, and more rain. I definitely prefer the rain.

- Making friends with my 3-year-old host sister. We're buds now.

- Having the maid(s) go through my things, taking my laundry, and then asking me about my things.

So this weekend, I've got some reading to do and some beaching to do. I'm gonna visit some of my friends' host families to get an idea of how other people live. From the way we all talk about our homes, they're all very different. But no family in the states in alike either. I truly know very little about what's actually going on with the political drama. There are news briefs all the time, but they're in Malagasy. I know that Ft. Dauphin will remain peaceful. I'm not sure if we'll still be visiting Tana at this point, but that's not for a while. Again, I hope I'm not too boring. I've taken quite a few photos, but I have yet to figure out how to get them onto a Malagasy computer. However, I anticipate that I will prevail. It's just a matter of time. Happy Valentine's Day (which I completely forgot about).