As in, “The world is round (so we will see each other again)”. Last day in Madagascar. Tonight (well, tomorrow) at about 1 in the morning my flight for Paris takes off, and this time tomorrow I’ll be freezing near to death in France.

There’s been quite a delay in getting this up, but I’ve been in Morondava for the last few days soaking up my last fragment of time here in Madagascar.

There’s not much to report before Morondava. I was back in Tana working my little toosh off on my independent study project, which is finished, blessedly. I presented it without incident, and I think I did a decent job with the presentation, hopefully the paper too.

The only thing interesting that did happen is that I spent some time up in my old Tana quarter, Analamahitsy, to visit my host family for one last time and see my brand spankin’ new host nephew. My host sister Mi, whose belly I watched grow for the last few months, had a precious little boy. I’m a host auntie!

The trip to Morondava has been a lot of things:

1. A new town.

Morondava is a slow, hot little town on the central western coast of the island. It has a couple of paved roads, but other than that everything is molten sand. It’s a really pleasant place, actually. I’ve really enjoyed my stay here. That said,

2. A time to indulge

…We didn’t stay in the town like we normally do. We stayed in these wonderful resort bungalows right on the beach, as in, I can see the beach from the windows. We have air conditioning, showers with hot water, televisions, and two of our bungalows even had fridges. Let me stress: these things do not really exist all that much in Madagascar, and this is the first time I’ve lived in a place with AC and a working fridge since arriving. It’s a little overwhelming.

We also had nothing on the schedule but a language progress analysis by our head language intrustor (about thirty minutes) and a little chat with the Academic director (about thirty minutes). My days have gone something like this: wake up, eat breakfast, go to the beach, lay in the sun, read, go to the beach, eat, take a nap, go to the beach, lay in the sun some more, read some more, eat, have some cocktails/THB (Three Horse Beer, the Malagasy beer) with the girls, watch some TV, sleep.

Everyone in university back home: how was your finals week?

3. A time to enjoy sweet company.

When I saw the program list and saw that the trip was thirteen girls, I was nervous. I was expecting factions, cliques, cat fights. None of that happened, in fact, conflicts have been so minimal. I came here nervous with twelve strangers, and I’m leaving with twelve new dear friends. I have made a connection with each person on this trip and would call each of them my friend. As we disperse now all over the country, back to Texas, Washington, New York, Wisconsin, and other states, we wear a kind of experiential seal that connects us. This time would not have been the same if any one of them had not been here.

4. A time to reflect.

This experience has been a lot to me. I knew from the start that I was disadvantaged: zero travel experience, barely enough money to scrape by, and suddenly I’m dropped into this country on the other side of the world. At the beginning I felt like Charlie Bucket, just lucky to be here.  I was taking a massive gamble, and I’m so glad I did. I’m realizing, as it starts to settle in that I’m going home, that this isn’t the end, it’s the end of one phase and the beginning of another. I have learned so many lessons here about life and love and family and how to be happy, and I know that at least some of those lessons will continue to shape the rest of my life.

I want to challenge French speaking students to look into this program (SIT Madagascar: Culture and Society) for the sheer brilliance of the staff and the sheer beauty of the culture.

But not even that. I want to challenge everyone to go and experience something like this, go to a culture completely different than yours. Not that there’s anything wrong with going to Europe, but try this too. Go somewhere completely and profoundly different from the US. Live in their homes, live in their families. Eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep. Learn their language, their politics, their jokes. Swim in their oceans, bathe in their streams, wash your clothes in their rivers, learn not to be afraid of their bugs (very me-specific).

How can you be so sure of your way of life, how can you even know or understand what it is, unless you understand other modes of life? How can you understand American haste without experiencing Malagasy “mora mora”? How can you judge the state of the world and the people in it without trying their perspective? How can you hope to understand the world (and shoot off your mouth like you do) when you’ve only seen a very narrow sliver of it? And the US is a very narrow sliver, and it makes me sad how many American are too terrified to leave their own backyards. There are hundreds of other cultures with completely different paradigms and perspectives. The world is so rich; don’t forget to breathe it in!

Start now. Do it young while it can influence the outcome of your life and—who knows?—the lives of the people you encouter. One human being can have such a huge influence. Even if you’re not young, it’s not too late to start experiencing, learning, and appreciating the world around you. One girl’s mom is here teaching English. Don’t make excuses. I’m not extraordinarily brave or anything; I just held my breath jumped. Anyone could have done what I did, especially with as many obstacles I overcame and as many doubts as so many people had in me. Of course, I had some crucial people who really believed in me, and they know who they are and how much I appreciate them.

Was this easy? No. In fact, it was the hardest thing I have ever done. But it was also the most rewarding, and even though I think I’m ready for home comforts and my friends, part of my is deeply devastated to leave. Part of me will always be stuck here in Madagascar, where I discovered a lot about how to live.

That said, you won’t hear anything from me for a bit, because I’m taking a vacation. From everything. James and I will be in Europe until the 31st of December and we’ll be back in Texas the first of January. See y’all then, have a good winter break. Send my regards to Austin, and tout à l’heure.

16 days until I leave Madagascar, just over a month before I’m back in the US.

I can’t say it’s not freaking me out, because it is.  I don’t know how it’s going to be, hitting home.  I don’t know if it’s going to feel like home anymore.  I’ve just been gone so long.  I think Europe will be a bit of a buffer, and to be sappy for half a second, seeing James is going to be a little like being home.  (Feel free to gag audibly).

So the return to Tana was a bit rough.  I can’t complain because the roads are pretty good and some girls were in the taxi-brousse for days, but the driver was a maaaadman.  I seriously thought I was going to lose my breakfast a couple of times, and when we stopped for lunch I bought a Coke and sat there waiting for the ground to stop moving.

First hotel was ridiculously cheap (equivalent ten USD a night) but had bed bugs, so we’re now in the town center at a slightly more expensive but bed bug free hotel.  I wish I could say bug free, but there are these weird little zombie flies everywhere that start to decompose and lose body parts before laying little black eggs everywhere and dying.  Welcome to the rainy season.

And rainy season it is.  The ground has been damp since I got here and it’s rained four times in two days.  Not really working with my chic Mahajanga leather sandals and not good for my tan.  But we’re just that much closer.

I’m going to go back to locking myself in the hotel room to work on my paper.  Twelve pages down, about twenty to go.  Then I have to design it.  Expect no entries because nothing is going to be happening but work and procrastination!

The latest adventure was a great one, and all you have is my word because all of the pictures over the last few days got erased.

So I’m still working in Mahajanga, but everyone deserves a little vacation.  So my host sister Joelle and I decided to go visit my friend Laraine’s village, which happens to have a goreous beach, gorgeous enough for them to build a swank resort next to the village.  I mean swank–I’ll probably never see the interior of something that high cost.

We took my host cousin, Tantely, with us.  They said to wait for the car at 11, then showed up at one.  This is very typical “mora mora” attitude (it means slowly, slowly in Malagasy and is more of a way of life than anything else).  It vaguely means that when people give you a precise time, they’re really giving you about a three hours time frame from that time when they can show up.  My host family leaves for an event usually about half an hour after it begins.

They told us there might not be a car coming back that night.  My host sister looked at me and asked, “ça fait rien?” (Do you care?), and we all kind of concluded that we’d worry about it till later and it was, indeed, “rien”.

This place is crazy remote.  It’s only 20 kilometers out of town but it’s down this twisty dirt road.  The drive takes about an hour and a strong stomach.  But when we arrived we saw how worth the trouble it was–miles of white sand and light blue water, soft waves, not a person in sight.  There were cows in sight, though.  I don’t even really know what they were eating out there, but there they were, standing in tropical paradise and munching away.

We went on a photo expedition and saw that the fishermen had caught sharks.  Note, sharks, plural, as in there were three.  One was at least seven feet long.  We watched them chop em’ up.

After that we went for a hike in the patch of primary rainforest, which is lemur-infested.  We went down this small path and I fell in mud, but it was worth it to see a little brown lemur perched on a branch, just glowering at us.  There are lots of snakes too.  I should mention that Madagascar doesn’t really have poisonous snakes, but my sister has a phobia and almost jumped out of her skin.  After that we rinsed off in the neighborhood watering hole.  My host sister asked Laraine, “Where does this water come from?”  Laraine: “I don’t know…Do you really want to?  Just don’t drink it.”

When we finally realized that there was indeed no way to get home that night we spent thirty minutes by the bamboo gate where ther are tiny, nay, miniscule pockets of reception.  We finally reached my host mom and got back to Laraine’s host family’s hut, where they fed us fish that had been caught that afternoon, the most delicious fish I’ve ever tasted.  Then they laid out pallets on the floor and I spent the night on the floor of the hut of the village chief.

In the morning, we got there at 7:30 when they said the car would leave, but it really ended up being after nine.  At least the unreliability is predictable.

I head back to Tana on Monday and I am so sad!  You know how sometimes a place just resounds with you, sinks into your bones, becomes a second hometown?  That’s what Mahajanga is for me.  These people are family.  This place is magnificent.

I’m going to go do some Christmas shopping at the artisan market now.  In 100 degree weather.  Oh, being close to the equator.

Send my regards to Austin!

Wow, the slowness of the internet in these parts is phenomenal today.  People in the US: you know not how spoiled you are.

It’s the heat of the day, the time I like to be out in the city because nothing’s crowded and everyone’s taking a nap.  The downside: the sun’s been out all morning and the ground’s baking us from below while the sun is baking us from above.  It’s like being in a toaster oven.

On the weekend:

My weekend was interesting but not really interesting enough to put in here.  Fellow student Laraine and I went to a Malagasy club which…well, I don’t know why we were particularly surprised to be such a stir.  We’re the only young vahaza women in town, and since they all watch American movies, they have certain preconceived notions. But that said, it actually turned out to be a fun evening.  Everything was free, we got to dance off some worries, and dudes from Seychelles taught us some tropical dances from their country.  Something that would never happen in the US: the cab driver took us to the club he liked since the others were closed for the night, gave us his number, and even showed up at the club to take us home.  It’s this cute hospitality aspect you don’t get in the US when people here see a foreigner, they’re very keen on making sure you have a positive impression of their country.

I have never regretted Hollywood so much as I do here.  I had a long conversation about it with my host sister the other night.  American Pie?  One Tree Hill?  That’s what they think.  It kind of grosses me out, the lack of responsibility we take with our own reputation.  This is why I’m approached by men who tell me things like, “I like American women, I see your movies, they know how to have fun.”  I smile, decline to give them my number, and tell them America and Americans are nothing like their tasteless movies.

On the actual schoolwork part of this:

My research is going great, and I’ve hit the roots of something here, something that is inspiring me to my core.  The passion and self-awareness of the journalists here are amazing.  They know, and they’ll tell you, we just don’t have the means to be like you are in America.  They can’t be as bold, because freedom of press is more nominal than it is actual, and radio stations have been shut down for saying too much.  A good deal of their audience is poor or rural or uneducated or all three, and just doesn’t care.  They’re pioneers shouting into a void, praying that someone will hear.  I know I’m romanticizing it in a way that they wouldn’t (romanticizing is a very American thing, did you know that?), but it’s amazing–it’s something I’ve been searching for in my own professional life and missing.  The hunt, overcoming crazy obstacles, winning against the odds, making a real difference where I’m needed.  Because it’s so challenging, they have to keep their passion; it’s what keeps them going, some of them for ten, fifteen hours a day.

It’s fascinating.  With the technology and means, these people have the potential to drastically change their entire country.  It kills me that I’m not empowered to help.  Organizations like UNICEF are doing things…they run something here called the Young Reporter’s Club, where they allow young people to put together radio programs for getting youth involved in sports and their community, and educating them about issues like AIDS and apprenticeship programs.  These are high school kids, and they have more confidence on the microphone than I may ever have.

On other visits:

I visited the University of Mahajanga two days ago.  I saw my host cousin’s dorm room and host sister’s old dorm room, and got the tour of campus.  I never want to hear you punks back home complain about a dorm room again: goats and chickens wandering around the yard eating everything, no AC in one of the hottest places in the world, and bathroom equals community outhouse.  Still, with all the open air and the sense of real community, it struck me as kind of lovely.

After that it was off to the village school where my host mom teaches math.  To 100 students.  With no AC.  I admire this woman so much, because she loves this stuff.  She used to teach in town but she thought it was boring and switched to the rural school.

It is intimidating to stand before 100 Malagasy middle-schoolers and answer their questions.  All they wanted was to hear my American accent (it was an English classroom, so we were speaking English, and between the three languages I got all confused).  When they heard it, they laughed so hard, because it surprised them.  I talk funny.

It is lovely out there, all mango trees and palm trees and smiles.  I guess I can understand what my host mom loves about.  On the way back we stopped at this outskirts-of-town bar where some of my mom’s friends were drinking, but my host sister and I went by ourselves to flee from the drunk, middle-aged people and pouted that we were missing that night’s episode of the French game show Questions for a Champion and our Argentinian soaps.

Oh, how easily one falls into routine.  Send my regards to Austin.

Following the election from the other side of the globe has been a really interesting experience.  Since I’ve been here, the proximity of the election has caused a lot of conversation between us and the Malagasy people we encounter.  If you didn’t know that, I am NOT on a study abroad excursion where I hide behind a cloud of Americans.  Especially right now, I’m the only American I know in this city and I often find that I’ve only seen Malagasy people (and the off French expat) for days.  I’m not complaining, in fact, these people are so compassionate, welcoming, and wonderful that they really are like a second family, my Madagascar family (my host mom this morning: “Obama won!  Congratulations!  Give me a kiss for Obama!” *points to her cheek*).

I don’t want to presume that I know more than anyone else, but I do want to share my conclusions about the state of America and where we’re going from the lens of where I’ve been living, read, not in America.

Here are some quotes:

“He’s not really going to win, is he, because America has so many racists?” -Tana host sister Mi

“Are Americans upset that a black man could win?” -Tana host mother

“America is really racist, isn’t it?  People are being so mean to Obama.”

“You’d be happy to have a black man as a president?” -Someone at the TV station

“John McCain, isn’t he a racist?” (Don’t flip out, I actually stood up for McCain on this one and there is now one less Malagasy person who thinks that)

There’s a theme here: America is a rich, elitist country run by rich white people, and other races are squashed down.  They paint a picture of racist America, hopeless, selfish America that has been breaking my heart since I came here.  People in Madagascar don’t hate America (yet), in fact; they all want to move there.  But they do seem to think we’re a bunch of fascist, racist pigs.  So here’s what I have to say:

Be careful, no matter how you feel about the election results, when you open your mouth or approach your keyboard, because the rest of the world is actually listening.  And what they hear they might not understand, coming from a different culture, or they might pick out the most radical parts.  And that will continue to malign our nation and plague representatives like me, who come over here and have to leap through hoops to transcend stereotypes.  I’ve met people who believe all sorts of things, please don’t continue it by not taking responsibility for your words.

Whether you’re ecstatic like me with last night’s outcome, or disappointed, it’s time to reunify our nation.  Years of bad rhetoric and divisiveness have made us bitter and nasty.  Like it or not, Barack Obama is our nation’s new leader, and it’s time to get behind him and the rest of our nation’s leadership to change what’s wrong with America; and with it, change this ugly image we’ve created for ourselves in the world.  Do we really want to be Republicans, or Democrats, or do we want to be Americans?

I can answer that for me.  Being in a foreign country has made me see just how much of a culture the US has, as much as I always called it a non-culture.  I renounce that now-and yes, there are some nasty things about that culture, things cynics cite to damper any national pride.  We are cocky, we are consumerist, we do stick our noses in everyone’s business, and sometimes we forget where we came from (we used to be the scrawny, punk kid that France had to save from England, remember?)

But we are also optimistic, hard-working, and believe that everyone has a chance to accomplish their dreams.  We love an underdog, and we have a deep-seeded compassion for the downtrodden, for the suffering.  I, for one, have been leaning on that optimism since I got here to get me through this experience.  I am thankful that my culture handed it to me.

I’ll finish by reiterating what Obama said this morning (evening for you folks): we are one nation, and the election is over.  Let’s start acting like one nation again, and work together to improve the country that we’re all a part of.

Send my regards to the USA, and congratulations to President Obama.

So I’m back in Mahajanga, and not quite sure what I was thinking returning to my favorite city and living with a family I absolutely adore.  There’s no way I’m going to get any work done.

The mail truck bit wasn’t as cool as it sounded–it’s really just a taxi-brousse with less people and less stops.  So a semi-comfortable taxi-brousse.

Still, it was a ten-hour drive on some crazy (but well-paved) roads, and let’s just say the driver wasn’t thinking about potential nausea in his passengers.  We also stopped once because the driver decided he wanted a mango, and he spent ten minutes throwing rocks at mango trees before he landed one he liked.  It’s little vignettes like that I’m really going to miss about this country.

This weekend was back into a Mahajanga vibe.  I helped Laraine shop for her village stay (she needs kilos of food, it’s a better compensation for a family outside of the cash economy), so we walked around the supermarché with inordinate amounts of rice, beans, lentils, etc.    We tried to go shopping but the world stops here on Sunday and everyone just naps and watches TV, so that was a no-go.  I spent the evening au bord de la mer, like usual, and then ended up at some church carnival with what I think were homemade rides, but I can’t be sure.  Anyone who can toss together a Ferris wheel from scratch, well, I’m impressed.

I like the attention I get in Mahajanga better.  In Tana, men will literally walk up and try to grope/kiss you, and it’s kind of frightening and disturbing.  Here just just shout “I love you!”  On Saturday I got five or six I love yous, plus a marriage proposal from a man who followed me on a motorcycle for five minutes, trying to get me to hop on.

Seriously, you would basically have to be naked to garner this kind of attention in the US.  But my host sister explained it to me: “They’re used to vahaza, but they’re all old Frenchmen.  You are not an old Frenchman.”

Well, I guess it makes sense.

Since Monday, though, I have been a busy bee, talking to Malagasy journalists and DJs and anchors.  I have visited five stations so far, two more to go tomorrow.  I have learned that I am a) a passionate journalist, I love this stuff! and b) a horrible researcher.  Let’s pray for some improvement in my “methods.”

Send my regards to Austin, and follow the election for me–I’ll be sitting here on the other side of the world.  If you haven’t voted yet, do.  I won’t tell you who for because at this point, I know few are going to change their minds.

On my last days in Mahajanga:

I love this town.  I love it so much that I decided to stay there for the month of November, so you’ll be hearing lots about it.  When I asked to stay with my family, my host mother said, “of course, you’re already my daughter!” and I thought that was cute.

On Nosy Be:

Let’s make this clear: I am NOT a tourist.  I have been living with Malagasy people and honestly, mostly hanging out with them.  Nosy Be was very touristy, and in a creepy sex tourism, super-expensive sort of way that I wasn’t terribly fond of.

However, I did go to one of the best beaches in Madagascar on the island, and it was seriously postcard, I-can’t-believe-I’m-here beautiful.  There were also mangroves and oysters the size of my hand.  I also went snorkeling for the first time ever, saw beautiful tropical fish and swam with giant sea turtles.

I also ate some amazing street food (which was worth the morning curled up in fetal position on the bathroom floor praying for death, believe it or not) and tried some Malagasy Punch Coco, which is, FYI, stronger than you think it is.

On Tana:

I will miss this city for what it has given me.  It’s a city of over a million people, no street names, and I am obviously a stranger.  It’s boot camp for living abroad, nothing scares me after this.  I will not miss long commutes and the bugs that are appearing in my room because its the rainy season now.  Three words: giant FLYING ants.  Giant.

On cultural misunderstandings:

I will miss my host family.  That said, there are times when we literally can’t reach an understanding, or something so normal to them is so foreign to me that i have to hide me laughter.  Not a good example, but a funny one: we have a dog I have never interacted with, a Sheltie, actually.  He’s chained in the yard with the four ducks, twelve chickens, and two roosters.  He’s constantly fighting with the ducks, who have their own Hanna-Barbara type rivalry going on.  I asked finally, why I wasn’t allowed near the dog, and they said, “Oh, he’s become insane.  He’s not scared of you like he is of us.”  Become insane?  This week I saw exactly what they meant.  A leaf fell into his playpen area, and he spent thirty minutes barking ferociously at it–before eating it.

I looked at my host sister who said, “See?  Completely nuts.”

Well, I leave Tana tomorrow with my girl Laraine, and we’re literally going out with the mail.  The post here takes passengers and we’re on the 7:30 AM ride.  More when I get to Mahajanga.

A plus!

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