Cyclone Enawo hits home

IMG_3370

Darkening skies before the cyclone

Cyclone Enawo stuck land in Madagascar on Tuesday, March 7th. Not just any land, but MY land. The cyclone struck my town of Antalaha. And maybe it is not mine. But it is the place that I lovingly call home.

I rode out the cyclone in a town 87 km north of Antalaha in a town called Sambava. On Sunday March 5th, all peace corps volunteers in the region were called to consolidate in the northern coastal town. We were consolidated to the only concrete hotel that still had enough rooms to contain all of us. Hotel Melrose is a beautiful hotel with a friendly caring staff overlooking the Indian Ocean. While slightly concerned about staying so close to the ocean, we were reassured that the hotel has already seen its fair share of cyclones and has managed to stay standing.

IMG_3400

The storm brought heavy rains

We became restless waiting for the storm to hit. Would it be today? How about tomorrow? What time will it hit? What category cyclone would it be?  Reliable information was hard to come by. Additionally, we were all very concerned about our homes and our friends. I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I was safe while so many people I loved and cared for could not be granted the same guarantee. Here I was in my fancy hotel while all my Malagasy friends prepared their houses for the onslaught. We were instructed to buy supplies and prepare to stay in the hotel for at least 24 hours. On my trips, I would ask Malagasy strangers if they felt ready for the storm and if they were worried. They would laugh, ‘No, this is the way things are. There is always a cyclone coming,’ As the storm started to brew, you could tell they started to show less certainty. Still, “come what may” tended to be the general attitude. At times I almost felt silly worrying so much, if the experienced locals were not too concerned.

IMG_3449

Fallen trees crushed homes

 

I kept updating the news websites on my phone and watched as the upcoming cyclone kept upgrading categories, headed straight for my town and us. The sirens started Monday night and they could hardly be heard over the ever-growing crashing waves. Tuesday Morning, I made last minute phone calls to reassure my family that I was indeed safe and not very concerned for my own safety. That is when the winds picked up.

For 12 hours, we waited and watched as the cyclone rolled through. The rain was heavy and felt like stinging needles when it came in contact with my hand. The winds hit on the north side of the building hard. On the top floor, the windows facing the north collapsed inward and soaked the rooms and flooded the upper floor. A steady river of water poured down the staircases. Metal from the neighboring buildings were slowly twisting and breaking off in the wind. Plant debris was flying everywhere. Sand from the beach was displaced onto the yard. Across the way I saw a catholic school, with a solitary nun watching the debris fly by looking picturesque amongst the chaos. As we all decided the storm was slowing down Tuesday night, we headed to bed in hopes that we would wake up to find that it had all just been a nightmare.

IMG_3471

Downed power lines caused a blackout for days

Instead, we woke up in the morning to a storm that had never left us. We thought it was over, we lamented. However, the storm raged on. A few more hours, we waited. Finally, the storm let up and we wandered outside. The beach was littered with unripe avocados and fallen palm trees. Malagasy people were being resourceful and collecting fallen coconuts. The streets of Sambava were already being cleaned. The sounds of hammers echoed through the streets as men repaired their broken roofs. Stray dogs wandered the main road in their packs looking fluffy from their cyclone-shower. Sambava was hit hard and the damage was apparent. But it was nothing in comparison to Antalaha, I would find out in the following days.

IMG_3445

A wall of a home blown away

More on the situation in Antalaha to come soon.

Advertisements

To America and Back Again

15822701_10201560328267475_4215743177035451684_n

In September, I went back to America for my sister’s wedding. I expected to be slapped in the face with the glamour and riches of the west. And I was, to some extent. My first stop on my over 24 hour journey home was the Johannesburg Airport. The Jo-burg airport was full of Zebra pelts and fancy looking pastries. I wanted to eat everything, but decided to hold out until I reached JFK.

In the airport I was shocked to see people stand in lines. Why were all these people lined up for 30 mins before the flight? In Madagascar, people either fight their way to front in an unorganized fashion or they yell out “Who is the last person in line?” and then once they have pin pointed the person in front of them they declare, “Okay, now I am the last.” Watching people form single file lines was something my brain could barely comprehend. Why were they doing that? We will all make it there eventually. Those fools. I smirked at the people standing in the line impatiently from the comfort of my seat when young man approached me. He flashed me a smile and asked, “So, how long have you been in the Peace Corps?.” I guess my chacos, ripped leggings, general messy appearance and refusal to stand in line tipped him off to my true identity. Turns out he was a peace corps volunteer as well finishing up in Namibia. Together we boarded the aircraft, I remember being in awe of the size of the seats. There was so much more space than a bush taxi, I could extend my legs and everything!

Once I set foot in America, the customs officer frowned at me and asked me why I had spent such a long time in Africa. When I explained my PCV status, he gave me a wide smile and said, “Welcome home.”

img_1021

Hand dipped chocolate covered pretzels

I was home. Home-ish. I was in America. It felt surreal and yet so normal. I was shocked that I was not really experiencing culture shock. I kept thinking, “Oh, yeah. This is my life. Madagascar is not my home.” I spent my first week helping my sister with last minute wedding preparations. Before this, I had only attended a small handful of weddings, so being thrust into the middle of one was incredibly fun and a tad stressful. My sister handled everything quite gracefully and not at all as bridezilla (and no, she did not pay me to say this, Dad). I even had the honor of helping compose the wedding ceremony and act as the officiator.  The wedding was incredible. It was perfect proportions of quirky, beautiful and loving. I saw my family and I could not have had better experience.

Other than my less than glamorous clothing, I felt like I fit back in to America quite easily. After more than a year sleeping on a giant sponge, I was more than happy to sleep on a deflating air mattress. I was able to touch flea-free dogs and eat different types of foods. Ask any PCV, “What do you miss the most about America?” and the answer will probably be some variation on “THE FOOD, and oh yeah, my family too.”

0u7a3376-1

Making the bouquets 

But being in America was hard at times too. My license and credit card had expired and I had no cellphone plan. I felt really reliant on others to help me with everyday life, helpless in some ways. And apparently my personality had changed more than I expected. I caught my father spreading rumors around my sister’s wedding that I had become very bossy. And maybe that’s true, but I prefer the term assertive. I have always been a people pleaser; it has always been difficult for me to say no to people. But being in Madagascar, I have really been able to put my foot down. Witten on paper this new trait may seem unattractive but I think will prove to be a positive change.

I have become more relaxed. Madagascar moves on its own pace. And that pace is pretty slow. Things will happen when they happen and everything will happen in good time. Wait for an hour to be shoved in a tight bush taxi. No problem. Everyone is 30 minutes late to a meeting you set up – what else is new? So I guess now I am bossy and relaxed, a unique combination that I am okay with.

But really, it didn’t take too long for me to remember my American ways. On my return to Madagascar, I stood impatiently in all the lines. I grumbled about the small seats.

14718778_10201341850405665_7341758292193630713_n

Hiking around the Bay area

As I set foot back in my home of two years, the Malagasy customs officer asked me in Malagasy why I went back to America. I tell him gleefully that my sister has just gotten married.

“Oh… your sister is married? What about you? Are you married?” He asks while casually flipping through my passport. It’s a trap. I know it.  but, the truth falls out, “No.”

“Well I am not married either… maybe we should get married?” He says looking up from his booth.

“Oh, I can’t. I am still a baby.” I shrug. This is my go-to line when men are proposing to me here. Trust me, it happens a lot and this line usually works. The customs officer looks flips through my passport.

“You are not a baby! You’re 25!” He hands back my passport with a knowing look. Touché, customs officer, touché. I guess we have to get married now. I give nervous chuckle and say, “Next time!” and wave.

I am back in Madagascar now. I am home. Home-ish.

img_2539

Back in Antalaha

A Year in Review: Fomba Sakalava

IMG_1108

October 2015:

Things were much easier in October. In October I had the opportunity to attend “Fomba Sakalava” in Vohemar with all the other volunteers in my region. This ceremony only occurs every four years. To attend the ceremony we were required to have our hair braided into 14 braids. 7 braids on each side of the head, a style I am quite certain I didn’t pull off. We were told to wear traditional Lamba wany sets- which is one sheet of fabric sewn into a circle which you can wear as a dress and another sheet of fabric that you can wear as a sash, or headdress or whatever way you wish. We were told that we should wear nothing underneath the Lambas. And women who are on their periods are not allowed to attend the ceremony because they are viewed as unclean.

My friend getting her hair braided for the ceremony

My friend getting her hair braided for the ceremony

What does this ceremony entail, you may be wondering. Well, purpose of the ceremony is to give sacrifice to the ancestors. For this ceremony, 100 zebus are killed in the ocean and the ocean runs red. Summer had come early in Vohemar, so the day was very hot. We went to the beach early in the morning because in typical Malagasy fashion, no official start time was named. We quickly realized that the zebu slaughter would not start for hours due to extremely low tide. This offered some great tide pooling and revealed thousands of spiny starfish covering the ocean floor.

Malagasy Child holding one of the many starfish

Malagasy Child showing off a starfish

Dress code was taken very seriously and I was yelled at to take off my flip-flops. While we waited we were granted entrance to the burial mounds of the ancestors. To enter, everything but Lambas need to be removed, this included the elastics from my braids. The burial mounds were giant piles of coral on which family’s sat and took in the scene. The area extended far back into the trees. The trees provided a very welcome shade and were even dark enough for a sleeping bat that I spotted above my head. There I sat and chatted with the locals in my broken Malagasy, until the chaos began. I decided to leave the tombs to check on a friend on the beach and about half way to my destination it started.

IMG_1119

Zebus waiting in the ocean for the tide to rise

With 100 zebus in the ocean, there were probably 50 men to get the job done. Originally, I mistakenly believed that there would be one man per zebu and perhaps as a bell rang they would quickly slit the throats of the beasts all in one foul swoop. I was completely wrong. Instead I witnessed what can only be described as “all hell breaking loose.” The beach was packed with men women and children watching on, terrified, as zebus broke free and swam toward the beach. The men just hacked at the Bulls with no precise aim. Some men jumped on top of the zebus and rode them as they tried to swim away. At least two zebus made it to the beach inciting panic and a human stampede. I was pushed around, forced to run with the crowd and saved by an elderly Malagasy women from falling into a cactus bush. As abruptly as it started, it was over. All the zebus were killed, their carcasses washed up on the beach.

A red ocean

A red ocean

The zebus were decapitated and hacked up for meat. Some carried the meat by hand back up to town and others placed their portion in wooden canoes to row back home. There would be a feast that night. We were invited to eat at a Malagasy families home, that evening. We sat around in a circle chewing on our ocean-salty, crunchy from the sand, zebu meat and discussed highs and lows of the day.

IMG_1145

My thoughts on the ceremony:

I felt really honored to have been allowed to witness this ancient ceremony. We had to receive special permission to watch and to enter the tombs, so being given the opportunity was really exciting for me. The scene felt incongruous with my picture of Madagascar, sure things are different here, but the hacking up of the zebus was very gruesome and violent. It felt as though I ventured back in time hundreds of years ago. From my experience, Malagasy people are a very peaceful folk. Some unpleasantness: it wouldn’t be fair to just tell you about the ceremony without including one of the most striking features. There I was, in a swarm of Malagasy people dressed in traditional garb, but all I could see was a sea of cell phones and cameras pointed at me. Everywhere I turned, someone was taking a photo of my friends or me. I understand, I looked ridiculous and it isn’t everyday you see a white girl wearing a Lamba and sporting traditional Sakalava braids, but still. It became difficult to soak in the traditional event when every turn I made and every step I took I saw a flash of a camera. However, I am sure I will discuss this type of difficulty in another post. Two more unpleasant results: one of my closest friends was trampled by fleeing Malagasy people and broke his toe. Also, certain parts of my scalp that had never been exposed to the sun became quite sun burnt and resulted in some strange peeling during the weeks following. But witnessing such a big cultural event made it all worth it!

Hope you enjoyed reading this post!

IMG_1133

A Year in Review: Arrival

Zebus on the beach

Zebus on the beach

I have been in Madagascar for a year. I have been “at site” since September. I have learned a lot and have had a few ups and downs. I am happy to report that I have mostly experienced ups. I decided to list some highlights that I have not written about.

IMG_0618

In September 2015:
 I arrived to Antalaha, a small city in the north east of Madagascar. Antalaha is my favorite place in Madagascar and the place that I have learned to call home. My month of service as an official Peace Corps volunteer was a blur. My installer took me around town and introduced me to all the important officials ranging from the head of police to the chief of the district (what that means, I am still not quite sure). New locks were put on my door, a curtain rod was installed to separate my kitchen side of my one-roomed house from my bed side of the house (I never even use the curtain) and then the moment that all peace corps volunteers  remember:  peace corps car pulled away and left me all alone.
Peace corps leaving me at site

Peace corps leaving me at site

The month was spent gathering courage to leave house, struggling to buy food at the market using French numbers (when I had only mastered Malagasy numbers– something they don’t use in the north) and reading Harry Potter. Trying to find comfort, I ended up reading all of the Harry Potter books in just a couple of weeks. Luckily I only had 2 weeks to burn because my school started early and I started teaching on September 15th. I teach at a private middle school and teach 4 different grades : 9eme (3rd grade), 6eme (6th), 5eme (7th) and 4eme (8th grade). I also teach two different adult classes during the week and tutor interested students on Saturday. So many lesson plans… So little time.
Just some goats hanging out in the middle of town

Just some goats hanging out in the middle of town

First impressions of my site: it’s on the ocean! There are goats and small green geckos everywhere! Why is going outside my house so intimidating? We have pizza!
Golden Dust Day Geckos live with me in my house!

Golden Dust Day Geckos live with me in my house!

Training (part 2)

IMG_0058.JPG

At the center of Madagascar

While the first half of training melted away slowly, the second half flew by faster than I could blink. We embarked on our first adventure through Madagascar on our technical trip. Tech trip was a turning point for me. Thrown into a van we were just a bunch of strangers. We travelled to the dead center of Madagascar, where a monument stood on a picturesque piece of land that was surrounded 3/4 of the way around with water. We visited geysers and some of us received healing clay hand massages.

IMG_0090.jpg

The geyser we visited

Tech trip was not all fun and games though; we spent the majority of our time observing English classes. The first three days we travelled around towns a couple hours outside of Antananarivo (or just Tana). We observed Peace Corps volunteers teach their English classes at their sites and toured around their communities. We watched Malagasy teachers teach English to better understand their unique teaching style and we interacted with shy Malagasy students.

For our final three days of Tech Trip we observed classes in Tana. I am not entirely sure I like Tana. Granted, I have not spent enough time there, nor have I seen much of what it has to offer so the jury is still out.  After hours in the car together, exploring new towns and cities, all of us grew close. It was a wonderful time. At the end of the week, we pilled out of the Peace Corps van one last time, this time as dear friends.

IMG_0119.JPG

Tana

The month of August was spent living, learning, eating and breathing at the training center right outside of Montesoa. It felt like summer camp- or what I imagine summer camp would be like, as I never went. We spent our mornings learning the dialects of the region we were being sent to (Spoiler alert- I was learning Betsimisaraka North for my new home of Antalaha) or teaching at practicum.

What is practicum, you ask? Peace corps gathered a group Montesoa’s children ranging from middle school to high school and set up classrooms so we could practice teaching all grade levels. We were observed by current Peace Corps volunteers who acted as trainers. It lasted about three weeks and was extremely helpful and made me feel much better about my role as an English teacher.

IMG_0033.JPG

The last few weeks were extremely emotional as a strong bond was formed between the volunteers. It started to feel real when I had to send half of my belongings to site two weeks in advance. We spent about a week learning a Malagasy song and traditional Malagasy dances to perform at our Swearing-in ceremony. We swore in as Peace Corps volunteers on August 28th and began our journey the following day when we left the training center.

 

Training (part 1) 

I am sorry I have not fulfilled my duties as an adequate blog keeper. I could offer a bunch of excuses, but the truth is I might just suck at this. I wish I had fully written down my experiences during training because that is when I truly fell in love. I fell in love with Madagascar and the people. I fell in love with my fellow volunteers and my new language. I fell hard, guys. (Incidentally, I did actually fall quite hard and might have a crazy scar to prove it, but that’s another and far less poetic story).  

I have decided to retroactively make a post about training and then tell you about my new home after (I’ll be here for 2 years. I am sure I can get around to that eventually). 

My first three months were incredible, confusing, beautiful and strange. I still marvel how quickly I was able to adjust to a new life. 

At the very start we spent about 3 days at the incredibly beautiful training center before moving to our host families. Before our move our trainers taught us “survival language.” Which basically consisted of “hello” and “I’m full, thank you.” And then they sent us on our way. 

 
I had arguably the best host family in town. Most of my memorable moments happened around the dining table. I ate 3 Malagasy meals a day with my family. Here’s what you need to know: Rice is the staple food here in Madagascar and is typically served with “side dish.” Food is usually just eaten with a spoon and drinking black coffee is weird, many spoonfuls of sugar are expected.

 My Neny (host mother) was an excellent cook and my stomach had no problems adjusting to my new diet. But most importantly, meals were quiz time. My Neny would always ask me with a very quizzical expression, “what’s this?” And point to the food on the table. I would then have to tell her what the food was in Malagasy. And she would respond, “Ohhh,” as My host dad gave me a big thumbs-up from across the table. Her acting was superb and hilarious. I had language class with a couple other volunteers in a spare room in my new home and I swear she would hear the lesson through the wall and then at lunch slyly ask me questions I had just learned in my last class. My Neny taught me how to wash my clothes by hand, how to properly scrub my flip flops and how to cook rice. She was both my language teacher and my life teacher. My Dada (host father) attended all my peace corps events, laughed at the baby ducks with me and always told me I was “mahay” (smart/good) at Malagasy even when I was really struggling. 

  
My host siblings were equally amazing and funny. On my first day at home stay, my host sister and my host brother took me on a tour of the town and made my potentially scariest day of training not so scary. My siblings taught me many words, numbers, took me on hikes, playfully argued with me about who had to do the dishes and are just amazing people. I am so thankful for my experience with my family. They are such wonderful and welcoming people who really made my time here special. After 8 or 9 weeks it was time to go, so with some tears and many fond memories I packed up my bags and returned to where it all began: the training center. 

  
But first lets talk real quickly about logistics in living in Madagascar at my homestay.

Where is the water? 

  • Water had to be fetched from a well a few yards from our house. I’m not going to lie, I fell twice fetching water. Apparently cheap flip flops, water and mud are a bad combination. Who knew? 
  •  Drinkable water needs to be filtered and chlorinated (ser’eau), unless you want worms or dysentery. 

Where is the toilet? 

  • I used a traditional Kabone, which is basically an outhouse with just a hole in the ground. Ours was very clean and I did not mind it at all. However, I have since heard a story of a volunteer falling into their Kabone which has officially become my worst nightmare.
  • At night if I had to go, I would use a “po,” which is a bucket with a lid. Despite the normalcy of using a po here, I always was filled with shame when I carried my bucket of pee down the stairs in the morning. 

What about the shower? 

  • Bucket baths, baby! I would take a bucket, fill it halfway up with well water, go back into the house, have Neny pour in some nice hot water she made for me and bring it to the ladosy. The using a small pitcher I would pour water on myself. You get the picture. 
  • The ladosy is a small room separate from the house with a drain.

I think that covers the basics! 
I think that is good enough for now. I am going to post this now and then post the second half later, once my thumbs have regained their strength (I am typing this on my phone). Hope you enjoyed the read! Veloma! 

Let’s Fly Away!

 

Flight to Philly

 
The Peace Corps and my German mother already have something in common. They both like to get to the airport absurdly early. I am currently sitting in JFK with my 26 other Madagascar volunteers. It is 6:40 am and our flight leaves at 11am. And get this! We have been here for 2 hours already! It’s so early that the kiosks are closed and we cannot check in for another hour. I am not complaining though, my mother has rubbed off on me a little. So this means I am even a little anxious that we aren’t at the gate yet!

 

All of our bags in a pile!

 
The last couple days have been a whirlwind. On Sunday, I took a flight from California to Philly. I slept at the hotel and then the next day we had staging! Staging is basically a fancy word the Peace Corps uses for orientation. It was a series of presentations and conversations about Peace Corps expectations and safety. I really enjoyed it. It was nice to hear from returned Peace Corps volunteers and hear them relate their own experiences to the material that we were learning.

Honestly though it was kind of difficult to even remember most of the topics we covered. The most probable reason for this is that my nervousness left me with a mild case of amnesia. Oh well.

 

Tying yarn to our bags- a Peace Corps tradition!

 
The hardest part of all of this has been saying goodbye to everyone. I love my family and friends so much that most of my phone calls/facetimes/skypes ended in tears. I am so thankful that I have such an amazing support group. I love you all very much. I will let you know how I am the second I have access to the Internet! Until then, wish me luck! Madagascar, here I come!

Last Day at Home

My dog wants to come with!

Today is my last day in California, by this time next week I will be living in Madagascar. I cannot even believe it. It is completely crazy and my mind cannot wrap itself around the idea that I will be there for 27 months.

Not that I haven’t had enough time to prepare! This process has been a long one. At one point I hadn’t heard a peep from the Peace Corps for 6 long months! Since it is my first post on the blog, I thought I would give you a quick timeline of my Peace Corps journey so far. So here it goes:

My Peace Corps Timeline

December 2013: Apply to Peace Corps

February 2014: 15 min phone interview

March 2014: 1.5 hour in-person interview with recruiter

May 2014: Receive 5 potential options for nomination (Madagascar, Georgia, Guyana, Azerbaijan and Zambia)

May 2014: Nominated for Peace Corps Madagascar (my first choice!)

May 2014: Graduation from University of Wisconsin-Madison

June 2014: Legal Clearance given

June – December 2014: Waiting to hear back

December 2014: Invited to join!

March 2015: Medical clearance given

June 2015: Departure
Yes, you read it correctly, I applied a year and a half ago. I know what you are thinking, “She has known for a while that she might go away for 2 years, she should be used to the idea by now.”

Well I’m not. I never really gave myself the chance to process it because I keep worrying that somehow this opportunity will be taken away from me. Going to live in Madagascar for 27 months, that can’t be real, right? But it is.

I am incredibly honored to have been given this opportunity and I hope I make all of you proud.