Archive for the ‘updates’ Category


Saturday, November 26th, 2011

So I had two full blog posts that I thought I copied to my USB when we tried to go to the cybercafe in mananjary (which turned out not to have internet), but back in manakara, it looks like I grabbed the wrong ones.  So you’ll have to content yourselves with a bunch of pictures in no particular order, and the posts will be up in two days when I get back to Tana.  Tomorrow we’re taking a narrow-gage train which is supposed to be gorgeous, and then a taxi-brousse to Tana Monday.  but I hope everyone had a great thanksgiving– I had salad for dinner, and flambeed crepes for dessert!  didn’t feel much like thanksgiving, but the beach was gorgeous.

Halloween in Tana… aka pre-departure jitters

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Happy Halloween everyone!  They don’t really celebrate it here though…  but we arrived in Tana last night, after a very long day in taxi-brousses.  And everyone was on edge and snapping at everyone—my guess is because of the lack of gouter, and dehydration, plus some stress about starting ISP.  But nevertheless, it wasn’t the best long car ride.  I was pretty relaxed, though—I had had a good night where I felt close to my host siblings, my sister especially—she and I wandered around together and I met her best friend.  So anyways, yesterday was mostly in the car, listening to music and watching some beautiful scenery.  But today… today was crazy.  And it’s only halfway over.  We spent last night in a hotel, and woke up this morning and came into the center to receive our stipends for the next month.  And let me tell you, that’s a thick wad of cash I just got!  Then we went to the taxi-brousse station to buy our tickets for tomorrow, which was possibly one of the most intense experiences of my life.  There were dozens of guys shouting destinations at us, trying to convince us to go with their company… one of my traveling companions gets carsick, so we had to go to several different companies to find one that had seats open in the front. We finally did, but we accidentally underpaid, and then had a huge misunderstanding complicated by the language barrier and the fact that we had been told by our super nice taxi driver to watch out for thieves, so we were paranoid and didn’t believe they weren’t trying to sneak an extra 10,000 Ar (about $5) from us.  I can’t even describe how insane this place was, but I know that after being able to cope well with that and negotiate a better price in that environment, nothing in the US could ever faze me.

I think though that while I wasn’t super stressed at the station, it did stress me out, and when I got left behind during the hotel switch, without really any money and all my bags, trying to find this other hotel in a very nice part of town that I don’t know at all, with a companion who was complaining a lot (although she bailed me out money-wise, so I’m glad she was there), and trying to text my host mom in French to tell her I’m not going to be there tonight, I just got super tense and stressed.  Although if I’m honest with myself it’s probably really about going off to do this research project that I feel underprepared for, even if I am excited, and knowing I’m going to be essentially on my own for the next month—one of my closest friends in the program will be there with me, but I’m going to be in a village by myself for two weeks, but more than that it’s being completely on my own academically—I have this big project I want to do, and I know what I want it to turn out into, but it’s up to me to make it happen, without much of the support I’m used to having on big projects like this.  I know it’s going to be a great experience, and one that will make me a phenomenally better researcher, but it’s scary all the same.  But I’m excited, too, and that has been my predominant emotion for the past two weeks about ISP, so I guess it’s ok that right now I’m freaking out.  It’s to be expected, really, the day before.  And I’m doing much better now, actually doing some preparations for it (largely involving shopping… but I won’t have access to a lot of the things there are here in Tana when I’m in Manakara).  Anyways, I’m not sure how much internet access I’ll have in the next couple of days/weeks, so updates might be a bit spotty… but that’s life right now!

Bel Air

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

So… this is my view as I write this paper, drinking my pastis (anise flavored liqueur) that cost a whole 50 cents. Life is pretty good right now… although the late 80s/early 90s angsty love songs playing are getting a bit old. But who am I to complain? Also, the paper is going pretty well. It’s on Vazimba, and there is all kinds of cool analysis to do that I hardly knew where to start. The interesting thing I found out is that they learn this sort of myth/oral history thing in school, which is interesting because it was only part of certain ethnic groups (the Merina, mainly, who have been dominant in a lot of ways for a long time, causing all sorts of tensions and resentments—the main ethnic divide is highlands vs. coastal), and now everyone learns it as Malagasy culture in school. Just everything here is so fascinating, I don’t know how I’m ever going to begin to sum it up when I get home. Last night I was chatting with a friend from home online, and he said I needed to have crazy stories to tell when I get home. Though I have the kind he meant, I realized that just a typical day here would count as a crazy story… But it just seems like it’s normal, now. Life in the US seems a bit like a dream—there are showers with hot water? Not just a bucket? How bizarre… that used to be the only thing I would use! I don’t mix three languages on a daily basis in conversations with everyone from shopkeepers to my friends? Why on earth not, when there are great words like kamo or mora mora or misy or aiza that just mix so well (lazy, slowly, il y a, and where, respectively)? And my favorite and least favorite, you mean I’m not a movie star in real life? People don’t stop and stare when I walk by? But I do love it here, something fierce. I’m looking forward to ISP—a month doing research on a topic I love (theoretically interesting as well as should be really fun—diviners all seem like they’re going to be quite some characters to hang around with, plus I’ll get my fortune told a bunch!) in one of the most beautiful places on earth (near the ocean!), with one of my closest friends on the program nearby. It should be great. Anyways, should get back to the paper I guess…

Nothing new

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Not much new to add, just felt like I hadn’t blogged in a while… still quite happy. Working a lot on ISP plans and this paper on the Vazimba (the people who were there before the Malagasy… it’s crazy fascinating!) so really just very happy in a lot of ways right now. But… yeah. not much else to say.

My brushes with Royalty

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

What a wonderful two days… yesterday morning we went to a doany, which is a traditional religious site. This one was the seat of a branch of the Sakalava kingdom (the socio-politico-religious aspects of that are fascinating…), and it contains relics of the four founding ancestors. I read an ethnography about the stuff that goes on there—there are mediums that are possessed by tromba, which are the spirits of deceased Sakalava kings. It sounds like such a cool thing. We went on a Wednesday, though, when it’s not active, but at least you can go there– Tuesdays and Thursdays are taboo for both working the land and for going to the doany (but not for working in an office… isn’t that interesting? That’s what my independent study project is going to be on). We met the Prince of this branch, who was this wonderful guy with beautiful French who answered lots of questions. I’m going to keep this short, but if you’re interested in how it all works, send me an email and I’ll tell you what I know, because it’s a fascinating situation. It’s also a village, with people living there, but they have to respect a bunch of taboos—like we couldn’t have any ties in our hair, and we had to have lambas on over our pants. Anyways, I shook a prince’s hand! And then in the afternoon, we went to the beach. Seriously guys, this is school. I can’t believe it sometimes, but then I think about how much I’m learning, even if it’s not in class. It’s just a different thing altogether than school—rather than reading books, I’m talking to people, or learning by doing what they’re doing. I’ve realized that I’ve become a lot more discerning in telling stories as to where I learned something—whether I read it in an academic source, whether someone (Malagasy, usually) told me it, or whether I’ve seen it myself. Because seeing the culture for myself, I’m coming to realize that a lot of times, I don’t agree with the simple facts of say an ethnography, or especially with an interpretation, and that sometimes I find that “informants” are lying to me, or simply don’t know. At any rate, the beach was fantastic. Majunga is on the Mozambique channel, so there aren’t strong waves—it’s really a lovely beach. That was just a fantastic day.
Thursday a fortune-teller came to visit us, and as he deals with vintana (destiny), which is my ISP topic, it was really awesome. He talks about it as a traditional form of healing, using these seeds and divination to diagnose medical problems. And he was a character… which I think most of the guys that do vintana are, which makes me excited. He read my destiny: I get headaches occasionally (because the head is my key—he talked about three keys to the body, the head, heart, and stomach), there’s a guy out there who wants to marry me (any takers?), that two kids will be enough for me, in my marriage I’ll be strong like a man, that I had a cough recently (although he might have heard me cough during his presentation earlier) and that I’ll be good at commerce (not so sure about that one…). Overall, he says I have a very good destiny. Because I’m going to be hanging out with a lot of these guys, I’m going to compare their different readings, just as a side game for myself. In the afternoon, I just sort of wandered around, which was nice, as I don’t know this town very well (I live in the outskirts, in the same direction as the school, so I don’t pass through town on my way home).
Yesterday we went across the bay to a small town where there was a girl from the peace corps, who hung out with us all morning. It was cool to see what she was doing, and her projects. A lot of people in our group are interested in peace corps, not surprisingly, given that they’re doing an SIT program in Madagascar—it’s sort of the same demographic. And last night a bunch of us went and hung out on the boardwalk, which was gorgeous. Majunga is nice in that we can go out at night without worrying so much about security as in Tana, and the city comes alive after dark in a way Tana doesn’t (given that the entire city becomes a red zone for security after dark). Probably because it’s so hot during the day… and it becomes absolutely gorgeous after dark, with the breeze off the ocean. Today I’m doing some work here at home (it feels so weird to have work to do… for some reason Majunga doesn’t feel like school the same way Tana does. And unfortunately we have a lot of work to do here… ) and then will head to the beach this afternoon. It’s a hard life, I know.

Majunga, aka discourse on gouter

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Arrived in Majunga yesterday, which is on the coast. We had a full day of driving, which was alternately boring and fun—I always ride in the Mazda, which is a smaller, older van that is kind of falling apart, but we really enjoy its “charms”, and it feels more like Madagascar. Also, we can open all the windows, and we have our own dj—one of the guys who rides with us plugs in his ipod, and we have sing and dance-alongs every so often. I have the worst seat in some respects, because there’s a gap next to me and so on every curve I nearly fall out, but I’ve developed quite a system for propping myself up, and it causes much general amusement when one of us does fall (I’m not the only one—some of the seats are broken, so on sudden stops people will fall out). We snacked so much, too, and now I’m going to tell you about all the delicious gouts that we have (goûter means to taste or snack in French):
So perhaps the most ubiquitous gout is caca pigeou, which means pigeon poop. It’s these little fried pieces of dough which are absurdly addictive, and that we fight over. There are also crack nuts, which are peanuts covered in a crystallized sugar stuff, a bit like candied almonds? Personally, I prefer (although I have to buy these myself) peanuts wrapped in little bits of caca—they are ridiculously good, and Titianah loved them as well, so I would go out of my way to find them for us. There are also Krumps, which are these potato straws (a bit like veggie straws, but only potato) that I don’t like too well—they’ve got a weird aftertaste that I don’t care for. Saltos are sort of ritz cracker things which are delicious and everywhere; cheese balls are harder to find but addictive. They’re a bit like those cheeto-like balls you buy in the huge plastic containers, except sweet for some reason, and contain MSG, which explains why you cannot stop eating them. There are a couple of us who adore the cheese balls, and we get very protective of them… Dave and I bought a big bag for the long car ride, and he woke me up from a nap to sneak me half the bag, telling me to keep them on the down-low. That’s most of the good salty snacks, but then there are the range of sweet ones: langues de chat (cat tongues), which are really good dipped in coffee or tea, sablitos, which are sweet coconut biscuits that I actually like, Fregos, which are those wafer cookies (pink, brown and white) that you had as a kid? I didn’t originally like them, but they’ve grown on me. Also most days there are bananas at snack, and some days at the center they make us fried things like mofo (pronounced moof) balls (so good, I actually was dreaming about them… although that might have been something to do with the mefloquin I’m taking) or fried bananas (my favorite street food). And though I realize how crazy it is that I just wrote that much about snacks, they do play a large role in our lives here—we’re a bit like kindergarteners, I know. And when you’re eating rice with the same sautéed veggies three times a day, the variety of snacks become your culinary focus, especially as I don’t think it’s very productive to fall into talking about the foods you miss (cheese. Olive oil. Spinach salad. Macaroni and cheese. Corn on the cob. Fresh veggies—not cooked. Milk. Couscous…. You get the picture.)
Anyways, long car ride. We arrived after dark at ankarafantsika, a national park with lots of lemurs. We were camping there, so set up tents (although there were bathrooms and showers and a restaurant, and power until 9:30). The next morning we took a walk through the park, and saw lots of lemurs (pictures accompany). We also toured a turtle park and a women’s weaving cooperative there. It was pretty cool—there were some lemurs that were pretty tame, that would just be hanging out in the trees around our campsite. I didn’t have my camera with me then, but it was nice that way—I got to really watch them, rather than getting frustrated at not getting the shots I wanted. We finished the drive to Majunga yesterday morning, which is pretty, but I’m reserving judgement at the moment—I haven’t seen much of it, to tell you the truth. It’s really hot, and I haven’t totally acclimated yet, and I got sick this morning—just a cough, but that combined with the heat means I’m kind of miserable right now. My host family here is really nice—it’s just me, my mom, and a brother and sister, 18 and 17, respectively. My brother is really quiet, and my sister is nice, although the whole family seems pretty quiet. My mom is a midwife and pediatric nurse, and this morning while she was at work my sister and I went to the market to buy food for lunch. Since then I’ve just been napping and reading—I wanted to go out and explore, but since I’m sick, decided that I would postpone that and focus on getting better. It means I’ll be a bit stir-crazy by tomorrow morning, I can already tell, but then I’ll have a lot of energy to go explore tomorrow!

(insert synonym for happy here)

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

I’m in such a good mood today—I really love it here. Last night my taxi-be ride home was fantastic: I listened to music, and there was a gorgeous sunset (which is pretty much a daily occurrence), and I got a good seat (definitely not a guarantee—I have to fight to get on, and am usually shuffled between the boards placed between seats for most of the ride). Then when I got home, all the kids and I sat around during a power outage and did our homework and practiced English with them, which was kinda fun (I had never spoken English with anyone in my family, so it was a bit surreal to hear my native language coming from their tongues. We all sat around talking at dinner, and I was just reminded of how much I love my host family. They’re really great people, and I’m so glad that I’m living with them—the homestay experience is fantastic. Especially as they’re simultaneously friends and sources on the culture—as evidenced by my night, when my cousin Zo sat with me and read my homework with me. It was an article on whether awareness of the past in traditional societies is useful in resolving problems in development (in French), which is interesting enough, but he would read a paragraph out loud (and his French is better than mine) and then tell me what he thinks about it—whether he agrees, and why, often giving me a more thorough understanding of the history going on. He’s really smart and analytical, and has a phenomenal understanding of Malagasy history. Even though I normally go to bed around 9, we sat there and talked until 11, and it was just wonderful (even if I was falling asleep towards the end). It gives me hope for this ISP project—if I can find even a couple of informants as good as he is, I’m set. And I think I know where I’m going for my ISP—in the Betsileo region, probably going to be based in Ambositra (that’s in the southern highlands). I have a meeting this afternoon with a professor who’s from there, and hopefully he’ll point me towards something interesting to study. So… yeah. I’m really content with my life right now—I feel like I’m making meaningful connections with Malagasy people, and becoming immersed in the culture to some extent, and I just know that I’m getting something good out of being here, which just makes me feel like I’m glowing. And I could barely keep my laughter in check this morning, mostly due to this happiness, but it was prompted by seeing the nanny spraying cold water from the steamer on the iron onto my sister’s hair so she could slick it down—I don’t know why, but it was ludicrous and made me absurdly happy.


Monday, October 10th, 2011

I really have no idea what I’m going to do my ISP (independent study project) on.  Like I know the big theoretical issues I want to deal with (indigenous understandings of poverty and development) but no idea how to narrow that down into something concrete and specific that I can do a month’s worth of research on.  Or where I want to go.  I’m waiting around now for a meeting with Roland now, which hopefully will help, but I’m a bit worried right now.  Thought I would remind you all that I am doing academic work here… I needed the reminder too, to be honest.  Sometimes it doesn’t feel like school is going on without me.


On a lighter note, funny story from the drive to school this morning: my family (mom, dad, and little sister) were all in the car together, and we passed a group of 6 or 7 vazahas on the side of the road.  Everyone in the car turns and shouts “vazahas” together– I’m pretty sure they forgot completely that I was a vazaha!  I’m going to miss them…

Vazaha problems

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

Keep scrolling– lots of new pictures!

This is a really surreal experience—I’m sitting in Café de la Gare, which is this very nice restaurant in an old train station, which is frequented by plenty of vazaha (I’m using their wi-fi in order to reconnect with the world). So I’ve decided to write about a concept that we’ve been using a lot here, which is kind of funny, but I haven’t written for the blog about it— vazaha problems. These are the things that are just so clearly rich person problems—for example, your kindle not working, so you don’t have enough to read. VAZAHA PROBLEM! So if when I come home, and you complain to me about something, and I tell you that it’s a vazaha problem, don’t be surprised. It’s just that there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance going on—there’s so clearly huge problems like hunger and poverty and corruption, and almost on a different plane of existence, there are these little complaints about my daily life. And even though I’m forced to recognize how lucky I am, both in my life at home and here (even with the minor inconveniences of life in Madagascar, like crazy taxi-be rides), I still find myself concerned with these vazaha problems. I don’t know if it’s possible to be always conscious of your own blessings—they become normalized somehow, and it’s exhausting to constantly remind yourself that your worries are much less severe than where your next meal is coming from, for example.
At the same time, I see all these tourists here at the Café, and wonder if they ever see what I’ve come to know as the real Madagascar. This restaurant certainly isn’t it—it seems more like we’re in France. Are they like me, coming here for a brief reminder of the outside world? Or is this all they see? Do they ever get out and explore the staircases, the back alleys and markets with street vendors? Do they ride the taxi-be, getting shuffled along the boards propped between seats and learning to elbow your way to a real seat? Do they really hear Malagasy, or see poverty except the beggars in the street? It also makes me wonder about other trips I’ve taken to developing countries—have I been like them? This is a very angsty post, I guess, which I didn’t intend it to be, but it’s weird being here right after the village stay where everyone could afford to buy their food for the day, and not much else.

Candlelit reflections on cassava

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

Although I realize this is just making more work for myself, I’m going to write out a blog post now by hand and type it up when I get to Tana. I’m currently sitting in Ampizaratany, a village of almost 3,000 people where I’m the only vazaha. It’s surprisingly laid-back, and though it’s been 4 days since I’ve seen anyone with a good grasp of English (or really French), I’ve been enjoying myself in a very contemplative manner. I’ve been reading a lot—at least a book a day, because there’s not much else to do. It was sort of surreal, reading Robert Chambers’ Rural Development while sitting in a village… but I’ve also been spending a lot of time with my family, just chilling at the house. Life is very mora-mora, which literally means slow slow, but it’s very much a part of Malagasy attitude. My dad is the President of the Fokotany, which is an elected position of local government, as well as having rice fields 5 km away that my host brother works every day. They’re far from the poorest of the poor, but definitely not as wealthy as my Tana family. They’re constantly at pains to point out how poor everything is, which his sort of strange and sometimes hard to deal with—I became really uncomfortable at first. But I’ve realized that part of Malagasy culture, even though often it’s categorized as being really discreet, is being very matter of fact about other things, such as social status (side note: there’s no way to say “you look weird” in Malagasy. You just say you have a big nose, or you smell bad, or whatever it is). And in the US we’re at pains to be understated about those things, which is I think the cause of my discomfort. It’s also possibly partially because I didn’t want to see myself as being superior to them—I wanted the comfortable equality that I have with my Tana family, where yes there are differences in status but we know each other as individuals and status doesn’t play a large role in our relationship. I didn’t like being constantly put in a superior position. For a while that was written here in Tana, but now back to the candles:
What I really wanted to talk about was manioc/cassava, though. I think I’ve eaten it at least twice every day, and had it offered to me several other times besides… I’ve never had much experience with it before, so for those of you that don’t know, it’s a starchy root a bit like a grainier potato, that’s generally a poverty staple. But they seem to absolutely adore it! I can do it some ways, like fried or mashed with green onions and fried, and I even like the leaves cooked as a loka (side note: I am discovering that unlike French, there rarely is a 1:1 correlation between a Malagasy word and an English one. Loka is a good example: it means what you eat with rice. Which is a very fundamental concept here, but not one I have an English word for… also, my Malagasy is not good enough that when they ask me who you say ____ in English, and can’t explain in French or mime it, and I don’t have a dictionary, I am useless!) but I cannot stomach it boiled, no matter how much sugar you heap on it… it seems like all I do here is eat. I think we have 4 meals a day, plus generally a snack of some sort. Also, at mealtime I get put in a room by myself and I eat first, which was weird but it means I don’t have to eat as much and now I just read. So, Cassava. Lots of it. That’s really all I wanted to say for now.