Sunday, July 26, 2015

Ten Ferries to Fort Dauphin: The Story of My Biggest Peace Corps Adventure

Author's note: this is a post that I have been wanting to write for almost 2 years. However, because some of the people involved were still serving as PCVs until now, and because we broke a few Peace Corps rules in doing this, I've been forced to wait a while to write about it. When a classmate of mine asked me 'what was the craziest thing you did in Madagascar?', the story of this adventure was my answer. It remains one of the highlights of my experience in Madagascar, and one of the most rewarding and challenging things I have ever done in my life.

I have always been entranced by maps. I lose myself just staring at them, poring over place names and imagining the adventures they hold. And so when I first learned of my Peace Corps site placement midway through Pre-Service Training, I quickly looked up Vangaindrano on the map at the training center. I pointed at my new town to one of our volunteer trainers, remarking “oh look, I won’t be that far away from Fort Dauphin” [a popular large-ish city on the island’s southeastern tip, located on a beautiful bay]. And then she proceeded to laugh hysterically. 

Map courtesy the Bradt Guide to Madagascar
You see, in Madagascar, sometimes maps lie. In this case, what the map says is a road is actually more of a “road”. It uses the term very loosely. She explained to me that not only is the Route Nationale 12A unpaved, but it’s notoriously treacherous, and just plain mind-bogglingly bad. What’s more, it includes 10 ferry crossings where inland rivers spill out into the Indian Ocean, like the teeth of a zipper. Given how terrible the road has always been, and the vast plains of emptiness that lie between Vangaindrano and Ft. Dauphin, it’s no surprise that bridges have never been built. So as a result, this 230km (143 mile) coastal stretch that should be a straight shot from Vangaindrano to Ft. Dauphin takes at least 2 days in a 4x4, more if you’re in a taxi-brousse (if you can even find one taking the trip.) The paved road heading south from Irondro, the Route Nationale 12, ends in Vangaindrano, giving my site what the Bradt guidebook calls “a frontier town feel”; any road venturing further south is just mud, rocks, and dirt. But on the map it looks like such a straight shot down Madagascar’s arrow-straight east coast. And all throughout the first year of my service, Ft. Dauphin sat on the map on my wall, taunting me, beckoning me. It was so close, yet so far away. I had to find a way to make the trip. And I decided to do it on a bicycle.
But it looks like such a straight shot!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A dispatch from the other side

"You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a place.... like you'll not only miss the people you love but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you'll never be this way ever again."- Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

I didn’t intend to leave things here the way that I did. I had already drafted up several other blog posts that I was planning to finalize and post before I finished my Peace Corps service and left Madagascar on April 11th, 2014. But it seems that I was overambitious in just how much I could actually accomplish during my final month in Madagascar, in which I had to pack up and leave my house, complete all of the required Peace Corps “exit” paperwork and tasks, wrap up my work project, study for and take the final exam for the microeconomics course I was taking online, make a decision about grad school programs, and just generally achieve the monumental task of saying goodbye to the place and the people that had occupied my heart for the last 2 years. So many things were left undone. The day before I left Vangaindrano, I was frantically trying to finish a sign painting project in the center of town, because I wanted to leave it with a fresh coat of paint when I said goodbye. But the sun was setting, and I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t going to get finished. So, exhausted and emotional, I gave the paint and instructions to a friend in town and asked him if he could please finish. Like that painting project, I didn’t get to write everything that I wanted to. Looking at my blog recently, it feels wrong to leave it with a post listing my likes and dislikes about the country that I called home for 2 years, and which I am spending a lot of time missing these days. So I am remedying that now, even though I have been back for a year at this point.

I know it may seem like leaving America to go live in a remote, undeveloped country for 2 years is a difficult act, but looking back, I think that leaving Vangaindrano for good was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I was lucky enough to reconnect with many friends shortly after my return, and talking about my experience helped cement some feelings in my heart. When I talk to people about leaving and why it was so hard, I tell them about the extremely strange notion of having to uproot yourself from a community that you spent years working to integrate yourself into, one that absolutely became your home, with neighbors who felt like family-- and knowing that after that departure, even if you come back, you will never have that experience again. Nothing can ever be the same, because the experience of living in a town as a Peace Corps volunteer is so unique and special that it just can’t be recreated. This harsh reality hit me as soon as I sat down in the yellow taxi-brousse that had picked me up in front of my house and loaded up my belongings for the journey to Tana. Seeing my little toddler friend Sarobidy wave to me as the van pulled away suddenly forced the excruciating reality upon me that he wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore, and nor will I be a part of his. Two weeks later, in each of the final segments of the journey home, I could not stop crying: when I made my last and final sign-out of the Peace Corps house, when I sat in the taxi to the airport, and when the customs officer stamped my passport one last time. And then when I called Sarobidy’s mother Marcelline to say a final goodbye before boarding the plane, she told me that he kept asking aiza i Emily? (“where is Emily?”) Hearing this brought upon the tears even more, and I kept my sunglasses on while walking bleary-eyed onto the tarmac. I just didn’t want to have anyone ask me why I was crying, because how I could I even begin to explain to them?

Little Sarobidy taking a nap under the avocado tree in my front yard, with Harry the cat and Milou the kitten keeping him sleepy company.
Of course, leaving Madagascar did have happy connotations: my first stop was Indonesia to meet up with one of my best friends and her brother, who was a PCV there. As difficult as it was to leave my friends in Madagascar, both Peace Corps and local Malagasy, I knew that there would be some wonderful people waiting for me one the other side. I also think that taking that trip before actually returning to America was an important “halfway” step before plunging into the murky pool of readjustment to American life. I had heard many a PCV say that it’s actually a lot harder to return home to America than it is to go away. I didn’t give this statement enough credence before, and although I knew it would be difficult to come home, I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be. I will be honest here and say that my first 3 months back were some of the most trying months of my life. Everything we take for granted here was a challenge for me to get used to: driving, shopping in a grocery store, being incredibly connected at all times, and figuring out how to eat in America (given my massively different diet in Madagascar) so that I wouldn’t feel sick. I also had to figure out how to accurately describe my experience to everyone who asked the simple yet difficult-to-answer question of “how was it?” Aside from these challenges which are no doubt common to any returned PCV, I also was met with a few unique ones pretty much as soon as I returned. Firstly, I had to take care of a surprise health issue that presented itself during my final physical exam with the Peace Corps doctors, and because it was something that occurred while I was a federal government employee, it had to be covered under the federal employee worker’s comp program. So that meant that approximately 25% of my days were spent dealing with either the Department of Labor or my doctor’s office. Secondly, my grad school plans were turned on their head because of a change with the program I was originally planning to attend, and then turned again when I got a phone call on May 9th from Duke (my first choice school) saying that they had a spot for me after all, after I had been on the waitlist for 5 months. So I made the decision to switch my business school plans to Duke, which brought me great excitement… and also great stress, because the tasks that I had to accomplish in 2 months in order to make this work were monumental—chief of which was their calculus requirement. Yes, that’s right: I spent my summer studying calculus under the gun so that I could finish the prerequisite by the hard-and-fast July 15th deadline. I had no Memorial Day, no July 4th, spent nearly every beautiful summer day hunched over books indoors, and although I took 2 weeks to visit friends and family in NYC, LA, and DC, I spent nearly every one of those days studying while my friends were at work. I wasn’t even sure if I would succeed, because trying to finish a college-level calculus course in less than 2 months is no easy task, but I’m happy to report that I passed the course with the grade I needed, and was able to cross off that huge item from my to-do list. Additionally, I was able to take care of my health issue thanks to some excellent medical treatment, which took a humongous burden off my mind.

A goodbye picture of me (and Harry) with Fanomeja, one of the sweetest boys in my neighborhood. He was a great friend to me, my garden, and my cats.
I’m now just about done with my first year of the MBA program at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business—which feels crazy to write. The first month here was a huge adjustment, and I spent a lot of time feeling jarred by just how different my life had become, as well as struggling to adapt to my new identity as an MBA student. Getting used to a rigorous school schedule was also difficult, given that I hadn’t been a fulltime student in many years. But the adjustment got easier, and I’ve met a wonderful group of friends at school. I genuinely feel like Duke is exactly where I am supposed to be, and I’m excited to be spending the next year growing, learning, and continuing to become the person I want to be. I’ve taken inspiration from my Peace Corps project to pursue a career in corporate sustainability, and my dream job is to work at a large consumer products company helping them operate more responsibly and sustainably, especially when it comes to sourcing ingredients. I feel extremely fortunate to be on that path already, and will be doing my summer MBA internship in India, working with Coca-Cola’s office of sustainability. When I left my career in New York to join Peace Corps, I legitimately had no idea what would come of that brash move. But I realize now how I grateful I am for the experience career-wise, and far from being just a break from the real world, it refocused me on what my goals are, helped me become a more resilient and adaptable worker, and gave me the adventurous, more-than-a-desk-job work experience I was craving.  

With beautiful Marinah, in front of her grandmother's coffee and bread stand-- my daily breakfast spot.
When I look back at my experience now, the twelve months’ distance from my Madagascar departure brings about two distinct emotions. The first is a bit of rose-colored-glasses nostalgia, when I miss Mada and my life there so deeply because all I can think about are the good memories and amazing experiences: the wonder of exploring a new country, the pride I experienced at wowing people by being able to speak their indigenous language, the thrill I felt flying down the steep hills of the Route Nationale 12 on my bike, the surge of familial love I felt when little Sarobidy fell asleep in my arms one day, the crazy biking/boating/swimming/camping/hiking adventures I had with my friends, the daily explosion of cuteness from the litter of kittens I raised in my final months at site, and the general sense of freedom and belonging that came after I’d been in the country for over a year and really felt at home. Looking at all of my pictures now and seeing myself all blonde and tan from two years of tropical sun, toned and healthy from daily biking and a vegan diet, with a smile full of contentment and joy, it’s hard not to wonder, was this the best version of me? Of course, my mind tends to gloss over the daily struggles of Mefloquine-induced anxiety, the frequent harassment, the infamous rat problem of my first few months at site, the maddening feeling of being in a taxi-brousse that only travels 20km in one hour, and my deteriorating health towards the end of my service. But even when I remind myself of the bad parts of my service, I still look back on it as the best thing I have ever done, and the most rewarding experience of my life.

I almost can't look at this picture without crying: the cuteness of the 4 girls (Prisca, Marinah, Rojo, and Lanisa with her little supermodel pose), plus Harry wandering into the frame, just reminds me so much of everything I left behind in Vangaindrano.
The other emotion that often presents itself, especially when I look at pictures posted by current volunteers, is that of regret. As is so often the case in life, I didn’t realize what a gift I’d been given until far too late. My chief regret is not pushing myself out of my comfort zone more and becoming more integrated in my community early on. In the beginning, I was so insecure about my Malagasy language skills that I was afraid to have conversations with people, since I’d be scared that I wouldn’t be able to understand them. It wasn’t until woefully late in my service that I realized just how precious my integration within Ampasy (my neighborhood of Vangaindrano) was, and that it was probably the most priceless experience anyone could ever ask for: to become, as a complete stranger and total foreigner, as much a part of a community in rural southeastern Madagascar to feel like I had gained a family. Had I realized this earlier, I would have forced myself to overcome my language fears and just get out talking to people more. And along those lines, I regret not challenging myself to get better at speaking and understanding Malagasy, because I wish I could have understood people better and had deeper, more meaningful conversations. Although I worked incredibly hard studying the language, I know that I could have forced myself to spend more time talking with people and practicing early on in my service, even when I didn’t feel confident with my language. As an introvert, my natural tendency was to spend lots of my free time in my house or garden, so I wish that I hadn’t allowed myself to fall into this pattern, and that I had balanced my alone time with more socializing with my neighbors. The fact that here I am, a Returned Peace Corps volunteer feeling regretful, is ironic because “regret avoidance” was a large reason for why I decided to leave New York and finally join Peace Corps-- I didn’t want to be another person lamenting not having served as a PCV when they had the chance.

April 11, 2014: the day I officially became a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, along with 5 of my fellow PCVs, and flew to Indonesia.
But despite those occasional feelings of regret, I remind myself that no volunteer’s service is the same as another’s, and there is no such thing as a “perfect” experience. I may not have had the same kind of Peace Corps service as my friend in a rural village down the road, but I nevertheless benefitted so greatly from it, and have to hope that I made an impact on my community, if only a small one.

Finally, towards the end of my service I began to compile a list of the changes I had noticed in myself during my two years of being away. I knew I would find myself somewhat altered from my time in Madagascar, so I wanted to take stock of what I had noticed being different in myself. Of course, I had intended to post this a year ago, so the difference now is looking at this list of changes and seeing if any of them have stuck with me—which actually may be more interesting, come to think of it.

Changes that I Hope Stay with Me:
-          Being a self-starter and working on projects without much direction. This was a great thing to get practice with. The American working culture very much hews towards corporate hand-holding with lots of touchpoints and check-ins. In Madagascar, I was essentially handed a project and told to make it happen. It ended up being one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.
-          Learning to accept uncertainty and roll with the punches. Life changes when you learn not to waste energy on things you can’t control. I learned this lesson many times over waiting for a delayed taxi-brousse to leave or having plans change unexpectedly due to torrential rains. I began to accept the fact that things will go wrong, and developed a strategy for how to deal with these annoyances: allow yourself to be angry about it for 5 minutes, vent if you need to, then move on and figure out what to do next. You can either sit around stewing in anger and frustration, or you can get on with life.
-          Being more spontaneous. I am a planner by nature, and that part of me hasn’t completely gone away (I just entered all my 2015-2016 school calendar dates into Outlook, hello), but I feel like I am now more able to embrace the unexpected and be a little more spontaneous. Some of the best times I’ve ever had in my life are when I dropped my carefully curated plans and did something completely different. Like crashing a Malagasy wedding party and dancing until 2 in the morning with complete strangers who became best friends for the night, for example.
-          Learning to ask for help when I need it. I’ve always prided myself on being independent and self-sufficient, but it was a huge lesson for me to realize that being thrust into a completely new environment meant that I actually did need to rely on others. It is incredibly humbling to realize this, but sometimes you need to let yourself be taken care of. When I made that first phone call to a more experienced volunteer and said “I need your help”, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. (And it looks like I am not alone in learning this lesson—see #11 on this list.)
-          Avoiding regrets as much as possible. As mentioned above, joining the Peace Corps was a huge strategy for personal regret avoidance. Having done that, I am trying to take the same tactic with other things in my life. I think this list is pretty great, and although I am definitely guilty of some of those items which I am sure will turn into future regrets, I’m doing pretty well on things like going to graduate school, learning another language, and traveling. J
-          Being more outdoorsy. This was something hugely lacking in my life between college, when I was outdoors riding horses quite a bit, and Peace Corps, which had me biking, hiking, camping, and swimming all the time. I didn’t realize how much I missed being outside and not surrounded by sun-obscuring skyscrapers until I found myself doing things like walking through the forest with a group of local villagers so they could show me a hidden natural pool, or hopping on my bike for a 5-hour ride to the nearest big town, just for the fun of it.
-          Being more open and honest with people. It seems counterintuitive, but going so far away helped me to do this, much more so than if I had just stayed in NYC. The enormity of my 2-year undertaking brought about an urge to open up and be truthful with people whom I cared about, because it was entirely possible (though statistically not likely) that I wouldn’t come home from Madagascar. Fortunately, I did, and having been this open and honest with my friends and family before leaving helped me reconnect with them when I returned home.
-          Not being a smartphone addict. I came across these two pieces while I was serving in Mada, and it was such a jarring reminder of what life is like in America where almost everyone has a smartphone with near-unlimited amounts of data. After over a year of using a pay-as-you-go system with a circa 2007 dumb phone, I had forgotten what it was like to always be connected to everything and everyone. I told myself I wouldn’t fall into this trap when I returned, but I sadly seem to be falling back into my old habits, and it’s something I need to work on.
-          Not spending obscene amounts of time online. Similar to the smartphone realization, I also forgot what it was like to have unlimited internet when I had to pay per MB for everything I did online. It really makes you question whether it’s worth reading online gossip sites if you know each click will cost you. But as this study interestingly pointed out, there’s still an opportunity cost to time spent online even if you don’t pay-per-click: less time sleeping, exercising, learning, and socializing. Just as the case of the smartphone addicition above, now that I once again have the luxury of unlimited wifi I find myself spending way more time on the computer than I would like to be, so this is yet another thing that I need to work on. I lament the fact that I no longer have time to read books for fun, but then I remind myself that in Madagascar, when I didn’t have Netflix or unlimited Facebook, I read 97 books in 2 years.  
-       Dancing, always. No matter how old or uncool I am. Because I just freaking love it.

Me dancing with one of our chaperones' kids at the closing party for the Sud Est GLOW camp.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Things I love (and don't love) about Madagascar

Things I love about Madagascar
1. Little kids piled on a pousse-pousse going home after school, especially when there are a bunch of cute little backpacks hanging off the back.

2. The fact that women breastfeed anywhere, openly, and nobody gives a shit, because duh, when a baby is hungry, that’s what the mother’s breast is there for. There are some anti-breastfeeding-in-public morons in the US who would do well remember this.
3. The drive from Farafangana (my banking town) to Vangaindrano (where I lived), with its stunning view of the Indian Ocean past the valleys.
5. When I did a lesson in a local English class asking kids what their favorite foods were, 99% of them named a type of fruit—mangoes, bananas, lychees, etc. What a far cry from the typical American kid’s response, which more likely than not would be “McDonald’s”, “Doritos”, or something else equally depressing. With the exception of the occasional small package of cookies or crackers (a treat), most kids here simply do not eat processed food. In fact, they eat exactly what the adults eat, which further emphasizes my inability to ascribe to the American notion that kids need special (unhealthy) food because they won’t eat adult food. I’ve never seen any kids here eating chicken nuggets or mac and cheese, and what a welcome relief that is.
6. Riding my bike everywhere (especially to beautiful places like this beach), and feeling like a kid every time I do.
7. Opening my front door at night and seeing the Milky Way above the trees, displayed like a bright banner in the night sky.
8. The fact that talented local artisans can pretty much custom-make you anything to order: jewelry, shoes, handbags, furniture, you name it.
9. When a stone-faced kid is staring at me, and just by saying hello to them in Malagasy, I can get them to erupt into a toothy, joyous grin.
10. Little babies wearing tiny, adorable straw hats to protect them from the strong Madagascar sun. It kills me that I don't have a photo of this, because it's the cutest thing in the world, but I always felt too intrusive and rude to ask a stranger to take a picture of their baby.
11. The unspoiled, undeveloped beaches. In America, people look at a beach and wonder how many million-dollar condos they can build on it, but here, it is just part of nature.
12. Malagasy kids and their inventive play—you will never hear one of them say “I’m bored”. Kids make their own toys out of sticks, mud, sardine cans, old CD's... whatever they can find. My favorite is when some local kids made their own stilts and were walking around on them!

13. Here, people repair and reuse broken things—umbrellas, shoes, buckets, extension cords, even lighters. There isn’t the same idea we have in America of “oh just buy a new one”, because most people can’t afford to.
14. You see male friends holding hands and generally showing affection to one another. Of course, it's a bit different here because homosexuality is essentially an unknown (especially outside the cities), so they would never even think that it meant anything other than “we’re friends", but I always like seeing it.
15. This is probably a legacy of the French colonial education system, but children learn how to write in cursive, and so as a result, everyone – even teenage boys—has really beautiful handwriting. I particularly love the writing on this sign outside my local carpentry shop.

16. The way kids in my town greeted me every day like a local celebrity, with shouts of "Emilieeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!" I will forever miss riding my bike up the road to my house, and the throngs of kids who would run up to me shouting my name as I arrived. I also loved the fact that little kids who weren't yet speaking when I arrived learned to say my name as one of their first words. It was so flattering and heart-warming.
17. The strong culture of working together, through the formation of cooperatives or fikambananas. These exist for every kind of profession: seamstresses, farmers, epicerie owners, fishermen, fruit dryers, etc. They're a helpful support system, a mechanism for motivating others, and a way for people to secure credit and financing for their businesses.
18. The very un-American diet centered on whole, unprocessed foods like rice, vegetables, fruit, legumes, and locally-produced meat. People generally don't eat enough vegetables and protein, but still, the diet here is plant-based and low in processed food and sugar, and therefore healthier than the Standard American Diet (SAD).
19. The ability to buy ridiculous made-in-China things like Facebook and You Tube flip-flops.

20. Little kids riding on the front of bikes. I know it’s not safe, but it’s just so darn cute!

Things I don’t love about Madagascar
1. That from a young age, most girls work so hard at housework, taking care of siblings, cooking, and laundry, and aren't afforded the time to just be kids as much as boys are. And I hate that this often means that the boys are allowed to go to school, but the girls are forced to stay at home.
2. The culture of infidelity and having a sipa (girlfriend on the side). I know that infidelity exists in every culture, but it's particularly saddening to me how many Malagasy men think it's ok to cheat on their wives and father children with other women (or even school-age girls). This just compounds the problem of poverty, because it creates single mothers who can't support their children, girls who drop out of school because they get pregnant, and families that don't get financial or emotional support from the father because he's off with his girlfriend.
3. Extrapolating from that, I hate the way that women are undervalued and told they can’t do things, can't succeed in school or business, have to stay home and be housewives, and are just generally subservient to men. Coming from a relatively progressive country like America, it was a huge shock to be thrown into a world of pre-women's movement gender relations, and it has definitely made me appreciate how women are treated in the US, even though it's still flawed.
4. The heartbreaking poverty— at this point, almost 90% of people here live under $2/day. So many people can’t afford school fees, can’t afford good food, can't afford medicine, can't afford a decent house, and frequently can't even afford clothing. I often see people checking the fruit trees behind my house to see if anything is edible, and you can tell it’s because they don’t have anything else to eat. It makes me want to cry every time.
5. The overuse of tavy (slash and burn agriculture) and clearcutting to turn more and more swaths of forest into rice fields, and the generally short-sighted view of the environment. (But by the same token, people are hungry, so can you blame them for wanting to grow food?)
6. The fact that many people think a bowl of just rice constitutes a meal, and don't understand that in order for their children to grow up healthy, they also need protein, vegetables, fruit, and other food groups.
7. The constant shouts and taunts of vazaha ("white person/foreigner"). I hate it because I hate when anyone is objectified as nothing more than their skin tone, whether it's black, white, brown, yellow, purple, whatever. All it does is just emphasize our differences, when instead we should be focusing on how we're all pretty similar. I especially hate it when women point at me and say “look at the vazaha” to distract their crying baby, much as Americans would point out a dog or a cat. I'm not a zoo animal, for pete's sake.
8. The disgusting trash that's absolutely everywhere, littering some of the most beautiful places in the world. There is a gorgeous, serene grove of trees right near my house, and what do people use it as? A trash dump and a toilet.
9. The atrocious roads and terrible infrastructure. Even most of the "paved" roads, like the main central artery of the RN7, are in terrible shape.
10. The disgusting smog of Tana, the capital. This is both because of the 1960s-era taxis (no catalytic converters) as well as simply the massive urban sprawl and unsustainable growth of the city which was resulted in way too many cars, trucks, and buses.
11. The rampant sex tourism. It makes my skin crawl whenever I stay in a hotel and see a white man being accompanied by a much-younger Malagasy girl. I also have a hard time with the cultural notion that if you’re a Malagasy girl and marry a white guy—no matter how old and disgusting he is—you’re getting ahead in life. My neighbor recently asked me to find her a white man—and one for her 8-year-old granddaughter (later in life, I certainly hope.) There is a huge "sexpat" culture here of French men who move to Madagascar after retirement.
12. That people assume that if you’re white, you must be French—and that children assume to ask you for money. Somehow they have all learned to say “Donne-moi de l’argent”, even though they often don't exactly know what it means. I mean really, has that ever actually worked for them? Does anyone actually say "oh sure, here's money!" And c'mon kids, if you’re going to demand money from someone, at least use the polite ‘vous’ form and say “Donnez-moi de l’argent”.
13. The fact that it costs over $1,000 to fly to South Africa roundtrip…. Which is almost the same as flying roundtrip to NYC, a mere 8,000 miles further away.
14. The mistreatment of dogs/other animals, especially in the Sud Est where dogs are seen as the lowest life form, and it's taboo to care for them or give them food. Yet dogs still exist, and are not only starved but are also kicked, beaten, and abused. One of my favorite things of traveling to India was seeing how even the stray dogs in Goa were fed and taken care of out of karmic responsibility.
15. The tradition of blasting music before, after, and during cultural events and parties, to the point where it's as loud as possible and talking to another person is both infuriating and pointless. WHAT? SORRY, CAN YOU REPEAT THAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU. I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE SAYING. NO, BLASTING THE MUSIC DOES NOT MAKE IT ANY EASIER FOR ME TO UNDERSTAND MALAGASY.
16. In the Sud Est, there seems to be somewhat of a culture of dependency and an attitude of “give me things because you're white". A lot of times people only saw me as a potential source of free stuff, just because I am white. I can't tell you how often I heard women demand that I buy their child a cookie, or people insist that I should bring them back a voandalana (souvenir) even if I just went 20km up the road. When I moved out of Vangaindrano it was frustrating to see all the people come crawling out of the woodwork to demand stuff from my house, even if I had never even seen them or talked to them before.
17. The fact that it’s considered perfectly appropriate to try and get a woman’s attention by hissing at her. It makes my skin crawl whenever I hear it, and I refuse to respond to any guy that hisses at me.
18. Market day in my town, which results in an overabundance of chicken sellers that snarl up traffic (foot/bicycle/pousse-pousse) and causes a massive, infuriating bottleneck on the main road in the center of town.
19. When people fetch water at the pump and overfill their buckets up to the brim, and stand there and pour out some of the water before walking home. Or they waste the water otherwise because it ends up sloshing out as they walk home. Yet people always chide me for not filling up my buckets "enough" when I fill them exactly to the line. My response? “I don’t like wet feet.”
20. People who don’t look when they cross the street, and just start blindly walking diagonally across the road without a care or a thought for anything that might be behind them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly collided with someone on my bike because of this.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A field guide to fruit in Madagascar

When I think about my favorite parts of life in Madagascar, specifically in the southeast coastal area, one of the first things that comes to mind is the fruit. I am absolutely spoiled rotten by the abundance of inexpensive, delicious fruit in this country, most of which I had never eaten until I came here, and most of which just happens to be grown organically. There is fabulous fruit all over the country, but I’m partial to the coastal regions’ tropical offerings. As I began learning about all the different types, I started taking pictures and cataloging everything in order to make an encyclopedic blog post about fruit in Madagascar, so what you are reading now is the result of almost 2 years of very delicious “field work”. Oftentimes when I’m buying my favorite fruit, the seller will ask, “what’s the name for this in English?”, and I’ll have to respond, “there isn’t one! It doesn’t exist in the English language!” Just like there is no word for “snow” in Malagasy, there’s no word for sakoa, a fruit that I believe only exists here, in English. Update: I now know that the sakoa, a.k.a. ambarella, exists elsewhere, but none of my Peace Corps friends had ever seen it before, either.

There are some other, harder-to-find fruits that I know I have missed—this is not quite as encyclopedic as I would like it to be, but I was trying to keep this blog post to be only about fruits that I had actually seen and photographed myself. For example, I know that I am missing a special type of persimmon that turns chocolate-brown when ripe. I also know that strawberries and peaches are grown and sold in the Highlands, but I haven’t seen them personally with the exception of buying them at Jumbo in Tana. Plus I seem to have also missed something called pok-pok (a.k.a. Cape gooseberry -- thanks to the readers who commented with more information on this.) I’ll continue to update this as I find more missing information and pictures, and if you know of anything else that I could add or need to edit, please make a note in the comments.

Finally, since we're on the subject of fruit, I want to share a joke that was sent to me by Ando, one of my regular readers and commenters. To wish someone a happy new year in Malagasy, you say "tratry ny taona", and then the person responds with "samy tratry ny ho avy"  -- essentially, "happy new year; same to you". Writes Ando:
Since around the New Year is also the apple's season in Madagascar (Antsirabe to be precise), people used to joke: 

Person A: Tratry ny PAOMA e!  (paoma = apple, sounds like "taona" in Malagasy)
Person B (reply): Samy tratry ny GOAVY (goavy = guava, sounds like "ho avy" in Malagasy)

Thanks to Ando for sharing! And now, without further adieu, I present you with fruit. They are listed alphabetically by the English name, but where I don’t know the English, I have used the Malagasy.  
Update 4/11/14: I have made a few updates based on reader feedback. Thanks everyone!

French : pomme, Malagasy : poma

These are grown in the more temperate central highland regions (like Antsirabe, as mentioned above, which is where I took this photo.) I'm spoiled by Vermont apples, so I'm not a big fan of apples from Madagascar.

French: avocat, Malagasy: zavoka

One of the best things about life in Madagascar is that avocados are about 10 cents each! The season runs from approximately January- April, and I usually eat at least one every day when they're in the market. This is a picture of the avocado tree outside my house... a dream come true!

French: banane, Malagasy: akondro or fontsy

I don't know if I can ever eat bananas in America again after eating bananas here, because now I know what they are supposed to taste like: sweet and oh-so-creamy. The made-for-export Cavendish banana (that has somehow become the most popular fruit in America) just doesn't hold a candle to the real thing. I usually buy the small ones like these cute kids are eating because they're the sweetest.

We also have these larger, plantain-like bananas, which are usually grilled or fried as a snack. (I finally tried this when I was visiting Antalaha this past weekend!)

French/Malagasy: baobab 

I'm a bit ashamed to say that I had no idea that baobabs had fruit until I went to Morondava in November. The fruit has a hard, fuzzy outer shell, and is filled with seeds that are surrounded with chalky flesh. I wasn't really a fan of the fruit, but while in Morondava I drank some really amazing jus naturel made from it, and I loved that.

French: fruit à pain, Malagasy: soanambo or sirapay

These cantaloupe-sized fruits are not actually sweet at all, and have a starchy flesh that becomes soft and potato-like when cooked. In my area these are extremely cheap, because when they’re in season the markets are just exploding with them. People will usually cook them to eat as a snack, similar to how they eat cassava, or will sometimes mash them up and cook them with spices and other vegetables to make a laoka (side dish) to serve with rice. I like making breadfruit fries, especially because they’re about 1/10th the price of an equivalent amount of potatoes! Plus, after finally looking up their nutritional value, I realized that breadfruit is very high in fiber, vitamin C, and potassium, so I feel that my cheapness is nutritionally justified.

French: coco, Malagasy: voanio

We either eat the aged coconuts (with sweeter flesh) as modeled below by Leo, Aaron, and Yu...

... or drink the water from the young coconuts, which is a popular beach activity. Here's Nick trying to give the coconut vendor in Manakara Be a run for her money,

Custard Apple
French : pocanelle, Malagasy : konikony/voanjato

I’ll start by saying that this is hands-down my absolute favorite fruit, and I try to eat one every day whenever they’re in season (right now!) Inside the scaly exterior, this fruit is filled with unbelievably delicious flesh that is reminiscent of vanilla ice cream. I will also say that I absolutely hate the name “custard apple” (there is nothing apple-esque about it) and so even though I am using the English name here for continuity’s sake, I will only ever call it a pocanelle or konikony, no matter where I am in the world. The other Malagasy name, voanjato, literally translates to “hundred seeds”, because the creamy interior is filled with dozens of bean-sized black seeds that one must spit out while eating it. But the extra effort is absolutely worthwhile for the otherworldly flavor of this unique fruit. The third picture shows the roadside stands at Faraony, which is a Sud Est town that somehow almost always has an abundance of them. Naturally, it's one of my favorite towns. This fruit is part of the annona family, meaning it's related to the cherimoya, for anyone curious.

Update 4/11/14: I just saw a smaller version of pocanelle during my time in Tana. Here's a picture of them with an apple for sizing purposes. When I asked the vendor the name of it, she said "konikony", which is the same name for pocanelle. So I don't think there is a distinction here in Madagascar, but I believe the English name for this smaller version is sugar apple.

French: pamplemousse, Malagasy: ampalimosy

I didn't see these very often, but my friend in Vangaindrano had a grapefruit tree behind his house, and ironically didn't even like them, so I'd usually go home with bags full of them whenever I went over to visit.

French: goyave, Malagasy: goavy/angavo

These are not really guava in the traditional sense (as we know them in America), but that's what people call them here. (Apparently South Africa calls this kind of fruit "guava" as well -- thanks to a reader comment for this tip.) They're small fruits about the size of a key lime, and you eat them whole. We have the yellow/green ones like this...

... plus the so-called strawberry guava, as seen on this tree. I find them to be a bit tarter.

French: jacquier, Malagasy: apaly be

Jackfruit is the bigshot of the fruit world, mainly because they're huge: around 20 pounds each when ripe! The photo at the top shows the jackfruit tree outside of my house, and the second photo shows what a jackfruit looks like when cut up. You eat the sweet part that surrounds the seed, and discard the stringy extra bits. See this blog post for a jackfruit story! UPDATE: here's a cool piece about jackfruit from NPR.

French: limon, Malagasy: voasary makirana

They don’t really have a distinction between limes or lemons here. The limes available here are really tiny-- smaller than a Key lime even-- and they don’t have very much juice. If I’m looking for a citrus-y flavor for cooking or cocktails, I usually opt for green oranges instead. Fun fact: the Malagasy name literally translates to “bitter orange”.

French: longane, Malagasy: longano

These are in the same family as the lychee, but the fruit is much smaller, and I don't find them to be nearly as good as lychees.

French: nèfle, Malagasy: pibasy

These tiny, grape-sized little orange fruits have a peach-colored flesh with glossy brown seed in the middle. They’re a bit laborious to eat because most people like to peel the skin off, but they make a good kind of snack-as-entertainment sort of fruit. This picture was taken in Fianarantsoa.

French: litchi, Malagasy: letchi

These are probably the favorite fruit of almost all Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers, even though most of us had never had a fresh lychee before coming here. The flavor is unreal, and they're addictively sweet and juicy. When they come into season, they are everywhere, so the markets are just bursting with them. Since lychees don't have a long shelf life once picked, this means that they are very cheap. Score! There are two types of lychees: the prickly-ish, "Chinese" lychee, as seen here...

... and the red lychee as seen in this photo. This is what is most abundant in my area, though when I was recently visiting the northeast, I saw (and ate) a ton of the Chinese lychees. UpdateI now know that "Chinese lychees" are in fact called rambutan, but in Madagascar, they are just called "litchi".

Mountain Apple
French: pomme Malac, Malagasy: makoba

These are kind of like a poor imitation of an apple. They're mushy and watery, and after trying them once, I decided that was enough. But here's a cute picture of my favorite fruit vendor with them.

French: mangue, Malagasy: manga

Mangoes explode into season in December/January, and like avocados, they are ridiculously cheap (5-10 cents each) compared to what we're used to paying for them in America. So, consequently, most of us eat our body weight in mangoes when they're in season. I find these to be even more delicious than the "Tommy Atkins" mango variety that is sold in the US. I'm not sure which variety of mango this is (in Mada, I've only ever really seen the variety pictured below), but I'd be really curious to do a taste test between these and Philippine mangoes or Indian mangoes, specifically the Alphonso.

French/Malagasy: mangoustan

The mangosteen is a pretty elusive fruit here, and it seems like we go on a hunt for them every February/March. I've only seen them for sale in a few towns in the Sud Est. Maybe it's because of their scarcity, but they've become one of my favorite fruits. The fruit is about the size of an orange and decorated with small, thick leaves that surround the stem. The thick purple rind holds white segmented flesh that surrounds a seed. It's sweet and a bit perfume-y, but just fantastic.

French: melon, Malagasy: voatango

Voatango is a specific type of muskmelon that only exists here in Madagascar (there is no specific French name for it.) I had never seen it until a few days ago when I was visiting Sambava!

French: orange, Malagasy: voasary or voangy

To me, the smell of oranges will always remind me of April/May in Madagascar. Like lychees and mangoes, it's a fruit that really defines a time of year in Madagascar. The sweet smell fills the air in every town, and everywhere you go, there are people sucking the juice out of orange segments. I didn't get a good photo of them at the height of their season last year, so here's a photo of a green orange, which people start eating (even though they're tart) in February or March.

French: papaye, Malagasy: papay

This is a photo of part of a turkey-sized papaya that I bought on my way home from Farafangana one day for about 25 cents. It was so big that even after giving away half of it, I still had enough to eat for dessert and breakfast, and to make jam with! Note the pocanelle and bananas next to it on my kitchen "counter". I had a successful day of fruit shopping!

French: grenadelle, Malagasy: garanadela

We have two kinds of passionfruit here: the yellow-skinned ones like this...

... and the purple-skinned ones like this. The flavor is pretty similar, though I find the yellow ones to be a bit tarter. They make really excellent jus naturel here with both kinds.

Also, here are two pictures of them growing on a vine at my friend's house. I actually didn't know until a few months ago that they grow on a vine and not a tree! Similar to vanilla vines, they need a support tree to grow on.

French: kaki, Malagasy: kaky 

I had always associated persimmons with the Mediterranean, so I was a bit surprised to arrive in Madagascar in March 2012 and find them everywhere here. In fact, my host family had a persimmon tree in their front yard! Here is a photo of me and my fellow PCV Aaron making persimmon jam when we cooked lunch for our host families.

French: ananas, Malagasy: mananasy

The pineapples here are unbelievably sweet... similar to how I feel about bananas, I am never eating them in America again because now I know how a pineapple is supposed to taste. Not only are they the best in the world here, they also grow massively large-- to the point where I once had to strap one to the back of my bike in order to get it home! Unfortunately, because of their massive size, I also discovered here that I am mildly allergic to pineapple-- because if I eat too much, my lips start to get tingly and itchy.

French: prune, Malagasy: paiso

Like apples, these only grow in the temperate highlands region here. But when I visited Antsirabe in December, it was an exotic treat to find them, because I hadn't seen stone fruit in ages! Funny to think that tropical fruit is my everyday fare, but plums are a rare delight.

French/Malagasy: framboise

When I visited Ft. Dauphin in September, I was shocked to find raspberry vendors all over the place. I had no idea that they would grow in a coastal area here! It was a delicious find, though, and I made a very memorable raspberry and papaya salad when I cooked dinner for my PCV friends who live in the area. I also made rhum arrangee with them before leaving Ft. Dauphin: I put some raspberries in rum bottles which I brought back with me to Vangaindrano, and then drank it a few months later when it was rosy-pink and infused with raspberry flavor.

French: prune de cythère or pomme de cythère, Malagasy: sakoa

This is a bit of a weird fruit that I hadn't ever tasted or heard of until I came here, but I really love it. They look a bit ugly from the outside, but the inside is sweet yellow flesh that surrounds a spiky pit, which you eat around. The flavor is like a combination of orange and mango.

French/Malagasy: corossol

This is a relative of the pocanelle, but it is not frequently eaten as a fruit like pocanelle is; here it's mainly used to make really delicious jus naturel.

French/Malagasy: carambole

This is almost always a bit sour, but it makes good rhum arrangee. And it's just so pretty to look at!

French: tamarind, Malagasy: voamadilo

Tamarind makes excellent jus naturel, but it’s not very fun or satisfying to eat. The inside of these pod-like fruits is a thick, sticky paste that doesn’t really lend itself well to eating raw.

Wild Custard Apple
French/Malagasy: coeur de boeuf

For those of you who don’t speak much French, the name of this fruit translates to “beef heart”—owing to its shape, I’d imagine. It’s in the same family as soursop and pocanelle, but it’s the least-tasty member of the family—the insides are less custard-y and are more mealy-textured. I didn’t even know that it had an English name until I looked it up online and found this Wikipedia entry.