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.

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 somewhere in this country, but I haven’t seen them personally. Plus I seem to have missed something called pok-pok as well. 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.) 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 variety 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 something 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 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, but that's what people call them. 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 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 citrusy flavor for cooking or cocktails, I usually opt for green oranges instead. Fun fact: the Malaagasy 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.

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.

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.

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 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!

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!

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.