Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sparkles yay!

“Look Lorax,” I said. “There’s no cause for alarm. I chopped just one tree. I am doing no harm. I’m being quite useful. This thing is a Thneed. A Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need! It’s a shirt. It’s a sock. It’s a glove. It’s a hat. But it has other uses. Yes, far beyond that. You can use it for carpets. For pillows! For sheets! Or curtains! Or covers for bicycle seats!”
The Lorax said, “Sir! You are crazy with greed. There is no one on earth who would buy that fool Thneed!”
~Dr Seuss “The Lorax”

A metal so soft it bends to your bite, so hard to find you must dig until night.
Who would want such a metal that’s as soft as a petal? That can’t even be used for a pan or a kettle?
Who would search and dig and sift for these tiny pieces so fine? But look! When it’s polished then oh how it shines, we’ll make a fine sheet and darn all our shrines. Our ears, and our necks, and our fingers and hands will all twinkle and sparkle with this metal that’s grand.

I recently spent some time in the forest, helping a fellow volunteer gather information for his master’s thesis as well as for Conservation International. He interviewed families about how they use the forest while I ventured out on their foot paths to see what they’re actually doing. In order to get to these towns, though, we had to drive in a bush taxi 40 km on a gravel road (bumpy), and then walk 25km on an extremely muddy road that has been destroyed by semi trucks that transported hardwoods years ago. That was all to get to our base point, a town called Raboana, from which we would then trek another few hours on foot to the starting point of our forest walks. These families are pretty darn remote. As such, they’re the ones that should know the laws of forest use best-they’re the ones actually using it- but are often the least informed or just confused by being half-informed.
It was extremely challenging work, physically and mentally. Trudging through fallow rice fields while my Malagasy counterparts just seemed to flit right over the mud was really emotionally straining too. But we encountered something that I had never seen before; gold excavation sites. It was one of the most shocking things I’ve seen in nature.
Let’s set up the scene.

Covered in fresh scrapes from slashing through forest that slashes right back at you, we catch glimpses of an odd change in the forest floor ahead. A small hole appears and lifting my eyes from the constant vigil of my feet, I realize the ground in front of me has been ravaged. Where ground thick with forest humus used to be, there are only holes as far as you can see. The biggest holes are 3 meters deep and 2 meters wide. Some are connected by tunnels, others are smaller holes dug underneath weak palms miraculously still upright. Small streams nearby are milky with sediment, and cluttered with hastily discarded shovels, buckets, and sieves. “How many holes do you think there are?” I ask our local guide. “There’s no counting them. Maybe a hectare of land is wrecked at this site. There are older sites like this near-by,” he responds.
There are hundreds of gold sites like this one (we stumbled upon two more the next day, and often passed random holes where someone tested their luck to no avail) throughout the rainforest here. I’m not one for anthropomorphizing, animals or plants, but I’ve never seen something so brutal looking as that; the ground was masticated and the rivers bled.

I’d like to think I’m not na├»ve, at least not as much anymore. People like gold. I have worn gold in my life. I will probably again; it’s just so pretty.
I also know that the people that discover the gold are extremely poor (economically) and earn pittance for what they find. It’s enough to buy the few things they need money for; tools, salt, a new shirt, a “glucose biscuit” for their child. How can we tell people that have no other option (seemingly) to earn money that they have to stop providing for their families in order to save some trees and a few lemurs. Explaining the extreme endemism of their forests doesn’t work. The carbon cycle is pretty complicated to grasp as well. Forget even trying to use climate change as a reason. There’s the added problem that trying to get sustainably produced crops to market (without spoiling or damaging) is not just limited by the time it takes to get to markets, but as well by the amount they can transport. A kilogram of rice doesn’t rake in nearly the amount of dough as a kilogram of gold. It’s the same amount of weight in your backpack on that 25 kilometer walk out of the forest though. An additional tragedy is that the people that dig and destroy the forest looking for this gold get a fraction of a percent of the money that gold will eventually garner when the jeweler sells it to you in all its 24 karat glory. But that’s a whole other quandary I’m not going to delve into now.

Life is full of many such quandaries. I have no answers. I wish I could patch the forest back up. I wish I could change societal desires for pretty things, rare things, precious things. I wish the 300 year old hardwoods would be left to feed the lemurs and house the birds. I wish the rivers would run crystalline, clean, and full of fish. Wishing just doesn’t cut it.

This entry, my first in a while, is not meant to be a downer. It’s not meant to scold or guilt. I’m simply sharing my thoughts with you all (whoever you may be). These are issues that affect us all, whether we care to stop and think about it for a moment.

Also, go read “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss.

Peace and mirary soa.
Until next time...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Still learning...

Let me preface this post with the fact that every Sunday I’m at site without something to do I go to church with a friend of mine. It’s under the pretense of cultural exchange but really I just enjoy singing really loud and they really enjoy having a “vazaha” as a church member. It’s win-win.
SO…About a month and a half ago, my church friend Mamaniando invited me to night time services. For some reason that’s still not clear to me, they have service the 11th of every month. But why have a 3and a half hour service the morning of the 11th when you can have a service that starts the night before and catches the first hour of the day. Especially when the congregation wants to use its new generator that has two light bulbs strung to the beams of the roof. PARTY!
It was a hectic day, and I’m not sure why I agreed to go at all anyway. I had to run home, wash off the dirt, eat a pitiful dinner of cold rice and mushy greens, and hurry over to church half an hour late and services already started. I tried to be stealthy and sneak in the back that way I could sneak out as well if I got too tired and wanted to leave. Trying to be anonymous and under the radar is not really possible when your church is a small shack and you’re the only white person that lives there, so they put me in my regular seat at the very front of the church.
At 8 pm, after an hour of pre-service service, they stopped to have dinner (wish I had known), and play BLARING music over the speaker system also being run on the generator. After an hour and a half break service resumed again, but this time it was more like a regular service. At about 12:30 the generator died and I thought to myself “alright, they’ll wrap up now, they don’t have that many candles.” However, they had more gasoline for the generator- so they kicked that sucker back on and resumed.
I kept looking at all the tired faces around me. I go to sleep at like 9 which is late on average for the residents around me, so I just kept wondering…
Why do they like praying so much? Can’t we go home already? It’s already 1…1:30…2.
Dear goodness they must be about done, I’m exhausted. They already did collection…LET’S GO ALREADY. Man I’m getting a little angry, they lied t me. They said the service would g t midnight. It’s already 2:15 and the pastor isn’t slowing up. Wait what did the pastor just say about me looking tired and angry? Why does he have to call me out. Alright Sara, pull it together. This isn’t so bad, you’re being insensitive and you really should have known…come on just rally!......Phew service is over. What time is it? 2:30!?!?! Man! Alright, let’s all go home now. Wait why is no one moving? Wait why are they fiddling with the speakers again? NOOOO, not the blaring music, anything but the blaring music. No one is leaving. Oy. That’s it, I’m going home. I live right next door. It’s a short walk…But I don’t want to make Mamaniando and her husband leave early to take me home. I’ll stick it out, but man this music is LOUD…Oy 3:10 already? It’s 6 hours past my bed time…
“Hey Mamaniando, when are you guys going home?”
“Oh we’re not going home until the morning.”
“Wait, what? You said this was til 12. I thought you’d be going home.”
“No, it’s not safe out right now, we have to wait for the sun. We can walk you home, you’re close. You look tired and mad. Do you want to go home? We’ll take you hme now. You need your sleep so you aren’t weak again tomorrow. Let’s go.”
…Wow, I feel a little offended by all the unintentional stabs you just took at me, but I am too tired, so yea, let’s go…

End of stream-of-consciousness.

|I got home at 3:45 that night and even though I could hear the music from the church reverberating in my house, I passed out and slept late until 7:30 am.
Lessons learned:
Even church goers don’t necessarily tell the whole truth all the time.
A society where all houses are shut by dusk time due to a fear of witches and bad spirits of the night will not walk home at 1 am, so they will just party until the sun rises.
Never EVER say yes to non Sunday church events ever again (outside of Easter).

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading this confusing blog.

PS thanks to lea and rachel for commenting on the previous blog

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My alarm clock

One reason why living here is awesome: these guys are my neighbors.

There are many more reasons, but this is one for right now. Think of reasons why living where you live is awesome and then comment. (i.e. Boston is awesome because..., Coral Springs, FL is awesome because...)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Year One in Pictures!

First an introduction…
Well hello dear friends and/or family and/ or strangers, welcome to my house. Please won’t you come join me on my porch…

Isn’t it wonderful weather we’re having here? I couldn’t see beyond this hedge here before 7 this morning! That means it’s going to be hot today.

Oh and hear comes my young friend Naina. He’s certainly a character and maybe the most inquisitive child around. Beware however to guard your shiny things or else he’ll start to tinker…

Please come on into my house. I was just about to cook myself some lunch. Would you like big leaves or small leaves?

Well now that we’re both full off of indigestible roughage, come with me while I go to work. It’s just another afternoon teaching Santa how to graft his citrus trees.

If you stay for tomorrow you’ll get to come along with these crazy characters while we plant native forest trees!

You know it’s all just another day in the rainforest over here. Hey Ndrina what is it you smell? Something bad huh?

Yea, look Mampionina smells it too. Just take a look at her face! Probably those fruit fly cultures we started doing the other day. A few of them got a little moldy, but you know it’s all a learning experience.

But you do know what they say, all work and no play makes Tolatra a dull boy. So come on over, we’ll have a fresh coconut break with my friends. They’re great. The goofball with her hand in her mouth next to me is Katie. Smile Mcsmileson in the black sweater is Chantel. Nicki, the red head in a red tank top, is next to her and is receiving lessons on how to properly drink a coconut by my friend Brittany who decided to take a Macarena break as well. Aren’t they all just so crazy? Love them!

Just back from another great vacay but this time we traded me for Kelly and Brittany for Dan. Kelly and Dan are chuckleheads too so we all make a good group. I hope you’re a chucklehead too or else you might not be able to hang.

If you’re not a chucklehead perhaps you could hang with either of these rad fellas. One’s Malagasy and the other Welsh (guess who is which) and therefore not of American decent so probably have a bit more sense to them. Then again, maybe not…

Please family/friend/stranger, won’t you come with me on a bike trip around Madagascar’s largest lake? We can stop at towns along the way to teach the local people about AIDS, safe sex, gardening techniques for an immune boosting diet, and we can dance on stages and purposely act like fools since either way they’ll be talking about us. I promise it’ll be a hair pulling, butt chafing, dehydratingly good time!

Or perhaps you’d like something a little less active? Like sitting in large circles on small children? Well come with me as we join my fellow volunteer Amanda at her children’s environment camp. We’ll teach them about trusting each other and how all things in nature must rely on, must trust in everything else to keep it supported, to keep it from falling flat on its butt!

Hate crushing small children? Yea that’s fair. Well, at this project with a Dutch Habitat for Humanity International group from the Netherlands, we didn’t sit on small children but we did get them to pass bricks and learn some songs!

Or how about this trip with Hope for Madagascar? They took 30 young school kids from across the country to go see the beach, plant trees at a rural school a few hundred kilometers (a big deal to them) and share their cultural differences.

But perhaps sometimes you don’t want to be surrounded by small children. Perhaps you just want to cherish some time spent with the ones you love. Like maybe, kickin’ on a beach with your parents (Hi Mom and Dad)…

Or dancing in the rain on a beach you’re your older brother (hey Matt!)…

Or trekking over spiky things called tsingy...

You decide what kind of adventure you'd like over here in Madagascar and you let me know. For now, however, that is all. Thanks for visiting! Please allow my living alarm clock to show you out. If you ask him nicely he might sing a song for you. Take care!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Now for a Kirsmasy Karol...

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
There’ll be rice for the planting
And lemurs a’ dancing
And omby out strolling in herds
There’ll be scary brush fires
And farmers all tired
Of guarding their fields from the birds

It’s the hap-happiest season of all
With those mangoes and litchis
Those plums and those peaches
When summer is here
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year family and friends! While you’ve all been bundling up I’ve been peeling off sweaty dirty layers of clothing after hours of rice planting each day. Day to day not a whole lot changes; my language slowly improves, my roof slowly leaks, my mind frame and emotional health have become much more stable- still crazy, but mainly happy.
It hasn’t changed much but what is it that I have been up to? Well aside from the aforementioned rice planting (walking 8-20 kms each day to go be bent over for 4 hours planting rice really wears a kid down), my “primary project” has actually been working on finding a way to get some form of watering system for the orchard that I work at. So you all may be hearing about that again as it comes closer to find ways to fund said project ::wink wink:: Our current situation is very difficult. We have one worker that has to water over 200 trees over about 3 hectares of very hilly land by carrying two 15 liter watering cans to and from the little puddle a 10 minute downhill walk (therefore uphill on the way back with full cans) from the start of the park. It’s damn hard work that I can’t do but have tried my darndest to help. Even carrying one of those watering cans up and down the hills just once is exhaustingly difficult. He can only reach about 50 trees a day so it takes half a week for each tree to get water. Thankfully, the rains are just beginning to start again- but it was a very, very dry and exhausting 3 months for him.
Back in October (has it been that long since I last posted!) I went on a work trip with an NGO called Hope for Madagascar. We took elementary school kids on their first and maybe only field trip to a beach town for an exchange of cultural and a tour of various environments here in Madagascar. The program is called Life Experience Exchange Program and it was maybe my favorite project to be involved in so far in Madagascar. Growing up in the states, I got to go on field trips all the time. They were a highlight of every year and there were often several each semester, but here it’s a completely foreign concept and I’ve never seen happier kids than those kids. It was also a platform for me to interact with the principal of our elementary school and we’ve done a few other programs since then; environmental camps at Mitsinjo- a local park run independently of the neighboring Madagascar National Park, and I’ve given a few simple English lessons to the kids each week.
Aside from work I’ve also been blessed with two wonderful visits- first my older brother Matt came for a week and then my parents for 2. It was really great to get to see them all after a year of being away from home, but it was also a reminder that life as I had known it is so far from life as I live it now. So for all those wondering if I’ve changed since being gone- well I guess the answer is yes... But no worries- I’m still a goofball. I have come to appreciate how special and privileged it is to be an American.
That’s my recap. It really is true what they tell us at the beginning of service. It may take a year, but eventually we each hit a stride, each find comfort in our home here. I finally and honestly feel “tamana” or well settled here. I love spending time at site with my Malagasy friends and family just as well as I love hanging out with fellow volunteers. Sometimes, I’m sad to be away from home but other times I dread returning as it means I will never be able to live what I’m living, interact with the people I do on a daily basis, live in this culture, speak in this language like I do today and every day for the next year. For now I savor each and every day as it comes.
Thus it is that as 2010 draws to a close I would like to thank all of you, my dear family and friends, because without your love, support, encouragement and contact I wouldn’t be able to be where I am, be as happy as I am and I can’t thank my lucky stars enough for this experience I'm living. Thank you, thank you. Tratry ny Krismasy ary ny taona vaovao. Mirary ny fety sambatra ary fahasalamana mandrak’izay!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I like to ride my bicycle

Hello all it’s been a while and i’m now typing on a french key board I can’t change. Please be patient with any typos.
So a lot has happened these past two months. I sent an email detailing my first vacation- if you want to be on my emailing list and I actually know who you are- comment on this blog post or send me an email at and i’ll add ya!
Anyway, I got back a few days ago from a sweet awesome bike ride. It was an HIV/AIDS awareness ride that stopped in 9 towns around Lac Alaotra, the largest lake in Madagascar. I sadly had to come late and was only there for 5 presentations, but I learned a lot, worked a lot, sang, danced, and made a fool of myself on a stage more than ever before in my life. It was fantastic. So what’s the difference between cycling across the United States and biking around the largest lake in Madagascar ? I’ll tell you in my go-to form of a humorous list.

1) Road biking and biking on a "road" is not the same. The RN 44 (yes Route Nationale- aka National Highway) is not paved on ¾ the circumference of the lake. I wasn’t there for the paved part so I can only say with confidence that at least ¾ of that ride was bumpy, sandy, rocky and to top it all off windy. Think biking through the corn fields of the midwest but with rice paddies replacing corn fields and ox drawn carts replacing tractors.

2) Due to above detailed terrain and a not-so-recent spill on the highway near my house, I was overly cautious going downhill, at least in the begining. I slowly grew confident and embraced my usual reckless downhill speed and ended up really enjoying what was, by default, the best mountain biking I’ve ever done. (and made it back in one piece Mom and Dad- no worries)

3) Hoping that the showers in the next town would be hot was a laughable desire. Many went over a week without a proper bathing. Those that did brave the cool air for health and sanitation sake took a freezing cold bucket bath- who know’s how ‘clean’ they really got.

4) No peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. No donated day old Panera or Wholefoods bagels, breads or snacks. No pasta, no lasagna. It was rice and loaka (side dish- oily meat, maybe cucmber and vinegar salad if lucky) or it was fried street breads and bananas. Some tried to subsist primarily on THB the local beer (not unlike Bike and Build actually).

5) Biking across America required the biking of a ridiculous number of miles each day, passing out, eating , and maybe giving a brief presentation to a church group about why we’re riding. This time we biked a reasonable amount of kilometers, had a 2 hour raffle where each of 5 tables had to present a topic and drunk guys went from table to table asking for you to sign their raffle ticket so they could qualify to win, then a 2.5 -3 hour performance on stage complete with singing, dancing, condom relay races, and other fun games. Finally the day ended with a Malagasy movie whose message was if you cheat on your significant other wear a condom. We usually packed up our tables, pitched our tents, and got some beer during the movie.

6)It was no longer Mika that serves as a sound track but rqther Shakira’s WakaWaka (with the chorus changed to be about AIDS in the Malagasy language), Rihana and Eminem’s song (which Steph would sing on stage even though she didnt know most of the words nor did anyone in the crowd understand), and other hits from Tom’s CD he brought back from his trip to the States.

7)On our last day of the trip, instead of going to an Indian restaraunt and singing Mika’s ‘Happy Ending’ we had a bonfire, smores and then went dancing. It was then that I found out a surprising number of Malagasy men know how to swing dance. Roger, the Gasy guy from PSI, the NGO that supplied the sound system and the movie for our trip, threw me around the dance floor for a good 10 minutes of jumpin’ and jivin’.

8)I brought home an ornament from Santa Fe for my Mom and chocolates from Ghiradelli when we left San Fransisco on Bike and Build. This time I brought home for my neighbors a live goose inside a rafia bag that was sewn shut to serve as a travel carrier for her. Chris named her Lucy. She is loud and not a fan of soggy bread.

And now to round out a list of ten with two similarities…

9)Water bottle. Chain Reaction’s cycling sports water bottle- still awesome.

10)Bike and Build jersey. That’s right. I wore it-under my rain jacket. Those pockets are just so darn useful. But really I just wanted to be the cool kid in a cycling jersey.

Like I first stated I had an awesome time. I love riding, I love spending time with friends, and I love feeling like I have useful work to do. We decided our Peace Corps service may be better spent as a 2 year AIDS bike tour around Madagascar. But as soon as I got home from the trip I came down with a head cold- ratsy be! For now my garden is growing, my nose is running, and I’m looking forward to Amanda’s environmental summer camp I’ll be helping out with and Matt’s visit soon! Good things on the horizon. Here’s hoping all your hoizon’s are bright too.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Music make me lose control

Have you ever been high on life for 2.5 weeks non stop? It’s exhausting! That’s why even though I had electricity and computer access that whole time (even free shaky internet for a few days) I didn’t write a blog. I much prefer to hand write my blogs by candlelight with music playing on my speakers (thank you Laurin- those speakers have been such a life saver). Currently (when I wrote this) I am listening to a genius Genius playlist of The Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Andrew Bird, etc. But if you wanted to read about folky indie music you can check out any ol’ scenesters blog- I’m sure there’s plenty to be found. Though if you don’t know those artists- check ‘em out. Seriously. Also K*naan- “Take A Minute.” So good.
Instead let’s talk about the Malagasy music scene.
First of all, and probably most hilariously, there is a very popular artist here named Poopy. I sh*t you not. They also play Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” every 5th song or so. If you do decide to brave a Gasy night club, you might be surprised by the wall of mirrors everyone is pressed up against. It’s as though you’re in a jazzercise class- everyone sweating and staring into a mirror to see just how fine they look. Gasy fight for prime position right in front of the mirror so they can check out their own sweet dance moves. If there’s one thing Gasy’s love more than dancing in front of mirrors it might just be singing in front of mirrors. Karaoke (in Malagasy, French and English) is HUGE here. My first experience with both mirrors and karaoke was at this bar called Cool Cocktail (yes the name was English) where later that night 2 Malagasy women got into a cat fight, all music stopped, the people in the bar all poured outside into the cold night air to watch these two girls (one was the bartender) rip each other’s hair and push each other around. I hear the argument was over a guy. Another example of how people are the same no matter where they are. At any rate my first experience at Cool Cocktail was one to remember.
This is a sloppy segue into IST (in service training) stories- but I’ll take it anyway. So the second time going to Cool Cocktail was during an IST tech trip. The environment sector came to Moramonga and as it is my banking town I was responsible for providing our entertainment that night. We took over Cool Cocktail with our melodious renditions of “If You Wanna Be My Lover” by Spice Girls and the Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” We also tore up the dance floor when the Malagasy song “Za tsy kivy” (translates to: I’m not discouraged) imitating the music video and singing along- shocking the few Gasys in the bar that Wed night. It was a fun night, but the bumpy 10k ride out to see a vetiver demonstration field early the next morning did not sit well with most people in the van. Thankfully, most recovered by the time we had to load into the CUTEST Tonka like train to go to another vetiver field. The ride was amazing, but the vetiver was even cooler. To let you all know- vetiver is a power plant with incredibly strong and deep roots (up to 7m deep) that help control hillside erosion and create viable farming terraces on steep inclines. Totally awesome.
As a quick recap of other IST events… I learned some really cool things. Bee keeping, VIH/SIDA (HIV/AIDS) games for sensibilizations, new techniaues for teaching English, a technique of farming using natural mulch known as ‘direct seeding’ and also I learned just how hilarious the show 30 Rock is. I also helped (sorta) lead a session on tree propagation at the SAF/FJKM nursery in Moramonga. We also re-established the WID/GAD (Women In Development/ Gender And Development) committee with hopes of girls camps, co-ed sports teams, and overall examination of the relationship between gender roles and empowering both men and women to be active in their communities. I also became the VAC (Volunteer Advisory Committee) representative for the volunteers in the Moramonga region. As such I will serve as a liason between the volunteers in the field and the staff in the capitol. I’m super psyched about all of these things.
I was also a dancing fool- and my friends and I resumed our obnoxiously ostentation love for each other, making 2 rooms into one by moving 2 beds into one room (how they fit is still astounding) we then called “the orphanage.” We couldn’t stand to be apart anymore than we had to. It’s amazing how life carries on as though it never left off- and this fact is most apparent in Peace Corps. Being at IST was almost like the 4 months at site away from each other never happened. But we brought our Malagasy counterparts along and we could all speak Gasy a little better than when we left. Katie’s hair had grown into a sweet Ace Ventura mullet-ish style, and most were quite a bit tanner. So things had changed, but it was hard to tell. By the end of the two weeks however it was nice to get back home. Other than the rotting banana I had forgotten to take before leaving, and the extra couple pounds I had packed on eating the good food at Montasoa - everything there resumed just the same, as though IST never happened.

@ menaraka indray!