Monday, June 20, 2011

Back in Action

Talk about a drop-off.

Nearly three and a half months after last posting, I’ve finally decided to buck the overwhelming thought of “catching up” and get writing again. Sadly, I don’t have a stash of blog installments I'd been working on or saving up. Quite simply, I got distracted by comings and goings—travel, tree planting (real work!), finding ways to tactfully beg for money, time with other PCVs, and a California girl—and let The Next Crazy Venture fall to the wayside.

But the good news is this: life has been fantastic, work is going well, and with projects and events beginning or progressing, I finally feel useful.

For the sake of my own records, here’s a quick recap of the past several months of life as a PCV in Madagascar:

Because the road to Vondrozo was cut during the heavy rains brought by Bingiza, I spent most of March bouncing between Mantasoa, Tana, and Fianarantsoa, with quick stops in a few other places (notably Ambohimasoa, where I had a quality stay with Erik and Polly). In the middle of the month, I worked at the new training group’s PST in Mantasoa. Highlights were a lunch with my host family from training (along with the new trainee they were putting up), dosing things green on St. Paddy’s Day (water bottles, tea, beer, fruit salad, etc.), and spending time with the new trainees and other training staff.

After my stint at PST, I stayed in Tana for the national Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC) meetings. The Sud Est has become its own region, and I’ll be our representative for the coming year. Then I traveled back to site, with a pit stop in Farafangana for Melissa and Raff’s birthday celebrations.

The day after arriving back in Vondrozo, I led two all-day English courses for the WWF agents. It was a great experience, and I plan to continue the lessons throughout my service. While doing the initial language assessments with the group, I discovered that the project officer, Laza, is actually very proficient in English. Turns out he was just holding out on me to help get my ‘Gasy skills up to par.

At the beginning of April, I traveled south for a meeting with the VOI Ampasimposy/Mazavalala. This was the group I mentioned before that had a problem with the president pocketing money that was intended for a project. They were supposed to elect new leadership, but they basically shuffled around the same faces and chose to keep the same president (Tsavo). However, they’ve been remarkably mazoto, or hard-working, since the shakeup—especially Tsavo—so I’m optimistic that things are moving in a good direction.

The following week, I went to Vohimary—to the south, not to be confused with Vohimary Nord (which is, er, to the north)—intending to stay for the afternoon, help with WWF climate change sensibilizations (awareness-raising sessions), and bike back. Instead, I ended up staying two nights. We carried out the sensibilizations (though a malfunctioning microphone made it pretty difficult to be heard), showed a newly-produced WWF film about climate change, tavy, anddoro-tanety in Vondrozo to the locals, and played Malagasy music videos on the big screen so that villagers could have a dance party late into the night.

During the rest of April, I met with VOIs in Tsaragisa, Vohimary Nord, Antaninary, Vohilava, and Madiorano to discuss potential work; wrote several grant proposals for a number of upcoming events and projects; met with local environment clubs to fine-tune work plans and discuss the next academic year; and held two tree nursery-building trainings (in Ampasimposy and Vohimary Nord) at which we prepared 2500 potting bags and planted them with moringa seed (to be discussed in an upcoming post). I celebrated Easter—and Easter Monday, which is a huge party day in Madagascar—with friends in Vondrozo. On Easter Monday, we picnicked a few kilometers outside of town at a riverside spot called “Masomboay”—literally, “Eyes of the Crocodile.” Thankfully, I didn’t have to pull out my inner Steve Irwin and wrestle any crocs; we passed the day lounging, eating, and imbibing in the sun.

On May 5 my training group hit its “one-year-left-until-Close-of-Service” mark, meaning that from here-on out, we’re liable to fall into periodic daydreams of musing: “In a year, I’ll be doing such-and-such in America.” Unless, of course, we decide to extend our service.

For two ridiculously fantastic weeks in May, I had a visitor from Kenya—ladyfriend (and former WWF volunteer from last year’s Vondrozo group) Cara Brook, who was taking a quick break from her research gig at Mpala Station. After helping sitemate Erica Wherry ring in her 23rd year on May 11, Cara and I biked and hiked over 100km in three days around the Vondrozo Corridor, meeting with area VOIs, planting moringa trees, and checking out waterfalls.

May 23-24 was my stage (training group)’s Mid-Service Conference (MSC) in Mantasoa, so Cara and I trekked back up to Tana together, taking in a full moon in Manakara along the way. While in Tana, we were able to meet up with Cara’s fellow former WWF volunteer, Ranto, for his birthday party. Not only was it awesome to see Ranto again, but we also met many of his friends and classmates, all of whom are completing master’s degrees in development and population at the Universit√© Catholique de Madagascar. I’ve no doubt that we were sharing company during that afternoon day-party with the future leaders of Madagascar. The following afternoon, I watched Cara board a plane back to Nairobi. It was an unfortunately quick visit, but much better, of course, than no visit at all.

The next two days and nights I spent reconnecting with stagemates in Tana (and making a guest appearance in a Malagasy music video that we stumbled into the shooting of) before Peace Corps trucked us all up to the Mantasoa training center for MSC. MSC was a much more effective use of time than IST, mainly because now we’re all actually doing stuff at site. Most of the week was spent talking shop—discussing project ideas and mechanics, sharing best practices and contacts, etc. Especially helpful was a session with Nat Delafield and Sarah Osterhoudt, two Madagascar RPCVs who’re now back in-country working with farmers’ cooperatives to certify and export agricultural goods like vanilla and cloves.

The week wasn’t all serious talk, though. In addition to site video-sharing (we each made clips of our Malagasy homes in the vein of MTV Cribs), movie-watching, and a lot of catching up, we also had an epic reunion party our last night in Mantasoa. The theme—“dayglo”—is the reason for the obnoxiously bright get-ups we’re all wearing in the pictures you might’ve spotted on Facebook. Amongst all the training groups in-country, our stage had been lacking a nickname. During MSC, though, it came to us: the Best Stage Ever Stage.

We drove back to Tana on Friday morning for a tour of the new U.S. Embassy complex, which felt like stepping back into a (huge, air-conditioned) office building in America for a few hours. The following evening, Leif (the PC programming and training officer) hosted one of his legen—wait for it—dary BBQs to cap off the week. Unfortunately, the night didn’t go quite as planned. Fellow PCV Esther (from a previous stage) landed awkwardly on the trampoline and broke her ankle in a big way. PCVs and staff did an absurdly impressive job of taking care of her until the PC doctors arrived. They very capably took over and transported her to the hospital, and she was medevac’ed to South Africa the following morning. The great news? She’ll be fine. The devastating news? She won’t be back—at least not as a PCV. If you’re reading this, Esther, you’ve always got an open invitation back to Vondrozo. Just don’t be pissed at me if we end up crammed with 35 other people in the bed of a pickup with gasoline canisters splashing on us for nine-and-a-half hours on the road to get here :)

I stayed in Tana for a few extra days to discuss work details with WWF, which happily allowed me to spend some quality time with fellow ND alums Bill and Chris (yep, there were three of us in country), as well as newly-minted subway alum Soraiya. Chris (Planicka) was a reinstated volunteer, meaning he’d come back after being evacuated following the 2009 coup. He’d finished his service and was hanging out in Tana for a few days before starting his journey back to the United States. We sent him off in style befitting an Irishman—with Maker’s Mark whisky brought fresh from America by Peace Corps Response Volunteer (PCRV) Ryan Marsh (who also happens to be the PCV who lived in Vondrozo prior to the coup).

Luckily, I was able to catch a ride with the WWF Land Rover from Tana to Farafangana. I taxi-broussed back to Vondrozo for a few days of resettling before returning to Farafangana to help organize our regional Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Fety (party). All PCVs in the Sud Est—plus a few from further away—came to town for the occasion. Over the weekend, we hosted a cocktail reception for our counterparts, other NGO workers, and local government folks; spent a day making presentations in Farafangana’s main market area, familiarizing the local population with Peace Corps, its history, its work in Madagascar, and our roles as volunteers; and held an event at the local nightclub (Three Ten) to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and safe sex. We also had a beach bonfire (where the marshmallows you sent came in handy, Mimi) and closing BBQ. Many thanks to James and Maria—the two PCVs living in Farafangana—for their hospitality, hard work, and good humor about having 16 PCVs occupying their living space.

Once back in Vondrozo, I went on two field trips—one to hold a moringa planting training, the other to meet with several VOIs and schedule similar trainings in the coming weeks. And now, it’s Monday—market day. The streets are more overcrowded than usual because it’s the week of Vingt-six, or June 26—Madagascar’s Independence Day. The Malagasy will mark 51 years of independence from France on Sunday, and the party’s already started.

Not yet for me, though. Over the next few days, I’ll be traveling to villages south to build more moringa tree nurseries with the local VOIs. I’ll be back in Vondrozo for the gendarme’s Independence Ball on Friday night, however, and will celebrate the weekend with Erica and ‘Gasy friends in town. It’ll be my second—and likely my last—Vingt-six as a Madagascar PCV.

But certainly not my last Vingt-six in Madagascar.