Big catch up!

As it has been a while since I have posted, here are some brief vignettes from the past few weeks:

Cap Est

While it was all the way back in February, I think it is still worth a mention! Our group got to spend a week at the easternmost point of the island, Cap Est, and study marine biology research methods. The drive to and from the site involved two river crossings in which our taxi brousse was driven onto two large metal canoes with students filing in around. We were powered by two men with long rowing poles, and floated past other boats carrying fleets of motorcycles as a couple of families of cows swam across nearby. The beauty of our campsite on the beach and days in the salt and sun after our journey made for quite the surreal week. Time was spent snorkeling, swimming, talking with local fisher people, climbing lighthouses, and drinking coconuts from the trees.

International Women’s Day 

Did you know that March 8 is international women’s day? Neither did I!

SIT and CURSA students and staff, at CURSA after our performance and debate

To celebrate, our 13 female students collaborated with 13 female students from CURSA, the local university. Malagasy women studying French, English, and the sciences mingled with our American liberal arts and sciences students as we all learned a dance to perform on the holiday. March 8th is a huge celebration in Madagascar, and often involves women dancing and men clapping. The word feminism never really comes up, and the day is more similar to a large party just for women. Our group performed a choreographed ‘rock n roll’ style partner dance, set to the theme song of CURSA. We also participated in a debate between the groups of women on the topic of agriculture in the United States versus Madagascar. The holiday concluded with snacks and soda for everyone, and the connections made between our female students I hope will continue into the future.

Andapa and rural village stay (+ cyclone)

Last week we travelled by bus to what some call the “rice bowl” of Madagascar: the Andapa basin. The shape of the area is often referred to as a cuvette in French, meaning bucket or basin. The students and I were in awe as we drove to the top of our winding road and saw the dramatic (and indeed bucket-shaped) valley of Andapa. Full on the bottom with rice paddies, the city of Andapa, and small villages and surrounded by the green forested mountains of Marojejy and Comatsa, Andapa is truly breath-taking. We staying in a house in the hills, overlooking the whole valley, at avocados, and felt truly charmed.

Juliette carrying a bag of freshly harvested taro through rice paddies (tanimbary) in the Andapa basin

 

After a few days of visits to protected areas and meetings with the WWF, the students split off into groups with translators, and were adopted for 4 days into the homes of various rural families. With the goal of integrating with rural life as well as conducting participatory social science research on specific themes, we set off into the basin. My theme for the stay was traditional medicinal plants, which I studied with my partner, Samantha. Our family was made up of a father, mother, son and daughter, who warmly welcomed us into their home decorated with hundreds of fake flowers and beautiful fabrics covering the walls. Although rural, many members of the communities we stayed with enjoy the profits from the vanilla industry: the second most widespread crop in the Andapa basin. I felt lucky to enjoy breakfasts of cooked bananas, rice, and condensed milk and dinners of beans, romazava (hot broth of greens), and rice in our host family’s welcoming kitchen. One day, we even got to help grind peanut butter in the large mortar-and-pestel common to the Malagasy countryside (the best peanut butter I have had).

Our final day with rural homestay families, at our farewell party (my host dad in the shiny pants surprisingly whipped out some amazing dance moves)

Unfortunately, our stay in the village was cut short due to the potential threat of a cyclone blowing through the area. Our director made the call to pull us out of our villages one day early and wait out the storm at a hotel in Andapa. The mountains surrounding Andapa protected us from the brunt of the rain and wind, but the southeastern coast suffered damage and mortality. After the storm passed, we returned to a somewhat flooded Antalaha, and reflected on the week’s events.

This week we prepare for our upcoming independent studies. Spoiler: I’m headed north!

Goorthngshappen when mego be it

The morning of my 21st birthday, a kid (maybe 12 or 13 years old) almost hit me with a vespa he clearly had little control over.

The evening of my 21st birthday, it started to rain (pour), so I huddled in a restaurant getting soaked with my friends, then took a taxi ride with 4 unknown men back to my house. Waiting for me was dinner with my family and the live chicken that had been a gift for me earlier in the day.

So not bad!

In spite of the risk of this post seeming self-centered by me focusing on my birthday, I am going to go for it. I think there are some fun cultural moments/insights to be seen (and it only comes once a year right?).

Anywho, it was a weekend of cake. Starting with my fellow student, Jamie’s, birthday on Friday, my host mother baked and decorated three full sheet cakes. As he job is being pastry chef/culinary teacher, it is not out of the ordinary for baking to take a large part of her time. One was chocolate (for Jamie), and the other two vanilla (one for my family party and one for the actual date of birth). She makes the cake out of eggs, flour and sugar, then lines the inside with frosting and fruit filling, covers the outside with buttercream in pink and white, then writes a message in script and places special sprinkles carefully around edges. I got to help with some, and watching the ease and speed with which she assembles ingredients into artful dessert is impressive and hypnotizing.

I am convinced my host mother is a culinary goddess

On Saturday, my family went all-out and threw me and all of the students a party. I helped my mom cook appetizers during the morning which included tiny cucumber sandwiches, mini pizzas, and fried bread fruit (a Malagasy classic). Surprisingly, there was no rice. All of the students came, and some brought their host siblings, it was a jolly time. My host dad had set up microphones and hooked up our casio keyboard to speakers, so songs were one of the main events. My host family took the lead on some Christian hymns in Malagasy and an adorable young host sister jumped in with a heartfelt rendition of Celene Dione’s iconic My Heart Will Go On, in nearly correct English. After blowing out the candle, I opened a few presents. My friend’s host sister brought me a present despite never having met me (which I think says something about the gifting culture here), and it was a lovely framed Psalm in Malagasy with which she included a handwritten English translation. It now hangs on my wall. Also received were many candy bars and a champion hat. Much love to friends and family.

Translation: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with my eye” Thanks Anisi!

 

My host sister, brother, and me enjoying cake at my birthday party

 

 

A group of students from the program, host siblings, my host mother and brother, enjoying the roof level of our house

This brings me to the title of this post. As a brief background, this city (and so far Madagascar in general) is filled with shirts, hats and dresses printed with English phrases that often don’t make sense and worn by people who most likely do not speak English. Some of my favorites have been: “Sorry I’m Bad”, “Lucifer 666”, “My life is a dark room” and “Queens make the money” (worn by a man). My friend Sarah from the program was lovely enough to get me a true keeper for my birthday: a black tshirt with a rabbit coming out of the pocket that says “Goorthngshappen when mego be it”. We spent a while puzzling over its meaning and my host dad could not even tell that it was the English language. I have taken it to mean that good things happen when you make them happen. I have tried to take it to heart, and I think the shirt has brought me good tidings, as this week has been pretty amazing. But, it is all up to the interpretation of the reader. Maybe just goorthngshappen when mego be it. And that’s all.

(PS: ‘scooo dubs!!! I just found out that my Malagasy friend Parker is a Warriors fan and that Steph Curry is his favorite player… love for my home team is worldwide! it was quite the trip seeing the Oakland symbol all the way out here)

 

 

Still good (scenes from home and a week on the road)

[disclosure: photos take a really long time to upload, so ideally there would be more. Ill describe them don’t worry]

Mbola tsara!

(Direct translation: still good. This is how people greet each other here in the SAVA region. The equivalent of hello/bonjour and the Malagasy phrase I have said the most since being here. Only this week did I learn the meaning of the words. Still good. A wish I think.)

My host brother is an aspiring photographer. After looking through my photos from the week, I offered him the camera and here are some of his shots.

[Other photo at the table: a knife on a mango, mom in background]

Our dinner table is purple and is also where we spend most of our family time together. Rice or vary is the staple food in Madagascar and is eaten at nearly every meal. My mother teaches cooking classes and our rice is accompanied by beans, pasta, fish, squash, French fries, eggs or meat. On our table this week she taught me how to make croissants (dough, butter, rolling and careful folding, sometimes with pineapple jelly) and we ate them for breakfast. After most dinners we eat mangos. Here they are smaller and more flavorful than the US. We enjoy after-dinner conversation with sticky fingers.

This week the program drove 5 hours north to the Daraina region to study the Golden Crown Sifaka, a lemur endemic to the region.

Our campsite was on a wide slow river near a small village of people very curious about us foreigners. We spent each day hiking up various jungled hills in search of the elusive primates, and returned each day to one less chicken walking around the campsite. Daraina is the melding of 4 ecoregions, so the forest was not tropical but seasonally dry. It felt a little bit more familiar than the dense humid forests of the previous week.

[Beautiful photo of three students next to the river near sunset]

The Golden Crown Sifaka is larger than I expected. They sit in the trees crouched on branches, and occasionally check in on us to make sure we know they know we are there. While doing behavior studies I got to watch one for an hour. On Wednesday we climbed a steep mountain in search of a family to observe and after a few minutes of lemurless tree spottings, our guide Guy let out a laugh and shout of joy as a small flash of white flew between trees. We had already seen lemurs in a zoo and in a lemur park but to see a family in habitat was pretty magical.

The local people from the village cooked for us while we were studying and our stay culminated with a feast of goat and a night of singing and dancing. The goat had been hanging out in camp for our stay and on our last day we watched the slaughter for the coming meal. For the rest of the evening, the goat was roasted on a spit over charcoal. I had never witnessed a slaughter or tasted goat before, and both I’d say were worthwhile experiences. Our ending celebration lasted well into the night, as the students of the program were ushered in to join in the dancing while the men of the village sang and clapped to traditional and contemporary Malagasy songs.

[Kind of edgy photo of a goat body roasting on a spit with local people watching in the background]

 

I am back at home in Antalaha now. Soon to journey out to Cap Est for a week of marine studies.

(Featured are some amazing Pachypodium and one Baobab for those plant enthusiasts out there)

[photo of the baobab I saw also]

 

Still Good

A first hello from the southern hemisphere!

Hello to all! Mbola tsara! It’s been nearly three weeks now since touchdown in Madagascar and there is much too much to cover in one concise post, so I am going to do some brief paragraphs and photos covering some general categories!

Antananarivo

Can you spot the realistic crucifix?

Museum of the prime minister

View from near the queen’s palace on the highest hill of the city

Translated to English, Antananarivo means city of thousands. The city is bustling with over one million people in orange and red houses on rolling hills, topped with the queen’s palace and mansion of the prime minister. Colors here are vivid. The sun is sharp. People and cars and small taxis fill every small space of the street. Imagine a city as large as San Francisco with no traffic lights and vendors on every corner. We spent our first five days and nights at a hotel on the Avenue de L’Independence and ate our meals inthe hotel club/lounge called the Point d’Exclamation, serenaded by music that was easily 50% songs from High School Musical. Me and 14 other students from the US, one academic director from Ireland and two program staff from Madagascar spent the week learning basic Malagasy, seeing the sights of the city, and figuring out how to exist in a new group in a new place.

Antalaha/Homestay

“It looks like a desktop background here”

Partying and dancing with newly found families (feat. me and my host brother)

My host family (can you tell which one is me?)

Not a bad place for school!

After orientation in the highland plateau of Antananarivo, the group flew to the humid tropical eastern coast of the island where we will be staying for the next two months in a town named Antalaha. Although we will not be exploring the dry spiny thickets and baobabs of the west and south, we are at the center of the vanilla trade and the tropical rainforest is at our doorstep. After a lesson in the snake dance with the Malagasy program staff, we threw a party and met our host families. Shaky introductions in newly-learned Malagasy, partial conversations in French, and an impromptu request for the group of students to perform for the families comprised one of the strangest parties I have ever been a part of (the group ended up singing Wagon Wheel and Don’t Stop Believing to acoustic guitar while Malagasy families filmed us in excitement and maybe confusion). I was gratiously accepted into the Tsirihanitra family by Hanitra, Zoe, Aaron, Olivia and Luca. My host mother teaches culinary arts my host brother is seven and reads my wildlife book with me, so home life has been pretty sweet so far.

There have been many an adjustment being in a completely new country and culture. As a foreigner and a white person, I am a vahasa in Malagasy. Being a vahasa is very amusing to many Malagasy people. Sometimes, my bajaj (small taxi) driver will laugh at me when I speak Malagasy, sometimes a car full of school children will scream “vahasa!” in unison as they drive past: I stand out. Madagascar is a country rich in natural resources but most of its people live on pennies to the dollar compared with the US, the wealth gap between a vahasa and locals is usually stark. I am working to improve both my French and Malagasy, with the wonderful help of my patient host family, in order to be able to actually have conversations with people; it is a constant process of cultural adjustment. Check back in with me in three months and see how I am doing! This semester is already challenging beyond anything I have ever done, and I am experiencing so many amazing things that I would have never imagined. (Off campus studies office, you can quote me on that)

Flora/Fauna

Bananas anyone?

You want euphorbia? You got it! (I think this is one from the botanical garden)

Did you know this is how pineapples grow?

 

As you may know, Madagascar is home to some of the highest percentages of biodiversity and species endemism in the world. As a general fan of plants and animals, I have been pretty ecstatic in spotting certain species (perhaps overly excited if you ask the other students…). With over 11000 species of plants on the island, there is constant curiosity. My various plant-related jobs have given me some knowledge, but there is much more here than can fit in a school greenhouse or garden center (shoutout to any ACE folks reading out there!). Just having seen the tip of the iceberg, there is so much more to come in this department, but here are some highlights…

That’s all for now! A bientot!

First try

Hello, I have never run a blog before!

Just testing to see how it works. I leave officially for Madagascar on the 21st, so check back after that for real content and photos I will have taken of real animals

our childhood friend, zoboomafoo