Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hello everyone,

I just wanted to give a status update. Things are going well here.  I am nearing the end of my service. Yesterday marked the 60 day countdown.  I am looking forward to going home.

That said, I still have a project to finish. We raised all the money for the ecotourism project really quickly (THANK YOU TO THOSE WHO DONATED!) and work is underway on the infrastructure aspects of the project. In addition, I've completed a "version" of the website for Analalava at www.analalavareserve.com - it is currently only in French, but I'm exploring options to make an English version and add more content. Until then, people can use google translate to get the English. Please check it out and post links to it if you feel inclined.

Also, for anyone else who still would like to contribute something to my final well project please follow this link http://appropriateprojects.com/node/1484 We have just a little bit more to raise.

Thanks and I hope to post again really soon.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Help do a good thing!

Your contribution helps protect all these plants and animals!

Finally, Peace Corps has posted my project on their website.  The goal of this project is to improve ecotourism at Analalava forest (with whom I am partnered) by creating and fixing trails and building the facilities necessary to house tourists, school groups, and researchers.  Given its proximity to a popular beach destination, there is great potential to turn this reserve into a self-sustaining tourist attraction that will bring lots of economic activity to the area.  This would help conserve the forest by providing alternative income generation sources to the local population (most of whom earn around a $1.00 a day) and reduce their reliance on aid from NGOs and foreign governments.  In just 2 days, we raised nearly $300. Only another $800 to go.  Please click here to contribute or go to peacecorps.gov/donate and cut/paste project # 13-684-016 into the search bar. Your donation is tax deductible.

Your help is greatly appreciated.  Thank you!

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Conclusion to the "Long, Lost Blogpost"


You may think I’m late here, but in Madagascar it is totally normal to wish someone a happy new year all the way up until February.  I’ve even seen someone do it as late as March.

Did you have Happy Holidays? I enjoyed mine, taking a trip out to Ile. Ste. Marie, an island a little to the north off the east coast.  I enjoyed some snorkeling, beaches, waterfalls, and seafood.  Years ago, the island was a pirate haven, so one of the other attractions is a cemetery where pirates are buried.  The worst of the pirates was buried standing up so that he could never rest for all the bad things he had done.  The island you see below was a stronghold for pirates.  They were self sufficient here and due to the direction of the wind, it was easy for them to defend but difficult for intruders to attack.

Pirate Haven

Ste. Marie Sunset

Anywho, back to the story…

In the weeks and months after my return, I got focused and started another project to build four public latrines. This turned out to be more complicated than the well as there are different techniques and more parts to build. Despite this, I settled on a solution with a couple of the men in my village and we are finished. All the pieces were acquired from a local sanitation NGO and driven by truck to my village.  With the assistance of a technician, villagers assembled the pieces and built the super structures (house on top).  I think the reason this project has taken so long is that relying on volunteer labor is unreliable.  It can be hard to convince the poor, who spend everyday working for just a little more than a dollar, to contribute their time.

Latrine construction

Finished, flushable, ventilated latrine

Other things keeping me busy: I’ve done training with a new group of guides at the forest in environmental education, trail maintenance, and signage. Once the guides finished their training, we held a series of environmental camps with school children from surrounding communities. I think these are valuable. The benefit is two-fold.  Not only do people from the surrounding community come to feel closer to the reserve, but also the message of respect for the environment is passed on to the next generation.  It was awesome to see the increase in capacity at the park. Previously, I had tried to do similar events, but without supporting staff they could never be of high quality.  Now that there are guides, a whole load of new things are possible. I am dreaming of better trails and signs throughout the park.

Environmental Camp with local students

In November, my friend Leah came out to visit.  Before I left America, we both had applied to Peace Corps around the same time.  Unfortunately, Leah had an athletic injury requiring surgery.  Her application got delayed and eventually disqualified.  Despite this, set back she has been very supportive of me over here, following my experience closely, and sending many a letter and package (Thanks Leah!).  During her time here, she was able to see my site and a few parks on the way.  We got lemurs on our heads, killed a chicken, got stared at and called “Vazaha,” spent hours waiting for a taxi-brousse, and enjoyed many other experiences unique to the life of a PCV.  After witnessing all this, she still plans to sign up when the time is right.  For me, it was cool to have a visitor.  Being someone else’s guide made me realize just how capable of navigating this country and culture I’ve become.

Leah with a lemur on her shoulder, smiling despite it having bitten her finger moments before

So here I stand. I have spent the last 20 months in Madagascar in a rural village. I have just a few left. Increasingly, I find my mind divided between this place and my future.  While I am very excited to go home, I also realize how hard it will be to leave this place.  Many volunteers choose to extend or stick around and look for a job with an NGO or business venture. I can understand their reasons and have considered it myself. There are many things to love about life here – the combination of being in a tropical paradise, feeling like you are really contributing and changing something, busting through the cultural and language barriers, and making friends despite all obstacles. On the other hand, there is also the feeling that I’ve been away from home for a very long time.  I finished college three years ago, and since then have volunteered through WWOOF, Americorps, and Peace Corps.  In total, I’ve lived the student/volunteer life (ie. been broke) for 7 years.  For this reason, I’m leaning towards finding employment…very very very lucrative employment (anyone got any leads?). Of course, I’ll keep you all posted as to which direction I end up choosing.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Part II: The Long Lost Blogpost

Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll get right in to it.  Here is a Part II of The Long, Lost Blogpost, continuing where I left off last week…

….After vacation, I headed out on my second vacation (Peace Corps, the toughest job you’ll ever love), back to America.

A lot of people have asked me, “so, did you have reverse culture shock? Is it weird going back?”  The answer is “yeah, but only for a little while.” I think it first struck me during my layover in South Africa. The Johannesburg airport is basically a shopping mall with airplanes parked outside - the efficiency of capitalism on full display. Don’t just sit and wait, you’re wasting valuable time you could spend shopping! It’s difficult to explain the feeling… but…the stores were all filled with “products” and everything seemed so perfect and overdone. Part of me wanted to burst out laughing at how absurd all the souvenir shops seemed with their “authentic” trinkets, selling a piece of the “wild and untamed” dark continent for you bring home and exhibit in your living room. And, how self-important everyone seemed talking loudly on their smartphones. And, all the lonely people staring into their screen of choice, but no one talking to each other as we sat together waiting. Also, I walked way slower than everyone around me.  I tried to go faster, but decided I rather liked making other people go around me. Besides, I was the only sane one there.

When I finally got off in Maine, I was pretty exhausted, but… there was my family! Holy crap, it was good to see them. We had our “moment,” and they whisked me off to the car.  When I got in, I somewhat instinctively reached for the seatbelt. As I did this, I laughed and realized I hadn't put a seat belt on in over a year. Also, my seat was so big. The road we were driving on was really big too. We left the Portland Jetport and went out to eat at a pub for lunch. Everything around me was familiar. I was back, but, everything still felt far away. Maybe some of it was the jet lag, but this place I formerly knew as home was different now.

At the pub, my family and I started the long process of “catching up.” I ordered a Reuben and my first IPA in over a year. It was a bit of a shock to me when the waitress asked for my ID. Part of me wanted to explain how unnecessary it was – I’d just come from far more dangerous and wild places, where someone younger than 21 drinking a beer was the least of anyone’s worries. The other part of me was impressed that a government was capable of enforcing a law.

For the first couple days, I caught up on sleep and re-entered AMERICA! Clean. New. Clothes. a new haircut, food that is EFFING DELICIOUS, 500 TV CHANNELS IN HD, CARS EVERYWHERE, FAST INTERNET, HOT SHOWERS, COLD BEER, WASHERS AND DRYERS, CREAM FOR YOUR COFFEE, YOU NAME IT, WE GOT ITTT IN AMERICA! WITH A SIDE OF FREEDOM FRIES!  Oh the sweetness of being in a place where things just work! America, you’re not so bad.

Time flew as I raced around seeing family and friends. It was really nice to catch up with people I hadn’t seen in over a year. I handed out some souvenirs and told stories about my travels, trying to cram a year’s experience into five minutes. By the end of my trip, I had perfected a boiled-down thirty second spiel for the average listener. It’s not that people weren’t interested in what I had to say; it’s just that you cannot begin to convey it to them in a way that really comes through.  It’s not that the experience is “too profound.”  It is just too vast and too different all at once.

No sooner did things start to feel normal again, like I was home, then I needed to get back on a plane. Going back to Peace Corps life was a little difficult. When my flight in Portland was cancelled, I was a hopeful that I might get a couple of days vacation added on.  Unfortunately, JetBlue figured out a solution and I was on my way. Of course, I was on a post-America high, but this quickly came crashing down as I re-confronted the daily struggles of life in Madagascar. This began immediately when I walked out of the airport in Tana, weighted down by a bag and dragging my suitcase, and was mobbed by 20 taxi drivers…

There you have the end of Part II.  Part III will be on its way after the holidays.  Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Long, Lost Blogpost Part I: The longest vacation...

Hello World.  Last time I wrote, I had just finished the well project. A lot has happened since then, so I’ll fill you in in part I of "The Long, Lost Blogpost."

First of all, the well is working out great for the community. Everyone uses it everyday. In May, the village had a big party to celebrate the well.  The Prezida and a few villagers put up decorations and added a fence with some trees around it. Park staff came out with a generator and some big speakers and played music.  People gave speeches (including myself, in terrible Malagasy) and then we drank the equivalent of koolaid and beer and danced to the silly music until it was dark.  It was a lot of fun and nice to see how much people appreciated the presence of clean water in their village. Thanks again to all who donated.

After the well party, I had to head off to MSC (Mid Service Conference) for a week of training near the capital. This was pretty uneventful aside from having the opportunity to reunite with my staging group.  Everyone has really chilled out in a year’s time, compared to when we first arrived in country – like a bunch of veterans without anything to prove anymore. 

When MSC finished, I prepped to head back to the US of A for a vacation. Unfortunately, due somewhat to poor planning, I ended up with a week’s worth of time between training and my flight. Rather than head back to site, I decided to make the best of this time by taking a trip with some other volunteers out west to see Morondava, the Baobabs, and the Grand Tsingy de Bemaraha. It was an epic trip (the taxi-brousse is 17 hours, if you take it non stop!). Morondava is a really nice coastal town with a beach and some decent seafood. Meeting up with a couple of French tourists, we shared the cost of a 4x4 to take us on the 12 hour, 120km voyage north to Bekopaka.  Along the way we stopped at the Avenue de Baobabs and saw several of Madagascar’s behemoth trees, which store water in their sponge-like interior during the dry season. The biggest we saw was reportedly 600 years old (not sure if this is true) and would take about six people or so, to “hug” its circumference. While in the area, we also got to try the Baobab fruit, which, it turns out, is terribly salty and has the texture of Styrofoam.  The juice is not bad though, with sugar added.

After a long, dusty ride and two ferry crossings, we arrived in Bekopaka in the evening and crashed in a cheap hotel.  Bekopaka is basically a touristy-camp town with a few hotels running on generators. There is cell reception, surprisingly. In the morning, we headed out on a river tour, explored some caverns, and saw the cliff-side tombs where the local people bury their dead. In the afternoon, we toured the Petit Tsingy, which was pretty cool (and ripe with photo-ops). In Malagasy, Tsingytsingy means to tip-toe (one meaning).  This is because the rocks in the area are jagged and sharp (created a long time ago when the western part of Madagascar was under the ocean, look it up!).  The next day we headed out on a long trek through the Grand Tsingy. This was probably the coolest place I’ve ever been to in my life. For eight hours or so we climbed up and down the rocks, crossed Indiana Jones-style rope bridges, descended into dark caverns, and just generally took in the overall mind-blowing awe of it all.  If you ever get the chance, check this place out!

On our way home, we stopped again at the Avenue to see a beautiful sunset with the silhouettes of the Baobabs against the sky. Back in Morondava, we lounged on the beach, ate some seafood, and rested for the long taxi-brousse ride back to Tana. 

After vacation, I headed out on my second vacation (Peace Corps, the toughest job you’ll ever love), back to America

Now that you’re all on the edge of your seats, you’ll have until next week for part II.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A long overdue update

Ela tsy tahita.  Yeah, it’s been a long time since writing.  Sorry about that.  In any case, here is a brief summary of what I’ve been up to since February.

Well, I’m happy to say I survived two pretty major cyclones.  The first to hit, Giovanna, caught me while I was at a regional volunteer meeting.  Peace Corps called those of us living on the mid-east coast back to the capital to wait out the storm in the Meva (Peace Corps house).  There was a path of destruction leading down Rte. 2 to Tana.  On my way home after the storm, I saw trees down, mud slides, fallen power lines, and collapsed houses.  Not long after this, we were hit again, somewhat by surprise by Irina.  This time I didn’t get warning from Peace Corps until the storm had actually arrived.  Luckily, I was able to stay with my good Malagasy friend in his cement house during the storm.  It rained hard for three days straight, and I sat inside the whole time eating pizza and watching movies on my laptop with friends.  Overall, the storms didn’t do major damage to my region.  My house is still standing.  My roof is still intact.

With the storms gone, I set to work on getting the well project under way.  This went smoothly enough.  Originally, we had planned to make pour the concrete rings on site, but after doing more research we found it would be cheaper and easier to simply buy them in Foulpointe.  The price of transport was included and the builder promised to fix or replace any ring that was broken during the trip.  Within a couple of weeks the rings were finished and ready to go.  We had a little trouble finding someone with a truck who was willing to let it be driven to my village (the road is notoriously bad).  Luckily, we only got stuck once and there were plenty of people passing by who were willing to help push us out.  When the truck arrived, the villagers were surprised and excited.  Kids chased the truck down the hill to the school where the rings were offloaded.  Everyone gathered around to watch. 

Over the course of the next week, work progressed steadily.  Our technique was to dig inside the well shaft underneath the ring, allowing it to slowly sink under its own weight.  When the top-most ring was level with the surface we added another and “glued” it on with cement.  We went through several layers of earth: sand, rocks, clay, loose red sand, and sticky mud.  The sticky mud complicated things as it created friction on the outside of the rings.  As time went on, they became more and more reluctant to descend.  On one occasion, the bottom-most ring dropped suddenly, while the top two remained fixed in place, momentarily.  Eventually everything fell evenly, but the seal between the first and second rings had been broken and water was pouring in from the sides.  Villagers began digging all around the outside of the shaft in an attempt to lower the water level.  This worked and they were able to reseal the rings. 

Within a week and a half, the well was finished, a sand and gravel filter was added on bottom, and the well was emptied twice.  To our delight, we got clean water.  I’ll never forget my first bucket bath with this water.  There wasn’t a brown tinge and there wasn’t any plant matter.  The water was cool and clear.  I actually felt clean afterwards. 

Everyone is really pleased with the project.  The villagers are going to add a few finishing touches to the well (a fence) and the Prezida of the Fokontany is planning a celebration/ribbon cutting ceremony.  During this time, I’m going to distribute bottles of bleach and talk about water sanitation practices with the village health worker.  The water may be devoid of dirt, scum, parasites, etc. but there is still the chance of other microbes infecting the well and making people sick. 

I’ve noticed a change around the village in how people feel about my presence.  Suddenly, people are more motivated to work with me.  In an attempt to harness this newfound enthusiasm and to involve as many people as possible, we’ve started a Fikambanana (association) called the Fikamambana Zanak’i Morarano (The Association for the Children of Morarano).  Our aim will be primarily to improve rice crop yield, but I hope it can lead to organizing in other areas as well. 

Well, I hope I’ve made up for the past few months without updates.  Feel free to follow me on twitter @andrewbourret. I’ve started using this more recently because Facebook is starting to drive me crazy. 

Mandrapihoana (See you!)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A list of observations, lessons learned, and things that don't surprise me anymore...

What makes a good blog post from a Peace Corps volunteer?  In general, I think the expectation from my American audience back home is a report of my crazy adventures mixed with examples of interactions that illustrate how backwards this culture really is.  People want to hear about how exciting the strange and foreign can be, but also they want to compare their way of thinking and approach to life to another.  The problem is, as time goes on, these moments seem less and less significant, less and less crazy, less and less backwards.  In fact, I might actually call my life normal now.  Definitely not normal the way that my American life was normal, because I still don’t fit in here, but normal in an “in between” kind of way.  I’ve gotten used to living as a foreigner who routinely puts up with loads of weird stuff.  Also, upon first arriving here, I had several moments everyday when I wanted to stop someone and point out how weird or inappropriate their behavior was.  Today, I would say that filter has been shut off. 

So what am I trying to say?  The more time I spend in this country, the harder it becomes to remember those strange moments that occur throughout the month that my American friends would consider blog-worthy.  This month, however, I tried to stay conscious of this, so I made a list of crazy and funny things and things I find not so crazy or funny anymore (but that you would).  In the end, I also ended up including some interesting things I’ve learned here too.  Here goes…

1.    It is not inappropriate for young children to play with big knives or to drink a little beer from their parents. 
2.    The black people in my magazines from America are actually Malagasy.  Why? Because they are black.
3.    Rihanna and Beyonce are Malagasy… or at least part Malagasy.  Why? Because they are black.
4.    Kids bring lemurs to school for show and tell. 
3.    People are aware that Americans have gone to the moon.  I’ve convinced several people that I’ve been to the moon too.
4.    Many people, even after I explain that I’m American, find it difficult to believe that I am not actually French. 
5.    Other white people are my “family members,” even if I’ve never met them. 
6.    I woke up to a scorpion in my bed last night.  
7.    Always greet everyone when you first see them and make sure to give them a weak handshake. 
8.    Eggs are good forever. 
9.    It is almost expected that men will cheat on their wives.  The woman will get very angry, but all a man has to do is apologize and the marriage is saved.  The exception to this is if the married couple is older.  Cheating isn’t okay when you’re over 45. 
10.    In the southwest, it is permissible for a man to take multiple wives. 
11.    Almost every Malagasy film is about a man falling in love with a girl and then cheating on her.  The tone of these movies is usually comedic.
12.    I’m occasionally asked if I believe the end of the world is coming in December 2012.  Most people don’t believe it is.
13.    Another volunteer once had to explain to her coworker that the world is round and not flat like a paper map.
14.    People are not ignorant about health issues like STDs, condoms, water sanitation, latrines, bacteria, and malnutrition.
15.    People are not ignorant about a lot of things.  I’m perpetually surprised by what these people know despite many not having the resources to finish school. 
16.    Occasionally, I hear about world events first through my neighbors, who are able to explain what they hear in Malagasy on the radio.
17.    Given five minutes and a machete, everyone is capable of building almost anything out of ravinala and bamboo.
18.    Sometimes it’s best to just let go of how you expected your day to go.  The next thing you know, you might end up 15km off in the forest at some ceremony you would never have had the chance to witness. 
19.    Need a coconut? Find the nearest small boy and ask him to make the 30 foot climb straight to the top for you.  No one fears for his life.
20.    Interesting language tidbit: The Malagasy word for “hungry” is noana.  The word for religion/faith is “finoana.” Words that start with “f” are typically nouns, so I think its cool that religion could also translate as “the hunger.”
21.    Way to get around in the city? It’s called a “pousse-pousse” – either a guy pedals you around on a two wheel carriage or pulls you with his own two feet.  At first, I thought this was cruel.  You feel like a king going around like this.  Now, I barely think twice and don’t hesitate to bargain for a low price. 
22.    Digging the eggs of parasy lafrika out of my feet is a routine hassle.  If I’m not in the mood, other people are very, very eager to help. 
23.    Malagasy students are better behaved than American students, perhaps because the bad ones get their ear twisted.  No one is spanked though. 
24.    When the teacher enters, all students stand and say,” Bonjour, monsieur” or “Bonjour, Madam.” 
25.    Buy something new? Everyone is going to ask you how much you paid.
26.    Madagascar now has female police officers and gendarme. 
27.    When riding in a taxi brousse, it is normal to be stopped by the police and then five minutes later, the gendarme, and then five minutes later, the police, and then five minutes later, the gendarme.  Repeat until you reach your destination.  Why? I don’t know.
28.    The Work Day: A few hours in the morning.  A two hour lunch and nap.  Another hour or so in the afternoon.  Go home and eat dinner.
29.    No one gets angry on taxi-brousses regardless of how many stops are made to cram additional people in. 
30.    Going somewhere with a friend who doesn’t have a bicycle? Don’t be selfish, give them a ride. 
31.    No one has breaks on their bicycle.  Don’t try for the stop and chat. 
32.    Lately, I’ve been helping fight the wildfires that break out around the park.  Tools needed to put out a wildfire here?  A watering can and a machete. 
33.    With enough glue and bike tire patches, you can usually squeeze another day out of the village soccer ball.  On those days when you can’t, a ball of plastic bags tied together with string can suffice. 
34.    Oh, by the way, Kids lack school supplies, soccer balls, soccer jerseys, and playground equipment. 
35.    The director of the school is around fifty and rides his bike 75 miles a week so he can teach in my town and then in another town in the afternoon.  Talk about motivated.
36.    Will the Peace Corps eliminate poverty? No.
37.    Will the Peace Corps increase Americans’ understandings of other peoples and other people’s understandings of Americans? Yes.
38.    Torrential downpours are torrential.
39.    If you have a fruit tree in your yard, the kids are going to climb it and steal the fruit.
40.    My stomach has grown a layer of armor against bacteria.  That said, I still get the occasional upset stomach followed by… well, you know.
41.    Poverty isn’t just a lack of money…
42.    Sakay is the name for hot pepper.  My neighbors grow a type of sakay called “Dimylahy,” which translates as “five men.”  Apparently, this is because eating it is like being beaten by five men.
43.    Chickens are smarter than they look.  You can’t trust them… and they know better. 
44.    Malagasy people understand sarcasm.
45.    There are two main types of rice: white rice (imported) and red rice (Gasy rice).  Red rice is better.  It holds more water and has a fuller texture.
46.    A new fruit I’ve never heard of is always coming into season.
47.    Bicycle breaks down? I guess, I’ll walk the 15 miles.
48.    Lots of people know me… lots of people that I don’t know.
49.    I will never know some of my friends' names.  This is at least partially because some people are called by other things like “the mother of (insert her child’s name here).”  Or, “the wife of (insert husband’s name here).” 
50.    People go to church because they like to sing.  They’re really good.  It’s cool to hear the entire village singing together.