Destroying Expectations

Trip Start Aug 15, 2012
Trip End Aug 01, 2013

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Where I stayed
Josoah's House!
My New Home in Ambovombe
What I did

Flag of Madagascar  , MG.06,
Saturday, September 22, 2012

Our three-week Orientation in Antsirabe ends today (Friday September 14). This time has been a blur of new experiences, language, and culture shock.  The reason it has taken me so long to post a new entry is for just that reason.  There has been so much going on that I cannot begin to figure out where to start the story.  I can't just list what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, or what new things I’ve experienced because neither you nor I have that kind of time.  With that in mind, I have chosen a part of the story that encapsulates this wild and wonderful time of my life.  I’ll give a general outline of my activities, too, but please feel free to contact me if you want more juicy details.

From Saturday September 8 through Sunday the 9, my five fellow volunteers and I participated in a homestay located in a village outside of Antsirabe.  The original plan was that each of the six of us would stay with a different family in the village, which would give us a chance to really practice our language and to view a side of Malagasy culture that living with a bunch of Norwegians doesn’t really provide.  That plan changed, unbeknownst to any of us, but that is pretty typical for Madagascar.  One part of the Malagasy culture is that if you do not directly ask a question, people won’t explain details to you even if it is important.  I have only been in the country for a month, but this little piece of culture has influenced many of my experiences already.  It can make life exciting! 

To start our trip, we all crammed into Austin and Tanya’s 4x4 at 9 am Malagasy time, which was around 10 am actual time.  The flexibility of time is a very prevalent part of life here.  After the usual winding roads dodging cow carts, pousse pousses (rickshaws), and other cars, we turned off over the sketchiest bridge I have ever ridden across, and thus our off road adventure began.  The road leading to the homestay was a narrow dirt  "road" lined with cactus and 10-foot high embankments.  The road itself was never level the entire ride and some part of the car was always being scraped.  Many more rural roads haven’t received an upkeep since the French left in the 1970s simply because there isn’t the money, so people just make do. 

When we arrived at our parking place, one of the most prominent parts of Malagasy culture was shown to us: selfless hospitality.  It is important to Malagasy that guests feel welcomed and that they are treated better than even the family.  As soon as we stepped out of the van, our guide to this point, John, would not let us carry any of our boxes.  He instead had some of the village kids carry them.  This is something that I still have trouble shrugging off, but Malagasy love to carry the bags of their guests.  You basically have to fight them in order to get them back before you get to your destination.  Even after our half-mile wind-swept hike into the house we were greeted by the entire family and their friends and neighbors.  We were shown around, and then told just to sit.  We all wanted to explore more, but to them, allowing us to sit after our trip was an honor, so we sat. 

The house and the surrounding area were the picture of simplistic beauty, a description that could be used for much of rural Madagascar.  The house itself had no electricity or running water, and all the cooking was done with charcoal.  Most things they eat come from within only a few miles.  I got to experience this first hand when they asked me if I wanted to help slaughter and prepare a chicken for lunch the next day.  Here’s the trick: right knee on the legs, left knee on the wings, and left hand just below the beak.  I’ve never felt more connected to where my food comes from, not even hunting and fishing.  The yard around the house was filled with chickens, cows (zebu), and pigs.  Even farther out from the house there was a huge expanse of fields that formed a checkerboard between us and the rest of the village.  In order to cross these fields, we had to walk three quarters of a mile across hard packed dirt paths that wove around the planted patches.  The paths were only about a foot wide with a welcoming bath of mud on either side if we happened to slip.  The most impressive part of all this is that the 86-year-old man who owned the house, cane and all, made walk to church every Sunday.  I am still in awe of that.  The village itself consisted of winding dirt streets lined by concrete buildings.  While we were there, a Turning of the Bones ceremony was taking place, which is when a family removes an ancestor’s bones from the family tomb and clean and rewrap them.  It is usually a big celebration with music, dancing, and drinking.  The Malagasy have a strong reverence for those that came before them.

A large part of my time in Madagascar so far has been the language barrier.  Malagasy isn’t the hardest language out there, but it will still kick your butt.  I am getting better, but it is most definitely work.  Another fun (sarcastic) part of language study is that there are many different dialects in Madagascar.  We learned, under the tutelage of two great teachers, Jackie and Henri, the official dialect, which is spoken in the highlands near Antananrivo and Antsirabe.  I learned, however, that the Androy dialect, which is spoken in Ambovombe and in a lot of the south, not only has different inflection on many of the words it shares with official, but that it actually has completely different words for many things.  Start over?  Why not.  More excitement!  I digress… During the homestay, the language barrier was very prevalent since we had only been in the country for two weeks.  Often, our conversations would look like this:  One of us would ask a question in Malagasy, and we would then tell Jane what we really meant to say.  Then Jane, who is from Canada and thus bilingual, would tell them IN FRENCH what we were trying to say.  They would respond in French, and then Jane would translate.  It was a crazy cycle, but it worked!  There were several younger folks there, including a preteen girl, who we were able to communicate with much more easily.  It was good practice.

Through all the experiences I have had since I got to Mada, the common theme is just to have an open mind and an open heart whenever I encounter something new.  Austin and Tanya told us our second day in the country to let go of all our expectations for this year.  Expectations just slow down being truly plugged into the culture and community.  Keeping this open-mindedness is a constant struggle for me when I just don’t want to eat any more rice or I just want to take a shower, but it is something I strive for everyday.

The rest of orientation was a whirlwind of walks to the crazy market, staring down pointing fingers, taxi bousses, the great forward-thinking agricultural school of Tombatsoa, traditional Malagasy dances and songs, music, Norwegians, late night tea and shared stories with wonderful people, and play time with Austin and Tanya’s dog, Poba.  It was the perfect transition from the states to this year’s adventure.  Good times with better people.

On the morning of the 15, I jumped on a plane to Fort Dauphin and then jumped in a truck with a man named Tsila and his family for the four-hour dirt roller coaster ride to Ambovombe and the shack that will be my home for 10 months.  It has already been quite the experience, filled with laughs, confusion, food, music, and learning.  And since then, I somehow I ended up in Ambondro, Madagascar, for a region-wide boy/girl scout retreat.  I was told I was coming about 10 hours before we left.  It started by me hopping in a truck with TEN other people who I couldn’t speak to at 5 AM, and now I am here.  I have already been asked to give impromptu speeches (in Malagasy) and teach bible camp songs (in English).  Where am I?  It’s actually been awesome because I met a Peace Corps volunteer who has helped me with lots of language and culture stuff.  She has helped ground me during all this randomness and confusion. 

Overall, life is a pretty great adventure right now.  Thanks for sharing it with me vicariously!

My phone number for this year is: 261340504630 .  If you call me through Skype, it costs me nothing and it only costs 2 cents a minute, but it will cost me about a bazillion dollars to call you.  Drop me a line sometime. 

Also my mailing address for the foreseeable future is:

Austin and Tanya Propst c/o Luke Stappler

BP 880

Isoraka 101

Antananarivo, Madagascar

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