Music and Friends Amidst Uncertainty

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

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The Cactus Hotel

Flag of Madagascar  , Androy,
Friday, October 19, 2012

While walking the familiar dirt path home last night, surrounded by cactus to the left and right and the endless star-scattered sky above, I tried to put to words what I have experienced so far in Ambovombe. Should I talk about the dusty walks through unrelenting heat?  Should I talk about the increasing number of "lost in translation" moments, along with the sometimes hilarious consequences?  Or should I talk about the days I've spent sprawled out on the shores of the Indian Ocean with nothing troubling my mind except whether to read, sleep, or swim?  It’s been a time filled with experiences that seem to get more and more random, a time filled with mountain-top highs and soul-crushing depths, and a time filled with jaw-dropping awe.  During this first month, there are two major things I have learned: music is a great blessing in my life, and I HATE domestic birds.  I was just going to say roosters, but the geese made the list even as I’m writing this blog.  I’ll explain later.

Music has been an amazing gift here.  Even with a pretty significant language barrier, music speaks for me.   There have been so many times when my conversations with people have been conducted entirely through jamming.  We can’t talk, but we can still communicate.  The notes are our words.   The first time I experienced this was only hours after I arrived.  I was feeling a little nervous and alone, with good reason, so I started playing my mandolin.  It has become a way for me to meditate, a way to reflect and focus my emotions from the day.  The next thing I know, my neighbors show up, guitar in hand, and we played together for hours.  At this point, I knew absolutely NONE of the Antandroay dialect.  That fact was insignificant, however.  We just picked some chords and played them over and over until we wanted to quit, smiling and laughing as the “songs” stumbled to an end. 

These encounters through music happen on a fairly regular basis.  There have been pre-church jam sessions consisting of guitars and air-powered pump organs, early morning and mid-afternoon ukulele-powered dance parties that began in my living room and ended up in a grove of coconut trees, and ukulele and guitar jams while walking to the Indian Ocean at 5 AM.  Finally, the most random happened during my week in Ambondro.  I was taken there to be apart of a girl/boy scout retreat, as I mentioned in my last blog.  During one session, I was pulled up in front of the group, had a guitar shoved in my hand, and I was told to sing a song.  What?!?!  So, I performed an old camp song on an out-of-tune guitar.  They apparently liked it because they made me teach it to them.  That, however, is another story.

The best part of these musical encounters is that it is an important part of Malagasy culture.  Music is never an individualistic thing here.  In fact, there wasn’t even a word for “soloist” in the Malagasy language until the French took over.  Music is all about the community formed from playing together.  In fact, they don’t even really have a concept of songs in their culture.  You simply start playing, and the playing ends whenever it ends.  It changes every time.  I love it.

Since my last blog, there has been one random experience that has stood above the rest.  Somehow, I ended up in Faux Cap, an ocean-side town, for an entire week.  I thought I was going for a cultural emersion experience alongside some Peace Corps folks, but it was WAY more than that.  For one, I found out upon arrival that I was going to be apart of a traditional Androy wedding ceremony between one of the P.C.V.s (Jess) and her Malagasy fiancÚ.  Random.  Turns out, all I had to do was sit there while Paul, another P.C.V. who was playing Jess’ father for the ceremony, accepted a cow as dowry for Jess.  It was awesome.  The cow was delicious, too, by the way. The amount of traditional dancing I did this week was ridiculous. 

While I was in Faux Cap, I met some folks who work for a school from the states called S.I.T. (Students International Training or something like that).  It is this great program that sends undergraduate students on international exchange trips that focus a lot on environmental education and cultural emersion.  Since coordinating a course likes this is kind of my dream job, I spend a lot of time with the directors Barry and Jim.  They are great guys.  In fact, Jim is from Montana, too.  It’s crazy the people you meet on the other side of the world.  In June, they are running a course about ecological research including field techniques.  Since I have experience with this, Jim, Barry, and I are hoping that I can help out.  I am very excited about this opportunity, so I hope it works out. 

In addition to a wedding and networking in Faux Cap, I spend three solid days just lying on the sands of the Indian Ocean getting sunburnt all day and dancing traditional dances in rural Malagasy villages until the sun went down.  Pretty amazing.  The whole trip was spent with Peace Corps folks, too.  It was great to talk to them about their experiences since I am going through a lot of the same stuff that they went through at the beginning of their time here.

I started teaching English last week at the Lutheran private school in Ambovombe.  It is going well so far, but I can’t wait until my Malagasy improves enough so I can explain some harder concepts.  By the way, English is a hard language to teach and to learn.  Sit and think about it sometime.  I completely understand why my students are struggling with it.

Another great blessing in my life is friends that come with no language barrier attached.  These fall into two categories: Peace Corps Volunteers and dogs.  There are about 10 P.C.V.s stationed in the area, and I have been lucky enough to meet most of them.  In fact, there are two stationed right here in Ambovombe.  Beau and Jessie have been awesome to have around.  We have had great times sharing the frustrations and joys that come with being in such a unique place.  As far as dogs, there are three of them that live around my house.  They have pretty much become my pets, and it is great to have companionship that does not require any language whatsoever.

In other news, the birds around my house have become my nemesis.  The rooster has decided that 3 AM is the time to start crowing, even though the sun doesn’t rise until 5 AM.  Also, it likes to walk a slow lap around my house with my front door as the finish line, where it just stands and crows over and over again.  The GEESE, however, have started using my front porch as a repository for their feces.  The war has begun

I will say one thing: I miss mountains.  Climb up one or ski down one for me. 


P.S. I finally have a mailing address in Ambovombe:

Luke Stappler

BP: 02

Ambovombe, Androy 604


 Please send me letters, and I will most definitely respond!  Also, if you should feel so moved as to send me a care package, here is a list of wants.  Be sure to label the package "Missionary Supplies" to ensure that nobody picks through it.

Packets of dried gravy

Seasoning (any, but especially mixed ones like Mrs. Dash)

Peanut M&Ms

Packaged pasta and soup dishes that only require water

Condiments (just send the packets you can snag from fast food places.  Its cheap for

you, and delicious for me! Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, BBQ sauce, Ranch)

Powdered drink mixes

Packaged meat and cheese that don’t require refrigeration (beef jerky, summer

sausage, cheese sticks, etc.)

Brownie/cookie mix

Pouches of tuna/salmon that don’t require a fridge

NO CANS!!!! ( I have to pay by weight for every package that comes here)


Finally, if you can find a way to package and send a rack of BBQ ribs, I will give you a

gigantic hug back in the states
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