I was in the field for three weeks. Before I left I didn’t really think anything of the duration of the trip. I thought that three weeks didn’t really seem that long. However, after sitting in the car almost everyday, with long days, I realized that I might just want to stick to two-week trips in the future because life on the road can be tiring.

I was able to visit and see the work of two different NGO’s in the southeast of Madagascar – BDEM and CARITAS – both of which are local (Malagasy) NGO’s. It takes two days of travel to get there and the first two days I didn’t listen to any music (the radio/cd player in the truck was temperamental and wasn’t working either) while we were traveling. It made me think how I have become much more patient in my time here and how 5 years ago I don’t think I would have been able to make it 2 hours without having any music in the car, let alone three weeks without anything to listen to regularly.

My first two weeks were spent in Mananjary, which I had never been to before. I had a lot of friends in Peace Corps that lived near Mananjary and so I had heard stories, but still needed to experience it. It’s true; people seem to defecate on the beach in the mornings.  This changed my running route considerably after the first morning of getting dangerously close to the public toilet that God is perpetually flushing. It also made it slightly unpleasant anytime the wind might pick up or change direction. My phone charger got fried the first two hours that I was in the hotel, which made me paranoid to charge anything for the whole time that I was there, but never had another issue after that, thankfully.  Also, I swear there is a different breed of mosquitos (or maybe just more males) because I was always getting bit, but would never hear them flying around (the real silent killers). As for work, there seemed to be a slight communication problem with the office and so I wasn’t able to do things as efficiently as I would have liked, but I still managed to get things done and meet a lot of people.

As always, there are the people that I absolutely love to death and those that I really wish I never had to meet and feel like my day would have been better if I just sat in the car and stared out the window for two hours. The dialect is always changing and so I had to pick up some new vocabulary, learn how to re-phrase some questions as well as try to understand their accent. I swear the people around Mananjary speak faster than anywhere else in Madagascar. I don’t know why they speak so fast, it’s not like they do anything else in a fast pace. The introductions changed quite a lot too. There’s a long greeting where they ask how was your night, then how you’re doing and then ask how you’re doing again. Before every session they would just be saying hello and making speeches for a minimum of 30 minutes. Then, anytime someone who was late came in they had to ask them how they were doing five million times. I respect the culture and it didn’t really bother me, in fact, most times I found it quite entertaining, but I did think that it did eat a lot discussion time. My favorite encounter was when we were passing a guy in a rice field and without exchanging any real information he managed to ask we were doing about 10 times and say that he was doing well about 10 times too. I just smiled and thought whether that much interaction makes the feeling more or less real (I still haven’t decided).

The discussions took a lot out of me both physically and mentally. Most days we were leaving around 7am and getting back around 6:30pm. It was a lot of time in the car and then around 2-3hours in the morning and afternoon of asking questions to beneficiaries. I’d ask the questions, rephrase the questions, have someone translate the questions and then go through the process a million more times. After which we’d eat lunch and then I’d go to a different community and do the same thing. I guess what’s hard is that my questions never change, but the responses and capacity of the group change with each session. It always ended with them asking for a ton of things, which I understand, but it’s not always what I want to be listening to after an exhausting conversation where I’m just trying to get anything useful out of short responses.

With all of that time in the car, I got to know my driver, Solofo, pretty well. He is a big, jolly man, that sure did like to talk, which made things easier and more difficult depending on the time and my mood. He was very helpful and a great driver so we didn’t really have any problems. I discovered early on that he wasn’t a man that missed meals and I could appreciate that. He could really put away the rice, which I also appreciated. For this reason, I discovered that in the evening we would always return a little quicker because a meal was in sight, rather than our slow morning strolls because breakfast was behind us. However, about half way into the trip he came into one of my sessions and was very disruptive so I called him out. I think he was a little hurt and mostly shocked and then didn’t really talk to me for a few days. He had no idea what he was up against. I think that people think that because I talk to others or that I can be social that I also have a need to talk all of the time. I don’t. If anyone wants to play the silent game, I’m all for it, and the sad thing is that I might enjoy it. Although, we eventually worked it out (he started talking to me again and I gladly spoke to him) I spent a few days just relaxing and spacing out. I also put in my iPod for a few days to help with the music situation. I hadn’t sat in a car with headphones in a really long time. I was more amused than I should have been when we would pass through a village and some song cheesy song would come blasting through the headphones, but the people staring at me had no idea.

Although I did a lot of work during my time in the field I also had a lot of down time (I seem to be observing weekends now rather than working 7 days a week – I do miss my forest and rice field time) that I got to do some leisure activities. Because I was sitting in the car most of the time, I tried to walk around a little bit and see the area and more then anything just move. Conversely, I also read quite a bit. I finished reading ‘Life of Pi’, which I thought was a really good book. It didn’t make me believe in God, but I thought the story was intriguing, engaging and it was if nothing else thought provoking. Oddly, I watched the first 5 minutes of the movie and it didn’t grab my attention, but I’m sure I just need to put in a little bit more time (granted the quality of the version isn’t the best). I also read ‘The Great Gatsby’, which I wasn’t a big fan of. I didn’t really find it entertaining and I hated pretty much all of the characters in the book. I guess it is important historically, but all of the excess and shallowness just seemed off-putting (maybe that’s the point?).  Right now, I’m reading ‘A Walk in the Woods’, which I have mixed feelings about. I can’t help but think that Bill Bryson, the author, is an example of what’s wrong with society’s views towards parks as well as the reason that many national park systems, especially those surrounding the Appalachian Trail, seem to be getting worse and worse. Granted the history and his friend that travels with him are entertaining, but I think it’s absurd that he’s talking about hotels and driving most of the Appalachian Trail rather than just doing to damn thing like he said he would in the beginning. Granted, I haven’t done it, but when people talk about roughing it, but would rather stay in hotels rather than a tent, look at farms rather than trees, and in many ways complaining and talking about how dangerous or difficult the hiking is, it makes me think that they don’t really want to be a part of nature. They don’t appreciate the simplicity and power of it all. It’s the reason why less and less people are going out doors and more and more people are living sedentary lives where parks are what you see in the middle of a city. It just doesn’t make sense. Maybe we really are becoming that far removed from nature; maybe that’s the point…

On a less intellectual note, I finished watching the episodes that I have of ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’. I think that show is hilarious and I can’t wait to watch the rest of season 7 and beyond. I’ve also started watching ‘Breaking Bad’, which I love for the science, but didn’t enjoy the second season as much as I enjoyed the first season. The third season seems to be good (I have 4 seasons), but we’ll see what happens. It seems like people are still raving about it now so there has to be some reason to continue watching it (then again, people watch a lot of bad tv shows, myself included).

Food on the road was interesting as well. I, like my driver, managed to keep things cheap and simple, which I like. I seemed to eat a mountain of rice each meal and then meat, occasionally with some vegetables. After a while I was seriously craving any kind of vegetable or fruit just because the meat and rice wasn’t really cutting it for me nutritionally. This was mostly in Mananjary, but once we made it to Ikongo the hotel provided meals that were still Malagasy food, but much more balanced. I think for my next outing I’ll have to make a trip to the market more often in order to buy fruits and vegetables that don’t need to be cooked (I could spend more money and eat at nicer places too, but I don’t really envision this happening).

The work in Ikongo was the same as Mananjary and the questions the same as well. However, because their lifestyle, culture and the NGO working in the area isn’t the same there were lots of differences and the conversations often went in different directions, which was a nice change. It was nice to be in Ikongo because it was very beautiful and I could see why people thought I would enjoy it. However, I have to say, and I know that I’m loyal and ever so biased, but I think that Andapa is still more beautiful and I haven’t found a landscape that I like more than those in the SAVA region. I think it’s both good and bad that not too many people know about it because it might change if it became a big tourist destination. In Ikongo I was back in the countryside and once again a “Vazaha” to everyone who passed me in the street. Can’t say I miss that, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Also, I thought it was funny that the hotel we were staying in had a lot of clocks but the batteries weren’t any good. I was always eating at 11:24 and I always went to sleep and woke up at 9:30. I guess it was a miracle that breakfast always came out on time.  The hotel was very simple and so they didn’t have showers in the room, but had a shower that people could share. There wasn’t any hot water either, but you can ask them to heat up the water. For whatever reason, if I can’t take the easy way out, I prefer the cold bucket shower. I feel like the hot water bucket is just a tease and the cold water really wakes you up and you feel refreshed. I just don’t have the mental strength to take cold showers all of the time if I just need to turn a knob a quarter of an inch and have a pleasantly hot shower. I didn’t bring a towel, so I was given one that had a naked white lady on it. It wasn’t until I had been using the towel for two days that I realized there was a nipple staring back at me from across the room and discovered the picture.

Now, I’m back in Tana I’ve spent a week in the office.  It feels good to be off the road for a bit and to relax in some sense. I was supposed to go back into the field this Sunday, but there was a scheduling problem, so I’ll be in Tana for another week and then go to Vatomandry and Mahanoro for a few weeks. I’m happy to have the break, but I’d really like to get all of the field visits done so I can write the reports before the rainy season hits too hard…and so I get paid!