Finally, Salama from Madagascar!

I apologize for the extreme delay in beginning this blog. It has permanently resided on my to-do list since my arrival but have not yet found the time or internet speed to actually begin!

Bear with me while I attempt at summing up the last 50 days:

Our plane arrived to the Antananarivo airport on January 31 at approximately 1.30 am. There were three of us that came over on this plane together, which was a huge relief! Going through customs, there was hardly a sense of organization–such a change from the strict system that we’re used to. Much like we’ve seen in about every other town, the idea of gathering in an orderly line does not exist; you go through once you realize you must push your way. Once we successfully made it through, we were greeted by the SIT director from the Tana program. It was pouring rain and obviously pitch black outside so everything seemed to happen quite quickly after that. The three of us were whisked away in a van and after about 30 minutes, made it to the hotel where we would be staying that first night. My first impressions: stray dogs were everywhere, there are no street lights, and it was alarming to see crowds of people sleeping in rows under tunnels.

We spent our first couple of days in Tana, exploring this busy city with people rushing by everywhere on foot, taxi, bike, and car. Don’t step in front of anything moving–it won’t stop. Everything was such a change that it was hard to take it all in so suddenly! Plus, the heat and humidity at the beginning of February did not agree well with my skin, and the inevitable sunburn happened right away… But, aloe is not difficult to come by here and has been a MIRACLE in saving my skin. Plus, for me, it’s incredibly comforting to know its natural healing effects.

Well, a 50 minute plane ride later from Tana to Fort Dauphin, our next stop was Manantantaley, a village on the outskirt of the city. First, the whole sense of security at the airport was mind-boggling… I forgot I had a full water bottle in my backpack and was all nervous that I would get stopped by security. False! They couldn’t care less. Apparently there are very little regulations for what you can take on the plane with you. While one girl openly walked through drinking her water, half of the students actually beeped going through the metal detectors too!

Anyway, in Manantantaley, for the first time, we interacted with villagers, most of whom only speak Malagasy. It was an experience staying in this village: we learned how to squat to go to the bathroom while avoiding spiders, cockroaches, and lose floorboards, how to hand-wash clothes, count to 1,000,000 in Malagasy (of course forgotten by now), and how to effectively tie a mosquito net. We went on several beautiful hikes as well and were caught in a cyclone, but embraced this moment as a time to shower. First time we were that clean since our arrival! After a couple of days, it was time to make the treck to Fort Dauphin (pop. ~45,000), where we were based for the first month, and had to say goodbye just four days ago.

I LOVE my host family in Fort Dauphin. They were so welcoming and patient the entire time, and took care of me like their own children. Two of their children work in Tana, and the other two (Thérese-19 and Sarah-13) live with their grandfather. Their house though is only about a 5 minute walk away so the girls came over about once a week and during the weekend, I would go over there for a couple of hours as well.

Every night Papa Yvon and I would study together: me in Malagasy and him in English. We helped each other learn a few vocabulary words every evening and by the end of the month, we each now have a mini dictionary! Our home was very modest, a living room (also my room), a kitchen, and my host parents’ room. We didn’t have a refrigerator or indoor plumbing, but did have a TV with a single news channel that we watched every night- the first 30 minutes in Malagasy and the same program afterward in French. We didn’t have too much of a cockroach or lizard problem compared to others, but needless to stay, when I did have the pleasure of witnessing one by my bed for example, my heart would stop for a brief second. Hearing “tsssss” is not very comforting when you’re trying to sleep. The mosquito nets are clearly designed for more than just mosquitoes…

The Malagasy people also eat insane amounts of rice–always at lunch and dinner and sometimes even breakfast. We literally eat platefuls…I try to say I’ve had plenty but then I get asked a series of questions along the lines of: “What? Meredith? You don’t like my cooking?” or “Oh, you don’t like white rice? I’ll cook red rice instead!” Not that the rice is bad, there are just copious amounts. Sometimes little stones don’t get sorted out, so when you are all excited to have another spoonful, BAM! Stone! *tooth crack*

Maman Fanja taught me how to carry a bucket on my head, which is so difficult but I finally succeeded in the end, even though I walked at a snails pace. We went to collect water together and the women would always laugh at this vazaha trying something that is so simple for them. Especially wearing the lamba huany like a good Malagasy woman, I think I often get mistaken for being a native.

I’ve laughed at myself here just as much as others laugh at me; the whole experience would be much more difficult trying to be serious or perfect all of the time.

I really did get quite lucky with my host family, though. To be honest, it was challenging to adjust to the simple lifestyle (waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom in a bucket in the kitchen for instance) but in the end, I have absolutely no complaints. Before we leave Madagascar, we’ll have another dance and opportunity to see them one last time. I am shocked at how close I became with them though in just a little over a month, and how welcoming and non-judgemental they were the entire  time.

Vazaha is the word for “foreigner” in Malagasy–we hear this word constantly, especially by children who purposefully run up to us just to shout “bonjour vazaha”. The children in my neighborhood chanted it everyday, which was quite intimidating at first. They would be playing soccer and would all stop playing just to barricade me and shout to the obvious foreigner! I would awkwardly stand there, completely clueless as how to handle the situation. By the end of my stay though, I realized that smiling and returning a gentle “Salama” (Hello) really does the trick. Now among the group, we are all so accustomed to the word that it has become a joke and we start calling each other sometimes too. (Oh wow, look at that vazaha over there…awkward)

To save you all from further boredom, I’ll try to quickly get to where we are presently. Throughout our stay at Fort Dauphin, we went on several camping excursions studying botany and lemur ecology. Important announcement: King Julien is REAL, and even better in real life! So cuddly and energetic! Clearly, he does like to move it, move it. Seeing the lemurs, I felt like I was in the movie “Madagascar,” which I have found is actually strangely accurate to the real thing in some cases! If you thought I loved the movie before, my love has grown into a true PASSION.

We also spent a week in Faux Cap, a rural village that took about 11 hours to drive to via taxi brouss. This was quite the experience in a rickety bus on unpaved, pothole-filled roads but somehow we survived! (It was questionable sometimes, believe me.) There were two American students to every village and one or two Malagasy students as well to help with translating and to experience a different culture as well. Cameron, one of my best friends here, and I were placed in the same village, so that was nice to experience together. I don’t think I could have done it alone, to be quite honest. Life is so incredibly different in the rural environment. Even more rice, lots of intense zébu dancing (hours), and small huts to fit an entire family. It was also interesting to observe the differing gender roles: for instance, women always cooked and served the food to her husband and us as the guests, but was never able to eat altogether, rather, she ate outside with the kids. One of the villagers looked to be about 15 and had her own baby (quite common in villages) which she gave to me quite often to hold. One time, she looked at me, pointed to my chest, whipped out her own breast (not an uncommon sight, women here are very open with breastfeeding), and apparently told me to do the same in Malagasy. Um, no, there is no milk inside. “Tsy ronono” But, I still got to hold the precious baby, who would be sleeping, then notice a white person holding it, and gaze wide-eyed up at me, causing a hoot of laughter from the surrounding audience. Being in the village was certainly an eye-opening experience! Nights in Faux Cap were spectacular though–the Milky Way and the stars were breathtaking. I could have laid under the stars for hours…if I didn’t already have enough flea bites. Itchy.

We are now in Tulear and have started our marine studies. Tulear is a much bigger city than Fort Dauphin (pop. ~200,000) even though it looks just like a big village, but so far I really like it here. I finally decided on my research topic for the last four weeks of the program which is a tremendous stress relief. I’ll be studying mangroves with an NGO about 12 kilometers north of Tulear, so good thing I’m enjoying it here! I was planning on studying water contamination but in such a short amount of time, it is nearly impossible to collect sufficient data. Even though I was a bit disappointed at first, now I’m really looking forward to studying mangroves and can’t wait to meet with my advisor on Saturday to narrow down the details.

Meredith Moore is studying abroad in Madagascar on the Biodiversity & Natural Resource Management program with SIT Study Abroad.