Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Fishing 10/31-11/10

My dad is a fisherman.  A shrimper, mainly, to be exact.  He owns 3 boats name “Jery Mitovi” A, B, and C.  In Malagasy, jery means “a look”, and mitovi means “the same” so in English, his “fleet” can be called “Same Look”.  My host father, Alfred is his name, but I just call him Papa, uses Jery Mitovi A and B for shrimpin and C for fish.  For the fish, they go north a ways along the coast.  Apparently that can be a bit of a haul since the winds aren’t always cooperative and can sometimes take days to make the voyage.  The shrimp, he goes on about a 6 hour trek west to a village called Antsohery.  He makes these trips with his “fleet” about once a month.  So I asked him, can I go with you?  Sure enough he said yes, I wouldn’t be a burden or anything.  The experience that I had was unlike anything else I have done.  I am going to do my best to explain this trip, but I’m not sure I can truly convey the emotions that I felt in this amazing community that I was blessed to visit, and hopefully, someday return.

Packing Up

Hearing about Antsohery, I picked up a couple of useful pieces of information.

1.     There is no electricity.
2.     There is a lot of mud
3.     The water is brown and salty
4.     There are crocodiles
5.     There are mosquitoes

That’s pretty much all I knew before going.  So obviously had my father help me pack, which mainly just included 4 change of clothes, flashlights, pocketknives, toiletries (don’t forget toilet paper, there is no toilet in Antsohery), and water.  That was pretty much it on my part, but I still had no idea what I was getting into.

The Trip

I got up at about 5am on Friday, luckily I had already packed, and we loaded up the taxi and off we went to the “docks”.  I say the docks, because really they just kinda pull the boat up to the boardwalk sorta place, then you just wade out to it.  We hauled everything out to the boat, including a mattress that I would use, said out goodbyes, and started the motor.  Yes, our boat is fortunate enough to have a small, maybe 10 hp, motor that we used to get out of the harbor and into the good wind before we set the sail.  We set out with 3 crew members, me, my Papa, another man, and a couple, with a small child, all headed to Antsohery.  It was about a 6 hour journey.  The sun was bright, but the wind was nice so it wasn’t too incredibly hot.  Even after applying sunscreen I still got burnt.  On the way, we passed an island Nosi Macambi, “Shrimp Island”.  This island is very close to where the shrimpermen do their shrimping.  The water turns from blue to a sandy yellow here.  I assume because of the silt flowing from the inlet, however, it can be noted that during a specific time of year at low tide, people can walk out to the island.  How far is that?  I’m a terrible judge of distance, but I would put money on at least half a mile of water to the mainland.  Along the way there are poles made of thin tree branches sticking up out of the water.  Groups of them, probably 5 or 6, put together what seems like sporadically.  I later learned that they use these poles to hold the nets in places.  When the tide goes in and out, so do the shrimp, so they use the poles and the current to catch the shrimp.  On the way up the inlet, we made a quick stop to drop off ice that we had brought with us that they use to pack with the fish and shrimp they catch.


We pull the dock up to the bank, making sure not to hit any of the children swimming of course.  There are a few men that come out to greet us.  Then it must have hit them that a white person was with the boat because I could feel the silence and stares from almost every person within site, not to mention the occasional “Vasa” that I heard.  These moments are a little awkward for me, and I get them a lot considering I’m white.  I just do my best to act normal, but I think we can all agree that once you have to consciously think about acting normal, absolutely nothing you do is normal.  I’m banking on the fact that they may just think my awkwardness is a cultural thing.

We unpack the boat, and my Dad leads me to the house where we’ll be staying.  It’s just like every other house in the village.  Thatched.  Made with brush that has been found in the nearby woods.  The roof is the leaves of that brush.  We open the door, dirt floor.  Flop the mattress down, boom.  My bed.  This is what I will be living in for the next 10 days, which in all honesty, I’m pretty ok with.  Minus that time I woke up with a big ole rat right next to me.  After that, I got a little paranoid about my backpack, which was on the floor next to me, that a rat would be tearing through it in my sleep.  So I’d check it every time I happened to wake up during the night.

Outside our house is a nice roof, thing, that provides shade in the small area between our house, my Dad’s partner, and my sister’s father, “Baibi” (spelling may be off, but it is pronounced “Baby”) house, and a separate hut/house, whatever you want to call it, for the kitchen.  This little shaded area becomes my hangout.  Here is where all the fisherman come for Dominos.  Yes, dominos is a big thing here, at least in Antsohery.  The bet is 500 Ar and you play to 60.  I’m still not completely set on the strategy (yes I know you’re supposed to win), but I think it’s gonna be something that I try to bring back to the states once I get the hang of it, cause it’s pretty catchy.

The kids

It takes a little while for the kids to warm up to me.  It’s not surprising, considering I am pretty sure I am the first person many of them have ever seen.  The first day or so I saw them in passing.  We might make eye contact, but really it wasn’t all that much beyond that.  Then the second day or so, some I caught some of the kids peaking around a corner at me.  I caught their eye and they’d run away.  This happened a couple more times, when I thought it would be fun to appear really close to them the next time they look.  So when they look and I’m only 5 feet away that turned and ran away in a playful way, which I interpreted as “oh come chase us” which led me chasing a little girl all the way back to her house where I found her crying her eyes out.  Luckily her mother just laughed as I said my apologies to the little girl.

After that I developed a bit of relationship with some of the children.  It was difficult learning all their names, I’m terrible with English names, much less with 30 Malagasy names.  Whether it was just in passing, having them come up to me during a game of dominoes, sitting with them during the nightly movie, or playing with them in the water, it was awesome. It was like being an older brother to 30 cute little kids.  Something I’ve never had before, but something I felt like I fit right into.

We even had a few English lessons which were my favorite.  It would start of with 4 or 5 children, next thing I know 20 minutes later, the group had evolved into 30 children and about 10 adults also.  This would inevitably then morph into a cultural lesson with the adults.  I would talk about home.  Everything from the differences in food, to snow, to explaining obesity, I even tried explaining rodeos at one point (which I know next to nothing about let’s be clear).  Those exerperiences were the best.  Just hanging out with all the people talking about home and doing my best with the Malagasy that I was picking up, luckily my father and Baby were there to help me along the way.  Even with my terrible Malagasy, and when I happened a moment to take a quick mental step back and look at what I was doing, I really felt like I was walking with them, cross culturally discussing the differences between my home and what has become my home, was an event I am not likely to experience again anytime soon, and one that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

The Village

I think the most incredible thing about the village itself was how it seemed like everyone had a place, or a job.  There was the village mechanic, the pastor, the pastor’s wife, the fishermen, the bosses, the “elder”, the “mayor”, even down to the village drunk Bendrazza.  Even among the fishermen who I hung out with a lot I could tell the different personalities even beyond the language barrier.  There was Hassan, the goof, Elize, the somewhat timid, but outgoing one, the kid who thought he could hang out with the adults whom everyone called “the kid”, Sammy, a heavier set dude that could probably keep his own in a fight with an NFL lineman, but with a laugh that was contagious, Jean Claude, always up for a laugh, but serious about his dominoes.

The greatest part about all these characters and friends was that everyone hung out everyday.  If you wanted to go see someone, you meet them at the domino hangout, if they’re not there, you go to their house.  The only thing I could, reachingly(?), compare it to would be college.  Where all your friends are just a walk across campus, it was the exact same in Antsohery, but different at the same time (cause the walk was a dirt road), and I loved it.  This is the kind of place that I could easily lose myself in if I didn’t have to come back with my dad.  There is no internet, phone service is iffy, and the generator for electricity only run for a few hours to run the mayor’s house for the nightly movie, other than that, it’s village community that comes from a dream world.

The 10 days that I spent in Antsohery were unlike anything that I have experienced in my entire life.  It was difficult too because my father had explained to my mother back home in Mahajanga how much I liked it, and she was afraid that I wouldn’t want to come back, which really had me thinking.  If I had it my way, I would stay in Antsohery for the next 10 years if I could, but at the same time, I love my family back home in Mahajanga.  It is difficult balancing the two, but the community atmosphere that I got in Antsohery is close to non existent in Mahajange.  I love my family and the people I work with, but I haven’t made friends like I did in Antsohery.  If I could, I would just move my family to Antsohery and be done with it.   So it was difficult hearing that from my mother.  It, kind of, snapped me back into reality and made the perception that Antsohery is a paradise even more real because it is a place that I would not be able stay in.

Needless to say, I definitely have plans to go back.  I need to send them a soccer ball for one.  Only probably is that during January and February there is no Antsohery.  Antsohery becomes the home of crocodiles during that time.  The water rises above the bank of the inlet and floods the area.  So during this time they leave their houses, and make refuge for the two months in a nearby town.  That is how rural Antsohery is.  So perhaps after February, I will be able to make my return visit to see my friends.  And perhaps this visit may be a bit longer…

Friday, December 20, 2013

Peculiar Friendships

There is something to be said about making friends in Madagascar.  Most of my friends up to a certain point of time included people that I met in church or at work.  That was as far as my circle went.  People that I really only connected with on a superficial level to be quite honest.  Yea, I see them regularly at work, or I see them all the time at church, but that’s it.  Of course, I have my family, which my family is awesome and I love them, but they’re family, they are the people you have to love regardless (which is same in the States!)

But back to the friend thing.  So yea, I wouldn’t say that I have made real “friends” like I have in the states, until I visited Antsohery.  I am sorry that I am mixing up my blog, I still have yet to enter my experience about Antsohery, which was unbelievably amazing, but this current event couldn’t wait.  Long story short, which I will explain in another post, I made friends in Antsohery.  Like true legitimate friends that I actually sought to hang out with them sort of friends.  Their names are Syrelle, Patrick, Hassan, and Elize, just to name a few.  We enjoyed each other’s company, even though I was still learning the language (and still am).  These are the kind of people that I could bring back to the States with me and they would have no trouble fitting in with my group of friends.

Needless to say, these friends are different though, but not in the obvious “well no duh they’re different Zach, They’re from freaking Madagascar!”  These friends are different because they are people that I legitimately care about, but people that after my stay of 10 days, I hoped, but was not sure, I would ever see again.  It was surprisingly difficult leaving that little fishing village called Antsohery because it was like leaving the only friends that I will have made for an entire year.  Again, I do have my family, but that wasn’t something I built on my own.  That was something that was already set up for me, and loving them and getting to know them was easy.  The friendships I made in Antsohery were solely my creation, and I left them.  I think about those friends that I made a lot, all the way in a village you can't find on a map or go to by car.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I hear a familiar voice call, “Zachy” one random morning as I was on my way out of my house with my bike to work.  It was Elize.  It's hard to explain what I felt, other than that I was overcome by sheer joy.  I ran up to him and gave him the standard Malagasy handshake as we made plans to meet up the next day to go into town together.  I was elated, but again, it was different.  I am sure when I get back home, I am going to be happy to see my friends, no questions asked, but they are friends that I know I am going to see again, this was different because this was a really good friend of mine, that I knew for 10 days.  After those ten days, I could very possibly have never seen this person again in my entire life, but I did.

I haven’t been this excited since… well I can’t really remember, even the Colts winning the Super Bowl didn't quite top this.  Plus, he was my means to send back the soccer ball that I had gotten for the village, considering they only play with a plastic sack filled with paper and tied off.  Even though we haven’t seen each other for a month, and all we did was walk around Mahajanga and get a coke, it was like being back with an old friend that I hadn’t seen for 30 years.

So I guess that’s finally enough of me blathering on about the friends that I have made.  It may be hard for someone reading this to understand because I know people in France, or Lesotho, and even back home, and people I would consider my friends, but friends being such a vague term that it is, these Malagasy friends are just simply, on another level.  Them being of my own creation beyond the substantial cultural and linguistically challenging barriers that separate us, I have people that are my friends.  Friends that I have made.  Friends that I legitimately care about.  Friends that I know about their history, and their personality.  But these are friends that I can’t easily pick up the phone to talk to.  Friends that I won’t see an update on Facebook from.  Friends that I won’t be getting a Christmas card from (not that I get Christmas cards from my friends, but perhaps in the future…).  Friends that I have a very real possibility of never seeing or hearing from again in this life, and that is as powerful as it is depressing.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nature's Music

In case you didn't already know, I have been secretly and subconsciously obsessed with storms and inclement weather ever since I can remember.  Tornadoes make their appearance in at least half my dreams.  There is just something about storms that is exciting to me.  I can almost feel the adrenaline entering my system every time I see a big front coming in.

Madagascar has offered me something different.  It hasn't rained much at all in Mahajanga since I've been here.  I have hardly seen a cloud, but now with the rainy season creeping in, I have been awoken by storms the past couple of nights.  These storms are different though.  They aren't as exciting, like the storms in the midwest, but more soothing than anything.  Rather than a sharp cracking, the rolling thunder always seems like a distant rumbling even if I can hear it only a split second after I see the lightning.  The rain itself has been heavy at times, but it's chorus against the mud is always accompanied by tinkling on the metal roof just outside my window.  This natural symphony is great to wake up to, even at 3 in morning, but let's be real, I only hesitate a moment before going right back to sleep.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dinner Time


So finally, after over a month of hearing this at least twice a day, I understand the words that have been calling me to meals.  For this entire month I thought what my sister was calling was “Manambady” which is the verb to be married.  I was confused by this because I knew it could not be true.  For a month I wondered about this.  Admittedly for only about 5 minutes after it was said, because then I lost my thought in the meal.  Finally, last night it was just something I couldn’t let go.  So I asked what Emma was calling.  Again, it sounds like Manambady.  So I ask again, because I assume my mother doesn’t understand what my question is.  After a brief, painful, re-explanation of my question, I am explained that what she is calling is not in fact a simple single 4 syllable word, but actually 8 syllable “Hihinana ny vary aho” which means “I will eat the rice.”  It’s going to be a long learning process..

Friday, November 15, 2013

Laundry Duty


So it all starts when I wake up this fine Saturday morning that I have off at… 6:30, yea, 6:30.  It feels like nails on a chalkboard saying that, even worse when it’s in reference to me.  I GOT UP AT 6:30 A.M. ON A SATURDAY BECAUSE I COULD.  Let the record show that I did go to bed at 9:30 on a Friday so it’s not like I set myself up well for that one.

Anyhoo, I woke up super early for no good reason at all other than to eat breakfast, which might be a good reason in and of itself.  I put on the clothes that I wore all around yesterday biking and exploring through town, not to mention sweating, no reason getting anything else dirty before my shower, and got a feel for my state of being.  Not only am I dirty, I haven’t shaved for a week, so the neard (neck beard) is coming on hard, my hair is super greasy from not taking a shower yesterday, so I decide to sport a ball cap, and I make my presence known in the living room whilst my three host sisters are watching some weird American cartoon on Cartoon Network dubbed in French voices.  Don’t ask me what it was about, I only caught a pourquoi and a dix-huit through 5 minutes of watching.

We sit down to our standard breakfast consisting of a ramen noodle like pasta (I’m pretty sure it was ramen noodles, but the American version needs this flavor) and part of a bagette.  I return to my room after breakfast and decide something needs to change.  I re-evaluate my life and decide that the best place to start is the beginning, so I grab my shower gear and go for a shower.

I’m not sure if I have mentioned my bathroom situation yet.  They have a really small hallway off of the dining room that acts as their bathroom.  They have a shower and a toilet.  Separated by a wall, each with their own little alcove.  They have no hot water, which really isn’t that big of a problem considering its pretty warm here, it just comes as a bit of a surprise in the morning, but it turns into a comfortable cool temperature.

My next step is to clear off this dreadful neard.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m gonna go hard for No-Shave November/Movember/Time to prove my facial hair growing skills to my YAGM group with a second runner up medal to Tom and Ian in November, but right now, an extra reason to sweat, is a reason to get rid of.  Only problem is that I don’t have a mirror, I forgot to get one at the store yesterday, so I just go for it.  Of course I came out on the other side with red marks all over my face with a few missed patches, that is just something that I am gonna have to get better at.

Lastly, I look at my clothes stockpile (I don’t have a dresser or anything, so my clothes are slowly becoming a pile in my suitcase).  **COMMERCIAL BREAK my sister just gave me a mango** Well that was delicious.  Ok, my clothes.  Yea, so I decide, it’s time for a wash.  So I gather up a small pile grab my bucket and soap and get to it.  I gather some water and start scrubbing on my front porch.  Before you know it, a couple people stop and look at me.  I can only guess what their impression is… A. What is this American doing, they don’t wash clothes, why is he doing that.  B. What is this American doing?  Is he trying to wash clothes?  Haha, he is doing it completely wrong, look at that stain! He’s not even coming close to getting it out..  C.  Why is he taking a shower outside with his clothes on?  Regardless of what they thought, one of the ladies, I think the actual mother of one of my host sisters (I’m pretty sure all my host sisters are cousins) sits down next to me and shows me how its done.  Don’t take notes from me, but I would venture to guess what I was doing, which was just taking the clothes in my fists and washing them between my knuckles, which is what I had been doing for about 10-15 minutes was wrong.  My host aunt sat down next to me and actually began helping me.  You take a fistful of a garmet in one hand and then your other hand takes the other end of the garmet about 6 inches down and run it along from the top of the inside of your wrist down to the end of your fist.  I mimicked them and was still doing it wrong apparently, so again, don’t take your notes from me, but it must have been a site to see, and actually made a chore, a heck of a lot of fun.

My aunt (who really does speak zero English) and I exchanged a few words that we could.  While my sisters actually got involved in showing me how to wash also.  Even some of the ladies from the neighboring houses joined the group to talk and socialize and it turned into an experience that I could really learn from, and of course, the (what I am guessing will be the) recurring theme of laughing at myself happened to be a majority of my time.  By the time we got done washing, one of the ladies offered me her clothes pins and my host brother actually helped me hang them up, which I think the ladies were even making fun of him at one point for actually helping me with my laundry.

That is how my Malagasy experience has been thus far.  A combination of mutuality and accompaniment.  These ladies, who very well could have been on their way to do their own chores, went out of their way to help me in a feat that I was apparently failing miserably at.  It is that kind of community that I enjoy.  Even the kids along the street, or the people at work, everyone is so eager to help, and to show, and to be shown, or to learn something new.  The community is unlike any other that I have experienced.  With open hearts they accept me and my shortcomings (communication and clothes washing to name a few) and get out of their way to make me feel accepted and help me in this new environment.  I will admit, I am still a vasa (which the children on the street don’t let me forget) but slowly, there is a change that I can feel.  Even after only one week, I can start to feel the familiar comforts of home in a strange new place.