Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Cost of Not Being Able to Convert Currency in my Head

Establishing new routines and habits takes a long time for me. As I blunder through adjusting to this life in Madagascar throwing money at problems, I frequently reflect on the stat that 68 percent of Malagasy live on less than a dollar a day. But here in Antananarivo, those 68-percenters are largely invisible to me.

Among the routines I need to establish here are buying food (i.e. not at a Gouge-A-Rama) and doing laundry.

You know that thing where you pull shirts out of your dirty laundry and sniff the armpits, and you wonder if your co-workers will notice that you just wore the same shirt a couple of days ago? That thing? I've been doing that a lot.

Last week I had no clean shirts to wear to work -- and none of my work shirts were passing the sniff test.

But I had a plan: 
  1. Pull a clean-ish teeshirt out of my dirty laundry and wear it for my commute. 
  2. On the way, swing by Gouge-A-Rama and buy a cheap new work shirt.
  3. Change into the new shirt when I get to work.
Gouge-A-Rama 1
Operation No Shirt Shame: Step 2
I ran into trouble when I realized that I was confusing this Gouge-A-Rama with the other one up the road. I had to think fast. I was running late.

This is a freakin' mall, for chrissakes. There's got to be another place to buy a shirt.

And there was.

Fifth Avenue
Just a simple stall in an African market
I picked out the least expensive shirt that (a) would fit me, and (b) didn't have some silly fashion branding on it in giant letters.

I found a simple black shirt. The price was 185,000 Ar. I told myself, That's not as expensive as it sounds. Buy the thing and get to work.

Which I did.

When I arrived, Sandra, one of my expat co-workers, had what appeared (to my Arizona eyes) to be a huge plate of nachos on her desk. There are nachos in Madagascar!?

False Nacho Alarm
Dear God: I know you are busy winning football games and killing African
children, so thank you for taking time to think of me with the nachos.
I made a mental note: Sweet talk Sandra for some of those nachos after you change into your new shirt.

I emerged from the staff bathroom in my new shirt.

"Sandra, are those nachos?"

"No, mangos."

Damn you, mangos!

Wait. Mangos are pretty good.

Then I sat down at my desk and did a little currency conversion to see how much I just paid for my shirt.
185000 Malagasy Ariary in USD
a.k.a Three months income for the average Malagasy -- the ones
who don't shop at the mall. Seriously.
Shocked, I of course went to the little cafe near my office and spent too much on coffee and a sandwich.

Cookie Shop
Nice shirt, huh?
And I sat there and practiced my Malagasy, because if I really want to save money, I am going to have to learn to haggle in the local language.

Malagasy Flash Cards at The Cookie Shop
Espresso Americano: Merely a day's income for the average Malagasy

Tonight I counted up all of the Malagasy cash I have on hand to make it until I get paid (any day now).
52500 Malagasy Ariary in USD
Not counting one actual US dollar I have in my wallet.
That was before I went out tonight and bought rice, toilet paper, and condensed milk -- but I at least bought the stuff at my local market.

When you think about it, the overpriced-shirt incident was less than three weeks since I moved into my place. Give me a break.

Screw you. I'll give myself a break.


Two days later (wearing a shirt I hand washed myself in my kitchen sink) I went with my co-workers on a staff retreat.

When I heard we were going to the beach, I got very excited -- We're going to the coast!

But Batou Beach is actually just a touristy swimming pool less than an hour out of Tana -- whereas the real coast is something like eight hours away by car or bus.

Batou Beach Pool
Soon to be filled with frolicking co-workers.
On the bus ride I discovered that many of my co-workers are musicians and they sing quite well.

Here is one of many songs they sang together on the way:

The Batou Beach attraction also promises "The Sexiest Beach Party of the Indian Ocean."

Batou Beach Spring Break Flier
Mark your calendars
My co-workers committed acts of karaoke as well as Zumba -- choreographed aerobics to soca, samba, salsa, merengue and mambo music. Yes, even I was a good sport and joined in. Photos will emerge eventually.

Only one of my co-workers, Sitraka, had the forethought to bring a laptop and look very busy doing mission-critical work. A smart guy.

Sitraka avoiding Zumba
Somebody has to keep the lights on.
The outing to Batou Beach was the only time I've gotten out of town since I arrived. And the bus trip out there reminded me once again that I need to make the effort to get out of Tana more often.

I wouldn't deny the Malagasy middle class their diversions -- or myself my own. But I have been operating in a world where the Malagasy middle class seems like a typical state of being in this country. The more I see of the other Madagascar, the more I will be reminded why I am here.

Abandoned Railway Station
The train doesn't stop here anymore.

Fishermen near Batou Beach
Fishermen on the Ikopa River
Girl on Beach Chair at Batou Beach
Girl on a beach chair at Batou Beach.
Hopefully this will be the last time I whine about money.

Note that the opinions expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Catching Ear Worms from Proustian Madeleines in Madagascar

I've caught ear worms and I don't think there's anything in my medical kit to take care of them.

Two songs keep running through my head here in Madagascar:

Dust and Diesel by Bruce Cockburn:

Dust and diesel
Rise like incense from the road
The smell of diesel exhaust on my daily commute is very much like incense, bringing back fond feelings (but no concrete memories) of my time in Cameroon more than 20 years ago.

Diesel Lorry in Ivandry, Antanarivo, Madagascar
Diesel Lorry in the Ivandry neighborhood
Cockburn's album Stealing Fire, I know from 30 years ago, and deals with life in the developing world; Central America, specifically. I remember listening to that album and thinking that I wanted one day to get out and write music inspired by experiences I would have in the world outside of America.

I had forgotten this verse about the tarantula:
Headlights pick out fallen sack of corn
One lone tarantula standing guard
We pull up and stop and she ambles off
Discretion much the better part of cars
There are no tarantulas or poisonous critters of any kind in Madagascar -- no Ebola either. But there are cars, and of course, ear worms.

(If you haven't read them yet, see my posts on Ebola and Cars over on Commute by Bike.)

Duty Free by Cracker:

"Duty Free" happens to be the name of a beauty boutique on the same road as that diesel truck in the photo above. There is no connection to the song. But every time I see the sign for this boutique, it presses the play button in my head.

Duty Free Botique, Ivandry, Antananarivo, Madagascar
It only means I spend too much time in the Ivandry area.
I had no strong emotional association with the song until now. It's three vignettes about being abroad and unforgettable friendships. "Duty Free" is a metaphor (I think) for transitioning between worlds, when neither world completely satisfies the soul.

The opening lines are poignant to me these days.
Well there are some lines that can't be crossed
And sometimes those lines get lost
I might take exception with the passive voice of the second line -- the implication that there is no personal agency in the philosophical sense when "lines get crossed." But it rhymes.

Catching ear worms from Proustian madeleines is just one of my occupational hazards.

(A Proustian madeline, by the way, is a fancypants term for something that triggers an "involuntary memory." I just learned the term recently when some other pedantic blogger dropped the term just to make me look it up. If you already knew what it meant, your psychobabble vocabulary is better than mine.)

I live in the big city, which carries with it a liability that I won't ever see the real Madagascar without making an effort -- the Madagascar where there are no beauty boutiques and diesel exhaust. More ear worms are waiting.

Today marks the end of my third week here, and I'm still enjoying learning my way around and meeting people in my neighborhood, my workplace, and in the expatriate community.

Closer to home, I've been getting to know my landlady's dogs.

They've gone from this...

Insane dogs
"I will destroy you and everything you love or hold sacred!" this:

Submissive Dog
"Wri wuv wrou."
These dogs spend all day in a five-by-five foot pen, and are let out into the courtyard at night to terrify any potential intruder. The one in both of the above photos is the most vicious acting of the two. He's the one who made me doubt my dog-whispering skills.

The other one is female. I think they are from the same litter. She didn't seem quite as psychotic as her brother. I suspected I could reason with her somehow.

One night I came home late -- just before midnight. I texted my landlady and told her to call off the dogs before I came in, which she did. And as soon as I was in my apartment, the dogs were out again barking at my door, wanting to kill me.

I opened the door, so there was only a steel security door between us. Then I just sat on the floor just on my side of the security door. The dogs were on the other side wanting to kill me even more than before. 

I put up the back of my hand just out of biting range until one of them decided to sniff it. And then when the female dog calmed down a little bit, I reached through the bars and scritched the top of her head.

Yes, I'd had a couple of beers that night.

Soon they were competing with each other to see which one could get the most scratching from me. I opened the gate and I let them into my apartment. They ran around and searched the place, then came back to me for more attention.

This has turned into a nightly ritual, just before I go to bed. I step outside and play with them for a few minutes. I even bought them a tug toy at the local store that caters to foreigners and rich Malagasy.  (Henceforth referred to as "Gouge-A-Rama.")

Surprisingly, it's the crazy male dog who will calm down and just take in some petting. The female just wants to run and play like a spaz. She don't got time for lovin' -- or for posing for pictures.

Speaking of dogs...

This is Fez, from Cameroon. She belonged to a doctor who worked in Cameroon before coming to Madagascar.

Fez the expat Cameroonian Dog
This house is guarded by a human.

When that doctor left Madagascar, Shannon, the new doctor, took his job and his dog.

Shannon also introduced me to a group of expats who run every Sunday morning.

Sundayrunners, by the way, is the name of a band I like, and the song Half My Height is up-and-coming ear worm, thanks to these weekly runs.

For those of you who think I've become too folk-tolerant, give this one a chance.

I think it's a break-up song ridiculing an ex's foolish attempts to reinvent himself/herself. Yet the speaker finds himself looking for someone who is not quite his equal.

I wish I could, I think I might,
Find someone who's half my height.
I promise: I do not relate to this song.

Anyway, it was on one of these Sunday runs that I took this photo with my phone.

RIce Fields of Antanarivo
Antananarivo is actually in Madagascar after all.

See that thing on the horizon that looks like a golf tee? (Just above the vanishing point, Art majors.) That's a big water tower, and it's pretty close to where I live.

As long as I can see that water tower, I have a pretty good shot at finding my way home on my own. If not, I can always grab a taxi and pay four bucks to get home.

That's only happened once. Four bucks doesn't sound like so much when I say it that way. The problem is that four bucks is 10,000 Madagascar Ariari (Ar), which feels like I'm hemorrhaging money every time I break one of these crisp bills. And for some reason, the 10,000 Ar notes are always crisper than the other denominations. Sometimes I'll be fretting over the price of something, and I'll stop and realize that I'm stressing over 82 cents -- 2000 Ar.

This is a little closer to home, taken from a cemetery along the road.

Alarobia, Antanarivo, Madagascar
See the water tower?

And, finally all the way home, this is inside my apartment. As I'm typing this, I'm sitting on the couch on the left.

Living Room
Those candles are to repel mosquitoes, not for sexy ambiance.
I need to get some art on my walls.

But another liability of living in the big city is that everything is expensive here. I have gone to the Gouge-A-Rama stores for the rich too many time as I have set up my house. I've paid for things with my credit and debit cards -- which you can do at Gouge-A-Rama.

Gouge-A-Rama, Antananarivo, Madagascar
We interrupt Real Madagascar to bring you Gouge-A-Rama

A store employee stopped me from completing that panorama, and he didn't even know I was going to refer to his workplace as Gouge-A-Rama. Or maybe he did.

There are two -- two -- big grocery stores like this within a mile or so of my house. I can even get almond milk at one of them for my crunchy imported breakfast cereal.

I'll save a lot of money if I can let go of these familiar comforts and explore the market figuratively right outside my door. I can get fresh-baked bread about 15 yards from the courtyard gate; fresh fruit and other provisions a little farther down the street.

And I can probably eat for a month on what it costs me to buy a box of cereal and a quart of almond milk at Gouge-A-Rama.

This post has been long. Too long. These won't all be this long. Long is bad in blogging. I don't have time. Thanks for reading, if you made it this far.

I'll leave you with this picture that I took on Friday of some cute kids:

And with this ear worm, because it's what they were singing. Really:

Note that the opinions expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Let me get this out of the way.

My wife and I split up a few months ago. She initiated. I needed to find a new job, so I started looking for work in Africa again. I struck gold with a nine-month gig in...

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm pretty sure this is what they say.
And, no, I did not seek out the farthest place in the world from Flagstaff, Arizona. It just worked out that way.

That ought to explain why most of my posts for awhile will be written from Madagascar. (It should also explain why relationship status in Facebook is about to change.)

I will be using this blog to share my non-bike-related experiences with friends, family, and anyone else who finds their way to this blog.

Let's get on with it.

My job is through a program called Peace Corps Response. Technically, I'm a Peace Corps Volunteer again, but I'm sort of like a subsidized consultant to my employer, an American NGO called Human Network International.

Madagascar Visa
I got my visa a few days before departure.

My luggage was carefully weighed and planned to minimize excess charges. I brought a bunch of tech stuff and music stuff. I'm planning on getting a scanner.

When I did Peace Corps in the 1990s, I don't remember bringing anything that plugged in.

Unfortunately, it meant I had to leave my ukulele behind.
To save space, I vacuum-packed a bunch of clothes. A weird product.

Like a giant wad of cold chewing gum.

The last several of weeks in America, I seemed to have a heightened sense of taste. Everything tasted fantastic -- from fancy food that legitimately did taste fantastic such as Lomo De Puerco En Mole De Almendras at the Red Iguana, to Pei Wei Kung Pao in the Atlanta airport.

Pei Wei Fortune
My inspiring example: Standing in line for a 15-hour flight
And I left North America for the first time in about 14 years. Looking around at the other world travelers from many nations, I remembered the feeling of being an economy-class member of the jet set.

Johannesburg's famous obelisk of Windows errors.
The highlight of my overnight in Johannesburg was getting reacquainted with Castle Milk Stout.

The next day was my three-hour flight to Madagascar, which I spent reading e-mail and stuff. Two-and-a-half hours in, it occurred to me to direct my face at something besides a computer screen.
My first sight of Madagascar. Now I remember why I wanted a window seat.
I was received at the Antananarivo airport by a Peace Corps Driver named Jones. He delivered me to "the Meva" -- which is like a one-star hostel for volunteers in town for work or administrative business.

Welcome to the Meva
Only in America...
I started meeting my colleagues and experiencing Antananarivo.

Men's bathroom sink
The most amazing men's bathroom sink I've ever seen.

Vanilla Rum
Vanilla-infused rum with a Belgian expat. Way too good.

Jeep Golf Cart
Are you Jeep or a golf cart? Make up your mind.

Colgate Herbal
Brushing my teeth with eucalyptus flavor! Where have you been all my mouth?
I also got a sneak peek at my apartment where I will be living for the next nine months.
Chien Mechant
"Vicious Dog" We'll see about that.
I haven't met this dog yet, but he or she is going warm up to me.

My house
My house.

After a mere three days in Madagascar, I was sworn in with another Response volunteer named Liz.

Swearing In
While I'm blogging and posting to Facebook, she will personally eradicate malaria.
That's pretty much it. I know you were expecting lemurs and stuff, but I haven't seen any yet.

But I'll leave you with this:

Boxing pen
Possibly the most amazing thing I'll see the entire time I'm here.
Today is the day I move into my place.

More to come.

I have previously blogged about Madagascar on Commute by Bike: