Monday, March 18, 2013


I stand corrected: I miss Madagascar.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Final Countdown

More than a year ago, a friend and coworker who was leaving Madagascar sent me in her final months of work a departure tracker. It's an excel spreadsheet that, while perhaps not a very stylish, is pretty clever. But then I've always been impressed by what a simple old excel worksheet can do - its the clydesdale of our times and we'd be lost without it, no matter what the smooth talking software developers tell you about their fancy-pants data management tools. 

I never bothered to set it up for myself, because somehow I never was quite sure I was leaving. But this week it ended up in my inbox again as I may have mentioned once or twice to some of my coworkers that there are but a few short days left for me in Madagascar. Turns out, I marked 800 days since I first arrived in Madagascar this week. I will also only add about 20 or so to that and then be finishing up here. It tells me, down to the second, when I will have completed my "tour" here and I have to admit, it's pretty satisfying to open it up and see that I'm in the 1 percentile. I'm in the home stretch!

In November 2010, I came to Madagascar for five weeks. Now, more than two years and several false departures, I'm actually coming home. Promise. And while the homecoming has been longed for and expected many times before, now that it's actually on the horizon, it's a little bit bittersweet. 

I can't say two years in Madagascar have been easy or full of sublime joy. I know you're supposed to ooze with love of a newfound culture on these blog things and talk about how you felt just so at home in your new land. 

Well I didn't. Not until the near end, at least - and even now, it's more like Madagascar and I have come to have a healthy respect and appreciation for one another (and one another's boundaries), rather than the puppy love of wide-eyed adventurers.

There were a lot of lonely, baffling moments. This culture is unlike any other - I have tried to tell any other vazah that comes here, even if they're fresh off the Air France flight ,that they need to get it through their head quickly that Madagascar is not African, it's not Asian, it belongs to no other continental culture. If anything, it belongs to the Indian Ocean. It truly is its own island. 

But that doesn't mean these two years haven't had their sublime moments. I can remember looking out over rolling hills and eucalyptus groves once in an area that can fairly justly be called "the middle of nowhere" thinking to myself I'm one of only a handful of people - let alone Canadians - who ever get to see this piece of the earth. 

I can also remember running many Sunday afternoons along the beach of the crashing and cajoling Indian Ocean and thinking "here I am... wow." When I look out over the waves, and the blue stretches away it's crazy to think that the next stop is Western Australia. 

I can remember a lot of brunches featuring jambon cru, muffins, quiche, an assortment of cheese and tropical fruits with a motley crew of Brits, Japanese, fellow Canucks, Moroccans and, once, a rogue German. 

I can remember balancing on the back of a motorcycle trying to film what this place looks like, weaving between bicycle rickshaws, children, 4x4 pick-ups, several dogs, the odd chicken and more rickshaws. It was chaotic and went in starts and fits and it smelled of exhaust, but once we got out of the rickshaw-jam, it smelled like cloves. Cloves, sunshine and a nice drive to the beach, it's a pretty unbeatable way to spend an afternoon. 

I can remember attending the 236th Annual Marine Ball. I can remember being as speechless then as I am now, just at the thought of it. 16,000 km from the US every year, the flag is saluted, presented and pomped and circumstanced around a ballroom with the glitterati of the expatriate and political community in Tana. The US Marines that guard embassies around the world throw a ball every year no matter where they are, so it was kind of neat, kind of funny, to think that ambassadors and grungy aid workers across the globe were schmoozing in their tails and feathers. And if you don't believe me, I have the commemorative cup they gave us to prove it. 

I can't even count the number of times I remember sitting in Cafe de la Gare, an odd piece of Paris 1924 swarmed in a sea of Antananarivo 2013. Driving up to it is one of the more chaotic market streets where women sit in lambas (sarong skirts) flimsy costume jewellery next to men in addidas selling cellphone chargers or sometimes just a five-minute charge. Then the driver turns right into the gated parking lot and the Gare (the old train station) looms as dignified as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. When you walk into the Cafe de la Gare, it's an enclave of civility and society from another century. Giant wrought-iron chandeliers above, leather seats below, a giant fireplace made out of an boiler engine, and the funny bathroom in an old train car, where the seats nearly touch the doors. On the walls are my favourite part though: archive photos of Antananarivo from the late 19th and early 20th centuries right up to a truly special one with a bohemian band climbing aboard a train at the station in 1960. Not only is the Gare a nice place to sit, but they'll let you sit there ad infinitum. Quite often on a Wednesday night or a Sunday afternoon, a group of us would gather to play board games. Usually a round of Puerto Rico would last the dinner and a couple of drinks after, but I also can remember the only time I ever wanted to leave the Gare. One Sunday afternoon someone rallied the troops for a game and one of the teachers at the American school brought a game called Joan of Arc. That it revolved around the hundred years war should have been our first clue. It was the hundred years game. We met at about noon and no number of rounds of beer, no amount of "what's one more crepe?"-ing could get us to the end. I finally ducked out with a friend at about seven, but I think the game could have continued and the history teacher (of course) looked at us reproachfully for deserting Joan in her hour of need. It's not like we didn't already know it wasn't going to go well for her though. 

I can remember so many things that have happened here, people I've met or places I've seen now that I get going. A friend asked me recently what I will miss the most when I am back home or where ever I move onto next. If I am honest, I don't think I will miss Madagascar in the sense that I will not long to be back here. I know that sounds awful, but about eight months after I came here, I was relieved when a very kind friend told me I don't have to love everything and every place doesn't have to capture my heart. It isn't that I don't like Madagascar, and sure I'll miss the balmy 36 degrees and the sound of the ocean and the fresh mangoes. But you can get tropical amenities all over, well, the tropics, which happen to take up a large swathe of the earth. Oh and of course I'll miss the people - I'm sort of supposed to say that, but the truth is I already miss many of the people that have made this place for me what it is. When I first got here, a few coworkers took me to Veloma (farewell) parties to meet other people. It's been a revolving door since I got here and maybe that's what's made it hard. My fast and fabulous friends that I've made here aren't here any more. They're scattered in around the globe now in the UK, Panama, Oman, South Africa, Mauritius, Sudan, Australia, the US, Japan, Canada... 

I may not miss Madagascar exactly (who knows, maybe I will), but I will cherish the time I've had here and the incredible things I've seen, eaten, smelled, experienced. As much as Madagascar included some times of loneliness, it also brought people into my life that I would never have gotten to meet in any other place. What I find incredible is that we were all managed to get here, this mass of deep red earth in the middle of the Indian Ocean so far from where we came, if only for a little bit - and that sort of thing doesn't just happen by chance. I think that will be what I will take with me from Madagascar and love most. I had to come 16,000 kms (and for someone who hates flying that's got to mean something profound) and it was obviously worth it, because I have gotten two years that I couldn't have had anywhere else on the planet. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Franco-Malagasy-English Vazah Dictionary: The Abridged Travel Version

In honour of the festivities to mark Madagascar's Independence day, on this 26th of June 2012, and dedicated to my mother, my greatest fan, who celebrates her birthday this week, I give you an ode to communication in l'Ile Rouge...

Once before I have written for you, dear reader, a wildly successful Spanglish-Kiki Dictionary that is now well into its third printing. Due to the overwhelming popularity of that volume, which was compiled after painstaking minutes of brief and rather shallow digression, and based on further anthropological study abroad, I have come to the conclusion that the world needs more help with translation. Indeed, in no place is this overwhelmingly evident as in Madagascar. I will shamelessly refer you to my earlier treatise on the mistranslations of one Sunny Golf Hotel if you require further proof.

Madagascar presents a unique and acute challenge to the translation editor. There are not one, but two languages in which one may be misunderstood: French and Malagasy. But I am not daunted, oh ho no. If Samuel Johnson can persevere, so can I. While a complete dictionary is a massive undertaking that will be several years in the making, I have taken the liberty of drawing up a preliminary list of some key phrases and terms that would be necessary for any intrepid explorer considering visiting the island of Madagascar. Let us begin with the French-English, shall we:

Commande/Demande: Co-mahnd/deh-mahnd. 1) Polite request. In Madagascar, bureaucracy is a fine art. That is why it is critical that one knows that when they are presented with a commande or demande to formally commander or demander quelque chose, they are not being threatened nor inducted into the gendarmerie. It should not be confused with the menacing English DEMAND.

En fait: Awhn fay. 1) In fact. People only deal with the facts here. There are a lot of facts too. Example: En fait, I went to the grocery store and, en fait, they were out of milk. Both. Facts.

La bas: LahBAH, often spoken with a slight rolling L: lllah bah. 1) Literally, down there. 2) In conversation, there. Right there, no, no, over there. Can’t you see? La bas, there. 3) Alternatively, Here. Just, here. Yes, right here.

Oeufs: uh-(f). Eggs. I include this one as there seems to be a great deal of confusion over its pronunciation. I have heard Malagasies fluent in French stare blankly at a French-speaker who is commandering eggs for breakfast. I have also seen them think long and hard and then laugh and finally proceed to correct the person. En fait, the same incident has actually happened to moi-meme, if you can believe it. Potato/potahto I guess. Nevertheless, it is important to note well the correct Malagasy pronunciation as soon as one arrives in country, as otherwise one will be precluded from clarifying that one does not want eggs on every dish served, including pizzas.

Voila: Emphatically on both syllables, Vawh-lah. 1) There you go. Or 2) There YOU go. It finishes any sentence as the consummate summation of all preceding facts presented within the sentence. 2) Less emphatic summation, similar to the English phrase “so… yeah…”


Alefa: ah-LEY-fa. Go for it. Go ahead. Give’er, g’awhn, gun it son.

Inovowvow: EE-no-vuh-VOW. Whatsap? This always produces a smile on the Malagasy face when sputtered by vazah (see below).

Mora Mora: Mooe-ruh, mooe-ruh. 1) Slowly, slooowwwwly. And how. It is often offered as a comforting reminder or a kind command to observe that whatever you have requested will likely come slowly, slowly. 2) Alternatively, never.

Vazah: Vuh-ZAH: 1) Literally, foreigner. 2) Emotion(s) expressed by laughter and pointing. One day I will write an entire book to expound on this word. For now, let it suffice to say it loosely translated as “expatriate” or “foreigner” but is bandied about rather excessively, if you ask me. For example, it is often shouted by mothers to their children when beckoning them to come out of the house and see the vazahs coming by. Now, ok, sure the first time I was out with my Sunday morning running group jogging along the dykes separating the rice paddies and irrigation ditches around the suburbs of Tana, I can imagine them wanting a gander at the spectacle. And sure, we were all pale women wearing rather bold neon reflective running outfits. And yes, we were all sweltering and wilting, because we were snowflakes (see below) not built for that kind of exertion in the highland heat. But that’s no reason to point and laugh every Sunday thereafter when the experience repeated itself.

Veloma: Vel-OO-ma. 1) Bye! 2) See you later! 3) Happy Trails! 4) Bon Voyage! 5) Write often! 6) We’ll miss you! 7) Safe Travels! 8) Good luck! 9) Godspeed! 10) It is also often used to describe the traditional final party when someone moves away, a veloma party, or just a veloma. 11) Sending someone off in style.

Bonus! English-English

Snowflake: SNO-flehkh. This is particular to the dialect spoken by the east coast male vazah, though its usage is spreading to the wider vazah community. It refers to a female vazah – pretty, delicate, white, melts at high temperatures. I am, apparently, a snowflake.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wu Chao Ying

Ahh I see I have been remiss – and after being so good for two whole weeks! Well, fret not my loyal, if small, following. Have I got a treat for you. I do so hope you will accept it as a humble offering for my degenerate failure to post last week.

If you’ve been here a time or two, you may have surmised that I am a bit of a fan of coffee. I am confident enough to admit that some nights I climb into bed and shut my eyes tightly and tell myself if I am good and fall asleep quickly, then I can get up and have coffee first thing in the morning. No seriously, I’m like a child on Christmas Eve when I realise that there is a bag of beans wrapped in a shiny package nestled under the cupboard in my kitchen.

You can imagine how I felt when I moved into company housing with a cafeteria that, while happily offering soft bacon and a solid salad bar, had the traditional cafeteria sludge that can only be made from ground up coffee branches instead of beans. There is a vending-style espresso machine that offers a selection of beverages that are quite drinkable, but regardless, the fact remains that both of these options are a six minute walk from my housing and only available during concise eating hours and I need a steady drip rather than a one-shot betty each morning.

Something had to be done.

Concurrently, I had a hankering last weekend, as one does, to do a bit of shopping. I didn’t really need anything, but I thought it would be nice on a Saturday afternoon to go do a bit of window shopping, visit the butcher, get something tasty to nibble on Saturday night and maybe find a new kitchen tool or book to treat myself. The answer to this in Vancouver would be a toodle down to Granville Island, or an hour’s stroll on Broadway.

The answer to this in Tamatave is a $4200 ticket purchased electronically on back to Vancouver. That was not the kind of money I was looking to spend (and you thought translink tickets were atrocious). Happily, there is one magical place where both my desire to peruse the latest merchandise and answer the more long term and disconcerting issue of coffee supply is a little place I like to call Wu Chao Ying’s (because that’s what the owner named it – it’s painted on the sign).

How can I describe Wu Chao’s? Let me count the ways… there are not many that I think will do it justice, so allow me to use my humble words and when all else fails, defer to a photo.

Wu Chao is like no other place you’ve shopped at – unless you are 102 and then you probably have, but when you patronized such an establishment, it was called “ye old general store” (kudos to you for making it this far, by the way).

Now, the more astute of my readers (or the Vancouver ones at least) will notice that the name is not particularly Malagasy, but has distinct Asian undertones. You are correct. There is, of course, a Chinese business presence in Madagascar. We’ve all heard tales of the Chinese diaspora growing in Africa and perhaps you are curious about their strategy for ingratiating themselves locally. Direct military intervention? Diplomatic manoeuvring? Land acquisition? Bold faced flag planting? None of these things. The way I see it, they are doing it the same way they did it in North America: Sell the unsuspecting fools every possible dazzling item that can be manufactured so they are desperate for more.

And do they ever. Wu Chao has a veritable smorgasbord of items on offer: plastic basins, gadgets and utensils, rice cookers, soap – laundry, dish, hand – treats and booze and pickles and pasta. There are rain slickers and tools and widgets and wing-nuts. I bought a very stylish pair of white rubber boots and kettle when I was there last. Today I was after the prized coffee maker.

I decided upon a sleek, understated and modern affair from a trusted name and at the right price. These qualities are all quite exceptional, because at the other appliance merchants in Tamatave, you are either paying through the nose for something far fancier than you ever wanted or you are getting something that will most likely spontaneously combust. Case in point, I bought a $10 toaster at the grocery store a few weeks ago and the shop assistant prepared to do the typical “look it works madame!” plugin test before I was allowed to take it home, but this time he wouldn’t actually plug it in until he had actually replaced the plug part. I chose to overlook that. It did, after all, work.

At Wu Chao, I was confident I was getting quality. And quality service. Wowee! Now, should you ever be in Tamatave and wishing to purchase … um, anything… let me just brief you before your maiden Wu Chao voyage. They have a system. It’s unlike any other system you will encounter. It’s a delightful system, once you get used to it.

The system you are used to probably goes something like this: you pick up your shopping cart at the front entrance. The finer establishments will let you have it for free because there is a mutual respect and regard between you and the proprietor, though some places must take the silly precaution that you may want to keep the useless, cow-sized buggy for free and insist on you giving them a whole quarter as a guarantee you’ll replace it in the appropriate receptacle when you are done. Now, I wouldn’t know from experience, having not really led much of a life of crime to speak of, but I do secretly doubt that a quarter would be sufficient deterrent for those hell-bent on keeping the cart, but I trust there is plenty of market research to support this business policy. So we progress – you take your cart and you proceed inside and you wander aimlessly the aisles lined in a similar fashion, the world over: dairy, fresh produce, meat and baked goods along the outer walls and packaged items, such as but not limited to: dry goods, chips and pop, salad dressing, paper towels and other sundries, on the parallel inside aisles. You are pretty much left to your own devices to peruse at your leisure. In fact, you’ll be damned if you can’t ever find a stock boy, a manager, anyone! who can help you locate molasses. They do, of course, move them on a quarterly basis as a matter of policy. Once you find your items and give up hope on the molasses, you proceed to the check-out counters. These are also in neat rows and, if you are at Walmart, will number about 24 stands, with only number 2 and number 18 open. Of course, you had the misfortune of putting toilet bowl cleaner last on your list, which would conveniently spit you out of aisle 12, just in front of checkout stand 18, which is inconveniently preceded by a mass queue snaking in front of it. You naturally look for another checkout, and start making your way to #2, but since it’s a football field’s distance away by the time you make it there, it has also grown a line and you are no better off.

At Wu Chao, it’s a brave, old world. The first time I – and anyone else I know who has ever shopped there – came, it was a startling experience. We all did as we normally do, minus the cow-sized cart, which were nowhere to be found. We entered and proceeded to wander the aisles and peruse the merchandise. Everything seemed normal, until you reached out to take your first item off the shelf. Even if you were just meaning to read the label, you wouldn’t get that far, because every time – Every. Time. – there is a shop assistant that will materialize out of thin air and gently supersede your reach, taking the item down for you, gingerly showing you and asking the pre-requisite “c’est bon madame?” prior to adding it to your list.

Oh yes, you have a list.

You have a list and you’re not allowed to see it. That’s right, they hold the list. And all your items. No cow-sized carts, just the heavily laden arms of your new friend.

The slogan written over the door at Wu Chao is, after all, “Vous trouverez de tout… meme un ami!” And they guarantee that you do indeed find everything, including that friend, by providing one, and then a few extras in stock just in case. Of course, you can’t take them home with you, because they have to finish their shift, but they’ll be here for you when you need a helping hand. Wu Chao is single-handedly employing more than half the city – and who can fault them for that? They have one person to follow you around and write your items down on a draft list. They have another person who then transfers that list to the real good receipt paper and adds it up at the front desk. Then down the long bench you go to the person who adds it up again for verification and takes your payment. Incidentally, they sell cash registers, but they don’t use them. After paying, you, naturally, return back down to the end of the long table and benches to where your goods were originally tallied. What ensues is usually a complex dance with the person who tallies and the shop handyman/assistant and your driver. Eventually, after a few uncoordinated steps to the left and left again with the bag, without the bag, you will be in your car with your new goodies and on your way.

Yes, Wu Chao is an experience to be sipped slowly, methodically and without question. You want to carry your own shampoo selection? You can’t. That is interdit. You want that boot in size 9? Try 6… just try it. Go on. You wish to pay? Right away madame, in 35 agonizingly long minutes, we will have you on your way. It’s not a place for the independent power shop of the average North American woman. But Wu Chao, I feel, is somehow good for me. It forces me to do things in someone else’s mind-boggling way. Too often, I know my way is best. And that may be, but it’s not always about having things my way. And the side benefit is a funny, simple pleasure from doing things someone else's completely different way.

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Sunday, March 04, 2012


One of the little luxuries that life abroad afords me is fabulous nail care. I was a loyal and frequent customer of a salon called Cocooning in Tana. Aside from the strange verb form of the name, it is a bit appropriate in another sense. Inside Cocooning are the real ex-pat and local elite wives of Antananarivo, getting their nails done or bringing their children in for a most unwanted haircut. There is the normal assortment of beauty magazines – Glamour, Marie Claire, Paris Match – and it’s clear and bright with fresh orchids accenting the chrome and white leather décor. In Tana, I got a pedicure almost every two weeks – why not, it was a ludicrous fraction of the price back home? I would walk over from my apartment on a Sunday afternoon and sit and have my feet massaged and primped and painted by a middle-aged Malagasy woman who had a spark of glamour and smoker’s cough. I would flip through the fashion magazines and pretend for a moment that there was realistic scenario on this planet in which I would actually consider picking up that $2000 purse on my next trip home.

One particular day a few months ago, I walked back home, up the drive past the chain link fence with roses stubbornly, defiantly pushing through the metal, pick my way across the world’s 7th most terrifying intersection and walked back down towards my gated community. I crossed the Jovenna petrol station parking lot and was as usual joined on the other side by the horde of street kids who walked in step for a few meters, madaming me, only to peel off when I proved impervious. After this I came out on the narrow road and try to simultaneously avoid garbage and speeding cars. I remember as I turned onto the street a mother and daughter with a small baby in tow turn kitty corner towards me from a the opposite cross street. They weren’t the poorest Tana has to offer, but they were bad enough off. They have nothing to do with the $2000 purse, I thought. It may as well not even exist.

This is the life of an expat. Regardless of whether we are talking missionary, aid worker, diplomat or someone who is working for a foreign company, we all have vestiges of this experience. Maybe many don’t experience the ultimate extremes of this, but there is usually this baffling dichotomy that they walk between daily when living in a developing country. They see this type of poverty daily, a good lot of them working hard to improve things, and often they take an evening to go for drinks at the one nice restaurant in town or a pedicure to keep their sanity.

This post isn't an apology for my pedicures. We all have treats and these just happen to be one that I can afford here and not so often at home. I was reminded of this scene in my head today and it got me thinking a bit. I walked down to the beach on this leisurely Sunday afternoon, because, after all, I said to myself, how often is the Indian Ocean just a 6 minute walk away? The beach is luxurious no matter where it is and the best part is, it’s free. This particular stretch of Indian Ocean was near-deserted with a handful of fishermen down on the jetty and three other foreign workers strolling in the distance. The sand is golden and fine and the waves roar impressively. I found that, similar to our annual vacation to Cannon Beach, I am glued to the waves, always watching to see if the next wave that starts can beat the last one for height and sound and spray.

As I walked back there was a beat-up old blue mini-van with some kids scampering around on the path up from the beach. They were much better off than the ones that madame me in Tana, and they were enjoying the afternoon at the beach as heartily as I was. For some reason I was struck by a moment of free luxury in the simplicity of it all.

I have given up wine for lent. It was a decision that was made retroactively (as I realised Lent started about 4 days earlier, but the Lord isn’t known to be picky about these things). Aside from the primary reason of foregoing something in order to enter into a deeper understanding of what was foregone for me, and to enter into the discipline it must have taken to stand there and take it all, there is another side-benefit that hinges on something I’ve been mulling over lately.

My people (as in, Canadians, westerners, young 20- and 30-somethings, redheads, Vancouverites, etc.) aren’t really known for the virtue of discipline and simplicity. Sure, I know many people who discipline their bodies, pushing them hard to excel in some sport or other, doing cockamamie things like sleeping in the snow or running for days on end. Those are all impressive and good, but they aren’t quite what I mean. We aren’t known for depriving ourselves of anything we truly, or even marginally, want. What’s more, I don’t think we’re known for being any more satisfied that any other segment of society. Now, I will certainly give the caveat that until I’ve had to scrounge for food in a rubbish heap, I probably can’t fully comment on what satisfies and what doesn’t. However, this post is not about getting into a debate on the lavish excess of the west and the virtue of the poor. As a good friend of mine once quoted, poverty isn’t itself a virtue.

But being content and satisfied with your gift is.

I gave up wine, because it’s something I genuinely enjoy – not in a desperate, can’t-function alcoholic way, but in a slow sip taken in front of a wide view that washes around your tongue at the end of a well-earned day way and because it’s my other little cheap luxury treat here. I can find fine South African and French wines that I would otherwise not get to taste back home; they are rich and satisfying, just like a nice foot massage during a pedicure. There is nothing inherently wrong with these treats. If you read Robert Ferrar Capon’s chapter on wine in The Supper of the Lamb you will know how heartily good they can be. The point is not what treat I picked to forego – it could have been any number of things – it’s what I do with it this time without the treat. The challenge of Lent is to dig my toes into the luxury that has been given me. It is to gain satisfaction not from the treats that life gives me, but the fact that I have been given life itself.

“For when I gaze at his crucifixion, I see my death indeed – but my death done! His death is the death of the selfish one, whom I called ugly and hated to look upon.
And resurrection is another me.”

-Walter Wangerin, “In Mirrors” in Bread and Wine.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oh Canada!

I see, to my dismay and shame, that my last post was October 2011. Now, whilst I beg the caveat that I still feel like there are days I catch myself writing 2002 and not 2012 on my dates so should be excused from some time lapses, I want you to fear not dear reader – I have turned over a new leaf and will solemnly swear not to let you down like that again, if you will in turn take my humbly apology and forgive me.

Now, much has happened – where to even start? This might take a few posts to catch us up and soothe the distrust that lingers betwixt us. That’s ok. As I said – I’m committed.
Since my last post, I’ve been to Canada (for two whole months!) and back. When I came back to Madagascar, I moved to the Tamatave, on the coast, which – if you know just a teensy bit about me, which of course you do, my faithful three friends + mother – I am a big fan of coastlines all over the world. Let me rewind today to my time in Canada, because I have been meaning to tell you about this for a while.

The first day back in Madagascar, I walked into the office of two lovely ladies with whom I work and was greeted with enthusiasm. One asked me “So, how was Canada??”
Me: (dreamily) “It was… (sigh)… Canadian.

Now that I am safely back in the tropical world, where the cold, wind and rain are but a dream, I am mostly pleased – it’s hard to be discontent when your commute to work involves a five minute walk through a Eucalyptus grove, pungent with the aroma that people back home pay exorbitant fees to smell in a room that mimics the humid, full air here that I get for free. And just wait until clove season. Wow, I can’t even describe it. Imagine riding on the back of a motorcycle, and the smell of cloves rushing to you through the heavy, humid air on the pothole ridden street. It's what I imagine Christmas in Australia must be.

As beautiful as it is, you know that there’s really nothing like going abroad to help you understand where you came from (I think Mandela or Tolkien once said something very profound and eloquent to that effect – trust them to take all the good quotes before I could even get here). Going home for those two months, made me appreciate the wind and the rain (sometimes, it is nice to be able to go a day without showering several times to wick off the sweat and heat). But the weather is inconsequential to the little things that make life sweet. I could easily gather a list of those things about Tamatave, but today, I’d like to dedicate this ode to Canada, and in particular, my hometown, Vancouver.

You miss the strangest things when you are away. Allow me to name a few – so that you don’t feel too jealous of my free aromatherapy deal.

1. Sidewalks. These are not known in Madagascar. Back home of course, we all complain about the broad cement slabs they’ve paved over paradise, but if you value your life – you’ll not speak too quickly on that subject. One of the reasons I love Tamatave is that I feel that it is wider. The streets are wide and there is occasionally a path on the sides of them for pedestrians, where maybe even two or so people could walk side by side. Not so in Tana. People often ask me if I feel safe and I tell them that while I wouldn’t be stupid and walk around with ma’ bling n’ stuff, all alone at night, what concerns me is not theft, but traffic. I am more worried that I’ll get hit by a car in Tana than I am about getting taken for a ride. The city has extended spidery legs around the hills that it covers, narrow streets with houses built often right on the edge. There is a shallow gutter that you can walk in in my neighbourhood, but it wouldn’t matter if two cars are passing each other – one or the other will need that gutter space to make it through, at which point you are clinging haplessly to the cement wall of the house or shop across the street and hoping not to get speared by one of those thorny bushes everyone seems to have here. I love that most people don’t feel the same thrill of danger I do when a car comes whipping by them a foot away at 65kms/hr.

2. Tap water: Every day when I was home in Vancouver I got up and my primary cup of coffee was knocked out of first place priority drinking with a tall glass of cool tap water. You don’t miss it, until it’s gone. It’s a very disconcerting and panicking feeling when you get home late at night and don’t know if you have water to brush your teeth with, let alone gulp down should you be struck with a sudden wave of thirst as you often experienced as a 6 year old child just before bed. Sure, those strange moments where your tongue was as parched and cracked dry as the Sahara have largely disappeared – but drinking water, as was the case with the childhood desire to stay awake all night, when you realize that you can’t, that’s when you must. How I long to go into a restaurant and have them seat me and pour a glass of ice water in the same swift, efficient movement. The empty bottles that float around endlessly and cling, flattened, to the side of the road here are neither economical nor environmental. I tell myself that they provide free containers to the local populace, who then in turn make use of them as the building blocks of each and every product you could hope for – from flooring to toys. Yet, I have seen too many indignant documentaries and came of age in David Suzuki’s BC. There is a part of me that just can’t quite sleep easy, knowing the quantity of plastic it takes to keep me hydrated. Or maybe it’s still just a ploy to stay up later.

3. Pickles! One just came with my lunch the first time I was out at home. I didn’t realize how much I had missed a good, juicy dill on the side of a plate with a handsome burger.

4. Soft Kleenexes: I know it sounds needy– one Kleenex is as good as the other, right? Oh but wrong, so wrong. The tissues available here in Madagascar are so scratchy, my nose hurts after one! The trouble is that I am a habit nose-blower. I don’t know how this started, I blame my mother, who seems to have nurtured this which is not in others’ nature with her own need for copious quantities of Kleenex boxes, but now when I visit someone else’s house and there isn’t a box in the bathroom, I think how odd they must be, and perhaps just a smidgen too cavalier about hygiene for my tastes. But in Madagascar, what is the use? You may as well use paper towel (oh the humanity!). Even the ones with tissues avec l’aloe plastered in the side are a mean trick. They may have been spritzed with some aloe scent before leaving the factory, but there is nothing soothing or comforting about those scraps.

5. Milk: Fresh, pasteurized, cold, normal 1% milk. It’s not Hennessey I’m wanting here, it’s milk. And not a lot: note that my semi-lactose stomach can only take so much. Just enough to top up the cup of coffee! It’s not so very demanding is it? But surely, for all those zebus, there is milk in Madagascar? You query. Oh there is, it’s called UHT: Ultra-high temperature. That means that it doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Ever. And you think that ultra-long life comes without exacting a perilous price in taste? How is that even possible?? You demand. I don’t know. It comes from Germany. Trust the Germans…

6. Cafes: Among the supreme pleasures of west coast living is sitting idly in a coffee shop, watching the rain drip by, in time with the coffee. Even their exorbitant prices can be forgiven for what is essentially a hot cup of coffee-themed milk (but there you go again – milk, so ubiquitous to us from North America, turns out, is a precious commodity elsewhere). I can’t quite place my finger on the whole of it. It’s the calming jazz music, the baristas that want to be your best friend for the five minutes you loiter in front of them, and the fact that you are welcome to stay as long as your heart desires. I could wax eloquent on the philosophy I have about coffee as the social glue that keeps us together, but I’ll just reiterate for now how wonderful it is to be beckoned in from the cold to the warm glow of a place meant for talking, sitting, watching and thinking. That space is not to be taken for granted.

7. You know what else is not to be taken for granted? People – some of them just can’t be replaced and it’s a real, darn shame they can’t be in two places at once.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Why I Love Thanksgiving (an grade 3 essay by Kiki Tegelberg for Mrs. Cowan)

Over the last few years, thanksgiving has become one of my top holidays. Of course I love Christmas, don’t get me wrong. And doesn’t my mother know it: I’ve abused her for years with enormous present-pressure requiring each person of the family to receive equal and obtuse gifts and over-bearing Martha Stewart decoration regimes. However, I think thanksgiving is becoming my secret true love that I don’t want Christmas to find out about.

I love thanksgiving because it has all the wonderment, all the hearty good food, all the beauty and all precious time with loved ones, but without the hype, or the violent parking lots of Christmas. It doesn’t have the commercialization of any other holiday. We all know Christmas is atrocious, but even Easter (which I will defend vigorously as my other favourite holiday for reasons more profound) has the energizer bunny droning on in offensive pastels. That does wear on one’s nerves so.

Thanksgiving is, naturally, an opportunity for some quality time with family, and it never seems to have the angst-filled snappishness of a holiday previously named. One year I booked myself a tour with the Eric & Jeanie Travel company (I have a brochure on their fantastic itinerary to France if you're interested). That particular Thanksgiving my dad and I had a lovely bonding experience along the Naramata wine route as he taught me how to taste wine properly while Jeanie drove the tour bus. And it was such a treat to be able to give - in person - a hearty congratulations to the Alberta cousins (that we so rarely see!) who participated in the Kelowna marathon that year. Sharing in the post-run spoils without actually doing the run itself is entirely justifiable if you have come such a distance just to see them cross the finish line. Of course, we stayed in bed while they were running and crossing all lines, but it was great to see them later that day, after their respective showers.

In the last two or three years, I have also come of age through Thanksgiving. I baked my first turkey last year, which provides no end of mirth and merriment to this day as I recall showing up with a half-thawed bird at my friend Krystal’s house ready to bake that thing into submission a mere three hours before guests were to arrive. That night was one of the evenings that I cherish most to this day. It encapsulates my life in Vancouver – we ate until we couldn’t fit any more. We decided the definitive top 10 reasons to de-friend someone on facebook. We learned that turkeys take DAYS to defrost and that Jamie Oliver means what he says about stuffing. We laughed so hard the wine may have come out our noses.

Last night, a friend and I hosted a Canadian thanksgiving dinner in Antananarivo for 19 guests at my apartment. I didn’t know I had 19 friends in Tana! And think of the ones who wanted to come, but couldn’t! How lucky I am! How obscenely blessed I am that I could cook for 19 people! How ridiculously rich my life that I could have my cook, Perline, to help!! She came for the whole day and managed the turkeys (last year’s escapade was delicious, but it didn’t give me much of a boost of confidence) and I handled the desserts (to which I will pledge undying affection for all my thanksgivings to come). I had never done a sit down dinner for that many people and I admit just to you, dear reader, that I was terrified.

I woke up at 6 am yesterday morning (after a week of jet-lag and sleep deprivation over a big work project) with feverish anxiety dreams about a dearth of potatoes. I managed to procure an extra bag of potatoes by 9:30, but I still had those two birds to worry and wring my hands over. Let me just tell you – Gasy turkeys are not the same as Canadian turkeys. For one thing, there is no butterball here. We get them as they come. That means that you have to buy two to get what you’d get from one back home. Oh and they come home from the store with all the body parts God gave ‘em. They still had claws attached. I wish they wouldn’t leave the claws attached. It humanizes them. Poor Gus and poor Sylvia – may they rest in peace.

But, lo and behold, it was scrumptious and fantastic and we had more food that we could possibly imagine. What a day to be thankful for indeed.

Many of my friends here are not Canadian, as one would imagine. I have quite a few, in fact, who are British, who are less familiar with thanksgiving á la Canuck, than with the well-touted American version. I was asked on Friday night what the point of it is for us, since we were more reticent than our American neighbours to be done with our colonial master mother. Well, you know, we have a um… a harvest, and we’re… we’re just generally grateful people… But it is more than that. As one lovely person remarked during the toast, it came from a time when people were pulling in the harvest and batting down the hatches for the coming Canadian winter, it was a time to be grateful as one looked the worst square in the eye.

I love thanksgiving because we know that winter is coming. We know that we will always face hard times and that we should always cultivate a grateful heart. But we need a reminder to do it and we sometimes even need a reminder of the very things for which we are thankful: beautiful friends and family, a full belly and a full heart, change of season and change in circumstance. We know that these things are good and I know the One from whom they come, but I don’t always remember to admit my gratitude for them. Thankfully, he is more than willing to put them right in front of my face all at once, usually about once or twice a year, to make it very obvious.

My lovely guests around the tables

This is what was left over AFTER 19 people had gone through (My co-host and I twisted their arms to go back for seconds, thankfully).