Sunday, January 30, 2011

So What's It Like?"

"...So what’s it like?"

I have been getting this question fairly frequently. At home people are unsurprisingly curious, since Madagascar is not a regular destination. Here, people want to know what I think of it so far – which can be taken a couple of different ways: either they want to know if I am fed up with all the things they are fed up with or they want to know if I am totally enamoured yet and ready to marry the first Malagasy that offers me a cow and a good home or they want to see if anyone else is as baffled as they are (this one being entirely from ex-pats, of course).

If I had to choose one – and as tempting as the cow is – I would say the latter. I feel like I have barely scratched the surface. I gave that as an answer at a party last weekend and was politely told that wasn’t good enough. I was asked for my first impressions, whether I understand what they are about or not. That has gotten me thinking (and looking around) quite a bit, so here you go, this is what it is like:

Tana (Antananrivo) is the capital city, which sits up on the central plateau, so the weather is warm and mild and there’s a lovely breeze this time of year (as well as crazy thunder storms, though out on the coast they are even better). From my vantage point in Tana, it seems to be a sort of scattered ring of hills covered in houses, clinging to the sides wherever they can.

The houses, for their part, are one of the delightful little surprises about this place. There is, of course, your normal range of shacks and shanties and square stucco bungalows. Most often, however, they are French colonial two-stories made of brick with verandas covered in potted plants – and though they be derelict, they have charm (though perhaps not for their tenants depending on how things are inside). My favourite part is that so many of them have bright blue shutters. I don’t know why I see so many blue shutters, and now come to think of it, there are plenty that are green, but the blue stands out everywhere and they’re my favourite houses.

Not to miss the forest for the trees though: another thing about Tana is the bizarre mesh of streets. My impression is that the city has just been carved out where ever they can find a spot for a new crop of houses or alleys. The result is there isn’t much design. Mostly there are several maddening one-ways that merge together at hair-pin turns up the hills and down. My friend pointed out this week that as Madagascar develops, more and more people are getting enough money to afford cars (even if they are only beater Peugeots that are miraculously still hobbling along since the 1960s). The trouble is that the streets haven’t kept up. The streets of Tana are generally narrow affairs and I can only think of three places with sidewalks. The streets are so twisty and curve around so that you can wander up and down hills, having no clear vision of any direction at any given point in time. Case in point, this morning we went off for our run, planning to do 6 miles and ended up doing 9 as a result of a few key wrong-turns (and then remaking the same wrong-turns, but we knew something was up when we saw the same life-size crucifix and the board bridge over the rice paddy for the second and third times – they obviously hired us all for our keen sense of observation).

While I am at it, there are rice paddies in the city. That’s interesting too, eh. I have joined a group of ladies that go out running every Sunday and we jog just over half a mile down this one road that goes through what we call “the village” because the main road is lined with shop-fronts selling about a handful of vegetables and charcoal. More than that, it’s like a little rural village – but it’s in the middle of a city of several million. At the end of the village the road continues along, passed where all the micro-buses sit and is unpaved. If you follow it for another third of a mile, you will have rice paddies on both sides and a lovely view of the plain, the mountains in the distance and then strings of houses here and there. After a mile, you come to a T-intersection with another higher dirt road. Turn left and you will go another two and a half miles to get to the main road to the airport. I tell you all this because it can take anywhere from half an hour to an hour to drive to Ivato (the airport). But I reckon I could run it in about that time by crossing the rice paddies instead of the main roads. That’s just how winding and convoluted the streets of Tana are.

If there are plenty of cars, there are hoards of people on the streets – at almost all times of the day. I have walked out at 7am on a Sunday and find the street outside my compound already buzzing. The only time it’s quiet is at midnight or after 5 on a Sunday afternoon. Apart from that – people everywhere. This is somewhat disconcerting because the cars whip down like they’re Surrey drag racers.

I kind of like that there are people always out on the streets, though naturally, I am concerned for all our safety. There is an assortment of standard people out on the streets at any given time. Around the corner from the Jovenna gas station by my house is a row of fruit sellers. The second one in from the left will charge you too much because you are vaza (foreigner) but the others are quite nice. Of course, they’re all charging more than the average Malagasy would pay by virtue of the fact that a) almost all their clientele are vazas who roll up in chauffeured 4x4s and b) the stalls are positioned kitty-corner to the Prime Minister’s house (not to get side-tracked, but what self-respecting PM would take a residence, however grand, behind a gas station?). Still, in order to retain a shred of dignity, Mr. 2nd from the left - you are black listed until you are willing to play nicely.

Down the road just a few metres on the other side are a collection of flower-sellers, another fruit stall and a young guy who runs the bamboo furniture business, which has provided me two very lovely side-tables that look quite swish with my rocking chairs. He has some nice deck chairs with red fabric that might be my next purchase. Moving along, you’ll see guards in front of compounds, restaurants, the municipal offices, the stadium, and of course, the army barracks. They loiter, are generally quite reassuring and not terribly obtrusive. Unlike what I am used to in Central America, they do not often hiss, holler, hoot or declare their love to you and your blue dress as you pass by (“I love you! Hello! Blue dress! I love you! Okey, bye bye”). Malagasy men will thank you, sometimes profusely, for walking by, but mostly they seem to just watch with varying degrees of interest, surprise or pining.

When I first got here, the Jacaranda trees were in full bloom, which is something to see indeed. The Bougainvillea came next, and it’s one of my favourite flowers to see in a garden because it’s so bright and it grows over everything. It’s not a smell unique to Tana, but there is a particular smell that is wonderful when the bougainvillea, this cedar-like hedge that I can’t identify and burning garbage all waft together. I know that latter part doesn’t sound appetizing, but trust me. I’m here and it’s my impression and you’re not so you don’t have much choice!

I should mention the downtown area I suppose – it’s full of old, colonial villas and houses. My favourite place is the Café de la Gare, which is in the old train station. They have deep green leather seats with wicker and dark wood tables and large photos of Madagascar from the turn of the century. The chandeliers are huge wrought-iron affairs and there is a large roasting machine next to a giant fireplace. Outside is a long lawn where you can sit if the weather is good and the bathrooms are in an old train car. It’s about as wonderful as it can get. I can’t believe I come dressed in anything other than head-to-foot white and without a parasol and straw boating hat. The shame is great indeed, but they graciously do not stand on ceremony there.

I know that what I’ve given you here is basically my visual impression of Tana, without really telling you much about the culture. That’s the part that I still barely know, so you won’t get it out of me yet!

Next week I’ll tackle Tamatave, out on the coast, which is a whole other delightful story.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Taking a Page from a Fellow Swede

January 16, 2011 – Antananarivo

I got back to Madagascar on Wednesday in the wee hours. I have felt barraged with one frustration after another since about New Year’s. I won't get into the details because when I list them off they all sound so petty, but we all know what it is like when things build up each day, you don't think you can take another hit - and that's about the time your toilet breaks and no repair man can come until after the weekend (true story).

Since I have been back, I see again the beautiful things here for which I am thankful and that make being here an experience worth having. I was also reminded when running through the village today that most houses here don't actually have toilets - and that this too shall all pass. I am, therefore, incredibly frustrated at my own lack of grace in handling these problems that are being constantly thrown at me.

I have a few thoughts that I’ve been mulling over in response (between my other responses of foot stamping, fist shaking and the hand wringing):

First (1), I don’t understand why God doesn’t just make me nicer.

There’s the minute possibility that is my responsibility though…

Secondly (2), we really weren’t designed to be hermits. Even if for purely self-preservation reasons, we need people around us, to help us, to protect us, to tell us when we’re being unreasonable and to laugh with us about it after we’ve managed to stop telling them where to shove it. We need people who we can trust so that we don’t always have to shoulder the burden of moving apartments alone or letting the plumber in when you’ve done it the last four times and need to be at a work meeting. I am convinced that I need to be more grateful and kind to my past roommates than I have been. They are true prizes.

Thirdly, (3) I picked up Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings today – it’s a bit like reading Gandi or Martin Luther King or Paul’s epistles from prison. I mean, I don’t know of any great suffering in his life, but I can imagine being Secretary-General of the UN for 10 years, especially during things like the Korean War and the Suez Crisis would be a life that had its fair share of stress, and yet here he is, saying all these gentle, wise things. So it is convicting stuff. Two quotes I’ll share: “ Never measure the height of the mountain, until you have reached the top. Then you will see how low it was.” Followed later by “life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible – not to have run away.” I don’t believe for a second that Mr. Hammarskjöld was one of these self-help gurus that believed that if a person just tries really hard, and thinks positively, all would be well. I think he knew that we come up against some real tough stuff sometimes, but we also have a tendency to think we’re the only ones to see trouble. When I read the latter quote, I was reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians – “ no temptation has overtaken you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

I remember the first time I ever lived overseas there was another person talking to me about mountains in a similar way. At the precious age of 18, I did a study abroad program in Guatemala. I remember talking with my friend Jenn about something that I had to do that week of which I was truly terrified – it was some new step out of my comfort zone or other. She said to me that this was “the first hill in a series of foothills and then mountains – don’t look at the mountains, because that will be too overwhelming. Just get on with this hill and you’ll be surprised at the end.” For whatever reason, I’ve been in stuck somewhere in the Kootenays for the last little while. I am far too easily angered that it’s not more like Regina.

Third-point-fifth (3.5), I was talking with some friends over the holidays about faith. One friend was relating conversations she has with a very bright friend of hers who is an atheist and presses my friend on her faith. As the three of us discussed these conversations, we came to the point that you can’t convince someone of faith – as Hammarskjöld says “only through the self-knowledge we gain by pursuing the fleeting light in the depth of our being do we reach the point where we can grasp what faith is. How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something ‘true’.” I told my friends that my faith has sometimes been comprised of moments: moments of complete assurance of God’s presence, conviction of God’s truth, confident of God himself – not in an intellectual way, in a way that you simply can’t explain. Those moments are enough.

Fourth, and final: I am not impressed with the “self-knowledge” I’ve gained this week. I’m cranky and not always cool when things break and I’m alone and tired. I asked God to throw me a bone (literally, I used those words in prayer). I got a whack on the snout from Dag and Paul as my answer – but, it’s actually quite comforting. That one about not running away and the connection to Paul's point on God's faithfulness when you don't run away are swirling around each other nicely in my head. Ah ha! In this instant, it all makes so much sense! D & P, your reminders are moments enough for me today.