The Land Before Time

Cheesy mashed potatoes, green beans and grilled zebu steak. NO RICE! Zut alors.

Cheesy mashed potatoes, green beans and grilled zebu steak. NO RICE! Zut alors.

This past week was undoubtedly my favorite week in Madagascar. This is going to be a long post, with loads of photos, so (polar)bear with me (if you don’t want to read it, just skim the photos and I won’t be offended). First off, I decided to cook my parents dinner on Saturday before I left for the weeklong village homestay in Faux Cap. In the morning Anna and I searched around the market for all the necessities, which included a massive hunk of zebu haunch all for the low price of $2.50. In my quest for potatoes, I accidentally thought the seller was asking if I wanted one or two of the large pomme de terres, but actually, she meant one or two kilograms…so of course I had already said two, and carrying those around the market in my backpack was pretty funny. My parents spent most of the day at their friends house down the road, so when I got back, they still weren’t there, but they had accidentally left the stove on, so the house was filled with black burnt rice smoke. I quickly turned it off and began airing out the house, but absolutely did not begin cooking until they returned home and I explained to them what happened (I didn’t want them to think that I tried burning down the house while cooking). It was also the first meal chez moi that did not contain rice, little bro Irintsoa was not pleased.

The next morning Beth and I grabbed the 6am bus into town where we met all the SIT and CEL students plus staff for the start of our epic journey. All 31 students plus 4 drivers squeezed into the TATA bus for the 8-10 hour journey (depending on if you count breaks or not). On the way there, we grabbed lunch in a small town that served us the first cold beverages most of us have had in a long time. SO refreshing. And they served us delicious, tender meat that we couldn’t identify at the time. Since we would be staying in rural villages all week, everyone figured they should take advantage of the good grub, I had a few slices of the meat since it was, as I proclaimed at the time “in my top five foods of Madagascar”. All too funny, later that day N’Aina enlightened us on the meat’s identity: Zebu tongue. I firmly maintain my previous statement and will eat it again if the opportunity presents itself (which apparently it will in Tulear…stoked).

Everyone crowded on the bus for the long haul. It was basically a large party.

Everyone crowded on the bus for the long haul. It was basically a large party.

Along the drive we had to get out several times to help push the bus because it got stuck in the soft sand. The really cool part was the logs they used to shove under the back two double wheels so that as the TATA started moving forward it would have a little grippage. We also picked up three Peace Corps volunteers and several villagers who wanted to get to Faux Cap since there isn’t a regularly scheduled bus. Good times!

Once we reached Faux Cap (the southern most point in Mada), we set up camp on the beach as the sun set then took a refreshing dip in the warm Indian ocean, made even more awesome knowing that the next landmass immediately south of us was Antarctica. A couple people broke out rum and we sang and danced under the Southern Cross and literally so many other stars, oh, and the ridiculously visible Milky Way.

The next morning we spent in the market with our groups for the week: two SIT and two CEL students (mine, epic of course, was Gabo, Cidera, Clair and me). Then we anxiously waited for our new families to come collect us! Just our dad, who was young looking but super friendly and smiling all the time, picked us up. We had the smallest village, only six homes and one extended family that lived there, and it was such a tight knit community that we couldn’t tell who was married to who or whose kids were whose.

Top left: Me, Clair, Uncle1 and cousins. Top Right: Uncle2, Clair, Grandpa, Me, Dad, Grandma. Lower left:Dad, Mom and Norbert. Lower right: Half the village at the party

Top left: Me, Clair, Uncle1 and cousins. Top Right: Uncle2, Clair, Grandpa, Me, Dad, Grandma. Lower left:Dad, Mom and Norbert. Lower right: Half the village at the party

There are way too many fun stories from this week, so I’m going to stick to the highlights, list style.

•Shucking lentils with the women-super relaxing in a very meditative way. Also funny when you have no clue what is being said around you because the only spoken/known language is a Malagasy dialect.

•Eating meals in Baba’s (Malagasy for dad) house. The men sat on the ground while Clair and I were on the firm wooden bed; trying so hard not to spill food from our shared plate onto their bed…we really weren’t successful, especially when half the food consisted of crumbly rice or juicy watermelon. I just felt so comfortable and at home sitting there smiling and making gestures or saying single words in Malagache to Baba. So much good fruit too!

Coconuts, cantelope like melon, honeycomb and more coconut! (All fresh!)

Coconuts, cantelope like melon, honeycomb and more coconut! (All fresh!)

•Plucking the feathers for a still warm chicken in the center of the village while all the little kids watched the vazahs struggle. Then being told we had to cook it alone. Not that hard, right? Wrong. The kitchen was approximately 4 x 4 x 4 feet, so I couldn’t stand; only awkwardly kneel in the sand that wasn’t occupied by one of two fires. Also, the byproduct of two open wood fires in a very, very tiny area is loads of smoke, which makes silly vazah’s eyes turn bright red and stream like crazy. Clair and I would emerge from cooking, turn to each other, burst out laughing and then laugh harder as the village women joined in. Side note, this occurred maybe one hour after arriving in the village, so it was a really nice icebreaker.

•Watching Gabo and Cidera try to milk a zebu. Women aren’t allowed to milk zebus because it’s fady, but we got to enter the zebu pen and laugh along the sidelines. Probably the defining moment for how our week was going to proceed was that we had to enter the manure filled pen without our shoes, because it’s fady to wear shoes there (I don’t know the story behind this one, but would love to) and both Clair and I were sporting cuts on our feet from previous encounters with angry bushes. We looked at each other, said, “this is how we’re going to roll” and walked into the well-cushioned ground. Side note, Gabo and Cidera failed miserably at milking the zebu.

Our awesome group! No, I don't really think I can pull of their hairstyle.

Our awesome group! No, I don’t really think I can pull of their hairstyle.

•PIROGUING!! On Tuesday at 6:30 am we walked 30 minutes to the ocean with Baba and a couple Dadatoas (uncles), then helped carry the balanced pirogue to the ocean and hopped in. The boat was long, but really narrow and deep. With the side balance (a wooden log attached to one side), we smoothly glided through the large waves, Clair and I taking turns paddling in the middle. We started taking on water, from cracks in the log and waves that broke over the brow, so Gabo used an old hard hat to empty the invading water. On our way back, after the men did some fishing (they caught two large fish and an octopus-which we later ate for breakfast) they rigged up their large sail, which was handily made from old rice sacks sewn together. The ingenuity of the villagers still amazes me. According to Jim, the program director, we are only the second set of students (in 14 years) to get to ride in a real pirogue, score!

This is the traditional boat we took out on the open sea. Yeeeah buddy!

This is the traditional boat we took out on the open sea. Yeeeah buddy!

• Hanging out with the kids. At the beach we played tic tack toe and wrote math problems in the sand with them and in the evenings after our hours of dancing, we taught them English children’s songs, e.g. the itsy bitsy spider.

• Working with the villagers. We learned how to pound corn, weed the fields, pick lentil from the stalk, cook corn in the field using a small brush fire, how to smoke out bees so that we can steal their honeycomb (coincidentally the most delicious thing to eat fresh while fending off bees), plant bagedas and pick fresh melons and coconuts. Yuuum.

We got to try all sorts of fun things.

We got to try all sorts of fun things. Fishing, pounding corn, balancing fruit on our heads, sorting corn, and weeding the bageda field.

• Watching the castration of two zebus. This was actually not my favorite thing to do, but it was definitely an experience. We woke up on Tuesday and immediately our father was like ‘grab your cameras, quick!’ so Clair and I turned back and brought them out. Then we walked over to the meeting tree in the village and watched as two men hauled a zebu over and tied his head to the tree by his horns. We had a minor panicky moment because we thought that they were going to sacrifice the zebu in front of us and we both had previously decided (think turkeys) that we did not ever want to watch a big animal die. Baba quickly reassured us that it was only a simple castration. So, we watched (slightly horrified) as the eldest man flung some holy water on the zebu then reached right under there and grabbed them bad boys and whipped out his knife. All the villagers were really excited and kept pointing at us to take pictures, so if the truth be told, I have way too many photos now of two poor zebus loosing their manhood. Back to the story. The zebu did not really like that he was being sliced open by a knife, so he bucked some and the men chased him around the tree while he sprayed blood onto the ground. The whole process of removing the testies was actually quite intense and I felt so bad for the bull, so I didn’t watch the second round, but if you’re interested in the details, I’ll definitely tell you. Then we curiously asked Baba what was going to happen with the testicles and bulls and we discovered that the testies were for eating (we made it quite clear we would NOT try those) and that the zebus are used for pulling carts after they’ve been degraded. Needless to say, we looked VERY carefully at our breakfast before eating it (it ended up being the octopus that we had gotten the previous day and it was delicious).

Castration isn't my favorite pre-breaky thing, but it was a cool experience.

Castration isn’t my favorite pre-breaky thing, but it was a cool experience.

• Dancing and singing with the family. There is nothing quite like spending three hours dancing in the style of the zebu every night as the sun sets. Tandroy dance is basically all the men in a circle stomping about while the women sing eerily outside the circle and bang drums. The key to being a good dancer is bringing your knees up all the way to your chest without bobbing your shoulders and then driving your feet into the ground hard enough to raise puffs of dust. Meanwhile your arms are bent at the elbows, held out at shoulder height and your hands vibrate quickly up and down. Also, your supposed to make zebu-grunting noises with your mouth. I really only managed to make snorts of laughter, but they considered it high quality for a vazaha, so that was good. The dancing then lasts for about three minutes before someone enters the circle, leads the dance for a bit, then jumps up and upon landing shouts loudly Eeee-ayyy and then the appropriate response is everyone in the circle jumping into the air and upon landing (preferably simultaneously) shouting out Ahh-haaa. It was actually so much fun to dance like this, just lose yourself in the rhythm and village enthusiasm. When I think back on my village stay the first image that comes to mind is Baba and my uncle dancing across from me in the circle and beaming at me as I entered the circle to test out my skills.

• SINGING! We sang every night after the dancing just chilling under the many stars. One funny moment was when I was teaching the village Row Row Row Your Boat and the third time through (I would sing them a line and then they would sing it back to me), when I was doing the octave jump up for “merrily merrily” my voice cracked hardcore and I burst into laughter followed quickly by all the villagers. Everything was so genuine and lighthearted. I loved it!

Dancing on the way to the party and then Clair and I breaking it down for the competition

Dancing on the way to the party and then Clair and I breaking it down for the competition

• La grande fête. The last day there was a big party for all the villages that hosted students, so it meant dancing/running 3 km along the beach under the really hot midday sun to the Cactus Hotel dressed in traditional Trandroy hairstyle and lambahuany. It was the hardest thing I did all week because anytime Clair and I started just jogging and not singing or dancing, they would come up and elbow us in the sides and motion for us to get back into the dance. So we would then jog while enthusiastically swinging our arms around in the air. It was so hot and such an awkward pace that it was exhausting. But really worth it as we danced and sang our way into the party, everyone watching on as we strutted our stuff. One of the fun parts was seeing all our SIT friends again for the first time in a week and seeing just how crazy tan everyone had become (I’m probably the palest one here).


I'm still the palest, but that's ok.

I’m still the palest, but that’s ok.

Cactus flower, moon during the day, sunrise behind our tents and our tents next to Baba's house.

Cactus flower, moon during the day, sunrise behind our tents and our tents next to Baba’s house.


Categories: 2013, Madagascar | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The Land Before Time

  1. Merretta

    tongue is awesome;y delicious!! i love it!! haha glad you’re having a great time!! xoxo

  2. Cassie

    Once again, I loved reading your blog! You look so happy in your photos and I’m so glad you’re having an amazing time!

  3. Kelly

    I am so jealous!! And I love the Chaco tan marks, ha ha! So good to see your smiling face in the sun in this bleak corner of the states, snowing – again – today! I didn’t know your folks were going to come over, bet that was a blast! Good to see you are eating healthy! Tongue, yum ?? Be safe girly!

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