Blame it on the alcohol.

Like some sort of fecal phoenix, I rise from the ashes of over 100 poop samples to bring you further scrobbles° from my diarrhea-diary (diarrhy*? Yes, I just went* there).

Since I returned from the villages, I’ve been enjoying the preponderous° pace of life at the lab base. Three times a day, I make my way to the cafeteria for a meal with quiet servers; housekeeping whispers in and out of my room, gathers my laundry, washes the used mugs in the kitchenette on our floor (the unwashedness of which still kinda infuriates me on a daily basis), and clears the detritus of our thoughtless living; alone in my lab most the day, I work to the sweet strains of whatever I fancy, including 哈利波特:神秘的魔法石, Daughter, and brothers and sisters sharing what they’ve enjoyed of the Lord. Since many of my former classmates were graduating this last weekend, my heart almost physically hurt from not being there with everyone. It was comfort beyond words to hear my friends’ voices, even recorded, sharing what they had experienced of God. Even halfway across the world, I felt that I was together with my brothers and sisters.

I filter the feces through gauze, dilute, swirl, and wait. Then I plate my stained prize on a microscope slide. The worst part is scanning through all the slides. The double-barreled eyepiece swallows my whole field of view, and as I scan left and right, right and left, hawk-eyeing for parasite eggs, I can feel incrementally upticking nausea. The first few days, I was so nauseated that my 20 minute break between slide batches turned into hours of lying on my bunk, waiting for my guts to unclench. I learned eventually to blink every time I moved the stage, like clicking through a reel.

The work, like much of science, creates a troublesome amount of trash. The first time I filled up a bag, I tied it up, and unable to find any sort of trash conglomeration site, I asked my coworker what I was to do with the trash. To my bemusement, he led me to a few dented oil barrels behind the lab building. They were quarter-filled with black, papery ash. Then he slung my trash sack into an oil barrel, borrowed a lighter from another coworker, and neatly started to set the plastic bag on fire. I was shocked. “You can burn plastic? There’s also feces in the plastic containers. Is that okay to burn?” I protested. He looked confused. “What is wrong with burning plastic?” The answers got caught in my throat. What could I say? That the fumes were carcinogenic? That they polluted the air? But there clearly was no other method of garbage disposal in this remote town that would not contaminate the water (of critical concern, since parasite eggs released in water would perpetuate parasitism). What good would I do by airing* those negative facts? I just opted for saying, “In America, we don’t burn plastic.” And left it at that.

After dinner, usually someone cobbles together plans. The most popular evening entertainment is plodding up the hill to a little house-turned-restaurant that is generously called “the bar,” where everyone orders a Three Horses Beer and dangerously hot pommes frites and homemade chips with crispy edges and almost translucent centers. There, people hang out and talk for hours, swatting away aggressive moths. A few rare nights, someone fires up the projector in the conference room to watch movies.

I started to resent the bar after the first few times I went. Besides its spudly° virtues, there was very little I enjoyed about the whole thing. I found it claustrophobic how alcohol—lots of it, on the regular—seemed to be the respite of choice from daily drudgery, and how the conversation invariably circled the same-old drain of conversations with 20-somethings: sex, drugs, alcohol, hijinks, and gossip. I felt like my brain was getting cavities. It’s not that I didn’t like the friends I accompanied, or that I didn’t enjoy their company. But I would rather let a medical student practice multiple tuberculin skin tests on me (which she did) than hear hour after hour of vapid giggling at who ___ whom and where and how and no way, I thought he ___ her! Surely there is more than this provincial life! There is so much more to tease apart, to brainstorm, to cry over, in this eye-opening country. Could it be that I’m the only one who is obsessed with the elephant in the room? Or is boozy chitchat just an anesthetic to pass the time, to forget the unsolvable problems we see, to give ourselves a break from the constant kampf? Is anyone kampfing° at all here? Am I crazy for kampfing all day every day, alone?

Something that’s been eating at me since being back from the villages is how much I’m in a vazaha (white person, the catch-all word for foreigner) bubble everywhere I go. And I don’t want to like it, but I probably couldn’t go on without it. Like, my showers at the lab are just a 5-minute long frigid cringe until I’m semi-clean and shivering, but I could count on no hands how many of my coworkers living in the town even have a shower at all. My legs have little bruises from the narrow bunk ladder that I scale to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night, but at least I don’t have to go outdoors, like most people here. If I walk to town (1.5 hours), I can usually catch a lab van uphill instead of taking the cheap but cramped taxi-brousse. One afternoon, while taking the lab van up, we passed by a taxi-brousse flipped on the side of the road like an unwieldy beetle, and its passengers sat on their luggage on the side of the road, faces glum. At least no one was hurt, that I could see.

We took a weekend in a nearby beach town in enchanting two-story bungalows steps away from the sand. I’ve never been completely alone on a beach before until now, and the Indian ocean was like a warm embrace, even at dawn, even in a light drizzle. Every time I told myself, “I’ll just dip my feet in.” Then before I knew it, my rolled up pants were soaked up above my knees. But as much as I loved everything about the resort, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that the workers at the resort themselves lived in one-room huts with tiny windows and no plumbing. It was simply a matter of arranging a car and paying some money for us to get to this beach town, but many of the our local coworkers had never been there. When we were all treated to lobster one night, one of our coworkers said he had grown up in this town that fished lobster his whole life, but he had never eaten it before. I was reminded of A-, the village that grew beans and other crops that they could never eat, because it all had to be sold.

One night at the lab, a few students and I were sitting around and the topic of whether our blankets were laundered came up in the conversation. Some students were disgusted at the thought of touching blankets that had touched other people. “They should at least wash the blankets when people move out, right?” One complained. I retorted, more sharply than what was merited, “Americans are so entitled. They complain when they don’t get dessert or when there’s too much meat or too little meat. Don’t you see we are rich people living in a curated environment for our richness? When we travel, aren’t we just seeing all the parts of the country polished up for us to enjoy? Is it even possible for us to experience Madagascar the way the people who live here experience it? Just outside this bubble, people of this country don’t even have warm blankets. So I’m okay with putting a sheet between me and my dirty blanket, thanks.” I don’t think I’m very good at making friends.

On the other hand, I also wonder if it’s ridiculous that I feel guilty for what I have. I have not in the slightest detected any trace of resentment here against me or others for our developed country wealth. None of the people I have talked to here blame other countries for the state of Madagascar’s economy (even though I do). In fact, one coworker I talked to pointed only at the corruption in the government bureaucracy. And none of my friends from Madagascar have complained even once about the incredibly unfair disparity between the opportunities given them and given us. Actually, my coworkers are happy with where they are, actively moving and shaping their world, and getting meaningful experiences. It’s an elephant in the room maybe to me, but am I blowing an issue out of proportion? Nobody is asking me to feel all these things or to do anything out of pity, nor is this a country to be pitied. This is a country like any other, with its good and bad, and with incredible people that I’m very happy to call my friends. I don’t want to paint a caricature of it just because my thoughts boil over at me at night, when I write these blog posts. So don’t take my musings as anything more than what’s viewed through my particular, neurotic kaleidoscope.

I felt that God gave me an exceedingly precious opportunity to break out of the vazaha bubble. Two of our coworkers regularly attend a Christian meeting every week, and they brought me and my classmate along. The whole sermon was in Malagasy, punctuated by some truly beautiful songs and much prayer. When they read verses, I flipped to the same ones in English. When they sang hymns, I found the corresponding hymn (with the same tune, at the very least) in my English hymnal. The whole time I had a sense that the Christ in me was full of joy to be with the Christ in all the believers around me, finally, after a month of not being with other Christians. Here there is no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no free, no male, no female, but Christ is all and in all! And I learned how to say O Lord Jesus: O Tompo Jesosy (pronunciation: oo TOOMpoo dzeSOHsee)! And to make the Lord your Lord, you just need to say Tompoko (pronounced TOOMpookoo) instead of just Tompo. God: Andriamanitra (syllables are dropped, it’s pronounced andramiNEEch). My God: Andriamanitrako. After the meeting, my heart was warmed by the members introducing themselves by family, and by the playful daughters of the pastor, who laughed when I made silly faces at them. The owner of the meeting place, a hotel, ended up giving us all a ride back to town, saving us a 6 km walk. Madagascar is beautiful, but the Christ in Madagascar is more beautiful.

*wordplay intended.

P.S. I misspelled some Malagasy words in previous posts. Just forgive me. I don’t have the emotional energy to go back and edit. If you go to Madagascar, learn phrases from the locals, not my blog posts. I sincerely apologize to anyone who speaks Malagasy. This is the blind leading the blind.

°upon request, I marked the words I made up for linguistic convenience.

Scrobbles: mindless musing. Like nonfiction drabbles.

Preponderous: slow, ambling

Spudly: relating to potatoes.

Kampfing: struggling. Kampf=struggle (German)

False dichotomies, errant wordsmanship, slapdash musings.