8 More Things Madagascar Has Taught Me

It’s been two years since I boarded that plane at JFK and headed to a part of the world I wasn’t sure I was ever going to see. 24 months of speaking a different language, eating new foods, and learning different customs. 730 days of new challenges. In some ways, I can’t believe that this time has passed so quickly. In other ways, it seems that I have been here for longer than two years. But as I near the end of my service, with only a few months remaining of my time here, I find myself reflecting on all the little lessons Madagascar has taught me. I could ramble on for pages about how my perceptions, ideals, and values have been challenged during these two years. And maybe someday I will. But for now, here’s a list of the things Madagascar has taught that I’m able to fully articulate at this point.

1. Movies and music can be used to learn about different cultures

Somethings about America are just too hard to explain without having an example. How is American football different from futbol (soccer)? What do you mean not everywhere looks like New York City or Seattle? What does Christmas look like in America? These and many other cultural differences (some I didn’t even initially think of) have been so much easier to explain and discuss through the medium of movies, music, and music videos.

I think one of my favorite movies I showed in my film club was the Christmas movie “Elf.” I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received, and if the students were going to be able to follow along with the story. But after some explaining on my part about the traditions and stories surrounding Santa Claus, elves, and how those are incorporated into American culture, they followed along pretty well. And they enjoyed it a lot. It’s been rewarding to see their perceptions about traditions and social norms challenged, and their curiosity grow through the films I’ve gotten to show them. Additionally, it is a personal fulfillment for me to share and see people enjoy a part of my culture that I enjoy so much.

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Showing “Wonder Woman” to my students on International Women’s Day. For a predominately misogynistic culture, this movie really challenges the way they view gender roles.  

2. Fresh fruit is the best fruit

There are many things that worry me about readjusting to living back in the states. Will I have a job? Do I need to buy a car? What cultural shocks are going to rock me? But one of my biggest worries is: What if I don’t like fruit in the states anymore?

I’ve gotten so used to the abundance of fresh fruit here. No preservatives. No chemicals. Just fresh, good, natural fruit. Not only is it my cheapest grocery purchase, but it’s a food source I’ve become very dependent on. I don’t know for sure if fruit in the states will taste different than it does here, but I’m certainly afraid it will. I’m afraid that I won’t enjoy it as much as I do here. That I’ll become a fruit snob—something I already suffer from because I live on the coast of Madagascar and the variety of cheap tropical fruits that grow here makes me turn my nose up at the limited options offered in other parts of the island.

I’ve never been a fan of the whole “organic/whole foods” craze or the people who live by it, but I’m already researching places near my hometown where I can buy produce that’s not from a supermarket (and hopefully won’t break my bank). Should’ve known Peace Corps was going to turn me into a crunchy granola snob.

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There are many fruits I’ll miss, but none as much as the wonderful lychee!

3. Cyclones aren’t that scary

Obviously, a difference in living conditions or where one is located in the place a cyclone is hitting can be the deciding factor about whether a cyclone (or any natural disaster) is scary or not. I am not dismissing that, as for some, cyclones are very serious business. And I am also aware that due to my privileges, the consequences of a cyclone may not be as intimidating to me.

That being said, even the Malagasy handle the news of an incoming cyclone with a surprising amount of calm. Perhaps I’ve watched too many movies, but my idea of “preparing for the passing of a storm” is very different from my neighbors’ idea of it. I guess I just imagined a lot more chaos. But in reality it rains very hard, the wind blows even harder, and you’re only option is to just sit and wait until it’s calm enough for you to go out and grab enough food to last you through the next bout.

More often than not, I’ve found it’s the aftermath of the cyclone that’s scarier to deal with. Broken or flooded roads make travelling to or from my site scary and unpredictable, and I’m not sure what sort of state my house will be in. So in that sense, yes, cyclones are scary. But I think sometimes international news enjoys overdramatizing the “horror” of natural disasters, especially when they occur in “developing countries.” Yes, they can be catastrophic, but people become normalized to them. In fact there is a “cyclone season” in many parts of Madagascar. Rather than feeling sorry for them, I admire the Malagasy people for their perseverance and adaptability to the constant destruction that threatens to complicate their everyday life.

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The constant rains and cyclones during cyclone season make the road almost impassible. A typically two-hour trip turns into five hours.

 4. “Loosey-goosey” is an inappropriate phrase

While chickens may be descended from dinosaurs, geese are just upright terrifying. Yes it is a matter of opinion, and I understand some may find the creatures cute. But no one can doubt that when those buggers lower their grossly long necks, hissing and shaking their bodies while chasing after you, the term “loosey-goosey” is far from accurate. Add all these things to the fact that geese can be about the size of a small child, and probably stronger than one, I think you’ll agree that this phrase has Americans ill-informed about the nature of these aggressive fowls.

5. A person really only needs five outfits

The amount of clothes I came here with versus the amount I actually wear is…embarrassing. When my dad and sister came to visit me last July, I sent them home with a suitcase full of clothes (and other things I didn’t need anymore). I still have a large suitcase and a good-sized duffle bag full of clothes. It’s pretty ridiculous.

We all know the toxic nature of American consumerism and that we all have much more than we need. Clothes are no exception to this. Yes, you need different clothes for different seasons. Yes, the standards of professionalism may be different from society to society. But really, truthfully, a person doesn’t need as many clothes as the average American has. I have gotten by wearing basically the same thing every week. This includes a teaching outfit, a workout outfit, and casual clothes. I basically rotate the same three pairs of bottoms with four or five tops. And it satisfies all my needs as well as meets the cultural/social standards of my environment.

If social constructs (including the “need” for self-expression and expression of wealth) didn’t create a desire for us to have a variety and abundance of clothes, I think people could easily get by with only a few outfits a year.

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The exception to this revelation is when you receive free T-shirts, of course.

6. Behaviors are conditioned by temperatures and seasons

As I am writing this, it is winter in Madagascar. Like at home, this means the days get a little shorter and a lot cooler. The brisk mornings and cool evenings have me daydreaming about roaring fires, hot chocolate, and snuggling in to watch Christmas movies. The only problem is that it’s June, and the appropriate time for those types of activities are still months away. (Although, if you know me and my family well enough, you may not be surprised if you saw us watching a Christmas movie in June).

Those nostalgic thoughts made me realize just how much we are conditioned by the seasons of the places where we live. This has happened to me before, and even happens at home from time to time when an abnormally cold day during summer has me desiring to do fall activities. But I think because the seasons are opposite here these nostalgic feelings seem even more out of place. While family and friends back home are finishing up school and beginning summer BBQs, I’m cozied up in my little house with a cup of tea and talking myself out of watching a Christmas movie. I wonder when I am back in the states if certain temperatures will have me reminiscing of what I’d be doing in Madagascar on that day.

7. Americans are exposed to a lot

Through conversations with Malagasy as well as other volunteers, I’ve realized how much knowledge (useless or otherwise) Americans possess simply from growing up and being exposed to so much: television, movies, music, books, the internet, news, school. All these mediums are facilitators of knowledge that we often take for granted. But through my interactions with people here, I’ve realized how much I know not necessarily because I learned it in school, but because I have so much stimulation being thrown at me all the time.

This realization has hit me several times during my film club. I’ve realized that cultural differences also mean differences in not only what we’re taught, but how we acquire knowledge. For example, when I showed my students “Wonder Woman,” I didn’t initially realize how much background knowledge they needed to understand the story. I had to explain (to the best of my ability) what superheroes are and about Greek mythology. These are two things that are just a part of my culture and growing up. And even if I don’t know all about Greek mythology—I do know quite a bit, though, because I’m a nerd—exposure to television and shows would have supplied me with enough understanding to follow the premise of the movie. They don’t have that kind of exposure here. I’ve learned to appreciate just how much knowledge, and opportunities to learn, I have accessible to me.

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Volunteers from my region visited my site to help paint a mural on the local library explaining how malaria can be spread from person to person. With no access to the internet and limited exposure to other sources of information, rural areas rely on PSAs to be educated on important issues.

8. If Americans are exposed to a lot…why are we so ignorant?

I suppose this isn’t something Madagascar has taught as much as made me more aware of. I could ramble on about this for pages, but instead I’ll keep my realization short and blunt. It’s pretty ridiculous how ignorant we (Americans) are of the world. Not all of us. But enough of us. Myself included. With so much knowledge and information accessible to us, literally at our fingertips, we really have no excuse to be so unaware of the rest of the world. No excuse except arrogance and laziness.

Obviously, no one can know everything. And not everyone can have the experiences I have had, that helped me grow in my perception of the world. I realize I am truly blessed. But as I hear of the changes happening back home, of what our country is turning into, it makes me a bit afraid. Afraid of the types of conversations I may have with people where I must choose to hold my tongue or else risk offending that person. I’m afraid of coming off as pretentious even when I’m not trying to be. I have so so so much more to learn about the world that this little taste has made me hungry for more. I wish that America, as a whole, had that desire as well. Again, I know there are people in America who are not ignorant and who do have that desire. But if we continue to generalize other populations that do not fit into our “Great America,” then I’m going to do the same. Because what I see America turning into, the ideals and values we represent is not something I’m necessarily proud to be a part of it. And I want to be proud of my country.

The good thing is the solution is simple. People have the access to information. People have the opportunity to broaden their global views. Luckily, we have organizations such as Peace Corps that encourage positive cultural exchange. My hope is that those who have taken the time to read my stories and look through my pictures get a glimpse beyond the world they know. And perhaps, be inspired to pursue their own cross-cultural experiences—whether that is in a country halfway across the world, or in the next town over.

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Adventure is out there.

 

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”

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You Can Take the Girl Out of the Country, But You Can’t Take the Country Out of the Girl

7 similarities between the countryside of eastern Washington and the ambanivolo of eastern Madagascar

While I may be an ocean and a continent away from my hometown, it has not escaped my attention that I left one small town only to be plopped into another small town. Ampasimanjeva and Madagascar are so different from Coulee City, Washington in numerous ways. However, there are more similarities than you think there might be between a small farming town in eastern Washington and a town in the ambanivolo[1] of the Sud Est. And in some ways, it seems my upbringing prepared me for life in another country.

1. Sports are more important than school.

My high school has this small break in March officially called “Mid-Winter Break.” It just so happens that this “Mid-Winter Break” conveniently falls on the same days as the WIAA 2B Basketball State Championship Tournament. While the idea is to have these two or three days set aside in case of snow days, I clearly remember in my junior year having to go to school two more days after our “official” end date in June to make up for the snow days we had had in January. Our teams had also gone to state that year. A more accurate name for this break would be “Because Ball is Life Break.”

I understand why the break is there. For one, my school was so small that if both the girls and boys teams made it to the tourney (which both often did), about a third of the school is gone. Additionally, the three towns that make up my high school all but shut down during the state tournament as everyone moves to Spokane for a few days to cheer on sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters, grandchildren, cousins, etc. In the small country towns in eastern Washington, high school sports really are a community pass-time.

The same can be said for the Malagasy countryside town I live in. Football—what we call soccer but I’ve gotten so used to calling it football that soccer just sounds weird—is easily the favorite sport of Ampasimanjeva residents. There are always multiple games on Saturdays and Sundays, and almost everyone goes to sit in the grass and watch for hours.

In the Malagasy school system, there is a week in February called “Journées des écoles.” I equate it to the American school system tradition of homecoming. Although I’ve found each school has their own way of recognizing and celebrating Journées des écoles, overall it is a time for performances, competitions, and for teachers and students to celebrate together. My school cancels classes for the week, and instead has a series of sports competitions between the classes throughout the week, ending with an awards ceremony and dance party on Friday. The biggest event is—you guessed it!—the football tournament between the classes. This tournament begins in January with the semi-finals and finals occurring on the week of Journées des écoles. More than once, classes were canceled to accommodate for matches being missed due to weather or schedule confusion. As I sat in a teacher meeting and heard I would not be teaching that Tuesday afternoon so that the girls’ match that was missed last week could be held, I wondered if humans just like to think we’re all different.

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Last year for Journées des écoles the high school teachers played a match against the middle school teachers. They didn’t ask me to play this year for some reason…

2. You fall asleep and wake up to the sound of animals.

I remember one of the first things I noticed when I had moved from urban California to rural Washington was the lack of police sirens at night. But it wasn’t as if nights remained quiet in Coulee City. Those sounds had just been replaced with others. And it’s the same with Madagascar. There are still noises that lull me to sleep and noises that wake me up: dogs and rats at night, roosters and cows in the morning.

I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to not hear a rooster crowing in the morning. But not in the cute, cartoony way as the sun comes up. Oh no. Those guys start their cries as early as 3am. And it’s not just one rooster. Because my neighbor’s rooster has to answer the call of the first, then the rooster across the road has to answer that one’s call, then one that sounds like it could be in the other town answers that one’s call, and so the song continues. To be honest, the sound of the cows mooing is a more accurate indicator that it’s time for me to get up. Because at least I know those animal noises have a human walking with them.

In Coulee City, other than the birds and my family’s dogs, there aren’t too many animal sounds in the morning. At night, however, the coyotes can get loud. So loud that it almost felt as if they’d be in my yard (and they could’ve been). Similar to the roosters, it’s more of the continuity of the coyotes’ call from one coyote to another that’s annoying rather than the call itself. Or when a pack is hunting and all their yelps and howls join together to make an eerie kind of chorus.

3. Anything can be used for transportation.

The Malagasy take the cake on this one. I’ve seen it all. Tractors, ATVs, rickshaws of the man-powered and cycle-powered variety, mototaxis, tuk-tuks, three people on a bicycle, an ox-drawn cart, a tractor pulling a trailer full of people, a pallet of wood with wheels and a jimmy-rigged steering wheel that’s usually used to push jerry cans of water or sacks of rice up the hill, a jerry can cut in half with a string attached to it acting as a wagon of sorts for the older sibling to pull their sibling along the road. If it can get you from point A to point B, no matter how many times it breaks down, it’ll do.

Back home too, I was used to seeing ATVs and gator utility vehicles parked outside the local grocery store. Before I could legally drive, I’d take the ATV to my grandma’s house. With a lack of law enforcements and a lack of people, it’s easier to get away with ways of transportation that perhaps are not the safest. But hey, people gotta get to where they need to go!

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While this sarety is one used for tourists, people do often use an ox-drawn cart as a means of travel between communities. Or to haul supplies to and from the fields.

4. Word travels fast.

My go-to line when describing Coulee City to others is that it’s a place where “People know your business before you do.” That is to say, word travels fast in a small town. And there are no secrets you have that at least half the town doesn’t know about as well. I found out about many of the happenings in town, the gossip of peoples’ lives, was while I was working. Whether it was from my co-workers or the customers, more than a few times I’ve somehow conveyed that I wanted to hear their or another person’s life story. And about mid-way through the conversation I’d get a feeling “Shoot, this isn’t something I should be hearing.” Just like high school sports, town gossip is a community pass-time.

It is so much the same here. Add the small town factor to the bluntness of Malagasy culture and you find yourself hearing things you definitely shouldn’t have heard, or didn’t need to hear. Even if I don’t completely understand all that’s being said in a conversation between two of my neighbors, the hushed voices and subtle sounds of astonishment give it away. Even the lady who owns the hotel I frequent in my banking town feels the need to tell me gossip about people I haven’t even met.

I think my “People know your business before you do” phrase probably applies even more appropriately to Ampasimanjeva. Part of this is just the living circumstances. My neighbors know when I’m sick because, well, the bathroom is outside of my house. People know when I’ve gone to the market or to Manakara or to the river because I likely passed someone on the way who knows me. And by “know me” I mean they know I’m the foreigner that lives near the high school. My routine is so well known to my neighbors that they wish me safe travels before I’ve even gotten the chance to tell them I was leaving the next day.

5. It takes forever to get anywhere.

This is pretty self-explanatory. Ampasimanjeva is about 12km away from the main road. Main meaning paved. The 12km of dirt and mud to get the main road is distance enough to separate me from the towns that lay along the RN12 (Route Nationale 12). Additionally, the RN12 is the only road that runs through the Sud Est. So in order to get to another part of the country, you have to travel up to Fianarantsoa (about 6-8 hours from my site) and then connect to another road there.

I’ll say the long travelling, though significantly tougher and longer here, was probably one of the easiest adjustments for me since I was already used to having to drive 30 minutes to the nearest Wal-Mart and 2 hours for the nearest mall.

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Rough road conditions turn short distances into long travel days. 

6. The stars are amazing.

The stars are one of my favorite things about living in Coulee City. I’ve spent countless nights sitting in the hot tub outside my parents’ house, all the lights in the house off, and getting lost in the night sky. It has always amazed me that the longer you stare at the stars the more and more begin to appear. Thanks to the lack of light pollution, I was able to see the Milky Way galaxy on any given night and maybe even spot a planet or two.

But the stars here are on a whole other level. They actually twinkle here. Not sort of glimmer or shimmer. I’m saying full-on, straight out of a Disney movie level twinkling here (yes, of course I’m thinking about the Lion King). I wish those of you haven’t seen it could because it’s always a magical experience. There’s almost too much going on in the night sky that I often find myself giving up my gaze because I can’t take grasp it all. There are these stars or planets (I literally have no idea what they are) that flash blue and red colors. There’s almost always one in the sky. Sometimes there’s multiple. I call them party planets because that’s what it looks like to me—like the inhabitants on that burning ball of gas are having a rager, and the red and blue colors I see are from that. I’ve seen the Milky Way in even more clarity. I’ve seen the bursting light from a planet exploding. I’ve seen so many shooting stars they almost don’t feel special anymore.

There are so many things I am going to miss about Madagascar. The night sky and the stars are EASILY in my top ten if not my top five. I don’t know if I’ll experience anything like it ever again.

7. When something happens, the community feels it.

A few weeks ago, the mother of one of my students passed away. In Malagasy culture, it’s tradition for everyone to go visit and pay their respects to the deceased and their family. Even if you don’t necessarily know the person who passed, you make time to stop by and offer some words of comfort and a gift of money. Every fandevenana (funeral) I’ve gone to has been because I knew someone related to the deceased. I go more out of respect for them than for the person who has passed. I find this tradition beautiful. Whether it’s a death or a birth or a sickness or a cause for celebration, people carve time out of their day—sometimes even abandoning responsibilities, such as teaching—to gather with others and visit the person in need of condolence or congratulation. This practice exemplifies the value of community and togetherness that is the backbone of Malagasy culture. And I think that being in a small community within that culture escalates this sense of comradery.

While American tradition does not require you to attend the funeral of someone you don’t know, I think in small towns you still feel the effects of that person’s fortunes and misfortunes. The bonds in a small community are like a spider web. If one strand is struck, it sends vibrations throughout the rest of the web. So even if you are not affected by whatever event has occurred it is likely that you know someone who was, and that does affect you.

Even though I am an ocean and a continent away, I feel the things that happen in my hometown. In the past two years, there have been events that have shaken me because I actually knew the person. And there have been events that shook me not because I was I close with them, but because I knew how much the community must’ve been hurting. The bonds of a small community have, like everything in life, positives and negatives. I think one of the major positives is having the support from almost everyone around you, the way the community comes together in hard times and good times. I owe the people in Coulee City so much for the person I am now. And I will owe the people in Ampasimanjeva so much for who I will be after this whole crazy experience is over.

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The teachers always get together to celebrate the good things in life…like the new year!

 

[1] Ambanivolo literal translates to “under the bamboo” and it used to refer to communities that live within the rainforest. It is equivalent to our use of “the countryside.”

 

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”

Being an Introvert in Peace Corps Madagascar

To be honest, I don’t really like the labels of introvert and extrovert. I think everyone has introvert and extrovert tendencies, and that we tend to lean to one side or the other. Being an introvert doesn’t mean you’re always an introvert; and it’s the same for extroverts. That being said, my personality is made of more introverted tendencies than extroverted tendencies. I (usually) love hanging out with people, but I don’t get recharged from them. My energy comes from alone time—listening to music, watching a movie, reading a book. I’m very comfortable being alone.

During pre-service training (my first three months in Madagascar), I was surprised at myself with how outgoing I was. I attribute part of this change of character to my wonderful stage mates who constantly make me feel it is alright to just be myself. However, even with my stage mates, I found I needed time alone to recharge. This was difficult as our schedules were packed and the free time we did have was often when we were all together. So I really had no choice but to be outgoing because I was constantly around people.

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I’m glad my extroverted side took over during this time because I made some great memories.

Sometimes introverts get bad reputations of being anti-social. This isn’t necessarily true, though I won’t deny I feel anti-social from time to time. It doesn’t mean I hate people. I just need a break from everyone’s energy because it feels like it sucks so much of my own. For example, if someone has a loud and energetic personality, I feel that I need to turn my already calm personality down a few notches in order to compensate or balance out the energy between the two of us or of the group. This is weirdly draining for me. If I am around that type of person for too long, I will literally become exhausted. It’s a personality trait I can’t really control. I’ve tried to match energetic people’s personalities, tried to feed off their energy and become more outgoing as they are, but it doesn’t always work. Therefore, when I’m around a lot of vocal, outgoing people, I’m more likely to be quiet and shy, secretly worrying when it’s an appropriate time to dismiss myself from the situation so I can be alone for a bit.

Now imagine being an introvert in a more homogeneous, mostly extroverted culture. Malagasy culture really values the importance of family and community working and being together. Honestly, I think it is beautiful and refreshing change from the typical individualist and independent values you see emphasized in the states. I certainly have benefited from these ideals as well as learned a lot about the difference in family life and daily life when the success of the community is more important than the individual. However, as someone who was raised in a culture where one is praised for being independent, the day to day emphasis on being a part of the community is tough. When spending a whole day in your house is viewed as a sign that you’re sick, it’s hard to explain that you enjoy working alone or even just relaxing. No, I’m not sad. I’m just enjoying the freedom of being in my own house and on my own schedule.

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What says “introvert” more than relaxing with a cup of tea and a book?

I have no electricity which means every day from about 5am to 7pm my doors and windows are open to allow sunlight into my house. This automatically makes me feel exposed. It informs my neighbors that I’m awake, and an open door is a universal sign that you’re accepting visitors. Therefore, from morning to dusk I basically have no privacy. Additionally, I have to walk through my neighbors’ “yard” to get anywhere. This means they know all my comings and goings. It’s not that I have anything to hide, but that kind of exposure in addition to the feeling that I’m getting judged for everything I do—because I am a vazaha (foreigner)—is extremely draining. In reality, my neighbors probably don’t give as much attention to my actions as I think they do, but it’s how I feel nonetheless. One of the downsides of being an introvert is overthinking and over-analyzing EVERYTHING.

There are probably a total of five people in this world who I could hang out with all day and not feel drained afterwards. This isn’t anyone else’s fault. It’s just how I am. Place me in an unfamiliar culture, speaking a different language, trying to be a constant positive representative of Peace Corps and the U.S., and I’m more than ready to shut my doors and get in bed by 5pm. Sometimes just sitting with people—not even talking with them—is draining. Some days it takes all my will power just to go to the market because I have to mentally prepare myself for the attention I’ll get.

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There’s always someone (many) waiting to play!

I had an experience recently where I went on a day trip with all the teachers of my lycee. As we were sitting at our little bungalow on the beach, a crowd of about 10 local children began forming and stood about a yard away—there was a fence around the bungalow and they stood just on the other side of it—staring. I am used to this as it is normal for me to be watched. Us Peace Corps Volunteers get a lot of stares and attention because 1. We are foreigners, and 2. We are foreigners that speak Malagasy. I’ve gotten so used to being constantly stared at that I honestly didn’t even notice the group of children until one of the teachers, who is Malagasy, saw them and asked, “Mijery ino?” What are they looking at? She said this with a sort of laugh, amused and confused by the gathering of children watching us eat lunch.

I laughed too and they were staring at me. “Mijery ahy.”

You? She asked. Yeah, me. She looked from the children to me a couple times. “Fa maninona?” Why?

I shrugged. “Satria vazaha iaho.” Because I’m a foreigner. “Migaga indreo.” They’re surprised, I said with another shrug. She didn’t say anything to me after this, but I could see a little surprise on her face. I wonder if she recognized a bit of what I go through all the time.

To be honest, I understand the staring. It must be a bit odd to see this tall, pale woman sitting amongst many Malagasy, speaking their language, eating their food. Especially in the ambanivolo (countryside) where vazaha rarely travel, it makes sense for children and adults to stare and try to figure out what’s going on. As I said, I’ve gotten used to it so some days it doesn’t bother me or I don’t even notice it. And some days the constant attention makes me want to curl up in my bed with the doors and windows closed and music blasting in my ears so I can pretend I don’t exist for a little bit.

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My room is their room. #noprivacy

On those days when I do feel especially introverted, it’s hard to execute my usual coping strategies without coming off as rude. When I stay inside my house all day because I literally cannot interact with anyone—Malagasy or American—my neighbors assume I am sick and come to check up on me. It’s very thoughtful, and during the times I am sick I deeply appreciate their concern. However, it’s also a bit awkward as I try to explain that I’m not sick, I only want to be alone. It is not a familiar concept to them. I’ve learned instead to tell them that I am kamo (lazy), and don’t feel like wandering around that day. Usually, they understand this, though they still may judge me a little.

While it’s been a difficult adjustment—more difficult than I anticipated—I have appreciated this experience in forcing me to be more outgoing and self-confident. After almost 20 months in this beautiful country and culture, I have grown to be able to handle myself well in awkward situations. I am unafraid to speak my mind. These character traits were not strengths of mine two years ago. Now, however, they come almost naturally.

That being said, I’ve found that my introverted tendencies sometimes go to the extreme, even more so than they had in the states. It is as if my body is trying to balance the increase of my extroverted side by also increasing my introverted traits. Do people ever really change?

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Watching movies with the kiddos is the best compromise on the days I’m feeling introverted. They’re entertained, I relax. Everyone wins.

All this to say, being independent and an introvert is pretty frikkin tough in a culture that values community and togetherness. As PCVs we’re expected to be the representatives of the U.S. and therefore have an almost celebrity status in the community we serve. Keeping up appearances is taxing. Sometimes it feels more like I’m a spectacle, something to simply be watched and used to attain information, than an actual person. However, none of this is Madagascar or the Malagasy people’s fault. It is simply a clash of cultures and something that’s been a personal hurdle for me. I’ve experienced so much from living here and from integrating into this culture. I’ve gotten over some social anxieties and have even found ways to recharge while still being around people. But I won’t lie, I look forward to the days when I can cuddle up on my couch and watch Netflix or read for hours without neighborhood children peering into my window.

 

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”

A day in the life of

Every day in this country is different. You never really know what to expect. In contrast to the typical American lifestyle, you learn to go with the flow and to not stick to a schedule. In fact, the more you try to have an “organized” day the more frustrating it is because things are just less predictable here. Will I be able to charge my phone today? Will I find the veggies I want at the market? Will my students show up to class? Things like weather, community events, holidays, and—for me, anyway—school schedules have a larger effect on personal lives.

However, despite all these factors I’m constantly trying to stay up to date on (is there another cyclone coming?), I do have a sort of daily and weekly routine at site….more or less.

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My cute little house! It’s ampy (enough).

Morning: Wake up, make coffee, get ready.

On the mornings I teach, I usually set an alarm for 5:30 am. The mornings I don’t teach I let the roosters or cows wake me up—if not the heat. I’m usually up around 6 or 7 am. First: coffee. I heat up water on my gas stove and scoop two spoonfuls of coffee grounds into my coffee sock. In order to get it to the strength I like and need, I usually have to strain it through three times. For breakfast I have one of two things: Bread with cinnamon sugar or oatmeal with cinnamon sugar.

With breakfast made and my coffee mug full, I enjoy the quite of the morning and check my Facebook and Facebook Messenger. I do this until about 6:15. Then, it’s time to start getting ready for my first class at 7.

When I don’t teach, I usually chill in bed on my phone longer and enjoy a lazy morning until I feel motivated to get started on daily chores. Dishes, sweeping the house, putting out my solar panels, fetching water from the well, maybe laundry. I keep myself busy with chores or reading or walking around my little neighborhood next to the school until lunch time.

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Fetching water from the well near my house. Working those shoulder muscles!

Afternoon: Make lunch, nap, chores and free time

I think it’s safe to say most PCV’s days revolve around when the next meal is. I’m finished with morning classes at either 9 or 11, depending on how many classes I teach that day. The lunch period for my lycee is from 11 am until 2 pm because the students have to walk home—some live 3 kilometers away—for lunch. A lunch they probably help make.

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One of my favorite meals to make is coconut curry beans and over rice. So yummy!

The journey to my home is much shorter since I live right next to the lycee. I start prepping for lunch around 11:30—sorting and washing rice, peeling and cutting veggies. After I’ve eaten and checked my social media apps again, my favorite time of day arrives. Nap time.

Of all the things I love about this culture, post-lunch nap time is definitely in the top five. Outside on my sihi (a woven bamboo mat) or inside on my floor, I thoroughly enjoy the 1-2 hours of quiet countryside bliss.

If I have afternoon classes, I rouse from my slumber around 1:15-1:30 pm to mentally and physically prepare myself for my students who have also most likely taken a power nap and are filled with afternoon restlessness. When I don’t teach, I wake up around 2 or 3 pm re-energized and ready to see where the rest of afternoon will take me. Will I have vahiny (guests) stop by to chat? Who should I go visit? Should I do some chores or read or write or just lay here and listen to music?

There’s usually nothing I absolutely have to do, and there’s still so much of the day left. I’ve realized that here the mornings are busy with chores and getting ready for the day. But after lunch the energy of the day just seems to cruise.

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Some days it’s too hot to do anything else but nap.

Evenings: Chores, shower, dinner, me time

This is the time of day when I differ from my Malagasy neighbors. While the general energy seems to slow down during the late afternoon, it always seems to pick up again in the evening. I’m talking at like 7 pm people are bumping music in their house and children are running around screaming outside. Me, on the other hand, I’m ready to be in PJs and chillin in bed by 5:30. Depending on the day (I teach until 6 pm on Mondays), I’ll do my evening chores—washing dishes, sweeping, fetching water from the well—and then take a bucket shower to rinse off all the sweat and dirt from the day.

When it starts getting dark outside, I turn on my solar-powered lights and close up my house. Then I start prepping dinner. I also usually play music while I do this, though at a lower volume than my neighbors do. Once my dinner of either veggies and rice or spaghetti is done, I settle into my bedroom to watch a movie or show. I can’t do this every night because I don’t have electricity and can only charge my computer once a week using the lycee’s solar-powered battery (weather permitting). So sometimes I read or write or listen to podcasts or just scroll through social media. I pretty much do one or a few of these activities until I feel like falling asleep.

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My little kitchen area.

 

 

As I lay in bed I hear the neighbor’s speaker down the road playing Malagasy pop hits or people walking and talking on the road near my house. One thing I had to get used to was how much sound travels in my small little town without any huge buildings to obstruct it. Two people having a conversation in the road some 20 or so feet away from my house sound like they’re standing right in my yard. It used to freak me out, but I’ve gotten used to it and don’t even notice all the noises anymore. Except when it rains.

I have a tin roof so I’m probably one of the first people who knows when the nightly thunderstorm has arrived. Some nights it’s not too loud—just a soft pattering of raindrops. Other nights the rain falls so hard it will wake me up and keep me up until it subsides. Even listening to music or movies is near impossible when a real heavy rain falls.

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Sometimes it’s still hard to believe that I live somewhere so beautiful.

Weekends: Slow mornings, chores, lots of free time

My weekends are Friday to Sunday. I get Fridays off because I sometimes need to travel to my banking town and take out money, and the bank is closed on the weekends. So some Fridays are spent travelling to Manakara to pull out money, check the post office, hop on the WiFi, and do whatever shopping can’t be done in Ampasimanjeva.

Weekends can either be blissful and relaxing, or painstakingly boring and long. I have so much free time. I usually try to sleep in, have a slow morning with a couple cups of coffee and maybe a special pancake or omelet breakfast. If it’s not too hot, I’ll chill in bed reading or on my phone until 8 or 9 am.

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Laundry day! Let’s get sudzzy!

The rest of the morning is for chores I didn’t or couldn’t get done during the week such as laundry, burning trash, and deep cleaning my house. If I don’t go to Manakara, I’ll walk to town and go to the market. My purchases depend on what’s available and how pricey things are. Right now avocados are in season and I can buy three big ones for 500 Ariary (a sixth of a dollar), so I stock up on those. Eggs are a bit expensive right now. 600Ar for chicken eggs, 700Ar for goose eggs. I pass on those and get a kilo of carrots for 3,000Ar instead ($1).

Other “planned” weekend activities are lesson planning, grading (if I have papers to grade), talking to my neighbors, dying of heat, and watching the chickens fight in my yard. I can always expect a group of 4 to 8 children to come by at some point to color or play. The weekends are really the time I just take each moment as it comes.

To be honest, I miss the American lifestyle sometimes. I was raised in a household that was constantly busy so to now live in an environment where I could get away with literally doing nothing for multiple days in a row took some adjusting too. But I think that it’s been healthy change, especially coming here right out of college. It’s been refreshing to just enjoy the day, to let the day happen to me rather than try and make things happen out of my day.

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The market in Ampasimanjeva is always full of people.

 

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”

Another Christmas Card

Where to begin? We’ll start in Ile St. Marie (an island off the north-eastern coast of Madagascar), which is where I was at the beginning of 2017, finishing the last couple days of Christmas vacation in paradise. In true Madagascar fashion, my friends and I ended up getting stuck on the island a day longer than intended—the boat we had been told would be leaving that day apparently didn’t exist. This inevitably caused my travel plans back to site, which is on the south-eastern coast of the country, to be rushed. I ended up making my first long travel adventure of the year—1,106 kilometers over the course of two days. Little did I know, this trip was merely setting the theme for my year.

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“The ocean stirs the heart, inspires the imagination, and brings eternal joy to the soul.” —Wyland

To be honest, January and February where rough months at site. The temperature kept climbing and there was no rain to fill the well near my house, meaning I had to walk to the river to get water every day. This was further complicated when I became sick. I am still not completely sure what this sickness was but my best guess is food poisoning or something caused from drinking/using the water from the river, which was definitely less clean than the water from the well.

March to June flew by with greater ease. The Sud Est beer Olympics, a spring break trip to two national parks, and the bustle of ending the school year made time go by quickly. It was also around this time that I started my film club. I love watching movies and I wanted to share that hoby with my students who may not get the opportunity to see feature-length films very often. Additionally, movies are great way to share American cultures and help them in listening to English. It was awesome to observe the recognition on my students’ faces when they heard certain words or phrases.

Before I knew it, I had a year of teaching under my belt and it was time for Grand Vacance.

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The national parks in Madagascar are one of the best things about this country! Their beauty never fails to leave me speechless.

I feel the “ideal volunteer” wouldn’t say that months away from their site were their favorite part of the year. But, if I am being honest, I had an amazing summer traveling around this beautiful country. Starting with my family’s visit in July and ending with swimming with whale sharks in Nosy Be, the three-month break between the school years will be a time I remember forever. I could write for pages about all the things I got to do and see during that time, but you can read a quick recount of it here.

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The city of Diego was definitely a highlight of my travels this year. I hope to return once more before leaving this country.

I’ve given myself the title of “Brousse Queen,” and I think those friends who know about the extent of my travels this year would agree with the title. I traveled a total of 24,578 km this year (about 15,272 miles). 9,200 of those kilometers were traveled over Grand Vacance. Starting in the centrally located capital of Antananarivo, I made my way down to the South West, hopped back over to the Sud Est for a quick visit, scrambled back up to the highlands, made a straight shot for Diego—the northern most part of the country, back-tracked a bit and climbed up the North East coast, returned to central highlands for our Mid-Service Conference, sprinted back up north to the island of Nosy Be, and then, finally, made the long haul back down to my home in the Sud Est.

You have to understand that more than the half of this travelling was done in a taxi brousse—which is, more or less, a van typically crammed five to a row when it should really seat three or four. They are not comfortable, but not always miserable either. Some are worse than others. My worst brousse experience this year was actually on my way back down to the Sud Est when I had finished my vacation travels. The brousse broke down about an hour outside of Antananarivo around 5pm. Four hours later, another brousse showed up, and luggage and people began moving over. This took another two and a half hours to complete as the unpacking and packing processes of brousses are lengthy. All the entina (luggage) is tied to the top of the brousse and covered with a tarp to protect from rain and other elements. Especially for longer travels, the entina needs to be tightly and securely packed. And because we were leaving the capital, much of the entina consisted of pieces of furniture or gunny sacks full of wares that where either purchased in bulk in the place of departure or else are waiting to be sold at the place of arrival. Therefore, the process was more complicated than moving a few suitcases. Considering it was 9 pm when the replacement brousse arrived, the darkness and cold weren’t making the process go any smoother. Freezing and tired, I climbed back into the brousse around 11:30 p.m. and we were off.  I arrived in Manakara (my “banking town” located about 72k from my site) at about 4pm the next day, making it a 24-hour trip instead of the typical 15 hours.

This is just one horror story. There were others throughout the summer. But, for the most part, most of my brousse rides aren’t this exciting.

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The view of a typical “full” brousse from the back seat.

Back at site in October, I came into the new school year feeling refreshed and prepared. The difference between the first year of teaching and the second is astounding. I believe the main difference is confidence. I felt surer of what I was doing this go around, my Malagasy was much more advanced than the first year, and most of the students were already used to the weird vazaha (foreigner) and her even stranger teaching methods.

The first semester is tricky because it is so short. Additionally, the first few weeks are about establishing classroom fomba (culture) and gauging each class’ level of English. I feel I have barely scratched the surface of what I would like to get done in this last year of service. And I’m already going on vacation again!

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I can always count on this welcoming party and their enthusiasm for coloring.

There’s so much I’ve learned in this year and in the 18 months I’ve been in this country—too much to list here as this blog post is already lengthy. If I could simplify, I would say I’ve learned the value of patience, the benefit of self-confidence, the beauty of learning, and the necessity of kinship.

My dad and my sister can attest to the ways I have changed—the ways this experience and this country have changed me. I feel these changes are all for the better. At this time next year, I will be in the coziness of my parents’ house with unlimited WiFi, probably stuffed from over-eating. At that time, I expect I’ll feel overwhelming gratefulness—a gratefulness that could only have come from the humbling and strengthening experience of living in Madagascar.

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Tratry ny Krismasy! (Merry Christmas!)

 

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”

A Mada Thanksgiving

As a purely American holiday, Thanksgiving can be a bit awkward to celebrate. It’s hard to explain to your neighbors and friends what it’s about (let’s be honest, not many AMERICANS really know what it’s about), you don’t get half the week off of work or school, it is extremely hot, and finding a turkey can be extremely challenging. Despite all these obstacles, I have had amazing Thanksgivings these past two years. They’ve been “non-traditional” for sure, but that’s also what makes them memorable.

Getting Ingredients: Not as easy as going to your local supermarket, but probably the easiest part of the meal preparations. Most of the fixings can be found in the market—vegetables, herbs and spices, bread, eggs, even flour. Once you bargain down the prices, you’re pretty much good to go.

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First step: set out all the ingredients.

Finding a turkey is a little trickier. Last year, my friend Bridgett purchased one in the town Fianarantsoa, holding it on her lap for the 6 hour taxi brousse ride to Manakara. This year, we weren’t as lucky to have the turkey delivered to us. Instead, we decided to go with local cuisine and dined on shrimp in coconut sauce.

For dishes that require more complex ingredients—such as green bean casserole or pumpkin pie—we rely on the grace of care packages to have the pre-made mixtures we need. Ingredients that can’t be found in the market or haven’t been provided by the generosity of friends and family in the states can usually be bought in what we call “vazaha (foreigner) stores.” These are small shops—usually no bigger than a convenience store—that carry expensive things like butter, milk, chips, and chocolate.

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Thanks to our Sud Est zoky (older sibling) Bri for sending us pumpkin pie filling!

With all ingredients collected, it’s time to get cookin’!

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The hotel let us use their kitchen to make our feast. They watched us curiously as we made our dishes and sang along to Christmas music.

Everything is cooked using charbon (carbonized wood), which takes a bit longer. The turkey—if you got one—is the hardest to cook. The year we had a turkey, we made an underground oven in the sand and let it bake in there for about six hours. This is after killing, plucking, and gutting the turkey ourselves, of course. Dishes like mashed potatoes and vegetables are fairly easy to make. Other classic sides such as green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, and gravy take a little more effort. With these, we hope some mom thought ahead and sent a package of gravy mix or cream of mushroom.

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Plucking the turkey is tedious, but also kinda fun!

For me, eggnog is essential for a proper Thanksgiving meal. Having made eggnog once in the states, I knew it could be done here in Madagascar. I’ve now made eggnog three times in this country, and it gets better with every batch. I guess it was fate that I was placed in a town that is a main producer of jirofo (cloves) in the Sud Est as cloves are essential for the creamy holiday drink. The only down side is almost all the ingredients for eggnog—mainly milk, cream, and, well, eggs—are pretty expensive. But it’s worth it for a taste of home.

With all hands on deck, the food prep usually gets done fairly quickly and enough snacks and drinks were made along the way to help suppress the hunger until dinner is served. The main struggle is having enough pots and dishes to keep all the food in and keep it warm as other things are cooking.

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Nog Nog Nog

The Feast: While a tedious, time-consuming meal almost always feels satisfying to eat, I’d say the feeling is ten times more so here in Madagascar. No time is this more true than at Thanksgiving because the dishes require ingredients that are hard to acquire and more complicated cooking techniques.

Setting the table mostly comprises of making sure everyone has at least a spoon and some sort of vessel on which to put their food. No fine China, but we make do with pot lids for plates and Solo Cups for champagne glasses. Flowers picked from a nearby tree and shells from the beach make appropriate table decorations.

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Lychees and flowers acted as our (edible) table decorations this year.

In a place with no microwaves, it is important to eat while it’s hot. Serving the food comes first. Speeches come later. Both the Thanksgivings I’ve spent here have upheld the tradition I grew up with of everyone sharing what they are thankful for. And in this setting, with all of us miles and miles away from home, the things we are thankful seem a bit more meaningful. Because when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter if the pie crust is burnt or there’s no turkey or the Thanksgiving meal is on a Saturday. What’s important at Thanksgiving is enjoying one another’s company, sharing stories, and remembering all that there is to be thankful for.

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Happy Holidays from the Sud Est!

 

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”

Home is Where the Ampaly Be is

When I first got to Madagascar, I remember being surprised at the diversity of the land, the people, and the culture. During the three months off from school, referred to here as “Grand Vacances,” I was able to travel to almost all corners of this big beautiful island. In doing so, I really got to appreciate and experience more of the rich diversity of Madagascar.

North

Oh the North! The place I probably fell in love with the most. The food, the beach, the people were flavorful and bright. It is here that you find coconut rice, the Emerald Sea, dite kola, whale sharks, and yummy yummy street food! The places I visited in the North were full of life and energy. There was always something to do.

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Beers, brochettes, and good conversations to end a day at the beach.

The only thing I didn’t (initially) love was the language. Malagasy has 18 dialects. The differences from dialect to dialect can be intense depending what region you’re in. So, me being from the southeast part of the country, trying to understand people in the northernmost part of the country made me feel incompetent in my Malagasy. I felt like a southern small town girl finding herself in New York City. But after a couple of weeks I was able to pick up a bit of the Sakalava dialect. I even miss it in some ways.

The north surprised me by how dry it was. Along the coast, it gets a bit more green and humid. But Diego was surprisingly more desert-like rather than tropical. It actually reminded me a lot of eastern Washington. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I fell in love with it.

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The contrast between the dry land and the turquoise ocean was stunning!

[North] East

I had already visited the northeast once before this Grand Vacances. I spent Christmas in the small surfing town of Mahambo and New Year’s on Isle Saint Marie. This time around, I visited my friend Claire’s site. Upon arriving, I remembered how on my last trip this area reminded me so much of where I live in the southeast. After travelling around a bit, it was nice to feel at home.

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It just keeps going and going…

The east coast definitely has the tropical island look that most people probably imagine Madagascar to be. Beach quickly leads into thick vegetation consisting of palm trees, traveler’s palm, and banana trees. Rivers snake their way down hills and through forests toward the ocean. On the banks of these rivers are towns with houses made from the wood and leaves of those trees.

It’s easy to just go for strolls along the footpaths that lead into the hills, find a spot under some type of fruit tree, and look out over the seemingly endless untouched land.

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A very nice chatting spot. Probably an even better reading spot!

Highlands

My only beef with the highlands is that it’s frikkin cold. It was in the height of the highlands that I spent my first three months in Madagascar. It was a frikkin cold three months. But the cold compliments the area well.

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Little communities can be found at the base of almost every hill.

Whereas the North reminds me of eastern Washington, the highlands remind me of western Washington. The weather, the more “mountainous” terrain, and the abundance of pine trees are the main contributors for this familiarity. Whenever I travel to the highlands from the southeast, it almost feels like I’ve entered a different country. The landscape is just that different. The people are also different from where I live. They’re a lot smaller in every proportion; they speak quietly and are so very polite. There are also a lot of people in the highlands. It could be argued that this area is the most developed in Madagascar.

Although I am happy I do not live there, the highlands have a sort of magic to them. The hills, whether dry or lush, are always beautiful and have a way of capturing sunsets that the coast can’t. You don’t have to wander very far to find a lake or cool rock formation.

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They’re not quite mountains, but they’ll do.

[South] West

While my sister and my dad were here, we made the long trek down to Toliara. It was my first time being that far west and it was cool to see a change in vegetation, infrastructure, and people I had not yet seen before. The highlands are pretty dry but as you come down from the plateau toward the west coast, it gets even dryer. I saw a breed of palm trees I had never seen before. Hills dissipated into flat sand patches that seemed to stretch on forever. It was the first time I realized a desert could be so close to the coast. This mix of ecosystems makes for an interesting contrast. Walk 10 kilometers from the beach and palm trees will turn to baobab trees. Step away from the water and the air changes from humid to dry. It was a different type of beauty I had not witnessed in this country.

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Baobabs can range from 5 meters to 30 meters in height!

And it was hot. Very hot. I went to bed each night feeling that type of exhaustion only the heat and the sun can make you feel. But luckily, the ocean or a refreshing beer was never too far.

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Paradise.

Sud Est

While taking a hike with my friend Claire at her site she said: “Being other places makes me more thankful about where I live.”

As I made the descent from the dry and cold highlands, and through the rainforest of Ranomafana, I was finally greeted by the ravinalas and the tropically green warmth of the Sud Est. When I hopped off the brousse in Analavory (the crossroads from the main road to my town) I was filled with unexpected joy when I heard the greeting “Akory aby?” Ahhhh…that’s my greeting. I understand this dialect.

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Almost home!

As I walked down the dusty road of my town, I was greeted with the Christmassy smell of jirofo (cloves) drying in the sun. I saw the huge ampaly be (jackfruit) hanging from the trees along the road and remembered that their season was starting. Hopefully my neighbors would bring me one in the next couple of days. The river that runs along my town was lower than when I had left, but it is the dry season after all. I know as soon as I get into my house the kids will come over, asking to color.

I thought of what Claire said and felt the same. Being able to travel around Madagascar gave me a greater appreciation for its beauty. I feel in love with it even more. But it also helped me recognize the parts of my region that I really really love. The parts that have become normal and home for me.

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They did ask to color, and I let them. Who could say no to those faces??

 

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps”