Envision the cold, rainy, mountainous training village of Mantasoa that I described in my last entry. Feel the mud seeping through your last pair of clean pants as the highland wind chills your face and hands. Search the sky for a break in the clouds that may produce beams of that heavenly miracle you once knew as sunshine.
Now, picture the exact opposite of that.
Indeed boys and girls, that is my site. After I swear in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) a month from now, I will be living and working in a tropical paradise for the next two years. Okay, so it won't actually be a huge diversion from the general environment I've inhabited for the majority of the past 5 years, but maybe it just seems so drastic a change in comparison to Mantasoa.
Regardless, I've been on a site visit for the past week, and I've got to say that I couldn't be more in love with my future home. I flew down here with fellow trainees Israel (who will be teaching at the local high school) and Paul (who will be teaching in a town about 6 hrs west of here) and with one of our trainers who is from this area. The first thing I thought as we exited the plane was, "Oh my God, I'm back in Hawaii." The town is located on a small penninsula and blocked in by mountains, so it actually has that secluded atmosphere that gives it a very small island-esque feel. The beaches are absolutely gorgeous, the streets are filled with sand instead of mud, and the climate stays warm with relatively low humidity year-round, with rainy and dry seasons. The people, culture, and town itself, however, remind me much more of a Caribbean island. The people are much more African-looking than the Merina of Mantasoa (my host mom could be at home anywhere from the Philippines, to Peru, to Tahiti) or even the Tanala/Betsileo in Ranomafana. Women wear brightly colored lambas and skirts with t-shirts or tank tops. I've seen many women sport brightly colored face paints that I've heard are used to protect their skin from the sun. Guys wear shorts with t-shirts or otherwise sleeveless shirts. Everyone wears slippers. Rasta style is extremely common, though I don't know if this is just the "look" (I’m sure it is for most people) or if there are actual Rastafari here. Everywhere you look you can find someone with dreads, beaded hemp jewelry, or a Bob Marley lamba. Surfing is also big here (I'll admit, I didn't even know surf culture exited in Madagascar until I arrived last week).
I could go on and on about the city, but I'm sure there'll be more time for that in the future. The actual whereabouts of my house seriously could not be more perfect. Without going into too much detail about the specific location, I'm right on the coast near the school where I'll be teaching. I've actually got two houses right now - my official house is undergoing major renovation and may not be ready until much later in the school year. Both houses are basically mansions by Peace Corps standards (and by most Americans' standards as well) and are located on top of a Wuthering Heights-reminiscent cliff. My official house has 7 rooms, a wrap-around lanai with STUNNING views of the ocean (you can whale-watch off my front porch!). I assume there’s no need to describe my overwhelming shock, as I told most of you that I’d probably be living in a tiny 1 or 2 room house with no running water or electricity. There's an amazing local beach that's great for swimming just down a small path. The location is offset from the town center and touristy areas, which is awesome because it maintains that small-village feel with all the benefits of a small city are in close proximity.
My site and assignment are considered by many to be the crème de la crème of PC Madagascar, but there are pros and cons to being placed in such a large, touristy town. I definitely won't get the same cultural (or what many would call "traditional Peace Corps") experience that volunteers in smaller communities will have. I'll be able to establish somewhat of a presence in the community, but not nearly to the extent I expected. I suppose relative anonymity has its benefits though. Everything I need is right here, so I won't need to travel away from site to buy supplies, bank, etc. Cost of living is much higher, but the location is darn worth it. And I'll have regular internet access! I can pay to use my school's modem, chill out at an internet cafe, or - my personal favorite so far - walk to the swanky hotel down the road, buy a pastry, drink, or cup of coffee, and take advantage of the wireless in their cushy lobby.
I've only been here a week, but I already feel like I'm making a name for myself in this city, which is fantastically encouraging. I've already made several friends and established some contacts. I have a basic idea of how to get around, and I can tell people are starting to recognize me. As incredible as site visit has been, though, I've still got a month left of training in Mantasoa. The education volunteers start practicum when we get back, meaning we'll be practice-teaching actual classes. This is absolutely terrifying to me (the idea of teaching in front of other, more experienced, volunteers and trainers more so than the idea of teaching the actual students), but these are the skills I absolutely need to learn to be successful here. Sink or swim...that's become my motto over the past month. Holy crap, I honestly cannot believe it's only been a month since we arrived in Madaland.