"We were not supposed to leave. We have to go back [to the island]!"

-Jack Shepard

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Life as a House

It’s official – I’m a friggin Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) as of last Tuesday, September 21, 2010! We moved to our sites the day after swearing in, so I believe I’m now allowed to say that I’ll be serving as an Education PCV in Fort Dauphin (Tôlagnaro), Madagascar for the next two years. WOOT! The last entry I wrote was a month ago, and it is absolutely incredible how quickly this past month flew by in comparison to the first. I’m not sure if it had to do with finally getting used to the new environment and lifestyle, the reality of what I’m actually here to do setting in, the fact that the education trainees have barely had time to breathe since returning from site visit, or possibly because I was finally able to get over the shock of being thrown back into a study abroad-like atmosphere and really begin to enjoy the final few weeks of training.

After we returned from site visit to Mantasoa, our schedule was just a whirlwind of stress and insanity. I had an issue with my host family before leaving for site, but the homestay coordinator (an absolutely incredible and kickass female, might I add) spoke to them while I was away and attempted to resolve the situation. Everything was fine when I got back, but I just never felt as comfortable with them afterwards. I did love my little brother and sister, but I definitely won’t miss their relentless coughing in my face and on everything I own.

Because Israel, Paul, and I got back to Mantasoa four days after everyone else, we were thrown into the education practicum with little preparation. Several of the current education PCVs serving around the country came to Mantasoa to train us. We were able to watch one class taught by them as a model for what we were supposed to be doing. The first two classes I taught were to the Terminale level (the American equivalent of high school seniors), which was really useful since they were the closest to the level of students I’ll actually be teaching. I missed the next class I was supposed to teach because I was really sick for a few days, but the next few classes I taught were to the 5eme, 4eme, and 3eme levels (equivalent to our 7th, 8th, and 9th grades, respectively). I got some excellent feedback from the trainers. They said it was hard to tell that this was my first time teaching, which was unbelievably encouraging to me. I had to work a lot on my blackboard management and a few presentation techniques, but overall I did well, survived practicum, and learned a ton. Lesson planning was a new experience for me. I think that’s where most of my stress came from since I would spend hours every night preparing for my classes. For the sake of my own sanity, I REALLY hope that lesson planning is a skill I’ll get better (and by better, I mean faster) at. I’ve heard from a few of the more experienced teachers that they hardly ever write lesson plans for their actual classes, but, as of now, I can’t imagine having a class without one. Although it was nowhere near as petrifying as I imagined, the whole classroom teaching thing hasn’t really clicked with me yet. I’m hoping I’ll enjoy it and ease into it more when I have my own classes and have a better idea of what exactly I’ll be teaching. I think my biggest fear is that I will start my assignment, realize that I hate teaching, and spend the next two years stressed out and miserable all the time.

Other than teaching/observing practicum most mornings, the second half of training consisted of a lot of technical sessions (learning about classroom management, teaching strategies, writing/grading tests, etc.) and significantly less language instruction. I was extremely devastated about the latter, as studying Malagasy has become one of my favorite pastimes. We had our first language interview right before site visit, and I scored at the Intermediate Mid level, which was two levels higher than what we were supposed to be at that point in time. The survival words and phrases I picked up in Ranomafana gave me little advantage after the first couple weeks of instruction because of the intensity of Peace Corps language training. We had our final language interview by certified testers last week. I scored at the Advanced Low level, which was still two levels higher than what education trainees are required to be at before they are allowed to swear in as official PCVs, but I can’t help but think that my actual level might even be higher. My language trainer came up to me after we found out the results of our tests and said, “I’m so proud of you, but I listened to the recording of your interview – I know you can do better than that.” HA, love him. Regardless, we have to have another official language interview at the end of our service. If I reach a certain level at that point (Advanced High I think?) then I’ll have certification that I’m bilingual. It seems easy enough to get to that level over the course of two years, but I’m worried about the lack of structured grammatical training I’ll have at site. Oh well, that’s the least of my concerns right now.

It’s absolutely crazy how my feelings toward training and the upcoming installation at site changed over the course of two months. During the first month, I couldn’t wait to get away from everyone and start my assignment. However, during the last week of training when I was right on the edge ready to take the plunge, I was absolutely terrified. Although I still hated living with a group of 40+ Americans, I’m really going to miss some of my fellow trainees and trainers who I’ve gotten close to. I know that eventually I’ll start making connections at my site and come to think of it as home, but the inevitable loneliness of the first few weeks (or months) will be the most difficult challenge. As a side note (although I doubt anyone will actually send me mail), I have local address at site, so don’t send anything to the old Antananarivo address. I thought it would be relatively easy to get mail at the PC Headquarters address I’ve had posted, but I learned that because I’m a fly-site, I probably won’t receive any of mail sent to that address until the next time I’m in Tana (which won’t be until December).

The swearing in ceremony was brief, but I loved the official-ness of it. There’s currently no American ambassador to Madagascar, so whoever his next-in-command is was the one who swore us in. There were a few speeches given in English and Malagasy; then all trainees were asked to stand, raise our right hands, and say the US government oath (the same one Obama took). Good times. Apparently the whole thing was aired on national television; one of my friends in Tana texted me later and told me he watched it. Afterward, I was pulled aside by a journalist and photographer for an interview, but I have no idea if anything came of that.

I’ve now been at site since Wednesday. We came back with a Peace Corps staff member for “installation,” which basically means doing courtesy visits to various officials, making sure our houses are up to safety standards, and assuring no major problems remain. When I got here, I learned that there is now someone living in that temporary house I told you about in the last entry, so I had a brief moment of panic before finding out that I now had a choice of two possible temporary houses (my official house still needs to undergo renovation). Both houses were just as gigantic by Malagasy standards as the first one, except these were both located on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Needless to say, no second thought was given to my old house. One choice had no running water and the other had a missing window. I chose the one with no water because it is slightly more compact (can’t think of a better word) and easier to close off the various rooms that I won’t be using regularly for safety reasons. This is possibly the most incredible house I will ever live in. On the outside it looks like a dilapidated old beach shack. Inside, there’s a huge kitchen, 3 bedrooms, a bathroom with sink, shower, toilet, and TILE floor, and a massive living room with huge windows that overlooks the ocean. We actually saw a friggin whale just kicking it in the waves from the living room window as we were surveying the house. I'm surrounded by gorgeous pine trees, and there's a constant gentle breeze, above which you can here the crashing of waves. A bed, armoire, table, and chairs were provided to me by the school. I inherited TONS of books, a couch, and a bunch of rusted kitchen supplies from previous volunteers. No idea what I did in a past life to deserve this, but I'll let you all know as soon as I figure it out.

I’ll likely be spending the majority of my time this next week shopping for basic living supplies and attempting to de-rust my utensils. The trade-off for an amazing view and proximity to the beach is that I’m really far away from the nearest stores or markets, and the road to my house isn’t safe to walk alone on after dark. Since I have no means of refrigerating food, I’ll probably be living primarily on beans and rice or other dried foods that I can stock up on.

It looks like I’ll have somewhat regular internet access here (maybe a couple times a week), so I’ll try to keep you updated on my new life and job. If anyone knows of any good resources for teaching environmental or business English, please share!

PS - I desperately hope at least one person got the reference, but whenever I'm in my house I can't help but think of the Life as a House quote, "If you were a house, Sam, this is where you would want to be built. On a rock, facing the sea. Listening. Listening."

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like quite an adventure Jess. Good luck with it all.

    Uncle Mike