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

-Jack Shepard

Monday, November 8, 2010

That’s Professor Jess to You

I’ve been living at site for a month and a half now and could not be happier. It’s no secret that monotony is my kryptonite (as most of you can tell from the lack of consistency in my life). It is the one thing in this world that has the power to destroy my spirit. I’m psyched to say that my spirit is in no danger here in the FD. Life at my site is so dynamic and the cultures so diverse. Yet for such a large town, I already feel an incredible sense of community. The mpivarotras on my beach who once swarmed me in attempts to sell homemade necklaces or braid my hair now know me by name and stop me only to chat. I practice reading English with my neighbor children, walk them around town, and teach them to swim. Everywhere I go, I never fail to run into local store owners, teachers, tour guides, expats, students, hotel workers, taxi drivers, and other people I know (or assume I must have met at some point, considering they are calling my name and waving wildly). Yet in a town of 60,000, there will always be new people to meet and new things to discover. The variety among the Fort Dauphin inhabitants is amazing. There are so many expats working for NGOs, schools, companies, etc. On any given day, I may interact with people from South Africa, everywhere in Europe, the US, the Caribbean, Pakistan, India, China, Mauritius, Australia, and all parts of Madagascar. My compound alone is home to people from France, Italy, Finland, South Africa, Canada, the US, and Martinique. The only downside to this diversity is that I don’t get the full “Malagasy” experience that my fellow volunteers living in smaller, non-touristy towns have. Whatever, cultural immersion is overrated. I get the opportunity to switch between speaking English, French, Standard Malagasy, and Antanosy on a daily basis – which I think is pretty darn fantastic.

Regarding my actual job, I LOVE teaching! So far. I’ve only been doing it a few weeks. And so much of what I love is completely unique to my assignment. While other education volunteers are dusting chalk off their hands and bellowing grammar exercise directions to classes of 60-100 teenage brats, I’m deciding on which color whiteboard marker to use while discussing environmental issues with classes of 11-20 university students. Officially, I teach three levels of Environmental English, but the textbooks are so short and open to interpretation that I pretty much get free reign with the course. I’ve decided to add a heavy grammar component to the classes, since most of them will be using English for business or professional purposes after they graduate. That’s my formal reasoning…but really I’m just a huge grammar nerd; I love teaching it. A former student and I also started an English club for the school, and I can tell that will be tons of fun. It gives the really motivated students a chance to practice beyond the classroom material and basically dictate what they want to learn without me having to individually tutor all of them.

My living situation is still fabulous. As of now, no progress has been made on the renovation of my official house, so I’m still in the just-as-wonderful temporary house. Not knowing when I’ll have to move has made settling in a little pointless, but I’ve at least decorated my walls with hilariously graphic Malagasy health posters advocating condom use, monotony, family planning, and STD testing.

An interesting dichotomy exists on the compound where I live. In addition to the university classrooms, one finds large, western-style expat houses complete with electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, large kitchen appliances, housekeepers, and 4WD vehicles in the front yard. Interspersed between these homes are the one-room shacks that house entire Malagasy guardian families and whose only Western amenity is a single light bulb. Despite the proximity, the lifestyles of these expats and Malagasy couldn’t be more different – and I’m squished somewhere in between. I reside in a sizeable house, though it is largely unfurnished, undecorated, and downright dilapidated by Western standards. My only kitchen appliance is a two-burner countertop gas stove, and all of my utensils and cookware are secondhand and rusted. My plumbing doesn’t work, so every morning I bring buckets of water from the communal hose back to my house. Unlike my expat neighbors, I do my own cooking, cleaning, and laundry, and I have no means of transportation other than my own two feet. It literally took me weeks to figure out where to dump my trash because whenever I asked someone, they would tell me, “Just pay the guardian to take it out for you.” Yeah…no. Maintaining the same standard of living as the average Malagasy is one aspect of Peace Corps philosophy that I’ll always admire. We were taught by our host families how to function rural Malagasy-style in everyday life, and are forced by our modest living allowances to maintain that standard. Not that I don’t enjoy the benefits of having rich vazaha (white) neighbors. Ironically, during my Peace Corps interview, I specifically told my recruiter that I wanted the “real” Peace Corps experience (i.e. living in a tiny hut in an isolated village with no electricity, running water, or means of communication). Now I find myself invited to everything from pancake breakfasts (complete with Vermont maple syrup) to 3-course wine and pasta Italian lunches. My good friend and next-door neighbor has offered to let me use her fridge, oven, hot shower, and internet whenever I want. Normally I hate using Peace Corps lingo, but there really is no better way to describe my life here than what has been collectively termed the “Posh Corps” by PCVs worldwide. All in all, not the experience I was expecting. I’ve got to tell you, it takes a certain kind of person to rough it among the natives out in the African wilderness for two years.
…guess I’ll never know if I’m that person.

Seriously though, I’m just beginning my service, but there are aspects of this experience that have already begun to change my way of thinking. For instance, having to collect my own water in Mantasoa and here at site has made me realize just how much water we don’t need in our everyday lives. I wash a sink full of dishes in about 1 liter of water and rinse them in the same amount. Compare that to the amount of water used by a dishwasher or even by rinsing dishes under a faucet. I bathe myself with ¼ a bucket of water, slightly more if I’m washing my hair. I use about the same amount for washing clothes. By far the activity that requires the most water (a bucket or more everyday) is flushing my non-functioning toilet. Needless to say, I’ve dropped the habit of flushing every time I take a wiz. (A note on toilets: They are the devil. Not only do they require an obscene amount of water for a single flush, but they have the potential to clog or break – at which point you’re screwed. Give me a drop latrine any day. I’m serious.)

As for nourishment, I’ve FINALLY learned how to sustain myself by cooking real, unprocessed foods – i.e. NOT popping frozen dinners in the oven, calling out for pizza or cheese steaks, microwaving water for ramen noodles, or heating up my mom’s leftovers. *collective gasp* I know. Granted, my palate isn’t exactly rich with variety yet, but I’ve figured out how to make everything from chili to pancakes to falafel completely from scratch. I know some of you are shaking your heads and chuckling patronizingly right now, but this is a major accomplishment for me and I refuse to be brought down. On top of that, I’ve managed to stay completely healthy and (as far as I know) parasite-free since living on my own. However, fleas continue to be a major source of annoyance and scarring on my body. I have yet to understand why there exists flea medication for dogs and cats, but not humans. Somebody PLEASE send me some Frontline!

I plan to head back to Mantasoa in December for a few additional days of training, then spend the holidays with my old homies in Ranomafana and Rebekah in Ifanadiana. Hope everyone is doing well on your sides of the world! Please keep me updated – you’d be surprised at how much I’ve come to enjoy hearing about the everyday drama and gossip in other people’s lives. It’s a good reminder of how life actually continues in places beyond this island…

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like things are fantastic for you! I just wish I could visit. One of these days I will figure out what I was thinking doing what I am doing, but it will come together.