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

-Jack Shepard

Sunday, May 15, 2011

March Mada-ness, April Amelioration

As you may have gathered from the last couple posts, December-February was pretty darn busy in terms of moving around and keeping things interesting. When my schedule finally settled into a relatively uneventful routine again in March, I went a little crazy.

March was a month of too much pondering time and the resulting inner turmoil – about my job, my role as a Peace Corps volunteer, my life in Fort Dauphin, my life in general. Basically, it was like an extended mental breakdown. Apparently, this is completely normal for volunteers at this stage of their service (as I later confirmed after having several “bitch it out” sessions with fellow volunteers), but definitely not something I expected of myself, which perhaps contributed to my mental instability. The whole thing was essentially an accumulation of irritations with the culture, feeling useless, feeling like everyone was using me for money and/or status and that I had no friends I could actually trust, cravings for America, yada yada yada. I think I summed it up best in a message to Sarah, my American partner-in-crime when I was working in Ranomafana: “Nothing specifically brought on my cultural frustration. I just occasionally get those ‘I can't take it anymore’ days and they kind of stick to the ‘I'm not accomplishing anything with my life’ feelings and roll through a pile of ‘I miss fast food, running water, and refrigeration,’ and before you know it, a snowball of Peace Corps depression has formed and is plummeting down Mount ‘Someone needs to incite revolution so that we can be evacuated.’”

Anywho, I could go into all kinds of detail about that horrible month, but no point now. I am once again loving life, though I doubt the cravings, feelings of restlessness, and periodic cultural frustrations will ever dissipate. Such is Peace Corps.

I’ve managed to leave Fort Dauphin on a few short excursions in the past month or so: Went to a tree-planting ceremony in a village to the north with my students, sat in on some classes at a small primary school in the countryside, visited the nearby American Lutheran hospital and told the doctors I’d come back to teach them English, traveled to Ambovombe with Israel and Steph (the volunteer in St. Luce, a town north of Fort Dauphin) for a weekend birthday extravaganza for Paul. Even here at my site itself, I continue to find new places and things to do. Fort Dauphin definitely isn’t a small town, but the frequency with which I say, “I didn’t know this part of town even existed!” never fails to amaze me.

My work and social lives have both been busier as of late. In addition to my classes at CEL and the French students I practice with, I give private lessons to QMM (the mining company) and some regional government employees; I’m thinking about setting up some professional courses during summer break. The director of the school has me edit grant proposals, blurbs for the website, etc., and I’m working with the regional department of the environment on various environmental sensitization projects and contests in the local schools. I was actually invited to a regional government meeting for local environmental representatives, and I was more-or-less able to follow the general topics of conversation. Then the woman running the meeting asked me to pitch my ideas to the room…in Malagasy (of course). Absolutely terrifying, but I managed to convey what I needed to convey. There’s also an environmental festival coming up in June, and I really want to do something to celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary and the contribution of volunteers in the southern region, but I haven’t busted far enough out of the bubble of laziness to actually plan something yet.

I still love my job at CEL, even more so now than when I first began. Not because of the teaching itself – my actual skills aren’t that much better nor do I particularly like teaching anymore than I ever did – but I’m getting really attached to my students, and I can tell that they both like and trust me a lot more now. It also helps that I’ve finally swallowed my chill pill. I no longer have to be serious and strict for fear of an uprising, I’ve accepted that it’s completely culturally appropriate for students to be 10-15 minutes late to class, and I no longer take it personally if 75% of the students don’t show up one day because they’re running late on a deadline for another class’s assignment. It’s absolutely incredible how different all three of my classes are. One class has all the personality – they’re immensely entertaining to teach, but are a complete mixed bag as far as English skills and motivation are concerned. One class is pretty darn boring and, frankly, uninspiring to teach, but they’re very studious and, for the most part, motivated. The last class is absolutely brilliant – what I can only assume is any teacher’s dream class. They participate in discussions, ask a crap ton of questions, are great with critical thinking and formulation of opinions (skills that aren’t often exercised in the Malagasy educational system), and can spend an entire class period debating about an environmental topic. Despite the differences, all of my students are incredibly mature. Most of them are pretty close to my age, and I’ve gone out drinking and clubbing with a good portion of them, but they are never disrespectful or inappropriate with me in or out of class.

Life outside work has been a ton of fun lately. Spring break was a hoot. Israel was in Tana most of the time because of an illness, but Paul came into town to cover Israel’s community classes, so we got to kick it vazaha (white people) style. Both of us hate cooking, so we ate out a lot; we went to the beach, explored new areas of town, watched a surf competition, and drank a lot of beer. Outside of spring break, I’ve been going out and just chilling with my Malagasy friends a lot more, which may be why I’ve been enormously more sane than when I was traveling in packs of Americans with the study abroad students. Not that I don’t love hanging out with the vazaha community here, but I find it to me much more mentally calming the more time I apportion to my Malagasy homies.

Our main goal as Peace Corps volunteers is to “integrate” into our communities, so we tend to complain a lot about being treated differently because of our skin color, nationality, affiliations, whatever. I recently come to realize, though, that it’s just not possible for a foreigner to completely integrate into a community. We should really embrace our unique position in society right now because there’s nothing we can do to change it, and, truth is, 99% of us will NEVER be this popular again for the rest of our lives. Seriously, people in my community stare at me wherever I go, even if they’ve seen me walk down that street 100 times. Random people walk with me on the street and strike up conversations just to be seen with me or to find out who I am. Groups of women shooting the breeze outside their houses call me over to hear me speak Malagasy and ask if I’d be interested in marrying their sons. People call out my name and wave to me everywhere I go just to show other people that they know me. People I barely know invite me to their houses, give me gifts, or tell me that I’m part of the family. In no way am I implying that everyone’s motivations are completely innocent or genuine; my point is that I’m sort of regarded as an approachable celebrity. Never again will I attain this level of positive fame in a town of 60,000 people. Never again will it be so easy for me to make friends.

Never again will I have this feeling of power. My status as a PCV, American, vazaha, call it what you will, also comes with a certain amount of power that I’m not accustomed to. For example, I could walk right into the mayor’s or the regional director’s office and ask to speak to them about a project I’m developing. Nobody would question it, nobody would tell me no. For better or worse, most people in this country believe that foreigners have the power to get things done (money = power seems to be a universal concept). It’s a complicated issue, but all I can do is embrace it and use my powers for good because, again, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change it.

So cultural commentary aside, everyday life is going well. December through April was incredibly hot and rainy, though usually not muggy, which is a huge advantage to this town’s location. The weather’s starting to cool down and dry out now; a few days this past week have actually been downright cold. When it’s sunny and I’m not too busy, I chill out on the beach by my house with the family I’ve decided to adopt. My mother, father, and six little brothers and sisters live in a one-room house (about the size of the average American bathroom) on the path from my house down to the beach. I think the dad grows a couple crops on their little plot of land, and the mom takes care of the housework and sometimes makes necklaces out of shells and seeds to sell to tourists. Most of the kids are in primary school, but they sell necklaces, shells, and other knickknacks to tourists on the weekends. I sometimes go swimming with them or take them on walks around town. I also like to buy them roasted peanuts from another friend on the beach because they have a horrible protein deficiency. It kills me sometimes that I can’t give them money (that kind of reputation spreads faster than syphilis in this town, and I’ve worked really hard to get to the point where everyone I know accepts the fact that I’m here to stay and I’m not giving free handouts). Once, the mom got a huge cut on her foot. I’m pretty sure she got cellulitis from it because her foot later puffed up like a balloon, and she couldn’t walk. Luckily, the mom happened to meet German friend of mine, who gave away a lot of her money for health and educational purposes, so my friend helped her with the money she needed for the antibiotic shots.

For the most part – and maybe this has a lot to do with the fact that I live in a modern-ish town as opposed to a small village – I can’t say that living in a developing nation has been a “life-changing” experience. However, one random noteworthy mental transformation I’ve undergone: I’m no longer painfully sensitized to the killing of animals. That’s right. This one-time vegan who used to cry out in empathetic agony when someone squashed a bug in front of me, is now a cold-blooded killer of all things creeping and crawling, shuffling and sauntering.
No. That’s a lie. BUT I have no issue with killing the endless flood of ants that washes into my kitchen every time a scrap of food is left on the counter. I’ve gone on middle-of-the-night cockroach squashing sprees because I’ve reached my breaking point when I feel them crawl by my face while I’m sleeping. I’ve chased mice into the waiting jaws of the cat that hangs out in my house. I’ve learned how to catch, prepare, and fry grasshoppers as a snack or source of protein (they just taste like chips…though I’ve heard that they taste more “buggy” if you roast them instead). I’ve prepared live crabs and lobsters straight from the reefs around my house. I’ve watched the slaughter of chickens, sheep, goats, and zebu with rapt fascination (it’s a lot less traumatic than you’d think), followed by the dismemberment and preparation, and then consumed the meat. I know it sounds hippie-cliché, but you gain a lot more respect for and understanding of your food when you actually see where it comes from – that goes for plants or animals.

So that’s life right now. We just got two new Small Enterprise Development (SED) PCVs in the southern region, so perhaps there will be some wild-n-crazy adventures with them in the future. Still loving life and not in the least bit homesick – nonetheless, I could not be more pumped for my trip stateside in July/August. I’ve already got a gigantic list of things I want to do, foods I want to eat, and stuff I want to bring back with me. If anybody wants anything from Madagascar, let me know so I can start searching it out for you!

1 comment:

  1. Jess, I enjoyed your blogs immensely. You are such a funny girl. I can relate to all your experinces -- the bugs, the slaughter of animals for food. I've seen all those when I was growing up in the Philippines. About your "celebrity" status as a peace-corp, I am familiar with that, too. But I was on the other side of the equation. We had a peace-corp in the community when I was growing up and yes, I was the one (of the many) who worshipped him. I used to wait for him walk by the house in the morning and as soon as I see him I go out so I can walk with him to school. I felt so special that he was my friend. Love you. See you in July! `Tita Babsie