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

-Jack Shepard

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Zay! Teako rehe avao iMadagasikara.

It’s been six months since I left the island, which probably makes this my longest blog procrastination yet - and it’s the last one you’re going to get! At least until the next passably interesting phase of my life, which doesn’t seem likely to occur anytime in the next decade or so.  I feel like I have so much to say, yet where to begin? Can anyone other than RPCVs even comprehend what these past few months have been like?  Is my experience even like anyone else’s?  Probably not.  Let’s just start with the vague generalizations and work our way down.

I’ve actually been surprised by how many people have not asked me generalized questions about my Peace Corps experience.  To be honest, it’s a huge relief because I’d otherwise just default to the stereotypical “It was an incredible experience,” “I learned so much,” “It gave me a new perspective on life” - bland answers that, although true, would just devalue the entire thing.  The question I’m most often faced with is, “Do you miss it?” to which I reply:
“Yeah, a little, but I’m happy to be back.” 
Or, if I know the person a little better:
“Uh, no.”

But, as always, I oversimplify.  I do miss my life in Fort Dauphin.  I miss it like you miss that night when you reunited with good friends from college and the tequila shots just kept on coming.  You sang along to the Black Eyed Peas at the top of your lungs on the car ride home while hanging your head out the window to keep the nausea at bay.  You spent what seemed like hours ejecting the contents of your digestive system in the hotel toilet and missed your flight home the next morning.  You remember the night with nothing but the greatest memories, but you wouldn’t necessarily like to return it.  You learned a lot about yourself, your limits, and the human species.  Some moments are quickly forgotten, and some lessons are imprinted for life - like that gag reflex that inevitably returns when trying to sip a margarita.

Staying true to format, here are some lists to summarize the last few years of my life and where I am now.

Things I Miss about Fort Dauphin/Madagascar/Peace Corps/the Developing World:
  • Teaching - Loved the job and my students more than I ever could have expected.  Would I consider it for a career? No.
  • Conversations with children - My neighbors’ children became some of my best friends. They were open-minded, non-judgmental, always willing to teach and learn, and astonishingly mature in certain ways likely because the amount of responsibility they take on every day surpasses that of the average American college student.  Anywhere I went, if I was lost, confused, or felt uncomfortable around the adult company, there were inevitably gaggles of kids roaming around that I could hang out with.  If a kid on the street was acting up, anyone had free reign to yell at or discipline the hoodlum as they saw fit.  If something needed done or a message sent, you could pull a random child over and have him/her take care of it.  The old "it takes a village" adage is true in Madagascar.  But, you know, you can't really talk to or yell at kids you don't know here.  
  • Conversations with random people - Though I’m not the most extroverted person, I always loved being able to talk casually with market vendors, fisherman, people I passed on the street, beggars (not all of them), people sitting next to me on the bus, people who had heard of me (or another vazaha that they thought might be me), girls who wanted to pop a squat with me (the Malagasy equivalent of girls going to the restroom together?), etc.  There were no awkward elevator silence moments, no assuming I was bothering them, no wondering if they were wearing earbuds or some micro earpiece, no presuming I was crazy for striking up a conversation when they'd never met me, and no lack of things to say (Malagasy people love to fill silences by pointing out the obvious: “It’s hot today!” “Yeah, it’s so hot.” “It was hot yesterday, too.” “Mmm hmm, hot.”  “It’ll probably be hot tomorrow again.” “Probably.”).
  • Walking everywhere - Okay, so maybe living over 2 miles from the market and needing to traverse two steep, sandy hills to get into town might not have been the most fun during cyclone and hot season, but it was darn worth it the rest of the time.  I learned all of the shortcuts and backroads around town, I stayed in relatively good shape without putting in much effort, and I met about 90% of the people I knew just by walking around and chatting (see above).  If you’re a foreigner trying to “integrate” into a new community, this would be my one biggest tip: WALK. Don’t drive around in your SUV, don’t take taxis or even the bus. Walk, get lost, meet people.
  • The constant influx of new, digital media - Somehow, through the magic of PCV file sharing and my mini-laptop, I was able to stay more up-to-date on movies and TV shows than some of my friends stateside.
  • Never feeling alone - For anyone who makes half an effort, being alone is not really an option in a Malagasy community. There’s always someone willing to talk to you, walk with you, teach you, show you off to his/her friends, etc.
  • Always feeling alone - I’m not really sure why my instinct was to put this on my “Things I’ll Miss” list. Maybe because it kept me grounded and constantly reflective on my experiences.  Despite constant company, there’s always a sense of not really belonging anywhere, even among the expat community. The only people I felt truly connected with, even if we only saw each other every few months, were other PCVs.
  • Feeling like part of a community - Okay, I know my list is starting to sound like it’s just contradicting itself, but everything is true in certain contexts.  I’d say it took a good year before I felt like an actual member of the Fort Dauphin community. It was that point where most of the people I passed on the street either knew me or found me unremarkable because they’d seen me walk by every day.  When the novelty wore off and people started talking to me about real events and issues in our lives instead of asking me about myself and what I thought of the country.  When I knew all of the gossip around town and all of the goings-on.  When people started treating me like an equal, not as a shiny new toy.  When I felt I could genuinely offer my help without people viewing me as a foreign piggybank.  When I knew that I had a solid network of friends and neighbors who would help me at the drop of a hat, no questions asked.  It’s so hard, if not impossible, to get that same feeling of community in most American towns, and it’s something I’ll always be searching for.
  • Living life outside - This is another big one. Traditionally, Malagasy houses are used almost exclusively for sleeping and storing material possessions.  All day-to-day activities (cooking, cleaning, eating, socializing, bathing, peeing/pooing...) are done outside.  More modern houses, including my own, tend to have living rooms, kitchens, sometimes even bathrooms, but most people still move fluidly between “indoors” and “outdoors” and don’t enclose themselves within climate-controlled walls like we tend to do.  I miss keeping all of my windows and doors wide open all day, sitting in my yard preparing food, washing clothes, playing with my tortoises, and chasing away the chickens, ducks, geese, cats, dogs, and small children that wandered into my house.
  • Market culture - I was lucky enough to live in an area of the country where food prices are standard and don’t require bargaining (unless you’re a tourist or clueless foreigner, in which case the vendor [understandably] tends to jack up the price).  Certain times of day were hectic at the main town market, but off-times or smaller neighborhood and countryside markets were fun to visit.  You learn where most of the food comes from, how fresh it is, and how the price fluctuates based on factors like seasonality and climate.  The vendors get to know you to the point where they can tell exactly what you need by how long it’s been since you last passed by, and it’s a great place to just hang out and catch up on town gossip.  There are no plastic shopping bags; you bring your woven basket and load it up with food measured by the empty can of condensed milk.  It was also kind of nice having foods available by the season.  It made me appreciate lychees, mangos, mandarin oranges, and avocados so much more knowing that I only had a precious window of time to eat as many as possible.
  • Killing my own food - Not that I particularly enjoyed taking the life of a small animal, I haven’t changed that much, but I believe slaughtering an animal for your food is something that everyone should experience in their lives.  The whole process of physically killing the animal, plucking or skinning it, separating out all the innards, and cutting it apart not only increases your basic awareness of what it takes to get that piece of meat on your plate, but enhances your appreciation for food in general.  Even watching a butcher take your choice cut from a cow carcass is a completely different experience than picking a nicely plastic-wrapped hunk from a grocery store.
  • Living on the beach - Whale-watching, fish/crustacean-catching, oyster-eating, sand-napping, water-floating, kid-playing... Need I go on?
  • My students - As cliché as it may be, my students were the reason I loved teaching.  Sure there were a few rotten apples who were only there because of family wealth/prestige or because the slept with their school principal to pass the Bac (high school completion exam in French school systems); but for the most part, all of the students were like sponges for whatever I had to offer them.  Even the laziest ones would come to my house to borrow books or ask me what certain song lyrics meant.  And I’ll forever love being known simply as “Miss” to my CEL students (e.g. “Good morning Miss!  How are you today?” or “I saw Miss at the taxi-brousse station yesterday.”).
  • Malagasy dance parties - Not going to lie, it took me the better part of my time in Madagascar to really get these down.  American-style dance parties tend to follow a pattern of high-energy dancing and busting out your best moves for a few songs, then breaking for a while before busting out the moves again.  Malagasy dance parties, on the other hand, are marathons, not sprints.  There are very few breaks involved, but rather a sort of rhythmic shuffling to the beat of what tend to be very looooong songs.  Energy ebbs and flows depending on the song or the fellow party-goers.
  • Malagasy music videos - Malagasy artists try so desperately to be as sexy or swag-ified as the artists they see in Western videos.  Though video quality has been slowly improving since I first visited in 2008, they usually fail miserably and hilariously.
  • Never throwing anything away - As I’m sure I’ve explained in previous posts, Malagasy people don’t throw things away; they either can’t afford to or feel no general need to.  They use, reuse, and repair anything from apparel to utensils to electronics to within and inch of its life, then use the scraps for something else.  When I left Madagascar, I vowed to keep this habit strong in my American lifestyle.  So that didn’t last long... but at very least I gained a greater sense of awareness of the things I waste.  
  • Faux Cap - My home away from home away from home.  By far the most awe-inspiringly beautiful place I’ve ever been.  The most wonderful people I’ve ever met.  The location of some of my deepest cultural lessons and memorable life experiences.
  • Musical culture - This is true for just about every non-Western country.  How cool is it to live in a place where music, singing, and dancing are just part of life - not something you have to be “good at” or embarrassed about?  Where it’s not uncommon to find neighborhood 3-year-olds with moves like Usher or voices like Beyonce.  And where karaoke is taken VERY seriously.
  • Wearing flip-flops for every occasion - I can’t do shoes anymore.  I just can’t.

Things I Won't Miss:
  • The constant barrage of moral/ethical conflicts - I’ve waxed philosophic on some of these conflicts in previous posts.  They mostly involve situations when you don’t want to give handouts or be seen as a rich vazaha, yet one of your friends/neighbors needs medicine or school tuition or food for their undernourished children.  You know there will be a domino effect, and you’re never really sure who you can trust, but you feel like an elitist ass if you don’t help because you're living in a culture where everyone is willing to share what little they have with anyone else.
  • Hand-washing my laundry - I was one of the few PCVs I knew who never hired a local woman to wash my clothes.  So now I’m pretty good at hand-washing laundry.  Was it worth it?  Meh.
  • Soaking beans - Beans are good, so good.  And cheap.  But soaking dried beans for 6 hours before you even begin to cook them? I’ll never take canned food for granted again.
  • Bucket-washing my hair - Simple bathing wasn’t so bad, but sticking my head in the bucket then trying to rinse all the shampoo out got old after the first year.
  • Bribe culture - The system of bribing officials/police isn’t all terrible, but ultimately I think it facilitates more grave injustices than it’s worth.
  • Fatalistic culture - It’s understandably difficult, if not impossible, to consider the future when you’re only surviving day-to-day.  Trying to comprehend a culture where you’re not raised to believe you can do anything, be anything, “rise above,” is challenging until you realize that they don’t necessarily believe they have anything to rise above.  Life is just life, and now I understand how our constant need to strive for something more can be mentally taxing and even detrimental to our happiness.  Yet I’m still stuck with that good ol' American “make your own destiny” mentality.

Lessons I’ve Learned:
  • How to function in three languages while only being fluent in one - So I kind of assumed a few months in Peace Corps would make me fluent in the local language.  Not so.  If anything, I learned how difficult it actually is to learn another language and be able to speak it socially and correctly.  With Malagasy, I kind of plateaued after I got to the point where I could say just about anything I needed to say - just not the same way a native speaker would say it.  With a solid framework of four years of high school instruction, my understanding of and ability to use spoken French in real-life situations (basically the two things you can’t learn in a classroom) improved dramatically, though I’m not able to speak it as fluidly as I’d like.  Essentially, my Malafrenglish got me far enough that I didn’t even consider language a major barrier by the end.  Considering speaking English was my primary job assignment, I’m not too disappointed in what I was able to pick up.
  • How to walk/mooch rides/take questionable public transportation everywhere - If you don’t have a car in most parts of America, you’re pretty much screwed.  If you don’t have a car in Madagascar, well, you’re obviously in the majority; so it makes for some fun, terrifying, brutal, and looong experiences with everything from hitchhiking to zebu carts to swanky SUVs to hiding from police in the back of a giant cargo truck.
  • How to travel ridiculously lightly - Toothbrush, prescription meds, ID card, money.  Done.
  • How to handle cat calls (and other unwanted attention) like a pro - Whistles, hissing, tongue clicks, dramatic intakes of breath - I've heard them all.  I've been grabbed, groped, stroked, prodded, caressed, breathed on, and undressed by far too many unashamed eyes.  One of the great disappointments of being a vazaha woman in Madagascar is not the unsolicited attention itself, but the fact that no man will ever feel or understand what it’s like to be us.  The spotlight is never so bright as when we’re walking by ourselves.  It takes tough skin and some serious confidence to be able to handle being put on display in such a vulnerable way each and every time you leave your house.  Eventually you learn to laugh at it as you develop coping techniques and your tolerance level gets higher and higher.  But some things - like that burly thug who believes his wealth makes it okay for him to grab your crotch in front of an entire bus of people as he passes you in the street with his lackeys - will inevitably cause your resolve to crumble, and you feel dirty and depressed for days.

Things that Take Adjusting:
  • Having so much...stuff - One of my first missions when I got home was to go through all of my closets, drawers, boxes and throw away/donate all of the crap that I’ve been hoarding since childhood, thinking it all had some sort of sentimental value or would be “useful” someday.  I had so few possessions that I actually cared about in Madagascar and yet my life was full and fantastic.  Any given Malagasy person can fit their entire life into a single suitcase.  Coming back and seeing all of the things I thought I needed in order to have a fulfilling life may have been the greatest reverse cultural shock.
  • Driving everywhere - My initial adjustment to not only being able to, but needing to drive everywhere has worn off somewhat; but I still miss not relying on a car.
  • Reality TV takeover - It was out of hand when I left in 2010, now it’s just pure insanity.  Does MTV even pretend to care about music anymore?  And for the love of god, would someone please tell me what a honey boo boo is??
  • Technology/internet takeover - How is it that in only 3 years, the internet has completely taken over our lives?  Not that I’m complaining, I loves me my iPhone, but I don’t feel like I was away for so long that it should’ve been as big of a shock as it was.  I mean, DVDs are practically obsolete, as is the need to watch television programs when they’re actually airing...or on an actual TV.  Official paperwork doesn’t seem to exist anymore; it’s all digital.  Everyone and their mom (literally) is on social media, which seems to have quadrupled in quantity - I’m starting to figure out Pinterest, but what the heck is an Instagram..?  My grandmother was reading books and watching movies on an iPad before I even considered buying one for goodness’ sake...
  • #twitter #culture #and #speaking #in #’s - As a continuation of my previous point: Twitter absolutely blew up.  What?!  When I left, I still considered Twitter something for trashy celebrities and social media whores.  Now it’s an essential tool for marketing, politics, PR, news and media, entertainment, educational institutions... I haven’t broken down and created a Twitter account yet, so I’m still not even entirely sure how it works.  And what’s with all the ###’s?  There are certain people on my Facebook newsfeed who I’m ready to unfriend simply because they #post #pictures #and #updates #with #like #50 #of #these.

Anyway, time to wrap this thing up.  It seems appropriate now that I initially created this blog with the “Lost” theme of going back to the island that seemed to hold some sort of inexplicable power of attraction over me.  Like the television series, I tried to extend my time on the island a little to long because of my confusion and infatuation, and I just ended up near-resenting it but was unable to pull myself away because I wanted to see how it ended.  Of course, the ending turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic, and I rushed to fill the resulting void with anything that would keep me occupied until the next phase of my life began.  Now that I’m finally out of that weird purgatory - heading back to school and having a sort-of direction in life - I feel that I’ve come full circle (much unlike Lost, however, because we all kind of suspected they were dead the whole time).  

Peace Corps makes attaining a certain level of integration a top priority of service.  I’d say the greatest lesson I learned from the Peace Corps experience is that full “integration” into another culture is just not possible.  You can learn the customs, history, and language, and you can be welcomed into the community and regarded as a equal, but you will never truly be one of them.  This isn’t as cynical as it sounds; it just means that we all have our own backgrounds, belief systems, values, sub-cultures, etc. that make us who we are, and others recognize that in us.  And it obviously doesn’t mean that we can’t have happy, amazing lives out of the context in which we were born.  

So my overall conclusion is this: Whether you’re traveling, relocating, or simply walking across the tracks, just be positive, open-minded, friendly, and practical.  Don’t be idealistic, pitying, naive, patronizing, judgmental, or reckless.  Every culture (that I know of at least) - heck, every person - has strengths and weaknesses, good and evil, convictions and confusions.  We all think we know what’s best for ourselves and the world; and, ultimately, we’re all just as clueless about life as everyone else.  It’s a new, global society, and no, we don’t all need to hold hands and love each other.  But nor should we simply “tolerate” each other.  I think awareness will be the key word for this new millennium. 

And that, my friends, is all I have to say about that.