Shedding my tourist skin

In the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer and Trainee, there is a cycle of adjustment and emotional vulnerability that comes with the territory. It happens to all of us, some people experience different parts of the cycle at different times and with varying degrees of intensity, but eventually it all happens. And each part comes with it’s new challenges and unique insights. Generally speaking, the cycle can be described as follows:

0-2 months: honeymoon
1-3 months: mixed culture shock
3-6 months: adjusting to new site and job, integration into new community
6-12 months: more adjustment
12-14 months: mid-service crisis (!)
16-24 months: adjustment (again)
24-27 months: COS (close of service) fears, what’s after Peace Corps?

There’s also a pretty nifty graphic representation of this cycle, with fluctuating lines to represent the emotional highs and lows, but you’ll just have to use your imagination for now.

What I really want to get across now is the fact that I’m in the midst of transitioning from the honeymoon phase into the “mixed culture shock” phase. And as of today, I don’t really even like the label of “mixed culture shock” because my feelings have been less about the new Malagasy culture and more about my awareness of my experiences. Despite still being in the very early weeks of my service, the transition is almost tangible for me. I am shedding my tourist skin.

During my travels in the past, I’ve been away from home for days, sometimes weeks, or even months. And during each of those campaigns, the certainty and expectation of returning home was always imminent. No matter how much I missed my family or friends, or thought about things I was likely missing out on back home, or wallowed in the misery of whatever shitty situation I managed to get myself into, I always knew that it would be so very temporary and that I’d be home again sooner than I could anticipate. I’ve always been a tourist abroad, visiting for those finite days and returning home to carry on with my life. No matter how bad or how good it got on the road, the normalcy of home was right around the corner.

But recently in Madagascar, things have been different. I know that one day my time here will end and I’ll go home, but that is a very long time from now. Apologies for stating the obvious, but whole entire calendar years (plural!) will pass before I am able to set foot in my familiar territory again. That’s been weighing on me. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it means I am making forward progression in my adjustment to my new life, it means I can look at my time abroad in a new perspective, and it means I can begin to appreciate more some of the things and people that I left behind for the time being.

One of the most vivid examples of this has started to happen every morning when I wake up. I’ll call it traveler’s whereabouts confusion. Sometimes when one travels, there’s a brief few moments when you first open your eyes in the morning and your brain starts to reboot and you really have to think about where you are. The bed might be a little uncomfortable, the walls are a different color, there’s a smell in the air, maybe you’re even on a top bunk when you haven’t slept in bunk beds since you were 8 years old. Something is different and in the haze of dawn you have to reconcile this by reminding yourself that you’re traveling again. This place is not your own, and that’s alright. You can now continue to wake up and get on with the day. But for me, I have to reconcile this in a new and different way. When I wake up, squinting eyes peering out through my mosquito bed net and listening to the loud calls of a rooster, I’m usually momentarily confused. Then I start to recognize the bare walls and cold cement floor to be part of my host family house. Now I know I’m far away from home, but my kicker is that home is still very far away from me. I’m not going home in a few days, back to the grind, ready to continue with the way things were. I remind myself that I’m here for the long haul with many more months of adjustment ahead of me. I remind myself that I’m not a tourist. I wipe the remaining sleep from my eyes, stretch in bed, and get up to start my day with another bucket bath.

Another example is the development of new routines and readjustment of what I consider familiar. Obviously when traveling, a person will almost certainly adjust some routines to accommodate local customs, resources, and tastes. But I believe those things are also done with the understanding that they are temporary. In my case, I have needed to adjust for similar cultural reasons and access to resources, but also with a new attitude of acceptance of these changes for the long term. For example, brushing my teeth. There is no bathroom sink or running water at my host family’s house to brush my teeth at. Instead, I bring a bottle of water into the ladosy (shower area) and brush my teeth with filtered water. This is a routine that I learned from watching my host siblings and I’ve come to appreciate it as just the way things are done here. Another example is fetching water. I quickly learned the connection between fetching water from the well and being able to do things such as bathe, cook, drink, or wash my clothes. That’s why each morning I help my host siblings walk down to the well, full up a few 30+ gallon jugs, and haul them back home for use throughout the day. It’s part of my daily routine now, whereas if I felt like a tourist I could probably put up with it for a few days before losing interest and convincing myself I don’t have to practice this skill because I’ll be going home soon. In reality, I need to get good at fetching water in order to save time and energy later on. Other things have just become more familiar to me the longer I live here. The sounds of roosters and cows in the distance, which at first I couldn’t hear myself think. The various fried breads offered in snack shops, which at first I was terrified to eat because of food preparation fears. The mud and puddles in the roads, which I’ve now come to expect and I’ve learned how to walk with them. These familiarities and routines are all shaping my experiences here in Madagascar. These things were happening well before I arrived in country, and they will continue on after my departure. They help me adjust, learn, and grow. But overall, these things help me to recognize that I am not a short term visitor here meant to pass through and move on. I am shedding my tourist skin.

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Welcome to the other side of the world

pebI’m pretty sure it’s official now: I’ve never been this far away from home.

In many ways, the distance is massive. Geographic, cultural, and emotional. But in some other ways, being in Madagascar and participating in Peace Corps training is not so drastically different from life in America. Sure, the infrastructure and public services are greatly different in Madagascar, the urban development is different here, the pace of life is much slower as well. But I’ve already seen first hand that many Malagasy people have similar hopes and goals for themselves and their families compared to those in the US. But I’ll leave those heavy topics for another time. I’ve only been in country for 3 weeks, I know it’s not much to base some of these opinions on yet.

Allow me to catch you up a bit on what I’ve been doing so far and what my days typically consist of.

After arriving in country, our Stage (pronounced as the French word; meaning the group of 32 Education trainees in our group) was put up for a few nights at the Peace Corps Training Center in the highland village of Mantasoa. The PCTC is basically a mini “Camp America” with a dining hall, sleeping quarters, basketball and volleyball courts, well-fed dogs, and meeting rooms that make me sometimes question if I’m in a developing country or just spending a summer at sleep away camp. During the first days in country, we had a few introductory language lessons but mostly orientation type sessions to familiarize us with Peace Corps Madagascar and the upcoming training process. And before we could really get used to the place, about 4 days into this whole experience we were all launched into the cultural abyss and sent to meet our new local Malagasy host families where we were told we’d be spending the next 6 weeks living. Imagine 32 jet-lagged Americans in a completely foreign environment with language skills equivalent to “hello”, “goodbye”, and “what is your name?” moving into separate local homes and essentially winging it. Yeah, nothing could go wrong here.

Here’s a bit about my host family. And I’ll say right away, I’ve been having a truly positive experience despite all the cultural, language, and familial road blocks. So I have a mom and dad, which I call Neny and Dada. My Neny is basically a housewife and my Dada is a professor at the local technical school. I have 4 host siblings. 3 girls and one boy, age range from 30-7. My eldest sister, Noro, has a 2-year
-old daughter named Sufa who also lives with us. Noro is a hairdresser. The next sibling down is Tsangy, who just celebrated his 24th birthday last week. Last but not least are the youngest sisters, ages 8 and 7, one of which is named Lundi. I still haven’t figured out the other sister’s name and I think it’s pretty late in the game for me to ask now. We don’t talk much anyway. We also have a cousin, about 20ish, who is “visiting” from out of town. He’s been here about 2 weeks now, no sign of him going anywhere anytime soon, but I get along with him great so I really don’t mind at all. Dad, Noro, and the cousin all speak a tiny bit of English which is enough to help the conversation flow sometimes. So now that I’m in the mix, we have a very busy house of 8-9 people. Big adjustment for me as an only child from a relatively small family, but it’s been working out nicely so far. You may also be wondering, “how do all those people fit in one house?!” Well, we actually have a very comfortable 4 bedroom house with a living room and indoor toilet/shower spaces. A quick word about the indoor toilet situation: it’s a porcelain toilet like we’re probably all used to but without the flushing capabilities. At one point in this home’s history, it probably flushed. But now, you flush the toilet by pouring in pitchers of water to even out the water level in the bowl. THAT took some brain power for me to figure out on day one. Compared to other Trainees, I have it extremely easy when it comes to toilet and shower setups. Most other host families have an outdoor pit latrine (called a kabone) and an outdoor bathing space (called a ladosy). In the kabone, you’re squatting over a hole. Enough said. And in the ladosy, you’re probably taking a bucket bath with cold water in an already 50 degree environment. Weather aside, that setup seems to be standard across the entire country. Back to the house, the bedrooms are basically spilt up into parents, boys, girls, and me. Part of the agreement these host families have with Peace Corps during the hosting process is that they will provide the Trainee with their own private room. I have a twin bed, mosquito bed net, small table and chair, and a stool to put my water filter on. And I really couldn’t need much more. The house is surrounded by local vegetation, a small vegetable garden, and lots of fruit trees. There’s a particular fruit that was new to me and apparently only grows in the highlands of Madagascar, called pibasy, and it is absolutely phenomenal. We have about 6 pibasy trees on our property. Neny makes a delicious pibasy jam that we get to have at breakfast. The kitchen is a little smaller than my bedroom and because it’s usually the warmest place in the house, it’s also where the chickens sleep at night. There’s a pantry sized “closet” in the kitchen that has a couple shelves and plywood sheets to close it up, and this is the chicken coop. Yup, this is totally normal in my head now. There is one spot in the kitchen for a charcoal cooking fire with chimney and a couple other smaller charcoal portable cookers. It’s pretty much one or two pots at a time, but Neny has this down to an art.

Speaking of cooking, let me tell you a bit about the food here so far. Rice. By American standards, incredibly obscene amounts of rice are consumed by the Malagasy people. This is not an exaggeration, but I have had rice as the main staple in every single meal since arriving in country, except for about 4-5 meals. Breakfast: rice and maybe some fried omelette. Lunch: rice with a meat protein and some shredded vegetables tossed in oil and salt. Dinner: more rice with another meat protein or maybe fried potatoes and more veggies. Dessert is usually a banana or an orange. The times I haven’t had rice in a meal it’s been either spaghetti as a substitution or a couple times we had pretty much friend doughnuts for breakfast. Not complaining about those doughnuts, though. Aside from rice, almost everything else is cooked in copious amounts of oil. Fried, sauté, sear, whatever else, it’s usually cooked at a high temperature (it’s hard to be in control of a charcoal fire) with lots of oil. The few meals that we have at the PCTC seem to be a bit more Americanized for us, but I’m also not watching the food being prepared like I do when my Neny is teaching me how to cook. My sister Noro also likes to cook and she’s been excited to cook a couple “American” dishes since I’ve been here. We had spaghetti and meatballs one night and she’s made her take on pizza a few times and that’s actually pretty good. I was so happy when we had spaghetti and meatballs, not sure if it was because we didn’t have rice for once or if the spaghetti and meatballs were really that tasty. In return, I’ve promised to cook a few of my favorite American foods for them. I’ll let you know how that goes after it happens. But I really haven’t eaten much outside of the home or PCTC, mainly because the Peace Corps doctors have been educating us on safe food preparation and doing a good job at making it seem like everything in this country wants to either kill me or at least give me severe diarrhea.

Now that we are in the full swing of training, my days are very structured and predictable. Breakfast is usually at about 7am every single day. I have language class from 8am-noon. This is one native Malagasy language instructor and about 3 students per group. Then it’s back home for lunch with the family. In the afternoon, our whole Stage meets up at 2pm for group training sessions that last until about 5pm. These sessions are either technical sessions about teacher training, cross cultural sessions, or global training sessions from Peace Corps headquarters that every Trainee in the world goes through. After that, I head back home and dinner is served around 6:30ish. I’m usually so exhausted after dinner that I’m in bed by about 8:30pm. Wake up at 6am the next morning to do it all over again. This is my schedule Monday through Friday. On Saturdays, we have only language class from 8am-noon, then we’re free for the rest of the afternoon. Sundays are completely free as well. Weekend activities include walking around town and saying hello to everyone (very common in this culture to greet everyone you see, even if you don’t know them), watching soccer games, doing laundry, going to church on Sunday mornings (I’ve only been once with my host family so far), and hanging out with the other Trainees in my group. Being in training is sort of like being in high school again. We are told what to do, where to be, at what time, and there’s a few tests here and there. But it’s keeping us busy and I’m really enjoying spending time with everyone in our Stage. It’s also a really cool feeling when the language classes pay off and I have even the slightest resemblance of a successful conversation with a Malagasy person. Some things I’m looking forward to in the next few weeks: celebrating Fourth of July, technical training trip to different Volunteer sites, finding out what village I will be assigned to, and starting our practicum teaching experiences. Each day we build on prior knowledge, so it’s hard to fall behind in any aspect because the training is intense.

But overall I am very happy and satisfied with my first few weeks spent in Madagascar. This country is absolutely beautiful, the locals have been extremely friendly so far, I haven’t been ill yet, and I have been kept very busy with training. I also realize that I’m still in the honeymoon phase of my cultural adjustment and Peace Corps has basically been taking care of our every need so far. But despite that, I’ve had a very good transition into Malagasy life. We’re not even halfway done with the 11-week training program, but I’m confident that I’ll be a competent and capable Volunteer after this process. I definitely miss my friends and family back home very much and replaying the wonderful memories I have of us in my head is helpful. I haven’t had any super intense food cravings yet either, although I’ve been occasionally treating myself to some peanut M&Ms that I brought with me and that’s been very nice. Other than that, I’m chugging along quite nicely I think. I’ll work on perfecting my communication outlets now that I have cellular and internet connections (spotty service, at best), but for now email and Facebook are probably the most reliable for me. I’ll update the “How to Contact Me” page soon with my local phone number, in case you want to text or call me. But for now, I’ll leave you with this post and a big hug from me!