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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6 thoughts on “Shedding my tourist skin

  1. One of your “callings” when you return will be as a writer. You make me feel like I am right there with you. I can visualize all that you are expressing. You have a gift and it will be utilized with your teaching and followed through when you return. xoxoSheila

  2. Thank you Michael for sharing your wonderful journey with me.
    Be safe and I thinkthat what you are doing is awesome.
    Much love,
    Stacy Wasserman

  3. Michael,
    Your writing is eloquent and articulate, and I’m moved by your words. What an amazing experience! You are so brave to open yourself up to a new way of looking at the world. I look forward to reading more.
    Be well, enjoy, and be safe.
    Hugs to you,
    Linda

  4. How fortunate the Peace Corps is to have you. And how EXTREMELY fortunate we are to share your life. With love, Al and Sandy

  5. Wow! you did it again. this experience will be part.of you forever. you were perfect before and now you have another dimension. please thank your host family for me. can I send them something from cal? everyone who reads your essays feels you must publish them. we will work on that later! be well.send us a picture of YOU.LOVE

  6. Your writing draws us in to your experiences and is truly a gift. We think of you often and hold you close in our hearts.
    Always be safe and well, Elise & Harry Patler

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