First impressions of a new life

Driving south from Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, you twist and wind through the sprawling highland landscapes. Rice paddies seem to stretch for miles. Small clusters of narrow two-story mud and brick homes occasionally dot the hillsides and valleys. The quality of the road is pretty good, by Malagasy standards, so the trip is mostly bearable. Stopping at roadside diners is an easy way to break up the journey and a chance to refuel with a heaping portion of rice and a smaller portion of pork and vegetables. Passing through the villages along the main road is like watching the local cultures transform in small incremental steps, from the predominantly Merina areas around the capital to the hearty Betsileo villages. And finally, about nine hours from Antananarivo and in the heart of Betsileo country, you arrive in Fianarantsoa.

A statue of "Masina Maria" (Holy Mary) overlooking the city of Fianarantsoa

A statue of “Masina Maria” (Holy Mary) overlooking the city of Fianarantsoa

Recently, I made that journey and began the next chapter of my Peace Corps service in Fianarantsoa (Fianar, for short). After living and working in Andapa for the past two years, I have decided to leverage my experiences and continue exploring the development world for one more year. My new assignment does not include teaching English, instead I’ll be co-managing the regional Peace Corps office in Fianar and supporting other PCVs in a variety of capacities. This is a big change for me, in a lot of ways, and even being in Fianar for this short amount of time has afforded me the opportunity to explore a new city and to think critically about my service in Madagascar up to this point.

One week isn’t enough time to form a strong opinion of Fianar, and I don’t plan on doing that quite yet, but I do want to share some of my initial observations and thoughts so far.

My newly developed Peace Corps instincts, which I didn’t appreciate until this relocation, kicked in almost immediately. It was late in the afternoon on a Friday when I arrived in a new city. I walked into my new house and office and it was completely empty and silent. A bit disorienting, at first. I looked around, started taking a mental inventory of everything, and then I began thinking about the basics. Where am I in this city? Where do I find food? How can I cook? Where can I buy basic supplies for the short term? Who can I contact if I need help? These were similar questions that I learned to answer after being dropped off in Andapa for the very first time almost two years ago. I felt proud of myself for calmly and confidently jumping into this new city within an hour of arriving. I remember working up the courage to find dinner that first night by thinking to myself “just get yourself out the front door, and everything else will happen on its own.”

A look at one of the neighborhoods of Fianar

A look at one of the neighborhoods of Fianarantsoa

One of the first major differences I encountered was the fact that people in Fianar speak a dialect of Malagasy that I’m not familiar with. I can still communicate on a basic level, but I know that studying and practicing the local dialect will be a priority for me. With the exception of some local vocabulary and pronunciation, most of the Malagasy dialects are similar enough that getting around the country is manageable.

Living in a larger city is another thing I’ve been getting used to. Compared to cozy Andapa, Fianar is a very big Malagasy city with more shops, hotels, restaurants, offices, churches, and markets. There are portions of the city that bustle with vehicles, street vendors, and pedestrians. Seemingly just around the corner from these areas, there are some streets that are more peaceful and offer beautiful views of the city. Fianar is built on a series of hills and the relaxed energy is refreshing for the size of the city.

The view from the balcony at my new house

The view from the balcony at my new house

The food of Fianar, and the highlands in general, is a bit different. The most noticeable difference is the availability of pork in the highlands. In Andapa, and most of northern Madagascar, many people do not eat pork for religious or cultural reasons. Fianar also has a huge variety of fresh vegetables in the markets. Items such as cauliflower, sweet potatoes, peas, and pumpkin are things that are new for me to see in the market. There’s even a small corner of the market with fresh cut flowers, which is something I had never seen in Madagascar previously. The street food and fried snacks are also a little different in Fianar. Some of my favorite snacks during PST, such as mofo anana (fried dough with chopped greens) and mofo akondro (battered and deep fried banana), are now available to me again. While I am leaving behind access to fresh coastal seafood, meals with coconut, and many seasonal tropical fruits that I was used to in the SAVA region, I am still in the honeymoon phase of enjoying other foods that are more typical of the highlands cuisine.

I’ve noticed that even the people look different in Fianar. Compared to the Tsimihety people of Andapa, the Betsileo people in Fianar tend to have a darker complexion and many of them are tall, thin, lanky individuals. Obviously, I’m not making a blanket statement about all Betsileo people, but these are some of the features that have stood out to me as I’ve been walking around the city.

A section in the Old Town of Fianar with strong French colonial influences on architecture and city planning

A section in the Old Town of Fianarantsoa with strong French colonial influences on architecture and city planning

Considering all the changes I’ve experienced in the past month, including leaving Andapa, saying goodbye to some of my closest friends as they finish their service in Madagascar, and transitioning into a new home and job, my spirits are still high and I am eager to move forward. I’ve been enjoying my time spent exploring in Fianar. Inside the regional Peace Corps office, there is a small note attached to the communal refrigerator that reads “Peace Corps by choice, Betsileo by the grace of God.” I’m choosing to embrace this outlook as a guiding principle in my integration. I may not have specifically chosen to live in this region, but I will do my best to fall in love with it.

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Onward

I’m sitting in my house on my final night in Andapa. I’m at the table, where for the last 2 years, I have enjoyed many meals, written many lesson plans, hosted many guests, and composed many of the stories you have read on this blog. The electricity is cut, again, like it occasionally has been this time of the evening. I can faintly hear the conversations of people passing outside my house. I’ve paused from packing up my belongings to collect my thoughts and share them here.

During the past few weeks, leading up to this pivotal time, I haven’t really felt any different. I logically understand that I must leave Andapa, but the days still felt very routine and “normal”. It doesn’t feel real. When I explained this to a friend, she suggested that I was in shock. “In a non-dramatic way,” as she put it. Maybe that’s true. Maybe I’ve been unconsciously pushing away some of my feelings in order to focus on what needs to be done to prepare for my departure. I also think this move hasn’t really sunk in because I know that while I’m leaving Andapa in the morning, I will still be living and working in Madagascar for another year (spoiler alert). I don’t have to say goodbye right now to Madagascar and Peace Corps and everything that has been a part of my life for the last 2 years, rather, I’m just wrapping up this chapter in Andapa and moving on. So I’ve been having some conflicting emotions between sadness for leaving the familiarity of Andapa and excitement for starting the next part of my service.

Tonight, I went back and read the blog post I wrote on the eve of leaving America. In that, I saw a different version of myself. One filled with so many questions and the courage to fling myself directly into that ambiguity. I was reminded of the immense support of my friends and family at that time and how they have continued to support me throughout my adventure. I also recognized that many of the rituals performed at that time (saying goodbye to people, packing my luggage, changing routines) are ones that I am again performing. Earlier today, I visited a few people to say goodbye and I found myself enjoying the chance to walk around town one last time and soak it all in. Taking the long way home. With a newly developed appreciation, I was looking at things, smelling scents, hearing noises that have become familiar.

When thinking about what I’ll miss most about my time here, I kept coming back to “my” things. My house, my garden, my view from the house, my cooking area, my squeaky old bed. Maybe this is the only child in me taking over, but I didn’t quite realize the extent to which I cast a blanket of possession over so many things. I’ve found a lot of comfort in the routines and safe spaces that I’ve set up for my self here, and I’m anxious about leaving those behind. Of course, the memories and images will stay with me for a long time. But tonight, just before I pick up and leave, it’s hard for me to trust those memories and to feel confident about walking into another unknown chapter of this adventure.

Alas, the time has arrived whether I like it or not. Tomorrow morning, I will leave Andapa and, with it, a part of my soul. I am comforted by something a friend told me just before my departure from America a couple of years ago…

“Onward”