About mikemoto67

Graduate from San Diego State University where I studied sociology and business. Currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar, hoping to immerse myself in a new culture and language while promoting peace and tranquility across the globe. I know, big goals. Also a self-proclaimed traveler, friend, listener, eater, dreamer, and loyal Aztec fan.

Through the Eyes of Another

Perspective is something that I think comes up often in Peace Corps. Our outlooks on work, relationships, family, behavior, and comfort are all developing through the experiences that we have as Volunteers. When the things that were once new and unique become routine and common, having an opportunity to reflect on our frame of reference can be refreshing and illuminating.

Recently, I was afforded an opportunity to re-examine my own perspectives when my cousin came to visit Madagascar. I was beyond thrilled that he was willing and interested in making the long journey to such a different place. I was also a little nervous about how he would adapt to the realities of the country and how I would handle the responsibilities of sharing my second home with him. In the end, I was impressed with both of our attitudes and experiences.

During some of our conversations and daily activities, our individual views of Madagascar were cast in somewhat new light. Old habits were questioned. New assumptions were disproved. Sharing some of our ideas and conversations might be helpful in creating a more complete picture of this challenging, beautiful, diverse, and fascinating country.

Taking in the sunset over Antananarivo

Sanitary Conditions

American and Malagasy manifestations of cleanliness are often quite different. One such area that we discussed was food. Safe food preparation is something that I take for granted now, having practiced it in my own Malagasy kitchen for the last three years. But it was a skill that my cousin wasn’t used to applying and he made some valid comments about what he observed during his travels.

The amount of flies buzzing around our meals and landing on the raw meats in the butchers’ stalls seemed to be something that he noticed often, whereas I was mostly oblivious to them. I’ve become used to those sights over the years, accepting them as a natural part of life.

Another sight that I’ve become almost numb to is the amount of trash piled up throughout the country, but my cousin was acutely aware of this. Without the infrastructure of trash collection as we know it in America, most Malagasy people discard of trash on their own, either in pits where the trash is burned or it accumulates on along the roads or in side alleys.

Butcher stall in Mahajanga

Infrastructure 

It’s no secret that the infrastructure of roads, cities, and transportation in Madagascar leaves a lot to be desired by Western standards. It works just fine for Malagasy people, which is something I’ve had three years to learn about and adapt to, whereas my cousin was quickly introduced to the idea of a “good” Malagasy road. If the road is lucky enough to be paved, it also comes with numerous potholes and deviations, which makes for a rather bumpy and jolting car ride. Unpaved roads are a whole other story. While I don’t particularly enjoy this aspect of traveling in Madagascar, I’ve accepted it as the reality.

So when my cousin spent a few days on the road with me, we had plenty of time to talk about the nature of infrastructure, it’s relationship to the overall development of the country, and comparisons between his commute in Los Angeles and my typical 10 hour route in Madagascar.

Thrilled to be on another taxi brousse

Effectiveness of Peace Corps

Throughout my service, I’ve grappled with the perceived lasting impacts of my work in Madagascar and thought a lot about how effective I can be and how to even measure success as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Is it the number of students who can pass an exam in my English class or the quality of the routine conversations that I have with community members? Have I achieved my goals when I can produce tangible evidence or when I well up with pride thinking about the people I’ve come to know during my service?

When my cousin asked me if I thought the Peace Corps is a worthwhile investment of American time and money, I confidently affirmed that it is and supported that with a more qualitative response. In addition to the outcomes of collaborating with communities who request help from Peace Corps, I see immense value in the amount of people Peace Corps Volunteers interact with and exchange culture with. Then he asked me how I would answer the same question if a member of Congress had asked me during a review of the Peace Corps budget, and I realized that it was more difficult to frame my thoughts in terms of data and line items in a budget. Both sides of the question are valid and our organization needs to be able to justify itself to different stakeholders.

Having my cousin there to see the country firsthand, meet some of the people, and get a small glimpse into the work that we do as Volunteers was a great opportunity to spark that conversation and take another look at how we evaluate our successes and failures.

Expectations and Assumptions

If you come to a place like Madagascar and stay for even a couple of weeks without being frustrated, emotionally assaulted, or severely confused…I desperately want to know your secret. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, this country has bent and broken me into the person I am today. From those experiences, I have learned to abandon almost all expectations and assumptions about how things should or will happen. My cousin, on the other hand, has not been as twisted by Madagascar as I have.

Things such as a “free WiFi” sign in a shop mean nothing to me anymore, because I have learned from the disappointment that 9.5 times out of 10 there is no WiFi, but they seemed to hold a fair amount of hope in the eyes of my cousin. I don’t expect these things anymore, that way I am happily surprised when they are available.

Similarly, just because something is printed on the restaurant menu doesn’t mean it actually exists in the restaurant. I don’t assume this anymore, because I have again been disappointed too many times before. My cousin, however, encountered a few situations where he learned this lesson the hard way and had his dreams of pizza or parmesan cheese squashed by the reality of Madagascar.

I also don’t assume that just because something worked once before that it will work again with any consistency. This only brings me more frustration when things happen differently every time I try to do them. Again, I think my cousin’s assumptions of consistency were challenged on multiple occasions during his visit and this gave way to some insightful conversations.

Maybe a little ambitious to assume that this restaurant could serve up our dreams

The Big Takeaway

Looking back at the overall experience, I am very proud and satisfied by how both my cousin and I handled our shared adventures in Madagascar. He impressed me with his patience and willingness to be put in unfamiliar situations. He respectfully shared his opinions when they arose and asked questions to better understand some situations. I was relieved that I didn’t expose him to anything that made him sick and I was honest about my opinions and experiences. Seeing Madagascar through my cousin’s eyes has been a truly memorable experience.

We laughed (a lot), we tackled some complex discussions, we learned from each other, and we created more memories together. I’m grateful that he had the means and time to visit Madagascar and that he can help me share the country with others.

Overlooking a beautiful canyon in Ankaranfantsika National Park

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Bittersweet

If you’re a bit surprised to be reading this, I completely understand and I’m also a little surprised to have written again. Without going into the details of why I’ve been absent from writing and updating this blog for the past few months, I’ll just say that I have been happily focused on other projects and activities here in Madagascar. I’ve had my head down, concentrating on work, for the better part of the last five months.

And as I take a moment now to lift my head, it appears that my time in this country is coming to a rapid end. By the end of this week, I will finish my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar.

As insane as that sentence feels to say out loud, it doesn’t change the fact that this chapter of my journey is coming to an end. Of course, I have some feelings about it.

When people have asked me in recent months whether or not I’m ready to leave Madagascar, my answer is never very direct. Some days, I can’t wait to get off this island, eat a hamburger, and enjoy the comforts of America. Other days, I want to hold on to Madagascar a little bit more and I want to savor every sunset or plate of rice here. It’s a dance of emotions that twirls in my soul.

The best way I can describe my feelings about leaving Madagascar is “bittersweet.”

The sweetness of all those beautiful moments and people I have experienced here during the last 3 years. Scenery that has moved me. People who have touched my heart and taught me so much. Work that has challenged and fulfilled me. I’m so proud of the things I have accomplished here, the transformation I have made into the person I am now, and the future I have started to build for myself.

The bitterness of leaving all those things. Some of the close relationships and achievements will indeed remain with me for a very long time. Most of the things that make me happy here, will stay here after I leave. Many of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues will stay here. The places I enjoy visiting, the food I look forward to eating, the sights and smells of my life will all stay here.

Memories can last, but they’re never quite the same.

I can’t think of any regrets or hesitations I have about leaving Madagascar, which I believe means my departure will be on good terms. This country, these people, this opportunity to serve have all given me much more than I could ever hope to give to them. Although my eyes might glisten or my voice might shake as I leave Madagascar, I know in my heart that I am immensely grateful for this experience.

The water filter

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Side view of my water filter

This is my water filter. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My water filter is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.

Without me, my water filter is empty. Without my water filter, I am thirsty. I must filter and chlorinate my water before drinking it. I must filter out dirt, sand, and parasites that are trying to give me giardiasis. I must chlorinate after filtration to kill any remaining viruses and bacteria.

Before the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer), I swear this creed. My water filter and I are the defenders of my gastrointestinal health. We are the masters of our liquid consumption. We are the saviors of my life.

So be it, until clean water is mine and there is no dehydration, but my thirst is quenched!

-Adapted from the Rifleman’s Creed

In Madagascar, and I would venture to say all other Peace Corps countries, each Volunteer is given a water filter to use in preparing potable water. Within days of arriving in Madagascar, I was practicing safe water preparation and getting used to filling up my water filter every few days. It’s a relatively simple, yet vital, part of my experience and something that most of my readers might not be familiar with.

The water filter that I use consists of two chambers, one stacked on top of the other. After I get water from a local source (public pump, well, faucet, etc.), I pour it into the top chamber which contains two ceramic filters. As the water slowly gets filtered, it drips into the bottom chamber. The water in this reservoir is fairly clean, but still not ideal for drinking yet. This is because the ceramic candles are able to filter out macro-organisms, but there are rare micro-organisms that can still be present after filtration. The final step in the process is to chlorinate the water, essentially killing off any remaining harmful entities. For every liter of water, I must add 3 drops of chlorine.

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A look inside the top chamber of my water filter, showing the two ceramic filters

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Examples of a clean (left) and dirty (right) ceramic filter. The filters need to be cleaned with an old toothbrush periodically to remove dirt, sand, and other debris leftover from the source water

With proper maintenance, this water filter will last for my entire length of service. I use it every day that I am at home for drinking water, cooking, and cleaning certain foods. When traveling, I take other water safety measures. This filtration system is highly effective and so far I haven’t been sick from contaminated water (knock on wood!).

While this is a great option for clean water at home, check out this video for another Peace Corps style DIY charcoal water filter.

Business meets adventure in the mysterious Sud Est

There are a handful of regions in Madagascar that hold an alluring mystique. Whether it is because these places are isolated in the deep countryside, tucked away off distant coastlines, or nearly impossible to reach by conventional means. The Sud Est (South East) is one of those regions. In my mind, it is an untamed and legendary place down on the eastern coast of the country. The Volunteers in that area exhibit a cultish loyalty to all things Sud Est and are extremely proud to call it their home. They shamelessly uphold traditions from Volunteers that served in the area generations ago, which is part of why it feels so different than other regions. It’s a part of Madagascar that I’ve wanted to visit for a while, but it takes some real dedication to make the arduous journey. Passing through a wide range of landscapes and enduring hundreds of kilometers of open road, anyone with a healthy sense of curiosity and ample amounts of patience can put their travel skills to the test with a visit to the Sud Est.

As luck would have it, one of our Peace Corps Medical Officers recently invited me to accompany her on a trip to this fabled land. The purpose of the mission was to visit health care facilities in the region in order to asses what medical services are available (or more accurately, what isn’t available) and to update contact information for physicians and clinics. We visited some current Volunteers along the route and got a taste of the mystifying Sud Est culture. Through this visit, I learned a lot about healthcare in Madagascar, enjoyed the beautifully diverse scenery of the area, and gained a better appreciation for the hard work that our Volunteers are focused on.

Sud Est

Map of the area covered during this trip. Ignore the comically optimistic travel time estimate, because clearly Google doesn’t understand driving in Madagascar.

The statistics of the trip are telling of our work. During five days, we covered more than 723 kilometers (450 miles) roundtrip from Fianarantsoa headed east toward Mananjary, then south to Manakara and Farafangana, and all the way back to Fianarantsoa. Our team visited 11 healthcare facilities including rural outpatient clinics, private Catholic hospitals, and large government hospitals. This allowed us to see a varying range of care levels and meet with a number of dedicated doctors and nurses. We also got to see 11 Volunteers in their communities, which was a special look into the realities that they live in every day.

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National Road 25 winding through the densely forested mountains between Ranomafana and the rest of the Sud Est

Covering as much ground as we did gave us the opportunity to see many stunning terrains. From the onset, the road from Fianarantsoa glides through the highlands countryside, with sprawling rice paddies laying at the base of formidable rocky mountains. As we approached Ranomafana, the scenery changed to steep hillsides covered in thick rainforest. There were quite a few landslide areas along the road leftover from Cyclone Enawo and the subsequent heavy rains. Continuing down the windy road to the east, we passed the Vatovavy mountain. This gorgeous massif is part of the region’s namesake, Vatovavy-Fitovinany (Female Rock-Seven Estuaries). From Mananjary south through Manakara and further on to Farafangana, the road mostly runs parallel to the coastline and offers occasional views of the Indian Ocean. On the more inland portions of road, the landscape is a mixture of heavily deforested hillsides, scrublands, gorgeous rolling hills covered in nothing but soft grass, pine trees, and iconic Malagasy Ravenala. 

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View of the landscape surrounding the Vatovavy mountain (center)

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Grassy hills from a portion of the inland road

While visiting the various healthcare facilities, there were some noticeable differences between private clinics and government posts. For the most part, the private establishments were funded by religious organizations that could provide a much more robust source of income compared to the government. This is where we saw the more advanced medical equipment, the larger laboratories, the most patients, and the proper amount of staff to make it all work. The government buildings were more likely to be in a disheveled state, the equipment was more likely to be out of date, and the facilities sometimes lacked qualified personnel to offer specialized care. Another aspect that I noticed across the board was the fact that despite a tremendous number of patients and their families coming to the facilities, none of the hospital staff seemed to be in any particular rush. I don’t mean to say they were being lazy or inconsiderate to the patients, but they all appeared to have a calm and methodical focus to providing compassionate care. The doctors that we met humbly took us on tours of the clinics and proudly showed off whatever equipment and laboratory space was available.

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A kitschy beachside bungalow hotel in Mananjary

For me, the most rewarding aspect of this whole trip was the chance to visit other Volunteers in their communities. Every site where a Volunteer lives and works is unique, so seeing these locations first hand allows me to better support Volunteers and advocate at the administrative level on their behalf. During the five days of travel, we met with Volunteers from all three project sectors (Health, Education, and Agriculture), saw almost all of their houses, met many of their friends and work counterparts, and learned a great deal about their experiences. I was impressed by how tamana (settled, well adjusted) these Volunteers are and how well integrated into the community they have become. The Malagasy work partners that we met all had great things to say about their Volunteers and they were so delighted to talk about the positive outcomes of working with an American. In one particular village, the timing of our visit happened to coincide with an official opening ceremony of a clean water project that a Volunteer had been working on. We attended most of the ceremony, witnessed a government official conduct a ribbon cutting, and celebrated the culmination of a fantastic community collaboration.

No matter where we visited, it was obvious how each Volunteer has become a real part of the village family and how their Malagasy peers have gone the extra mile to make their American neighbor feel right at home. Further proof that if you are willing, Madagascar can steal your heart.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

Lately, I know my writing has been less than desirable. Infrequent blog posts, sometimes feeling like I’m reaching for topics, and just generally not being satisfied with my work. I’m not happy with what I’m putting out there and I do want to change. When I think about what’s going on, I constantly come back around to feeling uninspired and lacking motivation. And when I think about other areas of my life that are also feeling “off” lately, those same feelings spill over. I know we all experience emotional highs and lows, although in differing intensities and frequencies, but I thought about writing a piece to dig into some common emotions I’ve been experiencing in recent months. Part self-therapy, part window into something I don’t talk about regularly, this is an attempt to show that there’s more to this experience than the shiny, happy, fun adventures. And that’s fine.

A night blooming Cereus cactus from the garden near my home

I chose to extend my service for an extra year and I had visions of being actively involved in the inner workings of a large development agency. I imagined juggling multiple projects simultaneously and playing an important role in field activities. While those expectations have become the reality to some degree, most of the time I feel as though I’ve set myself up for being dissatisfied. If the previous two years of living and working in Madagascar had taught me anything, it was to lower my expectations dramatically. But here I am, feeling as though I had created somewhat arbitrary goals for myself and now I’m grasping to achieve them. Surely, this is a common element of Peace Corps work and I believe that many of my peers wrestle with constantly redefining expectations. Perhaps I am still learning my niche in new surroundings so that I can concentrate my energy somewhere more satisfying.

When I was teaching English, my work felt more structured and goal-oriented than it does in my current position. There was something constructive to do almost every day, something to make me feel like I didn’t just wake up only to wait all day for the sun to go down so I could go back to sleep again. Nowadays, it’s difficult for me to see the purpose or direction in my work, and that makes it very hard to find motivation. As a teacher, going to class felt like a worthwhile activity. As a third year Volunteer, my purpose has been less clear. I am motivated by some aspects of my role, namely supporting other Volunteers and contributing to trainings, but sometimes it feels difficult to focus on those things and do them with a vigor that I can be proud of.

Before starting my current position, I was very excited about moving to a new place—a bigger city, nonetheless—and starting fresh. A whole year in a new place was going to be my chance to practice the local dialect more, meet new people, see different parts of the country, and learn from my previous experiences to better integrate into this new community. Toward the end of my time in my former site, there were things that I wish I had done differently in my community, but I felt like having a clean slate in a different place would be an easy chance to redeem myself. I’m not sure what’s been holding me back from satisfying these social desires. I’m finding myself getting stuck in routines of the city, walking the same roads to get to the same places, and not feeling the mutual warmth that I expected would open up new conversations and friendships.

I know it’s not all sunshine and rainbows here. I’m not asking for that. I just want to feel some purpose again. I want to feel like I’m not just floating around in this experience until my stint in Madagascar is up. I’m afraid of looking back at this time and recognizing too much of it was wasted or underutilized. I’ll continue to search for the next step, to be open to the next unexpected connection, and to be mindful of my place in this experience.

Sewing seeds of change

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Celebrating a successful two years of service in Andapa with close friends who also happen to be local English teachers

Living in Madagascar for more than two years has afforded me the opportunity to integrate into a local community and see beyond the superficial aspects of community issues. Under the surface, there are various realities, values, and norms that collide to create the world in which we live in. The same is true of issues in America (and really, any other country). Addressing community issues can be complex, daunting, and even emotionally draining at times, but remaining hopeful is a necessary part of the development process. Change is no easy feat to accomplish, and I’ve observed a few aspects of this process that are essential to making a real impact and creating lasting, positive change.

In my experience, there is tremendous value in being a willing observer before developing a strategy of change. I believe that too often people jump into a situation and get right to work with a narrow understanding of the underlying issues. This is especially true in a cross-cultural setting. I have learned so much by observing the context of my community before offering solutions based on my own pre-conceived ideas. My cultural upbringing and experience allows me to see the world in a particular way, and that’s not always the best approach in a different cultural reality. Lasting progress means learning about the community first and adapting ideas to the local realities.

Coming from a western culture that places value in timely and measurable achievement, it’s important to remind ourselves that change and progress often come in small increments. This idea took me a while to come to terms with. It’s not uncommon for me to share a plan of action with colleagues only to be told that there are actually many more smaller actions that need to take place in order for our project to move forward. Yet, each time these seemingly annoying “setbacks” help me change my own frame of reference when working in the community. Baby steps are still headed in the direction of positive change.

“We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development.” -excerpt from Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer

We don’t always see the change that we work so hard to promote. It usually comes later on, maybe years later, after we leave a place. This has been one of the central ideas that I cling to when I question the effectiveness of my work. Maybe a student doesn’t fully understand a lesson today, and that is sometimes frustrating in the moment, but hopefully my approach in the classroom will encourage them to continue studying long after they have left my class. Maybe a community member doesn’t fully recognize the value of a new practice today, but hopefully through repetition and integration into their lives they will come to know the benefits.  The process of sustainable change never really ends, but recognizing our small contributions to this worthy endeavor can give us the hope necessary to continue moving forward.

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This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

Seasonal produce: litchi

Alright folks, this is what we have been waiting for all year: litchi season.

A bowl of unpeeled litchis

A bowl of unpeeled litchis

These small, red, rough-skinned spheres of sweet juicy heaven are being shuffled to all corners of Madagascar this time of year. Towns and villages become littered with discarded litchi skins and seeds as people enjoy them on the go; an obvious signal that the best part of the seasonal fruit year has arrived. The tropical fruit, native to south-east China, grows best in the warm humid climates along the eastern coast of Madagascar. Litchi trees grow large and can produce may kilos of fruit. Due to the relatively short season of litchis, about 4-6 weeks, the fruit is highly sought after and quickly enjoyed while it lasts.

A litchi tree in the countryside near Andapa

A litchi tree in the countryside near Andapa

Portion of a litchi tree near Andapa

Portion of a litchi tree near Andapa

I had never tasted a fresh litchi before coming to Madagascar, so I had to be taught by local children how to eat them. The outside of the fruit is covered by a red, roughly textured skin that must be peeled away to reveal the translucent white flesh. Then, simply pop the fruit into your mouth, remove the flesh from the dark brown seed, and spit out the seed. You’ll likely be hooked after your first taste of the fragrant and sweet fruit, which will lead to consuming at least one kilo each sitting.

A bowl of peeled litchis. Photo credit: @danie.fock

A bowl of peeled litchis. Photo credit: @danie.fock

In the markets of Fianarantsoa right now, I can buy 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) of litchis for 500 Ariary (about $0.15). That’s insanely cheap for such an instant and satisfying sugar high. In many parts of the eastern coastal regions, it’s very common to go out into the countryside with friends and get litchis right from the trees growing around a family’s house. When I was living in Andapa, some of the English teachers that I worked with would invite me to teach with them in their countryside villages and then they would give me kilos of fresh litchis to bring back home. Whether I bought them in the market or got them from a friend, bringing home litchis has been an exciting new experience for me. I really enjoy sitting in the shade outside, snacking on some litchis, and watching the world go by.

A woman selling litchis in Fianarantsoa

A woman selling litchis in Fianarantsoa

In some areas of the east coast, litchis are such an important part of the local culture and economy that they celebrate the fruit with street parades and other festivities. While visiting Tamatave this past weekend, some friends and I stumbled upon a litchi parade complete with drummers, dancing, costumes, and lots of singing students. It was an exciting and unexpected treat to watch people basically throw a huge party for this delicious little fruit!

Students, dressed in festive colors and litchi branches, sing during a street parade in Tamatave

Students, dressed in festive colors and litchi branches, sing during a street parade in Tamatave

As litchi season comes to an inevitable end soon, I know I’ll be out in the markets looking to get my hands on this special fruit for as long as possible. Eating the last litchi of the season is always somewhat sad, marking the conclusion of a gluttonous feeding frenzy, but it also starts the mental countdown until next year’s season.

Trying to contain my excitement about litchis

Trying to contain my excitement about litchis

Welcome to my house

Now that I’ve finally settled into my new house, I’d like to invite you to check it out! I made this short video to not only show off my real estate skills, but to share my home. I’ve incorporated a lot of my personal belongings from America, items from my former site in Andapa, and new items from the local Fianarantsoa area. Enjoy!

While this is not the typical standard of living for Peace Corps Volunteers in Madagascar, I feel it is a realistic portrayal of living standards in a large Malagasy city.

Wet hot American autumn

Sometimes they say, “no news is good news.”

In this case, the long delay in posting new blog material can be attributed to my recent visit back home. For the past 6 weeks, I have been reconnecting with my family, my friends, and eating my way through the beautiful areas of California that mean so much to me. This time back home is built into my third year extension and it has come at such a welcomed stage of my service. If you’ve been following my journey from the beginning, you’ll know that I have not returned to the U.S. at all during the last 2 and a half years. So this homecoming was an extra special treat for me and a very valuable chance to see this pocket of the world through a new lens.

Digging my toes into the ocean in San Diego

Digging my toes into the ocean in San Diego

As you can imagine, many things in America have changed during my time abroad and I came back to a country with some exciting new developments. I had a bit of a learning curve when it came to things such as chip readers at cash registers, the expansion and prevalence of sharing services such as Uber and Airbnb, and delicious poke bowls. Technology has continued to advance exponentially and it seems that all our devices are even more connected than before. Driving on the freeway was exhilarating, and then there was traffic and I remembered why I didn’t miss driving. In the weeks before my return, I had imagined an America with an all-encompassing national WiFi bubble, but I instead had to settle for lightning fast WiFi in almost every establishment and home. Bummer, right?

Being in America after spending so much time abroad gave me a new perspective on many aspects of life there. The way we manage our time, use our food and water resources, interact with each other, and entertain ourselves were just some of the things that stood out to me. I was expecting to feel more like a foreigner in America, but I quickly slipped back into some of the same habits and mindsets of my previous life. Being placed back into American culture was much easier and far less shocking than I thought it would be. Conveniences were abounding and I tried not to take a paved highway or an In-N-Out hamburger for granted.

First taste of In-N-Out since leaving the US in 2014

First taste of In-N-Out since leaving the US in 2014

Leading up to my return to America, I was at times apprehensive about the thought of impending reunions with friends and family. Being isolated in Madagascar and undertaking this strange journey practically on my own, I would often think about life back home as being on pause. I kept telling myself that I’d be away for a couple of years, come back, and pick up these relationships right where I left off. However self-centered and illogical that was, the reality of people growing and continuing to develop was beautiful to see in person. Friends getting married, moving into tasteful living arrangements (read: not a dingy cheap college apartment), and building lives around great careers. Family members continuing to travel and share moments together. I felt an elevated sense of pride in sharing these new lives with my loved ones, even for a brief time, and a renewed optimism for the direction of all of our life paths.

With old friends, and some new ones, at a tailgate for San Diego State's homecoming football game

With old friends, and some new ones, at a tailgate for San Diego State’s homecoming football game

So being back in America was great and I’m happy to report that I saw all the people I wanted to see, went to all the places that I wanted to go to, and ate all the food that I had been missing for the last few years. I even had some experiences above and far beyond what I originally anticipated. For anyone who indulged me by sitting through my rambling stories about Madagascar, thank you for listening. While I learned a lot about myself and my own culture, I hope I was able to share even a small part of my experience in Madagascar with others.

As I return to working on the big red island for another 10 months, I’ll hold these new memories and laughs of the past 6 weeks in America very close to me. Until we meet again…

Family brunch

Family brunch

Breakfast selfie with my dad

Breakfast selfie with my dad

My dog, Buster, is still fumbling through the world at 15 years old!

My dog, Buster, is still fumbling through the world at 15 years old!

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.