Through my lens (part 6)

It’s been almost five months since I left Madagascar. Now, I’m on the verge of starting the next chapter of my story and wanted to take a look back at some of my final experiences in Madagascar. It was one hell of a ride.

Stopping to bathe and laugh at a waterfall along the Tsiribihina River

A few students from the English Club in Andapa

A young child and her sister wait in line for food during an exhumation in Mantasoa

Sharing a communal meal of rice and fatty pork during an exhumation celebration in Mantasoa

Villagers gather around a tomb and distinguished family members give a speech of thanks during a traditional exhumation in Mantasoa

Preparing for Thanksgiving 2016 in Fianarantsoa

Mountains meet the ocean in Ft. Dauphin

Cows and young men resting in a dry river bed in Tsihombe

View of central Antananarivo as storm clouds roll in around sunset

Teamwork is essential when installing a new solar panel at a Volunteer’s house near Ambatondrazaka

Killer, one of two dogs who live at the Peace Corps Training Center in Mantasoa

View of Mantasoa, the small village where every Peace Corps Madagascar Trainee begins their journey. This was taken on my final visit to town

Saying goodbye to my close friends from Andapa. (L-R) Johnny, Soa, and their baby, Alexander.

 

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7 ways Madagascar prepared me to travel in India

When a Peace Corps Volunteer finishes his or her service, it’s referred to as COS (Close of Service). And it’s very common for Volunteers to celebrate their accomplishments and embrace their new freedom by taking a COS trip. Usually it’s an adventure to transition between life abroad and a new life in America.

When I COS’ed at the end of September, I knew I had another adventure waiting for me in India. I had planned a month of traveling in the world’s second most populated country as a way to mark the end of three years in Madagascar and to help me begin the transition from rural Malagasy life to bustling and modern American life. As I began traveling in India, I noticed many things that reminded me of life in Madagascar. I also realized that if it hadn’t been for my previous experiences in Madagascar, I would have most likely reacted to these new Indian experiences differently and possibly developed a more negative outlook of the country because I would have been more uncomfortable in these new settings.

Like many things in life, we normalize ides as they become routine. As they become more routine and common, we tend to be unfazed by their relative difference or shock, as perceived by others who are less familiar. When I kept having moments in India where I thought, “hey, this reminds me a lot of Madagascar,” I knew something was changing inside of me. When I could step out of my mind and realize that what I was feeling about Madagascar was happening right before my eyes in India, I felt compelled to start a running list and share it with my readers.

In no particular order or significance, these are the seven ways that I believe Madagascar prepared me to be a better traveler in India:

1. Trash and road conditions

In India, there’s a lot of trash. I won’t get into the why or how of it, but trust me—there’s trash seemingly everywhere. It can smell, it can look unpleasant, it can be overwhelming. But I had been living in similar circumstances in Madagascar, so it wasn’t as much of a shock to me in India. Without a lot of public infrastructure to deal with trash in either country, it piles up along the streets and in open fields or plots of land.

Other aspects of India’s infrastructure, specifically roads, seemed downright pristine in my eyes. Coming from a country where if you’re lucky enough to have a paved road it probably has a bunch of potholes, to a country where almost every street is paved AND has lanes painted was a real treat for me. I was visibly smiling for the first few days whenever I got into a car, while on the other hand, my friends and other travelers looked more nervous or put off by their perceived low quality of Indian roads.

2. Challenging creature comforts

More than once in India, I had a thought that was along the lines of “this toilet is disgusting, but at least it’s not as bad as a kabone (pit latrine)!” In many of the Indian toilets I used, there are even these cool butt hoses to use instead of toilet paper. Whether it was an air conditioning unit that was out of order, a television that only had 2 channels, or a sub-par Wi-Fi connection, I was coming from a place where those things were considered luxury items and I could deal without them. Some of my fellow travelers felt a little more…entitled…to these things than I was.

3. Long drives and travel times

Getting around India is relatively easy, efficient, and affordable, in my eyes. There are lots of car or bus options, as well as a connected rail system. So when I would meet other travelers who complained about 4+ hours traveling on a bus in India, I had very little sympathy. In Madagascar, what you are told will be an easy 3 hour taxi-brousse ride often turns into a 7+ hour ordeal on an old minivan held together with duct tape where you’re crammed in between two sweaty Malagasy people, chickens nipping at your ankles from under the seat, and music blasting in your face as you fly down a windy road riddled with potholes and stray cows. Sounds charming, right? On the flip side, in India, a comparable journey takes place in a well maintained commercial bus with assigned seating, air conditioning, and a reliable travel time because the roads are predictable. While I met some travelers who dreaded the idea of a 4 hour train ride in India, I was excited because it would probably comfortably cover more distance in less time than other options in Madagascar.

4. Language barriers

Almost every Indian person that I met spoke at least basic English and many people were advanced speakers. Coming from a country where few people outside of my students or work colleagues spoke any English, I was overjoyed that I could speak so freely with almost anyone in India. The tricky part was adapting to the Indian accents and vocabulary. I frequently found myself searching for linguistic common ground, something I was very used to doing in Madagascar. Rephrasing questions, using simple vocabulary, or just surrendering to the idea that I would remain partially clueless during a conversation—these were skills that I learned in Madagascar and easily transferred to India. Non-verbal communication in India was another idea I had to adapt to, where something as simple as the direction or force of your head nod can speak volumes above the actual words you utter.

5. Trust

At many times during my travels in India, locals and other travelers would give me unsolicited advice about maintaining my personal safety and health. When my initial reaction to these ideas was “Duh, of course that makes sense,” I knew that I had a skill set from Madagascar that I was starting to take for granted: street smarts in the developing world. Whether it was dealing with pushy taxi drivers, street vendors, children begging for money, or being in crowded unfamiliar places, I trusted myself and those around me like I did in Madagascar. It wasn’t entirely new for someone to try to take advantage of me because I am a foreigner, so I tried to keep that in the back of my mind. Dealing with similar situations in Madagascar helped me recognize, and mitigate, them in India.

6. Being a good passenger

In both Madagascar and India, people drive very differently than they do in America. I would describe their approach to driving as doing whatever the driver wants while making sure there is a small buffer of safety around the car. In America, driving lanes, posted speed limits, and rules of the road are all generally accepted and obeyed by drivers. In Madagascar and India, these things feel like mere suggestions. It was not uncommon for me to be a passenger in a Malagasy car when the driver would try to pass a slower car on a two-lane highway while coming within a few feet of oncoming traffic before darting back into the original lane. After a few instances of this, I learned to calm down, trust the driver, and basically surrender to the idea that either everything would be fine or I’d be involved in a massively horrific vehicle accident. This also meant I was already prepared for the same behavior from drivers in India. While other passengers winced or gasped as we crossed into oncoming traffic or came within inches of hitting a stray cow in the street, I tended to remain present in conversations or gazing out the window like nothing was happening.

7. Cash based economy

In Madagascar, cash is by far and away the primary monetary tool. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I saw a credit card machine in the three years I lived there. In India, cards are slightly more prevalent but cash is still the best way to get around. I was used to being conscious of how many small denomination bills I had in Madagascar, because breaking large bills in the countryside was nearly impossible. Those same instincts kicked in while I was in India, so I was very comfortable living day to day with cash.

A few extra things that surprised me about India

  • In the south (Kerala, from my experience), there are more churches and cathedrals than I expected. Many of them were ornately decorated and flashy.
  • Billboard advertising is extremely common—everything from political coalitions to the newest smartphone with an impressive selfie camera.
  • Most Indian men have a full thick head of gorgeous hair. I definitely experienced some hair envy.
  • Women dressed in beautifully designed and colored saree as everyday clothing. Much like the Malagasy lambahoany, I never saw the same saree design twice.
  • Unexpected warmth, hospitality, curiosity, and helpfulness of local people. I could go on for days discussing this, as it also reminded me of the nature of most Malagasy people.
  • More than just stray cats and dogs—cows, goats, monkeys, and donkeys are commonly wandering the streets of India like they own the place.
  • Vehicle traffic, congestion, car horns, and aggressiveness really got to me after a while, eventually becoming a full on auditory assault.
  • Air pollution is much worse than I anticipated. On some evenings, the sun set behind a layer of pollution before it reached the actual horizon.
  • A fine appreciation of electrical outlets—availability in cafes and restaurants, placement near beds, and a convenient switch to turn the outlet on or off. This made traveling and charging devices so easy!

Overall, I absolutely loved traveling in India and I would go back in a heartbeat. The people, the food, the history, the natural beauty, and the spiritual magnetism were all so accessible and kept me in a constant state of awe. I don’t think I would’ve had the same positive experience if I didn’t get help organizing my trip from the great team at India Someday. I can’t recommend them enough and they made my first trip to India feel less intimidating and smooth. Please check out their website for more info, especially if you’re planning a trip to India in the future. And you should go, right after you visit Madagascar!

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