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.

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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.