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!

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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.

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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