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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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!

It’s all been leading up to this

“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid” -Basil King

In many ways, I knew this day was eventually coming. But it has come with such a swiftness that it leaves me amazed with how prepared I have become. As I write, my time in the comfort of my family, friends, familiar settings, and comfortable habits is wrapping up. Early in the morning, I’ll be headed to the airport to begin my long journey toward Madagascar.

I’ve packed my bags.

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I’ve said farewell to almost all of my family and friends.

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I’ve prepared my personal life to the best of my abilities.

The only thing left to do is to get on the plane and just go. Take all the courage I can muster, combine it with the love and support from everyone rallying for me, mix in a little common sense, and thrive in this experience.

I’ll take this space to publicly and repeatedly offer my heartfelt and sincere gratitude to every single person who has supported me through this experience so far. I’ve said it to many already, but it’s so amazing to know that I have such a fantastic and loyal group of friends and family that supports me and reminds me that what I am about to do is right. The times when I’ve been anxious, stressed, confused, scared, and even excited and obsessed with my preparations, having their support has helped me pull through some of those deep emotions. So I thank each of them and I can’t wait to share this experience as much as possible.

In the coming weeks, my access to Internet will probably be pretty spotty or even nonexistent. I don’t know exactly when I’ll be able to get everyone updated after landing in Madagascar, but I promise to do so as soon as possible. Communication routines, much like almost everything else in Peace Corps, will just have to be part of the adjustment process.

With that, I’ll leave you with these thoughts on the eve of my departure:

“It’s not goodbye. It’s just ‘see you later.'”

“Onward”

 

Temperature reading: 2 weeks to departure

Just typing the title of this post sent a shockwave through my nervous system. But damn, the past couple of weeks have certainly solidified the notion that this next chapter of my life is really happening. It’s not a distant inevitability anymore, something to be concerned with some other week. This is happening NOW. Let me catch you up on the emotional roller coaster that has been my life recently.

This past week, I made my final departure from my home in San Diego. Spent most of the week packing up my apartment, spending as much time as possible with friends, and saying some goodbyes. I’d be lying if I said it was a smooth transition out of what has become the city where I feel most at home. After my car was packed (to the absolute brim) with boxes and bags containing the “essential” material things of my life, I drove away from my apartment complex for one last time, hopped on the freeway, and headed north. Not knowing when I would in fact be heading south again. And then the tears started; in fact I cried probably most of the way driving through San Diego County. It was such an unnatural feeling to have to peel myself away from my life in San Diego and to really not know exactly when I would see some of my friends and family there again. I cried because I was scared, because I was second guessing my decision, because I couldn’t yet make the connection between leaving all that I knew and loved and trading it in for something so immensely foreign and unfamiliar. While I absolutely feel like I left San Diego on good terms, saw/did/ate pretty much everything I wanted to before leaving, it was still such a task to give myself permission to move on. I really can’t predict where I’ll be after completing my service, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I somehow found my way back to San Diego eventually. I don’t know of any other place that can make an authentic California burrito, so there’s that.

A few hours later, I finally arrived at my aunt and uncle’s house where I dropped off my things and started to settle in. I intend to spend the remaining two weeks before departure with my family and friends in the Los Angeles area. But I was back home for less than 48 hours before I hopped on a plane and headed out to Scottsdale, Arizona, to spend a week of vacation with the family, where I am writing this from now. Sorry if that was a little confusing, but let me help: I don’t have any family that lives in Scottsdale, but my family from the LA area decided to group up and spend a week out of town together. It’s all about sun, relaxation, family time, laughs, and memories. Memories and stories that I will undoubtedly cling on to like a life preserver during my dark days of Peace Corps service. The days when I’m crippled by emotion, too distressed to draw cold water for a bucket bath, and altogether content with moping in whatever living arrangements fate may have in store for me. That was probably a bit dramatic, but you get my drift hopefully. So it’s been nice to be here in Arizona, spend time with the family, and not be as stressed as I have been lately about packing and preparing for Madagascar.

Speaking of which, the past few weeks and upcoming weeks have been a good lesson in how far stretching my life really is. Firstly, working on my packing list has been an interesting exercise in learning what I already have in my possession versus what I may need to borrow from others or buy new. I think I pretty much have all the clothing and comfort items taken care of, but some of the more “tactical” or utilitarian items I’m still looking to procure. Seems like a good plug for my Amazon and REI wish lists, both of those links you can find in the “My Humble Wish List” page at the top of this blog. Just saying. But it’s also been fun to be reminded how many things I’m connected to in this world. For example, utility bills, charitable donations, magazine subscriptions, email marketing lists, mailing addresses, etc. As part of my preparations, I’ve been shedding a ton of excess “connection” lately in order to make it a little easier to manage from half way across the world. It started with unsubscribing from random email lists that I get frequently, and that seemed to be happening 4-5 times per day from so many different groups or companies. But along with any other major relocation, you have to start thinking about things such as registering to vote, changing your address, canceling utilities, and moving other subscriptions. The material things that are an extension of your interests, values, and activities. It’s just fun to see what things pop up out of nowhere and how to deal with them. I’ve been using the mentality of “will I need or want this information in 2.5 years when I return home?”

As in previous updates, I try to spend a little time on my mental preparations for this experience. And for this check-in, it will be no different. The two most prevalent emotions for me lately have been fear and anxiety. I believe that I am not only scared to be making such tangible changes in my life (and yes, I completely understand this is part of the experience) but I’m also terrified of a couple of things when I get out to Madagascar. I’m terrified that either I’ll hate it so much and want to come home early or I’ll completely fall in love with the place and want to permanently resettle in Madagascar. Although these two fears are both extremes on opposite ends of the spectrum of possible experiences, I guess it’s still possible that either one of them could happen. At this point I’m not as worried about having electricity, large insects, or potentially getting malaria, although those are all legitimate concerns, but rather I’m currently more worried about how I will react to this drastic and inherently life altering opportunity. And for my anxiety, if that really is even the proper description of my feeling, I think it mostly has to do with my packing and preparations. It was a little stressful to pack up my things in San Diego and clear out of there. And it’s been somewhat taxing to put together my packing list over the past month or so, checking it multiple times, consulting with other Volunteers, and making sure I give myself enough time to get the items I need. So I think it’s a mixture of making the physical preparations along with processing the mental/emotional experiences associated with this experience. Not only closing out my physical life in San Diego, but for all intents and purposes, closing out my social life there as well. Preparing myself to essentially live at home with family again for a couple of weeks, although I am extremely grateful and excited to spend time with them, it’s still an adjustment. So all of that is what I tend to be clumping into “anxiety.”

But as I’ve said before, this is all part of the gig. I can’t just wake up one morning and instantly be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I’m learning that it takes a lot of preparation, patience, and obscene amounts of support from family and friends. So deep in my heart I know that I’ll be fine and that I (probably) have things under control, but my mind still races. It still tries to predict, tries to prepare, tries to reassure me. But my goal is to really soak up these last two weeks in the US, spend time with my family, eat lots of delicious food, and prepare as best I can for an experience I cannot possibly understand yet.