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.

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Onward

I’m sitting in my house on my final night in Andapa. I’m at the table, where for the last 2 years, I have enjoyed many meals, written many lesson plans, hosted many guests, and composed many of the stories you have read on this blog. The electricity is cut, again, like it occasionally has been this time of the evening. I can faintly hear the conversations of people passing outside my house. I’ve paused from packing up my belongings to collect my thoughts and share them here.

During the past few weeks, leading up to this pivotal time, I haven’t really felt any different. I logically understand that I must leave Andapa, but the days still felt very routine and “normal”. It doesn’t feel real. When I explained this to a friend, she suggested that I was in shock. “In a non-dramatic way,” as she put it. Maybe that’s true. Maybe I’ve been unconsciously pushing away some of my feelings in order to focus on what needs to be done to prepare for my departure. I also think this move hasn’t really sunk in because I know that while I’m leaving Andapa in the morning, I will still be living and working in Madagascar for another year (spoiler alert). I don’t have to say goodbye right now to Madagascar and Peace Corps and everything that has been a part of my life for the last 2 years, rather, I’m just wrapping up this chapter in Andapa and moving on. So I’ve been having some conflicting emotions between sadness for leaving the familiarity of Andapa and excitement for starting the next part of my service.

Tonight, I went back and read the blog post I wrote on the eve of leaving America. In that, I saw a different version of myself. One filled with so many questions and the courage to fling myself directly into that ambiguity. I was reminded of the immense support of my friends and family at that time and how they have continued to support me throughout my adventure. I also recognized that many of the rituals performed at that time (saying goodbye to people, packing my luggage, changing routines) are ones that I am again performing. Earlier today, I visited a few people to say goodbye and I found myself enjoying the chance to walk around town one last time and soak it all in. Taking the long way home. With a newly developed appreciation, I was looking at things, smelling scents, hearing noises that have become familiar.

When thinking about what I’ll miss most about my time here, I kept coming back to “my” things. My house, my garden, my view from the house, my cooking area, my squeaky old bed. Maybe this is the only child in me taking over, but I didn’t quite realize the extent to which I cast a blanket of possession over so many things. I’ve found a lot of comfort in the routines and safe spaces that I’ve set up for my self here, and I’m anxious about leaving those behind. Of course, the memories and images will stay with me for a long time. But tonight, just before I pick up and leave, it’s hard for me to trust those memories and to feel confident about walking into another unknown chapter of this adventure.

Alas, the time has arrived whether I like it or not. Tomorrow morning, I will leave Andapa and, with it, a part of my soul. I am comforted by something a friend told me just before my departure from America a couple of years ago…

“Onward”

What I learned from zoky be

In the Malagasy language, zoky be is a term used to describe the eldest sibling in a family. Among Peace Corps Volunteers in Madagascar, we sometimes bestow this title upon those who have been in our country for the longest period of time. It’s a term of endearment.

In the SAVA region, our one and only zoky be has recently finished her contract as a Volunteer and she left our region a couple of weeks ago. Her two years of service are complete and I know that she will be moving on to bigger and better things. While we are collectively saying goodbye to a good friend and a very well-integrated Volunteer, I will reflect on some of the lessons that my zoky be has taught me.

  1. How to work with Air Madagascar: Air Madagascar is the only domestic airline company in Madagascar. Because the SAVA region is considered a “fly site,” we almost always have to travel by airplane to get outside of the region. Unfortunately, the airline company is extremely frustrating to work with and is often unreliable. From the first days that I arrived in SAVA, zoky be told me cautionary tales of traveling with Air Madagascar and how she dealt with their incompetence. Thanks to her, I now make sure to check the flight schedules often, confirm departure times, and always fly with a bit of cautious suspicion.
  2. How to hail a taxi-brousse on the side of the road: Traveling by car in Madagascar is almost exclusively done via taxi-brousse (bush taxi). It’s basically a large mini-bus that they cram full of people to shuttle back and forth between major cities. In these major cities, there is usually a station where a taxi-brousse will depart from. But in the small villages along the main road, there is no station and a taxi-brousse must be hailed from the side of the road. According to zoky be, there is a commonly accepted method of flagging down a car and any other attempt to do so might not be effective. She made sure to pass on the intricacies of hailing a taxi-brousse so that if I were to be in a small village in the countryside, I could get a ride out when I needed to.
  3. Where to eat in Sambava: Sambava is the regional capital of SAVA and the largest town in the area. There are many shops and restaurants in town and zoky be graciously shepherded me to her favorite eateries during my first few visits to the big city. Some places specialized in particular foods, some were more welcoming to Peace Corps Volunteers, and some were to be avoided altogether. Thanks to her experiences, there are now a handful of restaurants that I frequent when I visit Sambava.
  4. Where to find free wifi in Sambava: Seeing as Sambava is the central business hub of the SAVA region, the PCVs in the area tend to treat it as such and take advantage of the available amenities. Wifi internet access is a highly sought after resource. Much like how zoky be explored the city to find good restaurants, she also sniffed out a great place to get free wifi access. Seeing as how she didn’t have electricity or running water at home in her small village, she was determined to find some of the creature comforts when she came to Sambava. Without her recommendation, I might still be wandering Sambava looking for a good restaurant or a reliable internet connection.
  5. How to build a community: When I first arrived at my site, the idea of integrating into my new community and making friends seemed pretty overwhelming. Language and cultural barriers were my primary concerns. But luckily zoky be had some good suggestions. She shared how when she first got to her village, she would just walk outside and try to talk to anyone that would talk back. Soon enough, she got to know her neighbors and they got to know her as well. She kept a small notebook with new vocabulary words that she learned so that she could constantly improve her language skills. Pretty soon, she felt more at home in her village than she did anywhere else in Madagascar. So I tried to follow in the footsteps of zoky be and I learned a great deal about my community as a result.
  6. How to eat for free in the countryside: Building off her conversational success in her new village, zoky be also developed a network of families that she would eat with on a rotating schedule. Malagasy people are generally very welcoming and hospitable toward guests, and these courtesies are also extended to new Peace Corps Volunteers. A full stomach is only a short conversation away in the countryside. By her own calculations, zoky be claimed that she didn’t have to cook for herself for the first 4 months of living in her village.
  7. How to face the challenges of life: When I first visited zoky be at her house, it was only days after I first arrived in SAVA and I had not even been to my own site yet. The whole “Peace Corps experience” was still a fairly new and vague idea to me. I anticipated that there would be ups and downs along the way and I understood that how a Volunteer reacted to those changes would define their character. So after meeting the bubbly and upbeat zoky be, I was a little taken back when I saw a quote, written on a cross beam in her modest palm and bamboo hut, that read, “I push myself to laugh about everything for fear of crying about it.” When I asked her about the quote, she smiled and simply said, “I went through a bit of a rough time last year.” I didn’t need to know any other details because that was enough to remind me that this experience isn’t always a walk in the park. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I face some unique challenges but I also think they can be simplified and applied to lots of other challenges in Madagascar and in the developing world. And in my current cultural context, usually it’s easier to laugh when things go wrong instead of getting too upset and letting that anger or frustration weigh me down. I think we’re all a little crazy to sign up for this job, but I really came to appreciate the way zoky be embraced her challenges and the dose of humor she used as momentum to keep herself moving forward.

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.

Bon voyage in San Diego!

As my time with friends and family in San Diego draws to a close, it’s been hard to think about packing up my life here and moving on to the next chapter. The actual task of packing up my apartment is daunting on its own, but now I’ll be throwing in all my last-minute farewells and cranking up the emotional levels to maximum potential. But to help mitigate some of that, I spent some time hanging out with friends at a little “bon voyage” social event that I organized at Stone Brewery in Liberty Station. It was a picture-perfect San Diego afternoon, the drinks and food were phenomenal (certainly something I’ll miss terribly in Madagascar), and I really appreciated the effort that some of my friends made to come and join us. Here’s some photos from the day:

My best friend from high school, Katelyn, and her boyfriend, Scott

My best friend from high school, Katelyn, and her boyfriend, Scott

My roommate, Bobby

My roommate, Bobby

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With my dad

With my dad

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Friends from college, to put it simply

Friends from college, to put it simply

In other updates, I have also received all of my staging information and international flight itinerary! The plan is to meet up with the rest of the folks in my staging group on June 9 in Philadelphia, have a day of orientation, than fly our of New York City on the morning of June 10. We have a 15 hour flight from NYC to Johannesburg, South Africa, then it’s just a quick 3 hour flight over to Madagascar. It’s really exciting to know more about my travel plans, but it also just means that we are getting that much closer to the actual departure. Still so much to do to prepare!