Sewing seeds of change

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Celebrating a successful two years of service in Andapa with close friends who also happen to be local English teachers

Living in Madagascar for more than two years has afforded me the opportunity to integrate into a local community and see beyond the superficial aspects of community issues. Under the surface, there are various realities, values, and norms that collide to create the world in which we live in. The same is true of issues in America (and really, any other country). Addressing community issues can be complex, daunting, and even emotionally draining at times, but remaining hopeful is a necessary part of the development process. Change is no easy feat to accomplish, and I’ve observed a few aspects of this process that are essential to making a real impact and creating lasting, positive change.

In my experience, there is tremendous value in being a willing observer before developing a strategy of change. I believe that too often people jump into a situation and get right to work with a narrow understanding of the underlying issues. This is especially true in a cross-cultural setting. I have learned so much by observing the context of my community before offering solutions based on my own pre-conceived ideas. My cultural upbringing and experience allows me to see the world in a particular way, and that’s not always the best approach in a different cultural reality. Lasting progress means learning about the community first and adapting ideas to the local realities.

Coming from a western culture that places value in timely and measurable achievement, it’s important to remind ourselves that change and progress often come in small increments. This idea took me a while to come to terms with. It’s not uncommon for me to share a plan of action with colleagues only to be told that there are actually many more smaller actions that need to take place in order for our project to move forward. Yet, each time these seemingly annoying “setbacks” help me change my own frame of reference when working in the community. Baby steps are still headed in the direction of positive change.

“We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development.” -excerpt from Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer

We don’t always see the change that we work so hard to promote. It usually comes later on, maybe years later, after we leave a place. This has been one of the central ideas that I cling to when I question the effectiveness of my work. Maybe a student doesn’t fully understand a lesson today, and that is sometimes frustrating in the moment, but hopefully my approach in the classroom will encourage them to continue studying long after they have left my class. Maybe a community member doesn’t fully recognize the value of a new practice today, but hopefully through repetition and integration into their lives they will come to know the benefits.  The process of sustainable change never really ends, but recognizing our small contributions to this worthy endeavor can give us the hope necessary to continue moving forward.

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This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

A mission to serve

Exploring the sounds of a seashell in Cap Est

Exploring the sounds of a seashell in Cap Est

To offer myself in the service of others, be a curious participant in new cultures, and build relationships that bring out the best in people

This is my “why.” My personal mission statement that has guided me to where I am today. As I reflect on my Peace Corps service in Madagascar and the decisions that led up to this point, I can simplify my reasons for pursuing this opportunity into the statement above. Even looking forward, this is the guiding principle for how I want to continue living my life.

One of the three goals of Peace Corps is “to help people of interested countries meet their needs for trained men and women.” Going through the Peace Corps application process, I knew this goal ensured my experience would be much more than simply traveling abroad. At that time, I couldn’t really pinpoint any specific training that I possessed that would be extremely sought after by foreign governments. I didn’t know how to farm or build bridges or improve water sanitation, and I still don’t know how to do those things. These were things that I assumed would be expected of me as a Volunteer. Instead, I prepared myself to arrive in my new host country and basically wing it. I wanted to first become part of the community and from there, find work that served the collective good. In this way, I hoped to invest myself in my community as a motivation for improving our shared experience. I quickly learned what I could do to help and how I could adapt my skills. Over time, I have learned to work in a fairly ambiguous and ever-changing environment, which has allowed me to confront complex, sometimes initially undefined, issues that are often very different from my experiences in America. Serving my community in Madagascar is about more than what I can do with my hands, but also what I can do with my mind and my heart.

I feel very fortunate to come from a family that values travel. Growing up, I often took vacations with my parents and we occasionally traveled with other family friends or relatives. One of my first international trips was with my mother and our close family friend. The three of us went to London and Paris during the summer after I graduated form high school. And this is when I was truly captivated by foreign travel and cultural immersion. The architecture, the history, the scenery, the people, the food, the chance to see and experience these places that I had only heard about from others. I loved it all, and I was never satisfied. That experience led to me pursuing an opportunity to study abroad in Italy during college, later exploring Israel through a group excursion, then returning to Europe for a 3 month backpacking trip after graduating from college, and more recently visiting Vietnam and Cambodia before ending up in Madagascar. Throughout all of these episodes abroad, I couldn’t get enough of the culture and I loved learning about a place through the eyes of the locals. It is this passionate curiosity that has kept me always thinking of the next destination. For me, combining this powerful force with the desire to share my skills was an obvious motivation for pursuing my current Peace Corps service. By traveling abroad, I learned to sit back and listen, create a deeper understanding of a place, and consider the hopes of someone else. These are all skills that have served me well as a Volunteer.

Building supportive relationships is not something that I consciously set out to achieve when I began preparing for my Peace Corps service. It is something that has developed and become more apparent to me since living and working in Madagascar. I’ve met some outstanding people on this island and I find myself wanting to support them in ways that encourage our mutual personal growth. I learn from them and I hope they can learn from me. I have been humbled and inspired by the hospitality that has been shown to me and I strive to replicate that in my actions. When I see the potential in someone, I find joy in helping them fulfill that potential. I believe that part of my purpose here is to help others be the truest and best version of themselves.

While I freely admit my reflections are presented with romantic and idealistic tones, they are grounded in my experiences up to this point. Like everything in life, there are good days and bad days. There are days when I can have rewarding conversations in Malagasy and days when my students get on my last nerve and then proceed to obliterate that nerve. Looking at the big picture of how and why I am here is what consistently brings me back to my personal mission statement. It is the small light on my darkest days and the reassuring maxim that pushes me to the next level.

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

Ode to the taxi-brousse

Just the mention of the word stirs up a mixture of emotions in every Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteer. Everyone’s got a story, or 20, about traveling around this beautiful island in a taxi-brousse, known as a “bush taxi” in other countries. It is the primary form of land travel in Madagascar. Most Volunteers see it as a necessary evil. Traveling by “brousse”, as we sometimes call it, is a skill that has to be honed and adjusted. It takes months to perfect your approach and style. At first, we were all afraid. But now, we are mahay taxi-brousse (knowledgeable about how to ride in and live in a world with the taxi-brousse).

In an attempt to describe and pay tribute to the taxi-brousse, I’d like to share a collection of observations and experiences that have happened to me since I arrived in Andapa in September 2014. Everything you are about to read is true and has happened to me, but you could easily imagine that taxi-brousses are generally the same all across Madagascar.

For starters, you might be wondering what a taxi-brousse looks like. That’s a little like asking what a lemur looks like. They all have a few commonly defining characteristics, but every one you see is a little bit different than the next. A taxi-brousse is basically a vehicle intended to move large numbers of people from one place to another. It’s usually a mini-van type vehicle. A little bigger than the average soccer mom’s mini-van, but smaller than a military transport truck. Usually. Brousses are also almost always customized. Not like “Pimp My Ride” customized. More like electrical wires hanging from the roof, religious stickers on the windows, door hinges obviously joined together with solder, and tacky pleather upholstering. The engines have been tinkered with by the local mechanic. The entire vehicle roars like a wild beast and rumbles like an electronic massage chair. Being in a taxi-brousse is truly an experience unlike any other.

A typical taxi-brousse

A typical taxi-brousse

The Good

I’ll admit that is has taken me a while to see the good things about broussing. Yes, one of them is the fact that “brousse” can be a noun or a verb. Once I got over the initial shock of the process, I began to appreciate the brousse for a few simple reasons. For starters, there’s no weight limit on luggage. Whatever bags you bring can be tied down on the roof of the car. And it’s not just limited to bags, my friends. I’ve seen entire living room furniture sets, bicycles, giant bushels of produce, wooden cages filled with chickens, geese, or ducks, and even mattresses on top of a brousse. If it can be tied down, it can go on top of a brousse. Smaller, more delicate bags can be placed on your lap or under your seat.

The driver's assistant ties down the various pieces of luggage on the roof of the car

The driver’s assistant ties down the various pieces of luggage on the roof of the car

Also, there is a wonderful seat in the brousse called place d’avant (French for “front place”). It is the front bench row next to the driver. Usually, it is reserved for two people. This is by far the most luxurious and comfortable part of the brousse because the other rows get filled to the brim, and then some, with passengers. A bit more on that later. But the place d’avant is typically reserved for special passengers. For example, a pretty girl that the driver might want to hit on during the ride, a traveling police officer or other local official, a foreign tourist, or in my case an obviously tall white dude who can speak a little bit of Malagasy. After riding in the huddle of passengers for a few months, I’ll never forget my first experience sitting in the place d’avant and feeling like royalty. I will admit that now I insist on sitting in this space, something that most of the local drivers already know about me and are happy to oblige.

On longer, overnight journeys (there are some routes that take more than 30 hours to travel and drivers always drive through the night when necessary) it is common for the vehicle to stop at “rest stops” along the main road to pause for a meal. At these rest stops, there are usually 5 or 6 small restaurants that all serve a heaping plate of rice with very similar side dishes of meat or beans. These places specifically service the taxi-brousse community and although the food is prepared on an almost industrial scale, it is still usually delicious and filling for a long night of driving through the pitch-black countryside. The service is quick and straight forward, enabling passengers to sit down, eat, and leave within 20 minutes.

For shorter, usually regional trips, the common practice for food is to stop in a town and food vendors will sell things to passengers through the car window. When the brousse stops, a group of vendors will run toward the car and start shoving large platters of fried breads, deep fried meats, hard-boiled eggs, coconuts, and the occasional fresh fish. The snacks are usually cheap and easy to eat in a vehicle. One of my favorite parts about broussing in different parts of the country is sampling the local cuisine in the form of brousse snacks.

Women selling various snacks to passengers

Women selling various snacks to passengers

The Bad

As I have eluded to earlier, riding in a taxi-brousse isn’t all sunshine and delicious brousse foods. There are some bad things that deserve to be mentioned. While some of these things might sound terrible to the reader, I will admit that to another Volunteer they might only seem trivial or annoying at best. One of these issues is known as “taxi-brousse time.” It’s related to a larger cultural phenomenon known as fotoana gasy (Malagasy time), where the concept of time is interpreted in a much broader sense. Things do not work on a precise schedule in this country, and the taxi-brousse is no exception. That being said, there are no hard scheduled departure and arrival times for a taxi-brousse. It leaves when it is ready and it gets there when it gets there.

The departure can sometimes be the most painful part of the whole experience because the brousse will generally leave only when it is full of passengers. If there aren’t 15-20 people ready to go at the same time, there are basically two courses of action. First, the brousse will just wait at the station until the desired number of passengers trickles in. Often times with the engine running, the combination of the day’s heat and the exhaust fumes enveloping the car can make for an extremely uncomfortable waiting experience. The second option is to put whatever passengers you do have into the car and drive around town trying to pick up more people off the street. This tactic can take 10 minutes or and hour and a half. In my opinion, the goal here is to show off how many people are already in the car in the hopes of attracting more passengers to join your downtown loop tour for the next 45 minutes.

A glimpse at part of the crowded taxi-brousse station in Sambava. Photo was taken as I waited inside a hot brousse

A glimpse at part of the crowded taxi-brousse station in Sambava. Photo was taken as I waited inside a hot brousse

Once the taxi-brousse is full and ready to depart town, at least you know the journey will get underway. This also means that the seating arrangement, if you can call it that, has been established and the discomfort of being crammed into a row of seats build to seat 3-4 people comfortably, but now has 5-6 people jammed in, slowly grows into a stinging and sometimes unbearable pain. Most taxi-brousses are build to seat about 15 people by American standards. This, my friends, is only the starting point in Madagascar. Brousses are routinely packed with 26-30 people and nobody puts up a fight about it. It’s just the way it is. It’s common to sit on someone’s lap, sometimes for hours at a time. Infants get passed around to strangers just to make the puzzle pieces of humans fit together better. Most of the time your knees are jammed up against the hard wood or plastic seat back in front of you. In the region where I live and travel, most taxi-brousse drivers seem to live by the philosophy that a brousse is never full and there’s always room for one more person. Only in the most extreme attempt to overpack a brousse will a person verbally protest the driver. The common expression to voice your disapproval of the situation is translated into English as “Hey! We’re not cows!”

If the seating isn’t enough to push you into a quiet rage, the music certainly will. This is another regional difference, but the taxi-brousse drivers in my region tend to show off their stereo systems by playing the loudest, fastest, and most disorienting music I’ve ever heard. The style of music is known as salegy and a brief internet search might be more helpful in explaining the truly aurally oppressive nature of this music than my words here could. An experienced Volunteer will tell you that one of the keys to surviving a brousse ride is an iPod and a good pair of headphones. In the central highlands of Madagascar, it’s more common to hear gospel church music in the taxi-brousses. This can sometimes be more pleasant to listen to, but it also gets tiring after many hours on the road.

The Ugly

This last category of taxi-brousse experiences describes what I consider to be the universally terrible things about this particular form of travel. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you’ve traveled before, these next few observations are unmistakably shitty.

To start off, I’ve been a witness to taxi-brousses running over animals way more times that I’d like to admit. Much of this country is rural and many of the towns and villages along the roads are basically next to the road. Unlike in America where people tend to have good strong fences around their homes and properties, Malagasy villages are not built like that. This means that animals of all varieties, domestic and wild, can get on the road and get themselves into trouble. I have been in brousses that have run over pigs, geese, frogs, snakes, dogs, and chameleons. It’s always alarming and most passengers, if they notice it, gasp in distress and shake their heads in disapproval of the driver. Then life quickly goes on and the brousse keeps going.

Then there’s always the carsick passenger. Usually it’s a child, which makes the whole situation a little more pathetic. But inevitably someone will puke during the ride and you’d better hope they’re nowhere near you. In my experience, it seems to be a pretty sudden occurrence. All of a sudden, someone is covering their mouth and the people sitting next to them are shouting and trying to distance themselves. In this case, the person usually vomits into a shirt, jacket, backpack, or other piece of cloth that they have with them. Other times, if there is enough warning, they can ask for a plastic bag from the driver. Then the next trick is getting the bag safely out of the moving vehicle through the window without spilling on other passengers or having the contents of the bag blow back through other windows as it is released into the wind. Believe me, this is easier said than done.

At some point along the road, there is almost always a police checkpoint. For the most part, the police want to check that drivers have the proper license, registration, and car insurance and that they’re not transporting anything blatantly illegal (for example, a couple of rosewood trees strapped to the roof). With “minor” paperwork infractions, the police can always be paid off by drivers to overlook the issue. This is just one part of the culture of corruption that exists in Madagascar. Drivers will routinely pay about 2,000 ariary (about $0.60 USD) each time that they come to a checkpoint and the handoff isn’t always subtle. It’s usually done with a handshake, like at fancy restaurants when someone wants the maître d’ to give an extra nice table. Or often the cash will be slipped in with the pile of paperwork handed to the police officer. In other not so subtle attempts, I’ve seen drivers openly ask police officers if they have change for large bills. This is something that most people agree is bad but nothing substantial is being done to correct the behavior.

And finally, one of the absolute worst things that can happen during a taxi-brousse ride is the dreaded vehicle breakdown. Let me remind the reader, roadside assistance does not exist in Madagascar. When a brousse breaks down, it pulls over to the side of the road and the real fun begins. The driver and assistant get out and survey the vehicle. If you’re lucky and it’s only a flat tire, that’s a relatively easy fix and you’ll be back on the road shortly. Consider it a nice break to get out, stretch your legs, and pee in the bushes if you need to. But if the damage is under the hood, it could take a while. Most of the time the driver will just pour water over the engine and see if that does anything. Maybe it’s overheated? Maybe it’s thirsty? No one really knows. If the engine bath doesn’t work, the tinkering begins. The driver usually barks orders at his assistant and every other man gathers around to stare and offer their opinion. This could take minutes, or hours, which is the truly scary part about the breakdown. You never know when it will really end and usually the passengers are forced to just wait on the side of the road in the heat until the problem is fixed. Daytime breakdowns are a little better because there’s a better chance of other motorists driving by and offering help. But I was in a brousse once that broke down at night in the middle of nowhere, which was terrifying for many reasons. Luckily most of the taxi-brousse drivers and assistants are the same people that build and “customize” the vehicle, so they are pretty capable when it comes to repairs. But the uncertainty and the inconvenience of a breakdown can be one of the worst things to happen on the road.

Giving the engine a bath, because that'll definitely work

Giving the engine a bath, because that’ll definitely work

When you consider it all, it’s clear that the taxi-brousse is an imperfect reality of life in Madagascar. It’s something that we rely on here and a way of traveling that we just have to accept. I like to remind myself that broussing builds character and adds to the charm of traveling in the developing world. If I didn’t think this way, I’d actually go crazy and never leave my town.

A bunch of fabulous Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteers shoved into a taxi-brousse

A bunch of fabulous Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteers shoved into a taxi-brousse

Untitled, but not unedited

The words were glaring back at me from the computer screen. A new, blank, limitless digital canvas where my thoughts could be displayed pixel by pixel. A dramatic difference from the vibrant, noisy, confusing, heartwarming world around me.

I began writing tonight with the intention of capturing some of my feelings about living in Andapa for the last year. It’s been one year since I arrived in this new and different place that I can now proudly call my home. But tonight, I didn’t know quite where to start writing, how to best coagulate my thoughts, until I considered the words that I saw on the top of the screen. This document, without a title, became the metaphor that I was searching for. The idea that something can be changed, things added to it and just as easily taken away, while maintaining no user-generated title. It doesn’t have to be called anything, but it can be filled with rich experiences and interesting tales. A great thing doesn’t always have to have a name.

So it is within this framework that I feel most comfortable at the moment. That is to say I consider myself to be untitled, but not unedited. Before I go any further, let me assure you that in reality I do have a name, I have a job title, there are a multitude of words that other people use to refer to me. I don’t consider myself untitled to the point where I don’t respond to someone calling me from across the room. Rather, I look back on this past year and I can’t pick any particular “title” that I feel suits me best. I recognize that I play many roles, such as teacher, friend, cousin, son, Volunteer, and weird white guy. None of these seem to roll off the tongue easily when I ask myself, “Who am I?” I consider myself to be any combination of titles. These ideas of identity have been developed and shifted for many years, but probably more so in the last year because I have undergone a dramatic self-induced life change. I consciously stepped away from almost everything and everyone that I hold close in my heart, and now I feel as though I am less clear or less certain about my identity. Many wonderfully new aspects have been added to my life, some aspects were taken away, and now I am left with a new canvas with which I can continue expressing myself.

Even without a clear or comfortable title, I know that I am a changed person in more ways that I can understand or enumerate. During the past 12 months, my senses have been overwhelmed by the new, the exciting, the strange, and the inspirational. My worldview has changed and my perspective on humankind has been altered. I have developed new skills, some of them more practical than others. I’ve shared laughter, sorrow, disappointment, and elation with many people and I’ve created strong relationships with a handful of them. The version of myself who left California in June 2014 is not the same person who is writing this message now, and I am destined to be further changed before returning back to my loved ones in the future. It’s thrilling and terrifying to undergo this transformation. Yet, I take comfort in knowing that most of these edits to my character have made me more capable, more empathetic, and more devoted.

In light of everything the past year has brought me, I feel immensely different and also unable to title myself. I’ll leave that last part for the critics.

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.

A smattering of stories

In light of the fact that it feels like I haven’t written anything new in quite some time, I thought I’d share some anecdotes from the last month. There are really no connections between these stories. Just a few snapshots of what I’ve been up to lately.

Battle of the Bats

In previous posts, I’ve written about the family of bats that lives in my house. Or am I living in their house? I’m starting to think the latter is true. Until recently, the bats and I were living together in relative harmony. Then our relations took a very sour turn and the bats have been less afraid to mix into my affairs.

First off, they seem to be louder than when I first arrived in Andapa. I don’t know if they are mating, fighting, or doing something else entirely, but the noise has really been stepped up a few notches. Mostly during dusk and night, I can hear them chatting, squeaking, and clawing at the tin roof. Certainly not the most relaxing or calming thing to hear as I try to sleep.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was suddenly and deliberately attacked by a bat on two consecutive nights. In both cases, I was woken up around 3 o’clock in the morning by the loud giggling of the bats and I could also hear the faint noises of wings flapping in the air. Alarmed and nervous, I became fully awake when the bat flew into the mosquito net covering my bed, crawled around a bit as I was yelling and pounding on my mattress, and then flew off again. On the second night in a row when this happened, the bat ended up in my bathroom and I was able to corner it and kill it with my broom. It’s a terrible way to start a day. Needless to say, I wasn’t getting too much sleep and it started to show as I became more irritable in the classroom.

Alas, I am confident that a solution has finally arrived. After voicing my concerns to my counterpart, other school staff, and my supervisor at Peace Corps, we were able to make some great progress in the Battle of the Bats. Just the other day, with the help of my counterpart, Derio, my close friend, Johnny, and the local mason, we worked to patch up almost all of the exterior holes in my house with cement. The idea is simple: don’t let the bats get inside and nest. Once we started to work on the inside of the house, that’s when things started to get interesting. We identified what was likely the main nest of the bats and began to dismantle the brick wall that they were hiding in. One by one, bats began to fly out of the wall to escape the destruction of the nest. Some flew away outside, hopefully never to return. Some made the mistake of flying inside, and this is when the guys used their expert hunting skills to capture most of the foul beasts. They picked the bats up by the back of their necks and posed for photos like they had just won a fishing tournament. Some of the bats were already dead, or in their final hours of life, and they just sort of fell from the roof onto my floor like a wet noodle. In total, we evicted 12 bats from my house. Twelve. I was shocked to actually see how many bats had been living with me. After the dramatic exodus from the house, we cleaned out the nest and continued to patch up holes. We also used some expanding foam to fill in the small cracks and crevices where the bats could wiggle through. It seems to be a good temporary solution as we wait for more funding so that the entire brick wall can be cleaned, rebuilt, and made impenetrable.

I am extremely grateful for the bravery shown by these guys and for the hard work they put in for my wellbeing. Most of this work happened very quickly, as in we had the conversation at 9am and by 10:30am the mason was at my house patching holes. This type of prompt movement is sometimes rare in Madagascar, so I am grateful that my concerns were understood and that the right people were willing to drop everything to help me. It definitely says something when a community mobilizes to help one person, let alone a foreigner living among them. Maybe in their eyes, I’m not very foreign anymore.

 

Derio (left) and Johnny (right) showing off the bats that the caught

Derio (left) and Johnny (right) showing off the live bats that they caught

Thanksgiving in Sambava

This year, I was lucky enough to spend Thanksgiving with some very special people. Thanksgiving seems to be one of the more popular holidays for Peace Corps Volunteers because it’s a good excuse to get together with other Americans and share some delicious food. Our celebration was no exception. I travelled to Sambava, the regional capital of SAVA, to spend the holiday with the six other Volunteers in our region. Plus, Sambava was the only place that we could find an oven to use.

We planned for a pot-luck style meal and even purchased a turkey to cook. The day before the meal, a few of us went shopping for ingredients and began preparing some of the dishes. The turkey came to us already butchered and unfeathered, so I helped clean up the bird and get it ready for the oven. Throughout this chore, a few Malagasy people had wandered over to us and were very curious about what we were doing. I’m not sure if they had never seen a turkey before or if they never expected to see a few vazaha (“foreign person”) handling a bird of that size with such determination. We managed to get the bird in the oven at a decent time and then the rest of the dishes needed to be prepared. Our group spent most of the day cooking and the house smelled wonderful. One of the Volunteers had recently returned from vacation in America and she brought back some ingredients such as brown sugar, marshmallows, and cranberries, which are all things that are very hard to find in Madagascar.

Having an oven was really helpful, but the challenge was in cooking a turkey and then having enough time to cook most of the other dishes in the oven as well. In the late afternoon, when we realized that the turkey was taking longer to cook than anticipated, we had to initiate Plan B to cook the other dishes. This meant a few of us got the food into cooking dishes and then hopped into a taxi going to one of the hotels in Sambava. Luckily, one of our Volunteers lives and works at the hotel and he convinced the owner to let us use their ovens for a while. So I volunteered to transport the dishes to and from the ovens. I can now add the skill of “balancing hot ceramic dishes in my arms while riding in an open taxi on an unpaved road” to my resume.

After we returned from the hotel, everyone was ready to start the meal. In addition to the 6 Volunteers, we were joined by 7 Malagasy friends who wanted to share the holiday with us. Before we ate, we went around the table and each person talked about the things they were thankful for. Our feast was a traditional eating frenzy. In addition to the turkey, we had mashed potatoes, pasta salad, stuffing, cranberry sauce (from the can-my favorite!), sweet potato casserole, eggplant and zucchini casserole, and pumpkin pie. We knew that we had succeeded with the food because everyone was full and none of the Malagasy people ate rice! Being able to eat leftovers the next day was also a pat on the back to our awesome cooking skills.

My Peace Corps extended family enjoying the Thanksgiving feast

My Peace Corps extended family enjoying the Thanksgiving feast

Sex Ed for the PCV

During one of my classes at the lycée (high school) last week, I learned a very valuable lesson about mixing English and Malagasy vocabulary. The following story actually happened and it might be every TEFL teacher’s nightmare.

I was teaching a lesson about imperatives (commands) and I was explaining the difference between when to use “stop + verb-ing” and “don’t + verb”. To put it simply, you use the first formula during the action and the second formula before the action occurs. I noticed that each time I said the word “before”, the students would giggle and snicker. At first, I played it cool and assumed they thought there was something funny about my accent. But the laughter continued. Finally, I asked them what was so funny. They knew I was on to them and that made them laugh even more. So through the laughter, one student at the front of the class whispers to me and says, “vagina”. I quickly made sense of that and realized that the English word “before” sounds an awful lot like the Malagasy slang term for “vagina”. I had just stood in front of about 50 students between 18-20 years old and repeated the slang term for vagina over and over again.

Naturally, this made me laugh as well.

So amidst my embarrassment, we all shared a good hearty giggle together and then sobered up and continued with the lesson. Except this time I wrote the word “before” on the chalkboard and just pointed to it every time I wanted to say it out loud.

Later that day, I retold the story to my counterpart hoping that he could understand my blunder. Before I could even get to the punch line, he knew where the story was headed and laughed harder than I’ve ever heard him laugh before. So much for positive support.

Avoiding the comparison trap

Most of these people, I haven’t seen or even talked to in about two months. After the excited reunions and hugs, it doesn’t take much time before we begin the lines of inquiry about each other’s lives.

“So, how are things at your site?”

“Do you have ______ in your town?”

“How long did it take you to travel here?”

“I’ve been doing this or that in my town, what have you been doing?”

I expected some of these conversations to happen when the 29 members of my Stage got together this week for our IST (In-Service Training). I was looking forward to it. We had all been alone in our respective sites for two months already and this was the first time since PST that we were all going to be together again. It’s a great time to check up on people and share ideas about our integration and teaching strategies. We all had stories to tell, some more passionately than others.

But for me, one of the challenging parts about this flood of stories from around the island is resisting the urge to compare experiences. This country is so diverse and large that the experiences of one Volunteer might not ever resonate with another Volunteer. Yet, in our attempt to come together as a group, we share bits and pieces of our lives and try to find ways that our experiences are similar. Most of the time, they are not as similar as they seem. It feels as if part of IST is supposed to be about sharing our “common Volunteer experience,” but we are hesitant to accept the truth that “common” is a very delicate idea to use. While there are definitely some aspects of Volunteer life that can be understood by almost all Volunteers, much of what each individual person does and sees during their service is so specific to just that one person.

One piece of famous unsolicited advice from our Country Director is to never compare ourselves to other PCVs because “each PCV comes to [Peace Corps] with a different background and personality and will be placed in a different site, [so] what they do should not guide or direct your experience or feelings of accomplishment.” While this idea is much easier said than done, it has been something that I have tried to focus on in the past two months and especially during IST. In my eyes, there is a balance between wanting to know what my fellow Volunteers are doing and planning in their own communities and using that information as a scale to measure my own success and worth.

It is important to remind myself that this is my Peace Corps experience and I take sole responsibility for my own satisfaction. I must use my own skills and background to work within the context of my own community and evaluate my experience based on my own ideas of accomplishment. Comparing my language skills or the extent to which I feel integrated into my community or the amount of hours I am in the classroom to the same metrics as other PCVs does absolutely nothing for me except give me a distorted view of my own reality. I am not trying to emotionally or socially distance myself from other Volunteers so much so that I end up living in my own little bubble, but I am trying to limit the direct comparisons of experiences that I make between myself and other people.

If nothing else, attending this IST was a great way to bounce ideas off of other Volunteers and hopefully I can return to Andapa with a fresh perspective and renewed commitment to my host community. Plus, the food at the Training Center was pretty delicious.

What I learned in PST (and other cultural notes)

“Good teachers know that discomfort and pain are often signs that truth is struggling to be born among us” -Parker J. Palmer

 

Eleven weeks ago, I stepped off an airplane in a place that I knew very little about. I was quickly greeted by some other Americans that I immediately trusted with my life, stuffed into a car, and hauled off for a few hours through twisting and unfamiliar country roads. I was disoriented, to say the least. But these were only the very first moments in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging, awkward, rewarding, and memorable experience. Also known as PST.

Today, I write as a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer. By assuming this new title, I claim to have no new special powers, knowledge, or insight compared to my former Trainee self 24 hours ago. But what I can share are my observations and lessons learned after living in Madagascar for 3 months. Throughout the whirlwind and often mind-numbing life of a Trainee, I’ve managed to keep my eyes and ears open just enough to take in the delights of life in Madagascar. In my own words…

Spoons are very underutilized in America. At the Malagasy dining table, the spoon tends to be the main utensil. It’s effectiveness is remarkable. Especially with a rice-based meal, using a spoon to pile food together for each bite is your best option. A fork can help collect different pieces of the meal from your plate, but the spoon is the real superstar.

Convenience is relative. What’s easy for you in America can sometimes be impossible or extremely difficult in Madagascar. Things that many of us take for granted in America, such as clean drinking water coming from multiple faucets in homes, are far from the reality for the majority of Malagasy people. I’m learning to appreciate and be mindful of these differences.

Peace Corps Trainees love snacks. From the first full day of training, we had 3 square meals each day and both a morning and afternoon snack. It was a nice perk at first, until we got accustomed to it and became unknowingly distraught when snacks were not provided. The joke started by our group getting a laugh anytime snack was explicitly stated in the daily schedule, as if we were children being looked after because we couldn’t fend for ourselves, and then we became dependent on snack. It quickly turned into a major question of the day, we now each have our favorite types of snacks, and we would even get snacks packed for us to take if we were out on the road traveling during the normal snack time. It’s probably something I’ll go to therapy for many years from now.

Making plans in person is worth the effort. For the first few weeks of training, none of the trainees had cell phones that worked in Madagascar. So we had to make plans with each other in person, which probably sounds like a really simple thing to do. And it is, but I came to really appreciate the ability to look someone in the eye, set a time and place to meet again, and follow through on it. We had to trust each other just a little bit more, even after knowing each other for only a few weeks.

No matter how many teeth you’re missing, you should still smile. Be thankful and proud for what you have, and spread joy through your smile every single day.

Chickens. Everywhere in rural towns. Everywhere.

Every single butterfly is a work of art. The colors, the patterns, the grace. I have yet to see a boring butterfly in this country.

Washing your clothes by hand can destroy your knuckles. I still haven’t perfected the skill yet, maybe I never will, but inevitably I walk away from washing my clothes with one or two more wounds on my knuckles from rubbing the wet clothes together. I’ll either master the technique or form sizable calluses on my hands.

If you let one student go to the bathroom during class, pretty soon half the class will ask to go as well. In the first couple of days of our teaching practicum, some of us learned this lesson the hard way. Malagasy students are very formal about approaching the teacher to ask permission to go to the bathroom, but without proper regulation, it can quickly get out of hand and all of a sudden a class of 60 students dwindles down to 25.

I’m a white man, so I must be French. In the eyes of most Malagasy people I’ve encountered, Caucasian people are almost immediately seen as French. Until I open my mouth and dribble out a few rudimentary Malagasy words, I am almost always greeted with a “bonjour monsieur!” Madagascar has a long history of French colonization, many French people (and people from other nations) live here today, but this stereotype seems to be deeply rooted.

Malagasy people point with their lips. If a Malagasy person wants to draw your attention toward something in a fairly discreet way, most likely they will use their lips to point in the direction they want you to look. It’s similar to what many Americans do when they nod their head in a particular direction. Try it out next time you’re sharing a meal with someone and you ask them to pass the salt, just point with your lips.

Despite the amount of rice in Madagascar, putting it in a salt shaker to prevent clumping is unheard of. I suggested this to my host mother one day and she looked at me like I had 7 heads. In most cases, the salt shakers are so clogged up because the moisture binds the salt together. But sacrificing a few dry pieces of rice is not an option.

Malagasy students are incredibly meticulous about copying things from the blackboard. Usually they have at least three different colored pens to write with, rulers to draw straight lines and make grids, and their handwriting is almost uniform. It’s amazing to see, but unfortunately it usually takes them much longer to write down simple information because they want it to look perfect. Due to lack of resources in many areas, typically there are no textbooks for students so the notebooks that they write information in become their textbook.

Clean is relative. Clothes, dishes, homes, bodies. They are usually free of obvious dirt and debris, but I’ve noticed that few things in this country are as clean as they are in America. I’ve quickly come to modify my standards of acceptable cleanliness and manage to maintain my health at the same time. Your clean is probably not my clean anymore.

Everything I come in contact with tends to have a light dusting of chalk. Teaching with a blackboard means tons of chalk dust everywhere. It starts on my hands, gets blown around the classroom and sticks to everything else, and it eventually ends up on my clothes and consequently everything else I touch until I get the chance to wash off.

Sometimes making a fool of yourself is the best way to get your point across. Whether I had to teach a new concept in class or pantomime an action to overcome a language barrier, sometimes I have to swallow my pride and get laughed at because I’m being perceived as ridiculous. I believe that it can show some compassion and humility.

I hope that through sharing these experiences, I have been able to shed a little bit more light on the truth that is my life.