Up with the roosters

Day in and day out. Many of us settle into a routine and flow that takes us through the day. In Madagascar, I have developed new routines and schedules that get me through my days. Most days are never quite the same, this country has a funny habit of continuing to surprise me and alter plans, but here is a glimpse into a “typical” day for me:

5:43am – Wake up to the sound of roosters, pigs, and the rumbling diesel tractors full of cheering men and freshly butchered beef as they drive from the butchering fields, past my house, to the market

6:09am – Get out of bed, push open my wooden window, and boil water for coffee and breakfast

7:00am – Walk about 50 feet into bazary ambanivolo (countryside market), leisurely stroll past the piles of fresh produce laid out on tarps along the dirt road, select my food for the day, and say hello to the vendors that I usually buy from

7:45am – Commute to work by riding my bicycle through the market and center of town, usually attracting stares from people moving about town to start their day. I end up at either the public middle school (CEG) or the public high school (Lycée Mixte) to teach for a few hours

11:18am – Return home from teaching, either frustrated from a class that misbehaved or proud from a lesson that actually went well. Start to prepare lunch, which is usually a large portion of rice with a small portion of beans, vegetables, or eggs

12:26pm – Enjoy lunch during the momentary silence of midday. The area around my house is void of children playing or people passing through on the their way to the market

1:40pm – Wake up from a short afternoon nap in my hammock, some days I teach another class in the afternoon and other days I write lesson plans or prepare materials for future classes

4:07pm – On my way back home after class, I sometimes stop for a snack of min-sao (noodles with ginger and curry powder) or dite cola (spiced tea). Drive-thru’s don’t exist in Madagascar, so half the experience of eating a snack is sitting with the vendor and catching up on gossip

4:49pm – Check in with my pal and colleague, Johnny, to see how things are going at the English library

5:00pm – Evening yoga at home to unwind and reflect on the day

5:50pm – Use the last minutes of sunlight to sweep my house, making sure I can see all the bits of dried rice, various insect limbs, and general dirt that accumulates daily

6:20pm – Prepare dinner, usually reheating leftovers from lunch on my small gas stove

7:30pm – Wash the dishes in a small plastic basin, take a cold shower, and brush my teeth

7:55pm – Crawl into bed, under the seemingly impenetrable forcefield of my lay ody moka (mosquito bed net), and enjoy a book or watch an episode of television on my computer. Take joy in knowing that I was successful this day or that at least the day is over

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.

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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.

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.

Temperature reading: 1 month to departure

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

In through the nose, out through the mouth.

It’ll be alright, Michael, you’re doing great.

This was the little voice in my head the other day when the reality of my transition really started to set in. It’s getting very real for me. I’m anxious. I’m nervous. I’m excited. I’m trying to mentally catalog the actions I need to take and things I need to have in order to best prepare myself for this transition. Buying new sandals. Calling my cellphone company for options about terminating my service. Studying my basic Malagasy language. Thinking about how I’m going to start packing up my apartment. And it got real the other day.

With one month to go until my departure, it’s hard not to think about kicking it into overdrive and freaking out a little bit about what is going to happen over the next four weeks. I sort of feel like I’m trying to corral kittens, if those cute little kittens were things I need to do and buy before I leave for Madagascar. I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what’s on my plate, but as soon as I scoop up a few kittens in one arm, there’s a few other that start to wander away. I try to scoop them up too, but then the first ones start to wander away. What I need is some sort of kitten net and team of kitten wranglers. Or catnip. Am I that delusional?

In other recent happenings, last week I officially resigned from my job! *insert crowds of people cheering* So that’s going to happen pretty soon, my last day at work will be May 16. It’s been a bit of a weight off of my shoulders to be able to openly talk about my move with my colleagues. We’ve had some pretty tangential conversations so far about the animals that I’m going to run into and the experiences that I might have, and overall it’s been good fun. I do owe a few people at work a big thank you for not saying anything about me moving around the office sooner. Apparently my privacy and sharing settings through this blog and the social media sites I attach it to haven’t been as air tight as I had thought.

I am still waiting for final staging information from PC, which really could be coming at any minute. This will be my ticket to Philadelphia, information about what happens at staging, that sort of thing. I am anxiously awaiting this information, more out of pure curiosity rather than logistical concern. As far as my travel arrangements are going, I’m really in the mindset that I’ll be wherever PC needs me to be whenever, but just tell me. Please.

My San Diego bucket list has been coming along quite nicely as well. I’ve crossed off nearly most of the thing’s I’ve wanted to do. It’s been great to share those experiences with friends and family here, something I will fondly recall often when I’m in Madagascar. Just a couple of the bigger things on my list remain, like kayaking in La Jolla, but I’d be content at this point if that didn’t happen. With only a couple weeks left in San Diego, I’m really trying to soak it up as much as possible. And Mexican food, trying to have globs of Mexican food.

I’ll leave you all today with this personal anecdote. I had a pretty interesting conversation with a coworker this week that really helped reaffirm my decision to join the Peace Corps. I was making some coffee in the office when a colleague came into the break room to make herself some coffee as well. We exchanged pleasantries, and then almost out of nowhere she says, “You know, Michael, I don’t see you working here forever. I imagine you going off to India or some part of Africa and maybe teaching kids or building villages or something.” I was shocked, so much so that I had to stop what I was doing. My first thought was, “wow, that’s pretty spot on. Who in the office have you talked to that told you I was going into the Peace Corps?” This is coming from someone at that I am friendly with at work, but also someone I know I haven’t explicitly told about my upcoming journey, so it was really shocking to hear this come from her. There’s no way she could have known before this conversation, right? I asked her a few times, “Are you sure? What makes you think that I would do something like that?” She responded and at that point I had to say something truthful to her. It started as, “That’s really interesting that you would say that, because it’s pretty much exactly what I’ll be doing in about a month. I’ve accepted an invitation from the Peace Corps and I’m going to Madagascar…” and I gave her the rundown of what I was doing. I think she was just as shocked as I was a minute before. She kept asking me if this was a joke and if I was being sincere, to which I reassured her this is not joke. I even brought in another colleague, whom I had already told my news to, to help corroborate my story. And we talked about it for a few minutes, I explained a little more about what I was going to be doing and shared the limited knowledge I have of Madagascar so far, but it was good fun to cross paths like that. So before we took our freshly brewed coffees and headed back to our respective desks, I had to thank her for sharing her thoughts with me because it was really cool to get some unsolicited feedback like that. Maybe she’s just that intuitive.

Temperature reading: 1.5 months to departure

The past few weeks since my last post have been remarkably busy and filled with some exciting Peace Corps updates. To help me stay on topic, I’ll share these happenings with you in short bursts. In no particular order:

Received final medical clearance

Officially speaking, I’m healthy! Receiving my final medical clearance is basically the last major checkpoint that I need to pass to keep moving on toward departure. After receiving thorough medical, dental, and vision exams, I have been deemed “fit for service.” Part of the medical evaluations also included getting some vaccinations and booster immunizations, but apparently there is much more of that to look forward to during the Staging process and early parts of Pre-Service Training. As you might imagine, it can be pretty nerve-wracking to go through all these intense exams, make sure the paperwork is filled out just right, submit the paperwork, and just wait. But the wait is finally over, and I can finally let out a huge sigh of relief.

Peace Corps send-off and story slam

This past weekend, I was able to attend a local Peace Corps event in San Diego that really did an amazing job of bringing together Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, those who are preparing to depart for service (that’s me!) , and those considering if they want to start the application process. For me, it was a great opportunity to meet other San Diegans who are getting ready to depart for service within the next few months and also connect with local RPCVs who have served in either my sector (Education) or my region (Madagascar, more broadly Africa). Lots of stories back and forth, nothing that put me off or scared me, but really just learning things that made me more excited to be a part of this experience. A few of the RPCVs got on stage and told some stories from their days of service and shed some light on some of the more day-to-day interactions of a PCV. So it was great to hear stories about what it’s like to get settled into your site after going through training, how to invest yourself in your local community, and funny stories about language barriers.

But I think the biggest takeaway I got from the experience was the overwhelming sense of community among this group of people. I knew two people at the event when I showed up, and I felt like I left with a handful of new friends and supporters. It got me thinking about some of the ways Peace Corps service just inherently changes people. In my experiences so far, RPCVs seem to be outgoing, friendly, grounded, relatable, and curious individuals. And in some ways I see those qualities as being coping mechanisms that they might have developed or strengthened during service in order to work well within their communities. It was more than just being a nice person and a pleasant stranger to meet, I felt like these people really understood each other and could relate to me because they were once in my shoes as a new Volunteer. It doesn’t matter where they served, what sector, or how long ago they served, it was really such a pleasure to get to know a few of them even for an afternoon.

Group photo from send-off event

Group photo from send-off event

Progress with TEFL training

As an Education Volunteer, a major part of my in-country training will include getting TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. Not only will this help me be a more prepared teacher during my service, but having this particular certification can be very beneficial for me even after completing my service. So as part of my pre-departure training program, my supervisors in Madagascar have assigned some online projects for us to complete so we are better prepared to begin TEFL training. This includes brief introductory lessons on teaching theory, lesson planning, and student assessment. Most recently I’ve completed a sample lesson plan and learned about building trust with students. It’s been interesting so far because I don’t have any formal classroom experience, but I’m confident I’ll get more comfortable with teaching as I start to get in the Malagasy classroom.

In the coming weeks, I will be focusing more on physically preparing myself for departing. Really getting into the details of packing, moving out of San Diego, getting my other affairs in order, and spending time with friends and family. Hopefully I can keep my head from spinning during this time, sure to be filled with an intense mix of emotions. Here’s to trying!

Temperature reading: 2 months to departure

The overall feeling I have now: things are going to get real pretty quickly. I’m starting to feel like I’m a little behind in my preparations, but I’m also not exactly sure where I should be at this point. Confusion, excitement, anxiety are the feelings of this period.

This week, I was fortunate enough to hang out with a local San Diegan who is also a recently returned Peace Corps Volunteer that taught English in Madagascar. We were connected through my Peace Corps recruiter who suggested that we get in touch and talk all things Malagasy. Well, it was mostly her talking about her time in Madagascar and me intently listening and asking random questions every once in a while. But still, it proved to be such a valuable resource and a really entertaining encounter. She confirmed some of my suspicions, calmed some of my nerves, opened my eyes a little more to the true nature of Peace Corps service, and gave me some great tips on how to get along on the Red Island. Her excitement and passion for Madagascar were contagious. She was candid about her experiences and brutally honest about some of the realities that I am bound to encounter. The types of things that you don’t necessarily hear from Peace Corps directly. We chatted for a while over beers and here’s some of the things I learned:

Getting a stomach malady is not a matter of “if,” but rather “when” and “for how long”

The bubonic plague is a real thing still but it’s not the worse disease to contract; it’s manageable with vigilant medical care

People will want to touch me because I’m a white person

Malagasy is pronounced “mala-GAS-ee”

Focus on packing more supplies and less personal items (clothing, creature comforts, etc)

Even as a teacher with a more structured work schedule, I’ll likely have more free time than previously expected

Running as a form of exercise is not widely accepted among Malagasy; you look dumb when nothing is chasing you

Overall, most Malagasy people have a very positive view of Americans because most Americans they come in contact with are PCVs

Our conversations were very engaging and informative. It definitely helped me get a more realistic grasp on the service that I am soon to enter, from staging and training all the way through service and coming home. And the best part is that it didn’t scare me at all, just made me more curious and thankful for having this awesome opportunity to live and work in such a special place. We will continue to keep in touch over the next couple of months and she has offered to help me start to learn the Malagasy language.

Temperature reading: 2.5 months to departure

“We have so much time and so little to do. Strike that, reverse it” -Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Over the last few days, I’ve been realizing with more certainty how quickly time is going and how soon I will be starting my journey with the Peace Corps. My group’s staging event is scheduled for June 9, and this is when the journey begins in a very real and tangible way. So between now and that date, there’s a whole mess of things that I want and need to do. Here’s a look at what’s ahead.

During staging in June, all the members of my cohort will meet in Philadelphia for a few days to prepare ourselves for the trip over to Madagascar. I don’t know too many details about what exactly happens during staging, but I imagine it’s full of introductions, getting to know the other trainees, and learning more about our roles in Madagascar. It will also be my first major face-to-face interaction with Peace Corps staff, so I’m very excited to start meeting the folks that will help train and support us during our time in Madagascar. The travel arrangements for staging and departure to Madagascar are still being worked out, but I’ve been told that the June 9 date is a fairly solid timeframe.

To get another, more formal, update out of the way…this past week I was finally able to submit all my medical paperwork in order to get final medical clearance. This process was rather daunting because it was composed of getting a full physical exam, blood tests, immunization updates, dental exams and x-rays. The way I understand it, Peace Corps not only wants to make sure that I am healthy enough to leave in June but they will also be coordinating my primary medical services for the entire 27 months that I am in Madagascar and they want to make sure they can accommodate whatever health needs I have. I am a reasonably healthy and capable young man, so I don’t foresee any major issues with this step in the process, but it’s still a little stressful knowing that I need that final clearance.

But while I still have a few months here in California, I’ve decided to put together a small bucket list if things I want to do and places I want to visit before leaving in June. It’s mostly a collection of things I’ve wanted to do for a while anyway, but now the impending urgency of leaving the country for more than 2 years has put these things in a new priority. I also see this as a great way to spend more time with friends and family and make some fun memories that I can take with me when I’m in Madagascar. Here’s a look at some of the things on my list:

As you can see, it’s a fairly San Diego-centric list of things to do. But can you blame me? My plan also includes a couple of weeks spent in the Los Angeles area being with family and friends. Needless to say I’m very much looking forward to crossing things off this list and soaking up the memories and people who come along with these experiences.

But as I alluded to in the beginning of this post, the fact that I am only a few short months away from the next huge chapter in my life has been weighing reasonably on me. I feel like I can plan out that far, I can see the light at the end of that tunnel, I can start to mentally organize my efforts for how I need to pack and prepare my departure. Thinking about the time I have left is a very real thing to me now. It’s exciting, but mostly it’s shocking and a bit unnerving to think about. I feel like I want to still do so much and spend so much time with people while I have access to it all, but I also need to balance my job, health, and preparations for leaving. There’s an element of bittersweet urgency at play here, because I’m starting to feel like I want to make myself available and create those fun memories with the people I care about the most, but I’m also scared that the more fun we have now the harder it will be to say goodbye to them in a couple of months. It’s going to be extremely emotionally taxing to say goodbye as it is, I’m sure of that, but I also want to create these memories and foster these bonds now so I can have something familiar and comfortable to hold on to during the tougher times of training and service in Madagascar. It’s all part of the transition, so I know I need to do my best to prepare for the next stage in this adventure. I’m just thankful for the having some close friends that are also willing and able to make these memories with me (especially going to the opera, thanks Bobby!)

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