Wet hot American autumn

Sometimes they say, “no news is good news.”

In this case, the long delay in posting new blog material can be attributed to my recent visit back home. For the past 6 weeks, I have been reconnecting with my family, my friends, and eating my way through the beautiful areas of California that mean so much to me. This time back home is built into my third year extension and it has come at such a welcomed stage of my service. If you’ve been following my journey from the beginning, you’ll know that I have not returned to the U.S. at all during the last 2 and a half years. So this homecoming was an extra special treat for me and a very valuable chance to see this pocket of the world through a new lens.

Digging my toes into the ocean in San Diego

Digging my toes into the ocean in San Diego

As you can imagine, many things in America have changed during my time abroad and I came back to a country with some exciting new developments. I had a bit of a learning curve when it came to things such as chip readers at cash registers, the expansion and prevalence of sharing services such as Uber and Airbnb, and delicious poke bowls. Technology has continued to advance exponentially and it seems that all our devices are even more connected than before. Driving on the freeway was exhilarating, and then there was traffic and I remembered why I didn’t miss driving. In the weeks before my return, I had imagined an America with an all-encompassing national WiFi bubble, but I instead had to settle for lightning fast WiFi in almost every establishment and home. Bummer, right?

Being in America after spending so much time abroad gave me a new perspective on many aspects of life there. The way we manage our time, use our food and water resources, interact with each other, and entertain ourselves were just some of the things that stood out to me. I was expecting to feel more like a foreigner in America, but I quickly slipped back into some of the same habits and mindsets of my previous life. Being placed back into American culture was much easier and far less shocking than I thought it would be. Conveniences were abounding and I tried not to take a paved highway or an In-N-Out hamburger for granted.

First taste of In-N-Out since leaving the US in 2014

First taste of In-N-Out since leaving the US in 2014

Leading up to my return to America, I was at times apprehensive about the thought of impending reunions with friends and family. Being isolated in Madagascar and undertaking this strange journey practically on my own, I would often think about life back home as being on pause. I kept telling myself that I’d be away for a couple of years, come back, and pick up these relationships right where I left off. However self-centered and illogical that was, the reality of people growing and continuing to develop was beautiful to see in person. Friends getting married, moving into tasteful living arrangements (read: not a dingy cheap college apartment), and building lives around great careers. Family members continuing to travel and share moments together. I felt an elevated sense of pride in sharing these new lives with my loved ones, even for a brief time, and a renewed optimism for the direction of all of our life paths.

With old friends, and some new ones, at a tailgate for San Diego State's homecoming football game

With old friends, and some new ones, at a tailgate for San Diego State’s homecoming football game

So being back in America was great and I’m happy to report that I saw all the people I wanted to see, went to all the places that I wanted to go to, and ate all the food that I had been missing for the last few years. I even had some experiences above and far beyond what I originally anticipated. For anyone who indulged me by sitting through my rambling stories about Madagascar, thank you for listening. While I learned a lot about myself and my own culture, I hope I was able to share even a small part of my experience in Madagascar with others.

As I return to working on the big red island for another 10 months, I’ll hold these new memories and laughs of the past 6 weeks in America very close to me. Until we meet again…

Family brunch

Family brunch

Breakfast selfie with my dad

Breakfast selfie with my dad

My dog, Buster, is still fumbling through the world at 15 years old!

My dog, Buster, is still fumbling through the world at 15 years old!

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!

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: 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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