Bittersweet

If you’re a bit surprised to be reading this, I completely understand and I’m also a little surprised to have written again. Without going into the details of why I’ve been absent from writing and updating this blog for the past few months, I’ll just say that I have been happily focused on other projects and activities here in Madagascar. I’ve had my head down, concentrating on work, for the better part of the last five months.

And as I take a moment now to lift my head, it appears that my time in this country is coming to a rapid end. By the end of this week, I will finish my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar.

As insane as that sentence feels to say out loud, it doesn’t change the fact that this chapter of my journey is coming to an end. Of course, I have some feelings about it.

When people have asked me in recent months whether or not I’m ready to leave Madagascar, my answer is never very direct. Some days, I can’t wait to get off this island, eat a hamburger, and enjoy the comforts of America. Other days, I want to hold on to Madagascar a little bit more and I want to savor every sunset or plate of rice here. It’s a dance of emotions that twirls in my soul.

The best way I can describe my feelings about leaving Madagascar is “bittersweet.”

The sweetness of all those beautiful moments and people I have experienced here during the last 3 years. Scenery that has moved me. People who have touched my heart and taught me so much. Work that has challenged and fulfilled me. I’m so proud of the things I have accomplished here, the transformation I have made into the person I am now, and the future I have started to build for myself.

The bitterness of leaving all those things. Some of the close relationships and achievements will indeed remain with me for a very long time. Most of the things that make me happy here, will stay here after I leave. Many of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues will stay here. The places I enjoy visiting, the food I look forward to eating, the sights and smells of my life will all stay here.

Memories can last, but they’re never quite the same.

I can’t think of any regrets or hesitations I have about leaving Madagascar, which I believe means my departure will be on good terms. This country, these people, this opportunity to serve have all given me much more than I could ever hope to give to them. Although my eyes might glisten or my voice might shake as I leave Madagascar, I know in my heart that I am immensely grateful for this experience.

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It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

Lately, I know my writing has been less than desirable. Infrequent blog posts, sometimes feeling like I’m reaching for topics, and just generally not being satisfied with my work. I’m not happy with what I’m putting out there and I do want to change. When I think about what’s going on, I constantly come back around to feeling uninspired and lacking motivation. And when I think about other areas of my life that are also feeling “off” lately, those same feelings spill over. I know we all experience emotional highs and lows, although in differing intensities and frequencies, but I thought about writing a piece to dig into some common emotions I’ve been experiencing in recent months. Part self-therapy, part window into something I don’t talk about regularly, this is an attempt to show that there’s more to this experience than the shiny, happy, fun adventures. And that’s fine.

A night blooming Cereus cactus from the garden near my home

I chose to extend my service for an extra year and I had visions of being actively involved in the inner workings of a large development agency. I imagined juggling multiple projects simultaneously and playing an important role in field activities. While those expectations have become the reality to some degree, most of the time I feel as though I’ve set myself up for being dissatisfied. If the previous two years of living and working in Madagascar had taught me anything, it was to lower my expectations dramatically. But here I am, feeling as though I had created somewhat arbitrary goals for myself and now I’m grasping to achieve them. Surely, this is a common element of Peace Corps work and I believe that many of my peers wrestle with constantly redefining expectations. Perhaps I am still learning my niche in new surroundings so that I can concentrate my energy somewhere more satisfying.

When I was teaching English, my work felt more structured and goal-oriented than it does in my current position. There was something constructive to do almost every day, something to make me feel like I didn’t just wake up only to wait all day for the sun to go down so I could go back to sleep again. Nowadays, it’s difficult for me to see the purpose or direction in my work, and that makes it very hard to find motivation. As a teacher, going to class felt like a worthwhile activity. As a third year Volunteer, my purpose has been less clear. I am motivated by some aspects of my role, namely supporting other Volunteers and contributing to trainings, but sometimes it feels difficult to focus on those things and do them with a vigor that I can be proud of.

Before starting my current position, I was very excited about moving to a new place—a bigger city, nonetheless—and starting fresh. A whole year in a new place was going to be my chance to practice the local dialect more, meet new people, see different parts of the country, and learn from my previous experiences to better integrate into this new community. Toward the end of my time in my former site, there were things that I wish I had done differently in my community, but I felt like having a clean slate in a different place would be an easy chance to redeem myself. I’m not sure what’s been holding me back from satisfying these social desires. I’m finding myself getting stuck in routines of the city, walking the same roads to get to the same places, and not feeling the mutual warmth that I expected would open up new conversations and friendships.

I know it’s not all sunshine and rainbows here. I’m not asking for that. I just want to feel some purpose again. I want to feel like I’m not just floating around in this experience until my stint in Madagascar is up. I’m afraid of looking back at this time and recognizing too much of it was wasted or underutilized. I’ll continue to search for the next step, to be open to the next unexpected connection, and to be mindful of my place in this experience.

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.

2nd Annual SAVA English Teacher Training

It’s that time of year again. The avocados are ripening on the trees, the daily rains are drying up, and the English teachers of the SAVA region are meeting once again for an annual training workshop.

Based on the success of last year’s training in Sambava, the Education Volunteers of the SAVA region were happy to organize and present a similar pedagogy training workshop. Our goal was to share new teaching methods with English teachers and encourage a professional exchange of ideas. We recruited new teachers that did not attend the training last year, but also invited some alumni teachers to further enhance their skills. All together, there were 50 local English teachers in attendance during the 4-day training workshop held in Andapa.

Two teachers getting to know each other during a group activity

Two teachers getting to know each other during a group activity

Prior to this year’s event, I worked very closely with two of my Malagasy counterparts in Andapa and I also collaborated with the other PCVs in the region. Johnny and Deriot, my Malagasy colleagues, were absolutely essential in making this training happen. Johnny has a knack for translating English to Malagasy, so he helped me a lot when we needed to translate radio advertisements and recruitment posters. Deriot is the kind of guy that knows everyone and has connections and solutions all over town. Need 30 mattresses for teachers to sleep on during the training? Deriot can get them. Need to collect cooking materials like pots, plates, spoons, and forks? Deriot’s got your back. Within each of the four Districts in SAVA, the Peace Corps Volunteers living there played an essential role in recruiting teachers, organizing local travel to Andapa, and preparing to facilitate training sessions. This project was truly a team effort.

Me with Johnny (left) and Deriot (right)

Me with Johnny (left) and Deriot (right)

On the first day of the training, the teachers arrived in Andapa throughout the morning and got settled in. The training was held at a local elementary school and we utilized the classrooms for meeting space, a dining room for meals, and sleeping areas. We had a group lunch together and then kicked off the program with a welcome message from the Chef CISCO (superintendent of the school district). After a couple of icebreaker activities to get to know the teachers, our first real session was “The Role of the Teacher and Motivating Students.” This session was facilitated by a Volunteer and his Malagasy counterpart, which is something we encouraged this year in order to give more responsibility to the Malagasy teachers and slowly show them that they are able to organize similar trainings on their own. Some of the teachers told me that they appreciated this first session because it set the tone for why they were attending. Before you can perfect your teaching skills, you have to take a step back and consider what a teacher should be doing and how a teacher can support student growth.

PCV (right at the chalkboard) and English teacher Arnaud (standing left) give a presentation on motivating students

PCV (right at the chalkboard) and English teacher Arnaud (standing left) give a presentation on motivating students

The second day stated off with a session about learning styles and lesson planning techniques, facilitated by Deriot. This session helped teachers prepare for their lessons and introduced the idea that students learn in different ways (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc) and the activities that a teacher uses in a lesson should appeal to these different learning styles. The rest of the sessions that day were new topics that were not covered in last year’s schedule. One session was about giving feedback to students and correcting their errors. The next session, facilitated by another Malagasy teacher, was about gender equitability in the classroom. This is a priority issue for Peace Corps Madagascar across all the different types of work that we do, so it felt right to include some information during our teacher training. I think a handful of the teachers didn’t even realize how they previously treated boys and girls differently in their class, but hopefully now they have a fresh perspective and can make some actionable changes. We wrapped up the day with a session about organizing English clubs and other extracurricular activities. Many of the teachers also take time out of their busy schedule to help with local English clubs, so we shared some new ideas and activities that they could use in that setting. We emphasized the idea that learning a language is something you need to practice and use frequently, so having a vibrant extracurricular program where students can explore English and have fun is very beneficial.

PCV Jade talks about English clubs and extracurricular activities

PCV Jade talks about English clubs and extracurricular activities

The sessions on the third day were facilitated by different PCVs. We started the morning off with two sessions that together covered the basics of how to teach reading, writing, listening, and speaking activities. Some teachers don’t feel confident in their own English abilities, whether it’s speaking or writing or whatever, so maybe they don’t give much attention to one or more of these essential language skills in their classroom. We wanted to show them how they could bring these skills back into their classroom. In the afternoon, we offered a session about incorporating malaria education into the English curriculum. Malaria is something that impacts our local community a great deal every year. Students get sick and miss school, teachers get sick, family members get sick and sometimes die from malaria complications. So we wanted to give our English teachers the power to talk about malaria in their classrooms and give students at least one more point of exposure to prevention and treatment information. The final session of the day was about teaching with limited resources, something that every Malagasy teacher is used to. In most cases, teachers in this country get nothing more than a blackboard and chalk to teach with. In this session, we listened to the experience of the teachers more than teaching them from our comparatively minimal experience. It was a great exchange of ideas and I think everyone learned new ways to incorporate inexpensive or free resources. Sometimes we have to be creative and design our own teaching resources.

PCVs Crystal and Trevor lead an exercise to model good listening activities

PCVs Crystal and Trevor lead an exercise to model good listening activities

The fourth and final day of training was about bringing all the new information together and making a plan to move forward. The first morning session was led by a Malagasy teacher and he talked about creating a professional network of teachers to continue sharing experiences and exchanging teaching methods. This is essential if we hope to spread the lessons learned during the training and continue improving the quality of instruction in our region. At one point, teachers from each District met together and discussed the specifics of when they would meet again to share ideas. To wrap up the training, we asked the teachers to recite and sign a pledge that described how they would share the knowledge they gained during the training and reaffirming that they have the ability to enact change without the supervision of a foreigner. Then we gave a certificate of completion to each teacher, posed for many photos with the teachers, and shared one last meal together before teachers started to make their way back to their homes. It was a really great ending to a phenomenal training program. Overall, based on feedback from the teachers and the PCVs involved, it was a successful event and everyone can’t wait to do it again next year!

Teachers work together to create a lesson plan that incorporates malaria education

Teachers work together to create a lesson plan that incorporates malaria education

Throughout this process, and having participated in the first training program last year, I learned so much. I learned about myself and my work ethic, my ability to share a vision with people, and my ability to stay calm and focused in the face of ambiguity and other challenges. I got quite the education in the whole grant process including writing, budgeting, evaluating goals, and reporting results. Maybe most importantly, I learned about finding joy and purpose in my work here. All the stress and frustration and confusion of the past 6 months melted away when I saw how proud and excited these teachers were to hold up their certificate of completion. I knew it was worth it when I heard the teachers reciting their pledge and saw the look on their faces like they deeply believed what they were saying.

Participants recite the "Teacher's Pledge"

Participants recite the “Teacher’s Pledge”

I owe a lot of thanks to many, many people. More than I could properly put down in words here. But I’ll try. A tremendous amount of thanks goes to the generous Americans who donated to our grant and basically funded the entire program. I also worked closely with local school officials and teachers to help spread the word about the training and secure some of the logistics during the event. This project would have also been nothing without the interest, dedication, and participation of the 50 Malagasy teachers that took it upon themselves to improve their careers. As I mentioned before, a huge amount of thanks goes to Johnny and Deriot and the other Malagasy teachers that worked with us. And I really owe a lot to the amazing Peace Corps family that supported us throughout this endeavor. The PCVs in the SAVA region were instrumental in so many ways and it was such a pleasure to work with them. They willingly took on responsibilities to help share the workload. Other PCVs shared ideas for sessions and gave unwavering support throughout the whole process. And finally, thanks to the Peace Corps staff that helped us work through the grant process and helped us realize the full potential of this project. To all, I offer my sincere gratitude and appreciation.

Having a good time with the team of English students that cooked every meal for the training and made sure we were well fed!

Having a good time with the team of English students that cooked every meal for the training and made sure we were well fed!

Me with most of the participants from Andapa. Look at all those big Malagasy smiles!

Me with most of the participants from Andapa. Look at all those big Malagasy smiles!

Most of the SAVA PCVs pose for one of many photos with a proud participant

Most of the SAVA PCVs pose for one of many photos with a proud participant

Men as partners

A primary focus of many development projects is empowering women and girls, which is a very important issue to address. One example is the Peace Corps’ initiative, called Let Girls Learn, that focuses on increasing access to education for young girls around the world. Another popular program that Peace Corps Volunteers in various countries organize, called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp, is designed to develop the leadership skills of girls and give them the opportunity to explore a variety of relevant health, environmental, and educational topics.

In addition to educating and encouraging women, it is also important to share these ideas with men in the spirit of cooperation. Men and women should work together to accomplish any community development goal. To address this need in Madagascar, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer recently organized a training for young men in the SAVA region. The MAP (Men As Partners) Camp was designed to “explore community development through a feminist lens,” according to the lead Volunteer of the project. The training was held in Antalaha and brought together 60 men, their ages ranging from 16 to 35, for a 4-day workshop. I was lucky enough to participate in this project and bring some men from my own community. During the course of the training, the men engaged in thoughtful discussions on a variety of topics including gender roles, sexuality, men’s health, community development, HIV and AIDS, and healthy relationships. Each session was led by a different local leader who brought his own perspective and style to the discussions.

All the participants on Day 1 of the MAP Camp

All the participants on Day 1 of the MAP Camp

The men who participated in the MAP Camp come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are students, others are tour guides, and a few work for other NGOs in Madagascar. Some of the men live in the larger regional cities while others come from smaller villages. Some have wives and children. Despite what they do or where they come from, these men came together and quickly bonded over a shared desire to improve their communities and help the women in their lives.

The men sign a banner with a pledge that reads “Every woman is a daughter or mother or wife to a man. To respect all women is to respect the women that you know. Today we pledge to end violence against women”

The men sign a banner with a pledge that reads “Every woman is a daughter or mother or wife to a man. To respect all women is to respect the women that you know. Today we pledge to end violence against women”

The first day of the camp began with a welcome from the Mayor of Antalaha and an introduction to the purpose of the program by the organizers of the MAP Camp. One of the first activities was a chance for the men to express their opinions on a variety of topics. To do this, we created four lines that corresponded to the opinions “strongly agree”, “agree”, “disagree”, and “strongly disagree”. Next, the facilitator read statements out loud (for example, “men are smarter than women” and “homosexuality is natural and acceptable”) and directed participants to stand in the line that was closest to their personal opinion. Each line of men had an opportunity to explain themselves, listen to others, and then they could change their position before moving on to the next statement. I was impressed by how the men respected each other when they had a difference of opinions and they were willing to listen to what others had to say. It was a powerful way to begin the program and set the stage for some meaningful discussions.

The men standing in four lines according to their opinion on a given statement

The men standing in four lines according to their opinion on a given statement

The second day of the camp had a more informational approach. One session explored the influence that different forms of media have on the messages about gender and sexuality in Madagascar. I even learned a lot about what men in the local communities hear and see from radio, television, film, religious groups, and schools that effect their understanding on gender. Next, the men had a candid and transparent discussion about the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. Most of them had very relevant and mature questions that showed a true desire to understand the complex ideas. I was, again, pleasantly surprised to see this kind of participation coming from men that live in such a heteronormative and traditional society.

A discussion facilitated by the local Imam

A discussion facilitated by the local Imam

On the third day, the participants addressed the issue of men’s health and sexual health. Activities began with a game to test the knowledge of participants on the subject of HIV and AIDS. The men knew many of the basic facts, but they also learned a few new things to help them make healthy life choices. Next, the group headed to the beach and played a few games. The first game divided the men into two groups and they stood shoulder to shoulder in a line facing each other with arms and hands behind their backs. Then, a soccer ball was put in the hands of one of the men and the team had to shuffle the ball up and down the line without the other team being able to see the ball. Each team took turns doing this while the other team watched closely and attempted to guess where the ball was after one minute of being passed behind the backs of their rivals. The symbolism behind this game was that the soccer ball in the hands of a man represented a person with HIV or AIDS and the other team couldn’t always accurately guess the person with the “ball” just by looking at them. It was a fun, yet important, lesson in equality and awareness of those around you. The next game had men dribbling the soccer ball through a series of obstacles that represented choices and consequences in life. The first set of choices, such as “having unprotected sex” or “having sex with multiple partners”, was spaced out enough that it was fairly easy to dribble the ball through the line. If a man kicked the ball into any of the obstacles, it represented him making that particular bad choice. Next, the obstacles got closer together and each one represented either contracting HIV or an STI. The final line, with the obstacles placed even closer together, represented either developing AIDS, having an early death, or not being able to work. As the men dribbled the ball through the lines, they realized that it’s easy to make one poor decision but it can lead to a much more difficult consequence later on. Everyone enjoyed a few hours on the beach, especially those men who had never seen the ocean before!

Playing a game at the beach about knowing a person's HIV/AIDS status

Playing a game at the beach about knowing a person’s HIV/AIDS status

Dribbling the soccer ball through the "obstacle course of life"

Dribbling the soccer ball through the “obstacle course of life”

The program finished on the fourth day with a discussion of things that the men could do after the training to continue spreading these ideas and helping their communities. They divided into 4 groups, based on the District where they live, and worked together to develop a work plan. Each group made a presentation and shared what next steps would be taken after the training. This is a crucial step in making the information relevant and useful to the men. It was great to see them feel empowered and realize that they have the ability to help others in their communities. Not only did they make some new friends during the course of the program, but they learned so much.

A few participants presenting their work plan to the group

A few participants presenting their work plan to the group

This was an extremely well-organized event and I feel grateful to have participated and shared this opportunity with some great men in my community. The main theme of the project was to encourage men and women to work together, and I think we got a great start on that. I look forward to working with these men and helping coordinate other resources so they can make a difference in our local community.

Group photo in front of the Antalaha Mayor's Office at the end of MAP Camp

Group photo in front of the Antalaha Mayor’s Office at the end of MAP Camp

Support education improvements in Madagascar

Ask any American and they can probably tell you about a teacher that had a lasting impact on them. A teacher who challenged students, inspired them, and encouraged intellectual growth during such a formative time in a young person’s life.

In Madagascar, it is more difficult to find such a relationship between teachers and students. Part of the difference is certainly cultural and that won’t change very easily. All too often in this country, teachers are viewed as the infallible keepers of knowledge and they pass on this knowledge through dictation and rote memorization. But part of the difference is also due to a lack of quality training for teachers. Unlike in America, formal education or training for a teacher is not always required in Madagascar. This reality is often the root of many issues in the Malagasy educational system. Students aren’t engaged. Some teachers, who never wanted to be teachers in the first place, get stuck in the classroom because it can be a reliable job.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of my job assignments is to help improve the quality of English instruction in my community. During the last year, I have collaborated with local teachers, shared experiences, listened to them more than I have talked, and offered suggestions based on my limited training. But there is more that can be done.

With the help of 5 other Peace Corps Volunteers in the SAVA Region of Madagascar (the region where we live), we are organizing a 4-day regional teacher training workshop to address the issue of instructional quality. If a person lives relatively close to one of the few major urban centers in Madagascar, they might have greater access to government teacher training programs, but such training is rarely ever a requirement to be a working teacher and thus it is not always encouraged. But with the added incentive of working with “foreign” teachers, especially Americans, we hope to attract 60 teachers from all around the region to attend out workshop. It’s important to us that we reach not only teachers in the urban centers, but also those in the more remote countryside villages with even fewer resources. To read about the success of the inaugural teacher training that we put on last year, you can read my blog post about it here.

To fund our ambitious program, I have applied for a grant through the Peace Corps. This particular type of grant is part of the Peace Corps Partnership Program, which means that the grant is funded by private donations rather than a government budget. With this type of grant, the community must contribute at least 25% of the total cost of the program, either through donated materials or in-kind donations like time and meeting space. The rest is up to us to fundraise! The grant also has to be completely funded before a single penny (or Ariary, in this case) gets to the community. When that happens, the funds will come to me and I will purchase all the needed materials. When we finish the program, I have to provide receipts for all costs and that prevents me from running away with all the money you have so graciously donated to help my community. The grant is structured in such a way that I cannot segment any of the costs during the fundraising phase, so all donations go into the general budget.

If you’d like to make a donation or read more about the project, please visit our fundraising page here.

I, and the team of Volunteers working on this project with me, would greatly appreciate any support you can give us. Whether that is making a donation of any amount or helping to spread news of our project by sharing the fundraising page with others. Every little bit of effort adds up and it can help bring some much needed resources to a great community of educators.

Mipetraka tsara

Directly translated, mipetraka tsara means “to sit well.” Other more common interpretations of the phrase can be understood as “to stay put” or “to remain steady.” When used to describe the actions of a person, this phrase expresses notions of settlement, calm, and consistency. In light of doing many different things, living a busy life, and frequently moving around, one is encouraged to slow down and mipetraka tsara.

For me, this idea has more relevance now than in any other time during my service. With the school term having ended in July, the past three months have been filled with frequent travel, sometimes for business and sometimes for pleasure, and a variety of different experiences. Between visiting other Volunteers in their communities, attending training workshops, running a half marathon, and managing a handful of other projects, there was hardly an extended period of time in the recent past where I truly felt settled. As soon as one thing was finished, it was on to the next one!

So after what feels like a very eventful and long Grandes Vacances (French term for the summer break from school), I have recently returned to my home in Andapa and I intend to stay put here for a while. My head has only recently stopped spinning after the come and go nature of the last three months. I have unpacked my bags and I’m ready to recommit myself to working in my community. It took a couple of days to deep-clean my house, reorganize some of my belongings, and mentally unwind from vacation. But now the fire in me has been rekindled and I’m looking ahead with determination and positive energy.

In Madagascar, October signals the start of a new academic year. This year, I will continue to teach at CEG Andapa Sud (middle school) and Lycée Mixte Andapa (high school). With classes starting next week, an “acceptable” one week delay from the official start date prescribed by the Ministry of Education, I am looking forward to getting back into a routine and to meeting my new students. New minds to mold! Or further confuse, depending on whom you ask. Nevertheless, having a year of teaching experience under my belt makes me much more confident going into this year. Activities at the Andapa Public Library, such as the student and adult English Clubs, will also begin again, which I enjoy because it means working with students who are generally more interested and serious about studying English.

The time I have spent moving around the country, seeing new places, and connecting with friends, has been thoroughly enjoyable. Coming back to Andapa and focusing on the year ahead does not put a damper on any of those experiences. It’s simply the next step forward. And part of that next step is settling in at home and working hard to help my community. I welcome the opportunity to mipetraka tsara and enjoy the future in Andapa.

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.

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.