On Christmas morning, while the sun was still down, I woke up on the floor of a taxi-brousse — Madagascar’s cramped, jolopy-esque version of a chicken bus. I accredit the sleeping pills I took prior to the twelve hour bus ride for this amazing feat of scrunchability and indifference towards sanitary matters, but when a pothole jolted me awake, I suddenly realize how gross it was to be passed out on the floor of third-world public transportation (or any public transportation for that matter) and my friend’s dirt caked feet.
Groggily, I growled “move!” at him. I jabbed him in the ribs as I tried to weasle my way back into the row of five passengers squished into a seat intended for three.
He didn’t move.
I jabbed him again, slapped his face, pinched him as hard as I could. Nothing. So I gave up and simply sat on him.
“Beats the floor,” I thought before dozing off again.
At sunrise, we woke up again, sweaty, dazed, and dirty enough to scratch layers of black off our arms as the brousse pulled in to Ambanja, Madagascar. All ten of the Peace Corps volunteers we had fit into the brousse piled out and staggered towards the sidewalk while simultaneously dodging traffic of bikes, cows, taxis, and cars, and making a vague attempt to remember how to walk. Once out of the street and across from the cluster of men tossing bags down from the brousses roof, one of my friends cleared his throat and turned to me. “Merry Christmas,” he said. Without the usual ambiance of freshly made pancakes, coffee, and a grey sky threatening snow, his words felt more foreign than the chaotic scene around me.
“Merry Christmas,” I replied, before schelping my backpack over my shoulder and setting off to find the party at “Mama Peace Corps'” house.
While handing me a plate of coconut rice and roast sheep, freshly killed the day before, Mama Peace Corps’ friend explained “we only have one big party every year, it’s her birthday around Christmas,” she said pointing to one of the little girls running around in white, satin dresses. Energetically they bounced around on the bed, ducked under tables, and ran between peoples legs. The house was filled with guests, both Malagasy and Americans and the table was piled high with crab, rice, sheep, and calamari. Mama Peace Corps had clearly put a lot of effort into making an excellent Christmas meal and welcoming about a dozen strangers she had never met before. Even if I was munching on tropical fruit instead of sugar cookies and gazing out at palm trees and wiping sweat off my face instead of shivering in the snow, it was clearly still Christmas. Being shown such an incredible amount of generousity and warm welcomes while on completely opposite ends of the earth from my friends and family seemed to me exactly what this holiday is all about and in some ways I feel like celebrating it so far from home made me appreciate how we gather with those we care about each December in a new way.