Peace Corps volunteers have a reputation for being a little off-kilter. Newbies arrive, meet more seasoned volunteers and think “wow, they’re a little weird.” The seasoned volunteers shake their heads and say “don’t worry, you’ll grow in to it.” Exhibit A: A PCV dancing with a bunch of pousse-pousse drivers and street kids:
Just another Friday night, right? Sadly… yes. There’s just something about living in a rural African village for two years that can drive a person slightly crazy, (or really crazy, but that’s rare) and generally the things that affect us are different for every volunteer. Maybe it’s that rooster that crows outside your bedroom window every morning at 4:30, or the kids that try to move the bamboo slats that constitute as walls on your house to peer and spy on you. More often yet, it’s the lack of schedule and extreme and utter boredom that comes with having a vague job in an area with no electricity. Or it’s weird food cravings and the sudden disappearance of your social life (once early in my service, I had one of those what-the-f-am-I-doing-here moments when I realized it was a Friday night and I was sitting at home sewing curtains).
Personally, when I first arrived at my Peace Corps site, the town that was supposed to be my home for the next two years, the thing that ate at me the most was disappointment. I had electricity and an abundance of cheap, fresh vegetables (two things I hear other PCVs complain about not having at their sites and I count myself lucky for), but the town itself was… well… bland. I’m in a beautiful country, but my town isn’t pretty. It’s big enough that there will forever be someone shouting “hey white person!” when I walk through market. It’s also in the heart of the Merina tribe’s region, and, sorry to any Merina folks reading this, I think the I-love-Jesus-and-soccer culture is mind-numbingly dull. I mean, great for you, but going to church and watching soccer are about as fun to me as going to the dentist. I still don’t like my site. It’s comfortable, people actually do work when I ask them to, but it’s bland.
At first, I really tried to take Peace Corps’ cheesy advice and “make the most of your site”. I tried going for walks, but no matter how far I walked I could never fully escape the obnoxious kids who herd cattle or random creepers. I tried going to church once, and almost fell asleep. I watched a fair amount of soccer games, and eventually decided it wasn’t worth my time to sit in the cold rain watching a game I don’t enjoy. By my third month at site, I was officially going a little nuts and over-fixating on the flickering light bulbs in my house. I couldn’t sit in a coffee shop, rock climb, hike or do anything outdoorsy to cope with the stress and boredom of site like I would have back in the states, and felt stuck.
But then I got a bike.
And biking saved my sanity.
It quickly became the one connection I had to my life back in Seattle, back in the states, and a way to do something outdoorsy without worrying about obnoxious cattle herders or having to make conversation when I wasn’t up for speaking Malagasy. Finally free, I would furiously pedal back and forth between the highway and town, or throw the bike on top of a bus and take it around Antsirabe. One day, I broke out of my fear of biking on the highways (reasoning that drivers were already more used to seeing cows, kids, bikes, and rickshaws on the road than the average American driver) and went the 22km from Antsirabe to Betafo.
It was the happiest I had ever felt in Madagascar.
I was part of the scene, but not — and that was exactly what I wanted, what I needed, as a reprise from daily life in town. I wanted to observe Madagascar, to be outside and not cooped up in my house, but I still had this incredibly American mentality of wanting to not be bothered. It was a practice of being present but not pestered.
It’s still my favorite way to view Madagascar, and I’m hoping to bike the 500-ish kilometers from Antsirabe to Morondava before leaving the island, so stay posted!