Categories
Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

What are The Positives and Negatives of Doing Peace Corps?

Peace Corps Madagascar
Photo Credit: Sally Bull

Hi Jessie!

Last spring, I decided I had enough of the job so I sought out my local Peace Corps recruiter. He told me the first year in the Peace Corps is really, really hard but then the second year he didn’t want to leave. Fast forward to now – I decided to move to Madrid for the year, get my TEFL certification to teach English, and learn Spanish. I basically did this to add to my resume for the Peace Corps and because I had always wanted to learn Spanish. Anyway, I wanted to email you to see if you could just give me all the positives and negatives or anything else that is interesting. Thank you!

– Madrid Teacher

Like the recruiter said, the first year is pretty hard — but moreso if you’ve never lived abroad and don’t know what to expect. With regards to the first year of Peace Corps, here are a few of the negatives:

  • Feeling isolated — it can definitely be lonely if you’re the only foreigner for miles.
  • Language barriers can add to the sense of isolation, and create a feeling of incompetency (why can’t I figure out how to buy a bottle of juice!?!?)
  • FOMO — especially when it comes to dating, going out, and other “normal” 20-some activities.
  • Lots of downtime = potential for boredom. Not everyone knows how to deal with this.
  • Sometimes the restrictions placed on you by Peace Corps can be a burden — you often don’t have the flexibility to choose where you want to live (in terms of town and house), just pick up and take a trip whenever, drive a car / motorcycle, etc.

Of course, there’s plenty of positives too:

  • Your PCV friends and bonds with your host community
  • Getting to intimately know a new country / culture
  • Learning how to be a self-sufficient bad-ass who can start a fire, recommend a cure for dysentery, bake english muffins without an oven, and hand-wash all your laundry
  • The newness and excitement of it all

You may notice I didn’t say much about the work itself. This is because you don’t really make much of an impact in your first year of service. Instead, you’re learning how to your a job, cultural nuances, and what sorts of projects are most effective. Don’t stress if your work doesn’t feel like “work”. I think that’s what gets a lot of people down — this inaccurate expectation that they’ll swoop in and “change the world“.

That said, it’s great that you’re teaching in Spain beforehand. I also taught abroad before joining Peace Corps. They probably would’ve accepted me anyway, but it was good to have that foundation. I felt like it made me a better volunteer — especially since my CELTA training was far better than the ESL teacher training Peace Corps Madagascar did.

In short, it made me a better volunteer even if it didn’t necessarily make me more qualified as a volunteer. In the end, that’s more important anyway. In my opinion, I think too many people join straight out of college and may not be as effective than if they had gotten a year or two of experience elsewhere first.

Categories
Peace Corps The Nomadic Life The United States

A Year of Returning Home from the Peace Corps

Reintegration after the Peace CorpsSince returning home from the Peace Corps in December 2013, I had just barely wrapped my head around all the new iPhone apps and food choices at my disposal by the time 2014 rolled in.

I’ve also been absent from The Nomadic Beat. So with the first month of 2015 almost to a close, here’s a recap on one year spent re-integrating after returning home from the Peace Corps.

What did that process look like exactly? What was re-integrating into American life and culture like? Read on.

Omg Food, Food, Food!

Burrito

Somewhere around July, I posted on Facebook “I will never be over burritos.” It was one of my most liked and commented-on posts of the year. “How can you ever get over burritos?” One friend replied. TRUE point, friend. TRUE POINT.

Also, that was July — almost half a year after I returned. Yes, I spent most of my initial days indulging in nostalgic cravings for raspberries, asparagus, burritos, good cheese and beer. And yes, it has tapered a bit, but are burritos old and non-exciting yet? Nope — not a bit.

Toilets are Awesome

I will never take a flush toilet for granted again. Never, ever, ever. That, and running water.

Even though I live in a small studio apartment with a mini fridge and a double hot plate, I know what I could be living in instead (a pink dollhouse with no water and a pit latrine, that’s what!). So I love my place. I appreciate it for those everyday luxuries (yes, luxuries) most of us take for granted.

Trying to Understand Where My Old and New Self Met

California StyleI was gone for almost two and a half years in my early to mid-20s; an age when most people try to define their identities as adults. Not teenagers, not college students, but adults.

I didn’t miss out on this development, but it happened abroad. This is pretty significant for two reasons:

First, I felt more aware of it. When I initially returned, I gravitated towards old habits, but they didn’t feel right. I’d go to the same clothing stores I frequented before, and suddenly feel too “old” for them. I’d go to old favorite bars, coffee shops, and restaurants and feel out of place.

I’d look at a menu and quickly identify my usual, but not feel up to it. I was constantly thinking “well, Old Jessie would have had the caprese sandwich, but New Jessie wants a burger with avocado.”

Returning from living abroad forced me to experience all these changes in tastes and lifestyle preferences all at once, rather than gradually. That made me more aware.

Secondly, this meant that I had to reconcile this Old-Jessie-New-Jessie identity crisis. At times, it meant some awkward moments (and outfits), but overall it’s been a fun experience in new discovery.

Annoying Everyone Around Me with “This One Time in Peace Corps” Stories

Annoyed Jon

I know, I know, I know. I talk about Peace Corps and Madagascar waaay too much. I’m probably annoying my friends, co-workers, and boyfriend with all my “this one time in Madagascar…” stories.

I don’t mean to talk about it so much, and I’m not trying to one up anyone when asked “so, what did you do for New Years last year?” It kind of just comes out, like word vomit.

An RPCV friend of mine, Karina, put our side of this well. “For us, it’s just our most recent two years of our lives. Our friends might be talking about this great party they went to last summer, and we are too — they just happened to take place in another country.”

So please be understanding, friends. I don’t want to treat the last two and a half years of my life like it’s either an empty, untalked about void, or an obnoxious conversation piece.

Remembering How to Be a “Real Adult”

It’s weird, but there are some basic life skills I feel like I just simply forgot after two and half years of not having to use them.

For example, it took me a moment to remember how scheduling a dentist appointment and using insurance worked again (since Peace Corps takes care of all of this for us). Banking, renting cars, navigating public transportation — all of this I had to dig back into my mind for.

I’m being totally honest when I say, this time last year, I would have been thrown off by the question “what’s your group number, miss?” if I had attempted to file an insurance claim. W$#!G%# — my what?

Feeling Behind on Life

Glass of wine

Pretty quickly after getting back from Peace Corps, in February 2014, I started a new job in Berkeley, California. I was 25 at the time and, quite frankly, just stoked to have more than $200 / month coming in to my bank account.

Then, I met other 24 – 26 year olds in the San Francisco Bay area. They had been working for prestigious companies for years, making great salaries and benefits, and — sometimes — living fairly expensive lifestyles.

Okay, okay, okay — I am at the epicenter of the tech boom, but that’s not an excuse to write off this sentiment. Other volunteers felt behind because they didn’t have so much as a boyfriend, when all their friends were getting married. We didn’t have cars, babies, and our two years of Peace Corps isn’t always looked at as real experience by all employers (psh, their loss!)

Back to the point: my accomplishments as a PCV were pushed in the back of my mind, and I suddenly felt behind in life — especially career wise.

I know it’s not true, but it’s hard not to feel this way. Throughout the year, I’ve had to actively remind myself of what’s truly valuable in life (experiences and happiness, not possessions and titles), that I love my job, and why the fuck should we feel so urgent about getting a job directly after college?

Getting Used to All this New Technology

Technology changes rapidly, so it was the most noticeable difference in American culture circa 2011 versus American culture circa 2014. Otherwise, it was just new trends (which we had been closely watching via Pinterest anyway…)

I came back into a world that predominantly used smartphones. Tons of cafes and shops started using iPads for checking out customers (I’d never seen that!). Online dating had become more socially acceptable and casual, and so, so, so many things had become digitized.

Apps like Uber, Lyft, and Tinder had not been created, but soared in popularity since I left. For about two weeks I had no idea what my friends were talking about when they said “I’m going to call an Uber” or “they met on Tinder.” I still remember leaning over and whispering to a fellow Madagascar RPCV and asking “pssst, what’s Tinder??” Thank goodness for friends, right?

Here’s to 2015!

Reintegration is different for everyone, and I tend to feel less nostalgic for my Peace Corps experience than some of my friends (it was great, but I love my life now too!).

Regardless, for everyone who has spent this past year reintegrating into American life after Peace Corps, I’m sure it’s been a year of reverse culture shock, identity crises, and burrito binging. To all of you, here’s to entering 2015 feeling more at ease in our every day lives than this time last year!

Now, who wants to work off those burrito binges with me? Ugh.

Categories
Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

You Won’t Save The World as a Peace Corps Volunteer

ShouldIJoinPCBefore I begin: As an RPCV who loved her service, I’d like to wish you all a happy Peace Corps week.

But now, *ahem* for the real reason you came here: that catchy title that I used to lure you in here.

You won’t save the world as a Peace Corps Volunteer

So, you want to join the Peace Corps? I’m sure you’ve got tons of questions. I’m sure you also have these grand, romanticized ideas of what it means to be in the Peace Corps. You’re probably conjuring up images of you surrounded by cute little African/Asian/Latin American children that you’re helping teach English/Math/How to brush their teeth (yes, that’s a real Peace Corps task). However, most volunteers don’t have that idyllic experience. Some do. Some luck out, and the rest of us are listening to their Peace Corps stories and thinking “F you and your f-ing flush toilet. Do you know what I have to go through to pee every morning?” For me, I had to dodge flying homemade soccer balls and walk through 200 screaming middle school students to get to my pit latrine — sometimes embarrassingly carrying my toilet paper, sometimes stuffing it down my bra to be more discreet. Worst of all though, I had to put on pants. Uhg.

Even now, after returning to the U.S. the disillusion continues. My friends and family still coo “it seems like you had such a great time in Peace Corps!” Well, I did have some great times in Peace Corps. I also had the most embarrassing moment of my life (which I swear, I will only divulge to other RPCVs and whoever I end up married to — since, apparently, you have to reveal all dirty secrets to someone before they can rightfully commit the rest of their life to you, uhhhg). I felt boredom on a whole different level (think, sweeping your house five times in one day). I watched A LOT of TV — I am now more caught up on pop culture than I ever will be again in my life. I also developed a deep and serious skepticism about any interaction with men. Those things weren’t so fun (well, the TV part was…)

They also don’t fit into this incorrect image of “saving the developing world” that many people associate with Peace Corps. Well, you’re not going to save the world, but here are a few things you will do:

First, you’ll ask a lot of dumb questions

No amount of reading and talking to RPCVs will truly prepare you for what’s in store with the Peace Corps. You’ll ask a lot of dumb questions on your group’s Facebook page (please guys, save face and Google questions about luggage allowances.) You’ll ask even more dumb questions during your training and for several months afterwards. That’s OK. We all do it. We all forget about it. You live, you learn, and eventually you become that PCV looking at a new group about to arrive in country and think — as my friend Jackie puts it — “ohh buddy…”

Then, you’ll either develop realistic expectations, give up, or be miserable

As a Peace Corps volunteer I think it’s incredibly important to have real expectations about your service. You’re there for two years, and it seems like a long time, but in the grand scheme of development, it isn’t. Those volunteers who fail to understand this — preferably before departure — end up being the most disillusioned and (though there are no case studies to prove this) more likely to give up, or ET, as we say. Ambition is great, and I know of some motivated and ambitious volunteers who accomplished a lot during their service but for most of us, our impact will be much smaller. Honestly, if you enter Peace Corps expecting to make smaller changes and have a good experience, you’ll do better emotionally, mentally, and professionally. Lower your expectations about what you will accomplish, now.

You’ll break up with your girlfriend/boyfriend from back home

I don’t know why we didn’t figure this out in study abroad, but long distance in general, and Peace Corps especially is a great way to kill a relationship. I have more optimism for couples who do Peace Corps at the same time but in different countries (you can relate better to each other and grow in more similar ways) but otherwise, that relationship is eventually going to shrivel up and die at some point of your two years of service. Well, 90% of the time (just in case you were about to race to the comments section to contradict me…)

You’ll become a PR campaign for America

Sometimes, I wondered if my presence in my community was nothing more than a great PR move on behalf of the U.S. government. In Madagascar there was no doubt that Peace Corps volunteers had created this awesome and respected view of Americans (versus the less respected and slightly scorned image they had of the French). This will be part of your impact. You will change the way people think about Americans, and not always for the better. I heard a lot of shit talking about Americans in Ethiopia, sometimes directly pointed at Peace Corps volunteers. It’s a shame, but the point remains the same: our individual actions as Peace Corps volunteers influence the overall impression of Americans in the developing world.

And your body will betray you.

You’ll drunkenly (or not drunkenly) vomit in an embassy worker’s garden. You’ll poop your pants. You’ll have problems managing your weight. Diarrhea will be a normal occurrence. You’ll get really good at telling when you or someone else has giardia/worms/malaria and be able to name exactly what medicine they need. Or if you’re really unfortunate, you’ll get some medieval illness you haven’t thought about since 8th grade history class (bubonic plague, scarlet fever, etc.). But I don’t want to scare you; most likely you’ll just poop your pants and that’ll be the worst of it. Of course, after you recover, you’ll talk about it with all your Peace Corps friends, have a good laugh, and carry on. Shit happens. Literally.

Anyways, if it seems like I’m being overly snarky and portraying Peace Corps as a terrible experience — that’s not my intention. I loved Peace Corps and I will almost always encourage anyone who is interested in joining to start their application and do it. But I have found that in these conversations I’ve been having recently, there are a lot of constants in my reality as a PCV that non PCVs/RPCVs are surprised to hear about (the TV watching, for example). So, just trying to tell it like it is. The end.

See a related post I wrote on Go Overseas: 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Joining Peace Corps.

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Veloma Madagascar — I’m an RPCV Now!

COSYesterday was my first full day as an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer).

Except, I’m not returned. My friend Liz, who I’ll be travelling with for the next few months, joked that it meant “Recovering Peace Corps Volunteer”. That seems more suiting, since neither of us will return until Christmas. But whatever it means, it’s a pretty significant event. I’m done! We’re done! On Friday, my group of five COS-ers had our official I.D.s punched and voided, our Country Director shook our hands and said “thanks for your service” and we popped open a bottle of cheap champagne from the duty free store to pass around on our walk from the office to lunch. (Note: When a PCV finishes their service, it’s called “COS-ing”. COS stands for “close of service”. Because of medical processing, only a 5-7 volunteers can be COS-ed at a time. Those volunteers are called COS-ers.)

Working up to that moment, the week was filled with lasts. Last goodbyes, last time at my favorite restaurant in Tana, last day as a Peace Corps volunteer. And finally today, I have my last day on this island. My friends that I’m leaving behind keep asking me how I’m feeling. To answer that, I’m feeling a little nostalgic, but mostly excited for new adventures. And honestly, it’s hard to feel really upset about leaving a place when at the same time you’re cursing it under your breath. Last night, our taxi driver asked for a “kiss kiss” goodbye and it pissed me off. We got stopped at a police checkpoint and hassled for our I.D.s. Several homemade bombs have been going off throughout Antananarivo (but fortunately, whoever’s making them isn’t particularly good at it, so there have been no deaths or damages). This week, I’ve generally been irritated and stressed. I’m ready to move on.

I’m sadder about not being a Peace Corps volunteer anymore. All in one day, I lost my home, my job, and a significant part of my identity. I love being a Peace Corps volunteer and I love the family us Madagascar volunteers have built out of being in it together. Also, Madagascar loves us. On a really basic level, PCVs are known for being “those white people who speak Malagasy”, and Malagasy appreciate it. Telling someone that I’m Peace Corps almost always gets a good reaction (when they know what it is, obviously), and I’ll miss this aspect of instant awesome-ness when I tell people my job.

Fortunately it seems like the RPCV community is just as much of a big family as Peace Corps, and just because I’m losing one identity, doesn’t mean I’m not gaining another. Like I said, I’m less sad than excited for new adventures. I’m excited to fly to Kenya with Liz in less than 24 hours (I’m not excited about the 2am departure time). I’m excited for new food, new music, new scenery, and new discoveries. We’ve both put seeing a movie in a real cinema, not on a laptop, as our number one thing we want to do in Nairobi (silly, I know, but i haven’t seen one in 3 years). I’m also excited to finally be making my way home with a RTW (around-the-world) trip!! So guys, save the ‘welcome home’ for Christmas-time… I want to take my time getting home.

Photo: A mix of friends during the second COS week in August while celebrating at Le B’ in Tana

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Success! 22,000 Books Finally Arrive in Madagascar

BFA Mada

After months of frantically e-mailing, running around Tana, and bugging the group of Peace Corps volunteers involved in the Books for Africa project (which I’m sure people are sick and tired of hearing me talk about) I finally found myself standing in a Tana school yard, with the tangible result of all of our efforts being swung full force into a tree. To explain better, a group of Malagasy construction workers were unloading the 40-foot, 4 ton shipping container that had transported 660 boxes of 22,000 books and 4 laptops from Savannah, Georgia to Antananarivo, Madagascar from a truck, and placing it in a Tana school yard to be eventually turned into a guard house com teacher lounge. They weren’t terribly graceful about it, and managed to nick off several tree branches in the process.

image

I didn’t care about the tree though, obviously. I was just marveling at the hugeness of the container and the overwhelming amount of books currently stacked in a classroom and waiting to be shipped off to their new homes. (Earlier in the day, the school had stopped class so students could unload the books from the container into the classroom while I was sitting in painfully slow Tana traffic on the other side of town. I just had to love Madagascar a little for being able to drop a whole school’s studies to force the kids to do manual labor. Don’t feel too bad, they got juice and cookies as a reward.) Mostly, I was filled with relief that the container had made it, and that seeing it in person meant undeniable, verified proof that we had actually succeeded with the most difficult part of our project: getting the books across an ocean and past Malagasy customs. Even though I knew the work wasn’t quite done yet — we still had to sort and distribute the boxes among 18 PCVs — seeing that container swinging into a tree in a Tana schoolyard meant the worst of it was over.

Not everyone in the project thought it would ever be completed, and understandably so: we’ve had a lot of bumps and hurdles. Almost a year and a half ago now, we had our first stall in the project when trying to raise the $19,000 USD we needed to purchase the books, pay for shipping, and get them distributed around Madagascar. Then, very sadly, the PCV who originally started the project, Lynn Brown, was separated from the Peace Corps for medical reasons and had to pass her leadership along to another volunteer, Brittany Bemis, who led us through the ordering process. Even though Lynn was no longer a PCV, she still remained involved in the project and project fundraising. She showed some serious dedication and yes, her site got 1,000 books just like the rest of us! Brittany, however, didn’t have regular enough access to internet or the ability to come to Tana frequently (which would prove essential as we got to the stage of the project where we needed documentation for the container and permission to import) so she passed it along to me.

Our next set of hurdles came with navigating Madagascar’s importation system. It’s hard for me to bite my tongue and keep my criticisms under wraps, but they didn’t make things easy. Madagascar isn’t helping themselves either by complicating the process of importing goods or requiring high taxes (we didn’t pay any for the books or computers because they were a donation). To make matters worse, most of the offices involved didn’t have e-mail and were still functioning in an arcane, print-it-out-and-deliever-the-document sort of system — which meant on several occasions I had to waste a solid 4-5 hours just to pass a document from one office to another, get a stamp from a ministry across town (because, naturally, nothing is official in Madagascar without a stamp…), or just ask a question about the process. For the most part, this wasn’t difficult, but obnoxious, and filled with a lot of little, really avoidable mistakes (like how we lost a full month because a Malagasy website incorrectly translated a website error to ‘missing document’ instead of ‘incorrect document’). I don’t even want to begin to count the hours wasted sitting on taxi-brousses and inner-city busses by yours truly. I listened to many ‘This American Life’ podcasts during this period.

BFA1

The Peace Corps office and the Ministry of Education were beyond helpful with trying to get past these problems and misunderstandings. I don’t know how this would have gotten done without them, and now it has. Which means, it’s time for the fun part: riding in to site with a bus piled high with boxes of shiny, new books, opening them up, and putting them on the shelves for our community to read. While all of our sites are incredibly thankful for the donations, and probably just as excited as I am to flip through those books, I have to say I’m sad to see it all coming together right at the end of my service. Like most of the volunteers in the project, I won’t get to se how my site ends up using the resources, and will never benefit from them as a resource with my own teaching. But then again, “it’s probably more sustainable to have this immense amount of English material in town than to always expect a PCV to be there to teach English,” as one PCV commented. I hope so, because it’s been one heck of a project, and despite it all, one heck of a success!

BFA James

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Breaking Up with Madagascar

Broken Hearts by Darwin Bell

I need to get out of Madagascar. And I will leave, to East Africa, in 40-some days. Don’t take this to mean I dislike Madagascar — I’m lucky to have been placed here for my service in Peace Corps and there some truly wonderful things about the island, but two years is enough. I like to use the analogy of an arranged marriage to explain being a PCV here. I, along with most PCVs, came to Madagascar knowing little about it but willing to make the commitment based on the little we did. After we got here, we spent much of our first few months figuring out what this place was all about and in the process uncovered wonderful and awful aspects of Madagascar’s character. Yet despite all of the awful (smelly piles of trash, annoying men, general lapses in logic) we found ourselves forcing to focus on the parts we loved in order to make the ‘marriage’ work (beautiful landscapes, cheap fresh vegetables, laidback attitudes). Some people here, well, they’re really just ‘staying married for the kids’ (as in, they aren’t happy in Madagascar but for whatever reason are too committed to quit now). It’s definitely like an arranged marriage – you don’t know much getting in and have to focus on what you love, not what you hate, to make it work.

On the other hand, I believe a healthy relationship makes you the best possible version of yourself. I would say this extends to a person’s relationship with a place, not just people, as well. This is why I need to leave — Madagascar does not allow me to be the best possible version of myself. Yes, I like the relaxed sort of lawlessness of it all, of living here, but overall I don’t like the characteristics it tends to draw out of me. Over time, it’s made me angrier. I’m constantly on guard, ready for someone to pickpocket or harass me. The lack of general creative energy at first was disappointing, but now it feels stifling. I remember being blown away when I went to Thailand briefly last year, because there was so much presence of fashion, art, and architecture that had been carefully thought out, designed, and constructed. It was inspiring. (To be fair, there are some very creative people here making beautiful things, but it doesn’t seem to be as embedded in the general Malagasy mentality or history as, say, Thai mentality).

I understand that Madagascar has been through some unfortunate circumstances (political instability, it’s one of the world’s poorest countries, locust plague) so I feel somewhat unfair to speak badly of it, but I think my run here is over. We just weren’t made for each other. We had some fun, but didn’t fall in love. In a way, I almost feel like I’m breaking up with it. Sorry Mada, you have some fantastic qualities, and I’m sure you’ll find someone who loves you for who you are, but I just don’t think we’re right for each other. We can still be friends though, right?

Oh, and just to let you all know… I will officially be an RPCV (returned Peace Corps volunteer) September 6th, and fly off the island for Kenya – Uganda – Ethiopia on September 9th. I’m looking forward to this next adventure!

Photo: Flowers in Golden Gate Park by Darwin Bell

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Peace Corps Volunteer for a Week: When Shaz Came to Visit

The idea of inviting a non-Peace Corps volunteer to fly all the way to Madagascar and brave Taxi-brousses and kabones (outhouses) while living off rice and beans for a period of time is always an intimidating notion. I’ve tried to paint a realistic enough picture on this blog, but reading about a kabone and experiencing one are two totally different things. Fortunately, when my friend Shaz came last month to visit me, he took all of our little mishaps with surprising stride. On the way up to Mahajunga, our brousse broke down several times, and while I was slouched in my seat muttering “uhg, we’re never going to f*ing make it” he stayed positive. “Maybe we’ll still get there before the pizza place closes! Here! Drink some of the whiskey I brought!” He actually liked the food, especially brochettes (which are one of the most fantastic snacks here… he has good taste). He aslo didn’t complain nearly as much as I did about the rather putrid kabone situation at one of my friend’s sites (the outhouse has gone to shit because the whole middle school uses it). Furthermore, he even tried toka-gasy, the homemade sugar-cane moonshine that’s known to turn people blind, and was enthusiastic about it. Okay, okay, I mostly pressured him into trying toka for my own amusement, so way to go Shaz for taking that bullet! I took a lot of hilarious photos of him and another PCV throwing down shots with looks of utter disgust while I sat by and giggled.

Also, we took a lot of photos

Ankarafatsika CanyonDrink Seller Mahajunga

Mahajunga boardwalk
Girls in the window
Breakfast
Lemur Forest
Mahajunga baobab(1)
Bush

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Really Officer, I’m Not an Illegal Immigrant

Creative commons courtesy of timsackton
Creative commons courtesy of timsackton

I know I have slacked for the entire month of June about blogging… and a lot has happened in that month. The books for the Books For Africa project I’ve taken over have arrived in Tamatave and are currently stuck in customs. I had my Close of Service conference with Peace Corps and will officially be leaving the island on September 9th (onwards to Kenya/Uganda/Ethiopia!!). My Dad will be arriving (with homemade cookies!!!) tomorrow to see this hunk of land I’ve been camped out on for the past two years.

And… a fellow American and I were stopped for being potential illegal immigrants.

Every time I have told this story to other PCVs (and expats in general) they always interrupt me here to exclaim — “who the f– would illegally immigrate to Madagascar?!?” I’ll get to that.

It started when a Malagasy police officer stopped the two of us as we were walking around town looking for breakfast and taking photos. When the police officers started yelling “eh! eh! eh!” at us, I thought they were mad at my friend for snapping an accidental shot of them. Easy problem to solve, right? We’ll just delete it, say sorry, and be on our way.

But I was wrong. Instead:

Officer: “Can we see your passports?”
Me: “Passport? Why? Here’s my resident card…”

The tall, well-fed officer and his two assistants (all donning very official looking, laminated badges dangling from lanyards) took a full five minutes to decipher the card and write down my information — all was good — but started to give us trouble because my friend had left his passport and copy of his passport at the hotel.

Officer: “You’re going to have to come to the station and present it later,”
Me: “But we already have plans, we left the passport at the hotel because there’s lots of thieves. We were afraid of getting robbed.”
Officer: “You need to come to the station.”
Me: “Why are you checking our passports anyways? I’ve lived here for two years and no one has ever asked me for this.” (With the exception of one police officer who, I swear, stopped our whole taxi-brousse just to flirt with my friend, using the passport check as an excuse to talk with us).
Officer: “There’s a big problem with illegal immigrants”
Me: “From where?” (This is when I was thinking ‘who the f– would illegally immigrate to Madagascar??’)
Officer: “The Comoros”
Me: “Do I look like I’m from the Comoros?”
Officer: *Small chuckle* “No, passport please.”
Me: “He left it in the hotel, can’t we just pay you some fee so we don’t have to come back?”

At this point the officer got incredibly offended that I tried to bribe him, and I was equally shocked that he wasn’t taking the bribe.

In the end, we walked away and I was in an outrage at how pointless the whole ordeal had been. Seriously, us illegal immigrants in one of the 10 poorest countries on earth?! The absurdity!! Couldn’t these guys be spending their time doing more productive things? Later, we did end up going to the station and were a little creeped out when everyone knew my name already and had been expecting me (I don’t think the could have pronounced my friend’s name). We figured that they had made such a big fuss about seeing our visas because of the upcoming elections that were scheduled, rescheduled, and now postponed indefinitely, because he wanted to prove that he had been doing actual work before his post came up for elections as well.

Whatever it is, I promise you all, I am not trying to illegally immigrate to Africa.

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

How Biking Saved My Sanity in the Peace Corps

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:

Peace Corps Volunteers are WeirdJust 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.

DSCN0742

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.

Cows

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.

Road to Betafo

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!

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Importing Books to Madagascar is Like Herding Cats

copyright @ photohome_uk

If you are a close friend/family member of mine, I probably bugged you almost a year and a half ago to donate to a huge project aimed at getting 22,000 books from America to 17 different schools and libraries in Madagascar. I really appreciate everyone who helped donate money to the project and I think after so much time has passed you deserve an update…

Well here it is: They’re still not here, but they’re close. Crunch time to sort out the logistics of sorting the books and sending them (by car/bus) to different cities/towns/villages throughout Madagascar is approaching quickly. Which means, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been running around town trying to get the nit-picky official aspects of importing a 40-foot shipping container with books and computers done. Unfortunately, the perils of wading through third world bureaucracy is driving me crazy. Mostly, it’s irritating because I’m trying to figure out a process I know nothing about, in a foreign language, in a system that’s 30 years behind in technology. For example, when I asked a Malagasy official at the customs office earlier today if I could e-mail her the one missing document I needed to petition for a tax-free import (since they are donations), she said “I don’t have an e-mail,”

I probably rolled my eyes a little too obviously.

I mean, in the West the idea of anyone working in government, business, or operations of this caliber not having an e-mail address wouldn’t ever cross anyone’s mind. But here, it’s kind of a big deal if I don’t have to travel across town on a janky bus and risk getting pickpocketed to hand off a letter. Not even an original copy of some official document, but a letter of request.

There’s also a lot of mis-communications that have come up in the process. Malagasy tend to talk around a point, rather than taking the American approach of direct communication and getting right to the point. I feel like I have sat in front of officials who explained something irrelevant to the question I asked, in three different ways, before they either answered my question or I gave up.

When I was registering on Gasynet — a website that anyone who imports large shipments to Madagascar has to get registered on — they kept sending me an e-mail saying “missing document” when it should have read “incorrect document”. It took a trip from my site to Tana to figure out what was going on, and even then I got so frustrated with the tech-help woman at Gasynet (who, even though she works for a website was hunt-and-peck typing) that I left her office crying.

However, I am proud of myself for holding it together today, when after going to the customs office for the third time they told me that I yet again, was missing a document. I felt a lot like when I was a server, and I would deliver a coke refill to a table, only to be asked for some more salt, and then a side of bread, and curse the table for not asking me for all three things at the same time.

Efficiency is a foreign concept I suppose.

I know a lot of it is language and culture barriers, and the fact that everything here does not run on e-mail and computer systems, but is still lost in the literal red tape of turning in hard copies of documents and having signatures and stamps on everything (my god, the f*ing love for stamps in this country!), but still, I can’t help but cry a little inside when I have a conversation like:

“We need the documents from you.”
“What documents?”
“The official documents.”
“Ummm…. that’s not what I meant….”

It’ll get done. They should be in port on June 23rd, and then I’ll be back in Tana, rushing around again. (Fortunately, there have been some incredibly helpful and efficient people working with me on this project, and I’m happy to say that we’ve finally got a space to unload the books, and someone to take the shipping container off our hands! Yay!) Wish me luck, or mail me bags of Starbucks coffee. No seriously, Starbucks coffee, send it my way — my address is in the about me section ;D

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life Travel

How Blogging in the Third World is Frustrating Business

AarrrrgggRemember when, back in the day, you’d start up your dial-up internet, most likely with AOL, and your computer would make these obnoxious whrrring sounds, a long, high-pitched eeeeee-rrrrrr, and maybe at some point your family would yell at you to get off the internet because they needed to use the phone? Remember how tediously slow it was? Yeah, well blogging from my home in Madagascar, with an internet stick (a small device you plug into a USB outlet and connects to the internet with 3G through a local phone tower) feels a lot like that.

Some days, I’ll click on a link to an article I want to read, get up, make some coffee, write a few things on word, check it – still not loaded – get distracted, and before I know it, half an hour has gone by and all I can see is half an image, slowly loading line by pixelated line, and I give up. I’ve had days when even twitter, a relatively low bandwidth site, takes ages to load. For one of my most recent posts, I spent a day and a half uploading the seven images I wanted to include with the post – and that was with comparatively “good” wifi at a hotel and not my dinky internet stick. Blogging in these conditions can be seriously painful.

And of course, there are all the other weird obstacles in the way. I missed a Skype date once because a cyclone had somehow wiped out all the wifi in the entire city of Antsirabe (then again, it was a Malagasy waitress explaining this to me, so you have to take the explanation with a grain of salt). I biked to all the places I knew with wifi, and nothing. There’s the fact that my electricity for the past month has consisted of a single light bulb strung from my neighbor’s house with all sorts of sketchy electrical wiring that I’m a wee-bit afraid of. (I walk to the other side of the school compound about twice a day to charge my computer in the English Center, if you’re curious.) There’s even that one goat that jumped on me while I was biking to get to a wifi spot, leaving me limping into the café after his hoof smacked my foot.

I love blogging and I love sharing my travel experiences, but behind every post I’ve made there was probably quite a few moments of me shouting “ARRRGGG WILL YOU LOAD ALREADY!” at my computer. So guys, for me, tell your kids “appreciate that fast internet connection you have – there are Peace Corps volunteers in Africa with dial up.”

Photo: I may or may not have had a couple of beers when someone tossed that fake turtle at me

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Teaching and Translating with Operation Smile [photos]

My mantra of late seems to be “Oh my god, so many children… somanychildren somanychildren somanychildren.” As I mentioned in previous posts, they’re everywhere. Not only do I live on the middle school compound, but Madagascar just seems to have more of these little people than I’m used to.

This past week has been different. It’s been a continuation of the “somanychildren” mantra, but more positive. Along with about 9 other Peace Corps Volunteers and some talented Malagasy English-speakers, I have been helping to translate for an internationally diverse team of Operation Smile doctors, nurses, and dentists in Antananarivo. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Operation Smile, it’s a charity organization that gives free surgery to people (mostly children under the age of 10) with cleft lips and cleft palates. All of it is funded by donation, and all of the doctors, nurses, dentists, and translators are generously volunteering their time. Though they have been coming back to Madagascar for several years, this year has been particularly exciting for Operation Smile Madagascar. They have officially decided to do two missions a year in Madagascar – one in Antananarivo and one on the east coast in Tamatave. Furthermore, they have a large group of Malagasy nurses and doctors observing so that in the future they’ll be able to independently perform the operations. Oh, and that’s not it. Patient turnout has been phenomenal. We screened nearly 550 patients last week to see if they qualified for surgery.

The Peace Corps volunteers involved in this mission are mostly assigned to one section of the process to translate between Malagasy patients and the English-speaking doctors. I of course, have to go off and do something teacherly. One other volunteer and I weren’t put in the O.R. or paired with a dentist, but assigned to the “student team”. Yeah, you’re probably thinking “I thought we were talking about hospitals, surgeries, and all that medical junk, what’s going on?”

Well, our position means we are working with two high school students from South Africa to and talk to schools in Antananarivo about nutrition. Each morning the South African students, the other PCV – my friend and stage-mate, Mariana — a student team coordinator, and I set out to the day’s school. We leave, arms full of colorfully drawn posters with song lyrics and pictures of the go, grow, and glow food groups (one of which has a vaguely blobish looking brown thing in the glow food group that the Malagasy students keep thinking is a potato. We’re terrible teachers misleading them like that, I know, but we have plans to replace the brown blobish thing with an orange blobish thing and call it tropical fruit.) Both schools we have visited so far were elementary schools and the kids were freaking adorable. I don’t usually get such a high concentration of cute, semi-well behaved kids and I can’t help but suppress an “awwww!” before I make our introductions.

When done, we zip back to the hospital as fast as the terrible Tana traffic will allow us to zip, to translate. For a few hours this afternoon, I sat in the post-op, where all the kids (and some adults) freshly arriving from surgery first came. My task involved fetching the patients’ guardians, explaining their children’s situation – they’re waking up, they may have blood on their mouth – then walking them to the recovery room. For the most part, the parents were stoic and didn’t show much excitement, but still it was amazing to see the transformations of the children from before to after their surgeries. For once I’m okay with all the children surrounding me. Operation Smile is a fantastic organization and makes clear and immediate differences in the lives of their patients and their families.

But it’s late here and Operation Smile isn’t over yet… meaning, I’m tired and I have to wake up at the crack of dawn (literally). So enjoy the photos from Monday.

Oh and P.S. Being in an African hospital at night with half-lit hallways is rather creepy.

Photos: (1) Kid learning how to use anesthetics by blowing bubbles (2) Our elementary school student audience (3) Antananarivo (4) Students filing in (5) Mother and baby waiting for pre-screening (6) Mother feeding her baby water in post-op (7) Nurse and mother in the post op room with a baby who received cleft lip surgery
Update [March 22, 2013]: Thank you to Operation Smile for reposting this on their website!
Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Why the #$%*@ Did I Join the Peace Corps?

Out the window

People say we’re brave, adventurous, and tough-skinned. They also call us crazy and rambunctious when we get together and (noisily) try to one-up each other with stories about public transportation, weird bathroom situations, and other only-in-Peace-Corps type stories. With all these experiences, it’s hard to remember why we’re doing this some days, and other days it’s hard to think of doing anything else. So, why the #$%*@ did I join the Peace Corps anyways? After a year and a half of service, here are some of my reasons – as best as I can remember them – and how much success I’ve had in fulfilling them.

1. To learn a new language

I had crossed my fingers for a French or Spanish speaking country, and got nominated to Francophone sub-Saharan Africa. Technically, I did end up in a Francophone country, but volunteers in Madagascar learn Malagasy because we are much more effective volunteers as Malagasy speakers. So yes, I succeeded in learning a new language, but not a terribly useful one for later in life.

2. Because I had little money and couldn’t decide where to travel next

Obviously, total success on getting the “where-to-next?” question answered for me. For those of you unfamiliar with the selection process, Peace Corps candidates have some say in the region they are sent to in their interviews but not the specific country. I never would have thought of traveling to Madagascar otherwise.

3. For the friendships with other PCVs

I love being a Peace Corps volunteer, and I love all the volunteers I’ve become close to – both from the group I arrived with and don’t see often, and those in my region that I see pretty often. I hardly ever go more than week without seeing another volunteer and these amazing people play the biggest role in keeping me sane. Success? Definitely!

4. To immerse myself in a totally different culture

Peace Corps would call this ‘integration’ and mostly I feel ‘somewhat integrated’. I’m bored living in a community whose major weekend activities are watching soccer and going to church (both of which I hate), so I usually spend two days a week immersed in American-ness, either by reading, watching movies, or hanging out with PCVs and other expats. Even still, cultural immersion is unavoidable and I have come to understand Madagascar a little more every day. So have I accomplished reason #4? Sort of, I suppose.

5. To learn random life skills and be a badass expat in Africa

Before Peace Corps, I thought people who had lived in developing nations all had these incredibly useful or bizarre skills they picked up along the way. They all seemed confident, self-sufficient, and ready to face any situation no matter how wild. I don’t know what I expected to become skillful at or impervious to, but I can now open a beer bottle with any flat surface, live without running water, haggle like a pro, and bike in a city whose everyday traffic includes rickshaws, bikes, cars, buses, trucks, and herds of livestock. Success? Yes.

6. To teach some English

(And other things.) Of course, there is an altruistic aspect to any volunteer’s rational for joining. With my past ESL teaching experiences, I thought I’d be most useful continuing with it. So for 17 hours a week, I teach ESL but also run a cooking class and talk with my students about ‘life in America’. My success with teaching is hard to judge, but knowing that five Malagasy can now cook Potato and Leek Risotto and 400 students understand not to call Americans fat or shout ‘vahazah’ at us is enough for me.

7. For the stories…

“This one time I… slept on the floor of a bush taxi / had a goat jump on me while biking / the door fell off our bus / saw a woman pull a hunk of raw, unpackaged meat out of her sweater pocket.”  Those of you patient enough to hear and read my stories should be the judge of how ‘successful’ I have been at collecting them. Hopefully you have some positive feedback!

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

From Strangers to Friends: Making Peace with Madagascar’s Swarms of Small Children

Two Girls

From a city with more dogs than kids

Before coming to the Peace Corps, I lived in Seattle. I will forever think it’s one of the best places on earth, but it is also one of the most childless. Of all the American cities, it has the highest percentage of single adults and one of the lowest populations of children.

In contrast, when I came to Madagascar, there were suddenly children everywhere. Even so, I don’t think I initially drew the comparison between childless Seattle and child-abundant Madagascar. The presence/non-presence of children just seemed like another part of the landscape, and it took me about a year or so to separate this bit from the Larger Picture. I don’t know how it took this long though — I am surrounded by kids here. I wake up to the screams of children outside my door on the middle school compound, I frequently think to myself “oh. my. god. somanychildren somanychildren psfhfdaffffft” This is totally different from my life-before-Peace-Corps. I have absolutely no recollection of ever interacting with a kid in Seattle. I don’t think I ever even saw children on a regular basis. I was more likely to cross paths with small dogs than small humans around my Capitol Hill apartment.

Ohmygod they are everywhere

Given my lack of interaction with kids, their presence felt as foreign to me as everything else when I first arrived. Especially with the language barrier, they just seemed to be these little creatures with snot running down their upper lips, smelling of pee, and generally screaming/shouting/crying. While I was still in homestay, meaning my first month in Madagascar, a group of children took to following around my friend Steph and I while shouting “Stephan-IEEE! Jess-y-KA-KA!” They would then roll around the dirt in uproarious laughter, because of the easy one syllable leap from my name to my name + ‘poop’ (kaka) in Malagasy. I wanted to strangle the little jerks. But mostly, their everywhere-ness made me long for a world filled with small-dogs outside of coffee shops and adults who didn’t care what I did/who I was. I hated being the target of such immature jokes but didn’t know how to respond.

Okay, kids can be kind of cool…

Kids doing yogaInitially, children were, and often still are, just plain annoying. At the same time, they just. won’t. ever. go. away. They are always there, always, and I quickly realized that letting them remain this annoying entity would only drive me crazy(er). The first time I started thinking differently of kids was in the classroom. Though my students are noisy and get on my nerves (there’s just too many in one classroom) I keep myself sane by thinking of teaching 7th graders as a social experiment. Sometimes I tweak lessons from one class to another to test when they best absorb information, or try pairing up a girl with a boy to see which one is more intimidated at the notion.

Further along, I began discovering that kids can actually be kind of funny when the opportunity to laugh with them, rather than be laughed at by them, arises. For example, last weekend another PCV, Jackie, and I wanted to do yoga in a hotel’s garden, but peacefully, not under the Constant Gaze of curious Malagasy. I knew this would be impossible with a group of children milling about nearby but we went for it anyways. As expected the kids started giggling and mimicking us. I hate to admit it, but it was kind of cute seeing them join in, shifting from downward dog to plank, and falling over each other when Jackie and I turned sideways for side plank.

This would be simply unacceptable in America!

This never would have happened in a Seattle park. For one, there aren’t many children just bored and ‘hanging around’. Secondly, American parents would flip a shit if their children went to play with a couple of strangers, no matter how innocent the activity (yoga) or non-threatening the strangers (two young females in workout attire). Thirdly, the strangers themselves might be confused about why they’ve suddenly got themselves a posse of miniature people. It just doesn’t happen in America, but in Madagascar it would be strange if all the children in a 300-meter radius didn’t come flocking to us whenever we (foreigners) did something out of the ordinary.

In short, the division between ‘child’ and ‘adult’ has been blurred for me over the past 20 months. Especially as my Malagasy improves, they more often seem like ‘real people’. Even though they really do scream/cry/shout a lot, smell like pee half the time (Malagasy babies don’t exactly wear diapers), and I question whether I’d ever want one of these ‘things’ for myself, they confuse me less. They’re less mysterious, wonderful to take photos of, and I have a feeling that it will be strange, though quieter, to return somewhere where children aren’t everywhere.

Kid Ballons 1

Kid Ballons 2

Kid Ballons 3

Kid Ballons 4

Photos: (1) Kids playing at our hotel (2) Kids doing yoga (3-6) This is what happens when you give a group of kids a balloon

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

A Short Lesson in Malagasy You Will Never Use

Liz and Jackie

This past week, Cyclone Felleng passed over the Indian Ocean, bringing wind, rain, and a touch of gloom to the Madagascar highlands (I’m assuming that a wind, rain, and gloom in a larger amount was brought upon the East Coast). Along with the cyclone’s arrival in Madagascar, another Peace Corps volunteer who works in the business sector that Peace Corps Madagascar is now phasing out, also arrived in my neck of the woods to help with some budgeting issues at my English Center. By noon, our work was done, but with the weather crappy enough to keep us inside, the feeling of being cozy at home soon gave way to boredom, and boredom to the ridiculous idea that we’d make a Malagasy language podcast. Of course, we would only include the most ludicrous phrases we could think of, and most of the podcast ended up being a joke about how funnily things sometimes translate (like how “to pay” in Malagasy — mandoa vola — can literally translate to “to throw up money”) and how Malagasy words are often said with dramatic emphasis or drawn out syllables.

So, please enjoy my first attempt at including media other than text/photos on this blog, and I really hope people find this ‘podcast’ as humorous as we did while making it. Please understand that this was a friendly joke and I don’t mean to offend anyone with some of our choices in phrases. I also feel it necessary to note that I don’t really tell children that “If you continue to stare at me, I will eat you” (but some Malagasy parents do instill the odd belief on their children that white people will eat them, which really just makes the idea of saying this amusing).


Photo: (1) Two Peace Corps friends… (no they are not the ones talking in the podcast!)