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

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

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!)

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

My Second Year in the Peace Corps

DSC_0881

I wrote this blog post back in October at the beginning of the school year, but somewhere along the way failed to post it. It may have lost some of its relevancy, but seeing as how tomorrow is the end of Christmas vacation and the beginning of our second trimester, I thought I would go ahead and finally publish it, for whatever it may now stand for. It’s crazy to think that I only have 8 months left in Madagascar, and what the older volunteers have said in the past is definitely true: the second year is much easier, and passes so much quicker!

I am simultaneously dreading and excited for the upcoming school year that we began at the beginning of October. The dread stems from memories of last year, yelling at children to be quiet, and growing frustrated at not being able to communicate properly with my pre-intermediate level English students, and the thought that I have to do it all over again. Excitement shortly follows when I realize that I can explain myself significantly better and really believe I can do all of that better. As they told us in our Peace Corps training, “it’s a new job. You won’t be good at it immediately.” So much learning on the job, getting better through trial and repeat, occurs as a teacher.

What they didn’t tell us is that native English speakers tend to have a much higher learning curve for teaching English, according to an academic study which sought to answer “is it better to have a native-speaking teacher or an experienced one?” For starters, native-speakers tend to make more use of real English media (songs, magazine articles, radio clips, etc.), as opposed to the stuff textbooks provide, in the classroom. Ultimately, it is better for our students to grow accustomed to real-life usages of English than poised, polite, and often cheesy textbook dialogues. Additionally, we correct our mistakes quickly, and possibly because we aren’t concerned with how well we speak English, can focus more on our teaching techniques. Again, most new English teachers, especially the ones who have gotten hired with no teaching experience but solely based on their fluency in the language, realize their shortcomings and are anxious about compensating and becoming good teachers.

While their defense of the inexperienced, native-speaker oozes reassurance for our sorry lot, my one year of experience feels like my strongest armor against in-class riots and blank stares – especially since my Malagasy has improved tremendously and their level is too low for me to expect a class of 60+ students to pay attention without using their native language.

As for results, I have only been teaching for two weeks now, but have already taught them more in six hours of lessons than I probably accomplished in the whole first trimester last year. For starters, I have gotten over my shy-kid-loathing for singing in public (since songs engage students while giving large classes an opportunity to practice speaking and pronunciation without getting too rowdy) and taught my kids “Hello, Goodbye” by the Beatles. Lots of giggling was involved. Now I sometimes catch one or two singing it while we copy things from the board, and do something that was also rare this time last year: smile.

Photo: (1) Two girls who came out of the bushes to chat while I was hanging out at a waterfall in Ile Sainte Marie; the older one complained about how terrible her English teacher was!

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

How a Peace Corps Volunteer Lives: In Mad Style

Outside View of my House

I love seeing other Peace Corps houses, usually with a combination of pure curiousity and the selfish need to know whether they have better or worse digs than myself. So, a few months ago, I decided to set out on making a video of my house, knowing that other PCVs (as well as other friends, family, and beatnomad readers elsewhere) might have the same curiosity. Unfortunately, my smart phone kept shutting off mid-way through the project so I became frustrated and gave up on using different media on beatnomad.

But now — finally! — I took the time to clean up a bit and take some photos of my house. I didn’t bother with my “shower” (a small, tiled closet with a bucket in it) or outhouse, as they are respectively drab and disgusting. As you can observe from the photos, I cook using a gas stove, usually have electricity all day, but don’t have running water. For water, I have to walk across the school compound to a pump or put buckets out under the roof when it rains. The outhouse situation is also a little obnoxious, especially when it’s raining or there are tons of children waiting for class to start, as I also have to cross the makeshift soccer field to get there.

What you can’t observe are the bats that live in my roof; an accepted nusance since they eat the mosquitoes. Generally my mosquitoe net serves more purpose as a physcological barrier against my debilitating fear of rodents — a fear that I used to lose more sleep over before my school’s guard (the genius that he is) put a brick in front of the hole that serves as a drain in my shower, declaring it the “lalana volavo”; literally, rat-road. Admittedly, I felt a little stupid at the obviousness that rats would be getting into my house through a 5-inch hole in my wall.

So anyways, enjoy the photos of what I call my “dollhouse” because of it’s low ceilings and pink paint job.

KitchenLiving RoomLiving Room/BedroomBedroom

Photos: (1) The outside of the house (2) Kitchen (3) Living room (4) Living room / Bedroom (5) Bedroom

Categories
Adventure Travel Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

The Trail to Pic Boby is Lined With Moonshine

Entering Andringitra

The blisters on my feet made me loathe closed-toe shoes as I inched my way down the rocky moonscape to our second and final campsite, Tsaranomby. How long had it been since I’d worn anything other than flip-flops?

Suddenly, from behind me, I heard a voice. “Mora mora e! (Slowly slowly)” an old guide, technically leading someone else’s group, said as everyone but him had passed me. “We have to go slowly! Oh! Be careful! Slow now, slow now,” he squawked repetitively until I snapped and said “Hey, I GET IT, I’ve been walking slow this whole time!” Without a word, he passed me and descended into the campsite.

“Ah, I’m sorry, was that rude?” I asked when I caught up with Liz, the Peace Corps Volunteer who lives and works with local guides to Andringitra National Park.

“No, whatever, that guy is always annoying,” she said, and we joined the other four parties of tourists, whose tents had long ago been set up by their porters, in the valley below. We threw down our bags and got about to setting up our nights’ shelter ourselves.

It was our second night camping, and we only had a little further to go before returning to Liz’s town at the beginning of the trail, Morarano on our next and third days’ hike. After the previous two days of hiking, we were happy to look forward to an easy walk home. The previous day we had hiked roughly 13km over the tall ridge surrounding Morarano and its’ valley, then through rocky trails and rice fields to Andringitra National Park’s entrance. From there it was another 5km up a steep, staircased trail, and a savanna-esque valley to our first campsite. Early the next morning, we climbed another endless staircase to the peak of the “highest accessible peak in Madagascar” — Peak Boby — to catch the sunrise.

The peak was originally discovered by a French scientist who hiked to the top with his dog and as the dog arrived first he decided to name the peak after him. However, locals found it offensive to have a mountain named after a dog so they gave it a Malagasy name, Imarivolanitra (literally: the peak that touches the sky). Unfortunately for them, “Boby” (boh-be) is easier for tourists to pronounce so I fear they’ll never be able to rid themselves of the dogs’ namesake completely.

Now in Tsaranomby withour tent set up, the sun was making a fast retreat behind the mountains, turning the rocks a brilliant pink-orange. Around us, the guides and porters fanned camp fires and stirred up giant pots of (plain) rice and leafy greens. A couple of the guides served their tourists tea in tin pots, while Liz and I loitered about, trading cigarettes for a coveted piece of bread with jam and bouncing back and forth between talking to the guides and the tourists. We were neither; as often happens with PCVs, we were caught in that spot between being a local and a visitor. We spoke the language, but it wasn’t our mother tounge. We ate rice three times a day with the guides and porters, but leapt at the chance to have bread and jam. But most importantly, we acted as a bridge.

“I feel like the guides and tourists interact more when I go into the park with them,” Liz said.

The same could be said about buying them moonshine.

Around sunset, a toaka-gasy seller returning from a party stumbled past the campsite with his gasoline-barrel full of the home-brewed sugarcane moonshine slung over his shoulder on a stick. As a thank you, Liz bought a coke-bottles worth (about 60 cents) for the guides. By dinnertime, the guide who had been walking with us was making drunken speeches in English — “yeees, yeees, yeees, we drink….. together! yeees?” — and the French college students were giggling at another guide’s attempt to flirt with a girl, while claiming not to be flirting.

But eventually the moonshine ran out, the fires died, and a full moon peaked out from behind a cloudy sky, as one by one the campers slipped away to sleep and leave the party behind in preparation for one final push to the end of the trail.

Buying GreensFinal DescentHiking up to Peak BobyFinal Descent 2Top of Peak BobyFog on Peak BobySunrise near Peak Boby

Photos: (1) The end of the first day’s hike (2) Buying leafy greens before heading into the park (3) The final descent to Morarano (4) The trail to Peak Boby (5) The final descent again (6) With friends at the top of Peak Boby (7) Fog on Peak Boby (8) Sunrise over the valley

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

My Peace Corps House is a Middle School

neighbor

In the late night cover of darkness, I wander out to the naked goal post in the school’s field. The gates are locked up, the lights turned off, and blissfully, all the schoolchildren have gone home. The grounds have become nothing more than a cluster of sealed off, dark and empty buildings. I jump up to hang from the goal post, emulating the teenage boys that monkey around on it between classes. I try to do a pull-up, and fail. Suddenly the thought occurs to me: I’m the odd, unmarried schoolteacher from out-of-town living in a little house on the school compound; the teacher I read about in historical fiction novels about small towns with one-room schoolhouses in pre-industrialized America. The thought depresses me as I retreat to the pink doll-house I call home, and read myself to sleep.

Among Madagascar’s education PCVs, living on the school compound, often in an old classroom, isn’t all that unusual. I feel lucky to have a house separate from the building itself, but for whatever other problems it saves me, I still wake up to the sound of hundreds of screaming, laughing children, boys banging coins on the metal goal post, and the obnoxious drumming out of beats on wooden desks. I forever remain both impressed and horrified that these kids can make their voices sound so ugly, with a guttural shout I lack sufficient words to describe. In these moments, at precisely 7:00am, 9:00am, and 3:30pm each day, the nightmares of being trapped in a room with my overly-energetic little brother, age 11, come rushing back. Sitting though these breaks make me feel as though I’m living with 200 duplicates of his 11-year-old self, only this time I can’t shout “seriously, would you STOP that?!?”

To add to the terror, every once in awhile a stampede of children storm through my front gate on the pretext of cleaning the school compound. My first warning arrives in a deadly silence broken by a roar of shouts as assembly disperses. It is quickly followed by the pattering of kids running to fetch brooms, flip-flops slapping against their feet. I know what’s coming and rush to close up my doors and windows before I hear the ubiquitous slap-slap of my wooden gate. “My god, I’m under attack! Quick, get out of here!” I think. I know cleaning my backyard area is a part of cleaning the school – and we all know I’m not going to sweep up a yard full of dirt – but I hate being the subject of my students’ curiosity, hate that if I leave a door or window open they seize the opportunity to peer in (once while I was changing), and hate that they steal the unripe peaches off my tree in peach season. In this arrangement, the idea of keeping professional and personal lives separate falls apart. Or maybe, it never existed?

Living on a school compound is stressful at breaks, eerily quiet on Sundays and at night (although the architecture of Malagasy schools thankfully lack the quintessentially creepy high-school hallway popular in 80s slasher films), yet convenient on the odd morning I oversleep before class. I don’t think I’ll ever quite be used to the constant chatter of children, the bats that live in our rafters, or half a dozen students saying “hello teacher!” while I make my way across the yard from front door to “toilet” (it hardly deserves the title), but such are the challenges Peace Corps throws at us.

Photo: My neighbor’s son; the school is his playground.

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

How Peace Corps Volunteers and Celebrities Are Pretty Much the Same

Peace Corps Volunteers may have slightly dinkier houses, and the small animals that share our living space are probably not cute chihuahuas, but in so many ways, Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and celebrities are pretty much same same.

12 Ways Peace Corps Volunteers are Like Celebrities

1. People stare at us no matter what we are doing and are far too interested in mundane things like what we ate for breakfast, who we were spotted walking around town with, and how many rolls of toilet paper we happened to use this week.

2. We both have entourages. Crowds of scruffy, unbathed children totally count, right?

3. African KidIn the words of James Tanner, “we both like African babies“. And apparently the wordpress community can’t resist their cuteness either.

4. We can trash a hotel room and get away with it. Our status often gets us a “get out of jail free” card. Or in the case of PCVs, a “they’re foreign and don’t get it” card.

5. Inviting us to a party means preparing for a whirlwind of craziness and drunken debauchery. Oh sure, we’re fun, but be prepared…

6. Everyone knows our name but we usually don’t know theirs. Who are you again?

7. We’re both millionaires. Okay, so we’re talking two different currencies, but still…

8. People will sneakily take photos of us… paparazzi style.Paparazzi

9. People care about us far more than their political leaders, according to Evan Morier.

10. We take vacations in exotic locations and can be seen lounging on the beach in the middle of January, working on our tans while the rest of America is bundled in sweaters.

11. It’s always questionable as to whether what we’re doing could be considered work or not. Really, watching 5 episodes of Mad Men in a row is hard work.. we swear!

12. And finally, we set the trends with our ever evolving wardrobe and impeccable sense of fashion.

Stylin with a frip find

Photos: (1) Chip + Peace Corps Bob mocking Titanic in Ankarana National Park (2) One of our entourage in Mahajunga cheesing out in front of the camera (3) Our paparazzi in Mahajunga (4) Chip showing off one of our stranger used clothes finds in Ambanja

Did I miss any?

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

Madagascar: Life as an Education Volunteer for the Peace Corps

"Lets Learn English" Coloring Page

In the midst of a looming thunderstorm I discovered the pink and purple postcard of a sunset in Seattle. Once the initial excitement of receiving mail (real, actual, physical mail!!) from a friend subsided, I read it.

“How do you fill your days?” she asked.

Although I joke about the endless hours spent eating peanuts and watching the chickens in my backyard, I insist that I do work as well. Sometimes this means chasing chickens out of the English Center (although my students are far better at it than me), and sometimes this means actually standing in front of a classroom and getting my hands dirty — with chalk, of course.

I teach 7th graders
Most of the volunteers here are assigned to teaching at the Middle and High school levels. I teach the baby 7th graders who are in their second year of English. But raging in age from 9 to 15, not all of them are that “baby”.

I’m developing resources & filling up the bookshelves of our English Center (ECANT)
The first volunteer at my site (I’m number 4) set up an English Center that’s modeled after one in a nearby city, called Antsirabe. However, it’s seriously lacking in easy English readers (Where’s the Dr.Seuss!?!) and some of the other teachers I work with have expressed a need for new English learning games. Fortunately, there’s tons of organizations willing to donate books.

Creating fun events at the English Center
Already I’ve hosted a conversation club, which was intended for adults but ended up being a group of fantastic and motivated high school students. Also, we show kids films every Saturday with our wonky, sort of broken DVD player, and I’m working on burning a few new ones they haven’t seen before. The other week, we watched Madagascar… with the chicken.

But there’s still room for more! Starting in January and February I hope to get story time and games nights going. We also begin our Adult English course.

I teach a monthly cooking class…
And then of course there’s cooking classes with the teachers! So far, we’ve only had one, but we made some delicious chocolate pudding in spirit of the holiday season. I count it as an accomplishment that it’s now made its way to one of my students’ Christmas menus.

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Living With a Malagasy Family

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“Why were your host brothers playing with a plate?” Another trainee asked me.

“Because it was a steering wheel, duh,” I said.

After a full day of intensive Malagasy immersion, I always feel relieved to understand something as universally obvious as a kid pretending to drive a car. So much about our homestays make us feel like toddlers relearning how to take care of ourselves, but when I see my host brothers spinning a round, straw place mat in front of them and making wrrr-ing noises, I get it. Language barriers gone, I fake shift into second gear and smile as if to say “wanna race?”