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Farewell to the Mango Trees

We left projects unfinished, classes untaught, friends unvisited. We weren’t going home, we were leaving it.

On Monday, March 16, I woke up to this message:

Peace Corps Madagascar is evacuating. Stand by for further instructions.

Three days later, I was on a plane to Ethiopia, along with 139 other education, health, and agriculture volunteers. Together with PCVs from Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Cameroon, and Zambia, we were shuffled onto four charter flights around midnight the following Saturday, local time. We landed in an empty Dulles airport, home in a country we didn’t feel was home anymore.

It’s difficult to put into words the emotions, the exhaustion, that we’ve all felt over the past few weeks. We were evacuated because international airways were being shut down due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, which meant risking  being unable to leave the country in the event of a real emergency. I understand, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to make that impossibly hard decision.  Still, we all left projects unfinished, classes untaught, friends unvisited. We weren’t going home, we were leaving it.

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139 Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers gathered in the capital for final farewells on the day of evacuation

Typing this now, it pains me to think of the friends and the home I am missing. Despite the sadness, and the chaos, I managed to imprint a few fond memories of my final days with colleagues and friends.

When I had to tell the two education organizations I partnered with in Diego-Suarez that I was leaving unexpectedly, they shared in my sadness, but then immediately arranged a farewell party, because of course, it wouldn’t be good fomba to send someone home without wishing them a fond farewell. We had sodas and snacks, made speeches (and yes, I did one in Malagasy) and took lots of pictures. I was presented with two wonderful gifts that I will keep until the end of my days: a traditional salovana worn by the Antakarana women, and a special sash belonging to the women’s organization.

With my colleagues and students at the  office of the Directeur Regionale d’Enseignment Nationale (Regional Director of National Education) in Diego-Suarez (Antsiranana)
My colleagues’ insistence on a farewell party, even at the last minute, underscores the importance of hospitality and friendship in Malagasy culture in a way I’ve yet to experience anywhere else in the world.

As heartbroken as I was, I felt a little peace, knowing that I was being given leave to go, in the kindest way possible, with the hope that soon a new batch of Peace Corps volunteers will return to continue our work.

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With colleagues at the Centre Regional de l’Institut National de Formation Pedagogique (Teacher’s College) after being presented with a farewell gift, a gorgeous salovana and kisaly

I’m grateful that I wasn’t alone in this.  After arriving in the capital, Antananarivo, and madly scrambling to close bank accounts and grants, all 139 of us gathered at Head Quarters to listen to more farewell speeches and take pictures with the ubiquitous Peace Corps seal. Our Country Director said some encouraging words, we rang the bell, gave our last hugs. And just like that, it was over. My service had ended.

I wasn’t ready. 

Third Year Education PCVs…couldn’t have made this journey without them

But I did snap a few pictures with the Peace Corps seal, and get to hug friends and colleagues who feel more like family. Ending this post now, I’m searching again for peace in my heart, as the memories are still raw and painful. I find it below, in rough video footage snapped on the way to the airport: a final glimpse of Madagascar, that piece of my heart, under a pink, painted sky.

A Third Year? The Last Few Months in Re-Cap

I took a few months off of blogging. When I left my village at the end of August, I moved to the capital city to take a job working with local HQ on Pre-Service Training for the newest cohort of volunteers, and that kept me pretty busy, so I let my blogging habit go. However, now that PST is over and home-leave is almost over, I’ve realized I still have almost a year to go! I tacked on a third year, and that means more stories (I hope).

So, what is PST? Well, when you join the Peace Corps, you are committing to 2 years of service at a place of Peace Corps’ choosing. You also commit to three months of Pre-Service Training before you take the Oath.  The training is 3 months long; it’s an 8-5 schedule, Monday-Friday, and there are evening and weekend homework assignments. Trainees live with host families in the community to practice language and adjusting to local culture. It’s emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting, complete with very little personal freedom, a lot of cultural faux-pas, homesickness, frustration, and probably a little diarrhea (or worse).

It can also be incredibly rewarding.

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Education trainees take the Oath to become official Volunteers.

For me, the most rewarding part was being on the trainer side of things. Getting to know a new group of trainees, the ones who  ultimately became volunteers and replaced my own cohort’s sites, was so inspiring and yes, hopeful. We talked about how we hate that word, hopeful, when people back home say, “you’re going to do such great things. You give us hope.” We talked about the pressure and anxiety and awkwardness that can come from being seen as a beacon of “hope.”  How you feel like you don’t know anything, and how you really don’t want to bring hope, you just want to make things better and take yourself out of the equation. We talked about the “savior complex” and the pitfalls of gathering bad data. But I see it now. We were able to talk about all of the things–fears, insecurities, regrets, anxieties. I saw my own journey in a new light. I got to reflect on all the fear and excitement I felt when I took the Oath and how much my expectations have changed.  I got to share what I hope was a little bit of insight and a lot of realness with them about how to make service something that works for you. I got to plan fun events and go for mountain runs and learn more about their journeys, which is my favorite thing in the world.

It’s so inspiring to watch someone else step into your shoes. It can also make you feel sad and irrelevant. But what I told myself at the beginning of this journey was to trust the process. 27 months are 27 months for a reason.

Well, I’ve trusted the process, but I’m not ready to let go yet. I’m getting there. Being back in the United States has helped me see that service is only two (or three! or four!) years for a reason. And of course, being with loved ones has been wonderful.

Yet at times I don’t know which place I miss more, American or Madagascar, and I find myself feeling like my heart is planted in two separate worlds. Perhaps it’s good I’m going back, because there is more left for me on this journey. But there’s no road-map this time.

Guess I’ll have to make my own.

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Three generations of Northern region volunteers at the swearing-in ceremony for the latest cohort of volunteers in the capital, Antananarivo.

 

Goal Setting and Why I Love It

Goal setting has saved me for the last two years of the least structured job I’ve ever had. Outside of official, Peace Corps organized training events, life in a village can be exactly that: life. Your “job” is everything that falls under the “life” category, which means that learning to cook the perfect agnamaogo aro vanio is just as important as planning a lesson with a SMART objective for your 6th grade English class. At least, that’s how I saw it. And I think that saved me.

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Cooking misao (pasta salad) and milawa (fried bread) for my birthday with some students. I’m proud to say I’m accomplished at these recipes after two years of practice!

Understanding that I should put equal amounts of effort into my language learning, my integration (kind of a blanket term for ‘socializing in a culturally appropriate way’), my technical “job” (teaching and promoting the English language), my physical and mental health (which Peace Corps broadly calls “resiliency”), and my hobbies (which became cooking and playing music) helped me put everything else that I expected to be doing with these two years into perspective. It helped me feel accomplished and honestly, happy, in a small site, as a brand new volunteer with limited resources and support, in a region that is still largely Francophone.

I’ve blogged about the frustrations of having an unstructured and easily interrupted job many times before. It’s been extremely hard for me, as an American who ties her job performance to her self-worth, to break myself of that nasty habit of self-shaming. I taught myself to combat this disappointment through realistic, time-bound (dare I say, SMART?) goal-setting.

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One of my sixth grade classes on the last day of school. Somehow they all fit into that tiny room behind us.

I started this practice two and a half years ago during our Pre-Service Training. PST is three months, so I decided to set goals for myself that I could realistically achieve within three months. I set goals for each of the categories in which I was trying to succeed: learning Malagasy language, integrating with my host family, improving my teaching skills, and discovering and solidifying positive, sustainable coping strategies. I no longer have my PST journal; I took it home on my visit to America last year. But if I did, I would open it and find amusing the goals that, at that time, felt insurmountable:

  1. practice Malagasy with five new people;
  2. learn to make pumpkin bread with my neny;
  3. practice yoga three times this week; go on a walk on a new path;
  4. plan two new EFL lessons.

I know myself well enough to know that I need incremental praise. This practice became a small, silly way of me feeling good about my accomplishments, the small, seemingly insignificant accomplishments that, over the course of two years, added up to so many big things: 

  1. a higher level of language competency
  2. increased cardiovascular health and a healthy way to deal with anxiety
  3. a cookbook’s full of tasty Malagasy recipes
  4. a method with which to plan an effective EFL lesson
  5. FRIENDSHIP. Is that too cheesy? Don’t care.

These things matter. They matter to me. Anyone who asks you, “so what do you actually do in the Peace Corps? Are you making a difference?” has clearly never been in the Peace Corps.

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Region mates and my crew of students who liked to hang around and read books, practice English songs, and beat me in basketball.

 

Traveling with Family

Click on the individual image to enlarge.

Before coming to Peace Corps, Madagascar was never high on anyone in my family’s travel lists. In fact, it wasn’t on anyone’s radar at all. I knew Madagascar had baobabs and lemurs; that was all.

When I got my acceptance letter, my father, who had done some traveling but was no globe-trotter said, “we’re coming.” Non-negotiable. I know most people should be thrilled when their family wants to fly halfway across the world to come visit them, but I am not most people. I was nervous.  How was my family going to handle the bad roads, the harassment, the staring, the price gouging that happens in touristy areas? How was I going to handle having to translate everything and make all hotel arrangements in person, since nothing can be done online? How was I going to protect my family from food poisoning or pick-pocketing or one of the million other bad things that can happen when one travels?

My Peace Corps service has been a practice in the art of letting go and enjoying the ride, not matter how awkward and uncomfortable. I knew, a year and a half in, that my family was determined to come, and I was going to try my hardest to prepare a comfortable and exciting trip for them. I also knew that not everything would turn out that way.

I planned an agenda that covered mostly familiar terrain; I booked excursions and hotels in areas to which I had previously travelled, at least in proximity, so that I could eliminate a few variables. I relied heavily on friends and their relatives to help me book reliable tour guides, comfortable places to stay, and tasty, unique restaurants. I also planned a meal and party for my family at my site and arranged a menu ahead of time with my host mom.

The trip went well, except for our stop at my site. The day before, unbeknownst to me until I called my host family en route to site, there had been a tragic death in the family. Instead of preparing a fety for a group of American visitors, they were now knee-deep in funeral preparations and mourning for the loss of a close relative. I was devastated. They were devastated. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to drop everything, put on my salovana, and sit under the mango trees for three days with the rest of my village. But my American family, my first family, had come all this way to see me and to see Madagascar, and I was not about to abandon them, either.

In the months leading up to this trip, we had spoken on the phone about how this was not just a vacation. My family made that very clear. “We want to see your Madagascar,” they explained. “We want to have a picture in our minds when you say that you’re fetching water, or washing clothes, or cooking. This is a vacation, but it’s not only vacation.”

I did what I had to do. I dressed myself, my sister, and my stepmom in salovanas. We put some money in an envelope as an offering and went to visit my family to pay our respects. We gathered inside their house where the coffin was visible from the next room. A coworker delivered the condolence speech, and I delivered the offering. I reflected on overwhelmed I had been in the beginning, trying to understand language and culture and what I should do. In that moment, I was so grateful for both of my families, both of whom have accepted me into their little corners of the world.

Here are some of my tips for planning a family trip as a Peace Corps Volunteer:

  1. Wait a little while to receive visitors, especially if your visitors aren’t too adventurous. You want to feel confident enough in your language and navigation to be able to communicate effectively (if you’re in a non-English speaking country). My family came exactly two years after I arrived in Madagascar. At that point, I felt comfortable enough to translate for them, which helped put them at ease.
  2. Plan at least part of your trip in an area with which you are already familiar. You will likely feel more confident showing people around a place you already know. I travelled with my family in both the capital city and my region, which has a lot of tourist destinations. We got a nice mix of beaches, local culture, and national parks, and I was able to interpret some things for them.
  3. Hire private cars. Stay in nice hotels. Spend money. Peace Corps Volunteers are thrifty; we have to be. But most Americans traveling in Madagascar are on an American salary, which will go a lot further even if they’re not wealthy by American standards. Don’t skimp on what you consider to be “luxuries,” especially if your family is willing to pay for them. What seemed an outrageous price to me ended up being a $30-a-night air-conditioned hotel room with a private garden.  Traveling is hard enough. If you have to pay a few extra dollars for air conditioning, do it.
  4. If you take visitors to your site, tell your friends and host family ahead of time. Plan, follow up, and be flexible. Teach your visitors some basic phrases in the local language and let them know if there’s any specific greetings they should follow. Your village will probably love it.