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.

 

The Hills of Fianarantsoa, Madagascar’s San Francisco

We roll in late Saturday evening. Looking out the window, I see lights bobbing through dark windows in houses, dancing along the hills. I rub my eyes, still groggy from the ten hour drive from Antananarivo. Am I in San Francisco? In the dark of the night, winding through city hills, I think I could be.

Fianarantsoa is the fourth largest city in Madagascar. Its residents are the ethnic group Betsileo, who speak slowly. With my aggressive Northern dialect and cornrowed hair, I feel very out of place. But fortunately, that doesn’t last long. The fresh air, magnificent hilly views, cheap food and Gasy hospitality won me over. I’m hooked on the Southern Highlands.

Sometimes all you need is a little change in perspective…and cornrows.

Early next morning, we wander down the hill from our house to find coffee and mofo, bread. We pass children in brightly colored school uniforms, seas of blue and pink and magenta, backpacks perched and ready for the day. Men and women accompany them in business suits and jackets, women fashionably decorated with tasteful gold earrings, rings, and bracelets. Lining the streets are teams of mpivarotras, men and women selling clothes and shoes handing in wooden stalls or spread out on the ground. They sell roasted peanuts, yogurt and mofo on the sidewalks. I climb up to AnZoma, one of Fianar’s biggest market squares, and fall into a now familiar routine: bargaining.

My eyes fall on the goony sacs below, spilling over with rice and beans and fruits; avocados, tomatoes, garlic the size of a child’s fist. There are bunches of bananas weighing four pounds each. There are pumpkins as big as my head. I squat down and greet the seller with a familiar greeting, though it’s different from my dialect’s own.

Salaam e! Ino vaovao? —Mangina-e!

Hello! What’s new? –It’s quiet!

I knew this greeting from Pre-Service Training, which took place in the Northern Highlands. My Antakaragna accent is obvious ands I smile sheepishly. “Hoachino ma ty?” I ask for the price of beans. Fitonzato. Seven hundred ariary for a cup, about 25 cents. It seems fair. I order two cups worth and help her pour them into my sac. I add some onions and garlic to the pile. We exchange money and pleasantries, and I go on my way.

Fianar is not what I expect. It’s bigger, livelier, friendlier. We climb the top of the tallest hill and take in the view, and for a moment I forget to breathe.

Taking in the view of Fianarantsoa, Madagascar’s fourth largest city.

On our way back down, we pass through Old Town, the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country. A towering church, cobblestone streets, and the ruins of the late Queen’s palace can still be seen, only now they serve as a playground for school children and an ice cream shop for hungry locals and visitors exhausted from the hike up to Old Town.

Old Town Fianarantsoa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

There’s more to see in the Southern Highlands than I expected. For my first trip south since being I’m country, it was a pretty good one.

The Joys and Pains of Traveling Cheap

“Travel is the only thing you buy that will make you richer.” (Quote courtesy of Chlohemian :))

I am a penny pincher. For the past few months, I’ve been obsessing over how to keep the cost of my upcoming (tomorrow!) trip to Europe as low as possible, since I am technically unemployed. Nothing says bohemian like backpacking on a dime, right?

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Europe trip #1. I had one 6kg backpack, one purse, one pashmina scarf and one pair of sandals. I’ve never traveled lighter, but my toes were definitely cold 🙂

Except that I’m noticing that my desire to cut corners is running into conflict with my desire for little comforts, like beds. For example, on my first trip to Europe, I spent the night before my flight in the Prague airport so as to avoid paying another night in a hostel. It was fine, except that I was cold and uncomfortable and of course didn’t really sleep. I’m not sure I would do that again now.

That being said, the age of convenient, budget travel is upon us. More and more budget airlines are popping up, as are wonderful Airbnbs and hostels offering very affordable rates for accommodation. I spend a lot of time researching budget airlines and ways to “hack” my way into more affordable travel (to the point of obsession. I’m learning there is a limit.  ). Having friends or looking on travel forums for people who know the areas I’ll be travelling to helps a lot, too.

Even though there might be catches or hidden fees here and there, I’m grateful for the flexibility and possibility the age of budget travel has brought me and lots of travelers like me. Here are my favorite travel “hacks” for keeping costs low while being mobile.

1. Budget airlines. OK, OK, I know, you have to pay to choose a seat and you don’t get free food. While I admittedly love airplane food (all the palak paneer I can eat on Air India and free yain adom (red wine) on El Al? Yes, please), you know the cost of food is built into a higher priced ticket. For my trip from Boston to Berlin, I booked through http://www.kiwi.com and found a very cheap one-way ticket. However, food is not free, and it’s a seven hour flight. So I’ll be bringing tea bags and protein bars and hopefully sleeping through most of it, anyway. Also, on most budget airlines, you also have to pay to check a bag, which brings me to to hack #2…

2. Never check a bag. I know it’s hard. I’m going to be stuffing my backpack down to fit the 55 × 40 × 23 cm | 10 kg carry-on dimensions (roughly 22 by 16 by 9 inches and 22 pounds), but I am determined. It helps to wear your heaviest items on the flight and find clothing and toiletries that can pull double, triple, or quadruple duty (I like a pashmina for a scarf, a folded-up pillow, a blanket, a wrap skirt, a shawl, a head-covering, a sarong for the beach, and a towel in a pinch. I also love coconut oil for virtually every hygiene need.) I learned all my packing light tips from the genius behind http://www.onebag.com. I even down-sized my host gifts to fit into 100 ml containers:

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A little taste of home that I’m bringing as a meager thank you to my friends and hosts overseas.

There’s a great adage that goes like this:

“When you’re planning a trip, lay all your clothes and all your money out in front of you. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”

I’d add that you should bring a rubber sink stopper and some packets of laundry detergent 😉

3. Accommodation. I’m sure this one is really controversial, because everyone has different needs and levels of comfortability. I definitely think that the older I get, the more I gravitate towards private rooms where possible. But my first trip through Europe consisted entirely of budget, dorm-style hostels, and nine times out of ten they were lovely. Occasionally you get roomed with a severe snorer or a smelly alcoholic, but those are rare. You also tend to meet exciting people who are as eager to explore a new city as you and can serve as lovely travel companions. My best tips for surviving dorm-hopping: bring a sleep mask and good ear plugs. Trust me on this. People come in an out at all hours of the night, and while most people are quite polite, you just never know…

By the way, http://www.hostelworld.com is typically my go-to sight for booking. Though recently I booked a private room through hotels.com for a stay in Berlin, and it was cheaper than the listing on hostelworld. I suppose it’s always a good idea to check both places. I also just booked my first room through AirBnB for a one-night layover in Beauvais, France. It seems to be a more controllable, paid version of couchsurfing, which can be hit or miss. My host seems lovely and (bonus) I get to practice my French! More on that later.

4. I’m really going to challenge myself to eat simply. I know this is another area where costs can add up, and I tend to think that because I’m on “vacation” I should get the fancy wine or dessert or nice entree. But, nah. I was speaking with a friend recently about her time in Ireland, and she said this:

“I ate a full Irish breakfast every morning, which was included with my Bed and Breakfast. I’d take brown bread and butter from the spread with me for the afternoon. In the evening I’d have a bowl of fresh fish chowder and a Guinness, and I’d be full.”

Of course, everyone has different eating habits, and I’m not suggesting you go without. But personally I would rather fill up on the views and the scenery than the food. We’ll see how this goes!

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Czech goulash with horseradish and potato dumplings. Another great tip is to eat and drink the local fares, which tend to be more affordable. Though this was before I swore off meat and became allergic to bread!

5. Read, and take advice. This is probably the most obvious “hack,” but it’s more so just common sense. Do your research and ask people who have been there, or who are still there. Personally, I find this kind of research so much more enjoyable than airfare hunting; it’s like my reward after all the other booking stuff is done. I just cracked open an old Fodor’s guide and became immersed in the excitement of my first visit to Paris. Paris! Take notes. Allow yourself to be excited. Then go, be flexible, and drink it all in.

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My favorite part of the planning process: getting pro-tips from seasoned travelers. And yes, I know this book is six years old. Hey, I’m on a budget, remember?

 

At the end of the day, I think the most important tip is to relax and go with it. I woke up this morning remembering, “Whoah! I’m going to Europe tomorrow.” And suddenly, everything else seems like gravy.

Happy planning! What are some of your best tips?

M