Cultural Adjustment: The Six Month Slump

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omelette for dinner

What do all of the following items have in common?

  • cooking omelettes

  • exercising
  • fishing
  • watching cows
  • reading Harry Potter

They belong on my list of things that have made me happy this past month.

It’s been a slow moving month.

Between extra meetings that caused lapses in school, a surprise cyclone, an illness and a school holiday, I feel like I have accomplished virtually nothing all  month. My English club has had exactly one meeting, it’s been very hard to get in touch with people, and because of exams (at least, I hope that’s why), fewer students have been coming around to study English.

Then another cyclone hit. We had our first one of the year back in early January, during which groups of volunteers were consolidated in various larger towns out of precaution. This time, however, we received no warning and were all at home in our villages. This meant days and days of endless rain and wind, no school, no market, no sun to charge electronics or solar lights. Frankly, it was a bit depressing. I played a lot of cards with some of my students, the ones who were brave enough to walk in the rain to come visit me. I also got my hair braided by a friend and taught those same students some American songs. So, the cyclone wasn’t a total loss.

When you live in a small village, with no electricity or amenities, and whose population is mostly farmers, life tends to move at a snail’s pace. Everything from sifting, picking, washing and cleaning rice to pounding, pounding and pounding cassava leaves for dinner, to transplanting rice to make it grow, to sewing clothes, to fetching water, to walking to school, takes its time. When I first arrived to my village, I was captivated by this slower pace of life. Here were some people who were not stressed and angry all the time, I thought. How different their temperaments are from Americans, whose lives revolve around calendars and alarms and rushing, rushing, rushing.  

This is still all true, of course. It’s still beautiful. But it’s also so boringly ordinary. I’m crossing off exactly six months living in my village (nine months total in country). I’m due for a Six Month Slump.

The habits that I found peculiar and fascinating during my first few months I often find irritating now. I find myself thinking things like, “why doesn’t he or she just do this instead?” I also find myself fed up with the slow and tedious ways of cutting grass, making peanut butter, washing my clothes, having no food storage, chasing away rats, walking through mud, dealing with miscommunications, dealing with language mistakes, dealing with insults or ridiculous questions or the insane lack of privacy and anonymity.

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the u-curve: a commonly held theory of the stages of cultural adjustment

I wrote about a similar experience when I was living and working in Thailand. Even though I lived in a big city then, my feelings towards Thai culture and everything unfamiliar pulsated with resentment. According to the U-curve theory of cultural adjustment, months 4-9 are right around the time where everything, for lack of a better term, feels like shit. Nothing seems to make sense; you get frustrated at every little thing, and maybe, you just want to go home. That’s me, right now.

Being someone who has a history of depression, this can be a dangerous game. The resentment, anger and isolation I feel can quickly breed and fester and cause me to alienate myself even further from my village, my people, my new Madagascar. Because I like to justify my feelings, it’s easy for me to talk myself into the fact that I deserve to feel resentful and upset, and that I deserve to ignore people and keep to myself, and that I deserve to give myself a break and stop trying.

I know.

Rereading my own post from three and a half years ago tickles me, because my thoughts are so similar, and my conclusions are so simple. Yet somehow, I’m incapable of remembering my own life lessons:

Eventually, I had to emerge from my hole in the wall and breathe in the smelly air of Bangkok [again], because at a certain point I ceased to recharge, and I ended up hurting myself by isolating myself beyond what was necessary. This is something, I’m noticing after many years, I tend to do.

So it’s a habit, and it’s a habit I haven’t yet successfully broken. So how do we mentally unstable do-gooders deal with the onslaught of berating thoughts?

The best way I know to deal with this is to keep going and just do it. The mantra of athletes and successful people who are obviously not me, seems simple and straight forward. Just do it. Just keep going.

I’ve been given this simple, profound advice from current PCVs and RPCVs who served all over the globe. The simplest way to keep going is just to keep going. Breathe, let things go, get a good night’s sleep (if the rats don’t keep you awake), and keep going another day.

Just do it.

The RN6

The Route National 6 goes from Maevatanana in the Northwestern part of Madagascar all the way up to Diego Suarez, the port city that is the northern most tip of the country. The drive from Maevatanana to Diego can take up to two days, depending on how long you stop, if you’re driving at night (not always recommended) and if there are a lot of freight trucks in front of you.

I made this drive with four other education volunteers, two Peace Corps drivers, and staff, almost two months ago, after I completed training and was sworn in as an official Volunteer. We departed from Tana early Saturday morning, September 9, with all our belongings stuffed in the back and on top of the jeeps. After spending most of the day winding up and around harrowing cliffs, the road begins to flatten. The mountains suddenly disappear. In their place appears flat, wide prairies as far as the eye can see, prairies that rise to greet the horizon with a whisper of “I feel your silence. I’ve been watching you for a hundred thousand years.” I’m speechless. What do I have that can measure up against the breadth of the Malagasy landscape?

 

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View from the Road

 

And just like that, new mountains appear like scraggly Hershey’s kisses, peppered with tall, magnanimous Ravinala: the national tree of Madagascar. The Ravinala tree stands tall and proud, its crazy palms spread wide like a male peacock during mating season. In the foreground, the trees become plentiful and the forest thickens with palms and banana trees. The dirt turns to sand, and I am home.

 

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The northern crew in front of my new Ravinala house.

 

Perhaps my favorite experience with the glorious RN6 so far are the long bike rides I’ve taken down its flat, paved, sometimes windy and always interesting path. Peace Corps issues every Madagascar volunteer a bicycle, because so many roads are in poor condition and public transportation can often be a hassle. I knew this from the beginning of training. I also knew that I hadn’t ridden a bike since being knocked off mine by a moving vehicle last year. I was a bit anxious.

Still, I don’t like to run away from challenges, especially ones that I believe I can overcome. I had a bike. I had a path. I had a helmet. And I had an abundance of time. It was a simple enough conclusion to draw: I was going to ride.

So I woke early one morning, lathered myself with sunscreen, and left my little Ravinala house behind. I mounted my bike and pushed away from the tarmac. The peddling came back easily, to my delight, like an old dance. The seat adjustment took a bit of time, as did figuring out the gears and learning how to navigate pedestrians, ox carts, public vans, big trucks and narrow bridges. But despite all these distractions, there were still stretches of my journey where I was completely alone: just me and the RN6. Mountains rose to shelter me on either side; I passed rice fields, banana fields, neighborhoods full of Ravinala houses like mine, kids eating mangoes, people sitting in the shade, pelicans eating fish from rivers. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I can’t quite describe it. I don’t have the vocabulary.

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Resting in a patch of shade

But there were moments where I’d look up to the sky, feel the weight and breadth of the air surrounding me and think, is this really my life?

 

Chapter One: The Beginning

Where else can I begin? I wriggled myself free from the rusty leather seat of the tax-brousse and spilled out onto the paved asphalt road. I looked down at my feet, unaware of how swollen they’d become from twenty four hours in the van. The road from Tana to Ambilobe is paved, which is an enormous blessing, but the road is narrow and windy and there is only one way. If you get stuck behind a freight truck, you have to pass it or move to the side, and if the tires need changing, which they always do, you have to stop on the side of the road to do it. That normally happens in the middle of the night right after you’ve finally managed to nod off.

So when I arrived in my new hometown, I was extremely tired and a little bit sore, and I stood on the pavement outside the brosse as people and colors swarmed around me and our driver unloaded our bags from underneath the seats and above the van on the roof, previously secured under blue tarp with some rope. I barely have enough time to look up before people are smiling at me and talking to me, but at that moment it only sounded like noise. I handed my sleeping to a tall woman with a kind face a broad smile and followed her away from the road. The crowd has steadily grown, and one man starts shouting to everyone that, “look! A foreigner has come here and she doesn’t understand Malagasy.” I turned around and, with my best stern face and practiced accent say, “Of course I understand Malagasy,” and his eyes went big and then he started laughing. If we were playing a game, I’m not sure whether I won it.

I followed the trail of people and baggage down the side road and onto a sandy path that revealed my home for the next ten days.

It’s hot in my new town. Thankfully my host sister, the one with the big smile and the kind face, hands me a bucket of water immediately and says, “go, shower.” Who knew something so small could be so sweet? The shower was outside and built out of bamboo leaves and immediately made me think of the 1960s movie version of South Pacific, that scene where Mary Martin is washing her hair on the beach. I know I’m not in a movie, but sometimes I like to pretend, because everything feels so foreign anyway.

Karibo,” my host sister,  Nasy, says to me after I finish my shower. “Come in and eat.” I sit down cross-legged on the bamboo mat and dig in to a plate of milky white rice, vegetables and fish. She stares at me…I’m not sure what she is looking for. She starts talking and my ears begin to buzz; I cannot keep up with the flood of loud, boisterous language coming towards me, punctuated with whoops and whistles and exaggerated vowels and syllables. It’s nothing like the way people speak in Tana, in the highlands, where I’d been training. And neither is Nasy. When she smiles and laughs, her whole body shakes, a deep, rich laugh that echoes through the compound. When she hears music coming from a neighbor’s house (which always happens), she begins to dance like she is keeping a secret and wants to make you guess what it is. She is not timid. I see no fear in her. But then again, I barely know her.