Song of the Traveler

Music is my first language; it’s how I understand and relate to the world. When I listen to music, I feel things I can’t describe in words. The sounds, the blending of notes, encapsulates and pulls at emotion better than any language.

Each place that’s influenced me, each important event, is marked in my mind with a song. It’s a song that we played over and over again to get us through dark times. Or, it’s a song we sang at the top of our lungs while driving, dancing, running, hiking, whatever. Still, to this day, I can listen to these songs and sing along without getting tired of them.

There’s only a handful of songs that do that for me.

But I couldn’t find that song in Madagascar. I don’t know why. I’ve listened to dozens of great songs, and learned a handful, but nothing pulled at that part of my heart where words don’t reach. That one song that is imprinted in my heart was somehow missing…

…and I’m wondering now if it made me feel somehow less than settled here. Or maybe I couldn’t find that song because I wasn’t settled. Nervous, anxious, couldn’t relax, couldn’t let music speak to me. Couldn’t put my roots down. I had this honest, angry thought that maybe I just don’t belong in a small village of Malagasy people…because I’ll never be Malagasy. No matter how good my language is, how much I dress or eat or act like the locals, I will never be one of them.


And then, just recently, it hit me like lightning: Well obviously. I can never erase my skin or my face or my heritage, or rewrite my past, or will myself into being born in another part of the world instead.

But what I can do is learn, and try, and allow that learning to inform my behavior, my thoughts, and my responses (I almost said reactions, but I’m working on responding rather than reacting.) I’m still me; I’m still Melanie. I’ve been Melanie all along. Only, now, I’m Melanie who speaks Malagasy and sometimes braids her hair and dresses in colorful clothing and understands a little more about a little part of the world.


Which brings me to this song: this beautiful, Malagasy folk song by two singers written and performed by two musicians from the East Coast of Madagascar: Mika and Davis. The lyrics, roughly summarized, are as follows:

How are you all? It’s so good to see you. What’s up? What’s new with you all?

There’s nothing new here. Our health is good.

There’s not a lot we’re bringing with us. We’re looking for goodness, we’re looking for happiness, we’re looking for wonder, we’re looking for love, we’re looking for things that will make us happy.  That’s what brought us here…

There’s nothing to make us sad. And there’s nothing that should make us fight.  But we missed you all, so we came to visit.

–Oh, it’s good to miss people. Thank you for visiting.

We’re happy to be here. We’re full of happiness to see you. We’re so happy to be with you.

I can’t stop listening to this song. Watching the music video, that little part in the depth of my heart came alive again and told my brain this simple lesson: You can belong to people who aren’t like you. That’s what makes friendship real. True friendship, the kind Malagasy call “havana,” meaning family from different blood, means that ‘I see your difference, I enjoy it, I learn from it, I appreciate it, and I accept you with it. With all of it.’ That is what this song means to me.

And that’s what this journey has been for me…me seeing my blaring difference, feeling like a white-bellied fish laid out on the ice in a grocery store, yet people saying to me, “just be here with us.”



The Hardest Part (Wrapping Up Year 1)

One evening, when I was seventeen, I wrote a list of life goals on a piece of paper and hanged it to my dad. “These are all the things I want to do before I die,” I told him. The list included things like “hike Mount Everest. Skydive. Finish a triathalon.” Now that I’m a bit older and know a lot more about myself, it’s clear to me that certain things I will never do. Jumping out of an airplane is definitely one of them. And if that triathalon includes any amount of mountain biking, you can count me out. I would still like to hike Everest one day…but maybe only to Base Camp.

Peace Corps has been on my list for a while. This is something I have always wanted to do. There is so much romance that I found in the idea of living in a small, isolated community in a strange country for so long. I spent a year preparing to go, going to great lengths to convince DC that I was physically and mentally fit for service. In the end, I went, and ended up in a tiny, isolated rural village in Madagascar. My job description was simple enough: teach English. Teach other teachers English. Encourage English learning in the community.

Significant hurdles, however, have recently made it difficult for me to do my “job”– my formal, on paper job. Me being me, I’ve been left feeling, for lack of an easier term, useless.

Some of these obstacles here include big political events, like a national teachers’ strike (for higher pay), and some have included meetings and other events that render school cancelled. Now that summer vacation is officially here, (more of less, since we moved from a long school strike into summer vacation without any idea of when exams will happen or if they will happen) I find myself with even more time to simply….exist.

So why is that the hardest part?

In the interest of self-reflection and not beating myself up, it’s worth me acknowledging that I do actually feel very happy with my accomplishments over Year 1. Like, really, really happy. I actually did a lot of what I set out to do: paint a world map, work at a GLOW camp, play music, learn more of my dialect, read books with my students, cook Gasy food, love Gasy people, eat a lot of rice (that wasn’t a goal, but it’s definitely an accomplishment), read more books by myself, have “me time” in my house, get back on my bicycle after my accident. I did all those things. Me. I did them. Not alone, obviously, but I was there. I have this awful tendency to erase myself from my life story, but right now, I’m saying, actually, yes, I did that.

But now what? My dad tells me that “we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, but underestimate what we can do in a year.” I would add that I also tend to overestimate what I can accomplish alone, and grossly underestimate what I can do with others. I think these lessons are essential, and I’m so glad I’m learning them.

And so, I’m closing out year one on a high note. I’m choosing to do that. I’m choosing to feel happy and satisfied and focus on my accomplishments and see the faces of those I love the most at site and around the country. These are all things–relationships, experiences, events, memories, and insight, that I didn’t have a year ago.

That’s good enough for me right now.


Cultural Adjustment: The Six Month Slump

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.

Image result for cultural adjustment u curve
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.


There was a party in my neighborhood last Saturday. I didn’t know what it was for, but I knew something was happening. My friend Kodotsia had already made me a salovana (a long dress that is tied at the chest and often worn on festive occasions) from a beautiful red and white pattern. Florosia had braided my hair with extensions. They’d been talking about this all week. But still, I had no idea what was actually happening. My language skills are so limited that most of the time I just watch someone talking words to me until I hear “Alo, atsika,” which means “Let’s go” and then I follow people. Ah, adjustment.

7 am: Kodostia calls to me from outside my wooden gate. She’s already wearing her salovana. I was still sleeping (I’m used to sleeping in, but that’s not really a thing here…).

“Oh, you’re not ready yet?” She looks at me confused. I’m still half asleep.

“Okay, I have some clothes left to wash, so I’ll come get you a little later.”

I’m never sure what “later” means.

9:00 am (ish): I’ve been sitting on my bed, dressed in my salovana for an hour, because I didn’t want Kodostia to come back and me still not be ready (I hate being late). After a while, four girls appear at my door. They are wearing salovanas with matching headscarves and beautiful jewelry. They are carrying buckets and large wooden spoons and pots. A boy is with them, carrying a huge sack of what turns out to be rice, on the seat of a bicycle. They beckon me to come with them.


my guides for the day, ready to magnanao fety (have a party)


We walk a little ways into a forested area and sit under the shade of a large mango tree. There are a few older women there as well. Almost immediately, the women pull out “sahafas,” circular trays that are used to clean rice, and we start to pick rocks from the rice and throw them out. I’m used to this, so I invite myself to join in the rock-picking. It’s surprisingly meditative.

As we pick rocks and sift rice, the girls start asking me questions about America. I try to answer as best I can, but it’s hard because I’m still so self conscious about wearing a dress that I’m not used to and constantly adjusting my bum because I’m sitting on a tree root and my legs keep going numb. Still, I smile, because they’re obviously having a good time, so why shouldn’t I?

pre-party selfies

12:00 pm (ish): The rice, I soon learned, was being cooked to feed several hundred people. The women who seemed to be in charge cooked it in enormous pots, big enough for a child to take a bath in, and I smiled because it reminded me of the book Stone Soup. Once ready, the women served the rice on large platters and placed a plastic bowl of beans in the middle. My new friends handed me a spoon and then we squatted on the ground and ate together, from the same platter, taking small spoonfuls of beans and mixing them with the rice.

After lunch, there was music and dancing. The crowd had grown to at least a thousand, with families and friends camped under mango trees, eating and talking and napping. It reminded me of Sunday afternoon at Overton Park in Memphis. A crowd was gathered around a clearing, so I went to see the entertainment. Two men about middle aged were standing and beating large oval drums. A third man blew a conch shell. Then two men and two women appeared dressed in red and white clothing, two with headdresses that bore the Muslim crescent moon, and two with staffs. They danced. The dancing was aggressive yet calculated, their feet moving rapidly in time with the drum beats, like walking on hot coals. A group of women and girls sat nearby under a tree and sang.

It’s hard to describe my exact feeling, but something about this moment, watching the dancing, being part of a crowd of spectators, felt familiar to me. I had no idea what the dancing meant and I wanted to know, but in a broader sense, I knew it was telling a story of something important. It made me think of the revolutionary war re-enactments we used to go see in Plymouth, Massachusetts (don’t ask me why, but it did): men and women dressed up in costume, performing something meant to remind the spectators of some important part of a shared history. That’s culture…ritual, reminder, togetherness. It’s so familiar. And yet it’s so unfamiliar. Two different stories coexisting rather than contradicting: is this what my boss meant by “the paradox of two truths?”

“Do they do this in your country?” Someone asked me. My first instinct was to say, “no,” but then I thought of Native American ceremonies that I’ve only witnessed a small handful of times and there was something about the honor and majesty of those ceremonies that seemed apropos in the context of this celebration, so I said yes, only to realize that I had no idea how to explain Native Americans with my ten words of Malagasy, so I think I said something like “people from a long, long time ago before white people went to America” and then smiled and pretended not to understand anyone else’s questions because I  was still in my very strange dress with braids in my hair, standing under a mango tree in the North in Madagascar, eating rice on the ground with a spoon.

It was a very good day.