coming home

Three months past closing my service, I find myself shivering on the floor of the Casablanca airport waiting for a flight out of Africa.  The cold had certainly been a surprise upon arriving in Morocco two weeks back but I kept promising myself that it was gearing me up for the weather to come.  I am moving to Maine after all which is temperature-wise, quite close to the Moroccan winter.  (Yes, that statement was meant to be ironic).

Leaving my village was hard.  It was hard however, in ways that I did not expect it to be.  Coming up to that moment I imagined that I'd be feeling nostalgic and sentimental about the time I devoted to the town and its people.  Alas my community left little time for that as they ventured into my hut up to the hour of my departure picking up pieces they hoped were my leave-behinds.  Ahead of time, I had mentally prepared for this and decided that the best way to leave a site was without bribes.

It sure is easy to fall into the guilt trips laid down by my friendly coffee mama's, the humbly appreciative English teacher, and of course my nugget when they hear that yes, I am actually leaving and likely not coming back.  Many volunteers end up throwing their piled-up positions around like fried bananas (the equivalent of hot cakes in Malagasy I'm pretty sure) which only invites a lot of awkwardness and frustration for the next volunteer.  S/he comes in to a community who is not only going to compare her/him to the former volunteer's personality but also to the amount of bling s/he so kindly gave them before leaving.  And by bling I mostly mean water buckets.

I did mety-mety with this goal.  With the help of a fellow volunteer, we set up at my weekly market with my entire Madagascar wardrobe.  This lacked no hilarity to my community members who each of course, have a stand of their own and couldn't believe how 'gasy I truly had become.  There may or may not be a rule that we as volunteers are not allowed to do any for-our-own-profit work.  But Peace Corps, if you are reading this, the mad ari-ari ($$) made then went to my final classes with my environment and youth women's clubs.   I don't think you can revoke my closed-service-status-ness anyways.

It might actually have been because of this Malagasy-style yard sale that my last few days were ambushed with people trying to get something out of me.  A clear marker that I was moving.  There is no better time to see a direct action-consequence situation than during your PC service.

I did have, of course, some very sweet interactions before leaving.  The teachers and mayor brought me over to the local bar and bought me a beer and, in truly 'gasy style, made many speeches.  Mama cafe gave me all of my coffee free for an entire week.  That's a good 1000 ariari cash-money right there (2 dollars).  My students brought me two potato sacks full of ripe mango which they told me I was meant to bring home on the plane.  This would've been a brilliant thought if they hadn't gone so terribly bad by the time the taxi-brouse had made it out of my village.  But still. 

After leaving Madagascar I felt sad.  I definitely felt like I was leaving a home.  My journey was slightly more drawn out than many of my fellow COS-ers since visiting family for me means zig-zagging the African continent.  This has been a good way to deflect any possible processing I might have to do.  Coming home has been bittersweet, but I think a blog-post about re-adjusting after two+ years away would entail many paragraphs and far too much angst. 

I have also felt excited for what is to come.  Peace Corps has certainly given me the time to set my next goals.  And hopefully while accomplishing them the next ones will be set as well.  If nothing else, I feel that I have momentum.  A job that will continue growing the skills I need while taking up way too much of my time to develop some of the worse American traits that couldn't grow while living in a little bush village of Africa.  Just kidding, America: I have missed you.  I look forward to getting to know you again. 
I have not been writing.  I have not been writing at all even though I am in my last moments as a Peace Corp Volunteer and I know that one day I will wish to re-know myself during this time.  The site of my journal overwhelms me.  I am not doing a good job processing what has been and perhaps an even worse job processing what will come. 

Tsy akoho ny olona

The chickens are going crazy.  Apparently, tis the season.  

A common late afternoon activity of mine and many others in the village is sitting on the little porch that attaches to each hut.  It is my favorite time of day; the sun is finally relenting, the malaria mosquito are still hiding under their buckets, and the kids are running around free from the school day.  I like to sit and watch people come in from the fields, yell out salutations, and find out what kind of things are growing in their land.  Lately however, because of the lack of rain, there is very little growing and so that conversation ends pretty quickly.  Luckily a new form of entertainment has popped up in the form of a nature channel special: chicken mating season.  

My yard is a common place for chickens to gather.  There is always something growing for them to gobble on (jerks), there is plenty of good dirt and my compost for them to steal worms out of a scratch (again, jerks), and they are protected from cows and their wagons crashing through because of the gate that keeps my little yard in.  It has been an ongoing frustration to have these chickens enjoy my garden because, as noted before, they munch on everything and take away my soil-replenishing worms.  But I have come into my zen with them and by now just enjoy watching them run around with their chicks and observe how chickens behave when let loose in the world.  

Which has now taken on a whole new level of excitement as the roosters in my village have reached maturity and are taking it out on my poor hens.    It starts with a hen scratching around in my compost pile, happily clucking and perhaps pecking if a younger hen tries to get some scratching action.  All of a sudden a studly rooster approaches, shimmying up to the lady.  Unimpressed by his advances, she waddles off to another pile of dirt.  But he hasn’t even given her his best stuff!  ‘Come on baby, look at these shiny red feathers.  Don’t they set off my googly black eyes?’.   To which she sticks up her nose exclaiming that she’s already 12 chicks rich and the last baby-daddy didn’t stick around to protect them from stomping feet or hungry cats.  This does nothing to dissuade the stud of course; he just sees her as ever-more fertile.  At this point, as the lady has turned away and is walking towards home, he puts it in gear road-runner style (you know when he’s moving so fast that his feet just look like wheels?).  

And the chase is on!  The hen has taken off too, jumping up on buckets, running through gates, flying up to rooftops and back down to avoid this predator.   But he is right after her nipping at any other chicken or rooster that tries to get in his way.  Finally, he has gained on her enough that he can reach out his neck and bite down on the feathers on top of her head.  Once he gets a good mouthful he’ll pounce on top, dip himself into her and within 20 seconds the whole thing is over.  They both shake it off like it was just another nooner and go their separate directions strutting the ultimate walk-of-shame.  

I have caught this action every day for the last week and it never ceases to entertain.  It’s amazing how badly the roosters want to procreate and how terrorizing it seems to be for the hens.   

coming home

Malagasy huts are meant to be lived in.  I know this now because mine was left to it’s own devices for a month and it did not fare well.  It was my first vacation of the year, I hadn’t taken any time off at my new site because I had so much re-committed myself to Peace Corps in this village that was motivated, friendly, and welcoming to me.  Alas, I had planned this trip to the states since before I had left it in the first place, knowing that my best friend from high school, Wally was going to propose to my best friend from college, Shannon and that a wedding was sure to follow.  That is the kind of wedding you don’t miss.  So despite my attempts to truly be integrated and not use my privileges to leave whenever I want, come mid-September it was time for me to go.  

And for my hut to be eased the stomping of my large foreigner feet.  I thought it’d be good for it; the floors were starting to stretch after all!  I had packed away all my stuff, brought my valuables to the Peace Corps bureau, and asked friends and small children to water my plants and keep my yard looking decent so to deter pangalatras (thieves) from thinking that the items in there were up for grabs.  

I still believe this was a good plan in theory.  And maybe in part it worked.  For example, the young boy that I had hired to keep my yard weeded and cleaned definitely made appearences in my house.  When I got there, the front and one side of the hut (what you can see from the road) had absolutely no trash and the dirt was smooth from spikey weeds.  Unfortunately, the fact that the yard had been swept was hard to notice because there were two giants holes in my fence, the wood crumbling down in disastrous piles.  Apparently a couple of drunk dudes had been walking home from a balle (dance) and drunkenly fell into my fence.  And didn’t remember to come put it back together afterwards.  On the other side of my hut where the fence was also bashed in it was surmised that the neighbor’s cows must have been led astray.  Into my yard.  That explains the lack of any vegetation growing in the space where had recently bloomed tomatoes and eggplants.  And I thought my friends had just forgotten to water.

So this was my first site upon getting off the taxi-brousse.  Of course, coming in I had a parade of children traipsing behind me, my little sister Sheila already clamoring to have a piggy-back.  I was happy to see them, so I brushed off my irritation that no one had thought to at least make-shiftily put my fence back together.  They were stoked to see me and that was the most important thing.  I threw my belongings, already filthy anways, to the ground and pulled out my key.  And with 13 little nuggets surrounding me I opened my door to find that a bomb had clearly gone off in my hut.  My mattress was shredded (thank you mice), my furniture gnawed to sawdust (thank you termites), and a thick layer of dust covering every surface (thank you vertatraza (windy season)).  

One could hardly breathe in there, which helped a little bit because it dissuaded the tribe of children from entering.  It’s always quite overwhelming when you are trying to clean or arrange your hut and there are a bunch of children trying to get in and look your pictures/touch everything.  My best friends’ little sister and I spent the next two hours sweeping, wiping, and shaking out everything in the house and it still had the kind of vintage smell you aren’t looking for in second-hand stores.

Now that I have been back to site for a few days with windows and doors letting the sweet end of the veratraza rush through my house it is starting to feel like home again.  I was nervous to come back after being gone for so long, but it turns out that the people in my village, no matter if they give me a hard time about where I was, seem to genuinely be happy when I come back.  I think its going to be hard to leave. 

Home is where I rest my oversized straw purse

After two years of living in Madagascar, I thought that I finally had somewhere to call home.  It is the first place that I’ve lived completely on my own, without roommates, housemates, or parents.  It’s the first place I have had to completely start anew with friendships and relationships.  Overall, I have had to work hard to feel comfortable here.  Especially after my first year of constant disappointments, let-downs, and overall feeling very discouraged, I felt like I was finally at ease and settled in my new home. 

So much so, that I figured after two weeks of traveling to the states for my best friends’ wedding, I would be very ready to get back to my new stomping grounds.  That I would be so overwhelmed by America’s food, stimulation, and all the English they speak over there that I would be thrilled to step onto a plane and come home. 

Of course, this is not how it went.  I don’t know why I thought it would be so difficult to get back into my relationships and friendships (perhaps it is because none of my friends back home are very good at keeping in touch when I’m gone *cough cough*), but it wasn’t.  The minute Zoe picked me up from the airport we were the same high-pitched, squeaky little girls that we’ve always been.  By the time we got to the valley I was already pretty good at not mixing Malagasy words into my sentences, and being with my long-time best buddies and former housemates Shannon and Wally (the now married couple) felt exactly like being at home.  Wally and I went to a Red Sox game, and I could still remember each word to “Sweet Caroline” and almost all of them to the “Star Spangled Banner” (though to be fair, I don’t think I ever knew all of them).  I fell right back in love with each and every one of my friends, back in love with the bike trails going through Northhampton, my old farm looked great and it was wonderful to see Farmer Bob and his beautiful family.  I could see how easily I could re-emerge in this area and feel not like the undergrad I once was, but like the grown-up that perhaps I have become.  Okay, maybe not go that far.   But still, I could feel like a real person. 

And now I am headed back to my other homeland.  A place, mind you, that has not only been my Peace Corps site but also where I grew up through elementary and middle-school.  I got deep mems here man; me and Madagascar go way back.  But now my mindset has completely switched, and to be honest, it was very difficult to get back on that plane.  Maybe that is normal: whenever you go on vacation it should be hard to leave right?  But I had hoped it wouldn’t be.  I had hoped I would say a light adieu to all of my buddies and be on my way.  Instead, I had to fight back (and in some cases failed to fight back) tears at each goodbye and felt like I was losing something that I had forgotten I had.  When Caitlin dropped me off at the airport it took a lot to not tell her to turn south towards Mexico (as I believe was her initial plan anyways).

So now I am heading back, stuck temporarily (I hope) in a place that does NOT feel like home.  And to be honest I am kind of freaking out.  I want to go back and re-integrate easily and happily into my village and my other relationships that I have over there.  And likely I will once again feel at home there.  But really, how many homes can a girl have?  And when will one of them actually win out and get me away from this gnawing feeling like eventually I will have to leave any home I create?

Reason's it's not so bad to travel alone

  • When things aren’t going well, you may not have someone to look to for advice or to calm you down, but you also don’t have someone looking at you for the same thing.  On your own, you can make as many mistakes and have as many mishaps without anyone being there to get frustrated with or at you.  You can also sit down for a hamburger, piece of cheese, or bowl of rice (depending on where you are traveling) whenever you need a pick-me-up.  Even if it takes doing that four-five times. 

  • Carrying on with the previous point, when traveling alone you can eat and drink as often and as much as you please.  Personally, eating is my main reason for traveling.  I am therefore not interested in holding off on the calories or back with the glasses of wine.  Rather, I’d like to sample as many different delicious food items a place has to offer me.  Yesterday, for example, I sat down at three different cafĂ©’s for the dinner hour, trying a different cheese and kind of wine at each.  Place number 1 had the best cheese while number 2’s wine was bangin’.  Its kind of my own version of Top Chef Paris.  Or Anthony Bourdain. 

  • I can blow as much or as little money in a day as I want (funding allowed, of course).  The first day I came into Paris I felt awful because I had just spent two weeks eating everything I could in America.  My stomach still suffering from this feat, I skipped the usual eating frenzy of the first day, and walked for a couple of hours instead.  That day I hardly spent any money, but the next day I woke up and had my three restaurant dinner.  When you are with someone, it’s harder to break routine like this. 

  • You can avoid doing things you don’t care to do.  For me, that is anything touristy.  Sure, I’ve seen some of the famous sites in Paris before, such as the Eifel Tower and Notre Dame.  But to be honest, I’d rather spend my money on a delicious dinner (or three) than for the entrance fee to one of these places.  Perhaps this makes me come off as uncultured or unsophisticated, and I suppose that is okay.  I’d rather take the train out to a ramdom little village and walk around, enjoy a local meal, and yes, a house pitcher of wine while trying to get to know some people. 

  • You can get utterly lost but still be fine because you have no one and nothing to report back to.  I do this by matter of walking.  You would think I’d have figure out how to navigate a map by now.  Or at least start using landmarks to get me back. 

  • There is no pressure to stop reading.  I know that traveling maybe shouldn’t be about having my nose in a book, but I find it a very relaxing way to lose yourself.  If it weren’t for books I don’t know how I’d have gotten through these past two years.  And I still feel like I have gotten my share of conversation in.  But overall, it’s nice to have something to turn back to when you are out of things to say. 

All that said, traveling alone can be a bit lonely at times.  But I think its always a good experience and you can grow a lot from it.  Not grow in the way that I would actually check my itinerary before I left so I wasn’t stuck somewhere after a missed connecting flight.  No, no, never. 

Roads Diverged (or, the blog for the overanxious)

                For the first time in my life I feel that I have to make a decision that actually matters.  A choice that will change the course of my life.  Up until now I have done everything that was expected of me.  Graduated high school, went to university, wonderful jobs fell in front of me, I went abroad to India where I fell into and in love with farming, graduated, then followed my parents’ footsteps right into the Peace Corps.  I enjoyed all of it and it all seemed to make sense.  But now all of that is coming to a close.

                More than three-fourths way through and I feel that I have conquered (or at least come to terms with) language barriers, cultural differences, even Malagasy men.  What else is there really?  I am going to complete my Peace Corps service and the world feels entirely open to me.  This is exciting but also terrifying. 

                If I think of myself in five years I can clearly see myself in two drastically different lives.  The first is one that would continue on the path I am on now.  Extending or finding more work in northern Madagascar which is a place that I’ve grown to enjoy, and surely would enjoy more if I moved into the city.  I could teach at the university full-time and come back to my village when possible to check on my farmers and friends.  This, I believe, would help me towards entering grad school.  It would also push me towards a career in development and teaching, which is work that I enjoy and find meaning within.  Socially, I’ve already made good friends in the city that I feel I can connect with and would likely feel less isolated than I sometimes feel here in the bush. 

                The second path is completely different and perhaps is the one that I’ve somewhat already chosen.  It involves a plane ticket, an old Toyota pick-up, a banjo, a farm-dog (a bottle of whiskey and a shotgun…).  On this road I would slowly make my way to the US in order to arrive for the next farming season.  To participate in an involved apprenticeship that will further my ag skills and my dream of starting my own farm with conjoining market/restaurant.  This is a lifestyle idea that I share with my brother, someone who I dearly wish to be nonspuratically in my life again.  So I could buy the truck, get my loyal companion of a puppy, and move out west to be near him and work towards this goal.  Hopefully grad school would work itself into this plan as well, though I’m not exactly sure if it would be necessary.  I just like studying (whoa nerrddd). 

                I love farming. Though I work with farmers here, I miss the feeling of belonging to a farm and benefitting from the fruits of our labor.  I crave being back in the field every day, driving farm vehicles, making up speed-competitions when weeding, harvesting tomatoes, then being done at five o’clock and being able to just relax.  But being here I also realize how much I love teaching.  I love working with little kids, figuring alternative education into their lives, planning courses that I think will stimulate them.  Since beginning teaching this course at the university, I also feel that it is a population I connect with.  

                My friend Jake told me a couple months back that I should just relax, that it’s just life after all!  I get that and I’m not trying to sound overanxious, but I am rather anxious over this decision.  I feel like it will dramatically alter in one way or another the course of my life.   And really, who do I want to be? 

                All of this lamentation over, I can now admit how absurdly fortunately I am that I have these two opportunities set in front of me.  My best friend in the village, Corine, is stuck in a place where she lacks stimulus and truly does not connect with the lifestyle that she is being pushed into as a woman of a certain age.  But for her the opportunities seem less bright.  Her choices are less.  And so I must appreciate this as a whine about my own confusion.  At least I get the luxury of indecision.