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“This life is a hospital in which each sick man is possessed by a desire to change beds. One would prefer to suffer by the stove. Another believes he would recover if he sat by the window.
I think I would be happy in that place I happen not to be, and this question of moving house is the subject of a perpetual dialogue I have with my soul.”
-Baudelaire, Anywhere Out of This World
Getting creative with the seasonal produce here in the highlands. Ingredients I’ve been obsessing over lately: cabbage, zucchini, and chickpeas. Its what’s at the market, so its what’s for dinner!
My favorite. Spicy peanut butter and bok choy (greens) spaghetti, on whole wheat pasta.
(From a postcard a close friend of Peace Corps brought back for me. I finally got the translation!)
La Prière du Normand
Donnez-moi la santé pour longtemps,
De l’amour de temps en temps,
Du boulot pas trop souvent,
Mais du Calvados tout le temps.
Grant me good health for a long time,
Love from time to time,
Work not too often,
But Calvados (apple brandy) all the time.
Last month I went to the east coast with my NGO to conduct field visits in the Vatomandry and Mahanoro regions. It was lovely…beach and brochettes…SO ONO! And I can’t complain about the company either. I met up with a handful of fellow volunteers along the way, and I got to know my counterparts at ADRA better–Clovis, VSL coordinator/ my immediate supervisor, and Mahefa, Agribusiness department head. They are great guys, and so easy to work with! It was a nice bonding experience, and we learned a lot through our VSL observations. It was encouraging to see the successful groups on the coast. Apparently, I can be expected to be making these trips to the coast (Mananjary, the other region we work in) often. Lucky me. Can’t wait to get back to the warm weather!
Goodbye mice and must
and moldy walls,
and cattle herders calling
at all odd hours
Cupcakes baked over
in rusty tin cans and
Mexican lettuce wraps served with
white boxed wine
Farewell bleak mornings
viewed from a crack
in the kabone,
orange-peeking afternoons and
mountain peaks, vibrant
at dusk from the castle top
So long wind
chilled cheeks, knee
caps and soles muddied from falls in
to rice paddies
Food flavored with candle wax
and curry, bowls of burnt popcorn and half
cooked kernels munched over
just-as-bad TV shows
and redemptive public radio
after a long run- French
lessons/pressed coffee, black
and white boxed crosswords
with banana oatmeal
Be well my mountain town.
I’m feeling nostalgic. Ironically, the town has decided to plan a weekend of cultural celebrations, three days of song and dance and speech, to commemorate the accomplishments of Imito’s village health workers—this all coming right after finding out about the Change (see “Citrus Season” post). My future work partner, ADRA, also ironically, is funding a bulk of the festivities.
Its Friday, the day of the big community fair, and I’m sitting on stage next to Wallie, my site-mate, with the mayor and other prominent figures, looking out at a sea of faces, people who a year ago, last May, I could not distinguish one from another. I live among and work with a lot of these people now. I know their names, where they live, have shared plates of rice or steamed sweet potato with most of them. They are for the most part comfortable around me, aren’t afraid anymore of the intimidating foreigner who sits pink-faced and smiling on the stage before them.
I shake the hand of DePaul from my VSL group in Soamahatamana, and congratulate him on his certification. I smile at the Chef Fokontany of Mandimbisoa, who is probably drunk off the local moonshine at eight in the morning. I wave from the stage, like a princess on a parade, at the children who I taught “Head and Shoulders” and Simon Says to at English Club at the secondary school (back when the students were still going to school; the teachers have been on strike now since Easter).
I sit with fresh eyes and faded jeans looking at the communities lined up before the stage with their painted and handwritten signs, coordinated colored hats and t-shirts, standing unsmiling and squinty-eyed in the sun. It reminds me of May Day back at Ahuimanu Elementary for some reason. Wallie and I take pictures with the honorees, like local celebrities, the token vazaha.
As the formalities of speeches and acknowledgments ensue, I look out further, past the mountains and valleys beyond, and the vast sky sheeted with billows of off-white clouds, like a heaven that seems close enough to touch. I think of the book of Ecclesiastes, my favorite book of the Bible at the moment, with its message of equanimity: Everything is Meaningless. Everything is like…chasing wind.
There are booths for each community group, selling dried corn and beans, sweet potato, taro, fresh fish…I scan each booth from the comfort of my shaded seat. I realize I can actually follow the speeches, if my mind quieted enough to listen, if I wasn’t so distracted by the colors and sounds around me. Its a powerful realization though—to be able to function, to thrive in another language. It hits me, suddenly, and I feel wistful.
Right now, I can calculate, easily, the amount of electricity I use (none at site, save the solar charger I use every other day to charge my phone and iPod, and even that depends on the temperament of the sun; one pack of six candles for light at night, and thats if I’m liberal with them), how many rolls of toilet paper (two) or jerry cans of water (five 20 liter cans) I go through a week.
I’m going to miss the simplicity of it all. I think of my favorite four-mile jog on the dirt road leading to Zanabahona, and of biking to Sandrandahy, where Natalie and Dan used to live, former volunteers and close friends of mine. I’m going to miss it.
The mantra this year for me has been to “be content with little and much will be given.” If I’m not satisfied with the love of my family and the support of my friends, how will I handle romance? If being the richest person in town with $200 a month is not enough than how will I manage having ten, a hundred, a thousand times more than that back home? If I’m not happy working on my own schedule, pursuing projects I am passionate about, even if not in the most ideal conditions, even without ample resources, how will I manage my own business someday, in better conditions, and with more?
If I’m not happy now, in these circumstances, I will never be happy—not here, not home, not now, not ever.
I smile at the crowd. In a few hours, Wallie and I will sneak away to start a charcoal fire on her deck and bake delicious white choco-coco carrot cupcakes, eating them in the semi-darkness, spooned straight from old rusted tuna and tomato paste cans (it sounds disgusting, but it was so GOOD). Tomorrow we will watch savika (bull-fighting), Imito’s own rodeo, at the stadium that the villagers built and painted with their own callused hands. And there will be a soccer match later at the local high school, where the seats are uniquely, beautifully carved into the earth.
The sun peeks out from the overcast sky, shining harsh, like a spotlight, for just a few minutes on the stage where we sit. I am so blessed—and I am never able to forget it, even if I try.
Its citrus season again here in the highlands, and the chilled air, like the prematurely picked green-tinged mandarins, feels refreshing, tastes bittersweet. Ah, but the sweetness!
Pick this fruit from the tree and eat it: I have just gotten approval to move to Ambositra (currently the closest “big” town near me, about an hour or so away) next month to be working with ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) as their new Assistant VSL Coordinator in the Amoron’i Mania and Vatovavy regions! Its an exciting and unexpected change, in so many ways; and in the midst of all this celebration and citrus, I am trying to catch my breath to give thanks for it all.
What does this change mean exactly? And how did this whole thing come about? I’m still trying to process it all.
Looking forward and onto my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was beginning to feel anxious about my service. As much as I’ve enjoyed the past year, I can’t say that its something I could see myself doing for another twelve months. Its cliché I know, but really, I’ve challenged myself and grown in more ways I could have ever imagined—and I am truly grateful for this first year experience of hiking biking off-the-grid mountain life. But I began to question if my skills, soft as they may be, and my interests, however random and wide-ranging, might be better suited in another job, another place, possibly another country.
So I started making moves. I applied for a position within Peace Corps as a PCVL, which is basically a more structured leadership position within the organization, with greater administrative and management responsibilities. I thought this position would be perfect for me–utilizing my organizational skills, providing the resources for me to pursue the secondary projects I was interested in, like working with higher skilled English speakers/students, starting a Peace Corps podcast project, etc. At this time, I’ll be honest, I also entertained the idea of applying for a position with an NGO in Portland, Oregon.
But then, enter Mid-Service Conference: the time for us volunteers to reflect on our first year of service, create dialogue about what has/not worked, a sharing of best practices and techniques, a time to encourage and uplift each other (involving a lot of booze and bitching), collaborate and plan for the following year. ADRA has been calling me throughout the weeklong retreat, and I finally connect with them, set a non-committal date to meet in Tana. I’m still at this point fixated on the position within Peace Corps. Also, I have these assumptions about ADRA being an organization that works solely with hospitals and health workers, and frankly I’m uninterested.
Then it happens. The unexpected, the unplanned, the divine. I spend an excruciating night with that familiar “pulsating” pain from a root canal performed four years ago. The pain is indescribable. I talk to the doctor here and he suggests I make an appointment with the dentist in Tana after the conference. The pain killers he gives me helps assuage the pain, but remembering how bad it felt the last time, when I waited until two days before a flight to Thailand to get my root canal done, in California with a dentist I had never gone to before, I disappointedly cancel the vacation plans I made with the other volunteers the following week. Morondava and Tsingy will have to wait.
But, as you can predict, everything works out. No I didn’t get my vacation. But I spent the week in the capitol instead, eating and drinking and being merry with my fellow stage-mates (the other crazy people I came with to this country in March last year). Its like America–I get katsu one night after a classy cocktail party, drink some brews at a barbeque another night, get dressed up and go to a nice meal next, even walk to a coffee shop and share a chocolate sundae and refreshing conversation with a friend I haven’t connected with in awhile. The week flies by.
And then at the end of all this fabulous fraternizing, ADRA sends a driver to pick me up for our meeting…and the incredible opportunity to continue my work on a larger scale throughout the region, with greater resources at my disposal, accessibility, and mobility—this is presented to me as if on a silver platter, as if I were being mocked by God for worrying so much and trying within my limited means to plan and structure, as if there could have been any other way than this.
I’m still a Peace Corps volunteer, with a year left to go in my service. I’m still living off less than $200 a month, a peasant’s salary. But I’ll be living, starting next month, in a “high-rise” (relatively, five stories high, which is the highest building in Ambositra), in an apartment with a flushing toilet, a bathtub, and a communal washing machine. With electricity to charge things, cell phone reception and internet access. I am overwhelmed with the possibilities!
I am excited and, I can’t help it, a little anxious. I don’t anticipate the next chapter to be any less difficult. The responsibilities that come with the resources are great and daunting, and will indefinitely bring with the territory a whole new set of challenges—adjusting back into the conventional nine-to-five structure (Casual “Friday?” I thought everyday was “Unwashed Jeans For Two Weeks” Day?), giving presentations in English (Wait, not flipchart paper?), meeting a specific set of work objectives (People showed up to my meeting! We can all go home satisfied now, right?). Yeah I’m nervous, but I’m ready for the change.
When life gives you unripe oranges…sometimes you have to taste the sour to appreciate the sweet. (I’m eating a choco-coco twist ice cream cone as I type this, no joke)
I’m sorry I don’t have an insightful quote or experience to preface this entry. I don’t know of its lack of inspiration or motivation of me seeking it, but no pearls of wisdom this time. I do however feel obligated to write an entry, since I have, officially, completed one year of service here in Madagascar. Yay! (imagining the fragrant puakenikeni leis of accomplishment around my neck).
I’m sort of decompressing from a month of constant…constancy. I’m on my way back to site, after a week of catching up with fellow volunteers in my stage at our Mid-Service Conference. I may or may not see these people again until we finish up our two years of service next May. Its a bittersweet feeling—that feeling of accomplishment, paired with the realization that a year has gone by, and what have I done with the last year of my life? Also being both overwhelmed and appreciative of the social interaction (which within the Peace Corps volunteer circuit, consists of a lot of talk about bowel movements, American food, and media exchange). As excited as I am to go home and see everyone, I am equally nervous about my social regress. Will I remember how to interact, as we say here, in “mixed company?”
Anyway, this month is full of projects. I’m finishing up the last of my VSL trainings with my four groups this week, and starting the Entrepreneur’s Club/Vacation Enterprise program with ten students on Saturday. I’m looking forward to it. Just bought all the supplies and withdrew the seed money for the project to begin! The girls are so excited. I’ll try to post some pictures online when I get connected next. So far, there is a girl who will sell bisquit/cookies, one who will sell sweet potato pancakes (I told her I would be a loyal customer), another selling dried fish, another rice, a few raising chickens, and a few selling woven mats and hats. I can’t wait to see what will become of their businesses. It seems like just yesterday that I was the girl selling watered down POG and li hing mui seeds door-to-door for a dollar. Or posting ads for “Purrrfect Pet Walking/Sitting Service” at the community bulletin boards. I could have been a millionaire. Haha. Anyway, I’ll try to keep you updated on their progress this month.
In other news, there are some exciting developments having to do with my plans for next year. Opportunities have presented themselves, completely unexpectedly, and I don’t want to post anything until I know for sure, but I keep thinking about the divinity of it all—and how I always do this, worry about finishing the marathon, when I should be focusing on running each step (might break an ankle that way anyway, especially on the roads in this country). So hopefully I’ll have more news on that also at the end of the month.
I’ll be holding my first regional VAC meeting in Antsirabe also at that time, which I am excited for. We’re planning a small soiree (complete with games, if you know me) to get to know the newest members in our region, and to celebrate the end of service for the oldest stage.
Anyway, nothing of real interest or insight to report, but I hope to write more again soon. I can’t wait to see everyone back home for Hope’s wedding…still have to work on fitting into that one-size-too-small Maid of Honor dress though, haha. Veloma until next time!