Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Third Goal

  • Mission one of Peace Corps: Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need by trained men and women 
  •  Mission two of Peace Corps: Helping promote a better understanding of Americans' on the part of the peoples served. 
  •  Mission three of Peace Corps: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. 

I was listening to the radio yesterday on a drive and the dj's were talking about a recent story when passengers on a plane heading from London to San Francisco had to endure a ten hour flight without toilet paper, since the crew forgot to replace some on-board.  This was a travesty they reported.  How unfair this was to the passengers.  Callers then were able to share their stories of when they couldn't find t.p. in their proximity.  'I went to a poker game with a friend once,  being that they were all guys they didn't plan to buy toilet paper, and there were only porta-potties. I then made my boyfriend go and buy some for me.' Cry me a river.

Being that I wasn't able to carry out the first two goals as I had originally planned, there was still hope for the third.  Now that I've been back to the United States for over two weeks and have traveled in other well-developed parts of the globe since closing my service, I realized that the third Peace Corps goal is in fact the most difficult to achieve. In fact, coming back in general is the most difficult part of Peace Corps. I mean if people in the U.S. think that toilet paper is a human right, that doing one's own laundry is too hard (pushing a button), or that gas prices are too high, really they are lacking outside perspective.  I hate to sound so harsh, but I hope to promote honesty here. Serving Mission Three really is the point of this blog after all, to evoke curiosity and discussion.  Really I shouldn't be surprised that I've received very little interest regarding my two years in Madagascar as a Peace Corps volunteer. 

 I tried giving baskets to some people I know that one of my women's microenterprise hand weaved from natural dyes and dried leaves. These came from a village which didn't have running water or a market, where one of these baskets would give the weaver a two day salary.  I don't think I pitched a good enough story since the recipients of the presents just left them in the same place on their way out the door.  We are inundated with so much stuff in this country.  Everything is so worthless to us yet a lot of us feel our self-worth is connected to how much we have and the price tag attached to it.    

Whenever the words Peace Corps or Madagascar leave my mouth I feel people quickly close up...even almost physically.  They will speedily look away or walk away.  Few questions are asked. I once thought that serving two years with Peace Corps would make me interesting to people, in fact its quite the contrary.  Perhaps its because my life was difficult to relate to for many, that the things I would like to share about life outside of these golden gates is threatening to others, who are very comfortable knowing what they know, being who they are. I've talked to several other returned Peace Corps volunteers and they had similar reactions from people.  But to be honest, why does it matter?  

This gives me just another challenge.  And if its one thing that PCV's can do its overcoming challenges.  This gives us a good opportunity to seek out platforms and individuals who would be receptive to what we have to say, to make new friends, and find creative ways to spread our messages across.  And perhaps its good to hold the same mentality that I did during my service, that perhaps I'll just get through to one in ten people but that's ok since its still one and not none.  

And the lessons and experiences I've gained from Peace Corps are truly unforgettable and in the end of the day has made me and thousands of others stronger people.  I feel now that not much is impossible but also have a better understanding of my own limitations.  So really there is an unspoken fourth goal, which really is an inevitable achievement, which is within the individuals who served Peace Corps, of self-improvement and personal growth.  

I know that this blog sounds like a combination of scathing and self-glorification, but I don't know how to communicate the value of Peace Corps.  It's invaluable, no matter where you serve, what you do.  What really matters is your attitude.  It's doable as long as you have physically able and a healthy mindset.  

Life is calling how far will you go...







Saturday, June 15, 2013

The REAL world

I apologize for not posting any new blogs since February.  Time sped up for me around the close of my service as I was working hard to tie up loose ends.  My head was spinning from everything that needed to be done as I was trying to balance all the post Peace Corps arrangements and embrace my last days in Madagascar.  All of the goodbyes were emotionally draining.  After spending two years somewhere you develop close bonds with the individuals who made living in a once foreign environment that much more familiar.  I started to call a place that seemed once so strange and frightening home. It's hard to fully articulate all of the thoughts and feelings that I underwent these past few months being in constant transition.  I'm going to take these following months finally being in a stable state to reflect on my two year service in Madagascar and to communicate what my reintegration in America is like.

My plane landed in Minneapolis on July 3rd, after being gone for approximately 1,461 days.  Tears streamed down my face.  It was an emotional catharsis from all of the pent up homesickness. I was finally home after being gone  for over two years! I was greeted by my sister and mother at the airport gate and then driven straight to my grandparents home to finally indulge in the home cooking I dreamed endlessly about during my service.  I've been back for a little over one week. Not that much has changed on a surface level, Obama is still president, my parents still go to work, my brother is still in high-school, our economy is still recovering from recession, my Toyota Avalon still sits in the garage, etc. Everyone keeps telling me its as if I never left and all has settled back to normal.  I feel I'm burning inside, as I am desperately trying to keep up with the pace of life, to adjust to the climate, the dress, the behaviorism's of the U.S. Even keeping up with conversation complete in English has been a bit of challenge.  I've received a few comments that my speech has slowed down significantly since I left.

But now that I am back, strangely I feel a bit alienated.  I've reduced my "African" experience to a few digestible statements, that really reflect what the other person has preconceived about this "black hole" continent, and also to amusing anecdotes that truly doesn't explain real life in Madagascar.  I've found I am only able to produce broad answers to broad questions such as: "What was it like?" and "How was that?" I've compartmentalized my life in Madagascar, as everything seems to be compartmentalized in this country: time, work, relationships.

I've received many comments/ questions as to, "how it feels to be in the real world?" or "now that you're in the real world..." and really I am at lost as to how to react properly.  I am trying my best to not be offending by this since I know these individuals are well-intention.  I suppose its hard to fathom a place that most only put on a map due to a silly Disney cartoon with talking animals.  Life in Madagascar for me was real.  I wasn't able to numb myself to my surroundings by air-conditioning, hopping in a smooth car ride, television, internet at my fingertips, or convenient grocery stores.  My experience was deeply visceral, and felt through  each pore in my body whether I wanted it to or not.  And really I don't regret a moment of it.  For better or for worst its transformed the person I was into who I now am.  Really I am trying to stay focused when people complain about their work related problems and act like having a job doesn't beat abject poverty or the fear that their children will go hungry that night.  I fall into a frustrated stated when I'm told my view on prostitution is misconstrued when most have had zero exposure to it, or how pets are cared for better than many of the children in my village, or how much waste is produced unconsciously by people.  I am still wrapping my head around these industrialized versus developing nation differences.  I'm trying to figure out ways to healthfully cope with all that I've seen and experienced and now being here.  What I've learned though is that all things take time which is what I'm relying on to help me make sense of it all.  Peace Corps had warned us that coming back was going to be harder than leaving.  I'm starting to believe this now.



Sunday, February 10, 2013


December 25th (Baobab Delight on Christmas day):

 We woke up around 6 am in order to make it out to the Avenue de Baobabs before the sun rose to its full strength.  It was easier than we thought to flag down a taxi-be (local bus) to the famous baobab lined road.  Venders grouped around the entrance propping up stands which sold carved baobab statuettes and children presenting us with baobab fruit in their small hands.   This is a round fruit with a hard fuzzy brown outer shell.  The inside contains nuts which are covered with a white tangy substance.  These trees were enormous, with trunks measuring at least fifteen feet.  Herders wearing lamba hoanys (colorful sarongs) passed by with large knives steered their cattle on barefoot.  I tried taking pictures of them, but not without being asked for payment.  I wonder if there’s an association in charge of protecting this tourist area.  I was surprised that tourism wasn’t more developed at this site since all the travel guides rave about le avenue de baobab.  Tourism is an infant industry in Madagascar.  Infrastructure remains the largest barrier.  The roads to the Northeast are practically non-existent in order for the Chinese mafia to hold on to their monopoly on rosewood and other precious commodities. 

By nine it was far too warm to continue on our walk.  We hailed the first 4 x 4 we saw and hopped in the back.  There were other hitchhikers.  We get good at hitchhiking in Peace Corps, despite what our mothers told us.  The owners of the vehicle had on their Christmas finest, being that they were on their way to church.  We held onto dear life to the closest stable looking piece of metal since we passed many bumps along the way.  

We picked up as many ingredients we could find to make a spicy Vietnamese soup called Bun Bo Hue, again a not-too-traditional meal for being in a not-too-traditional place for Christmas.  We took an evening stroll with Ryan’s counterparts at Mehefa (a health sensibilization NGO) and picked up coffee along the way.

December 26th (Beach day!)
We spend the whole afternoon at the beach with Ryan’s neighbors who are all around our age.  The boy was doing some free-style flips, telling me that there’s nothing to it. The water was warm and the bottom was sandy, great for swimming! We spot French hippy couples with dreads and old men with young Gasy women under their arms, typical crowd in a place like this.  Afterwards we got the runaround from different ship hands trying to figure out which sailboat was leaving the next day for Morombe in the Southwest.  

December 27th (ships ahoy matey!)
That night we stand at the sandy shores of the beach with a headlight as a small canoe paddled up to us to take us to the sailboat.We woke up to a sail that had been dropped on our bellies.  The sailors were preparing the sails with the awakening of the sun.  Drowsily I hear garbled speech that I didn't recognize, the sailors were all Vezo,  a fishing tribe in the southwest, also experts at boats and maritime navigation.  I realized that once taken out of the north I could barely function with language.  Having become very confident with my abilities with Tsimihety, this was very humbling, especially when the sailors were able to speak a combination of the northern dialects to me.  I look out, all around us was blue, blue, ocean.  I asked them how they didn’t become lost at sea without the use of any navigation instrument.  Their answer was simple, “I am Vezo, the sea is my home.  One does not become lost in their home.” They’ve heard of tall tales of Vezo living inland who became insane without the proximity of ocean to them. 

There are only a few other passengers on the boat.  Under the deck they are carrying a couple tons of rice gunnies.  Some of the crew were nice and pulled up a tarp, made out of old USAID sacks over the wooden plank we were to live on for the next four days, in order to shield us from the scorching sun.   We pass our time reading and dozing off in order to combat seasickness.  I tease Ryan since half his bag was being used up by Tolstoy’s War and Peace and a mini chess set.  I suppose everyone finds different items indisponsible when they travel. Relieving oneself is also quite an ordeal on the water taxi-brousse.  I would have to squat behind the front sail and hang on to dear life on the iron latter on the side of the deck.  The  waves splashing up and down acted as a bidet...enough said.
We stop in Belo Sur Mer, a seaside town famous for its national park and collecting sea salt.  This is the first-mates home.  Since rainy season had begun tourism was low.  The first-mate explained to us that since the boat was out of firewood for cooking we would have to stay docked all of the next day so that the crew can go in the woods to search for some.  Even though we understood everything he was telling us was tay-omby (BS) we were trapped in paradise so we let it slide.  He was actually going to a funeral procession which we viewed the next day.  Passengers were being carried across the water with the body to the place of burial.  Malagasy people will stop all activity when someone in their community passes away as a sign of respect, no matter how distant this person was to them. 

The resorts on the beach were very quiet.   the sand was scorching hot outside so we took shelter in a hotely as a young woman with a yellow argile mask prepared fresh grilled ocean fish and rice for us. The town was small and built on the sand.  Vendors were selling baobab fruit outside and we took rest at a local epicerie with outdoor seating and enjoyed a refreshing beer.

During the evening we took rest ontop of the deck with some inibriated sailors singing along to a radio. I never expected it to be so chilly compared to the shore. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Grand Circuit


Since July I’ve been planning a grand voyage that would take place around the holidays.  I would start in Antananarivo (the capital), then pass by Morondava to the west, head down by sailboat to Tulear in the Southwest, then travel up to Isalo, Fianartsoa, then finally end up back in the capital before returning to my site in the Northwest.  My partner in crime: health volunteer Ryan Farkas.  I choose him as a travel companion based on the fact that he pronounces bag the same way I do, being a fellow Minnesotan.  The travel would occur within a three week time frame under a Peace Corps budget: a great adventure was in store for us. 



December 23rd: After being told that the taxi-brousse was already fully reserved the other day (a lie) I was told to come back the next day before other passengers filled the car.  I ended up waiting five hours in the most foul-odored taxi-brousse station in Madagascar.  After two years I still can’t outwit the mpaneira’s (middle-men who are responsible for finding passengers for taxi-brousses).  He wanted a guaranteed customer was all.  

sitting in an empty taxi-brousse waiting for it to get full 
Since the more direct route to Morandava has not been renovated it requires that I go far south of Tana past Antirabe before heading northwest.  As I was lingering between a half-conscious state and peaceful sleep I felt the driver plunge the van into a ditch, attempt to dodge boulders, and trees before coming to a complete stop.  Entana (passenger items in the van) are being flown astray all around us.  There seemed to be little shock amongst passengers as they climb nonchalantly out of the battered vehicle.  I on the other hand am outraged.  There appeared to be a fatalistic acceptance of what just happened as I asked people around me their feelings towards the situation.  “It’s understandable [he just risked our lives] he’s tired,” was what I was getting.  After expressing my opinion in the most courteous manner… I’m sure, the sofera (driver) compromised that he would rest and in the meanwhile someone else would take his place. 

Finally I arrive in hot, hot, simmering hot Morandava to Ryan’s place, but not before my taxi-driver attempts to hike my fare up.  No matter, I’m in my desired designation in one piece on Christmas Eve.




December 24th:
Ryan taught me how to gut and scale a fish.  He’s become somewhat of an expert after living several months in a northern coastal city.  Our Christmas Eve dinner was delicious although being not-so traditional.  We had eggplant and potatoes; with steamed fish; topped with a cold, crisp Gold (Malagasy brand) beer.  I feel that half of the goodness of travel comes in the form of food. 

We join Ryan’s neighbors at a Christian service this evening.  I wasn't quite sure but there seemed to be a reenactment of the nativity scene, equip with costumes and props.  The female church group, who all made matching outfits, lead the congregation in song and prayer.  It was a bit nostalgic sitting in church that evening, since it brought back memories of many past Christmas Eve’s at mass surrounded by festive d├ęcor and poinsettias and listening to the choir being accompanied by bells.  It’s nice celebrating Christmas with another American.  It helps mitigate feelings of homesickness.  

to be continued...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Black Hole


My region (region Sofia) has been labeled the Black Hole among Peace Corps volunteers.  It acquired this nickname when the main road was almost completely impassible.  Even though the road has been renovated the name lives on, and this is because of the scarce number of volunteers who are placed here.  I asked my APCD to place me in the desert and to isolate me from other volunteers.  Even though I was deathly afraid of these things I asked for I decided that I wanted to go the whole nine-yards since I was already in Africa, I never expected to be placed here in the first place.  The label makes this region seem uninspiring, but in reality its quite the opposite.  And because it takes me one full day to reach the closest volunteer its become important for me to identify true friends and to not take them for granted. 

The nine weeks of training I had in Mantasoa did not prepare me for my life at site.  People say that PST is a necessary evil.  But really I think if Peace Corps had given me a quick crash course in health and security and dropped me directly over a ‘copter at my site I would still be in the same place I am now.  When I was first installed I felt I was in a different country; the culture, the environment, the people, the spirit are all so strikingly different from the highlands.  The training I received in Malagasy official was almost useless for me here.  I appreciated PST for it exposed me to Merina culture and language.  I wouldn’t have had that experience otherwise. But when put at site I quickly realized I needed to forget everything I learned during my training and that I would have to run harder and faster to reach the same level of language with everyone else.  I started learning how to say the basics again on my own: dog, cat, bed, morning, night, tomorrow, yesterday, girl, boy, etc.  I had to learn how to sing when I speak, to pronounce the nasal “ng” sound, to roll my “r’s”.  There was no small Peace Corps community that I could turn to exchange ideas and language with.  For the most part I relied upon myself and the support from my community.  I suppose I sound like I’m bragging, no not really, just completely honest like I’ve promised to be.  I’m writing this as a warning to future volunteers in this region.  You will struggle.  It’s not the easiest region to live in, but in the end it will be so rewarding and you’ll feel accomplished for making it to the finish line.  You will realize how strong but on the same token how vulnerable you truly are.

As far as work goes, I explained a little about what this would look like in my region from my previous post.  The population here will not listen or respect you unless you prove yourself in their eyes, and even when you do this they already have instilled in them a stern independence and sense of self that is challenging to work with.  When my director came to this region and talked to many of the inhabitants and non-profits she was surprised to find this out.  It truly is a different world up here.  

Food: if you are in the sticks, you will either gain tremendous weight or lose it. Carbs, carbs, carbs, on carbs.  Before the road was fixed there was widespread famine here.  I’ve had children, particularly the girls who do most of the chores but get a smaller portion of the meals, come begging at my door for scraps. I’ve had children scrape the burnt rice at the bottom of my pots when I turn my back, and eat it quickly out of embarrassment.  

PCV’s don’t know much about the Black Hole volunteers nor do they know much about the region.  Most of what other volunteers know about me is from our short training together over a year and a half ago.  The black hole kind of sucks you in to it.  But to be honest I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I’m offering a window into this place where no number of adjectives can justly describe.  

A Fighting Spirit


I have lived with the Tsimihety tribe for more than one year and a half, I think its about time that I say a little bit about them.  Their name literally means people “who do not cut their hair”, Tsy mihety.  This is due to their refusal to cut their hair after the death of a Sakalava prince, which traditionally was done by the population to show deference towards royalty.  They are known to be stubborn and rebellious in nature.  They refuse to submit to anyone, and are the only group in all of Madagascar who have never been dominated by a king or have a monarchy imposed upon them.  They are said to be born from the intermarriages of two tribes, the Sakalava and Betsimisaraka, groups who both inhabit the coastal areas of the island.  Most of the Tsimihety can be found in the north central area near Mandritsara but are moving West and can be found as east as Tamatave and mostly found in the northern region of Sofia. 

The women in particular play an interesting role in this society.  I spoke to Madame Norline, the daughter of the first president of the republic Philibert Tsiranana, and her views of Tsimihety feminism.  The Tsimihety women sexually are very free, up to the point where their sexuality is extolled and has become an expectation, otherwise they are considered frigid.  The Tsimihety traditionally are allowed to move out of their parent’s home after one year of giving birth, with or without a husband, to where they please to start a life there.  No one is to stop her on her way.  In the past, when a man wished to marry he would be put in a room with his prospective spouse and she would push him against walls and bruise him a bit to see if he can withstand the abuse, a test to see if he can protect her and her future offspring.

Their stubborn character, which has proved to benefit them in the past, has rendered them as a difficult group to work with most NGO’s and other international organizations.  I have found this to be true in my own attempts to work here during my service.  NGO’s come in with a Western methodology towards work and are highly results oriented.  When coming in to this region one must consider the fact that these are free people, they will fight you directly or indirectly to maintain this freedom.  Even though the suggestions made and the resources of outside organizations are meant to help they are viewed with suspicion. 

This is my tribe.  I am proud to have the opportunity  with these energetic, loud, vibrant, and perhaps even a bit flashy people.  I’ve been asked on a few occasions whether I’m from Tamatave because of the large mixed Chinese/ Malagasy population there and because I speak this dialect.  This of course is very flattering.  Even though frustrating to work with at times I am so grateful I’ve had the opportunity to live amongst the Tsimihety people.  

One mind, one body



Being sick in a developing country really blows.  You are isolated in an inhospitable environment, away from family and friends, with no access to reliable medicine or doctors within reachable distance, you must travel hundreds of kilometers to the capital to reach your Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMO).  The travel is exhausting and sometimes takes days.  And when you are sick, sitting in a brousse for hours on end on bad roads takes a lot out of you.  I understand fully now why the medical examinations was such an extensive portion of my application process.  Everyone groans and moans about it but really its completely necessary to make sure that volunteers already with health troubles are put in accommodation zones such as South Africa or in Eastern Europe.  I rarely saw the doctor before joining Peace Corps except, most only during annual physical checkup.  I’ve underwent many changes in my health here in Madagascar.  Most of illnesses were mild in nature, however there was one health concern that lasted for an extensive period of time (four months and ongoing) which eventually caused me to be medically evacuated abroad. 

When I became ill in February of this past year the PCMO had me come down to Tana so that he could inspect what I was describing to him.  He cleared me after the exam with a packet of antibiotics.  I never knew that antibiotics were going to be my worst enemy and savior for the next four months while I suffered physically.  My issues ceased to end.  I went between clinics in two major cities in Madagascar and numerous doctors and examinations.  Every doctor would diagnose me with different maladies and prescribe me with the “appropriate” medication, but no one was tackling the cause but just the symptoms.  My distaste for taking medication was brought to a standstill by my desperation to get better.  At one point I was using homeopathic remedies and even considering visiting a traditional healer or to be exorcised by a small Christian cult whom are currently preparing for the end of the world this year. 

And finally after a taking a long series of ineffective treatments the PCMO’s and D.C. decided that they’ve dried up all the resources in-country and it was time to medevac me (medically evacuate me).  This meant that I would be sent to South Africa.  All PCVS with major health concerns in Africa who are unable to be address in their country of service are sent to South Africa.

What I’ve learned that it’s important to not only treat one’s physical symptoms but to also to assuage the psychological issues that concurrently arise.  I’ve seen numerous doctors in Madagascar , in the best clinics, and each would indirectly address me to one another without actually talking to me.  They would hand me a sealed envelope with the diagnosis with no discussion included unless I pushed for it, otherwise they would discuss about me to my PCMO vs. to me directly.  I felt more like a problem than an actual living person who needed help.  In the doctors defense I can see how this is a defense mechanism.  They can’t become attached or humanize every patient who walks in their door.  Personally I can see how I would get emotionally drained by that.  Really its not that different in the U.S.  Patient/ doctor relations aren’t always the most cordial but rather have an impersonal vibe.  However after this experience I feel that a doctor can remain professional and be warm and comforting towards a patient at the same time.  Actually I think it’s crucial in order to facilitate the actual healing process.  There must be trust between the patient and doctor.  Also to have people in support of you is indispensible.  Even though I didn’t have this support in-country, which made things very difficult, my friends and family from home reached out to me when I most needed it.  People always joke about being medevaced to be able to visit South Africa, however when you truly are sick the idea evokes less excitement.

 I’ve never even once amused the idea of E.T (early termination) but I was on the verge of ending my service in order to get the medical attention I needed.  Health is the most important asset we possess.  If we don’t have our health what do we have?  Nothing mattered anymore. I lost interest and motivation in carrying out my service and in social events.   Another thing that I’ve learned that it takes a long time for things to move in D.C.  There was so much bureaucratic processing that needed to happen in order for me to be medevaced, which was infuriating and lead to a number of breakdowns. 
I was very impressed with the clinics and doctors in South Africa.  When the doctor told me that I needed to undergo surgery I actually was relieved because she had confirmed to me what I already knew: that I was sick.  The doctors’ in-country couldn’t find anything wrong with me.  I’m sure in their minds I was being a hypochondriac- simply making up my issue in my head, but in their defense they’ve tried their best and they aren’t specialist.  I still rely on them a lot.  Finally I was receiving answers, being able to go on a safari wasn’t all that bad either.

As much as our PCMOs attempted to prepare us for our environments during our PST (pre-service training)  its really inevitable that we become sick.  Coming from vacuum air-conditioned environments in the States its no wonder we are more susceptible to becoming sick.  Our bodies are weaker than the local population.  Our skin flakes and burns easier in the sun than African skin; our stomach’s haven’t been trained to handle the microbes and germs in the water, air, dirt. 

o   Overall lessons:
§  Don’t take health for granted
§  One body one mind: need to take care of both as best as possible.  Because you only get one your whole life.  
§  Regular exercise, a good diet, and healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress since you are living under sometimes physically trying conditions
§  Getting sick: it’s the name of the game.  Hey, no one forced me to sign up for Peace Corps. 
§  You must become your own doctor for the two years of your service.  I’ve learned more about medicine and health issues than I’d ever have to in the States.  You do a lot of self-diagnosis when you are in the bush by yourself.  
§  Just because a doctor tells you one thing doesn’t mean that its set in stone and 100% correct. 
§  If you know something is wrong with your body then you probably are correct, you live with it not your doctor,
·         Become aware of your body’s needs and/ or abnormalities, weaknesses.