Thursday, November 15, 2012

A day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer

I just realized I've never posted what my daily schedule looks like.  It's hard to give a definitive description since I've transitioned so much between housing, have traveled (especially in the past five months), and in general my life in Madagascar doesn't follow such of a pattern.  Rather I've had to adjust to the local mode of life, which is especially not keen on the idea of using planners. I feel that nearly everyday has been another adventure for me, full of surprises and blooper moments.

My initial adjustment period was pretty long.  I took my time to feel comfortable at my last site.  I spent most of my days promenading around town and scavenging the forest with children in search of food, this was especially helpful with learning my dialect Tsimihety.  Children I've found are the best teachers.  I would sit at the local hôtely every morning and bury myself in my English-Malagasy dictionary trying to keep up with conversation with a local friend.  Finding a Malagasy, even one, who I could confide in helped not only with integration, but my own understanding and appreciation of this culture.

I'd take long bicycle rides along the main road past neighboring hamlets during the late afternoon.  This was a good way to reflect on a number of things since no one was allowed to interfere with my train of thought since I was quickly moving past them.

I liked taking the opportunity to walk through the local national park, usually accompanied by at least one of my adopted sisters.  We would take off our shoes as we past rice fields so we wouldn't get stuck in the thick mud.  We'd rest and snack on mangoes which we picked up along the way.  We'd surpass sandy streams, keeping our shoes off the entire way.  If we were motivated enough we'd go deep enough to spot sifikas and brown lemurs.  I always stood in awe of the tsingy formations and bat caves.

In the beginning I started washing my clothes in a large basin in front of my house once a week and continue to.  I feel any sort of manual labor is good for you.  I liked that I had to travel three times to the pump just to get enough water for one load of laundry.  It was a great workout.  I'm at a point now that I can wash my clothes as fast and as clean as any machine, or so I think.

I taught English once a week.  In the beginning many students showed up, then slowly less and less did.  I was a bit offended at first.  But since this wasn't mandatory  I think once the idea of being taught a foreign language by a vazaha wasn't novel anymore people weren't as interested.  But I am back to teaching English at my new site, and honestly being able to speak Malagasy better helps tremendously in keeping students engaged and interested.  So I really dislike it when people dismiss English teachers at being the worst at speaking Malagasy, because in my opinion they must be the best. Also there is more structure to my classes.Teaching English is a way to ward of boredom and feeling unproductive if the work within my own sector, community enterprise development, has been slow. I teach at a school and have a fixed schedule, and give small assignments.

I visited members in my women's onion microenterprise in their fields constantly.  I helped them in the whole process of preparing the field, planting, and harvest. It was an educational experience since I've never farmed a day in my life. I also received many lovely gifts of onions.

I made my rounds between these fikanbananas, or formal or informal groups.  Another group I visited on a regular basis were my fruit ladies.  Anjiamangirana is famous for its papayas.  These are the sweetest papayas I've ever tasted in my life.  I'd sit and talk to the women while snacking on this fruit trying to encourage them to not only think of themselves as farmers but as business people, capable of making entrepreneurial choices.  After a few months at my old site, I realized I wasn't going to be able to make giant strides in helping them with income generation.  I was the first volunteer there.  Really my work focused more upon establishing what Peace Corps was and trying to foster new ideas, or at least trying to make them more open to them.

I also worked with a group of women who made confiture, or jam and concentrated juice.  These came in different varieties, and depending on the season we'd always have new jam to work with.  They created papaya jam, papaya/ banana, pineapple, pineapple/ banana, Chinese plum, acai berry, and tamarind. I visited the homes where these women would put large cauldrons with boiling fruit and cook it on burning charcoal and sticks.  It was interesting watching how meticulously they measured the ingredients, making sure that the right combination of citrus juice, sugar, and fruit were put in each tightly sealed sanitized glass bottle.

The favorite part of my day is going to the market.  Local farmers travel several kilometers each day, carrying their produce on head, bicycle, or ox-pulled cart.  I love walking through the bizarre and smelling the fresh mangoes, watching the women winnow rice before pouring it into large gunny sacks.  Many volunteers have what they call a "market Mama" or the lady whose vegetable/ rice stand they frequent the most.  I buy carrots, onions, and cabbage most days from mine.  Before I went to a stand in front of my house to buy rice, yam leaves, dried shrimp, and onions. Because there wasn't much variety I spent less time loitering around town buying "groceries".

I visit an epicerie almost every other day to snack on homemade yogurt, and the most refreshing tamarind juice in town.  The owner Daddy Voany is this jolly man, who goes shirtless, and walks around with a lamba (brightly colored cloth) around his waist.  Sometimes I don't see him there because he's at home fixing small electronics such as radios and watches as a side-job.

Moving into the French Mission has been a bit of another adjustment for me.  I am forced to try to speak French now.  I was still struggling to express all of my thoughts in Malagasy, this is just another challenge for me.  I really adore all three of my room mates though.  I've forgotten how much fun it can be to live with women.  Perhaps I'm speaking too early and the drama hasn't unfolded yet, but these seem like wholesome ladies, worth spending a good amount of my day with.  I love their attitude towards food.  They really enjoy it.  They don't just scarf down every bit of grain of rice as fast as they can.  Instead they look at their food, slowly put it in their mouth and masticate, perhaps reacting to it, then commenting on it.  They love to talk about food, either on the table or off.  They take time to enjoy hors-oeuvres and desert (and again there is more commenting on food and drink).  It seems to them that the main course is just as important as the others.  

I visit Madame Vivianne, the leader of the sewing association I was assigned to work with by my counterpart NGO Prosperer, at her atelier pretty regularly.  I check up on her students and help in whatever way I can to improve her business, since I see there is so much potential in her skill.  I've custom made several articles for her and have recommended that friends do so to.  She's made the models which I've given her to a T.

I bike once a week to a nearby hamlet to a group of basket weavers.  Its always shocking to see the disparity of wealth and resources of my town and this village not seven kilometers away.  Most of the members are unmotivated or unable to weave baskets, leaving only a couple who weave on a regular basis.  It's difficult to find a market in Madagascar for them since it is inundated with these sorts of products, and difficult to export because of all of the red-tape put up.

I've read more in Peace Corps then I think my whole life combined as well as hand-written more letters than all my friends will in the 21st century.

Ever since I've had electricity I sleep at a much later time an arise much later than I previously did.  For instance its nearly mid-night and I'm still awake.  I will probably wake up around 7:30 am tomorrow.  During my days without electricity I slept an hour or two after dinner and arose with the sun or roaster, whichever one came first.

Although I don't really abide by a strict schedule feel my life is rather mundane on a day to day basis, as things do take a long time to change here. But then if I really sit down and reflect on my life I realize I've underwent a dramatic change of lifestyle from my previous life in the U.S.  It's exciting yet nerve racking to think of reintegrating into American society after being abroad for so long.  I'll have to relearn what is "normal" again, and this makes me a bit nervous.  But I suppose one valuable lesson Peace Corps has taught me is to be flexible.

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