The places you go

As Kelly Clarkson so perfectly puts it, “what doesn’t kill you make you stronger.” Madagascar is a country full of issues. A small percentage of Malagasy people control everything. A transitional President who is fighting every step of the way to keep up his position and his always growing “slush fund”. Development is in a standstill, or sometimes, backwards slide.

If you really want to experience a country so set apart from the rest of the world, I recommend spending a month or two in Madagascar. Not just because it is a giant island separated from any other country by hundreds of miles of water and little to no communication with the outside that you get to live a completely different lifestyle. But because you can experience corruption, sexual harassment, racism, in conjunction with openheartedness, adventure, and a life changing experience.

I want to both stay in Madagascar and live here after my Peace Corps service is up and run away screaming in joy that I’m getting off of this island; that’s how unique this country is. I truly have grown to love this red muddy island, but miss the simple luxuries of America and it’s culture as well.

As I have said many times before, Madagascar really has impacted me. I have done things in this country that I would never have considered in the States. I have killed and plucked chickens, eaten almost everything imaginable, and finally gained the confidence to stand up to bullies, both within Peace Corps and as Host Country Nationals.

It really does go to say, once you served in Peace Corps, you will never be the same. The things I’ve seen will forever flabbergast me. The people I have encountered will forever be an influence on who I am and where I’m going. Finally, the amount of growth I have experienced will always remind me what I accomplished, or didn’t in some cases, and how I got here.

One of my old friends back home reached out to me recently to talk to me about Peace Corps. She accepted a position in the Masters Program and wanted to hear from a current volunteer what she thought. I may have not said it in these exact words, but I told her, “Peace Corps will be the best and worst two years of your life.” I have shared that thought with some of my friends in country, and there has been a consensus. Even if you do have a sitemate, have regular internet, or spend a majority of your living allowance on telephone credit, you become isolated. I have seen so many extroverts, myself included, turn into introverts and prefer the loneliness of their house. The sexual harassment is very overwhelming and depressing, and no matter what you do, it digs at you. Nothing makes you feel good about yourself than a man following you down the street tsking and saying some very inappropriate things that will not be repeated. The biggest thing, however, is the realization that your two years of service, will in the long run, probably not amount to much, so you wonder why you gave up everything in the first place.

But then, there is the hope that maybe something you did teach to a member of the community will improve their life. Maybe those kids that you taught to invest their money into bank accounts, will do so and save more money to improve their living conditions. Maybe the children you have time and time again explained the importance of washing their hands and coughing into their elbow will prevent them from getting sick, or spreading a sickness that could unfortunately result in deaths. Or maybe, you leave the country knowing your community has a less racist view on foreigners than when you arrived. During your service, you are forced to work with and get to know other volunteers, people you would not have known in the States, and although unfortunately true, people you would probably not have been friends with. Although I can say there are a few people I will not keep in touch with, Peace Corps really does become your family. No one understands what you have been through better than another volunteer. Those stupid frustrations that make you excessively angry is something you will always share with your PC family. You will forever have inside jokes that no one outside of the country will understand. And you will always have a support system no matter how many miles separate you.

I also told my friend the following: “if given the ability to turn back the clock and either apply or withdraw my application for Peace Corps, I will still apply.” As John Garner once said “life is the art if drawing without an eraser.” It’s not about redos, it’s about taking what you have experienced and growing from it. Pre-Peace Corps Christina and Post-Christina are two different people, and I must say, I like Post-Christina so much better.

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It’s the small things that count

Many volunteers think that their Peace Corps experience revolves around one momentous project, something that requires one of the three forms of funding from Peace Corps (PCPP, VAST, or SPA). They think that there needs to be something physical left behind to show their legacy. Time and time again, volunteers build such things, selling pavilions, concrete ponds, libraries, etc. But after that volunteer finishes their service, and leaves, the buildings crumble due to inadequate training on maintainence, lack of interest, or just pure laziness. I’m not saying this happens to all projects, I think some of the things my Peace Corps Mates have built are outstanding. Time and time again however, I have passed through towns where a Peace Corps Volunteer had lived and see the skeletons of their projects. A sign that says “Tree Farm”, but there is no trees because as soon as that volunteer left, the Malagasy people sold them for money.

In this past week, I have watched my three large projects crumble to the ground; one out of corruption, one out of sublimation of a friendship with another volunteer, and the last because of difference of moral opinions between my Malagasy counterpart and a PCV friend. You can’t do anything but laugh as everything falls apart around you. What everyone told me about Peace Corps before my service started ended up being true.

With all that has gone wrong, I can’t dwell on it. Even though it doesn’t seem like it, I have made an impact in my village, more than I know. They have welcomed me into their family, and no matter what I say, Alakamisy is my home. As for my projects, yes the ‘momentous’ ones have fallen to pieces, but the small things still remain. The smile on children’s faces as I just sit with them at the market and teach them how to say things in English. “Yo dog, what’s up?” is my favorite thus far. Fist bumping random people from my village to 60km north or south of me because they know of me and my way of saying hello. I have done much smaller projects, visited friends sites as well as my own, and teaching simple topics that can have an effect on their future.

Just this past week, before Thanksgiving, I taught another informatique class to adults at my friend’s site near the capital. 10 adults who have never used a computer before. The class was only 3 hours a day for the week (there was a morning session and an evening session). These students left with email accounts, advanced knowledge of Microsoft Word, and an understanding of internet usage. It was such a simple class, but it can have such an impact on their jobs and futures.

So coming back to my first point, your service is not just about the big, pricey projects, but the smaller ones. The ones that can change simple views or acquire technical knowlege. The small things really can matter the most. It’s the small things that start the chain effect.

 

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I’m happiest most when I’m in my element. Teaching computers to the afternoon session.

Eavesdropping…a skill well used at a housewarming party

Housewarming parties are very similar to those in the states, but with a 24 hour party, no cops there to shut it down, and the ENTIRE family in attendance. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a house warming party in my village. A little bit trivial you might think, but being invited to any event in Madagascar means you are integrated into the community. At times—well let’s be honest, all the time—it doesn’t feel that way: Vazaha! (foreigner!) being screamed at you when you’re walking to market, being asked for money by the same children even though you have already explained tsy manam-bola aho (I’m not rich/don’t have money), or told that you can’t speak Malagasy just because you’re white (and they don’t mean that in the nicest way). My fokontany (closest translation would be neighborhood-ish) is a little over 3000, with 30,000 in my entire village. There’s always that feeling of alienation from the rest of the community, and being talked to like you’re a two year old because they think you “just don’t get” Malagasy definitely doesn’t help one feel welcomed.

But my direct neighbors—those that live below me, and in the house right next to mine—are very welcoming, and while they do speak slowly to me and tend to talk to me like a four year old, I truly don’t mind because they are the sweetest people ever and are looking out for my best interest. Just today, I was sitting in this house surrounded by a hundred other Malagasy people welcoming the family into the finally finished house, and someone spoke to me extremely slowly like I was an absolute idiot. The family that lives below me interjected and politely told them I could understand them, I just don’t talk much because that’s who I am. Not believing me, the gentlemen whispered to his friend that I didn’t need to understand him, but I was going to be his prized possession of a wife. It might seem bad, but typically in most circumstances I try not to lead on that I am somewhat knowledgeable in Malagasy so I can judge my surroundings. Eavesdropping definitely helps in this country. And normally when it comes to “oh she’s stupid she can’t understand Malagasy” or “she’s French, she doesn’t feel like she needs to learn Malagasy” I tend to not respond. Those responses are normal in this country and my skin has become somewhat thick. But when it comes to objectifying me or blatantly making fun of me, tsy mety. In this case, I shot out quickly “efa manana fiancé aho. Tsy manambady anao aho” (I already have a fiancé. I can’t marry you). My table erupted in laughter and the gentleman’s mouth nearly hit the floor. My neighbor gave him an ‘I told you’ look.

I’m not sure if house warming parties are the same across this country, but a Pastor attended the party to bless the house and wish the family a good life within. Cultural side note: in some parts of this country, houses are passed down through the family, but if a husband dies before the rest of their family and there are no sons, the house is burned and cannot be inhabited by the widow and her family. In my region, Betsileo (represent!) this is not the case. But religion is taken seriously throughout the entire country, so blessing a house wasn’t really surprising. After the house blessing, the meal was served. A non-Gasy dish was served first (typically a plate of salad, pasta, and some ground beef mixed in) and then the normal Gasy meal next (mounds and mounds of rice with a little bit of a side dish), and finally a small dessert to finish it off. It is a very extravagant event, sodas are served and it can cost the family a small fortune to throw an event like this. It is fomba for each guest to give an envelope when leaving with a few thousand Ariary (something I completely spaced out about and didn’t end up contributing) so the family gets back a portion of the funds spent.

All in all, enjoyable, hopefully there are more of those to come over the next year and a half.

One day efa malagasy fotsy, the next vazaha.

The feelings toward Peace Corps Volunteers vary from day to day. Yesterday, I was efa mahay in Malagasy and ‘one of them.’ A mpivarotra even yelled at another vender for trying to give me the vazaha price–pretty much just double what the cost should be and that’s the vazaha price. I was even able to haggle down a table and two chairs from 35000A to 28000A which in itself is a huge feat for me. However, today, when I went back to that same mpandrafitra to purchase a bed frame, since I bought a full mattress the previous day for a single frame, he charged me slightly higher since they would have to carry it to the transit house. I agreed to this price though because I wasn’t going to lug this huge, heavy, wood frame more than a mile back to the Meva. I think not!

It wasn’t until we reached the Meva that I realized they didn’t have the planks needed to keep the mattress on the bed frame. Mind you my Malagasy is tsy tsara and after nearly a week of not really communicating 24/7 in this language, it’s even worse then it was. I tried to explain that there weren’t any planks and the security guard at the transit house actually stepped in and took over. A verbal altercation took place in which the men agreed to bring the planks if I paid them an extra 25000A, for their time and effort they said. If I had the language, I would have stood my ground and said ‘no, we agreed to 60000a for the bed, and that means all of it’ but in my Malagasy, all I could say as mety (fine/okay).

Thirty minutes later, they come back with the wood, cut the planks and the pins to hold the frame together and vita, they’re done. I gave them the remainder of the money I owed them and they then asked for a portage. I didn’t understand what they meant and explained to the security guard in the house and asked for clarification. He shook his head and in the Malagasy Betsileo fomba said ‘absolutely not.’ Another verbal altercation occured and they walked away without any more money.

As I sat dwelling on what just happened, Monica and Jessie came back from shopping. I told them what happened, and they said they saw both men walking up the hill smiling, laughing, and thanking them for their business. Gosh I hate being taken advantage of…

So moral of the story, stand my ground. I did today after that incident and started saying efa malagasy fotsy (I’m already a white Malagasy) to anyone that yelled vazaha or gave me the vazaha price. Take that ya’ll!

 

Veloma…love you all!

It’s days like these when I really cherish family

So as I’m sitting here in a hospital room at Irvine Hoag on Thanksgiving day, my thoughts kept drifting to family. Yes, my dad keeps snoozing off in the hospital bed across from me, but I do enjoy having all my family in one city even under the given circumstances.

So on this day I am thankful for many things: for the Irvine Paramedics and Fire Department for responding to my house so quickly at 2am on Wednesday, for the staff at Hoag ER who were able to determine what was wrong with my dad after only a few hours (and no sarcasm intended, honestly), and for Vilma, my dad’s nurse and one of the nicest and most accomodating people at this hospital. The official diagnosis for my dad is Pulminary embolism (as for spelling, I have no idea; hospitality major in college here). But in common terms, he had two blood clots, one on each side of his lungs. It’s the same thing that caused my aunt’s death at the beginning of the year.

And while my family may not be having a Thanksgiving dinner, I am thankful that in one days time, my dad will probably be at home, where he should be.

But enough of the somberness…Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Enjoy the tv show marathons, football games, and stuffing your face with not so healthy food.

And a word I learned today… kolokoloko….turkey. So enjoy your kolokoloko for me :).

The thoughts behind my decision

Recently, it seems that everyone wants to know my reasoning and decision to join the Peace Corps and what I’m going to be doing in Madagascar, so here’s my answer. As many of you may know, I have been in the application process for nearly 2 years, originally applying in January 2010. Contemplating joining the Corps was probably one of the hardest decisions of my life. I always knew I wanted to do some sort of outreach after I spent a week abroad my senior year of high school in Mexico, but a commitment of 2.5 years, that was something I couldn’t waver on if I changed my mind. Many of you asked why Peace Corps? Why not another organization? That in itself, is a very interesting story. To be completely honest, until I stumbled across the website, I always thought PC was this fictional organization that was only in movies. I knew I wanted to do outreach in another country because even though there are areas of poverty in the United States, other countries in the world are in far worse shape than us. Where children do not know a life with running water, electricity, or even shoes. Maybe that’s why the TOMS company is so near and dear to my heart.

So when I stumbled across the PC website during a Google search for outreach trips and read the information page for prospective volunteers, I knew this was the organization for me. Really no other explanation needed. It sounds so cliché, but it just felt right, that I was supposed to do it. That’s probably why during the ups and downs of the application process, when I was given a departure date, then waitlisted due to funding, had a departure date again, waitlisted again, and so on, I stuck with it. I truly can’t think of many that would essentially place their life on hold for two years, while waiting for a response to see if they were accepted or not. It has been a journey but something I am looking forward to experiencing and learning from.

Below are some of the questions people have been asking regarding my assignment, some maybe you are thinking as well:

What am I going to be doing?

My official job title is Small Business Advising. Although my responsibilities are not very specific until I get to my location, I will pretty much be working with microenterprises in a community and assisting them with developing their concept and offer training in items like accounting, financing, etc.

 

How long is my commitment?

My specific dates of assignment are February 2011-May 2013. But if I love it as much as I think I will, there is an option that I could apply and extend for one more year.

 

How are we going to communicate with you?

AT&T connection is spotty at best and very expensive ($3.46 a minute). Chances are I will purchase a phone in Madagascar to use for rare calls home. Skype will most likely be the best way of communication…when I have internet access. Other than that, my blog site and writing letters is most likely the way to go. Care packages will always be welcome, so don’t be shy J. My only request is please try to not send anything the Malagasy would consider valuable or delicious looking (this means try and disguise things). And….when sending me things, please write a list of what you have included so I know if the package has been tampered on.

 

What will be my address?

I will post that on my blog site (aka here) as it gets nearer to my departure date. Make sure you write “air mail” somewhere on anything you send me, if not, it could take weeks to get to my location. I’ll let you all know when I get a PO Box nearer to my village but for until then, just sent it to PC headquarters.

 

What are you going to eat?

The Malagasy diet consists of mainly rice, lots and lots of rice. And before you ask, yes, I am planning on gaining weight before I go, or at least trying to. Work friends, you probably already know my lovely encounter with the nurses during my Wellness check. But yes, that’s why I’m depending on you all to send me food like candy and mac and cheese packets for extra substance. :)

 

Are you going to be living in a hut?

Yes that is a frequent question, and no I do not know. Housing ranges from anywhere from a hut to a two bedroom apartment. Again, this will be determined when I get there based on the community. But wouldn’t that be a story worth sharing if I did.

 

What do they speak in Madagascar?

French is the national language, Malagasy, the indigenous. I am attempting on learning French right now with Rosetta Stone, and Malagasy will just have to wait until I get there.

 

Are you getting paid for this?

Yes, my two year assignment will be a job. However, it is mostly volunteer. I will be getting roughly $128 a month to live off of. I’m sure many of you are thinking that is a crazy small amount of money, but realistically, the Malagasy family survives off of $2 a day, so $128 is living lavishly.

What I can expect.

This is what I have learned about what my life will be like for the next three years:

• I better get used to eating rice. Lots and lots of rice.

• Marriage proposals will come quite frequently.

• Don’t EVER look into the latrine.

• Crystal light packages are a very strong payment method when trading with another volunteer.

• Rats love to live in your ceiling.

• Taxi brousses—bring something to put in your lap. That way you can’t fit another person in the car and your lap ends up the additional seat.

• My bike and me might just become best friends.

• Books will try to prevent the boredom

• If is see a bat, do not freak out. I guess it’s quite frequent.

• Coloring books are a huge hit with the children, but once you give them one, they most definitely will come back for more.

• My name will be changed to “vazaha”—aka white person/foreigner

• A five minute walk may take an hour. Everyone wants to speak to you on the way.

• Did I mention that I better like rice? Pretty much guaranteed for at least two meals a day. Good thing I loveeeee rice!

And this is just one month of reading of blogs from volunteers in Madagascar. Just the tip of the iceberg. As the time dwindles down, I get more and more antsy. And I get more and more excited. Is it weird I’m sorta excited to live without electricity? It is isn’t it…