Monday, May 21, 2012

A simplified version of my first four months of re-entry

I have gone through "reentry" to the US before. At age 17, leaving the Philippines after 3 years and "integrating" into a big californian high school for my senior year was possibly one of the worst years of my life! Then there was coming back after 6 months of biking and volunteering in Mexico and Guatemala, right in time for bridesmaids-dress shopping with my sister (yes, there were tears involved). As I got ready to leave Madagascar after 28 months out of the US, I knew it was not going to be easy, and I tried to prepare myself for what was coming, mostly by dreaming about how amazing Mexican food was going to taste.

Unfortunately, I wasn't really caring that much about burritos as I sat on the Dubai airport floor in tears after walking by what seemed like a mile of perfumes and liquor and well-dressed travelers. 

The physical things that have been shocks to my system are mostly little things to the US, normal American wealth. Like going to the grocery store for the first time (and the 2nd time, and the 3rd time), sidewalks, children in clean clothes, people walking their dogs along the beach park "recreating".

There's also the personal anxiety: wondering if the clothes I pulled out of the box from my sister's garage where I stored them are still appropriate to wear out of the house.  Does this match? I'm really hoping to blend in, but not sure if "just returned from Africa" is written on my face.  Turns out it's not, but there was still anxiety about going out and about. 

When eating meals in restaurants, I can't help but think about Antanifotsy and the half-cup of peanuts for all of us when I see people's portions of meat. I know better than to say anything about these thoughts. But I get stuck, not knowing what to order for myself. And then I find myself not really able to participate in the conversations around me. I don't know enough about "first world problems," so I just nod and smile when someone's complaining about their app (?!).

Somehow, I'm doing better than when I came back from Guatemala, better about not venting all of my thoughts on the wastefulness or wealth or pettiness that I may observe. Maybe that's it: I feel like an observer, not really in it, so I'm better at not judging, letting it be. Sometimes it seems like what I am is just numb, or just good at ignoring. But really, after four months back, I think I'm finding that the hard thing isn't as much the culture shock, but the simple missing of the place, of the people.

After the initial shock, I find that I'm just homesick a lot. What I think about is how I miss having the kids over coloring at my house, or walking down to Antonette's house to chat before fetching water, or the 5pm sunlight on my wooden floor.

What's hard? Yeah, all of the adjusting-to-America's-wealth stuff; but also not being in the middle of that crazy community that got to be my home. Not having those daily routines that I got so accustomed to. And for the first months back, until I got my acceptance to grad school, the not knowing what's next, and not knowing how to plan for what's next. Honestly, I've never been good at transitions, despite the many I've had in my life.

So what has helped? Talking with friends, those going through the same thing and others. Having a patient family. Physical activity, and putting seeds in the ground at a friend's farm. Journaling. Taking things slowly, trying to be patient with myself and others. Eating burritos. And ice cream and pie and donuts, and the Malagasy red rice that I brought back with me, even though I almost cried when it turned out dry on the electric stove.

Friday, April 27, 2012


I am back in the United States now, with internet fast enough to post some pictures, so as a conclusion to my Peace Corps service, you can view some of the things I've been writing about over the past two+ years.

My house and bike with vetiver grass nursery growing in part of my yard.

Inside my house with stove to the right and desk to the left, shelves with water filter by the door. Hanging hearts from my sister in the doorway.

Preparing dinner in my house.

My yard in the rain before there was a garden.

And after there was a garden! Much nicer...

The view of the back of my house, as seen from the outhouse.

Burning fields for rice planting. The fire got out of control and burned another area so they decided to give that to me for planting.

Planting hillside rice with sharply pointed sticks and a basket around the waist for the rice seed. More field burning going on in the background.

I decided to plant my burned rice field on the contour for erosion control, and spent two weeks digging into hard dirt and roots.

Corn, beans, and rice sprout despite the drought and the fody (birds that eat the rice sprouts). It's a bad year for rain, so I had a very small harvest.

My friend Georgette's newly sprouted field.

Rice (and corn) growing in my friend's field.

Many people in my area make a living from making charcoal. The rainforest was cut down many years ago when the British and then the French first built the road; now the village is surrounded by eucalyptus, which is used to make charcoal. You can see the areas already cut down and the white bags used to transport the finished charcoal to the cities for use as a cooking fuel. Oh, and my shadow!

I started a weekly nature club for kids in the village to learn about the environment and gardening; here they are coloring and learning about types of soil.

At kids club learning about our watershed from up on the hill where I get cell phone reception.

Coloring our watershed.

The fish ponds built by hand by the community forest management group with which I taught the women's literacy class. The fish were just getting big enough to harvest when I left Madagascar. It is a one hour bike ride plus 1.25 hour hike into these hills from my village.

The gardening project I had with some of the women in the literacy class.

Teaching the weekly women's literacy class.

The women's literacy group on one of our last meetings, with lots of their kids too.

My friend Hannah, a health volunteer, comes to my village to lead health discussions after the village decided that was one of their main needs...but so far, no one has shown up!  Don't worry, my friend Baofety will round up five women who were innocently sitting around to come and participate (never mind if a few were drunk, at least one had fun with the condom demo!).

Several hours hike/bike from my village, people in Manasamena were more excited about the health project; we had a full schoolroom and here the kids got to sing the "Look at how we wash our hands" song.

Whenever someone visits, we go check out the waterfall that's 20 minutes walk from my house; there's a perfect picnic spot up on the big rocks at the top.

One of the last things I did with the Kids Club was to take the top five students to Andasibe National Park, about 20 km away from the village but a whole different landscape. We made lemur masks and toilet-paper-tube binoculars, got to eat at a restaurant, sleep in a tent, and see the coolest lemurs in Madagascar!

Making binoculars at Mitsinjo Park where we camped.

In Andasibe forest with our guide looking at...

The Indry (Babakoto) lemur!

Oy! Pota has REAL binoculars!

Lemur masks and party dresses in the forest, following our guide to look for the Sifaka lemur.

The end of our hike, with our wonderful guide Dipsy.

Walking home--the girls got rides on bicycles part-way home and the boys walked with me, arriving exhausted just minutes before a huge storm blew through the village.  These kids are tough!

We harvest broccoli at Kids Club and they're very goofy posing with the bean experiment and the tree nursery. In the background is the bridge, all fixed up after it collapsed, and up the hill is the Catholic church.

The small children have no fear crossing the new bridge after Kids Club at the garden.

Me and my kids posing during Kids Club in the school-with-no-walls, being silly while learning how to make and write our own books.

Eliasy writing her book after she glued it all together.

During my last 4 months at site, I started teaching yoga (or, as I called it, "faux-ga") to women in the village. We had a lot of fun with this, and usually it was a kids-free zone but the day I brought the camera, of course the kids magically showed up.

During my last month at site, I put on an Open House to showcase what that the kids learned and did at Kids Club during the past year.  The kids were excited to find themselves in the pictures I'd printed out.

A boy looks at the Open House pictures.

Making goodbye posters at our last Kids Club and posing very seriously in front of the school.

Lots of the village kids came to my good-bye party. Little do they know that they are about to be introduced to their first pinata ever!

My empty house, after two years of living here it looks really sad and small with everything packed up:

My empty house.

The last view of the village as I biked away. Veloma!

Transporting all of my things out of the village, Remi and his friend with home-made wheelbarrows and me with the bike taking a break on the 8 km road to the highway.

My last vacation in Madagascar, up to the north:
Ankify: would-be paradise if it weren't for the rats that infest the roof keeping us up all night.

Mangrove trees in the ocean on Nosy Be.

The amazing tsingy rock formations at Ankarana National Park.

The Crowned Sifaka lemur at Ankarana National Park. So cute!

Caroline and I at Emerald Bay outside of Diego.

Here are some other pictures from trips around the island, just in case you want motivation to visit Madagascar!

The landscape around my friend Jennie's site, in the Mahajanga region; on the way to visit her friends and eat peanut/corn deliciousness.

Touring the mosque at Katsepy, across the bay from Mahajanga.

At the beach in Vatomandry on the east coast, celebrating my birthday.

Fishermen taking their boat out in the early morning, Vatomandry.

 Heading into Isalo National Park by foot in the early morning.

Hiking through the canyons...

  On top of the world!

Kanto and Caroline love Isalo!

Maybe because they have stripy lemurs there: the ring-tailed lemur so demure.

 Green-grey color to the canyon pools.

Seems like there should be lions!
Thankfully there aren't.

On our way to Morondava.

Morondava beach sunset (with pirate ship).

Sara and her friend and an ox-cart at the Avenue of the Baobabs, on our way to Kirindy Reserve.

Herding cows under the baobabs.  There are seven species of baobab in Madagascar, 6 of them are found no where else in the world.

 Eating leaves.

 Hugging a 600-year old baobab at Kirindy Reserve!

That's all for now...but maybe I'll put up other pictures in the future.  I'm thinking of adding some thoughts on coming back to the US and if I get my act together I'll continue posting.  Thanks for viewing!