June 12, 2010

Where's My Volleyball?

Way back when in Niger, upon so suddenly learning we would have a new home in Madagascar, we were forced to operate with some pretty limited resources in our attempts to find out more about this exotic land. Which is to say, eleven pages in Lonely Planet Africa and a Peace Corps packing list did not do much to satiate our curiosity. So we resorted to the popular volunteer past-time of reaching back through tangled webs of friendships, acquaintances, familial relations, fourth cousins, your-mom's-friend's-son's-childhood-playmate or maybe-I-just-read-their-blog-once to produce the time-twisted words of a Madagascar volunteer: “It's awesome, and so beautiful, but the isolation is crazy. It's like Castaway but without the volleyball to talk to.”

So, after four months at site, it is time to talk isolation. First, the unadulterated facts: I live 90K from my nearest neighbor (a two to four hour ride depending on the whims of Malagasy transportation), who I see once month when I return to civilization for banking; I am 350K (a full day trek at least) from the airport that I, as a “fly-site,” use every time I need to visit the Peace Corps office in the capital; by road, I am about 700K from Antananarivo, but due to security concerns cannot travel overnight; I am also more than a day's travel away from any other member of my oh-so-overly-bonded training class. So, yes, I am pretty durn isolated, more than most but still less so than others.

To be quite honest, it can be difficult. My social interactions, with members of my own culture that is, are limited to the extent that phone calls are written on the calendar and eagerly anticipated days in advance. When a call is missed, I begin to suffer from a serious Chicken Little complex (“the satellites are falling, the satellites are falling!!”) or begin mentally flipping the pages of the Worst Case Scenario handbook (“how could I have failed to teach her the zig-zag crocodile escape tactic?!? I knew I forgot to do something before I left!”). Each time, when contact is reestablished, it turns out that Dad was dialing the wrong number or so-and-so simply forgot. Then I look at myself and say (because, you know, talking to yourself happens sometimes): “you really need to get out more.”

But the truth is, I am not even remotely isolated. On the contrary, I am ceaselessly and relentlessly surrounded by people. I live in a neighborhood where my indoor sneezes are quickly blessed by the woman next-door, where insect attacks draw concerned crowds at my gate, and do not even get me started on the ruckus the follows the ringing of my phone. I am rarely starved for either conversations or visitors, instead I struggle to find excuses to get them to leave hours later (“Why do we need to leave the house for you to clean? We can sit and watch and offer commentary!”).

So it is not necessarily the no-brainer one might think, that loneliness is one of the great demons a Peace Corps volunteer must face. But, in many ways, it is even harder to feel isolated when you are surrounded, to be alone amongst many. There are indeed people breaking down my door at all hours, but they are not coming to discuss the latest book I've read or preferences is peanut butter or what is up with Sarah Palin. Rather, they want to talk about rice (again) or the weather (again) or how strange I am (always). And it is when one is standing at the crux of this cultural divide that the loneliness can sometimes become a challenge and one may find oneself wishing for that olleyball after all.

What I fear, however, is what will become of me when I am forced to reintegrate into society. (I am only partially jesting). Take, for example, my stage's recent In-Service-Training (IST), when we all convened for two weeks of additional technical workshops and informational sessions. To make one thing clear, we did work; we worked pretty hard. But also...some of us at least, apparently reverted to pre-adolescence.

For a week, I barely slept, I was so giddy with excitement to be amongst Americans, speaking English, using humor I could actually understand, comparing stories on exactly how absurd our lives have become. After our community counterparts left the scene, things devolved entirely; a blanket fort was constructed in one of the meeting rooms and a dance party conducted amongst and around it; the “Ha-ha game” (a summer camp staple I apparently missed) was brought back by popular demand; an entire night's social events were undertaken in protective bee-keeping headware; the sheer amount of snuggling throughout that final week could have made a baby lemur blush. At the farewell BBQ at the Country Director's, there was tree-house climbing, trampoline-jumping (OK, that was just me), and an open competition to bounce a ball seventy-five feet in the air. [Passive voice utilized to protect the identities of certain instigators]. Look who the American tax-payer appointed to save the world!!

Frankly, though, it was extraordinarily cathartic. On the books, IST is solely for training purposes; unofficially, it is also a bit of a celebration of surviving the first and (so they tell us anyway) hardest months at site- the language challenges, that cultural chasm, those “what-the-heck-am-I-doing-here” moments, and, yes, the isolation. It is a stressful life at times and a brief retreat into mini-America offered a healthy escape.

But, if you get me on the phone now and cannot get a word in edgewise, if the thought “word vomit” is running through your head and you are wishing the satellite would crash to spare you the pain; just know that I am back at post and for the next twenty minutes you are my volleyball.