As much as we all may joke about Peace Corps goggles (it is not a joke: it is an affliction!), many of us have switched those spectacles for another pair of late. Long ago, when it meant little to me, I heard through the usual twisted, time-distorted chain of Peace Corps wisdom about the rose-tinted glasses. These, the legend went, slip down over your eyes during your last weeks in your village; they distort your once reliable vision and suddenly you find all that once irritated you to no end now terribly endearing. As the conclusion of my two years lay yet far off, I patently disbelieved in this rose-tinted phenomenon.
But then, without warning, it happened. Awww, I caught myself thinking, this is the last time I will be harassed by that guy for English lessons, that woman for plastic containers, that kid for dictionaries I lent out a year ago and never got back, and that drunk who harasses me just for the hell of it. Shucks, this could be the last of seven hundred times that I explain to my neighbor that I do not speak French (really, not a word), the last of five hundred vague acquaintances to demand "gifts of the road" (oh come on guys, I was gone ten minutes!), the very last of a hundred times I have had to lug two giant buckets of water up a never ending hill (who invented this torture slalom?!).
Possibly it is relief, or could it be these strange feelings are what is known as emotions? For now, I cannot help but dwell upon how I have moved through seasons in this place and with these people. Through the seasons of my Malagasy; through days of ceaseless, drumming rains and dry, endlessly dusty months; through mangos, apples, oranges, and the dark, dark days without bananas. We have moved from polite hellos to "what's cooking?," from tompoko (my lord) to drako-eeee (girrrrrrrrrrlfriend!). Parents no longer ask me to teach their children English: they ask me to adopt them and take them to America. (I say that the paperwork for that sort of thing is awfully complicated).
What is also surprisingly complicated is the application of this term "emotional closure" which everyone throws around with such confidence. I am not quite sure what it entails. I can eat my way through the last of my American food stash, can clean my mud house and pack up my odd assortment of belongings. I can give away my maps, my books, and my soccer balls, can take portraits so that I will not forget the faces that filled my days. I can, and have, bid my farewells. But when I say that I am leaving, people look mystified and reply, but you just got here. My kids cock their heads, only momentarily stumped: yes, but when are you coming back?
I remember in the beginning (and sometimes towards the middle and even occasionally at the end) when the days would drag on interminably. Now- and I am aware it sounds like Peace Corps is paying me to say this- I do not want them to go. It is bittersweet to watch them slip away. I am without doubt lost in the rose-tinted haze.
Time, it seems, has toyed with me since my arrival in Maromandia. Even in my final days I oscillated between a desperate desire to leave this very second, and a strange, dangerous desire to stay forever. I will never forget stepping out of the Peace Corps car on my first day and allowing a long string of expletives to parade through my mind. Where did the two intervening years go? How is it that I find myself watching the town- an unremarkable dot on an unread map to most, a million experiences to me- pulling away out of the rear window? I will not forget this feeling either of moving forward and knowing that Maromandia will stay right here where I left it.
Not long ago, a friend of mine said something she clearly thought would be shocking. “Katie,” she began tentatively, as if bracing me for devastating news, “You know most people don’t really consider Peace Corps a world changer.” There was a heavy pause.
I was not shocked—my list of world-changers would be fairly short—but I was caught off guard. I am much more accustomed to dispelling assorted myths born of distance, exoticism, and Peace Corps recruiting posters. No, I do not dig wells with my bare hands and bloody knuckles, nor have I contributed to the search for the cure for AIDS. I am sorry to say that I haven’t rescued a single stranded dolphin.
For those who criticize the world-changing effectiveness or impact of Peace Corps, this may be the crux of the issue, an incompatibility of expectations and reality. Peace Corps is exceptionally good at what it does; I just don’t think that most Americans know what it is we do.
In defense of Peace Corps, I offer you one word and then ask for five paragraphs to explain it. The word is kludge, and it is defined as “an awkward, inelegant contraption that somehow works.” Setting aside entirely the personal growth of each Peace Corps volunteer, the private, complex and completely individual journey each of us undertakes, this is my strongest (or at least, most unique) argument for the value and very existence of Peace Corps.
But first, I have to give due to the awkward and the inelegant. Peace Corps is a lumbering, bureaucratic machine. Often there are snafus and mishaps, as one might expect from an organization that places 10,000 volunteers in 10,000 far-flung locations. One feels occasionally isolated and unsupported, as if after your hurried months of training you are slapped on the butt, told “make us proud,” and promptly creamed on the line of scrimmage. You hear horror stories of volunteers abandoned; you hear stories, too, of volunteers who partied away their 700+ days. But those are the exception, not the rule, and most volunteers leave Peace Corps feeling that they were respected and served with integrity.
Despite these shortcomings, Peace Corps somehow works. For two years, volunteers do a unique and challenging thing, integrating in the truest sense of the word. We live among our communities, adopting their ways and sharing the rituals of life, learning the language, adjusting to the pace of a different place. This is a means to an end, helping the community, but also an end in itself: struggling across a vast portion of the cultural divide as a good faith gesture. As a result of this struggle we see our world and particularly our country of service through a new lens. And, in turn, the citizens of our host country—neighbor, co-worker, mailman, coffee lady—see us as much more than the foreigner we initially appear and thus the United States as more than just a vague distant nation. In this way, Peace Corps volunteers are ambassadors and embodiments of an ideal of cultural tolerance and exchange.
This change of perception works slowly and yet powerfully on two sides of the world. Here in Madagascar, the second a word of Malagasy comes out of my mouth, people know that I am American and a surprising number know that I am Peace Corps. It is this demonstration of effort and nod to longevity, this crossing of the divide, that sets us apart. Peace Corps volunteers are a presence in a country: not tourists, not disconnected development workers, but something altogether different. Through pure hearsay, I have heard the American Chargé d’affaires say that Peace Corps is the reason the United States has a good reputation in Madagascar. Think of that magnified on a seventy-country scale, or even the 139 countries in which Peace Corps has served since its inception 50 years ago. Yes, much of what Peace Corps does is symbolic, but that symbolism matters.
Now cross an ocean or two. Each year thousands who have experienced a change of lenses, an alteration of values, return to America. Their collective voice broadens our national worldview, enriches our perspective, enlivens and informs debate. These are returned volunteers who will always remember their time in a dusty or drenched, distant corner of the earth, who will not forget the people who were kind to them there, or the subtle ways that the conduct of a world power can affect them. Peace Corps volunteers know how small this world is, and in these increasingly interconnected times can be a unique voice for people who may be left out or left behind.
Forget not that volunteers do good and effective things during their service too. This argument is not to devalue these works or their impact, but rather to point out that the framework of tangible success is not the only way to measure Peace Corps’ value. For Peace Corps, like any agency striving for improvement in the developing world, has encountered mountains of missteps, false starts, and dead ends. This is another awkward and inelegant side of the kludge. But the side that matters, the side that somehow works, despite the difficulties, is that of the thousands of volunteers whose countless actions and exchanges operate in a small, daily way to increase understanding and improve their small corner of the earth.
Thus, after a heavy pause, I reply: Peace Corps may not be a world changer, but in a world that is changing, it is more relevant and necessary than ever.
I, as an American, am inherently fond of boundaries. I am helpless to this particular penchant: it both runs in my blood and has been enforced since youth – from colonial homesteading to Frost’s fences (“Good fences make good neighbors”), from my kindergarten cubby to my college cubicle. Ingrained with deep set notions of personal space and private property, I proceeded through life never recognizing these as just another cultural construct.
That is, until I moved into a small town in Madagascar. For the two years thereafter, my concept of space has been under attack, barraged relentlessly, eroded in the most subtle, creeping ways. I am simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by this process, as I (stubbornly American) keep erecting boundaries and my community (persistently Malagasy) keeps gobbling them right up.
Under construction for six months, my fence has also, unfortunately, been under the counter process of demolition for eighteen; it has been a steady, painful, stick-by-stick decline. And as the fence has fallen, my neighbors have crept in with quiet assurance of my inability to resist. First the yard was conquered, by the infiltration of soccer games and the enjoyment of afternoon shade. What remained of the fence was soon a jungle-gym; my laundry line rarely held my own clothes; kids hung from the branches of my trees, grabbing at the fruit, as their mothers chattered, harvesting my moringa. Even my latrine was involuntarily committed to the neighborhood and I was forced to ask myself why I felt such a strong sense of ownership over a hole in the ground.
At last my porch was consumed: now a marbles arena, a nap location of choice, a terrace we can all enjoy. My neighbors lounge at ease within the remains of my shattered boundaries. Once I left for a single night to return and find that someone had quite literally moved in under the overhang, mat and cooking pot complete.
It might have been this final incident—this most blatant and unapologetic invasion—that forced my recognition of a simple fact: these boundaries exist only in my mind. Malagasy people conceive of space in a fundamentally different way; they do no perceive the world as I do, neatly partitioned and clearly delineated. This is a product of my culture, a culture that values boundaries and allows them to dictate behavior. Instead, Malagasy culture hesitates to circumscribe space, to award its possession, to declare what is public and private. What boundaries do exist are fairly porous and born of necessity; within a village almost all is shared and communal.
As proud as I am of my integration, the collapse of my private space can still drive me to wit’s end. When this happens, I think back to my first months when I entered as the ultimate outsider into a closed, comfortable world where everyone knew everyone and everyone knew their place. I hardly realized it, but I was just a little pocket within the larger confines of my village, ensconced and inaccessible behind my sturdy fence.
Now the fence has fallen and as a result I have been invited into the communal world by the very actions of invasion I once despised. I do not feel myself that I am entirely integrated (it is clear I need a husband and a baby for that) but I am no longer an outsider either. I am another sort of anomaly, accepted, even embraced, within the physical bounds of my community, but not its fundamental social structure. It is ambiguous but it is progress, and I will give up my sole right to a hole in the ground for such any day.
Due to various misreadings of the map and misconceptions of distance, not to mention various conversational misunderstandings if not misleadings, I embarked early one morning for what I thought would be a straight-forward 30 kilometer bike ride to Ankarafa, home of the blue-eyed lemurs.I met my accompaniment at an inconspicuous dirt-road turn off.The dusty sign announced Ambolobozo 65k; I was really happy I was not going to Ambolobozo.
It was a beautiful morning and at first the going was fairly smooth.Then it became rather hilly, then mountainous; as my friend’s bike had no operable gears and little in the way of brakes, we were forced to walk up and down the numerous steep slopes.The road also began to deteriorate rapidly, whole gullies were washed out and we had to walk long, impassibly rocky stretches as well.We started to climb…and climb…and climb. Pushing my bike was like hiking with an extremely heavy extra limb.The road curved forever up and away, and I began to regret every item I had packed, including every single page of the Brothers Karamazov.
We stopped for rice just after in a quiet, dusty little village that as much as I wanted it to would not admit to being Ankarafa.When we continued, I began asking those people we passed if it was still far, and invariably received the answer “mbola lavi-davitry,” which I interpreted as “sorta far” but in retrospect might well have meant “REALLY [EXPLETIVE] FAR.”At last someone gave a quantifiable answer: 12k.It seemed a manageable distance.
Afternoon pushed on and I continued to push my bike, hating each of the Brothers Karamazov in turn.One of our party’s members now mentioned “stopping by” Ambolobozo: remembering that 65k my optimism evaporated.I wanted to cry.The sun sank lower and I began to wonder if we would make it by sunset.Internally, I gave myself permission to cry if we didn’t.
I was informed, with a look of extreme pity, that 15k remained.I began to distrust that these people had any sense of distance at all.The sun set; the moon rose; I had left my house at .I pushed my bike, stared at my feet, and thought: this road can’t go on forever.
Then I looked up and there were huts and tents and welcoming faces.I dropped my accursed bike with a clatter and raising my arms in victory, shouted out “TONGA!” Literally, this translates to “arrival” but in my desperate state it clearly meant: “we made it! somehow….”This is, by now, the stuff of legend, my indecorous arrival, a story told and retold to the general amusement of all.I don’t mind. I’m just happy I didn’t cry.
II. That time I was attacked by a Suicidal Goat (April 2011)
A tried and true method for survival of long, hot, cramped brousse rides is the zone-out.Don’t count the miles, don’t shift positions: sheer endurance zen.
Of course, this is often easier said than done. One day, you emerge from your zen-state of higher consciousness wondering how it can be raining when it is so beautifully sunny.Slowly, you realize that everyone is yelling, somewhat illogically, the word “goat” or the command “close the window, idiot.”Now thoroughly back on the plane of mortal thought you recognize that you have been the victim of bladder limitations and gravitational fate.
Oh well, all the better for your quest for transcendence that no one will sit near you.You focus on the landscape whizzing past, the green melding with the blue of the sky, yes things are clear now, you are beginning to understand that – WHAM! All you see is a struggling mass of brown fur, hooves, and panicked eyeballs. Somebody is screaming.No wait, that is you screaming.Everyone else is screaming: “hold it up!” Hold up what?Oh, the goat.The goat that just wriggled loose of its bindings, leapt tethered by a single hoof suicidally from the roof rack, and, in a parabola of terror, slammed into your window.
Someone with greater presence of mind rescues it and immediately reattaches the goat.Zen you decide to leave for another brousse ride, another day.
III. That time I was Adrift on a Sea of Despair (October 2010)
For days we had hop scotched in and out of the boat composing lists, in search of stamps, asking in exasperation “your president fokontany went where now?”Today was our final day and when we had woken up our navigator/anchor hauler, a teenage boy in faded, Hawaiian print shorts, he had yelled: “Home today! That means beer!”
After asking directions—a humorous endeavor on the open seas—we arrived at a particular break in the mangroves.A few K on foot, talk to some folk, check who died since 2006 and who still has chickens.Done at last, beer here we come.But back at the boat we discover our navigator/anchor hauler (and dare I mention, boat guardian) missing, along with another young (female) passenger we had collected for the return trip.
Forced to push out by the retreating tide, the first hour passes.It is brutally, shadelessly hot (in fact, my dialect’s word for hot, “mai,” which translates in official Malagasy as “burnt,” was the most relevant term for what was happening to my poor, Caucasian existence).I am attempting to hid every exposed inch of skin under fabric without suffocation.It is a tenuous balance.
A long and spirited discussion is conducted on the ethicality of abandoning our young ship hand miles of open water from home.Another hour plods by and someone is sent off in search.As I begin to muse over sunstroke and other negative thoughts, he returns empty handed.
Adrift on a sea of despair, another half hour passes.Clouds drift everywhere but over the sun.I begin to feel the borderline insanity of my brain boiling.At last they reappear, this pair responsible for the leeching of all my future intelligence, all a-giggling in a way I suddenly despise about teenagers.Without a word we push off, I still harboring a deep, deranged sentiment for leaving them to the fishes.
IV. That time I had a Bag of Vomit thrown at me (November 2010)
Again, a brousse ride has forced to seek a sanctum of inner zen.But today it is not even worth the effort.This particular road looks like has been bombed and your driver, a possible victim of said bombing, is a maniac, plunging in and out of the gaping holes in the asphalt as though he is behind the wheel of a tank not that of a beat-up passenger van.
Everyone is throwing up: women, children, full-grown men, white-person.Needless to say, morale is low, and the general feeling is that you would all rather die than proceed one more kilometer down this godforsaken road.
Your van comes to a halt before a cluster of huts, where an older woman is most fastidiously sweeping a patch of dirt.Someone exits the vehicle and someone else tosses their bag of vomit on to the patch of dirt.This is gross, certainly, but you are all in a weakened state: a minute ago none of you cared to live.
It is a second before you all realize the gravity of this mistake.The women turns and, with full force of fury, begins to harangue you, culprits and innocents alike.Though her language is profane and her manner truly fearsome, you all dare to find this a little ridiculous; it is, after all, just a patch of dirt.
But then she picks up the bag of vomit and advances upon you.Fun quickly turns to panic.Doors and windows are slammed shut; mothers selflessly shield children; the maniac driver slams on the gas.SPLAT! You all stare at the back window in horror at a fate narrowly escaped.
V. That time when Wrenches Flew (September 2011)
I surveyed our transport.We were to take the soda truck, or rather the beer truck.But now was not the time to be picky as I had resolutely refused to walk, bike, or otherwise locomotor myself to our destination.Want to know why?Kindly revisit Part I: we were to return to that dusty little town I had so desperately hoped was Ankarafa.
We were sixteen adults crammed in a space originally designed for, at most, eight.Of course the vehicle had long ago strayed from its original design: stripped bare, wooden benches riveted to the floor, a backseat that constantly threatened an unexpected exit through the rear door.As its occupants did not appear particularly concerned though, I decided I wouldn’t be bothered about it either unless I observed a noticeably lighter load.
The usual situating, an unidentifiable screech from the cassette player, a hand slammed into the door, and we were off.But at a hardly admirable pace.This was the kind of bumpy transit where wrenches were flying off the dashboard, and the occupants were flying all over the vehicle. (Although one could fairly ask how positive an indicator the wrenches on the dash were in the first place.)
It’s an apt play on words, for we were in fact wrenched about mercilessly, rattling about until our brains hurt, vision shakily impaired, and internal organs hopelessly jumbled.Our vehicle, unlike its overly equipped American counterparts, completely lacked the “Oh [expletive] handle" that would have been oh so handy.Thus we clung to the frame, the windowsills and, more often than not, each other in a desperate attempt to stay upright and sane.
When we arrived 36k and four hours later—having pushed the car through five impassible sections and walked many others—we were demonstrably neither.
For nearly two years, I have lived a world away from the Nacirema, that cult of American culture from which I have so thoroughly defamiliarized myself. Now duty was calling me home to the tanindrazana, land of my ancestors. The Nacirema were to wed and my presence was required, to hold the bride’s “bouquet” at rehearsal (her “bouquet” was alcoholic; so was mine), to “fluff” her train at the altar (I received specific instructions), and to kindly request at the reception that my older sister return that young man’s outfit and take back her cocktail dress. Two things were apparent about this wedding, I was going to be indispensable and it was going to be open bar.
Crossing the world is no small venture. It required four flights, no fewer than ten take-offs and landings, five airplane meals, twelve visits from the beverage cart, 38 hours and one loop around a hurricane. That is airport to airport and just one way, though I understand the hurricane was a bit exceptional. Traveling is its own peculiar form of disconnect: lost in time zones, sharing a half a day with a stranger, setting up camp in airports.
Then suddenly, I am walking out into America, the climate-control kingdom, the land of packaging within packaging, the hungry, why wait? world. All at once I have regained my personal telephone booth of space; lines are orderly and exchanges efficient; people are, gasp, polite. Everyone is extraordinarily clean and, yes, well-fed. My skin color is no longer my defining feature and, until I spot the Lemur Lovin’ poster and a gaggle of greeters, I am anonymous.
Now I, master of the third-world squat, must return to the first-world I once thought comple. I must reabsorb these truths, these standards and structures of my native society. It is not an easy task to relearn much of what I had diligently unlearned. Sleeping without a mosquito net felt dangerously exposed; drinking out of the tap reeked of an invitation to doom; ice cubes popped out of the refrigerator door and I nearly had a heart attack. I could barely eat (but so valiantly I tried!) and it took more than a week for me to get up the nerve to drive a car. I dumped the entire contents of my suitcase into the washing machine: a symbolic readjustment of my definition of clean.
These things, the physical aspects of America that failed to correspond with my world away, turned out to be the easy part. Within a week, the feeling that I was treading an alien landscape had passed. Like riding a bicycle (or more pertinently, driving that car) I fell with surprising ease back into the physical grooves of my life before. It was in many ways an elaborate muscle memory test.
But I learned slowly and somewhat painfully that these grooves, while physically adequate, were maladjusted to the real stuff of life: family, friends, the people we love and care for; their dynamics and relationships; their passions and the direction of their lives.
In Madagascar, we toss around a term, “same same but different,” to describe the general state of stagnation. Surprisingly, and somewhat paradoxically, I found no other term more applicable to what awaited me in America. The country itself, embroiled in political conflict, struggling through financial woes, was not all that different from the one I knew in Fall 2009. Many of the people I care for I found fundamentally the same, yet dramatically changed, grown and adapted to new places and situations. I often felt lost in a swirl of dynamics I could not understand, my navigational system two years outdated. The back-stories lost to me forever, I realized just how I can never relive the events of my absence.
Similarly, I am changed, “same same but different,” but few seemed to have noticed. Time and again I was told, “I expected you to be different,” and I don’t know whether to be flattered or appalled. I feel nothing the same but the changes occurred a world away. And Madagascar does not exist to America as anything but that- somewhere far, beyond, removed, apart. I struggled again and again to make my experience accessible- to open a little hole to that world- but I failed.
I thought that I might have some trouble reconciling my two worlds. I have found them instead to be utterly incompatible, equally unable to conceive of the other. It was fitting that days of travel were required to reach my hometown from my village, because my mind cannot comprehend a planet on which both the United States and Madagascar exist simultaneously.
It is a sort of cognitive dissonance, this tug between worlds, uncomfortable but also liberating. If they are irreconcilable than so am I.
Yes, much like a college basketball star pondering the pros, I stood before an adoring crowd as it chanted defeaningly, “ONE MORE YEAR! ONE MORE YEAR!” OK, it was nothing remotely like that. A few people said, hey, you’re pretty tamana (well-settled) here in Madagascar; you should stay. Peace Corps said, sure, make it happen. An NGO said, you speak Malagasy? Prove it.
In government speak a third year of Peace Corps is referred to as an extension of service, a term which, somewhat disappointingly, lacks an acronym. I do my best to make up for the deficiency though, dropping the phrase “go go gadget Peace Corps” on any and all relevant occasions. Again disappointingly, these occasions are sadly few.
My new position will take me to a different part of Madagascar. Maroantsetra, a city of some size but considerable isolation (accessible half the year only by plane, boat, or four-days on foot), is on a similar latitude to my current residence but opposite coast. It is the primary access point to a number of protected areas, including Masoala National Park, the largest swath of virgin rainforest in the country.
I will be working with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an NGO highly active throughout Madagascar and particularly so in the Maroantsetra area. My position will (theoretically) be two fold: first, helping WCS to implement its pre-existing Environmental Education program at schools in and around the protected areas, and second, performing data analysis on a series of community diagnostic surveys. The notion behind this latter task is that a better understanding of community goals and needs allows for greater cooperation and more effective conservation efforts.
No small number of people (fellow PCVs included) have stated their belief that I must be a little crackbrained for signing on for an extra year, but I find there to be no small number of compelling reasons for doing just that. From a logical perspective, I have invested a great deal of myself here in Madagascar. I spent most of my first year struggling to persuade my town that I was not on a long and exceedingly strange vacation; at last they believe me. I speak a ridiculously obscure and (off this island) all but useless language; I want to use it. I worked hard to adapt to Malagasy culture, to the way and pace of life, and developed a skill set that is not as relevant elsewhere. From a purely logical point of view, these are all investments I am not yet ready to walk away from.
There are practical reasons as well. I have not completed my hundred classics booklist (my pace slowed markedly as I rediscovered what it was like to have a life). Likewise, I am nowhere near completion of my Madagascar bucket list. And, of course, I have by no means run out of things to blog about (though, I warn in advance that the blog address could well be renamed “Adventures in Ego-tripping”). OK, maybe these reasons are not “practical” in the truest sense of the word, but they are their own brand of persuasion.
The most compelling reasons for my stay, however, are of a decidedly emotional nature. I love Madagascar and though I may occasionally lapse and even dwell in cynicism and pessimism, I believe that it is a country of astounding beauty and resilience, home to a remarkable people at a certain crossroads of their future. It is also a place where incredible things happen. For now, for a little while longer, I want to be a part of that.
I have to believe this in order to spend another year balancing life on this antipode. For it is rarely the physical challenges that force me to question my time here. It is not the monotonous diet, the heat or illness, not even the hole in the backyard. It is instead the distance and the disconnect, the lives unfolding far away from me.
Anyone who received a call from me during the decision-making weeks know that I agonized. I was looking to be told that ONE MORE YEAR would not permanently relegate me to the realm of lost marbles or things forgotten on the roof of the car. One can never receive complete assurance on this front, but I feel that in the realms that really matter I will assuredly be welcomed back whenever I wander home.
**My extension of service is still officially pending medical approval, so cross your fingers that I have not developed a severe case of Wriggling Worms or Tropical Spinal Implosion Disorder. No, really, cross your fingers.