February 06, 2011

The Time Paradox

Time is an unreliable property; here in Madagascar it performs particularly convoluted tricks. Mornings, afternoons, hours, days can stretch on interminably, punctuated only by the cicadas’ buzzing, the roosters’ crowing, the cries of children’s games- a time loop infinitely folding back on itself. Yet when the sun goes home (masoandra mody), it somehow feels as though the day has been snatched away. Whole blocks of time disappear in such a manner; weeks, months are suddenly past and I am left wondering at the crosses on the calendar.

I call this the Time Paradox and despite dedicating endless afternoons of thought to the matter, I can offer little account as to the occurrence.

The Malagasy conceptualization of time is a world away: it is as though the modern, western 12-month calendar has been transposed over a considerably more fluid, elastic construct. Malagasy time stretches and bends, flows through and around the structures of the 7-day week, the 24-hour day, refusing to conform to its mandates, its expectations. Time is not indicated by the workweek and weekend, the onset of a new month or quarter or school year, but rather by the rising of the river and the running of muddy water, the ripening of the mangos, the Northern winds.

As the seasons melt into each other- hot, hot and rainy, hot and windy, slightly less hot, hot and it might be cycloning- a semi-nomadic population meanders about from the roads to the rice fields to the rivers, following the dictates of an unreliable weather God. In town, hot days run into hot nights run into hot days and it all sort of makes you lose your train of thought…did I mention how hot it is?

For the Malagasy this is how time has always proceeded and how they will continue to follow it. For me, this rootlessness, this state of perennial summer, remains fleeting in my grasp. Of course that’s the rub, but it often leaves me perplexed- unable to name the month, unable to summon the season- caught bewildered between a fluid, flexible shifting time and its modern manifestation I can no longer trust.

Thus, I am trapped in what an insightful outsider once called a Bird’s Nest of Time. A place where a day often feels like a year, but after a year I look back and it feels like one strange day.

PCV Culture (or, Forgive me I Suffer from Early-Onset Nostalgia)

I wonder sometimes, what do you think of me? Not me personally, but rather the eight, nine, ten thousand of me scattered across the globe: the Peace Corps volunteer at large. What image does the label conjure up? If you are susceptible to the whole “Life is Calling” campaign (clearly I was) than it is probably that of a young American, taking pause between exhaustive rounds of well-digging/baby-weighing/tree-planting to wipe the sweat from his or her brow and stare thoughtfully into a beautiful and very foreign-looking distance. This is of course done with an expression that simultaneously conveys the deepest self-fulfillment, the most profound worldliness, and yet a serene sense of humility. [In attempts to master this look before return to the states, mine time and time again turns out like Blue Steel].

Or maybe you go the other direction in summoning up your Peace Corps image. Hippies, you grumble, generations too late and none the better for it; bleeding hearts that couldn’t staunch the flow; tree-huggers who lack the nerve to chain up to a bulldozer; those quiet, thoughtful types who really needed their time alone; deadbeats, not just pushing the snooze button on life, nope, they're throwing the whole alarm clock against the wall.

The truth, of course, is that the average PCV falls somewhere in between: neither a snooze-button hippie (hey, we did answer the call) nor martyrs supremely self-fulfilled in our acts of goodness. In fact, the very state of “in between” is a most apt characterization of PCVs, the life we live, and the culture we create and inhabit. For two years, we live poised between worlds: no longer fully of the one we left behind, yet always in some manner set aside from the one in which we currently reside. Psychologically we are forever shuttling back and forth, a state of emotional transience that begets neither stability nor normality.

But in this void, in this perennial state of in-between, we PCVs build a world of our own, a world built of both necessity and just plain fun. It is a cultural mumbo-jumbo, in which proverbs are traded like baseball cards and TIME magazines are treated as currency. A place where the more languages we learn, the less we are properly able to speak any of them and as result communicate in a garbled, bastardized tongue that confounds the outsider. And do I even need to mention that bad things happen when individuals who are used to being stared at gather in groups?

This is a micro-culture in which statements unacceptable to wider society (“usually I don’t bathe until my skin starts to fall off in chunks,” “Yea, when I’m traveling I don’t eat until I get the shakes”) elicit hardly a blink of surprise. Yes, there are deviations of opinion (“what counts as chunks?”) but no one throws up their hands appalled, no one actually throws up under the table.

You see, in Peace Corps one gets used to certain things: constant and often mysterious illness, finding (with your molars that is) the rocks in your rice, listening to blown out headphones…loneliness. It is only logical that from these common experiences and struggles a particularly strong breed of camaraderie emerges, one that incubates fast friendships and allows them to endure long, requisite periods of dormancy.
If the manifestations of this camaraderie are anything but logical (see above catalogue of inter-PCV behavior), can we really be blamed? We are strangers in a strange land and, for now at least, the only place we truly belong is with each other.

“For this crew, nostalgia is like seasickness: only the hope of dying from it is keeping them alive.” -Thomas Pynchon