Back in the S.A.V.A.
January 10, 2013, 12:07 PM

Hi world,

Happy New Year! I hope this blog post finds you in good health and spirits! I’m back at site after the most amazing December and finally gathered my thoughts together to write a giant blog post. Prepare yourself. Where did I leave off?

Quick synopsis of life before I left site in December: I spent Thanksgiving with SAVA PCVs in Antalaha. It was my first time visiting Antalaha and I really enjoyed it! Antalaha has a nice ambiance about it and everything there smells like vanilla. Yum. I stayed with some PCVs who live there, and we spent our time spear fishing, snorkeling, and cooking amazing food (even though I did have to watch a rabbit get slaughtered for our feast. Yuck. I didn’t eat it though.). My Thanksgiving was incredibly multicultural: I ate with American, Malagasy, French, Swedish, and Spanish folks who were in Antalaha, all friends of the PCVs there. I was a teeny bit sad I couldn’t eat my usual fifteen servings of my grandmother’s sweet potatoes though, but I made up for it with fresh Spanish gazpacho, cold homemade mango lassi, and delicious eggplant fritters with peanut sauce. Yum again. Great times all around.

Post-Thanksgiving and post-epic food coma, I headed back to Andapa to wrap up the first trimester by giving exams to my classes. I was nervous because these exams were to be the first written reflection of my teaching. I also knew that cheating is a rampant problem in schools here, and I was a bit worried about how I’d handle that in my classroom. Luckily, it wasn’t too much of a problem. I wrote the tests at home; on test day, I copied them onto the blackboard for each of my classes and proctored the exams. When all was said and done, no major mishaps and I found myself left with somewhere around 400 papers to grade. Instead of drawing the grading process out, I decided just to put on some good gradin’ muzique and power through. Somehow I managed to grade them all in two days. Not sure how that happened but I’m not complaining. A miracle of sorts, I guess. The results were mixed: some students did amazingly well, others shockingly poorly. I plan on having many more assignments in the upcoming trimesters to lessen the shock of one bad test score, so that should help cushion things a little bit. After I gave all my tests back though, I was in pretty good spirits. It seemed as though most of what I taught got through, so that’s a step in the right direction. I also got some good student feedback on things I can explain better in the future.

Oh! Quick side note. The day before I gave my exam at the CEG, I witnessed an exorcism at my school. Just wanted to share. That was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever seen. Anyway, back to regularly scheduled programming…

After my grading marathon ended, I started gathering up all my things to leave and spend the month traveling. I packed up my stuff, cleaned my house, and headed to the airport on December 6th (fly site!). To get to the airport, I have to take a taxi-brousse (a bus, pretty much, usually packed so so so full with people) from Andapa to Sambava (around 4 hours) and then a taxi to the airport in Sambava. I left around 4am, got to Sambava around 8ish, hung around in Sambava, then headed to the airport. It was my first time flying solo in Madagascar, but I figured everything out no problemo. The flight’s short, but we made a stop-over in a town called Maroansetra…basically, the plane took off, rose a little, then landed 15 minutes later to swap out people, then took off again for Tana. All in all, maybe 2.5 hours. I got to Tana around nightfall to begin my adventure.

If you remember, I got to Tana before IST to meet with the Embassy about my library and also to hang out and do some exploring. Well, my Embassy meeting was productive and I’m really energized about my projects (more details later). And I explored all over Antananarivo. That city…where to begin. It’s the most chaotic place I’ve ever been, but hidden away are these pockets of incredible things. If you know where to look, Tana has beautiful views, really great restaurants, fun bars, the works. Such a change of pace from site. My first taxi ride right after I arrived was overwhelming. I saw more people leaving the airport than I see in a typical day at site! And so many lights! I felt like a country girl seeing the big city for the first time (mostly true). I spent the days leading up to IST eating delicious food and spending time with friends I haven’t seen since PST. Things I got to eat which blew my mind: chocolate milkshakes, pretzels, Thai food, tofu, cheese, Indian food, homemade grilled cheese and tomato soup (still dream about those), I could go on and on and on…

IST was informative and great. It was absolutely wonderful to reunite with my stagemates again and hear their stories from site, commiserate over teaching mishaps, swap stories about the weirdest things that have happened to us so far, and more. The first three days were spent with our counterparts; I brought an English teacher and friend, Derio, who I work closely with in Andapa to the training with me (each PCV brought a counterpart from their site). I think the sessions were great for our counterparts. They learned more about the roles of a PCV, how to work with Americans, what PC can and cannot do, goal setting, and project management, to name a few. Turns out other counterparts were originally from Andapa too, so Derio saw some old friends (small world!). After the counterparts left, the IST for PCVs began. We had lots of technical sessions about teaching – large class sizes, different competency levels, discipline – and some language classes too. We learned about sources of PC funding for projects and more projects (like the Malaria initiative) we can take on in our spare time if we are interested. Overall, I really valued getting to swap teaching tips and activities with my stagemates. It was also a huge plus to be fed, avoid having to cook, not have to do dishes, and generally just hang out. A really relaxing time.

IST ended on the 21st, and on the 22nd, I traveled to Mahajanga with 8 other PCVs. Mahajanga is a large town on the NW coast, right on the beach, about a 12 hour taxi-brousse ride from Tana. We spent about a week there, and I had an amazing time. Only downside: Mahajanga is the hottest place on earth. No joke. But Mahajanga made up for it with ice cream, good food (so much fish!), and great friends. We spent our days on the beach relaxing and grilling on a charcoal grill, swimming in the ocean, and exploring the town. On Christmas Eve, we all went to this restaurant in town…no one knew how fancy it would be until we walked inside and felt air conditioning (a first for me in 6 months, Oh. My. God.). Needless to say, my bunch of scraggly PCVs felt very out of place, but the food was amazing. To prove how flabbergasted we were, we felt the need to take photos of the bathroom because it was that nice. One highlight: a friend of mine ate cooked cow brains and another ordered crocodile. Awesome. Christmas day was another adventure: we headed to the market in the morning and bought a huge fish to cook with all these delish veggies and fruit…and thus “Fishmas” was born. A very unique PCV Mada experience that I hope becomes a yearly tradition!

We all headed back to Tana on the 30th. I spent New Years with about 40 other PCVs who were in the capital. A PCV who lives in Tana had us all over to his house and then we went out on the town. I had so much fun and it was great to ring in the New Year in Madagascar! The last few days before I flew home I spent with my friends relaxing and exploring Tana some more. The night before I left, I went to a really nice restaurant and had tuna sashimi. Yes. You read that right. I told you, Tana is a crazy place. Hopefully that wasn’t a bad idea, but I’m still alive, so that’s good I guess. I was really sad to leave everyone but ready to get back to site and back to work. I flew home on the 3rd, spent the night in Sambava, and broussed back to Andapa on the 4th. Coming back was a bit overwhelming, to be honest. My house was an utter wreck. How could one tiny room get so dirty in just a few weeks?! Luckily, my Andapa mom, Marguerite, helped me clean my house and wash anything and everything so I wouldn’t lose my mind. I spent the next few days planning and generally getting my life together before I started teaching again this past Monday. But it’s been a bit tough – I just spent four weeks surrounded by my friends 24/7 and now I’m back at site, so I miss everyone a lot. I am really invigorated and energized to be back at site though!

I started teaching on Monday and it was nice to get back in the classroom again. The whole CEG Annex thing hasn’t panned out yet, so I still have around 115 students in my 6eme classes. The upside – they somehow are more well behaved this time around. Maybe we are used to each other, or I am surer in my discipline style and I’m armed with new tools in my disciplinarian arsenal, I don’t know. But they were respectful and sat quietly so that was a relief. I only was able to teach my first section of 6eme on Monday, because after that, the director sent the children home so all of the teachers could have a meeting. Now, my Malagasy (Gasy for short) is getting so much better, but teachers meetings are an entirely different beast. They’re loud, long, and confusing beyond belief. I knew we were talking about discipline, but I couldn’t gather much more than that, except for a phrase here and there. I did catch the phrase “disco weekend” at one point and was really thrown for a loop. What was that meeting about?! Jury’s still out on that one, haha. But I’ll keep you posted if this disco weekend ever comes to fruition.

I was back at the lycee for my 6-hour stretch again on Tuesday, and my lesson went really well, so that was a huge boost! At the CEG on Wednesday, I taught my first section of 6eme again. Just as I was ready to start my second section finally, the director told me that all of the students were sent home. A student in 4eme (maybe 7th or 8th grade) passed away the day before, so all of the teachers needed to go visit the family in the countryside. I piled into cars with the teachers and went to pay my respects to the family. One of the saddest experiences I’ve had here so far. The student was so young, and they have no idea why he passed away so suddenly. I couldn’t get the mother’s wailing out of my head that entire day. Completely heartbreaking.

I went home after the family visit to decompress and gather my thoughts, because I had my first student English club meeting on Wednesday afternoon. It was mainly to discover interest in the club and plan future meetings and activities. Around 25 students came, which is a good sign! I’m really excited to get started on my secondary projects; I’ve had a lot of ideas since December that I want to put into motion. In the works right now…student English club, adult English club, a weekly writing workshop (similar to my Kenya project, I’m working on conducting workshops with my counterpart, and at the end we will bind the finish product and feature it in the library), upgrading the library space (adding chalkboards and painting outside signs), and hosting a big grand opening party for the library to get the word out around town. My counterpart wants to transform the library into a big cultural center for Andapa, so we’re putting together a Gasy marketing campaign, including a radio and TV blitz next week. I might have to go on Andapa local TV, which should be very, very interesting as I make a huge fool of myself haha. While I was gone, the CISCO hired another librarian, Marcel, to work alongside Marguerite, and he’s great. I’m meeting with the librarians later today actually to discuss plans moving forward. Having all of these projects on my plate, things that I know my community wants and will enjoy, is making me feel productive and useful here at site!

In other news, yesterday, January 9th, marked my six-month anniversary with the Peace Corps. I cannot believe that I’ve hit this milestone already. I’ve probably said this before, but time is funny in the Peace Corps. To me, each day feels really long, but the weeks and months really do fly by. Reflecting back on these past six months blows my mind. Since last July, I have learned so much, and I’m trying to wrap my head around it all. Here’s a sample of where my head’s at, six months into my Peace Corps service:

– I’ve learned how to cook. No longer starving. Also developed an addiction to homemade peanut butter.

– I’m learning a new language, and now I can actually have meaningful conversations and basically understand what’s going on around me (for the most part, let’s not get ahead of ourselves). I get by.

– Might sound corny, but I value education more than I ever have before. I have seen the dramatic extent some students go to in order to get educated, and I’m humbled, but also enraged. To me, education is a basic right. Each child should have access to an adequate education. And any time I encounter a situation where that is not the case, I’m at a loss. Teaching here, I’m learning about how complex the global education system is. I’m excited to continue learning more about it and see where I fit in in all of this.

– I’ve gotten stung by seven wasps at one time and lived to tell the tale. For those who know me and my fear of bees/wasps, you’ll know how big of a deal this is. I’ve also fought a bat and won.

– I’m developing my own teaching style and method of discipline (slowly). I was terrified of being a disciplinarian when I first started teaching. But that fear doesn’t help my students or me. Disruptive students hurt the entire classroom atmosphere. I’ve been working on developing a trusting relationship and rapport with my classes, so they won’t feel a need to act out and we can get our work done together. I also have learned that I like teaching younger students, which I never thought was even a possibility.

– I’ve learned how to bend technology to my will and work with my limited resources to get the job done.

– I’m learning to be less hard on myself. To be okay with making mistakes. To be honest with myself and what I want/need. To be comfortable not running at a million miles a minute as I used to do. To live in the moment. To find one thing of beauty every day. To cherish the relationships I have with the people in my life. To value those who support me, and to return that support in whatever manner I am able to. To not take anything for granted. To face my fears and recognize that they’re not crippling but enriching.

– Peace Corps has been so many “firsts” for me: first time living on my own (no roommates), first time being away from the USA for more than 3 months, first time running a library, first time entering a tomb of corpses (a story for another time), first time teaching, first time cutting a pineapple (gasp), first time experiencing isolation/loneliness of a certain caliber…I’ve left everyone and everything I know to be familiar back in the US and transplanted myself into a completely foreign environment, and, at six months in, I think I’m thriving. Some days are really tough, some days are really great, but overall, I am really happy to be here. Andapa and Madagascar as a whole have such potential, and I am so glad that I can help uncover and transform this potential into productive energy in whatever way my community wants me to. It’s what being a PCV is all about.

So that’s just a tiny snapshot of where I’m at on this sunny Thursday morning. As I say every time, I love hearing from you all, either comments here or otherwise. And update! If you have iMessage or Whatsapp on your cell phone, you can text with me now!! Just let me know. Also, I finally figured out how to get gchat to work on my computer (still no skype though, sorry). If you want to gchat, lemme know and we can set up a time. As always, you can email me and I’ll get it eventually, and you can call my Gasy cell phone from skype! Hope to hear from you soon!