Saturday, October 16, 2010

First Two Weeks at Site

Before I talk about my first couple of weeks at site, I want to tell you all that yesterday was a very important day for two reasons: 1) it was my mom’s birthday, and 2) it was Global Handwashing Day. I’d tell you how old my mom turned, but I’m pretty sure Malagasy numbers don’t go that high. If you see her, please wish her a VERY HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY for me. Make sure you talk really, really loudly though so she can hear you. (Hah—just kidding, Mom! I figure if I’m a pain even through the internet, maybe you won’t miss me so much!) There’s more about the handwashing business later in the post.

Well, I had kind of been waiting for the reality that I was in the Peace Corps to sink in. And boy oh boy did it sink in these last couple of weeks. Having come out of being really sick and an extremely frustrating move-in process, I probably wasn’t really in the best frame of mind to have suddenly been dropped off on my own. There were a lot of things I had planned on accomplishing during installation that just didn’t happen in all of the chaos. For instance, buying my furniture, working out my schedule with my doctor, etc. So there I was, confused, lonely, and with nothing to do since I wasn’t supposed to start working at the clinic until my fifth day. The thing I had been most excited about—cooking my own food and planning my own diet—actually proved to be a bit of a disaster. First of all, did you know how depressing it is eating three meals alone every day? I lived in the residence halls and stayed on the meal plan for all four years of college, so I usually met friends at one of the campus dining locations or cooked food in the lounge of my floor. But eating by myself and not having anyone to talk to was really lonely. Then there was the whole issue of WHAT to eat. I knew I would have much more limited options than what I’m accustomed to in the states—that’s one of the challenges Peace Corps makes abundantly clear we’ll likely ha. But I guess I figured I’m on a tropical island, and I’d be able to find stuff. Furthermore, the dialect that I learned during training is hardly similar to what they actually speak in my village. My neighbors make fun of me for using certain vocabulary words that my teachers specifically taught me were spoken at my site. So I can’t really communicate my needs to people, and I can’t understand their responses. Several times I tried to buy certain foods and couldn’t. I pretty much just stayed holed up in my house except for when I absolutely needed to get out and get something. The first couple of days were pretty miserable.

But then I decided to get my act together and do something about it. Any LOST fans will appreciate this. I thought about that incredible scene at the beginning of the series where Jack is coaching Kate through stitching up his wound. He tells her about his own experience performing a life-altering surgery on a young girl. He closed his eyes, let himself feel five seconds of fear, and then got going with what needed to be done. So I finally marched next door to my neighbors’ house and politely asked if I could eat dinner with them every night because I was lonely and wanted to practice speaking Malagasy better. They more than willingly agreed, and I have now eaten with them every night since my third day at site. I help cook and clean, and I give them money for food (which they argue with me about taking, but I insist).

GOD BLESS THIS WOMAN, MADAMO FLORIA, AND HER FIVE CHILDREN FILIBERT, NDRINA, NUELINA, ANJELA, AND HASSINA. I seriously am not sure I would still be in Madagascar if it weren’t for this family. They have been SO welcoming, hospitable, helpful, and patient. Some of my neighbors and coworkers have been a little less than understanding about my poor Malagasy skills and the fact that I come from a different culture. But Floria and her kids explain things to me 80 times if necessary and try to teach me different ways to say the same thing so my vocabulary is slowly expanding. We’re getting comfortable enough with each other to joke and tease each other, so they’re rapidly helping this place start to feel like home. I have had several really challenging, frustrating days here. But after every single dinner with them, I feel happy, refreshed, and ready to face the next day. I don’t think I can possibly express the full extent of my gratitude for them.

Life still has it’s challenges, though. It feels like in the epic battle between Kristen and the universe, the universe is winning. And by “universe,” what I actually mean is, “incredibly large army of ants that has repeatedly tried to stage a coup of my house since approximately 3 seconds after I moved in.” My first night, I thought I felt a couple insect bites so I flicked on my flashlight and found literally hundreds of ants crawling in my sheets. I slide my mattress away from the floor which has helped immensely with this, though I do still find the occasional renegade. The issue since then has been with them getting into everything ELSE in my house. They are EVERYWHERE, they get into EVERYTHING, and they are RELENTLESS. I find them in my clothes, they chew through sealed packages of food, they are EVERYWHERE!! (They got into my Laughing Cow cheese. Which is wrapped in foil. Inside a cardboard box.) I keep designing new contraptions that seem fool-proof. And just when I think I’ve found the solution after a day of losing nothing to the ants…they find a way to get in. The latest design (a Pringles can covered completely with duct tape) has kept them at bay since this morning, but I guarantee they’ll figure out a way to be in it by Monday. Note to anyone sending me a package: PLEASE PUT ANYTHING YOU SEND IN HEAVY-DUTY TUPPERWARE CONTAINERS. Little do these ants know just how "maditra" (stubborn) I can be - and I am GOING to conquer them!! But enough about the ant rant.

Aside from the thousands of unwanted roommates, my home is actually quite lovely. My “house” is the middle room of three rooms that share a porch. It is made of wood, with a cement floor and a tin roof. The walls and roof aren’t sealed, so I see a fair number of lizards coming in and out, which don’t bother me except when they make this ridiculous clicking sound in the middle of the night. I had a mouse friend for my first couple of days I can hear literally EVERYTHING going on in my neighbors’ rooms, and can actually sort of see into them a bit through the tiny cracks between planks of wood (and vice versa)…so I’m kind of left hanging with the concept of privacy. And my sleeping schedule is generally determined by those around me.

Everyone wants to know about the actual living conditions. I have no electricity or running water. I fetch water from a giant underground basin by lowering buckets down into it. I don’t think it’s really a well, and I’m not exactly sure where THAT water comes from. But as long as it’s there, I suppose I don’t really have to worry. I keep a few of my electronics charged with a combination of solar chargers or tapping into the kindness of the people down the street who have a generator they turn on occasionally. (Which is usually to blast obnoxiously loud Malagasy music that can be heard for miles around…but I suppose it’s a small price to pay for keeping my phone charged.) My “shower” is a wooden stall, connected to my latrine as well as the pigpen that is in my back yard. I take bucket baths though, since there’s no running water. The entrance is the same location as the spot where a lot of…..leftovers, shall we say….from the pigpen get left behind. (Don’t even get me started on the sanitary conditions of that. I usually just hold my breath and tread carefully.) My living allowance works out to be something like $4.20 per day. A small pile of vegetables or a loaf of bread is usually the equivalent of 10-15 cents; a cup of rice is about 30 cents; a cup of peanuts, flour, or sugar is double or triple that; a roll of toilet paper is about 25 cents; mailing a letter back home is $1.00-$2.00. [WHEN I SEND YOU MAIL, I EXPECT A RESPONSE!!!!]

My clinic also doesn’t have electricity or running water. There is a pump for water. The refrigerator they keep vaccines in runs off of petrol, when they can get it. My first week here, they ran out and had to turn patients away for several days because they couldn’t keep vaccines here. This is pretty indicative of what the public health situation here is like in general. In just these two weeks, I have seen countless cases of malaria, malnutrition, dehydration, fevers, and other common ailments that are no big deal in the states but are likely to cause death here. There are REALLY young girls who are pregnant (some about 14 years old!), and mothers don’t space their births out very much. So, there’s definitely a lot of opportunities for me to do some health education intervention here. I’m still trying to figure out how to that exactly. The staff at my clinic already has things running pretty well, and they give talks on the busiest mornings with basic health messages. I’ve started helping out with these talks. That’s actually what I did yesterday for Global Handwashing Day—talked about basic hygiene/handwashing, as well as vaccination, as important ways to prevent life-threatening diseases.

This post is getting incredibly long, so I think I’ll cut it off here and update again in a few weeks when I’m back in Morondava. For now, know that I’m alive and healthy and surviving at site, even if things haven’t really gotten easy yet. There’s a joke among Peace Corps Volunteers that “some people see the glass as half empty and some see it half full; Peace Corps Volunteers see it and say, ‘I can take a bath in that!’” While I don’t think I’m at that point yet in terms of resource conservation, I do think it accurately describes how I’m trying to approach life right now. I see situations, and I don’t necessarily know what to make of them. Depending on my attitude, life can be good or life can be bad—it all depends on how I choose to use what’s in front of me.

PS: I will try to put pictures up next time - I have already been on the internet for far longer than I should have allowed on this tight budget.


  1. your neighbors sound fun : ) : ) pictures please!!! if anyone is good at meeting neighbors it's you--and you didn't even have funfetti cupcakes to help you!
    love love love,

  2. You sound like your having a typical but nevertheless interesting and challanging peace corps experience, my advice on the ants. . . sometimes a THICK like 6inches wide ring of salt around your bed or the table you want to protect will save your food and your feet, or go to the ¨farm store¨there called agroservicios in central america and get the powdered antkill-quicklime and ring your doors and table. i´m soo proud of you for getting your sH"t together and going to make friends. it can be so intimidating talking to new people especially if they are already making fun of you, but i´m super proud of you wallie. you might not have water shortages. . but we do in el sal and let me tell you I can bathe in a cup of water. Keep on truckin sweetheart, you are already an incredible volunteer for adapting!!!

  3. I'm so glad you are having a better time now that you made friends with your neighbors! Getting over the hurdle of actually asking feels wonderful. I LOVE the pictures you postetd of your host family. Everyone looks like they are having a good time. I hope you figure out how to get rid of your unwanted roommates soon!

    Love you and miss you!


  4. Kudos to you for dealing what you've been through. Wishing you the best.

    If you have any time to visit my site for comment or following, I'd love to have you on board. 100 Pounds Goal.

    Trevor Philbrook

  5. YOU'RE FANTABULOUS! There is a letter coming to you from Chile, so who knows how long it will take :P
    Later gator!


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