Tratry ny taona (Happy New Year) from Madagascar! Check out my latest newsletter here.
Christmas is my favorite time of the year. I love everything about the holiday season. I love the snow and the houses decked out in lights. I love listening to Christmas music on the radio. I love searching for the perfect Christmas tree with my family. I love baking cookies and putting up decorations. I love going to the midnight candlelight service on Christmas Eve. I love the childlike excitement of waking up Christmas morning. I love seeing relatives, playing games, and watching Christmas movies. I love Christmas football games. I love my family’s traditional dice game and gift exchange. I love building snowmen, going sledding, and having the occasional snowball fight. I love wearing ugly Christmas sweaters.
This is the first year ever that I haven’t been with my family for Christmas. And, to be honest, I was a little worried earlier this month that the holidays weren’t going to be as great as they usually are. How could I survive missing my favorite holiday? How was I supposed to be okay with being gone for Christmas?
The thing is, though, I wasn’t gone. I didn’t miss Christmas. Christmas isn’t contained within country borders. Sure, I’m “away” from family. I didn’t see any snow. There wasn’t a candlelit singing of “Silent Night.” Santa Claus didn’t fill my stocking.
But there was a Sunday School Christmas program. There were glistening Christmas trees in churches, in stores, and in homes. There were familiar Christmas carols, albeit sung in a different language. There were people dressed up in red and white. There were market stalls selling tinsel, ornaments, and lights. There was Christmas music on the radio. There were card games and Christmas movies. There was last-minute Christmas shopping. There were special meals. And more importantly? There was love. Joy. Hope.
Christmas is alive and well here in Madagascar. I’m still connected to all the people I love back home because love, like Christmas, doesn’t stop at the edge of a continent. And I am surrounded here by people who love me and who I love in return. Christmas might look different here, but it’s still the most wonderful time of the year.
And the best part about Christmas in Madagascar? Christmas celebrations continue all the way into February. 😊
Interspersed throughout the YAGM year are three retreats. On these retreats, all of the volunteers in a country group and their country coordinator reconvene. Amidst the laughter, catching-up, and, yes, sightseeing, there is intentional time for in-depth discussion of a chosen topic. The theme of our first retreat, which took place in South Africa, was the environment. Obviously, our relocation limited opportunities for a hands-on experience with environmental realities in Madagascar, but we were still able to explore the theme. Framed by ELCA social statements “Caring for Creation” and “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All,” we discussed environmental concerns and challenges. We talked about creation and how we are called to care for it. (If you haven’t read any of the Social Statements, you should definitely check them out here.)
Spending time experiencing creation is not only a lot of fun but motivates people to take better care of the planet. Spectacular landscapes never fail to take my breath away. I often hear myself exclaiming, “This is incredible!” and “I can’t wait to come back someday!” But, if we don’t care for our world, those incredible natural places aren’t going to be around forever. Something needs to change, and I think that experiencing creation is an excellent place to find the inspiration to make that change.
During our retreat in South Africa, I encountered the stunning beauty of God’s creation over and over again. Here are some snapshots of my favorite sights. I hope they inspire you to be a good steward of the Earth!
I’d like to put it down to flexibility. I’d like to claim I am so go-with-the-flow and adaptable that transitions just don’t faze me. The reluctance I initially felt to return to Madagascar, however, totally undermines that theory. Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy to be here. I was excited to return to Fianarantsoa exactly three weeks ago. Coming back just felt a lot different than my arrival in September.
During the month I spent at my site before relocating to South Africa, I did a lot of sitting. I had a lot of time to myself and not a lot of activities to fill that time. I only taught a total of five hours, due to school closings because of the plague and scheduling complications. So, when I got the call that we were leaving, I was excited. It wasn’t that I was excited to leave my host family or community; I was excited to have something to do. It was easy for me to leave Madagascar because I didn’t feel like I would be missing out on anything. It was easy because leaving didn’t disrupt my nonexistent schedule. It was easy because I was, dare I say it, bored. It was easy because I was lonely and going stir-crazy from sitting in my apartment.
And it was easy to be gone. I love traveling. I love getting to know new places and learning about new cultures. I love visiting museums, being by the ocean, seeing wildlife, and going hiking. And South Africa gave me all of those things.
When the time came to go back to Madagascar, I was upset. Anxious. Angry. Unwilling. Disappointed. I didn’t want to return—which took me by surprise. After all, I had decided to do YAGM because I wanted to volunteer and to teach and to live in a community. Why, then, was I so reluctant to start doing those very things? At first, I blamed end-of-travel-disappointment. Every time I’ve gone on vacation or lived abroad, I’ve never wanted the adventure to end. I’m always a little disappointed to return home. I figured that those typical feelings explained my lack of excitement to return to Madagascar.
I was wrong. Yes, not wanting to stop traveling was part of it, but there was more to my uncertainty than that. It was hard for me to come back to Madagascar because I knew what to expect.
In September, when orientation ended and I headed to Fianar for the first time, I was excited. I had no idea what awaited me. I was thrilled by the possibility of discovery. I couldn’t wait to meet people and become acquainted with the city. This time around, however, my site wasn’t shiny and new. I knew what was waiting for me. I knew I’d once again stick out everywhere I went. I knew calls of “Salama, vazaha!” or “Bonjour, chérie!” would dog my footsteps whenever I left my apartment. I knew I would soon start teaching—and that the majority of students would be adults and older than me. I knew I wouldn’t have a close friend constantly on hand. I knew I would spend a lot of time alone. And I wasn’t sure I was ready to face all that again.
YAGM is hard. It’s not always sunshine and rainbows (although there are a lot of those too). It can be challenging and lonely and frustrating and complicated. And it only grows more challenging, lonely, frustrating, and complicated when you refuse to be honest about your feelings. Which is exactly what I was doing. Before we returned from South Africa, I don’t think I was ever honest with myself about how difficult parts of my first month were. I’m not always the best at reading or accepting my own feelings, especially negative ones. It was easy to ignore my anxiety about teaching adults and my discomfort at being catcalled because that was just the way things were going to be. I was immersed in adjusting—and those “little things” just became part of my life.
Being in South Africa, though, reminded me that life in Fianar is not the way life is everywhere. I had a break from strangers calling out to me on the street. I didn’t have to teach adults. I started to realize that maybe I hadn’t been as okay as I had thought during my first month. That realization was the root of all my reluctance to return. Going back to Madagascar, knowing I would be going back to uncertainty and discomfort, meant that I had to confront my bottled-up feelings. Acknowledging, dealing with, and accepting those feelings was not easy. It kind of sucked. Pretending that everything was great would have been so much simpler (although probably pretty unhealthy once I returned to my site). I was so blessed to have the chance to work through that difficulty surrounded by the love and support of my fellow YAGMs and country coordinator.
During our time in Antananarivo before returning to our sites, we did a lot of processing and debriefing together. We talked about feelings, concerns, and challenges. We made plans for moving forward. I’m not sure if I was able to fully accept the reality that YAGM is harder than I expected it to be, but I definitely acknowledged that fact. I didn’t completely overcome my concerns about teaching adults or my uneasiness about facing catcallers again, but I acknowledged that those feelings exist. When the time came to board the taxi-brousse to Fianar, I wasn’t thrilled, but I felt ready.
Amazingly, as we drove through somewhat familiar landscapes, excitement started to bubble up in me. I thought about seeing my host family again. I thought about how wonderful it would feel to be in a place full of familiar faces. I thought about all the people eagerly awaiting my return. I thought about my own resilience and perseverance. I thought about the Madagasgal support system that would always have my back. I thought about the plague-free city that would finally be safe to explore. I thought about my comfortable apartment and cozy bed. I thought about how great it would be to stop living out of a suitcase. I thought about being able to speak French on a regular basis. I thought about the welcome possibility of having a busy schedule. I thought about seeing the mountains again.
When I stepped off that taxi-brousse, I felt like I was home. And you know what? I was happy. Genuinely, absolutely, unexpectedly happy. And I am pleased to report that, three weeks later, I still am.
So, maybe it was easy to leave Fianar. Maybe it was easy to leave Madagascar. Maybe it was easy to go to South Africa. And maybe it was really, really hard to leave South Africa. Maybe it was hard to come back to Madagascar. Maybe it was hard to face my own feelings.
But it was easy to return to Fianar.
And I think that’s what really counts.
Today I am thankful for new beginnings in familiar places.
For open-air markets and traveling on foot.
For comfy seats on a taxi-brousse.
For friends with smiling faces and warm welcomes.
For shared meals and laughter.
For rain that cools off the hot weather.
For running water.
For improvised Thanksgiving dinners and mashed potatoes and green beans and jelly cake that tastes just enough like apples that it could almost be apple pie.
For the power coming back on just a couple minutes after going out.
For Skype calls with family back home.
For beautiful scenery.
For happy tears.
For running into friends on the walk home.
For the opportunity to live in a place where it's possible to speak three languages every single day.
For the chance to travel to new countries.
For unexpected blessings and adventures.
For coming home.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Check out my second newsletter below!
“The best things in life are unexpected—because there were no expectations.” –Eli Khamarov
I enjoy not having expectations. It’s not that I’m afraid of disappointment if my expectations aren’t met; it’s that I like being surprised. I like experiencing things without the shadow of my own preconceptions. But, I’m human, and, in spite of my best efforts, I still end up expecting some things as if they’re a certainty.
For example, I had expected to spend this past weekend making lesson plans. Yesterday, Monday, I had expected to celebrate being in Fianar for a month. This week, I expected to start teaching English to the students at SALT. I expected the first week of November to be my first official week teaching at FaFaFi. I expected my first day at Amboaloboka to happen the week after. Three weeks from now, I expected my schedule to be solidified and my days to be filled with teaching.
Instead, I spent this past weekend cleaning my apartment and packing. Yesterday, I spent the day in a car with two of my fellow Madagasgals as we road-tripped back to Antananarivo. This week, all of the Madagascar YAGMs and our country coordinator will be flying to South Africa together. We will have our first retreat in South Africa, during which we’ll process and discuss our experiences thus far. Three weeks from now, we’ll hopefully be returning to Madagascar and our host communities.
Obviously, reality did not match my expectations.
For those of you who don’t know, for the past couple of months, cases of plague in Madagascar have been on the rise. Plague is endemic to Madagascar, which means there are cases every year. The difference this year is that there have been cases in cities; normally, plague affects the countryside. Additionally, the strand currently spreading is the pneumonic plague, which can be passed relatively easily via coughing. Because of these factors and others, the YAGM program has decided to temporarily relocate all of the volunteers in Madagascar to South Africa, where we will have time to assess the situation. We plan to return to our host communities in mid-November. I want to emphasize that none of us were in immediate danger. I never felt unsafe or afraid in Fianar. Our relocation to South Africa is precautionary.
“The best things in life are unexpected—because there were no expectations.”
I’m not saying that our temporary relocation is the best thing that could have possibly happened. I’m not saying I’m happy to leave my host community. I’m definitely not saying that I’m glad the plague happened so that I could travel to another country. I am, however, embracing the unexpected. While this is not how I expected to spend the third month of my YAGM year, I am hopeful and excited that it might just exceed my expectations in ways that I never could have imagined before. I am grateful for the reminder that it’s okay when expectations aren’t meant. I trust that God has a plan. And I am ready for the unexpected.
It's crazy to think that I've been in Fianar for almost three weeks already! Some days it feels like I just arrived, and other days it feels like I've lived here for a long time. Even though I'm still waiting to solidify my teaching schedule, I am feeling very settled into life at SALT, thanks to my amazing host family (more about them to come later!) and the welcoming community. SALT stands for "Sekoly Ambony Loterana momba ny Teôlôjia" (Lutheran University of Theology), and it is the seminary where I both live and teach.
I live in a complex called Villa MELCAM. MELCAM stands for "Missionaries of the ELCA in Madagascar"; the name is a souvenir from a time when the U.S. had a strong missionary presence in this country. The subdivided building used to house American missionaries, and now it's used for guests--like me!
The biggest room is my living room and bedroom (above on the left). Yep, I sleep in the living room! (And, yes, Mom, I did make my bed just for this post.) And on the right, surprise! Another bedroom.
And last but not least, here's what the back of the building looks like.
My apartment is much different from a typical Madagascan home. In the words of my country coordinator, I'm living in "vazaha land" (vazaha is a term for foreigners). And I am. I am incredibly privileged to be living in such a gigantic apartment furnished with wifi, electricity, and running water. I have more space than I will ever need, and that's taking some getting used to.
Today I took out the garbage for the first time.
You might be thinking, “Okay . . . so what?” Or, “Why are you wasting a blog post to talk about garbage?” Trust me, I didn’t think I would be blogging about trash, either.
This is a picture of my dumpster, if you will. You’ll notice that there are no metal trash cans, no wheeled plastic garbage bins, nor a big industrial dumpster. There’s definitely not a separate place for recycling. In all honesty, it just looks like a bunch of garbage that someone threw on the ground.
And that’s exactly what it is.
When I take out the garbage in the U.S., I separate the recyclables from the trash. I rinse out the cans and bottles and collapse the cardboard boxes. I neatly tie up all the trash in plastic bag. I carry the garbage bag out to the side of the house, where three different wheeled trash cans await: one for trash, one for recycling, and one for yard waste. I open the lid, toss my bag on top of the others, and shut the lid. Once a week, I wheel the trash can down the driveway and leave it on the curb. When I’m away at school or at work, a garbage truck comes and empties the can, carting all my trash away. I come home, check to make sure the trash can is empty, and wheel it back up the driveway to start the cycle again.
When I took out the garbage here, I didn’t separate the recyclables from the trash. I didn’t bundle up the garbage into a nice, neat bag. I grabbed the bucket of compost from under my kitchen sink, the small plastic garbage can from my living room/bedroom, and the other plastic garbage can from my bathroom. I carried them outside, past the two homes next to mine, and around the back of the building, near the pig pen, where a shallow pit, blackened from fires past, awaited. I hesitated, thoroughly uncomfortable with what I was about to do. And then I dumped the contents of all three of my garbage cans on to the ground.
When I took out the garbage here, I could literally see the impact that my actions and my waste had on the environment. And it’s pretty sickening. In the U.S., we are so removed from our waste. In the neighborhood where I grew up, no one had to cart their own garbage to the dump. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the place where my garbage disappears to. All of the garbage cans in my neighborhood have lids on them so that we don’t have to see the trash. We even line the garbage cans in our homes with bags so that the can doesn’t get dirty. The garbage trucks come when we’re gone, so that when we come home, we don’t have to spare the trash a second thought. It’s just gone. Taken care of. Out of sight, out of mind.
Here, most people burn their garbage. If it doesn’t get burned, it piles up—in yards, on sidewalks, along the roads. Waste is never “out of sight, out of mind” because you always see it. In America, we would call this ever-present garbage littering. We would call it pollution. We would call it gross, dirty, and unsanitary. We would probably assume it’s an environmentally irresponsible method of waste disposal. But, how different is it really from what happens to our garbage in the U.S.? Sure, our roads are relatively clean, the sidewalks are pretty clear aside from the occasional piece of litter, and people’s yards are generally garbage-free. But our garbage doesn’t just disappear. The garbage collectors don’t wave their magic wands over the containers at the end of driveways, and poof! the trash vanishes into thin air. They bring it somewhere. All of those containerfuls of nice, neat plastic bags from hundreds and hundreds of houses—guess what? They pile up. Just like the garbage does here. I’ll admit, I don’t know exactly what we do with all the garbage in the U.S.; burn it, compress it, bury it, and maybe reuse some of it? We can’t get rid of it all, though. It piles up somewhere. In huge amounts. We just forget about it because we don’t see it.
Did you know that, according to the EPA (and this really cool infographic they published), the average American produces 4.4 pounds of waste per day? That means, on average, each person produces 1,606 pounds (almost a ton) of waste each year. That’s ridiculous. And nobody wants to think about that. Nobody wants to face how much damage they personally do to the planet. I know I don’t. It’s so much easier, so much more comfortable, not to spare my garbage a second thought after I wheel it down to the curb.
But if I created that much waste here, my own two hands would be dumping 30.8 pounds worth of garbage directly on to the earth every week.
I’m not saying that I think every person in the U.S. should have to carry their own garbage to the dump. I’m not saying we should start burning our own trash in our backyards. I’m not saying we should do away with garbage trucks altogether so that we’re forced to face our waste.
All I’m saying is that maybe our garbage is worth a second thought, no matter how uncomfortable that second thought might make us.