Most mornings, I wake up before my alarm clock. The day starts when the sun rises, so it’s not uncommon to hear the neighbor kids playing, power tools whirring, car engines starting, the water pump running, or One Direction songs blasting from outside well before seven o’clock. Wednesday is my day to “sleep in.” Back in the U.S., I considered waking up after 10 sleeping in. Here, I feel like I slept in if I make it to my 7:30 alarm without being woken up earlier. I don’t go for a walk or to chapel on Wednesdays; instead, I set out for Amboaloboka, a young women’s vocational school where I spend my morning. It’s a 45-minute walk one way, and it is, in fact, uphill both ways. (I’m not kidding—Fianar is built on many, many hills, so you have to go up and down no matter where you go.)
Every weekday morning at SALT, there is a short chapel service before classes begin. The chapel bell rings twice: once to summon people to chapel (I like to think of it as the warning bell) and again to mark the beginning of the service 15 minutes later. An assortment of students, professors, staff, and visitors gather in the chapel that used to serve as the neighborhood church—until the congregation grew too large. Chapel, like church, always begins on time. When the bell ceases its ringing, the day’s speaker announces a hymn. A different person leads the service each day and is responsible for selecting a hymn and a scripture reading, as well as leading a prayer and giving a short sermon. (“Short” sermons last roughly 10 minutes, minimum. The full-length sermons on Sundays can last for upwards of 30 minutes.) The speaker almost always speaks in Malagasy, which is a good time for me to practice my comprehension. Recently, though, my students have begun to offer to translate for me; it gives them another opportunity to practice their English. It’s exciting to see them so eager to put their language skills into practice outside of class. To conclude the service anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes later, Dr. Lotera, the Dean of SALT, gives the day’s announcements, followed by anyone else who has something to announce. On special occasions, if there is a guest, for example, the SALT choir sings. Then, we are dismissed. For the next five to ten minutes, we greet each other, shaking hands and checking in with anyone within reach. The students head off to class, the library, or the computer lab, and I usually head home.
On Mondays, I wake up at the same time as the sun. My host mom meets me outside my apartment and together we head out for a brisk morning walk. The scenery along our walking routes is incredible! Fianarantsoa belongs to Madagascar’s highland region, and I am still awed every day by the beauty of the mountainous landscape.
After class, I often stop in at the nearby supermarché, or grocery store, to pick up things like milk and pasta that I don’t buy at the open-air market where I do most of my shopping. If I have no other errands to run, I have the day to myself until early afternoon.
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.
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