I didn’t intend to leave things here the way that I did. I had already drafted up several other blog posts that I was planning to finalize and post before I finished my Peace Corps service and left Madagascar on April 11th, 2014. But it seems that I was overambitious in just how much I could actually accomplish during my final month in Madagascar, in which I had to pack up and leave my house, complete all of the required Peace Corps “exit” paperwork and tasks, wrap up my work project, study for and take the final exam for the microeconomics course I was taking online, make a decision about grad school programs, and just generally achieve the monumental task of saying goodbye to the place and the people that had occupied my heart for the last 2 years. So many things were left undone. The day before I left Vangaindrano, I was frantically trying to finish a sign painting project in the center of town, because I wanted to leave it with a fresh coat of paint when I said goodbye. But the sun was setting, and I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t going to get finished. So, exhausted and emotional, I gave the paint and instructions to a friend in town and asked him if he could please finish. Like that painting project, I didn’t get to write everything that I wanted to. Looking at my blog recently, it feels wrong to leave it with a post listing my likes and dislikes about the country that I called home for 2 years, and which I am spending a lot of time missing these days. So I am remedying that now, even though I have been back for a year at this point.
I know it may seem like leaving America to go live in a remote, undeveloped country for 2 years is a difficult act, but looking back, I think that leaving Vangaindrano for good was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I was lucky enough to reconnect with many friends shortly after my return, and talking about my experience helped cement some feelings in my heart. When I talk to people about leaving and why it was so hard, I tell them about the extremely strange notion of having to uproot yourself from a community that you spent years working to integrate yourself into, one that absolutely became your home, with neighbors who felt like family-- and knowing that after that departure, even if you come back, you will never have that experience again. Nothing can ever be the same, because the experience of living in a town as a Peace Corps volunteer is so unique and special that it just can’t be recreated. This harsh reality hit me as soon as I sat down in the yellow taxi-brousse that had picked me up in front of my house and loaded up my belongings for the journey to Tana. Seeing my little toddler friend Sarobidy wave to me as the van pulled away suddenly forced the excruciating reality upon me that he wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore, and nor will I be a part of his. Two weeks later, in each of the final segments of the journey home, I could not stop crying: when I made my last and final sign-out of the Peace Corps house, when I sat in the taxi to the airport, and when the customs officer stamped my passport one last time. And then when I called Sarobidy’s mother Marcelline to say a final goodbye before boarding the plane, she told me that he kept asking aiza i Emily? (“where is Emily?”) Hearing this brought upon the tears even more, and I kept my sunglasses on while walking bleary-eyed onto the tarmac. I just didn’t want to have anyone ask me why I was crying, because how I could I even begin to explain to them?
|Little Sarobidy taking a nap under the avocado tree in my front yard, with Harry the cat and Milou the kitten keeping him sleepy company.|
Of course, leaving Madagascar did have happy connotations: my first stop was Indonesia to meet up with one of my best friends and her brother, who was a PCV there. As difficult as it was to leave my friends in Madagascar, both Peace Corps and local Malagasy, I knew that there would be some wonderful people waiting for me one the other side. I also think that taking that trip before actually returning to America was an important “halfway” step before plunging into the murky pool of readjustment to American life. I had heard many a PCV say that it’s actually a lot harder to return home to America than it is to go away. I didn’t give this statement enough credence before, and although I knew it would be difficult to come home, I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be. I will be honest here and say that my first 3 months back were some of the most trying months of my life. Everything we take for granted here was a challenge for me to get used to: driving, shopping in a grocery store, being incredibly connected at all times, and figuring out how to eat in America (given my massively different diet in Madagascar) so that I wouldn’t feel sick. I also had to figure out how to accurately describe my experience to everyone who asked the simple yet difficult-to-answer question of “how was it?” Aside from these challenges which are no doubt common to any returned PCV, I also was met with a few unique ones pretty much as soon as I returned. Firstly, I had to take care of a surprise health issue that presented itself during my final physical exam with the Peace Corps doctors, and because it was something that occurred while I was a federal government employee, it had to be covered under the federal employee worker’s comp program. So that meant that approximately 25% of my days were spent dealing with either the Department of Labor or my doctor’s office. Secondly, my grad school plans were turned on their head because of a change with the program I was originally planning to attend, and then turned again when I got a phone call on May 9th from Duke (my first choice school) saying that they had a spot for me after all, after I had been on the waitlist for 5 months. So I made the decision to switch my business school plans to Duke, which brought me great excitement… and also great stress, because the tasks that I had to accomplish in 2 months in order to make this work were monumental—chief of which was their calculus requirement. Yes, that’s right: I spent my summer studying calculus under the gun so that I could finish the prerequisite by the hard-and-fast July 15th deadline. I had no Memorial Day, no July 4th, spent nearly every beautiful summer day hunched over books indoors, and although I took 2 weeks to visit friends and family in NYC, LA, and DC, I spent nearly every one of those days studying while my friends were at work. I wasn’t even sure if I would succeed, because trying to finish a college-level calculus course in less than 2 months is no easy task, but I’m happy to report that I passed the course with the grade I needed, and was able to cross off that huge item from my to-do list. Additionally, I was able to take care of my health issue thanks to some excellent medical treatment, which took a humongous burden off my mind.
|A goodbye picture of me (and Harry) with Fanomeja, one of the sweetest boys in my neighborhood. He was a great friend to me, my garden, and my cats.|
I’m now just about done with my first year of the MBA program at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business—which feels crazy to write. The first month here was a huge adjustment, and I spent a lot of time feeling jarred by just how different my life had become, as well as struggling to adapt to my new identity as an MBA student. Getting used to a rigorous school schedule was also difficult, given that I hadn’t been a fulltime student in many years. But the adjustment got easier, and I’ve met a wonderful group of friends at school. I genuinely feel like Duke is exactly where I am supposed to be, and I’m excited to be spending the next year growing, learning, and continuing to become the person I want to be. I’ve taken inspiration from my Peace Corps project to pursue a career in corporate sustainability, and my dream job is to work at a large consumer products company helping them operate more responsibly and sustainably, especially when it comes to sourcing ingredients. I feel extremely fortunate to be on that path already, and will be doing my summer MBA internship in India, working with Coca-Cola’s office of sustainability. When I left my career in New York to join Peace Corps, I legitimately had no idea what would come of that brash move. But I realize now how I grateful I am for the experience career-wise, and far from being just a break from the real world, it refocused me on what my goals are, helped me become a more resilient and adaptable worker, and gave me the adventurous, more-than-a-desk-job work experience I was craving.
|With beautiful Marinah, in front of her grandmother's coffee and bread stand-- my daily breakfast spot.|
When I look back at my experience now, the twelve months’ distance from my Madagascar departure brings about two distinct emotions. The first is a bit of rose-colored-glasses nostalgia, when I miss Mada and my life there so deeply because all I can think about are the good memories and amazing experiences: the wonder of exploring a new country, the pride I experienced at wowing people by being able to speak their indigenous language, the thrill I felt flying down the steep hills of the Route Nationale 12 on my bike, the surge of familial love I felt when little Sarobidy fell asleep in my arms one day, the crazy biking/boating/swimming/camping/hiking adventures I had with my friends, the daily explosion of cuteness from the litter of kittens I raised in my final months at site, and the general sense of freedom and belonging that came after I’d been in the country for over a year and really felt at home. Looking at all of my pictures now and seeing myself all blonde and tan from two years of tropical sun, toned and healthy from daily biking and a vegan diet, with a smile full of contentment and joy, it’s hard not to wonder, was this the best version of me? Of course, my mind tends to gloss over the daily struggles of Mefloquine-induced anxiety, the frequent harassment, the infamous rat problem of my first few months at site, the maddening feeling of being in a taxi-brousse that only travels 20km in one hour, and my deteriorating health towards the end of my service. But even when I remind myself of the bad parts of my service, I still look back on it as the best thing I have ever done, and the most rewarding experience of my life.
The other emotion that often presents itself, especially when I look at pictures posted by current volunteers, is that of regret. As is so often the case in life, I didn’t realize what a gift I’d been given until far too late. My chief regret is not pushing myself out of my comfort zone more and becoming more integrated in my community early on. In the beginning, I was so insecure about my Malagasy language skills that I was afraid to have conversations with people, since I’d be scared that I wouldn’t be able to understand them. It wasn’t until woefully late in my service that I realized just how precious my integration within Ampasy (my neighborhood of Vangaindrano) was, and that it was probably the most priceless experience anyone could ever ask for: to become, as a complete stranger and total foreigner, as much a part of a community in rural southeastern Madagascar to feel like I had gained a family. Had I realized this earlier, I would have forced myself to overcome my language fears and just get out talking to people more. And along those lines, I regret not challenging myself to get better at speaking and understanding Malagasy, because I wish I could have understood people better and had deeper, more meaningful conversations. Although I worked incredibly hard studying the language, I know that I could have forced myself to spend more time talking with people and practicing early on in my service, even when I didn’t feel confident with my language. As an introvert, my natural tendency was to spend lots of my free time in my house or garden, so I wish that I hadn’t allowed myself to fall into this pattern, and that I had balanced my alone time with more socializing with my neighbors. The fact that here I am, a Returned Peace Corps volunteer feeling regretful, is ironic because “regret avoidance” was a large reason for why I decided to leave New York and finally join Peace Corps-- I didn’t want to be another person lamenting not having served as a PCV when they had the chance.
|April 11, 2014: the day I officially became a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, along with 5 of my fellow PCVs, and flew to Indonesia.|
But despite those occasional feelings of regret, I remind myself that no volunteer’s service is the same as another’s, and there is no such thing as a “perfect” experience. I may not have had the same kind of Peace Corps service as my friend in a rural village down the road, but I nevertheless benefitted so greatly from it, and have to hope that I made an impact on my community, if only a small one.
Finally, towards the end of my service I began to compile a list of the changes I had noticed in myself during my two years of being away. I knew I would find myself somewhat altered from my time in Madagascar, so I wanted to take stock of what I had noticed being different in myself. Of course, I had intended to post this a year ago, so the difference now is looking at this list of changes and seeing if any of them have stuck with me—which actually may be more interesting, come to think of it.
Changes that I Hope Stay with Me:
- Being a self-starter and working on projects without much direction. This was a great thing to get practice with. The American working culture very much hews towards corporate hand-holding with lots of touchpoints and check-ins. In Madagascar, I was essentially handed a project and told to make it happen. It ended up being one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.
- Learning to accept uncertainty and roll with the punches. Life changes when you learn not to waste energy on things you can’t control. I learned this lesson many times over waiting for a delayed taxi-brousse to leave or having plans change unexpectedly due to torrential rains. I began to accept the fact that things will go wrong, and developed a strategy for how to deal with these annoyances: allow yourself to be angry about it for 5 minutes, vent if you need to, then move on and figure out what to do next. You can either sit around stewing in anger and frustration, or you can get on with life.
- Being more spontaneous. I am a planner by nature, and that part of me hasn’t completely gone away (I just entered all my 2015-2016 school calendar dates into Outlook, hello), but I feel like I am now more able to embrace the unexpected and be a little more spontaneous. Some of the best times I’ve ever had in my life are when I dropped my carefully curated plans and did something completely different. Like crashing a Malagasy wedding party and dancing until 2 in the morning with complete strangers who became best friends for the night, for example.
- Learning to ask for help when I need it. I’ve always prided myself on being independent and self-sufficient, but it was a huge lesson for me to realize that being thrust into a completely new environment meant that I actually did need to rely on others. It is incredibly humbling to realize this, but sometimes you need to let yourself be taken care of. When I made that first phone call to a more experienced volunteer and said “I need your help”, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. (And it looks like I am not alone in learning this lesson—see #11 on this list.)
- Avoiding regrets as much as possible. As mentioned above, joining the Peace Corps was a huge strategy for personal regret avoidance. Having done that, I am trying to take the same tactic with other things in my life. I think this list is pretty great, and although I am definitely guilty of some of those items which I am sure will turn into future regrets, I’m doing pretty well on things like going to graduate school, learning another language, and traveling. J
- Being more outdoorsy. This was something hugely lacking in my life between college, when I was outdoors riding horses quite a bit, and Peace Corps, which had me biking, hiking, camping, and swimming all the time. I didn’t realize how much I missed being outside and not surrounded by sun-obscuring skyscrapers until I found myself doing things like walking through the forest with a group of local villagers so they could show me a hidden natural pool, or hopping on my bike for a 5-hour ride to the nearest big town, just for the fun of it.
- Being more open and honest with people. It seems counterintuitive, but going so far away helped me to do this, much more so than if I had just stayed in NYC. The enormity of my 2-year undertaking brought about an urge to open up and be truthful with people whom I cared about, because it was entirely possible (though statistically not likely) that I wouldn’t come home from Madagascar. Fortunately, I did, and having been this open and honest with my friends and family before leaving helped me reconnect with them when I returned home.
- Not being a smartphone addict. I came across these two pieces while I was serving in Mada, and it was such a jarring reminder of what life is like in America where almost everyone has a smartphone with near-unlimited amounts of data. After over a year of using a pay-as-you-go system with a circa 2007 dumb phone, I had forgotten what it was like to always be connected to everything and everyone. I told myself I wouldn’t fall into this trap when I returned, but I sadly seem to be falling back into my old habits, and it’s something I need to work on.
- Not spending obscene amounts of time online. Similar to the smartphone realization, I also forgot what it was like to have unlimited internet when I had to pay per MB for everything I did online. It really makes you question whether it’s worth reading online gossip sites if you know each click will cost you. But as this study interestingly pointed out, there’s still an opportunity cost to time spent online even if you don’t pay-per-click: less time sleeping, exercising, learning, and socializing. Just as the case of the smartphone addicition above, now that I once again have the luxury of unlimited wifi I find myself spending way more time on the computer than I would like to be, so this is yet another thing that I need to work on. I lament the fact that I no longer have time to read books for fun, but then I remind myself that in Madagascar, when I didn’t have Netflix or unlimited Facebook, I read 97 books in 2 years.
- Dancing, always. No matter how old or uncool I am. Because I just freaking love it.