Note: I struggled with whether or not to write about this, but in the spirit of wanting to be as open and honest as possible about what my life is like here-- describing both hardships and triumphs-- I decided to go ahead and share this with you. Please do not interpret anything written as a personal attack or judgment on anyone.
Can it still be Christmas when it's 90 degrees out and you're sitting next to a palm tree instead of a pine tree? That's a question I had to ask myself as I prepared for my first Christmas away from family. I'd already experienced Christmas abroad before (Buenos Aires in 2010), but that was a trip with my family, so this year was still going to be an entirely new experience.
Because I was worried about being lonely if I stayed in Vangaindrano for Christmas, I decided to take a vacation and head north to Diego Suarez, a beautiful beach town on the very northern tip of the island. About 17 other volunteers also came up to Diego, and it was an epic 3-day journey to get here, including a day-long brousse in which they had decided to squish 5 people into each row, but all the travel difficulty was worth it as we spent a magical Christmas Eve boating in the Mer d'Emeraude and snorkeling in the cerulean waters, and a luxurious Christmas Day splashing around a fancy hotel pool, splurging on a decadent lunch, and drinking vacation-worthy tropical drinks. I was pleasantly surprised to find that as much I wished I could be with my family back in Vermont, eating our traditional Christmas brunch of french toast, bacon and mimosas, I wasn't actually very homesick. Spending the holiday with my Peace Corps family was exactly what I wanted and needed, and even though we're all many thousands of miles away from home, we became each others' family. After our day at the pool we all went back to our hotels to shower and put on nice clothes, then went out to a local bar where we danced to a fantastic band was playing a set of both American pop songs and Malagasy music. The highlight of the night was when we all got up to sing along and cheer as one of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers belted out an amazing rendition of Adele's "Someone Like You". That moment cemented for me the epiphany I'd had earlier that day: that Christmas and Hanukkah are not about the gifts you give or receive; rather, they are about the people you spend them with. There is no way I could have been happier than I was that night, jubilantly dancing with my friends in a random bar on the tip of a tropical island. And even prior to Peace Corps, every passing holiday season that saw me another year older also saw me less and less interested in gifts being a part of the Christmas experience. I found myself thrilled to just be able to spend a day with my family eating good food, going for snowy hikes up a local mountain, and just being able to enjoy relaxing together. If anything, my feeling of contentment and happiness during this year's gift-less holiday was simply a natural progression of how my enjoyment of the holiday season has evolved. So after that wonderful moment of dancing and singing, when some people went back to the bar for another round, I decided to end the day on a high note and headed back to our hotel in a touk-touk (a motorized rickshaw cab).
But as happy as I was all Christmas day and night, I couldn't ignore a feeling of something bothering me deep down inside. It wasn't until I got back to an empty hotel room and began to process it that I fully understood what it was. One part of it is that Diego is one of cities here with the highest prevalence of sex tourism, and it's hard not to feel disgusted when you see lecherous old French men sitting with underage Malagasy prostitutes at the next table over. (Because really, is there anything sadder than being alone on Christmas and feeling the need to pay someone for companionship?) But it was something more than that that really got to me. While I was at the pool and the bar, I was using my phone to check Facebook and post holiday updates and greetings. Doing so allowed me to see many, many photos of people's Christmas trees overflowing with brightly wrapped gifts, and pictures of their children gleefully tearing open new toys, dolls, video games, iPads, and other symbols of a privileged Western existence. I was overwhelmed by the contrast to life here; floored by the sudden appearance of so much excess, so much unnecessary spending and consumerism. And, I was horrified to think of myself as a child who had been a part of this system, begging my parents for gifts that they very often indulged me in. And then I thought of the reverse side of the coin, how childhood is in Madagascar and other places with poverty so extreme that it's unfathomable. I thought of the kids in my neighborhood, who I can now affectionately call "my" kids because they stop by my house every day to play, and because they call out "Ay-mee-leeeeeee!" as I go to fetch water. I thought about sweet little Marinah, my new tag-along 8-year-old best friend, who delights in following me around and loves to use my colored pencils to draw pictures on scrap paper-- a common activity for American children, but an exciting luxury for kids here. I thought about little Liba with his bright smile, who loves to come over and flip through the picture books I have in my house for the kids; he can't read, but he happily looks at the pictures over and over, describing what he sees. I am fairly certain this is his first time ever seeing a book. And I thought about the countless other children who live near me, who maybe own one or two sets of threadbare clothes, and perhaps not even a pair of plastic flip-flops, but smile and play and run around joyfully just like kids are supposed to, even though they're probably always a little hungry and spend every night sleeping on a threadbare mattress that they share with the rest of their family. I can't give these kids money, but I give them fruit when I have it, a banana or mango here and there, and maybe some peanuts to try and make up for the some of the protein their diet is missing every day. They are ever grateful and gracious at any act of generosity. No parent ever has to remind these children to say thank you.
And so when I thought of "my" kids back in Vangaindrano, along with the majority of all the children in Madagascar, who want for so many basic things yet ask for so little, and then thought of the pictures I saw of waste, excess, consumerism, overconsumption-- all brought about in the name of a holiday that is supposed to celebrate peace and goodwill towards others, I broke down into uncontrollable sobs. I called my mom, tears streaming down my face as I tried to explain why I was so upset. No, I wasn't homesick, I said; this was something far different. Such a complex mix of feelings brews a storm of emotion that is hard to dissect and explain. I felt angry, guilty, helpless, heartbroken. For some reason little Liba stuck out in my mind, as I sobbed to my mother, he doesn't even own any shoes! Almost all of them are malnourished and can't afford to go to school-- how can I look at these pictures of wasted money spent on ridiculous things and not feel angry? But I can't solve the problem-- it's a broken system. Me buying things for the kids in my community won't fundamentally change anything, just as Americans not buying Christmas gifts for their kids won't change anything either. And who can fault them for wanting to shower their children with love and affection in the form of things that make them happy? Who doesn't respond to the glee in a child's face when they open up a gift? I am a generous person by nature and absolutely love to give gifts, although mostly of the homemade variety. So how can I change anything? All I know is that this Christmas, something changed in me, and I will never be able to look at the holiday the same way again. On a larger scale, I also hope this helps me become less of a materialistic person when I return to the US. And when I have kids, I hope to do something different with Christmas and Hanukkah, something that isn't centered around buying things. An idea came into my head yesterday as I was hiking through the beautiful natural rock formations of Tsingy Rouge, a park near Diego Suarez: I thought about how wonderful it would be to use the holiday season to travel every year and explore another corner of the world. There is so much beauty to be seen in the world, and if I am fortunate enough to have the money to explore it with people whom I love, I can think of no better way to honor the spirit of the holiday season.
I hope all of you back home have a joyous new year and are able to drink a toast to a happy and healthy 2013 with your friends and family. Love to you all, and Bon Année from Madagascar.