Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Simplicity and luxury

When you live simply, it’s amazing how much more you appreciate the small things in life. For example, when you have to hand-wash and line-dry your laundry, you are eminently grateful for a hot, dry day that leaves your sheets crisp by lunchtime. When you have to fetch your water from a pump, you’re thrilled when it finally rains and makes the pump run at full strength. When it’s 105 degrees out and you’ve been walking around all day, there’s nothing quite as refreshing as finding an epicerie with a fridge and being able to indulge in a small, cold bottle of Coke. When you’ve spent a hot day biking on dusty back roads, a cold bucket bath can feel every bit as luxurious as a fancy hotel shower. And when you can only buy fruit and vegetables that are in season, it’s an unexpected delight to find a verdant head of lettuce at the market, and take it home to make a cool and refreshing salad.

That’s the way I’ve been living for the past 20 months, and I can already tell that it’s changed the way I’ll live forever after, even when I get home to America. Specifically, it’s made me realize that to live comfortably and happily, you don’t need a lot. It dawned on me recently that despite living in a “hardship” situation, I don’t feel deprived. I have a small two-room house with electricity, a garden and a lovely backyard, a bicycle, an old but usable laptop, and enough money to feed myself, buy phone and internet credit, and travel around the country a bit. Yes, there are difficulties and things that are uncomfortable, but  as a whole, I don’t feel as if I am suffering every time I wake up in the morning and go about my day.

Perhaps this has something to do with a shift in expectations. I’ve come to realize that in the non-Western world, not everything in life is easy. Maybe the person you need to talk to doesn’t have cell phone reception in his town—so you ride your bike there to go talk to him. Or maybe you have to wait 2 hours for your taxi-brousse to finally leave the station—so you read a book and talk to people while you wait. I’m used to it now. In Western countries, however, everything is hard-wired for comfort and easiness—where all you need to do laundry is press a button, and a single grocery store holds every possible food item you could ever want to buy, at all times. So after 2+ years of living in Madagascar, I’m expecting to be in for a serious reverse culture shock when I return home in May.

What I’ve realized since being here is that real luxuries are the things we take for granted in America: things like ice cream (I marvel at its very existence now—the fact that ice cream can be shipped and sold all over the country!); bacon and pancakes on a Sunday morning; owning a car, no matter how old and beat-up; all the way to microwaves, fridges, computers, iPods, iPhones, running hot and cold water, and reliable electricity. Reading this you may find yourself asking, but at point what does it become a necessity? Isn’t electricity a necessity? The simple answer is, no, it’s not. Although I’m a fortunate volunteer in that I have electricity in my house, few of my neighbors do, and almost none of the other volunteers in my region do, either. And they all survive. It’s entirely possible to cook and eat healthfully without a fridge. And fetching water from a pump is not as dreadful as it sounds. This is not to say that I won’t enjoy these amenities when I return to America, but I think I’ll appreciate them more now that I understand how fortunate I’ll be to have them.

One thing that’s helped me appreciate my existence here is realizing that the same simple things I found pleasurable home in the US are achievable (and just as pleasurable) here—things such as climbing into a bed with clean sheets after a nighttime shower, eating perfectly ripe, in-season, fresh fruit, sitting outside and enjoying the afternoon breeze, breaking open the creamy yellow yolk of a perfectly-poached egg, indulging in a long talk with a friend, relaxing with a book (and maybe nodding off) in a hammock, enjoying an unhurried cup of morning coffee, the smell of tomatoes on my fingers after working in the garden, and the comforting and cocooned feeling one gets from being warm and dry at home while a rainstorm pounds down outside.

Being here has clarified to me that little things like these bring me great happiness, yet there is nothing particularly extravagant about them. It doesn’t take a fancy car, expensive house, or top-of-the-line hotel to make me happy. In fact, I’m finding myself more and more uncomfortable with actual Western-style luxuries. In March I met a friend for a vacation in India, and for our stay in Delhi, I cashed in some of my hotel points (accumulated in my previous life) so we could treat ourselves to a stay in a fancy hotel. But I found myself overwhelmed by the niceness of it, and unnerved by being called “Ms. Silman” and having my luggage carried for me. What is going on? I asked myself, this is not me! I’m a Peace Corps volunteer! And things got even more bizarre for me when we booked a car and a driver to take us sightseeing after a disastrous attempt at using local taxis: when the car pulled up that morning to pick us up, it was (much to my surprise) a Mercedes, which I guiltily sat in all day, enjoying it but feeling quite out of place.

So perhaps there is something singularly attractive about coming to a largely unspoiled and un-Westernized country, like Madagascar, in order to gain perspective on what is truly important and valuable in life. I encountered a poignant description of another such journey in a book I just finished about the British writer and MI6 spy Graham Greene. (Thanks to Eric for passing it my way). The book depicts the author’s attempt to recreate Greene’s famous journey through Sierra Leone and Liberia nearly 100 years ago, and spends a significant amount of time going over Greene’s motivations for undertaking the adventurous trip. Greene went to Africa, in part, because he was becoming disgusted with the British “civilization” that was supposedly so wonderful and worth exporting to other countries, but within which he found, as the author remarks, a disheartening amount of “seediness”.  Greene wrote about his disillusionment in his book Journey Without Maps, which is the work that came out of his trek through Liberia and Sierra Leone. Greene’s writings in Journey Without Maps:

“... reveal his distrust of the ‘civilisation’ represented by contemporary Britain and the developed world, and to justify the desire to go somewhere more base, pure, and unspoiled.... he found among the native tribes of the Liberian interior the existence of characteristics he saw as more admirable and honest—a sense of innocence, simplicity, even virginity that accentuated natural feelings, both good or bad.”
-          Tim Butcher, “Chasing the Devil: A Journey Through West Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Greene”

Perhaps I have a similar disillusionment with many aspects of the ‘progress’ that modern American culture symbolizes. We are supposed to be so advanced, so forward, the most successful nation in the world—yet we spend hours upon hours toiling behind desks at the expense of time with friends and family, simply to finance a lifestyle which American culture tells us we must have. There are many cultures that would question whether a lifestyle like that really is a definition of success. Here in Madagascar, people work extremely hard, but family comes first. It is not uncommon for people to miss a business meeting or important event because a family member has fallen ill or needs assistance. Of course there are some Western developments that I would like to see more widely adopted in Madagascar—such as greater economic development, improved education and equality for girls and women, more appreciation and protection for the environment, and an increase in family planning—but I would never want Madagascar to emulate every aspect of American culture.  This country may be poor, but it’s rich in a lot of things that we’re not.

My college thesis (which this blog gets its URL from) dealt with the ideal of Arcadia, as propagated by Virgil and then many subsequent artists and writers. Without getting into too much detail, the Arcadian ideal is one of an untouched natural paradise that is free from the formal constraints of man-made law and societal structures. And because of this, it becomes a haven for artistic thought and creativity. Virgil and his followers talked of a mythical land—whether real or imagined—where shepherds wrote poetry and sang love songs in the unspoiled natural beauty of their surroundings. This verdant, uncivilized utopia was so prized precisely because of its roughness and ruggedness; man’s constructs and the ‘advancements’ of modern society were seen as the enemy. When I read that passage in “Chasing the Devil”, I finally created a link between this famous Arcadian ideal, which I devoted years to studying, and the timeless yearning, as exemplified by Greene and many others, to come to non-Westernized countries in Africa and elsewhere to discover another, more authentic way of life.

Should I be including myself among those “many others”? When I left America to come to Madagascar, it wasn’t exactly motivated by a similar desire to flee Western civilization. But maybe my time here has uncovered that as a small, subconscious inspiration for my decision to join Peace Corps. With 4 months left in my service, I am eagerly awaiting returning home, but I’m also a bit scared, and unsure if I will be able to live the way I used to. I might find myself one of those people who needs to be living abroad, or someone who always has to be moving from place to place. Or perhaps I’ll easily settle back into the familiar contours of American life. If one thing is for certain right now, it’s that I have no idea how it will play out. But no matter where my life takes me after this, I know I’ll be able to look at my experience in Madagascar with reverence and appreciation for all the gifts it has given me, not least of which is an ability to live simply and appreciate life’s small and precious joys.


  1. Can I just say the you helped me decide on whether or not to accept my invitation to Madagascar? I was very hesitant about it, because I was told Eastern Europe for the whole process, and got Madagascar. Reading your posts and watching your videos has definitely helped me make my decision! So thanks! I'm so excited to start my journey as a PCV in Madagascar!

  2. Thank you Elena! That really made my week to hear. I know, my Madagascar invitation threw me for a bit of a loop too, although my original nomination wasn't quite as different as yours (I was supposed to go to French-speaking west Africa). I like to think that I was sent here for a reason, and I've tried to embrace the opportunity to live in this unique and magical country. I think you will love it and I'm glad to hear that you accepted your invitation! Are you coming in the health/agriculture stage in February, or are you in the next education stage that arrives in June?

  3. I'm the next education stage in June! So I'm kind of just reading some blogs, getting my medical stuff done, and listening the the audio language lessons! I've already started my packing lists, because I have so.much.stuff, that when I actually start packing, I'll be able to do it with as (hopefully) little frustration as possible.

    I do have a question for you though! The FPCV Facebook group recommends bringing and unlocked smart phone, because PC will give you a sim card? Is this true? Because the group is full of FUTURE volunteers, and I just wanted to ask someone that is there right now! (:

  4. Well my first recommendation would be to pare down your items to pack as much as possible! I was in the same boat and I definitely had too much unnecessary stuff when I get here. You really don't need a lot.... which I know is hard to comprehend looking at from America, but you will get here and realize (as I mentioned in this blog post) that you can live very well while still living very simply. Regarding a phone, PC won't give you a SIM card but you will buy one to use when you get here. Either you will buy a cheap phone here to use it in, or if you bring an unlocked smart phone then you can use it in that, and as a bonus, will be able to access mobile internet by buying data credit. I have an old iPhone 3GS that I got unlocked in the US (this part is essential) and I put a local SIM card here, so I use it as my primary phone.

  5. Yeah, I have definitely experience living without a lot, so I don't think it will be too hard for me! My sister will definitely enjoy babysitting what I don't take while I'm gone, haha.

    One more question to go along with SIM cards, the phone I currently have is micro-SIM. Will that be okay?