In Philadelphia #2

June 9, 2008

I’m still in Philadelphia, but for realsies, now, I won’t be writing for a while after this entry. My training village in Madagascar is something like 40 miles away from the capital and our village doesn’t have phone lines or Internet access.

There are 26 trainees—eight males, eighteen females—in my training group, and they are all my soul mates or heterosexual life partners. Nearly everyone has traveled abroad at some point, and they are really interesting and fun people. It’s incredible how similar we are and how much fun we have together. Plus, it’s comforting to speak with people who are doing exactly what I’m doing and have thought and felt exactly what I’ve been thinking and feeling. We all have aspirations and anxieties about doing the Peace Corps in Madagascar, and these commonalities downplay my worries and make me more optimistic for success.

After I last left you, I met two trainees who were headed to Burkina Faso and four other trainees who are in my group. We had dinner and chatted over beers at an Irish pub. The next day we had registration and a four hour orientation session where we talked about the Peace Corps’ history, its role in the world, and how it was different from other international volunteer efforts. What’s nice is that unlike many non-governmental or non-profit organizations, the Peace Corps doesn’t throw money at a country and expect success; it instead operates at a micro-level where volunteers bring progress and sustainability to countries community by community. And instead of being driven by drivers and living in compounds with other foreign volunteers, Peace Corps volunteers are immersed in the country’s culture so we can be gentle American ambassadors and also bring the country’s culture back to Americans. (By writing this blog, I’m contributing to one of the Peace Corps’ objectives of cross-cultural education.)

Yesterday, Sunday, we took anti-malaria pills for the first time. Most of us were issued mefloquine, a once-a-week malaria prophylactic that apparently has the nasty side effect of giving us very vivid nightmares. Over dinner at a Thai restaurant with other trainees, I joked that that night we would dream of riding elephants into a phone booth, and on the other end of the booth’s long hallway we would meet Richard Gere wearing a fanny pack and saying, “Here is your Malagasy host family,” and from his fanny pack would produce our host parents and host siblings. For better or for worse, I did not have such a dream last night. I’ll keep you updated on the vivid nightmares.

The Peace Corps gave us debit cards loaded with $180 for meals, transportation, and anything else we needed while in Philadelphia. Since the Peace Corps is a U.S. government agency, our debit cards were hilariously and obnoxiously patriotic: They had an American flag covered in text from the U.S. Constitution and a huge “We the People.” I was surprised that it didn’t feature President George Washington with a hand over his heart looking stoically into the distance. We’ve been living extremely comfortably on this money—it’s more than enough for the three days that we’re here for orientation.

I just got out of today’s eight hour orientation session where we learned about cultural adaptation and immersion, Peace Corps policies, health and safety, and our schedule for the next few days. There were many ice breakers, skits, and group exercises throughout. At the end of the orientation, our speaker, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Costa Rica 1983-1985, teared up as he wished us well for our next two years abroad. Some trainees teared up, too. The twelve hours of orientation heightened our anticipation for our adventure. A female trainee told me, “I feel like I’ve been drinking the punch. When I call my parents and they ask me if I’ve changed my mind about the Peace Corps, I’ll just laugh.”

We’re taking a bus to New York tomorrow and leaving in the evening for Johannesburg, South Africa. We’re spending a night there, but the Peace Corps is advising us to stay in our hotel rooms since the city is apparently really dangerous. The next night we’re flying to Antananarivo, Madagascar and spending a night there. On Friday, we go to our training village and meet the host families with whom we’ll be living for our ten weeks of training. I’m trying to picture in my mind what my life in the training village will be like four days from now, but I still cannot. Me, hut, moon, lemurs?


In Philadelphia

June 7, 2008

I’m writing to you from the Sheraton University City hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I’m waiting for the other volunteers in my group to arrive so that we can grab some dinner amid the gothic churches and brick buildings of Penn. Our two-day orientation begins tomorrow. We’re off to Madagascar on Tuesday.

I left my home, Las Vegas, at 7 a.m. this morning having completed most of my goodbyes. Last night I had a going-away dinner at T.G.I. Friday’s, and it seemed to have been a great success. About 35 friends, family and guests attended the dinner and wished me well. My friends’ personalities and quirks were in force, and I realized then that I wouldn’t get to enjoy them for two years: Lance and his wearing flip-flops 11 of 12 months out of the year; Sara and her high little voice; the Murphy-Cohen’s laughter; Kyle with his bizarre humor; the coolness of my former editor at the university newspaper; his sweet sweet girlfriend (she made me a tiny painting of a heart to hang in my future Malagasy home); Jessica’s propensity for fun; Carmen’s dryness; and so on and so on. It’s very empowering to know that when I’m on the eighth continent, I’ll have a support group half away across the world rooting for me in spirit.

It was only logical that after spending a few weeks slowly acquiring items for my big adventure I would procrastinate packing until one hour before leaving for the airport. The going-away party went pretty late, leading me to fall asleep at 1:30 a.m. At 4 a.m., I awoke to two alarms and a haze of sleepiness. In this haze I packed for two years in Madagascar. Most of it was throwing around piles of clothes and trying to stuff everything into my duffle, backpacker’s backpack and a laptop case. For future volunteers who might be reading this blog, here’s my stab at packing for Peace Corps Madagascar:

  • four pairs of shoes (flip-flops, breathable hiking shoes, tennis shoes, and dress shoes)
  • two pairs of khaki Dockers
  • three button-down shirts
  • two ties
  • four pairs of pants
  • five shirts
  • nine pairs of socks
  • five pairs of boxers
  • Swiss Army Knife
  • wind-up flashlight
  • books (“Don Quixote,” “Sex, Drugs, and Coco Puffs,” “Paradise Lost,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “The Collected Stories of Anton Chekhov,” “A Light in August,” “Norwegian Wood,” and a travel guide to Madagascar)
  • Asus EEE PC
  • Digital camera
  • two notebooks and pens
  • two light rain-resistant jackets
  • two travel towels
  • toiletries
  • batteries

I forgot to pack my harmonica and a money pouch. I’ll ask for them to be sent to me through the mail. And speaking of mail, I would love to receive your letters! My mailing address for Madagascar is:

B.P. 12091

I’m not sure when I’ll update my blog next. It could be next week, it could be next month. I apparently will not have Internet access or electricity while I’m training for ten weeks at the Peace Corps training village in Madagascar. Until then, dear friends, take care.