Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The road goes ever on and on...

Home at last.
I write to you now from my parent’s house in Petaluma, California, in what will be my last post as a WWF EXPLORE Volunteer in Madagascar. It seems a rather short three months ago that I began this blog in Antananarivo, excited and uncertain about the experience ahead. It is surreal now to be faced with the task of reflecting back.
If Tana was culture shock, then America, land of plenty, is like being hit with a tidal wave and turned upside-down. The developed world as a whole has been astonishing, delighting, and terrifying me since I stepped off of that first of many airplanes in Paris Charles-de-Gaulle Airport last Wednesday. First, it was soda with ice that knocked me out of my seat. I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway as I gulped cold Sprite and chowed down on frozen cubes in my AirFrance seat. Forevermore, I am going to feel nostalgic for Madagascar when tasting warm beverages.
Then, it was the weather—as I descended the stairs onto the tarmac in Paris, the girl standing in line before me commented that, “Cold just feels weird.” Weird, indeed, and she had most likely only been vacationing in Madagascar for a few weeks. For me, who in the past three months has come to know that far-off island in the middle of the sea as home, it was beyond bizarre to hop on an airplane overnight and wake up in a different hemisphere in a different season. Winter…who has ever heard of that? And Christmas…wow, I nearly forgot that it was supposed to be happening sometime soon.
Then it was on to Madrid through the endlessly fascinating and confusing world of international travel. I found myself excitedly abandoning my barebones diet of rice and beans in Barajas Airport and settling down to a truly gluttonous meal of extra cheesy tortilla española and chocolate con churros, but I’d barely made it through half of the quiche-like tortilla, before I started feeling faintly queasy. I guess it will take more than a few hours to acclimate myself to a dairy-based diet once more; cheese and milk-based products just didn’t really exist in Vondrozo. And who knows how many parasites I’ve managed to pick up abroad? What Kuni has dubbed the “extraterrestrial” in my stomach didn’t seem too excited about the chocolate either…
From Madrid, I made my way across the Atlantic to New York’s JFK International Airport, an overwhelming welcome to America after five months spent out of my home country (for those of you less familiar with the details of my life’s travel, I spent the summer traveling Europe before voyaging on to Madagascar). I was tickled to discover an advertisement for World Wildlife Fund’s “Save the Tiger” campaign just outside American Airlines security—so reminiscent of that WWF donation bin in Paris three months ago at the start of my Malagasy adventures…Here, like before, I left a small contribution—in American dollars, this time, instead of euros—but I know that my real contribution lay in all I have learned and experienced in the past three months.
Being back in America is both amazing and distressing. Everything inspires awe. My first meal in JFK—a cheese quesadilla with guacamole and sour cream was astonishing, but no less so was the tall glass of ice water the waitress brought me without my asking; I could drink it safely without adding chlorine or UV light! But then I found myself stunned by the plastic straw in its paper wrapper that she set beside the cup, not to mention the stack of disposable napkins she tossed on my table. Who needs these things? I thought to myself…And where do they go after I finish with them?
I spent the weekend decorating my home for Christmas alongside my mother and father, and when we tired of Christmas carols, I pulled up Youtube on my laptop—internet powered, of course, by the wireless network in our house. “What do you want to listen to?” I asked my mom. “Every song in the world is at my fingertips…” And that is what America is like—everything in the world at my fingertips. And yet not. There are a few songs that have escaped Youtube’s archives…Where are “Voay” and “Assuré” and the many other cheerful Malagasy melodies that have danced across the radio incessantly for the past three months? They are not there.
Indeed, it seems hard to believe that Madagascar can exist at all from the perspective of Christmastime in the San Francisco Bay Area. At first, just after my arrival, I found myself converting every purchase into Ariary, but I long ago abandoned that habit because it makes me vaguely nauseous. Things here cost 2,000 times what they cost in Madagascar, and that is just the way they are. I pay what they cost in American dollars, and I try not to think about the difference.
 When I wander through our local Safeway, I remember the market in Vondrozo, and I can barely believe that there are still people there now, buying rice and beans and manioc leaves while I browse the packaged foods and produce bins offering vegetables from all over the world. When I shower in my parent’s master bathroom, all pink tile and hot water—how many times did I dream of that in Madagascar?—I struggle to remember that the cold bucket bath in Behavana is still a reality and that there are people there, today, now, who are still using it.
PCV Brian called us a week ago when we were still in country, and he was home for his brother’s wedding in Hawaii. He said that people always talk about reverse culture shock with Peace Corps Volunteers returning to the developed world, but for his short visit, he was dealing well with it. “I basically just separate this world from that world,” he said. “But I guess that is the problem, too.”
Yes, that is certainly the problem. Petaluma, California and Vondrozo, Madagascar are both realities, existing at the same time and on the same planet. I have the luxury of being able to flit between the two, inconvenienced only by some jetlag and a few uncomfortable hours (okay maybe more than a few) in an airline seat. But how to wrap my head around the idea that Vondrozo continues to exist when I have left it and that, for so many other people, escape is not an option? That is the challenge ahead of us as we move forward on the path towards sustainable human development. How to make Vondrozo exist on the same plane as Petaluma and yet avoid destroying our environment in the process…?
For my part, the work is far from over, and the need to return to Africa burns strong within me. Fortunately for me, life has seen fit to send me back to the Dark Continent in almost too short a time. In just under two weeks, I will be leaving the good ol’ US of A once more to head, this time, to Kenya, where I will be spending most of 2011 working on a project investigating land use change, fluctuations in small mammal populations, and human infectious disease risk in East Africa. The project will be much more science-heavy than the work I have been doing in Madagascar (not much conservation by cooking this time), but there is also a critically important applied aspect to the project that deals with education and information for the local population. I am beyond excited to be able to take all that I have learned in Madagascar and apply it, so soon, to this new project in Kenya.
And though I am moving on for the immediate future, there remains much work to be done in Madagascar and in the Vondrozo Corridor, in particular. From afar, EXPLORE volunteers will continue to teach and communicate—our videos are completed now and awaiting a few technical glitches to be sorted out before they will take their place on this website and others. There are presentations ahead, too, and articles left to write, and help to be sought. For those of you who have been impressed and inspired by the efforts of WWF in Madagascar, you can learn more and help contribute to the cause at the WWF international website (http://wwf.panda.org/how_you_can_help/) or the Madagascar-specific site (http://madagascar.panda.org/aboutus/how_you_can_help/).
And, who knows? Once Kenya is behind me, there is no telling what could come next. Madagascar was my first real foray into hands-on conservation and sustainable development, and for that, it will always hold a special place in my heart. There are many people and places that still tie me to the country, and with so much possibility on its environmental horizon, I may just have to go back someday.
For now, though, the road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began…

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