15 October 2017 (Sunday)
I didn’t join the Peace Corps for the camaraderie of the other Volunteers and being now the only one left in the “60 and Over” club has driven home just how isolating this job really is. Originally there were three of us old fogies, but one man had to drop out just before we left the states due to a medical condition, which left two of us, and the other, just a few months older than me, dropped out the day before we were sworn-in. I’d seen her departure coming for a while and was actually surprised that she’d lasted as long as she did, but in the end, the Peace Corps wasn’t what she really had in mind, so she quit and went back home to the States, her cat (who had runoff and had recently returned) and her beloved house which she was afraid wasn’t being cared for adequately by those she’d left in charge. Even though several of the other PCVs often comment how youthful I may be in my attitude and approach to life, in the end, though, I carry with me six decades of hard work, accomplishments, struggles, pains, joys, and lessons, many of which my younger counterparts may never experience. And it’s for this reason that I cannot really talk to ANY of them about some of the things I’m experiencing because they just don’t know what I know, which makes it hard to relate if I’m constantly having to define terms. For example, I told one of my fellow Volunteers that I felt like a pariah, and their response was “What’s a pariah?” All I could do was sigh. Remember, we’re all college graduates here. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated their attempt to try to connect with me, but this kind of thing is frequent and reminds me that I’m from a totally different generation when I say something like “HNIC,” and I get “What’s that?”
So, I’m alone, not something I didn’t expect, and even if my language skills weren’t an issue, I doubt I’d really find anyone here with whom I’d connect on a more personal level because of our differences. I’m a foreigner but don’t look like one at first glance, so even if someone assumes I’m not Malagasy, I think they think I’m perhaps from another French-speaking African country, so French is often thrown my way. Then, when I don’t know French and insist I know a bit of Malagasy, I get looks of “No shit?” along with a smile and then we begin to speak, slowly, in Malagasy. There are a few favored merchants I buy from on a regular basis, just nice ladies who always have a smile for me and even if we can’t say much, their kind energy is appreciated, so they get my business. Inside my home, I’m always thinking of new ways to connect with my students, who range from 1st grade through 7th grade, and I’ve been using music, specifically my violin, singing, animating the Alphabet Song into a kind of dance, and going online when I have wifi access to find new lesson plans to engage, entertain and educate them. The Peace Corps trained me how to teach middle and high school and the Ministry of Education provides all schools with a structured curriculum we’re expected to teach, week by week, for middle and high schools, grades 6-12. but half of my classes are 1st – 5th grades and the other half are 6th-7th grades. This means that I have to come up with a curriculum for very young students who have had NO exposure to English, age-appropriate lesson plans, and deal with their short attention spans in creative and engaging ways.
I reached out to the Peace Corps for help, but they sent me mostly useless information; a one-page sheet with the lyrics to five songs to sing (Twinkle Twinkle, Frere Jacques, If You’re Happy and You Know It…), a one-page simple introductions exercise, and a one-page document on how to teach adults how to write upper-case letters and numbers. If I was an experienced teacher of young children, I’d probably be thrilled to be able to create my own curriculum and all, but I’m teaching a second language to young children, many of whom as also still learning their own first language, Malagasy, so I don’t quite know quite where to begin. Thank goodness for the Internet and sites like Education.com and others that have given me some really good ideas for hands-on learning that will keep young hands energized and interested. One such lesson is called ‘’Float or Sink” where I’ll bring in a few buckets of water and a pile of various objects. I’ll divide the class into teams which will compete to predict whether a specific item will float or sink to the bottom. I’m hoping I can keep this from getting out of control, but you know how kids and water can be. Since science and math are my two most favorite topics, I’m planning to base many of my lessons around these topics and teach them English while doing some fun science or math project. I know I can make this work, but it would also be nice to be able to interface with other teachers who are teaching the same levels and dealing with the same challenges — but I’ll soldier on, alone.
Staying focused on the kids is what keeps me going through the times when I’m feeling most alone. I am VERY thankful, however, that there are SO many places in Mahajanga where I can walk or bike to free wifi access, because a LOT of PCVs are living in places so isolated that wifi access isn’t even a possibility — but none of them are forced to teach levels for which there is almost no support, either. I’m the only one of our Stage of 30 who is teaching at the EPP (elementary school) level. Considering that fact, how difficult would it have been for the Peace Corps to have pulled me aside and shared some basic lesson plans or given me a collection of books I could use in the classroom? Having wifi access, I’ve found lots of First Grade Lesson Plans, ESL Lesson Plans for early learners, etc., and I don’t need the whole plan, just the idea of what to teach is usually all I need to be able to craft my own plan, making it a fun activity for busy minds/hands. I love giving high fives, and for my 4th-5th-grade class (it’s combined) I have them giving me five on the black-hand side, which I hadn’t done myself in about 40 years, but the kids LOVE this.
So, I’m the old broad who will turn 61 next week, and who doesn’t FEEL old but is old, and the isolation of my life in Mahajanga includes my sex life or lack thereof. With the other PCVs, training was a big roaming slumber party, for the most part, lots of folks sharing lots of beds, and I’m happy for them. I was just an observer, watching the mating dances, predicting which two would end up together, which wouldn’t last, etc., and though observing it all was an interesting hobby, it was one from which I was totally excluded. I had a really good sex life before I left the U.S., and though I knew I’d be celibate for the next two years, it’s finally starting to hit home that I’m gonna be celibate the next two years!! YEOW! Okay, so I’ve never been ashamed of having a healthy sex drive and I used to enjoy sex and was truly fortunate to have had a partner the past few years who had a great toolkit and knew how to use it — I was spoiled in the best possible way. The problem with this is in finding someone who has all the qualities I need in a good lover (great head on his shoulders, politically aware, fun to be with, patient and loving in bed and out, and of a certain age and body type). Yeah, I’m probably asking for a lot but I’m worth it, and the minute I settle for less than I deserve, I GET less than I deserve. Quite honestly, I’d rather go without than to settle for a man who has no idea or interest in satisfying the woman, nothing interesting to say, isn’t comfortable with an independent woman, or has to take a pill to get things going. And when did “male enhancement” become a “thing” anyway? Back in MY day, I dated a LOT of older men, men who were 20-30 years older than me, and Viagra hadn’t been invented yet, and those old guys could slam every which way from Sunday — no pills needed. Nowadays, even men in their 30s are buying those little blue pills on the black market, just so they can get it up. What in the hell is THAT about? Whatever happened to just living a good, healthy life, regular exercise, good food, no drugs, little alcohol — you didn’t need those little pills. Just seems like this whole marketing scheme was to get men to think they need something they really don’t need at all. Yes, maybe we had to work a little harder to get him to stand at attention, but it was all natural, and it worked. Blue pills? If a man needs to take a pill, I’m not interested. Done. But I digress.
So, I’m not having any form of male relationship, either, nobody to go dancing with, or just have a drink, nobody to have a meal, no one to take with me to the beach or go for a bike ride. So, I do all those things by myself and the only one that bothers me is the beach. If I ride over to a deserted beach, the water is calling my name. I lock up my bike and run into the waves all the while knowing that it’s dangerous to swim alone, but I AM alone, so swimming alone is something I’ve had to just get used to. I’ve always been an excellent swimmer, was a lifeguard, used to compete on a swim team, did water ballet and am comfortable in salt or fresh water. I don’t feel I need someone to babysit me while I’m in the water, but the ocean is no joke and stuff can happen. I just have to let go of my fears and hope that nothing happens while I’m swimming, alone. It just is what it is, and I’m not gonna put my life on hold because I don’t have someone with whom to share my life.
It’s at times like these that I wish the Peace Corps would really give some serious thought about how to support older PCVs. We have different life challenges. Retirement accounts, mortgages, kids/grandkids, real estate, elderly parents, etc., and though we may be physically and psychologically ready and able to serve, our “other” lives, the ones we left behind before we took on this challenge, continue even though we’re thousands of miles away. I mean, think about this, when you apply for the PC and you’re, say, over 40, there’s a good chance you own some property and you’ve probably started putting some money away for retirement. You may have some kids in college, elderly parents, etc., and if would be SO nice for the Peace Corps to have a department, even just one person, dedicated to helping us work with mortgage refinances, tax issues, retirement plans, etc., and if nothing else, someone our age who has LIVED life, has had to deal with balancing a life, kids, home, career, spouse, parents, menopause, etc., and knows how challenging it can be to be thousands of miles away. The PC already has a Civil Rights Department and a Victims Advocacy Group, how hard would it be to add “Mature Volunteer Advocate” to one of the existing departments so that, when I’m just feeling overwhelmed, I can actually speak to someone around my own age, to whom I don’t have to define words just so we can communicate?
The needs of the mature volunteer are different in a lot of OTHER ways, too, including sex, or lack thereof. Fewer options in the U.S., and almost NO options overseas, and just because we’re grey up top doesn’t mean we don’t have the same needs and desires as someone a third or half our age. Trust me, we do. Interestingly, though, the PC Medical Office notices this and in my three-month supply of meds they send me quarterly, they include a few tubes of feminine cream to help with dryness associated with menopause. I didn’t ask for this, but they knew, because of my age, that this might turn out to be useful, so at least SOMEBODY understands that our needs are different. Oh, and thanks for the cream. It’s nice that I have friends and relatives I can call stateside, and they do help relieve some of the stress and personal issues I face, but for official business, it would be SO nice to have someone within the PC to whom I could just chat, express concerns about my 62nd birthday next year and what that will mean for me Social Security/tax-wise, just everyday life “stuff.”
I LOVE the Peace Corps. Every day I am GRATEFUL that I asked and they accepted my request to join, and each day I wake up in my ancestral home, Madagascar, I have to fight back the tears, that I’m REALLY here!!! Oh, this is a magical place. But it’s not perfect and perhaps I can work within the Peace Corps to ensure that they can attract and KEEP more mature Volunteers because our worldview is so much more complete, so much more flavorful, and so much more interesting than most of the younger PCVs. We are a vastly untapped resource and I hope the Peace Corps can take advantage of this while we still can. The magic that is Madagascar and the magic that is the Peace Corps — by taking advantage of the innate respect afforded one my age by the local culture, there is so much MORE I could be doing, so many more lives I could touch — Oh, the synergy we could create.
Yes, I’m isolated, but at the same time, I’m loving every minute, too. I especially look forward to Sunday evenings because that’s when I get to talk with my daughter. It’s early Sunday morning in California, and she’s always home then, so we get to catch up in our weekly chat. If my son is answering his phone that early in the morning (not a guarantee), I get to talk with him, too, but he’s not really an early bird. When I think about the fact that I won’t see them for at least two more years, these regular weekly phone calls make it seem like when I was still living in the States, I’d chat with each of them about the same amount of time, so having free wifi available so I can make free wifi calls is HEAVEN.
I’m also working with a local computer center sponsored by the U.S.Embassy, called the “American Corner of Mahajanga,” located at a local high school, and I’m working with the director to upgrade the Windows software, replace the awful French keyboards with American/British keyboards, get a working networkable laser printer and some ergonomic monitor stands. Once I get a working printer there, I’ll be able to print out pictures of local/national/international black historical figures to share with my classes, figuring the more positive role models they see that look like them, the better. Everybody knows Obama, but not everyone knows George Washington Carver, Bessie Coleman, Billie Holliday or my future husband, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, to name a few. And those are just famous black Americans. There are famous blacks in history from almost every continent and I’m looking forward to sharing their stories in future lessons. One great thing about being able to create my own curriculum is that I get to choose what images they see and black kids need to understand black history around the world. This is gonna be great.
So, that’s it for this week. I hope to update my blog every Sunday, again, based around the time I’m at one Mahajanga restaurant or another using their free wifi. Sadly, I had to scratch Bim Bam Burger off my list. Their food just wasn’t very good anymore (don’t know WHAT happened), the portion sizes kept shrinking and worse, their wifi got so unreliable that it wasn’t usable. It was a nice thing while it lasted, a vegan burger joint, but it is a franchise and perhaps the owner was bound to follow the company line, and the food suffered as a result. Sniff, sniff, Bim Bam.
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