In the section about cultural differences in the orientation packet we recieved the first day of our program, we learned that making jokes and laughing with or directly at another person should not be considered rude because it is not meant to be and is a large part of Malagasy interactions. This emphasis was very clear: “[People] will laugh at you and make jokes at your expense. This will happen–accept it as fact and don’t be paranoid.”
Before departure, I found myself saying many times to different people that I was mostly excited but also very nervous. This is by far the most adventurous thing I have ever done, and some aspects of the unknown can cause some nerves. Language barriers were my primary concern as I do not speak any Malagasy and have not been in a French classroom for quite some time. I feared that my worries about making mistakes would disable me from speaking with people and fully immersing. After being here for only a little more than a week, I do not claim to no longer have any nerves, but I have decided to adopt the Malagasy approach to my mistakes and laugh. I have already made some fairly humorous mistakes, including ordering shrimp for the table one evening for dessert instead of pineapple, and telling a woman that she was hurt instead of blessed in response to her telling me that she has three children. In response to these mistakes and many more, we all laugh together. When I met one of my future host families, we filled the gaps in conversation with smiles and laughter. It was somehow in the these moments where we did not say anything that we got a feel for each other’s personalities- much more so than through my small talk about how much it rains during the rainy season.
It was also in a moment of laughter that I fully realized I am actually in Madagascar– that I am actually in the place I have heard so much about and where I have dreamed of going. I arrived a few days before the program start date so a few of us had several days together at a hotel outside of the capital city to ease into our new environment together. For the most part, we rested and spent time getting to know each other. Even when we ventured into the neighborhood where almost everything was different from home, the reality of our circumstances had not yet sunk in for me.
When the program started, we moved to a hotel that was in a more “pastoral” area and met the remaining group members and program staff. The hotel was surrounded by rice paddies and tropical trees all growing out of the very distinctive red dirt of the island. I cannot possibly convey the beauty of this landscape. The program arranged for a music and dance group to come and perform for us, which we were informed would most likely call upon our participation. There was a moment when we were all in a circle, hand in hand with the dancers who were wearing colorful Malagasy cloth; I was taking in familiar sounds of music from the south where my family lived; I was admiring the natural environment around me as we danced round and round; and we were all laughing together both in joy and at the vezaha’s lack of rhythm. This is the moment I realized: I am here!