How Living Abroad Has Changed Me

It’s funny, the things you used to do all your life that now you’ve forgotten about. Little things, things that we normal and commonplace in your old life – before you moved abroad. I’ve been living outside the u.s. just over three years and most of that time, I lived without running water, a flush toilet, and for about a year, no electricity, either. And my life is wonderful, despite losing all these conveniences, I have experienced such joy, witnessed so many magical things, and had the opportunity to touch the lives of countless people, giving of myself to help them live their best lives.

When you live your life from the focus of helping others improve their lives, it’s really easy letting go of all the “stuff” that used to define our lives. For instance, I eat lunch with my Peace Corps host family every Saturday and I always bring fish or chicken with me. It’s the one day a week I eat fish, because if I don’t, they’ll be offended. They know I don’t do chicken, but I’m not willing to go through the hassle, each week, explaining, again, why I don’t eat fish. So, I just eat a small amount of fish and everybody’s happy. In the States, I’d have just stood my ground, and if they didn’t understand that, too bad.

Aside from that, the cooking is all done outside, food prep is done inside. They have a large kitchen with running water, but they cook with wood, the pans resting on a triangle of large stones, so that has to be outside. My host father, Felix, has hinted that he’d love for Jacklyn (his wife, whom he adores) to be able to cook inside. I’ve already looked at propane stoves and have already added it to my December budget — a Christmas present for the family, and smaller gifts for each family member, too.

Fara, wife of Andrisoa, is cooking fish outside. She is holding a cuvetta, which has more uncooked fish, ready for the pan. Their daughter, Sanita, is behind her. They have two cooking stations in their side yard.

With the food cooked outside, and even with the food prep inside, there isn’t a lot of hand washing going on, and that’s true all over Madagascar. If nothing else, Covid got the government to require hand washing stations EVERYWHERE, and it’s a nice convenience to be able to wash my hands anywhere I want. But in private homes, most people don’t have running water, and even those that do, hand washing isn’t stressed like it is in the u.s. I had to learn to overlook a lot of things I would never have accepted in the States, and surprisingly, I lived to tell the tale. I have had food poisoning lots of times here, and I dread the next time, because it will most assuredly happen again. Walking around the open markets and seeing slaughtered fish, cow and chicken parts on wooden tables, covered with flies, it doesn’t faze me in the least. Nobody is gonna eat any of that raw, so when you cook it, the germs will be toast. It’s just the way things are, and it’s another way living abroad had changed me.

Running water is such a wonderful thing. I was without it for over two years, and now that I’m living in an “American style” apartment (their term, not mine), I have noticed that I’m still living as though I don’t have running water. When I did the dishes in Madagascar, I had to fill two cuvettas (wide, shallow, plastic pails) with water, one for wash, one for rinse. I’d used water from a Jerry can, which had to be refilled daily, and lifting those heavy plastic cans of water injured my right shoulder, tore my intercostal muscle, and I ended up in the hospital for four days. Wasting water wasn’t even a thing.

So, washing dishes meant using as little water as possible and reusing dirty water because you didn’t want to waste the water washing just a few things. I’d end up squirting a small amount of the liquid dishwashing liquid on each item as I washed it, so regardless of if the water was brand new or had been used a few times, this was my routine to ensure my stuff was clean. And just today it dawned on me that I’m still washing dishes that same, way, even though I have running water, and two sinks. I had to laugh at myself, then I filled up my plastic wash tub I use in my larger sink, and squirted a bunch of dishwashing liquid into it and watched all those lovely suds sprout up. I’d forgotten how to do this. Isn’t that crazy?

And it got me thinking about other ways I’ve changed since I escaped America. Eating in establishments that would have been condemned by the health department in ANY American city is something I frequently do. Once you get over a couple of food poisonings, your body starts to adjust to the input of all those new, strange bugs, and though you don’t get sick anymore, you often have very soft bowels, which tells you that you ate something your body struggled with, but you emerged victorious and you never even knew a battle was going on.

Living without TV has actually been pretty wonderful, especially since many of the stations here are in French, and I don’t understand most of the Malagasy stations because they speak so fast. So I haven’t missed TV. On Saturdays, Felix will turn on the news while we’re eating, and that’s always fascinating for me, but that’s all the TV I get. And I don’t miss it.

I have wifi, so I can watch everything on Netflix without using a VPN, and some things on Amazon Prime. I don’t want to use a VPN unless I have to because they eat up my data and I’m on a fixed plan, only 50 gb/month, and VPNs eat up data like crazy. My carrier, Orange, doesn’t offer an unlimited plan. I’ve begged them to just let me pay for more data, but they won’t do it. Instead, I have to pay overage charges every month, which is a total ripoff. It’s already expensive, $60 USD/month, which, when you consider that I pay less than $1.50 USD for water/month and about $13 USD for electric/month, so $60 for wifi is just stupidly expensive. I pay more for wifi than many Malagasy people make in a month. It is so bizarre. But I gotta have Internet access, and without wifi, my only option is to buy data for my iPad and use the SIM card for access, but then I won’t have the Internet on my 13-year-old Mac Mini, which is where I do a large part of my work.

I am so hopeful about Madagascar. I meet so many of these young kids, many with degrees, English speakers, brilliant people, with few prospects because there just aren’t a lot of jobs here. So, I’m spending a lot of my time updating resumés, helping them rework their cover letters, and rooting around looking for jobs, then finding the right candidates to apply for the job. The Malagasy way of creating a resumé or CV just doesn’t work well with American or European employers, and if it’s a job for an English speaker, their resumés need to have flawless English. Whenever I hear about a job, I post all the details EXCEPT how to apply. Then I tell them to send me their CVs, and only AFTER I’ve updated it (with their help and input), will I send it in. I’m working with one NGO right now, and I’m hoping to liaise with others and become the go-to person to fill their jobs. Doing what I can to help the people of Madagascar.

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