After nearly a month away from site, I jumped on a taxi brousse — the most common form of transportation in country — and started on my way home. I peered out the window, watching the towering mountains and palm trees slowly fade into red sand and cactus. We were headed for the desert.
Two weeks of In-Service-Training at the Peace Corps Training Center in Mantasoa, two hours outside of the capital, followed by a trip to Ranomafana National Park and then some time on the beach in Fort Dauphin had me used to running water, cool breezes and toilets. Going back to site meant saying goodbye to those luxuries.
But there was a nice trade-off. Upon seconds of climbing out of the cramped taxi brousse, I heard “Vola!”, my Malagasy name, and turned around to two smiling students of mine, with their hands out, ready to shake mine. My walk from the station back to my house, though only four minutes long, consisted of many ‘Tongasoa!’s, (Welcome!), ‘Tratra ny taona!’s (Happy New Year!) and ‘Fale mahita azo raho!’s (It’s nice to see you!). It was nice to back to a place where I wasn’t just another ‘vazaha’, or foreigner. Here, I was the Peace Corps Volunteer. Here, I was the American English teacher. Here, I was Vola.
After the initial greetings though, came the inevitable question: ‘Aia ty voandalana?’ Voandalana, directly translating to ‘fruit of the road’ is essentially a gift you are expected upon return to your town. It can be very small and a sign that you were thinking of that person while away. Aware of this Malagasy custom before leaving site, I packed a bag with mini pineapples and coconuts. I had a list in mind of whom I would be giving my voandalanas to, though nearly everyone I passed on the street asked for one.
Despite the questions, I felt at ease talking to my villagers and walking through town. After being robbed twice in the period of two weeks in the capital, Antananarivo (once through the window of a taxi and again, while walking to the supermarket), I could now relax. I felt safe.
I found my house filled with sand — the winds in the Androy region make it necessary to sweep multiple times a day. After sweeping a month’s worth of sand, I headed to the market with my neighbors in tow (all under the age of ten, of course). They fought over who would hold my hand and we formed a line across the sandy road, often disconnecting to let a crowd of people pass through.
I greeted one of my favorite market ladies – I buy tomatoes and onions from her almost every day. Her hands are rough from long days of working in the field and sitting in the sun. Wrinkles decorate her kind eyes. Her slow-pace of speaking and gentle smile make me feel welcome in Ambondro. We wished each other a Happy New Year with three kisses on the cheek and made light conversation. She told me next year I should celebrate the new year in Ambondro with my Atandroy family.
“Eka,” I replied with a smile. “Longo raike.”
“Eka,” she agreed. Indeed, we are one family.