No one told me how hard it would be to say goodbye.
Almost two and half years ago, I was preoccupied with finding the 'perfect' sandals to live in rural Madagascar – as if there is such a thing – and a solar light with the best reviews on Amazon – as if the quality of my next two years of life depended on it. Fast forward 27 months and here I am, sitting on a plane, returning to New Jersey – a place where I call “home” in the most conventional meaning of the word – without the slightest preoccupation about what is packed in my suitcase or what I want to buy next. Instead, I'm thinking about the goodbye that no one told me about. The one that maybe I would never have been prepared for. A goodbye to my “home” – in the most unconventional meaning of the word. The parting of a physical place – the profound beauty of the vast desert, towering cacti and cloudless blue skies – but also, to the people who invited me to be a part of their lives and became my family, still feels like a fresh wound.
While it hurt to say goodbye, I still feel like the luckiest person in the world for now possessing a superpower – one that gives me a perspective that not everyone has after seeing what I have seen after living among my neighbors in a remote, rural village in Madagascar. I feel an obligation to share with others but feel anxious, unsure if it's even possible to share an experience like this.
So as I reminisce about my home I left behind and get ready to meet the friends and family I haven't seen in two years, I am dreading the innocent yet inapt question:
how was your 'trip'?"
I'll try to tell you.
Let me tell you about the times Georgette brought me to her family's well to fetch water and how the stairs down to the water were so steep, I was afraid I would slip in. Georgette stood on the wooden planks hovering the well and pulled up two buckets of murky water. I knelt to the ground as she rolled up a piece of cloth, placed it on my head and then lifted the bucket to rest on top of the cloth.
We carried the buckets on our heads all the way home,with one hand holding the rim. Water spilled from my bucket every third step, making me laugh as water rolled down my face onto my dress. Georgette was patient with me and smiled as she turned her neck slowly to the left to check on me. Her bucket was full when we arrived at my door.
Let me tell you how each morning started with the hollow thump thump thump of my neighbor Antra and and her brother Avotra pounding corn in the oversize mortar outside their house.
Or about how Rasoa and I washed our clothes in a nearby pond, after the rain had replenished its water.
After we scrubbed each item, we stretched them across the cacti and starchy grass to let dry. We were disappointed when we saw that a herd of zebu had walked across our t-shirts while we weren't looking and had to wash them again to get the muddy hoofprints out.
Let me tell you about the time we stayed up into the wee hours of the night to mourn the death of a four-year-old who accidentally swallowed a pesticide while sitting in the field as his mom and dad planted squash and sweet potatoes. I looked into his mother's eyes as she sat next to the tiny casket, trying to find words to comfort her. Her older daughter stood outside, selling candies to help people stay awake until the sunrise. The mourning mother thanked me for being there and told me how I would be remembered for the way I meshed with the community and supported them during the happiest and hardest times.
Let me tell you about planting watermelon seeds with my friend, Mbola after a morning rain. We alternated turns, tossing three seeds at a time into the moist, red sand.
Let me tell you about my routine of searching for hot coals from my neighbors' charcoal stoves to prepare a meal. There was always someone passing by to help me fan the fire or ask what I was cooking.
Let me tell you about how Razoky and Mbola sat next to me for hours under the shade outside of my house, helping me take out my braids.
Let me tell you about the sense of community that exists in my village, where everyone looks out for each other.
Or about being able to recognize my students' family members as I passed them on the street. I wasn't just their English teacher, but their customer at their coffee stand, their fellow passenger on the taxi brousse and their neighbor. I was always fascinated when I saw the familiar twinkle in the little girl's eyes and immediately knew it was Vonjeazee's little sister or when I bought water from the vendor on the corner and knew it was Jeaninine's mother from her beaming smile.
Let me tell you about how during the last 72 hours in my village, I was constantly surrounded by my students and neighbors from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. We took naps together on straw mats outside my house, basking in each others' company.
Or about the unexpected tears that streamed down my cheeks as I shook the hands of my market mamas for the last time and seeing how their eyes filled with tears as they told me, “Thank you.”
Let me tell you about when I wrapped my arms around a girl who the community knew as my “child” for the last time and whispered how much I would always love her into her tiny ear.
Let me tell you about the things I could never see but only feel. I left my village feeling healed, not knowing that I needed a cure or knowing how broken I was. They taught me to love in a way I didn't know how.
Could a 'trip' really do that? The past two years molded me in a way only a home could. So I ask that when we cross paths in the future, craft a question that will give you a peek into the life, people and values of my community. I can't give you my superpower, but I'll do my best to share my second home with you. It would be my honor to tell you.