By Hannah Bassett
I never understood the power of habituation until my semester abroad with SIT. That’s the thing — the dangerous thing — about habituation: you rarely know when it has you in its grasp. It was only during my past semester in Madagascar that I came to recognize this.
I have been fortunate to travel throughout my life, but no amount of previous adventures seems able to prevent culture shock from striking … especially when traveling between two places as different as my small-even-by-New-England-standards hometown in New Hampshire to the bustling capital city of Antananarivo, Madagascar.
I remember my ride from the airport to the program’s orientation site when I first landed, a ride revealing a city of potholed roads and street vendors with their colorful umbrellas filling the sidewalks, of trash spilling out of alleyways and herds of uniformed children making their way home from school. I feel like I didn’t blink once during that first encounter with Madagascar — its people and its culture so different from my own. All of my senses were working at full steam, trying to take in everything at once.
That day I certainly experienced a sensory overload of sorts, but looking back what amazes me more is how quickly I adjusted to my surroundings. One morning on my way to school hardly two weeks into my time in Madagascar, I realized that I didn’t even look twice at the sites that once shocked me. I was no longer fazed by the daily mutilation of a pig carcass at one of the butcher shops that I passed on my daily bus commute, or by the seemingly endless calls of “vazaha” (foreigner) that I received from school children weaving through the streets around me.
Of course this ability to block out, in a way, some of the more harmless parts of our surroundings makes sense evolutionarily, as it surely isn’t healthy to stop blinking for as long as I did during that first ride through Antananarivo. But from an experiential standpoint, I came to find habituation my greatest challenge in Madagascar — greater even than my host father’s expectation that I would eat the customary two pounds of rice at dinner each night. As overwhelming and exhausting as culture shock can be, it is what makes me feel the most alive — feel the most “on,” in a way. It’s when I am at the market and remain aware of the brilliant colors of all the various goods laid out for sale, of the sweet smell of mofogasy (rice cake) wafting through the aisles, and of the little girl bartering for an avocado next to me that I know that I am truly experiencing a place.
Although the hyper-awareness of culture shock is triggered when I travel whether I like it or not, what I have come to realize is that this sense of awareness can be and should be experienced at home as well — wherever home may be. Fighting habituation proved difficult in Madagascar, and that fight is only harder in an environment that you have known all of your life. After all, for most of us home is the birthplace of what we come to regard as “normal” in our lives. But there are plenty of little steps that can easily be taken to remain in the moment and to appreciate your environment, no matter where you are. For me, I have to fight that itch to plug into my music on my way to class and to pull out my phone when I find myself waiting in line for a few minutes. It is so much more rewarding to listen to the people and the environment around you. Embrace it, and experience it.
For me, the moments of wide-eyed wonder when I keep all my senses open to what is around me are when I feel the most alive, and it took my traveling to Madagascar and back to realize this truth. The world has so many beautiful, incredible, inspiring things to offer us that we too often take for granted, and travel gives us one opportunity to move out of the dimmed lighting in which habituation too often seems to cast the world around us. So take out those ear buds, look up from the sidewalk, and experience your life with all of your senses.
Hannah Bassett (Tufts University) studied on SIT’s Madagascar: Urbanization and Rural Development program in spring 2013. Learn more about the program.