How did it get so late, so soon? – Dr. Seuss

Kola-nut tea

Kola-nut tea

In just twenty days, I will be on a plane again to the capital city for my close of service conference. It is still difficult to wrap my mind around this reality that I have already spent two years living and working in Madagascar as a PeaceCorps volunteer. It really is mind-blowing. Where did the time go? The amount of exploration and new experiences blurred the days and time into nothing. Sometimes I had quiet days, where the most exciting thing that happened was trying “dité kola” or Kolanut tea, a concoction that resembles the beloved chai tea. Eyes would stay on me every time I ordered a mug because the tea is said to help make men “strong” because of the caffeine, so women do not drink it. I love it! And every time I need to take a taxi brousse, I make sure to stop for tea at the station with my favorite tea maker lady. Other times, I made myself go to the market just to see what adventure that would bring, because there is always adventure at the market. Sometimes it was the things I saw, like freshly caught sharks tied to bicycles, or the interactions with vendors that made the day special.

Sometimes I had frustrating and sad moments. Like the time a student apologized for being black in front of his classmates before giving his presentation. It is Malagasy custom to give a speech before the real presentation. Respect is always first given to elders, and so if they are not the eldest member in the room speaking, they formally apologize for taking the floor, then formally thank everyone for their presence. I was heartbroken and deeply saddened that this one student literally said, “I’m sorry for being black.” I addressed the issue of race in the most calm way I could the following class. I was sad because although I haven’t talked much about race and racism in regards to Madagascar, it is something very real. And it breaks my heart that kids are being told they are not good enough, or something is to be apologized for, because of the color of their skin. I later required everyone to speak proudly, and with purpose. I eliminated the formality part of the speech, because in America, we take the floor. I hope that through my small practice in my small class, something bigger was sparked inside of them.

Everyone at the end of the SAVA English Teacher Training.

Everyone at the end of the SAVA English Teacher Training.

Closing activity at the teacher training. Everyone shared one thing they would take back to their communities.

Closing activity at the teacher training. Everyone shared one thing they would take back to their communities.

During other periods, I was actually busy, like planning for the big regional English teacher training that the other volunteers and I feel very proud of. We hosted 65 teachers from the towns and countryside for three days. It was incredible and very rewarding to see how it all turned out. The training was so successful that we were even requested to host a different one, with private school English teachers. For the second one, we were not responsible for organizing all the other details like we did for the previous one, such as food, sleeping arrangements, materials, etc.

Then there was the Malaria awareness event we hosted at a leprosy village near my town. My friend Loren, a volunteer in a different part of the country came to join us for the event. It was wonderful to interact with the children and so much fun to do all the activities with them. We made skits, played a true/false game, washed and repaired bed-nets and even made “dream-banners” to encourage everyone to sleep under a mosquito bed-net every night. The event at the village was a highlight for everyone involved.

Everyone has a fun time at the malaria awareness day at the leprosy village!

Everyone has a fun time at the malaria awareness day at the leprosy village!

Children doing malaria awareness skits at the village.

Children doing malaria awareness skits at the village.

I was invited to attend an “Antalaha Conversation Club” meeting, run by one of my students at the university. It was inspiring to observe what youth can do. He taught them the lyrics to “Ebony and Ivory” because they learn a song at the end of each month. He even went line by line to explain metaphors, and asked students how this related to their lives. Students from different schools and grade levels were in attendance. I was asked to introduce myself and they asked questions, mostly about what I think about Madagascar. It was impressive.

Recently, I was in Mantasoa, the village where our training center is near the capital for a week-long nutrition training. A nutrition specialist from Washington D.C. and a PeaceCorps program director from Ecuador hosted the event. Thirteen of us were selected to participate in the training. The training was focused on malnutrition, and what it means for Madagascar. We learned about ways to prevent and avoid it through doing cooking demonstrations, working with our local communities and health centers on counseling women, and general nutrition education. It was a great experience that inspired me to continue doing work here.

Nutritious baby food cooking demonstration. Avocado/banana mash! So yummy.

Nutritious baby food cooking demonstration. Avocado/banana mash! So yummy.

Brothers eating nutritious food.

Brothers eating nutritious food.

Preparing food during our cooking demonstration with mothers from the village.

Preparing food during our cooking demonstration with mothers from the village.

Although the calendar says that two years have past, and this becomes more clear to me when I see that my nieces are now potty-trained through pictures, I am still wanting to do more here. I now know how things go, what moves people, what they prioritize, and how I could be helpful. I have decided to extend my volunteer service with PeaceCorps in Madagascar for another year to work on youth development, vegetable gardens, and nutrition programs.

Boys from the village, so excited about the malaria awareness activities.

Boys from the village, so excited about the malaria awareness activities.

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Walking is is how the body measures itself against the earth.

My feet that took me across the peninsula. Before the gash of my toe.

My feet that took me across the peninsula. Before the gash of my toe. 

I had a gash on my toe. I was tired, hot, and miserable. I was dumb enough not to bring a proper first aid kit, and I’m even embarrassed to admit that I am a certified wilderness first responder. But I went on a three day walk through the forest without one. Above all, I was in pain and I had to keep walking. There was no other choice I had. I sat for a moment and thought about how I could be creative to make a bandage that would survive the rest of the way. We had been going in and out of water, through rivers and mud all day. I pulled a pair of my underwear from my backpack and my mini Swiss Army knife to cut a piece to bandaged my toe together. It looked completely ridiculous but that’s how I remained for the rest of the way. Four of us volunteers decided to walk the path from Antalaha to Maroantsetra with the help of our two friends, Ertice and Rado.

Up close map of the Masoala Peninsula. Find Antalaha. The  find Maroantsetra.

Up close map of the Masoala Peninsula. Find Antalaha. The find Maroantsetra.

There is no real road that connects the Masoala Peninsula to Antalaha. People walk, or fly if they can afford it. We were definitely up for the adventure that most people don’t dare to go on, unless it is absolutely necessary.

We left Antalaha very early in the morning and were packed into the back of a pickup truck, along with over thirty other people. That ride is one that I will remember forever. I sat as crunched as possible with my knees almost touching my chest the entire time for two hours. And life seemed to keep going inside the truck. Babies were being breast fed, kids were sick and vomiting, others were peeing their pants, and old men were chanting. It was a great start to the adventure that we were about to embark on.

Kid climbing for coconuts. We hydrated by drinking coconuts on the trail.

Kid climbing for coconuts. We hydrated by drinking coconuts on the trail.

Bird of paradise flower. My favorite!

Bird of paradise flower. My favorite!

Along the trail, we ate many kinds of tropical fruits like pineapples, mangoes and coconuts. We passed through many villages where we took breaks or stopped for lunch. Lunch was always rice, rô masava (broth with greens) and chicken. Dinner was the same. We walked through amazing forest landscapes. We were surrounded by Palm trees, coconut trees, jackfruit trees, and many others. Beautiful flowers, like my personal favorite, a relative of the birds of paradise grew wild! The path ran along the river for most of the time, which we were grateful because it was our water source for drinking and for cooling off. Our first night, we walked until it got dark, however many hours of walking that was is unknown. We stayed the night at the people’s home in the village where we had dinner. There was a spare room with mattresses where we stayed. The girls and I walked down to the river that evening to shower before dinner. I felt like I was really in the jungle!

Our days would typically start at 3:30am wake up, to start walking by 4am. The goal was to take advantage of the morning hours before the sun settled in. Walking in the sun was brutal! One of the reasons I decided to do this walk was to really experience more of the culture, and how people travel in this region. We saw it all! People of all ages, babies, young kids, pigs, dogs, men carrying heavy loads, some even barefoot. On the trail, we were all one. Smiles were exchanged as we walked by new groups of people, with a mutual unspoken understanding of our determination and also of our suffering in the heat. There was a sense of unity between us and other groups walking. We would meet at some villages to chat, or see them during lunch. We always knew who was on the trail, and who was heading north or south. Every time a group of people that looked energized walked by, we would ask what day they left their destination, to determine how far away we were from ours. Everyone had a different answer. And everyone had a different answer about how many kilometers it was to reach the other side of the peninsula. Even our guides that walked with us changed their answers along the way. No one knows exactly how long in distance the walk is, not even google knows. Some people can complete the walk in a miraculous day, and others in five. It took us two and a half days.

Me in the forest in front of Madagascar's very own, Traveler's Palm.

Me in the forest in front of Madagascar’s very own, Traveler’s Palm.

We walked through many villages. Each one of them was beautiful and very unique in its own way. Each time we spent some time at a village, or during our overnight stays, I would wonder how different life would be to grow up in a place like this that was so isolated. Madagascar is isolated as it is. But even on this isolated island off the coast of Africa, it is possible to find areas with a wifi connection. Here, not even cellphones worked. The kids in the villages always stared and gathered in groups to watch us.

The terrain changed from climbing up mountains, to walking through fields, to stone stepping over rivers, or sliding through mud. Sometimes we were in thick lush primary forest that felt untouched and surreal, and other times we were in whole areas of burnt forest. People in Madagascar use slash and burn methods to grow rice. They have been doing this for centuries. I wondered about other solutions, and could never come, up with one. How can we tell people to stop burning the forest if we can’t find a way for them to feed themselves?

I was grateful that it never once rained during our walk. We were warned about the rain and we were lucky that rain came only at night while we slept. I was also grateful to have a hot meal every evening before crashing into a deep sleep at night. We were all exhausted at night. My legs had never hurt so bad. I had never experienced being in so much pain caused simply from walking. On one day, while we were close to being done, I was walking slower than a turtle can move. Literally. Rado walked slow with me. He sung in Malagasy for hours and never said a word. I appreciated him for those hours.

There were many fun moments and encounters on the trail. We made many friends along the way. Laughter and singing were ways of coping for the reality of how much longer we would have to walk or at the sight of the next peak we would climb. On the second morning, we walked with a brother and sister team. They were visiting their family. The brother carried his sister’s daughter on his shoulders, along with their luggage in a backpack the entire way. It was impressive. It was all impressive. The sacrifice, the determination, and the journey. The sister was a bigger lady. They became our friends. Seeing them made us happy. Sometimes we got ahead of them, and other times they passed us. On our last morning, we decided to walk together in one big group. Lunch that afternoon was rice, rô masava, and goose juice! It was the best! After lunch was when I discovered that I was missing my wallet. This meant that I was missing my money, US and local bank cards, passport copy, and resident card. I was pretty upset. This really affected me. I was suddenly smacked in the face with adversity. I had no choice. I cried for twenty seconds but I had to pull myself together. Crying and feeling sad about what happened to me wasn’t going to fix anything. It wasn’t going to help our group morale, and it certainly wasn’t going to make me get to Maroantsetra any faster. I had a piece of my underwear tied around my toe and I no longer had any money. I felt like I was in a deep canyon, and the only way out was by walking each step back out. No one was going to rescue me. I suddenly forgot about my situation as we continued with jokes and laughs within our group.

When we approached the last village as the sea came closer to us, we knew we were there! We took a pirogue to Maroantsera and just like that, we had managed to complete our journey to the other side of the peninsula.

While in Maroantsetra, we visited the island, Nosy Mangabe, known for its ancient pirate rock carvings, ancient tombs, primary forest, and aye aye lemurs. It was a beautiful place! The boat ride to the island started in a river and went straight through the opening into the ocean! We saw many endemic wildlife species, including leaf tailed geckos, lemurs, and many different kinds of chamelions. This area of Madagascar is very special because it houses so many endemic plants and animals, but also because it is one of the only places in the world where the rainforest meets the sea.

In Maroantsetra, I visited my good friend Guyot’s family. They welcomed me with warm hugs like I was part of the family. The last time Guyot was there to visit his family was in 2013, when he got married so it was an honor to have me there. I stayed for two nights. On one of the days, we walked to the cemetery to bring their ancestors new clothes for the new year. The whole family came along. The eldest son lead a prayer while we prepared their clothes. The men helped to lift the tombs open, while their clothes was folded inside. Perfume was sprayed inside the female tombs. Everyone was happy to be honoring their ancestors together. We had Bon-Bon Anglais, a very sweet soft drink loved by all Malagasy people and toka Gasy (moonshine) was also available. I was asked if in my country, people are buried in the ground or cremated. I answered that some are cremated, and others are buried into the ground when they die. I learned that in Malagasy culture, people are first buried into the ground. After seven years, they are honored with a Famadihana, where the bones are cleaned and wrapped in white cloth and put inside a tomb above ground.

All of the family at the Cemetery.

All of the family at the Cemetery.

Honoring ancestors by spraying perfume into their tombs, happily.

Honoring ancestors by spraying perfume into their tombs, happily.

After our time exploring the cool town of Maroantsera, we flew back to our prospective sites. I regretted not having the time to explore around in Masoala National Park, (Madagascar’s largest national park and largest primary forest area.) It was very cool to travel with my feet, literally. I also was grateful to experience another aspect of culture and the meaning of death and the continued honoring of ancestors in the lives of Malagasy people.

 

Girls Leading Our World. Vehivavy Mitondra ny Firenina.

 

Diego Glow Camp 2014!

Diego Glow Camp 2014!

Peacecorps staff, other volunteers, and even locals thought we were crazy for wanting to bring girls from the SAVA region to Digeo, to join together with other girls from the north for a camp. They thought this because of the nonexistent road between Diego and SAVA. It is a 150k stretch that locals still go on, and depending on the weather could take a few days. We continued with our preparations, and believed we had a weather window to make this possible. My counterpart chose the five girls that would be attending camp, based on their achievements in school. I had a meeting with them for the first time and talked about logistics with their chaperone that would be joining. Meanwhile, I was planning on flying in a week early with Kristen to run the half marathon. Other volunteers from our group were also meeting us to run and others were also going to cheer us on. Diego is one of the bigger places in Madagascar. It is the northernmost city and is most notably known for its kitesurfing. People refer to it as the world capital place for kitesurfing.

At the Emerald sea in Diego

At the Emerald sea in Diego

Before race day, we took a boat to visit the emerald sea which was by far, the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been to. There, we had fresh fish and coconut rice prepared for us. We spent the entire day lounging, swimming, and relaxing. The actual day before race day, we spent drinking mojitos and playing chicken fight poolside. Probably not the wisest thing to do, but it was great to see other volunteers that we had not seen in a long time because they live in different regions. On race day, we were all very pumped and excited. Six of us would be running and it was all of our first half marathon. We woke up before five, had food, and jogged together to the meeting place. It was so fun to see everyone there! Groups of girls, groups of men, French people, other foreigners, and us. We finally started at about 8:30am. It was much later than I had imagined the race to begin, and the sun was already heating up. The race alone for me was fun and difficult. Early on, I had a stubborn pain below my right calf muscle. Every so often, I stopped to try and stretch it out. Sometimes I would forget about it, and other times I was fully aware of it. The heat was almost unbearable. It just so happened that every time I started to feel like collapsing because I felt like I was melting, a gust of wind would cool me off. At the water stations, I would wet myself with sponges and only drink a gulp of water. I made the mistake once of grabbing a handful of raisins and tossing them in my mouth as I jogged past one of the water stations. Quickly, I regretted it. I needed water! And there was no way I was turning back. I predicted that the next water station would be about 5-6k out. I continued running in the heat and with a dry sweet very dry flavor in my mouth. I found a half filled bottle that was thrown by another runner on the ground and without thinking, picked it up and drank it. I never once stopped jogging. So the pain above my calf continued and remained. And I continued to stretch it, massage it, and hope that it went away. It never did. I was 9k away from finishing, when a taxi full of the volunteers that were cheering us on drove by. I had been catching my breath, with my hands on my knees, focused on the pain. It was the last cheer I needed. I told myself over and over, “You trained for this,” in spite of my right leg. As I continued through the finish line, I started seeing marathon runners looping back. Some of the locals were running with socks. Three others from our group had already finished. We spent the rest of the afternoon having fish, beers, and playing Catan at the beach. The pain in my leg continued for three days. It got swollen and the dr thought I may have severed my Achilles.

Half-marathon finish line!

Half-marathon finish line!

 

The SAVA girls were expected to arrive the following day. Kristen and I had been making last minute preparations for them, such as getting their bedding squared away. They arrived at 3pm, and had been traveling for 24hrs. Camp would officially begin the following afternoon. When everyone arrived, we all sat together after dinner in one of the classrooms where the girls were staying. The five of us volunteers introduced ourselves, and set the tone for this Girls Leading Our World camp. Christopher, the brains behind the entire camp had brought girls from Anivorano north, Michael brought girls from Ambilobe, Idalia from Ambatondralava, Kristen from Sambava, and I was bringing girls from Antalaha. It was all very exciting for us, and for the girls. Girls from remote areas and bigger towns were joining for camp together.

 

 

Visiting the University in Diego.

Visiting the University in Diego.

 

Gender equality debate at the American Center.

Gender equality debate at the American Center.

 

Making "Dream Boxes"

Making “Dream Boxes”

 

In our camp, we focused on education, goal setting, and women’s health. The first morning, after breakfast we visited the university. They gave us a tour, and we heard from a few professors. Then we visited a technical school. After, we listened to a presentation lead by a female professional in Madagascar. That afternoon, we made “dream boxes,” that were filled with their goals and steps necessary to accomplish them. We made it a priority to de-brief every night after dinner. The next day, we headed to the American center and listened to a gender inequality debate. The American center is an interactive media center provided by the US embassy. The panel consisted of a female teacher, a female student, an adult man, and one of our male translators. The debate was an activity that everyone really enjoyed. In the afternoon, we had a presentation from PSI on women’s health, contraception options, and HIV/AIDS. The staff at PSI were so wonderful and their presentation was great! On our last day, we took the girls to the beach and began our camp day there.

 

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Human-knot problem-solving activity

Human-knot problem-solving activity

 

Idalia lead a problem solving workshop, where we first put ourselves in human knots. Then, we talked about ways to find solutions for problems. She gave the example of finding other ways to recycle plastic, as a problem for Madagascar. She taught the girls really cool ways of reusing plastic bottles and plastic bags. Michael lead a creativity workshop, where he talked about finding creative ways to solve problems. He told the girls about how he started showing people how to catch bees and harvest honey in his village, which was not being done before. Many many thanks to his mother, who sent a craft care package from the United States for the camp. Because of her, we had amazing crafts to make with the girls!

gecko crafts

gecko crafts

Creativity day, sun-string art

Creativity day, sun-string art

Each girl got to make a clay necklace, a beaded gecko, and a sun sewn from a string pattern. The girls spent hours assembling their crafts. They suddenly had forgotten about swimming. Our lunch was brought there, and some of us went swimming. That afternoon, Christopher taught everyone about the importance of observing through a PowerPoint presentation at the American center. Afterwards, my girls from Antalaha gave a PowerPoint presentation that they had prepared in advance on Antalaha, their Highschool, etc. They did the entire thing in English! Our last morning, I lead a team-building relay race! It was a lot of fun to watch! We had gooney sack races, balloon partner races, and other activities. We concluded our camp by thanking everyone for their participation. We reinforced that no dream is too big and that we all believed in them. Everyone was asked to share one thing they learned, and one thing they would bring back to their village/community. As they spoke, they were handed a GLOW t-shirt (which I went on a goose-hunt to make happen) I wish I could have individually recorded each girl give their talk about GLOW camp. It was powerful to watch.

 

Team-building activity

Team-building activity

Relay races!

Relay races!

The entire three days of camp felt like they were very busy and full. The five of us felt that a whole week had gone by after each day. We were stressed, exhausted, and nervous in hopes that everything would go as planned. When people in the community were late for presentations, we filled the time with fun ice-breakers or games, while one of us called the organizations. Being a part of GLOW camp in Diego was very fulfilling for me. It was the first time that a GLOW camp had ever been hosted there. GLOW camps are normally hosted in the capital city, Antananarivo. Taking girls there is pretty much out of the question for us because of the lack of roads. Many people doubted that we could pull this off, and I honestly don’t think that it would have gone so well if I hadn’t been working with such an amazing team. I remember being inspired and having powerful experiences as a youth when I attended camps in the summer. I hope that we’ve planted seeds and inspired these girls.

Finding solutions during the "human-knot" activity

Finding solutions during the “human-knot” activity

Kristen and I taxi-broussed back to SAVA with our girls. Twenty four hours later, we arrived. It was a long ride, but honestly wasn’t that horrid. I’m now in Antalaha, my new site where I will begin teaching at the university. I’ve been on many courtesy visits around town visiting the mayor, the deputy, etc. Recently, I learned that one of the my girls that participated in GLOW camp received the highest score from her highschol exit exam. Her parents are farmers. I learned that the deputy is now going to help her pay for her studies at the university! I was so inspired and happy to hear about this. One big thing that is lacking in Madagascar is scholarships and resources to continue to study. What does a student who is very bright and wants to peruse higher education do if their parents cannot afford to pay? This has inspired me to start my next project. I intend to start a scholarship fund program with the local businesses.

 

The Dream Team!

The Dream Team!

 

We said our goodbyes to the new group of trainees after a month of training them. On our last day there, they were having a traditional Malagasy cooking class. A bunch of rice, veggies, fried bread, and chickens were being prepared. Homemade peanut butter was also on the menu. It was really great to meet and to interact with the new group, just before they head to their villages and begin their service as peacecorps volunteers.

Paragliding over rice fields.

Paragliding over rice fields.

I returned to Anja park for another two weeks. It was great! And much like I love finding adventures in my travels, we went paragliding over rice fields. It is now the dry season, so the fields weren’t their usual bright and vibrant green color. A group of six of us went together. Each time that one of us would land, our guides carried gear and climbed the mountain each time again. That was impressive. I taught during the week and spent weekends in the capital town of the region called Fianar. Running water, hot showers, electricity, and wifi were the amenities that drew us there. Two volunteers from the new group that had just finished their swearing-in-ceremony were there. They were about to install into their sites, about to have their world changed. We cooked tacos as a last meal. I made tortillas, for the second time in my life. They were SO TASTY.

Operation Smile, screening day.

Operation Smile, screening day.

One of the cool parts about peacecorps is being able to work with different communities, people, and also other international organizations. Operation Smile just finished a mission in a coastal town called Tamatave. Many surgeons, nurses, dentists, physicians, and other volunteers from around the world were here. Local Malagasy translators from local businesses and from the university also helped in carrying out the mission. I was one of eight peacecorps volunteers who were chosen to help this time. Our job was mainly to run and to organize the shelter where patients were staying. People came from near and far away places. Some families traveled three days in a taxi brousse. For many, this was the first time they have ever left their village or even the first time they ever saw the ocean, even though we live on an island. The first family that arrived, walked 70k just to get to a place where there is a taxi brousse station. In Malagasy, the term for boonies, or countryside is called “ambanivolo,” which literally translates to under the bamboo or under the hair. Some people really came from far far away in hopes of having surgery.

I was new and very honored to be a part of everything. Operation smile in Madagascar lasts for about 10 days, including pre and post surgery days. There are two screening days, where everyone is invited to be determined if they are eligible for surgery. Operation smile operates on cleft lips and cleft palates. Screening days were the most busy. We joined everyone at the hospital and helped volunteers from SouthAfrica play and entertain children, while their parents were interviewed and waited. We colored, painted, sang songs, played with balls, built puzzles together and some even got their nails painted.

After screening, there is a day reserved for announcing who is and who is not eligible for surgery. This day was very emotional for some,as you can imagine. Thankfully, most people were able to have surgery.

Operation Smile, screening day

Operation Smile, screening day

Life at the shelter reminded me of my pre-service training with peacecorps because we had to create schedules for everyone, write rules and norms on flip chart paper in each room, designate responsibilities, reiterate information, etc. There were five rooms where about 70 families all stayed in. We also stayed at the shelter in a tiny room. Our days consisted of waking up really early to organize breakfast. I don’t think the cooks ever slept. To reduce chaos, we had people get food by room. They were responsible for washing their dishes, etc. The same was done for lunch and dinner.

Teaching about basic hygiene at the shelter.

Teaching about basic hygiene at the shelter.

 

During the afternoons, we had educational sessions with everyone. We taught basic hygiene, where we introduced the “tippy tap” water bottle hand-washing method. We also had a nutrition class where we talked about balanced meals, and why a bowl of rice and pasta with bread doesn’t constitute as a balanced meal. As people started returning back from surgery, we went over how to properly care for their procedures. One afternoon, we talked about the differences between Malagasy and people in America. We talked food and life. That day, we taught everyone how to make banana pancakes.

Tippy-tap hand washing

Tippy-tap hand washing

Food prepping at the shelter

Food prepping at the shelter

 

Each day, the eight of us alternated between spending the day at the hospital and doing things at the shelter. I got to observe surgery! I couldn’t believe that I was right there, with a surgeon and an OR nurse while they operated on a young boy who had a bilateral cleft lip. I watched in inspiration, awe, and amazement as the surgeon carefully worked and chatted with us as music played in the background. While this was happening, at one point a different surgeon walked over and pulled a diagram on his iPhone to explain what was happening to me. I don’t know why I felt strange, almost like I was intruding by just watching. But I know that education is one of operation smile’s goals. And I just felt honored to be there watching professionals who are the best at what they do, do their thing. It was the coolest thing I have ever seen! And the transformation. MY GOD. When the surgeon put all the pieces of skin back together to create this boy’s smile, it was incredible.

In the child life area, before surgery. Kids played and got comfortable in the hospital.

In the child life area, before surgery. Kids played and got comfortable in the hospital.

I will never know what it actually feels like to not be able to smile and to laugh freely without being teased or feeling ashamed, because I have always been able to. In fact, for many people their smile is a distinguishing part of them. It is for me. The work that operation smile does is unbelievably amazing. Can you imagine being or feeling ostracized from your entire village because of something you were born with? Some children stop going to school. Some even don’t speak because it’s difficult or they are ashamed to.

Seeing kids and families light up as surgeries were finished was very touching. They traveled so far, full of hope and also fear as they approached a western world of medicine, with people from all over. For many, after a few days, their whole life and world had just began to change. Some children commented that they didn’t recognize their siblings. It’s mind blowing to me just how much of a difference this will make in their life. A highlight for me of the entire trip was being in the surgery room and watching families light up.

Daughter with her mother after surgery

Daughter with her mother after surgery

Miova means to change. “If there weren’t change, we wouldn’t have any butterflies.”

It’s been a year and so much has changed.

My site.

My life.

The weather.

The food.

Me.

Pousse-pousse in Antsirabe

Pousse-pousse in Antsirabe

I literally went from beach dress to wool socks in one hour. The region where I live in is always very hot and humid. Even now, when it is supposed to be colder, it is still hot. To get to the capital, Peacecorps flies us in because there is essentially no road. There is, but it can take up to two weeks to travel. I arrived in Tana in one hour (the capital) and my skin was full of goosebumps. I slept with two thick blankets and layered the warmest clothes I had that first night. Efa Zatra toetoandro amin’y Sambava, (already used to the weather in Sambava.) The season change was drastic. Around this time last year was when I arrived in Madagascar. It blows my mind that a whole year has gone by.

I was one of those volunteers that expected to change the world. Ok, not really. But I expected to really see big, concrete change in my community. The idea that I originally had in my head of what my Peacecorps service should be, and what it actually is are two very different things. Through my Peacecorps service, I have learned that it is important to continuously re-evaluate goals. My perception of my work here has changed. I now evaluate my success through my daily small victories. When it was decided that I would be changing sites, I had mixed feelings about it, even though it was clear that I wasn’t placed in the right site. I had expected for all of my journey through Peacecorps to be perfect. A perfect community, a perfect little hut in a village, and the perfect measurable way that I could see change. Not the case. After I finish training the new group of education volunteers, I will move to a different location in my region. I will be teaching English at the university in Antalaha and I am very much looking forward to this new change. The counterparts that I will be working with are also very excited to be to collaborating together. The experience of teaching university classes in English sounds really cool too. Oh ya and the beaches in this new town are way nicer!

 

During the time between our National Volunteer Advisory Council meeting, and training the new volunteers, I decided to spend a week teaching guides at a local park. I went to do site exchange work with Amber, an agriculture volunteer in the southern highland part of the country. I am teaching English to help them interact with tourists. The place is beautiful, surrounded by mountains and enormous rocks. Ring-tailed lemurs can be seen there! We had no electricity, or running water but it didn’t matter one bit. Amber and I cooked really good meals together and she showed me around her village and taught me words in her dialect. It was fun exploring a completely different part of the country. I will return for a few more weeks after training.

Southern highlands, Anja park

Southern highlands, Anja park

Anja park entrance

Anja park entrance

Ring-tailed lemurs at Anja park

Ring-tailed lemurs at Anja park

I am now again in Mantasoa, the village where I first learned how to say hello, to eat, and to live with Malagasy people one year ago. Mantasoa for me is the place where I felt like I was stripped of everything I knew, and had to relearn how to go about life as the people do in the village. How to squat in a kabone, greet people the proper way, and love to eat rice three times a day. This time though, my role is different. I am one of seven who are helping to train the new group of education volunteers with teaching and living in a new culture. The weather is so so cold, but the rice is always hot. I drink about four cups of tea everyday. I try not to think of the sunny beach at my site, or even of the hot summer nights in Arizona every time I take a glimpse of the grey sky here. Even though Manatsoa is blistering cold, and my bones are hurting because I’ve been in a very hot climate for a year, being here is sort of nostalgic because it was the first place I called home, and learned about Madagascar. People here know me. When I walk by, kids say hi to me by name, which always catches me by surprise. I was invited for lunch one afternoon with friends from the village.

I’ve described this year experience of serving like climbing up a steep mountain to the unknown. Below the mountain is a familiar sea. When I was near the summit, the terrain was very very slippery. At times, I visualized how easy it would be to just let go. I struggled and contemplated getting to the summit. Being a year in, I feel like I am now standing on the summit, ready to see what’s on the other side. But this time, it will be easier because it’s downhill. Interacting with the new group of trainees brings me back to how I felt when I was new. Now, I feel completely comfortable traveling, and doing the things that felt monumental and impossible to do. It’s scary to let go of the things you know and that are comfortable to you, to explore the unknown. And with the world around me constantly changing, this adds to the fear and to the excitement. The people that come and go into my life, the fruits, the places, and the seasons will continue to shift as I continue my path of growth. Even though caterpillars change, they evolve into something different. So, I like to believe that all that matters doesn’t actually change but instead it evolves.

Antalaha

Antalaha

View of Antalaha.

View of Antalaha.

 

It’s been orange season here for way too long. One of the things I love about living on this island is that I eat with the seasons. If it’s mango season, and only when it’s mango season, we have mangoes. I feel like I’ve waited long enough. These oranges are not that good. They are green and just taste very different from the oranges I’m used to in Arizona. People peel the rinds and suck the juice out. Weird, was my first reaction.

I spent two weeks teaching university students and guides in Antalaha. I had a lot of fun because they were dynamic and very motivated to learn. I also didn’t mind being in Anatalaha, another beach town south of me for two weeks. One weekend some of the guys and I rode to a village 25k away. We were so exhausted from the heat. On the way, one of the bikes broke down twice. At one point, the guys took turns riding each other, while one of them carried the bicycle on his shoulder up and down hills. No one complained and it was sweet to watch. When we arrived, we each had two coconuts to hydrate. Then, they picked a chicken and started preparing a picnic lunch in the middle of the jungle. I loved watching everything come together. From live chicken, to the table being set with a tablecloth, and everyone partaking together. While we waited for lunch, we devoured these oranges straight from the tree. I learned to love them at that moment. The boys took care of de-feathering and preparing the chicken. Since I was the only girl, I was in charge of preparing the “rô” (the dish you eat that’s not rice). Before this, I had never attempted to cook Malagasy food for Malagasy people. And to be honest, I really didn’t want to. For the most part, the Malagasy people tend to be very indirect. But when it comes to matters of food or someone’s physical appearance, they hold no reserves.  I mixed the chicken with onion, tomatoes and salt into the pot and soon, we were eating and laughing together. It turned out very tasty!

My students in Antalaha.

My students in Antalaha.

 

We had so much fun together during those two weeks. Most of the time, I had no idea what I was teaching. I included topics related to tourism and the environment. We also watched BBC videos on Madagascar. It ended up working out really well. The last day, I was asked how to say prayer in English, of which I myself was clueless. I called another volunteer for help. Religion plays a big role here, even among youth. I’ve become used to answering that “I pray at home,” when people ask me what church I attend. For the people here, asking where you pray or what religion you are is as natural as asking what a person does in the U.S.

The following week, I spent in the Capitol. There, I met the new group of agriculture and health volunteers, including my mentee. I was also a judge for a spelling bee at the university. The spelling bee was to fundraise for Operation Smile. Another volunteer, Charlotte, a university teacher, and I were the three judges. I had never had so much fun and been so nervous at the same time. My hand was sweating each time I took the microphone to announce words or create sentences. We had a blast! Being in the Capitol is always a good time to recharge, in a sense. Eat different foods, different fruits, and live city life.

Spelling bee contestants. Fundraiser for Operation Smile in Antananarivo.

Spelling bee contestants. Fundraiser for Operation Smile in Antananarivo.

There are about 150 other Peace Corps volunteers on the island. Although the island may seem small, it is not. Roads are nonexistent in some places. You can feel like you’re in the city in one place, and a few hours later you’re in the jungle,far from everything. Sharing stories is common among volunteers when we get together. As there are many ways to eat fruit, there are many ways to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Sometimes I feel like my personal role as a Peace Corps volunteer is among the most unique because I don’t technically work in a school and I move around so much with my job. I also am creating my job in a sense as I go, which I love and hate.

I was back at my site for a week before I was scheduled to leave again to a different town. I witnessed what it was like to say goodbye, after two years at my friend Kim’s going away party. Her site is in the countryside and I have previously been there for other celebrations. We had a big party and she invited most of the people in her village. Tons of rice and food was cooked and we all sat together on mats the traditional way to eat. We danced and had tokagasy, while the locals finished the bottle of Bombay Saphire (they called it tokavazaha, foreign alcohol). It was so much fun! Our party lasted until the solar battery did. Sometimes volunteers who leave their sites don’t actually leave Madagascar. There is an option to extend, and that’s what Kim is doing, which I’m really excited about. She will be in a different place, but it’s a reason to visit.

 

Neighbors at Kim's going away making brochettes.

Neighbors at Kim’s going away making brochettes.

Farewell meal, traditional style.

Farewell meal, traditional style.

 

Kim and I in her village.

Kim and I in her village.

 

I was literally exhausted from moving so much and meeting people, etc. After Kim’s going away party, I spent two weeks in Vohemar, a town north of Sambava. There, I stayed with a very sweet lady who runs a primary school for the first week and then with another woman who is a veterinarian. Both experiences were great and full of new things. Food was sometimes a mystery. I was asked, “Stephanie, do you like pasta?” One afternoon, and I responded, “yes”. There’s nothing foreign about pasta, I thought. Oh but there can be! Garlic brains and pasta was what I had for lunch that afternoon. It was the strangest, most non-appeasing food I have ever tried. I thought to myself that I would eat bat any day to this. I even prayed that we would have something different for dinner. Dinner was garlic brain and pasta. OMG. I lived. Organs were a common feature during meals. One afternoon, we had green peppered lungs, or heart? Who knows. My students in Vohemar were members of the English club. They were eager to learn to make “American” food so we baked a pizza the last day I was there. I got to go with the veterinarian on runs to treat animals. That was fun to watch. She treated over 20 chickens and some of her pigs. I also got to meet her “pet” lemur, who roams around as he wishes. So far, I know three veterinarians in my region. And I can communicate with all three! One speaks Spanish because she completed her studies in Cuba. I met her at the bank one afternoon. The other two speak English. The lady I stayed with in Vohemar studied in the Ukraine.

 

The Vet in Vohemar treating chickens.

The Vet in Vohemar treating chickens.

Ready for school in Vohemar.

Ready for school in Vohemar.

 

Easter is a huge holiday in Madagascar. There was no Easter bunny, or Easter egg hunts but there were tons of people having picnics on the beach. The main day that Easter is celebrated on is Easter Monday, as opposed to Sunday. I went to two different picnics and spent time with my friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time in Sambava. I have been back here since Easter.  We celebrated my friend,Elsa’s birthday, as well as her parents’ anniversary. After the parties, I resumed to my classes here in Sambava. After the first week and a half, attendance started to have an affect on me. I began taking it very personal when only three, two, sometimes one student would show. Here, no one requires people to attend class. And I was honestly getting irritated that people would show inconsistently. My co-worker at the office and I decided to cancel most of the classes. We’ve been working on the online development of the tourism office instead. This has given me more time to relax from all the moving and also doing projects with the already established English club here. A few weeks ago,we wrote responses to pen-pal students in a school in Massachusetts. We have also started an English radio show, called “English talk”. I have no idea who listens, or if anyone does, but it is fun. The  members of the English club were the ones who organized the show and my role has been to support them. My sitemate Kristen also helps with the show.

Celebrating my friend's bday party.

Celebrating my friend’s bday party.

The English club responding to Pen-pals.

The English club responding to Pen-pals.

 

I feel like I am empowering the youth of English club to do things in their community. Although they may not see it now, it is them who created the show and who organizes events. I mostly give ideas and show up to meetings,so people will take them seriously. Working with the English club has become an outlet for me to have a sense of purpose when I am in Sambava. I am grateful for that. Soon, our pen-pals will respond to our letters. Everyone is looking forward to hearing back about life from students in the U.S.  Many exciting things coming up! In the next few months, a few volunteers and I will host a G.L.O.W. ( Girls leading Our World) camp in a city on the north. We will mainly focus on leadership and education. I will also start an environment club with the members of the English club and visit Marojejy National Park. My goal is to have them teach what they learn to younger students at local schools.

 

I was selected to help train the new group of Education volunteers! They will arrive in the next few weeks. This means that I will spend a month in the village where the training center is, Mantasoa where it all started. Really looking forward to this next stretch. It was starting to get hard for me. I think it was a combination of  “the honeymoon stage” being over, lack of things for me to do with my organization, feeling tired, etc. Sometimes I really miss my blender, arugula, my yoga studio, and my nieces. I think it was during this time that I really grasped  that being a Peace Corps volunteer doesn’t change the world.  Development is work that lasts forever. And I’m totally cool with working with individuals.

I went shopping in Vohemar.

I went shopping in Vohemar.

Friends from our ride,  typical Northeastern houses.

I have been here for eight months. There aren’t many things that surprise or shock me anymore. I’ve also become more tolerable of unplanned inconveniences. I’ve become used to having the power unexpectedly shot off and certainly used to expecting there to be no toilet, at any given place. Seeing  public displays of breast feeding is normal. Often, especially in the countryside, kids walk around with machetes because they are helping to chop wood or fruit from the forest. I’ve grown to feel comfortable in crowded public transportation. And having rice at every meal has become a norm. I have began my teaching workshops in the SAVA Region! I spent a month in the town of Andapa. The goal is to help hotel workers interact with tourists. I was originally only supposed to stay for two weeks, but they requested that I stay for an additional two more weeks. I’ve been moved by people’s motivation to continue learning. I worked way more hours there  than I do at site, and probably also more than I did in the United States, but I think it’s worth it. I was actually really comfortable. I taught at the Madagascar National Parks office and used a huge white board as my teaching surface. Every volunteer’s experience is very different. Even volunteers who live within the same regions have very different lifestyles. Although I am not technically teaching “in a classroom off the coast of Africa,” most of my students come from the countrysides. Most of them did not finish high school but they are exposed to the world outside of Madagascar through tourists. I hope that with my help, they are able to actually communicate and build relationships with the people who visit so that their learning and worldview can continue to expand.  My job arranged that I stay at all the different hotels in the town, so I can be familiar with them all. My laundry was washed for me and my meals were prepared at a restaurant. All I did was sit and food would arrive. I didn’t even have to worry myself with having to choose what to eat each day. I liked being surprised everyday. Usually, the girls practiced  with me while I ate or asked questions of the day’s lesson. At the end of the day, I was beat! I had agreed to teach so many hours because I understand how difficult it is for people to make time in their schedules to come to class because of how much they work. Being in Andapa gave me a glimpse of people’s daily life. They prepared a schedule among themselves to organize what time everyone would attend class.  We are right in the middle of the heavy rain season. Sometimes it rains for hours. I was splashing my bike through puddles in the rain on my way to class one day, and I wondered if my students would even show. I contemplated returning to the comforts of my hotel room and watching a movie. Thankfully, I didn’t because my students did show! It’s serious. I am no expert in teaching a language, but I like to believe that they are learning something, everyday and that’s cool. February flew by in Andapa.
Visited friends at different villages on our 100k ride to Sambava.

Visited friends at different villages on our 100k ride to Sambava.

Washing an "omby" (cow) in Matsobe

Washing an “omby” (cow) in Matsobe

Planting cacao trees at a nursery in Matsobe.

Planting cacao trees at a nursery in Matsobe.

There were many moments of curiosity that lead to adventures and new things.  I got to spend time visiting other volunteers in the area on my weekends. One afternoon, I helped wash cows in the river.  I had never seen one get washed. When I asked the man if I could help, he giggled in confusion and part disbelief. I learned that during the rice planting season, cows are used to plow the grounds and they are washed afterwards. I got bit by one of those horse fly things on my butt and everyone laughed. We also planted cacao trees at one of Kim’s nurseries. Being at the nursery helping that day was by far a highlight. The people were so full of life, excited , and really happy to have us there. One afternoon, I even ate bat, respectfully at a Chinese dinner party that was hosted by important people in the community. Another volunteer and I  biked the 100k to Sambava on a Saturday. The locals thought we were nuts. We stopped at different villages along the way to visit friends and to take breaks. It was so so fun! The hills were killer but some parts felt like I was in a tropical roller coaster. I was going so fast that my face was full of dead bugs at one point. We closed our month of hard work with a ceremony where we presented certificates. The certificates were signed by the president of the Office of Regional Tourism of SAVA, the president of Madagascar National Parks, and me! I gave a speech in Malagassy (which was my first official one) and also in English. Two of my students spoke in English and I was gifted traditional gifts. It was the perfect way to close a month of hard work and dedication. I spent the following week in Sambava, where I was voted VAC (volunteer advisory committee) representative. As VAC rep, I will attend quarterly  meetings in the capital and represent the volunteers in my region.
Closing teaching ceremony in Andapa.

Closing teaching ceremony in Andapa.

I got to visit one of the local hospitals with my South American friends who are completing their medical studies from Argentina. It was my first time seeing a hospital facility in country. First, I got a tour of the offices, the clinic area, and dentist room. We peeked inside the surgery room and they explained the more common procedures in surgery. I learned that most visits to the hospital are due to Malaria cases, pregnancies, abdominal pains, and other gastrointestinal issues. Patient rooms were separated by gender. We first walked into the delivery rooms. About eight moms with their babies and families greeted us. Then we walked into what Katy and Julita termed the “VIP” room, which  was reserved for the recovery of important people. This room was empty and had only three beds, as opposed to ten or fifteen. They explained more about how the hospital works, and how much it costs. I was curious about so many things. I was shocked at the amount of procedures that are possible even with limited resources. I learned that blood transfusions happen live, on the spot because there is no possible way to store blood. “Who brings them food?” Was a question I asked  when  I learned a whole new twist. When a person is so ill that they must visit a hospital, the whole family prepares to camp at the hospital. They sleep, cook, wash, shower and live there until their loved one is better. WOAH! Hospitals will not even admit a patient if they don’t have family with them. I was so shocked. I can’t imagine what that must be like. Coming from a culture where we live separate from our families for the most part in America, this is mind blowing. Some people make the trip from deep within the countrysides, and bring everyone and everything with them. This includes rice, wood for cooking, stoves, everything. My mind buzzed with so many questions. We walked into the other patient rooms. First the women’s then the men’s. And yes, it was very clear that families were all there helping. But what do you do if you don’t have any family? Or what if your family doesn’t like you? All questions I wondered about throughout the day. The visit to the hospital made a clearer understanding to me of what family means for the Malagasy people. Families serve as nurses because there are very few and that’s just how it works. If you are hungry, in pain, need help using the bathroom, or need to shower, your family helps with that. They even are responsible for washing all sheets and blankets from the hospital. So much is invested when a person is ill. At times, this means taking people away from important work such as planting rice and vegetables during the planting season. This is why people usually wait until their illness has developed to an unbearable state before they decide to come.  The family unit here is very very important. I am now preparing to spend two weeks holding workshops in Antalaha.
Traditional gifts.

Traditional gifts.

I sensed the uncomfortableness and newness  in my classes as I had people interacting and performing skits with each other that normally wouldn’t on a daily basis because of the difference in social class. I served as a bridge between the two. The thought of primarily teaching adults intimidated me. I had no idea what to expect. The students in my class range from hotel owners to housekeepers and cooks. I teach in the afternoons because it is the only time they are free. Sometimes the power goes out completely in my town. The last half hour of my second class is always filled with hope that the power doesn’t go out. One night, as we were going over how to order at a restaurant, lights went out. I was frustrated because it had also gone out the previous day. I was deeply touched when one of my students disappeared and returned with candles. I resumed to teaching under candle light and everyone illuminated their  notes with their cellphones. I was just starting to feel like I was having no real impact. And having that student quietly return with candles made me realize that it all matters. It always does. The Thursday that the United States was celebrating Thanksgiving, I decided to share what this day meant and introduced gratitude and gratefulness. I tried so hard not to tear up while I explained about the importance of being with your family and loved ones on this day. I  said that for some Americans, being with family on Thanksgiving  is more important than Christmas. We ended class by sharing one thing that everyone was grateful for.

 

Giving thanks. Thanksgiving in Madagascar

Giving thanks. Thanksgiving in Madagascar

All of the volunteers in the SAVA region got together to celebrate Thanksgiving. We rented a cab and brought my entire kitchen over to my site mate, Kristen’s house. The previous night we had created a super ambitious and extensive menu over pizza. To name a few, turkey, chicken, steak,  fish, mashed potatoes, veggies, fresh fruit, and a pumpkin pie. We shopped at the market the entire morning. Half way through our shopping, we decided to substitute chicken for turkey since we were unsure if we would be able to find one. Also because no one felt comfortable dealing with a LIVE turkey.  I was proud of us, all seven of us had managed to find everything we needed at all the different shops and markets. As we made our way to the last market on the other side of town, I saw a turkey! After some serious consideration, we decided not to buy it because we had already bought so much fresh fish, meat and two chickens. Besides, Thanksgiving isn’t about the turkey. We cooked the entire day. I was dubbed head chef. We invited over twenty friends and they started appearing early. They were excited to be participating in our American tradition. I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed. Not only was it stressful to prepare a meal with limited resources, it was stressful to people manage and to make sure every dish was being prepared. Some of our guests were even put to work, which was fun for them. At 9pm, we  had a spread of fifteen different dishes on the table. Kristen lead our “ceremonial” evening with prayer, which is a Malagasy custom before eating. Another volunteer prayed in Hebrew, and then I lead the gratitude sharing. We had guests from South America, Estonia, and Madagascar. The South Americans spoke in Spanish and I translated. Most of our Malagasy friends spoke in Malagasy or French. One of the highlights of the evening was seeing the satisfaction in people’s faces as they tried my homemade pumpkin pie that I made completely from scratch. I’ve made pumpkin pies before, but they were raw and vegan. This was a more traditional pie, made with a real pumpkin and in Madagascar!  My site mate said she was dreaming if that gasy pumpkin pie the next day. Success!

After spending two weeks at the training center for IST (in-service training) and reuniting with the people I first came to the country with, some of us went on vacation for Christmas. My friend Charlotte and I headed to Nosy Be, an island on the northwest coast. Getting there was a long adventure.

Our way to Nosy be via Taxi Brousse

Our way to Nosy be via Taxi Brousse

We taxi broussed and  it rained for hours and were stuck in the middle of the road overnight. Twenty four hours later, we arrived at the port. From there, we took a small motor boat over to the island. Up until then, it was the scariest trip ever. Even though I felt snug the entire way on the ride, I closed my eyes through most of it. the roads were narrow and our driver seemed like he was training for Nascar. Oh and the boat ride, lets just say that I held my breath and hoped I wouldn’t have to swim the rest of the way. *breathe* Everything about Nosy be and its surrounding islands was beautiful. The people were too. The day we landed in Nosy Komba (Lemur Island), Charlotte and I wanted to walk around the village.  I was hungry and bought bananas at a fruit stand. A persistent guide followed us around. We wanted to explore on our own, we were Peace Corps volunteers and we could communicate in Malagasy enough to be social. We didn’t want him joining us. He never left. He even told me to stop eating my bananas because I would need them for the lemurs. “Yea, ok dude,” sarcastically was my response.

 

Getting loved by lemurs on Nosy Komba

Getting loved by lemurs on Nosy Komba

We continued our walk and the guide placed a banana in my hand and a lemur jumped right on me! It was the coolest thing ever! Charlotte and I took turns feeding them. They were so fun! Definitely a highlight from the trip. We met other locals on our way back who were about our age. They were impressed by our language abilities. I even had moment of being deep in Malagasy, when I said that people shared a silent language that everyone can  understand. I was on a high the entire day. A new island, lemurs, and feeling good about communicating in a language that is only spoken here. The day we went snorkeling at Nosy Tanikely (little island place) was amazing! I felt like I was in an underwater magical place. I could have stayed in the water all day. I wished I still owned an underwater camera.  Different colors of coral, huge colorful tropical fish and sea turtles were all in sight. I was in complete awe. They were the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. I noticed a sea turtle eating and decided to wait for it to be done. Then I swam with it for a few minutes.   We relaxed and enjoyed everything that is included in a vacation. The things that people don’t normally think about, like the certainty of there being a toilet,  warm shower, crisp clean sheets, ice, and running water were nice to have. And it was incredible to spend time with my friend. It was an added bonus to be able to communicate with people.  In the two days that we spent at Nosy Komba, we had met a a lot of the people who live at the village. On a walk around, we greeted women hanging out in front of their home. We were invited to join them. Some of them had their face decorated with traditional face painting known to beautify your skin. When the moments that remind me of home come, I’m amazed by them. As Charlotte had her face painted, a shy toddler starred at me. Later, she spent the rest of the time on my lap. Her name is Katalia, similar to my niece, Kataleya.

Traditional face painting in Nosy Komba

Traditional face painting in Nosy Komba

One night after dinner,  we decided to go swimming. The sky was lit by the moon. Thirty minutes later of swimming in the Mozambique Channel, we were surprised to find all our stuff missing. Everything grew legs and walked away! At the moment, it wasn’t funny at all. The following forty eight hours were the most stressful and frustrating consecutive two days. They consisted of us waking up the chief of the village, (the highest form of authority), waking up the lady from our hotel for the key, and taking a boat back to file a report with the local Gendarmerie on Nosy Be.  Our Cellphones, wallets, purses, money, identification forms, dresses,  and my precious camera was taken. We tried hard to not let this very bad event ruin  what otherwise was an incredible time. And that was hard to do. I realized that although I’ve in a sense made a home at my site where people know me, in my town; that I was viewed as a tourist in other parts of Madagascar. We got too comfortable on our little island. Just like there is always  space in a taxi brousse in Madagascar, and always time to celebrate moments that are important in your life, as well as still time to learn a new language, we decided to open space in our minds and hearts to enjoy our last days on the island. It was time to shake it off and welcome the next adventure. We visited one of Charlotte’s relatives who lives in an isolated part of the island. We took a pirogue to the village where he lives and were welcomed with an exquisite Christmas lunch and homemade yogurt and fruit the following morning.

Tafondro, Nosy Be Charlotte Emilie Photography

Tafondro, Nosy Be
Charlotte Emilie Photography

image Meals have become my classroom for learning Malagasy and entertainment stage. There is always an eruption of laughter when I say things incorrectly or even when I have realized that I can “joke” in Malagasy. Once, when I was over for lunch, I tried to say “Izy efa mande mihinina miaraka VADYNY.” (He already left to eat with his wife.) I accidentally said VODYNY, which ended up meaning that he already left to go eat with his BUTT. I was embarrassed because I was a guest. Everyone laughed. Forever. Kristen told me that they still talked about it for the following week. I’ve previously talked about the delicious and plentiful food at dinner with Mimi. She ENJOYS food and having meals with others. I’ve tried many different dishes here ranging from cow tongue, wild pig, coconut fish, and many many Chinese specialties. Most of the time, I get voted to split the last piece of everything with Mimi’s nephew. At times, there are two different desserts served, including fresh fruit. One night, after having dessert #2, I said “Tiako be satria mammy anó,” Literally meaning I LOVE YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE SWEET. I wanted to say that he loves dessert because it’s sweet. Everyone burst into laughter. When I’m not saying ridiculous things, we laugh because papa won’t stop feeding the cats underneath the table which has been highly disapproved by Mimi. image In this short time, I have felt warmly welcomed. Little things have created a sense of home here for me. I tutor ladies on Sundas in the afternoon. The Sunday after my birthday, I was confused and somewhat annoyed that they wanted to end early. I walked downstairs and was surprised with a birthday cake, wontons, and a giant bottle filled with coconut water! The cake was decorated with ” “Happy Birthday,” in English. It was a special surprise. I teared up as they handed me Madagascar souvenirs to bring back home. This year, I had two birthday cakes. On my birthday, Mimi baked a beautiful cake for me and I blew out 26 candles. In the mornings, I ride past my “fruit lady” as she waves and says she’s got papaya, mangos, or bananas. I usually buy fruit from the same ladies at the market. It is nice to ride by and see them each day. The first day I rode in a taxi brousse to Andapa, I sat on the window seat admiring the views of coconut palms and of the forest. I sat with one legover another, only having half my butt on the seat at one time. Taxi brouisses are usually 20 passenger vans filled with 40ish people all riding together, with no set agenda or the slightest worry about time. Everyone happily rides along, chatting together like one big family. It is not uncommon for babies to be held by strangers or youngsters to be sitting on your lap. Periodically, we were stopped by the gandarme on the roads. The man smiled and began speaking French to me. I answered, “Azafady, fo zaho tsy mahay teny Francais.” ( Sorry, but I don’t speak French.) His face lit up in confusion and asked if I was a tourist. I said, “I am not a tourist, I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.” That was the first time I realized how awesome it was to say that I wasn’t a tourist in this place. He practiced his little bit of English with me and waved veloma. Getting together with other Peace Corps volunteers who live in nearby areas is another way of creating the feeling of having an extended family here in Madagascar. The weekend of Kim’s birthday was during “Fety Maty” (similar to Day of the Dead). We decided to bring our bikes along in the taxi brouisse. That time, the brouisse broke down at least six times. The trip from Sambava to Andapa which normally would take about 2-3 hours took almost 6. We frequently were asked to get off the brousse and walk. The first three times it happened, I was amused and enjoyed the walk. We were only 7k away from our destination, when we started getting annoyed with the many times we broke down. We asked the driver if we could get our bikes and ride the rest of the way. He laughed and others did too as if we had requested the most ridiculous thing ever. Kristen, Ari and I traveled together. Ari has already been in Madagascar for over a year so her Malgasy is more advanced than ours. We put her in charge of convincing the driver to let us have our bikes. It finally worked when we were 4k away from town. I laughed hysterically at the comments from the driver as he gave us our bikes. Others in the crowd laughed too because they knew that we understood. Riding to Matsobe ( a village outside of Andapa) was so much fun! imageimage We had shopped at the market that morning in Andapa and shoved all the food in backpacks to bike over. We even managed to bring a cake in a bag! For the next few hours, we enjoyed preparing many dishes and were able to eat just in time before it got dark. There is no electricity at Kim’s site. Candles were lit at dark and we continued our fety (party.) Many of her neighbors joined us throughout the day. That night, we decided to visit the next village who was throwing an outdoor dance party. We stopped on the way to eat brochettes and followed the sounds of music as we walked inside basically and outdoor dance club. It was so fun to dance underneath a blanket of stars! People seemed happy to see us there and enjoyed dancing with us. At one point, I had about twenty kids surround me. It was fun to be dancing on Haloween night.   imageFor “Fety Maty,” people visit their ancestor’s tombs and do a deep cleaning of the whole area. We walked over to the tomb area with one of Ari’s adopted Malagasy mother the following morning. All tombs were on a hill just outside of town. Many people were headed there. Some carried new coffins, food, and others drank tokagasy (Malagasy moonshine) like it was water. An abundance of street food and tokagasy was being sold everywhere. Unlike in the U.S., some of the tombs looked like housing structures. I learned that families usually put all members in the same tomb. Fety Maty is another way to demonstrate how important honor and respect to ancestors is in Malagasy culture. 

“In this heavy rain, watch your eyes for leaches,” 

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 was literally what our guide said as we hiked out of Marojejy National Park. I was invited to visit the park for the first time with people from the Duke Lemur Center. It was incredible seeing so much primary forest, endemic wildlife species and spending time with other Americans. We got to watch silky sifakas (which are endemic to the SAVA region) and other lemurs swing among the trees. Our first night at camp one, we arrived just in time for dinner. Other groups stayed the night at camp one as well. I joined a Japanese photographer and his guide on a night walk to take pictures of insects. It was like seeing a live version of magazine pictures. We saw frogs, spiders that throw their nets to catch prey, nocturnal lemurs, and crickets that looked like they were angles in the dark. The view from camp 2 was phenomenal. image We stayed two nights there. I really wanted to go to the summit, and tried to convince one of our guides to take me, (it would have been about a 10 hour hike through very steep terrain.) I was unsuccessful in my mission but really enjoyed our search for lemurs the next day. One of the women in our group was on a search to find Madagascar’s Helmet Vanga, ( a bird only found on the northeast.) A photo of this bird was worth a very expensive bottle of wine to her neighbor. On our hike out of the park, It poured and poured. It had not rained the past few days and I was soaked. I had decided not to bring my rain jacket because I thought that being “a little wet” was better than being HOT in my rain jacket. I was drenched and regretted my stupid decision of not bringing my rain jacket. I had never seen rain that heavy in Madagascar and thought that it was a mere exaggeration for people to say that a rain jacket was necessary. I learned the hard way. It rained like it does in Southern Arizona during monsoon. I felt something slimy on my neck and began screaming and hopping around frantically. Brit helped pull a small leech off my neck. I was the first to get sucked by a leech. From then on, we frequently stopped to check each other for leeches, (face, neck, and eyes.) Jackson, one of our guides suddenly stopped on the trail and waited.

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  There he stood in the pouring rain, the famous Helmet Vanga. We admired it for a few minutes as the rest of the group caught up. I pulled my camera out from my pack and managed to get a picture! For me, a photo was worth a nice care package from America!  My clothes dried by the time we got back to the village of Mandena. As we waited for our car, I was tempted to take my boots off because my socks were wet inside. One of the guys mentioned that we might have blood in our boots from leeches feasting. I could’t bare the thought in my head and decided to delay the mystery until I got home. Thankfully, I had no leeches in my boots! I had tucked my pants into my boots to further prevent leeches from getting me.

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I stood for about ten long minutes starring and thinking to myself that this was it. I was on my own. Nothing major has been “tough” or a “struggle” up until now. There was no one here to help me kill the cockroach. I had not seen one in this country up until now. And it was in my house! When I finally worked up the courage to make a decision to act, I went to grab the heaviest shoe I found and when I returned, it was gone. I silently hoped that it was gone forever. My home here is made of traditional regional materials, the Travelor’s Palm Tree, Bamboo and wood. The walls in my bedroom have been decked out Malagasy style. I call it the fun room. I have electricity and water is fetched from a well or a faucet (when it is running) nearby. Normally, I fill two buckets of water daily as a routine, one for showering and one to keep my water filter full. I have a few neighbors that live very near. I sometimes have lunch with Joxe, his wife Tina, and baby Nigel next door. I enjoy visiting Nigel and helping Tina practice English. There is an enormous lychee tree right outside my house. Outside my door is a papaya tree and on my walk to get water, I have to be on the lookout for mangoes falling on my head. I am grateful for the reality of living in a tropical place. I was in awe on a run one morning as I noticed pineapples growing wild! It was like being in the Pacific Northwest, where blackberries grow wild but instead it was pineapples and jackfruit. Peace Corps trained us all really well in recognizing parasites, flees, etc. I was clipping my toenails one morning when I noticed something different on my toe. It had to be it! A parasy (sand flea.) I lifted the skin and let’s just say that what oozed out was an image that I couldn’t get out of my head for two days.

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I  was greeted with a basket of LOVE when we landed at the airport in Sambava by other Peace Corp volunteers in the nearby areas. I felt an immense feeling of being welcomed and was almost emotional when I saw them, hugged them, and received my gift basket. I say this because traveling to Sambava is not easy. One must either fly in or ride a very long taxi-brousse. Sambava is a town located on the northeastern coast of Madagascar. It is the capital town in the SAVA region which serves as an acronym to represent each major town in the region (Sambava, Andapa, Vohemar, Antalaha.) I smelled sweet vanilla in the air as we rode past certain parts of town with views of coconut trees and of the waves of the Indian Ocean in sight. I felt overwhelmed with the fact that this was going to be the place I would call home for the next two years. And you could really actually smell vanilla in the air. The first three days were dedicated to meeting the local gendarme, police, the mayor, and of course my counterpart family. My site mate Kristen and I were lucky to have not only the company of other Peace Corp volunteers, but also an awesome Peace Corps installer with us to help us shop and enjoy meals together. We basically were on a food tour of Sambava as we settled in. I tried the BEST ravitoto (a Malagasy specialty dish made with cassava leaves and coconut) EVER. I had sworn not to ever try it again when I first had it in the highlands and thought it tasted like cow food. My fellow volunteers insisted that I try it on the coast and it was glorious! We were having Ravitoto for lunch the day we waved goodbye to everyone, as they drove away in a taxi.

On the topic of food, my counterpart family is amazing. (counterparts are usually the organization that requests to have a volunteer.) I’ve been adopted as a family member to them and have dinner with them every night. There is always a beautiful assortment of dishes. The food always blows me away. Mama Mimi and I have become really close. We’ve talked food, family, and life. Sometimes there are as many languages spoken as there are varieties of entrees at the table. We had a French guest over for dinner the day I counted five languages being spoken. French is spoken by mostly everyone. Malagasy is how I communicate with Mama Mimi and with others. Mama Mimi speaks fluent Chinese with Papa. Some of Mama Mimi’s nephews practice their English with me and sometimes translate what Mama Mimi says. I spoke Spanish with our French guest that night. Speaking Spanish has become more useful than I had imagined. So far, I’ve come across three occasions where I’ve communicated in Spanish.

My job here is working with the Office of Regional Tourism. I will primarily be teaching English to guides and to hotel and restaurant workers in the area. Since I will be working closely with guides, it is important that I am familiar with the places that make this part of the country so special. I never know what’s in store for me. Everyday has been an adventure thus far. It is always funny to me because most of the time I haven’t been dressed for the occasion. Like the time we were invited to celebrate Chinese Independence day with my counterpart family. I had asked if I needed to wear tsara akanzo (nice clothes) and Mama Mimi’s response was “tsy mila.” (not necessary.) I wore a dress anyway. A long beach dress. My site mate Kristen came with us. Three long tables were filled with different varieties of Chinese food. A man gave a speech in Chinese. We sat in a special table together with my counterpart family. Then, everyone flooded the food tables at once. We were signaled by Mama Mimi to join the fun. Everyday has been filled with diverse interactions. I smiled through every speculation of my Chinese origen from people. They find it strange that I do not speak French and can speak Malagasy. Most of the time, people here think I am French mainly due to the history of France with Madagascar, and also because there are a lot of French tourists who visit. Other times, they assume I am Chinese, or a mix of Chinese. Their questions have always opened opportunities for me to educate and share a part of me and of diversity in the United States. Now, people smile and say, “Ah, Mexican anó tsara” ( You are Mexican, that is good.)

The day we went on our first outing, we invited my site mate Kristen, who is teaching at a school here to join. We were taken to a nearby reserve and shown a tree nursery of fruits and other special trees of the forest. The foodie in me is always always psyched to learn, touch, taste and see fruit trees. I was satisfied with seeing the tree nursery and learning about the yearly tree planting that happens in the forest. Then I was AMAZED when a baby lemur leaped from a bamboo tree onto another right in front of my eyes. It was my first time seeing lemurs and I laughed each time they curiously watched and leaped around. Its scientific name is Hapalemur Albifront, and is consider one of the more common types of lemurs in the country. There were five of them, and were rescued from private home captivity.

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Doany is the word for sacred place. We hiked through a village, waved Mbola tsara (still well) to people we passed by. On our way, we saw clove trees, jackfruit trees, papaya, pineapples, and a group of kids cooking rice underneath a bamboo shaded area. We were headed to visit a sacred waterfall. There were four of us. Joxe frequently stopped to point out different plants and trees that are unique to Madagascar such as the travelor’s tree, which is what the regional traditional houses are made of. I saw what vanilla in its raw state looked like! We walked through vanilla vines and found a man pollinating flowers. I asked, “afaka manampy zaho, azafady”? ( can I please help?)

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I carefully watched as he moved the different parts of the flower in such a precise way. I was amazed! I had learned about what he was doing from my botanist biology professor and had a deep appreciation for what my eyes were seeing. I thought it was COOL! I had a moment to wonder how amazing it was for this man in the middle of the village to know the exact biology of vanilla. There are certain things that are fady (taboo) at sacred places such as what days are permitted to visit. I know it was uncomfortable for Joxe to ask us if any of us were on our period as we continued the path through the forest. I, unfortunately was and consequently was not able to go down to see the waterfall. People visit the waterfalls for cleansing of the spirit and for good health. I waited and found chameleons in the forest! They are so cool! The first time I saw one was on a bike ride in Andapa.

All I knew was that we were going to a special Doany (sacred place) known as “vato mandeha” ( moving rock). We left Samabava at 5am and headed towards Antalaha. There, we met with other people and got in the back of a 4×4. I realized the true meaning of what it means when people say the roads are bad that day. It took three hours to drive 15k. The entire village waited for our arrival. For the very first time since I’ve been here in this country, I felt like an extreme foreigner. I had never been so curiously watched by kids as I was that initial moment. I wondered how many times these kids, if ever had seen someone outside from their village. Usually my smile or greeting in Malagasy is enough to break the ice and get kids to laugh or  to at least smile back at me. This time, their eyes were so curiously fixed on me that it didn’t matter what I said. We began our thirty minute hike into the forest toward the sacred rock. I was in complete awe. I was distracted with everything I was seeing and experiencing. Babies were being carried by their younger siblings. Grandmothers and grandpas all headed together and the views were spectacular. I thought to myself that this was the most people I had ever gone on a hike with, EVER. I snapped out of my daze when I splashed my whole foot in a puddle. People around giggled and so did I. The ice was beginning to crack. I was human! lol. We arrived to the sounds of beating drums, people singing and the smell of ceremonial scents burning.

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People wore lambas (traditional clothing) and greeted us. Kristen and I were introduced as guests during a long ceremonial speech by one of the men who traveled with us. He even said we were “efa mahay fomba ndreky teny Malagasy” ( that we were already familiar with Malagasy language and customs.) The drum continued to play as we faced the sacred rock to begin the ceremony. Twenty chickens were sacrificed. Their heads were put on a bamboo chute  and offered to the spirit of the rock as a thank you for granting the wish of allowing a son to be born. One of the men who traveled with us had asked the spirit of the rock for a son to be born, and promised to come back and sacrifice twenty chickens, that was why we were there honoring the spirit of the rock. A lot of rice was cooking the entire time as the chickens were being de-feathered. There was singing going on as men gathered to offer food first to the spirit. They carefully placed rice, chicken, rum, and honey on the bamboo made alter.

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Meanwhile, huge ginger and banana leaves were being placed on the ground for eating. The elder men gathered to eat first. We watched them eat. I thought the entire time of how strange it was to literally watch people eat but here it was a sign of respect. As the guests, we were invited to receive food next. We sat on the ground and were shown how to fold the leaf in such a way to have it be a perfect spoon. I was amazed to see over two hundred people eating a meal that seemed to be prepared with no effort. Not once did I sense there to be “stress” about having to feed all two hundred of us. It was incredible being able to participate in the ceremony deep in the forest. I looked around and couldn’t believe what I saw. A man wearing an Arizona Wildcat hat sat with us. It was a moment to remind me of home again. I asked him, “afaka makasary, azafady?” (can i please take your picture?) his response was yes. He smiled as I snapped a picture of him wearing a hat that represented home to me. On the hike back, I had ten girls walking with me. They took turns holding my hand.

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