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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.

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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“All that matters will not change”

I am blessed and thankful to have been sent off on this epic adventure with warm embraces and love. I visited my sister in Colorado and met my new twin nieces. My brother and mom were there. It was wonderful spending time with my family and holding my nieces. When I landed in AZ, we celebrated EACHOTHER, and wished me well on my upcoming adventure. “I felt at home with my people at home.” thank you. Thank you to my friends who basically packed for me. Thank you all for the support.