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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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