Starting my COS trip by travelling to Northern Madagascar

As of April 4th, 2014, I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, but rather a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I finished my two years of service and am free to go about as I please, something that has become very foreign to me.

A big part of Volunteers’ services is their COS trip (Close off Service Trip). It is customary for volunteers to spend a good chunk of their readjustment allowance as well as a significant amount of days traveling countries other than the country they served in before returning home. It’s considerable to a rite of passage from being a Volunteer to being back in the American world again. I also like to refer to is a slow readjustment back to American life as well–that might be pushing it a little.

With my amazing friend and fellow stagemate Amy, we made plans to travel to Southeast Asia, hitting the four major countries of Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, in addition to traveling to Northern Madagascar, a part that neither if us had been able to reach due to the long distance and daunting 24 brousse ride. Don’t worry, I flew….that’s what the readjustment allowance is for.

An unexpected event came up that prevented Amy from traveling north with me, but with the plane ticket already purchased, I traveled solo for a week. First stop, Nosy Be, a small island off the coast of the island of Madagascar whose name literally translates to Big Island, ironic because the island is in fact quite small. I was unpleasantly shocked by how different the weather was from the capital to Nosy Be. Dry heat, and lots of it.

At the recommendation of another Volunteer I stayed at Home Sakalava, running me a little under $20 a night. It was very homey and cute, hence the name and very conveniently located in the center of Hell Ville, the major town on the island. I say convenient, but in reality, there is not a bad place to stay. Everything is a walking distance away.

With such a short time in Hell Ville, I started off running. I helped bring a group of girls to a local park named Lemur Land. It’s an educational park for children to learn about the diverse wildlife and animals that can be found in Madagascar. Being so close to town, it was surprising that only one of the twelve had actually been to it. There they were given just basic education on lemurs and their habitat, but it was surprising how many didn’t know common things like, lemurs need space. It’s not okay to capture them and keep them as pets.

The next day, I booked an excursion to Nosy Komba and Nosy Tanikely (Lemur Island and Small Land Island respectively). Lemur Island DID in fact have lemurs, but did anyone in the huge tour group see them…..no. Nosy Tanikely though makes up for any discouragement. Not only is it one of hither most beautiful places I had been to before with crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches, but it was quiet and the home of so many fish and other acquatic animals. I had luck in finding sea turtles to swim with, but I did enjoy the company of dolphins who greeted our group and swam with us for a little.

It is times like this I wish I had a GoPro to document my adventures underwater. At one time, I found myself in the middle of a large school of fish. Large may not even describe it enough, enormous is more like it. They fully encircled me and I found myself “trapped”. I was so afraid to actually touch them that I just sculled in place and admired what I was seeing. No underwater camera for me, but at least I’ll have the memory.

Our guides cooked an amazing lunch for us, and even the animals seemed to know how good it was too. A lemur made it’s way into our area and I caught it trying to steal the mango I was holding right out of my hand. Don’t worry, I didn’t let him steal it. I did give him a banana instead and enjoyed him sitting right next to me while he ate it.

Nosy Tanikely made the entire trip to Nosy Be worth it for me. The snorkeling, the beautiful surroundings, the dolphins, the fish, and the lemurs made those three days worth it. While it can be a little expensive, something Nosy Be makes up that is how friendly they are to foreigners. They don’t harass you, they give you fair prices, and they are eager to help you out.

Nosy Be down and on to my final Madagascar destination, Diego!

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Christmas Time!

It’s Christmas Time, it’s Christmas Time! Wait…it’s February already? Where has the time gone?!

For the holiday season, I ventured down to the humid South East, because nothing says Christmas like 100 degrees and a beach right? I made it a goal when I first arrived in this country to try and visit every region in Madagascar before my time was up in this country because unfortunately, I will probably not be returning to this country any time soon. I will not reach that goal, but I have succeeded in seeing as many as I can. The South East is only an 8 hour drive from my village (which in this country is nothing) and I was afraid I would never go down there if I didn’t go now.

Amy joined me on the travels and we hit up three large towns before getting to our final destination, Vangaindrano, the home of one of my dear friends in PC, Emily. First stop, Ranomafana, a national park near my village. We ended up showing up at the most inconvenient time, in the morning just after the lemurs had eaten, so we failed to see anything too spectacular.

Next stop, Mananjary, the home of a stagemate Monica D. Mananjary is a little off the beaten path, but I felt I owed it to myself to go visit this beach town. It is home to the children orphanage of Catja, whose primary purpose is to take in multiples who have been abandoned by their families. In the South East, as well as other locations on this island, giving birth to multiples, whether it be twins, triplets, or more is taboo. While the reasons vary and are numerous, one thing is constant–giving birth and raising one child is hardship enough, but giving birth to two, three, etc at one time is in their eyes, impossible. It’s no secret that I am a multiple myself. To think if myself and my two sisters were born in this country to a Malagasy family, it would be difficult to be raised together and to survive. However, we were blessed to be born to loving parents, who hit the ground running preparing when they found out they were expecting three. With that being said, I wanted to visit this orphanage, see and play with the children and just show them a smiling face. Who knows, maybe in years to come, if I am still not married and childless, I will return to this island and adopt a set.

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We passed though Manakara, spending the night before transiting down to Vangaindrano. While the trip was only 8 hours maximum, the infrastructure was one of the worst I have experienced in country. It dumbfounds me how the road can be paved fairly well and then abruptly stop, 30km from a very large town, and then pick up again after. We transited the road a few days after a rainstorm, but I can only imagine taking that road just after it has rained when the road has flooded and the potholes have grown to the size of small meteorite impacts.

For being one country, there really is no uniformity. Nearly every town you go to has a different variation of Malagasy that is spoken. I would be trying to feed my ego if I didn’t admit that I didn’t understand an absolute word of what anyone said in Emily’s village. I have learned through time though, that because my tribe is Betsileo, the hillbillies of Madagascar, it is completely acceptable for me to just nod my head and say the Betsileo word for yes/comprehension that you are following the conversation/agreement eh eh (said fast without much pause between the two) while throwing in a few kai ve? (while the first word’s spelling may not be necessarily accurate, it translates to no way!/no shit!) and no one would ever know. Yes for being apart of a tribe that is so often made fun of by other tribes in by his country!

To both my and Amy’s enjoyment and glee, we arrived just one day before Emily’s cat gave birth to 5 absolutely adorable kittens. They were dubbed “Christmas kittens” and when we were no biking the 30km to see the beach, frosting cookies Emily made in her fancy toaster oven–something her electricity could handle and most definitely mine would have not–or just hanging out talking, we were staring at the precious little kittens who still had their eyes and eyes closed, nursing all day every day.

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For my last big vacation in country, I was pleased by what I accomplished. I can honestly say I will leave this country without having seen everything that I really wanted to see in this country during my down time and allotted vacation days. I have stated this many times before, but Madagascar truly is a country like none other, with so much environmental diversity, indigenous animals and vegetation, and natural beauty. It will be sad to leave when my COS rolls around, but I will forever wear my Madagascar pendent around my neck keeping on of my two homes close to my heart.

Petition to DreamWorks

If being a Peace Corps Volunteer has taught me anything thus far, it’s to believe in myself and never give up. I have become more confident in myself and started standing up for my beliefs, something I probably would not have done a year ago. But I came to the realization that if I can isolate myself from friends, family, and culture, and throw myself into a foreign lifestyle with one of this world’s most unique languages, I can do pretty much anything.

This brings me to the point of this post. When any volunteer in country tells their loved ones they are going to be serving in Madagascar, the most common response is some snarky reference to the DreamWorks movie series, ‘Madagascar’. “So you’re going to live with talking animals?” “Are there really penguins?” “Don’t forget to say hi to the dancing lemurs.”

The fact of the matter is the country of Madagascar has not seen any money from this movie franchise. DreamWorks has made billions of money off of using the name Madagascar without any reference or giving back to the people of the country that they use the name of. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, with most of the population living off of less than $2 a day. It is so biodiverse and many of the plants, animals, and insects found on this island can literally be found nowhere else in this world. Even though some aid has been provided, it is not enough. The country is in political turmoil and lack of education on environmental conservation/protection is causing rainforests and land to be destroyed.

One of my close friends in country started a petition asking for DreamWorks to give something, anything back to this country. As a fellow volunteer myself, I have thrown all my support behind this petition. So please take some time to read and sign the petition and forward it to friends. You can make a difference!

https://www.change.org/petitions/dreamworks-animation-donate-a-portion-of-profits-from-the-madagascar-movies-to-madagascar