To reminisce. To forget.

Before I proceed to publish the next post regarding my travels though Southeast Asia, I decided to take some time and publish something about how I feel right now.

Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think I dreamt the last two years. Did I really spend two years of my life in Madagascar living in a rural village and speaking a language so unique I will in fact never use it again? I have been home for nearly two months and sadly it feels like I have never left. That I have always fought the 5 and the 405 traffic. That I have always dealt with people who are impatient enough to not let someone over into their lane or a pedestrian cross in front of them. That’s the difference between USA and Madagascar. They are so completely opposite from each other that even when you have lived in both countries, you forget the other when your living in the latter.

I try to remind myself what I experienced and what I learned while abroad. I don’t want to forget everything I lived and dealt with. I don’t want to fall out of touch with the people I have met and grew so close to; the people who became my family and helped me through the tough times. I don’t want to forget how carefree the lifestyle was over there, and replace that mindset with the “go. go. go.” mentality that is what America is. My days of hanging out with friends or teaching a class while eating fried snacks has been replaced with the stress of trying to find a job, dealing with a sick dog–who I spent my entire savings on bringing back to America and since then has battled not one but three different illnesses–and trying to figure out how I am going to make ends meet.

It seems so foreign to me that just four months ago, I was living and breathing all things Madagascar and now it rarely comes up in conversation. It’s even more foreign to me how few people even bring it up; that my friends have placed on the goggles that tunnel vision right past my last two years. They don’t want me to reminisce about the last two years, so should I not?

So every morning when I roll out of bed and sit there telling myself that Madagascar was not a dream but a reality, I take a look at myself in the mirror. I did not do Peace Corps for anyone else besides myself, so I always ask, “do you like what you see?” Not physically, but the overall image. Have I accomplished everything that I wanted to and am living a life I am proud of. On those rare occasions that I answer with a no, I remember the quote I placed on a wall in my apartment, the English counterpart to the Sanskrit one I have tattooed on the side of my rib cage, “You suffered. You learned. You changed.” As I take the next steps in my life, I will always have that reminder that I DID spend two years abroad trying to help a community. I DID experience a life event that a limited number of people have as well and would understand, and I WILL and forever WILL snap back to reality and remember that Madagascar DID happen and will forever be with me.

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!

Getting a sunburn in Anakao, Tulear, Madagascar

When I met two Botswana Peace Corps Volunteers last year while on Holiday in South Africa, we discussed Peace Corp traveling. The volunteers on the mainland have the luxury of crossing country borders for the weekend whereas Madagascar volunteers are water locked for two years unless they can buy that pricey ticket off the island. So rather than it being visit as many countries as you can, we turn it into see as many of the regions as your can. With 16, if I can remember correctly, dialects, Madagascar is a very diverse country. During my service I was able to see many different regions of Madagascar and when given the opportunity to join friends to go to Tulear, a region I had yet to see, I jumped at the chance.

Tulear is in Southern Madagascar, an 18 hour ride from the capital. Surprisingly, the road is in pretty good condition after you get out of Fianar, where I joined the group. We made a stop at Isalo National Park in the small town of Ranohira, where we spent hours swimming in the natural swimming pools and hiking through gorgeous terrain.

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We spent three nights there before continuing on our journey to Tulear. Tulear is a red flagged spot for Volunteers and typically volunteers are only allowed to spend one day in the city before they have to leave. My group, we spent 3 hours. It was decided that we would just pass straight through and proceed to the fishing village and our final stop Anakao rather than stay I a city known for being dangerous. Boats typically only leave in the morning, but we were very lucky enough to convince a boat to take us in the afternoon. Let’s just say, it was a very bumpy and wet ride. But was it worth it? Absolutely!

Anakao is really just a tourist destination and there is not much there to do except walk along the beach and relax. You don’t have to tell me twice to R&R. I decided that I would try to learn how to surf and others wanted to join. After all, who gets to say they learned how to surf while in Madagascar? Not that many. Well, it ended up that lessons were not going to happen. The boat took us to the middle of the ocean where the waves were, dropped us off, and said mazatoa (enjoy!). Longest three hours ever. Some nice British volunteers helped point us in the right direction in terms of how to start; I guess it’s better to get to your knees first before trying to a stand. I caught a few waves, little dinky ones, but that’s beside the point. Most of the time I spent trying to get back to the starting point and unfortunately kept getting pushed farther out, or wiped out in the process.

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Those three nights we spent in Anakao were pure bliss. We ate really delicious, but really cheap seafood ($5 for lobster) and explored the island of Nosy Ve. (Direct translation for the island name: Is There An Island?)

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I returned back refreshed and ready to tackle anything. Maybe a little sunburned…okay a lot sunburned. But again, worth it. I am still feeling the effects to this day. So much peeling. Word to the wise: 100+ sunscreen. The sun in Madagascar is brutal.

Building an Artisan Boutique

In previous posts, I mentioned and covered my views on extraneously large projects and the unfortunate circumstances in which they tend to fall apart when the volunteer leaves. I still stand by that reasoning. But I also believe that if the community donates enough time, money, and effort, chances remain strong that the project will be sustainable. During the two years I spent in my village, I spent a large amount of my time with a family of artists. They are extremely gifted painters who just needed a little bit of direction and focus. It took the better part of a year to convince the family I could help them with constructing a boutique, they just needed to provide a minimum of 25% of the total costs, and that boutique was as good as theirs.

Eventually they came around, and the paperwork was started. Originally, the boutique was going to be a one room, one floor house. That was how much money I submitted for. However, after the project was approved by Peace Corps and started sitting on the web waiting for money to be collected from generous donors, plans changed. It should always be assumed, especially in Madagascar, nothing ever stays the same. Surprise! We’re adding a floor so that a guardian can live above. They did understand though that these added costs would be coming out of their funds and were more than willing to add this to the contribution.

Construction started November 2013 and while it was supposed to take two week maximum to complete the build, we did not officially place the last nail until mid January 2014. Multiple things prolonged the construction. Workers fell ill. Supplies ran out. The artisans had other jobs. I had to travel to Peace Corps meetings. The organization couldn’t agree on no date for their training. Eventually however, the boutique was finished, painted, and experienced their grand opening party.

I was really lucky that there were a lot of volunteers in my region that came out and supported me on this special day. They do say Peace Corps becomes a family to you, and that is very much true. Maybe that was why so many people stopped to see what was going on. Alakamisy is used to two white people in their town, not 8 foreigners. We played traditional, easy party games that would be able to be explained in Malagasy and surprisingly, they were a huge hit. Kids and stopped partook in the simple games of egg tosses and pin the tail on the pig.

When I left site last week for good, Hasimira, the head painter of the organization was painting one wall of the boutique with a mural. It was incredible to see what he could do with just a few paint brushes and some paint and it was a great cumulation of my time at site, the friends I mad,pet and the projects I worked on.

Thank you so much for the donations everyone. You made this boutique possible. Mihone Artisan Association appreciates you and so does Alakamisy in general for that matter.

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One of the construction workers daughters

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The ground breaking ceremony/building

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Playing the egg toss

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Pin the tail on the donkey

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Egg race

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My artist is better than your artist.

This is a sneak peak to the upcoming post regarding my PCPP funded project to build a boutique in my village for all the artists. My painter donated his time and paint to decorate the walls of the boutique. I have to say, he was causing some traffic. Cars and people were stopping right and left to watch this masterpiece come alive. Stay tuned for the full story in the boutique.

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The shape and size of bullies

**Warning: This will be a very controversial post, as well as very truthful and I would like to remind my viewers, that these are my views and do not reflect the views and opinions of Peace Corps**

Bullies come in every shape, size, and color. I have dealt with bullies in high school, in college, and at work. Maybe that’s why I am a huge supporter of organizations that try and stop bullying, because although it may be difficult to believe, I was a victim of bullying myself. For some diluted reason, I thought coming into Peace Corps would be different. After all, you have to be a little bit quirky and crazy to join the Peace Corps, or so they say. That makes everyone just as quirky as the next, meaning you are on common ground with each other. There’s this unspoken bond you share with other volunteers in country and while the reasons of joining Peace Corps are endless, it all centralizes around one idea: you want to make a difference. That idea creates that everlasting bond between each other. You become a family. So, imagine my surprise when I thought I had escaped bullies for two years, but in fact came in contact with one of the worst ones I have dealt with since high school.

You always imagine bullies being this aggressive, “I’m going to shove you in your locker” type of person. But just like the name of this blog, they do come in all shapes and sizes. Even given the setting you are in, it’s bound to happen. Take a group of 30 and drop them into a foreign country together, personalities our bound to clash. Lock them into a training center, where their only contact is their other stagemates, people will get on each other nerves and ‘leaders’ will arise from the crowd.

I didn’t encounter my bully until towards the end of my service. Previously, we had been great friends, coworkers, and fellow Californians, or so I thought. We shared a lot in common, and I was convinced our friendship would last past our service. Maybe that was part of the problem though. We spent too much time together. There was no personal time. We worked on large projects together, we lived an hour from each other, and we saw each other nearly ever weekend at the local transit house.

There’s no set definition for the word ‘bully’. All the dictionary gives is that a bully is “a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.” Bullies can be friends, family members, or significant others. It doesn’t always have to be someone you go to school with or barely know. It can be someone you are the closest to. Funny enough, our downfall started with my wish to bring my dog home. I mentioned in earlier segments people in this country were not as supportive as I thought they would be to me taking my little one to the States. This person was one of them. She made it very vocal she did not approve of my love for my dog, and so it began.

I could go though you every little thing that lead the transition from friend to bully, but that would be wasting time, both yours and mine. If you don’t know the individual, then you wouldn’t want to read what seems like a neverending story of how a bully was made anyways. However, it happened. I became an outsider in my region. This person worked so hard to not include me in events and functions happening anywhere within traveling distance. She visably ignored me and make it awkward for others with her to hold a conversation with me. She broke me down emotionally multiple times by sending very pointed emails telling me my Peace Corps experience only amounted to anything because she took pity on me and “included” me in her projects. She made it clear that all of my projects were not accomplishments but rather handed to me by people who felt sorry for me.

When everything started to happen, I was distraught. I was losing a good friend. I tried to save what was left, letting myself be walked over and not allowed to contribute. I was introduced to Malagasy people as “her helper” in public, and given trivial duties like tearing pieces of tape, take notes in the meetings, sit there quietly without saying anything. If there was any meeting involving higher ups from local organizations, I was told to remain silent. “You are not allowed to talk.”

It was after a month of this submissive behavior that I realized I didn’t need this. Someone who called me a ‘friend’ shouldn’t try to control me, put me down in front of my bosses, dictate what I could write on my final Peace Corps report, etc. Yes, it was difficult to cut things off between us. We had spent nearly 1 year together, she personally helped me not Early Terminate at the beginning of my service, but this emotional rollercoaster wasn’t healthy. The end of the relationship made me a stronger person, inside and out. I gained the confidence to stand up to bullies in community, and I gained confidence in myself. Bullies are discouraging things in society, but they are also great learning experiences. You can learn and grow from them. I will always support organizations like The Trevor Project, Stomp Out Bullying, and Stop Bullying. I don’t know when society felt it was okay to put other people down and make them feel like less of a person, but it’s not acceptable. Hopefully my voice will help these campaigns, even if in a small way.

Air Madagascar, more like Air Inefficiency: Parasy’s Journey of to America

For most of my readers, you already know I adopted a dog in Madagascar within my first week at site. I wrote a previous blog about it, telling the story of Parasy: where I found her, how I nursed her back to health, and decided she had to come home for me. I reached out to the masses to fundraise money to bring her back to me. At the time of writing the blog, all I was thinking was the possibility that I might have to leave her here in Madagascar. I honestly didn’t think it would cause the backlash it did. But it did. There became a divide between the volunteers on the island–those who were vocally against me publicly asking for money, and those who while they may not have agreed with my decision, supported that is was my and only my choice. There were times I contemplated just giving into peer pressure and not taking her home with me…but I just couldn’t. And so the time-consuming period began of prepping my little girl to fly out.

Prepping Parasy involved three different trips to the capital, 8 hours from my village for a wide variety of things. She needed vaccinations, blood drawn for tests, deworming pills, and health inspections. I learned just prior to her first appointment, public buses do not allow dogs in their cars. No matter how much I offered in bribes, they didn’t budge. “No your dog is going to bite us,” “she’s mean,” “she has fleas,” were the typical responses, or more like excuses. Parasy was none of those. I even offered putting my dog in a crate strapped to the top of the taxi. I know, horrible thought, but I didn’t know what else to do. Same answer.

In the end, I needed to rent out a private car. It was an expensive expense that I was trying really hard to have to not pay for, but again, Parasy is worth every penny. It ended up actually being a very good thing I had a private car. Very quickly, I learned Parasy does not do well with traveling. It was like a rolling cycle of vomiting. Like clockwork, almost every 20 to 30 kilometers, she was throwing up. Let me add as well, it’s really hard to get a dog to throw up into a plastic bag. She saw that bag come out, and she skattered away.

Ten days before her flight, or what I wanted to be her flight, Parasy made her final trip to the capital. I had tried previously to book a flight for Parasy in the cargo hold and was told that flights aren’t booked for animals but rather, you show up the day you want your dog to depart and they place the dog onto the plane. Right?! I know what you’re thinking. My PetRelocation contact thought it was absurd as well. I knew I wanted Parasy to fly out on the 25th, one month before my expected departure from Madagascar, and before things started getting crazy as I packed up and gave away stuff that I had accumulated during the last two years. With that intention, I made the journey with her to see if I could make any progress for a flight reservation.

The week of Parasy’s departure, I made four trips to the airport for paperwork. For comparison, where I was staying and where the airport is the same as driving from LAX to Newport Beach. Each time I went, at the end I was told the next time would be the last. Low and behold, I kept having to make trips to the airport. First to make an unofficial reservation, to return the next to day to pay, but then told that I needed to bring my dog to pay. I then returned with my dog, having to smuggle her in a taxi because taxis aren’t allowed to transport dogs. I pretended to be a Norwegian tourist who could speak an ounce of English, Malagasy, or French in case we got stopped because Parasy was whining in the back, not liking being hidden in a box.

I thought we were home free until a few days before her departure, I noticed two large bumps on her back. After an emergency visit to the clinic, even the vets were confused what was going on. The best they could do was think that she had a skin infection as a reaction from a shot, most likely from the birth control shots she received quarterly. She was given antibiotics and I was given strict instructions to prevent her from scratching or biting at the spots. I yelled at Parasy out of love because I wanted her to be cleared for travel. I wanted her to get to America. Parasy saw it as mom punishing her for everything. Sorry sweetie! It was love!

When I passed off Parasy to the cargo workers at Air Madagascar at 3am, a wave of relief passed over me. I did it. After all the hard work, the round about ways the Malagasy people and bureaucracy works, I had succeeded. I crawled back into bed to sleep a little before her flight arrived in Johannesburg, happy that it had all worked out. *ring ring* Parasy has arrived in Johannesburg without any documentation (export permit, health permit, vaccinations form, Rabies Titers results, etc). There was no paperwork saying whatsoever this dog was cleared to leave Madagascar and travel anywhere else. Parasy would be placed into holding.

I traveled as fast to the airport as I could to see where the paperwork had gone. I had handed them off to the workers; they stated they would stick them onto the crate as soon as Parasy was in the holding area. I got passed from one worker to the next, having to explain my story over and over again. A hard feat in Malagasy. Dog. Arrived in Johannesburg. No paperwork. Where is it? Gave it to worker this morning. Yes! She left this morning. I finally made up to the Director of Fret’s office, who “kindly” informed me that documents are never affixed into a crate, but rather given from one worker to the next. Sounds real efficient right? After realizing I would get no where with the airport and that the airport was trying to blame me for their downfalls, I resorted to taking photos of everything that I had to email over to the agent in South Africa to see if that could get her through the red tape. Very few scanners here.

It took Parasy five hours to get through customs, but she finally did. The rest of her trip went smoothly, arriving in Los Angeles, almost 38 hours later. My best friend picked her up at the airport and she is currently enjoying her first few days in America.

Huge thank you to PetRelocation who assisted me in moving my dog from Madagascar. They dealt with nonsense emails filled with stupid questions about moving animals. They dealt with late responses because I sometimes didn’t have internet access. They were always patient withe, regardless of what was going on. If I ever have to move Parasy again, they will be the company I will use.

Also thanks to everyone that donated to help me get her home. I raised nearly half of what was needed to get her there. What happened with the rest? Well the Amex got some action for the first time in over two years, and let’s just say they’ll be happy to be accepting the interest for the next year(ish). But without the people who graciously donated to me in the first place, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. And for that I am thankful to each and every one of you. It means the world to me.

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Skyping with Parasy from Madagascar. She recognized my voice…but where is it coming from?

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One of her first photos in America. All smiles to be off the plane.

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.

It’s the small things that count

Many volunteers think that their Peace Corps experience revolves around one momentous project, something that requires one of the three forms of funding from Peace Corps (PCPP, VAST, or SPA). They think that there needs to be something physical left behind to show their legacy. Time and time again, volunteers build such things, selling pavilions, concrete ponds, libraries, etc. But after that volunteer finishes their service, and leaves, the buildings crumble due to inadequate training on maintainence, lack of interest, or just pure laziness. I’m not saying this happens to all projects, I think some of the things my Peace Corps Mates have built are outstanding. Time and time again however, I have passed through towns where a Peace Corps Volunteer had lived and see the skeletons of their projects. A sign that says “Tree Farm”, but there is no trees because as soon as that volunteer left, the Malagasy people sold them for money.

In this past week, I have watched my three large projects crumble to the ground; one out of corruption, one out of sublimation of a friendship with another volunteer, and the last because of difference of moral opinions between my Malagasy counterpart and a PCV friend. You can’t do anything but laugh as everything falls apart around you. What everyone told me about Peace Corps before my service started ended up being true.

With all that has gone wrong, I can’t dwell on it. Even though it doesn’t seem like it, I have made an impact in my village, more than I know. They have welcomed me into their family, and no matter what I say, Alakamisy is my home. As for my projects, yes the ‘momentous’ ones have fallen to pieces, but the small things still remain. The smile on children’s faces as I just sit with them at the market and teach them how to say things in English. “Yo dog, what’s up?” is my favorite thus far. Fist bumping random people from my village to 60km north or south of me because they know of me and my way of saying hello. I have done much smaller projects, visited friends sites as well as my own, and teaching simple topics that can have an effect on their future.

Just this past week, before Thanksgiving, I taught another informatique class to adults at my friend’s site near the capital. 10 adults who have never used a computer before. The class was only 3 hours a day for the week (there was a morning session and an evening session). These students left with email accounts, advanced knowledge of Microsoft Word, and an understanding of internet usage. It was such a simple class, but it can have such an impact on their jobs and futures.

So coming back to my first point, your service is not just about the big, pricey projects, but the smaller ones. The ones that can change simple views or acquire technical knowlege. The small things really can matter the most. It’s the small things that start the chain effect.

 

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I’m happiest most when I’m in my element. Teaching computers to the afternoon session.

Using a Class from School: HRT 484 – Product Development and Evaluation

When I first joined the Peace Corps, I wasn’t expecting to use my college degree all that much. Hospitality Management in a Third World Country. I’m thinking that hotel training and restaurant management is probably not on the list of first things that the people in this country are worried about. However, two large projects have fallen into my lap the last month: the Hostel I have already talked about in previous posts, and a high-end café in my village. Website development, marketing education, and financial education have consumed my life these past few weeks. And now product development has been added to that list.

I never thought HRT 484 would ever play a future role in my work. Culinary Product Development and Evaluation was the class I had signed up for two years ago. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. It should have been obvious from the name of the class. For some reason, I was under impression we would be creating products to be used by restaurants. Those absurd machines that can both boil and chop eggs at the same time, open a can of tomato sauce and warm it before it’s even out of the can. But in actuality, we were divided into groups and paired with restaurants. We had to develop a new menu item for each restaurant, test it, and present it to the organization the last week of class. My version of cooking for the first 21 years of my life, sticking a individual frozen meal in the microwave. So you want me to create what?? You’re kidding yourself.
But I also have the philosophy that whatever I start, I finish. It probably dates back to dropping 2nd Semester Calculus my senior year of high school. I hated having to drop that course because I just didn’t it get it. The first day of HRT 484 scared me so much, I almost dropped the class. Especially when our teacher Dr. Chesser told my group we were going to be working with Red Lobster, while every other group was working with a mom and pop shop. No pressure, no pressure at all. I don’t think my expert skills of pressing 1 0 0 ‘start’ would come in handy for this class.

But I decided to stay, thinking this would be a great opportunity to learn and see what it took to make a new menu item for a restaurant. The class was by far the hardest class I ever took, required more time and commitment then the units allotted to the class, and was a lot of pressure for a senior in college to deal with. But my group pushed through, created not just one, but three new menu items for the California chain of Red Lobster, in which case, one was taken to Alpha and Beta testing in Florida, and while our exact fish taco recipe didn’t make the menu, a variation of it was rolled out this past year. Sure we can take no credit for it since it was a school project, but I’d like to think that we four small Collins College students made an impact on a large food chain…right Louis, Marisa, and Adrianne?

So with that class under my belt, the last place I would expect to whip out my HRT 484 skills would be of all places, in a rural village in Madagascar. However, that’s what I’m doing currently. Balika is a quant hotely (café) that is located along the side of RN7, a major highway (if you can call it that) in Madagascar. The atmosphere and owners are very welcoming and love when customers come in. They cater to the higher end customers, the Malagasy population that have some if not any discressionary funds, and you can definitely tell that from the look of the establishment from the street. But that’s the problem, customers. Right next door to Balika are three tiny hotelys. Each has maybe three small tables, enough to squish in ten patrons if everyone nearly sits on each other’s lap. Each sells the same items as Balika but for a cheaper price. Currently, Balika averages three to four patrons a day. Coffee hotely, credit hotely, and soup hotely (as my sitemate and I fondly call them) averages in the upwards of 60. So the problem therefore lies in product. Why go to Balika for pork and rice, if you can go to one of those other three hotelys for maybe half the price? Yes, Balika takes care in properly preparing their food, cooking their meat to the correct temperature and for the right amount of time that you won’t get sick. They SurEau their vegetables, meaning they clean them in a bleach-like solution that will make them sanitary for non-nationals to eat (sidenote: SurEau is essentially one of my best friends in country. When in doubt, SurEau it.) And by far, Balika’s food is the best tasting in town. But villagers in Alakamisy don’t care if the meat is safe to eat, the vegetables are clean to digest, the food tastier than the others. They care about prices. And I’m not going to go tell Balika to lower their prices. They have a great reputation in town, just not enough customers willing to spend the money to eat there. Think of it this way, would you ask Wolfgang Puck to lower the price of his meals because the restaurant next door sells the exact same thing for a fraction of the price? No, because they’re paying for the service, the experience, the quality of food.

So this got me thinking, how can Balika still cater to high end customers but have more money coming into their organization? First I thought, Friday karaoke nights, a Monthly Movie club, etc. All great ideas I might present in our next meeting. But then I came to the conclusion, what Balika needs is something that other hotelys don’t have. A food item that is not easily copied by other hotelys but easy enough to make. And affordable enough that villagers can come in, eat it, and be on their way. They can still provide their amazing food for the customers that wish to eat at the establishment, but also have a reputation for having the best/only ice cream, chocolate pudding, fruit sandwich, etc in town. An inexpensive food item, with a large profit, and a constant income of money into the business.

Now, all I need is a food item to test on the general public….