What I learned from zoky be

In the Malagasy language, zoky be is a term used to describe the eldest sibling in a family. Among Peace Corps Volunteers in Madagascar, we sometimes bestow this title upon those who have been in our country for the longest period of time. It’s a term of endearment.

In the SAVA region, our one and only zoky be has recently finished her contract as a Volunteer and she left our region a couple of weeks ago. Her two years of service are complete and I know that she will be moving on to bigger and better things. While we are collectively saying goodbye to a good friend and a very well-integrated Volunteer, I will reflect on some of the lessons that my zoky be has taught me.

  1. How to work with Air Madagascar: Air Madagascar is the only domestic airline company in Madagascar. Because the SAVA region is considered a “fly site,” we almost always have to travel by airplane to get outside of the region. Unfortunately, the airline company is extremely frustrating to work with and is often unreliable. From the first days that I arrived in SAVA, zoky be told me cautionary tales of traveling with Air Madagascar and how she dealt with their incompetence. Thanks to her, I now make sure to check the flight schedules often, confirm departure times, and always fly with a bit of cautious suspicion.
  2. How to hail a taxi-brousse on the side of the road: Traveling by car in Madagascar is almost exclusively done via taxi-brousse (bush taxi). It’s basically a large mini-bus that they cram full of people to shuttle back and forth between major cities. In these major cities, there is usually a station where a taxi-brousse will depart from. But in the small villages along the main road, there is no station and a taxi-brousse must be hailed from the side of the road. According to zoky be, there is a commonly accepted method of flagging down a car and any other attempt to do so might not be effective. She made sure to pass on the intricacies of hailing a taxi-brousse so that if I were to be in a small village in the countryside, I could get a ride out when I needed to.
  3. Where to eat in Sambava: Sambava is the regional capital of SAVA and the largest town in the area. There are many shops and restaurants in town and zoky be graciously shepherded me to her favorite eateries during my first few visits to the big city. Some places specialized in particular foods, some were more welcoming to Peace Corps Volunteers, and some were to be avoided altogether. Thanks to her experiences, there are now a handful of restaurants that I frequent when I visit Sambava.
  4. Where to find free wifi in Sambava: Seeing as Sambava is the central business hub of the SAVA region, the PCVs in the area tend to treat it as such and take advantage of the available amenities. Wifi internet access is a highly sought after resource. Much like how zoky be explored the city to find good restaurants, she also sniffed out a great place to get free wifi access. Seeing as how she didn’t have electricity or running water at home in her small village, she was determined to find some of the creature comforts when she came to Sambava. Without her recommendation, I might still be wandering Sambava looking for a good restaurant or a reliable internet connection.
  5. How to build a community: When I first arrived at my site, the idea of integrating into my new community and making friends seemed pretty overwhelming. Language and cultural barriers were my primary concerns. But luckily zoky be had some good suggestions. She shared how when she first got to her village, she would just walk outside and try to talk to anyone that would talk back. Soon enough, she got to know her neighbors and they got to know her as well. She kept a small notebook with new vocabulary words that she learned so that she could constantly improve her language skills. Pretty soon, she felt more at home in her village than she did anywhere else in Madagascar. So I tried to follow in the footsteps of zoky be and I learned a great deal about my community as a result.
  6. How to eat for free in the countryside: Building off her conversational success in her new village, zoky be also developed a network of families that she would eat with on a rotating schedule. Malagasy people are generally very welcoming and hospitable toward guests, and these courtesies are also extended to new Peace Corps Volunteers. A full stomach is only a short conversation away in the countryside. By her own calculations, zoky be claimed that she didn’t have to cook for herself for the first 4 months of living in her village.
  7. How to face the challenges of life: When I first visited zoky be at her house, it was only days after I first arrived in SAVA and I had not even been to my own site yet. The whole “Peace Corps experience” was still a fairly new and vague idea to me. I anticipated that there would be ups and downs along the way and I understood that how a Volunteer reacted to those changes would define their character. So after meeting the bubbly and upbeat zoky be, I was a little taken back when I saw a quote, written on a cross beam in her modest palm and bamboo hut, that read, “I push myself to laugh about everything for fear of crying about it.” When I asked her about the quote, she smiled and simply said, “I went through a bit of a rough time last year.” I didn’t need to know any other details because that was enough to remind me that this experience isn’t always a walk in the park. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I face some unique challenges but I also think they can be simplified and applied to lots of other challenges in Madagascar and in the developing world. And in my current cultural context, usually it’s easier to laugh when things go wrong instead of getting too upset and letting that anger or frustration weigh me down. I think we’re all a little crazy to sign up for this job, but I really came to appreciate the way zoky be embraced her challenges and the dose of humor she used as momentum to keep herself moving forward.

The walk

During the recent holiday vacation, I embarked on a journey that few people in this country undertake. Even fewer foreign visitors attempt what I did.

In some parts of Madagascar, the terrain does not always allow for roads to connect villages and cities by car or other conventional modes of transportation. As a result, some journeys can only be done on foot. One such example is the overland route from Antalaha to Maroantsetra. There is, however, a walking path that connects these two cities by cutting across the peninsula in a general southeast direction. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of another Volunteer, I decided to attempt this particular journey and walk from Antalaha to Maroantsetra.


A simple map of the area where we walked.

I was not alone in my quest to reach the other side of the peninsula. I joined a group of three other Peace Corps Volunteers and we brought two Malagasy friends, Ertice and Rado, to help us as guides along the route. Two of the Volunteers are certified Wilderness First Responders in America, so I figured it was probably a good sign that they were with us. Leading up to our departure, we all were very excited and hopeful that this would be an incredible experience and a fun story to tell in the end.

In preparation for the trip, I really didn’t fully understand what I was getting into. I knew I needed to pack light because I would be carrying my own backpack the whole way. I assumed I would be walking for a few days and it would be exhausting, then I would arrive at the destination and it would be over. Piece of cake. That attitude began to change when I told other Malagasy people about my plans to walk from Antalaha to Maroantsetra. After they stopped laughing in my face, most people told me it would take between 3-5 days to complete the trip. Very few Malagasy people I spoke to had actually walked the route themselves, which was probably a good indicator of how uncommon and difficult the task is. Nonetheless, I tried to shake off the doubts and maintain my adventuresome attitude toward the journey.

Day 1

Our group had gathered in Antalaha to review our final plans and discuss how we would start the journey. We agreed that we would leave by 5am and take a car from Antalaha to the village of Marofinaritra, about 30km away. From that point, we would begin walking. In true Malagasy fashion, we were late and ended up leaving Antalaha around 8am after arranging our transportation and getting breakfast. The car was supposed to be a “special”, which we assumed meant that only our group of 6 people would be the passengers. The driver obviously had a different understanding of the term “special” because he packed a total of 24 men, women, and children into the back of his truck and made his way to Marofinaritra. The sun had been out for a few hours already and it was getting toasty. Packed into the truck like sardines, we braved some pretty treacherous and uneven terrain for a couple of hours. Every dip and bump in the road translated to us bouncing around on the unforgiving metal truck bed and holding on for dear life. About halfway through the ride, a couple of the young children riding with us got carsick and their mothers tried as best as they could to contain the mess. Between the glaring heat, the passengers tangled up like yarn, and the borderline reckless driving, this certainly was a “special” ride.


Early on, crammed into the back of the truck, when we were still happy to be in a car.

When we finally arrived in Marofinaritra, we got out of the truck as quickly as possible and moved around to regain the feeling in our legs and butts. It was about 10:30 in the morning at this point, the day was still getting hotter, and we had to keep moving. We donned our backpacks and took our first steps of the journey. After walking for an hour or so in an area that had very little shade, we decided to stop at the river and cool off. Over the next few days, we would visit this river again and again because the route basically followed the flow of the river. But on this day, we swam in all our clothes and temporarily relaxed in the cool waters of the river. Completely soaked, we carried on.

2015/01/dscn0717-0.jpgThis is where we stopped to swim in the river.

In the early afternoon, we passed through a village where one of our guides, Ertice, had some family members living. They welcomed us and allowed us to sit at their home while they fetched fresh coconuts for us. It was a nice break to sit in the shade and enjoy the coconut water. We walked a bit further and sat for lunch, again enjoying the chance to sit down and escape the oppressive sun. After lunch, we summoned our remaining energy and continued on with a strong afternoon of walking. We passed through villages and marveled at wide open landscapes along the way. This is, after all, the ambanivolo (countryside) of the SAVA region.

2015/01/dscn0731.jpgErtice (center, white shirt) with members of his extended family.

About an hour before the sun went down, we reached a village that was to be our refuge for the night. There was a small and simple hotel that we found where we could get a room and a meal. I went down to the river to bathe and change my clothes before coming back up for dinner. It was the first time I had ever done such a thing and some of the kids were really entertained by seeing a big white guy dunking himself in their river. We inhaled our rice and salty duck meat dinner and headed off to bed to get some much deserved rest. We had survived the first day.

Day 2

The alarm on my phone began to chime at 3:30 in the morning. It was still dark outside and my sore muscles ached as I slowly crawled off the foam mattress on the floor. Slowly but surely, everyone else in our group began to wake up and like zombies we packed up our things for another day of walking. We hit the road by about 4:45am, just as the sun was starting to glow far away across the horizon. Our pace was strong as we moved through the rainforest and the birds and insects started to come alive with noise. A few hours into the walk, we stopped for breakfast in the next small village and the meal lasted a little longer than we had hoped. When we left after breakfast, we continued to keep a good pace as we tackled kilometers up until stopping for lunch.

2015/01/dscn0723-1.jpgOur group walking through a portion of the trail.

During our lunchtime conversation, as well as many other times during the days, we talked about our walking progress and estimated how many kilometers we had left until our destination. At the start of the trip, one of the Volunteers had somehow determined that the whole route from Antalaha to Maroantsetra was about 80km. Because we had taken the truck about 30km the previous day and then walked roughly another 10km since then, in our minds we were a very manageable 40km from our destination. Nothing to laugh at, but certainly we could walk another 40km in a good day and a half. Our guides, for whatever reasons, chose not to dash our hopes by giving the more realistic version of our distances. When we asked them, repeatedly, “will we get to Maroantsetra tomorrow?”, their mantra was always, “it depends on you.” Skeptical of their ambiguous answer, we started to ask people passing on the road near our lunch spot where they were coming from or going to and how many kilometers away they estimated Maroantsetra to be. Some of the more fit people claimed to have left Maroantsetra early that same morning, so we felt optimistic. But when a few separate people said that Maroantsetra was still another 82km from our current location, our guides stepped in to break the bad news to us. Our previous understating of the length of our journey was devastatingly inaccurate and we did, in fact, need to prepare to walk at least another 80km. Upon hearing this, we started laughing merely as a defense mechanism to avoid crying. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My legs were jelly, I already had a couple gnarly blisters on my feet, and my energy level was being zapped each minute that I continued to be in the sun and listened to the fact that my understating of the distance of this journey was actually doubling. This was a low point for our group. But those upcoming 82 kilometers were not going to walk themselves, so we had to get our things together and take it one step at a time.

We moved forward in the heat of the afternoon and much of this leg of the walk was through some hard terrain. The jungle with thick around us, blotting out the sun and brushing up against our arms as we walked the insanely narrow path. Add to this, the unforgiving climbs and descents of walking up and down mountainsides. I had no way of knowing when it would end or how much higher I had to climb. My frustrations were high and I had to scream at the faceless jungle around me when it tried to trip me up or further delay my progress. The blisters on my feet intensified and sent a sharp pain through my legs with every step I took. Eventually, the jungle loosened its grip on us and we came to a flat clearing next to the river we had been following all along. It was a perfect place to rest and change my shoes. There were some other Malagasy people sitting near the river so I picked a spot close to them to rest and talk a bit. We enjoyed the shade, even buying mangoes from a fellow traveller walking past us, but we knew we had to continue on.

2015/01/dscn0741.jpgAn example of the narrow paths and thick jungle that we encountered.

Just before sundown, again, we reached a village that we could sleep in for the night. Our guides asked around for an available room and meal and soon enough we found refuge. There was a brother and sister with her daughter that we had met walking along the route earlier in the day, passing them and falling behind a few times throughout the day, and they had made it to the same village around the same time as we did. So we shared the hotel with them and agreed to start walking together the following morning. This was one of the many moments of cooperation I encountered along this journey, something that I believe most Malagasy people are inherently good at.

With our spirits somewhat still intact, we devoured another meal of rice and mystery chicken parts before curling up to sleep. I remember only sleeping for a couple of hours, then mostly tossing and turning on the lightly padded wood plank that served as my bed. We had survived the second day.

2015/01/dscn0744.jpgAn open field at dusk.

Day 3

The Malagasy people sharing our hotel, and consequently I as well, we’re awake and moving around well before my alarm was set to go off at 3:30am. On this morning, our group was able to get our bags in order quickly and we started walking around 4:15 in the morning. The brother and sister group had also joined us, as promised. The morning was dark and peaceful, it was almost pleasant to cover so much ground in the cool temperatures. During sunrise, one of the other Volunteers and I talked about the special moments we were living in. The moments where no one else will truly understand what it feels like to stand in this spot and look at this beautiful sunrise splash hues of pink, blue, and orange across the newly born sky. I also thought about how years from now, when I’m not in Madagascar, I can stop at almost any moment and realize that someone is walking this stretch of path in a remote place of a very far away country. I captured the feelings in my mind and pressed onward.

That morning, we walked through parts of the Masoala National Park. I can only assume it was part of the western realm of this nation’s largest national park. I could tell the difference almost instantly because the forest suddenly changed into a dense and primitive covering that could only be achieved by protecting the land. We made very good progress that morning and stopped for a hearty breakfast around 7:30am. After breakfast, we continued to devour the kilometers until the early afternoon. Our guides had convinced us that if we really worked hard enough, we could feasibly get to Maroantsetra by the end of the day. Somehow we put aside their previous deceptions and our incredible fatigue and chose to power through as much of the terrain as we could. That tactic proved to be harder than we though, considering the afternoon heat was again building and eventually our stomachs ached for more fuel. The burdens of the pervious days were starting to catch up to us and turned the afternoon into a sluggish affair of desperately determined walking. I just wanted to get out of the sun and into the next town.

2015/01/dscn0732-0.jpgAn example of the small villages that we frequently walked through.

When we finally arrived at the next town, I hobbled over to the first piece of shade I saw and took a seat. We found a restaurant nearby to have lunch and it felt like the table was the only thing keeping me in a somewhat vertical position. This was probably the most exhausted and worn down I had been during the entire trip. The guides told us that from this point, with a little help from a vehicle, we could conceivably get to the place where we needed to hire a canoe to take us into Maroantsetra by the end of the day. That was all the motivation we needed to scarf down our lunch and quickly plan our next steps.

Our other guide, Rado, tracked down a local man who was willing to drive us another few kilometers down the road, therefore saving us time and energy. For a reasonable price, we hopped in the back of his tricycle truck (imagine a motorcycle with a pickup truck bed attached to it) and he bumbled through town and continued on down the road. During this short trip, our hopes of reaching Maroantsetra were lifted and dashed a couple of times. First, the driver told us he could take us far enough to reach his brother-in-law who had a boat that we could take to our destination. Great! Then we began to bargain for the price of the boat and it was astronomical compared to what we would pay for a canoe. He wouldn’t come down on the price to our satisfaction, so that option was removed. Next, the driver confessed that he couldn’t take us all the way to the canoes but he could get us about 5km away and we would walk the remainder. We conceded that was better than walking the entire way. Finally, we came to a large river crossing and a rickety wooden “bridge” that I was nervous to walk on, let alone drive across. The driver stopped and told us this was the end of the line. He could cross this bridge but the one after it was no match for his vehicle. Feeling as if the possibility of reaching Maroantsetra was quickly slipping away with the rapidly setting sun, we discussed our two options: to stay on the road one more night or press onward to the canoes immediately. Exhaustion and frustration won that battle and we decided to stay in the town next to the river for the night. The accommodations were, again, very basic and we even skipped dinner because we were that tired and weary. The mental and physical exertion of the day was finally released.

Day 4

The night was the hottest and most humid we had experienced during the journey. Laying on an exposed foam mattress felt like I was just covered in a membrane of sweat and discomfort. Alas, the alarm rang at the usually 3:30 in the morning and we were walking by 4:15. Limping and tired, at least we knew that this would be the final day of the trek. Our guides told us that we could reasonably walk over what they considered a hill and just a little further to reach to canoes. I was hopeful about finally being in Maroantsetra before lunch.

We carried on in the darkness of the morning, crossing the wide river from the day before and continuing up the hill. It was here that I came to appreciate hiking this terrain in the dark and not being able to see farther than the glow of my headlamp, because although it was obvious we were walking uphill it was next to impossible to know exactly how much more uphill waited ahead of us. We just had to keep blindly walking and pressing on. We didn’t have the benefit, or burden, of being able to see the entirety of the large mountain that we were traveling over. A couple of hours later, after coming down from the “hill”, we managed to hit flat ground and took a path that paralleled the beach. The morning was young, it was still quiet except for the crashing waves, and all we had to do was walk a few more kilometers straight ahead. In a zombie-like state, we eventually found our way to the canoes.

It felt like we just got in the first canoe we saw and assumed it would take us where we wanted to go. Luckily, they really only travel to and from Maroantsetra. For a much more reasonable price, our gondolier skillfully guided us through the clam waters of the marsh that surrounds most of Maroantsetra. I don’t recall how long we were in the boat for because I seized the opportunity to sit down and I fell asleep for a while. But minutes after I woke up, we arrived at the humble docks of Maroantsetra around 8 in the morning. If it weren’t for our complete exhaustion, I think our arrival would have had a bit more fanfare, but we just sort of looked around at each other and smiled. We grabbed our backpacks, got to our hotel, and let out a celebratory exhale because the walk was finally complete. With stomachs still empty, we ordered some eggs and coffee for breakfast and then went back to our room to collapse and nurse our wounds. I asked one of the staff members if it would be possible to get some hot water to soak my feet in, and even with my broken Malagasy skills, she took one look at my haggard appearance and figured out what I was saying. Upon inspection of my soaked feet, I counted a total of 11 blisters that prove either my heartiness or my complete stupidity when it comes to selecting footwear.

We spent Christmas Eve and a few days after that touring Maroantsetra. It’s a pretty quiet town, one main road and not much else to do there. On one of the days, we took a day trip to an island called Nosy Mangabe to explore some of terrain there. The whole island is a protected natural reserve of thick and vibrant jungle and I’ve been told it’s one of the few places on Earth where the rainforest directly meets the ocean. We walked around a bit and saw lemurs, chameleons, frogs, and a few other creatures. For most of that afternoon, we relaxed on the beach of the island.

The experience of the walk was certainly one that I will never forget. Throughout the trip there were times when I questioned why I even wanted to do this. And other times I was humbled by my surroundings. I will remember how I have never smelt worse than I did during those 4 days. I will remember how this was likely the longest amount of time that I was consistently uncomfortable for one reason or another. I will remember the communal experience of meeting other travelers, being welcomed in a small rural village, and watching strangers helping other strangers along the way. I will remember how frustrating it was to never have an accurate idea of distance or travel time. I will remember the varied and spectacular scenery that was constantly around us. I will remember the hearty laughs and groans of pain that I shared with my travel partners. I will remember that all of this is why I chose to embark on this journey.

And if I had to do it again, I would. But I’d pack so much smarter.<