Through the Eyes of Another

Perspective is something that I think comes up often in Peace Corps. Our outlooks on work, relationships, family, behavior, and comfort are all developing through the experiences that we have as Volunteers. When the things that were once new and unique become routine and common, having an opportunity to reflect on our frame of reference can be refreshing and illuminating.

Recently, I was afforded an opportunity to re-examine my own perspectives when my cousin came to visit Madagascar. I was beyond thrilled that he was willing and interested in making the long journey to such a different place. I was also a little nervous about how he would adapt to the realities of the country and how I would handle the responsibilities of sharing my second home with him. In the end, I was impressed with both of our attitudes and experiences.

During some of our conversations and daily activities, our individual views of Madagascar were cast in somewhat new light. Old habits were questioned. New assumptions were disproved. Sharing some of our ideas and conversations might be helpful in creating a more complete picture of this challenging, beautiful, diverse, and fascinating country.

Taking in the sunset over Antananarivo

Sanitary Conditions

American and Malagasy manifestations of cleanliness are often quite different. One such area that we discussed was food. Safe food preparation is something that I take for granted now, having practiced it in my own Malagasy kitchen for the last three years. But it was a skill that my cousin wasn’t used to applying and he made some valid comments about what he observed during his travels.

The amount of flies buzzing around our meals and landing on the raw meats in the butchers’ stalls seemed to be something that he noticed often, whereas I was mostly oblivious to them. I’ve become used to those sights over the years, accepting them as a natural part of life.

Another sight that I’ve become almost numb to is the amount of trash piled up throughout the country, but my cousin was acutely aware of this. Without the infrastructure of trash collection as we know it in America, most Malagasy people discard of trash on their own, either in pits where the trash is burned or it accumulates on along the roads or in side alleys.

Butcher stall in Mahajanga

Infrastructure 

It’s no secret that the infrastructure of roads, cities, and transportation in Madagascar leaves a lot to be desired by Western standards. It works just fine for Malagasy people, which is something I’ve had three years to learn about and adapt to, whereas my cousin was quickly introduced to the idea of a “good” Malagasy road. If the road is lucky enough to be paved, it also comes with numerous potholes and deviations, which makes for a rather bumpy and jolting car ride. Unpaved roads are a whole other story. While I don’t particularly enjoy this aspect of traveling in Madagascar, I’ve accepted it as the reality.

So when my cousin spent a few days on the road with me, we had plenty of time to talk about the nature of infrastructure, it’s relationship to the overall development of the country, and comparisons between his commute in Los Angeles and my typical 10 hour route in Madagascar.

Thrilled to be on another taxi brousse

Effectiveness of Peace Corps

Throughout my service, I’ve grappled with the perceived lasting impacts of my work in Madagascar and thought a lot about how effective I can be and how to even measure success as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Is it the number of students who can pass an exam in my English class or the quality of the routine conversations that I have with community members? Have I achieved my goals when I can produce tangible evidence or when I well up with pride thinking about the people I’ve come to know during my service?

When my cousin asked me if I thought the Peace Corps is a worthwhile investment of American time and money, I confidently affirmed that it is and supported that with a more qualitative response. In addition to the outcomes of collaborating with communities who request help from Peace Corps, I see immense value in the amount of people Peace Corps Volunteers interact with and exchange culture with. Then he asked me how I would answer the same question if a member of Congress had asked me during a review of the Peace Corps budget, and I realized that it was more difficult to frame my thoughts in terms of data and line items in a budget. Both sides of the question are valid and our organization needs to be able to justify itself to different stakeholders.

Having my cousin there to see the country firsthand, meet some of the people, and get a small glimpse into the work that we do as Volunteers was a great opportunity to spark that conversation and take another look at how we evaluate our successes and failures.

Expectations and Assumptions

If you come to a place like Madagascar and stay for even a couple of weeks without being frustrated, emotionally assaulted, or severely confused…I desperately want to know your secret. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, this country has bent and broken me into the person I am today. From those experiences, I have learned to abandon almost all expectations and assumptions about how things should or will happen. My cousin, on the other hand, has not been as twisted by Madagascar as I have.

Things such as a “free WiFi” sign in a shop mean nothing to me anymore, because I have learned from the disappointment that 9.5 times out of 10 there is no WiFi, but they seemed to hold a fair amount of hope in the eyes of my cousin. I don’t expect these things anymore, that way I am happily surprised when they are available.

Similarly, just because something is printed on the restaurant menu doesn’t mean it actually exists in the restaurant. I don’t assume this anymore, because I have again been disappointed too many times before. My cousin, however, encountered a few situations where he learned this lesson the hard way and had his dreams of pizza or parmesan cheese squashed by the reality of Madagascar.

I also don’t assume that just because something worked once before that it will work again with any consistency. This only brings me more frustration when things happen differently every time I try to do them. Again, I think my cousin’s assumptions of consistency were challenged on multiple occasions during his visit and this gave way to some insightful conversations.

Maybe a little ambitious to assume that this restaurant could serve up our dreams

The Big Takeaway

Looking back at the overall experience, I am very proud and satisfied by how both my cousin and I handled our shared adventures in Madagascar. He impressed me with his patience and willingness to be put in unfamiliar situations. He respectfully shared his opinions when they arose and asked questions to better understand some situations. I was relieved that I didn’t expose him to anything that made him sick and I was honest about my opinions and experiences. Seeing Madagascar through my cousin’s eyes has been a truly memorable experience.

We laughed (a lot), we tackled some complex discussions, we learned from each other, and we created more memories together. I’m grateful that he had the means and time to visit Madagascar and that he can help me share the country with others.

Overlooking a beautiful canyon in Ankaranfantsika National Park

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Wet hot American autumn

Sometimes they say, “no news is good news.”

In this case, the long delay in posting new blog material can be attributed to my recent visit back home. For the past 6 weeks, I have been reconnecting with my family, my friends, and eating my way through the beautiful areas of California that mean so much to me. This time back home is built into my third year extension and it has come at such a welcomed stage of my service. If you’ve been following my journey from the beginning, you’ll know that I have not returned to the U.S. at all during the last 2 and a half years. So this homecoming was an extra special treat for me and a very valuable chance to see this pocket of the world through a new lens.

Digging my toes into the ocean in San Diego

Digging my toes into the ocean in San Diego

As you can imagine, many things in America have changed during my time abroad and I came back to a country with some exciting new developments. I had a bit of a learning curve when it came to things such as chip readers at cash registers, the expansion and prevalence of sharing services such as Uber and Airbnb, and delicious poke bowls. Technology has continued to advance exponentially and it seems that all our devices are even more connected than before. Driving on the freeway was exhilarating, and then there was traffic and I remembered why I didn’t miss driving. In the weeks before my return, I had imagined an America with an all-encompassing national WiFi bubble, but I instead had to settle for lightning fast WiFi in almost every establishment and home. Bummer, right?

Being in America after spending so much time abroad gave me a new perspective on many aspects of life there. The way we manage our time, use our food and water resources, interact with each other, and entertain ourselves were just some of the things that stood out to me. I was expecting to feel more like a foreigner in America, but I quickly slipped back into some of the same habits and mindsets of my previous life. Being placed back into American culture was much easier and far less shocking than I thought it would be. Conveniences were abounding and I tried not to take a paved highway or an In-N-Out hamburger for granted.

First taste of In-N-Out since leaving the US in 2014

First taste of In-N-Out since leaving the US in 2014

Leading up to my return to America, I was at times apprehensive about the thought of impending reunions with friends and family. Being isolated in Madagascar and undertaking this strange journey practically on my own, I would often think about life back home as being on pause. I kept telling myself that I’d be away for a couple of years, come back, and pick up these relationships right where I left off. However self-centered and illogical that was, the reality of people growing and continuing to develop was beautiful to see in person. Friends getting married, moving into tasteful living arrangements (read: not a dingy cheap college apartment), and building lives around great careers. Family members continuing to travel and share moments together. I felt an elevated sense of pride in sharing these new lives with my loved ones, even for a brief time, and a renewed optimism for the direction of all of our life paths.

With old friends, and some new ones, at a tailgate for San Diego State's homecoming football game

With old friends, and some new ones, at a tailgate for San Diego State’s homecoming football game

So being back in America was great and I’m happy to report that I saw all the people I wanted to see, went to all the places that I wanted to go to, and ate all the food that I had been missing for the last few years. I even had some experiences above and far beyond what I originally anticipated. For anyone who indulged me by sitting through my rambling stories about Madagascar, thank you for listening. While I learned a lot about myself and my own culture, I hope I was able to share even a small part of my experience in Madagascar with others.

As I return to working on the big red island for another 10 months, I’ll hold these new memories and laughs of the past 6 weeks in America very close to me. Until we meet again…

Family brunch

Family brunch

Breakfast selfie with my dad

Breakfast selfie with my dad

My dog, Buster, is still fumbling through the world at 15 years old!

My dog, Buster, is still fumbling through the world at 15 years old!

Mipetraka tsara

Directly translated, mipetraka tsara means “to sit well.” Other more common interpretations of the phrase can be understood as “to stay put” or “to remain steady.” When used to describe the actions of a person, this phrase expresses notions of settlement, calm, and consistency. In light of doing many different things, living a busy life, and frequently moving around, one is encouraged to slow down and mipetraka tsara.

For me, this idea has more relevance now than in any other time during my service. With the school term having ended in July, the past three months have been filled with frequent travel, sometimes for business and sometimes for pleasure, and a variety of different experiences. Between visiting other Volunteers in their communities, attending training workshops, running a half marathon, and managing a handful of other projects, there was hardly an extended period of time in the recent past where I truly felt settled. As soon as one thing was finished, it was on to the next one!

So after what feels like a very eventful and long Grandes Vacances (French term for the summer break from school), I have recently returned to my home in Andapa and I intend to stay put here for a while. My head has only recently stopped spinning after the come and go nature of the last three months. I have unpacked my bags and I’m ready to recommit myself to working in my community. It took a couple of days to deep-clean my house, reorganize some of my belongings, and mentally unwind from vacation. But now the fire in me has been rekindled and I’m looking ahead with determination and positive energy.

In Madagascar, October signals the start of a new academic year. This year, I will continue to teach at CEG Andapa Sud (middle school) and Lycée Mixte Andapa (high school). With classes starting next week, an “acceptable” one week delay from the official start date prescribed by the Ministry of Education, I am looking forward to getting back into a routine and to meeting my new students. New minds to mold! Or further confuse, depending on whom you ask. Nevertheless, having a year of teaching experience under my belt makes me much more confident going into this year. Activities at the Andapa Public Library, such as the student and adult English Clubs, will also begin again, which I enjoy because it means working with students who are generally more interested and serious about studying English.

The time I have spent moving around the country, seeing new places, and connecting with friends, has been thoroughly enjoyable. Coming back to Andapa and focusing on the year ahead does not put a damper on any of those experiences. It’s simply the next step forward. And part of that next step is settling in at home and working hard to help my community. I welcome the opportunity to mipetraka tsara and enjoy the future in Andapa.

The Easter adventure

In Madagascar, schools usually close for two weeks during the Easter holiday. What better excuse to plan a vacation and travel with some friends? During the past month or so, I made arrangements with some other PCVs to visit the city of Fianarantsoa (AKA “Fianar”) and the surrounding area. The Fianar area is located in the highlands of Madagascar, a couple hundred kilometers south of the capital, Antananarivo (AKA “Tana”). We made a smart decision by dividing the long car journey from Tana to Fianar into a few days, stopping at a couple other places along the way.

Excited for our first day of vacation, posing in front of the train station in Antsirabe

Excited for our first day of vacation, posing in front of the train station in Antsirabe

Our first stop was Antsirabe, the third largest city in Madagascar. We had all been here before during PST, but at that time we were pretty much herded through the city according to the tight schedule laid out by Peace Corps staff. So this time around, we got to explore the city on our own terms and rediscover Antsirabe. It has all the signs of an up-and-coming Malagasy city with a mix of traditional highlands culture and modern commercial outlets. As one of our travel companions noted, Antsirabe is what happened after people realized how big of an urban mess Tana was and they got a chance to start over with a new city. It’s more organized, friendlier, and prettier than the capital. After adjusting to the noticeably cooler weather of the highlands, we mostly walked around parts of Antsirabe that we hadn’t seen before and even sang karaoke one night. Karaoke is a very popular activity here in Madagascar and we had a blast belting out English classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley, and struggling through “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child. It was a fun way to get the vacation started and have a few laughs.

View of the countryside that surrounds Antsirabe

View of the countryside that surrounds Antsirabe

Next, we stopped for about half a day in Ambositra. This town is known as being a place for artisans and craftspeople to show and sell their work. There’s not much else to do in the town, so we figured a few hours there would be sufficient. We grabbed a bite to eat after arriving in the late morning, then spent most of the afternoon wandering through the shops filled with wooden sculptures, silk cloths, and other hand crafted items. I didn’t see anything that caught my attention, so I ultimately walked away empty handed. Much like Antsirabe, Ambositra is surrounded by stunning scenery and picturesque countryside, so that was good enough for me. We made arrangements to travel onward to Fianar that afternoon, which took about 4 hours over sometimes less-than desirable road conditions.

Finally, we arrived at our main destination in Fianar. Weary from the constant travel of the preceding days, our first full day in Fianar started with a lazy morning of sleeping in and making waffles for brunch. In the afternoon, we ventured to a nearby village and took a tour of a tea plantation. It was really interesting to see the processing facility and taste some of the different varieties of tea.

Exploring the fields at the tea plantation

Exploring the fields at the tea plantation

The following day, we ventured out yet again to go paragliding in a village called Ambalavao. There, we met up with our pilot (not sure how else to call a person who operates a paragliding apparatus) and followed him up a pretty big mountain that was to serve as our launching point. From the top, the views of the surrounding Betsileo (one of the many ethnic groups of Malagasy people) countryside were simply breathtaking. I felt like this was the version of Madagascar I was meant to see. One by one, we each donned a harness and strapped in for a ride through the quiet and peaceful air. After each flight, the pilot would fold up the parachute, hike back up the mountain, and the next person would go. The pilot and his assistant didn’t speak much English, but we had fun speaking Malagasy and sharing stories. The weather was perfect, the views were amazing, and it was certainly something I won’t forget anytime soon.

Standing on top of the mountain that served as our paragliding launch pad, looking out across the Betsileo countryside

Standing on top of the mountain that served as our paragliding launch pad, looking out across the Betsileo countryside

Strapped up and ready to fly

Strapped up and ready to fly

We also spent a couple of nights outside of Fianar visiting Ranomafana National Park. Ranomafana is a Malagasy word that means “hot water” and the town and the national park are both named for the natural hot springs located there. It’s one of the most popular national parks in Madagascar and the terrain really reminded me of Andapa – tall mountains, thick green forest, and freely flowing rivers and streams. On Easter Sunday, we hiked through the national park for about 5 hours. Some of the highlights included seeing five different species of lemurs, a huge waterfall, and a few other animals along the way. The hike was challenging, going up and down the mountains certainly took a lot of energy and my calves are still sore, but it was very much worth it in the end. The town of Ranomafana is a small town, but it was lively during Easter.

One of the lemurs we saw enjoying a snack in Ranomafana National Park

One of the lemurs we saw enjoying a snack in Ranomafana National Park

We left Ranomafana in the morning on Easter Monday, headed back to Fianar and spent most of the day there, then took an overnight taxi-brousse to Tana and arrived there around 4am on Tuesday. Talk about a whirlwind of travel! But one day of rest in Tana was enough before I hopped on an airplane and flew back to the SAVA region. Everyone that I travelled with agreed that we did so much in a relatively short amount of time. We made some great new memories, had a lot of fun together, and certainly tapped into our more adventurous natures. I can say that traveling through the highlands of Madagascar was refreshing for me because the scenery and the people are very different from what I am used to in Andapa. I really enjoyed spending time in Fianarantsoa and the surrounding areas. Until the next adventure, I’ll have some pretty great memories.

Standing in front of the waterfall during our hike through Ranomafana National Park

Standing in front of the waterfall during our hike through Ranomafana National Park

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.

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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.

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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.<