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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.

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!

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.

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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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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Peace Corps Week

Today marks the end of Peace Corps Week, today being Peace Corps Day. Doesn’t it seem like everything has it’s own holiday? National Hot Dog Day, National Volunteer’s Day, National Pirate Day, even International Panic Day. What are you supposed to do on that day? Run around yelling the entire day about every little thing. I got to try that one day.

But a day I will always hold close to my heart is today is Peace Corps Day. It’s a day to celebrate current volunteers and previous volunteers and their dedication and commitment to serving. While me myself is currently serving, I would to thank the 220,000 some volunteers before me for their service. If they had not successfully finished their service and created great relationships with their host countries to allow the program to continue and get stronger than ever.

I never thought Peace Corps would be as rewarding as it is and will be. I find great joy in volunteering, living in a community of people who have wholeheartedly accepted me into their group, experiencing a country I will always love and cherish, and getting to know people, that if not for Peace Corps I would never have been able to meet and get to know. I owe JFK a huge thank you when I see him in my next life for creating the Peace Corps in 1961.

Happy Peace Corps Day. Send a letter of support to a fellow volunteer out there. “Like” our Pages on Facebook (Peace Corps and Peace Corps Madagascar) and keep updated with what volunteers are doing and their projects, and finally, spread the word about Peace Corps. After all, what’s the point in having a national holiday if no one knows about it. :)

**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 eachother. 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 change. Lock them into a training center, where their only contact is your 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 eachother, and we saw each other nearly ever weekend at the local transit house.

The thing about bullies is there’s no set definition. 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 blog 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. 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 the 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.

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