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I was on the Jodi Picoult train before there really was one. Before Cameron Diaz stared in the movie adaption of My Sister’s Keeper. Before Ellen DeGeneres bought the rights to Sing You Home. Definitely before The Storyteller gained so much publicity for Jodi. Ironic enough, the first book I read of Jodi’s was My Sister’s Keeper. Note that, however, the book came out in 2004 and the movie in 2009. The only reason I picked up the book in the first place was because I stumbled across it in the clearance section of Barnes and Noble. But the story of Anna and Kate and Anna’s fight for medical emancipation kept me wanting more; and buying more.

One of the reasons I am so protective of Jodi Picoult and her works when my friends or acquaintances judge her is the fact that after JK Rowling, I struggled to find an author that really persuaded me to pick up a book and read. I was that child—not that 14 would really be considered a child nowadays—that had to be given mandatory reading time every night because I would rather do the alternative; sit in front of a small television screen and absorb copious amounts of information that would most likely do me no good in the future. I didn’t have an interest in reading. I account this to the association I had of books with school assignments; books I did not want to read in the first place. Why read for pleasure when I was being bombarded with reading questions and essays for school assignments? Thanks, but no thanks. I have enough trouble trying to find the symbolism. With Jodi’s books, however, I was intrigued.

Intrigued by everything. By her stories. By her courage to write about what she does. By her humbleness no matter how much publicity and fans she has gained over the years. I remember a few years back, at one of her book signings, Jodi mentioned to her audience that she would never be one of those record breaking authors because of the topics she writes about. In my personal opinion however, that’s why she such the large fan base that she does. She doesn’t shy away from writing about things that are considered taboo to bring up at the dinner table. The death penalty, gay marriage, and pulling the plug on life support. I applaud her for that. And with that, she also touches on the emotionally draining subjects of a high school shooting, raising a child with special needs, a survivor of the Holocaust, being in a mentally abusive relationship, and the likes; very touchy subjects to write about and get right. But if we’re being honest again like I have been this entire piece, that was why I bought book after book of hers.

Her books capture both sides of the story. She writes from the different perspectives of different characters, on both sides of the argument. She can take on the personas of a male within a coma to a fictional character of her fictional character and make them seem so realistic. That everything could actually happen. That it is truly acceptable to believe a storybook could come to life and the fairy tale character is rationally able to communicate with a person in society. To that, I owe her daughter credit as well. They co-wrote it.

I don’t claim to be a great writer. This opinion piece probably has so many grammatical and flow errors that it shows just that. But the one thing that I do have is the inspiration to write. What’s on my mind. The random stories that I create in the chaos of my brain. Realistically, the things that I write and publish will never see the light of day past the few subscribers on my website, but I write for no one but myself. I owe Jodi Picoult for that. Her determination and dedication to writing about things that I wish I had the guts to inspires me to get my voice out there, whether it actually reaches someone or not. Thank you Jodi for being my role model, even though you may not know that you are.

I leave with this quote from her latest published book, The Storyteller: “Fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Secrets, lies, stories. We all tell them. Sometimes, because we hope to entertain. Sometimes, because we need to distract. And sometimes, because we have to.”

When planning our trip across Southeast Asia on our way home to the United States, Amy and I sat down and looked through the guide books to see what we would want to do. The entire point to making the voyage out to the Borneo Island for us was Sandakan. Sandakan is small oceanside city on the Malaysian side of the island that is the transit point to Sepilok, the home of the Sun Bear Sanctuary and Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

I remember the moment that Amy and I got off the plane and were waiting in the taxi line and an elderly tourist stopped me.

“Excuse me miss? Can you tell me why there are so many young individuals flying to here?” he asked me.

“There’s an Orangutan Center thirty minutes away from here,” I responded back.

“Oh….I thought it was something more exciting,” and with that he turned and walked away.

More exciting? What can be more exciting than visiting a center that is only one of four in the world? The world, people!

Sepilok is an easy taxi ride from the airport. We discovered early on in our travels, that when having to take public transportation, it was typically easier to take a taxi, then local buses. Not only in efficiency, but because with local buses, you have to change buses to get almost anywhere. It is also really convenient, and overall, not that expensive. At any airport, you go to the taxi window, tell the attendant where you are going, they charge you a cost, you pay, and then you give the ticket to taxi driver when you go outside. It prevents greatly from the taxi drivers scamming you by running up the meter, if it even has a meter.

There is no dirt cheap place to stay in Sepilok. The luxury hotels monopolize the area, but the Long House offers a somewhat inexpensive accommodation. Food however, good luck. Look to be spending US prices eating the simplest meals on the menu. That’s just the way it is. The hotels are the only option for eating.

The Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is open all day for hiking, but there are only two feedings to see the orangutans, 10am and 3pm. If you want the best value for the ticket price, go to watch both feedings. If you have two days in Sepilok and you won’t make the first feeding for the first day, put it off and go to the Sun Bear Sanctuary instead. Right across the street, and pushed out of the limelight because of the orangutans is the sanctuary where the world’s smallest bear lives, and they are worth the visit. They are some of the cutest animals I have ever seen, and they climb trees! We spent three hours without even knowing it watching them climb up and down trees.

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Apart from the Sun Bears and Orangutans, Sepilok is also home to the Rainforest Education Center, a great place to take a hike and bird watch if you have extra time, and learn about the plants that call Malaysia home. But beware of the humidity and the leeches! They’ll get you every time.

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 Amy and I spent a total of two nights in Sepilok, and left the morning of the third day to our final Malaysian destination, Kuala Lumpur. We had intentions to make the trip to Kuala Selangor to experience the fireflies, but with traffic getting back into Kuala Lumpur from the airport, we missed the last bus out, meaning an extra night in Kuala Lumpur, doubling our time in there. We ended up staying at The Pod Hostel, one of the coolest hostels I stayed in the entire trip. The dorm rooms were the same, but the individual room we slept in the first night since nothing in the dorms were available was very “pod”esc, something I enjoyed.

The reason we only allotted two days to Kuala Lumpur was mainly because it was just a stopping point on the way to Thailand. We did want to visit the Batu Caves and two friends from our Peace Corps group were in town as well, so our days were planned, and only two were needed.

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Everyone that travels through Malaysia has heard of the Batu Caves. It is a religious sight, known for its tall statue guarding the stairs and the entrance of the cave. It too can be easily reached by the local metro system, costing roughly $4 round trip, dropping you off right at the entrance. It would be beneficial to do some cardio in the days leading up because those steps will definitely cause you to be winded by the time your reach the top. You can be blessed at any one of the temples, giving a dollar or two donation in return. I have never liked when people make a religious site a tourist trap by ‘selling’ the experience, but Batu Caves does it in a very classy way. Monks are walking about, using the grounds to further their faiths, and overall, tourists are very respectful of what areas are designated tourist and what remain for their original purpose.

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Petronas Twin Towers, also in KL

Malaysia was a whirlwind of 7 days and a lot was accomplished in that time. There was little time to relax, but rather take in the sights, and the rest of our trip would be the same as well. On to Thailand, starting with a flight into Chiang Mai.

When you join Peace Corps, you are bitten by the travel bug. You want to go everywhere, see everything, and experience it all. I traveled through four different countries on my way home after finishing my service. First stop was Malaysia. It was a bit unfortunate that I visited the country a mere month after the Malaysia Air flight went missing after takeoff. That was all anyone could converse about. I was even a little hesitant myself to get on a plane when more than 5 countries and 13 military ships couldn’t find the wreckage of the plane that supposedly went down. With that being said, I tried to not let the conspiracy bring down the expectations I had for traveling. A little easier said than done. The nearly two months of traveling involved 9 flights. I took one flight at a time, and enjoyed the each destination reminding myself nothing ever comes from being worried.

If you know me, you know I have everything planned out. I want to know where I’m going, and when I’m going to get there. Something I didn’t research, that now I look back and realize I should have, was airports. I assumed that when you arrived into one airport and you have a connecting flight in the same city, you just need to walk to the gate…wrong. Note to any backpackers who might be traveling through Southeast Asia, or more importantly Kuala Lumpur, and happens to stumble across this post, there are TWO airports. One for any international flight and one for regional transportation/Air Asia. They are not in the same airport, and more detrimental, they are not close to each other. I allowed two hours in between arriving in Kuala Lumpur and catching a flight to Kota Kinabalu. I believe a little over one hour before our flight was supposed to take off, a nice gentleman told us that we needed to get to another airport, 30 minutes away. Queue panic mode.

Air Asia terminals are laid out strangely. They screen your bag before you get to the counter. You check in online, preferably twenty four hours prior to your flight, which is when your seat is assigned unless you pay the extra few dollars to pick your own seat. I have also noticed that when you fly with Air Asia, the first seat they assign you tends to be the seat whereabouts you are assigned for the rest of your travels. I never sat in a row less than 22 which my friend always seemed to be sitting around row 9. When we arrived, t-minus 30 minutes to the terminal, we rushed through the lines trying to get through security before our plane took off. Success!
After a short three hour flight to the island of Borneo, we landed at our first destination, Kota Kinabalu. After checking into our hostel, we went searching for food, and our first meal outside of Madagascar ended up being chicken livers and rice. We found some small hole in the wall place right around the corner from our hostel, and the cravings for rice lead us into this little establishment. Filled with Malay individuals who all gave us a puzzle luck as to why two Americans were eating there, we ate our meal, discussing that although we may have left Madagascar, we never really left our picked up habits.

The entire reason for visiting Kota Kinabalu is to climb Mt. Kinabalu and visit Tunku Abdul Rahman Park second. In order to climb Mt. Kinabalu you need a climbing permit and reservation, something we didn’t get, so that was out. Second choice, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. A national park of four islands, it is a relaxing place to snorkel and enjoy the ocean. Tour companies will try to sell you a package tour for nearly triple the price of what you would to walk down to the port and buy the boat hopper ticket and snorkels yourself. Backpackers are all about pinching pennies, so walking and figuring out the program yourself means adding a nice meal to your schedule later on. When visiting islands however, make sure you mind the hundreds and hundreds of jelly fish that hang out on the shoreline.

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Kota Kinabalu also has an amazing food night market, one of the best I saw in the two months traveling. Descriptions can’t even do it justice. Just look at the photos. Fresh fish and seafood, coconuts, and very hospitable people working the stations.
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(photo creds to Amy Wallace)

There are so many tours taking off from Kota Kinabalu to other locations. We opted to see the summit of Mt. Kinabalu and the Poring Hot Springs for our last day in town. The massive size of Mt. Kinabalu alone was worth the trip, but personally, I felt Poring Hot Springs was completely overrated. It had been commercialized to the point that it lost its raw tourism aspect and felt more like a water park than anything. For those that want to really “experience” the island, I don’t think I would ever recommend it as a destination. For a family outing, it would be perfect. But if you do end up venturing out that direction, you can get a free pedicure in the waterfall behind the rope bridge at Poring from the little fishes that eat dead skin.

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Kota Kinabalu was a fast first stop on the two month adventure, stay tuned for part two: Sepilok and Kuala Lumpur.

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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