Categories
Asia In Photos Thailand The Nomadic Life

A Skipped Beat in Krabi, Thailand: Tuesday Travel Snapshot

Bringing you a travel snapshot from Beat Nomad’s archives each and every Tuesday:

Thai Street FoodI had a serious space-cadet moment when I was in Ko yao noi, a small island about an hour’s boat ride from Krabi, while traveling around Thailand last September. I said goodbye to my friends, packed up my bag, got on a boat, all ready to fly back to Madagascar and realized “wait — it’s Wednesday, not Thursday… I still have a whole other day in Thailand!” How did I spend it? Eating, of course. Sushi, iced coffee, and noodles were all obsessions of mine while traveling there, but don’t judge me for also getting overly-excited at a packet of freeze-dried raspberries in a 7-11. (RASPBERRIES! NO WAY! I haven’t eaten these in over a year!)

Anyways, this photo was taken at Krabi’s nighttime street food market, right on the ocean. I suspect that most of the food here is a mysterious meat-on-a-stick sort of thing — one of Thailand’s food options that never struck my palate much, but I always gravitated towards for their colorful displays.

Favorite part about Krabi: Oh, besides the food? The night market (not the one shown here) and its overload of sensory experiences, and all the super rad climbing spots (which I didn’t climb) nearby.

Least favorite part about Krabi: This really awkward Barbie-pink pedicure I got because it was raining and I couldn’t think of anything else to do — awkward because of the language barrier and uncomfortable chair.

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar The Nomadic Life

5 Reasons Why Antsirabe is Madagascar’s Best Urban Destination

Antsirabe

Happy May, blogosphere. I’m sure for most of you it means a thawing out of the winter that lingered in the northern hemisphere, but for my part, I’ve been camping out in the same pair of sweatpants and light sweater-down-jacket combination for the past three days. Normally, I hate cold weather, but somebody imported maple trees to Antsirabe, which means at least in that small pocket of Madagascar, I can bike over crunchy, brown leaves, and indulge in the charm of autumn – my favorite season. It makes the chill worth it.

Fall in Antsirabe

But then again, Antsirabe in general just makes all the frustrations of life in Madagascar worth it. A small city just 160km south of Antananarivo on the RN7, I would argue that Antsirabe is Madagascar’s best urban gem (and this is even after visiting Mahajunga, Diego, Fort Dauphin, Tamatave, Fianaratsoa, and Antananarivo). In a country most visited for its national parks and wildlife, it’s easy to gloss over the cultural aspects of travel here. However, Antsirabe is a compact, and easy to reach city that has it all.

1. La Cabana

La Cabana

Next door to the hostel I usually stay at is a small, Malagasy bar called “La Cabana”. They are locally known for their freshly grilled chicken (actually marinated!) and cheap, cold beer. It’s one of the few places I regularly see foreigners and Malagasy happily mixed, I imagine because the prices are still ‘Malagasy’, but it doesn’t have the same dodgy, dingy appearance of most Malagasy bars. I also love it because it’s literally a place where everyone knows my name…

How to get there: Go to the ‘Score’ grocery store on the main avenue and follow the smell of grilled chicken.

2. Concerts at Alliance Française

Main Avenue

I have yet to figure out why the local music scene in Antsirabe is so vibrant – some bands from the area have even gone off to tour in La Reunion and France – but you don’t see me complaining. Almost every Friday night, folks in Antsirabe can find a live concert happening at Alliance Francaise, either for free or a small cover charge of about 5,000AR. The bands are almost always Malagasy, sometimes traditional but sometimes more of a rock/reggae kind of vibe.

How to get there: Alliance Francaise is on a small street near the supermarket, Score, and the train station.

3. A smaller, cleaner version of Antananarivo

nine

Antsirabe and Antananarivo hold a lot of similarities – both are highland cities and major economic enters – which makes Antsirabe, the country’s third largest city, feel like a less grimy and more manageable sister to Tana. Throughout the city are signs telling residents to keep streets clean and it seems like people actually listen. Sure, there’s a lot of room for improvement, but compared to most urban areas in Madagascar, Antsirabe is down right tidy. Most spots worth seeing are within walking distance of each other, and a lot of the slummy grittiness of Tana is practically non-existent in Antsirabe. For this reason, if I were to use any one word to describe Antsirabe, it would be ‘pleasant’.

4. Bikable streets and day trips

Madagascar's Highlands

Okay, I was in Antsirabe when that goat jumped on me and my bike, but for the most part wide, flat roads and slow traffic – half the vehicles are rickshaws, bikes, and cows – make it a really bikable city. Just a few kilometers south-west of the city on hilly but well-paved roads sits Lake Tritriva, a lake-filled crater. About 22 kilometers away is another small highland town, Betafo, which I personally love biking to since there’s less traffic on the road west of Antsirabe than the RN7.

5. Hamburgers

Pousse Pousse Cafe

The Pousse Pousse Café, a restaurant at the center of town near the small market (Antsenakely), has created a unique ambiance with table and chair sets made out of rickshaws locally known as pousse-pousses. I love everything on the menu, but for Peace Corps volunteers we naturally gravitate towards the place for their hamburgers. Chez Dom, another establishment further north of the town center, has a dining experience much like eating in someone’s living room. Dom, an amicable French gentleman, rocks the hamburgers by finishing them off with blue cheese.

How to get there: For Pousse-Pousse, it’s in the small market (Antsenakely) just near the Shoprite. Chez Dom is an unsuspecting house on a small road just off the RN7 by Zandina’s. Look for the giant sign to point you in the right direction

And a few more photos before I leave…

Cathedral Pousse Pousse in Autumn Street Kid

Photos: (1) A street kid shying away from my camera (2) A view of the maple trees from Ravaka hostel (3) Outdoor seats at La Cabana (4) The main avenue at sunset, just near the Alliance Francaise (5) A cobblestone street near Antsenakely (6) The RN7 about 15 kilometers south of Antsirabe (7) Taking photos while anxiously awaiting our hamburgers at Pousse-Pousse cafe (terrible lighting) (8) Rush hour traffic outside the Cathedral d’Antsirabe (9) Another shot of the maple trees (10) Another street kid

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life Travel

How Blogging in the Third World is Frustrating Business

AarrrrgggRemember when, back in the day, you’d start up your dial-up internet, most likely with AOL, and your computer would make these obnoxious whrrring sounds, a long, high-pitched eeeeee-rrrrrr, and maybe at some point your family would yell at you to get off the internet because they needed to use the phone? Remember how tediously slow it was? Yeah, well blogging from my home in Madagascar, with an internet stick (a small device you plug into a USB outlet and connects to the internet with 3G through a local phone tower) feels a lot like that.

Some days, I’ll click on a link to an article I want to read, get up, make some coffee, write a few things on word, check it – still not loaded – get distracted, and before I know it, half an hour has gone by and all I can see is half an image, slowly loading line by pixelated line, and I give up. I’ve had days when even twitter, a relatively low bandwidth site, takes ages to load. For one of my most recent posts, I spent a day and a half uploading the seven images I wanted to include with the post – and that was with comparatively “good” wifi at a hotel and not my dinky internet stick. Blogging in these conditions can be seriously painful.

And of course, there are all the other weird obstacles in the way. I missed a Skype date once because a cyclone had somehow wiped out all the wifi in the entire city of Antsirabe (then again, it was a Malagasy waitress explaining this to me, so you have to take the explanation with a grain of salt). I biked to all the places I knew with wifi, and nothing. There’s the fact that my electricity for the past month has consisted of a single light bulb strung from my neighbor’s house with all sorts of sketchy electrical wiring that I’m a wee-bit afraid of. (I walk to the other side of the school compound about twice a day to charge my computer in the English Center, if you’re curious.) There’s even that one goat that jumped on me while I was biking to get to a wifi spot, leaving me limping into the café after his hoof smacked my foot.

I love blogging and I love sharing my travel experiences, but behind every post I’ve made there was probably quite a few moments of me shouting “ARRRGGG WILL YOU LOAD ALREADY!” at my computer. So guys, for me, tell your kids “appreciate that fast internet connection you have – there are Peace Corps volunteers in Africa with dial up.”

Photo: I may or may not have had a couple of beers when someone tossed that fake turtle at me

Categories
Adventure Travel Africa In Photos La Reunion The Nomadic Life

Dining and Hiking on La Reunion’s Active Volcano

La Piton de la Fournaise

Seriously guys, I’ve already gabbed on enough about La Reunion, but want to point out two more highlights of the trip, Le Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano, and a cozy restaurant called Le QG before returning to posts about Madagascar. Next week, look for some colorful photos I’m eager to share depicting the arrival of autumn in Antsirabe (wait, what? Fall? That’s right. Madagascar is not ‘Africa hot’ – as my mom would say – as we roll from April to May).

Hiking an Active Volcano

Plant

But anyways, at the center of La Reunion sits the Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes and perhaps the pinnacle of its attractions. The tourism board’s website is littered with dramatic black-and-orange photos of the volcano’s last eruptions back in 2007, 2008, and most recently 2010 to leverage this unique geographical feature in creating an adventurous allure to the island. “It’s like a moonscape,” one French expat had described it. Because we didn’t have a car, Chip and I weren’t confident that we would get the chance to see it, but lucked out by tagging along with one of our couchsurfing hosts and two of her friends visiting from France. Once we arrived at the trailhead to get to the volcano, having watched a landscape filled with every imaginable shade of green change to an ominous field of dried, black lava and scraggly plants, I could easily see why it gets so much attention as a tourist destination on the island – It is super cool up there.

A Fog Engulfs Us…

La Piton de la Fournaise 2

Unfortunately, a heavy fog engulfed the volcano the day we set out. Off in the distance we could blurrily make out other hikers on the trail – little specks too far off in the distance to shout out at and be heard – and it gave me the impression that I was caught in some sad, forlorn dream. When we ran into hikers closer up on the trail, they only emphasized my impression – many of them looking grumpy and defeated at how unexpectedly less than pleasant the hike was. I guess most of us hadn’t considered it beforehand, but trying to summit a volcano is clumsy business. Instead of an actual trail, visitors follow a route marked out by white spray paint on the rocks to the top. Small rocks and pebbles make the route slippery (I’ve got the scabs on my hand to prove it) and I never quite felt like I was on a solid, steady surface. Fortunately, a clumsy, rocky way up proves the only danger to hiking La Fournaise.

Wait, is This Dangerous?

Formica Leo

“Can they predict eruptions with enough accuracy to keep people from being on it during an eruption?” Chip asked aloud as we neared the top.

Our hiking partners assured us that yes; the eruptions could be predicted in advance enough to get a warning out. A nearby observatory, the Piton de la Fournaise Observatory, keep a constant watch on volcanic activity using geophysical sensors and have a no-nonsense warning system and evacuation plans for nearby villages. It appeared our only concerns should be tripping and falling – like one French woman who was now shuffling back to the parking lot with a chipped tooth.

“Ahrgg! Are we there yet??” I yelled, too cold, wet, hungry, and sleep-deprived to give a shit about being present and enjoying the physical challenge anymore. At the top, our hard work was rewarded with sitting with a half-dozen other tourists eating sandwiches in a cloud. We knew that we were sitting on the mouth of an active volcano, but appearances alone wouldn’t have given that away. We sat long enough to eat a cookie and left – now with the new motivation of knowing that descending meant ultimately reaching “the best creole food in La Reunion,” as told to us by Chef Fred.

“Pig Intestines, Please”: Lunch at Le QG

Creole FoodWhen we finally did reach Le QG, the cozy, dimly lit restaurant was a welcome reprise from the chill and rain outside. Chip, our couchsurfing host, and I clustered around the wall mounted fireplace in the back sipping Dodos (the local beer) and doing our best to warm up. Fred greeted us in a chef’s apron, an introduced us to the head chef, a Senegalese man with a broad smile and a towering, white chef’s hat. I had hardly finished my Dodo before we sat down and Fred asked us what we wanted to eat.

“Pig intestines, please,” Chip told Fred.

A minute later we could see the Senegalese chef and Fred discussing the order – “really? The American wants that? You’re sure? Well okay then…”

The intestines tasted salty yet full of flavor, but my favorite dish on the table was the goat seasoned with bay leaves. In true creole fashion, they brought out large bowls of rice, steamed greens, beans, and the various meats each of us had ordered – family style. In true French fashion, our host ordered a bottle of red wine since drinking beer with a meal was simply “improper” (this is totally a custom I can get down with). As our last real meal in La Reunion, we went all out, even splurging for desert – crème brulee and something called a “pineapple surprise” – and espresso. I couldn’t have imagined a better farewell meal.

Pineapple Surprise

Slightly tipsy from the beer, wine, and complimentary samples of rhum arrange, a rum infused with different flavors such as ginger, baobab flower, or vanilla, I got up to pay and thank the chef.

“Wait, before I leave, I have a question for you… Degena Wolof?” I asked – which means “do you speak Wolof?” in Wolof. He looked at me for a second then gave me a resounding “Yaow!” before running off around the restaurant shouting “did you hear what she just said? Degena wolof! Degena wolof! Oh my god, did you hear that?” It made me miss how vibrant and outgoing West Africa is compared to the passivity of Madagascar.

“Come back Friday and I’ll cook a big meal for us!” he exclaimed after he finished circling the restaurant in excitement. Genuinely sad, I shook my head and said “sorry, I’m going back to Madagascar tomorrow,” and instead said goodbye, thank you for the food, and headed back to our hosts’ home for a much needed nap.

Le QG Server

Photos: (1) Beginning the ascent (2) A plant on the hike to the volcano (3) On the way down from the parking lot (4) ‘Formica Leo’ (5) Pork and rice (6) Pineapple surprise desert (7) One of the owners of Le QG serving up some delicious food

Categories
In Photos North America The Nomadic Life The United States

A Skipped Beat: Tuesday Travel Snapshot [Washington]

Bringing you a travel snapshot from Beat Nomad’s archives each and every Tuesday.

Crescent Lake

This photo was taken at Lake Crescent on a trip to the Olympic National Park shortly after I moved to Seattle. A couple of medical students from Arkansas that I met at a hostel and I were staying at Lake Crescent Lodge, and this was the view of the lake and it’s canoes right when we woke up. Being here in Madagascar, I seriously miss the Pacific Northwest.

Categories
Adventure Travel Africa La Reunion The Nomadic Life

Rappeling Through Waterfalls in Cilaos, La Reunion

Last week I wrote about a few of my first impressions in La Reunion, but I haven’t even mentioned the best part of the trip:

Canyoning in Cilaos!

Graffitti

Before arriving in La Reunion, neither Chip nor I had ever done canyoning before, but while doing research on La Reunion I came across a website boasting “Reunion Island, an Eden for canyoning? That’s what fans of this [sport] say.” It didn’t take much to convince me (or Chip for that matter) and it quickly became one of the things on my ‘To-Do in La Reunion’ list I became the most excited for.
“But, what is canyoning exactly?” one friend asked me before I left.

“Well, it’s… err… something like… rappelling down canyons?” I answered.

A little dumb, I know. I didn’t fully understand what I was getting myself into, yet I was totally psyched. I knew it had something to do with rappelling, and as a rock climber deprived of climbing opportunities in her current home, my mind kind of stopped at “mid-way between rock climbing and…” Ropes? Bolts? Carabeeners? I was positively drooling at the thought of climbing gear alone.

Only, I should have read beyond “rock climbing and…”. If I had, I would have noticed “water sports”, a pair of words that I usually say a giant ‘nooo thanks!’ to. White-water rafting? Nuh-uh. Not doing it. Jumping off 10-foot high rocks into a river? I’m the girl that will stand there for 20 minutes before making the plunge. Swimming with sharks in Cape Town? I’m scared enough of the ocean as it is, do we really need to throw sharks into the mix?

So fast forward to the morning when Chip, me, four French tourists, our guide, Gilbert and I are standing around his car, getting the run-down on what to expect from our day. The area around Cilaos is rich with canyoning spots of all levels, but being total novices to the sport, Gilbert had chosen to take us to Fleurs Jaunes, one of the area’s most popular spots for beginner canyoning. Gilbert is speaking French, and I am ultra-focused trying to understand his explanations.

“If it’s easier for you all, I can explain in Creole,” he jokes when he notices how concentrated I am.

We all laugh, then out of no where (or seemingly so, because I probably just didn’t catch what he was saying), he tosses each of us a full-body wetsuit and instructs us to put them on. Immediately I know what’s coming. I’m going to be swimming, but there’s no backing out. I have no choice but to wriggle in to the wetsuit — and of course as soon as I’m all zipped in, feeling a bit like Ralphie from A Christmas Story (“I can’t move my arms! I can’t move my arms!”) I feel the need to pee.

I’m off to a great start already.

CanyoningOnce everyone is zipped up, Ralphie style, we all waddle (or maybe I was the only one waddling) over next to a tree for a photo then head out. Not five minutes from the road, Gilbert has us jump into a small natural pool and scoot down a rock slide into another pool. We get out, all of our feet and sneakers now squishy and wet. I tell myself it’s OK, I just have to accept that I’ll be drenched for the next two hours… it’s not that big of a deal, right? The shoes will dry, don’t worry about it.

IMGP0018

And it was OK. After mentally embracing the water-sport side of canyoning, I had the most fantastic time. Seriously, canyoning is the best way to make a climber like water sports. In the span of two hours, we rappelled down 300 meters and 6 waterfalls, plunging into the small natural pools the water collected in, and sometimes even getting to slide down more rock slides. In between rappels, we tried our best to chat with the others — one of them was particularly fond of yelling “nice!” in English whenever Chip or I finished skidding down a waterfall. Finally, we stopped for a picnic at the bottom of our last cascade (our sandwiches kept dry in a large, buyout dry-sac) then scrambled back up a steep trail to get back to the road.

IMGP0046

Absolutely exhausted, Chip and I returned to our gite — a hostel-like accommodation catering to hikers and other sports enthusiasts — and shamelessly indulged in a hot shower and some beers.

DSC_1334 Cilaos Waterfall

Interested in Canyoning in Cilaos?

We spent 60 euros a piece on our tour with Run Evasion, a sports store in central Cilaos but several other companies also do Canyoning tours:

  • Run Evasion – 0262318357
  • Daniel Ducrot – 0692659067
  • Cilaosadventure.com (also does rock climbing) – 0692667342
  • Fabrice Bouisset – 0692662273

For accommodations, there were quite a few cheap gites scattered around town. We paid 16 euros a night at Ti Case Lontan at 10 Rue Alsace, and were floored by how kind and welcoming the owner was. If you’re really trying to travel on a budget though, Cilaos has a camp ground called Le plateau des Chênes, a short walk out of town towards Bras-Sec.

Photos: (1) Graffiti in Cilaos (2) Our group photo taken by Gilbert (3) One of my first rappels (4) The view coming back up (5) Cilaos mountains from a hiking trail (6) View of a waterfall from town

*Photos 2, 3, and 4 were taken by our guide, Gilbert*

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar

A Skipped Beat: Tuesday Travel Snapshot [Fianaratsoa]

Bringing you a travel snapshot from Beat Nomad’s archives each and every Tuesday.

Betsileo

This week’s photo was taken on the RN7 just south of Fianaratsoa, somewhere near Anja National Park, in the wine-making region of Madagascar (although, trust me, it’s terrible — I once got drunk after drinking an entire bottle because I was convinced it was just weird tasting grape juice and it couldn’t possibly be actual alcoholic wine. Needless to say, I was a bit shocked when I stood up). Anyways, I took this at the end of a two-day bus journey back from Fort Dauphin, when, just a few hours away from our destination our bus got a flat tire right in front of a wine stand. So naturally, we bought a bottle of wine and sat down in a gazebo, where immediately after this group of party-people (yeaaah, they’re looking lively here…) sat down and joined us. Since they were all Betsileo, it would have been rude of us not to offer our wine, and (begrudgingly) went from five to ten people sharing one bottle. Also characteristic of the region is the way the man front and center has a blanket draped over himself, and the man next to him had a tall stick. Fancy, right?

Categories
Africa In Photos La Reunion The Nomadic Life

Hello Reunion, Thanks for Smelling Nice

Women in La Reunion

Back to the Developed World

After over a consecutive year and a half in Madagascar – minus three weeks in Thailand – stepping off the airplane in La Reunion felt like going back in time to the world of my memories. At first glance, it was the developed world of my daydreams when I’m having a bad day in Mada. There were paved roads, large busses that didn’t sputter black exhaust fumes, quaint cafes, and an overarching scent of plastic, clean, and sea, rather than piss and unidentifiable stench. (Seriously Madagascar, would you stop peeing on everything?) Most everyone had shoes, and even if they were wearing cheap clothes they were still the sort of thing only Malagasy with a higher status could afford. I noticed two beggars in the entire week I was there.

Judging from our surroundings, Chip and I knew this trip was going to be easy. Normally, I like a challenge while traveling. I like choosing the more difficult route, because it usually means more adventure; better stories. Peace Corps has been one long series of travel challenges and honestly, I’m getting a bit tired and burnt out. For once, the thought of exploring a place where I didn’t even have to bargain for a freaking coconut made me excited to be there.

Couchsurfing and a Home-Cooked Creole Feast

Being in La Reunion also meant I got to do something else I haven’t done in a long, long time: couchsurf. We ended up getting hosted by a group of seven friends – one Reunionese and six French – who lived in a house that overlooked Saint Denis and the Indian Ocean. I like surfing in houses like that because it means there’s always something going on, but, if I’m honest, the language barrier made things a little awkward at first. Chip and I sort of speak French, and could handle ourselves one on one, but once the group started going and making jokes, I clammed up. Even so, I still ended up really liking the group.

Then again, how could I not? They were all laid-back, 20- and 30-somethings who had moved from France to La Reunion “for the sun,” and a more relaxed lifestyle. Our first night there, the one Reunionese housemate and de-facto chef of the house, Fred, cooked up a huge meal of Reunionese creole food.

Bouchons“I saw on your blog that you like food,” he said.

“Fred should be a detective,” one of the others joked.

I was flattered that he had read some of these silly blog posts that I’ve been writing (seriously, I’m always a little flabbergasted that people read my dribble, and that my following has grown to what it is… oh, and hi Fred!). I was even more surprised that he had rightly assumed that we’d appreciate some creole home cooking and had gone through the trouble of putting it all together. He started off with a steamed dumpling called bouchons, stuffed with duck and vanilla. I never would have thought to put those two flavors together (although I did once eat a delicious vanilla zebu steak in Madagascar) but they were fantastic; a tangy mix of sweet and savory. The main meal looked much like Malagasy food, but with more use of spices and a better rice to other stuff ratio. The spread included a spicy cucumber salad, bread mafana – a cooked leafy greens dish – pork with sauce, beans, and rice. The meat and beans thing became a common theme during our meals, and I left Reunion feeling like I had just consumed a year’s worth of protein.

Breaking Out the Funk Moves

Totally stuffed with food, wine, and beer, Chip and I and three of the other housemates left to go dancing at Funky Terrace at Les Récréateurs – a dance night that played old funk, disco, and reggae hits while reruns of Soul Train were projected onto a wall. “We usually go every Wednesday, but they were closed for awhile because someone brought a gun into the bar. Now they’re open again,” one of them told us before we left. Oh, phew, I thought, funk dance night is back on.

At the bar, I felt like a ‘real human’. Nobody creepily tried to dance behind me on the dance floor. We could pay for our beers with credit cards. People bought rounds (and I still feel bad that we never were able to sneak in there and buy a round for our CS hosts). It all felt foreign yet familiar. I fumbled, but it was fantastic. I drank beer and did the twist. Sadly though, at midnight exactly, the DJ cut off the music and we drove home in a tired, beer haze. Before crashing, Chip and I got instructions on how to get to the beach by bus, figuring that even if La Reunion isn’t much known for its beaches (they’re littered with pine needles and rock fish dot the waters), lounging by the ocean was exactly the sort of day we wanted to have after a night of a few too many drinks. Without a doubt, this trip was going to be blissfully easy.

Beach

DSC_1385DSC_1371Cilaos Bar

GraffittiCoconutPhotos: (1) Women sitting in a park in Saint Pierre (2) Bouchons at a bar (not Freds!) (3) The closest beach to Saint Denis — L’hermitage (4) Ice cream truck in Saint Pierre (5) Fast food chicken (6) Bar in Cilaos (7) Saint Pierre Graffitti (8) Coconuts in a road-side market

Categories
Africa In Photos Mauritius The Nomadic Life

Twenty Hours in Mauritius [photos]

Maheborg, MauritiusWhen I was booking tickets for La Reunion, the cheaper flight from Madagascar (about $300 round trip) stopped in Mauritius. I felt clever with myself for choosing the one that had a twenty hour layover. Two countries for the price of one, right?

So, last Tuesday we landed in Mauritius around dinner-time, and immediately the humid, sea air hit us as we descended from the airplane on pull-up airstairs. At customs, the agent looked at me when I handed him my passport. I could have sworn I heard him say “home”.

“What?”
“Om! Your tattoo, it’s om!”

TattooI started to laugh. It failed to dawn on me that on an island where 68% of the population is of Indian descent, people would be able to recognize the terrible scrawled out Hindi ‘om’ symbol on my pinky finger (the first time I had this tattoo done was with a DIY kit. Last year I impulsively had it ‘touched up’ in Madagascar. I’ve jokingly referred to it as my ‘punk rock tattoo’ because of it’s terrible quality for years now.)

Still, the moment was an introduction of what to come. After a rather painless and quick customs check, we sped off to Mahebourg, a small town close to the airport and checked in to a (more expensive than promised) sea-side hotel with a terrace that overlooked a pirogue dotted bay. That night, we had no problem finding cheap Indian food after wandering wide, palm-lined back streets. We weren’t sure if it was the time of night (about 8 or 9) or just the feel of the city, but save for the odd person sitting on a sidewalk in a plastic chair, or ambling by on a brightly painted bike, it felt deserted.

The next day, we spent too long sleeping and eating breakfast, and decided to wander the streets instead of checking out a beach 6km south of town (which in retrospect, I am kicking myself in the butt for. We could have figured out the bus, or rented a bike, and only spend two hours on the whole venture). We walked as the town opened up. Men clustered by the bus station eating sandwiches and telling jokes. Women in colorful saris and umbrellas to block out the sun passed by us on the sidewalk. At one point, we had wandered too far out of town, and as we debated turning right or left, I noticed a woman in a bright yellow sari smiling at me from across the street. I smiled back.

“You should go right!” she shouted in French. “There is a beautiful sea down that road,” It was one of those oddly serendipitous travel moments I love. We walked alongside her for a few minutes before she ducked in to her house, and we continued our aimless walk. Eventually the walk led us back to our hotel terrace with cans of Guinness, to a KFC (!!!), and ultimately, the airport.

If you find yourself with a long layover in Mauritius, don’t make my mistake! Go to the freaking beach! It would have been about 20 minutes by taxi from the airport and like I said, I’m still kicking myself in the butt. Why wouldn’t you try to see a destination’s biggest draw? Enjoy the non-beachy photos!

Mahebourg Bridge

Mauritius Balcony

Hindu TempleDSC_1211

Photos: (1) Lion Mountain and harbor in Mahebourg (2) Bridge out of Mahebourg (3) Balcony (4) Hindu temple (5) View from our hotel terrace

Categories
The Nomadic Life Travel

Why Travel?

A pensive post on love of travel as I explore La Reunion and Mauritius…

Travelers in Kao Yao Noi

The first time I stepped foot on an international flight, I was still in diapers – that annoying toddler that cries, poops themselves, and makes noise at inconvenient times. I promise you I’ve since improved my travel etiquette. The second time, I was in the third grade and my brother and I spent a week eating soft boiled eggs for breakfast and playing hide and seek in a German castle. I can’t imagine a better way to experience Germany for the first time. But since I’ve been traveling for longer than I can remember (literally) I think I’ve also taken it for granted. So why do I travel anyways? What do I love about travel? Why do I believe everyone should travel? I’ve been contemplating this recently, and I want to share with you all, and I want you to share right back.

Why do I travel?

Hitchhiking to HannoverIt’s in my bones; it’s what I know.

But there’s more to it of course. Part of my drive to travel far and often is this desire to be so many different things, to try out so many different lives in the only one I have. Travel gives me the opportunity to be a million different things, even if just in my imagination, incompletely, or by proxy of meeting other people. Growing up in diverse Northern Virginia, I always had friends born elsewhere and hearing them talk about where they came from made me want to see it myself. When I was five, a Japanese kid brought sushi in to my daycare, and even though I still believe giving wasabi to an American toddler is totally cruel, it let me know that there are more ways to live / eat / dress / think ‘out there’ than the one I knew. I suddenly wanted to know what other food came from this Japan place, because that sushi (without the wasabi) was pretty damn tasty. So now that I’m old enough, I travel. My mom always says she’s traveling by proxy of my travels, but really it’s me living other people’s lives by proxy of being a guest in their world.

Oh, and it’s partly my parents’ fault as well. They were always saying stuff like “let’s go exploring!” and dragging my little brother and I out on spontaneous weekend trips, or using their own travels as material for our bedtime stories.

What do I love about travel?

Obviously, I continue to travel, even as a broke post-grad with a liberal arts degree and a pathetically low paying ‘job’ as a Peace Corps volunteer (a little over $200 a month! Yeah, I’m rolling in dough right now…) because I love it.

But why? I love the not knowing, the feeling of being somewhere totally unfamiliar, of being bombarded by new sensory experiences. I love the element of discovery and how it both inspires and satiates our curiosity. I love the stories I collect along the way – especially the ones that make others (and myself) laugh. I love the endless possibilities of foods to try and people to meet. Mostly, I love that travel makes life one constant adventure, and, well, as I doubt I will ever fulfill my life aspiration of becoming Indiana Jones or a pirate, travel is as close as I get.

Why do I think everyone should travel?

DSC_2582So you can be run out of a cave by a giant boulder, duh.

No, just kidding. Even if you’re not the most observant person and even if you only go a little ways from home only for a little while, I think the act of travel, exploration, and discovery does so much to widen the mind. A whole host of travel enthusiasts before me have touted this same idea, so there must be some truth to it. By leaving home, you learn about the world (hence, becoming ‘worldly’) but also about yourself. Even more significant, traveling has the potential to put people in incredibly difficult, stressful, and otherwise new and mind-boggling situations. You get lost, you don’t know the language, maybe a goat jumps on you while you’re biking or you step in human poop (both of which happened to me this past month) but you face the situation. In my opinion, how you handle these reflects your true self, gives your ‘self’ the opportunity to practice patience and tolerance, or on the other extreme teaches you what your personal boundaries are. Plus, there’s some really great food out there you probably haven’t tried yet, some really fantastic people you definitely haven’t met yet, and some really funny stories yet to be told.

Your thoughts?

Photos: (1) Travelers sitting on a dock in Kao Yao Noi, Thailand (2) Me demonstrating my awesome hitchhiking sign-drawing skills (3) A Buddhist saying tacked to a tree in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Categories
Africa La Reunion The Nomadic Life Travel

La Reunion, See You in a Week!

Photo credit: iloha.fr

So… readers… I don’t really know any better way to put this… buuut, in less than a week from now, I’ll be in La Reunion! I’m doing my happy dance right now as I type (I know, I’m talented, right?), so, clearly, I’m stoked. I hardly ever write blog posts about future travels, unless I’m truly beside myself with anticipation. And right now, I’m beside myself with anticipation.

“Why La Reunion?” You may be wondering. I know some of my friends were. Well, last month while I was cross-checking some facts in my LP for an article on BootsnAll, I got distracted and started reading this tiny section in the back about the Comoros. They’re a small, independent cluster of islands off the northern part of Madagascar and being so close already, visiting them seemed like a now or never travel opportunity. I hadn’t even begun thinking of the other little islands floating off the coast of Africa (Mauritius, Seychelles, La Reunion…) at that point. However, later that day I mentioned this what-if-I-went-to-the-Comoros-after-Peace-Corps idea to my friend Chip.

“Why not go now?” he said.

“Now??” I asked.

“Yeah, during spring break,” he said, then launched into one of his usual, rambling, soliloquies (Chip has a habit of thinking out loud) about how OK, Comoros makes sense and all, but Mauritius actually sounds more fascinating because of all the cultures mixed together but yeah, La Reunion would also be a great place to visit because it’s like France but tropical and…. On he went, mentioning factoids about the smaller islands surrounding Madagascar (because Chip is also a human encyclopedia) until eventually his facts led to questions, and questions led to him Google searching Mauritius, me Google searching La Reunion.

Within an hour, my pensive ‘what-if’ about the Comoros had turned into a very real debate on whether to go to Mauritius or La Reunion. La Reunion won out in the end because the flight was cheaper (About $300 USD round-trip), it has two rad looking volcanoes (one of which erupted in 2009), Chip could be snooty and practice his French, and it has a KFC. Okay, Mauritius has a KFC too, but if La Reunion didn’t have one, this may have been a deal breaker. I’m only kind of joking (remember, I’m a Peace Corps volunteer serving in probably the last frontier American fast food giants have yet to set foot on). A week later, we bought our tickets.

At the time, volcanoes and food was about all I knew of La Reunion. I hadn’t felt the need to really intensely research it. We figured, why not land, eat some fried chicken, and play things by ear? And honestly, I liked this idea. I’m all for spontaneity with travel and having a post-it note constitute as my itinerary. But then I started reading all these websites about how to be a better blogger/freelance writer and one thing stood out: research before you go. Since I plan on churning out at least an article or two from this vacation, I took their advice and began scouring the web. And you know what? I discovered some cool things about La Reunion that have been fueling my pre-trip excitement.

Like, you can go canyoneering:

Credit to: http://www.allonslareunion.com

It’s a UNESCO world heritage site thanks to its national park (which covers 40% of the island) and biodiversity.

Thanks to i-voyages.net

There’s like, some actual good food.

Photo Credit: allonslareunion.com

And, oh yeah, did I mention I get to travel with this guy?

Travel Buddy!
Chip getting excited about this coconut….

Google definitely just expanded my eat-good-food-and-climb-a-volcano itinerary (I may need a second post-it). Anyways, wish me bon voyage and I promise to take lots of photos for all of you trapped in what seems a relentlessly ongoing winter in the northern hemisphere!

Oh, and P.S. this site has some amazing photos of La Reunion, but since I can’t repost them here, that just means you’ll all have to click and see for yourselves.:)

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Teaching and Translating with Operation Smile [photos]

My mantra of late seems to be “Oh my god, so many children… somanychildren somanychildren somanychildren.” As I mentioned in previous posts, they’re everywhere. Not only do I live on the middle school compound, but Madagascar just seems to have more of these little people than I’m used to.

This past week has been different. It’s been a continuation of the “somanychildren” mantra, but more positive. Along with about 9 other Peace Corps Volunteers and some talented Malagasy English-speakers, I have been helping to translate for an internationally diverse team of Operation Smile doctors, nurses, and dentists in Antananarivo. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Operation Smile, it’s a charity organization that gives free surgery to people (mostly children under the age of 10) with cleft lips and cleft palates. All of it is funded by donation, and all of the doctors, nurses, dentists, and translators are generously volunteering their time. Though they have been coming back to Madagascar for several years, this year has been particularly exciting for Operation Smile Madagascar. They have officially decided to do two missions a year in Madagascar – one in Antananarivo and one on the east coast in Tamatave. Furthermore, they have a large group of Malagasy nurses and doctors observing so that in the future they’ll be able to independently perform the operations. Oh, and that’s not it. Patient turnout has been phenomenal. We screened nearly 550 patients last week to see if they qualified for surgery.

The Peace Corps volunteers involved in this mission are mostly assigned to one section of the process to translate between Malagasy patients and the English-speaking doctors. I of course, have to go off and do something teacherly. One other volunteer and I weren’t put in the O.R. or paired with a dentist, but assigned to the “student team”. Yeah, you’re probably thinking “I thought we were talking about hospitals, surgeries, and all that medical junk, what’s going on?”

Well, our position means we are working with two high school students from South Africa to and talk to schools in Antananarivo about nutrition. Each morning the South African students, the other PCV – my friend and stage-mate, Mariana — a student team coordinator, and I set out to the day’s school. We leave, arms full of colorfully drawn posters with song lyrics and pictures of the go, grow, and glow food groups (one of which has a vaguely blobish looking brown thing in the glow food group that the Malagasy students keep thinking is a potato. We’re terrible teachers misleading them like that, I know, but we have plans to replace the brown blobish thing with an orange blobish thing and call it tropical fruit.) Both schools we have visited so far were elementary schools and the kids were freaking adorable. I don’t usually get such a high concentration of cute, semi-well behaved kids and I can’t help but suppress an “awwww!” before I make our introductions.

When done, we zip back to the hospital as fast as the terrible Tana traffic will allow us to zip, to translate. For a few hours this afternoon, I sat in the post-op, where all the kids (and some adults) freshly arriving from surgery first came. My task involved fetching the patients’ guardians, explaining their children’s situation – they’re waking up, they may have blood on their mouth – then walking them to the recovery room. For the most part, the parents were stoic and didn’t show much excitement, but still it was amazing to see the transformations of the children from before to after their surgeries. For once I’m okay with all the children surrounding me. Operation Smile is a fantastic organization and makes clear and immediate differences in the lives of their patients and their families.

But it’s late here and Operation Smile isn’t over yet… meaning, I’m tired and I have to wake up at the crack of dawn (literally). So enjoy the photos from Monday.

Oh and P.S. Being in an African hospital at night with half-lit hallways is rather creepy.

Photos: (1) Kid learning how to use anesthetics by blowing bubbles (2) Our elementary school student audience (3) Antananarivo (4) Students filing in (5) Mother and baby waiting for pre-screening (6) Mother feeding her baby water in post-op (7) Nurse and mother in the post op room with a baby who received cleft lip surgery
Update [March 22, 2013]: Thank you to Operation Smile for reposting this on their website!
Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Why the #$%*@ Did I Join the Peace Corps?

Out the window

People say we’re brave, adventurous, and tough-skinned. They also call us crazy and rambunctious when we get together and (noisily) try to one-up each other with stories about public transportation, weird bathroom situations, and other only-in-Peace-Corps type stories. With all these experiences, it’s hard to remember why we’re doing this some days, and other days it’s hard to think of doing anything else. So, why the #$%*@ did I join the Peace Corps anyways? After a year and a half of service, here are some of my reasons – as best as I can remember them – and how much success I’ve had in fulfilling them.

1. To learn a new language

I had crossed my fingers for a French or Spanish speaking country, and got nominated to Francophone sub-Saharan Africa. Technically, I did end up in a Francophone country, but volunteers in Madagascar learn Malagasy because we are much more effective volunteers as Malagasy speakers. So yes, I succeeded in learning a new language, but not a terribly useful one for later in life.

2. Because I had little money and couldn’t decide where to travel next

Obviously, total success on getting the “where-to-next?” question answered for me. For those of you unfamiliar with the selection process, Peace Corps candidates have some say in the region they are sent to in their interviews but not the specific country. I never would have thought of traveling to Madagascar otherwise.

3. For the friendships with other PCVs

I love being a Peace Corps volunteer, and I love all the volunteers I’ve become close to – both from the group I arrived with and don’t see often, and those in my region that I see pretty often. I hardly ever go more than week without seeing another volunteer and these amazing people play the biggest role in keeping me sane. Success? Definitely!

4. To immerse myself in a totally different culture

Peace Corps would call this ‘integration’ and mostly I feel ‘somewhat integrated’. I’m bored living in a community whose major weekend activities are watching soccer and going to church (both of which I hate), so I usually spend two days a week immersed in American-ness, either by reading, watching movies, or hanging out with PCVs and other expats. Even still, cultural immersion is unavoidable and I have come to understand Madagascar a little more every day. So have I accomplished reason #4? Sort of, I suppose.

5. To learn random life skills and be a badass expat in Africa

Before Peace Corps, I thought people who had lived in developing nations all had these incredibly useful or bizarre skills they picked up along the way. They all seemed confident, self-sufficient, and ready to face any situation no matter how wild. I don’t know what I expected to become skillful at or impervious to, but I can now open a beer bottle with any flat surface, live without running water, haggle like a pro, and bike in a city whose everyday traffic includes rickshaws, bikes, cars, buses, trucks, and herds of livestock. Success? Yes.

6. To teach some English

(And other things.) Of course, there is an altruistic aspect to any volunteer’s rational for joining. With my past ESL teaching experiences, I thought I’d be most useful continuing with it. So for 17 hours a week, I teach ESL but also run a cooking class and talk with my students about ‘life in America’. My success with teaching is hard to judge, but knowing that five Malagasy can now cook Potato and Leek Risotto and 400 students understand not to call Americans fat or shout ‘vahazah’ at us is enough for me.

7. For the stories…

“This one time I… slept on the floor of a bush taxi / had a goat jump on me while biking / the door fell off our bus / saw a woman pull a hunk of raw, unpackaged meat out of her sweater pocket.”  Those of you patient enough to hear and read my stories should be the judge of how ‘successful’ I have been at collecting them. Hopefully you have some positive feedback!

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

From Strangers to Friends: Living with Kids in Madagascar

Two Girls

Before joining the Peace Corps, I didn’t see kids much in my Seattle neighborhood and I never interacted with them. But now, kids are everywhere—I literally live on a middle school compound and sometimes have to cross an in-progress soccer game just to get to the outhouse. But it’s not just because I live on a school, there just are more kids and they’re allowed to roam way more freely than in the U.S. As foreigners, we’re a curiosity for them. My first month in Madagascar, a group of children took to following around my friend Steph and I while shouting “Stephan-IEEE! Jess-y-KA-KA!” They would then roll around the dirt in uproarious laughter, because of the easy one syllable leap from my name to my name + ‘poop’ (kaka) in Malagasy.

Initially, I just didn’t know what to do with kids around me all the time, and not just around me, but interacting, trying to hang out. Especially with limited Malagasy skills, it felt hard to communicate. Of course, kids don’t mind that as much as some adults, and I’d end up spending hours drawing with chalk on my front porch with my 6-year old neighbor, or going around my house, both of us asking “what’s this? what’s this?”

Further along, I began to appreciate their presence more. For example, last weekend another PCV, Jackie, and I wanted to do yoga in a hotel’s garden. I was a little embarrassed to do yoga in front of a group of children milling about nearby but we went for it anyways. As expected, the kids started giggling and mimicking us. It ended up being pretty cute to see them join in, shifting from downward dog to plank, and falling over each other when Jackie and I turned sideways for side plank.

Kids doing yoga

This never would have happened in a Seattle park. There aren’t as many children just ‘hanging around’, and I doubt American parents would approve of their kids trying to join in a stranger’s yoga practice in the park. It just doesn’t happen in America, but in Madagascar it would be strange if kids nearby didn’t come out to shout at us, try and join in the games, or ask questions.

Kid Ballons 1

Kid Ballons 2

Kid Ballons 3

Kid Ballons 4

Photos: (1) Kids playing at our hotel (2) Kids doing yoga (3-6) This is what happens when you give a group of kids a balloon

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

A Short Lesson in Malagasy You Will Never Use

Liz and Jackie

This past week, Cyclone Felleng passed over the Indian Ocean, bringing wind, rain, and a touch of gloom to the Madagascar highlands (I’m assuming that a wind, rain, and gloom in a larger amount was brought upon the East Coast). Along with the cyclone’s arrival in Madagascar, another Peace Corps volunteer who works in the business sector that Peace Corps Madagascar is now phasing out, also arrived in my neck of the woods to help with some budgeting issues at my English Center. By noon, our work was done, but with the weather crappy enough to keep us inside, the feeling of being cozy at home soon gave way to boredom, and boredom to the ridiculous idea that we’d make a Malagasy language podcast. Of course, we would only include the most ludicrous phrases we could think of, and most of the podcast ended up being a joke about how funnily things sometimes translate (like how “to pay” in Malagasy — mandoa vola — can literally translate to “to throw up money”) and how Malagasy words are often said with dramatic emphasis or drawn out syllables.

So, please enjoy my first attempt at including media other than text/photos on this blog, and I really hope people find this ‘podcast’ as humorous as we did while making it. Please understand that this was a friendly joke and I don’t mean to offend anyone with some of our choices in phrases. I also feel it necessary to note that I don’t really tell children that “If you continue to stare at me, I will eat you” (but some Malagasy parents do instill the odd belief on their children that white people will eat them, which really just makes the idea of saying this amusing).


Photo: (1) Two Peace Corps friends… (no they are not the ones talking in the podcast!)