Traveling with Family

Click on the individual image to enlarge.

Before coming to Peace Corps, Madagascar was never high on anyone in my family’s travel lists. In fact, it wasn’t on anyone’s radar at all. I knew Madagascar had baobabs and lemurs; that was all.

When I got my acceptance letter, my father, who had done some traveling but was no globe-trotter said, “we’re coming.” Non-negotiable. I know most people should be thrilled when their family wants to fly halfway across the world to come visit them, but I am not most people. I was nervous.  How was my family going to handle the bad roads, the harassment, the staring, the price gouging that happens in touristy areas? How was I going to handle having to translate everything and make all hotel arrangements in person, since nothing can be done online? How was I going to protect my family from food poisoning or pick-pocketing or one of the million other bad things that can happen when one travels?

My Peace Corps service has been a practice in the art of letting go and enjoying the ride, not matter how awkward and uncomfortable. I knew, a year and a half in, that my family was determined to come, and I was going to try my hardest to prepare a comfortable and exciting trip for them. I also knew that not everything would turn out that way.

I planned an agenda that covered mostly familiar terrain; I booked excursions and hotels in areas to which I had previously travelled, at least in proximity, so that I could eliminate a few variables. I relied heavily on friends and their relatives to help me book reliable tour guides, comfortable places to stay, and tasty, unique restaurants. I also planned a meal and party for my family at my site and arranged a menu ahead of time with my host mom.

The trip went well, except for our stop at my site. The day before, unbeknownst to me until I called my host family en route to site, there had been a tragic death in the family. Instead of preparing a fety for a group of American visitors, they were now knee-deep in funeral preparations and mourning for the loss of a close relative. I was devastated. They were devastated. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to drop everything, put on my salovana, and sit under the mango trees for three days with the rest of my village. But my American family, my first family, had come all this way to see me and to see Madagascar, and I was not about to abandon them, either.

In the months leading up to this trip, we had spoken on the phone about how this was not just a vacation. My family made that very clear. “We want to see your Madagascar,” they explained. “We want to have a picture in our minds when you say that you’re fetching water, or washing clothes, or cooking. This is a vacation, but it’s not only vacation.”

I did what I had to do. I dressed myself, my sister, and my stepmom in salovanas. We put some money in an envelope as an offering and went to visit my family to pay our respects. We gathered inside their house where the coffin was visible from the next room. A coworker delivered the condolence speech, and I delivered the offering. I reflected on overwhelmed I had been in the beginning, trying to understand language and culture and what I should do. In that moment, I was so grateful for both of my families, both of whom have accepted me into their little corners of the world.

Here are some of my tips for planning a family trip as a Peace Corps Volunteer:

  1. Wait a little while to receive visitors, especially if your visitors aren’t too adventurous. You want to feel confident enough in your language and navigation to be able to communicate effectively (if you’re in a non-English speaking country). My family came exactly two years after I arrived in Madagascar. At that point, I felt comfortable enough to translate for them, which helped put them at ease.
  2. Plan at least part of your trip in an area with which you are already familiar. You will likely feel more confident showing people around a place you already know. I travelled with my family in both the capital city and my region, which has a lot of tourist destinations. We got a nice mix of beaches, local culture, and national parks, and I was able to interpret some things for them.
  3. Hire private cars. Stay in nice hotels. Spend money. Peace Corps Volunteers are thrifty; we have to be. But most Americans traveling in Madagascar are on an American salary, which will go a lot further even if they’re not wealthy by American standards. Don’t skimp on what you consider to be “luxuries,” especially if your family is willing to pay for them. What seemed an outrageous price to me ended up being a $30-a-night air-conditioned hotel room with a private garden.  Traveling is hard enough. If you have to pay a few extra dollars for air conditioning, do it.
  4. If you take visitors to your site, tell your friends and host family ahead of time. Plan, follow up, and be flexible. Teach your visitors some basic phrases in the local language and let them know if there’s any specific greetings they should follow. Your village will probably love it.

Two Years in One Poem

You leave

everything you’ve ever known behind.

Full of possibility

And hope.


You arrive

thinking, believing,

that you can

improve knowledge

affect behavior

enact change.


Sometimes your projects succeed;

But more often than not,

they fail.


Sometimes, they never even lift off the ground.


You grow frustrated, angry, and tired.

Maybe, probably, you grow cynical

and a little jaded, too.


And you blame

everyone you can think of

to blame:


The organization that isn’t supporting you.

The beneficiaries that aren’t listening to you.

Yourself, most of all, for not being better, for not being perfect,

for not being

what you think

people expect you

to be.


You might cry or sink into despair

And you’re so far from home.


But then, something happens

Most likely something small.


It could be that a shy student

learns to play a “C” chord on your guitar

or masters your favorite English slang

or brings you pineapples

or mangoes

or lychee

or fish

or write you a letter in her best, broken English.


It could be that you finally succeed in making akoho sauce that is just as, if not more, delicious

than the one at your local hotely, and now your neighbors are asking you

for the recipe.


It could be

that you sit with a friend who is hurting,

and you realize, maybe for the first time,


You are not alone.


It could be at trip

or a dance

or a night out on the town

or a first kiss

or a joke that you finally understand

and that makes you laugh

from the bottom of your belly, all the way up to

your nostrils.


And then, all of a sudden,

Two years have passed.


Your time is up.


And you realize

That your journey

Was never made up of big moments—


But of thousands and thousands


of little ones.

Speechless: It’s a Wrap

I’m still working on how to put the mixture of grateful, overwhelmed, emotional, heartbroken, happy, satisfied and unfulfilled that I feel inside into proper words. For now, let me leave you with pictures, along with one very valuable life lesson:

It can take weeks, even months, to organize an event through an official agency. But when you’re friends are involved, it can take less than 48 hours to organize a bomb party.

Here are a few stats to go along with the pictures:

-3 chickens sacrificed

-4 kilos of flour mixed

-5 pounds of pasta consumed

-6 bottles of whiskey drank

-countless giggles and laughter shared

I’m going to miss this place more than I can put into words. I’m so grateful for the neighbors, students, friends, and coworkers who have become my touchstones. I don’t yet know what to do with this emotion, these stories, these pictures. For now, I’ll let them speak for themselves.

Anaro Beramanja tiako.

Six Months Left (and how to avoid cynicism)

At the two year mark…

…I gave up on “working” at all–UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_84e

—well, I should say the weather gave it up for me. Three months out of the year–from December to March–we barely work at all. The rain breaks through in deluge after deluge, turning an otherwise fine days into a string of gray, wet messes. The other day, I couldn’t help but think, “if we just had lights at school and roofs that didn’t leak, we could just keep teaching.” For a while I had stopped myself from thinking that way, that “oh, if only…” rabbit hole, as a sort of defense mechanism that allowed me to keep going despite all the disappointment and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But then I started to get cynical. I started thinking, “oh, what’s the point?”

I think that’s even more dangerous.

So the other day, after class got cut short because of rain, after I had missed two weeks of teaching from being sick, only to learn that I had to give an exam after having taught virtually no new material because of all the interruptions, I did something different. I decided to lean into the “oh, if only” thoughts. I wrote down a list of everything I wished my school here could be. And it turned out that my imaginary school was really great. My imaginary school had lights that work and roofs that kept us dry. It had fewer students in each classroom and enough space for every student to work out problems on the board. It had colorful posters all over the classrooms. It had rules and expectations but no fear, because it had a clearly defined goal: to help every student succeed, to pass, to continue his or her education, regardless of gender or status. It had teachers who get paid enough, it had administrators who gave a shit, and it had parents who were close by and could visit whenever they wanted. It’s a great place to learn.

What was the point of this exercise? Maybe I was just so frustrated and didn’t know what else to do other than sink into another endless cycle of complaining. But I felt so much better afterwards. And I still feel better, thinking about it. Because it’s obvious to me that my students and colleagues deserve this imaginary school. And maybe it’ll never happen in my village, but maybe one day it will. If I keep this in mind, maybe I can keep myself positive and motivated, even if everything I do falls on deaf, distracted ears.

Maybe all this does is change my attitude. But when you’re a teacher, your attitude matters a whole hell of a lot. It’s not easy to stay optimistic in the classroom, or in the Peace Corps, or in any situation if you get beaten up enough (metaphorically speaking). Personally, I’ve always straddled somewhere between a cynic and a realist. Optimism seemed like a waste of time to me. After the painful, disappointing reality of Year One, my plan was to just barrel through Year Two, show up, teach, survive, “get it done.” How very American. But what was I actually doing, if I was just going through the motions?

Here’s the thing: I know my place now.

Yes, it’s in the classroom with my students, making them feel awkward and giggly every time I ask them to pronounce a new word or introduce another verb. But it’s also by the river on my days off, washing clothes in the cool, clean water. It’s sitting under a mango tree, nestled above roots that have outlasted generations, listening to my neighbors, the parents and relatives of those same students, gossiping emphatically, making plans to visit a sick friend in the hospital clinic. It’s picking the rice clean of rocks with old ladies as we prepare the meal of mourning for a family of a newly departed friend, who like so many died too young and without warning. It’s dancing the kawitry, jiggling my backside and stomping my feet in a frenzied crowd of colorful party goers on Independence Day, feeling release, feeling joy, feeling pride. It’s saying “hi” to virtually everyone I see, and sometimes even getting a “Good morning, teacher,” from a sweet, smiling face.


Belonging is a scary thing, it turns out. I’m used to, even good at, being on my own. I’m American, after all. It’s what we do. I measure my self-worth based on my ability to “get things done,” to think for myself, to take care of, decide for, and direct myself. I’m used to being spontaneous and sure. I’m used to getting feedback and being pushed to work harder. And I’m used to harder work yielding a better result. It was at a funeral recently when I realized that my community expected none of that from me. I expected it from myself. I expected to be the ring leader, the project developer, the change maker. But they just wanted me to show up and dance.

It’s hard letting go of the control.


New Year’s in February



I’ve written about New Year’s before…aside from Independence Day, it’s the biggest day of the year.

Life can be hard here. No power. Fetching water every day. Working in the fields. Sweating. So that’s why parties mean so much. They’re a break from the every day. And they are They’re also an opportunity for my students to take a break, socialize, and get me to take their picture 🙂


I’ll leave you here with a visual account of my day. Not pictured: the late-night sweaty disco party or the dead zebu, sacrificed to the school, which fed about 600 people.

Happy 2019. Arabaina!

With colleagues after the traditional meal of rice and zebu meat
Seventh graders…enough said…


Deuces for the chefs
Attempt #1,250 to take an organized picture…

Rice Cakes

I have a coffee shop in my village.

The decor is rustic–hipster chic. It’s full of wooden stools and green plants and it serves the best rice cakes in the world. Yes, in the whole world. It’s a fact.

The recipe is a secret passed down from generation to generation. It’s run by a local grandmother. Only, it’s not so secret any more. She shared it with me.

When my friend and fellow volunteer, Alyssa, came to visit me last year, she boasted that this coffee stand sold the best mokary vary in all of Madagascar. At the time, I had only been in Madagascar for three months, so I took her word for it. A year and a half later, I see now that Alyssa wasn’t wrong.

What makes this mokary vary (rice bread or rice cake in the Northern Malagasy dialect) the best? I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s the combination of yeast and baking powder. Maybe it’s the type of rice she uses to grind into flour. Maybe it’s just the right amount of sugar added, or the right amount of charcoal used…or maybe it’s just pure, natural talent.


Whatever it is, I’m satisfied eating it every day. This place has become my daily routine. I wake up, throw on a salovana, sweep my house and then wander out of my yard up the road to drink coffee and eat mokary vary and listen to the gossip and the news. If it weren’t for this place, I’d have no idea what’s happening in the village.

Local “Starbucks”

Before Alyssa finished her service, she came back to our coffee shop and begged the owner for the recipe. With a hearty laugh, she obligingly walked us through each step. It’s a two day process. Day two begins very early (“at the cock’s crow”) and we overslept and missed it. But I promised Alyssa that I would go back and observe the final piece of the puzzle, so that she could bring this little piece of Madagascar (my little piece) back to The States with her.

Well Alyssa, here it is. Let me know if it tastes the same over there.

PS: She misses you.

Dady's Mokary Vary Recipe:

4 cups of rice flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp yeast
1 cup sugar

The Night Before:
1. Put 4 Tablespoons of rice flour in a saucepan (1 TB per cup of rice flour)
2. Add enough water to make a thin liquid
3. Place the saucepan over direct heat
4. Cook until the mixture (called koba) gets thick and becomes difficult to stir
5. Let the koba cool
6. Add the baking powder and yeast to the remaining rice flour in a large bowl
7. Add the cooled koba to the mixture and combine until it is incorporated. It'll be a bit lumpy
8. Let this mixture sit overnight. I didn't see this part, but I assume Dady covered it with a cloth.

The Morning Of (3 am or When the Cock Crows):
1. Add the sugar and enough water to make a very thin batter
2. Heat very small pans with lids over charcoal (or I guess in an oven if you're going that way)
3. Add enough oil to coat the pans
4. Pour about 1/4 cup batter in each pan. Cover and let cook for a few minutes.
5. Flip the mokary once it has had time to set on one side.
6. When the edges are brown, remove and let cool.

Make sure to eat this with some really mahery coffee. 


Song of the Traveler

Music is my first language; it’s how I understand and relate to the world. When I listen to music, I feel things I can’t describe in words. The sounds, the blending of notes, encapsulates and pulls at emotion better than any language.

Each place that’s influenced me, each important event, is marked in my mind with a song. It’s a song that we played over and over again to get us through dark times. Or, it’s a song we sang at the top of our lungs while driving, dancing, running, hiking, whatever. Still, to this day, I can listen to these songs and sing along without getting tired of them.

There’s only a handful of songs that do that for me.

But I couldn’t find that song in Madagascar. I don’t know why. I’ve listened to dozens of great songs, and learned a handful, but nothing pulled at that part of my heart where words don’t reach. That one song that is imprinted in my heart was somehow missing…

…and I’m wondering now if it made me feel somehow less than settled here. Or maybe I couldn’t find that song because I wasn’t settled. Nervous, anxious, couldn’t relax, couldn’t let music speak to me. Couldn’t put my roots down. I had this honest, angry thought that maybe I just don’t belong in a small village of Malagasy people…because I’ll never be Malagasy. No matter how good my language is, how much I dress or eat or act like the locals, I will never be one of them.


And then, just recently, it hit me like lightning: Well obviously. I can never erase my skin or my face or my heritage, or rewrite my past, or will myself into being born in another part of the world instead.

But what I can do is learn, and try, and allow that learning to inform my behavior, my thoughts, and my responses (I almost said reactions, but I’m working on responding rather than reacting.) I’m still me; I’m still Melanie. I’ve been Melanie all along. Only, now, I’m Melanie who speaks Malagasy and sometimes braids her hair and dresses in colorful clothing and understands a little more about a little part of the world.


Which brings me to this song: this beautiful, Malagasy folk song by two singers written and performed by two musicians from the East Coast of Madagascar: Mika and Davis. The lyrics, roughly summarized, are as follows:

How are you all? It’s so good to see you. What’s up? What’s new with you all?

There’s nothing new here. Our health is good.

There’s not a lot we’re bringing with us. We’re looking for goodness, we’re looking for happiness, we’re looking for wonder, we’re looking for love, we’re looking for things that will make us happy.  That’s what brought us here…

There’s nothing to make us sad. And there’s nothing that should make us fight.  But we missed you all, so we came to visit.

–Oh, it’s good to miss people. Thank you for visiting.

We’re happy to be here. We’re full of happiness to see you. We’re so happy to be with you.

I can’t stop listening to this song. Watching the music video, that little part in the depth of my heart came alive again and told my brain this simple lesson: You can belong to people who aren’t like you. That’s what makes friendship real. True friendship, the kind Malagasy call “havana,” meaning family from different blood, means that ‘I see your difference, I enjoy it, I learn from it, I appreciate it, and I accept you with it. With all of it.’ That is what this song means to me.

And that’s what this journey has been for me…me seeing my blaring difference, feeling like a white-bellied fish laid out on the ice in a grocery store, yet people saying to me, “just be here with us.”