In less than two weeks, I’ll board a plane, spend a lot of hours in the air and arrive home in California. It’s strange to think about returning to the U.S. It’s my home country, yet it’s such a different world from here.
I believe that once you have an experience where you learn and grow and stretch yourself, you can never go back to being exactly the person you were before.
“I’ve had a lot of time for reflection here, despite my busy schedule during the week, and one thing that has become very evident to me as I spend more time here is that humanity is universal.”
After living in a developing country for two months, I’ve been able to do a lot of reflection and my perspective has changed. The more I travel and learn new things, the more I see that everything is connected.
As a sustainability major, I initially chose to be a forest conservation volunteer with environmental sustainability in mind, but once I started helping with other projects, I’ve seen many other types of sustainability come into play. I’ve seen how they all intertwine and contribute to the overall well-being of the region and its people.
A great example of this is bamboo straws. Recently the forest volunteers started collecting thin bamboo stalks when we’re already out hiking in the forest, and bringing them back to camp where we partner with the marine volunteers to cut and sand them into smooth, beautiful bamboo straws. Once we have enough, the community volunteers will distribute them to any local restaurants who are open to using them instead of plastic straws.
Plastic straws are very detrimental to the environment — especially marine life — which is essential to many people’s livelihoods here. They recognize that by preserving the ocean, and by reducing plastic pollution and making environmentally-friendly choices, they help attract tourists who contribute to the economy and many people’s jobs. So they are looking out for their own best interests, as well.
It’s been really cool to see this project start as an idea and turn into reality during my time here.
When I heard there was going to be another construction trip returning to the village of Ampohana on the main island, I was totally on board. We only stayed for three days this time, but it was wonderful to return and see the familiar faces of the community members. The local construction specialist came with us this time, and we brought enough materials to get a lot more of the foundation done.
We also taught another English class one afternoon, where some people taught the young kids and my friend Sarah and I taught the adults. We took the group of women for a walk around the village, explaining the names of various items that they use on a daily basis. When they asked the name of a type of shellfish that an older man was shelling on his porch, Sarah and I looked at each other and, being vegetarians, neither of us had any idea what it was called.
They found this hilarious. We decided to go with “clam.”
Also, plot twist: the village doctor is actually a young Malagasy woman named Jennifer. She’s married to the mayor, hence the confusion when we had initially been told that the mayor and doctor were the same person, and a man. We got to meet her one morning and she seems like a sweet, genuine person. It was great to go back and continue to help with the medical clinic and invest in the future of the community.
Back at camp, I’m part of a group of longer-term volunteers who are helping our forest intern, a master’s student, with her research on Nosy Komba’s black lemur population. We collect data at a lemur park in Ampang where ecotourism provides significant income and the lemurs are free to roam, but like to stay in the park to get bananas from tourists. We also study a wild population that is located in the forest up the mountain in the opposite direction of Ampang.
A few weeks ago, I also started helping teach English classes because I want to help as much as possible while I’m here and it’s a great way to give back to the community. Since most forest hikes are in the mornings, I still participate in forest activities, and in the afternoons I walk to Ampang for classes.
The twice-a-week Malagasy lessons after dinner at camp have helped me a lot with everyday interactions around the island, because now I can say and understand more than “hello” and “goodbye.” I’m really enjoying forming relationships with the locals through the classes. Now when I walk through town, or the lemur park where many of my students work, I can recognize people and have basic conversations with them.
I’ve also seen plenty of heartbreaking things, such as old French men with an arm around a young Malagasy girl who depends on using her body to make a living, and the fact that most of my students would love to get a university education but can’t afford it. It’s hard to watch these things as a short-term volunteer because I can’t change them during my short time here.
But the young people here are bright and they’re making the most of it by learning English and expanding their worldview and choosing to accept their reality with a positive attitude — because there’s no sense dwelling on something that may never change within their lifetimes.
Both times I’ve gone on a construction trip, I’ve had to move out of my hut so that an incoming volunteer can have my bed while I’m gone. By the time I get back, other volunteers will have left and I move into their spot.
I’ve lived in three different huts now, and they each have a distinct personality, but I’ve liked them all. The first one that I lived in for a month was called Sunset because it had an amazing view of the sunset over the ocean and the mountains of Nosy Be.
When I came back from the first trip, I was in Treehouse, where Florinda the chicken lives on the floor under a bottom bunk. She had started brooding, spending all of her time protecting and trying to incubate her “egg,” which was actually just a large snail shell. Her nest was a straw hat, a bag of mints and some other miscellaneous items she had gathered.
When I came back from the second trip, I moved into Outhouse, which is located near the upper bathrooms. While some huts are near the kitchen and main house, these three are located farther up the hill, so everyone tries not to forget anything in their hut because it takes a few minutes to climb the stairs to get up there. It’s a bit of a hike, but I like being higher up and having nice views — not to mention hardly being able to hear the dive tank air compressor when it’s running.
A few weekends ago, I spent my 22nd birthday swimming in a waterfall, eating amazing Italian food, hanging out at the beach and having a cozy movie night with some friends at camp. The next day I woke up early to make tea and enjoy the quiet morning before most of the volunteers returned to camp in the afternoon.
A few of us went snorkeling mid-morning and we got to swim with a huge sea turtle, which was absolutely amazing. It was a great birthday weekend, and I spent this past weekend on a nearby island, kayaking and snorkeling near a coral reef and some more sea turtles. We hiked from the beach toward the center of the island, passing a school, village, farms, plantations and forest. It was a beautiful and relaxing weekend away from camp.
The weather has cooled off since I’ve been here, and sometimes a breeze will blow through the hut at night and I’ll almost get cold. It has rained a few times, and since I love rain, I’m starting to get excited for fall weather back home, even though it will take a few months for San Diego to cool down.
I’ve had a lot of time for reflection here, despite my busy schedule during the week, and one thing that has become very evident to me as I spend more time here is that humanity is universal. Despite differences in language and cultural upbringing, most humans desire the same basic things in life. We all want to survive and thrive, love and be loved, feel needed and appreciated, and contribute our skills toward making a better world.
At least that’s how I see it, with my ever-present positive attitude.
Kids are kids, and young adults are young adults no matter where you go. The locals like to hang out, play soccer and go to bars on the weekend. People work hard all day and then go home to their families and eat together and take care of each other. We’re all connected by sharing the experience of being human, and I think that’s really cool.
Kristen Burgess is a sustainability major and geography minor. She is volunteering in northwest Madagascar all summer doing forest conservation work through International Volunteer HQ.