A life in Madagascar unseen through the eyes of a Sleepwalker

Efa tonga iao!

Four months in country and not a peep.  To all friends, family, and readers I apologize.  At this rate i’ll have a grand total of about 6 entries by the time I leave.  I guess I’ll have to make them good if you’re going to read them all.  Basically, the main reason for lack of posts is because I live in a quaint shanty (I mean no insult to those who love their shanties, for I do love mine too) that doesn’t have electricity.

My two bedroom house (approx. 4m x 7m)

Therefore the majority of my laptop battery life goes into splurging on 2 movies and some work before it dies.  You are currently benefitting from unused battery life and the effects of malaria medication.

So how to sum up four months.  I’ve gone through 10 weeks of training with 38 other Americans and I feel pretty good about it.  There’s been plenty to write about but to be honest there weren’t as many of those moments where you stand back and say this is what makes it worth it.  However, that’s changing.  In the past few weeks my language has been improving exponentially.  I’ve started leading the discussions with the people I work with and throwing out new ideas (It’s like I never even left the office).  My house is finally feeling like a home.  Just yesterday I installed wall-to-wall straw mats because the mildew had finally dried out.  Also, I’m sure my town thinks I can only say Akory aby? (How are you?) but I’m going to throw them a curve ball with 3 meetings next week, Ice breakers and all.  This has all culminated in me being more comfortable at my site and being able to understand things a lot better.  Just yesterday after a full day of hiking in the protected preserve, as we’re walking home across the hilltops my coworker paused and looked out.  On one side was this relatively untouched jungle and the other side was fields of savannah that in his lifetime had been primary rainforest.  A pained look came across his face and just like that the language barrier was broken.  He whispered a hushed “why?” that I barely heard and didn’t need to hear.  There have been funny moments too.  Three of us paused walking down a path and looked up at two jetliners that we’re going to cross paths.  I had noticed them a few minutes earlier but my friends encouraged me to stop and we stood there for 5 minutes in unified amazement and curiosity as they came within at least 10 miles of each other (I swear).

So how about where I live.  I live on the southeastern coast of madagascar.  You probably can’t find my town on a map but I’m 30 mins from the next biggest town called Farafangana.  I’m 7km from the beach. It takes 1 1/2 hours to get there and I’m determined to find a shorter way.  There are waves but according to the Malagasy there are sharks and to their amusement I swim anyways (because there are rivers with crocodile and to my amusement they swim anyways).  I’m not sure how big my town is yet, hence the meetings.  There’s a market on Wednesdays, one church, an elementary school and two bridges.  I can flag down a taxi-brousse whenever I need to go into town for supplies and the closest volunteer is about 20km away.  I have two great neighbors with large families (6 kids and 7 kids)  I just found out the size of the families and the fact that they’re brothers 2 days ago after knowing them both for 2 months now.  I work with them everyday and they pretty much look after me and make sure I don’t do anything stupid.

I also work, sometimes.  Everyone at URS i’m sure you’re wondering why I left the sweet corner office and 6 figure salary.  There’s a lot of days where I wonder the same thing.  Right now while i’m still taking baby steps and learning about my community and how I can help them help themselves, I work at the Special Reserve.  It’s about 10,000 hectares of protected forest.  Last week I walked survey lines through it.  To put it bluntly I would rather bail sampling wells.  No knock on bailing wells but this is monotonous work and we don’t even talk while we’re doing it.  I haven’t seen any wildlife.  I’m sure eventually I’ll find those subtle nuances that make it so appealing.  I’ve also been involved in a project of delivering supplies to local villages that will hopefully encourage them to stop using the forest as a 24hr Walmart.   We’ve delivered 200 saplings of a high yield variety of coffee tree, 20 rakes, 20 shovels, 10 bee houses, 2 watering cans and a large bag of seeds to 5 villages so far.  It’s actually really enjoyable work and I get to go back and teach them how to use all these sweet freebies in a sustainable and efficient manner.  (Hold on one second I need to dig a parasy out of my foot…….Ok and back)  So, I’m doing work and I’m hoping that I’ll only do more as time goes on.

Lastly I’ll give you my day to day routine.  Note at any given time I probably have BBC radio on in the background.  It’s my crack.

•   530-630:  During the week this is when I get up.  Any one that knows me can recognize that this is highly unusual, unless frisbee or Brad Thornton and Kenny Chesney are involved.  I walk 100m down the road to check and see if I have any phone messages from the night before (I don’t get cell phone service in my house)  I say hello to everyone and everyone tells me how I check my phone every morning, my language skills aren’t good enough yet to point out the repetitiveness in them pointing out my repetitiveness.  I then return home full of warm feelings from all the friendly messages and make breakfast.

•   715:  I have pancakes about 3 times a week and the rest of the time it’s usually a mixture of what ever is still sitting on the stove from the night before and rice.  I then pack a backpack of water and supplies for whatever might be in store for the day.

•   800:  Bike to work.  Lately I’ve just been hiking into my backyard (the jungle) but other days I bike about 5km down the road to the Park Office.  Where Madagascar National Parks (MNP) and NGO Durrell work.

•   845:  Arrive at work and lay around while I wait for second breakfast to be cooked.  This is usually rice and my stomachs tolerance for large quantities of it is steadily increasing.  I think I can eat 3/4 of a cup now.  Sometimes I’ll play a game of Platank? Bocce?

•   930:  Eat second breakfast and then start working for the morning.

•   1200:  Stop for lunch.  If I’ve been hiking in the forest then this is the first break and we’ve hiked a little over 3km.  It’s rough going

•   1330:  Back to work

•   1600:  Head home usually exhausted from a combination of the sun and trying to speak Malagasy (it usually takes all day to get one point across)

•   1630:  Arrive home hot and sweaty from the bike ride and immediately take a bucket bath to cool off.

•   1700:  By now I’ve either eaten dinner or am preparing it.  If i’m lazy I eat something called sedaap something similar to ramen.  If I’ve been to the market recently I’ll have something with zucchini, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, or carrots.  There’s almost always rice or pasta with every meal.

•   1800:  Now I decide if I want to go to bed or find some small task to occupy myself for an hour while my food digests.  Usually I find something to do but there are a few nights a week where I’m laying in bed reading or listening to the radio by 6pm and asleep by 7pm.

Overall, I’m enjoying myself and I’m hoping that I can follow up this post with other short stories, and maybe some more pictures too.  Sorry for the lack of posts but feel free to ask any questions on here or shoot me an email.  Also letters are always welcome.  My new address is:

Brother Paul Johnson

BP 217

Farafangana 309

Hopefully I’ll have a new post in the next two weeks, until then….


Never Remember, Always Forget

The past three months have been amazing.  Since getting my assignment to Madagascar I have basically been saying goodbye to people.  Not that I ever wondered how much my friends and family loved me it really has shown especially in these last six weeks.  I want to thank all of my friends for devoting weekend after weekend after weekend to parties specifically for me.  The surprise party was incredible and and I will always forget that night.  Despite our best intentions and regardless of the amount of alcohol there was no way to take shake the sobering fact that I’m leaving.

The stress of the last three weeks of packing really built up to a point the last night in town.  Luckily friends and family where there to continue the distractions and help me put off the inevitable for just a little while longer.  The next morning, while throwing in 10 more pounds of gear to push me well over the 80 lb weight limit, I was out the door and on the way to the airport.  Everyone has their breaking limit and I had put off my the most important goodbyes until last.  My Mom put it lightly when she said, “you look like crap”.

I’m in Philadelphia now and so far the staging group is great.  Things have been great and most of the time has just been spent meeting the rest of my stage.  I doubt I’ll write more until after I’m in country.  That could be a few months.  I’m hoping to at least type up my blogs ahead of time and then post them when I have internet.  But that could be months from now.  I’m sorry the post isn’t longer.  But, I just want everyone to know how much I love them and how much I’ll miss everyone.  I’ll leave you with this picture of Brutus and I from the Duke Lemur Center.  I had an amazing time there and I hope to continue working with them from Madagascar.

P.S. please subscribe to my blog using the email box to the right.  Also, my Peace Corps address is up and I’ll post it here as well.

Bureau du Corps de la Paix

B.P. 12091

Poste Zoome Ankorondarno

Antananarivo 101



(from left to right) Brutus, Paul

R.I.P. Pythagoras

This week Pythagoras the pet tarantula died.  I came home one night to find that he had his first molt (shed) since I had owned him.  I was excited but it quickly faded as I realized that he wasn’t moving.  In fact he was hanging by one leg from a stick.  It was quite a way to go out.  I will give you all a quick eulogy of the storied life of Pythagoras.

He was a Peruvian Purple Pink-toed tarantula so he was giving the wise name of Pythagoras.  On the ride home from buying him he jumped out of his cup across the van onto Maggie and ran down her leg.  It was a very quick and scary first introduction to tarantulas for both of us as I had to reach across while driving and rescue him.  He got lost in the house once and I never told anyone…he survived and made it back into his cage.  He loved crickets and not biting me.  He died looking his best in a fresh outfit.  Today I buried him in his silk lined coffin.

He was like a tarantula to me

Some arachnids are never forgotten

Now that we’re past that.  Girl Talk was on Thursday.  It was everything anyone could hope for in a concert in more.  Dance Battles, Neon, Blow-outs, Girls, Awkward Stretching, Guido Mario and Luigi, and an amazing DJ were just a few highlights of the night.  I’ll have to find a picture of my Pauly D attempt (the Pauly J).  So I already gave you the link in my last post and now I can say that if you ever get a chance to go see him live.  DOOOOO IITTTT.

Lastly on the Ukulele front thanks for everyones votes.  Keep them coming I need enough to make it a statistically valid name.  Just kidding but I’ll keep the poll open for as long as I can (or until I like the outcome).  I spent most my night tonight working on one song that sounds really good on the uke and I’ll end with it.  It’s sad but also I’ve determined that something with a little country twang makes it a little easier to learn.

Hobbit Guitar

So I have to give my Hobbit Guitar a name.  I’ve narrowed it down to 5 fine choices.  I need the rest of you to help me finalize it.

So on the 28th of this month I’ll be one month from leaving.  I am getting nothing done and perhaps I keep putting things off in hopes that I’ll have more time.  Unfortunately, I won’t!  Just FYI Girl Talk concert is tomorrow night so get excited.  For all you reading out there that are thinking “What’s Girl Talk”.  I would highly recommend going to this link Girl Talk and downloading his newest album. Don’t worry it’s free and legal despite the websites name.

One of the biggest reservations that I have about leaving is that aside from the other volunteers I’ll be traveling with I won’t be able to communicate with.  For me making people laugh is my main way to get to know people.  How will I get to know the members of my village?  I’m hoping that after 2 1/2 months of  language training I’ll have some ability to communicate.  But I don’t know if I’ll be able to crack a joke that they would find funny.  So Plan B the ukulele or as I like to call it a Hobbit Guitar!  Although, it’s not a very good Plan B seeing as how i’ve never played an instrument.  So far I can play some songs with the sheet music in front of me but I’ve got a ways to go.

I also have a second reservation.  From everything I’ve read unless I have electricity, the hours of my day  are from dawn to dusk.  This doesn’t bode well for my rock n’roll lifestyle.  I have a hard enough time getting to work by 10 these days.  I guess with no tv, bars, internet, or close friends my schedule will be forced to adjust.  In Brazil I had a tree full of parrots to wake me up every day, as much as I hated that perhaps my first purchase in my new village will be a rooster.

I’m Back

2 1/2 months later I finally have something new to say.    It’s safe to say that in that the fact that I’ll be leaving for Madagascar in February has had time to settle in.  I couldn’t be happier and I’ve spent most of my time trying to go through personal belongings and purchasing things that I’ll need.

My new goal is to make a post at least once a week up until I leave.  So what’s been going on in my life?  Well I’ve been working as much as I can, which has been about 20-30 hours/week because of the work available.  I’ve been getting more and more excited about going to Madagascar but at the same time more worried about the amount of money I’ll have before I go.  Although, from what I can see I’ll need very little money it’s just nice to know it’s there in case of an emergency.  I had planned to save about $300 on luggage that would be purchased from Osprey however they have decided to no longer support Peace Corps volunteers.  It’s a blow but I’ll try and find backpacks and luggage elsewhere.

Some big ‘Lasts’ happened.  Last Christmas and Last New Years.  It was great seeing family although for the most part I think I’ll see everyone at least one more time before I’ll leave.  I plan to take about a month before I leave to get everything done and visit people.  New Years was also a blast.  I’m sure some people can relate to the two different groups of friends “college” and “home”.  In my case the groups are Raleigh and Hillsborough.  So I got the chance to do New Years with my Raleigh friends and it was great.  The good news is I’ll get to see them plenty more before I leave.  The sad thing was getting to hang out with all my Hillsborough friends together for likely the last time.  We made the best of our time and I’m sure over the next few weeks I’ll see each of them individually.

For Christmas there wasn’t much quantity but where that lacked it made up for in quality.  I had told everyone that anything they got me needed to be something I could use/take with me otherwise it would be sitting in the U.S. for two year unused.  Everyone came through brilliantly.  The highlight was a Ukulele or as I like to think of it as the Hobbit Guitar, but I haven’t given it an official name.   I’m terrible with music aside from that I can listen to it.  I have a feeling that learning languages and music is in the same side of the brain so I’ll be exercising that side over the coming months.  The reason I got it is because I think that I’ll have lots of time in Madagascar and it’s a great way to communicate with people if I can’t talk to them.

I also went ahead and purchased my self a DSLR (fancy camera).  I got the Pentax K-7 and so far it has performed as advertised. It’s great but it’s just one more thing to learn.  So my days are spent working, learning ukulele, and learning how to take pictures.

The last big thing is that I’ve started to volunteer at the Duke Lemur Center.  Outside of Madagascar the Lemur Center is the premier place to look at and study lemurs.  I’m lucky enough to be able to clean the cages.  I actually get to be in the cages with the lemurs and I’m extremely excited.  I did my first session on Friday.  I’ll be going back on Monday and Friday afternoons as much as possible.

Starting tomorrow it’s only 7 weeks until I leave.  Until next time, stay classy San Diego.

Invitation has arrived

On Saturday I received my Peace Corps invitation. It’s for Madagascar and I leave February 28. I am very excited although I was expecting to go to Uganda and was very surprised to see Madagascar written on the invitation. I won’t be seeing the elephants and lions on the African Savannah but as someone that wants the best opportunity to make the largest environmental impact, Madagascar provides the perfect placement.

By the time I leave at the end of February I’ll have been in this process for a year and eight months. I think it will have been worth the wait and as of Saturday I can finally answer everyones questions of “When are you leaving?” and “Where are you going?” I never cared what the answers were but it’s nice to have something to say other than “I don’t know, I’ll let you know when I do.”

This blog will provide a way to keep in touch with everyone since I can’t write everyone an email. Internet access may be limited so in the end airmail may be the best form of communication. Hopefully I’ll get used to the idea of blogging so that everyone can keep up. In previous travels I kept a journal on a semi regular basis so hopefully I can continue with this. Look for more to come later.

%d bloggers like this: