Traveling with Family

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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.
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