You know when you make an impulsive decision to go to a certain restaurant right and peel your car off the road, or buy something at the grocery store right at check-out? That's sort of how I decided to go to Madagascar and volunteer with IVHQ for 3 months.
My time in Madagascar wasn't all sunshine and beaches. When I first arrived, I was struck by how incredibly far I was away from everything familiar: my family, my culture (even if I resented parts of it), my friends especially. I left for Madagascar with a backpack full of clothes and a small, cheap flip phone that stopped working almost as soon as I got there, and seeing as how the volunteer placement was on an island, it didn't take long before I began to feel truly stranded.
There were many other Westerners there with me, lots of Canadians and Americans and English and Australians, but it wasn't helping. I couldn't connect with people, I began to feel panicked, and started making plans for how I would get home early with only $350 in the bank. It got to a point where I couldn't even be around other people. I felt like I was going insane.
When I decided I couldn't bare it anymore, told the local program coordinator, Elizabeth Beauchamp. I went down to the main house where she lived, found her, and began very awkwardly to tell her that I was feeling depressed and that I needed to take some time to be on my own, away from camp. After telling her this, during my first week there, her immediate response was "Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry. Take all the time you need. Will you continue to stay here on camp? Let us know if there is anything we can do to help." I managed to get a "thanks" out before I ran away with tears streaming from my eyes.
Usually I would have avoided this situation by leaving on my own terms, without telling anyone where I was going or what was going on, just get in my car and go. But when on an island, away from cars and home and friends, sometimes we are forced to face the facts of our lives, and tell others what our experience is. I went to Madagascar and became very depressed. That was my experience. And you know? It didn't stop after a week, or two weeks even. I was depressed like this for a month and a half, half my time in the country. For a while, I was hard on myself, telling myself that this wasn't the experience I expected, I should be making friends and having fun times. But I just couldn't. I had some internal struggle that was saying "hey, remember me? Pay attention to me. There are no more distractions. Turn and face me."
So that's what I did. I faced it. I took a hike on my own almost everyday, was gone for 4 or 5 or 6 hours at a time, being on my own in the forest. When I was feeling panicked around other people, I got up and left, went for a swim or just sat on the beach in silence. It was difficult, being on my own was just as hard sometimes as being around others. Once I got my phone working, I began calling family. I cried a lot, and sometimes even felt guilty that this was my experience traveling abroad. But I faced it.
And as I faced it, it got easier and easier, and one day I realized I was riding motorbikes with a group of incredibly beautiful girls, wondering what had happened before that could make me so sad. And the next day I was dancing in a club with a group of malagasy guys, socializing and smiling. and a week later I was snorkeling around the island, running into turtles the size of a cow, and feeding lemurs that were sitting on my shoulder, and teaching english and doing research in the forest and scuba diving and doing laundry in a river and learning Malagasy and getting very close to some very attractive women... and going to the club and dancing a lot and feeling more relaxed and talking more than I had in a long time and swinging in hammocks with giggling friends and hanging out with other people and I WAS FINALLY HAVING THE EXPERIENCE THAT I DREAMED ABOUT!!!
It took time though. To get to a point of comfortability. It took me 6 weeks. Others adjusted in a day. Everyone is different, and if I have any wisdom gained in my time in Madagascar, it would be exactly that. Everybody has their own experience. It doesn't do to compare your experience to other's, like I did at first. Your entire life will influence how you feel when you are traveling on your own, be it comfortable or uncomfortable, happy or unhappy, it doesn't matter. Do your best to embrace the experience you are having, because once I started to face myself how I was in the moment, I had the trip of a lifetime.
Some of the programs are under-coordinated, or simply not coordinated at all (like construction). The running of teaching and construction was eventually left in the hands of two interns, who started to get the program back on track. But they need funds, supplies, and people who are passionate. I would say getting passionate full-time staff to run the "community needs" program, and assist those interns where they are unqualified to handle situations, would be an excellent start to really making an impact on the community in which we stayed.