Sick and happy, by Marion Atkinson

I had only a month to prepare for my trip to Honko; not a whole lot of time to make all the necessary arrangements. Shortly after I booked everything (flights, overnight stays –two!- for long layovers, confirming my stay), I got sick and discovered that I contracted Lyme disease. I needed to take a course of antibiotics lasting until two days before departure. My doctor asked, “Do you really want to go to Madagascar?” implying that it’s a bad idea. I was worried, but not willing to be deterred. Canceling everything was hardly an option, especially since I got funding for travel expenses and didn’t know if I’d have an opportunity like this again.

I had very little idea what to expect at Honko. I have type 1 diabetes and had to bring enough supplies (insulin, blood sugar test strips, needles, etc.) to last my entire stay. Getting that stuff is never easy in less developed countries. Before I left, my boyfriend asked if they have a fridge to store my extra insulin. I considered emailing to ask, but decided not to bother, thinking, “They have a cook-they must have a fridge!” Upon arrival I was surprised to find that there is no running water, only limited electricity from one solar panel, and definitely no refrigerator. It turned out to be no problem: Ainhoa the manager had a friend in Tulear store it for me.

Those antibiotics served me well with the Lyme, but have been a curse in another way. Having basically no gut bacteria and going to a country where most people get sick here and there anyway has not been great. At least that is my theory for why, every week, like clockwork, I’ve gotten sick. Mostly diarrhea, sometimes vomiting, and once: both (a real treat). On a weekend trip to Isalo national park, it struck just as we were about to begin a two day trekking and camping excursion. My fellow volunteers kindly asked bus-fulls of tourists if they had anti-diarrhea pills. (With success! Thanks guys! And it was an awesome trip.)

Meanwhile, I’ve had the strangest experience with my diabetes while here. Right from the start, the amount of insulin I need has dropped drastically. In the first few days, I kept getting unexplainable low blood sugars. I adjusted the doses lower and lower. At this point I take almost half of what I used to take back home, which is great. I actually expected to have to take more insulin, because back home I ate mostly low carb and here the diet is mostly carbs- rice, beans, pasta, potatoes.

I don’t know what the reason is, though I’ve had several thoughts: something about being in the southern hemisphere (earth’s magnetism?), my pancreas is starting to make insulin again and soon I will be cured (hooray!), the malaria pills I’m taking… But, I have no idea. I am curious to see what happens when I return home.

Despite all of my health ups and downs and weirdness, I’m so glad to have had this experience. At some point, I realized that I am happier here than I’ve been in awhile.  Being out in nature most of the time, going to bed and waking up more or less with the sun, and not having constant access to the internet have been just what I needed; a welcome break from my normal life. I enjoy mangrove monitoring with Gonzalo and Kivo (the Honko dog), seeing all of our animal friends (Pepe the albino frog who lives in our shower room, for example), interacting with the local people, and pillow talk with the other volunteers, to name a few. It has also been quite the adventure! I could have written about the time it took 8 hours to travel 200 km in a taxi-brousse (a sort of bus the locals use) made for 15 people but crammed with 25 with the “gas tank” between my legs, or the time I got into the canal while mapping only to discover the mud was waist-deep.

Many thanks to the other volunteers and staff! You have made it a temporary home away from home, and we all know how easy it is to get homesick when you are actually sick. I’ll miss Honko!


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