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People forget years but remember moments.
Seconds and symbols are left to sum things up.
-Ann Beattie

My trip to a village five hours from Antananarivo, Madagascar in the summer of 2007 forced me to cohabitate with 17 strangers. In a convent. With fish heads that pleadingly stared back at us from the clear plastic dinner plates. We drank our rationed coffee out of bowls. We used condensed milk. And I took a moment every day to appreciate bottled water. It was a Habitat for Humanity International program entitled Global Volunteers.

We reflected on our experiences as a group. We helped each other comprehend and cope with physical and emotional fluctuations. And we built houses. Or, rather, homes, crafted by the people who live in them. The Malagasy families came out to the worksite everyday to watch, play, or oversee the steps of construction. We were visitors, we brought gifts, but they offered us all they had – food, family and friendship. We captured the experience on film. It was the first time the kids had seen a digital camera – or maybe their own reflections. They came up screaming every time we took pictures and gasped at what they saw on the screen. They shrieked with delight when I permitted them to play with the camera while I laid mortar and bricks. Meanwhile the houses slowly rose from the soft red dirt.

My qualities, talents, what I have done, where I have traveled, with whom I have interacted, are important only in the manner they shape me and encourage me to do more. I stepped off the plane onto an airstrip with dim lighting in Antananarivo, Madagascar. The penetrating darkness and unfamiliar smell frightened me into realizing I was utterly alone and had no recourse if any volatile event should occur. I have never simultaneously felt so desperate and so free.

I hope that through this experience I managed to affect the lives of others. I know the impact these people continue to have on my life. When a memory spontaneously washes over me I feel full. I remember the moment is what matters most. The Malagasy people live for today because there is no guarantee of food or shelter in the distant future. And it takes a gesture to demonstrate a feeling, often as simple as sharing a smile.

Thanks to Kristian Ruggieri, who led the trip and created this video. Visit her blog:

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