At the Top of Madagascar

Climbing Madagascar’s highest accessible peak is a spiritual experience

If you’re a hiker, or you’ve ever been to the top of a mountain, you may understand what I mean about a “spiritual experience.” Recently I listened to a podcast in which a psychologist explained that, physiologically, our bodies respond to intense physical exertion as a sort of spiritual enlightening.

Enlightening, and also painful.

Last year I had one of those spiritual moments when I climbed to the top of Peak Bobby, the tallest point of the mountain Andrigitra. Located in the Southern Highlands, Andrigitra National Park is the highest accessible mountain in the country, and it’s well worth a visit.

The park is located near the small town of Ambalavao, a few hours south of Fianarantsoa, the capital of the Southern highlands. On the morning our adventure began, we woke up early to catch a local taxi-brousse that would take us from Fianarantsoa to Ambalavao, along the main route, the RN7. A few car and truck rides later, and we were entering the National Park.

CD13775A-6720-4CE4-93DC-4F3DE75D41F2_1_105_c
Our trail guide maps out our route at the park entrance.

The hike, including summiting, takes as little as three days from end to end, but we chose to do four, so that we wouldn’t be so rushed. I’m glad we did, because is it exhausting. I don’t think any of us were prepared; I lost a toenail in the process. Fortunately, we had excellent company, exquisite views, and lots of homemade peanut butter to get us through the uncomfortable parts.

Our first day’s hike was a nice, gradual incline, broken up with stops at a few natural pools and waterfalls, in which we the craziest boldest of us took a very frigid dip. I’m not usually one for cold water, but after hiking, it was a nice refresher! We had arranged for our meals to be provided, so our guide supplied us with sandwiches and fruit after our swim, before heading on for a steeper climb to base camp #1.

963BEA20-B12A-43D8-BCA6-0FD2BD20279F_1_201_a
Views of Base Camp #1

We rolled into base camp around sunset, hungry and tired and nervous for what Day 2, summiting day, would bring. Before we crawled into our tents, we gathered around a cozy fire as the crew assigned to cook for us brewed up some tea and soup and handed out snacks.

13C56398-49DB-4DA7-9B1B-A1DBF75B22C1_1_105_c.jpeg
Cozying around the fire as our guides and porters prepared our delicious supper

After decent night’s sleep (it was freezing cold, so trying to stay warm was a challenge), we rose early to ascend the famed Pic Bobby. As we walked, our guide told us stories about the origins of the name Pic Bobby and other anecdotes to distract us from the pain in our legs and joints. Day 2 is not an easy climb! Imagine climbing stairs for three hours straight…that’s what this felt like.

038C9204-AF30-4B0E-9FDE-B7DF1B54D011
Spying the massif that would be our adventure on Day 2

Was it worth all the pain? Absolutely.  8,720 feet of majesty and landscape unlike anywhere else  in the world. I tried to remember the last time I had been above the clouds, other than in an airplane. Even though it was windy and freezing, I felt more powerful and freer than I had in a good long time.

There was one more tradition we had to take part in (actually, two, but the second one was our own invention). The first is to write a note and stick it into a metal box, sort of like a geo-catching game. This box was full of inspirational quotes and notes from previous summiteers. We all wrote our names and signed the date. My friend Mallory put it in the box for us.

60C5CDC2-9B75-47E7-B1E2-17D7F72FC258
Leaving our note for future generations of trekkers

Second: Tequila. Not much, obviously (weight is precious, as we were climbing stairs for three hours, remember?) This might sound crazy, but here’s why: when you spend a significant amount of time away from home (as one does in the Peace Corps), you start to miss the little things: for my friend Mal (and all of us, really), it was tequila. It’s just not drunk in Madagascar. Fortunately, Mal had a friend visiting, who accompanied us on the hike and brought some of her favorite brand tequila, which she poured into a little water bottle and brought for us to toast our summit.

And did I mention that another member of our group, Jesus, is Mexican American and very good at mariachi? It just made sense.

So, from the top of Pic Boby, the highest accessible peak of Madagascar, five Americans toasted their adventure with shots of tequila and mariachi yells over the vast expanse below.

A6F9CEAE-7727-4710-820B-145B6FB808EC_1_201_a
Celebrating our summit in the freezing wind

Honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The descent was much quicker, and we had the rest of the afternoon to relax at base camp and nurse our sore legs (and finish the rest of the tequila).

Day 3 began early, with a mostly flat trek through the Lunar Landscape, named for its moon rock-like features. As the hours passed, the air around us grew warmer, and we knew that we were leaving our note and our Pic Boby adventure behind.

6254F86B-571D-44DA-B68F-42D9475A6BA1_1_105_c
Saying goodbye to the Lunar Landscape

The descent down was no less stunning, and we remained above the clouds for a long time.

For our third night, our guide took us to what seemed like a tourist resort in the middle of the mountain. We camped below in the local village but managed to spot a few of these guys lurking nearby:

54A990B8-AF0A-453A-809A-29E18C61A725_1_105_c
Ringtail lemurs coming out to look at the tourists

The end of our trek concluded with a long, flat walk down a dirt road to the nearest village where we could catch a camion (large flatbed truck) back to Ambalavao. There, we loaded up on local snacks like catlass (fried potato pancakes) and nems (egg rolls) and hopped in a taxi-brousse that would finally take us back to Fianarantsoa.

B0D82F1D-8D7F-4963-B5EE-90A5236CF56C
Views of Andrigitra National Park

Farewell to the Mango Trees

We left projects unfinished, classes untaught, friends unvisited. We weren’t going home, we were leaving it.

On Monday, March 16, I woke up to this message:

Peace Corps Madagascar is evacuating. Stand by for further instructions.

Three days later, I was on a plane to Ethiopia, along with 139 other education, health, and agriculture volunteers. Together with PCVs from Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Cameroon, and Zambia, we were shuffled onto four charter flights around midnight the following Saturday, local time. We landed in an empty Dulles airport, home in a country we didn’t feel was home anymore.

It’s difficult to put into words the emotions, the exhaustion, that we’ve all felt over the past few weeks. We were evacuated because international airways were being shut down due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, which meant risking  being unable to leave the country in the event of a real emergency. I understand, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to make that impossibly hard decision.  Still, we all left projects unfinished, classes untaught, friends unvisited. We weren’t going home, we were leaving it.

IMG_8191
139 Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers gathered in the capital for final farewells on the day of evacuation

Typing this now, it pains me to think of the friends and the home I am missing. Despite the sadness, and the chaos, I managed to imprint a few fond memories of my final days with colleagues and friends.

When I had to tell the two education organizations I partnered with in Diego-Suarez that I was leaving unexpectedly, they shared in my sadness, but then immediately arranged a farewell party, because of course, it wouldn’t be good fomba to send someone home without wishing them a fond farewell. We had sodas and snacks, made speeches (and yes, I did one in Malagasy) and took lots of pictures. I was presented with two wonderful gifts that I will keep until the end of my days: a traditional salovana worn by the Antakarana women, and a special sash belonging to the women’s organization.

With my colleagues and students at the  office of the Directeur Regionale d’Enseignment Nationale (Regional Director of National Education) in Diego-Suarez (Antsiranana)
My colleagues’ insistence on a farewell party, even at the last minute, underscores the importance of hospitality and friendship in Malagasy culture in a way I’ve yet to experience anywhere else in the world.

As heartbroken as I was, I felt a little peace, knowing that I was being given leave to go, in the kindest way possible, with the hope that soon a new batch of Peace Corps volunteers will return to continue our work.

IMG_8172
With colleagues at the Centre Regional de l’Institut National de Formation Pedagogique (Teacher’s College) after being presented with a farewell gift, a gorgeous salovana and kisaly

I’m grateful that I wasn’t alone in this.  After arriving in the capital, Antananarivo, and madly scrambling to close bank accounts and grants, all 139 of us gathered at Head Quarters to listen to more farewell speeches and take pictures with the ubiquitous Peace Corps seal. Our Country Director said some encouraging words, we rang the bell, gave our last hugs. And just like that, it was over. My service had ended.

I wasn’t ready. 

Third Year Education PCVs…couldn’t have made this journey without them

But I did snap a few pictures with the Peace Corps seal, and get to hug friends and colleagues who feel more like family. Ending this post now, I’m searching again for peace in my heart, as the memories are still raw and painful. I find it below, in rough video footage snapped on the way to the airport: a final glimpse of Madagascar, that piece of my heart, under a pink, painted sky.

A Third Year? The Last Few Months in Re-Cap

I took a few months off of blogging. When I left my village at the end of August, I moved to the capital city to take a job working with local HQ on Pre-Service Training for the newest cohort of volunteers, and that kept me pretty busy, so I let my blogging habit go. However, now that PST is over and home-leave is almost over, I’ve realized I still have almost a year to go! I tacked on a third year, and that means more stories (I hope).

So, what is PST? Well, when you join the Peace Corps, you are committing to 2 years of service at a place of Peace Corps’ choosing. You also commit to three months of Pre-Service Training before you take the Oath.  The training is 3 months long; it’s an 8-5 schedule, Monday-Friday, and there are evening and weekend homework assignments. Trainees live with host families in the community to practice language and adjusting to local culture. It’s emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting, complete with very little personal freedom, a lot of cultural faux-pas, homesickness, frustration, and probably a little diarrhea (or worse).

It can also be incredibly rewarding.

IMG_7861
Education trainees take the Oath to become official Volunteers.

For me, the most rewarding part was being on the trainer side of things. Getting to know a new group of trainees, the ones who  ultimately became volunteers and replaced my own cohort’s sites, was so inspiring and yes, hopeful. We talked about how we hate that word, hopeful, when people back home say, “you’re going to do such great things. You give us hope.” We talked about the pressure and anxiety and awkwardness that can come from being seen as a beacon of “hope.”  How you feel like you don’t know anything, and how you really don’t want to bring hope, you just want to make things better and take yourself out of the equation. We talked about the “savior complex” and the pitfalls of gathering bad data. But I see it now. We were able to talk about all of the things–fears, insecurities, regrets, anxieties. I saw my own journey in a new light. I got to reflect on all the fear and excitement I felt when I took the Oath and how much my expectations have changed.  I got to share what I hope was a little bit of insight and a lot of realness with them about how to make service something that works for you. I got to plan fun events and go for mountain runs and learn more about their journeys, which is my favorite thing in the world.

It’s so inspiring to watch someone else step into your shoes. It can also make you feel sad and irrelevant. But what I told myself at the beginning of this journey was to trust the process. 27 months are 27 months for a reason.

Well, I’ve trusted the process, but I’m not ready to let go yet. I’m getting there. Being back in the United States has helped me see that service is only two (or three! or four!) years for a reason. And of course, being with loved ones has been wonderful.

Yet at times I don’t know which place I miss more, American or Madagascar, and I find myself feeling like my heart is planted in two separate worlds. Perhaps it’s good I’m going back, because there is more left for me on this journey. But there’s no road-map this time.

Guess I’ll have to make my own.

IMG_7866
Three generations of Northern region volunteers at the swearing-in ceremony for the latest cohort of volunteers in the capital, Antananarivo.

 

New Year’s in February

 

IMG_6720.JPG

I’ve written about New Year’s before…aside from Independence Day, it’s the biggest day of the year.

Life can be hard here. No power. Fetching water every day. Working in the fields. Sweating. So that’s why parties mean so much. They’re a break from the every day. And they are so.much.fun. They’re also an opportunity for my students to take a break, socialize, and get me to take their picture 🙂

IMG_6750.JPG

I’ll leave you here with a visual account of my day. Not pictured: the late-night sweaty disco party or the dead zebu, sacrificed to the school, which fed about 600 people.

Happy 2019. Arabaina!

IMG_6755.JPG
With colleagues after the traditional meal of rice and zebu meat

IMG_6706
Seventh graders…enough said…

 

IMG_6698.JPG
Deuces for the chefs

IMG_6736.JPG
Attempt #1,250 to take an organized picture…

Song of the Traveler

Music is my first language; it’s how I understand and relate to the world. When I listen to music, I feel things I can’t describe in words. The sounds, the blending of notes, encapsulates and pulls at emotion better than any language.

Each place that’s influenced me, each important event, is marked in my mind with a song. It’s a song that we played over and over again to get us through dark times. Or, it’s a song we sang at the top of our lungs while driving, dancing, running, hiking, whatever. Still, to this day, I can listen to these songs and sing along without getting tired of them.

There’s only a handful of songs that do that for me.

But I couldn’t find that song in Madagascar. I don’t know why. I’ve listened to dozens of great songs, and learned a handful, but nothing pulled at that part of my heart where words don’t reach. That one song that is imprinted in my heart was somehow missing…

…and I’m wondering now if it made me feel somehow less than settled here. Or maybe I couldn’t find that song because I wasn’t settled. Nervous, anxious, couldn’t relax, couldn’t let music speak to me. Couldn’t put my roots down. I had this honest, angry thought that maybe I just don’t belong in a small village of Malagasy people…because I’ll never be Malagasy. No matter how good my language is, how much I dress or eat or act like the locals, I will never be one of them.

IMG_4914

And then, just recently, it hit me like lightning: Well obviously. I can never erase my skin or my face or my heritage, or rewrite my past, or will myself into being born in another part of the world instead.

But what I can do is learn, and try, and allow that learning to inform my behavior, my thoughts, and my responses (I almost said reactions, but I’m working on responding rather than reacting.) I’m still me; I’m still Melanie. I’ve been Melanie all along. Only, now, I’m Melanie who speaks Malagasy and sometimes braids her hair and dresses in colorful clothing and understands a little more about a little part of the world.

IMG_6105

Which brings me to this song: this beautiful, Malagasy folk song by two singers written and performed by two musicians from the East Coast of Madagascar: Mika and Davis. The lyrics, roughly summarized, are as follows:

How are you all? It’s so good to see you. What’s up? What’s new with you all?

There’s nothing new here. Our health is good.

There’s not a lot we’re bringing with us. We’re looking for goodness, we’re looking for happiness, we’re looking for wonder, we’re looking for love, we’re looking for things that will make us happy.  That’s what brought us here…

There’s nothing to make us sad. And there’s nothing that should make us fight.  But we missed you all, so we came to visit.

–Oh, it’s good to miss people. Thank you for visiting.

We’re happy to be here. We’re full of happiness to see you. We’re so happy to be with you.

I can’t stop listening to this song. Watching the music video, that little part in the depth of my heart came alive again and told my brain this simple lesson: You can belong to people who aren’t like you. That’s what makes friendship real. True friendship, the kind Malagasy call “havana,” meaning family from different blood, means that ‘I see your difference, I enjoy it, I learn from it, I appreciate it, and I accept you with it. With all of it.’ That is what this song means to me.

And that’s what this journey has been for me…me seeing my blaring difference, feeling like a white-bellied fish laid out on the ice in a grocery store, yet people saying to me, “just be here with us.”

37974959592_a6a8c0527f_b

 

The Hills of Fianarantsoa, Madagascar’s San Francisco

We roll in late Saturday evening. Looking out the window, I see lights bobbing through dark windows in houses, dancing along the hills. I rub my eyes, still groggy from the ten hour drive from Antananarivo. Am I in San Francisco? In the dark of the night, winding through city hills, I think I could be.

Fianarantsoa is the fourth largest city in Madagascar. Its residents are the ethnic group Betsileo, who speak slowly. With my aggressive Northern dialect and cornrowed hair, I feel very out of place. But fortunately, that doesn’t last long. The fresh air, magnificent hilly views, cheap food and Gasy hospitality won me over. I’m hooked on the Southern Highlands.

Sometimes all you need is a little change in perspective…and cornrows.

Early next morning, we wander down the hill from our house to find coffee and mofo, bread. We pass children in brightly colored school uniforms, seas of blue and pink and magenta, backpacks perched and ready for the day. Men and women accompany them in business suits and jackets, women fashionably decorated with tasteful gold earrings, rings, and bracelets. Lining the streets are teams of mpivarotras, men and women selling clothes and shoes handing in wooden stalls or spread out on the ground. They sell roasted peanuts, yogurt and mofo on the sidewalks. I climb up to AnZoma, one of Fianar’s biggest market squares, and fall into a now familiar routine: bargaining.

My eyes fall on the goony sacs below, spilling over with rice and beans and fruits; avocados, tomatoes, garlic the size of a child’s fist. There are bunches of bananas weighing four pounds each. There are pumpkins as big as my head. I squat down and greet the seller with a familiar greeting, though it’s different from my dialect’s own.

Salaam e! Ino vaovao? —Mangina-e!

Hello! What’s new? –It’s quiet!

I knew this greeting from Pre-Service Training, which took place in the Northern Highlands. My Antakaragna accent is obvious ands I smile sheepishly. “Hoachino ma ty?” I ask for the price of beans. Fitonzato. Seven hundred ariary for a cup, about 25 cents. It seems fair. I order two cups worth and help her pour them into my sac. I add some onions and garlic to the pile. We exchange money and pleasantries, and I go on my way.

Fianar is not what I expect. It’s bigger, livelier, friendlier. We climb the top of the tallest hill and take in the view, and for a moment I forget to breathe.

Taking in the view of Fianarantsoa, Madagascar’s fourth largest city.

On our way back down, we pass through Old Town, the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country. A towering church, cobblestone streets, and the ruins of the late Queen’s palace can still be seen, only now they serve as a playground for school children and an ice cream shop for hungry locals and visitors exhausted from the hike up to Old Town.

Old Town Fianarantsoa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

There’s more to see in the Southern Highlands than I expected. For my first trip south since being I’m country, it was a pretty good one.

Cultural Adjustment: The Six Month Slump

img_5048.jpg
omelette for dinner

What do all of the following items have in common?

  • cooking omelettes

  • exercising
  • fishing
  • watching cows
  • reading Harry Potter

They belong on my list of things that have made me happy this past month.

It’s been a slow moving month.

Between extra meetings that caused lapses in school, a surprise cyclone, an illness and a school holiday, I feel like I have accomplished virtually nothing all  month. My English club has had exactly one meeting, it’s been very hard to get in touch with people, and because of exams (at least, I hope that’s why), fewer students have been coming around to study English.

Then another cyclone hit. We had our first one of the year back in early January, during which groups of volunteers were consolidated in various larger towns out of precaution. This time, however, we received no warning and were all at home in our villages. This meant days and days of endless rain and wind, no school, no market, no sun to charge electronics or solar lights. Frankly, it was a bit depressing. I played a lot of cards with some of my students, the ones who were brave enough to walk in the rain to come visit me. I also got my hair braided by a friend and taught those same students some American songs. So, the cyclone wasn’t a total loss.

When you live in a small village, with no electricity or amenities, and whose population is mostly farmers, life tends to move at a snail’s pace. Everything from sifting, picking, washing and cleaning rice to pounding, pounding and pounding cassava leaves for dinner, to transplanting rice to make it grow, to sewing clothes, to fetching water, to walking to school, takes its time. When I first arrived to my village, I was captivated by this slower pace of life. Here were some people who were not stressed and angry all the time, I thought. How different their temperaments are from Americans, whose lives revolve around calendars and alarms and rushing, rushing, rushing.  

This is still all true, of course. It’s still beautiful. But it’s also so boringly ordinary. I’m crossing off exactly six months living in my village (nine months total in country). I’m due for a Six Month Slump.

The habits that I found peculiar and fascinating during my first few months I often find irritating now. I find myself thinking things like, “why doesn’t he or she just do this instead?” I also find myself fed up with the slow and tedious ways of cutting grass, making peanut butter, washing my clothes, having no food storage, chasing away rats, walking through mud, dealing with miscommunications, dealing with language mistakes, dealing with insults or ridiculous questions or the insane lack of privacy and anonymity.

Image result for cultural adjustment u curve
the u-curve: a commonly held theory of the stages of cultural adjustment

I wrote about a similar experience when I was living and working in Thailand. Even though I lived in a big city then, my feelings towards Thai culture and everything unfamiliar pulsated with resentment. According to the U-curve theory of cultural adjustment, months 4-9 are right around the time where everything, for lack of a better term, feels like shit. Nothing seems to make sense; you get frustrated at every little thing, and maybe, you just want to go home. That’s me, right now.

Being someone who has a history of depression, this can be a dangerous game. The resentment, anger and isolation I feel can quickly breed and fester and cause me to alienate myself even further from my village, my people, my new Madagascar. Because I like to justify my feelings, it’s easy for me to talk myself into the fact that I deserve to feel resentful and upset, and that I deserve to ignore people and keep to myself, and that I deserve to give myself a break and stop trying.

I know.

Rereading my own post from three and a half years ago tickles me, because my thoughts are so similar, and my conclusions are so simple. Yet somehow, I’m incapable of remembering my own life lessons:

Eventually, I had to emerge from my hole in the wall and breathe in the smelly air of Bangkok [again], because at a certain point I ceased to recharge, and I ended up hurting myself by isolating myself beyond what was necessary. This is something, I’m noticing after many years, I tend to do.

So it’s a habit, and it’s a habit I haven’t yet successfully broken. So how do we mentally unstable do-gooders deal with the onslaught of berating thoughts?

The best way I know to deal with this is to keep going and just do it. The mantra of athletes and successful people who are obviously not me, seems simple and straight forward. Just do it. Just keep going.

I’ve been given this simple, profound advice from current PCVs and RPCVs who served all over the globe. The simplest way to keep going is just to keep going. Breathe, let things go, get a good night’s sleep (if the rats don’t keep you awake), and keep going another day.

Just do it.