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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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.

The RN6

The Route National 6 goes from Maevatanana in the Northwestern part of Madagascar all the way up to Diego Suarez, the port city that is the northern most tip of the country. The drive from Maevatanana to Diego can take up to two days, depending on how long you stop, if you’re driving at night (not always recommended) and if there are a lot of freight trucks in front of you.

I made this drive with four other education volunteers, two Peace Corps drivers, and staff, almost two months ago, after I completed training and was sworn in as an official Volunteer. We departed from Tana early Saturday morning, September 9, with all our belongings stuffed in the back and on top of the jeeps. After spending most of the day winding up and around harrowing cliffs, the road begins to flatten. The mountains suddenly disappear. In their place appears flat, wide prairies as far as the eye can see, prairies that rise to greet the horizon with a whisper of “I feel your silence. I’ve been watching you for a hundred thousand years.” I’m speechless. What do I have that can measure up against the breadth of the Malagasy landscape?

 

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View from the Road

 

And just like that, new mountains appear like scraggly Hershey’s kisses, peppered with tall, magnanimous Ravinala: the national tree of Madagascar. The Ravinala tree stands tall and proud, its crazy palms spread wide like a male peacock during mating season. In the foreground, the trees become plentiful and the forest thickens with palms and banana trees. The dirt turns to sand, and I am home.

 

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The northern crew in front of my new Ravinala house.

 

Perhaps my favorite experience with the glorious RN6 so far are the long bike rides I’ve taken down its flat, paved, sometimes windy and always interesting path. Peace Corps issues every Madagascar volunteer a bicycle, because so many roads are in poor condition and public transportation can often be a hassle. I knew this from the beginning of training. I also knew that I hadn’t ridden a bike since being knocked off mine by a moving vehicle last year. I was a bit anxious.

Still, I don’t like to run away from challenges, especially ones that I believe I can overcome. I had a bike. I had a path. I had a helmet. And I had an abundance of time. It was a simple enough conclusion to draw: I was going to ride.

So I woke early one morning, lathered myself with sunscreen, and left my little Ravinala house behind. I mounted my bike and pushed away from the tarmac. The peddling came back easily, to my delight, like an old dance. The seat adjustment took a bit of time, as did figuring out the gears and learning how to navigate pedestrians, ox carts, public vans, big trucks and narrow bridges. But despite all these distractions, there were still stretches of my journey where I was completely alone: just me and the RN6. Mountains rose to shelter me on either side; I passed rice fields, banana fields, neighborhoods full of Ravinala houses like mine, kids eating mangoes, people sitting in the shade, pelicans eating fish from rivers. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I can’t quite describe it. I don’t have the vocabulary.

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Resting in a patch of shade

But there were moments where I’d look up to the sky, feel the weight and breadth of the air surrounding me and think, is this really my life?

 

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