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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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Views of Andrigitra National Park

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.

My first WWOOF Experience

If you’ve ever thought that spending time in nature sounded nice, have you checked out WWOOF?

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and is exactly what the name says. It is an international network of organic farmers, who serve as hosts for eager travelers. It’s a chance to explore a different region/country/continent, practice some language, learn a skill, and develop amazing relationships you’d never expect.

I spent the last two weeks of my spring Eurotrip WWOOFing (yes, it’s a verb) in Basse-Normandy, France.

 

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A map of my route, for reference!

How did I choose a tiny town in Basse-Normandie? Simple. On the WWOOF website (you pay 20 Euro be a member for a year and then you have access to the catalogue of host farms in the country you choose) there is a list of filters including type of activity (IE permaculture, orchard, dairy, eco projects) and length of stay (one week, two weeks, 1 month). I had two weeks to farm; I was interested in orchards and eco projects. So I found La Fermette du Bellefontaine.

 

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A rainy day on La Fermette

La fermette means “little farm,” and that’s exactly what it was: a small scale organic farm owned and operated by a few friends. Each had his and her own plot of land and primary source of income: one is a vegetable gardener, one a seamstress, and my host, the master baker.

 

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For most French people, bread is life. It’s fresh, it’s inexpensive and it’s eaten three times a day. And why wouldn’t you eat it when the grain was grown and harvested three miles away?

As for eco projects, these included a composting toilet (of which I sadly did not take a picture, but I’ll leave that to you to research), an organic sewage system that uses water-loving plants to clean used water, and newspaper insulation. All created by my host out of his desire to “be as autonomous as possible.”

It’s amazing what you can learn when you least expect it, when you enter into a new situation with zero expectations. I left a lot more informed about steps I can take as an individual to reduce my impact and respect our planet. And I had the best cheese of my life.

 

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View of the town from a hilltop! Not pictured: the medieval fortress I climbed to take this photo.

 

 

 

 

How To Convince Your Overprotective Parents That Travelling is Tremendously Useful for Life

Convince your parents that travelling is a-ok.

In response to my last post, I’ve been reflecting on some of the incredible benefits of travelling and some arguments I would make to someone who was not an avid nomad or had maybe watched too much CNN. Here are five ways to convince your overprotective parents (or friends) that travelling is not at all like The Hangover:

  1. Travelling makes you self-sufficient. Unless you sign up for a tour, nothing happens abroad unless you make it happen–booking hotels, finding bus tickets, converting money, deciding to drink the water (or not)…it’s your impetus that helps you get places and stay safe.
  2. Travelling makes you brave. You never know how capable you are until you’re watching the last bus pull away from the station and you have to run after it, screaming and waving your hands like a chicken with its head cut off. You run into all sorts of unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations when in a new place, and you have no choice but to cope.
  3. Travelling helps you be more social. You become far more dependent on the kindness of strangers to get around. Slovakian Grandmothers, Vietnamese construction workers, and Israeli soldiers have become some of my best friends in times of navigational uncertainty (I get lost easily). When you don’t know where you are, you have to stop and ask someone, or in my case, five or six people. I’ve been delighted at the many times I’ve had a genuine conversation (in English, Hebrew, or with drawings in the sand) with a complete stranger. The desire to help people is palpable, and when someone takes time out of his or her day to stop and help you–a stranger–the world seems a little smaller and brighter.
  4. Travelling makes you more culturally sensitive. Visiting religious sites, eating the local food, and observing local customs are all ways that the traveler can develop a keen sense of cultural sensitivity. It also makes you more aware of your own way of doing things by virtue of comparison.
  5. Travelling makes you a better citizen. Less then 10 percent of Americans own a passport, and yet there is so much world outside the coasts. When you travel, you see how the rest of the world lives. You realize how much of an impact Americanism has on the world, how much of American culture is exported and mass produced and interpreted differently. Talking to locals about this helps you form your own opinions about the United States and its place in the world. Being informed is a cornerstone of democracy.

So you see, there is so much more to travelling then Bengal tigers and giant skyscrapers. Going in curious, confident and with a sense of humor can yield tremendous personal growth and a heck of a lot of great stories (to share with those family and friends back home…or not). You don’t need a tour or an itinerary to do it; you just need a good pair of shoes.