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 Savior Complex

“A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone it must seek the ether.” –Khalil Gibran

 

If I had my way, I would be a bird. I would fly from place to place and peep in on other people’s realities, never getting too attached or involved. I would skim the surface of life, laughing at my reflection in oceans and dancing on telephone wires. As a traveler, all I have truly ever wanted is to sit in tiny rooms with friends and drink in laughter between paper thin walls, sweet, steamy chai wafting through our noses and thick, melodious languages dripping from our tongues. But I’m not a bird, and I’m not a wallflower. I exist; people notice me.

I hate that people notice me. Sometimes I wish I could just keep the inspirational experiences in my heart and leave the embarrassing ones behind. I wish I could help people when I want to help rescue them and not when I feel obligated to do so. There comes a point when one can feel so emptied that we cannot seem to be filled. Perhaps this is because “help” has turned into “rescue.”

The world doesn’t give us a break. We can’t decide when people need our help, and we can’t really decide when we need another’s help. But not asking for help when we are drowning doesn’t make sense. Yet how do we move on from a rescue?

No man is an island. But for those of us who have grown up privileged, it’s easy to think that we have some God-given power to help others because of our circumstances, because we’ve been told to go out into the world and make it better. But change isn’t a power, it’s a responsibility, and a very precarious one. If you’re not aware of your own impact, you can do more harm then good.

Reflecting on my time in Thailand, I think I felt a lot of pressure to live up this image of a rescuer that, at the time, I was not aware I had. Being part of a faith community, learning about the plight of refugees, I became very involved with the idea of saving others. I didn’t see it as anything problematic, but I wasn’t just a witness. I was an actor and people noticed me and started assuming things about me that I wasn’t aware of because I was not fully present. I was in my own head. 

I grew up in my head. I dreamed away my reality with visions of waterfalls, open fields, and a sense of life with a purpose. I am learning how to live a life with purpose, but a lot of this has been painful. I think that’s the point. The hardest part about wanting to rescue someone is needing to save them from pain. Sometimes this is absolutely vital; sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know where that line is and I never want to make that decision but I know that I will. Life is tough like that. I have a tendency to remember only the good things and forget the times I failed. But at the same time, failure can be life’s greatest teacher, even if it means giving up and moving home. A friend of mine asked me, “What do you want to learn from this?” I think that’s a great start.

I’ve failed a lot in my life, which is how I know I’m not a savior. I believe there is only one Savior. But even if you don’t, as travelers, teachers, explorers, we have to start acknowledging our own impact. We are not wallflowers and we are not birds. We might be called on to rescue someone, but we need to examine our motivations as well as our plans. Does this person need help? If so, what does that need to look like?

Never stop asking questions.

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Inle Lake, Myanmar: 2015

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Challenge

My new adult-like job has kept my thoroughly busy and happily distracted from the pangs of reverse culture shock I find creeping up at night alone or when attempting (and failing miserably) at small talk with strangers. So I haven’t been blogging consistently like I always intend to, and part of that reason is I think it is more difficult for me to drag myself into exciting situations now that I’m “home” and everything seems “familiar.” I’m becoming lazy and starting to understand the term “binge-watching.” I don’t like those things.

The days are getting shorter, colder, more Northeast USA-like..

I miss the Northeast. And I miss Bangkok. And I miss Europe. And I miss my friends very, very, very much. So I spend a lot of time feeling sad and then starting to feel sorry for myself.

I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t know if I’m ready to call off my travelling or if Memphis is where I need to settle at all. Right now I am enjoying my job, enjoying the crisp fall air and welcoming the sights and smells of Autumn. But I’m a bit anxious about how long that feeling will last. I’m hoping to find deeper attachments inside myself, with God alone.

I started this blog over four years ago, before I had ever been to Israel or even New Jersey. I started it at a time when life felt weightless, bottomless, and oppressively overwhelming all at the same time.

I’m not a good blogger. I don’t use social media all that well, and I suck at online communication. I don’t do a good job of “building my audience,” but I do hope that I can reach whomever stumbles over my words with a dash of humor or, even better, a twinge of understanding. I like writing, like I like travelling and meeting new people, for the connections and the similarities.

That being said, I’m signing up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The challenge is to write a novel in one month, from November 1 to November 30. The goal is to reach 50,000 words. I’m not much of a fiction writer, but I learned to my delight that I can still participate as a Nano “Rebel.” My project therefore will be non-fiction, probably some type of memoir or personal narrative about my travels over the past few years.

I hope this will be a fun way to relive some of those adventures and to really curl up into them again. I’ve been feeling sad lately, and empty, and wishing I had attachments. I’m hoping that this adventure, one happening in my own bedroom, will take me places I yearn to go and teach me new things about life and myself and other people. Those are the best adventures after all.

I’m going to use this blog and the NaNo website to track my progress starting November 1. If you’re a writer, or aspiring to be one like I am, I hope you’ll consider joining me on this crazy quest. If you’ve already been doing NaNoWriMo, I need your help! Find me at nanowrimo.org/participants/mmstanek.

There is no competition here, only good spirits and encouragement to put one foot (or finger, in this case) in front of the other and keep on going! I’ll be “prepping” for the next two weeks, and then the big day starts November 1! I hope you’ll join me! Let me know–I would love to hear from you.

Mel