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.

On Being Home, Awake

One of the biggest life lessons I keep coming back to from all of my travels is that life hits you in the face when you least expect it, and it hits you in a very big, very real way. Life is uncomfortable. Travelling is uncomfortable. It’s new and different. It can be very strange.

People have always been afraid of what is different. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s a “chicken and egg” conversation: which came first, the fear or the stereotypes?

I’m living in Memphis now. But I’m not living in the same Memphis I grew up in, and sometimes, I feel really ashamed that I never knew my current Memphis when I was young. My Memphis is Black; 60 percent African American to be precise. But that’s not the Memphis I knew growing up, which evidences the other reality of my current Memphis. My Memphis is segregated as hell.

Why didn’t I see it before? On some level I think I knew, but I never thought deeply about it, nor cared enough to do so. My school was white, my family was white, we were all middle class, we were all the same. So what did I have to be afraid of?

Injustice hit me like a brick to the face the first time I saw the terrible cement wall separating Israel from the West Bank. That’s injustice, I thought. A cement wall. Well, we don’t have one cement wall in Memphis, but we have a lot of little walls. They’re called neighborhoods. They’re called schools. They’re called 201 Poplar.

It’s not fair that I got to go to a great school and get in to college, when the average ACT score for this city is 17 and the percentage of those in poverty is almost 30 percent, with 45 percent of all children in Memphis living in poverty. Memphis’ poverty statistics are shocking. Why didn’t I learn this in school? Maybe I did. I just wasn’t paying attention.

What do we do about it? What did I do in Israel? What did I do in Thailand? What do I do here?

Of course there is injustice everywhere. But knowing that, accepting that, and letting that pass unaffected is only perpetuating that injustice. Compassion necessitates action.

Why am I struggling so much with this right now? I think because suddenly I feel responsible. I know I’m not personally responsible for the systemic racism in this city, but I feel a sense of responsibility towards my city and everyone in it. It’s easy, when you’re living abroad, to pick and choose what injustices to invest your time in, because there is so much that is unfamiliar. You can use that barrier as an excuse to hide away. And as I’m learning, there is still so much that is unfamiliar to me about this city, this city I grew up in and so arrogantly thought I had figured out. I don’t. I don’t. I can’t.

But I can try. I can get outside my comfort zone, like I’ve done before in other places. I can keep going outside of my own yard to see new things, experience knew events, meet new people from different backgrounds. Isn’t that life, anyway?

My goals for my time in Memphis (however long that may be) are these: first, to learn more about the social injustices in the city and to get involved in active solutions. My current job is a great place to start, but that’s only a little of myself. We can always go deeper. We just can’t ever give up. Second, I want to explore. Build a bike, ride the MATA bus, and get out and about. There is a lot of beauty in this city.

Just because I’m back in the same place doesn’t mean I’m the same person I was when I was last here. I’m not. I hope I’m not. I’m still only one person with no answers and irritating questions, but I’m still going. I hope you’ll help me along.

A Trip To Chiang Mai

This trip happened over a month ago, and yet I was in denial about its brevity, so I neglected to write about it until now. But I think I’m finally processing it all!

Over student midterms, for a much needed break from teaching and from city living, I took a trip up north with two friends and fellow teachers. We hopped on an overnight bus to the northern city of Chiang Mai, also known as Thailand’s “second city.” Think Chicago to USA’s New York City, except zero skyscrapers and with an ancient, Asian city wall.

One of the entrances to the Old City.

 

I love these trees. They’re all over Thailand. They remind me of the jungle.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful mix of ancient history, artistic tradition and modern innovation. If you’re familiar with the term “hipster,” it can almost be used to describe Chiang Mai, except instead of fourteen year olds skateboarding in flannel shirts you see sixty year old Greek and Italian ex-pats smoking rolled cigarettes and playing music in bars. But the feel is basically the same–laid back, adorably ironic and boldly unique.

The night markets were my favorite thing about the city. Sure they were crowded, but here you really see the heart of Thailand’s artisanal craft making scene. Everything from hand woven scarves to purses to jewelry to wooden carvings, paintings, sketchings and etchings were for sale along the streets. And the best part was that you got to witness these crafts in progress. One market, referred to simply as “the night bazaar” features a lower level indoors where brilliant visual artists draw and paint on massive canvases for the entertainment and prowess of curious tourists, all while displaying the capacity of their artistic genius . Of course, in true artistic fashion, you can’t take pictures of the work, so I leave it up to you to imagine wall to wall paintings of children, old men, Buddhist monks walking to temples in the rain, elephants, rice fields, wolves, Cherokee people and the like, all in the most beautiful colors and black-and-white charcoal depictions I’ve ever seen.

For me, the biggest treats of the trip were actually outside of the city. The first was a Thai cooking class at a special, homegrown farm in the mountains:

Our group enjoying our delicious creations.

But the second was far more edifying and less simplified. My two friends and I elected to go on a three day, two night “trekking tour” in one of Chiang Mai’s beautiful mountain terrains.  The morning of the first day, we were driven to an elephant camp that, unfortunately, did not treat the elephants humanely. I will refrain from posting pictures here. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the benefits and complications of the Thai tourism industry on that day.

Yet our journey grew increasingly authentic and unpredictable after that. We drove to our beginning pathway and hiked to a beautiful waterfall for lunch. After a quick dip, we continued on, our quick footed guide (nicknamed “Louis” but pronounced like the French) always stopping to point out tasty snacks like fire ants (I’m not kidding) and various kinds of mushrooms.

That evening we arrive at a small village belonging to the local Keren people. The Keren originally migrated from Tibet, settling first in Burma and now in northern Thailand. They speak their own language, though their alphabet is similar to Thai script. Our guide, Louis, belonged to a neighboring village but was treated as one of their own, and they extended the same warm hospitality to us.

Our guide Louis…jokingly feeding me a bottle of water.
Inside the cooking room.

After a luxurious sleep on straw mats, listening to the rain patter on the bamboo rooftops, I slid my way up the dirt path to rejoin my group for breakfast and our second day of hiking. Day two proved to be very, err, wet, as we encountered a serious downpour about an hour into our hike with no shelter in sight. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, and thank God for Louis, who was able to guide us through steep paths that had quickly turned into raging rivers. We made it to our second camp for lunch.

Before we left the Keren village, we passed through the local school, where we peeked in on children learning Thai language songs. I had forgotten what it felt like to be around children (having spent the majority of my time with college students), and I wanted to cry seeing the sheer joy on their faces. I’m including a facebook link to the video that my friend, Emi, took, because seeing them was such a beautiful reminder of what all people share in common. We may all have different words for “head, shoulders, knees, in toes” but those precious body parts are what we all have and need to protect.

I’m eternally grateful for the trip to Chiang Mai, and most especially to the Keren people for letting me into their homes for a little while. Being there was a great reminder of why I came to Thailand in the first place. Yes, I love English, and I really like teaching, and I have my beliefs. But what I have to give pales in comparison to what I have to learn just by meeting people. Sure, it can be uncomfortable–like walking through the pouring rain–but on the other side, always, always the sun comes out and dries up all my insecurities.

It’s been four months since I arrived. My first semester of classes are coming to a swift and jarring end. There are days when I feel completely, inexplicably ordinary, when I forget that I’m in Thailand all together, and it feels like just another day. I think these days are important to keep my sanity at a healthy level. But far more important to me are those days–precious few they may be at the moment–that take me outside of the ordinary and into some of the ancient and secret worlds of God’s creation. I pray that He will give me the courage to pursue these extraordinary moments with as much vigor as I try to pursue the ordinary.

With love,
Mel