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

“Have a good Lent”

It’s been a very eventful week for me.

1: a bicycle accident

2: losing my dog…again

3: moving out of my apartment in Midtown

4: starting TEFL assignments

5: planning a Europe trip

6: oh yeah, the first week of Lent…clean week…the week that’s supposed to be all about God

How many times have I forgotten that?

I know there are lots of non-Lent people out there. The simplest way I can explain Lent is that it is an opportunity  for life to finally be not all about me. Because I am always acting in my own self-interest. Even when I make to-do lists and bucket lists and packing lists, those lists are serving my own self-interest. Lent comes at a time when life is starting over, trees begin to bloom again, and we force our bodies into social exile. Why? Because Christ did it first, for us. This is our opportunity to tune everything else out and tune in to Christ.

I wasn’t looking forward to Lent until recently. I’ve been on a roller coaster with my faith, I admit plainly, and so I was looking forward to Lent as a way to level the spiritual playing field, so to speak. But then I wiped out on my bicycle and landed in the hospital. This was Monday. Thank God I’m okay, and I do mean thank God. And my guardian angel. And helmets.

Today is Thursday. I walked outside for the first time since Monday afternoon, and I got so excited about it that I left the front door open and my dog snuck out. Here I was thinking things were getting easier but nah, that’s not real life. 

Fortunately my dog came back. But the lessons never cease. There will always be something going wrong…and that’s the thing I should devote my time to. I’ve been so preoccupied with upcoming plans and Peace Corps service that I’ve completely neglected my own body, mind, and soul. I’ve failed to be present. I wrung myself out to dry.  I got to the point where I became unknowingly careless. 

But Lent is all about forgiveness. I guess that starts with me. I need to forgive myself, recognize my brokenness (literally) and find beauty in the little things…like being able to enjoy the sunshine and walk on the concrete with both feet.

I guess I’m having a good Lent so far. 

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.