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

Farewell to the Mango Trees

We left projects unfinished, classes untaught, friends unvisited. We weren’t going home, we were leaving it.

On Monday, March 16, I woke up to this message:

Peace Corps Madagascar is evacuating. Stand by for further instructions.

Three days later, I was on a plane to Ethiopia, along with 139 other education, health, and agriculture volunteers. Together with PCVs from Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Cameroon, and Zambia, we were shuffled onto four charter flights around midnight the following Saturday, local time. We landed in an empty Dulles airport, home in a country we didn’t feel was home anymore.

It’s difficult to put into words the emotions, the exhaustion, that we’ve all felt over the past few weeks. We were evacuated because international airways were being shut down due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, which meant risking  being unable to leave the country in the event of a real emergency. I understand, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to make that impossibly hard decision.  Still, we all left projects unfinished, classes untaught, friends unvisited. We weren’t going home, we were leaving it.

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139 Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers gathered in the capital for final farewells on the day of evacuation

Typing this now, it pains me to think of the friends and the home I am missing. Despite the sadness, and the chaos, I managed to imprint a few fond memories of my final days with colleagues and friends.

When I had to tell the two education organizations I partnered with in Diego-Suarez that I was leaving unexpectedly, they shared in my sadness, but then immediately arranged a farewell party, because of course, it wouldn’t be good fomba to send someone home without wishing them a fond farewell. We had sodas and snacks, made speeches (and yes, I did one in Malagasy) and took lots of pictures. I was presented with two wonderful gifts that I will keep until the end of my days: a traditional salovana worn by the Antakarana women, and a special sash belonging to the women’s organization.

With my colleagues and students at the  office of the Directeur Regionale d’Enseignment Nationale (Regional Director of National Education) in Diego-Suarez (Antsiranana)
My colleagues’ insistence on a farewell party, even at the last minute, underscores the importance of hospitality and friendship in Malagasy culture in a way I’ve yet to experience anywhere else in the world.

As heartbroken as I was, I felt a little peace, knowing that I was being given leave to go, in the kindest way possible, with the hope that soon a new batch of Peace Corps volunteers will return to continue our work.

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With colleagues at the Centre Regional de l’Institut National de Formation Pedagogique (Teacher’s College) after being presented with a farewell gift, a gorgeous salovana and kisaly

I’m grateful that I wasn’t alone in this.  After arriving in the capital, Antananarivo, and madly scrambling to close bank accounts and grants, all 139 of us gathered at Head Quarters to listen to more farewell speeches and take pictures with the ubiquitous Peace Corps seal. Our Country Director said some encouraging words, we rang the bell, gave our last hugs. And just like that, it was over. My service had ended.

I wasn’t ready. 

Third Year Education PCVs…couldn’t have made this journey without them

But I did snap a few pictures with the Peace Corps seal, and get to hug friends and colleagues who feel more like family. Ending this post now, I’m searching again for peace in my heart, as the memories are still raw and painful. I find it below, in rough video footage snapped on the way to the airport: a final glimpse of Madagascar, that piece of my heart, under a pink, painted sky.

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 Hardest Part (Wrapping Up Year 1)

One evening, when I was seventeen, I wrote a list of life goals on a piece of paper and hanged it to my dad. “These are all the things I want to do before I die,” I told him. The list included things like “hike Mount Everest. Skydive. Finish a triathalon.” Now that I’m a bit older and know a lot more about myself, it’s clear to me that certain things I will never do. Jumping out of an airplane is definitely one of them. And if that triathalon includes any amount of mountain biking, you can count me out. I would still like to hike Everest one day…but maybe only to Base Camp.

Peace Corps has been on my list for a while. This is something I have always wanted to do. There is so much romance that I found in the idea of living in a small, isolated community in a strange country for so long. I spent a year preparing to go, going to great lengths to convince DC that I was physically and mentally fit for service. In the end, I went, and ended up in a tiny, isolated rural village in Madagascar. My job description was simple enough: teach English. Teach other teachers English. Encourage English learning in the community.

Significant hurdles, however, have recently made it difficult for me to do my “job”– my formal, on paper job. Me being me, I’ve been left feeling, for lack of an easier term, useless.

Some of these obstacles here include big political events, like a national teachers’ strike (for higher pay), and some have included meetings and other events that render school cancelled. Now that summer vacation is officially here, (more of less, since we moved from a long school strike into summer vacation without any idea of when exams will happen or if they will happen) I find myself with even more time to simply….exist.

So why is that the hardest part?

In the interest of self-reflection and not beating myself up, it’s worth me acknowledging that I do actually feel very happy with my accomplishments over Year 1. Like, really, really happy. I actually did a lot of what I set out to do: paint a world map, work at a GLOW camp, play music, learn more of my dialect, read books with my students, cook Gasy food, love Gasy people, eat a lot of rice (that wasn’t a goal, but it’s definitely an accomplishment), read more books by myself, have “me time” in my house, get back on my bicycle after my accident. I did all those things. Me. I did them. Not alone, obviously, but I was there. I have this awful tendency to erase myself from my life story, but right now, I’m saying, actually, yes, I did that.

But now what? My dad tells me that “we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, but underestimate what we can do in a year.” I would add that I also tend to overestimate what I can accomplish alone, and grossly underestimate what I can do with others. I think these lessons are essential, and I’m so glad I’m learning them.

And so, I’m closing out year one on a high note. I’m choosing to do that. I’m choosing to feel happy and satisfied and focus on my accomplishments and see the faces of those I love the most at site and around the country. These are all things–relationships, experiences, events, memories, and insight, that I didn’t have a year ago.

That’s good enough for me right now.

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