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

Cooking with Coconut (with Recipe)

Coconut is king in Northern Madagascar.

Let’s talk food; is there anything better to talk about?

Someone asked me last week what I miss most about Madagascar. My answer: the food. Not a very common answer, actually. Since Madagascar is so geographically diverse, the food changes drastically depending on which part of the country you’re in. Happily, I lived in the Northwest, where coconut is king.

Before you go picturing me drinking coconut water out of a straw on the beach, know that people in my region cooked with mature coconuts (the ones you drink from are much younger), and typically, they don’t like to drink the water. That never stopped me, of course.

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Making fresh coconut milk using an ambozy, a traditional tool with a wooden seat and a metal grater attached to the end

Maybe you’re thinking of shredded coconut flakes, the kind you put in macaroons. Nope. When people cook with coconut here, they actually shred mature coconuts to make coconut milk. Here’s how:

  1. Whack open a coconut with a machete or a big knife. Pour the water into a zinga, filter it and drink!
  2. Shred each half of the coconut on an ambozy (pictured above). Make sure you have a large bowl placed below for catching the flakes.
  3. Next, add clean water to the shreds–just enough to cover. Start to squeeze the flakes and extract the milk.
  4. Pour the shreds through a strainer into another bowl set aside.
  5. Repeat the process a second and third time.
  6. The first press is always the richest. In my experience, you want to use the first press last, so that your food retains the coconuty-rich flavor.
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Coconut beans! My favorite coconut dish

Of course, if you’re in America, whole coconuts and ambozys can be hard to come by. Luckily, full fat coconut milk makes a decent substitute.

My favorite of all coconut recipes are coconut beans. They’re filling, cheap, and last forever. In Madagascar, I would cook my beans over a traditional fatana sarbonne like the one pictured below, because beans take such a long time to cook. However, if you soak dry beans overnight, they’ll cook up in less than an hour.

When I went home to America, I adapted this recipe and made it for my family using locally available ingredients. I found that I still preferred to use dry beans, because it allows more time for the coconut flavor to absorb. But I’m sure, in a pinch, canned beans would suffice.

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Beans cooking over a traditional fatana sarbonne, a charcoal cooking stove

Here’s my American recipe:

Malagasy Coconut Beans

Serves 8-10 people; can be halved or doubled easily

2 lbs dry dark red beans

3 cans coconut milk

2 large tomatoes

1 large red onion

1 head of garlic

Salt

Pepper

Cilantro (optional)

  1. Soak beans overnight
  2. When ready to cook, rinse beans and fill to cover with fresh water. Do NOT fill the pot with water; fill just enough to cover the beans with maybe an inch of water on top.
  3. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are starting to get soft but not completely cooked.
  4. When soft but not still not cooked through, add two cans of coconut milk and bring to a boil again. Reduce to simmer and continue to cook the beans until they are soft.
  5. While the beans are cooking, smash the head of garlic with generous amounts of salt and pepper (I like to use a mortar and pestle for tradition’s sake, but you could certainly blend it in a food processor). Add the garlic, salt and pepper blend into the beans and stir. Cover.
  6. Chop the tomatoes and onions and add them to the pot.
  7. Taste a few beans to see if they are soft. They should almost melt in your mouth. At this point, add the last can of coconut milk and cook for ten more minutes, covered.
  8. Taste for salt and pepper. Add more if you like.
  9. Chop the cilantro and add it to the pot. Stir and serve.
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Serve coconut beans with generous amounts of white rice and shredded mango salad.

 

 

A Third Year? The Last Few Months in Re-Cap

I took a few months off of blogging. When I left my village at the end of August, I moved to the capital city to take a job working with local HQ on Pre-Service Training for the newest cohort of volunteers, and that kept me pretty busy, so I let my blogging habit go. However, now that PST is over and home-leave is almost over, I’ve realized I still have almost a year to go! I tacked on a third year, and that means more stories (I hope).

So, what is PST? Well, when you join the Peace Corps, you are committing to 2 years of service at a place of Peace Corps’ choosing. You also commit to three months of Pre-Service Training before you take the Oath.  The training is 3 months long; it’s an 8-5 schedule, Monday-Friday, and there are evening and weekend homework assignments. Trainees live with host families in the community to practice language and adjusting to local culture. It’s emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting, complete with very little personal freedom, a lot of cultural faux-pas, homesickness, frustration, and probably a little diarrhea (or worse).

It can also be incredibly rewarding.

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Education trainees take the Oath to become official Volunteers.

For me, the most rewarding part was being on the trainer side of things. Getting to know a new group of trainees, the ones who  ultimately became volunteers and replaced my own cohort’s sites, was so inspiring and yes, hopeful. We talked about how we hate that word, hopeful, when people back home say, “you’re going to do such great things. You give us hope.” We talked about the pressure and anxiety and awkwardness that can come from being seen as a beacon of “hope.”  How you feel like you don’t know anything, and how you really don’t want to bring hope, you just want to make things better and take yourself out of the equation. We talked about the “savior complex” and the pitfalls of gathering bad data. But I see it now. We were able to talk about all of the things–fears, insecurities, regrets, anxieties. I saw my own journey in a new light. I got to reflect on all the fear and excitement I felt when I took the Oath and how much my expectations have changed.  I got to share what I hope was a little bit of insight and a lot of realness with them about how to make service something that works for you. I got to plan fun events and go for mountain runs and learn more about their journeys, which is my favorite thing in the world.

It’s so inspiring to watch someone else step into your shoes. It can also make you feel sad and irrelevant. But what I told myself at the beginning of this journey was to trust the process. 27 months are 27 months for a reason.

Well, I’ve trusted the process, but I’m not ready to let go yet. I’m getting there. Being back in the United States has helped me see that service is only two (or three! or four!) years for a reason. And of course, being with loved ones has been wonderful.

Yet at times I don’t know which place I miss more, American or Madagascar, and I find myself feeling like my heart is planted in two separate worlds. Perhaps it’s good I’m going back, because there is more left for me on this journey. But there’s no road-map this time.

Guess I’ll have to make my own.

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Three generations of Northern region volunteers at the swearing-in ceremony for the latest cohort of volunteers in the capital, Antananarivo.

 

New Year’s in February

 

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I’ve written about New Year’s before…aside from Independence Day, it’s the biggest day of the year.

Life can be hard here. No power. Fetching water every day. Working in the fields. Sweating. So that’s why parties mean so much. They’re a break from the every day. And they are so.much.fun. They’re also an opportunity for my students to take a break, socialize, and get me to take their picture 🙂

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I’ll leave you here with a visual account of my day. Not pictured: the late-night sweaty disco party or the dead zebu, sacrificed to the school, which fed about 600 people.

Happy 2019. Arabaina!

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With colleagues after the traditional meal of rice and zebu meat
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Seventh graders…enough said…

 

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Deuces for the chefs
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Attempt #1,250 to take an organized picture…

Rice Cakes

I have a coffee shop in my village.

The decor is rustic–hipster chic. It’s full of wooden stools and green plants and it serves the best rice cakes in the world. Yes, in the whole world. It’s a fact.

The recipe is a secret passed down from generation to generation. It’s run by a local grandmother. Only, it’s not so secret any more. She shared it with me.

When my friend and fellow volunteer, Alyssa, came to visit me last year, she boasted that this coffee stand sold the best mokary vary in all of Madagascar. At the time, I had only been in Madagascar for three months, so I took her word for it. A year and a half later, I see now that Alyssa wasn’t wrong.

What makes this mokary vary (rice bread or rice cake in the Northern Malagasy dialect) the best? I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s the combination of yeast and baking powder. Maybe it’s the type of rice she uses to grind into flour. Maybe it’s just the right amount of sugar added, or the right amount of charcoal used…or maybe it’s just pure, natural talent.

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Whatever it is, I’m satisfied eating it every day. This place has become my daily routine. I wake up, throw on a salovana, sweep my house and then wander out of my yard up the road to drink coffee and eat mokary vary and listen to the gossip and the news. If it weren’t for this place, I’d have no idea what’s happening in the village.

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Local “Starbucks”

Before Alyssa finished her service, she came back to our coffee shop and begged the owner for the recipe. With a hearty laugh, she obligingly walked us through each step. It’s a two day process. Day two begins very early (“at the cock’s crow”) and we overslept and missed it. But I promised Alyssa that I would go back and observe the final piece of the puzzle, so that she could bring this little piece of Madagascar (my little piece) back to The States with her.

Well Alyssa, here it is. Let me know if it tastes the same over there.

PS: She misses you.

Dady's Mokary Vary Recipe:

Ingredients:
4 cups of rice flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp yeast
1 cup sugar
water

The Night Before:
1. Put 4 Tablespoons of rice flour in a saucepan (1 TB per cup of rice flour)
2. Add enough water to make a thin liquid
3. Place the saucepan over direct heat
4. Cook until the mixture (called koba) gets thick and becomes difficult to stir
5. Let the koba cool
6. Add the baking powder and yeast to the remaining rice flour in a large bowl
7. Add the cooled koba to the mixture and combine until it is incorporated. It'll be a bit lumpy
8. Let this mixture sit overnight. I didn't see this part, but I assume Dady covered it with a cloth.

The Morning Of (3 am or When the Cock Crows):
1. Add the sugar and enough water to make a very thin batter
2. Heat very small pans with lids over charcoal (or I guess in an oven if you're going that way)
3. Add enough oil to coat the pans
4. Pour about 1/4 cup batter in each pan. Cover and let cook for a few minutes.
5. Flip the mokary once it has had time to set on one side.
6. When the edges are brown, remove and let cool.

Make sure to eat this with some really mahery coffee. 

Mazotoa.

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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