I don’t talk much about Madagascar and as much as I know why that is, I’m still not sure. I can tell you that I read four hundred plus pages of War and Peace on the plane while all the other kids were sleeping. They had started in California a full day before I met them at Charles de Gaulle. I had woken up 45 minutes before I saw them at the airport, tossed some shoes on and took the RER B out of town. They had been up now for, they couldn’t tell me how long, nor what time it was for them. It was 10 a.m. for me, and for a morning person, that’s prime time.
I almost wasn’t let into Africa because of what I kept explaining was a “tapis de yoga” and looking back, why tell the angry man at the Antananrivo airport that you have a yoga mat? “Tapis de couchage” would have worked just fine, but yoga? Why go there? “Vous verrez? Pour faire du stretching.”
I changed Euros to Ariary and bought stamps in the Malgache airport. I still can’t believe the site of the planes, all next to each other with the name of Madagascar’s prime airline, “Mad Air.” It makes so much sense. On Mad Air, you can check livestock and there is no security whatsoever, just walk right on. I saw another plane that came in from the south, belly open, baggage handlers taking goats out of the cargo. One man hugged the goat horizontally across his chest, handing it down to the man on the ground. The goat got stacked on the cart with all the other bags. I kept looking for the fragile sticker.
I assume most African airports are crowded with people absolutely bent on getting white people taxis. I may be wrong about this. “Do you speak English? TAXI!” I think that’s all they knew how to say.
“Yes. I speak English. Can you help me?”
Barely a conversation worth having.
The other students and I were hauled into a van with the steering wheel on the wrong side. People drive on the right side of the road on Madgascar, though this particular van had the steering wheel as if it drove on the left because why not? In High School, I had an old 1980s Dodge with a broken speedometer and if you tried to open the side door, it would fall off, so I had it duck taped on. And there were no back seats. This van here in Madagascar was worse. They piled our bags on top and tied them down with rope that could have been as old as my Dodge. “That’ll hold,” one savvy traveler said.
The roads from the airport could scarcely live up to their name, that is to say, “roads.” They were barely roads. When something is more pothole than not, I’d call it a trail. Car trail? Maybe.
People lined up on the side of the car trails yelling Vasa! Vasa! and pointing.
In some dialects of Malgache, when you say hello, you can end it with any vowel you please, change it as your mood desires. I always liked this, and so did the village kids before demanding, and always, “Donnez-moi l’argent Monsieur.”
One kid on the trip, clad all in North Face, claimed to have not had money as a kid, so he understood what it means, and it meant a lot to him, so he couldn’t just give money to these kids, it meant too much to him, he said.
I remember wandering off during one of our elementary French lessons when I ran into a child from the small village outside. She stared at me and me at her, her silky hair and defined muscles at a mere, must’ve been seven years old, were nothing I had ever seen before. And me, tall, blond as Iowan spring wheat, eyes blue staring back at her. She pointed up and said something before shaking a branch. I had an 1899 pocket Malgache-Français dictionary I picked up in a Paris flea market, looked the word up, nothing. She says it again and shakes and a fresh mango falls in front of us. She picks it up, hands it to me. I say thank you and she says, “Mange. Mange.” And I do, I mange it right in front of her, her smiling and laughing as the juices fall down my shirt. I’m half way done, my face sticky in the drying late afternoon sun and she runs away, past some tree or hut. I sit and finish my mango outside the outhouses before tossing the pit down.
There were no lights in the outhouses and even during the day, you couldn’t see anything when you were inside. North Face kid brought his flashlight and told us to never do that, ever. “The things I saw in there,” he said and went in the forest. Others started following suit, some in the river, which, consequently, we found out the next day was where we would fetch our shower water.
I got sick in Madagascar and that is another story. I can say that my bed mate, Steve, didn’t care to share the bed with me that first night and I don’t blame him.
We were put into partners one morning and I still smelled like last night’s vomit. Everyone wanted to be my partner, I’m sure. Blood shot eyes, keeling over, barely conscious, I’ll take that guy. Susan got assigned to me and we had a few tasks. She had to exchange money at the bank, the one bank, as the other was bombed a few months back. You could see it there in the middle of town, half the brick wall still left open, all the machines cleared out and a few people sleeping inside on the floor. We had been there nearly a week and I was the only one with any currency. Everyone else was just relying on the group.
We were told to bring our passports for visa stuff. I stuffed mine in my back pocket. Susan had a money belt under her skirt and after asking my help to translate at the bank to cash her traveler’s checks, she said that she needed to find a bathroom pronto. We were in rural Madagascar. Bathrooms were as common as air conditioning. She wouldn’t move until she found a bathroom. It was then that she noticed my passport slightly sticking out of my back pocket.
“We have to go back to the hotel,” she said.
“You can’t have your passport sticking out like that. We’re going to be robbed.”
“We’ll be fine.”
“Seriously, we’re going back.”
And I can’t up but think that we’re in Madagascar; we’re going to be robbed, we’re going to be mugged, we’re going to get our iPods stolen and get sick on everything we eat, we’re going to get scammed and taken advantage of and all in the name of a cultural experience. It won’t be long until we’re nuzzled back into the comfort of a morning coffee in a to-go cup and another celebrity scandal.
But for now, my passport is sticking out of my back pocket and that is just going to be a-ok.
And it wasn’t waking up in my own feces, it wasn’t Susan, it wasn’t North Face, nor was it being more out of place and vasa than I could ever had imagined, and as hard as it was to say goodbye to an endless supply of sand between my toes and a bathtub-warm Indian Ocean, I did. Ask me why I left Madagascar and I won’t be able to give you a reason. Just in that moment, that one morning watching the sun rise over the broken ships in the harbor, those child’s eyes still reflected in mine handing me a mango that tasted like honey, it still felt off. I knew I’d return, but this time, this time is just not right.
My adventures need to happen on my terms, and usually those terms involve a forgetting of all terms and planning, and then just walking in one direction until something turns up. Maybe I’m sunburnt, need a drink of water and my feet are blistered, but I’m probably drinking the most delicious vanilla rum you can find trying to make a conversion using an 1899 Malgache-Français dictionary, and chances are, by the end of the night, after I agree to sleeping on the dirt floor, I’ll have to say no to marrying the kind bartender’s daughter.