The following post was written by Marybeth Thomas.
I had never traveled outside of the United States prior to October 12, 2016 and never knew what to expect when I landed in Madagascar. I couldn’t sleep anticipating the moments, seconds even, leading to my arrival in the land that was foreign to me. My mind was racing at miles per minute and honestly, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Initially, I presumed that I would walk through Madagascar as peacefully as any other tourist, as if somewhere down the road, I had forgotten something, a recollection that would have been so pivotal in my future actions and reactions to scenarios presented to me within the country. Of course, my heart has tried to make me flee, to run home to the comfort I know, but my soul knows this is all part of God’s plan for my life.
On the flight from Jberg (yes, I am finally accustomed to the slang term), I was deliberately placed beside a diplomat of various sorts for the embassy of Madagascar. The man lived in Madagascar but was returning from a business meeting in the United States. Although I was particularly interested by matter of meager disbelief and minute awe at the situation, I assumed the matter of his business was confidential and made what I presumed to be the most insightful choice, given the scenario; I remained silent. The man and I had shared the same plane from JFK International but had only met on the Airlink—a petite plane used by South African Airways for flights of short duration to places like Madagascar.
The diplomat looked at me but I didn’t dare meet his gaze directly. He and I had only spoken once and that was simply when I passed him boarding the plane and asked him to allow me to cross to my window seat. I only knew his occupation because he asked where I was from, and I felt entitled for a similar question myself.
‘Mind I ask, are you traveling to Madagascar with anyone?’
“Well, no.” I responded with an uncertain chuckle.
‘Have you ever traveled before?’
“My passports totally empty, this will be my first stamp, and this paper is the first visa form I’ve ever seen.”
The man paused. He reached in his pocket again, and I readily braced myself for what was to come, but to my relief, he pulled out a pen and pulled down his table from the chair in front of him. The man began writing on the paper that was to become our certificate for retrieving our visa once we landed in Antananarivo. I watched as he quickly but tactically checked each box, wrote in each number, without even fumbling for his passport as I did. This man was a seasoned traveler who knew his place, traveling to him must have been magic to Houdini, or well, that’s what I tried to tell myself so I didn’t seem entirely out of place.
‘Why would you go to Madagascar; you’ll never want to travel again.’
Here, I really had to think about my position, about my response. I honestly didn’t have an answer, I decided to go to Madagascar on a whim. Anna Bennett was going and invited me to tag along and all my arrangements were in order so I had no opposition to the idea. I was ready to see the world, but I wasn’t sure I could do it alone, and I knew Anna was a strong individual, but still, I was landing on my own. In a few days’ time, I knew I would be reunited with her, then I could confidently have told him wrong. Now, however, I couldn’t.
“I’m really not sure, I just hear the country is beautiful and I want to see more than the falsified idea of the kid’s film.” My words had no meaning, they were empty hackneyed phrases I coined to make myself seem more intelligent, more experienced.
The diplomat was much wiser than I and I am most certain that he knew my words were frivolous. He began spouting parables; telling, in detail, his thoughts and visions for Madagascar, and the experience that prompted him to reach such revelations.
The diplomat first mentioned that the government purposefully induces poverty so that the people remain docile and compliant. Although I could not understand such a concept, I kept my mind open, trying to see the reasoning, rather than what I perceived to be the absolute and unfortunate reality.
Later, within the country I decided to conduct research with regard to the concept of government within the hearts of the people, and found through such sources as Wikipedia that riots were common around Antananarivo; near the airport and that in order to calm the people down, tear gas was released not too long ago in fact. Had I not seen the issue for myself, I would never have known such corruption existed. How could I understand the concept? The US State department neglects her people of such care or motive to seek out this information. I explained my thoughts openly to the man and he totally agreed. He expressed that the situation will inevitably break my heart, that I will be thoroughly shocked. But that I would see for myself, just how beautiful the country was, which was what thought I should cling to. I should mention that the man had been working with the people since 1997, and that he has witnessed no progress in his time, which in my mind seemed incredible. But, after witnessing the problem first hand, alone, only hours later, I entirely understood not his rationale, but what he was preparing me for.
Unfortunately, not a word from him could possibly have been adequate preparation for what I was about to face in my first day abroad.
The plane landed at approximately 3:00 pm. With passport, visa papers and $27.00 USD for visa purposes tightly secured in my black Packsafe attached securely at the hip, I stepped off and onto the runway. Everyone frantically stormed and diffused into the once empty space as we all rushed to the terminal to complete the customs process, all anxiously anticipating that our luggage had been lost in transit from JFK (spoiler: I was blessed to receive my luggage).
I had never been through customs before, so this was an interesting and unfamiliar experience for me. Soon, I found that none of the passengers, or at least the Rhodes Scholars, understood this particular visa process. In fact, we were all cautious when our passports were taken from us.
Prior to landing, I neglected to write the seat number from my flight on my visa application and was already relieved at the woman’s compliance as I fumbled through my pouch to find 6K happily gleaming to me and assuredly handed her the ticket. So, I trusted that the overly joyful commanding officer was in good intent and would ensure my passport safely returned to my palm and I was right.
I currently hold in my possession, almost a year’s supply of anti-malarial medication. I knew that the allowance was no more than 3 months and any more that that would have to be claimed. Naturally, I followed a quick witted older woman who knew I was in distress over the issue (bonding ensues during a 15-hour flight). So, we passed through and as we were asked if we were certain that we had nothing to claim, I, with my overly stuffed 60+ liter Osprey bag and smaller Osprey back attached to my front half, quickly said “No.” If anything, I was nervous about my brace needing to be claimed. I, in no way, was ready to remove that lethal international weapon and attempt to explain its relevance to me to the officers who only knew French.
Contrary to my concerns, simply and uninterestingly, both the elderly woman and I passed through with not a single comment aside from the ones we marked between each other and the echoes of an overly hysterical laugh procured by the resource officer succeeding in the distance.
Upon entering Madagascar, I rushed to find an ATM. I had been informed that I should not try to linger too long because there is great civil unrest present in the airport. Additionally, I had a shuttle from the airport arranged and knew they were probably anticipating my arrival and that I should hurry. I couldn’t understand any of the phrases on the ATM but knew the economic situation was much worse in this country, so it couldn’t hurt me to select the largest amount of money until my card was declined. Ultimately, I was right to do so, but caution travelers upon doing this in more developed regions of the world.
I stepped to the edge of the airport ground and saw a young man waiting with a sign that said ‘MARRYBETTH’ and I immediately swam through the sea of people, eagerly waving my hands like Phelps in the final moments of the Men’s butterfly in the Olympics. I felt like such a young and naïve tourist and the driver quickly acknowledged my fear. I was not offered any form of introduction but had my purple daylight pack quickly snatched from my possession. The man simply darted off into the mob of people. I thought to trust and simply follow. As we rushed through the crowd, all eyes went from me to him. They must have seen him take my bag and perhaps thought that he had robbed me, I thought. Two men came between he and I and attempted to trip me from my weak side, my right side. The men began shouting at my driver in words of either Malagasy or French. Only now that I sit and think, I realize that he likely took a verbal beating for me. Unfortunately, I do not speak French so the ride was rather quiet and I was not able to ask any questions.
As we drove through the city, dirt particles fluttered everywhere and eventually, my eyes began to water. I quickly wiped away the tears to refrain from drawing any attention to myself. I could not help but smile, I had done it. I navigated all of the NYC subway station by myself to get here. I went through an international flight procedure all by myself to get this far. But then I was pounded by worry that fell upon me like a bag of bricks. Suddenly, I gazed upon hundreds of people who were starving, staring and obviously discontent at the US American passing by. Of course, looking in retrospect, I now understand that it wasn’t the American in me that presented itself to the people watching, but the look I gave in turn that produced such bewilderment.
As we drove along, this 30-minute ride suddenly seemed like a lifetime. What was I to do to pass the time? I did not want to look anymore, I just wanted to ask the driver to take me back to the airport. I wanted to go home. Then, to my horror, the situation escalated to new extremes. I thought that in my life, I had seen conflict, that I had been confronted, challenged and even when I did not know how to respond in those cases, I always knew what I did wrong and what was demanded of me to rectify any situation. Here, this wasn’t like that.
Nevertheless, I chose to keep my head lifted and take in each sensation that was presented to me. In MAD, there are no traffic lights, and only in the busiest of places do you find officers guiding traffic. Men and women simply follow through the streets with no concern for the vehicles passing by and to draw the attention of other drivers, persons would simply sound their horn when appropriate. I discovered that traffic officers in MAD, or this one anyways, are similar to the PM red light you never anticipate, the one that finally changes, but only minutes after you sped through. Personally, I have not done that, but have been present when the situation occurred. Take that situation and add a swarm of cars, manifesting themselves within the streets like bees in a hive.
As we waited, fear began to really take hold within me. I wasn’t too certain of why. Traffic? Well no, that didn’t seem possible, I just came from one of the busiest cities in the world. Language barriers? Perhaps, but I had a French guidebook from Lonely Planet for my salvation. I couldn’t understand the sensations going through me but I guess this was culture shock for me and I suppose there isn’t much methodology behind the sensation.
An elder man approached the door of which I was closely pressed to. The man had some large instrument with a string he would pluck. He came to the window very purposefully and began talking to me in what I suppose was a language that was foreign to me.
This was the first instance in my life where I was so frozen with fear that I could not rationalize what was happening. I neglected to lock the car door upon departing the airport but was too frozen to attempt to fix the situation. I didn’t even have a seatbelt to cling to. I thought that in moments, the tension bearing the door in place would be released and I would fall to the streets. I decided to simply look straight ahead and hope for the best. I glanced up at the driver and at this moment, I knew he felt my fear. I could tell he was genuinely less concerned about the man at the door, but more to the helpless traveler drowning of self-doubt in the back seat.
After we reached the hotel, the driver graciously took the larger bag from my possession and we were followed by another man. Now, after what had happened earlier, I was not curious to meet other people and tried my best to refrain from acknowledging his presence. I only remember the café color of the man’s arm reaching out to me for what I can only assume to be money, rather than a helping hand. At check in, I was in a daze and believe that in fumbling for my reservation and passport, I was an amusement to the man at the front desk. I kept asking how much money I owed for my stay, as if I had forgotten that the booking was paid in advance. Finally, I heard some English from the man and thankfully, understood enough to grab my key and flee to my room. However, I was still in shock from both exhaustion and the events that happened that day. The generous man who delivered me also led me to my floor and as we took the “lift” to the 1st floor rooms, I could not help but glance over at him struggling to hold my bag, likewise, he met my gaze and as the elevator that was extremely quaint went up, we could not help but laugh.
In the time I spent locked within my self-made prison, I was the most productive I have been in all my travels. I spent the day budgeting and writing about everything. I was nonetheless terrified of the land I had ridden through, or was I ashamed of myself rather because I simply did not understand French? I didn’t understand anything. For the entirety of that next day, the driver was the pool boy. He cleaned the pool from sunrise to when the sun had long set. I almost felt bad for him, he spent the day prior waiting on a lost child in an airport when he seemed more enthusiastic about his work at the pool. Once, as if acknowledging my thoughts, he glanced up at me from below and stared for a moment, it scared me at the time, but now I just think that perhaps he was concerned that I had not left the room for the span of the day and curious of why I refused to come outside.
I incessantly wrote all day and in the night when I couldn’t sleep. I drowned out the words of French tourists in the room beside mine with the voices of Spotify music. I discovered that the hotel restaurant didn’t offer cuisine at the time because of construction and because the hotel was located in a dangerous portion of the town, I was unable to leave to acquire food. I hadn’t eaten a thing except for the Snickers bar that I saved from the flight over. I found some orange tang (a drink packet) that I had placed in my bag months ago for work, but had never gotten to enjoy until now. I sent the powder flying everywhere but fortunately, my REI bottle it seemed, caught most of the mix. But this didn’t matter, because almost as a savage being, I just shoved the dust from the table into my bottle that I filled to the brim with water I had purified the day before. I had an extra packet of pure sugar from one of the local plantations in Madagascar left for my tea so I took that and added some flavor to the cocktail. Truly, this wasn’t the most pleasant flavor of experiences, but this did teach me an invaluable lesson:
Fate’s cousin seems to me to be none other than humility himself. For in this journey of mine, I’ve found comfort in the joys of laughter. My peace resides in the simple sensation procured by the most fatal of blows to the gut, the crack of a joke that sends each muscle as a mallet bouncing over a marimba of ribs. I couldn’t help but laugh at how foolish I had been. How I feared over things that I knew were elementary.
I knew once Anna and I were united, we would be in for one of the greatest adventures of our lives and that this was only part one of my first chapter. I learned from all this that not all journeys are simple, that to survive in life, we must find the light that procures the shadows we stand in, because that is where our hope lies. Every part of my being wanted to leave, to go home. That would have been simple, but I am known for the push, the drive that has been instilled within me. In every instance, I have found a bit of laughter. Often, in athletics, I would run with a smile even when I couldn’t breathe. I just wasn’t accustomed to laughing at myself. For most of us, I would venture to claim that to be one of the most difficult things to do. We don’t want to admit where we have fault in any situation because that is where we may very well stand alone. But, that is where I have found the most growth and you, reading this piece of prose, perhaps you feel the same way.
Now, in sharing my account with you, I hope I am no longer laughing alone. At the time, I needed to reflect on the wise Rhodes Scholar’s assistance, the visa that was just too out of reach and the adventures with the man whose name I would never know. I needed to find humor in the situations where I felt fear. Now, I think of Harry Potter and the Patronus charm that always took the image of the Death Eater. Maybe my fear never takes shape of Snape in a feather hat, or a giant jack in the box, but I will cast my fears down with laughter all the same. I may not be a wizard, but I find my own magic in moments of laughter. I hope that like J.K. Rowling did for me through her writing, in my humility, I will have shown someone that laughter at fear, at self, and with others is the great remedy; the melody in a dynamic symphony that welcomes applause in both times of triumph and failure.