From the Lowlands to the Highlands

The coast of Madagascar was a sight to see, miles and miles of white beaches, palm trees with the mountains behind, and not a soul in sight. We pulled into a small village in the north of the country which had a French-run sugar mill. We were picking up cargo which would be dropped off in Majunga. There was a party at the company that night and we were invited by the French management. I don’t think I have ever seen a group of guys as drunk as we were. We were all young lads and had been days at sea. The Comoros was a Muslim country so we didn’t have any refreshments while there. Whiskey was the drink of choice. I’ve never been much of a hard alcohol drinker, which I reaffirmed that night.

The boat had navigated an estuary to the small village and in order to leave we had to time the tides exactly. We didn’t, so ended up aground and leaning to one side. We had to wait for the next high tide. Another couple of days sailing down the Madagascar coast and we finally arrived in Majunga.

Majunga harbor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Majunga is a dusty port town. This part of Madagascar is mostly made up of people of African and Arabic descent. All of the buildings were bleached white and reflected the hot sun. Peter and I were anxious to get on our way so we didn’t linger long. We hitchhiked out of town. The journey from the coast to Antananarivo, Tana for short, is beautiful; from the dry desert landscape near Majunga to the highlands of central Madagascar. When you reach the highlands, you begin to see the terraced rice fields of the Malagasy. On the second to the last day, a French expat couple picked us up and offered us a room in their house for the night. Wine and cheese in the evening and an omelet in the morning were quite a treat after so many days at sea.

When Peter and I arrived in Tana we were quite shocked. First by the architecture — the city was built on hills and the houses were two stories high made with brick and had wooden balconies, unexpected in Africa. Apparently, some Scottish fellow helped plan the city and put his stamp on the look. Below the hills was a small lake surrounded by jacaranda trees. On one side of the lake was the Hilton Hotel, the only high-rise building in the country. But most surprising to us were the women. The highland Malagasy people are of Indo-Malay descent: long, straight, black hair; dark olive skin; and almond-shaped eyes. Considering we were off the S.E. coast of Africa, we were quite surprised. On that very first day wandering around the city, I heard myself say, “This is a place I could get stuck in for a while.” It proved itself true.

At that time (1973), very few travelers ventured through Madagascar, so those travelers who were living in Tana knew very quickly new blood was in town. We were introduced to an American with shoulder-length hair, about our age, named Derek. He was teaching English at the American Cultural Center. He offered us a place to stay until we found something else and mentioned they needed a substitute teacher for an evening class at the center. I explained that I had never taught before and he immediately reassured me that it didn’t matter. “You just need to look over the lesson before you teach.” That was the beginning of my English teaching career. I substituted that evening and was offered a job for the next term which would begin in a month. We checked in with the American Embassy to let them know we were in town and also to get a recommendation for a doctor. The Consul General was a young, very light-skinned African American, a really nice guy; Skip was his name. He pointed me towards the embassy doctor and welcomed us to Madagascar. There was an American NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) listening post on Madagascar at that time so a few American expats living in Tana. The Malagasy doctor gave me antibiotics for the gonorrhea and I was careful to explain I had already been given a dose in The Comoros but apparently not strong enough. I wanted to be sure to get a strong enough one this time so that I wouldn’t have to come back again.

Jacaranda trees blooming in Antananarivo (Tana)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, I did have to go back again. It returned. So, so did I, to the doctor and got another dose. By this time, I was on my third dose of antibiotics and it was beginning to take its toll. After the third dose had run its course and I still wasn’t rid of the gonorrhea, I was wasted. And, my pee was no longer burning but it was brown. Somehow gonorrhea had morphed into hepatitis. Probably what had happened is the antibiotics had played havoc with my liver and perhaps caused a reoccurrence of the hepatitis I had had several years earlier in the States. But regardless, my pee was brown and I couldn’t stay awake nor eat a thing. Fortunately, we had met some French school teachers who were going on holiday and had offered us their flat while they were gone.

By this time, I knew I was going to stay in Madagascar to teach the next term, but Peter wanted to continue on to South Africa. After all, he had a friend waiting for him there, with work. He made arrangements for a flight to Johannesburg. Peter did stick around and look after me until I was on the road to recovery. I was pretty useless but amazingly only for a short while. The forced down time was an opportunity to read Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.

After only a couple of weeks, I was getting better. We calculated what I owed Peter and I said I would send the money to him after I started working. By buying dollars on the black market, I managed to send all the money I owed him in pretty short order. I ended up staying two years in Madagascar, teaching and traveling, and it became a crucial point in my life.

What I found in Madagascar was a reconnection with life: living, being, enjoying. Life was good. Eventually there was a girlfriend, Voahangy, a beautiful Malagasy. She helped me find a big house to rent and many of the Center’s English teachers ended up living there communally. We also had a room for the travelers coming through. Randy Dodge was on the top floor in a kind of attic space. Keenan, an American, wanted to have the verandah with his Malagasy girlfriend and I had the room on the other side of the wall from his verandah. One of my windows looked out into his space. There was also a New Zealander and an Australian. Randy’s girlfriend was named Rickey, a very young, extremely beautiful and smart Malagasy girl. I think she was 18 or 19 at the time. She was one of my English students from book two through book six and into the advanced class.

Voahangy didn’t need to be an English student. Her English was perfect. She was my age and a doctor. Her sister was married to another of the center’s teachers, and in fact it was he who I replaced.

Unfortunately, I had to share Voahangy. She already had a boyfriend when I met her at a party at Skip’s, the American Consul General. Her boyfriend worked for the FOA, the United Nation’s Organization for Forestry and Agriculture, and so was always traveling around the island, fortunately. We spent the time together that we could.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had two visitors from Kansas City while in Madagascar. The first was a previous girlfriend. It was terribly awkward. Our relationship had finished a year before I left the States, although I did visit her on the way out. It was very difficult for me and extremely uncomfortable for her. I just couldn’t pretend. It didn’t help that she had put on 20 or 30 pounds since I had last seen her, but really, we were done. I hoped she would meet a Malagasy guy. She didn’t stay very long. The second was someone who I didn’t really know very well. We had gone to high school together and she was one year behind me. She had a great time and became a teacher and stayed quite some time. I don’t remember if she left Madagascar before me or after. Her name is Donna Price. We’ll meet up again.

It was the assassination of President Ratsimandrava on February 5, 1975, that set off a series of events that would eventually lead to my leaving Madagascar. The killing was blamed on a political group from the coast and the battle raged in Antananarivo for days. For a couple of days, we all just stayed in the house and listened to the gunfire. I remember running to the bathroom and ducking under the windows, just in case shots came through. Actually, we found it quite exhilarating. We had never been in a coup d’état before and were young and thought we were invincible. When the shooting died down, we went out on the street to survey the situation and had to run for cover into the American Embassy when the shooting started up again. We spent the night at the embassy and a great bond was formed with everyone there: the marine guards, the staff, and us traveler teachers. A curfew was established and we had to change the hours of our classes and begin at 6:00 a.m. in order to be able to close before curfew.

During the curfew, one night I went home with a lady expecting to stay the night only to find she wasn’t a she but a he. The curfew had already begun and I found myself out on the street when I shouldn’t be. Fortunately, one of my students was a Colonel in the Gendarmes, and it was he who drove by in a jeep and kindly dropped me off at home.

The political scene was very unsettled for months and every Malagasy who could was making plans to go to France. After Didier Ratsiraka was installed as the President in June, things got even dicier, especially for the Americans. He was much more of a socialist and had strong ties to both China and Russia. It was known he would be closing the NASA post so all of the Americans working there started making plans too.

In the middle of the fighting in Tana between the rival factions, the prison just outside of town was closed and all of the inmates were released. They were to be interred at a later date when it was safer. One of the beneficiaries of this situation was an American businessman, George Reppas. He had been arrested for some kind of fraud involving his business exporting Malagasy beef. Apparently, they were contrived charges in order to get him out of the picture so that his Malagasy partners could take over the business. He had kept himself fit in his tiny cell by practicing yoga daily. Because of the closing of the prison, he had been released into the care of the American Embassy who was responsible for his whereabouts. He was staying in a room somewhere in Tana and had a young Malagasy girlfriend who had looked me up. By this time, the semester at the Cultural Center had finished and I was planning a trip to Mauritius and La Reunion.

The expat scene in Antananarivo at that time was very small and everyone knew just about everyone else and what they were up to. George’s girlfriend, who coincidentally was leaving the island with her family, which was a jazz group, and also going to La Reunion, proposed that somehow, I help George escape from Madagascar. He had made some arrangements for a boat to pick him up from Majunga in the north. We made arrangements that he go with a friend of ours who had rented a car and would drive him up to Majunga while myself and a buddy would make our way south to Fort Dauphin, where we could catch a boat to La Reunion. Because everyone knew that Ginger, my Australian buddy, and I were going to Fort Dauphin, we thought that it would act as a decoy for George.

Ginger and I hitchhiked to the south of the country. Southern Madagascar is very rugged terrain with terrible roads, even today. In Fort Dauphin, there was an American school operated by the American Lutheran Church, and was a place American expats went for R & R. When George went missing, and knowing that Ginger and I were traveling to Fort Dauphin, the embassy assumed that he was with us and figured they would get hold of him there.

Arab dhow of the coast of Madagascar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: I received the following email from George Reppas and so will let him correct the record. When Ginger and I arrived at the American School after traveling for several days everyone asked us where George Reppas was. But by that time, he had slipped out of the country in the north. It was only the next year when I returned to the States that I heard the full story from George. He did manage to escape onto the awaiting boat after somewhat of a hair-raising chase. Randy Dodge and I had lunch with him in San Francisco. He was meeting a movie producer who he was trying to convince to make a movie of his great escape. Recently I googled George Reppas and found that he is still pursuing his dream of making the movie and had started a production company. Good luck George.

Good hearing from you, I always wondered what has happened to you and your Madagascar commune friends.

Craig Jones, our camp archivist, did a search of my name and ran across a section of your story. It was not quite right.

We were not released, as you wrote, but I took a chance that I would not be shot if I walked into the fire between the FRS and the army, and I took Professor Hercourt with me.  When we got through the women prisoners followed and then the rest.  I had instructed our guys to let the Molotov cocktails fly before leaving.  They didn’t do a thorough job and that’s why the prison was back in repair after 6-weeks.

At the US embassy I hooked up with Slater, a British agent, and he coordinated with Jackie Cauvin who had a trimaran in Majunga.  You guys did the fake ID and lined up the Swiss driver that got us through.  The Malagasy sent a hitman to the Comoros apparently to either bring me back or to hit, but he was stopped by Interpol and they took him away. I never saw any of them again, obviously lined up by The State Department.

Your story did not have it right, but I recognized that it was done by someone who knew but was without all the facts. -George

-purushottama

This is from the collection of stories, essays, poems and insights that is compiled to form the book From Lemurs to Lamas: Confessions of a Bodhisattva. Download a PDF or order the book Here.