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.

 

Mombasa and Moroni

Moroni

In Nairobi, Kenya, while lying on my bunk in a youth hostel, a big blonde American guy entered the room and walked right up to me. His name was Peter. I wasn’t the only one in the room, there were quite a few travelers that afternoon, but somehow, we were like long lost friends. We immediately hit it off, and as is so common with solo travelers, we decided to join our wagons for a while. He was on his way to South Africa to make some money. He had a friend working there, and in those days if you were white, you could easily get a job, especially in JoBurg. I was certainly in need of money.

By the time I arrived in Kenya I had forty dollars to my name. Not bad really, considering I had left the States four months earlier with about six hundred dollars and had spent nearly three months traveling in Europe, including a month on Crete, and had traveled overland through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and finally to Kenya. I had looked into teaching English in the Kenyan countryside and calculated I would need to stay two years in order to save enough money to enable me to resume my travels. The pay was around forty dollars a month.

Peter and I made the arrangement that he would front me the travel money and I would pay him back in South Africa. In those days it was not as easy as it is today to pass through the countries that were on the way to South Africa. Several of the countries, if I remember correctly Malawi and I’m pretty sure Rhodesia, required that you show a certain amount of cash to be able to enter. I don’t remember how much it was but because of this fact we decided to look for alternative routes into S.A., and I got out my map. When we looked at the map, we could see this country off to the east (an island) that if we entered from the north and traveled to the south we would be just across from Lorenzo Marques, Mozambique, just a hop, skip and a jump into S.A. We knew absolutely nothing about Madagascar and that was part of the intrigue.

We did a little checking and found we should be able to get some kind of cargo boat from Mombasa to Majunga, Madagascar. Having secured our Madagascar visas, we headed off to the coast. It really was quite exciting to explore travel options in a port. We went to the harbor master and learned about a cement boat going to Madagascar by way of The Comoros. We arranged passage on the deck and decided to go up north to Lamu Island and enjoy the time before departure. A few other travelers were taking the same boat, a tall lanky English guy and a big Canadian from Ottawa named Doug.

Everyone bought supplies for the trip: sardines, papayas, bananas, oats, biscuits (cookies), etc. The night before cast off, we all went out to experience the bar scene near the big tusks in Mombasa. It seemed appropriate sailor behavior. I think all of us ended up with a lady of the night; I know I did. The next morning, we met up at the dock and set sail. It really is a nice way to bid farewell to a place — by boat. The Mombasa harbor is quite beautiful with the fort on one end and the old city, a mix of colonial and Arab architecture. I haven’t been back to Mombasa since then but I understand it has grown immensely. Apparently, the old city remains as it was. The new city just grew around the old.

I remember the first morning, the English guy was eating papaya with oats sprinkled on top and I joined in. Not long after the sea started to take its toll. The boat was quite small and so was tossed pretty well by the swells. It wasn’t until almost twenty years later I could smell papaya without starting to retch. For three days I lay in the hammock that someone had offered. Then finally, I regained my sea legs and began eating again. That was the end of my seasickness, and I was pretty damned hungry.

We slipped into a kind of timelessness on the deck of this boat — the blue, blue water of the Indian Ocean, the vast sky. If I remember correctly, I read the entire Lord of the Ring series on that trip, including The Hobbit. Peter and I also passed some time creating very elaborate board games. We created a version of battleship with extensive rules of engagement. The crew usually had a line hanging off the back of the boat on which they caught fish and often offered some to us. They also supplied us with rice. Rice and fish, I couldn’t think of a better meal at that time.

A day or two before arriving in The Comoros, my chickens came home to roost. While standing off the side of the deck relieving myself, it was anything but a relief — burning pee. That is one very uncomfortable sensation. I knew immediately what it meant and thought back to my night in Mombasa harbor. We were out at sea and there was nothing I could do until we docked in Moroni, the capital and port of The Comoros.

In port after being cleared by immigration, I immediately went in search of a medical facility. I found a clinic being run by some very nice French nuns. They provided me with the necessary antibiotics and relief was gained. After a couple of days exploring Moroni and the beaches to the north, we were again on our way on the sea of timelessness.

-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.