Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Final Countdown

More than a year ago, a friend and coworker who was leaving Madagascar sent me in her final months of work a departure tracker. It's an excel spreadsheet that, while perhaps not a very stylish, is pretty clever. But then I've always been impressed by what a simple old excel worksheet can do - its the clydesdale of our times and we'd be lost without it, no matter what the smooth talking software developers tell you about their fancy-pants data management tools. 

I never bothered to set it up for myself, because somehow I never was quite sure I was leaving. But this week it ended up in my inbox again as I may have mentioned once or twice to some of my coworkers that there are but a few short days left for me in Madagascar. Turns out, I marked 800 days since I first arrived in Madagascar this week. I will also only add about 20 or so to that and then be finishing up here. It tells me, down to the second, when I will have completed my "tour" here and I have to admit, it's pretty satisfying to open it up and see that I'm in the 1 percentile. I'm in the home stretch!

In November 2010, I came to Madagascar for five weeks. Now, more than two years and several false departures, I'm actually coming home. Promise. And while the homecoming has been longed for and expected many times before, now that it's actually on the horizon, it's a little bit bittersweet. 

I can't say two years in Madagascar have been easy or full of sublime joy. I know you're supposed to ooze with love of a newfound culture on these blog things and talk about how you felt just so at home in your new land. 

Well I didn't. Not until the near end, at least - and even now, it's more like Madagascar and I have come to have a healthy respect and appreciation for one another (and one another's boundaries), rather than the puppy love of wide-eyed adventurers.

There were a lot of lonely, baffling moments. This culture is unlike any other - I have tried to tell any other vazah that comes here, even if they're fresh off the Air France flight ,that they need to get it through their head quickly that Madagascar is not African, it's not Asian, it belongs to no other continental culture. If anything, it belongs to the Indian Ocean. It truly is its own island. 

But that doesn't mean these two years haven't had their sublime moments. I can remember looking out over rolling hills and eucalyptus groves once in an area that can fairly justly be called "the middle of nowhere" thinking to myself I'm one of only a handful of people - let alone Canadians - who ever get to see this piece of the earth. 

I can also remember running many Sunday afternoons along the beach of the crashing and cajoling Indian Ocean and thinking "here I am... wow." When I look out over the waves, and the blue stretches away it's crazy to think that the next stop is Western Australia. 

I can remember a lot of brunches featuring jambon cru, muffins, quiche, an assortment of cheese and tropical fruits with a motley crew of Brits, Japanese, fellow Canucks, Moroccans and, once, a rogue German. 

I can remember balancing on the back of a motorcycle trying to film what this place looks like, weaving between bicycle rickshaws, children, 4x4 pick-ups, several dogs, the odd chicken and more rickshaws. It was chaotic and went in starts and fits and it smelled of exhaust, but once we got out of the rickshaw-jam, it smelled like cloves. Cloves, sunshine and a nice drive to the beach, it's a pretty unbeatable way to spend an afternoon. 

I can remember attending the 236th Annual Marine Ball. I can remember being as speechless then as I am now, just at the thought of it. 16,000 km from the US every year, the flag is saluted, presented and pomped and circumstanced around a ballroom with the glitterati of the expatriate and political community in Tana. The US Marines that guard embassies around the world throw a ball every year no matter where they are, so it was kind of neat, kind of funny, to think that ambassadors and grungy aid workers across the globe were schmoozing in their tails and feathers. And if you don't believe me, I have the commemorative cup they gave us to prove it. 

I can't even count the number of times I remember sitting in Cafe de la Gare, an odd piece of Paris 1924 swarmed in a sea of Antananarivo 2013. Driving up to it is one of the more chaotic market streets where women sit in lambas (sarong skirts) flimsy costume jewellery next to men in addidas selling cellphone chargers or sometimes just a five-minute charge. Then the driver turns right into the gated parking lot and the Gare (the old train station) looms as dignified as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. When you walk into the Cafe de la Gare, it's an enclave of civility and society from another century. Giant wrought-iron chandeliers above, leather seats below, a giant fireplace made out of an boiler engine, and the funny bathroom in an old train car, where the seats nearly touch the doors. On the walls are my favourite part though: archive photos of Antananarivo from the late 19th and early 20th centuries right up to a truly special one with a bohemian band climbing aboard a train at the station in 1960. Not only is the Gare a nice place to sit, but they'll let you sit there ad infinitum. Quite often on a Wednesday night or a Sunday afternoon, a group of us would gather to play board games. Usually a round of Puerto Rico would last the dinner and a couple of drinks after, but I also can remember the only time I ever wanted to leave the Gare. One Sunday afternoon someone rallied the troops for a game and one of the teachers at the American school brought a game called Joan of Arc. That it revolved around the hundred years war should have been our first clue. It was the hundred years game. We met at about noon and no number of rounds of beer, no amount of "what's one more crepe?"-ing could get us to the end. I finally ducked out with a friend at about seven, but I think the game could have continued and the history teacher (of course) looked at us reproachfully for deserting Joan in her hour of need. It's not like we didn't already know it wasn't going to go well for her though. 

I can remember so many things that have happened here, people I've met or places I've seen now that I get going. A friend asked me recently what I will miss the most when I am back home or where ever I move onto next. If I am honest, I don't think I will miss Madagascar in the sense that I will not long to be back here. I know that sounds awful, but about eight months after I came here, I was relieved when a very kind friend told me I don't have to love everything and every place doesn't have to capture my heart. It isn't that I don't like Madagascar, and sure I'll miss the balmy 36 degrees and the sound of the ocean and the fresh mangoes. But you can get tropical amenities all over, well, the tropics, which happen to take up a large swathe of the earth. Oh and of course I'll miss the people - I'm sort of supposed to say that, but the truth is I already miss many of the people that have made this place for me what it is. When I first got here, a few coworkers took me to Veloma (farewell) parties to meet other people. It's been a revolving door since I got here and maybe that's what's made it hard. My fast and fabulous friends that I've made here aren't here any more. They're scattered in around the globe now in the UK, Panama, Oman, South Africa, Mauritius, Sudan, Australia, the US, Japan, Canada... 

I may not miss Madagascar exactly (who knows, maybe I will), but I will cherish the time I've had here and the incredible things I've seen, eaten, smelled, experienced. As much as Madagascar included some times of loneliness, it also brought people into my life that I would never have gotten to meet in any other place. What I find incredible is that we were all managed to get here, this mass of deep red earth in the middle of the Indian Ocean so far from where we came, if only for a little bit - and that sort of thing doesn't just happen by chance. I think that will be what I will take with me from Madagascar and love most. I had to come 16,000 kms (and for someone who hates flying that's got to mean something profound) and it was obviously worth it, because I have gotten two years that I couldn't have had anywhere else on the planet.