A Northern Expedition
As I walked to the university this morning, I saw the mad man standing out on his corner. His tell-tale ragged yellow shirt, wooly black hair, and all-over dusting of rusty colored dirt were there as usual, but his expression was eerily placid, almost holy in its stillness and seeming permanence. His face was lifted to the sun but not straining towards it. His eyes were shut tight as though one lapse in his effort to close them would have them drop from his sockets like eggs from a laying hen. His hands were lifted from his sides, the palms up and open. People on the sidewalk, including myself, were walking around him. We’re convinced to feel sorry for such people who may be trapped in a decaying mind, but I’d like to think that on this particular day, the mad man, above all others, had been able to surrender, while we’d stepped around him to fulfill our duties and endeavor to be the people we strive so hard to become.
Being in an urban environment, I daily encounter contrasts that inevitably make me feel more like an outsider than ever before in this country. The mad and the sane frequent the same streets, the gaudily rich are neighbors to the destitute, and the healthy unwittingly flaunt their fortune to many a Quasimodo. When I go jogging, my turning point is the richest hotel in the city, La Note Bleue. Just outside its walls sit camps of women who crush rock from under tattered lean-tos. Cool blue swimming pool overlooking the bay; little piles of rock sold by the roadside.
After intentionally seeking a drastic change in scene, I have gone from the southernmost tip of Madagascar to the northernmost. I am now living in the port city of Diego to teach English courses at the University of Ankarana until high school classes begin again in my small southern town. From the capital of Antananarivo I traveled by taxi-brousse, the equivalent of a small mini-van that by the South’s packed-produce-truck-turned-taxi-brousse standards should have been comparatively more comfortable. But it wasn’t. Since most seats were broken, I supported the full weight of the sleeping man in front of me with my knees for the majority of the 26 hour journey. Though fatigued and a little bruised, I was proud I’d made the journey on my own.
When my university supervisor drove me the several-mile journey outside of town to the campus, I was made speechless by the scene before me. Rows of concrete dormitories loomed like the lost teeth of a now snaggle-toothed giant, cavity ridden by neglect. At random, worms of metal beams squirmed out of the buildings’ sides. Plastic, sometimes scavenged plywood or corrugated metal, plugged up the gaping windows or the enormous chinks of wall that had long ago fallen away. Since there was no where else to dispose of it, dirty water, leftover food, and trash thrown from the dorm balconies gave the only proof that the place was not abandoned but haunted by students. Several times I have seen brave souls nearly get rained on by filth falling from an upper story when passing through the landfill cradled between two buildings.
Since the university is perched on a high hill on the edge of the bay, the wind blasts from the sea and batters the small congregation of buildings in a ceaseless gale. The grass is unkempt and high and wind tousled. The way the wind oppresses in a constant, punishing slap up there, it’s no wonder many of my students complain of being ill, considering quality of their shelter. After several problematic attempts, I dare to wear a skirt to class anymore.
Sometimes I laugh at myself for what I had expected to see driving up in the supervisor’s car. It being the only significant venue for higher education in the north of Madagascar, I had expected the university to have a recreation center, immaculate classrooms without the dead trails of recently pulled vines running up the walls, and white. I’d expected a place clean enough that it would be white despite the red earth. A recreation center. What was I thinking?
Before I started walking to and from the university, I took taxis to avoid walking into class with unprofessional signs of sweat on my face and under my arms. Now I go by foot, since simply being punctual to class far surpasses any expectations of professionalism here. One morning, a taxi lifted me off to school blasting American pop music so loud the driver hardly heard the destination I was calling out to him. Along the way, the driver stopped for a mother who was holding her bedraggled-looking teenager daughter by the waist. I very soon saw the reason for their awkward embrace when the daughter, though trembling to control her body, fell into the cab, her head lolled against my shoulder. Some illness was making her so drunk with weakness she could keep eyes only half open. Her mother was trying to pull her daughter back to her own body, to cradle a young woman made a child again in sickness. I tried to explain that didn’t mind the girl leaning on me, but the mother took her off of me anyway.
All the while scuttling through the streets, the driver turned up the volume on the ridiculously happy bouncy pop songs. “Come on, Barbie! Let’s go party!” The lyrics bellowed from another world of skating rinks and college parties. Over and over my mind repeated in a mantra, “Kill the music! Kill the music!” With the limp bodied girl, her calm, doting mother, me trying not to feel so useless in the back seat and the indifferent driver in the front, there was no room for such music, an exuberant, foreign sound that filled the tiny car with the choking smoke of too many juxtaposed things in too small a space. Once the two women had been delivered to their home and I to the university, I nearly bolted from the taxi but didn’t only to avoid looking like a fool.