I went to Madagascar. It was life-changing. I went to Mada to see something different. In South Africa, I felt that I’d gone all the way around the world only to find another version of Anglo América — Anglo Africa — with the same hang-ups and color lines and lack of romance and passion.
I was an unseasoned wayfarer back then and the idea of going to Mada scared me so much I wanted to cancel the trip. I wound up digging it so much that I extended my stay from twelve days to thirty.
For the most part, I got by using a mix of Merina (Standard) Malagasy and French. I also learned some Ankaraña Malagasy. I studied French at home for a week or so beforehand. After a few days on Mada, I was speaking a mean Pidgin French and expressing a wide range of thoughts and feelings. Later I tried this Pidgin French with Québéçois and metropolitan French, but it was a no-go.
I only learned just enough Merina and Ankaraña Malagasy to mix into my Pidgin French and get by, but one phrase stood out in my mind as truly outstanding: “miala mandry”, meaning to spend the night away from home, yet be back by early morn as if never away.
The Malagasy languages are pretty closely related to the languages spoken on the islands of Southeast Asia, thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean. The people are partly descended from settlers from Borneo that arrived by sea one to 2000 years ago, with Black African, Arab and Indian blood rounding out their DNA, especially on the coasts. I could hear echoes of Malagasy when I got into Malay.
I remember the Malagasy having a signature “fragrance”, men and women alike. It soaked through the currency as well because of the heat and the sweat. Everybody just wadded up their money and held it or stuck it wherever.
When I got to Borneo four years later, sure enough, there was that fragrance again.
Diego, at the northern tip, was a crumbling Arab-Latin port town of white walls and dark eyes, populated by Ankaraña Malagasy, Sakalava Malagasy, Comorian “Moon Islanders” speaking Sea Swahili, and many other tribes including Arabs and South Asians. People were open and the ladies were gorgeous.
Diego was isolated from the rest of the country by rugged terrain and bad roads. The long overland route to the Merina heartland was impassable during the rainy half of the year. This helped keep Diego cosmopolitan. One time, in the streets, I thought I heard my guide yell “¡Qué ahora!” to somebody that was riding by. I asked and he said yeah, that’s what he said. Apparently there used to be a lot of Spanish sailors around town and the townsfolk had picked up some of that lingo.
Ain’t no place like a tropical seaport left to its own devices.
The guide took me to a cave where many Ankaraña fighters had been buried back in the day after falling in combat against the invading Merina. Droves of bats lived inside. Merina were forbidden from entering. Taiwanese were kosher.
This was after the Anglos sacked Baghdad. I’d started telling people I came from Taiwan, except I’d say it in straight Hoklo, like “Die wan?” … after the Ankaraña guide told me the English word “Taiwan” sounded like eat shit in Malagasy.
Later, in the gemstone towns, people would greet me in some other language. “They are talking to you in Thai,” a friend said. This was because all the jaune brothers around there were Thai gemstone men.
I went to Mada to see something different. I saw, heard and felt so much that I didn’t know what to do. I had to tell the stories and write them down or else I was gonna explode. Later on, some of my Mada experience made it into Atlantis Loved Kilimanjaro which was, of course, a work of fiction.
An old Merina verse reminds us that regrets don’t stop at the door to ask if they can come in. Someday we gon’ die, so today live, with no regrets.
Read more —
part 1: speaker in the storm
part 2: comeback speaker
part 3: impossible speaker
part 4: honorary speaker
part 5: madaspeaker
part 6: romance speaker
part 7: born-again speaker
part 8: gateway speaker
part 9: touchable speaker
part 10: everyspeaker