Love and Tranquilizers in Madagascar

Michael Thomsen


I hated everyone I went to Peace Corps with. I remember walking into the rented meeting room in a Philadelphia hotel that first day and feeling my heart slump. It was like being in a kennel with shivering puppies, all eager and excited in spite of their surroundings. I imagined them peeing with uncontainable joy as I shook each new hand. It was the most disappointing group of do-gooder’s I had ever seen.
I thought of the Peace Corps as a blind jump into a two-year vow of celibacy. I couldn’t imagine anything sexual in between fantasies of digging latrines and saving malnourished babies from imminent death. The first thing I remember about T was her confession of having cried when she left her parents in the airport.

She was tall and pretty, dressed in tight-fitting clothes that looked like they were dyed in candy. She had a Midwestern accent that made her voice sound goose-like. “Oh my gawd,” she would say, and I would add a honking sound in my head. She was an ex-cheerleader and an N-Sync fan. I let the weight of those facts insinuate a persona on her that excused my disinterest.

During the training period in Madagascar our group was split apart across four small villages outside of Antananarivo. One night a week the Peace Corps would bring us back together at a summer camp-like outpost on a lake where we would process the alien encounters we’d had with our host families. I lived by candlelight and pissed in a pot during the night because the highlanders believed in witches and, as a result, leaving the house after dark was frowned upon.

As the end of training neared, the daydream of building a school in a beachside village began to turn into the ugly reality of living in a dustbowl town on a national highway with little to eat besides cassava and goat. And goat was a luxury.

To postpone the end of training, we threw a costume party. I made a diaper out of lamba hoany, a traditional Malagasy cloth, and hung an orange tie over my naked torso. T made an brazier out of pine cones and dental floss.  

At one point during the night she came up to me with another trainee and asked if I wanted to have a three-way kiss. I’ve got a long history of responding to come-ons with complete obliviousness, and this was a great addition. Why would three people want to kiss at once? It didn’t make sense so I just wandered off to get another beer, leaving the two half-naked women in my wake.

After a few minutes I started thinking about what had happened. The idea slowly came into view. T was hitting on me. She liked me. Oh! When I looked at her across the room, the center of gravity shifted to that corner where she was leaning against the wall, laughing.

A week later, we wound up on a couch, kissing. I don’t remember what we might have been talking about, or who started it. But suddenly it was three a.m. and everyone had gone to bed and we were alone in the training room, consorting. I felt shy and overwhelmed. It was surreal and warm and completely incongruous with the rough shocks of life in mud-brick huts.

I thought about her all of the next week. I replayed memory fragments over and over again, daydreaming in language class or sitting by candlelight in the black highland nights. I decided I had to make a show of my feelings. We had known each other less than two months and had only shared one drunken night together, but that was all it took for me. Starting to fall in love is a yes or no question. I wanted to tell her yes.

On the last Sunday of training I got up at sunrise and biked 50 miles roundtrip to her village. After three hours of sweating and straining against the mottled hills, I arrived. I asked a few people at the main intersection where the tall American woman lived and a few minutes later I was on her stoop. She came out the front door with a surprised smile, “What are you doing here?”

I had no idea. I felt pinned to the wall by that question, so I ignored it and made up an excuse about being out for a ride. We spent the day together making small talk, venting anxieties about our imminent departures, and then met some other volunteers for lunch.

At the end of the day I knew less about what I had to say than the beginning. I couldn’t ask her to be my girlfriend after one night, and the approaching departure to opposite ends of the country made me feel even more absurd. But I was falling in love with her.

She was an ego-less beauty who had never said a negative thing about anyone in our group. She spilled over with smiles at the simplest things, and looked sort of infinite when she held little Malagasy babies and nuzzled their noses with hers. I wanted to be that swaddled baby, cradled in her arms.

I gave her a hug, nervous adrenaline flushing through my body, and then I left. It started raining on the way back.

My first few months in Betioky were miserable. There were no distractions, no bustle of life, no promise of something more interesting on the horizon. I lived in a squat cement building, surrounded by the poorest people I had ever seen. My closest neighbor lived in a mud hut, six feet by eight feet. His only belongings were a pair of torn exercise shorts, a shovel for his cassava field, and a small pipe made from Zebu bone that he used to smoke the harsh tobacco called paraky.

I spent my first few months working with an NGO that did health education for all of the neighboring villages. We’d drive out into the desert, stop in a small village surrounded by fifty or a hundred women, their mouths agape and babies crying on their hips. We’d have to tell them what they should be doing with their sex lives and how they had been raising their children wrong all these years.

When it was my turn to speak, the gaping faces scrunched up in confusion. No one could understand my awkward baby talk. They shook their heads and called out “Tsy mazava!” “Tsy azoko!” It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand.

I wrote T long, shaky letters. I wanted to offer to have her babies and ask her to go AWOL. I imagined meeting in some far off beach resort where we could drink punch coco, have sex in bamboo bungalows, and bronze our bodies in the midday sun. She was becoming a life jacket, and the more buoyant those daydreams became, the more I let go, slackening in the drift.

New Year’s was approaching and a big group of volunteers were planning a party on Ile Sainte-Marie, a narrow island off the North Eastern coast of the country. It took me two days to get back to Antananarivo: a ten-hour taxi-brousse ride over the bumpy desert roads, a night in my regional banking town, and a twenty-hour drive back to the capital.

From there it was another two days of travel to Sainte-Marie. I stepped out of a wooden canoe onto a white-sand beach. I knew that T wasn’t going to be there. She’d run out of money and decided to stay in her region even further North.

I came into the bungalows, greeted the few volunteers that I knew, and introduced myself to the handful that I didn’t. Someone handed me a big bottle of beer and I drank it through a makeshift beer bong I had rigged together with a funnel and plastic tubing. I found a bungalow that had a spare bed and put my bags down.

There are a lot of details from the next three days that I don’t remember so clearly, but they included lots of drinking, skinny-dipping, snorting Phenobarbital, and a volunteer getting paid the equivalent of $10 to give me a handjob while I was passed out in a haze of rum and dog tranquilizer.

On New Year’s Eve, we converted an unused bungalow into a disco, connecting an iPod to a big speaker rented from a local. I noticed a woman I didn’t recognize come in. I was dancing under a pink light in the middle of the room and kept catching her eye as she stood against the wall. I thought she was a French tourist who had heard the music and wanted to join the party.

After a few minutes she started dancing with me, our hips pushing against each other. Soon, we were kissing without having said a word. I suddenly remembered all those fantasies of having sex in the surf, untroubled by goats and scrunched up village lady faces. I led her out the narrow doorway.

I picked her up and she wrapped her legs around my hips. We kissed all the way to the beach, where we laid down on the damp sand, the thin edge of the ocean drawing up under us then pulling itself away again.

She moaned my name at one point, and I was surprised to learn that she didn’t have a French accent. I also wondered how she knew my name since we hadn’t spoken a word to one another. These were confusing thoughts to have with my head already between her legs.

It seemed like we’d only been together fifteen minutes when the stars began fading and a pale blue crept across the sky. I was beginning to shiver from the chill of the water. I felt tired and consciously naked in the middle of an open beach. I noticed the rigid lines of goosebumps on her skin and suggested we head back to the bungalows.

The next afternoon I found out she was a volunteer from a part of the country I’d never been to. I was embarrassed I hadn’t known who she was, and she left without saying goodbye.

The trip back to Betioky was long and quiet. Driving through the terraced hills of the highlands, I felt emptied out. I had one year left. The rest of that time would be alone with those strange people who’d let me into their lives hoping I’d be able to share something good with them. I’d barely just begun.

T was a thousand miles away. Whatever it was I’d been holding onto in her couldn’t help me anymore. I realized she hadn’t been holding on to me at all. I felt completely alone.

I remember walking back to my house after the last taxi-brousse finally arrived in Betioky. I saw my neighbor coming towards me from the dusty fields in the west, the orange of the setting sun turning him into an abstract blur on the horizon. I waved to him.

As he came closer I saw he was holding something against his stomach. When I asked what he had, he smiled and held up a hedgehog. It was still alive and squirmed in his grip.

“I found dinner,” he told me, proud of his good fortune. His wife was blowing on the charcoal stove just outside their hut. “Mandrosoa,” he said, inviting me to join them.  


Many thanks to Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak and Simone Giovanelli for the use of their images. More photographs by Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak can be seen at his website, -M.T.

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