The thought of heading to Madagascar excited me. I planned to rekindle my writing habits and skills. And I began to see my time on the great red island as a second ‘writing sabbatical’.
I read every book I could lay my hands on about the exotic locale. And I dug into pirate lore with particular zeal. Madagascar had its piratical heydays in the late sixteen and early seventeen hundreds. The little half-moon of an island named Ilse St Marie was a pirate legend. The one thousand pirates who lived there proclaimed it an independent pirate nation. It is still home of the world’s only ‘pirate cemetery’.
I scoured the libraries for all the relevant literature. I even commissioned a book trader to locate a copy of, ‘Madagascar or Robert Drury’s Journal’ last printed in 1890. Here’s the first paragraph from the books’ Wikipedia page:
‘Robert Drury (born 1687; died between 1743 and 1750) was an English sailor on the Degrave who was shipwrecked at the age of 17 on the island of Madagascar. He would be trapped there for fifteen years. Upon returning to England, a book allegedly recounting his memoirs would be published in his name in 1729. Though it was an instant success, the credibility of the details in the book would be put into question by later historians. Modern scholars have proven though that many details in the book are authentic and that the story itself is one of the oldest written historical accounts of life in southern Madagascar during the 18th century.’ The book is thought by some to a fictional work by Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, because it tells a very similar tale, is written in the same style and published by the same publisher in the same general time frame.’
I reminded myself of my mantra. “If you don’t write particularly well, you’d better have something interesting to write about.” To me, pirates came about as close as I expected to get to fitting that particular bill. So I searched for a viable plot which would leverage the exotic locale.
Eighteen months after arriving I had a solid first draft of a manuscript I called ‘The Left Hand of God’. But mentioning what appeared after eighteen months of writing is getting a bit ahead of myself. I just wanted to set the stage. Let me start again by covering the early days…
The last leg of our trip took us from the East coast of Africa across three hundred miles of Indian Ocean. The sky below the plane consisted of a patchwork of puffy clouds spaced as evenly as pieces on a chess board. The light caught the rain falling beneath many of them and reflected it as a field of miniature rainbows.
We landed in the capital, Antannanrivo. The city is twenty degrees south of the equator and five thousand feet in the air. The bright red soil of the island was set against emerald green fields of rice. Dan Vagness, the Peace Corps volunteer with whom I’d lived in Afghanistan, had grown up on the island. He had fixed its image in my mind, saying, “The plants and animals found there exist nowhere else in the world. It looks like a world created by Dr. Seuss.”
Nancy, as usual, hit the ground running. I’d get a peek on the cheek and a ‘goodbye’ at first light and not see her again until after dark. She left no doubt that she expected me to handle the task of setting up our lives. While she may not have said it out loud, her message was clear. “I put my life on hold for the last six years – now it is your turn.” I thought I was ready for it, but that is not how it turned out.
It turns out I made a terrific mess of things. We got off to a disastrous start and it didn’t improve much from there. To begin with, I hadn’t appreciated how small and tight the ‘official’ American community would be. As the newest members of that clubby group, we were initially the object of interest. We garnered the pro forma dinner invitations and such. I was typically asked what I planned to do to fill my time as the ‘trailing spouse’. But I was too insecure about my writing to declare my plan out loud. Instead, I disingenuously said that I had been working hard for the past few years. I was looking forward to some down time. I may as well have made the ‘I’m a loser‘ sign by plastering my thumb and pointer finger against my forehead.
Several well-intentioned people said that the Embassy could help me. They had ‘family member’ opportunities. But I remained resistant to their entreaties…and soon the word went out. “The guy’s a loser,” the grapevine said. And my self-induced social ostracism only served to fuel my growing self-doubts.
Nancy meanwhile seemed hell-bent on reliving her Peace Corps dream. And she had been one wild volunteer. I have always had serious difficulty keeping my jealous tendencies in check. But her ‘I’m leaving home’ attitude, mixed the romantic characters with whom she was now engaged, proved a toxic combination. Add to that mix my prescription for a known paranoia inducing anti-malaria drug. The upshot was I was getting crazier by the day. My mood swings jumped from deep depression to near maniacal rage. And it got consistently worse over eighteen months.