By Marg Sumner
No one has ever accused me of traveling light. In August 1967 I deplaned in Madison, Wisconsin, carrying a train case, which every proper female traveler had in those days, but somewhere along the line I lost my white gloves, the other travel essential. I’d spent the summer in the island nation of the Malagasy Republic (aka Madagascar). I bore a valiha (a stringed instrument made from a 3’ hollow bamboo stalk), a souvenir spear (also 3’) and a raffia souvenir (3′, of course) ostrich. For good measure, I was wearing a 3’ broad sombrero. I got off the plane with some attitude as well. My best friend Carol was there, so good a friend that she sacrificed the final episode of The Fugitive to welcome me home. I doubt my homecoming gift to her matched her sacrifice.
In June 1967 I left Madison on my first plane to New York, my first ocean liner to Rotterdam, followed by a bus trip to Paris, and another plane ride of 16 hours with a refueling stop in Djibouti, East Africa, landing in Tananarive. In 1967 were you familiar with even the words Djibouti, Tananarive, Malagasy Republic? Maybe you’d heard of the country’s actual name of Madagascar.
Ten weeks later I flew toward home via Kampala (another proper noun that didn’t enter our lexicon until Idi Amin began to slaughter his fellow Ugandans). We refueled in Malta and picked up white apartheid-spouting exchange students from South Africa. Then to Paris, New York, Chicago and Madison.
I went to Madagascar traveling light, but with significant baggage. I remember bringing popcorn (a huge hit) and an album of Mahalia Jackson, that powerful gospel singer, also welcome. I was a small-town good girl, good enough to be chosen by a community committee that gave me a recommendation strong enough to convince the exchange program staff in New York that I was substantial enough for their most challenging placement, the politically unstable country of the Malagasy Republic.
That was my facade. I was a teenage Potemkin village. My life to that point consisted of intense pressure to excel, to provide solid proof that my family was all that it portrayed itself, exemplary big fish in a small pond. And behind the Potemkin village? Thirteen years of emotional and sexual abuse. I was nothing; I was the color of oatmeal.
Senator Mitch McConnell could have been speaking of me when he said of a fellow annoying senator a couple decades later, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Madagascar filled me with primary colors, and they were everywhere. The view from my bedroom window was partially obscured by a poinsettia tree (a tree!) in full blood-red blossom. Bougainvillea bloomed everywhere. Thorny hedges deceptively softened by red flowers. Cloudless blue skies, mirrored in terraced rice paddies. Two-story ocher farm houses. Heaps of hell-hot peppers in the market. The fact of the colors I understood, but beyond that, what can I say? I drank in the new, the weird, the inedible and the edible, the incomprehensible, the unimaginable, all defined by their colors. Madagascar filled my soul.
I came home to resume my position as primary punching bag (literally), but I was no longer empty. I had color in me and a sense that I could achieve something. My life was red now; the oatmeal nothingness was banished. I haven’t achieve anything great, but I reached average. Of course there were soul-crushing expanses, terrible missteps, physical and mental catastrophes. Nevertheless, I persisted. Colors have never left me. I am a substance (slightly subnormal, to be sure), but I exist in color.
© 2021 Marg Sumner
Marg Sumner is retired from 40+ years of copyediting and proofreading other people’s words. The tables have turned and she now writes and suffers the slings and arrows of copyeditors. This is her first (and most difficult) piece in what she hopes will be a series of travel vignettes.