Yesterday, I made a series of utterly STUPID mistakes and nearly lost my life. Today, I should be dead. And last night, I couldn’t sleep reliving each awful moment — what I could have done differently — how lucky I was that someone heard my cries for help and actually jumped into the ocean to save me. Without their help, because of my own stupidity, I could have easily died.
THURSDAY – February 15 – I started off my day like all Thursdays, preparing to teach my first class at 6:30 a.m., a two-hour session, to a group of 10-12 delightful 6th graders. In the U.S., for the most part, your age determines your class, so you’d expect my 6th graders to be comprised of kids around 11 years old, but here, students are groups based on their test scores, so it’s not uncommon to see a wide range of ages, as is true for my 6th graders, the youngest is 10, the eldest is 15. We were just finishing up our two-week unit on “Likes and Dislikes” (the kids had a ball with this), but before I went over my lesson plan, I checked in with Facebook and that’s when I read about just the latest school shooting by a “non-terrorist” young white male shooter. I cannot help but wonder what would be the response if the shooter had been black. Would “thoughts and prayers” be the only response, as it is each and every time the shooter is white?
Thoughts and prayers. Dead school children is an okay thing in the U.S.
Dead children in church is an okay thing in the U.S.
Dead children in a movie theatre, or in a shopping mall, or anywhere a gun is used… dead children are an okay thing in the U.S.
This school shooting was just like all the rest — utterly preventable — yet, I guess I just had enough. While I was reading about it on Facebook and folks were circulating that whole ThoughtsAndPrayers bullshit, while fiercely defending the guns that actually KILL everyone, I was struck by how little outrage there was about the real cause of this problem — too many fucking guns. Defending white mass murderers (“It’s a mental health issue”) defending the guns they use (“Second Amendment is untouchable”) and even defending the congresspeople who continually do nothing to even begin to address this issue (“Both parties are just as bad”), I realized that I was starting off that day with a knot in my stomach, a furrowed brow, and an utterly shitty disposition with which to start my day.
That’s when I realized that Facebook is simply way too depressing for me. It’s jam-packed with fake news, fake friend requests, tiresome religious dogma and way too many trolls that enjoy throwing mud no matter the topic. So, I immediately changed my Facebook cover photo to say I’m “On Vacation” not sure when or even if I’ll ever return to Facebook, which also meant that it’s time, way past time for me to revisit my blog.
My 6:30 class was fine, but by 10:30, when it was time to teach my combined 4th-5th-grade class (about 43 students total), I had trouble containing my composure, thinking about the parents of the shooter and the parents of his victims — imagining what I might feel if my child had been responsible for this awful act. Nobody ever thinks about the parents of the shooter. Did they raise a monster? Or did he become a monster after he was grown, out of the earshot and eyesight of his parents? Would they have done something differently if they could? Do they regret having borne him? Or perhaps they just don’t care? Just like the parents of the victims, the parents of the shooter will have to live with this for the rest of their lives, too. How awful must it be for them?
Had we known then, what we know now, could we have prevented this? Americans and their fetish with guns is something I will never understand and is one of the main reasons I decided to forever leave that place, planning to never return. Not a single life in America is more important than any gun. Not one. Guns have inalienable rights. People don’t.
FRIDAY – February 16th – on normal Fridays, I have a 6:30 a.m. class with four often difficult and moody 7th grade girls (I refer to them, inside my head, as “The Divas”) and over the past few months, I’ve had to kick one or more of them out of class because of too much mouth or too much attitude. I like to have fun, yes, but when it’s time to work, I expect and demand respect and attention.
But this Friday’s class was canceled because the kids, both the 6th and 7th graders, had to participate in a morning athletic exercise at the Ambodrona soccer field, which is about a mile’s walk from the school. This is the first time they’ve had to do this since I arrived last September, so I don’t know how often this takes place. Athletics are not taught at our school, so this session is probably some state-imposed requirement that all schools (ours is a private school) must provide. I decided to bike to the soccer field to watch them, take photos and just show them that I support their hard work. I love my students.
As I grabbed my phone and iPad to put into my backpack, I noticed my phone hadn’t charged and each time I tried to get the charger into the phone, it just dropped back out, wouldn’t take hold of the phone. This is a cheap ($100) “Tecno” phone I bought in Madagascar after my iPhone 6s was pick-pocketed out of my backpack (sniff, sniff). I am struggling with the Android operating system so badly that I practically never even use the phone — just on Sundays, when I call my kids using What’sApp. Otherwise, I use my iPad (with a SIM card) to use FB, Messenger, FaceTime, play games, etc. Â
I’ve had this phone for less than one month, so I dug out the receipt, found the original box and put it in my backpack to return to the Orange store where I’d purchased it to have them honor the warranty (hoping there even IS a warranty). The kids were really put through their paces by their athletic instructor (athletics are not taught at our school, so I’d never seen him before), laps, lots and lots of laps, stretching, in the morning sun, calisthenics, it looked brutal. Once their session was over, we all returned to school, I gave some of the kids ice cold water from my fridge, while others had brought their own water bottles. I thought I’d have to teach, but the 8:30 a.m. teacher was there (Malagasy language class), so I had the rest of the day off. Yea!
My first order of business was the phone-from-hell. Even when I first got it (23 days ago), the charger never really stayed in the phone, but as long as it charged, I didn’t really care. But now, it wasn’t charging any longer, so I took it into the Orange store (oor-AHNZHE), but the clerk looked at the phone, told me that I’d have to take it to the Techno store and there was nothing she could do. It’s times like these that I most wish my Malagasy language skills were better — it’s hard to argue if you don’t speak the language well. I’d seen the Techno store before and it was a 10-minute bike ride, located on a side street, across from the Lycee Philbert Tsaranana high school, where the American Corner is located. The American Corner is an English language computer lab and resource center, sponsored by the American Embassy. There are four such American Corners in Madagascar and I’m lucky that there’s one in Mahajanga.
When I arrived at the Techno store, the clerk there looked at my receipt, saw I purchased the phone from Orange and said there was nothing they could do to help. It’s broken, too bad. Go back to Orange. Language skills or no language skills, I kept yelling that the phone was less than a month old, all their phones were “fako” (garbage), their sign outside their front door talks about a warranty and I demanded they honor it. But no, they were not gonna honor it. “Go back to Orange, lady.” Fucking Assholes.
When I bought my phone, last month, I hadn’t discovered the most delightful Orange store in Mahajanga, one-half block from the awful Techno store, so I went there, instead. When I showed a clerk my phone, she looked at the receipt and just as I thought she was going to tell me to go back to the other store, two young men, who worked there, came to the counter to look at my phone. Apparently, there was a small piece of metal that had broken off inside the charging port, and it wasn’t allowing the cable to connect. This metal chip was probably there all the time, which is why my charger kept falling out so easily. It took them one opened-up paper clip and about two minutes to remove it and my phone is working fine nowâ€¦ well, as fine as an Android phone can be (miss my iPhone). The people in THIS Orange store exhibited exactly why this is my favorite Orange store, and although the original one, where I bought my phone, is much closer to home, I prefer to go out of my way to patronize this one. The entire staff was helpful, and when I left, I blew them all kisses.
Phone fixed, no classes for the rest of the day, and no Facebook. I decided to go out to my favorite beach, Plage Village Touristique (“plage” is French for “beach,” and is pronounced plahzzzhhh) find my sandbar, camp out there for a while, and take some photos with my phone so I can update my blog. After I’d eaten lunch and taken a short nap, I put on my swimsuit, a pair of shorts, threw my phone into my fanny pack, then threw a towel, lamba and sunscreen into my backpack and rode my bike out to the beach. I arrived at the beach about 2:45 p.m., and like always, there was almost nobody there. This is the largest beach in Mahajange, and in my opinion, the most beautiful, yet it’s hardly used. The locals have told me that the beach is cursed and that lots of people have drowned there, so folks stay away and prefer to go to Petite Plage, and smaller beach, much farther away, but without the bad history of Village Touristique.
I almost never take my electronics to the beach, mainly because I like to swim and if I’m in the water, I cannot always keep an eye on my things, or get back to shore quickly enough if something is snatched. But Friday, I was thinking, “I’ll go out to my sandbar, and I’ll be alone there, so I can leave my things, swim, and not worry about theft.”
Made sense at the time. Mistake No. 1
When I arrived at the beach, I could see the tide was coming in so my regular sandbar was already submerged. There was a second sandbar still exposed, though, and I could see one man was already on it, so I parked my bike next to a streetlight and walked about a quarter mile down to the shore to make my way out to the sandbar. Mistake No. 2
Teva sandals in my left hand, backpack raised high over my head with my right, I started the walk through the ocean water from shore to the sandbar, which looked like it was about 40 yards across. The last time I’d done this, weeks ago, the water wasn’t quite so deep, only about mid-thigh deep, so when it got up to my neck, I thought that was odd, but kept on going. As I was making my way, a sailboat passed in front of me, fishermen coming back to shore after a day at sea, and a man on the boat asked me something in Malagasy, but I couldn’t understand him, so I just replied, “Ewa,” (AY-wah), to say “yes,” whatever. In hindsight, he was probably saying something like, “Are you fucking crazy, lady? The water is already up to your neck but you’re walking away from shore? Mistake No. 3
Safely on my sandbar, I dropped my stuff and walked into the sea, which I noticed looked red for some reason. I’d never seen it this color before and wondered if it had something to do with the tides, season, recent storms, whatever. I always go to the beach alone, and I always swim alone. I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I don’t have any close friends in Mahajanga and I love the beach, plus I’m a very strong swimmer and had been a lifeguard for several years, so I’m very comfortable in open water. But the color or the water kind of gave me the jitters, so I didn’t stay in long.
While I was swimming, four young men saw me on my sandbar so they swam out too. As more and more sailing ships were returning and passing between the sandbar and the shore, one of them would swim out just as the boat passed, grab on and let the boat pull him through the water a ways. It looked like they were having great fun. Then I noticed that the man who had been on the sandbar when I first got there was swimming back to shore, which I thought was odd because I’d walked out to the sandbar, why swim, especially with all his gear (he’d been net fishing)? Still clueless about the dangers awaiting me, I decided to walk around the sandbar and collect more shells for some still undefined art projects I’m going to do with my students.
So, now, I’ve been on my sandbar only about 30 minutes, but something tells me it’s time to go. I toweled off, threw my towel back into my backpack, grabbed my Tevas and headed toward shore. And this is where I made the most stupid mistake of all. Both hands were full, one with sandals, which easily could have been put inside my backpack, and the other with a backpack which held a month-old cell phone I didn’t want to get wet — but now the water was over my head, well over my head. Mistake No. 4
Had I realized how deep the water was, I could have put the sandals in the backpack, then put the backpack on my belly and swam back to shore on my back, having both legs and at least one arm available. But I didn’t do that. I started walking back not realizing that the water was at least a foot over my head and the further I walked, I was unable to find the bottom — all while trying to keep my backpack dry. Before long, I was in real distress, so stupidly concerned about the things I was carrying. If I dropped my sandals, the hot sands would burn my feet, making it nearly impossible to make it back to the street where my bike was parked. And if I dropped my backpack, I’d have to buy another cell phone, yet another cell phone, and I was thinking “I cannot afford to buy another phone right now.” Nope. Neither option was good, so I just tried as best I could, to swim back using just my legs — but by now, my backpack had started to get wet and my towel was soaking, and the weight of the wet towel kept dragging me and the backpack back under the water. And the harder I tried to make headway, the more tired I got and it seemed like I wasn’t getting any closer. I tried to find the bottom, but it was nowhere, and when I came up for air and looked at the shore, two of the four guys were looking at me, trying to figure out what I was doing. I remember thinking, “I’m not going to make it,” and as soon as I thought that, I started to panic. What do I DO? I just couldn’t think, I was so starved for air, so tired and yet so determined to not get my phone wet. It was madness on my part. Sheer fucking madness.
What’s the Malagasy word for “HELP?” Couldn’t think of it, so I just started screaming, making ungodly sounds, trying to get someone to hear me, to see me, to help me. Nobody moved. They just kept looking at me, as my frantic actions to get to shore were failing more by the minute. So I screamed again, and finally, those two realized I was in real distress and they started to swim toward me, but it seemed like it was in slow motion. “Just hold on, Lisa, just hold on.” A lifetime went by before they finally arrived. One grabbed my backpack, the other grabbed my left upper arm so tightly it left a bruise. He was NOT going to let go of me, so I just let go and let him drag me to shore. When we made it back, I said, “Telefono,” which is actually Spanish for telephone, but the backpack guy understood why I was struggling so hard to keep the backpack above the water. He handed me the backpack and when I opened it, the towel and lamba were soaking wet, but the fanny pack in which the phone was stored, was only damp. When I opened the fanny pack, the phone was fine.
“Misaotra, misoatra, misaotra…” thank you, thank you, thank you, was all I could think to say… They just stared at me, didn’t say a word, and I was so overcome by all the recent events, kicking myself for having made SO many mistakes, and thankful that those two men risked their own safety to save me. It’s common for a panicked swimmer to actually drown someone trying to help them, so when you swim out to help someone in distress, you’re also taking your own life in your hands.
I was safe. My stuff was safe. And I was a moron. I just sat there, trying to catch my breath, embarrassed, grateful and just so angry with myself because I did EVERYTHING wrong. Every. Single. Thing.
As my son, David, later told me, “Mom, never go into any ocean after 3:00 p.m.” Then it dawned on me that the last time I’d spent hours on my sandbar was during one wonderful morning, and the tide was out, and there were actually three sandbars available that day. When I’d arrived this Friday, though, I SAW the tide was coming it, but it didn’t register, I just kept thinking about that other time I’d had and missed several warning signs.
But, as bad as all of this was, the worst part was that I have been warned, by dozens of local people, about swimming at Plage Village Touristique, because this beach is where people drown, several every year. My former Malagasy language instructor, Andry, once told me that the space between the shore and the sandbars is where most people die because they don’t realize how deep it gets when the tide comes in. I always just poo-pooed their warnings because, after all, I’m a strong swimmer and I know what to do if I’m pulled away by an undertow. What I didn’t consider, though, was how completely irresponsible I might be by taking far too many risks and ignoring far too many warning signs.Â
SATURDAY – February 17 – I didn’t sleep at all last night, going over and over in my head all the things I did wrong, and I kept seeing that last sight of shore, which seemed miles away, and my feeling that I was not going to be able to make it back. That one image burned into my brain… tears, regret, resignation.
I pride myself on not living my life in fear. My life’s mantra, “Never let your fears stand in the way of your dreams,” has helped me power through all sorts of challenging situations. But now, I’m afraid. Afraid of Plage Village Touristique, and I hate this feeling. It’s at times like this that I’m reminded to “Face your fears and watch them disappear,” so now I want to return to Village Touristique, earlier in the day, and enjoy one more day on my sandbar, not letting a little thing like the fear of death from drowning keep me from doing so. But was this the Universe’s way of showing me that all this time of swimming alone, on a practically deserted beach, that it’s time to change my ways? Yes, there are other beaches in Mahajanga, and Petite Plage is the favorite of most locals. It’s about a 30-minute bike ride, a much smaller beach, but it’s PACKED with people all the time, so I’d never be swimming alone. It has no sandbars, though, no place where I can claim “Lisa space,” no place where I can lie, naked in the sun, undisturbed by anyone.
Or maybe the Universe just wanted to show me that there need to be limits in my life. Limits regarding swimming in the ocean, limits regarding bringing valuables to the beach, limits regarding swimming alone. Limits.
Whatever the message is here, I’m just so very glad to be alive today. So grateful to those two, and I didn’t even ask their names, I was just so overwhelmed by what had just happened, I was only thinking of myself and the fact that I’d survived. No way to thank them. In fact, if they were standing in front of me right now, I wouldn’t recognize them. In the moment, I was so overcome by everything that I just didn’t make a connection with them. And I feel awful about this, on top of everything else.
Breathe. Just breathe. This is the mantra I repeat while I do my nightly yoga. Breathe. Just breathe. And grateful that I’m still able to do so.