The Behemoth-Part Two

Leg Two Point Five: Mananara Town.

Shoreline of Nosy Rangonsty

Shoreline of Nosy Rangonsty

Our first order of business was finding a hotel where we could sleep, wash and eat; Chez Roger was that place. We spent $12.50 total or $6.25 each on a small bungalow out behind a restaurant with two twin beds and a bathroom. After cleaning up and a nap, we set off in search of the Madagascar National Parks Headquarters for Mananara. It took directions from six people and finally a kind lady escorting us the final ½ kilometer to find it, but we made it! When we arrived, we learned that the park director, the only person with whom we had been communicating for arranging all the research plans (and who knew exactly when we were arriving) was in Tana and wouldn’t be back for another six days. Additionally, the guy we had been told would be our advisor was adamant that the park director wanted to be our advisor himself. Sooooo, we chatted with him anyway, trying to get his advice on anything really, like, how I was actually going to get out to the island and what I would do for food etc. while there. Most of the answers were extremely vague and along the lines of “oh, you know, you’ll just figure it out” or “talk to so and so”. Which, surprisingly were not all that helpful, but Marley and I were extremely persistent and direct and eventually I figured out that I really just needed to talk with another guy Justin to figure out my island details because he is the director of that region of the park while Marley needed to find a guide and arrange all the details with them. Also, minor detail, our “advisor” was leaving for Tamatave the next morning and wouldn’t be back until the 20th of April.

Eastern side of Rangonsty

Eastern side of Rangonsty

On our walk back to Chez Roger, Marley and I decided that we basically were totally on our own for this project and shouldn’t expect anything to happen unless we really pushed for it, which was fine since we both wanted a good adventure. To keep this blog post from being miles long, I’ll briefly summarize the next couple days: we went back to MNP each day and tried to hammer out more logistical details, and when we finally had purchased our tickets in the next taxi-brusse to Sahasoa (this time in the bed of the pickup), we ran into Justin (who was already supposed to be in Sahasoa) and he casually dropped the information that he wouldn’t be getting to Sahasoa until Monday but that I couldn’t go out to the island until probably Wednesday anyways because there was a cyclone coming in…it was Thursday. I was looking at almost a full week of no research, which didn’t seem as enticing as it sounds. But I already had my ticket for the next day, so I figured I would just kick it on the beach there until I was allowed to go out to Nosy Antafana.

Leg Three: Mananara Town to Sahasoa.

Victorious selfie on my birthday

Victorious selfie on my birthday

I finally understand how my clothes feel when I put them in the washing machine. That is, perhaps, the most accurate way to describe the trip in the bed of a taxi-brousse on the worst roads imaginable. Twelve people crammed into the back of the pickup truck, which has one bench on each side of the bed. Marley and I really thought that the best seats would be the very ends with our legs able to hang out over the end since normal legroom doesn’t exist since all the luggage gets laid down on the floor along with the spare tire. The bench itself was a sturdy piece of wood with perhaps a millimeter of cushioning long worn down by repeated people slamming into it. The smooth black plastic covering it was just the right texture to give plastic burn on your butt. I quickly discovered that I wouldn’t be able to stick my legs out of the back because there were more people standing on the bumper, so my feet were squished between the spare tire and the bench underneath two separate people. My knees were pulled up to my chest and I was sitting on a very small section of the bench near the truck gate. It rapidly became transparently clear that there is no ‘managing’ on a taxi-brousse in the bed of the truck; you just do your best not to fling yourself off and take your chances walking. Every bump in the road, and don’t worry, 97% of them in the country are concentrated between Mananara and Sahasoa, feels like you are dropping dead-weight-fall-style on your butt on hard wood. Why? Because that is exactly what you are doing: every bump flung everybody up into the air and crashing back down into the seats. Since all the roads are either uphill or downhill, everybody gets thrown towards the back or front end of the truck, respectively.

My birthday celebration

My birthday celebration

Thus, it required constant vigilance and a death grip on the wooden beams above our heads. We all grabbed on wherever possible and winced silently in pain and the luggage strapped to the roof of the camion-style top slammed into our fingers. But the pain of crushed fingers and bruised knuckles was much better than everyone sliding too far down and either Marley or me going shooting off the back end. Since the violent shaking/bouncing up and down and left and right never let up (due to those pesky road conditions), we were forced to be in a constant semi-pull-up position to prevent our heads from bashing into the ceiling or from missing the narrow bench on the return fall and getting wedged between everyone’s feet and the three individuals sitting on the luggage on the floor. Of course, to really complete the experience, the bench was just far enough below the ceiling that my shoulders protruded from their sockets a wee bit, adding yet another stress to my body. I can honestly say that the list of injuries was so great that it was hard to isolate one location that hurt the most. But I loved it for what it was: a learning experience and an opportunity to gain a huge amount of appreciation for all other forms of transportation-also in retrospect a pretty funny story.

 

There is always a prise at the end of the rainbow. This time it was Sahasoa.

There is always a prise at the end of the rainbow. This time it was Sahasoa.

At one point, the truck got so stuck, but at an extreme angle, that I had to prop myself up to keep from falling on Marley who was sitting on the opposite bench. Even the faces of the hardened taxi-broussers were full of terror and when the silly vazaha (that would be me), semi-suspended from the ceiling, started motioning in panic for everybody on the low-side of the truck to get out to prevent the truck from flipping over, they quickly responded by rapidly exiting. Thankfully, with our quick reactions we didn’t actually tip over and we even managed to get unstuck with little wasted time, but it was a close (and really exciting) call. We stopped midway on the trip for lunch at a hotely and I guzzled water like I had been furiously working out, because, surprise surprise, I had been.

The main way to describe this five-hour leg of the journey (to go a mere 36km) is an intense mind-game. I was playing chicken with my body: which would give out first, my body or my will power to stay put in the truck. Side note: it was this jaunty that convinced Marley and I to NEVER again ride in the back of the taxi-brousses, which therefore meant that we would be hiking the return journey over the mountains through the rainforest with all our gear.

Leg Three Point Five: Sahasoa.

Little lizard friend who lived in my tent with me

Little lizard friend who lived in my tent with me

Once at Sahasoa, we stayed in the community center bungalow for the steep price of 10,000 Ar ($5.00). Marley was going to be doing her study in the town and then in a second town 8 km down the road and I needed to stay somewhere until I could venture out to my island. The town was beautifully situated right on the ocean and the divided equally on both sides of the road with little tiny stores marking the town center. The amenities were quite simple and I loved it! We had a bucket shower (home sweet home now) and filtered water from a community well to drink. We ate all our meals at the little hotely in town, where a small kitten adopted us and enjoyed snacking on our leftover fish bones.

When we entered the hotely for the first time, we sat at a wobbly wooden table on simple wooden stools and noticed the decoration on the back wall: a drawing of a fish, chicken and large black dragon. Marley and I immediately commented to each other on how strange it was to see a mythical creature depicted, as we hadn’t before seen one in Madagascar. However, we didn’t think much of it as the owner quickly approached and inquired whether we would like the “akoho” (chicken) or “brouchette” (zebu brochette). Since I had been eating only chicken and rice for the last several meals, I thought I would switch it up and try the brouchette. Out came the steaming plates of rice, followed quickly by the small bowls with meat. My bowl contained a strange black, leathery looking thing and then a chunk of brown meat on an odd bone. I was a little unsettled and I asked Marley’s guide what the meat was, just for, you know, clarification.

Sunrise the last day on my island

Sunrise the last day on my island

He replied that it was a “wild bird” and quite good. So I tried a small bite of the brown meat, but, finding it a little strange and still not 100% convinced about what I was eating, I stuck to the rice. The next morning, when we returned for breaky, the only option was the brouchette, so we all three watched as bowls were placed before us, and this time I noticed that the black leathery thing distinctly looked like a large wing. Marley and I almost simultaneously turned to Darese her guide and inquired as to the EXACT nature of the meat. He said ‘oh you know, wild animals, to which Marley said ‘like tenrecs” (which are little hedgehog like things). But he slowly shook his head, a little confused and said “chauve-souri, bat”. Marley and I blanched a bit, then reexamined our plates, and suddenly it all became clear: the dragon decoration on the wall wasn’t just a painting – it was the MENU. And it wasn’t a bat, it was a giant, fuzzy, adorable endangered species: flying fox. So. There I was, sitting at breakfast with a dead endangered species on my plate during the independent study period of my biodiversity and natural resource management program. Great. Ironic? Perhaps.

Leg Four: Sahasoa to Nosy Antafana.

Due to the cyclone, the waves were enormous and I wasn’t able to get out to my island until Monday morning, but I was just really stoked that it was before Wednesday. At 6:30 am I put my large hiking backpack into the front end of a hollowed out tree and sat myself down in the back end, looking with a little anticipation at the vast expanse of water between paradise and myself.  Since the motorboat owned by the park was broken, I had hired a two-man traditional canoe or pirogue to paddle me out to the island. The coolest part was that unlike the two pirogues I had previously ridden in, this one was unbalanced, i.e. it didn’t have the extra log as a stabilizer. It was exactly the kind of canoe that our program director had advised us to be wary of, since they tend to be a little unbalanced (shocker that one). But it wasn’t until we were quite a ways off shore and bobbing over the large, 15-foot swells that I realized if the canoe flipped, all my stuff would be gonezo and I would probably spend a good hour or two swimming into shore. Luckily, the worst thing that happened was the sky opened up and spat down rain for 15 minutes. Despite the slight apprehension I was harboring regarding my safety, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the beautiful shoreline slowly pull away and the deep teal ocean get larger and larger. Eventually, as we drew near the three islands, the water started to get shallower and suddenly we were passing over huge coral massifs and the water was a crisp, clear light teal. At that moment, if all my things suddenly fell into the water I wouldn’t have blinked an eye but remained transfixed staring at the ocean floor.

Leg Four Point Five: Nosy Antafana.

Part of my home-made belt

Part of my home-made belt

I spent a spectacular eight days on my island in paradise. There were many frustrations on the research front, but at this point, I had fully adjusted to nothing working out as planned and was willing to change accordingly. My first real obstacle was the broken motorboat. As it turned out, I wouldn’t be able to snorkel on the deep reefs without using the boat, so I had to wait for that to get fixed, but they didn’t have a time estimate on when that would be. The only place I was allowed to go to myself was the second largest island, Nosy Rangonsty, and the sandbar between the islands. So, I set about being productive. I created a system for taking tallies underwater by cutting off the sleeves of my tee shirts and tying them with rope into small sacks, then stringing them onto a longer strand of rope that I wore like a belt. For each category of urchin I placed a small piece of dead coral (collected from the beach and stored in another pouch) into the respective pouch and at the end of each transect I counted out the number and wrote it down in my field journal. Simple and elegant (or so I would like to think).

Living on the island with me were three men, one, Rolond, was an awesome middle-aged man who cooked with me and spoke French, the other two were younger but did not speak any French, so our conversations were extremely limited. The three of them, plus Patrick who ran the boat but wasn’t yet on the island, are the island guardians and monitor the waters to make sure people aren’t fishing on the coral and are abiding the park regulations.  The island itself was stunning with white sandy beaches fully wrapping all sides and the center was a dense, lush rainforest home to thousands of fly fox bats. There was also a large population of rats, but they were the small, cute, mousey-looking ones. I set up my tent under a little overhang next to the only building on the island, which houses the guardians. Every night it poured and was so windy that I honestly thought my tent might blow away if I hadn’t been inside it; several times my tent-fly went on a little jaunty by itself and I had to go retrieve it from the large tree behind my setup. I had brought my own food to the island, but I only found rice and white beans in the little stores of Sahasoa so I ate rice and beans for every single meal and they were always rewarding after a day of work. I had brought a few spices form home in anticipation of meat, however, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t use Rotisserie Chicken Seasoning or Joe’s Stuff on beans, because you can, and they taste delicious.

 

Our attempt at a funny photo

Our attempt at a funny photo

On my birthday I woke up early enough to watch the sun rise over Nosy Rangonsty, which was stunning and such a simple beauty to experience. As I sat on the sandy little peninsula that I made my home for the week, I reflected on just how incredibly lucky I am to have been able to come so far both literally and mentally on this trip. Even for the Malagasy, getting to Mananara is a feat and most never make it; the number of visitors to the park last year was 89, including the Malagasy tourists. After a satisfying breaky of rice and white beans with a hint of Rotisserie Chicken, I gathered my lamba and camera then headed across the lagoon to Nosy Rangonsty. Of the three islands, Rangonsty is by far my favorite: the west side is protected from waves and is home to a healthy mangrove forest; the island itself is covered in a dense rainforest complete with a small tomb and bubbling stream; and the east side is rocky shoreline, rather like the Maine coastline, but instead of the cold dark Atlantic ocean it is the deep blue teal of the Indian ocean crashing over the huge rocks. The rocks even have healthy populations of large crabs that go scuttling every which way as you walk by. I spent a couple hours sitting on the largest of the rocks just watching the Indian Ocean crash spectacularly over the rocks and fringing reef while the sun slowly moved across the cloudless blue sky. I spent the afternoon swimming in the water between the two larger islands counting the number of Diadema setosum or needle spined urchins. As dusk was falling, I went around the shoreline and collected 21 dead sea urchin hulls and lined them up on the beach then, as my island version of blowing out candles, I jumped on them and squished them into small fragments of their former glory. That evening I was journaling on the beach while the sun slowly sank behind the mainland leaving a peaceful darkness over the island. Dinner was once again rice and beans, this time with a hint of rosemary and thyme. After dinner though, things got crazy. Hahaha not really. I asked the guardians if they drank, as I had brought three small bottles of rum and a liter of Coke to reign in my 21st birthday. Of course, in traditional Malagasy style, they drank like champions and I really didn’t have a chance of keeping up. We shared the beverages and enjoyed a funny three-way conversation in which I spoke to Rolond and then he translated to the other two guardians and vice versa. After killing the three bottles of rum, I brought out one package of Le Petit Beurre crackers and we each ate 3.66 crackers, which were better than any birthday cake, probably because they were the first food that wasn’t rice for over a week. At this point, Rolond busted out his cellphone and blared really loud traditional Malagasy music and the two other guardians started to dance. I quickly turned my headlamp to the strobe setting and Rolond followed suit with his. We had a great little dance party there in the tiny room with rats scurrying by and candlelight flickering amid the flashing of two LED lights. Just before calling it quits for the night, I brought out my camera and we took a couple pictures using the timer on my camera. I tried to explain the concept of making a funny face in a photo, but somehow they didn’t quite ever manage to pull it off, so the photos are actually quite funny.

The rest of my time on the island passed quickly but so excellently. Eventually Patrick showed up with a fixed boat and I was able to snorkel on the reefs, which were so stunning and beautiful. I even saw a sea turtle and octopus. By the time I had to head back into shore, I was both really sad to say goodbye to my slice of heaven, but also excited to see Marley and have a really long conversation full of head-thrown-back laughter.

Leg Five: Nosy Antafana to Sahasoa.

Since the engine was working on the boat, we took it into shore, which still took a solid half an hour, but it was incredibly fun to feel the wind in my hair and splash of the ocean putting by (since the motor was only 20hp). When we landed on shore, I carried my stuff down the beach and surprised Marley who was reading on the beach. After a happy reunion, we played cards on the beach and made the final arrangements for our journey back the following day.

Leg Six: Sahasoa to Mananara Town.

On April 24 we woke up at 4:30 am, finalized our backpacks, strapped on our headlamps and opened the door to a pitch-black rainy morning. My bag was 57 pounds (we actually weighed it), Marley’s was 40 pounds and her guide’s was approximately 20 pounds. The first two hours were along the road to a small town where we stopped for a breaky of rice and fish. The only disgruntling part about the breaky wasn’t the food, but the fact that the small child of the restaurant owner was terrified of foreigners (vazahas), mainly because they have horror stories to tell small children, but rather than boogey men, they use vazahas as the monsters (this is not a joke). And the friends of the owner liked to play the game where they hold the child up in the air and see how close they can get to the vazaha before the child starts screaming in terror. So that was a great start to the morning. “Congrats, you terrify children because your skin is not the exact same shade as his.” In all honesty, it grows tiresome to have children in the small villages either cry when you walk by or if they are slightly older say “Bonjour Vazaha” on repeat. There is absolutely no blending in-everybody stares at you constantly, no matter what you’re doing, even if that is trying to use the bathroom in privet. It just doesn’t matter; vazahas are a great source of entertainment, which normally doesn’t bother me, but on this particular morning I recall being quite frustrated.

The next four hours were on a narrow trail that was slick with mud from the past 24 hours of rain. We climbed up and over several rainforested mountains and through valleys with vivid green rice patties, at times hiking for a kilometer or two through mud up to our knees. My Chacos frequently had small rocks and sticks stuck between the sole and my foot, but remained comfortable and brilliant the whole way (although they aren’t quite the same color as before…). We spent the first five hours of the hike unable to really appreciate the views that we presumed would be stunning because of the rain and cloud cover, however, what we could see was just so beautiful that I mainly forgot about my extremely heavy bag. Our next break after breakfast was three hours later and consisted of five minutes of splashing the mud off our legs in a refreshingly cold little stream, then we hauled on our bags and set off once more. Five hours into the hike it stopped raining and the sun came out, showing us everything we hadn’t been able to see previously, like the stunning coastline far in the distance partially hidden behind the deep green mountains we had just traversed. A couple of hours later we stopped for five more minutes, then trudged off again, much more aware of our bags’ weights than previously. By the 8th hour of solid hiking, I was getting tired and my shoulders were not pleased with my decision to carry my semester’s worth of possessions. Marley was a champion and broke out a small protein bar she’d brought from the States and we split it (we offered the guide some but he politely refused). Holy zebu was that delicious. It wasn’t rice or beans and it had a light peanut buttery flavor…YUM.

Hiking home

Hiking home

Also just what I needed at that point, when I wasn’t sure if I would be able to lift my bag to put it on my shoulders. I did. And the next hour was the hardest hour of hiking I have ever endured and then for the final, tenth hour of hiking Marley and I swapped bags so that she could have a different shoulder strap but also because I was in struggle city with my heavy bag. When we finally rolled into town, 23 miles after our start in Sahasoa, both Marley and I acknowledged that we had definitely reached the outer limits of our endurance and were ready to crash. Unfortunately, when we showed up at Chez Roger, really stoked to have made it and be done, they didn’t have any more rooms. It was the only hotel in town, so we were at a loss of what to do. I was game to just set up my tent in the middle of the dirt road and camp, but for obvious reasons that wouldn’t work. Just when we were getting to a point of despair, Marley’s guide said that there was another hotel in town, which turned out to be a room in his friend’s house, but we didn’t know and didn’t really care. All we wanted was to wash, eat and then sleep. The next kilometers walk, half on the beach, to his house was really, really difficult. When we finally stepped onto the porch, we dropped the bags then dropped ourselves to the floor, refusing to move for at least fifteen minutes.

Leg Seven: The rest of it.

At this point, my fingers are going to fall off and I can’t type any more, so I’m going to quickly summarize the rest. We finally met with our ‘advisor’ for an hour before leaving Mananara by taxi-brousse, and I purchased fresh, high quality vanilla straight from the source. Our taxi-brousse from Mananara to Tamatave on the return journey had it’s own unique aspects, but the most fun one was the three hour break down on the side of the road during which Marley and I managed to find a little hotely with fresh calamari cooked to perfection. When we finally arrived back in Tana at 3:30 am, 36 hours of travel after leaving Mananara, we slept like hibernating black bears. We kicked it in Tana for three days, starting our paper write-ups and generally becoming clean, normal human beings again. Then on May 1st we flew back to Fort Dauphin and I have been here since, continuing my data analysis and paper.

I wouldn’t change a single moment of my last month and I really did enjoy everything so much. My greatest desire for ISP had been to rough it and challenge myself, and I think I successfully managed that. I believe the coolest thing about all the insane voyaging I did was the end result: no travel seems too hard for me to tackle in the future. Even my return trip to the states looks like a really quick, fun jaunty. I find it quite humorous that my trip from my house all the way to Madagascar was the exact same length as my trip to Nosy Antafana from Tana, but was SO much cushier and luxurious. Get at me life!

Categories: 2013, Madagascar | Leave a comment

The Behemoth-Part One

Mananara Marine Reserve

Mananara Marine Reserve

The past month has, without a doubt, been the most challenging and rewarding month spent in Madagascar. Four weeks ago I set out on my Independent Study Project (ISP), which we had been preparing for since practically day one. I won’t get too detailed on the process leading up to my departure, however, it should be stated that before dispersing across the country, everyone had completed their final ISP proposals which contained detailed information regarding the location of their study, their methodologies, their advisors’ identity and contact information, and their travel and check in dates. For a plethora of reasons, I chose to do my project in the marine reserve of the Mananara National Park in the northeast of Madagascar. Primarily, I wanted to visit a national park that we would not be passing through as a group, but I also really wanted to do a project near/in the water because of the extreme temperatures and I’ve always been interested in marine studies. Additionally, Barry and Jim had assured me that there is no place more beautiful in Madagascar than Mananara. Therefore, I carefully planned out a research project involving a survey of the Echinoderms on the coral reefs in the marine reserve. Side note: the marine reserve consists of three small islands, the largest of which is only 1 km2, surrounded by fringing coral reefs and in the center a shallow lagoon, i.e. beautiful.

 

Sahasoa beach

Sahasoa beach

One other student on my program was also going to Mananara, although she would be doing her project on the mainland researching access to medical infrastructure and the effect of the park on the villages, so I was going to have a travel buddy, for which I was extremely grateful. Why? because Mananara is the least accessible of all 48 national parks. The trip involves four parts: (1) Tana to Tamatave by taxi-brusse; (2) Tamatave to Mananara Town by taxi-brusse or the Melissa, a small boat; (3) Mananara Town to Sahasoa by taxi-brusse or hiking; and (4) Sahasoa to Nosy Antafana by pirogue or motorboat. Additionally, the ‘roads’ past Tamatave are in literally (real definition of this word) the worst condition of all the roads in Madagascar. So, Marley and I planned ahead and called the office of the Melissa and confirmed the boat was leaving Monday morning and would take 8 hours to get to Mananara, which was excellent, because we would be taking the overnight taxi-brusse from Tana to Tamatave on Sunday night with our prof Barry (we were pretty stoked that he would help us find the boat launch once we got there). However, on Sunday evening while waiting for the first taxi-brusse to leave, Barry called the Melissa for us to double-check the time. Halfway through his phone call he broke into this funny smile, thanked them and hung up. Then burst into what can only be described as maniacal laughter, which wasn’t very reassuring. He then turned to us and with an altogether too large smile told us that the Melissa had left an hour previously and we would have to take the a taxi-brusse, which not doubled, but quadrupled the length of that leg of the journey. Hallelujah. Now, for the most descriptive writing I have since kindergarten.

Leg One: Tana to Tamatave.

Marley and I had purchased three seats between the two of us in the taxi-brusse, which was a minibus-type vehicle, for this journey on the recommendation of Barry. The three seats turned out to be two small connected seats, an isle, then a third seat, which meant that we couldn’t quite spread out as planned, but all things considering, they were next to each other. We agreed to swap out halfway in the double seat, which was really good, given that our legs (Marley is a few inches taller than me) literally (also the real use of this word) could not be straight forward due to the minor detail that they did not fit in the allotted space. So, we rocked the sideways sitting position and alternated whose legs were basically in the other person’s lap. All things considered, it wasn’t too bad, I managed to sleep for the first four hours or so until the dinner stop. All taxi-brusses stop whenever the driver gets hungry and everyone piles out to eat at the picked restaurant, which are usually one room little wooden hotelys on the side of the road that serve one traditional Malagasy dish: rice with either chicken, fish or zebu depending on the day. However, this particular dinner stop was at a larger establishment and the servers were running around with blank looks plastered on their faces. The young boy (child labor is very popular here) asked what we wanted, nodded and then did never brought it out. However, we managed to get another server to bring out three beers, two of which smelled like rotten meat and therefore remained virtually untouched. Just before we were getting ready to head back to the taxi-brusse, Barry’s 4-year-old daughter woke up and vomited all down her shirt, so Marley and I sorted out the payment with the register while Barry attempted to clean her up. Once back in the taxi-brusse, this time I had the single seat, I valiantly attempted to fall asleep, however, I couldn’t manage to get comfortable and spent the following five hours slipping in and out of active thought. We reached Tamatave around 3 am, but were allowed to stay in the taxi-brusse “sleeping” until 6 am at which point we opened the door to a grey and rainy morning. Barry walked us over to the taxi-brusse station that would take us to Mananara and quickly informed us that we couldn’t buy tickets until the driver arrived, so he told us he’d watch our things while we searched for breaky. We found it on the other side of the road at a little hotely and it consisted of dense bread that tasted like the burnt pan it had been cooked in, but given our previous night’s meal it tasted like a light, fluffy pastry from France (at least that’s what we told ourselves). When we returned to our bags, Barry was once again sporting his little half-smile, which filled us with a sudden sense of unease. And for good reason.

Leg Two: Tamatave to Mananara.

The next taxi-brusse, due to wretched road conditions, was a small Toyota Hilux pickup truck (think Toyota Tacoma) with a rolled metal cage on top of the truck-bed and seats in the cab and in the bed. Barry had managed to get the last two seats in the cabin, which by all accounts is MUCH better than the bed of the truck, however, when one thinks about a pickup truck, one assumes there are only five seats total: two in the front and three in the back. If you were to assume that however, you would be wrong. Very wrong indeed. It turns out, there is actually room for nine people in the cabin of a small pickup truck! Three in the front and six in the back. Now, you might think that the reason Barry was smiling at his own little joke was because there were going to be so many people in the truck, but again, you’d be wrong. It was very amusing to Barry that Marley and I lucked out and got the middle two seats in the back row, to put it colloquially, we were going to be riding bitch for over 24 hours.

            We spent the next four hours sitting on the concrete floor of the taxi-brusse station waiting for the truck to be ready for departure. To pass the time, we wrote in our journals and chatted (optimistically) about the upcoming adventure. When the truck driver finally motioned for everybody to load in, 26 people headed towards the truck, which, to show the level of our inexperience, surprised us, since we thought that maybe 10 people would fit in each taxi-brusse for such a long journey. I was the first to slid into the back of the cabin followed quickly by Marley, by which point we noticed that there was already a distinct lack of leg room and bench space. However, the woman who would be sitting to my left for the duration of the journey then shoved two large reed baskets into all that had once been my legroom. At this point, I was still wearing my rain jacket and awkwardly holding my backpack on my lap, but I quickly learned that I would not be moving again until we reached the next break. The lady next to me climbed in and then brought her 10-year-old son into the cab as well, where he occupied 100% of her lap and 15% of mine. By this point, there was no other space on the bench, but we still had to fit two more in! Marley and I exchanged a glance that reassured us both that the other was also just as worried about the next 24 hours. It probably wasn’t helpful that Barry’s departing comment had been “don’t worry, you numb to the pain after the first two hours”. So, we all squished left, cramming together, everybody sitting on one single hip with a single shoulder resting on the seatback so that the woman to Marley’s right could fit into the cabin. She too had a child, however, it was an infant so Marley didn’t have a 10-year-old in her lap, but the woman had a very fresh scent (aka BO) and due to the seating arrangements, Marley’s shoulder was right under this woman’s armpit, which didn’t make Marley the happiest camper alive. As the truck started up and pulled out of town, we realized just how cushy and spacious flying coach really is.

 

My tent on my island

My tent on my island

Two hours later, just as we were numbing to the pain, the truck pulled over to a small hotely for dinner, however, I wasn’t feeling so good at this point so I went in search of the ‘toilet’. After stumbling through a neighborhood center I found the toilet: a small square with three walls that reached the bottom of my rib cage and a 2×4 foot piece of holey blue tarp that had to be held up to close the ‘door’. The ‘toilet’ itself was a pile of rocks, shoes and cut up tires on the ground. I honestly can say that at this point, these bathroom situations don’t faze me the least and it is almost a running joke to compare with the rest of the students to see who had the most interesting toilet setup. After a few bites of rice in the hotely, Marley and I noticed that the friction and heat of the first two hours in the car had combined to literally peel off a layer or two of skin (not just dirt, but the actual skin too) on our arms and legs where we had been touching each other and our neighbors. Yay-who needed that tan anyways?

Flying fox

Flying fox

The next ten hours were a blurred haze of passing in and out of consciousness; the only acutely memorable moments were the ferry crossings and bathroom breaks. There were five ferry crossing total; each ferry is a small slab of floating cement that are supposed to be subsidized by the government, however, each crossing requires one of the taxi-brusse drivers to syphon out some gasoline from the engine using a plastic tube and their mouths. The first crossing was the longest and Marley and I insisted on getting out to stand up and breath fresh air- at some point in the last hour it had started raining so the windows went up and that’s a lot of people in a very small space when there is no breeze. It was while we were riding this particular ferry-both there and back again-that Marley and I discussed how lucky we were to have the opportunity to experience this adventure.

Very large population of flying fox bats

Very large population of flying fox bats

Our enthusiasm was probably in part due to our immense relief to be able to feel all of our limbs for the first time in several hours and the scenery on the riversides was so serene. The next couple ferry rides were too short to get out of the cab, despite the fact that we sat for up to 30 minutes before each ferry location laying on the horn to get the ferry on the correct side of the river. By the fourth ferry crossing it was dark and I really wasn’t feeling well. It was probably a combination of many things, including carsickness and fatigue, but I NEEDED to get out of the truck, and when the lady next to me didn’t move when I politely tried asking for her to, I practically pushed her out of the cabin to escape. Once in the dark, steady drizzle of rain, I meekly hung over the side of the ferry and puked a few times while Marley, such a homie, just stood behind me offering silent support. I was loath to reenter the cabin, especially given that I was now dripping wet, but the journey had to go on.

Part of the reef in the ocean just off my island

Part of the reef in the ocean just off my island

At this point, Marley had busted out her iPod and we were both listening to it while sleeping on each others’ shoulders using my mini pillow to cushion our heads from bashing into the window behind us on every bump, of which there were hundreds. But it worked out quite well given the conditions and I managed to have a vivid dream or two courtesy of Mefloquine. We stopped for dinner at a small hotely and I went in search of the toilet while Marley ordered. After she ate, we went outside to wait for everyone to finish and I was about to curl up on the ground and nod off when drivers came up to us with a reed-sleeping mat and motioned for us to go inside. We followed him to the back room of the hotely and joined the rest of the passengers and drivers on the cold, hard cement floor for a three-hour candle-lit nap. Let me tell you. That was literally (once again used correctly) the best sleep of my life. The mat seemed to become a thick, maybe five-inch, Tempurpedic mattress with a three-inch down-feather pillow topper.

Sunrise over Nosy Rangonsty

Sunrise over Nosy Rangonsty

I almost immediately fell into a deep, undisturbed, vivid-dream-free sleep complete with the natural noise of the ocean in the distance. Upon waking up I felt much, much better and even managed to eat a few crackers and drink water, which was good since I had been starting to worry about dehydration. Two hours later in our drive, the sun came up and we finally got a chance to see the countryside. Holy moly. It was stunning and made every single last one of the potholes and squished minutes in the car worth it. Although I will attempt to describe the scenery and even add a picture or two, keep in mind that nothing can accurately depict the vividness of all the colors and its full effect. It was like driving through every mental image I had of Madagascar before coming to the country; each tree and plant was lush and bright green with small water droplets making everything sparkle just a little bit. The ‘road’ was a deep, coppery mud that set a stark contrast to the green of the surrounding flora, the sky was the palest, light blue with thick, puffy white clouds spreading across its vast expanse, and the ocean, man, the ocean was the most incredible of all. The color was such a rich, clear teal/turquoise that I will never ever be able to describe, but is my new favorite color and it was accented by large, black boulders that thrust up out of the white sand like drops of ink on a page.

Sunrise on my birthday

Sunrise on my birthday

The road twisted and turned every which way, but generally headed north towards Mananara and closely followed the coast, at one point it actually was coast and we were driving along the beach. Image the beauty I just described for the scenery, now imagine the polar opposite for how horrendous the roads were. The three guys not driving the taxi-brusse spent the next six hours running back and forth from side to side of the truck to grab hold of the side and lean as far back as possible to keep the truck from tipping over on the slanted, holey roads.

Mangroves on Nosy Rangonsty

Mangroves on Nosy Rangonsty

A few times, we would be descending a hill that we had just triumphantly mounted and the truck would just forget that it’s supposed to drive forward and it would slid down the far side of the hill sideways so that my side window was suddenly the new windshield. Or the road would be so sunk down and eroded that the grass started growing out of the ground higher at head height and we could see all the plants roots at eye level. Needless to say (but I’m going to say it anyways) the drive was really interesting, bumpy, and generally a huge adventure. By the time we pulled up to the taxi-brusse station in Mananara we had spent more than 24 hours in the truck.

Categories: 2013 | Leave a comment

Eau Vive-Si Pure, Si Nature

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of preparation, work, adventure and goodbyes. We spent our last week in Fort Dauphin with our homestay families, so it was fairly chill on the traveling front, but coincided with an uptick in schoolwork. Our big project was a Natural Resources Portfolio that normally focuses on a tangible resource like wood or water, but, as the hipster that I am, I decided to argue that twins are a natural resource…which basically meant that I spent a week studying the cultural practices regarding twins in the Mananjary region of Madagascar. In addition to research, I interviewed an older gent who lived there for most of his life and got a really interesting perspective on things. There is too much to say about the subject, but here’s a brief run down of my findings:

  • Twins are taboo in the region and were killed up until the early 1990s at birth in a whole slew of horrifying ways
  • There are several NGOs working in the area now trying to change how twins are treated, one even started an orphanage specifically for twins
  • In 2007 the government finally outlawed the abandonment of children, but because the government is so corrupt, laws aren’t executed, so there hasn’t been much progress
  • Twins are removed immediately after birth and given to the first person that takes them, or they are abandoned. If the people who adopt them live in the same village the children are never allowed to interact or enter the house of their biological family
  • The first born twin is considered the fake, imposter child because they don’t ‘bear the placenta’ and for the majority of mothers who die in child birth the placenta doesn’t ever come out, so basically for multiple births the age order is reversed
  • Twins in all regions of Madagascar are supposed to have curative powers of massage, so if somebody has an ailment, they seek out twins to give them a massage

And the list goes on, but that’s a general overview.

Like I said, really scary

Like I said, really scary

On Sunday the 17th we headed to the airport because the 45-minute flight to Tulear would take 3 full days of driving due to horrible road conditions. Flying was definitely one of the weirder experiences I have had here: the flight left on time, the seats were really cushy, I had enough room for my legs, there was no turbulence and it was just so modern and swanky. Needless to say, after the bumpy crowded TATA rides, economy flights seem like the lap of luxury, so the trip back to the states will be a peace of cake. Our arrival in Tulear marked the start of our three-week long road trip through the country before ISP. We spent four days camping just outside of the city and went into town a couple times to have classes at the Institute Halieutiques de Sciences Marines, an institute of higher education. They have their own marine museum complete with several preserved living fossil fish which are colossal and scary looking so it would definitely make it an exciting fishing trip to accidentally reel one in.

Table mountain looking particularly small compared to some giant clouds

Table mountain looking particularly small compared to some giant clouds

The first night in Tulear we hiked up Table Mountain, which is a very flat mountain that consists mainly of sandstone so the wind shears off flat layers, hence the name. We brought a traditional healer or Ombiasa with us, and he told us the medicinal uses of many plants on the hike up, most were aphrodisiacs. Once we reached the top, the Ombiasa climbed down into a little hole while we sat on the North and West sides of the hole and he performed a traditional prayer for us. Halfway through we had to share offerings with the ancestors, so a bottle of coke and a bottle of rum (chaser first, then shot) were passed around along with a few crackers and cookies. The half-drunk/consumed items were then left in the hole for the ancestors and the prayer was finished just before sunset. We then all quickly clambered over to the best vantage point to watch/photograph the setting of the sun over the Mozambique Channel, which was absolutely stunning but shockingly quick.

After a traditional prayer with the Ombiasha, we watched the sun sink over the channel

After a traditional prayer with the Ombiasha, we watched the sun sink over the channel

[Skip this paragraph if you’re going to eat in the next hour]. On the last night of camping before heading into Tulear, we had a large celebratory party with the local village. Since celebrations are a big deal there was going to be a live band, a sheep and goat roast and of course lots of dancing. That morning we were given the option to watch the sheep and goat sacrifice, which I decided was something I should see as a person who eats both of these animals on occasion. Not everybody wanted to witness this, so a small group trekked over and watched in mounting anxiety as they dragged forward the cute black goat and sheep. Given that I had already killed a chicken, I figured that I would be able to fairly easily watch the sacrifice, however, even though I was not responsible for physically taking the life of the animals this time, it was much more difficult to stomach that the chickens.

Skinning the goat

Skinning the goat

The hardest moment was definitely watching as the shocking scarlet blood shot out of his neck as the animal tried gasping for breath but couldn’t breath through his torn windpipe so this loud gasping noise erupted from his throat. At this point, all but three of us quickly departed. I stayed mainly because I wanted to see how they prepared the meat and was pleasantly surprised to see that the ‘butcher’ was mahay (capable). He had the goat completely skinned and gutted in less than ten minutes and made it look like a fancy art form. In retrospect I’m glad I stayed because it gave some closure to the whole experience and now I know how the process happens, start to finish.

After a couple days in Tulear, one of the touristy towns, popularized for their pousse-pousse taxis (which are two wheeled wooden carts that people sit in and get pulled around by a running man or biker) we headed north to visit a few NGOs. First was Ho Avy, which works with replanting fast growing trees that people can use for firewood. We spent the afternoon there and each planted one or two baby trees and then tried fresh sugarcane, which was strangely reminiscent of good coconut water.

Carrying around our leftover possessions after our stuff had been swiped

Carrying around our leftover possessions after our stuff had been swiped

That night we stayed at L’aubergine, which is this bungalow style hotel. We paired off and picked a bungalow each, Kelli and I grabbed one in the back corner of the compound. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bad call, because strangely enough the dark back corner next to the fence it a good spot for robbers to hop the fence, get into your room and steal your bag. Hypothetical? I wish. Kelli and I both lost many items, but to quote Kelli “if there is one thing I have learned from this country it is how little material possessions matter”. The next morning we tied our few articles of clothing in our lambas on the ends of sticks and carried them around like hobos, it got a few laughs and brightened the mood, so that was good.

Mangrove crab

Mangrove crab

We then all ate breaky under the large Tamarine tree in the center of town before heading over to Reef Doctor to hit up the snorkeling life. We piled into balanced pirogues and sailed out to the barrier reef with building excitement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such large black sea urchins or bright purple and teal parrotfish, the latter was fun to chase around the reef, usually I lost them, but I did manage to follow one for about twenty minutes. PirogueEventually we had to head back in, much to our disappointment, but the adventure must continue. In the afternoon we stopped by Honko, an NGO that works with mangrove restoration, and explored the mangroves for a bit. I really enjoyed watching all the bright brick red crabs come scurrying out of the thick mud only to see vazahas and immediately dart back into their safe little holes.

La fenetre of Isalo

La fenetre of Isalo

The next stop on our road-trip North was Isalo national park and it was a geologists dream. Tall, towering sandstone formations in every direction and nestled between two large cliffs was an icy mountain stream and lush rainforest. We hiked a short 30 minutes into our camping area then continued on towards the famous Piscine Noir Naturelle (black natural pool), which was an immensely deep, dark natural pool of water filled by a waterfall. Of course we all dove in and were shocked by how refreshingly cold it was. Thanks to the modern invention of waterproof cameras, many fun moments were forever captured, including jumping through the waterfall and underwater selfies.

The black pool of Isalo

The black pool of Isalo

After way too short a time, we headed back to camp, still stunned by the beauty of the rainforest stream through the canyons. That night we had literally the best chicken I have ever eaten for dinner, then everyone proceeded to quickly pass out. The last highlight of Isalo was a surprise visit from a troop of wild brown lemurs to our breakfast area. Since I got my rabies pre-exposure shots, I risked feeding one of them!

Lemur selfie

Lemur selfie

I held out half a banana and the little tyke quickly placed his two front paws onto my forearm and snatched the prize from my hand. He retreated about 12 inches and munched down on his scrumptious breaky. Two things of note: lemur paws are super squishy, soft and warm; and while he was preoccupied eating, I had time to snag a lemur selfie, score! We spent the next couple hours hiking over some of the mountains to a second natural pool/waterfall before all piling onto the TATA bus to head north.

Sunset in the canyon

Sunset in the canyon

We reached the Anja Community Reserve, which is a small, lush forest with a very high density of healthy ringtailed lemurs, that evening and set up camp. In the morning we hiked through the woods and saw lemurs in action, scrambled up and down some shear rocks, briefly rappelled 10 feet or so and learned about turning natural worm silk into scarves. Not bad for under two hours. Our next stop was Andringitra, which, with little doubt, is one of my favorite places here. After a truly scary bus ride, mainly due to planks on the bridges we were driving over literally breaking under us, we reached the parking lot.

Success

Success, made it to base camp

Then everyone grabbed their gear for the next two days and started the four kilometer, hour and fifteen minute hike up a mountain to our base camp while the sun set. Since we were at a much higher elevation than usual, it was actually quite chilly, cold enough even that we could see our breath. The first night Jenna and I shared my tent so that we could stay warm, but even that wasn’t quite enough, so the second night we squeezed Anna into the little two person tent and were much more comfortable.

On top of Pic Boby

On top of Pic Boby

We hiked 20 km up Peak Boby, the tallest accessible mountain in Madagascar, and were rewarded by some of the most breathtaking views since arriving in this picturesque country. The thick, puffy white clouds hung just below the peaks of the surrounding mountains so that peering off into the distance was like staring at a never ending pearly floor dotted by a few jutting rocks and a clear blue sky above. Unfortunately, since it was so high up, the weather changed pretty quickly and started spitting cold rain into our faces, but it was fairly refreshing and we had all brought jackets in anticipation of Boby’s mood swings. After we returned to camp, I jumped into the crisp perfectly clear mountain stream to rinse off and relax my muscles.

Hi from the girls of 207

Hi from the girls of 207

The next morning we hiked back down to the bus, and began our journey north yet again. Minor glitch, we hit a large, unexpected bump and my head bashed into the window latch. Long story short, I got a pretty intense headache and when we reached the next big town, I went to the hospital to get my head checked out. The doc ordered an X-Ray (which was a fun experience since the machine was pretty old-school), looked at it for a couple minutes and then was like, ‘dude, you need to go to Tana for an MRI’…only joking. It was more like “vous n’avez pas briser votre tête, mais il pourrait y avoir des lésions tissulaires, alors vous avez besoin d’aller à Tana pour une scan cerebralle”. Aka, I had to leave the group and drive (not personally) 10 hours overnight to the capitol for an early morning MRI. After searching a bit through the maze of a hospital, we finally found somebody who could read the MRI and she informed me that there was no obvious damage, but that I needed three days of rest and a couple drugs. Which all really meant that I wasn’t going to get to see Ranamafana National Park with my friends. Momentary shout out to my group that gave me an Easter basket to-go for my unplanned trip, you’re the best! But not to worry, I’m pretty much 100% again and itching to go camping and stare at the infinity of stars rather than infinity of 3 million lights.

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Categories: 2013, Madagascar | Leave a comment

The Land Before Time

Cheesy mashed potatoes, green beans and grilled zebu steak. NO RICE! Zut alors.

Cheesy mashed potatoes, green beans and grilled zebu steak. NO RICE! Zut alors.

This past week was undoubtedly my favorite week in Madagascar. This is going to be a long post, with loads of photos, so (polar)bear with me (if you don’t want to read it, just skim the photos and I won’t be offended). First off, I decided to cook my parents dinner on Saturday before I left for the weeklong village homestay in Faux Cap. In the morning Anna and I searched around the market for all the necessities, which included a massive hunk of zebu haunch all for the low price of $2.50. In my quest for potatoes, I accidentally thought the seller was asking if I wanted one or two of the large pomme de terres, but actually, she meant one or two kilograms…so of course I had already said two, and carrying those around the market in my backpack was pretty funny. My parents spent most of the day at their friends house down the road, so when I got back, they still weren’t there, but they had accidentally left the stove on, so the house was filled with black burnt rice smoke. I quickly turned it off and began airing out the house, but absolutely did not begin cooking until they returned home and I explained to them what happened (I didn’t want them to think that I tried burning down the house while cooking). It was also the first meal chez moi that did not contain rice, little bro Irintsoa was not pleased.

The next morning Beth and I grabbed the 6am bus into town where we met all the SIT and CEL students plus staff for the start of our epic journey. All 31 students plus 4 drivers squeezed into the TATA bus for the 8-10 hour journey (depending on if you count breaks or not). On the way there, we grabbed lunch in a small town that served us the first cold beverages most of us have had in a long time. SO refreshing. And they served us delicious, tender meat that we couldn’t identify at the time. Since we would be staying in rural villages all week, everyone figured they should take advantage of the good grub, I had a few slices of the meat since it was, as I proclaimed at the time “in my top five foods of Madagascar”. All too funny, later that day N’Aina enlightened us on the meat’s identity: Zebu tongue. I firmly maintain my previous statement and will eat it again if the opportunity presents itself (which apparently it will in Tulear…stoked).

Everyone crowded on the bus for the long haul. It was basically a large party.

Everyone crowded on the bus for the long haul. It was basically a large party.

Along the drive we had to get out several times to help push the bus because it got stuck in the soft sand. The really cool part was the logs they used to shove under the back two double wheels so that as the TATA started moving forward it would have a little grippage. We also picked up three Peace Corps volunteers and several villagers who wanted to get to Faux Cap since there isn’t a regularly scheduled bus. Good times!

Once we reached Faux Cap (the southern most point in Mada), we set up camp on the beach as the sun set then took a refreshing dip in the warm Indian ocean, made even more awesome knowing that the next landmass immediately south of us was Antarctica. A couple people broke out rum and we sang and danced under the Southern Cross and literally so many other stars, oh, and the ridiculously visible Milky Way.

The next morning we spent in the market with our groups for the week: two SIT and two CEL students (mine, epic of course, was Gabo, Cidera, Clair and me). Then we anxiously waited for our new families to come collect us! Just our dad, who was young looking but super friendly and smiling all the time, picked us up. We had the smallest village, only six homes and one extended family that lived there, and it was such a tight knit community that we couldn’t tell who was married to who or whose kids were whose.

Top left: Me, Clair, Uncle1 and cousins. Top Right: Uncle2, Clair, Grandpa, Me, Dad, Grandma. Lower left:Dad, Mom and Norbert. Lower right: Half the village at the party

Top left: Me, Clair, Uncle1 and cousins. Top Right: Uncle2, Clair, Grandpa, Me, Dad, Grandma. Lower left:Dad, Mom and Norbert. Lower right: Half the village at the party

There are way too many fun stories from this week, so I’m going to stick to the highlights, list style.

•Shucking lentils with the women-super relaxing in a very meditative way. Also funny when you have no clue what is being said around you because the only spoken/known language is a Malagasy dialect.

•Eating meals in Baba’s (Malagasy for dad) house. The men sat on the ground while Clair and I were on the firm wooden bed; trying so hard not to spill food from our shared plate onto their bed…we really weren’t successful, especially when half the food consisted of crumbly rice or juicy watermelon. I just felt so comfortable and at home sitting there smiling and making gestures or saying single words in Malagache to Baba. So much good fruit too!

Coconuts, cantelope like melon, honeycomb and more coconut! (All fresh!)

Coconuts, cantelope like melon, honeycomb and more coconut! (All fresh!)

•Plucking the feathers for a still warm chicken in the center of the village while all the little kids watched the vazahs struggle. Then being told we had to cook it alone. Not that hard, right? Wrong. The kitchen was approximately 4 x 4 x 4 feet, so I couldn’t stand; only awkwardly kneel in the sand that wasn’t occupied by one of two fires. Also, the byproduct of two open wood fires in a very, very tiny area is loads of smoke, which makes silly vazah’s eyes turn bright red and stream like crazy. Clair and I would emerge from cooking, turn to each other, burst out laughing and then laugh harder as the village women joined in. Side note, this occurred maybe one hour after arriving in the village, so it was a really nice icebreaker.

•Watching Gabo and Cidera try to milk a zebu. Women aren’t allowed to milk zebus because it’s fady, but we got to enter the zebu pen and laugh along the sidelines. Probably the defining moment for how our week was going to proceed was that we had to enter the manure filled pen without our shoes, because it’s fady to wear shoes there (I don’t know the story behind this one, but would love to) and both Clair and I were sporting cuts on our feet from previous encounters with angry bushes. We looked at each other, said, “this is how we’re going to roll” and walked into the well-cushioned ground. Side note, Gabo and Cidera failed miserably at milking the zebu.

Our awesome group! No, I don't really think I can pull of their hairstyle.

Our awesome group! No, I don’t really think I can pull of their hairstyle.

•PIROGUING!! On Tuesday at 6:30 am we walked 30 minutes to the ocean with Baba and a couple Dadatoas (uncles), then helped carry the balanced pirogue to the ocean and hopped in. The boat was long, but really narrow and deep. With the side balance (a wooden log attached to one side), we smoothly glided through the large waves, Clair and I taking turns paddling in the middle. We started taking on water, from cracks in the log and waves that broke over the brow, so Gabo used an old hard hat to empty the invading water. On our way back, after the men did some fishing (they caught two large fish and an octopus-which we later ate for breakfast) they rigged up their large sail, which was handily made from old rice sacks sewn together. The ingenuity of the villagers still amazes me. According to Jim, the program director, we are only the second set of students (in 14 years) to get to ride in a real pirogue, score!

This is the traditional boat we took out on the open sea. Yeeeah buddy!

This is the traditional boat we took out on the open sea. Yeeeah buddy!

• Hanging out with the kids. At the beach we played tic tack toe and wrote math problems in the sand with them and in the evenings after our hours of dancing, we taught them English children’s songs, e.g. the itsy bitsy spider.

• Working with the villagers. We learned how to pound corn, weed the fields, pick lentil from the stalk, cook corn in the field using a small brush fire, how to smoke out bees so that we can steal their honeycomb (coincidentally the most delicious thing to eat fresh while fending off bees), plant bagedas and pick fresh melons and coconuts. Yuuum.

We got to try all sorts of fun things.

We got to try all sorts of fun things. Fishing, pounding corn, balancing fruit on our heads, sorting corn, and weeding the bageda field.

• Watching the castration of two zebus. This was actually not my favorite thing to do, but it was definitely an experience. We woke up on Tuesday and immediately our father was like ‘grab your cameras, quick!’ so Clair and I turned back and brought them out. Then we walked over to the meeting tree in the village and watched as two men hauled a zebu over and tied his head to the tree by his horns. We had a minor panicky moment because we thought that they were going to sacrifice the zebu in front of us and we both had previously decided (think turkeys) that we did not ever want to watch a big animal die. Baba quickly reassured us that it was only a simple castration. So, we watched (slightly horrified) as the eldest man flung some holy water on the zebu then reached right under there and grabbed them bad boys and whipped out his knife. All the villagers were really excited and kept pointing at us to take pictures, so if the truth be told, I have way too many photos now of two poor zebus loosing their manhood. Back to the story. The zebu did not really like that he was being sliced open by a knife, so he bucked some and the men chased him around the tree while he sprayed blood onto the ground. The whole process of removing the testies was actually quite intense and I felt so bad for the bull, so I didn’t watch the second round, but if you’re interested in the details, I’ll definitely tell you. Then we curiously asked Baba what was going to happen with the testicles and bulls and we discovered that the testies were for eating (we made it quite clear we would NOT try those) and that the zebus are used for pulling carts after they’ve been degraded. Needless to say, we looked VERY carefully at our breakfast before eating it (it ended up being the octopus that we had gotten the previous day and it was delicious).

Castration isn't my favorite pre-breaky thing, but it was a cool experience.

Castration isn’t my favorite pre-breaky thing, but it was a cool experience.

• Dancing and singing with the family. There is nothing quite like spending three hours dancing in the style of the zebu every night as the sun sets. Tandroy dance is basically all the men in a circle stomping about while the women sing eerily outside the circle and bang drums. The key to being a good dancer is bringing your knees up all the way to your chest without bobbing your shoulders and then driving your feet into the ground hard enough to raise puffs of dust. Meanwhile your arms are bent at the elbows, held out at shoulder height and your hands vibrate quickly up and down. Also, your supposed to make zebu-grunting noises with your mouth. I really only managed to make snorts of laughter, but they considered it high quality for a vazaha, so that was good. The dancing then lasts for about three minutes before someone enters the circle, leads the dance for a bit, then jumps up and upon landing shouts loudly Eeee-ayyy and then the appropriate response is everyone in the circle jumping into the air and upon landing (preferably simultaneously) shouting out Ahh-haaa. It was actually so much fun to dance like this, just lose yourself in the rhythm and village enthusiasm. When I think back on my village stay the first image that comes to mind is Baba and my uncle dancing across from me in the circle and beaming at me as I entered the circle to test out my skills.

• SINGING! We sang every night after the dancing just chilling under the many stars. One funny moment was when I was teaching the village Row Row Row Your Boat and the third time through (I would sing them a line and then they would sing it back to me), when I was doing the octave jump up for “merrily merrily” my voice cracked hardcore and I burst into laughter followed quickly by all the villagers. Everything was so genuine and lighthearted. I loved it!

Dancing on the way to the party and then Clair and I breaking it down for the competition

Dancing on the way to the party and then Clair and I breaking it down for the competition

• La grande fête. The last day there was a big party for all the villages that hosted students, so it meant dancing/running 3 km along the beach under the really hot midday sun to the Cactus Hotel dressed in traditional Trandroy hairstyle and lambahuany. It was the hardest thing I did all week because anytime Clair and I started just jogging and not singing or dancing, they would come up and elbow us in the sides and motion for us to get back into the dance. So we would then jog while enthusiastically swinging our arms around in the air. It was so hot and such an awkward pace that it was exhausting. But really worth it as we danced and sang our way into the party, everyone watching on as we strutted our stuff. One of the fun parts was seeing all our SIT friends again for the first time in a week and seeing just how crazy tan everyone had become (I’m probably the palest one here).

 

I'm still the palest, but that's ok.

I’m still the palest, but that’s ok.

Cactus flower, moon during the day, sunrise behind our tents and our tents next to Baba's house.

Cactus flower, moon during the day, sunrise behind our tents and our tents next to Baba’s house.

 

Categories: 2013, Madagascar | 3 Comments

LEMURS

Just climbing the trees to find large spiders

Just climbing the trees to find large spiders

We chased lemurs through the spiny thicket for 3 hours while avoiding getting shredded by the spines found on practically every growing plant in the thicket. It was probably the best three hours of my life, as I got to watch lemurs eat (which is adorable), scratch their backs on the spines, sleep and spring from tree to tree. Oh-and on occasion, they would jump to the tree above our heads and peer curiously down at us-SO CUTE. They also looked like they would be really cuddly and soft. I’ll let you decide for yourselves from the pictures. We also took a night walk to see the nocturnal grey brown mouse lemurs and other cool fauna. (Note, if you click on the pictures they get bigger).

My french group that also doubles as my lab group and just some generally cool people.

My french group that also doubles as my lab group and just some generally cool people.

After three wonderful days in the spiny thicket, we packed up camp, danced with the locals under the moonlight in the zebu style and headed out to Berenty Natural Reserve to see some ringtailed lemurs and have a spectacular lunch. We also saw our first big boabab trees.

Beth, me, Meredith, Cam

Beth, me, Meredith, Cam

Everything was spiny and dangerous.

Everything was spiny and dangerous.

Lunch time for the Sifaka lemurs

Lunch time for the Sifaka lemurs.

I followed this dude around for three hours. We are bffs now.

I followed this dude around for three hours. We are bffs now.

Finally caught one mid jump!

Finally caught one mid jump!

It took me approximately 57689 tries to get a decent pic of this little guy. He just had so many branches to hide behind, plus is was dark and at night.

It took me approximately 57689 tries to get a decent pic of this little guy. He just had so many branches to hide behind, plus is was dark and at night.

Another nocturnal little guy. We saw him at Berenty.

Another nocturnal little guy. We saw him at Berenty.

Just after eating lunch on our way out of Berenty this little nugget stopped by to say hi.

Just after eating lunch on our way out of Berenty this little nugget stopped by to say hi.

Baby ringtailed lemur! Super cute and very curious

Baby ringtailed lemur! Super cute and very curious

 

Categories: 2013, Madagascar | Leave a comment

Ifotaka

They didn't quite make it through this puddle. Better luck next time.

They didn’t quite make it through this puddle. Better luck next time.

This past week was LEMUR ECOLOGY!!! We also got a sweet cyclone just before departure so all the roads to the spiny forest (although technically it was recently downgraded to a thicket because the canopy isn’t tall enough for a forest…pfff technicalities) were flooded and at times giant chunks had just fallen away, although I’m not quite sure where they went…we did also have our first super exciting road occurrence: one of the trucks got stuck and we had to pull it out with our truck, but not before we got some funny photos and Marley’s feet got wet.

Anyways, the really cool part of the 75km road trip was watching the landscape change drastically from wet, littoral mountainous forest to dry, spiny, cacti filled rolling hills. Even the color of the dirt changed from a dark chocolaty color to a bright copper that provided a great contrast to the succulent green plants.

When we finally arrived, we were given time to set up camp and relax before a field lecture on the spiny thicket. The following morning, I had milk for the first since leaving the states, and let me tell you, it was ridiculously delicious. Just after breakfast, while we were organizing, Anna returned from the squatters a bit shaken because all the termite damage finally took its toll: one of the boards gave way while she was standing on it and her leg took a plunge towards the rather disgusting contents below. Luckily, her leg didn’t reach the bottom, but she is now sporting several lovely cuts up and down her leg from the shredded wood. Once everybody recovered their wits from her close encounter, one of our professors N’iana came over and asked who wanted to be on lunch duty. This was the first time that we had ‘lunch duty’ and it really means who wants to be the executioner. I knew going into this program that students were asked to kill the chickens for their dinner, and I had accepted the fact before arriving, with the mindset that if I eat meat, I should have the full understanding of how it gets from walking around to my plate. Needless to say, it is one thing to read about it in somebody’s blog before coming, and another to have the task set before you. In total, there were seven students who said they would kill lunch. Of those seven, I was the first to go (I’m jumping in headfirst to everything). What surprised me was that it wasn’t a chicken as I expected, but a large turkey. I won’t go too much into the details of how one kills a turkey, as a favor to my vegetarian friends and those with gentler souls, but I will say that it was a very big learning experience for me since the next largest thing I have ever killed was a frog while driving. If you are squeamish, do not read the next few sentences. I was expecting maybe a hatchet, but instead I was handed a dull flat knife. The hardest part was starting through the gobbler and continuing to saw away while I felt the turkey gasping for breath. Literally, I could feel the muscles ripple in the neck and the beak open and close rapidly. I continued blindly hoping to quickly end the pour turkey’s life without much suffering. When it was all over, only two students had managed to watch and everyone, myself included was quite shaken. Beth, the only other student willing to go at that point, then bravely stepped up for her turkey (side note, the next day, three more students bravely faced the same ordeal only with chickens, and a freshly sharpened knife-I’m a trend setter?). As I walked into the spiny forest a half hour later to study lemurs, I hadn’t yet fully mulled over what I had just done. Yes, the turkeys were going to die anyways and they certainly had a much better life than those commercially raised in the states, but it was still impactful and hard. Thankfully, the lemurs quickly took all my attention from lunch duty.

The SIT Family

The SIT family on our roadtrip to Ifotaka just after a dance party to Thrift Shop.

Categories: 2013, Madagascar | Leave a comment

Maybe Next Time

I'm wearing the red jacket and carrying Alyssa to safety on the other side of the normally dry path

I’m wearing the red jacket and carrying Alyssa to safety on the other side of the normally dry path

On Feb 19th we were supposed to leave for St. Luce, a conservation zone 30km north of Fort Dauphin. However, when we all showed up for the trip at 7:30 am, it wasn’t quite clear what was happening. The confusion might have had something to do with the cyclone that was predicted to hit us head on. So, the combination of a legit cyclone and the horrible roads meant that the profs weren’t so sure that we could make it back from St. Luce if we happened to make it there in the first place. So, we (the SIT kids and the Centre Ecologique de Libanoana students) all waited for 3 long hours only to be disappointed when Jim told us that we would be heading to Mandena instead of St. Luce and we wouldn’t be camping. I’ll be honest. We were all crushed, mainly because we had been anticipating and looking forward to the camping and hanging out together portion of the trip all of the previous week. However, we did still get to do our field research on a littoral forest, so that was quite fun (no sarcasm). We spent all day whacking through the dense forest while it poured on our heads. Probably the funniest part of it was when they told us that we had to move an 8-meter pole through the forest upright for 50 meters to measure the vertical plant structure. It had been a struggle to get ourselves through the forest, let alone an unbendable giant pole…so we attempted that for all of two meters before they decided that it would be easier to use a metal pole that broke down into four 2-meter sections. Never-the-less, it was still exhausting work and we must have had at least 15 liters of water dumped onto our heads from whacking all the tree branches.

The second day ended up being much nicer, so we were able to camp that night, which was superb. Anna and I set up shop next to each other so for about five minutes there was the concentrated smell of the L. L. Bean store, as we both have the same Beans tent. After a night of swapping stories between the CEL and SIT students, we woke up to a group of bamboo lemurs near the latrines. Let me tell you, everyone suddenly felt the urge to use the restroom once word spread around. It was also our first wild sighting of Madagascar’s finest, Hallelujah.

Kelly and me on our way home in the taxi

Kelly and me on our way home in the taxi

Categories: 2013, Madagascar | Leave a comment

The Drunker Side of Life

Family after the carnival

 

Saturday I went to the Carnival at Irinstoa’s school, which basically involved all the little kids dressing up in costumes and then performing several songs and dances for the families. My brother went as Spiderman, which turned out to be a popular costume as there were a total of nine Spidermen. I discovered that my bold brother at home turns into a meek little mouse at school, along with his whole class apparently. Their class was the only section of students that didn’t sing and dance the entire time. All the teachers kept coming over and moving their arms about, encouraging them to dance. Alas, no such luck. But it was probably one of the cutest things I have seen since being here. I have a great video of the whole school singing and dancing the If You’re Happy and You Know It song, in three versions: English, French and Malagasy. Unfortunately, the internet is in no way capable of loading a video, pictures take long enough as it is.

I spent all of Sunday in town doing homework and lazing about on the beach (yes, I can do those simultaneously). Before I knew it however, I had 30 minutes to get from the beach to my bus stop in town…so Cam and I rushed to get there on time, hurrying especially quickly because neither of us had credit on our phones to call a cab and we both live outside of the town. Lucky me, I still managed to miss the bus by several minutes. We stopped by the hotel we frequent for Internet access and borrowed a phone to call Cam’s father, who has a car. He assured up that he was on his way and that he wouldn’t mind dropping me off. Around 7:45pm Cam’s dad shows up in his large grey van and there must have been 8 drunken Malagasy men in the back, but they saved us two seats so it wasn’t an issue (seat belts don’t exist here unless you’re traveling in QMM buses). We pulled out into the road, and when I say into the road, I don’t mean casually into one lane, but into the center ‘lane’, i.e. weaving back and forth across the two lanes so that nobody else really had room to drive on the road. It quickly became apparent that Cam’s dad was Schwasty Faced when he turned almost completely around, while driving, to start a conversation with us. He proceeded to fist bump us and say “Hallelujah” several times before looking at the road again. The next 15 minutes went something like this: drive, look behind and chat, swerve suddenly to avoid something or someone, chat some more, slam the breaks, look at the road, look behind and chat, casually slip into the conversation that somebody slammed a key into your head and that you got stitches this afternoon, keep driving. So. After an altercation at a bar he frequents at 11:30 am, Cam’s father decided to drive around town with his “security”, i.e. all the neighborhood men, and then self prescribe the only known remedy for being keyed: Three Horses Beer. Along the way, it become slightly apparent that we were not in fact, going to turn left onto my road, but continue straight ahead to the same bar as mentioned previously. Cam and I were issued beers from Papa and then chatted with by several of the men. We also were slightly worried because his father kept saying something along the lines of “it’s the night of revenge” and then “tomorrow’s the night for revenge”. So it wasn’t totally clear to us whether we needed to have brought our pitchforks for that night, or wait another day…needless to say, there was tension and lots of testosterone in the air. Which may explain why the next thing we knew, Cam and I were being nodded at and talked about amongst all the men. They looked knowingly at us and smiled really big. Then Cam’s father made our statements of “Evelyn’s my friend” and “Cam’s a nice guy” mean “LET’S SLEEP TOGETHER”. So. I was cordially invited back to Cam’s house, i.e. Cam asks “Can we take Evelyn home?” father says, “NOOO, we’re going home”. So. I met Cam’s mother and had a completely awkward dinner that included Cam’s 14-year-old brother smiling knowingly at me, and then his father shooing us into Cam’s bedroom. Why didn’t I call a taxi or insist on going home? probably because my phone was dead and another car ride with the security squad and Cam’s dad would end up with the van upside-down in a ditch. It was safer just to crash the night at Cam’s and accept the awkwardness and hilarity of the situation. So, Cam and I spent a cozy night together romantically huddled under his bug net watching beetles crawl all over it. If you want an awkward fake ‘walk of shame’, try walking 15 minutes down a muddy dirt road and then asking your other friend’s Mom for a ride into town with her daughter, then showing up at school in the same clothes as Sunday and none of the appropriate school things. Needless to say, I will probably remember this for the rest of my life.

Categories: 2013, Madagascar | Leave a comment

Carnivorous plant

Carnivorous plant

Categories: 2013 | Leave a comment

My attempt at an artsy photo…jokes all around

My attempt at an artsy photo...jokes all around

Categories: 2013 | 1 Comment

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