Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The road goes ever on and on...

Home at last.
I write to you now from my parent’s house in Petaluma, California, in what will be my last post as a WWF EXPLORE Volunteer in Madagascar. It seems a rather short three months ago that I began this blog in Antananarivo, excited and uncertain about the experience ahead. It is surreal now to be faced with the task of reflecting back.
If Tana was culture shock, then America, land of plenty, is like being hit with a tidal wave and turned upside-down. The developed world as a whole has been astonishing, delighting, and terrifying me since I stepped off of that first of many airplanes in Paris Charles-de-Gaulle Airport last Wednesday. First, it was soda with ice that knocked me out of my seat. I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway as I gulped cold Sprite and chowed down on frozen cubes in my AirFrance seat. Forevermore, I am going to feel nostalgic for Madagascar when tasting warm beverages.
Then, it was the weather—as I descended the stairs onto the tarmac in Paris, the girl standing in line before me commented that, “Cold just feels weird.” Weird, indeed, and she had most likely only been vacationing in Madagascar for a few weeks. For me, who in the past three months has come to know that far-off island in the middle of the sea as home, it was beyond bizarre to hop on an airplane overnight and wake up in a different hemisphere in a different season. Winter…who has ever heard of that? And Christmas…wow, I nearly forgot that it was supposed to be happening sometime soon.
Then it was on to Madrid through the endlessly fascinating and confusing world of international travel. I found myself excitedly abandoning my barebones diet of rice and beans in Barajas Airport and settling down to a truly gluttonous meal of extra cheesy tortilla española and chocolate con churros, but I’d barely made it through half of the quiche-like tortilla, before I started feeling faintly queasy. I guess it will take more than a few hours to acclimate myself to a dairy-based diet once more; cheese and milk-based products just didn’t really exist in Vondrozo. And who knows how many parasites I’ve managed to pick up abroad? What Kuni has dubbed the “extraterrestrial” in my stomach didn’t seem too excited about the chocolate either…
From Madrid, I made my way across the Atlantic to New York’s JFK International Airport, an overwhelming welcome to America after five months spent out of my home country (for those of you less familiar with the details of my life’s travel, I spent the summer traveling Europe before voyaging on to Madagascar). I was tickled to discover an advertisement for World Wildlife Fund’s “Save the Tiger” campaign just outside American Airlines security—so reminiscent of that WWF donation bin in Paris three months ago at the start of my Malagasy adventures…Here, like before, I left a small contribution—in American dollars, this time, instead of euros—but I know that my real contribution lay in all I have learned and experienced in the past three months.
Being back in America is both amazing and distressing. Everything inspires awe. My first meal in JFK—a cheese quesadilla with guacamole and sour cream was astonishing, but no less so was the tall glass of ice water the waitress brought me without my asking; I could drink it safely without adding chlorine or UV light! But then I found myself stunned by the plastic straw in its paper wrapper that she set beside the cup, not to mention the stack of disposable napkins she tossed on my table. Who needs these things? I thought to myself…And where do they go after I finish with them?
I spent the weekend decorating my home for Christmas alongside my mother and father, and when we tired of Christmas carols, I pulled up Youtube on my laptop—internet powered, of course, by the wireless network in our house. “What do you want to listen to?” I asked my mom. “Every song in the world is at my fingertips…” And that is what America is like—everything in the world at my fingertips. And yet not. There are a few songs that have escaped Youtube’s archives…Where are “Voay” and “Assuré” and the many other cheerful Malagasy melodies that have danced across the radio incessantly for the past three months? They are not there.
Indeed, it seems hard to believe that Madagascar can exist at all from the perspective of Christmastime in the San Francisco Bay Area. At first, just after my arrival, I found myself converting every purchase into Ariary, but I long ago abandoned that habit because it makes me vaguely nauseous. Things here cost 2,000 times what they cost in Madagascar, and that is just the way they are. I pay what they cost in American dollars, and I try not to think about the difference.
 When I wander through our local Safeway, I remember the market in Vondrozo, and I can barely believe that there are still people there now, buying rice and beans and manioc leaves while I browse the packaged foods and produce bins offering vegetables from all over the world. When I shower in my parent’s master bathroom, all pink tile and hot water—how many times did I dream of that in Madagascar?—I struggle to remember that the cold bucket bath in Behavana is still a reality and that there are people there, today, now, who are still using it.
PCV Brian called us a week ago when we were still in country, and he was home for his brother’s wedding in Hawaii. He said that people always talk about reverse culture shock with Peace Corps Volunteers returning to the developed world, but for his short visit, he was dealing well with it. “I basically just separate this world from that world,” he said. “But I guess that is the problem, too.”
Yes, that is certainly the problem. Petaluma, California and Vondrozo, Madagascar are both realities, existing at the same time and on the same planet. I have the luxury of being able to flit between the two, inconvenienced only by some jetlag and a few uncomfortable hours (okay maybe more than a few) in an airline seat. But how to wrap my head around the idea that Vondrozo continues to exist when I have left it and that, for so many other people, escape is not an option? That is the challenge ahead of us as we move forward on the path towards sustainable human development. How to make Vondrozo exist on the same plane as Petaluma and yet avoid destroying our environment in the process…?
For my part, the work is far from over, and the need to return to Africa burns strong within me. Fortunately for me, life has seen fit to send me back to the Dark Continent in almost too short a time. In just under two weeks, I will be leaving the good ol’ US of A once more to head, this time, to Kenya, where I will be spending most of 2011 working on a project investigating land use change, fluctuations in small mammal populations, and human infectious disease risk in East Africa. The project will be much more science-heavy than the work I have been doing in Madagascar (not much conservation by cooking this time), but there is also a critically important applied aspect to the project that deals with education and information for the local population. I am beyond excited to be able to take all that I have learned in Madagascar and apply it, so soon, to this new project in Kenya.
And though I am moving on for the immediate future, there remains much work to be done in Madagascar and in the Vondrozo Corridor, in particular. From afar, EXPLORE volunteers will continue to teach and communicate—our videos are completed now and awaiting a few technical glitches to be sorted out before they will take their place on this website and others. There are presentations ahead, too, and articles left to write, and help to be sought. For those of you who have been impressed and inspired by the efforts of WWF in Madagascar, you can learn more and help contribute to the cause at the WWF international website (http://wwf.panda.org/how_you_can_help/) or the Madagascar-specific site (http://madagascar.panda.org/aboutus/how_you_can_help/).
And, who knows? Once Kenya is behind me, there is no telling what could come next. Madagascar was my first real foray into hands-on conservation and sustainable development, and for that, it will always hold a special place in my heart. There are many people and places that still tie me to the country, and with so much possibility on its environmental horizon, I may just have to go back someday.
For now, though, the road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began…

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Culture Shock

I woke up this morning in my comfortable twin bed in Tana, and I didn’t quite know what to think. I’m going through some serious culture shock in Madagascar’s metropolitan capital city—I video edited until 2am last night, enjoying the luxury of 24-hour electricity and high speed internet, but I found myself awake again with the early morning light at 5am per Vondrozo usual. The rest of the Tana population, however, seems to sleep a bit later than those Vondrozoans, and when Kuni, Christa, Henintsoa, and I left our hotel in search of morning sakafo, we found the city quiet and deserted…except, of course, for those few revelers still making their way home from an epic night at la boite (French for nightclub). And as for what we ate—pain au chocolat and café au lait—I might as well have been in Paris, not Madagascar. Kind of different from all those breakfasts of rice and peanuts sur terrain.

I’ve never been much of a city girl, and life in Tana stresses me out somewhat with its complexity. Not only can I now read your blog comments, but I am also painfully aware of the 1400 unread messages in my email inbox. Sigh. It is time to take myself off of some of those nostalgic Stanford email lists. Anyway, I have only 3 days left in Madagascar, and our team has seven videos to finish, one brochure to write, one website to design, and a host of final reports to put together. Sort of like finals week back home…You might say that life is busy.

There are a few things in Tana that have really thrown me for a loop after three months in the remote south. My first instinct this morning was to get up and run for the faucet with my water bottle—in Vondrozo, the water runs only consistently between the hours of 6am and 7am, and if you miss it in the morning, there’s a chance you’ll be going thirsty all day…or contributing to global plastic disposal problems by buying a bottle of Eau Vive, Madagascar’s equivalent to Arrowhead or Evian. In Tana, though, the faucet runs when you turn it on, and if you turn it towards the red side, the water is hot! Such a novelty—I haven’t had a hot shower since mid-September…

In addition—and this might be a bit too much information, but in the spirit of one who has become comfortable talking about all bodily functions, I am going to share anyway—the first time I sat down on the toilet yesterday (and a real toilet with a seat, at that!), I found myself searching in vain for the trash can in which to deposit the paper. But there was no trash can because—imagine that—in Tana, people flush their toilet paper down the drain…

And then there is the language. Henintsoa, who was born in Madagascar and still has family in Tana, couldn’t be happier. As members of the Merina ethnicity, the light-skinned residents of Antananarivo and the neighboring high plateau, both she and Ranto are at home with the crisp, clear accent of the region. People here greet each other with “Manahoana”—not “Akoraby” or even “Salama”—and they seem to enunciate their letters more cleanly than those in the Southeast. As an example, the Malagasy equivalent of “there is…” or “is there…” is the word “misy”, which Ranto and Henintsoa pronounce as you might expect: “meee-seee.” In Vondrozo, however, we’ve learned to eat the ends of our words, and we say, “meeesch.”

And so we return from the field a bit more boorish than we left, you might say. Our clothes are all disgusting, for clean means something different in Tana than it did in Vondrozo, and the WWF Tana staff all chuckle appreciatively at our Sudest accents. Perhaps our favorite phrase, so obviously uncultivated, is “da zaka be” (dah-zak-ah-bay), which means, basically, “How gigantic!” There really is no Malagasy officialy (the Merina dialect) equivalent, but to give you an idea of its usage, you might think of Sergio’s shoe size…

In general, our team is very small—I, at 5 feet, 4 inches, am the tallest of the girls, and we all wear an American shoe size of 5 or 6. Ranto is not a whole lot bigger than any of the girls, but Sergio, though skinny, towers over 6 feet. His shoes are comparatively enormous, especially his hulking hiking boots. When Sergio fell in a river during our second séjour sur terrain, he worried that his boots would take days to dry. However, with my unfortunately extensive experience trying to salvage water-logged iPhones, I had already introduced him to the drying properties of a bowl of rice. A night of sleep in a bowl of rice saved his Canon camera during our first field excursion, and impressed by the efficacy of the method, Sergio proposed filling his boots with rice during the second sejour to dry them out. In Madagascar, rice is measured by the kapoaky (kah-pook), or cup, and Ranto argued that we couldn’t waste rice on Sergio’s shoes because they’d take two kapoakys each to fill. To give you a sense for comparison, the six of us together eat about three kapoakys of rice in total in a given meal. Sergio’s feet are, you could say, “da zaka be.”

There may not be anything officially “da zaka be” in Tana, but we are proud of our southeastern heritage, as we come to view it now. I admit I appreciate some of the luxuries of life in the capital—my feet, for one, are no longer pussing and weeping with dirt and flies—but I miss the Madagascar I have come to know as home. Already, I feel as though the trip has ended in a lot of ways, even though I am still eleven hours of time difference and many thousand miles from California. Though sad for this incredible experience to come to an end, I am also eager to return to my real home and family—if only for a short while—before it is on again to the next crazy venture…

Time to go edit some more video…Don’t miss Henintsoa’s newest update to the blog (à la droite if you “mahay français” as they Malagasy say), and happy holidays until I write again!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mora mora

“It’s hard to be efficient in this country,” I say to Peace Corps education volunteer, Erica Wherry, one evening after dinner in Vondrozo. “That,” she says, “is very true.”

Madagascar is the land of “mora mora,” meaning that everyone takes life slow. For the most part, as I draw to the end of my three months in country, I realize that I have come to terms with a pace of existence so different from that which I knew back home. I have grown accustomed to changes in the schedule, to unforseen challenges, to waiting for things to happen. “Nothing teaches patience like life in Madagascar,”says Brian. That, also, is very true.

However, in these last two weeks of work time in Vondrozo—our field excursions finished and our only remaining work of the computer and desk variety—I find a renewed frustration and an eagerness for resources that are not, and will not be, at my disposal for some time yet. How much I would love to fact-check my statistics with a quick search on GoogleScholar, how nice it would be to charge the video camera in the morning and skip out to the countryside for a few shots in the late afternoon! As it is, however, our work capacity is handicapped by four hours of computer battery and the strict hours of city-wide electricity—5pm to midnight on weekdays, noon to midnight on those precious weekends.

Not that there aren’t plenty of other things to do when the electronic work can’t be done! As Christa says, “Cooking takes twice as long here”, for all meals come from scratch, and dry rice and beans take a long time to cook. Our favorite, delectable, chickpea-like bean, voanjo-bory, takes a full three hours to prepare to a satisfactory softness, but we think nothing of it. Three hours for meal preparation is nothing in Madagascar—just think of Maman’Dilo and the chickens!

The simple tasks like laundry and dishes take much longer, too, for everything is done by hand. You can’t exactly multi-task while waiting for the laundry when it is you who must scrub and brush and attack the clothes that are never really going to be clean again, anyway. It takes me almost two hours to do a load of wash, and then who knows how long to dry if the wet-season rains start in again in the late afternoon.

And so, life has its challenges in Madagascar—perhaps felt all the more in the semi-civilized environment of Vondrozo. In the field, at least, we are so removed from the technological world that it is futile to worry about it much. In Vondrozo, we are more aware of developed-world expectations and developing-world resources, but I dare not complain—life here is wonderful, still. There are mitsangstanganas and soccer matches and breaks to walk to the corner stand for coffee and mofo’akondro, the delicious fried bananas that are somewhat of a southeastern Malagasy specialty. I’ve already decided to one day open a restaurant in the U.S. called Café Fary, serving sugarcane coffee and all types of mofo treats. Maybe the proceeds can help fund Vondrozo National Park. Christa recommends mats on the floor and bamboo decor, and Brian suggests that Berkeley, CA might be a receptive venue. We’ll see if this Stanford grad can bring herself to make the move...

This is goodbye again for a short while. As with many things in Madagascar, our internet key is broken, and my communications are posted at the expense of our Peace Corps friends’ limitless generosity. However, Brian is currently en route to Hawaii for his brother’s wedding, and Erica is soon to leave us, too, for In-Service-Training in Tana. So, in addition to losing friends in Vondrozo, we also lose internet next week, and the blog must fall silent again.

We are scheduled to arrive in Tana next Saturday, December 11, and at that time, I will write again with closing thoughts and final news from the eighth continent. Goodbye for now, and I hope you enjoy reading the new posts about our most recent adventures sur terrain. Stay tuned for videos and photos and all wifi-requiring blog additions in a week!


Varied Values

Our adventures throughout the past month sur terrain have taken us through rainforest, under waterfalls, over ricefields. Already, I have waxed philosophic and gushed with religious fervor about the complexity of the ecosystem, the beauty of the landscape, the conservationist dreams that I entertain daily. And while it is true that interactions with the natural environment of Madagascar formed the basis of our ecotourism research over the past few weeks, we would have been neglecting the “holistic” component of sustainable development had we not also spent considerable time investigating the customs of the people we encountered along the way. Ecotourism in the Vondrozo Forest Corridor means changes for both animals and people that inhabit the jungle.

And so we were anthropologists as well as ecologists this past month in the field, taking an hour or two in each settlement’s tranobe to talk with the COBA president, the village elders, or the panzaka—a “king”of ancient Malagasy custom. In every locale, we learned about the origin of people, name, and village, about the religious customs and traditional festivals practiced in the region, about the crops cultivated, the animals raised.

We started our trajectory in the haute plateau region of the Betsileo people, masters of riziculture, then crossed through the forest and headed southwest into the land of Bara and Antisaka. We did our best to keep the changing dialect in mind, calling out the Arab-influenced greeting, “Salama,” in Betsileo territory before giving way to the more familiar “Akoraby” as our feet carried us towards the coastal southwest, our home.

In the commerce town of Moroteza, three ethnic groups met on Saturday market day to make an exchange of goods. The Betsileo came from the western towns of easy highway access, bringing oil, petrol, and manufactured products from the cities of Amabalavao and Fianarantsoa. The Bara came from the south, bringing products of the forest—honey, zebu, and the sugarcane moonshine, tokagasy. The local Antisaka subgroup, Tanala, added rice, manioc, and café fary to the great exchange.

In addition to these more innocent staples of food and drink, however, market day in Moroteza bore witness to a trading venue for golden flakes and ten thousand ariary bills. I have already mentioned something of the Malagasy mining craze in previous blogs but have yet to fully explain this new and worrisome social development.

In 1998, the discovery of sapphires in the southern frontier region of Ilakaka, Madagascar resulted in some one-hundred thousand Malagasy leaving home for the mines. One can hardly blame a population, the majority of which lives on less than one U.S. dollar per day—digging for sapphires is some three to five times more lucrative than the traditional livelihood of farming. In the Vondrozo Forest Corridor, discoveries of gold deposits within the past few years have only extended the influence of this nationwide search for quick and easy money. Increasingly, local residents abandon the rice fields to pan for gold; meanwhile, more red earth is removed from the forest and washed into the muddy rivers.

It is hardly surprsing then, that when we continue our Message in the Bottle project, asking the question, “What aspect of the environment of Madagascar is most important to you?”, some people answer, “vola,” or money. They sell lambas, which proudly proclaim, “Ny vola no hozatriní fianana”, which translates roughly as, “Money is the muscle of life.” Christa bought one such lamba by accident—its colors were very pretty!—and was horrified when Ranto informed her of its meaning. She now folds it artfully to conceal its superficial message whenever she wears it; indeed, she was forced to half-undress, so I could copy the words down for this blog entry.

For many people, the idea of “tontolo iainana,” the Malagasy translation for “environment,” is a difficult concept to swallow, and Ranto often has to elaborate and explain his word choice. Other Malagasy that we encounter, however, are not so disillusioning, and everywhere, in our anthropological pursuits, we hear thanks for the work that WWF is doing in the region and concern about Madagascar’s environmental future.

Philomene, president of the women’s group in the small village of Tsaratanana, tells us, “Thank you for asking me this question. You learn things from hearing our responses, but we learn things too from thinking about and answering your question.” And that, in a nutshell, is precisely what we had dreamed for.

Hard Times

The rainy season comes late in Madagascar this year, and good thing, too, for we are woefully unprepared for the torrential downpours typical of the winter (austral summer) months in this country. We’ve left most of the inadequate canvas tents provided in Tana behind and are relying on WWF Vondrozo’s stock of nylon “Freetime” tents, a Malagasy mark that seems to specialize in one-time use, disposable products. Incredibly, the tents look the same as any you might find in Europe or North America—indeed, their design is the exact same as Brian’s tent which he purchased abroad in France—but the only difference is that all of the WWF tents break and his does not.

We get creative with tent pole combinations and DUCT tape patching (thankfully, Kuni was a better outdoor leader than me and brought some to Madagascar), but when the rain starts to fall in earnest, we find ourselves battling outside in the elements, digging trenches and building levees around our flimsy plastic structures in an effort to keep our cameras—if not our persons—dry. Florent says that because of “la grande chaleur”—the great heat, in reference to climate change—the local wet season onset has been delayed more and more every year. In the old days, he claims anecdotally, the rains set in as early as mid October. Thankfully for us, we don’t really start to experience the wrath of the monsoon season until our last week sur terrain in late November.

While we may be pleased about the prolonged dryness, the changing climate patterns bode ill for the Malagasy people, whose lives are tied so closely to the seasonal calendar. According to Ranto, the end of the dry season marks the “periode de soudure,” a time of scarcity and suffering when dry season crops are all but spent and wet season crops have yet to sprout.
During our first field excursion, we carried rice and beans with us throughout the séjour but regularly bought various additions and accompaniments to our dry goods—vegetables, meats, sometimes eggs—in the villages we encountered. This time through, we discover that vegetables are rarely available, that rice is overpriced, and that the population is, in general, edgy and hungry. Somehow, the distended bellies of the children in every village seem more pronounced or at least more evident. I am particularly shaken one evening when a skinny black cat sneaks into tranobe to nibble the scraps spilled from our dinner. The poor baby scarfs down forgotten rice kernels on the mats under our knees like there is no tomorrow; maybe there is not, after all. I think of Sassy back home, turning up her nose when Mom buys the wrong flavor of Fancy Feast. What might she say if she knew that cats in Madagascar are so hungry that they’ll eat unaccompanied rice? Knowing Sassy, though, I doubt she’d be very sympathetic...

I mentioned previously that it is custom to give the gift of a chicken when a visitor arrives to a village in the rural southeast; our last session in the field bore witness to enough chicken slaughters to make a native Petaluman proud of her heritage. This time around, however, the gifts are few and far between, and if the carnivorous among us are craving meat, it is more likely that we buy a chicken and more likely still that it is mangy and scrawny. Maman’Dilo has a gift for turning a small drumstick and spoonful of chicken broth into a delectable meal when paired with rice, and I pause briefly to marvel at the casualness with which she prepares our food. For me back home, cooking a chicken for a party of twelve would be the cuisine event of the month, if not the year; I’d stress about it for weeks beforehand and feel relief only when the plates were washed and the guests on their way home. For Maman’Dilo, it is something that is suggested at 4pm and ready by 7pm—routine, simple, no questions asked.

For those of us who have become habituated to consuming a mountain of rice three times a day, it was at first disconcerting to discover this séjour sur terrain that those mountains were eroding away. We never went hungry, of course, but the quantities diminished to a noticeable extent—enough certainly to make us aware of the scarcity around us. We are all a little bit delighted, I think, to find ourselves back in Vondrozo where food is more readily available, and where the onset of the life-giving rains and wet season fruits is more than apparent. For 100 ariary (about 5 U.S. cents), you can spend all morning “hoovering” (Christa’s favorite verb) some two dozen delectable lychee fruits; for 400 ariary (20 cents), you can eat a whole pineapple; and if you are feeling truly profligate, for 3000 ariary ($1.50 U.S.), you can always go to the hotely next door for a zebu steak and a plate of French fries. And at Behavana, misy ketchup—always.

You may laugh at the absurdity of it all, but remember the tragedy, as well. For the Malagasy, these are hard, hard times, indeed.

Dirt don't hurt...

“Girls, you really need a bath,” said Sergio in utter disgust when Kuni and I emerged from our day of bushwhacking through the forests of Tanambao. Easy for him to say—he stayed in camp and helped out with formations that day, while we ripped our arms, legs, and clothing to pieces in the jungle.

I guess he had a point, though—my skin was dark with mud, my hair full of leaves, and criscrossing scratches ran up and down my legs. My pants were soaked through with blood at the backs of the knees where the leeches had congregated to take communion. A couple seemed to have accompanied me out of the forest, latched on the cuts around my ankles. They like the smell of blood and go for the easy-access, already-open wounds.

Brian is convinced that to flick off a leech only rips a wound further, and he prefers the “let them finish” strategy. When one latched on to his Chaco blister in Antaninary (not to say that Chacos ever give blisters, of course!), he just watched it swell up and fall off after it had its fill. Then, of course, another one just took its place, and the process repeated. I don’t have the patience for such antics. In my opinion, get them off, get them, get them off—as soon as possible!

And then, of course, there is always the Christa strategy—seek them out. Christa actively placed a leech on her face for a photo (taken, no doubt, for the sole purpose of grossing out her mother) but then nearly ate it when it inched towards her mouth. Of course, she is the same girl who also took a high-definition video of me removing a parasy from my toe (number fourteen in total!); we can’t wait to get to Tana and have decent enough internet to upload that high-def foulness to this blog site. Stay tuned!

--“What happened?!?” gasped Sergio and Henintsoa, one evening in Iapombo, when I trailed back into the village after an afternoon visit to the forest. --“Nothing,” I said, with a frown and a shrug. “Why do you ask?” --“Wait,” said Sergio and snapped a photo of me. He showed me my image on the playback, and I had to laugh at myself. Covered in mud from my slip-up in the rice field, hair disheveled from battles with lianas, I held my broken right Chaco—in desperate need of a new round of repairs—in my left hand and sported a bare right foot. --“What are you all looking at?” said Christa, walking up to look over Sergio’s shoulder. “Oh, good old dirty Cara.” After all, what else is new?

Being dirty appears to be the norm for me in Madagascar, especially sur terrain. Sergio maintains that it is not really my fault, that it must be genetic—thanks, Mom.

“Remember when you were a little kid and all the kids from the neighborhood went to play outside?” he said. “There was always one little kid who came back covered in mud or dirt or something. That kid must have been you.” But Sergio doesn’t judge me for it. “It’s not as if it says anything about you as a person,” he explains. “It is just kind of inconvenient because you have to clean more.”

Even in Vondrozo, I find it hard to stay clean. My wounds from last month’s séjour in the field have yet to heal, and my feet are swollen and inflamed and infected. I soak them every morning and evening in chlorinated water, but the gaping parasy holes and jagged thorn cuts continue to puss and ooze and weep. I dab them with the alcohol and red iodine which EXPLORE provided, but the Vondrozo villagers point and laugh at the pink spots left on my legs. “Sauce tomate!” one man roared in the market today. Damn it, no, I do not have tomato sauce on my legs!

In Vondrozo, at least, we can clean off via bucket bath, though I admit that I sometimes neglect to do so. “Tomorrow,” I said over dinner today, “I should probably take a shower and wear clean clothes.” Christa and Kuni laughed. Being clean—such a novel idea!

Sur terrain, though, a bath was not really a viable possibility, much as Sergio demanded it of Kuni and me. We did manage to clean ourselves in the river after that first foray into the forest, but we had scarce sat down in the water with Christa and Henintsoa—all four girls in brightly colored lambas—when a half-naked boy materialized, driving a herd of some five or six zebu across the river ten meters upstream of us.

The boys roared with laughter from upstream of the zebu, and the other girls sprang out of the tainted water quick as can be, but I stayed as I was, quite unperturbed by the cows milling in the river around me. Surely there are zebu upstream of any spot where you might bathe in a river in Madagascar, so why bother moving just because you can see them? The muddy kid chooses not to care. After all, dirt don't hurt.

Just Another Day...in Madagascar

“Everyday, she takes her morning bath, she wets her hair, wraps her towel around her as she’s heading for the bedroom chair—it’s just another day.” –Paul McCartney

Just another day in Madagascar. We wake up before 5am to the sound of crowing roosters and sloshing water and crawl out of our tents. Already, the sun is fierce and burning.

We walk through the rice fields for a solid twenty minutes to find the trickle of water in a bamboo pipe that supplies a village of over 500 people. We fill our Nalgenes, drop in purification tablets or chlorine droplets or swish fancy UV lights through the contents, and then we hike on back.

We troop into tranobe, the village’s central “guest house”and settle ourselves cross-legged on the thatch-mat floor, all sense of personal space forgotten in the cramped confines. Maman’Dilo spoons out wet and sticky rice into our bowls, then pushes two plates of crushed peanuts—voanjo in Malagasy—in front of us. Kuni takes from the bowl on the left, voanjo crushed with salt, and adds a few drops of chili sauce—“paracetamol” in Florent’s joking vocabulary—as she mixes it with her rice. Sergio takes from the bowl on the right, voanjo crushed with sugar, and douses it in sweet and condensed milk as he mixes it with his own rice. He tries a spoonful, wrinkles his nose, then adds more sugar from his personal, 2kg ration. Christa divides her plate of rice down the middle and reverently annoints the left side with salty voanjo and the right with sugared voanjo. We eat.

When are plates are scraped clean, Papan’Dilo pushes a giant mug—a zinga—full of steaming black coffee before us. We pour it into our bowls or wait our turn for the tiny little teacup and mix it—Malagasy style—with disproportional amounts of sugar. Sergio, of course, adds more than anyone else.

After breakfast, Ranto leads us to a neighboring hut where four village elders await us. We pose questions in French, which Ranto translates, and the elders answer back. We learn about the history of the village, the ethnic groups of the people, the religion and traditions by which they abide. We ask questions about the environment, and the elders say that WWF has done much to help them conserve their resources in the past five years, but still, every year, there is less and less forest. They are concerned too that there is less and less water to drink; they think the two scarcities might be related. The villagers note that some regions of the forest are “fady” or forbidden to visit, let alone exploit, because they inter their dead in caves amongst the trees. Much of the only remaining forest in the region is cemetary. “In more ways than one...”says Christa.

After the interview, Sergio and Ranto leave us to lead a formation on cookstove construction with the village men, and I join Christa, Kuni, and Henintsoa en route to the village schoolhouse where we meet up with the town’s female population. We provide soap for the women to wash their hands, then commence our formation on sustainable cusine.

We roast and crush peanuts, beat eggs, shred manioc, and mash, mash bananas. I leave the other three girls to mix the ingredients together with sugar and head outside to get the cooking started.

“Mila afo,” I say to one woman. “Mahandro?” We need fire. To cook? I am beyond delighted when she clearly understands and rushes off to find wood and set up a cookstove. I gesture and explain that we need two pots (“vilainy”)—one small (“kely”) and one big (“lehibe”)—and when she returns with the required items, I am pleased beyond measure. She helps me melt sugar in the little pot and spread it over the bottom of a dish. Christa materializes with sliced bananas which we spread over the sugared surface, and then she takes the dish inside the schoolhouse to fill with the manioc batter that Kuni and Henintsoa are still beating vigorously.

The Malagasy woman looks at me expectantly. I point to the big pot. “Mila rano,” I say. We need water. I gesture to the bottom of the pot. “Mila hazo,” I add. We need wood. I gesture to the middle of the pot. She frowns and pours water in the bottom of the pot, then picks up a piece of firewood and looks at me questioningly.

No, I shake my head. “Hazo akondro?” I try. Banana wood? “Like bonoky,” I say, remembering a widely-known local dish. And she understands.

We break off banana branches and smash them up against the interior sides of the pot, above the water, such that when Christa returns, we have made a little plateform on which to rest the cake. We balance the dish filled with the cake contents on the banana branches, cover the pot, and set it over the fire to steam.

So great is my elation and sense of accomplishment when the genagena is ready thirty minutes later, I could swear it tastes better than lemon cake with chocolate frosting on my sixteenth birthday.

Back in tranobe, lunch is a well-deserved bowl of rice topped with steamed bokala (sweet potato) leaves. Our eatings are interrupted by a boy who arrives at the door to ask Florent if we are the vazaha here to save the forest. “They are the vazaha of WWF,” he answers in Malagasy, which—as Christa points out—means pretty much the same thing. The boy explains that he knows a forest that he wants to save; he thinks that showing it to us will help in its protection. We are stunned, touched, inspired, and of course we want to see it.

It is raining when we leave the hut—the dry season is officially over in Madagascar—and we follow the boy out of town. Sergio and Ranto have another formation to do, and Henintsoa stays behind with Maman’Dilo, so it is just Christa, Kuni, and me—white skin and ponytails—who troop along behind Florent and the boy as thunder and lightning shake the November sky.
A double rainbow arches overhead, and we laugh in wonder at the impossible beauty of sun and rain and electricity striking across the sky. The boy leads us first to his house in a neighboring village where his father, the COBA president, is waiting. His father explains to us that, throughout his lifetime, he has protected one patch of forest from exploitation to maintain the integrity of his village watershed. We ask about environmental change over time, and he tells us that the forested land in the surrounding region has diminished greatly in recent years but that the lemur population in his forest fragment appears to have increased. “The lemurs crowd into the only forest that is left,” he says. “Come, I will show them to you.”

It is late afternoon already, but we follow the man and boy over the hills into the delicate majesty of a bamboo forest. Everywhere, we see gnawed-off branches and clumps of scat, evidence of the thriving lemur population that the man described, but no living lemur appears. We scramble up a hillside lit by a pink Malagasy sunset, and I nearly step on a tiny brown chameleon. We place him on the sleeve of Christa’s vibrant orange rain jacket, and his cheeks blush to match the color. We are more than contented with the chameleon, but I fear that father and son are determined to keep walking until we see a lemur. At last, when the sky is so dark that I start to flick on my headlamp with every other step, we head again for home.

And then, when we are no longer searching, we see it. A lemur, backlit and in profile against the dusky twilight, his long tail curling behind him as he clambers over the jagged fronds of a ravinala tree—lemur and ravinala, the two symbols of Madagascar, united in the last light of the day.

“Just another day in Madagascar,” I say. Just another day indeed.

Ecotourism and Ecomagic

It has been a long time once again since I wrote to you last, and as with my last post after our first séjour sur terrain, I come back fresh with new knowledge, new impressions, new perspectives on conservation and sustainable development. We’ve been back in Vondrozo for four days already, and I admit I am—as Kuni would say—“retarded” in my blogging (got to love how French translates some time), but I assure you it is not out of intentional laziness. Shocking though it seems as the days grow longer and the temperature rises, but it is December now in Madagascar, and I have only two weeks left in this country. There are videos to make, reports to write, brochures to format, and life has been at a near Stanford-level of busyness since our return from the field. But there is much to catch you up on, so let’s waste no more time in getting started...

I wrote to you last from the city-dazed confusion of the WWF Office in Fianarantsoa en route to Andringitra National Park. Our two-day visit to Andringitra, in addition to our brief stop in Ranomafana, were intended to give us an idea of what professional ecotourism under the administration of MNP, Madagascar National Parks, is like and to give us a point of reference for our own ecotourism prospecting in the Vondrozo Corridor.
Andringitra is a beautiful, mountainous park in the Haute Plateau region that makes up the central spine of Madagascar, and its easy accessibility from Fianar makes it a favorite destination for tourists from all over the world. During our visit to the park, we summited the 2,643 meter Pic Boby (or Pic Imarivolanitra in Malagasy), Madagascar’s second-highest mountain—“highest accessible mountain,” Sergio will remind you. I guess there is something to be said for presentation, and it sure does sound more impressive that way.

We were accompanied on our visit by two Andringitra guides, Florine and Jean-Marie, delightful and beautiful Betsileo people (the dark-skinned ethnicity of the Haute Plateau) who spoke excellent French and passable English. Florine explained that the ecotourism initiatives and language instruction provided by World Wildlife Fund and Peace Corps within the past two decades have brought considerable economic prosperity to her people; she was all of a flutter with her thanks but disappointed to discover that, while American, I was not a PCV. Erica and Brian, you are doing good work!

A group of Austrian tourists camped with us at Andringitra couldn’t get enough of Kuni, though one woman was concerned to hear that we’d been in Madagascar for two months already and were headed off for three more weeks without access to any sort of communication. “Do you want me to phone your mother for you when I get back to Austria?” the woman asked Kuni anxiously. A nice offer, but if Kuni’s mother is reading this, I assure her that we were all quite safe and healthy (relatively speaking) this time.

Ranomafana and Andringitra held their charms, for sure, but it is the wild remoteness of the Vondrozo Forest Corridor that I am sure to remember as the real Madagascar for years to come. ..

Miarinarivo, Bemahala, Tanambao, Moroteza, Iapombo, Maroangira, Soarano, Anivorano, Tsaratanana, Antaninary, Vohimary Nord, Vondrozo. The Malagasy names of each village roll of the tongue as we walk 120 kilometers—first traversing the 10km width of the corridor, then tracking south along its western border with daily forays into the jungle to EXPLORE. We follow quiet rivers through dark and mysterious forest, wade through streams with tall palms sporting strange, stilt-like root structures. There are mantella frogs of vibrant lime and inky black with feet as flaming as a firetruck’s. There are chameleons in abundance—some black and yellow and spotted, some small and brown and horned, and still others large and smooth and minty green. There are lemurs too—brown bamboo lemurs and red-ruffed brown lemurs and ring-tailed lemurs and mouse lemurs and macquis—and they leap through the trees as casually as any squirrel. There are birds beyond definition—bright blue pigeons and decorative vangas and hooting tolos and cackling drongos. This is, indeed, the eighth continent.

We are here to investigate what a tourist may want to see, and so we spend our days exploring the forest in search of the incredible, the remarkable, the intriguing. Life is tough, I guess. In most areas, there is no trail to speak of, so we clamber over spiny branches, under twisting lianas, skipping through mud and leaf mulch, fighting back leeches, mosquitoes, and aggressive vegetation.

Our legs grow tired from so much walking and our eyes from so much looking. We stumble out of the forest in the fading evening light, and “civilization” materializes before us at the most fortutitous moments. There is a vendor selling café fary and boiled manioc to satiate our thirst and fortify our stomachs, and I forget my fatigue in astonishment and delight. The manioc tastes like French fries, but “Tsy misy ketchup,” I say. No ketchup. PCV Brian, a better American than me, will be disappointed. “Don’t you Americans call them ‘freedom fries' anyway?” Kuni asks me in genuine concern, but I assure her that I have never used such terminology myself. Henintsoa’s countrymen can keep their claim to salty, fried taters, as far as I am concerned.

Better still, though, are the nights where there is no civilization to speak of, where the beans and rice cook over the outdoor fire under starry sky and the music of the nearby waterfall plays in our ears. This is real camping—no tents pitched in a village square—and I relish the privacy, the wildness, the peace. It is American Thanksgiving, and we camp along a remote river in the mountains above the Vohimary Nord COBA. Brian and I reminisce about turkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing, as we follow the river upstream from cascade to cascade, tracking our way to three magnificent waterfalls, enough to impress even the girl who grew up alongside Yosemite, Bridalveil, and Vernal Falls.

The light is warm and golden on the mist in our faces, and we race the setting sun across the rocks. Our pace is fast, and we stop only to chase wild oranges in a tree along the river bank; Brian sacrifices a flipflop—a “slipper,” as the silly Hawaiians say—in the pursuit. The hillsides are blanketed with a thousand shades of green, and the edges of every mountain are ragged in profile with waving ravinala fronds. When darkness falls, the forest is lit with the gentle blink of fireflies, and the woods come alive with the buzzing, hissing, whirring of insects.

“What are the qualifications for national park status in Madagascar?” I ask, my eyes alight with tears at the untamed beauty of this region. No one knows, but we all intend to find out.

Should you come to Madagascar? Should you hike the Vondrozo Forest Corridor? Yes, you should. Like Ranomafana, like Andriginitra, this is a wilderness to be remembered. And let’s hope WWF can make it so.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Another Temporary Goodbye...

I write to you now from the WWF Office in Fianarantsoa, Madagascar’s second largest city, which—in spite of its impressive ranking—is home to only approximately 120,000 people. Tana, by contrast, supports a population of 1.2 million...It is fairly incredible to think that no city of any intermediate size exists in this country. And though Fianar may be small, I am nonetheless beyond confused as to how to comport myself in a city of any size; cars and stores and the frequency of other westerners (i.e. vazaha) confuse me. Luckily, though, we are here only for one fleeting night...

But I digress...The details of life in Fianar are fairly tangential to all that I wish to communicate with this blog post. I hope, once again, that you have enjoyed following our adventures in Madagascar from wherever in the world you might find yourself right now. We are headed once more sur terrain, and I apologize that we won’t be able to share again for some time. We leave Fianar tomorrow to head to the mountainous Andringitra National Park (Kuni, our token geologist, says, “I so can’t wait for those rocks...”) from which we will commence another three week stint sans internet, phone service, or electricity.

While our last session in the field was focused mainly on conservation awareness raising and sensiblization, our task ahead is much more concrete and, at the same time, much more unique. With the aid of a handful of WWF agents, we are investigating an overland trail route across the Vondrozo Forest Corridor, in the hopes of amassing enough information to create an ecotourism travel brochure for backpackers interested in vacationing in the region. Beyond cool, right? And if any you might be among those interested travelers, we’d love to share more upon our return.

In the meantime, goodbye, best wishes, and Happy Thanksgiving to those back in the United States (and to those in Canada, too--Christa says Canadian Thanksgiving is coming up...). We’ll return to Vondrozo on Saturday, November 27th, so stay tuned then to hear about the next stage of our adventures in the field. In the meantime, don’t miss Sergio’s new addition (in English) to the blog!

À toute à l’heure!

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Okay, maybe not quite, but pretty close—as close, in fact, as one can really get in Madagascar. I write to you fresh from our visit to Ranomafana National Park, arguably Madagascar’s most renowned federal protected area. The Malagasy word, “Ranomafana,”means literally ‘hot water,’ and it was the area’s natural hot springs that attracted visitors in colonial days. There are still hot springs in Ranomafana, but we must have missed the memo somewhere because the shower in the room that Kuni and I shared was definitely as cold—“refreshing,”she says—as it gets...

Never mind that, however; it is the animals and not the water that draws the crowds to Ranomafana today. First established in 1991, Ranomafana National Park commemorates the discovery of the critically endangered golden bamboo lemur, which Dr. Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University first found in the region in the mid 1980s. Twenty years after its establishment, this highland rainforest rich in widlife is one of Madagascar’s most visited national parks and home to a world-class ecological research station, the Centre Valbio.

We’ve been in Madagascar for many a week now, and yet, our wildlife sightings have been few and far between. We’ve been focused on activities and camping within the villages, but now the program is shifting in favor of fewer people and more nature. Highlights of our past séjour au terrain were one white owl that flew overhead in Amboangy—probably carrying a letter from Sirius Black to Harry Potter—and a dead and bloated tenrec we found next to the trail in Vohilava. Christa turned this spiny hedgehog relative over with a stick and snapped a few photos. “Do you think anyone will notice it’s dead?” she asked, showing me the playback on her Canon.

We left Vondrozo last weekend for part two of our internship field component, and our animal count—of the living sort, this time—has been on the rise ever since. We spent three days in the coastal commerce town of Farafangana resting and rejeuventating ourselves, and on Sunday, we were delighted by a pair of brilliant blue kingfishers on the beach. Then, on the morning of our departure, Christa and Kuni spotted whales—humpback whales!—splashing off the coast in the Indian Ocean.

The whales were an omen of all that was—and still is, I hope—to come. We arrived in Ranomafana late last night, and though my tired eyes longed for sleep, we went straight into the forest. In the dark and misty damp of the rainforest, I felt myself come alive again to the varied song of the frogs—so many frogs! We spent several minutes trying to hunt down the source of one croak that sounded like the gentle swing of a hinged door. And then there were chameleons, too—big and small and yellow and green and brown. We know the Parson’s chameleon, a Ranomafana favorite, was among them, but there were other species, too—we saw eight specimens in just one hour of wandering. Madagascar is home to over 80 distinct species of chameleon, representing half of the world’s total chameleon biodiversity.

And then today Ranomafana by light was, if possible, just as delightful as Ranomafana by night.The park is a true jungle with lianas and epiphytes and dense understory and towering canopy and birds and insects and spiders. We saw a brightly colored thorn spider and also came eye-to-eye with the ring-tailed mongoose, one of several mongoose species common in Madagascar. And then we saw what everyone comes to Ranomafana to see, for, if there is any place in Madagascar—besides the zoo, of course—where you can be essentially guaranteed to see a lemur, it is here. Hallelujah and pass the mashed potatoes, but Ranomafana didn’t disappoint today. We saw the celebrated golden bamboo lemur asleep in a treetop and filmed a family of three red-fronted brown lemurs as they swung through the canopy, just a few meters from the road.

“Hey guys, guess what?”I said as we climbed back into the WWF vehicle in the parking lot. “We’re in Madagascar.” Yes, indeed we are.

Monday, November 1, 2010

International Language #2

Some weeks ago, we discussed how English, the international language, was making its way to Vondrozo, Madagascar. That may be true—especially with the help of Erica, Peace Corps’newest education volunteer on site—but if so, English has been long preceded by another international language—that of football.

I can’t say enough about how happy I am that I spent my entire adolescence playing a sport of such international renown. Soccer is a language that everyone loves and understands—the youth of Vondrozo, Madagascar not excepted.

As I mentioned previously, I bought a soccer ball over a month ago in Tana, and it has turned out to be the best investment I have made, thus far, in Madagascar. Bright yellow and Nike, it is a high-quality product the likes of which is rarely seen in these remote southwestern environs where most children content themselves with strips of cloth balled up together with rubber bands. When I pass it around town, young boys stop to pick it up and inspect its stitching before handing it back to me. “Tsara,” they whisper. Beautiful.

We decide that it is time to integrate with the community and make a few more Malagasy friends. We group together for a mitsangatsangana, and I carry the yellow ball in hand. I juggle it from time to time as we wander the streets, and its flashy brightness attracts attention. We meander our way to the soccer pitch, and gradually, a crowd amasses to follow. They hang back hesitantly at first, then join us on the field. I start to kick the ball around, and soon, others are kicking, too. “Milalao?”asks one boy, gesturing to the goals. Play? “Eka,”I say. “Yes, let’s play.”

The boys that we play with look like they might be fifteen or sixteen, but they are probably nineteen or twenty in actuality. Deprived of our diet of western sugars and fats, everyone here looks younger than you think. It is true that Vondrozo just opened a women’s soccer league, but Erica tells me that their play reminds her somewhat of her little sister’s teams around age nine or ten—I guess Madagascar has a ways to go before it starts producing the likes of Mia Hamm and Kristine Lily. Our games, so far, anyway, have just been me and the boys.

The rest of our Explorers are not much into soccer, but I convince Sergio to join the pitch with me. Spain may have just won the World Cup, but Sergio the swimmer admits that I am demolishing his orgullo on the football field. I also just removed my ninth parasy from my feet, so we are now equal in those counts, too. He’s just going to have to start wandering around barefoot if he wants to beat me...

Our Malagasy friends are surprised at first that I seem to know what I am doing. “Mahay?”asks one boy. You know? “Eka,” I reply. If I know one thing in life, it is soccer...

The boys themselves play well but their style is different than what I am used to. In fact, they play a little bit like girls, especially of the Central Marin Magic variety. The goals they lay out are little over a foot in diameter, and the boys seem more intent on juking each other one-on-one with their fancy footwork than accomplishing some sort of superfluous team goal like scoring. Their touches are quick and expert, the result of years spent juggling undersized cloth balls on smooth dirt terrain, so different from the massive size fives and long, luxurious grass I grew up with. They don’t push or shove or slide at each other like the boys I know, but maybe that is out of concern for those on the field without adequate footwear. Some of the players sport cleats, others tennis shoes, others flipflops, and others no shoes at all. One boy plays with a cleat on his right foot, while his left foot is bare.

Once they realize I am competent with a soccer ball, the Malagasy boys have no qualms about involving me in their game as an equal. In co-ed games at home, I find that it is sometimes hard to convince the boys to pass, but that is not a problem here. Maybe because I am a vazaha, or maybe because the ball belongs to me, but they seem to forget I am a girl, and quickly, I am immersed in the game.

It is amazing how we all speak the same language on the soccer pitch. I don’t know the words for “open” or “wide”or “cross”or “turn”or “man-on” in Malagasy, but it hardly matters. I see my teammates, I see the gaps on the field, and I know where to go and what to do. And they know the same things. We are lost in the international language of football, and we are having the time of our lives.

Our afternoon football sessions become a daily event, and 4pm finds us down on the soccer pitch with regularity. The boys ask to borrow my ball earlier in the day, but they always bring it back, and I don’t mind sharing in the slightest. When we arrive the second day, their game is already well underway, and I see that they are playing shirts versus skins. “I think I’ll play on the shirts team,” I say with a laugh as we walk on the field. “Well then,”says Sergio, “I guess that makes me a skin.”And he rips off his shirt. Classic. The next day, of course, Sergio suggests we switch teams, but I politely decline. I doubt vazaha liberty goes that far.

The Malagasy boys are delighted when either of us scores a goal—“Tsara be!”they cry, and they are especially entertained by the western phenomenon of the high five. One of them, called Augustin, speaks passable English, and he is heartbroken to hear that we are leaving Vondrozo yet again this weekend. We’re on the road for the next month, though still in contact for the week ahead, but I assure him the soccer ball will make its way back to Vondrozo when we return in December. We are sure to have friends waiting for us upon our return, eager to converse in the international language of football.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Simple Joys

From parasy holes to leech bites to diarrhea to miscommunication and an utter lack of privacy, our three week séjour sur terrain was wrought with challenges and surprises. But my memories are overwhelmingly positive, and I cannot say enough about how much I have already come to love Madagascar and all that belongs to it—both the natural environment and the people. I am having the time of my life and learning immeasurable amounts in the process.

I can think of no more fitting title than “EXPLORE” for our program—my half-broken Chacos carried me in the past three weeks over trails that I doubt many—if any—vazaha feet have ever traversed before. Madigasikara tsara, beautiful Madagascar, is truly a wild and untrammelled land. The mists swirl over green mountains blanketed by dense tropical forest, and the white blossoms of the coffee trees catch the early morning dew. Who knew that coffee had so sweet a scent? At once jasmine flower and green tea and rain, its aroma is exotic and alluring.

We hike through valleys of rice fields, skip over waterfalls, and cross rivers full of mamba (caimans) via dug-out wooden canoe. I feel like I’ve landed in Jurassic Park, King Kong, and Indiana Jones all at once, and most of the time, I can do little more than glance at my co-workers and shake my head incredulously. “We’re in Madagascar,” I say with wonder.

Our adventures in food rival those of the landscape. It is customary to kill a chicken as an offering of hospitality when visitors arrive to a village, and since we change villages every few days, I’ve been complicit in the death of many a chicken these past few weeks. Half of the time I haven’t the faintest idea what part of the chicken I am eating, but I’ve gotten quite good at popping a morsel in my mouth, extricating the bones and swallowing what meat remains. Ah, those bygone days of vegetarianism!
Sometimes, we buy chickens or roosters and carry them with us—live—for a few days before as consumption. Ranto has become quite attached to one little akoho that we picked up in Amboangy, and he carries her on his head while we hike. He has vowed not to eat her but to instead take her back to Tana as a pet come December. For reasons too complicated for me to fully explain, she’s been named “Claude.”

In addition to chicken, we also tried our taste buds on frog one evening in Ambohitsara. Once you got over the idea of the whole thing, they really just tasted like morsels of fried anything, but Christa, I think, was vagely horrified after spending all summer doing frog research and conservation in southern Alberta. One taste was okay for travelling’s sake, but I think the second spoonful was at odds with her inner morality.

Some of the adventures in food have been welcome ones—indeed, I think my life was incomplete before I discovered the delights of fary, or sugarcane, both as a stand-alone food and a complement to others. When hiking, nothing slakes the thirst or erodes the teeth better than to chew on a strip of sugarcane wood and slurp the juice down your throat. I tried to swallow the wood, as well, on my first taste, but Henintsoa quickly corrected my error with only the smallest of chuckles. Some of the villages make coffee with sugarcane juice, and I honestly think that café fary has forever changed my opinion of coffee. I’m not sure I can go back to Starbucks after this. PCV Brian says that café fary after breakfast is his favorite ritual of the day sur terrain, and I think I have to agree.

The joys in life are simple—beautiful landscapes, warm food, and good company are really all that you need. We grow closer as a group as we pass lazy afternoons and long evenings talking, reading, relaxing together. Our books—in their multitude of languages—make the rounds; I believe James Joyce’s “Dubliners” is right now leading the read-by-most list. We play at cards and dice and marvel at Ranto’s poker face, Christa fiery competitiveness, and Sergio’s incomparable luck. Four yahtzees in two games—c’est incroyable!

We make friends with the Malagasy, too, and it is these memories, I think, which touch me most. For our first two weeks of work sur terrain, we are accompanied by a married couple who identify themselves based on their oldest son’s name—Maman and Papa’Dilo, they call themselves. It is Maman’Dilo who teaches us how to make gena gena and Papa’Dilo who teaches us how to make cook stoves, and it is both of them who watch over me with great concern as my fever climbs high in Vohimary Nord. Maman’Dilo, especially, astonishes me with all that she accomplishes. She is a mother and wife and traditional Malagasy woman in so many respects—she cooks for us all three times a day and does the dishes single-handedly. But she also works for WWF like her husband and leads information sessions teaching sustainable cuisine and nutrition in the villages we visit. In the evenings when it is cooler, she wears her lamba draped around her body like a robe, and there is something regal and powerful in her stance and her smile. Maman and Papa’Dilo live in Vohimary Nord, and when we reach their home village and meet their children, I feel a sudden upwelling of affection for these kind and truly inspirational people.

It is Maman’Dilo who translates when I try to hand a couple of our porters a piece of chocolate as a thank you for their services—they have never tasted the delectable treat before, and they chew it curiously while regarding me with questioning eyes. Sergio, too, offers his thanks to one of the porters who carried his things faithfully for days on end; he gives him one of his T-shirts, apologizing that it is wet and muddy but assuring him that it is the best T-shirt he has with him in Madagascar. Christa gives her lamba to Gestin, our cook in Vohilava who likes to look at the photos in our Madagascar wildlife guide, and when Gestin’s friend, Soaliny, throws her arm around my shoulders to pose for a photo, I am moved to swap the sticks in her ears for my own earrings...Maybe not the most useful gift, but it is well-meaning, I assure you.

We do our “Message in a Bottle” activity in each village we visit, and it is shocking to discover how different the responses are in each location. “What aspect of the natrual environment of Madagascar is the most important to you?” We ask the same question as before.

In Amboangy where the villagers are mistrustful of WWF and resistant to all attempts at sustainable development, they tell us “asatany”, meaning land to be worked, or “vary”, meaning rice. In Ambodimanga, where the village seems more forward-thinking and advanced, people talk to us of forest conservation and preservation of heritage; one man touches my heart when he says that “variky”, the lemurs, are the most important to him because they symbolize all that is unique and valued internationally about Madagascar’s environment. In Ambohitsara, the whole village seems obsessed with “rano”, or water—“source de vivre”—and in Vohimary Nord, the people talk of comlex concepts like climate change and deforestion. In Vohilava, ideas are simpler—people are satisfied with more general concepts like “ala”, or forest, and “tany”, or earth, but their respect and enthusiasm are aparrent and heartfelt nonetheless.

And so it is that mere human interaction brings me simple joy—there is much to love about Madagascar but nothing more obvious than the people who honor their surroundings.

The Plagues of the Tropics

“Nine you were set out from Rivendell...”

Okay, six, not nine, explorers set out from Vondrozo to head “sur terrain” just three weeks ago. But our numbers dwindled quickly as warrior after warrior fell victim to the tropics—Madagascar, it appears, is a tough place to live...

We travelled from village to village with the WWF agents, Florant and Augustin, and were transiently accompanied by a few other WWF employees, as well our Peace Corps friend, Brian. After our first week of scrupulous attention to hygiene in Vondrozo—pots and pans carefully washed in purified and boiled water—we were somewhat shocked at the washing protocols (or lack thereof) at play in the field. We slept in our tents pitched in the village square every night but ate over wood fire in a thatch hut that was invariably vacated in a show of hospitality upon our arrival. Our agents shared cooking duties with a variety of local villagers, and our plates and pots mingled with theirs each night in the murky water of the soapless wash basin. I once had a friend whose strategy for washing dishes in the wilderness was that he just didn’t do it—we took that sentiment to the extreme for three weeks in rural Madagascar.

It’s no wonder then that we got sick—as Sergio said, “Our stomachs just aren’t accustomed to this sort of thing.” It was Sergio first who puked his breakfast on the doorstep in Ambohitsara, then Christa who was blacking out in the heat and woozy with giardia, then Kuni up-chucking dinner in Anivorano, then Henintsoa with impressively infected heel blisters that left her hobbling along the trail. About a week and a half into our travels, Christa, Kuni, and Henintsoa left us to seek medical attention in Farafangana, our nearest “major metropolis,” though from all they had to say after, they might have been better off staying in the bush with us. That left me alone with the boys, and when you counted our impressive entourage of porters, it was a lot of boys. I counted at one point in Vohimary Nord and discovered that I was the lone female amongst twenty-six men packed into a thatch hut about the size of your average Stanford dorm room. You could say I felt a little bit conspicuous. But it was fun nonetheless...

Fun that is until it was my turn, too, to fall victim to the tropics. Ranto, Segio, and I had gotten pretty cockey as the remaining three survivors in the EXPLORE program—we named ourselves the Three Musketeers, with Ranto as Aramis, Sergio as Porthos, me as Athos, and friend Brian as D’Artagnan—and then I fell ill like all the rest. I spent a miserable day wrapped up in my sleeping bag, shivering with chills, aching muscles, and a splitting headache, as my fever climbed to an impressive 39.9*C. My symptoms were the classic trademarks of malaria, so we were all pretty worried for a while, but my saving grace was that I also had some riotous diarrhea, which is not usually associated with malaria. A call to the Peace Corps doctor in Tana diagnosed me tentatively with “invasive bacteria”, and a few hours after downing my first dose of cyproflaxin (courtesy of Kaiser Permanente Petaluma, CA), my fever started falling, and I was on the road to recovery. I was 100% healthy twenty-four hours later and delighted to rejoin the adventures of the Three Musketeers. Our ranks soon swelled to include our friends, Christa and Kuni, who—fresh from the creature comforts of Farafangana—rejoined us for our last week sur terrain.

Antibiotics make you superman, and my cyproflaxin saved me from more than mere invasive diarrhea. Southwestern Madagascar is somewhat infamously renowned for a dust flea parasite—called “parasy” in Malagasy—that likes to burrow in human feet and deposit feces and eggs under the skin. The key to avoiding the parasy is to keep your feet clean at all times, but any of you who have ever been hiking with me will know already how much such a task challenges me. At the time of my great fever, I had five sizeable holes in my feet from which I had dug out parasys and egg sacks with a needle and tweezers—since that time, the count has now increased to seven. Sergio is beating me currently with a total of nine parasy invasions, but his feet are twice as big as mine, so I still claim to be leading the race if you consider the parasy to surface area ratio. The parasys themselves are disgusting yet oddly thrilling, but the open wound left behind after one is removed poses real problems in this unhygienic environment. I was particularly worried about one large hole on the underside of my foot, but the cyproflaxin took care of my problems for me. Just one day into the antibiotics course and my wounds were sealing themselves over as if Hermione Granger had poured a few drops of essence of dittany on my exposed skin.

Even Ranto, our native Malagasy Explorer, was not resistant to the plagues of the tropics. Ranto held out the longest, but upon our arrival in Vohilava, the last COBA of our séjour, Ranto also found himself passing his obligatory day in bed after spitting his breakfast up in the bushes. So that makes everyone on the team with some sort of health issue, but I like to think we are stronger now for having been through it. We bonded, too, over new invertebrate challenges in our last week together in Vohilava—as if stomach bugs and parasys were not enough, our adventures in the damp understory of the Vondrozo Forest Corridor brought us into contact with a multitude of leeches. They crawled all over our feet and shoes, inch-worming up our ankles and pant legs, and at every pause in our march, I found myself flicking clusters of them away from the laces and tongues of my shoes. Eventually, I just gave up the battle and decided to leave them be until the end of our hike. But when I finally pulled off my socks and shoes back in the village, I had two anklets of slimy, speckled leeches nestled in a circle around the top of my sock line. When I flicked them away, it became an anklet of free-flowing blood instead. Ah, tropical ecology! I knew there was a reason I always said I wanted to work in the mountains...

Conservation by Cooking

I never thought I’d find myself teaching conservation by cooking. And yet, here I am doing just that in rural Madagascar.

I have mentioned several times that we headed into the field these past three weeks to accompany Malagasy WWF agents in “sensibilization”and “conservation awareness-raising”activities in the COBAs adjacent to Vondrozo, but I think the time has come to explain our actual work in more concrete terms.

World Wildlife Fund is working with COBAs in the Vondrozo Forest Corridor of southeasten Madagascar to take ownership of their natural resources and adopt both environmentally sustainable and economically viable development projects. As I write, I am reminded of Partners-in-Health guru, Dr. Paul Farmer, who spoke to students my freshman year at Stanford; Farmer told us that, “The only cure for malnutrition is food.” Like Paul Farmer, WWF recognizes that ecological conservation must be paired with community development and support. And so, we teach conservation by cooking.

Throughout the past months, we have moved from village to village, aiding the fulltime WWF field agents, Florant and Augustin, as they give information sessions describing a variety of different sustainable development initiatives. We teach villagers how to plant and cultivate beans and vegetables, how to build more energy-efficient mud stoves, and how to cook with these bizarre new ingredients and tools. The rural Malagasy don’t garden nearly as much as one might expect, though many familiar vegetables seem to grow well here if tried—it is a strange thing, indeed, to watch a Malagasy man smile with pleasure and surprise when he tastes his first carrot or to teach a village woman how to cook with cabbage when she has never seen the vegetable before.

Our favorite recipe by far is as close to cake as you can really get in the Vondrozo Forest Corridor—a banana, egg, manioc, peanut mélange called “gena gena” which we make in a pan lined with caramelized sugar and sliced bananas and steam over the open fire. We learned the recipe in our first week of work “sur terrain” and have prefected our method as time has gone on. True to our western roots, we find it tastes best with extra bananas and lots of extra sugar. Sometimes, though, cooking with an audience can get a little stressful, and it is at times like these, that our language confusion—between English, French, and Malagasy—can get the better of us. Kuni asked me for an extra plate (“finga” in Malagasy) during our last cooking lesson, and I exclaimed in frustration, “But we don’t have une autre finga!

WWF monitors the impact and successes of their information sessions with focus groups where we ask the villagers what lessons they have already received and to what extent they have incorporated those lessons into their lifestyles. Success varies greatly amongst the different communities, but many admit that they are too unmotivated to plant the crops they hear about or change a style of cooking to which they are already accustomed. Others explain that they miss information sessions periodically because they are not notified in sufficient time to travel to nearby villages where they are being held, and others still claim that it is difficult for them to share information gleaned from one session with friends, neighbors, and communities that were not in attendance. So many challenges, I think, are much the same the world over—a WWF focus group in Madagascar is not so very different from a Students for a Sustainable Stanford meeting debating how to best raise awareness for compact fluorescent lightbulbs or on-campus composting.

WWF strives also to gauge the opinions of all members of a given community, though gender divisions are nonetheless rampant. In the village of Amboangy, the town was shocked to hear that the WWF agents wanted the village women present at our first meeting. One Malagasy man even cried out, “Why do we need the women here? We are not like white people!” Interestingly, our foreignness—and specifically, our whiteness—grants us a certain liberty in the Malagasy countryside. While a Malagasy woman might be ignored or excluded from a conversation, we white women are treated with respect bordering on admiration. We honor certain gender customs—Sergio, Ranto and Brian give the cookstove construction lessons, while Henintsoa, Christa, Kuni, and I teach cooking—but we women are welcome to observe and take part in traditionally male tasks, and vice versa for the boys. It is almost as if being a vazaha takes you out of the gender social structure entirely.

And so it is that with cooking we accomplish conservation. Madagascar sits at a fascinating and terrifying point in its socioeconomic history, and both the risk and possibility for its environmental future are painfully evident. In so many ways, I see the beginnings of ecological tragedies that have already run their courses in much of the rest of the world...When we arrived in the village of Antaninary, we found that much of the town’s population was absent on our arrival because they were off panning for gold—the gold, silver, and gemstone rush is the new, lawless, and dangerous economic frontier in Madagascar today. I asked Florant if anyone used mercury to extract the gold, and he said “no” with a curious and questioning look. My mind ran ahead to the gold rush and ensuing bioaccumulation of toxic mercury in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon, and I felt like Madagascar could go there, too...or that it could still be saved.

I felt similarly as we taught information sessions about “Système Riziculture Intensive” (SRI), WWF’s method of intensified rice cultivation which uses a combination of natural fertilizer application and precise plant spacing to maximize rice production...How soon until someone thinks to add chemical fertilizers? How soon until eutrophication, toxic algae blooms, and dead zones like that found in the Gulf of Mexico materialize? Madagascar is at great risk...but there is also great possibility.

And so, I come to understand the term “sustainable development” for the first time in my life. I realize that there is the possibility for this country to avoid the mistakes of those that have been in the same situations before. There is great risk, too, of repeating history, but it is organizations like World Wildlife Fund that give me hope that such an end can be avoided. Conservation must be coupled with cooking, for only by considering both the environment and the people, can we hope to steer Madagascar into a green twenty-first century future.

Ode to Shoes

After ten years of service, my Chacos appear to have done themselves in.

I bought those shoes in year 2000 and tramped across the Grant Elementary School playground, feeling like such a trendsetter in my criscrossing Grecian-style sandals, regardless of how much I tripped over their then-too-long toes. Those shoes became a part of me over the years, or rather, I became a part of them as sweat and dirt dug deep into their crevices, congealed, and reemerged as the reeking stench of active feet. My mother bleached them that one year because she couldn’t find any other way to get rid of the smell, but then the straps turned an ugly brown. This summer on Samos, Anna told me they were hideous things, but I loved them nonetheless.

In year 2003, those shoes travelled across Canada with my family and me, and I wore them up a a glacier where a marmot tried to eat my mother’s sweatshirt. A year later, they walked up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, and my freshman year of college, they carried me out of Yosemite’s Pate Valley when my unfaithful boots started to bruise my ankle. Nine miles and 4,500 feet of elevation gain in what one passer-by dubbed my “glorified flipflops.” It was those shoes, in fact, that got me into college to begin with—I was wearing my Chacos in the photo I sent Stanford University to accompany my college application. Just think how different my life might be if I had never taken that photo of my dirty feet and their trusty shoes. My Chacos have been to Australia, to Mexico, and all over Europe and served me faithfully in adventure after adventure and travel after travel. But after ten years of service, it appears that the hot sun, swirling red dust, and deep muddy bogs of Madagascar are just too much for my tired, old shoes.

My Chacos broke early on in our séjour sur terrain, but I have continued and will continue to use them in a semi-repaired state. I’ve strung a line of pea cord through the toe holes where the now-broken webbing used to be, and stitched together another stretch of webbing that wraps around the heel. My left shoe is still intact as ever, but my right shoe looks something like a supremely ugly Christmas present, wrapped up in dirt and tied with a strip of bright red climbing rope. But the ingenuity of the repairs, I am sure, would make my parents proud. In Madagascar, “broken” takes on a whole different meaning. One learns to make the most of any given situation.

Challenging beginnings...sur terrain

Three weeks is a long time—I write to you as a different person from the one who wrote last. We are back in home-sweet-home Vondrozo, Madagascar, and it is with considerable incredulity that I reflect on how my Malagasy life has evolved, how my perspective has changed in the past three weeks of EXPLORE...

Was it the same Cara who once wrote that Behavana Hotely was “simple and dirty and a far cry from the comforts of Antananarivo”? Was it the same Cara who once lamented the toilet outside the bedroom door, “a glorified hole in the ground in which one can often see yesterday’s feces floating about”? It is a very different Cara now who revels in the mere existence of Behavana’s bucket bath shower, the cold drinks and chocolate bars for sale in the restaurant, and yes, even that glorified hole in the ground of a toilet, which—though maybe not very pretty—is a toilet nonetheless. Suffice it to say that we have, indeed, spent some time in the wild.

We left Vondrozo three weeks ago headed “sur terrain” (in the field) in the northern Vondrozo Forest Corridor to join Malagasy WWF agents in “sensibilization”and “conservation awareness-raising”activities in several remote COBA villages. Whatever that means—we had no idea, really, what to expect.

What we found was impossible, incredible, and eye-opening in so many divergent respects. The challenges were many, but the triumphs and joys greater still. I am falling in love with Madagascar and all that it, daily, tries to teach me.

Day one—the WWF Landrover drops us off at the end of the road, and our WWF field agent, Augustin, tells us to start walking. Our backpacks are a carload behind, and we exclaim that we need to carry them into the field with us. Apparently, though, this trip is fully portered, and our bags are already accounted for. At first, I am uncomfortable with handing over the pack that I am so accustomed to carrying myself, but my misgivings vanish as the days of hiking progress and I note how eager these young Malagasy men and women are to shoulder a bag and ramble a few kilometers for a generous payment. One of WWF’s missions, explains Ranto, is to create work where none was before.

We are confused at the beginning—miscommunication is rampant, and it takes us a long time to fall into the same mindset as our WWF field agents. We discover upon arrival to our first campsite that our WWF Vondrozo agents packed enough tents for everyone, though we also packed those nightmarish canvas things sent us by WWF Tana. And so we start out with seven tents for eleven people, but good thing, too—many of them break by the end of our three week séjour, and it sure as hell rains a lot in the dry season in Madagascar. And while we in the western world like to place tents in private, natural settings removed from prying eyes, life works very differently in Madagascar. We pitch our tents in the village square, right next door to thatch huts and cook stoves. Can you imagine the response you’d get in the U.S. if you tried to pitch a tent in someone’s front yard? I guess you could say that people are comfortable with less personal space here in Madagascar.

I learn quickly to never expect food and to eat it with gusto whenever it materializes. Sometimes, we spend all day sitting on grass thatch mats in stick huts meeting with COBA presidents and discussing plans. In spite of our sedentary existence, we down a mountain of rice and accompanying beans, meat, or vegetables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Other days, we march for eight hours straight—upwards on fifteen miles—without break or snack under the blazing equatorial sun. GORP, apparently, has not yet made its way to Madagascar.
I rise at 4am every morning to sneak off into the trees and do my business, for if I wait until daylight, I am sure to be followed by the village children. Everywhere I go, everything I do, there is sure to be someone watching. I journal by headlamp outside my tent, and five children huddle behind me, watching intently; they, of course, can’t read a word of English.

We arrive in a new village, and everyone wants to shake our hands. Rural Malagasy hands are rough and leathery as a pachyaderm’s hide, and the people here shake loosely and unsatisfactorily, more of a brush of skin than an actual grip. Several people comment on my American hand grasp, and one woman gesticulates wildly as she compares her dark skin tone with my paleness.

Our group is split for one week doing different work in neighboring villages, and I am partnered with Ranto and Henintsoa and, thus, the only true vazaha in town. We wait for lunch in a villager’s hut, and a woman arrives at the door with her two small children. She explains in Malagasy that they have never seen a vazaha before, and she has brought them for a look. The children peer at me from the hut’s door, and I feel a bit like a zoo animal in the back of its cage. “I think you’ll never forget this moment for the rest of your life,”Henintsoa whispers to me in French. I think she is right.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Temporary Goodbye

Hope you are all enjoying the chronicles of our voyages, thus far, in Madagascar! This is a brief note to inform you that we will be leaving Vondrozo tomorrow, Saturday, October 2nd, for three weeks of conservation awareness-raising and restoration activities in the field. We will be backpacking amongst several remote villages north of Vondrozo and will not be back within internet, phone, or even electricity range until Saturday, October 23rd. I apologize for the pause in posting but assure you that we will have much to share upon our return.

One quick teaser for the adventures to come...

Christa and I opened our sack of WWF tents last Monday and were astonished to discover that we did not intuitively know how to set up the tents. We had to ask the WWF field agents for help. Help setting up a tent! That is not something that either of us ever expected to ask for in our lifetimes.

Turns out our tents are heavy and canvas with metal A-frame poles that recollect my parents’ old red tent from the 1970s. When we asked where the rain fly was, one of the WWF agents held up a second canvas sheet. “What if it rains?” I asked, in French. That fly was definitely not waterproof.

“It’s the dry season in Madagascar,” he replied. And what has it been doing the last three days during our séjour in Bevata? You guessed it—raining. And where are we headed? You guessed it, again— the rainforest.

A Party to Remember

The Malagasy like to have their fun—whatever the occasion may be.

We left Vondrozo last Monday for the southernly mountain town of Bevata, the base community for several of the Vondrozo Forest Corridor’s COBAs. It took us a full day to travel to Bevata and a full day to return (yesterday) to Vondrozo, meaning that we spent only two days at our destination. But, that is not to say that the travel portion of our séjour in Bevata wasn’t fun in itself—10 people and associated luggage piled into a hatchback station wagon traversing the muddy red roads of Madagascar...It was certainly a voyage to remember.

The ostensible reason for our trip to Bevata was that we attend and present at a fête commenorating the handing off of the management rights of one portion of the Vondrozo Corridor from the federal government to the Bevata COBA. In my previous discussion of COBAs, I think I neglected to mention that these protected forest patches were historically managed—albeit poorly—by the Madagascar government. Only within the past fifteen years have local communities, taking the form of COBAs, been granted the legal rights to management of their own environmental patrimony. Some of the Vondrozo Corridor’s COBAs were established as early as 1995, but most real strides in environmental protection and local, sustainable development have been made in the past decade—thanks largely to the aid and intervention of World Wildlife Fund forest agents. This fête honored one such stride, the offical transfer of the legal rights to forest management to the Bevata COBA.

But, as with many things Madagascar, the party did not go quite as planned. The government officials needed to sign the official transfer papers were unable to attend the fête but only notified the Bevata community at the last minute. The Coca-cola, THB, and ‘gasy gasy’ had already arrived in abundant quantities, as had all the WWF staff with speakers, powerpoints, and state-of-the-art technological equipment. There was nothing for it, really, but to throw the party anyway. And come October 30, when the federal officials will at last be able to make it to down to Bevata, well, we might as well just throw a second party then, too.

Ah, the irony—two full days of travel for a party thrown in spite of the fact that the reason for the party no longer existed. In all honesty, though, we did do what seemed like real work. There were speakers and videos, and we presented a powerpoint—so blasé in North America these days, but oh-so-exciting and professional in rural Madagascar—describing our divergent backgrounds, common interests, and plans for the next three months of conservation projects in Madagascar. We even got to work on some documentary filming and our first real awareness-raising activity, which Sergio has dubbed our “Message in a Bottle” project.

“What aspect of the natrual environment of Madagascar is the most important to you?” We ask the question in English, in French, in Malagasy.

We rush through the market, gathering names, hometowns, and answers to our question on little slips of paper, which we deposit in our empty plastic Eau Vive bottle. Dami, age 14, answers the water. Monsieur le professeur du français au lycée, needs two slips of paper to explain how all aspects of the environment are intertwined and important and how the country’s uniqueness draws help from foreigners like us. Old man Alexandre says “tany”—the Earth—is “source de tout.” PCV Brian describes the astonishing combination of risk and possibility for the Malagasy people.

For me, it takes only one word—“endemicity.” I mean this in the ecological sense, but also in the figurative sense. Certainly, Madagascar is a world hotspot for biodiversity and endemic flora and fauna. But its cultural traditions, its ethnic diversity, the Malagasy way of life—these, too, are endemic to Madagascar and integrally related to its environmental future. There is no other place like this on the planet, and if we mean to save it, then we must recognize, in the words of John Steinbeck, that “none of it is important or ALL of it is.”

The women are harder to talk to and nigh impossible to extract answers from. Ranto has some success when he rewords our question with multiple choice possibilities, but then we get a lot of similiar responses, which feel rather influenced to me. The water, the air, the forest, the animals...all of these things are important. But what is more important to me right now is that these women learn to think and speak for themselves.

Nowhere are such inhibitions more present than at the party itself. A day of speeches and presentations (including those strange vazaha who tried to speak in Malagasy) and now it is time to celebrate. The THB and tokagasy flow freely, and the music blares loud—a mixture of Malagasy folk and Shakira’s “Wakawaka.” And yet, it is the young men of the village, almost exclusively, who jump and shake and dance the night away in the town square. This is the antithesis of Petaluma Junior High School; in all of my adolescent memories, the boys sat slouched in the corner while the girls were the life of the party. Here, however, the Malagasy women do not dance.

Kuni, Christa, and I shock the village when we join in the fun. In actuality, we are well-received and generally respected by the young men of Bevata (better, indeed, than we might be in, say...Barcelona). Ranto tells us that Malagasy women dance in Tana, the capital, but here in Bevata, our western freedom affords these young men a seemingly rare opportunity to dance with a girl. Naturally, we don’t sit down all night. It is fun but frustrating at the same time; even Henintsoa, with her Malagasy background and darker skin tone, feels uncomfortable on the dance floor. I talk to her about it later, and she expresses a desire to return someday and liberate the women of rural Madagascar.

It is 5am before we know it, and we must leave the fête with the rising sun, for it is time pile back in that car and snake our way along the muddy dirt roads of Madagascar. It was, indeed, a party to remember.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

International Language

“We English club association at AVENIR COURSE are very delighted to write this letter to you. So, we’d like to invite you to discuss with us here at our school about English language...Please! Give us a chance for discussing with you in English because we want to be able to speak English very well like you.”

So says the letter that the students bring to our door at the WWF office in Vondrozo. And, of course, we cannot refuse.

Saturday morning finds us sitting awkwardly in a row of desks at the front of a classroom. A sea of thirty students, aging anywhere from 15 to 45, stare at the vazaha with wide eyes and rapt attention. We aren’t exactly sure what they want us to do, but their teacher saves us from lesson planning and prompts them to introduce themselves. “Thank you for listen to me and watch me, as my teacher demanded,”stammers one girl. “You can call me Manja. I am student at the lycée. My family is very big because I have 3 sisters and 4 brothers. I am single. My favorite past-times is reading a book and listening to rock and roll.”

We swap words in Malagasy and English, using French—and the extraordinarily multilingual Kuni—as an intermediary. For some reason, it turns into a wildlife course. Lemur is variky, gecko is atsatsaky, chamelon is sakorikata, crocodile is voay, caiman is mamba, and on we go. We explain that a new Peace Corps volunteer, Ericka, is arriving this week to teach English in Vondrozo; hopefully, her lessons will be a little more structured than ours. Right now, our teaching style vaguely resembles Madame Victorine’s.

“Why do you want to learn English?”I ask the class. “Because English is international language,”says one young man. I think about how far away I am from home and how still, there are two other American volunteers and a Canadian in Vondrozo, Madagascar, of all places. Yes, I conclude—fortunately for me and unfortunately for him—he must be right.
Our reputation precedes us, and more invitations are issued. Sunday morning finds us squashed shoulder-to-shoulder on a couch in a dark Malagasy hut. We have been invited to our first Malagasy circumcision fête. “I knew you’d be invited to one of those at some point,”says Christa’s mother on the telephone. “I just didn’t know it would happen so soon!”

“I want to practice English with you. Can you teach me?”sputters the man sitting on the couch next to me. He is the math teacher at the local high school, and, according to PCV Brian, he is drunk most of the time. “But the students seem to love him!”says Brian. I guess his drink doesn’t interfere with his algebra.

A nauseous five-year-old boy sits on the table in the center of the room, looking anything but celebratory, but all around him, his friends and relatives are animated and excitable. They sing, they clap, and we turn our eyes first left, first right, trying desperately to follow the words in mingled French and Malagasy that fly around the room. For a brief moment, I wonder how I ever managed to find myself in such a place.

It is 10am, and we sip Coca-Cola and Fanta soda, yet, there is an abundance of Malagasy beer—so authentically named Three Horses Beer—at this fête. Most of the beer is forgotten, however, for it is the reek of “gasy gasy,” the famous Malagasy moonshine, that permeates our nostrils and satisfies the thirst of most of these revellers. My friend the math teacher starts out our conversation in English—the international language—but as sip after sip of gasy gasy goes down his throat, his jumbled words dissolve into French and, finally, Malagasy. More frequently now, he accidentally spits on my face.

A woman demands something of me in animated Malagasy, and I haven’t a clue what she is trying to say. She thinks she is speaking French, but it is not a French that I, or even Henintsoa, can recognize. At last I agree—“Eka, eka!” Yes, yes!—just to calm her down. I trust to the international language—not of English, but of alcohol—that she won’t remember her demand, whatever it might have been, come tomorrow.