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.