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.