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.