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.