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.