Thursday, December 2, 2010

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.

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