Monthly Archives: November 2017

Fire and Rain

My time in Madagascar has been sandwiched between the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season. And indeed, the first five weeks of my adventures here in Madagascar were very hot and dry. Whenever I was exposed to the sun, whether hiking through deforested mountainsides or walking to the market, the repetitive chorus of a popular Malagasy tropical song ran through my mind: Mafana Mafana Mafana. Hot Hot Hot. The blistering temperatures signified the final weeks of the dry season, a window of time in which many Malagasy use for tavy (slash and burn). The dry trees and underbrush of the forest can easily be coaxed into lighting up in flames. As rainforests are naturally wet and rainy, it has taken many years and unbelievable deforestation to change the entire biosphere into one that is conducive for burning. It is not a pleasant thought to dwell upon.

But, this year the rainy season started early. These last two two weeks have brought endless downpours, showers, sprinkles, and drizzles. The forest is happy, and much safer than is typical in November. The rain smothers the fires from tavy and draws out the fire millipedes. The foot-long arthropods, wanting to avoid the flooded/saturated forest floor, crawl from unknown hiding places and into the trees. Their numerous bright legs seek dry branches in vain and mesmerize us with their fluid movements. Purples, reds, and oranges, their hues of their legs are taken from the same palette as sunsets.

I am still of two minds about whether I prefer the dry or rainy season better. Regardless of season, I am wet, either from perspiration or from rain. But at least in the rainy season, the forest is safe from fire. For humans however, the rain makes hiking through the forests much more difficult. We slip, we slide, and we fall whether we are going uphill or downhill. Last Monday in Vatovavy, I endured a particularly arduous day. It had been surprisingly sunny for a couple days during the weekend, but started pouring on Sunday night, continuing all night and into the following day. I was to follow a lemur that was markedly far away, so Edgard (my guide) and I set off at a brisk pace that morning.

The narrow paths had transformed into small creeks and our hiking shoes were soon soaked through and covered in mud. About half an hour into the hike, we came to the fields of rice paddies that stand between the tiny communities on the hillsides and the forest fragment that lays behind it. (pictured are the rice paddies during the dry season) I heard my guide say “uh oh” as he arrived at the bridge connecting the path with the dikes of the rice paddies. I rounded the corner and saw the reason for his dismay. The “bridge” (two small pieces of warped wood) was nowhere to be seen, under at least a foot of water from the turgid creek. And the “railings” (two tall sticks stuck vertically into the bed of the creek) were swaying with the current and too far to reach from land. (pictured is the bridge when during the dry season) Edgard hesitantly put one foot into the water, finding the makeshift bridge, and successfully inched his way across. It was my turn. All the warnings about avoiding contact with the rivers and waters flashed through my mind. But I had no choice; it was much too far to jump. I stepped into the dark water, finding the bridge, and made my way across. Little did I know, the bridge was the least of my worries. We began traversing through the dikes of the rice paddies. The fields are shaped to hold water, and even during the dry season traversing the paddies was treacherous and required small makeshift bridges to avoid swampy areas. In one such place, a couple pieces of wood lay several inches submerged under water from the flooding. The wood only stretched a couple feet, and I eyed the ground where the bridge ended. “I can make that”, I thought, thinking I would cleverly avoid soaking my shoes once more. Suddenly, one of my legs was knee deep in swampy waters. My jump had resulted in one leg on solid ground, and one engulfed by a rice paddy. I pulled my leg out with a squelching noise, the mud having formed a suction around my leg as if it was reluctant to let go. I scrambled to my feet again, trying to regain my dignity as Edgard glanced back and saw me sprawled on the ground, one leg disappeared into a rice paddy. After assuring him I was okay, we set off again to finish our hour and a half hike to find FIG, our focal lemur for the day.

I had somehow convinced myself while in the forest that the way back through the rice paddies and bridge would not be quite as unseemly. But alas, I was sorely mistaken. The way back resulted in going stomach down in the rice paddies, this time, my arm going elbow deep into the muddy waters. And the creek had fully claimed the bridge as its own, the water flowing at least a foot above the planks, and the muddy banks causing Edgard and I both to slip and fall while exiting the water.

I was soaked to the bone when I returned to the field station, and after drying myself, retreated to my tent for the dry, warm comfort of my sleeping bag. But thankfully, after a few hours, I was able to laugh about my misfortune when sharing my adventures with the other volunteers at dinner. Because really, how bad could it be, when I’m tracking lemurs in Madagascar.

A Madagascar Thanksgiving

It’s a little strange being in Madagascar during such a celebrated North American holiday such as Thanksgiving. It has no meaning to most people in the country. Nevertheless, we were served one of our favorite meals for dinner: pasta and beans. Because today is also the birthday of another volunteer, we topped off our Thanksgiving meal with a chocolate almond cake drizzled in pink icing. It did not taste quite like a western cake, but it was a welcome addition to our Thanksgiving feast and satisfied our cravings for dessert.

While writing this, I am in a tent surrounded by Malagasy mountains, something I have dreamt about for a long time. So as I would do if I was in the United States during this holiday, it is time to reflect on some of the many things I have to be thankful for.

Lemurs: This is an obvious one, but I have wanted to travel to Madagascar to contribute to lemur research for many years now and feel incredibly blessed to realize this dream so soon after graduating University. And as of now, I have seen 8 species of lemur in the wild: Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, Red Fronted Brown Lemurs, Red Bellied Brown Lemurs, Greater Bamboo Lemurs, Golden Bamboo Lemurs, Aye Ayes, Dwarf Lemurs, and Mouse Lemurs.

New friends: The October – December cohort of volunteers has proved to be one of the easiest going and likeminded groups of people I have had the privilege to work with. We are a small group, with 3 Americans, myself included, and a German, but we instantly realized that we make a great team. Along with our cohort are the Malagasy Ph.D. and Masters degree students stationed at KAFS; they travel with us when we go on adventures on the weekends, or when we walk to Kianjavato for the market or a concert. They are always ready and willing to help us (whether translating for us or making sure we don’t get an unfair deal) and watch out for us. They have also introduced us to the vibrant Malagasy tropical music that has become popular across the country. They are some of the kindest people I have ever met, and we would truly be lost without them.

Learning a new language: Between working with Malagasy guides in the forest each day, befriending the Malagasy students at KAFS, and interacting with various members of the community, I have had the privilege to learn bits and pieces of Malagasy. I discovered a love for language while being here, and am delighted each time I am taught new words and phrases, especially ones that I can use to surprise the non-English speakers around me.

The fruit: So many kinds! Jackfruits, Mango, Papaya, Pokenel, Zebu Heart (the local name for a fruit related to the Pokenel), tamarind, apricots, leche, bananas, pineapples, and coconuts. Some I have previously eaten but that taste so much better here, to the point of seeming like a new fruit, while others I have never tried or heard of before. I am in heaven every time I eat fruit here, even if I have to wash my hands four times after eating Jackfruit and still can’t remove the sticky residue.

Learning to Live Rough: If I am to follow my dreams of becoming a primatologist, I need to be able to handle rugged living. And living in Madagascar has certainly toughened me and prepared me for future research endeavors, which is exactly what I was hoping would happen. Bucket showers, washing clothes by hand, and living in a tent have become second nature. And eating rice for every meal, and rarely being fully dry (I’m either wet from perspiration or wet from the rain), seems as natural as if I have been living here my whole life.

Malagasy Mountains: Anyone who knows me very well, knows that I have a deep affinity for mountains, forests, and hiking. And working and hiking in Malagasy mountains nearly every day has been exhilarating.

Becoming a Birder: Thanks to a couple of the volunteers’ infectious passion for birds, I have become an amateur birder. I can now identify almost 20 bird species here, some by their calls, and others simply by sight. This pales in comparison to true birders, but I now know more Malagasy birds than North American birds and have developed a new interest in birds.

Teesh: A medium sized brown dog, with upright ears, Teesh is our resident field station dog who is surprisingly vacant of fleas. This dog, though as independent as any Malagasy pup, spends most of his time at the field station acting as a canine garbage disposal for leftovers. But he has staved off some of my longing for my own dogs by always tolerating my showers of affection, and for this, I am especially grateful to him.

And these are just a few of the many things I have to be thankful for during this venture into a new country and culture. Life is good. Enjoy it. Count your blessings. And……Mas toa bestaka sakafo androany! Enjoy Lots of food today!

SaluVasaha!

The shouts and giggles of small children echo through the valley as we walk past clusters of tiny houses roofed with Ravinala leaves. Sometimes we don’t see the body that the voice belongs to. Other times, the children are peering out behind a bamboo fence. If they are very brave, and this only happens when they are in a group, they will greet us while they are walking past us on the street. Regardless of location, the greeting is always the same: “SaluVasaha!” Salu is a French hello, and Vasaha means foreigner. Hello foreigner! My response is always the same as well; “Salama Zanika Gashy!” Salama is Malagasy for hello, Zanika is child or children, and Gashy is short for Malagasy, a common slang that Malagasy people call themselves. The children never fail to light up or shriek with laughter at the tall white foreigner speaking their language. And the adults nearby will often repeat my words and laugh themselves. We greet adults in passing with a more respectful greeting of “Akoryaby”; good day to you all.

                These are the interactions that can be expected each time we walk through the villages surrounding the field station that now feels like home. There are 9 villages in the Kianjavato commune, the largest being Kianjavato, where we travel every morning to buy snacks for the field and sometimes on Sundays for the market. And if we are working in Sangasanga and finish early, we will make the trek from Kianajvato back through the villages to the field station. Ambalahosy and Ambodibinary lie between the field station and Kianjavato. They look almost identical, the only difference being a small school in Ambodibinary. The villages stretch only for 100 meters or so before the clusters of homes give way to rice paddies that once again engulf the land on either side of the road.

Kianjavato is only slightly bigger, but is home to several tiny shops and a few more roadside vendors that serve up various types of mofo (bread) and fruit. On Sunday market days, however, the streets are packed with people, some walking from several villages away, to peruse the piles of clothes, the produce, and the electronics that are laid out on either side of the road, on blankets or in small bamboo stands. Roosters, chickens, and the occasional duck peck and waddle their way through the crowds, while loose dogs take shelter in the shade between houses or vendors. We see familiar faces as we walk through the crowds: reforestation workers, a lemur monitoring guide, our driver, one of the cook assistants. And we purchase bananas, slices of jackfruit, and bags of mofo, for less than 3,000 ariary ($1). On the way back to the field station, we never fail to stop at one of the road side vendors in Ambodibinary or Amalahosy for peanut brittle, usually buying them out with our insatiable appetite for the sweet, nutty flavor and the ability to buy 30 pieces for 3,000 ariary.

And seemingly regardless of the day, or time of day, encountering small herds of zebu, directed by small boys and their sticks, is almost unavoidable. They commandeer the sidelines of the roads, leaving rather large and slimy gifts behind. But neither the zebu nor the roosters and chickens occasionally strutting across the road, and no, not even the pedestrians walking from village to village have the right-a-way to the occasional taxi-brousse or truck flying through the curvy mountainous roads. Horns blaring, vehicles quickly clear the roads in front of them. It’s nice when you’re the one in the car, though not quite as nice when you’re the pedestrian.

Regardless of the constant need to watch for zebu poop or listen for taxi-brousses at every curve, I never tire of walking through the quaint villages of Kianjavato while returning the calls of “Salu Vasaha”. The walk not only provides opportunity to practice my Malagasy and load up on delicious snacks, but also gives a brief glimpse into the simple, but happy, lives of those in the communities that I feel lucky to be a part of, even for a short period of time.

Person not Chicken

When our focal lemurs are lounging up in the forest canopy, we relax as well, and use the time to bombard our guides with multitudes of questions about the culture, history, education, wildlife, politics, and language of Madagascar. In turn, we share stories about our lives in other countries and provide new English words. One of the most entertaining moments in the field has been swapping Malagasy and English tongue twisters. Our guides, knowing much more English than we know Malagasy, memorized our tongue twisters before we could even begin to pronounce the Malagasy tongue twisters correctly.

But in my opinion, English tongue twisters pale in comparison to

“Rambon-doumba ndRalambo Lava, Ralambo lava Rambon-doumba”
(The shirt tail of Ralambo is long; Ralambo has a long shirt tail)

and

“Voropotsy folo fotsifotsy volotsofina”
(Ten egrets with white ear hair).

Our guides have also taught us a number of Malagasy phrases and expressions that, although commonly used, make other Malagasy people laugh when we say them for the sheer amusement of hearing foreigners use their colloquialisms. One of these phrases is “Olombelo Tsy Akoko” which translates to “person not chicken”. This phrase is used when someone needs to go to the bathroom, because chickens do not urinate. Everyone chuckles when one of the volunteers, or guides, says this phrase before disappearing in the woods. Another Malagasy expression is Piso (pronounced Pee-shew), which is used as a Malagasy word for “bless you” after a person sneezes. But Piso also means cat in some dialects, and in others, is only used when a baby sneezes.

Madagascar has 18 dialects, which results in occasional confusion and miscommunication even among Malagasy people from various regions. But for foreigners, this can make cross-cultural communication nearly impossible when traveling across the country. Luckily, most important words and phrases are fairly universal, even if pronunciation varies across dialects. However, after learning that the word for yes in the capitol differs from the word yes in Kianjavato, just an 11 hour drive southeast, I came to realize that English-Malagasy dictionaries can only go so far in this country.

World Lemur Day

Since the beginning of October, I have spent most every day tracking lemurs through the forest. But this past Friday, World Lemur Day I didn’t see a single lemur. Why? Because to celebrate this special day, all MBP employees and volunteers joined forces to plant over 15,000 tree seedlings in one day, bringing the week’s total 20,200 seedlings! That’s a lot of future trees! Typically, around 3,000 seedlings are planted on planting days, which occur 2 times a week. Planting over double the weekly amount in one day required all hands-on deck. Each volunteer in our current cohort, all the lemur monitoring guides, all the reforestation workers, and many people in the local villages all came out to spend the morning planting seedlings. We split up into five groups, starting in one of the local villages and parading to one of five nurseries.

The reforestation efforts here are critical to the long-term survival of the lemurs residing within Sangasanga, Vatovavy, and the other small forest fragments in the Kianjavato area. The lemur monitoring projects, although producing invaluable data, are not what will ensure the future of these species. As Dr. Ed Louis (the executive director of MBP) stated, “if all we did was monitoring, we would be monitoring these species to extinction.” The eventual goal of the reforestation efforts occurring here is to connect Sangasanga and Vatovavy, along with a few others forest fragments, with forest corridors to allow population movement and increased genetic diversity between these areas. Sangasanga used to be connected to Ranomafana National Park, about a two-hour drive away, but due to tavy (slash and burn agriculture), the forest has been isolated since the 60s. Vatovavy has been isolated for an even longer period, but is only about a 20-minute drive from Sangasanga.

However, these efforts will be for naught unless the communities in Kianjavato support these projects and experience a change in perceptions regarding tavy and the importance of the non-human primates living in their forests. To inspire a love of lemurs and promote conservation education in the communities, MBP and their partner (Conservation Fusion) held a World Lemur Day event for the schools in the Kianjavato area. While waiting for the schools to arrive, we set up a speaker connected to a solar panel, and spent two hours dancing with the children in the host village. My dancing skills need improvement even by American standards, so trying to keep up with Malagasy children was next to impossible. And when I tried to take a picture with a few Malagasy children, I was rushed by at least 15 kids, all wanting to be in the picture and see their faces on the tiny camera screen. Once the schools arrived, two children from each school competed to win prizes such as soccer balls and frisbees for their school by answering various questions about lemurs and the rainforest. Each child went away with a lemur stuffed animal, several prizes for their school, and a deeper appreciation for lemurs and the land where they live.

Cheers to two exceptional days of celebrating World Lemur Day!