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!

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