The Final Push

27 Feb

Joach and I returned to Beza from our Christmas break feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, raring to get back into the forest and see our much missed lemurs. During our first week back, we figured out how to collect as much data as we had before, but with only two people instead of our previously three-person team. We ultimately found a balance with Joach and I both recording the focal lemurs’ behavior on each of our iPads. In addition, Joach took over recording the group activity and location every fifteen minutes, while I would run off occasionally to collect plant and fecal samples. This turned out to be a perfect division of labor, as we were able to gather all of the data and samples needed and still be almost constantly recording the focal animals’ behavior.


This final seven-week push from the end of our Christmas break to our departure from Beza around mid-February would be deeply set by routine, with one large exception. From the middle of January through the beginning of February, my advisor, Ny, would be coming to do some lemur research at Beza. On this trip, Ny was studying the ring-tailed lemurs (maki) in Beza Mahafaly’s Parcel 2, a large block of mostly spiny forest about an hour’s walk from our campsite. Ny arrived at Beza with her research entourage, including Jacky (my friend and colleague from Tulear), Francis (a tall, lanky man who was both driver and a very able mechanic for the peppy Suzuki truck that brought them from Tulear), and Henri, Mediatrice, and Edwina (all college students of Jacky’s here to do small primate studies and learn first-hand what is involved in conducting field research). A fourth student, Miji, had been working with the maki in Parcel 2 and living in a nearby village since mid-December and now rejoined the group at our main campsite. Overnight, Beza went from having two researchers to nine!


The arrival of such a large group caused the atmosphere at Beza to shift substantially. While we initially returned to a quiet, mostly deserted Beza, suddenly there was a flurry of activity. Aside from the erection of a small tent city, the main change was felt at mealtimes. Ny and I decided it would be easier to just pool our food resources and all eat together while she was there and with nine mouths to feed, it took us nearly a week to figure out the proper amount of rice and beans for such a sizable group. We nearly filled the long dining room table as we passed large pots overflowing with heaps of rice up and down the table. Our food stocks actually complimented each other quite nicely, as Joach and I had a huge assortment of spices to help keep the meals from getting too monotonous and Ny brought some fresh vegetables and an incredible assortment of beans. In total, I think they brought seven different kinds of beans and lentils!


Apart from mealtimes, we all we went our separate ways. Our research needs didn’t conflict since they were working with the lemurs down the road in Parcel 2 and we were sticking with the Parcel 1 lemurs. Ny used the lab in the afternoon to test the properties of her plant samples and was usually done by 6pm when we would tromp back from the forest and need the lab space for preserving plants and lemur feces. Once we had finished our lab work and showered off, Joach and I would often join Ny and Jacky on the porch for a little pre-dinner drink and to talk about how each of our days went. Sometimes we would talk about some larger issue like the long-term development of Beza as a research site or the ever-popular topic of Malagasy politics and whether the current ‘transitional’ president will actually hold legitimate elections or not.


One morning, Joach and I tagged along with Ny’s group and went to Parcel 2. We all crammed into the truck and after twenty minutes and some seriously rutted road, we arrived. Ny gave us a quick orientation to the parcel and then we wandered into Parcel 2, eager to see how it compared to the more familiar Parcel 1. Along the western edge of Parcel 2 is a long ridge of rock. We followed the ridge until we found a decent section that we felt we could ascend. Just as we summited, we spotted a large group of sifaka jumping between trees. The view from on top of the ridge was stunning and really showed off the flat, open-canopied terrain of the rest of the parcel. As we walked along the ridge, we ran into Jacky and a couple of his students still looking for their lemurs. As opposed to Parcel 1,the lemurs in Parcel 2 have larger home ranges and are much less densely packed together. This gives researchers like Ny and Jacky even more habitat to search until they find the lemurs they are looking for.


As February arrived, Ny and her entourage departed. While it was sad to lose their company and conversation, it returned Beza to the quiet research station that we had grown accustomed to. February also meant that my field research was coming to a close. It was as we were watching maki Blue Group that I realized the goodbyes would start. These two days would be our last with Blue Group and so on for every group hereafter. In the case of Blue Group, they decided to have us relive their greatest hits, which begrudgingly meant chasing (often literally running to keep up with) them as they ranged to every edge of their territory and beyond to places they had never taken us before. It was an exhausting two days and Joach and I were both glad to be done with the group for good. The other goodbyes were not nearly as bitter, especially with our favorite sifaka groups Fano and Felix.


We finished up data collection with a few days to spare and spent our final time packing up and making sure all of my samples were sealed and ready for the journey home. On February 14, our last day at Beza, Claude, the MICET driver who brought us down to Beza five months earlier, arrived in a red Toyota pickup truck. We struck our tents, our faithful homes for those long nights in the forest, zipped up our bags and prepared to depart. As we stacked up our luggage in the house, there was an equally large pile of items we were leaving behind. This included buckets, laundry soap, bleach, empty bottles and jars, toilet paper, pens, paper, beans, spices, oil, and many other assorted food items. These supplies would be much appreciated by the Beza staff, especially since they could always use more buckets.


That night, Joach and I slept for a few hours on some beds in the house so that we wouldn’t have to pack up our tents in the morning. We rose at 5am, had a quick breakfast and loaded the truck. Before leaving, we said our goodbyes to the Beza staff, with a friendly handshake and grin from Tsiliva and an endearing little hug from Lala. We piled into the truck, with Joach sharing the cramped back seat with Miandrisoa, Edouard, and Veloky who were getting a ride as far as Betioky. As Claude turned the ignition on and we rolled down the back road out of camp, I waved goodbye to the staff but also to Beza Mahafaly, my Malagasy home.


The drive north was smooth and uneventful. We made excellent time and after thirteen hours on the road, we pulled into our first day’s destination of Fianar. We arrived just in time, because as we were checking in at the hotel, we could hear the rain starting to pound down all around. We scurried across the street to a restaurant for dinner, jumping the already expanding puddles, and hopped back across a couple of hours later with our bellies full and all of us eager for a good night’s sleep. Our second day of driving brought us from Fianar to Tana in about nine hours, though this stretch felt so familiar to me that the time seemed to go by even faster.


As we arrived in Tana it finally hit me that my time in Madagascar was coming to a close, and that I would, in all likelihood, not be returning to my familiar Beza for quite a long time. This thought was truly bittersweet as I thought back on so many wonderful memories from my time so far in Madagascar, yet knowing that this period of my life was coming to a close. But my time in Madagascar wasn’t over yet and with nearly two weeks remaining before my flight off of this island; it looked like there was time for one more adventure…


A Holiday Escape

15 Feb

The approach of January meant not only a change in the calendar year, but also a more impactful change to my life at Beza. Around mid-December, Vola would be leaving us. It had always been the plan for Vola to work on my project for only the first three months at Beza, and I promised to get him north in time to spend Christmas with his family. While I’m sure Vola was looking forward to seeing all of his friends and family and resuming his life in Tana, I will definitely miss his presence and outstanding contribution to my research.


By now we had been working diligently for about 14 weeks since arriving at Beza and we had all earned ourselves a little vacation. Joach and I planned to leave Beza for a few days and head somewhere lemur-free for some rest and relaxation around Christmastime. We would all travel out to Tulear together and then part ways, with Vola continuing northeast and Joach and I heading up the coast.


The journey to Tulear would be split into two legs: a sarety-ride from Beza to Betioky and then a taxi-brousse from Betioky to Tulear. Each leg of the journey would take its own day, with the night between spent in sleepy Betioky.


I asked Elahavelo (a local plant and maki specialist) to arrange a sarety from his village to take us to Betioky. A sarety is a wooden two-wheeled cart pulled by a pair of zebu (an ancient species of humped cow). The baggage compartment is about three feet wide, four feet long, and one foot deep (when empty, which they rarely are). The sareties travel in long caravans (for safety) so we would have to time our departure to coincide with the next procession.


This is how I found myself standing in the center of camp in the starlit chilly air at 1am, my loaded backpack at my feet, waiting for the sarety driver to arrive. He was late, very late. After three hours of waiting and trying to stay awake, our ride finally arrived. Instead of a 1am departure, the sarety paused at Beza to pick us up at 4am. We first loaded our bags on top of a thick layer of green, leafy fuel (fodder for the zebu), nearly filling the trunk to the brim. Vola and I sat perched on the front edge of the cart, the driver seated between and below us, while Joach was nestled into the luggage facing backwards with a view of the zebu leading the cart behind us. With all bags and passengers onboard, the whip was cracked and the zebu plodded onwards. When the shadow of a large puddle loomed ahead of our sarety, Vola and I would turn on our headlamps and create the first ever sarety with headlights.


Not long into the trip, dawn creeped in and the headlamps became unnecessary. The zebu that led our cart were young and small, so our speed was not exactly Mach 5. Rather than bounce along among the baggage, while being constantly passed by other sareties and pedestrians, I decided to walk and found it easy to keep pace with the cart. In fact, I quickly got well ahead of the cart and had to wait for it to catch up. As the vehicle rolled by, I spied Vola and Joach, laid flat on top of the bags, both passed out and dead to the world.


Since we had departed Beza long before a decent breakfast hour, we had a lack of nourishment to get us through the journey. To combat our hunger, we brought along a packet of biscuits and a handful of mangos. It was the height of mango season and people were literally giving them away. Having sucked out every last drop of sweet mango juice, I threw my mango peel and pit to the side of the road, where they joined countless other mango carcasses that helped to sustain the other travelers along this dusty road.


The sun came out and bore down on us along the exposed road as we creeped ever closer to Betioky. After a long stretch, climbing a slow yet steady slope, we finally reached the plateau and could view the radio towers of our first destination in the distance. While it now felt like we were nearly there, we endured another scorching three hours before we finally crawled into Betioky around 11am.


We said farewell to the zebu at our $5/night hotel, dropped off our luggage, and headed down the street to get some lunch. Before eating, we wanted to buy our bus tickets to Tulear and have our transportation all set for the next day. We kept asking people where we could buy bus tickets and suddenly one guy showed us to a bus that had just arrived in town and was going to leave for Tulear in about 30 minutes. We made a snap judgement and decided to follow this providence. We paid for our tickets on the spot and then ran back to the hotel to get our bags. Our luggage was passed up to join the assortment of items on the roof of the bus and we went across the street and scarfed down the fastest meal of rice and chicken in the history of mankind. The driver was impatiently waiting for us, as we paid the bill and crammed into the back row of the taxi-brousse with two other men. Beneath the seats and under our feet were sacks full of mangos, a portable grill, and a veritable flock of chickens, rudely stuffed into the darkest nooks under the benches.


The taxi-brousse bounced along down the dirt road, with all of it’s passengers also bouncing into the air whenever we hit an especially large bump, and the electric guitar of southwestern Malagasy music blaring out the windows from the wooden speakers jammed into the metal luggage racks above our heads. The sun was shining, the breeze was blowing, the music was rocking, and we were on the road again.


For better or worse, this was not an express bus direct from Betioky to Tulear, but a local line that stopped six or seven times before our destination (plus another half dozen stops at police checkpoints along the road). At each stop, we would pull into a village and make a small exchange of passengers. Taking advantage of these brief pauses, a few people would leap down from the high doorsill and shamelessly relieve themselves along the side of the road. Those of us left in our seats were assaulted on all sides by women and girls from the village selling their mouth-watering wares. Mangos (of course) appeared frequently, often joined by bananas (‘akondro’ or ‘kida’ in Malagasy), and singularly accompanied by a shiny bowl overflowing with red, spiky lychee fruit. Villagers not only offered fruit, but sold mofogash (fist-sized rice-flour cakes), sambosas (triangular flats of fried dough with a potato and vegetable filling), crispy whole fried fish,  and scarlet-shelled crayfish sautéed with garlic and herbs. Needless to say we would not go hungry on the trip.


Fifteen hours after leaving Beza, we pulled into the dirt lot of the Tulear bus depot. I remembered where the bus station was situated from my few days in Tulear in 2009, so we shouldered our bags and trekked off in the direction of the hotel. After checking in, each of us grabbed an Internet-enabled device and swarmed the hotel’s wifi as we hungrily ate of that quenching Internet fix.


After a refreshing, steamy shower, where I didn’t have to draw my own water from a well,  I felt like a new man. Hungry as ever, we strolled the few blocks to the water’s edge and to a fantastic restaurant I had been visiting for months in my dreams. Etoile de Mer was just as I remembered it, from the half-size pool table by the bar to the expansive front patio to the separate wood-fired brick pizza oven shack in the corner of the porch. We feasted like kings with beer, a fried camembert starter, bubbling pizzas piled high with meat and seafood, house-flavored rum, and chilled dishes of creamy, frozen ice cream. It was admittedly a binge, but after so many months away from these delicious dishes a little hedonism was alright by me.


I opened my eyes after a heavy, restful sleep and stretched deep. The others were already awake and ready to hit the town. Our first stop was breakfast. Our hotel offered a spartan petit déjeuner that wouldn’t do much after training my stomach to start the day with a giant mound of watery breakfast rice, so Vola led us to a good breakfast spot he knew of. Only a few streets away we occupied a dark wood table under a bright blue awning. We each ordered breakfast menu #3: English breakfast. After examining the dish details, Joach carefully explained that we had really ordered something like a half English breakfast, since the mushrooms, toast, and beans were missing. Thankfully, the plate still had runny sunny-side-up eggs, thick-cut slabs of fatty bacon, two sausage links, tomatoes, and coffee. Coffee and bacon, separately, never tasted so good!


From here, we had half-a-day in Tulear before Vola would board another taxi-brousse and begin a grueling 18-hour sprint to Tana (and then another five hours to his family in Tamatave). Our plan had been to run some errands in Tulear and maybe do some shopping, but the arrival of some important news caused our plans to change.


The night before, Vola saw an email from a fellow lemur researcher suggesting he apply for a scholarship to the 2012 International Primatological Society Congress in Cancun, Mexico. The scholarship was for a young primatologists training course, specifically designed for starting scientists in primate-habitat countries, as an effort to increase the skills and numbers of primatologists from nations that actually contain primate species (rather than having only foreign researchers coming in to study their monkeys, apes, and lemurs). The scholarship was all expenses paid and included several days of this pre-congress training program as well as admission to the conference itself.


This training program was perfectly designed for Vola and attending an international conference of this caliber would be incredibly beneficial to his developing career. Underprivileged Malagasy students like Vola completely lack the resources to travel to international conferences. The training program would provide some targeted lessons on the topics of primate conservation and research and, as a bonus, he would also gain access to a huge aggregation of the world’s top primatologists for both his networking and job hunting needs.


The only problem was that the scholarship application deadline had just passed a few days before we reached Tulear and internet access. Vola emailed the program administrator and was given a few extra hours to submit his application, so after breakfast we hurried back to the hotel and Vola began furiously drafting his application essay. Joach and I helped by editing Vola’s words and smoothing out his sometimes broken English. After a few hours, Vola hit send on his email and he had officially applied. This couldn’t have come a moment too soon, as we now had to hoof it back across town to the bus station for Vola to catch his taxi-brousse to Tana.


A storm had passed through Tulear in the middle of the night, delivering a deluge onto the roofs and pavement of the city below. Not wanting to swim to the bus station, we had to weave back and forth around street-width puddles, following the other pedestrians as they picked out the shallowest path. From the air, this single-file line of people must have looked like a train of ants as they troop up a wall following a trail of scentmarks.


We were heading down one large street when a clean-looking Malagasy 20-something came up to Vola and told him there was no dry path ahead of us. Instead, he kindly offered to guide us on a drier path: through the alleys and hedgerows (more accurately  cactus-rows) of the residential section behind the main, paved boulevard. We got in step behind our new guide as we turned right and wove our way through a labyrinth of wooden fences and shacks. This route was certainly drier, though there was a narrow stretch where we needed to straddle a long puddle down the middle of the path, waddling one foot forward at a time until there was once again solid ground below us. Eventually we emerged onto another main boulevard and I regained my orientation as I realized where we were. We thanked our temporary guide and continued on our way.


We arrived at the taxi-brousse station with plenty of time to spare, but the previously dusty dirt lot had been transformed into a lake of mud, requiring us to slowly pick out a path that would keep our boots from getting sucked down into the muck. Vola found his ride, a tall navy-blue Mercedes Benz Sprinter van, and we all watched with dropped jaws as six men attempted, and after many tries actually succeeded, to get a full-size yellow motorcycle onto the van’s tall roof. Joach and I bid farewell and a Merry Christmas to Vola and headed back into town to run some errands.


After another filling dinner and a comfy, air-conditioned night’s rest, it was time for Joach and I to finish our journey to our Christmastime retreat. Our plan was to spend five days in the quiet beach town of Ifaty, a  popular retreat among foreigners in the area. Ifaty is located only about two hours north of Tulear via the coast road. After passing through a few brief rainstorms along the road, Joach and I stepped from the taxi-brousse onto the dirt track that is the main road of Ifaty. We had been dropped right in front of a hotel recommended by my guide book, but their exorbitant prices and inland location causes us to seek accommodation a bit closer to the water.


Just down the road, at the Mora Mora hotel, we found just what we were looking for. Set right on the sand with an endless bright blue ocean stretched out beyond, it became immediately apparent that these more affordable lodgings were also in a far more ideal setting. The innkeeper showed us to a weathered wooden bungalow protruding on wooden masts over the sandy beach, with a deep covered porch and a view that never ceased to be breathtaking. After dropping my bags inside, I changed into shorts and sandals and slid myself into one of the cotton-slung loungers on the porch, taking in the view.


From left to right, the shockingly flat horizon stretched above an azure sea. Milky white sand extended from under the floorboards of the porch, through a thin stand of arched palm trees bent over from the wind, and down to meet the gently lapping waves at the edge of the water. The longer I looked, the bigger the smile grew on my face. I had found myself in a little coastal slice of heaven and couldn’t be happier, though I would later discover that a chilled coconut and rum punch with the same stunning view could bring me a dollop closer to complete rapture.


The next five days would be a melange of leisurely walks along the beach, reading, sampling all of the local flavors of rum, playing cards, sunset dips in the ocean, and napping. Naps came as gently and frequently as the tides. Life in Ifaty couldn’t be more different than that at Beza. While at my beachside retreat, there would be no schedule, no regiment. Rather, I would do what I want when I wanted to and never worry about what time it is. I took off my watch and buried it in my bag as a formal declaration of my state of leisure.


After months of a restricted diet, Ifaty was a food heaven. Needless to say, we continued to eat like kings. Even the idea of a menu of choices was a change from the “do you want red beans and rice or white beans and rice?” options during the previous 14 weeks. Suddenly we were handed a menu, with page after page of savory selections. There were the standard items like steak, french fries, pizza, eggs, flan, and crepes. Even more exciting were the little things like butter, fruit juice, mustard, and cold beer. Despite the allure of these foods, the local specialties shined above them all. Being a fishing town before all of the tourists turned it into a getaway,  the seafood is incredibly fresh and about as locally sourced as you can get. Capitain (a fish), crab, and squid were featured frequently at all of the restaurants up and down the beach. Whether prepared in a sweet vanilla sauce, served raw with lime juice (similar to a ceviche), or plainly grilled whole over red-hot charcoal, this was some of the best seafood I’ve tasted in my life.


Each morning and afternoon I could be found lounging on the porch, enjoying the constant sea breeze and the turquoise seascape. Local villagers walked up and down the beach looking for vazaha (foreigners) to purchase their wares. Children were hocking beaded necklaces and small carved wooden barrels, women were offering discount massages on the soft sand, and men were pushing excursions out to the reef for snorkeling and diving or tours of the coastal mangroves and inland baobab forest. One very persistent old lady kept coming by every  day we were there, trying to get us to buy some local honey. These people would walk up to the porch, our floorboards at their eye level, chat us up, and give us their pitch. With each person we ended up using a different mix of English, French, and Malagasy (what I call Frenglasy).


Initially, these conversations were amiable and we felt it was only polite to hear them out and see what they were offering. Once they caught our attention and our ear, these people wouldn’t take a simple “no” for an answer. Instead, we learned to always say “maybe” or “come back tomorrow” (which they undoubtedly would). It took less than a day of these protracted, fruitless interruptions in my peaceful leisure time before my attitude shifted. Joach and I had come to Ifaty to relax and to do nothing, unlike most foreign tourists. I wasn’t interested in buying tons of local crafts or filling my days with active trips.


What at first was a pleasant enough interaction with some of the locals, quickly turned into an hourly annoyance and interruption. If I even kindly replied to their greeting, I would be stuck listening to their sales pitch in broken Frenglasy for at least a quarter of an hour before I could return to my book, card game, or nap. I learned that the only way to get these pests to leave me alone (short of hiding within the bungalow) was to pretend like I didn’t speak any French or Malagasy and make them struggle and ultimately fail to make their pitch in English alone or to use the only slightly more humane tactic of ignoring them altogether. I even tried telling them, in Malagasy nonetheless, that I wasn’t interested, but they  would smile at hearing their native language and keep on selling.


One advantage to all of these offers for massages and boat trips was that I learned what was available and who had the best price. Before arriving on the coast, Joach and I decided that while we were mostly planning to just relax, we would like to spend one day out on the water and hopefully go snorkeling. So after a few days of hearing everyone’s pitch, we finally decided to say yes to one. A pair of Malagasy men, Francois and Tintin, had been trying to hook us ever since the first day we arrived. Their excursion was to go out to the reef on their wooden pirogue for some snorkeling, followed by a picnic lunch on the beach of some freshly caught seafood. We paid half up front and set a time to meet at their boat the following morning.


A short walk down the beach, with the early morning sun casting long shadows onto the sand, had Joach and I arrive at our transportation for the day. Francois and Tintin were already prepared for departure, standing next to their 20-foot long black and green boat. A pirogue is a wooden canoe with a single mast and a square sail. The boats native to this region of Madagascar also have a single wooden outrigger parallel to the main hull, giving it the stability of a catamaran.


With Joach and I perched on rungs across the center of the boat and our guides at either end, we pushed off from the sand and our adventure began. The canvas sail was pulled taught as it filled with propulsive wind and the hull skimmed along the calm water. The Ifaty seashelf is a shallow pan bordered by a barrier reef, acting as a breakwater and protecting the beach from any large waves. On our way out to the reef, we passed over a patchwork of seagrass beds and open stretches of sand. At no point within this protected band of shoreline did the depth exceed five fathoms and the translucent water provided excellent visibility to look for jellyfish swimming about.


As the boat sailed further from shore, we picked up speed. The strong breeze plowed headlong into the sail and the pirogue’s outrigger was lifted just above the water as we listed to port. Tintin was manning the rudder at the stern so it was Francois’ job to balance out the boat. He edged several feet out along the forward cross-brace connecting the outrigger to the hull. With his feet curved around the narrow wooden beam and his hand clutching one of the sail lines, he crept along as we zoomed through the water until enough of his weight was added to that of the outrigger to drop it back into the salty sea.


The shoreline shrank behind us and the rumble of waves crashing on the reef rang in our ears. The approach of a line of whitecaps breaking on the shallow coral ahead showed our progress. A few minutes later we joined a diffuse gathering of fishing, leisure, and diving boats spread up and down the reef. The anchor (a large rock) was thrown overboard to moor the boat and Francois handed Joach and I each a pair of fins and a mask and a snorkel. There were no warnings about not touching any of the sealife or even a brief primer as to what we would see below the undulating surface. The message was clear: get in the water and do what you like. I donned my mask, feeling nostalgia for my SCUBA diving trips of yore, and flipped backwards over the gunwale.


The transition was so stark that it was as if someone had flipped a light switch. On the surface, things were monotonous and monocolor with both the sea and sky dazzling shades of blue, but below the waves was another world altogether. While I had previously only spotted seagrass and sand lining the seafloor, here there were different colorful corals spreading in every direction. As I swam around in the shallow waters, I spotted beautiful bright seastars, some in a brilliant blue and others that were cornflower blue on top and a peachy orange color underneath. Swimming over the reef were fish of every shape and color. There were long, skinny trumpetfish, elegant angelfish, big-eyed squirrelfish, and even my favorite teal, blue, and vibrant purple parrotfish with their strong protruding jaws that they use to crunch coral when looking for food. As I approached these graceful swimmers, they would glide smoothly away down the reef or seek refuge in the nooks and crannies of the corals below. Scattered haphazardly all about were large pale brown-streaked sea cucumbers, their thick tube-shaped bodies lying flaccidly in the sand.


Next to a partly translucent anemone, with a handful of fish watching me from within the protective forest of its tumescent stinging tentacles, was a giant two-foot-long clam with the flesh of its deep blue lips tracing the undulations along the opening of its wavy shell. I took a deep breath and kicked my fins hard to overcome my natural buoyancy. As I dove to the bottom to get a closer look at this giant bivalve it sensed my approach and, in a heartbeat, it silently retracted its flesh and pinched the open edges of its shell closed. After I was a safe distance away, I watched as the giant clam slowly opened itself back up and continued filter feeding in peace.


The strong current pulled me along as I soared over coral ridges just a foot or two from the surface and into little basins where I had more space to maneuver around. A short way from where the boat was bobbing on it’s anchor line, the reef changed suddenly for the worse. Still within view of the magnificent corals I had just been exploring, here there was an utter dearth of intact reef. There were still a handful of brightly colored fish shoaling about, but the seafloor was pale and only littered with the crumbled skeletons of what had once been colorful living corals. As spectacular as the reef was, I was immediately reminded of it’s vulnerability and how important it is to protect this delicate and important natural resource.


Fighting my way back against the steady current, I realized that I was quite chilly. The cool water had drained my body heat and the weak morning sun beating down on my bare back did nothing to compensate. I longed for a wetsuit that would insulate my body and allow me to continue to snorkel around the reef for another few hours. I did a final loop around the pirogue, taking in the underwater life, and hopped onto the outrigger to wait for Joach to be done. I removed my mask with a loud sucking noise, bobbed up and down as the waves rolled below, and savored the exceptional morning I had just experienced. Joach swam up with a grin on his face and we threw our masks and fins into the pirogue before heaving our dripping bodies in as well. The anchor rock was hauled in, the sail lifted into position, and the boat turned around as we made for land and the second part of our excursion.


As the shore came back into view, I tried to determine our location and identify the many resorts lining the beach. None of the buildings on this stretch of sand looked familiar and I soon realized why. Instead of bringing us back to where we had launched earlier, Tintin had steered us south. We finally approached a small bay with pirogues of all sizes populating the shallows. This was the original village of Ifaty and we were heading to the non-vazaha part of town.


The tide was out, so the boat ran aground long before the edge of the water. We grabbed our stuff and trekked through the shallows. Francois and Tintin followed with the boat in tow. Francois met some friends of his and showed us what they had provided for our lunch: two three-foot-long bonito fish and a beautiful large crab. He grabbed a charcoal grill out of the pirogue’s hold and told us that the food would be ready in about an hour. With some time to kill, Joach and I walked south along the beach, passing the remainder of the seaside village and rounding a corner to come upon a deserted sandy expanse. Exhausted by the scalding midday sun and with grumbling bellies, we headed eagerly back into town for our much awaited dejeuner de mer.


I spotted Francois crouched next to the grill between two rows of abandoned bungalows from some former beach hotel. Tintin had taken down the sail in our absence and laid it out in a shady patch of sand near the grill.  We were beckoned to lie on this canvas picnic blanket while they finished the final food preparations. The first dish put before us was a large pot full of that favorite Malagasy staple, rice. Next up came the good stuff. The bonito was prepared two separate ways; one fish was sliced into thick steaks and grilled over the hot coals, while the other fish was sautéed with some onion and tomato and served with the sauce all around. Lastly, we had the dinner-plate sized crab, sliced down the middle and grilled in it’s shell, with only salt and pepper enhancing it’s naturally exquisite flavor. This meal featured the freshest seafood I have ever had in my life! What had been alive and wriggling just a couple of hours ago, was now cleaned, gutted, grilled, and in my belly. As I savored each tender bite of bonito, I could literally taste the sea. The crab was beautifully charred on the outside and succulent and almost buttery throughout.


After eating as much bonito as I could handle and washing it down with a little rice, I slumped back onto the sail and quietly slipped into a food coma. With a big grin on my face and a bulging belly, I stared up through the swaying palm fronds at the cloudless blue sky above. Joach and I had done a number on the food put before us, but even we weren’t up to the challenge of consuming so much. Not wanting them to go to waste, we offered our leftovers to Francois, Tintin, and their friends who had delivered the fish, who were all quietly huddled on the adjacent sail corner, munching on the less desirable fish parts and their own heaping pile of rice. They gladly accepted and dug into the prime cuts of fish.


We rested in that spot for what felt like hours, before we finally roused ourselves, shook out the sail, and prepared to return to the beach by our bungalow. The sail went up, we hopped aboard, and we quickly cut through the waves on our return journey. As we all grabbed the boat and hauled it up onto the sand between resorts, I profusely thanked Francois and Tintin for an excellent day, politely turned down their continuing offers for more excursions the next day, and headed back to the cabin after an excellent day on the water.


The couple of days remaining in Ifaty after the snorkeling trip passed much as those before. Rum, naps, and gorgeous vistas abounded. Our final full day at our seaside paradise was to be Christmas day. We had kept our eyes open for any Christmas events, but all we could find were special prix-fixe Noel menus at two of the restaurants. We chose the restaurant that had consistently delivered delicious meals and hoped for the best. The disco lights hung among the rafters and the giant party speakers at either end of the open-air sand-floored dining room, suggested that the evening might feature more than just dinner.


Much to our surprise, when we showed up for dinner on the roughly 2011th anniversary of Jesus’ birthday, barely a third of the tables were occupied. Moreover, the other patrons were all local vazaha families, some with small children, who were quietly conversing amongst themselves. Clearly this was not going to be the party we expected. Instead, we still had a spectacular meal as our usual waiter, Erix, wished us a Merry Christmas in excellent English. After the Christmas feast, Joach and I returned to the bungalow for our previously planned Xmas entertainment: A Muppet Christmas Carol.


The following morning, with our bags packed, we sat down on the porch of our hotel’s main lodge for a quick breakfast and a final glimpse of bright blue water and white sandy beaches. Having paid the bill and thanked the

French expat manager, we hiked the half-a-mile inland to the main road, with the sun already promising a scorching day. I had previously asked one of the hotel managers about the taxi brousse schedule heading back to Tulear. I was told that there are many buses that go by throughout the day, so Joach and I just planned to wait by the side of the road and catch the first one heading south.


Just as we approached the main road laden with our large backpacks, we heard the engine of a vehicle heading south. Could this be our luck, not having to wait potentially hours for a taxi brousse to show up? As we drew closer to the main road, our hopes were dashed as we realized that the small silver pickup truck we had heard was just a private vehicle making it’s way through the area. We settled in for a long morning, sitting against a brick wall with a view of the road, and watched as the pickup slowly drove past.


Before we had even gotten comfortable, the pickup stopped and reversed down the road until it was even with us. The darkly tinted window rolled down and the buff driver looked at us asking “Do you guys need a lift to Tulear?” Much to my surprise, and delight, his question was posed in English. Joach and I threw our bags in the truck’s bed and slipped into the back seats. As we trundled down Ifaty’s main drag, introductions were made all around. Matthew was behind the wheel and his girlfriend Miriam was next to him in the passenger seat.


A fellow American, Matthew traveled from Florida to  Madagascar to spend the holidays with Miriam. Miriam, originally from Ivory Coast, works for a mining company and was recently relocated to one of their sites in northeastern Madagascar. Matthew returned from several years serving as a medic in the US army in Afghanistan, and was going for his degree to become a Physician’s Assistant in the sunshine state. Cruising down the sandy road, with the sun streaming in the windows and the air conditioning blasting on high, we swapped stories. Matthew told us tales from his time in Afghanistan and painted a very bleak and pessimistic image of life in that war-torn country. To lighten the mood, we then told all about the crazy antics of our lemurs deep in the forest.


Before we knew it we were back in Tulear. We bid farewell to our new friends and checked in at the hotel hours before planned. We made one last stop at the market below the hotel to stock up on spices, biscuits, and other supplies to bring back to Beza, met Jacky for dinner, and got in our last few hours enjoying the speedy internet connection. The following morning we were crammed into a large taxi brousse to Betioky, with six other people in our row, and began our return journey. After a very brief sleep at a bare-bones hotel in Betioky, we loaded onto a sarety at four in the morning and were back to Beza by eight. After only a week away, it was truly nice to finally be back home.

Very Vary

20 Dec

According to the Bradt Guide to Madagascar, the Malagasy people eat the most rice per capita of any country in the world. This statistic really comes to life when you see the huge heaping mounds of rice that these people pack away at every meal.

As part of my enculturation during my stay, I am doing as the Malagasy do and eating lots and lots of rice, or ‘vary’ as they call it in Malagasy. There’s rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, and rice for dinner. In total, we have been cooking 6 kupokes of rice per day for three of us (Joach, Vola, and myself). Not that we weren’t already eating lots of rice, but once the heatwave of November hit, we added another kupoke of rice throughout the day and brought our daily total up to 7 kupokes of uncooked rice.

One kupoke of rice weighs approximately 280 grams (0.6 lbs). After doing some back of the envelope calculations, I computed that it will take me about 100 days to consume my own body weight in uncooked rice! I like to imagine this as a life-size Andy-shaped glass jar slowly filling up with rice grains (like a giant vary hourglass). As of December 10, that Andy jar is about 75% full, with rice reaching all the way up to my nipples! This is a shocking figure and I’m certain that I’ve already consumed more rice since I arrived in Madagascar than I have in all of my previous years of life… combined.

We eat so much rice here that we have to buy 100 kupokes (28 kg / 60 lbs) of rice every two to three weeks. The craziest thing is that I absolutely love rice now. I didn’t dislike rice before, but I’ve grown to really enjoy and crave it as a food, especially with some choice beans and some sakay (Malagasy hot sauce) piled on top.

Recently, we started running low on rice and had to ration our remaining grains for nearly a week as we waited to resupply from the Thursday market in the nearby village of Beavoha. This rationing meant keeping rice on the menu for breakfast and lunch, but switching to macaroni for dinner. After only three consecutive nights of pasta, I already missed my evening dose of rice and beans. This is how much I have learned to love and appreciate those narrow white grains.

The only question that remains is will my love of rice fade once I depart from lemur island? Will I continue eating rice so frequently in Vienna when I have a plethora of other dietary choices? Only time will tell.

Post Script: After initially writing this post, we have increased our daily rice intake. We realized that we were all still a little hungry after meals an that we could easily eat more. So now we consume 9.5 kupokes of rice per day, which works out to almost one kilo of rice per person per day; wow!

How do you say ‘gobble gobble’ in Malagasy?

20 Dec

If I could use only one word to describe my life in the field, it would be ‘routine.’ I get up at the same time each day and go through the same activities with the same people. Sure, there are small changes. Some days we watch ring-tailed lemurs and others we watch sifakas. Some days we have red beans and some days we eat white beans (and occasionally we even splurge with lentils). Some would call this life monotonous and they wouldn’t be wrong. The trick to surviving a long field season with this simple, yet endlessly repeating schedule is to stay sane by focusing on little changes that can break up the monotony.

As the end of November approached, we had been repeated the same daily schedule for two full months. We were due for one of these routine-busters. The upcoming holiday of Thanksgiving provided the perfect opportunity for something new, but how could I celebrate this food-centric holiday when I was so far from all of its iconic tastes? Where would I get the ingredients for my beloved cranberry sauce, for the marshmallow-topped mashed yams, and for the irreplaceable pumpkin pie?

On one of my more successful trips to the phone hill (meaning I didn’t get lost this time), I spotted a pair of large turkeys as I passed through the village of Antevamena. Light bulb! If there are turkeys here then I should be able to find enough kinds of food to throw together a modest Thanksgiving feast.

I began planning for the celebration, coming up with a menu and a guest list. A few days before the meal, I started spreading the word and invited all of the Malagasy staff at Beza to attend the party. As Thursday morning arrived, I sent Lala off to the market with a shopping list and a wad of cash to pick up supplies for the feast. While Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the U.S. and everyone gets a day or two of vacation, it was just another work day at Beza. After watching Lala depart for the market in Beavoha, Vola, Joach, and I headed into the forest as usual, looking for the sifaka group Vavy. Despite the break from routine coming up at dinnertime, we still had the same work to do until then.

When we returned to camp at the end of the day, Lala was already back. The spoils from Lala’s trip were arrayed on the dining room table. There were 100 kupokes of rice (28 kilos or 62 lbs, but not all for the party), a mountain of bageda (a local species of sweet potato), a bucket full of bageda leaves, some tomatoes, a few bunches of bananas, a liter of toaka gasy (the Malagasy moonshine), and two beautiful live turkeys. Okay, so they weren’t beautiful and they weren’t as large or majestic as the birds I had spied in Antevamena, but they were still turkeys and would make for a delicious centerpiece to the meal.

I had originally Asked for one turkey, but they only had small ones at the market, so Lala bought two. I had planned to name my turkey, but now that i had a pair of avians, the name wouldn’t fit. I had to come up with a set of names for these female birds. Inexplicably, the names Mary-Kate and Ashley jumped into my head and before I could come up with any other candidates, those names stuck. Maybe the names fit because both the Olsens and my turkeys were skinny birds.

The traditional way to cook a turkey for an American Thanksgiving feast is to roast the bird whole. Typically this involves buying a plucked and gutted frozen bird, thawing it for a day or two, and then slow roasting it in the oven for hours and hours, cooking the bird throughout without drying out the meat. Now we didn’t have hours and hours to cook the turkeys and we certainly didn’t have an oven (just pots perched above an open wood flame), so the turkey was prepared in a similar manner to how they cook chicken here. The birds were plucked and cleaned, coarsely chopped into meaty bits, and then pan fried in their own fat and some vegetable oil. While this cooking method meant we would miss out on the presentation of a giant browned turkey on the table and my favorite ritual of carving the turkey, it did mean we would get turkey in our bellies that night.

As Lala and our new cook Sambesoa began preparing the meal, I returned to my routine of showering off the grime and sweat of the day and then heading to the lab to process the day’s plant and fecal samples. Dinner would be later than normal today, so I would have time to finish all of my work before the party.

Everyone gradually drifter towards the dining room as the dishes began appearing on the table. There were thirteen of us in total: the cooks (Lala and Sambesoa), the local Madagascar National Parks staff (Radada, Tsiliva, and Veloko), the local University of Antananarivo Department of Forestry and Agronomy staff (Mianditsoa and Edouard), some Madagascar National Park staff in from Tulear for an audit of the Beza finances, my team (Vola and Joach), and myself. Aside from the visiting MNP staff, around me were the familiar faces of my friends and neighbors these last two months at Beza.

Before we sat down to eat, I gave a little speech to explain the meal and what we were celebrating. I started by telling a highly abridged version of the Pilgrims and Indians story, explaining how the Indians gave the hungry Pilgrims food to get them through the winter and how the Pilgrims and Indians all sat down to a feast to celebrate their friendship and to give thanks for the life-saving gift of food. I explained that, in a similar way, I wanted to thank all of the people of Beza Mahafaly reserve for welcoming me and my team into their community and for all of the help and kindness they have offered since we arrived in September. This meal was my way of giving thanks.

Since most of the staff don’t speak English, Vola did a rough translation of my speech into Malagasy and everyone clapped when I reached the end. With the formalities out of the way, it was time to dig in! We all took out seats around the long table filled with dishes of pan-fried turkey, roasted sweet potato, sautéed sweet potato leaves with garlic, and of course giant bowls of rice. We cooked thirteen kupokes of rice, or about one kupoke per person. Also arranged down the middle of the table were several large bottles of Malagasy Three Horses Beer and an ominously unlabeled bottle of toaka gasy. The table grew very silent as the dishes were passed around, our plates were piled high, and everyone’s mouth was occupied with savoring the bounty before us. Slowly, the capacity for speech returned and the conversations started up. I had hoped to take a group photo, but by the time it occurred to me, my hands were covered in delicious, warm turkey juices that I would bring nowhere near my camera. Instead I am left with only photos of the table before and after the culinary carnage.

Late into the meal, Radada made a short speech (in Malagasy) thanking me for the meal and welcoming my team into the community. We all clapped and toasted his speech and I felt that this night was truly a success. As people finished eating, some folks thanked me for the meal and slipped off to bed. In the end, it was just Joach, Vola, Tsiliva, Sambesoa, and me left at the table with nothing left but some cold rice and half the bottle of toaka gasy. We passed the bottle around and were willing to tempt a mild hangover the next day in order to finish our communal celebration and drain the bottle.

With the alcohol finally gone, we stacked up the dishes, cleared off the table, and headed off to bed. That night, as I lay in bed counting turkeys to fall asleep, I thought about how lucky I was to have my Malagasy domicile be in such a friendly and inviting community and once more before drifting off to sleep, I gave thanks.
Post Script: To answer the question in this post’s title, in Malagasy, the sound a turkey makes is ‘Gooloo Gooloo.’ Happy Thanksgiving!

The Forest Classroom

20 Dec

Working in the field is a constant learning experience. I have many roles here (scientist, supervisor, mentor, logistics manager, pharmacist, morale officer, etc.), and each one teaches me different lessons. I’ve learned how to manage my team and keep everyone chipper and motivated despite the (some would say) grueling routine and monotony of our work, week after week. I’ve learned how to (literally) spice up the twice daily rice and beans; the secret is a combination of masala and cinnamon. I’ve learned to speak some Malagasy from Vola: “Zaho mahay miteny Malagasy fa kelikely” means “I only speak a little Malagasy.” And I’ve learned that spending all day under patchy canopy cover in 113 degree Fahrenheit (45 degree Celsius) heat brings on a physical exhaustion like none that I’ve ever experienced.

My greatest teacher at Beza is the forest herself. I’m learning more than I ever imagined about the myriad of plants and their distributions around the forest. We constantly discover newly developed plant parts (like Tamarind flowers) and how the lemurs eat these novel foods. This is especially interesting with fruits as the lemurs often have to peel away the outer shell or skin before consuming them, seeds and all. I’ve begun recognizing individual trees in the middle of nowhere, remembering that a previous group ate some leaves here three weeks ago, but that we arrived at this tree from the other direction. I’m really putting all of the puzzle pieces together and becoming more and more familiar with the intimite details of Beza’s forest every day.

My team and I are not alone in learning from the forest. In late October, a giant group of 25 Malagasy pulled into Beza Mahafaly. This group had come all the way from Tana and were part of a field course at the University of Antananarivo. These students were studying forestry and agronomy and had arrived at the major stop along their three-week field methods course that was touring many of the national parks and reserves of Madagascar. As compared to only one to two days at Tsimanampetsotsa or Berenty reserves, they remained at Beza for nearly a week.

At Beza they learned about how to do phenology transects to measure what plants are in the forest, they learned about the local agrobusiness of mining rock salt by talking to the miners, purifiers, and sellers at every stage of the process, and they spent a day learning about lemur biology and how these unique mammals fit into the ecology of the forest of Beza Mahafaly.

Like many field courses, they had mixed activity days, with some lectures in a makeshift classroom and some hands-on work in the forest each day. The course instructor, Joelisoa (or just Joel), was extremely friendly and considerate to the impact his gargantuan group might have on my continuing work here. We did a good job of sharing the common resources and there were no turf wars to worry about. Joel speaks amazing English and told me about his very interesting past.

Starting as a researcher and professor (like he is currently), Joel slid over to the policy realm when he took a post as the Secretary General of the Madagascar Ministry of the Environment. After a few years at the ministry, he was selected to become the Chief of Staff to the President of Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana. As he shot up to the top of the Malagasy political pyramid, he got to meet Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and had access to see and influence how environmental policies were developing in the government.

Unfortunately, the ride did not last, as the president was ousted from power in a military coup back in 2009, just before my last trip to Madagascar. Having the military turn on them,
Ravalomanana and his close advisors were no longer safe and they had to flee the country. Joel left his family behind and took asylum for a time in Austria and then got a brief position at Cambridge University through an influential lemur researcher.

After a couple years, it was safe enough for Joel to return to Madagascar and he resumed his former role as an educator, conservationist, and researcher. Despite (and maybe because of) all of the drama Joel went through due to the political coup, he insists that he is happy to return to a more reasonable pace of life as an academic, getting to once again spend quality time with his family and focusing on science and education.

Joel asked me if I would be willing to give a research talk to his students while they were at Beza and I quickly agreed. We scheduled my talk for Friday evening, as the capstone to their day learning about lemur biology. Only later did I realize what I had gotten myself into. On paper, I had three days to prepare my talk, but in reality, I only get an hour or two at the end of each day to take care of non research related tasks. These yawn-filled hours would not be a very optimal time to work on my talk, so I would have to find another time to prep.

The following morning, as I was wandering through the forest looking for lemurs, I found the perfect time to outline my presentation. Over the course of the next few days, while the lemurs rested in the late morning and early afternoon, I had the leisure time to draft and refine what I wanted to say to the field school students. I even gave a practice talk to Joach, Vola, and the sleeping maki of yellow group, under the shade of a large kily (tamarind) tree.

On Friday, I left the forest an hour early to have some time to freshen up and go over my talking points one more time. I entered the palapa (the large shade structure in the center of camp that was the field school’s temporary classroom) and saw a couple dozen eager young faces staring back at me. Joel assured me that the students spoke enough English to understand my talk, but kindly requested that I make sure to talk… very… very… slowly. Joel introduced me to the class and away I went.

My talk was going to be a basic explanation of what my research project is, what question I am trying to answer, and the methods I am using to do this. I hadn’t had the time to put together a PowerPoint presentation to provide some visuals, so instead they provided me with one of those giant pads of paper that rest on an easel and a couple of colored permanent markers. As I explained my methods I went through page after page of this huge pad, drawing maps of the forest to show where all of my lemur groups reside, and listing out all if the kinds of data that I collect.

Shortly into the talk, I realized that instead of giving a dry, one-way presentation, I was teaching. I was constantly querying for feedback and asking the students to guess why I had chosen my particular research methods. This experience brought me back fondly to my former days as a teaching assistant at USC. I loved the feeling of getting through to my students as I helped them understand a challenging and foreign topic, and to see that moment of comprehension as they finally get it. I was getting a similar vibe from the more active students at Beza and it was immediately rewarding for me as a teacher.

Before I knew it, I had reached the end of my talk and was then able to field some questions from the students and their teachers. Many of the questions were understandably Madagascar-centric. Why did you decide to do your research in Madagascar and why at Beza? How can you apply your results to conservation efforts in Madagascar? What do you think of the living conditions at Beza with the facilities and the currently high temperatures? I answered all of these and more and, after receiving the thanks of Joel and his students, I walked off satisfied that the students might have learned a little from my research talk.

A Day in the Life

27 Nov

Four weeks in and life has become a comforting routine. I follow the lemurs around the forest every Monday through Saturday, with Sunday as a day to stay in camp, relax, and do laundry. Here’s a walkthrough of a typical day with the lemurs…


— 5:10am —


My watch beeps shrilly to rouse me from my slumber. I sit up in bed, rub the sleep from my eyes, and mentally prepare for the day. I put on some warm clothes to guard against the chilly morning and unzip my tent to emerge into the tranquil dawn.


I stretch out my sore muscles and then take care of some early morning chores. I pull up three buckets of water from the well and give one to our slow, gravity-based water filter (essentially a huge 10-liter Brita filter) and give two buckets to my black plastic solar shower. I drop off the shower bag, sagging with its heavy burden, on a stretch of porch with maximum sun exposure, ensuring that the water inside will soak up as much solar radiation as possible and provide me with a warm shower later on.


— 5:30am —


Finished with my chores, I songa songa (“walk” in Malagasy) over to the main building for breakfast. There are three table settings arranged at the north end of the table and Joach, Vola, and I take our customary seats, bidding each other a good morning. I pull the single pot on the table closer, lift off the lid, and reveal a crock full of steaming watery rice. Near the consistency of a runny oatmeal, I mound the rice high on my plate, adding some sugar and honey or jam to add some flavor and make it part of this complete, balanced breakfast. I’m starving from my overnight fast, so I dig in on my pale breakfast porridge.


To wash down the rice, we make a sort of milk tea. You pour a tablespoon or two of powdered milk into a bowl, add sugar to taste, and pour scalding hot water over top. I wouldn’t call the reconstituted beverage ‘milk’; instead I think of it as ‘hot milk water’ (similar to Arrested Development’s hot ham water). Some days we splurge and have some horrible tasting coffee (due to the heavy mineral load in the water here), with our cook, Lala, grinding the beans herself.


The table is usually silent at first, save the odd slurp or scrape of spoon on plate. As the rice and milk tea warm us from inside, we discuss the plan for the day: which group we will be searching for, where we think we’ll find them, and what samples we need to collect.


Stacking up our empty dishes, we fill an empty pot with the raw ingredients for lunch: rice, beans, oil, garlic, onion, spices, and maybe some potato or carrot depending on our supply and leave it out for Lala to prepare later in the morning.


— 6:00am —


I head back to my tent and finish getting ready, sliding my feet into my well-worn boots, brushing my teeth, and applying some sunscreen to the few bits of skin left exposed to the elements. I open the vents on my tent, allowing fresh air to circulate all day and hopefully keep the contents from getting too hot at midday. I don my gear and feel the weight of every pound. I strap my large digital SLR camera, secure in a holster on a wide belt, about my waist. Then I sling a strap over one shoulder with my large binoculars dangling at its nadir at my right hip. I buckle my waistpack above the other belts. Though lightweight compared to my heavy optical gear, the waistpack contains many essential items: a handheld GPS unit, flagging tape for marking trees for later measurement, bags for collecting plant and fecal samples, a compass, a short ruler for providing a standard scale in photos of plants, extra batteries for the GPS, a portable battery pack for recharging iPads, a small folding camp stool, my data notebook, and one liter of water in my battered aluminum SIGG bottle.


Laden with gear, I grab my wide-brimmed hat and a long-sleeved shirt as I make my way towards the front of camp. As I go, I stop by a small wooden box on a pole housing a digital thermometer and a rain meter. I notate the high and low temperatures and the rainfall for the past 24 hours and reset the meters. Meeting up with the rest of my team by the front gate, we head off into the forest in search of lemurs.


— 6:30am —


As we leave camp, we come to a three-way fork in the road: forward up black trail and through the middle of Parcel 1, left towards the western side of the forest and the area south of the road where some groups range, or right towards the lush riverine eastern wing of the parcel. Our choice depends on which group we are seeking.


Of the three groups of maki (ring-tailed lemurs) and three groups of sifaka, I have intentionally chosen groups with home ranges across the east-west gradient of the forest, so that I can investigate any effects from the different microhabitats in which they live.


Today, we are looking for maki red group, which means that we turn right and head for the river. As we near red group’s territory, our pace slows and we walk stealthily, our eyes and ears scanning the treetops all around for any sign of lemurs.


We split up, each taking a parallel path cutting through the heart of their territory. Joach and Vola take blue east trail north as I continue over to green east trail. The paths form a reasonably standard grid, but the route of the road along the southern border of the parcel is a jagged sharkstooth. Similarly, the eastern border is the currently bone-dry Sakamena river, which arches down to slice off the southeast corner of the parcel. When I enter at green east, the river is very close.


I meander up the trail, checking the treetops for balls of grayish-brown fur nestled along the thick branches. This early in the morning, the lemurs are usually still up in the treetops, where they can sleep soundly, safely out of the reach of any terrestrial predators.


Every few meters I stop moving and silently gaze all around me, listening to the sounds of the forest. I hear the calls of many birds, chirping in the morning air. There’s the wind blowing through the tall trees, causing their crowns to sway back and forth. The trees make their own noise as well, as the wind causes one tree’s branches to scrape against those of another, weaving their woody fingers together for a moment before pulling them back apart. What I want to hear is the rustle of a single branch as a lemur leaps and lands on it or, if I’m really lucky, the call of a lemur mewing to the others in its group.


Hearing nothing to suggest lemurs, I continue onward, stopping frequently to silence my footfalls and scan the forest for activity. On the far side of red group’s range, the team converges. None of us have found our lemurs so we layout a new plan, this time with each of us walking an east-west trail.


— 7:00am —


I continue as before, spotting two groups of sifakas, but no maki. I’m nearing an intersection of trails when I hear a sound in the trees behind my right shoulder. I freeze immediately, listening to see if the noise will be repeated, slowly swiveling my head in the direction of the disturbance. I hear it again, that distinctive rattle of branches from a landing lemur, and this time I see the tree as it’s still quaking.


I turn off of the trail and bushwhack through the undergrowth. I weave left and right as I try to pick out the most unobstructed path. As I near the tree, I snatch my binoculars from their spot at my hip and gaze up into the tree’s canopy. It doesn’t take long until I spot one patch of fur, then another. These are definitely maki, but the question remains of whether or not they are red group.


A few minutes later, one of the lemurs walks along a high branch. As it moves, the round yellow dog-tag dangles from its bright red collar. The image is magnified greatly in my binoculars, but still it is difficult to make out the tag’s numbers with the lemur twenty meters (about 65 feet) up. Eventually I get a good look and read the tag numbers, 347.


That’s confirms it; this is red group. With the search over, I call my team over with a loud “HOOOOOO. HOOOOOO.” My call rings out through the brightening forest, with the double hoot carrying the message that I’ve found the group we’re searching for. Joach and Vola hoot back once to confirm they’ve got the message. As they start to zero in on our location, I survey the group and start identifying where all of the lemurs are lurking.


— 7:30am —


Now that we have the team and the lemurs assembled in one place, we can get down to business. Joach and Vola each pull out an iPad and start to record behavioral data on one of our focal animals. In the meantime, I record the group activity and get out the GPS unit to get an exact location of where we are.


There are two types of data and two types of samples that I am collecting in the forest. The first (and most time intensive) type of data is the focal activity. We choose 3-4 animals in each of our groups and record their activity whenever we are watching the group. These chosen few are our focal animals. One of us watches a focal animal for ten minutes, recording everything the animal does and when they do it. We record all sorts of behaviors from resting to moving to grooming, but we largely focus on diet-related activities, such as eating, foraging, sniffing, and licking. If the focal eats something, we record what the plant species is and which part of the plant they’re eating (leaves, fruit, flowers, etc.), as well as how many bites of food they consume and the location of the lemur in the tree.


The traditional way to record this type of data is with a pen and paper: simple, inexpensive, and proven. The main drawback from this approach is that you later have to sit down and digitize all of that handwritten data, entering each activity, bit by bit. This can be extremely time consuming and dangerously error prone.


I have decided to avoid these drawbacks by digitizing my data in real time as I collect it. Using an iPad and a touch-optimized spreadsheet application, it is easy and fast to enter the focal’s behavior on the spot. At the end of the day, I download the data to my laptop and voila, I have digitized data.


I only have two iPads with me, so I have assigned Joach and Vola to collect the focal activity data, while I take care of everything else. I collect the second type of data: group activity. Every fifteen minutes, I record the location and general activity of the group. For the location, I indicate the nearest trails, as well as the GPS coordinates of the group. Later, I can map out these locations and see the daily path and range of each group.


I am also collecting plant samples for later analysis back in the lab in Vienna. I collect a sample of every plant we record them eating. If they eat the mature leave and the unripe fruit from the same tree species, then I collect both of these. Sometimes collecting plant samples is really easy, as the food item of interest is well within my reach, but other times it is not so simple. Some of the foods they eat are only found at the tops of big, tall trees. I’m not about to try and climb 20-meters into the canopy, so I am left to scavenge on the ground for any food the lemurs might have dropped. Thankfully, these lemurs are really messy eaters, dropping half-eaten food with every other bite.


And finally, the last type of sample that I collect is poop from our focal animals. My entire team is on the lookout, in case one of our focal animals should be seen defecating. They shout “Focal poop!” and I come running. I’m interested in studying the lemurs’ gut bacteria as measured in their feces, so it’s important that I collect and preserve the fecal samples as soon as possible to keep these bacterial populations from changing or becoming contaminated.


Crouching down in the area that the lemur did its business, I scan back and forth among the leaf litter blanketing the ground. I spot one pellet of poop, and then another, and then a large cluster of pieces. I gather the bits into a little aluminum foil pouch and fold up the edges to keep the feces from leaking out.


— 8:30am —


After about an hour of watching red group break their fast, foraging among the tall trees near the river, they start to move west across their territory. They move fast, leaping between the treetops and scurrying along the thick lateral branches. We struggle to keep pace and not lose track of the lemurs as we push through the undergrowth.


The habitat in this region of Madagascar is aptly called a spiny forest. There are easily a dozen different plants in this forest with all manner of spines, thorns, and needles. These weaponized trees and vines each have their own nasty skin-tearing effects. Azima has shoulder-height needles with firm, sharp tips. As you brush by the plant, the needles stab into you and break off from the plant. Acacia trees have thick woods thorns all along their branches. And then there are the vines. Sticking out to catch your legs, the thorns on these vines are concave, so that as you push by, they dig into you deeper and deeper. Unlike Azima, these thorns don’t detach but ensnarl your leg, their deep roots keeping you from plucking the entire plant from the ground. The only course of action to disentanglement is to take a step backwards and spin away from the vine, the thorns painfully ripping themselves free.


As we run through the forest, eyes upward as we track the lemurs, it is not a question of if we will be stabbed and scratched by these sharp plants, but when.


— 12:00pm —


Lunchtime has arrived and not a moment too soon as my grumbling belly reminds me how ravenous I am. Lunch will only take an hour, but we don’t want to lose the group while we are gone, so someone always stays with the group, while the other two hurry back to camp for lunch.


Today is my turn to stay with the group, so I suppress my hunger, take an iPad from one of the guys and send them off to get their grub. Today is a normal day, which means a long midday siesta for the lemurs. It’s easy to collect both focal and group activity data when the lemurs are just resting and sleeping and not switching places too often.


— 1:00pm —


Before I realize it, I hear the distinct trudging footfalls telling me that my team has returned from lunch. I give a sitrep (situation report), hand over my gear, and head back towards camp. Today, it’s only a 5-10 minute walk back, but some groups range so far that it can take nearly a half hour to walk back for lunch.


I turn into camp, drop by bags, refill my water, change into a dry shirt, and splash some water on my face. When I sit down at the table, there is only one place setting remaining. I scoop out the lumps of now cold rice onto my plate, cover it with the beans and their thickening juices and begin to wolf it down.


I’ve got my water with me, but there’s another beverage set on the table, ranopangu. I pour myself a bowl of the now lukewarm liquid and take a deep draft. When you cook rice, there is often a layer of slightly burned grains on the bottom of the pot. This leftover is called pangu. Ranopangu is made by adding more water to the pangu pot, and then heating and infusing this slightly burned rice flavor into the water. It sounds strange, I know, but it doesn’t take long to develop a true liking for the stuff.


My belly full, I strap on my bags and trek back out to red group, hoping that they haven’t moved since I left.


— 2:00pm —


The lemurs are still resting in the same tree as before. Occasionally, they find a more comfortable spot in the crook of some branches or take a minute to groom themselves, but otherwise it’s a group-wide napfest.


— 3:15pm —


Red group has finally begun to stir and start descending from the arboreal heights. They move along, in a single line, striped tails held high as they saunter to a patch of ground thickly blanketed in the bright green leaves of Metaporana, a vine. Once they start munching, they keep at it, shoving leaf after leaf into their pointed little mouths. Only occasionally do they stop to chew and swallow, all the while looking around for their next bite.


The rest of the afternoon is alternating periods of sleeping and eating. The heat of midday has only slightly worn off and nothing makes a lemur sleep like a hot day.


— 5:30pm —


After a long day with the lemurs, we record our last bits of data and pack up for the day. We are currently thick in the bush, somewhere between the trails, so we pick a direction that we think will lead us quickest to a trail and start trekking. Emerging onto blue east trail, we head south towards the road that will take us back to camp.


— 6:00pm —


Exhausted and dirty, I exchange my gear for my solar shower, full of hot water and clean up for the evening.


— 6:30pm —


There’s still some time before dinner, so I go to the lab to start processing the samples I collected today. Joach joins me shortly thereafter and we chat and put on some music as we preserve today’s fecal samples in tubes of ethanol. We take the plant samples and press some of them. The other plant samples get a heavy pour of absorbent silica gel beads to their bags, so they will dry out quickly and prevent any mold or mildew from growing on my precious samples.


— 7:15pm —


The steady clanging of a handbell means dinner is served. We close up the lab and walk across camp. Meals here are no surprise, but the rice and beans are hearty and filling. Tonight we’ve also roasted a mammoth sweet potato. I bought half a sac of these baggeda (as they’re called here) from a local villager for just a few dollars and they are quite a delicious treat.


— 8:00pm —


Joach and I head back to the lab for one final task, data entry. Josh reads out the group activity data as I type it into the computer and we get to relive the day 15-minutes at a time.


— 8:30pm —


In no time, the computer data is entered and I wish Joach a good night as he heads back to his tent. I remain and work on some basic data analysis of the focal animal behavior to look for trends and changes since we last watched red group. This is one huge advantage to using the iPads and recording my data digitally, I can get instant feedback and analysis of that day’s data.


— 10:30pm —


Yawning more and more frequently, I finally close the computer and call it a night. Back at my tent, I take my daily dose of anti-malarial drugs, brush my teeth, and slide into my cozy sleeping bag. I try to read before bed, but within the first few pages my lids droop with the weight of sleep and I pass out. It won’t be long before my watch beeps and I’ll start this routine all over again.

Bring out yer dead!

27 Nov

Out first week at Beza had been going really well. We set up our tents, started purifying water to drink, and I began training my team in the data collection methods we would be using. I had shown Joach and Vola the forest and we were fortunate enough to see many groups of both maki (ring-tailed lemurs) and sifaka (the other lemur species I am studying). Even on our first day in camp, there was a large troop of lemurs that came through, emerging from the trees just beyond our tents and looking for water and food scraps.


One of the first things I had to do was to choose which lemurs we would study. The lemurs are dense in the forest here and I am only looking at ten animals of each species for my research project.


With the help of some of the local forest guides, Enafa and Elahavelu, I planned to survey the different groups around the reserve over the next few days. At lunch, I was informed that this would not be possible as the entire staff of Beza Mahafaly would be going to a nearby village the following day for a funeral. Unable to hire my guides and begin the pivotal first step of choosing focal groups, I decided it would be hard to get much work done and that we should go along with the staff and enjoy the cultural experience of a Malagasy funeral.


The local ethnic population has a very interesting ritual concerning death. When someone dies, they quietly inter the body in the ground without too much of a fuss. Months or years later, after the family has saved up enough money and the deceased has been reduced to little more than fleshless bones, the real funeral begins.


The bones are dug up from the earth and placed in a specially built annex adjacent to the family’s hut. They believe that it is best not to have any bad blood or leave any arguments unresolved with the dead and so people who knew the deceased in life can go clear the air by talking to the bones.


Outside of this bone shack, the rest of the funeral is not so solemn and contemplative. Outside, there is a party raging, with a live band, an impromptu market, freshly slaughtered goat meat, and enough beer and togogash to keep the guests well hydrated.


We walked over to the funeral in the nearby town of Mahazoarivo (pronounced Ma-ha-zo-reev) with a couple of the Beza guys, Mianditsoa and Fanameza. After about 30 minutes of walking north through the forest, we emerged through the thick canopy cover and the noise from the funeral blossomed. Cutting through the warm air were the sounds of a base drum beating rhythmically, the electric guitar and its high-pitched melody, and an occasional series of loud pops.


We crossed the river, met up with the rest of our Beza contingent, and entered the heart of the party with Munja (pronounced Moon-za) at our lead. The obligatory first step was to greet our hosts, in this case a large gathering of the men from this village. Arrayed in a semicircle under the shade of a huge tamarind tree, we sat down facing the men and Munja spoke with one of the village elders. He gave our condolences for their loss and handed over a large wad of cash, collected from all of us in the Beza group, worth over $50 USD. This money would help cover the costs of our food and the entertainment we were about to enjoy.


Having paid our entry fee and been warmly welcomed, a pair of large woven straw mats were rolled out nearby and we all sat down to enjoy the entertainment. For us, the entertainment consisted of a band, with a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and a female singer. The music they played was nothing you’ve heard before unless you’ve been to this region of Madagascar, but it evokes flavors of the tropics and reminds me a bit of the music of the Caribbean (minus the steel drums). The bass and drums are just there to give a good foundation with their beat, but the real star of the band is the guitarist. Watching him play is amazing as he just flicks his fingers up and down the steel strings, unlike the familiar chord strumming or single-string picking. The music coming out of the ancient metal loudspeaker horns, mounted on wooden poles around the drummer’s awning, is certainly lo-fi, but not gritty. There’s an indescribable energy to this music and it just gets under your skin and makes you want to dance. I couldn’t resist and had to sway and bop back and forth to the beat as we sat huddled on our mats.


Accompanying the band was a single male dancer. He performed traditional local dances, one of which involved a lot of rather explicit pelvis thrusting. Another local dance has you just lift one or both of your shoulders up and down as you shuffle around to the music. You come across looking a little like a chicken, but it’s a fun dance nonetheless. With all of the young children dancing around in front of the band, it looked a bit like a hen house, but they were very serious about their dancing (and damned good too). At one point the dancer came out with a bunch of horns around his neck, dangling from leather straps, symbolizing vitality and virility.


So the entertainment we enjoyed was the music and the dancing. For the throngs of local children at the funeral, WE were the entertainment. There was a ring all around us, three-children deep, with their eyes watching our every move in rapt fascination. They seemed to especially like my head swaying and toe tapping to the music. Once I took out my camera, the kids would pose endlessly for photos. If I pointed my lens to the right to take a picture of some oblivious child, four others would see where I was looking and photobomb my shot as fast as they could.


Several people from the local village came by with food gifts for us. Some brought large baskets overflowing with rice, some brought THB beer and lemon fanta soda, and others still brought us giant hunks of bloody meat, recently harvested from it’s livestock donor. Someone brought over an entire haunch of meat, which must have been goat judging by the size and shape of the limb. Lastly, we were given a goat, a live goat. Munja pointed over to a nearby tree and told me that the goat tied up tightly by the neck was for us. We all shared the beverages, with some of the Malagasy men preferring instead to seek out Togogash (sometimes called Malagasy rum, this locally made spirit from fermented sugarcane is much more akin to moonshine and tastes and smells not unsurprisingly like gasoline). Some of the rice and the smallest chunk of lamb flesh disappeared along with Lala, our camp cook, as she began preparing lunch.


We had arrived and taken up our central position on our straw mats by late morning, relatively early in the party, and had a prime view to see many more groups of people arrive and meet with the village elders throughout the day. The greeting for most of these groups was similar to ours, but with one very noisy addition. As the group of visitors approached, a few of their men stepped to the side, pivoted their rifles from the hip and took aim at the ground in front of them. BANG! The shots rang out and clouds of dust and gunpowder mingled as the next shots went off. BANG BANG! As quickly as they could, the shooters reloaded their single barrel weapons, shoving a stick as a ramrod down the barrel of the gun to expel the empty bullet casing, fitting another slug into the chamber, closing the barrel, and immediately pulling the trigger without the slightest glance upwards. BANG!


Across from them, flanking the men of the village, three local shooters performed the same actions: firing and reloading, firing and reloading. The mounds of spent shell casings piled up in front of both groups of gunmen, in case anyone wanted to keep count. It was a wonder no one was hit, but my suspicions were later confirmed that they were all firing blanks. I was told that the purpose of this ritual was to show the power of the groups. Whoever had more ammunition and was able to keep firing longer was said to be more powerful.


This explosive welcome tradition as seen from our front row seats was interesting the first few times we saw it, but after hours of group after group arriving it became quite annoying. Every time a new group entered, we would plug our ears with our fingers and look away to avoid the large clouds of gunpowder that rolled our way.


Eventually, we were saved from the dust and noise when our lunch was ready. It was mid-afternoon by now and we were all very eager to chow down. Our posse got off of our mats and sauntered a little ways out towards the periphery of the party to a small stand of huts where another mat and a huge pot of rice awaited. Along with our rice was a bowl of assorted goat meat chunks, with a little bit of juice to soak into the rice. The butchery here in Madagascar is quite different from the cuts that you would find in your local supermarket, and every chunk of meat held its own surprise. Some had a hunk of bone inside, some thick ribbons of fat and connective tissue, but the most disturbing ones had thick blubbery layers of skin along one side, the charred remains of the goat’s burned hair adding an ashy bristling of stubble (after slaughtering the goat, they put the entire carcass on a fire to burn off the hair, before dividing up the animal).


With our bellies full of rice and the occasional morsel of meat, we went back to the center of the party, collected our remaining rice and meat, took our goat by it’s lead, and began the hot walk back to Beza Mahafaly. Rest in peace.

A Call in the Dark

29 Oct

Having safely arrived at camp, I wanted to check in and let my parents and the outside world know that I was back at my Malagasy home of Beza. Due to the ten-hour time difference between Madagascar and California, calls are rarely convenient for both sides. Not knowing my exact schedule, I had prearranged for my parents to call me at 8pm, figuring that I would be free to talk after dinner.


For those of you who remember what is involved in making phone calls, you’ll recall that there is no cellphone reception in the Beza Mahafaly campsite. Instead, I need to journey for 20-30 minutes across the river, through a village, along a dirt road, through some crop fields, across a sandy expanse, and finally up a small hill to stand on a pile of stones and get a couple of bars of cellphone signal.


Having finished dinner around 7:30pm, I grabbed my waist-pack containing a bottle of water, a warm shirt, and my cellphone, and began my journey to the phone hill. Taking the back road out of Beza, following the white tunnel of light provided by my headlamp, I walked in those footsteps I had treaded so many times before to contact the world outside of Beza.


I crossed the river, following the faint wheel ruts from zebu-driven cherettes, angling across the dry, sandy riverbed to the road on the other side. I cut straight through a village to find the road on its far side that would take me through the next section of my route.


It was incredibly dark out and my single, narrow beam of light suddenly seemed insufficient as I squinted all around me, trying to remain on the proper path and looking for any visual landmarks that I could both remember and spot in the thick darkness. More than once, I lost the trail I had remembered, only to stumble upon it once again. This was beginning to feel like a bad idea. I nearly turned back to camp, but my continued success in rediscovering the path spurred me onward. Eventually, I was close enough to the hill that I gave up on trying to find the path I had used in the past and instead wove my own way through the tall leafless stalks of manioc.


Looking at my watch and realizing that I only had a few minutes until my scheduled incoming call, I started to double time it. Crossing the sandy expanse, I edged right, along the far bank, until the undergrowth broke and the rocky path appeared. Climbing the hill and finding my pile of stones, I had just enough time to put on my second shirt before my phone magically rang.


Ten minutes later and it was time to find my way back to camp. While I was on the phone, I had noticed that the wind had picked up quite a bit and I was hoping that this wouldn’t impede my progress home.


I trekked down the hill, across the sand, and into the field of lanky manioc stems. Edging along one patch of plants, I passed through a gap in another patch, as I had remembered doing on the way there, but when I emerged, I lost all signs of the path.


I stopped and looked all around for a memorable tree or some other landmark, but found none. Instead, I was viewing a wide, flat expanse in front of me that could only be an empty crop field. One hundred yards in the distance I could make out a row of trees that marked the far border to this field. Behind me, the manioc stalks rocked in the wind and urged me onwards.


I decided to check out the field and see if I could find a path somewhere ahead of me. I tried along the left and then to the right, but neither seemed like the right way. Ultimately, I decided to cut straight across the middle of the field, hoping there might be a path hidden in those trees in the distance. The ground was like Martian soil, with large firm rubble strewn all about the place. You couldn’t have designed a better place to break an ankle if you tried, especially when I was wandering around in the dark. Formerly full of those waving manioc stalks, this field had been torn asunder when the stalks were ripped from the ground to yield their fat-fingered roots. Here and there, I would see large white rectangles on the ground, glowing in the light from my headlamp and beckoning me like some sort of Odyssean siren. These white patches always revealed themselves to be nothing more than swathes of manioc roots, laid out to dry in the sun.


Having reached the line of trees, I was no closer to finding a path home. I took a deep breath, a large drink of water, and suddenly had a ‘eureka’ moment. I quickly dug through the outer pocket of my bag and pulled out my salvation, a compass. At least now I could wander consistently in the same direction. As I recalled, the journey to the phone hill took me roughly east and south of Beza. So if I walked north and west, I should be heading in the right direction. At the very least, I should come upon the river to the west and that could take me back to camp.


On a bearing of northwest, I resumed my hike with renewed confidence. After a short while, I came upon a road. Things seemed to have taken a turn for the better, first with the compass, and now with the discovery of a road that would at least take me somewhere with promise. The problem was that the road ran from southwest to northeast and I wanted to be heading northwest. After some deliberation, I chose to prioritize north and turned right down the road.


All along my journey I occasionally saw pairs of glowing eyes reflected back at me. Mostly these were cats and dogs and they scampered off before I got too close. This time, however, as I walked down the road, I saw two pairs of large eyes coming straight for me. I made a sound to try and scare off these mysterious beasts, but then happily realized what was coming my way. This was a cherette driven by two zebu. This meant people and I could ask for directions.


I greeted the small posse and tried not to blind them with my headlamp as I asked the way to Beza Mahafaly. They pointed south, the way they were heading and I happily took up step behind them. We walked together for about ten minutes before they asked if I was going to Betioky. I restated that I wanted to go to Beza Mahafaly and they insisted I go the other way on this road, the way I had originally chosen for myself.


So I was alone again, but still with a road to follow. This road finally took me to a village. Everything was quiet among the huts, save for three very loud dogs not pleased with my arrival. Not wanting to go any further into the town and face a canine wrath, but wanting to talk to someone in the town to ask directions, I stood at the road and hoped the noise of the dogs would bring someone over. Eventually this strategy worked and a few men shooed off the dogs and pointed me straight through their village to get to Beza Mahafaly. On the other side of this village, there were a few people leaning against a house. I asked again for Beza Mahafaly and they said the magic word: Munja.


Munja (pronounced Munza) works for Madagascar National Parks at Beza and is a good friend from my last visit. Apparently I had stumbled upon Munja’s town, so someone ran to wake him up and tell him there was a vazaha (foreigner) here to see him. I’m certain he was quite baffled until he saw my face, then the recognition and understanding quickly swept across his face.


Munja insisted that he escort me back to camp and I was not about to let my hubris get in the way of a prompt end to this hellish detour. As we left his village and headed down the bluff and across the Sakamena, I realized how well I had done for myself. I was nearly back to Beza, and all I had to get me there was a cool head and a pocket compass.


Munja and I talked and caught up as we walked the final stretch of road. As we got back to camp, I thanked Munja profusely and knew that my nocturnal adventure lost in the fields would be the talk of camp the next day.

The Long and Winding Road

29 Oct

There have been so many obstacles in the way of leaving for my field site, from lost passports and slow visa processing to assistant delays, that I shouldn’t have been surprised to encounter one more setback. Joachim, my assistant, was due to arrive from London around noon on Tuesday. I was at the airport waiting to warmly welcome him when his plane failed to arrive. It’s not that he missed his flight as he feared, but rather that the entire plane was absent. I asked at the information kiosk and learned that the flight was rescheduled to arrive six hours later that night; this was already a bad omen.


Claude drove me back to the airport hours later only to find out that the flight was further delayed another two hours. This time we stayed at the airport and waited with baited breath to see if the plane would truly arrive this time.


As 8:30pm rolled around, the passengers started flowing through customs, heavily laden with their luggage. Joachim appeared and the relief of finally arriving showed on his face as we shook hands and met face-to-face for the first time. His smile quickly faded as he regretfully informed me that only one of his two bags had arrived with him. I was so close and yet so far away.


Joach (pronounced Josh) told me the story of how his half-a-day delay was due to an in-flight mechanical warning, partway from Nairobi to Tana. This caused them to turn back to Nairobi and diagnose and fix the problem. After hours waiting in the airport lounge, they finally loaded the passengers and their luggage onto a new plane to take them to Madagascar.


Joach’s second bag must have been misplaced in the switch. Unfortunately for us, the next flight from Nairobi wasn’t for two days, so we would have to wait. By now I have become very good at waiting for things.


On the plus side, this gave me some time to show Joach around Tana and have him pick up a local cellphone and some other basic supplies.




I had my team assemble at the MICET offices Thursday morning and we loaded all of our gear into a rugged, navy blue Toyota Land Cruiser. It’s actually more accurate to say we loaded our gear ON the truck, as most of the bags were handed up and strapped to the roof rack, tucked under a bright blue tarp in case we encountered any inclement weather. All loaded up, the MICET office staff wished us a good trip and a successful research season, and Claude took Joach, Vola, and me onto the road to begin our long journey.


Before we could actually leave Tana and head south, we had one last stop to make. Pulling into the parking lot at Ivato Airport, we all had our fingers crossed that Joach’s second bag would arrive as expected and that this flight wouldn’t be delayed like his was two days earlier. Joach strode back to the truck with the bag slung over his shoulder and I gave the thumb’s up that we were all set to get going. Better late than never.


It would be a three-day drive from Tana to Beza. The first day’s path was painfully familiar to me, having just traversed that stretch of road twice in the past week, on my excursion to Ranomafana. The scenery was hilly with rice patties terraced up and down the slopes. Lots of villages straddled the road, taking advantage of the traffic and access it provided to sell crafts and produce to passersby, or to transport their goods to the city and its expansive market.


The motorized traffic was light, but the pedestrians flowed up and down the road like a living torrent. Some walked empty-handed, but most were relocating goods, either precariously stacked and bundled on top of their heads or on push carts. Often these overburdened carts carried heavy loads of bricks made in the nearby rice patties or long logs cut from any remaining trees of the decimated forests. Getting these heavy loads up and down the steep hills was no easy feat and required a team effort. One or two people would pull and steer from the yoke in front while many more pushed and strained from the rear of the cart. More than once the pushers were young children, doing their part to help their older siblings transport their burdens.


There were police and military checkpoints at nearly every village, their tire spikes stretching halfway across the road to help encourage people to stop as requested. Typically manned by two to three soldiers, sometimes with AK-47s strapped to their backs or dangling within easy reach of their bored fingers, these stops were there to keep track of the kind of traffic going through their town and to make certain that everyone’s papers (think license and registration) were in order. Luckily, we were rarely stopped, but typically waved through with a smile or a salute. The few times we were stopped, the soldier took a quick look inside the vehicle, asked where we were headed, and sent us on our way with no further delay.


Late in the afternoon, as the sun was falling across the western sky, the road turned into a stomach-churning series of tight switchbacks. We stopped for a bathroom break along the side of the road before the worst of it began, as there would be no safe place to stop for the next few hours of road. In addition to the serpentine bends in the road and the ever-deepening darkness, there were huge potholes, as wide as cows, scattered all along the road, waiting to disable any drivers who became momentarily distracted. As a precaution to avoid a collision, we flashed our lights as we screamed around tight corners, warn pedestrians and oncoming traffic alike that they were not alone on the road.


After ten hours of driving, we finally reached our stopping point for the day at Fianarantsou (Fianar). I chose a nice-sounding hotel from my guide book and was pleasantly surprised upon entry to realize that this was the same Chinese-decorated hotel I stayed at with Teague over two years ago on my first journey along this beautiful transect of the eighth continent.


After a glorious night of sleep in a well-padded bed and a refreshing hot shower (yes, I’m savoring every day remaining where I get to enjoy these luxuries), my team took their positions in the truck and we were off to an early start on our continuing journey south.




Leaving Fianar behind us, the scenery rapidly changed as we descended from the eastern mountain range and steered west across the central plains of Madagascar. The landscape changed every hour or two. The road took us through the prairies, our wide path curving around rocky mountains with huge rounded tops like fleshy zebu humps. Then large earthen mounds gave way to rolling hills covered in pale grass and pockmarked with the acne of loose boulders.


Further west, the hills flattened, but the yellow-white grass remained over top of rust-red soil stretching far into the distance, broken only by wide black bands where fire had scorched the earth. Plumes of light brown smoke on the horizon in several directions proved that the burning was still ongoing.


Above was nothing but limitless blue skies painted with puffy white clouds. Below the car passed an unforgiving land, dry and hot with no shade from the fiery sun save the occasional wisp of a tree. We zoomed through Isalo National Park, reminiscent of Joshua Tree National Park in southern California, with its gnarled rock formations and lonely squat palm trees trying to suck nonexistent moisture from the sandy soil.


The loneliness of the scenery was finally broken with a dusty, sapphire mining town. All of the buildings were arranged down the main drag, like a gold mining town in the early days of the American west. After this town came a second, smaller gem town, newer than the first and with a thin trickle of a muddy stream running along its edge.


Later on, we crossed a river, both banks thick with reeds ten and fifteen feet tall. Once out of the reach of the gently flowing waters, the landscape abruptly returned to dry scrub and spiny cacti.


As we approached the village of Sakahara, just a couple of hours from Tulear, the soldiers at the local checkpoint waved us to pull over. Rather than just ask where we were headed, they asked to see our passports.


Those coveted visas that Joachim and I had so struggled to obtain from Malagasy embassies in Europe and the U.S. were only good for one month in the country. The special thing about these visas (and what made them so valuable) is that they are extendable. The only way for me to legally stay in Madagascar longer than three months is to get this extendable visa and then apply for an extension every six months that I am in country. MICET takes care of arranging for the visa extension with the local authorities, but this takes at least five working days. So the general model is to leave your passport with MICET while in the field and to pick it up with your visa extension stamped inside upon returning to Tana, before departing the country. While you are traveling without your passport, MICET gives you a photocopy of your passport and visa and a letter accompanying them explaining this whole situation and why I am not carrying my original passport.


So when we handed the soldiers at the checkpoint packets of paper instead of official passport books, you can imagine the surprise on their faces. The two soldiers took a minute to look through what we had handed over and talked amongst themselves. After a few minutes of their discussion with my precious passport papers in their steely grip, I began to get worried. If everything was copacetic, they should have handed our papers back and sent us on our way with a smile. There was a great deal of talking between the lead soldier, a black nylon shoulder holster displaying his shiny pistol, and our driver, Claude. In fact, the soldier was doing most of the talking and quite rapidly at that. Their conversation was entirely in Malagasy, so as I looked on from the front seat, I could only read their body language. The soldier was getting more and more worked up. He kept slapping the papers and I could eventually make out a few words I recognized, “… ministry… etranger… certification…” After why felt like an hour of this, but was probably closer to 15 minutes, Vula and Claude explained the situation to Joach and I, sitting there confused and increasingly worried.


The crux of the issue was that our passport photocopies and cover letters were not notorized by the Madagascar Ministry of Foreign Affairs seventeen hours behind us in Tana. Realizing the full weight of the situation I took a deep breath to calm myself down. So we were missing a stamp, that’s all. How typical in a country where every shred of paper must be stamped and signed by five different people before it can even be used as toilet paper!


Sitting in the truck at the side of the road, only a few hours from another warm bed in Tulear, we had very few options. These soldiers couldn’t provide me with the stamp they requested and nor could anyone on the road before me. To get the stamp I needed and certify that my passport copy was a valid copy, or rather a copy of a valid passport, some authority would need to see both the photocopy and the original passport to compare them. My passport was hundreds of miles away in Tana and now that I was finally on my way to my field site after a grueling series of setbacks, I wasn’t turning back for anything short of a life-or-death emergency. So I had a few options of what to do next…


• Option #1: certify my passport photocopy with the proper stamp, was off of the table.

• Option #2: run for it, seemed like a horrible idea with that shiny pistol in view and my papers still in the aggravated soldier’s hands.

• Option #3: find a way to convince them to let us pass without the stamp they so desperately insisted we must have.


Several thousand Ariary later and we got the smile and cheery “bon voyage” that I had hoped for an hour before when we pulled the truck to a halt at the checkpoint. As we drove away, Vula leaned forward from the back seat and said with a smirk, “This is Madagascar.” We all gave a little chuckle and made haste to put as much road behind us as quickly as possible.


A short while later and the ocean breeze welcomed us to the city of Tulear. We pulled up to the hotel, checked into our rooms, and took some quick showers to wash off the road grime from a long day of driving through the heat.


My friend and colleague, Jacky, came over to the hotel and drove me to his house to pick up some gear that collaborators had left for me (thanks Ny and Marni). We dropped off the gear at my hotel and then my team and Jacky and his family all went out for a lovely dinner together.




After another restful night and a simple breakfast at the hotel, Jacky picked me up once more and took me to a local produce stand, well off the beaten path. As opposed to similar stands in the main market, this one was less busy and wasn’t crowded with beggars and pickpockets. The seller was a round woman with a big grin. She and Jacky are friends and in return for him bringing many researchers there to buy many months worth of food, she charges those researchers the Malagasy price instead of the vastly inflated vazaha (foreigner) price.


Volumes at the market aren’t measured in liters or cups, but in cupokes. Take an empty 10 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk, fill it with rice until the cup is full, then overflow the cup until the rice forms a cone on top of the can and no more rice can be added without it falling off, and now you have a cupoke.


I purchased 100 cupokes of rice (about half of a 50 kilo sac), 70 cupokes of assorted beans and lentils, and multiple kilos of potatoes, carrots, garlic, onions, green beans, and green squash. Lastly I purchased an unripe pineapple for a sweet treat in the coming week.


We brought the food back to the truck and repacked all of our luggage and gear in and on the truck for the final day of driving. While we were loading up, Vola ran to the nearby market and purchased a soccerball to help entertain us during those lonely times at Beza.


After a quick lunch, we turned the truck back onto road RN7, taking us the way we came from Tana. Mercifully, we turned off of the main road before reaching that harassing checkpoint that had so rudely delayed us the day before.


From here it was slow going. The pavement faded away and was replaced by a river of tan, gray, and red soils. The deep tire tracks split and converged organically around trees and obstacles. Claude laboriously poked his way through this woven landscape, choosing the path with the fewest large rocks and avoiding most of the sharp dips.


We passed dense thickets of dust-covered cacti, tightly fencing in the road on both sides with their broad, spiky, red and green leaves. The dirt road subtly shifted to a golden hue and then to a ghostly pearl-white giving the landscape a completely pale, lifeless appearance if not offset by the cloudless light blue sky and the faded shades of green spotting the terrain with succulents and the occasional massive fruit tree.


We followed the tire tracks of trucks long gone as they snaked up and down, over endless humps and ridges in the road. We came to a split in the road with a painted white sign with the word ‘Capricorn’ faintly scrawled in block letters indicating that we were at the tropic of Capricorn. We took the right fork and passed below 30 degrees south and officially out of the tropics.


As the truck descended a small hill, bouncing all the way, the scrub and thorny bushes gave way to lush green grasses and wide stands of full trees. This floral shift could only mean one thing; there was an abundant water source nearby. As I looked out of the window for the river beyond the trees, I felt a change in the car’s vibrations from the side-to-side jerk of rocks and dips to the more uniform, gentle up-and-down jostling of cobblestones. We passed through the biggest town I had seen in hours and then as we reached the far edge of town, the cobblestone road dumped us back into the dirt for the rest of the trip.


Finally reaching the town of Betioky, we had one quick errand to run before finishing our trip to Beza. I needed a signature from the local official for the Direction Regionale de l’Environment et des Forets (DREF).  We drove to his house/office and were surprised to only find his adult son there. His son told us that he was at a wedding across town, but that he could take us there to see his father. We arrived just in time to watch all of the wedding guests finish their trip from the church to the event hall where the party was to begin. As the official came by, his son explained our situation and he told me that he only needed a copy of my research permit for his records and I was good to go. I picked up a case of THB beer on the way out of Betioky and we continued along our long and winding road.


Leaving Betioky, we began the final and most challenging leg of the journey, with unmarked double-rut paths splitting every hundred yards and rarely converging back together. In this labyrinth of choices, it seems impossible not to get lost. It was the memory of getting lost in this signless expanse in the pitch-black night two and a half years ago that caused me to specifically request a MICET driver who knew the way to Beza Mahafaly. I was assured that Claude had made the journey many times and this was in fact true. Unfortunately, his last crossing had been at night and his visual landmarks were a bit fuzzy.


We made a few too many lefts at splits in the road and when we asked a local farmer the way to Beza he pointed us far to the south of our current trajectory. On the way to this better path, we ran into a wall of cacti that barred our path. Again, we asked for directions and a kind woman from the village walked with us until we got back on the road to Beza.


Finally back on the right path, which we double- and triple-checked with every person we encountered, the road split dramatically less often and we were able to cruise smoothly through the terrain littered with squat termite mounds.


Getting closer to our destination, we passed through the spiny forest of a non-adjacent patch of Beza Mahafaly, with its baby baobab trees sprouting clusters of pert white flowers from their late-branching crowns. At some splits in the road we would find small stone markers with ring-tailed lemurs painted on them in red, indicating which path leads to Beza Mahafaly. Where were these signs earlier, when we really needed them?


Finally, after one more right turn we approached the front entrance to the Beza Mahafaly campsite and a signpost with a lemur painted on it wished us “tonga soa,” welcome.

Ranomafana National Park

20 Sep

I was all ready to head down to my field site and start my research except for one thing, my assistant had not yet arrived in Madagascar and would not be here for almost another week. Having accomplished all of my work-related preparations, I had nothing left to keep me busy in Tana. I had already been to most of the touristy places around town, so with six days to wait, I decided my time would be best spent seeing lemurs. After all, that is why I came to this beautiful island nation.

I was considering several national parks within a day’s drive of Tana when the decision was made much easier for me. Rachel, another American graduate student, arrived at my hotel in Tana one day before. She was  heading down the following morning to her field site at Ranomafana National Park.  She had a truck ready to take her and her eight big bags of gear south and there was room for me to catch a free ride too.

Children on home-made stilts.

Selling cooked cicada larvae by the road.

The journey took about 10 hours and brought back many memories of the last time I drove south out of Tana. Along the way we saw some kids having fun on some homemade stilts and a barrage of people selling plates full of cooked cicada larvae. We arrived that night and setup camp at the research station. Ranomafana was established as a national park about thirty years ago by Dr. Pat Wright. While doing research in the area, Pat found a new population of golden bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur aureus) and rediscovered a long-lost population of greater bamboo lemurs (Prolemur simus) that had not been seem in the area for some three hundred years. It was largely the discovery of these rare lemurs that instigated the government to designate the area a protected park.

Since Pat’s early days at Ranomafana, the research station has changed quite a bit. What was originally tent camping in the middle of the forest and eventually a small research cabin is now a thriving, growing world-class research station. They currently have a three-story building with a kitchen, dining hall where they serve three-course meals, offices, computer lab, laboratory space, and three bathrooms with flush toilets and showers with hot water. Compared to a lot of research sites, this is super cushy. And as if that wasn’t enough, they are currently in the final phases of constructing a new four-story dormitory building able to house over fifty people and with a large multipurpose conference room and a clean lab and a wet lab. This extremely green, partially glass-clad building with a living roof is going to be spectacular! I’ll admit that I’m jealous of the resources they have there, but it really is a testament to Pat’s perseverance and dedication over the decades at developing Ranomafana as a leading research site.

The new Centre ValBio dorm building under construction.

I had planned to find a hotel to stay at upon arrival, but we got in so late to the research station, Centre ValBio, that I just slept on the floor in the dining room that first night. The station manager was kind enough to let me stay there for the rest of the week and get the researcher’s rate for food and accommodation. This meant that I got to spend the next three and a half days at the research station, hanging out with the resident researchers and the SUNY study abroad students that I had met earlier in Tana.

During the first day I went into the forest with Rachel and her Malagasy student looking for lemurs. Unfortunately we didn’t find any lemurs, but we did see a ring-tailed mongoose (Galidia elegans, related to weasels and ferrets). This initial hike also gave me a feel for what working in Ranomafana must be like. As opposed to my site much farther to the south and west, Ranomafana is nestled in the eastern mountainous rainforest belt of Madagascar. Our hike took us up and down steep slopes. I had to always keep a hand on any tree thicker than my wrist so that I could catch myself if I started to slip down the slope.

Ring-tailed mongoose

Early the next morning, I tagged along with the study abroad group to go bird watching in a nearby patch of forest. The guide, who does research on the local birds, had set up some mist nets designed to catch birds that foolishly fly into them and get caught. The researcher can then measure and mark the birds with leg bands before releasing them back to the trees. Our mist nets caught a Madagascar paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone mutata) and the guide showed us how he puts the colored bands on the bird’s leg. On the way back from the birdwatching hike, we stopped along the road at a scenic waterfall and ventured into a small cave to see its bats sleeping through the day.

Madagascar paradise flycatcher



Centre ValBio is run in collaboration with ICTE (for conserving tropical environments) at SUNY Stony Brook. ICTE is the American side of the same organization as MICET in Madagascar. That afternoon I tagged along with Pat Paladines who works at ICTE at Stony Brook and was visiting Madagascar for the first time. She was going with the ICTE education and outreach staff to visit one of the partner communities near Ranomafana that participate in their conservation club program.

We visited the village of Sahavondronina, about a twenty-five minute drive from Ranomafana. There we met with the members of that village’s conservation club, which happened to be mostly adults. They told us about their efforts to protect their local forest in hopes of one day soon turning it into a national park like Ranomafana. Seeing the increasing wealth of their neighbors down the road in Ranomafana village from the decades of researchers and ecotourists coming through has helped show the people of Sahavondronina that protecting their environment can be a sustainable and productive economic model. To this end, they have stopped harvesting trees and other resources from their community forest for over ten years now. They have received some support from the Italian government for their efforts and had this funding recently renewed for another few years after the Italians saw how well they had protected the forest and the at least five species of lemurs found there. Now that they have protected, pristine forest, the challenge is turning it into a park. That is where ICTE can help in providing training and tools to make this a reality.  Some of the conservation club leaders had already journeyed to another park to talk to the locals and see how they made it happen.

As my last full day in Ranomafana rolled around I had still not seen any lemurs in the area.  Determined to rectify this, I headed over to the park to hire myself a guide and see if we couldn’t find some lemurs. A handful of the study abroad students tagged along as they had the day off and were always excited to see more lemurs. After only fifteen minutes into the hike, we were rewarded with a lemur sighting.  Just a few feet from the path and at about eye level was a beautiful male greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus) munching away on some bamboo shoots.  He stayed and ate for awhile and eventually decided to move off, but not before marking a tree with the scent glands and spurs on his wrists. This was the clue that told us he was male.

Greater Bamboo Lemur (Prolemur simus)

Farther into the forest, our guide spotted a group of red-bellied lemurs (Eulemur rubriventer). When we first arrived they were all balled up and resting (we call it a lemur ball). Eventually we saw a little tail hang down from the ball and we realized there was a baby there.  As they started moving about and grooming, it was revealed that there were actually two babies there with a male and female adult pair. We couldn’t hold back the “oohs” and “aahs” as the babies played and climbed all over the male. Later on we also saw a small group of red-fronted lemurs (Eulemur rufifrons) but they were obscured by branches and sleeping very soundly. Besides lemurs, we also saw some crazy looking spiders, beautifully colored geckos, and a very cryptic leaf-tailed gecko.

male red-bellied lemur (Eulemur rubriventer)

baby red-bellied lemur (Eulemur rubriventer)

gecko licking a cracker

Sam trying to kiss a large spider.

Leaf-tailed gecko. Can you spot it?

Sunday afternoon, I went with the study abroad students to the town of Ranomafana for a very special event. ICTE and the Centre ValBio partnered with the US Embassy in Madagascar to sponsor a cultural performance. They had assembled Malagasy artists (musicians, dancers, performers, painters) into a group called Artists for the Environment. They had done several performances around the country and this was to be their last. Many important people from MICET and the US Embassy drove down from Tana just for this event.

Before the event started, I had some time to wander around the village of Ranomafana.  The village is named after a naturally occurring hot spring there and literally means water (rano) hot (mafana). Before the creation of the national park, this hot spring was the main attraction and they have constructed a public concrete pool that is fed by the flowing warm waters.

Trying on the local handcrafts in the village of Ranomafana.

Swimming pool fed by hot springs.

When it was time for the event to begin, everyone in the village gathered at the cultural center. It began outside with a woman dressed up with facepaint and a colorful costume giving loud calls and chants. Then everyone proceeded inside and found a seat for the main attraction. There were a pair of male dancers moving forcefully and playing off of each other in a mix of modern dance and acrobatics. Providing background music were a drummer and a guitarist on the stage behind the dancers. After several awe-inspiring songs, they stepped down and a series of other musical acts came up.  There was a small local band and then there was a group of children dressed in traditional garb doing a chant/dance. When the event was finally over, everyone dispersed and us scientists went back to Centre ValBio for dinner.  We had an after-party with the musicians and dancers and gathered around a small campfire, with the rain lightly drizzling down, passing around a handful of beers, and having a generally good time.

Performer in the Artists for the Environment group.

Dancer and musicians in the Artists for the Environment group.

The next day after lunch I said my goodbyes and wished all of the study abroad students an amazing time in Madagascar.  From the looks of it, they were already having the time of their lives that I’m sure none of them would forget soon. I hopped into the truck with the guys from MICET who were heading back up to Tana and settled in for another ten hour windy yet scenic drive through the heart of Madagascar.

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