Archive | December, 2011

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.

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