Archive | February, 2012

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…

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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.

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