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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