Friday, February 20, 2015

If it’s been a while since I’ve last updated, it’s been because there is little time left in the day after class, homework, and living in Malagasy culture to sit down and reflect over what has happened in the past two weeks living in Fort Dauphin. As I mentioned in my past entry, I am staying with a host family in the outskirts of Fort Dauphin, a forty-five minute walk to school every day. Homestays are exhausting but enlightening as well; I can’t imagine being able to adjust to Malagasy culture without my host family. I actually don’t spend that much time at home, since I leave my house at 7 for the walk to school and usually return around 6 or 7 at night after some post-school swims at the beach or hanging out at one of the two hotels in town that have wifi (provided you buy a beer or a pastry). My father works as Secretary General for the Anosy region while my mother stays home with their 1 year old Abigail, and I usually get home an hour or so before dinner. Malagasy cuisine to be honest has been a difficult transition point for the group, especially those of us who are vegetarian. Rice (vary) is the staple food which is served at every meal three times a day. Before I came to Madagascar I knew I would eat a lot of rice, but not as much as this, and I was also expecting some wonderfully seasoned rice dishes that would put the Uncle Ben’s dirty rice minute rice packets to shame. Unfortunately, the rice here is served plain in a dry form or a wet porridge-like dish (vary sosoa), and is quite bland. Meat is served at every meal, and has also proven to be an adjustment challenge. Zebu, the ubiquitous cattle, is eaten the most, followed by tough and skinny chickens. To my dismay much of the zebu meat is not in the form of familiar steaks and other beef cuts (which are considered the least valuable part of the zebu), but usually in the form of the various internal organs. So far I’ve had the dubious opportunities to sample tongue, kidney (very common), and intestine. Zebu intestine is one of the vilest things I’ve had the misfortune to taste, with the chief horror resting in its pale, slimy, quivering appearance and texture. Rice water (ranampango (spelling?)) is served quite often as a drink, and as one of the girls in our program stated, tastes the way old people smell. Vegetables are close to non-existent, and I would kill for green beans or leafy greens. Fruit, however, is plentiful and delicious, and even if the food has been difficult to work through at least everything is extremely fresh (I can see the abattoir from my house and I pass through the market every day where everything is fresh as of that day).
     Classes on my program are all day affairs, quite a difference from my loosely scheduled college classes, with Malagasy, French, and conservation science classes all day. However, we are given the opportunity to do some fascinating excursions during our time here. We visited a conservation zone around the QMM/Rio Tinto ilmenite mine. The mine is around ten years old and has been a major focus for the first part of our program. While Rio Tinto has some appalling mining projects elsewhere in the world, they have chosen to use the QMM mine as a poster child for net-positive impact mining. They have made extensive efforts to recompense displaced persons, provide alternate income sources for those whose land has been impacted, conserved existing forest fragments around the mine while planning to restore 10% of native forest after the mining machine sweeps through a region, and finally planting fast growing exotic plants to provide an alternate source of charcoal and building supplies. However, many people have felt that QMM Rio Tinto has taken advantage of them, and that the mine is greenwashing their image with quick and cheap projects that have little impact. Furthermore, the mine has completely crashed the tourism business in Fort Dauphin, and there is a dichotomy in town between the workers who live in a gated community and the rest of the populace living in the labyrinthine town.
     It was while visiting the mine that I began to feel quite ill. I had taken anti-diarrheal medication to take care of some annoying traveler’s diarrhea, but with the unfortunate effect of preventing my system from flushing out whatever bug I had and making me extremely dehydrated and verging on heat stroke. As the naturalist Gerald Durrell noted when he visited Madagascar, I would have gladly pawned off all of my internal organs to the first person who asked. I was rushed by the ever-indispensable program coordinator Mamy (which means “sweet” in Malagasy) to the clinic where my body was pumped with IV glucose, saline, Cipro, and several other mysterious bags which felt wonderful. I felt better within two hours and went home vowing to never ever take anti-diarrheals again. The only other guy on the program, Jake, also fell really ill with dehydration and heat stroke recently on our camping trip to Sainte-Luce, a protected area of littoral tropical forest where we were doing vegetation surveys. It’s amazing how much water you lose here by sweating. The difference with his case is that we were a good four hour taxi-brousse (bush taxi) ride along appalling roads to Fort Dauphin, and had to be driven home once again by Mamy.
    Travelling by road in Madagascar is an adventure all in itself. The National Highway leading north from Fort Dauphin is little more than a rutted, potholed dirt track through villages and heavily degraded savannah where drivers rarely speed above 25mph an hour. Therefore short distances of 30km take hours to complete, and is, as Barry our professor stated, a bone-jarring full body massage. When we went to the fishing village Evotra to interview fishermen, we took a fleet of SUVs, but when we went to Sainte-Luce we took a wonderful taxi-brousse painted red, gold, and green and was emblazoned with the name “No Problem” across the front. No Problem was basically a small tractor-trailer (camion in French) with a few benches screwed into the back deck with our bags strewn over the rest of the truck bed and foam mats placed on top for lounging. This mode of transportation, while still jarring and tiresome, was still a great experience, as we were joined by our Malagasy counterparts from the Libanona Ecology Center (CEL) for this trip and so we were all sprawled out on the mats and watched the rugged Malagasy countryside bump on by through the open sides. While it rained torrentially during most our stay in Sainte-Luce, making the tent camping uncomfortable, it was great to get out into such a unique system that is the littoral forest. I saw my first troupe of lemurs (Red-ruffed brown lemurs if I remember correctly), chameleons, and a lot of interesting other critters.

There is so much else that I could write about which I just don’t have the time or energy to do, including going to a football (soccer) party and a zebu slaughter. We are leaving soon for a week-long village homestay in the Faux-Cap region in the extreme south. This region is in the rain shadow of the Anosy mountains, and is quite dry. There is currently a drought and impending famine in this general area (we are assured we will be fed), and so it will be interesting to see this compared to the wet climate and abundant food of Fort Dauphin. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Internet service in Madagascar is difficult to find, and when one does find it, impossibly slow. So this entry is the accumulation over several days in Madagascar and is a result of a jet-legged, sunburned, but excited mind. Hopefully I will be able to upload photos, but in the off chance I can’t I hope the descriptions paint a picture of Madagascar as I have seen it so far. I hope to write about food, culture, and wildlife in the future, but for now I want to recount the hectic past week.
“Tsy misy finoran….” I stuttered , frantically searching for the impossible string of “ana”s that will lead me to the phrase “you’re welcome.” The two Malagasy guys my age start grinning as I proceed to butcher the key word and start laughing hysterically. Learning Malagasy has turned out to be an extremely organic and slow process, mostly through talking to the people who invariably appear out of nowhere to see the circus of American vazahas (white people) rolling into the town of Menatentely, just south of Fort Dauphin. It is impossible to travel through Madagascar as a vazaha and not be stared at or engaged in conversation. And here I am at the river by the village washing my clothes from my 19 hour flight in the river surrounded on all sides rice terraces and manioc fields, with huge stone massifs blanketed in rainforest and brush in the encircling the small village, with several Malagasy watching my every move. It’s not rude, just a part of their culture to which we are all still adjusting. In the end I managed to stutter out “Tsy misy fisaorana.” Misaotra. Thank you. Tsy misy fisaorana. You’re welcome.
Flying to Madagascar was difficult enough in of itself, with a layover in Paris followed by the 11 hour flight to Antananarivo, the capital located in the central highlands. The three other SIT students and I landed at 2am Tana (short name for the capital) time, which was god knows EST time, and were whisked away to our hotel to meet the 9 other students. In the morning we awoke to find our rooms overlooking the sprawl of Tana from our vantage point in middle town. Tana is composed of the upper town, on the top of a Y shaped hill, the middle town, on the flanks, and the lower town spreading out for miles in all directions. While I have been in developing countries, they have mostly been throughout the Caribbean and subsidized by large tourist resorts. Here, one finds true sprawling poverty. On our taxi ride back to the Tana airport in preparation for our flight to Fort Dauphin, the route took us through the chaos of the lower town. Small shacks serve as houses and stores, in front of which the throng of Malagasy humanity pours out in a colorful river. The people ranged from strutting well-dressed young men to small barefoot children picking through trash heaps. But the most striking thing about Madagascar are the smiles. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is happy. Life is tsara be, very good.
Fort Dauphin is hotter than Tana, N’aina the language instructor informs us as we all stand sweltering in the Fort Dauphin airport waiting for our luggage. But the ocean breeze makes everything a little better. We bump along in the ubiquitous taxi brousse, the bush transport, to Menatentely, where we will stay for a few days to regroup and explore the countryside surrounding Fort Dauphin. The mountain chain that runs the length of Madagascar comes to its southern terminus right here in Fort Dauphin, covered with the remnants of virgin rainforest and looming over the azure waters of the town. Here inland in Mantentely we hiked up a valley with a forester to see the protected area surrounding the peaks. We hiked through miles of forest mosaicked with terraced rice fields and manioc fields. Our long train of vazahas attracted the surrounding populace, everyone from three year old toddlers to older farmers eager to practice their English on the group of Americans. So as we hiked up the valley, burning in the brutal southern hemisphere sun and gulping down liters of water, a farmer named Noel strode comfortably next to me and tried out his English on me. He has been taking English lessons at a school in Fort Dauphin, and hopes to get a better job after learning English. Farming for the Malagasy living in the country has become more and more difficult in a hard economy.
We finally arrived officially in Fort Dauphin to find a calmer, more laidback city on a peninsula jutting out into the Indian Ocean with crystalline beaches flanking on all sides. The 13 of us walked on our first day from our hotel to the Centre d’Ecologie a Libanona, where our classes will be conducted. We met the other members of the SIT staff, including Mamy, Sosony, Madame Martine, Jim the lanky Montanan program director, Barry the Irish ISP (Independent project) coordinator, and of course N’aina. In the afternoon after class we went to the beach just below the center and drank our inaugural Three Horses Beer (THB), the national brew of Madagascar which comes in satisfying 50cl bottles.

Currently, I have just moved into my homestay family’s house. The father, M. Ravelonandro, is the secretary general of the Anosy province (no. 2), and the mother Mme. Soanomenjanahary is currently staying home with their year-old daughter Abigail. So for Malgasy standards they are quite well off, and have just moved into a beautiful house on the outskirts of town near the foot of the mountain, which unfortunately means a long walk to and from class but a quiet neighborhood and beautiful views. Despite speaking what I believe to be advanced French, the language and culture barrier is there and real. However, I hope within time my Malagasy will improve beyond the few pathetic phrases I have managed to commit to memory and that I can assimilate into their culture. Until next time I find wifi, Veloma!