Friday, April 9, 2010

Beaches, Cocos, and Babakotos

We’re in Tana today to open bank accounts and get yellow fever shots (guess they weren’t worried about us contracting it during the first month). There’s wireless at the PC office, so here I am again.

Like I mentioned in the previous post, last week was our Pre-Service Training (PST) technical field trip. Stops included Moramanga, Andasibe, Toamasina/Tamatave, Foulepointe, Fenerive, and La Cascade.

Moramanga (literally, “cheap mangos”) is a largish town on the road from Tana to Toamasina. We stopped there on the way from Anjozoro to Andasibe to meet with representatives from Madagascar National Parks. The true highlight of the day, though, was lunch: pizza and beer. Yes, the pizza might have been missing tomato sauce. And yes, the beer might have been lukewarm. But it was a welcome luxury regardless.

After lunch, we continued on to Andasibe. It’s one of Madagascar’s smallest national parks, but also the most visited because of its proximity to Tana. We stayed in bungalows near the park headquarters, went on night and morning hikes, met with some current volunteers posted in the area, and celebrated the birthday of Dan, one of the enviro trainees (and owner of the most impressive beard in the group to date).

The most important thing I learned about Malagasy fauna from Andasibe: chameleons are everywhere. The park’s main attraction is the indri, or babakoto, the largest of the lemur family. We went looking for them on our night hike, but to no avail (apparently because the moon was too bright). In fact, pretty much everything nocturnal was turned off by the moonlight, so our guides kept us entertained by stepping off the trail every so often, pointing their lights at a plant, and finding…a chameleon! Or…another chameleon! Or…you get the idea. Happily, we had better luck on the morning hike, and actually hung out right next to a family of indris for a good long while. A few of us spotted some brown lemurs near our bungalows the day before, as well, so the lemur quota was adequately met.

We spent the majority of the next day on the road. Route Nationale 2 (RN2) winds its way down from the central highlands to the east coast. It’s one of the best-maintained roads in the country, but the fact that it’s only two lanes coupled with the heavy truck and taxi-brousse traffic between Tana and Toamasina, the country’s principal port, means the going’s still slow.

After passing through Toamasina, we went about forty minutes further up the (deteriorating) road to Foulepointe, a beach town and increasingly popular tourist destination for Malagasy and vazaha (foreigners/haoles/French) alike. We arrived in the early evening with just enough daylight left to take a first dive into the Indian Ocean—with a fat, almost-full moon rising right in front of us. That mental picture will be stored for a long time.

Monday was a holiday commemorating the Malagasy Uprising (against the French) of 1947. Because most things were closed, we had no technical sessions scheduled. Some of us opted to head back down to Toamasina to scrounge around for internet access; others had a full beach day. At night, we hung out on the beach, found a choice spot with decent shorebreak, made a bonfire, and went swimming.

On Tuesday, we went to Analalava Forest, a protected area near Foulepointe managed in cooperation with Missouri Botanical Gardens (MBG), which has a surprising number of operations in Madagascar. Local staff at the park showed us how to collect seeds from different useful trees, including the ravenala, or “Traveler’s Tree”, which stores water in its leaves and thus can be a thirsty traveler’s best friend. That night was spent much as the one before; beaches and bonfires never get old.

The next day we were up early and back to Analalava to plant the seeds we’d harvested. After a hearty lunch provided by MBG, we packed up our things and drove about an hour and a half further north to a beachside bungalow complex near Fenerive, the regional capital. At Foulepointe, we had to walk about five minutes to get to the beach. At Fenerive, we could stumble out of our bungalows and be knee-deep in the Indian Ocean before waking up.

Thursday morning we met with representatives from a local farmers’ co-op, and then drove about 10km to check out one of their projects. Their efforts at the moment are focused on getting a few priority crops—including litchis (similar to lychee) and vanilla—to international markets, and they’re hoping to ramp things up over the coming year.

We ate lunch in Fenerive and invaded the market to buy things for dinner, which we’d decided to make ourselves in an effort to save money. Cooking for 25 was unwieldy but fun and ultimately successful; the meal consisted of stir-fry, rice, French fries, avocado, and fruit salad, topped off with some not-so-bad Madagascar wine.
Friday we were up early and on the road south to Toamasina, where we had a meeting with Conservation International, lunch, and another internet stop, leaving just enough time for a small misadventure.

While we were waiting for the vans to pick us up after our lunch/internet break, we noticed a bunch of bags of produce being unloaded at the train station (there’s a rail line from Tana to Toamasina, though at the moment it’s only used for freight, not passengers). It’s customary to bring gifts back to your family after a trip (same as omiyage back home), so we went to check out what was available. A lot of trainees’ families had mentioned coconuts as a good thing to bring back from the coast, so we had cocos on the mind. Three of us—Annah, TJ (another enviro trainee), and I—approached a group of people loading what looked like bags of coconuts and asked if they were for sale. The workers told us that the items in the bags weren’t coconuts, but something else (not in our vocabulary), and that they were indeed for sale. TJ bailed once he heard they weren’t coconuts; Annah and I thought they might be watermelons, which still seemed like a good gift, so we persisted. One of the guys grabbed a bag, cut it open, and started handing us different specimens to check out. Watermelons they were not; very large squash, they were (I’ll work on sending some to 4916 and 4301). Pressed for time (the vans were now waiting for us), and feeling bad that we’d made the guy cut open a bag and raised the crowd’s expectations (they were very entertained by our endeavor), we bargained a bit and finally bought two monstrous squash for 3500 ariary (about $1.65).

And immediately regretted our decision. Squash grow plentifully in the highlands; our families have a big patch of the stuff in front of our houses. Plus, these were massive fruits that would probably pose a huge pain in the ass to cook/prepare. As we wound our way back up RN2 towards the Haute Plateau, I could already hear the disappointed clicks Neny would give when she realized I’d brought not coconuts but a huge, overpriced pumpkin back from the beach.

But then we stopped! At a market! And there were coconuts! Annah and I booked it over with godzilla squash in tow, and used every word in our Malagasy arsenal to bargain away the behemoths (plus 500 ariary) in exchange for four, nice, compact coconuts. Disaster averted.

We spent Friday night—the last of the tech trip—at La Cascade, a small mountain resort not far from Andasibe. It was the birthday of another enviro trainee, Nick, so we had yet one more reason to celebrate. Saturday morning we continued back to Anjozoro, where our host families were waiting with open arms. Thus concluded a quality first trip in Madagascar.

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