Friday, July 9, 2010

Cold Rain, Hot Water

The sun just came out for the first time in three days. It's been nothing but cold, driving rain otherwise. Such is Malagasy winter in the mountains of the Corridor.

I’m staying with my friend Mike and a few other PCVs at his house in Masomanga, a village near Ranomafana National Park. We’re here for about a week to learn about and help with an erosion project underway on one of the hills overlooking the town. In March, Tropical Depression Hubert dumped a huge amount of water on the southeastern part of the island. One side of the hilltop here collapsed as a result. The landslide didn’t threaten any houses or the town itself, but it was seriously problematic for another reason: The collapse begins at the base of a massive cell tower.

So now Orange, the provider that built the tower, is paying for an erosion control project that involves terracing the hilltop where the collapse happened, planting vetiver grass—a species from India being used more and more widely because it grows quickly, is a survivor, and puts roots down seven meters—and hopefully saving the cell tower structure from toppling down the mountainside. The project director told us that it’s the most difficult operation he’s undertaken, and one of the terraces gave way two days ago, complicating our schedule a bit. We’ve surveyed the site and learned about the control process; hopefully we’ll be able to help more on the hill and plant the grass over the next few days.

In addition to the work we’re doing, we’ve found time to explore the area, which is one of the most popular national park destinations in Madagascar. Ranomafana means “hot water,” the region taking its name from the hot springs nearby. During colonial times, the French constructed spring-fed thermal baths, a pool, and a hotel complex. The hotel has since fallen into disuse and disrepair, but the baths and pool are still maintained, and we made visits to both (and spotted white-faced brown lemurs in the trees overhead). We also went on a guided hike in the national park itself, during which we saw a troupe of golden bamboo lemurs and a single, critically-endangered greater bamboo lemur (there are only four in the park; our guide kept repeating how lucky we were to have found one), and trekked to a waterfall in the forest. Another waterfall nearby has a hydroelectric installation, so we hiked there and toured the facility, which produces about 5.6 MW for the surrounding towns and the cities of Fianarantsoa and Ambalavao.

I was also here for the Fourth. It wasn’t quite the same as a cookout back home, but we celebrated properly with a hearty lunch of beer, barbeque beef, and fries. That night, Eileen, the director of Valbio Center, a world-class research facility close to the park entrance, had us and her American and Malagasy coworkers over for drinks. Afterward, we walked to the nearby Hotel Manja for dinner. The food was great, the company better. It was a particular and unexpected honor to meet and talk with Dr. Pat Wright, a famous primatologist who discovered the golden bamboo lemur here in 1986 and was the driving force behind the creation of Ranomafana National Park. This area has become a model for conservation and sustainable development, largely because of her dedication and force of will. The few stories she shared were entertaining and encouraging, and I hope our paths cross again in the future.

I also talked at length with Eileen and Pascal, a Malagasy researcher, about work they’re doing in the Vondrozo Corridor (my neighborhood) to train local VOIs and other forest villagers in conservation monitoring techniques. They should be making a trip down later this month and are scheduled to come back in August with a team from National Geographic.

Needless to say, I’m hoping to tag along.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Fifty Years Later

Slainte, Santé, Salut, Kampai, Chinchin, Banzai, Mazotoa, Cheers!

Happy Fourth!

The past few weeks have provided plenty of reason for celebration. My brother, Pat, and now-sister-in-law, Robynne, were married in Hawai‘i; good friends Mariah and Sean tied the knot in Milwaukee; America turned 234; and Madagascar marked fifty years of independence. Congratulations again to all.

Those fifty years have been tumultuous ones for the nascent Malagasy Republic. French rule over the island officially ended on June 26, 1960, but Paris continued to dominate trade, financial institutions, and military affairs during the immediate post-colonial period. After a series of coups in the early 1970s, strongman Didier Ratsiraka took control and implemented social and economic reforms based on his own Mao-inspired communist vision. The Malagasy finally voted him out of office in 1993 general elections, though they subsequently voted him back into the presidency in 1997 (?).* Next came the rise and fall of businessman Marc Ravalomanana, who ousted Ratsiraka after contested elections in 2001 and then was ousted himself in last year’s coup by former-DJ-turned-mayor-of-Tana Andry Rajoelina (pronounced ra-zoo-EL). Rajoelina is now president of the High Transitional Authority, but the crisis precipitated by his seizure of power remains unresolved. The latest I heard, the planned constitutional referendum had been indefinitely postponed, which means national elections are, as well. As a PCV, I’m officially barred from commenting on politics, so for updates, opinions, and analysis, check out BBC or French news sources.

Regardless of past and ongoing difficulties, though, the Malagasy were in rare form to mark the fifty-year milestone on June 26 (which everyone somewhat ironically refers to using the French, “vingt-six”). Parties started days before and went on for a week afterwards, and the beer and toaka were freely flowing throughout.

I spent the fety with friends in Vondrozo. My observation of the holiday started with the formal Gendarme Ball on the night of the 24th, where I watched the dignitaries of town kick things off with traditional Malagasy circle dancing before joining in and dancing till well after 1am. The next day I went with to market and—with the help of Eliane, my friend and neighbor—picked out a fat rooster for the following day’s feast. Eliane tied him to the fence outside my door before heading home. A minute later, I looked at the string around his leg and decided that I should use some more substantial rope to secure him in place. I went back into my house, came out with said rope, and walked over to the fence. The rooster started flapping wildly as I approached, and—you guessed it—the string holding him snapped.

Down along the fence he ran, with me in hot pursuit. He found a hole and dove into my neighbor’s yard, and I sprinted around to meet him on the other side. He ducked back through when he saw me and took off into the brush covering the hill below my house. I followed down the hill, accidentally slipping and putting my whole leg into the other neighbors’ duck pond en route. I had to hop down off a ledge to catch back up with him, but he immediately scurried back up the ledge once I’d gotten close. By the time I managed to climb back up the ledge and into the brush, it was too late. He was gone.

I wandered dejectedly along the hillside for a while looking for him, then went home to talk with my neighbors and ask for help. Unfortunately, one of the VOI presidents I’d met a few weeks earlier showed up at my doorstep just as I got back. He wanted to talk with someone from WWF and was drunk beyond being able to construct a coherent sentence (not that I necessarily could’ve understood his Malagasy even if he was speaking in complete sentences). No one from WWF was around, so I was stuck trying to figure out what he needed, which cut into my valuable chicken-chasing time. Eventually I realized he was just stopping in to say hello, so I told him I had to find my dinner, grabbed two of my neighbors, and went back out looking. We didn’t find him, though.

I hadn’t eaten lunch yet and it was getting close to 2pm, so I gave up the hunt and went in to make some ramen with egg. Once the noodles were ready, I cracked an egg and dumped it into the pot, and out fell a chicken embryo. Not a good day with chickens for me. Instead of putting myself at risk by buying another chicken, I got a kilo of pork and made a big pot of ginger pork stew to be my food contribution. So it goes.

On the 26th itself, I headed into town with some friends to watch the defilés, or parade, and then went over to another friend’s place to eat, drink, and be merry. After lunch we walked over to the tanymena (“red dirt,” or soccer field) to watch the final of a soccer tournament that’d been going on for the past few weeks. We’d gone for a game, but instead we saw a riot. One of the teams that lost in the semifinals the day before was angry about the officiating, so they showed up and occupied the field with their supporters. Confrontation and fist fighting ensued between the teams, fans, and drunk folks happy to have something to swing at. I didn’t feel in danger at all, but realizing that the belligerence of a drunk dude or two might turn against the vazaha (white guy) on the sidelines, we inconspicuously slipped away.

The rest of my first Malagasy Independence Day involved hanging out, eating leftovers, and watching the US fall to Ghana in overtime at my neighbor’s house. It was a tough exit, but the 91st-minute win over Algeria a few days earlier made me a happy and proud American soccer fan. Thanks for that, Donovan.

*Some of this info came from The Eighth Continent: Life, Death, and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar by Peter Tyson, a book that talks about the natural history of the island. I haven’t read it all yet, but I had it handy while writing this, so I used it to make sure I had my history straight.