Thursday, September 23, 2010


I arrived back in Vondrozo a few days ago after about three weeks of travel and training. Some of that time was spent in Tana, where I had every intention of using the Peace Corps Meva’s free internet to catch up on blog entries. Unfortunately, I was laid out by a viral cold and an infected, swollen-to-double-its-normal-size uvula. When I showed the latter to Dr. A, the Peace Corps Medical Officer, he was so baffled that he took a picture of it for science’s sake. Needless to say, it didn’t quite set the mood for productive writing. So here I am in Farafangana, paying 100 Ariary per minute for an ever-crappier connection to get these updates posted. Stupid uvula.

But uvula aside, life is great! The trip back to Mantasoa for our “Reconnect Conference,” or In-Service Training (IST), was long and eventful. I saw friends, shared stories, took a train ride, did some outside volunteer work, fell through a bridge, and sang karaoke to prostitutes.

I left Vondrozo at the end of the August and spent a few days in Farafangana in order to complete my Annual Volunteer Survey (AVS) and work on my Community Diagnostic Survey (CDS). Fellow PCV Abe was there to do the same, so the two of us started the journey to IST together by hopping north to the beachside town of Manakara. There we joined a few other PCVs—Dan, Soraiya, and Natalie—and enjoyed the sun and ocean while waiting for the train to Fianarantsoa. The place we stayed at, Club Parthanay, has bungalows set up right on the beach where the river meets the sea. The price put some strain on my Peace Corps budget, but it was worth every ariary.

The Parthanay is in Manakarabe, the part of town adjacent to the beach. Most restaurants, bars, and shops are across the river in Manakara proper, so we decided to head in that direction once evening rolled around. It was perfect out—a clear, cool, cloudless night—and I was looking up at the stars as we began to cross the bridge to town. A posiposy (“pousse-pousse,” or rickshaw) was coming in the opposite direction, so I stepped to the side to make room for it to pass. And then I was falling.

It was only a fraction of a second, but it scared the hell out of me. We were crossing on a cordoned-off concrete sidewalk, and next to the sidewalk slab was a utility pipe running the length of the bridge. Turned out that some brilliant engineer decided that it was a great idea to leave a six-inch gap between the pipe and slab, and I’d stepped right in it. To be fair, the gap wasn’t continuous; it varied in width on our side of the bridge, and was much larger on the other side, where I probably would’ve gone straight into the water. Poor maintenance probably had as much or more to do with it than the original design. The section I stepped in was just big enough for me to drop through to about my knee, and the crumbling concrete did a pretty efficient job of tearing a few gashes in my leg. Thankfully I didn’t twist, pull, or break anything on the way down—just a few more flesh wounds to boot.

The silver lining of the whole episode was that after a quick stop back at the bungalow to clean and bandage myself up, we found an awesome, nearby, hole-in-the wall hotely that cooked us three straight fresh fish meals for dirt cheap. Later, we braved the bridge again to hit up the Sidi Hotel’s discotheque, but when we arrived, it was shuttered up. Guess we should’ve expected as much on a weeknight. Across from the Sidi, though, was a bar with “KARAOKE” blazing in neon lights. Intent on not letting the 30-minute walk be for naught, we sauntered on over and readied ourselves for some quality sing-alongs with the locals (Malagasy love karaoke).

But instead of “KARAOKE,” the sign should’ve read “BROTHEL.” The crowd amounted to us and a large group of clientless prostitutes. The current political crisis has led to a downturn in tourism, hurting those industries that cater to foreigners—including prostitution. It was a bizarre situation, but we made a go of it, singing “Wonderwall” and “Red Red Wine” to the crowd and dancing (while trying to make clear that we weren’t interested in further, uh, services). All in all, it turned out to be a damn fun night.

The next morning we scrambled to get up, packed, and out the door to catch the train. The route from Manakara to Fianarantsoa is one of two operational passenger lines in Madagascar (I’ve heard there’s another that goes north from Moramanga). It winds from the coast up through the hills and mountains of the Corridor to the High Plateau, where it terminates in the Betsileo capital. It can take anywhere from nine to thirteen hours, depending on stops and mechanical problems. We only had one brief delay and were in Fianar before sundown. The ride itself was beautiful—with views of the hills, valleys, villages, mountains, cliffs, waterfalls, and forest—and we entertained ourselves at each stop by checking out the towns en route and blasting Shakira’s “Waka Waka” for the local kids to dance to. Dad, it’s no TGV or KTX, but I think you’d love it.

It was another PCV, Eli’s, birthday, so we went out that night to Fianar’s own “Moulin Rouge.” The next day was largely spent making smoothies and baking pizzas at the Fianar Meva. Then, it was up to Tana. Because there were so many of us heading up from the Fianar/Southeast regions, we booked a private taxi-brousse. It was a little more expensive than usual, but the comfort and convenience (they picked us up at the Fianar Meva and dropped us off at the Tana Meva) were well worth it. After two nights out and a few IST-prep meetings in Tana, we piled into PC vehicles for the trip east to Mantasoa.

Our whole training group—minus two volunteers who Early Terminated (ET’d) and another who decided not to come—was back together for IST. During Pre-Service Training (PST), PC staff kept assuring us that we’d have plenty of time for further tech and language instruction at IST, which would run at least ten days. Due to budget issues and/or other undetermined factors, though, PC shortened it to three. Under the best of circumstances, it takes me four days to get to Mantasoa. Eight days of travel for three days of training? Yep.

Nevertheless, it was awesome to see everyone, catch up, hear about their sites, and plan future visits. Most of our IST program was dominated by CDS presentations, during which we shared PowerPoints (which I thought I’d escaped by moving to Madagascar), pictures, and stories from the past four months. We also had a facial hair competition (I was runner-up…damn you TJ) and toga party to feel, you know, American.

The saddest part of having only three days in Mantasoa was, without a doubt, the hour that PC allotted for us to visit our host families from PST. On the day before we left, PC drove us to Anjozoro in the late afternoon. Factoring in the time it took for us to walk from the drop-off spot to our houses, we only had about thirty minutes to sit, talk, and catch up. I’d texted Neny the day before to let her know that we’d be coming, so they were assembled and ready when Annah and I marched up the hill. I’d printed out pictures and brought a few other voandalana (omiyage, or gifts) for them; they wanted to celebrate with crackers and beer. They—especially Neny—were clearly disappointed when I told them I only had a few minutes to stay, but we made the most of it, and I promised that eventually I’d be back.

The viral cold I mentioned at the beginning of the post had started to make itself felt in the early afternoon, compounding the situation. By evening, my head was pounding and my body on fire. I drugged myself up and took it easy that night, as we had to get up for a 6am departure back to Tana for a visit to SAF, a fruit tree nursery. Standing out in the sun at SAF was not the best game plan, so I ended up sitting in the shade for most of the session and missed learning how to graft. The sickness kept on through the next day, when my throat also began acting up. That night, Leif, the former Environment Program Director and current Programming and Training Officer (PTO), had us over to his house for another barbeque. The spread was incredible, but I couldn’t taste a thing. The textures sure were great, though.

The following morning, I was supposed to head to TJ’s site for an SRI (improved/intensive rice cultivation) workshop with Nick, Annah, Tadashi, and TJ. My burning uvula kept me up most of the night, though, and when I called Dr. A in the morning and described what was going on, he told me to stay at the Meva. Later in the day he checked me out, photographed my throat (centerfold material), and put me on antibiotics. I rested easy all day, taking a marathon nap (during which my fever broke…and I sweat through my clothes and onto the couch), keeping myself hydrated, and hitting the sack early. I felt much better the next morning, so I packed up my things and hitched a brousse ride to Moramanga, then south to TJ’s site, PK33 (point kilometre 33). It turned out that the trainers from the Centre des Services Agricoles (CSA) hadn’t shown up, so instead of and SRI workshop, we built a mudstove for one of TJ’s neighbors with the village as our audience. After two nights in PK33, it was time to return to Tana. PK33 is a small village between Moramanga and Anosibean’ala, a town to the south, so when brousses pass by, they’re usually already full. To hedge out bets, we got up early and started walking towards Moramanga, hoping that a vehicle with an empty seat or five would stop and save us from hiking the full 33km. Around PK26, we lucked out; a bus stopped, and the folks onboard were willing to shift around to accommodate the whole lot of us.

Back in Tana, TJ and I made plans with a few friends who were already out and about to eat dinner at a Korean restaurant. Said friends got there first and were waiting at a bar across the street when TJ and I arrived. Before heading in, they grabbed me and told me that I had to meet some other foreigners at the bar. They turned out to be a group of just-arrived WWF volunteers embarking on a three-month WWF Explore! program in…wait for it…Vondrozo.

Marlin, WWF’s southeast Madagascar program coordinator, had mentioned something about volunteers coming to town a few months prior, but it had totally slipped my mind. Cara, the one American in the Explore! group, told me that they’d be leaving for Vondrozo in two days and gave me the WWF internship coordinator’s number. After a day of making frantic phone calls between the WWF and Peace Corps offices to get the required authorization, things fell into place. I ended up getting a free ride all the way back to Vondrozo. And the Korean food was awesome.

Leaving with the WWF convoy meant I had a day to kill in Tana, so I made a few more phone calls and got permission to join an Operation Smile support project at the hospital led by Nicki, a health PCV. Operation Smile is an international humanitarian organization that provides free operations for individuals with cleft lips and/or palettes. TJ and I were in the recovery room, assisting with Malagasy translation, walking patients and their families to post-op, and doing various odd jobs (like putting balloons on the walls per the request of Pam, the nurse in charge). I was incredibly impressed with Op Smile’s work, enjoyed meeting the folks involved, and was happy to play a supporting role in the effort.

Bright and early the next morning was departure time; I took a cab to meet the WWF cars, and we were off. We spent the first night in Ranomafana, where I got to hang out with Eileen again, and then pushed through to Farafangana. Finally, it was back to Vondrozo, where I arrived with a cohort of five wide-eyed foreigners (from Spain, Austria, France, Canada, and the good ol’ US of A) and one Malagasy volunteer. Like I mentioned above, they’ll be spending three months here in Madagascar, mostly in Vondrozo and the Corridor villages. I’ll be helping to facilitate their work program, especially when they undertake projects with my partner VOIs.

On top of all this, Erica—the new education PCV who’s being placed in Vondrozo—just rolled into town, along with three other fresh PCVs who’ll be banking in Farafangana: James (Farafangana), Rebecca (Vangaindrano), and Ralph (south of Manakara).

The thought had crossed my mind that getting back to site might come with a lonely, post-IST lull. That doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Bridging North

Before diving into the meat of the post—lemur tracking and trapping, rusty river ferries and rickety log bridges, and encounters with book characters, crocodiles, and giardia—here’s a quick recap to set the scene: Back in July, I spent a week and a half helping with an erosion project up in Ranomafana. We were in town for the Fourth, and Eileen Larney, the Chief Technical Advisor at Centre Valbio (CVB), had us over for drinks. In talking with folks at the party, I discovered that CVB is active in the Vondrozo Corridor, so in late July and early August, I followed up with Eileen regarding their planned trips to the region. It turned out that they’d be passing through Vondrozo in mid-August on their way to Ivato, a village about 50km north of here, and Eileen invited me to tag along to check out their project. I squeezed in another field trip beforehand to finish collecting data for the preliminary draft of my Community Diagnostic Survey, and was ready to join the CVB crew when their heavily-loaded 4x4s rolled into town.

The road to Ivato makes the road to Farafangana look like I-80. We lucked out with good weather and dry road conditions, and it still took our convoy of three vehicles about eight hours to cover the rocky and potholed 50km. Granted, a not-inconsiderable amount of that time was spent waiting for ferries and building bridges. The ferry crossing was at the Manampatrana River, which runs east from the Corridor and eventually empties into the Indian Ocean near Farafangana. The ferry itself comprised a wooden platform on three rusty metal ballasts (probably pre-dating Madagascar’s independence). It had a (non-functional) motor and operator’s room, but the only “technician” on board was a guy pulling us along using a rope strung from one bank to the other. We also had to cross a series of small bridges with metal base frames and oft-incomplete log tops. The CVB veterans recounted one incident when a vehicle fell through and another when local villagers took away the logs/planks and sat with them on top of a hill until the vazaha (whiteys) paid them off. We’d brought planks with us, so we used them and moved logs around to make the bridges passable. There were more than a few oh-shit moments when logs snapped and planks shifted in unsettling directions, but we arrived in Ivato more or less unscathed.

On a quick side note, the poor condition of the road and bridges isn’t necessarily something that the local population has a problem with, either. The government was planning to improve the route a few years back, but the chief engineer was murdered. Turned out that someone didn’t want outside competition to screw up his monopoly on local commerce. I’ve decided to drop bridge building from my to-do list.

Anyway, CVB—or rather Eileen, whose baby it is—runs an integrated conservation and development project (ICDP) in Ivato. The impetus for the ICDP was the discovery of a significant population of greater bamboo lemurs (which the CVB folks refer to using its scientific name, simus) in the area’s bamboo-dominated forest fragments. Simus is critically endangered and one of the rarest primates in the world, with only about 200 known individuals remaining. The groups near Ivato have between 35-50 individuals, and CVB is working with the local community to protect the animals and their habitat.

ICDPs were an especially sexy topic among development professionals and conservation biologists back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The basic underlying idea is that conservation projects aiming to preserve ecosystems and biological diversity won’t be successful unless they’re designed to simultaneously meet the development needs of the local community. Experts and observers have praised and derided ICDPs for many and varied reasons. Sometimes it makes perfect sense, as when the targeted environmental degradation is also squarely opposed to the long-term interests of the community (e.g. unsustainable clear-cutting and repeated burning of the forest is bad because it puts your watershed at risk, depletes your soil, and rapidly diminishes your supply of wood for fuel and construction). But there can also be an inherent tension between conservation and development that isn’t always easy to overcome. Telling villagers not to cut down secondary bamboo forest because a rare lemur species lives there, for example, is a much harder case to argue. So CVB has had to educate the local community on the importance of biodiversity and provide different incentives to encourage them to protect simus. Said incentives have included furnishing villagers with agricultural training, equipment, and seeds; starting tree nurseries and vegetable gardens and paying locals to maintain them; hiring locals to monitor the simus population and guide researchers when they come in; and planning construction of several microdams to improve water access and quality, as well as field irrigation. Basically, the CVB folks give them money, materials, and training in hopes that the hillside home of the lemurs won’t be burned down the next time they show up.

Our crew had three Americans (myself, Eileen, and Glenn, a volunteer archaeologist working on the Ivato project for a few months) and seven Malagasy (three drivers, a student, a botanist, a CVB technician, and an ag expert). We set up camp in one of the village’s school buildings and had Boanloak, a local villager whose name sounds a lot like bon loaka, or “good side dish,” cook for the group. During the week we spent in Ivato, we met with village leaders; refurbished the tree nursery; facilitated the formation of tree-planting and agricultural organizations; tracked and hung out with a group of simus; looked for traces of simus near Karianga, another village; went on nocturnal forest hikes to document other species; and trapped mouse lemurs to take measurements and record observations. The CVB ag expert, Rakoto Pierre, also led gardening and composting workshops.

I mention Rakoto Pierre by name because he comes with a hell of a story. In Ranomafana, I’d picked up a book by Peter Tyson called The Eighth Continent: Life, Death, and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar, which was published in the late ‘90s. I’d started reading it a few days before the Ivato trip and brought it along to finish. So there I was, sitting outside my tent reading, when I came to the book’s final section, in which Tyson discusses Pat Wright’s work in Ranomafana. He mentions meeting a local farmer who’d adopted a lot of improved agricultural techniques and become something of a model for organizations working in the Ranomafana area. He also took a picture of the man with a tree sapling in front of his home, so I flipped to the insert of photos and scanned through them until I found the one in question. The guy in the picture, I realized a few seconds later, was none other than Rakoto Pierre.

I should’ve recognized the name, but we’d only met a few days prior and I hadn’t gotten all of the Malagasy team members’ monikers down. Also, in the picture, Rakoto Pierre was wearing tattered clothes typical of rural areas and standing in front of a small, ravenala hut—a far cry from the well-dressed, Chacos-wearing, cell phone-carrying Rakoto Pierre in front of me. I think his life took a pretty significant turn when conservation and development organizations started employing him to spread the word and train folks in the techniques he was using. He now has a huge tract of land with an orchard and fish farming ponds. Still, the trip to Ivato was apparently the first time he’d left the Ranomafana region.

We only spent one morning hanging out with simus, but it was awesome. The local trackers employed by CVB led us to them, and we spent a few hours sitting on the forest floor just watching. At one point, a large adult hopped down to a low spot on a bamboo trunk about five feet away from me and stared me straight in the eyes for a few seconds. But of course, I didn’t get the picture.

The mouse lemur trapping was much more involved. We set up about 40 traps (metal boxes with weight triggers in the middle to snap the door shut once the lemur—or rat—had entered) and lured the little guys (and the rats) in with banana. Sneaky sneaky. It was a lengthy commitment, though. Once we’d set the traps (around dusk, since mouse lemurs are nocturnal), we had to wait out in the forest for three or four hours, then hike back and check the boxes along the way. Over the course of three nights, we trapped 14 mouse lemurs. I was on poop-scoop duty; the researchers can get a lot of genetic information from analyzing the poop, so my job was to scoop up whatever the mouse lemurs had left behind in the traps using small vials.

The last night of mouse lemur trapping was especially memorable because I’d made a new friend that day: giardia. My stomach and bowels hadn’t been right in the afternoon, but I thought a visit to the latrine had set me up all right for an evening out in the forest. Good God was I wrong. Shortly after starting to set traps, the sulfur-tasting-and-smelling burps and farts came on in force—a dead giveaway for giardia. We finished setting and retired to our normal waiting spot, a rocky outcrop overlooking a river and rice paddies. With a full moon out, it should have been a beautiful, relaxing few hours of taking in the view and enjoying conversation. And it was—only I had to interrupt the conversation every so often to stagger off into the woods for, you know, relief. We’d caught four mouse lemurs each of the first two nights, and I was praying that we’d end up with fewer that night so we could make it quickly back to camp, where anti-giardia meds were waiting. But guess how many we got.


“Processing” them—collecting info and poop, and taking measurements and pictures—took until close to midnight. It was painful for me, and for anyone downwind. At one point Glenn turned to me and asked with a disturbed look, “Really?” Eventually we finished and trekked back to camp, and the meds worked like a charm. I’ve got an unfortunate feeling that that’s not the end of giardia and me, though.

To get to simus’ territory and the mouse lemur-trapping trail, we had to wade across a thigh-deep river (the one we could see from our rocky outcrop). On our third or fourth day in Ivato, we spotted a Nile crocodile sunning itself on the bank about a hundred meters down from our crossing point. There were no closer encounters, but part of me wanted to pull a Steve Irwin and do a little wrestling. Just not with a stingray.

The day before leaving, we drove over to Karianga, another village to the east, where a few researchers had previously seen simus. Eileen is considering extending the project’s scope to Karianga, so she wanted to verify that simus was still around. It’s a particularly critical area, because the villagers there are still in the habit of hunting and eating lemurs. We rummaged around the forest fragments for a few hours, and while we didn’t see any simus, we did find simus poop, which was reassuring. Eileen’s grand hope is to connect the fragments in Karianga and Ivato, eventually reaching all the way back to the Corridor proper. Good thing she’s in it for the long haul.

It was an incredible week, and the drive back went smoothly. I’m planning to continue working with the project, helping where needed on the development side of things. I won’t be building any bridges, but gardens, compost, cookstoves, and microdams—those I can do. And maybe a little croc wrestling, just for kicks.