Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Halloween and the Home Stretch

In 24 days, I’ll be touching down in the District of Columbia. And about 40 hours after that, I’ll be back on the island to help my brother, Sean, and his fiancé, Michele, celebrate tying the knot. It’s absurdly awesome to be granted two weeks of family, friends, pizza, and dark beer in the good ol’ US of A. Stoked doesn’t begin to describe my state of mind.

In the meantime, work and life go on in Madagascar. After my most recent field expedition south, I traveled with other Sud-Est volunteers to Manakara for our regional Volunteer Action Committee (VAC) meeting. We then headed back to Farafangana, met up with the WWF volunteers, and celebrated Halloween with a bonfire on the beach and night swimming in the Indian Ocean. No costumes or candy, but I’d call it a fair trade.

I’d been planning to head north with the Explore! group and spend the next several weeks on a 200km hike through the Corridor (starting south of Ambalavao and continuing all the way back to Vondrozo), but WWF asked me to come back and help Augustin, a field agent, with peanut farming and forest restoration work with a few southern VOIs, instead. It was a disappointing turn of events. I’d been looking forward to the trek for many reasons, including my desire to eventually develop the route as an adventure tourism circuit. But I’ll meet the group in a few weeks as they arrive in villages closer to Vondrozo, and I’ll hopefully undertake the whole route sometime next year.

The past few days I’ve been on a home improvement and writing binge. I finally bought a kitchen table in Farafangana, so I’m no longer cooking on the ground. Big life step, no? I also built a towel rack and shelf to go with the table, repaired my garden fence, and hauled a few bags of compost home so that I can dig the second half of my garden this afternoon. Abe celebrated his 25th birthday with us in Vondrozo last weekend. We took a bike ride, found a hill with a view, and hung out until sunset. Or rather, until a large group of villagers showed up, weapons in hand, to tell us that we needed to ask permission before loitering on their hilltop. I should’ve known better, but they were friendly enough about it—especially once they realized that we could (sort of) speak Malagasy. In any case, that was our cue to pack up and head home.

As soon as Augustin gets back to town (probably tomorrow or the next day), we’ll head south to begin the peanut and restoration projects in Ankazomaneno and nearby villages. Peace Corps is putting us on “standfast” lock-down from November 16-19, meaning that I’ll have to stay in Vondrozo and be in phone contact. Andry Rajoelina, acting president of the High Transitional Authority, is pushing through a referendum—to be held on November 17—that will modify the Malagasy constitution and (à la française) establish a Fourth Republic (to supersede the current Third Republic). Flyers, banners, t-shirts, and broadcasts crying “ENY!” or “YES!” are everywhere. I haven’t seen a single dissenting advertisement. The outcome seems assured, though I’ve got very little sense as to what the referendum will actually change (other than lowering the legal age required for the presidency, which currently bars Rajoelina from holding the post). Most Malagasy don’t seem to know much about it, either, except for the dawning of the Fourth Republic (Hallelujah?). The vote doesn’t have the support of several rival political factions and is unlikely to be recognized by the international community, so all told, it won’t do much to advance the process of ending the country’s leadership crisis. It will pave the way for elections—perhaps as soon as next month—but those, too, are unlikely to win international approval. So it goes. Peace Corps doesn’t expect large-scale disruptions or violence, but the circumstances are fluid enough for them to be concerned, so they want us to be reachable and accounted for at all times.

Once I’m done standing fast, I’ll go north and join Florent and the WWF volunteers for a week of work and forest camping in Antaninary and the surrounding areas. Then, I’ll have to say goodbye to the WWF crew, pick up my bags in Vondrozo, and start the trek up to Tana to catch my flight to DC on December 2. I’ll be in DC December 3-5, in Hawai’i December 5-14, and back in Madagascar on December 17.

A weekend in DC and a wedding in Hawai'i…a charmed life, to say the least.

Sticks and Stones

Perpetual motion has been the rule the past month. After returning to Vondrozo from Vohilava, I spent two days preparing and planting my garden and a night playing party host. Erica’s college, Spelman, along with its brother institution, Morehouse, were in the midst of “Spelhouse” Homecoming Week (she ignored my suggestion that they should call it “Moreman,” instead). She was bummed to be missing the reunion with her friends, so I suggested that we make up for it by throwing a homecoming/tailgate/Oktoberfest of our own along with the WWF volunteers. The dance party never quite materialized, but it was fun to kick back and relax with the group in the relative comfort of my Vondrozo pad.

Prior to leaving on the trip north, I’d sent letters south announcing my plan to return for cookstove trainings, so even though I thought it might be better to postpone them a bit, I’d already committed myself. Early Monday morning, I set out for Mazavalala. Upon reaching Ampasimposy, the village where I leave my bike and start on foot, I decided to forgo my usual habit of rustling up a guide and attempt instead to navigate the footpaths on my own. I hesitated for a moment at a fork or two, but the route turned out to be easily recognizable, and I quickly found my way to the house of Tsavo, Mazavalala’s VOI president, who was expecting me.

I was worried that the crowd might be thin (since a good number of villagers had gone to Vondrozo for market), but Tsavo managed to convene a group of 20—a decent, manageable size. All began fine; we collected the materials, I explained the activity, and the participants jumped right in to sift, knead, and pat the mixture into building bricks. Once they were done, we moved inside to construct the cookstove.

But right as I was about to start, the room emptied. Crap, I thought. What’d I do wrong this time? Suddenly, Tsavo popped his head in the door and made the quick grabbing-the-air motion that Malagasy use to signal that they want you to approach or follow. “Trano may,” he said. The translation that popped into my head—“hot house”—left me puzzled. Sure, it was warm inside—and I was pretty drenched in my customary perma-sweat—but the temperature and/or my body odor didn’t seem that extreme. Tsavo was visibly concerned, though, so I jumped up and hurried after him. A moment of rapid language deduction later, I discovered my mistake. In this case, may didn’t mean “hot.” It meant “on fire.”

A hut down the hill was engulfed in raging flames. Several villagers looked on, sobbing, while others frantically worked to save items from the house and isolate the blaze from other nearby structures. We helped as we could and succeeded in preventing the fire from spreading, but the home and nearly everything in it were completely destroyed. Once it had burned down to a smoldering mound of char and ash, we trekked back up the hill. I wasn’t expecting to continue the training, but the group gathered back together, and Tsavo indicated that I should proceed. It struck me as strange, but folks here are uncommonly resilient when it comes to a certain genre of calamities. In any case, we went on to build a damn good stove, if I do say so myself. Tsavo’s wife (whose cooking area the stove now occupies) seemed excited about and proud of the final product—encouraging, since she’ll be the one who decides whether or not it’s put to use. I’ll check back with her on my next pass through.

I spent the evening with Tsavo, his family, and Matoky, the village mpanjaka, or “king.” While breaking out the toaka, Matoky presided over a ceremony that involved a lengthy discussion with the ancestors. Malagasy refer to their island home as Tanindrazana—“land of the ancestors”—and regularly consult with deceased members of preceding generations on occasions big and small. Rural village populations remain especially observant—and superstitious in other ways, too. For example, when we were discussing the uses of various trees planted in the nursery at Vohilava, community members repeatedly highlighted the “medicinal” properties of species whose bark is particularly effective at warding off sorcery or evil spirits. And I got myself in trouble by nudging the stump of a tree that had been struck by lightning—very fady, or “taboo,” since such stumps apparently afford villagers protection, as well. Thankfully, Malagasy are also forgiving when it comes to the cultural faux pas of stupid foreigners, so nudging the stump didn’t cost me my foot. As I’ve become accustomed to the rites and rituals, I’ve found ways to relate them to my own culture and experiences. The practices and beliefs might be drastically different, but it’s possible to recognize a shared body of values and relationships. That’s how I’m able to feel at peace—at home, really—10,000 miles from my friends and family. Matoky sipped moonshine rum and talked with the ancestors, and I thought of the Jim Beam bottle making its rounds at my grandmother’s wake.

The next morning, Tsavo’s sons led me on to Ambalatraka. On my last visit, Arisony, the VOI president, had misunderstood my note and gone to Vondrozo to meet me. This time, the note had been expressly clear on location, but Arisony was once again absent. I thought about trying to hold the training without him, but the villagers present said he’d be back shortly and insisted that we wait. As afternoon rolled around, though, I found out that he might not be returning for several days. It was getting late, so I decided to leave and continue on my own to Ankazomaneno, two hours’ hike away, where I’d arranged to have my final meeting and training the following morning. Upon arrival, I discovered that Kotilio, Ankazomaneno’s president, was also gone. Regardless, I talked with the villagers and made plans to hold the training with them the next day. After breakfast the following morning, a VOI member arrived with a note from Kotilio asking to move our activities back a day. I had to catch a taxi-brousse to Farafangana the next morning, so I couldn’t accommodate the change. Shortly thereafter, another member of the VOI leadership showed up to talk with me. He said that there were already eight community members who’d previously been trained in building cookstoves, and that we could forgo the activities this time and arrange to do it at the next general VOI meeting. I told him that was fine, but added that I could still hold a small training with whoever was available before trekking back to Vondrozo. He smirked a little, looked at the cookstove drawings I’d placed in front of him, and said, “We need money. We need food. Then we can talk about cookstoves.”

Talk about feeling defeated. I muttered some kind of retort about the benefits of cookstoves, but recognizing that I wasn’t about to change his mind, I packed my things, ate lunch with the villagers, and then started my five-hour journey back to Vondrozo. There’s always next time, I suppose.

The situation laid bare one of the challenges I’ll perpetually face. The locals expect a white development worker to bring in money, agricultural inputs, infrastructure improvements, or machinery. I hope to manage some of that while a volunteer, but Peace Corps encourages us to do the most we can with simple technology and local materials, emphasizing improved management or cultivation techniques and behavior change. We’re in the midst of the hungry season; even rice—which might as well be oxygen for the Malagasy—is in short supply. Villagers forage for tubers in the forest for subsistence, sometimes skipping meals. I’ve recently bumped up the amount of food I carry with me on field trips to make sure I can feed myself and share some, as well.

But honestly, it’s unclear to me why lush southeast Madagascar has a hungry season at all. It’s not too hot or too cold or too wet or too dry to grow crops. Is it simply a lack of imagination when it comes to food diversity? Habit? Poor planning? Is there some cultural barrier that I’m missing? I’ve had VOI members complain that they need to revert to tavy (slash-and-burn ag) because their rice fields don’t produce enough, but I know that they’ve had trainers come and teach SRI (intensive rice cultivation, or système riziculture intensive), which can augment yields several times over. They haven’t adopted the technique, though, claiming it’s too difficult, that they don’t have enough compost, or that they need microdams to manage the water better. Some of that is undoubtedly true, but still—isn’t hunger enough of a reason to give it a shot next year? Of course the circumstances are complicated and difficult. There’s probably a lot more going on than I realize, and it’s no use trying to pin blame on any single party or practice. But when the VOI member chastised me for trying to teach cookstoves while food was scarce—well, it was sobering, and frustrating.

Another development I’m keeping an eye on is the proliferating popularity of artisanal mining. Case in point—Arisony and Kotilio, the two absent VOI presidents, were both out in the forest looking for vato soa, or precious stones. Corridor streams are often thronged by villagers panning for vola mena, or gold, and Vondrozo is home to a small but growing cohort of Chinese mineral prospectors. Experts believe that Madagascar has a huge wealth of largely untapped mineral/gemstone deposits ripe for exploitation. In an excellent 2006 New Yorker article called “The Path of Stones,” Burkhard Bilger discusses the nascent Malagasy gem industry—its prospects and pitfalls—at length. “Madagascar is old dirt,” he writes. “Its gem deposits are even richer and more ancient than its animal life, and both have been preserved by its isolation.” Bilger goes on to tell the story of Tom Cushman—mine owner, gem dealer, and founder of Madagascar’s first gemological institute. “Practically the whole island is gemmiferous,” Cushman says. “If you fall out of an airplane, land on the ground, and start digging, you’re going to find something.” Regarding the nature of the colored-gem market, Bilger explains that “most gem deposits are too small to justify mechanized mining. The digging is done by locals with picks and shovels, and the stones are bought by independent dealers like Cushman, who travel from dig to dig.” Enter the absent villagers and Chinese prospectors.

In the late 1990s, huge sapphire deposits were found in the dusty village of Ilakaka, approximately 175 km due west of Vondrozo. Within a year, a bevy of Thais, Sri Lankans, and other internationals had descended on the burgeoning town, as well as a hundred thousand Malagasy eager to get a piece of the action. The subsequent mining boom—coupled with the Wild West mentality already latent in that region of Madagascar—led to a dangerously chaotic period of lawlessness. “In those early years of the rush,” Bilger says, “the horde of diggers and dealers had yet to impose order on themselves, and many carried guns. In 2001, three dealers were killed in the space of seven months, and the staff of the local Catholic Relief Services saw several people shot not far from their offices.” Things are better today, but Ilakaka’s reputation as a risky place to do business—especially for foreigners—remains intact.

My neighbors here in Vondrozo—the family to which both WWF’s Florent and Eliane, one of my closest friends, belong—are actually from Ilakaka. They moved to Vondrozo about ten years ago, when the boom had first started roaring. I can tell that Florent, when he hears villagers and VOI members discuss vato soa, is wary of what’s going on. Granted, the likelihood of Vondrozo becoming the next Ilakaka is slim. Nevertheless, local gem deposits could have the potential to bring in much-needed revenue for development—and/or to bring the resource curse barreling down on the community.

Either way, it’s an auspicious time to have landed here. Ever since my senior year at Notre Dame—when I read King Leopold’s Ghost and consequently focused my peace studies capstone project on natural resource exploitation and conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—I’ve remained attentive to the resource management-environment-conflict nexus. In fact, it’s likely the question I’ll pursue in graduate school. So as all of this unfolds in my backyard, I’m clearly interested to know more about what’s going on.

It’s difficult to know how much of that interest I should let on to others, though. As a rule thus far, I’ve taken great pains to make clear that I’m not here to buy gems from anyone. When a man stopped me on the road south of town a few months back and pulled out a pouch with vato soa for sale, I acted completely disinterested and told him that I was here to help the VOIs manage the forest. I wouldn’t even look at his merchandise. I’ve glanced at various finds that VOI members have pulled out during meetings, but when they ask me to speculate on value, I tell them I’m completely ignorant when it comes to such things (which happens to be true). I haven’t talked with the prospectors in town, and I don’t ask about them when I go out into the villages.

Why avoid the subject? Two reasons, really—messaging and security. First, I don’t want there to be any confusion about my mission as a PCV. I’m here to work with locals for environmental conservation and sustainable development—not to start up a commercial venture for my personal gain. Second, I don’t want to be implicated in any of the financial transactions that gem dealing entails, and I don’t want villagers to worry that I’m tramping around and scoping out their territory, especially if the sector takes off. Several months ago, two Chinese men were murdered while commuting via motorbike between Vondrozo and villages to the north. Apparently, they would ride from community to community with cash in hand to pick up merchandise from local collectors along the route. That made them prime targets for someone looking to make a quick buck—and that someone took a hatchet to their heads.

About an hour ago, I took a break from writing to meet Erica for lunch. As I walked down the hill to the hotely, an unfamiliar man fell into step with me.

Akory vazaha,” he said. “Mividy vato?” Did I want to buy gems?

Put on the spot, I issued my standard response and kept on walking. But I’ve decided to prepare another reply for future use—one that might give me a bit more insight into how this business is going down. After all, it’s foolish to ignore the issue, as gem mining and trading will have important consequences for regional (and national) environmental health and development. Furthermore, given the country’s ongoing political turmoil, there’s unlikely to be any sort of coordinated strategy for or effective regulation of the sector in the short term, so operations will probably remain loosely governed and intensely localized—meaning I could probably learn a lot from casual conversations around town.

I’m white, ride a motor-less bike, never carry cash, and am known to villagers as a WWF colleague, so being mistaken for a wealthy Asian prospector is not of chief concern. Still, I know that I need to be cautious moving forward, treading lightly on what Bilger termed “the path of stones.”

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Training Daze

Always the trainee, never the trainer.

That about summed up my Peace Corps experience through the beginning of October. I’d gone through Pre-Service and In-Service Trainings, traveled to Ranomafana for instruction on erosion control, spent time learning about my VOIs and their communities, and been a constant (if often distracted) study of Malagasy language and culture. Doubtless I’d tried to give back in ways—helping with projects when possible, teaching conversational English to friends, sharing techniques with colleagues, guiding the Explore! group around Vondrozo—but PCVs are expected to organize more formal community trainings, and on that point, I was slacking.

So, as the Explore! group departed on their first field trip to the north, I readied myself for a trip south to lay the groundwork for my inaugural trainings. The first step was letting the VOIs know that I’d be coming—a bit involved since cell service still doesn’t reach most of the countryside. The easiest way to communicate information is to send a note with someone traveling in the right direction, or to talk directly with the VOI president if he happens to be in town. The best occasion for either is Monday—Vondrozo’s market day, which brings a huge influx of people from the surrounding areas. That Monday, WWF agent Robson helped me compose the letters and track down appropriate people to send them with. And on Thursday, I set out at 6am to make a 9am meeting in Mazavalala.

I didn’t have too high of expectations for the trip—I wanted to show face in the villages, discuss possible projects, and set a date for the training two weeks later. The first VOI president (Tsavo in Mazavalala) had received my note the night before my arrival, so he threw together a meeting of a few people (including no women) and we talked for about thirty minutes (mostly about their top priority: building a new classroom to replace the crumbling one their kids currently use). The second (Arisony in Ambalatraka) was absent when I arrived. A day and many confused conversations later, I realized that the note hadn’t been clear on the location of the meeting. I was there in Ambalatraka, and he’d gone to Vondrozo to find me. Robson had typed the letter, but of course the assemblage chocked the miscommunication up to my poor Malagasy writing skills. I discussed ongoing work with the people present and checked out the land they’d set aside for peanut farming (a WWF-promoted alternative livelihood option), and then hiked on to the next village. The third VOI president (Kotilio in Ankazomaneno) was sick, so I talked with one of the other VOI officers the next day about peanuts and microdams before heading home to Vondrozo.

All told, it wasn’t quite a fiasco, but things went far from smoothly—largely because of the shoddy quality and tardiness of the letters I’d sent. I had a few days in Vondrozo between trips, so I enlisted the help of one of my Malagasy friends, Maxime, and wrote new letters explaining the plan for the upcoming trainings. Cookstoves would be the subject, I decided—simple and straightforward, requiring few materials and little time, and resulting in a product that could be seen and used almost immediately. I arranged the dates, and when Monday rolled around, Robson helped me send them on to my partner VOIs both to the north and south.

On Wednesday, I biked up to Vohimary Nord and met WWF agents Florent and Augustin along with the Explore! group. We hiked to a nearby waterfall (with a sweet jumping spot) and relaxed for the night. The following morning I was off on my own again, hiking to Antaninary to hold my first training the following day. The president, Tano, gave me a warm welcome, and readily agreed to the training. Turnout wouldn’t be great, he said, because many villagers were gone panning for gold. [Looking for gold and vato soa, or precious stones, has become very popular in the area recently. I’ll be writing more about this soon.] Regardless, I began my first solo training the next morning with about 25 villagers in attendance.

There’s an endless variety of improved cookstoves, with different purposes, shapes, and compositions. The type we studied during training is made by sifting, mixing, and adding water to a 3:1 clay:ash blend. Using bricks made from the resulting mixture, you then build and smooth a casing that insulates your fire and pot (with air vents in the back and a section of wall cut out for a door). Depending on location and weather, the cookstove is usually ready for cooking within two weeks. The general idea is that it decreases fuelwood consumption, reduces cooking time, and mitigates smoke inhalation (and associated health problems). Sound like an easy sell?

Far from it.

The training went well, I thought; people were very helpful and seemed interested, and once we’d finished and I whipped my camera out, they were all eager to take pictures with the final product. A few minutes later, though, Tano called me into a hut and said that we needed to have a quick meeting with a number of people who’d been present. Once sitting inside, he explained that they were glad to have done the activity. And that now I needed to pay them.

Huh? I understood that I’d asked them to haul clay, sift ash, and give me two hours of their time, but there was no way they actually did so expecting monetary compensation, was there?

I explained that I hadn’t brought money, that I would never bring money, that if I came to do a training and they participated their only recompense would be, well, being “trained.” They took it well—it was an uncomfortable situation, but there wasn’t anything threatening in their tone. It was a misunderstanding, not an attempt at extortion. In ensuing discussions, I discovered that they’d already had cookstove training several times before, and that they humored me because they thought they’d get some cash out of it. They also related that despite previous trainings, no one in the community actually used an improved cookstove. They’d built them in corners and let them fall into disrepair—not because of any particular design fault, but merely because they weren’t used to them, and they didn’t recognize wood scarcity (or respiratory illness) as a chief concern.

In truth, I’d already learned that cookstoves weren’t a priority for them during my initial community surveys. I picked it as a first topic mainly for my own reasons (I think it’s important; I felt confident doing the building; I wanted a stand-alone, straightforward training to get my feet wet). Well, my feet were wet, but their pockets were empty. If I’m going to win trust and respect—and possibly encourage behavior change—I know I need to do a better job of matching projects and priorities.

In any case, I hiked back to Vohimary Nord with a first training under my belt. And a medical emergency was waiting.

Cara, the American WWF volunteer, was down and out. She felt weak, achy, hot, and chilled, with a headache, diarrhea, and a fever approaching 40 C (around 104 F. Sorry for the gory details, Cara). The WWF agents and community leaders had brought her outside, where she was lying on a mat with an audience of thirty villagers looking on. There was no health worker in close proximity (or really in proximity of any sort), but thankfully Vohimary Nord sits on top of a hill and has one spot with decent cell reception. I dialed the Peace Corps doctor, described her symptoms, and came back with a diagnosis of invasive bacterial diarrhea. He prescribed Cipro as the antibiotic of choice, which luckily Cara had brought with her. With meds and rest, she was back in commission the next day. She's a trooper, that one.

While this was happening, WWF staff members in Tana (and three other WWF volunteers—Christa, Kuni, and Henintsoa—who’d been medically evacuated to Farafangana because of various ailments) were only receiving scattered bits of information about the status of the situation. Eventually, the story emerged that Cara had nearly died of malaria but that I’d shown up just in the nick of time, administered treatment, and saved her life. Add in a few cattle bandits, some waterfall diving, and a tribal sorcerer or two and we could have the plot for Indiana Jones Part V (couldn’t be that much worse than Crystal Skull, right?).

After allowing another day for Cara to recover, we continued on to Vohilava, home to one of my partner VOIs, where we began a four-day forest restoration project. We set up camp near the VOI president’s home—high in the mountains, just below the eastern ridge of the Corridor—and, together with the villagers, built a tree nursery with local forest species. The first day, the villagers dug out beds and filled 13,000 small plastic potting bags, or pôs, with the appropriate soil mixture (made with compost, forest soil, and sandy dirt). The second day, we climbed the ridge and entered the forest to collect 13,000 saplings, which we then planted in the nursery. The third day, we went through and checked the saplings to make sure that they were viable (and to make sure they were actually trees). And the fourth day, we held a cooking and cookstove training with interested villagers.

On day one, once the soil mixture was ready, the WWF agents, volunteers and I began filling pôs to provide examples for the villagers, who looked on with what seemed to be general disinterest. Once the WWF agents began distributing the pôs to community members, though, all hell broke loose.

People were running with baskets, pushing each other, hauling loads on their backs and heads, shoveling soil like it was their job. Whoa, I thought. Where the hell did this enthusiasm come from? It was crazy and chaotic—typically Malagasy, in many ways—but something didn’t quite add up. “Are they getting paid for this?” Cara asked me. “I don’t think so,” I answered.

Wrong again. WWF was indeed making direct cash payments to the villagers for helping with the nursery. For every 100 pôs filled, they were given 5000 ariary; and for every 400 saplings collected and planted, another 5000 ariary. I have mixed feelings about the practice. On the one hand, part of WWF’s mission is providing work for affected community members. They pay porters , cooks, and guides, in addition (apparently) to villagers that help with tree-planting projects. It also gets the project done, shows VOI members what they’re capable of, and, I’m sure, pleases donors and organization higher-ups who want measurable results. But on the other hand, "Let me pay you to plant trees so that your children have access to forest resources" seems kind of counterintuitive, no? The incentive scheme certainly isn’t sustainable, and I’m not sure that most participants took anything away from the activity other than the understanding that you should play along with WWF agents and vazahas because they’ll pay you for it.

Now, of course, I understand much better why the folks in Antaninary were expecting a cash reward for the cookstove training.

Regardless, it was a fascinating and productive few days. Our hike up and over the ridge to look for saplings was my first foray into primary forest near Vondrozo—and yielded a healthy batch of leeches on our feet, legs, and torsos. Sergio, who insisted on wearing his boots while the rest of us had sandals, had the most with 31. He also had a particularly difficult time ascending (and descending) the sheer, dirt path that led into the forest (he’s generally gangly and uncoordinated, kind of like a Spanish version of Huff). Our Malagasy colleagues are learning plenty of Spanish obscenities.

Camping on the promontory afforded us an awesome spot to watch late-afternoon thunderstorms roll in from the coast, put us uncomfortably close to a few lightning strikes, and allowed for the depressing evening pastime of counting the burning pools of doro-tanety on the hillsides below.

Taking it all in, I couldn’t help but wonder:

How many steps forward? How many steps back?