Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How many miles to the nearest Walmart?

I was hiking through the lush, green rainforest with my mom when we got to an observation treehouse site exploding with lemurs. She pulled out a huge bag, looked me straight in the eyes and said "your younger brother wants me to bring home 75 pounds of lemur meat." So I was like "what the hell, mom, you can't do that!" To which she replied "I know, I'm just bringing home one live lemur instead." Then I woke up from my dream.

Okay now I'm actually going to tell you about the last few weeks of my life, starting with my unforgettable journey to the Betampona Reserve, briefly discussing my research and experiences in the mountains of Madagascar, and ending with me sitting on the floor of my hotel room typing this post (which is happening right this second).

The door to our taxi bus wasn't connected to the rest of the vehicle. I take that back--a seatbelt was strategically wrapped around the door and roof holding them together. Sort of. And that was probably the safest, most secure part of the bus.

There were 14 of us crammed into an 11 person bus, which doesn't sound that bad. But when you take into account the luggage and food required for 14 people on a month long trip it sounds a little bad. And when I tell you that the bus we rode in wasn't so much a bus but more like randomly assembled metal pieces held together by rust and sheer determination it starts to sound like an unfortunate situation. I haven't even gotten to the worst part yet, so buckle your seatbelt (something none of us were able to do because our seatbelts were holding the vehicle together) because you're in for a rough ride.

So we're in the death trap (that's what I'm calling the taxi bus, keep up) and it's hot outside, so hot. Humid too. We're slammed together like sardines and dripping in sweat while driving down this road (by "road" I mean a rocky dirt area with huge holes overflowing with water). The windows are open (because it's so hot and we're dying) and tree branches are flying through the windows, hitting us in the face (because we're bumping along this "road" trying to avoid the huge holes of water). Meanwhile, every passenger is looking up at the roof of the vehicle because we're sure it's gonna collapse on us. You know, because the sides of the bus aren't even connected to the roof. Somehow the roof didn't crush us during the 3 hour drive and we survived the first part of our journey to Betampona.

Next we had to take a canoe across a river. It's casual. When we got to the other side they told us there wasn't enough room in our new vehicle for all of us plus our luggage--which was the greatest thing I had heard all day because that meant we were hiking. I spent all of 30 seconds with my group and then started walking faster (why were they walking so slow?). And fast walking is a lot like running so I figured I might as well start running, right?

Okay remember when I said being white and blonde kind of draws a lot of attention to me in Madagascar? Yeah well white blonde girls running up mountains is clearly something they have never seen before. It got to the point where I didn't know if I should walk through the little villages to draw less attention to myself or sprint through them so I could get out faster. 

After an hour of stares, people yelling at me in Malagasy, a crazy man trying to run with me, and a random guy offering me a ride on his bike; a bus finally passed me and then stopped. "Keely! Get in!" Everyone had been picked up by the bus holding our luggage and was crammed into it. Apparently all the people I passed were talking about "a crazy white girl running very fast" (I was just glad they weren't talking about "a crazy white girl peeing on the side of the road").

After 20 minutes of driving we got to a mountain trail (a trail I would climb and descend daily over the next few weeks) and were told we had to hike the rest. YES. So I ran and hiked and it was the most beautiful run I've ever been on. I can't even describe how incredible the mountains are here. At the very top of the mountain is the Betampona Reserve. ON TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN. How cool is that?! It's paradise (I'll upload pictures). 

Almost every day my team and I backpacked for 1-6 hours to the surrounding villages in order to survey the residents. Some days were sunny and beautiful but other days were rainy, unbelievably muddy, and completely exhausting. (Climbing up our mountain in the rain has been described as being "as painful as childbirth.") Thankfully the Malagasy people were always helpful and accommodating with our research and made those muddy days worth it.

Every night before I went to sleep I had to check my bed for cockroaches and spiders (sometimes I didn't check thoroughly and regretted it). When it hadn't rained for a few days I had to carry buckets of water up a mountain to bathe and then when it rained nonstop for a week EVERYTHING was wet. (I don't think you understand how humid and wet it was so I'm gonna elaborate a little. It was so wet that my clothes never fully dried and started to grow mold. It was so wet that when I got into bed at night the sheets were damp. It was so wet that we would find leeches sucking our blood after venturing into the forest. Okay do you understand now?) I had to do my laundry by hand, which was horrible, and had shit into holes in the ground, which wasn't that horrible. My fingernails always had dirt under them and my hair was never brushed. My legs and feet were covered in blisters, scratches, and infected mosquito bites. The skin between my toes was bloody and raw. My clothes were always muddy and I smelled like sweat with a slight hint of pee. (Do I sound appealing yet?) I woke up when the sun rose and fell asleep when the sun set. In my free time I played cards and read books while lemurs jumped between trees 10 feet above my head (I read 9 books over the past 4 weeks. I haven't read that many books since I was 3 years old and "books" were only 10 pages long). 

But here's the thing: I loved it. The cold bucket showers became refreshing. I craved rice, beans, and vegetables for every meal. Reading took the place of using my phone or watching tv. Backpacking to villages and falling down muddy mountains was thrilling. Going to bed at 8:00 seemed normal. I loved the culture shock, the opportunities, the adventure, and the memories. Life was simple and beautiful. 

I have so much more to say about my research and life in Madagascar but if I keep writing this will turn into a novel, so the details will be for the people I see in person. Partially because this post is already so long and partially because when people ask me how my trip was I want to be able to tell them something they haven't already read. Anyway, I wonder if anyone stuck around long enough to even make it to this point of my post. Sorry if you're bored, it's almost over. Now that I'm back in civilization I'm going to go sit on a toilet, take a shower, look in a mirror, turn on a fan, and email my mom--all at the same time. Too ambitious? See ya in 10 days, America. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Salama Vasa

The president of Madagascar was just impeached. No one here really cares about it but I think it seems like important information. Maybe? Aside from the government crumbling to the ground things are going pretty well.

Unfortunately I had to pay $10,000 ariary to get into the zoo in Tana, which is 20 times the amount a local has to pay. That's only $3.50 in US dollars but still, I could have bought half of a Chipotle burrito with that money. Oh and you know how zoo's in America have rules? Like "don't feed the animals" or "no tapping on the glass." The only rule here is "don't get in the cage with the animal." Which is a really great rule, people should totally follow that.

Leaving the city was easy, quick, and painless. And by that I mean it only took us an hour to figure out which bus to take while we were harassed by a drunk man who wanted our jackets and bombarded by homeless people who begged us for money. Easy, quick, and painless.

The drive to the first village blew my mind. It was so exotic, green, and mountainous. Madagascar is without a doubt the most beautiful place I've ever been. When we got to the rainforest we went on a guided hike and saw tons of lemurs. I don't have anything funny or sarcastic to say, it was just really incredible.

We began our research at the first village a few days ago. It's awesome. We've been collecting data on what food is available at local markets (dry fish surrounded by flies seems like best option) and have completed a good amount of diet diversity and food security questionnaires. The Malagasy people are so welcoming even though we don't speak the same language (our translator is awesome).

The Malagasy children are fascinated by us and love the scale and height measurement tool we brought. I've never seen anyone so impressed by a scale. Especially since they have no clue how much they should weigh. They'll step on the scale and it will read something like "27.2 kg" and they are SO EXCITED ABOUT IT. They also want us to play games and dance with them. I even got to hold a baby for a while and it didn't cry at all. It's also possible that my camera has 200 pictures of blurry and sideways Malagasy kids (their picture taking skills need a little work). Anyway, the research is so fun and rewarding, even if I'm having dreams where everyone speaks Malagasy.

Now we're in Tamatave (not that any of you know where that is) until Saturday morning. After that we'll be driving/boating/hiking to our final research area where we'll stay for about four weeks while surveying the surrounding villages. When I get home I plan on eating a gallon of ice cream. Anyone is welcome to join me but you have to commit to the whole gallon.

*When you have a mosquito net covering your bed and you wake up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night WATCH OUT BECAUSE YOU COULD GET TANGLED IN IT AND FALL OVER.