How long has it been? No point in counting. By Michelle Fasano

Today marks exactly thirty-nine days since we all left for Madagascar, and thirty-eight days since we arrived in Antananarivo. As my fellow classmates have described in past blogs, an unimaginable number of journeys and adventures happened in this relatively short amount of time. If someone were to ask me how long I’ve been here, I would probably estimate about three months, even though I know that number isn’t accurate (yet). It is remarkable to how much has been accomplished in the time we have spent here so far; it’s certainly felt like more time has passed than only a month and then some!

It is truly amazing to think about how much we’ve achieved in these thirty-eight days. Traveling from New York to Madagascar was our first test as both a group and as individuals and we passed with flying colors. Even with all the trials and tribulations we’ve encountered while in this new environment, I can say with confidence that we’ve continued to pass with flying colors for every new adventure we embark on, while growing in the process. Had someone told me even a month before we left that I would be going on an eight hour hike or climbing steep forest hills to track lemurs or investigate camera traps, I might have laughed at them. But I am incredibly grateful that I took the leap of faith way back when I applied to study abroad here – it’s an experience that I will never forget, even with my already failing memory.

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This little guy might be missing an eye, but I’m excited to see lemur catta on our cross-country trip!

One of my absolute favorite things we’ve experienced here at Centre ValBio – besides the wonderful three meals a day, of course – is the lectures that take place on a near daily basis. The conference room where they are held has become almost like a second living space to us; we certainly spend enough time there on weekly to call it that! The chairs might get uncomfortable after about twenty minutes and there are no tables to lean our notebooks against, but the guest speakers are a delight to behold.

It is always inspiring to listen to an individual or a group of people passionately discuss their research. Passionate people never fail to induce passion in others. From talks about the sheer amount of biodiversity in both Madagascar and, more specifically, Ranomafana National Park, to discussions about the relationship between anthropology and conservation, I have learned more during my time here than I ever would in a traditional classroom at home. Why, a good portion of the time the rainforest is our classroom! If there’s one very particular skill I’ve developed here, it’s figuring out how to most comfortably sit on dirt and rocks to find the perfect note-taking position while out studying lemurs.

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It’s my personal goal to pet as many dogs as I can while here, even though I’ll have to stop doing that for the time being – shout out to the plague!

I fondly remember a time where a group of us went for a hike to Bellevue so that we could study for our first exam. What ended up happening was that we decided to go on a scavenger hunt and find lemurs on the way up to Bellevue – and lemurs we found! Stumbling upon one of the two Hapalemur aureus (Golden bamboo lemur) in the park was a treat for sure, not only because of their symbolism to Ranomafana but also since the individual was a mere two trees away from where we were standing. Although eventually we did find the way to our original destination, this excursion undoubtedly summarizes this study abroad trip so far: expect the unexpected. For every adventure we make – whether it be through the forest or elsewhere – we never fail to find a hidden treasure that we did not anticipate. This is truly what makes our experience remarkable and life-changing – for the better!

As we all prepare and pack for our ten day long cross-country trip, each day my admiration for Madagascar grows, even when at times I feel this appreciation cannot grow any more. Three months is not enough time to explore everything this country has to offer but I am thankful for everything that I have witnessed so far and unbelievably excited for what lies ahead. From trekking through Isalo National Park to snorkeling in Ifaty, there seems to be no limit for what Madagascar can show the rest of the world. I have never been to such an indescribable place in my young life and I may never see another place that can compare to here. Regardless, this journey has countlessly inspired me to take the road less traveled – especially the road chockful of friendships, animals, and explorations.

Today marks the exact halfway point before we depart to go home (or, for some of us, stay for a while longer), but who’s counting? There are innumerable more adventures we’ll all be embarking on within the next month and there’s no point in counting down the days. Living in the moment is what we all do best – and it makes our time here unbelievably enjoyable! To end this reflection, I asked a few friends to describe their time here in three or so words; here are their [anonymous] responses:

“Humbling, exciting, & relaxing.”

“Rewarding, eye-opening, & fun.”

“Leeches, fleas, & bathroom moths.”

“Lemurs are life.”

“Inspiring, motivating, & bug bites.”

“Breathtaking, challenging, & incredible.”

“Changing my life.”

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Most of the village group (plus some new friends!) who went to the village of Amboasary last week; the full moon was stunning this night and make for some fantastic photo ops.

 

 

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An Ode to Our Instructors by Emily Midyette

For those of you reading this blog who aren’t currently smuggled up at CVB musing about the cross-country adventures to come, the names Alicia, Franck, and Tharcisse might hold little-to-no meaning to you. However, for those of us who have been on this Malagasy adventure these names are representative of our educators, role models, and caretakers for the past 7 weeks. Mentions of these three individuals have been sprinkled throughout the previous blogs (Alicia even wrote one of the very first ones!), but this post is dedicated solely to them and what they mean to us students.

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Tharcisse and student Tsou chat at Belleview, on outlook in Ranomafa National Park

Tharcisse Ukizintambara is our professor, program coordinator, and the group’s champion giraffe neck weevil spotter. Originally from Rwanda, Tharcisse was inspired as a child to enter the professional worlds of primatology and conservation by the work of Jane Goodall. Rwanda is home to approximately 300 of the 800 mountain gorillas left in the wild; Tharcisse’s knowledge and commentary on the conservation of this primate species and others have provided meaningful context in our discussions on lemur protection in Madagascar. Rwanda is also home to Tharcisse’s favorite primate, the mountain (L’hoest) monkey (they have a gorgeous coat which is worth a quick google). When not in Madagascar Tharcisse calls the southwest African country of Namibia home, where he lives with his family. Here in Madagascar Tharcisse has been giving lectures on primatology and research methods, communicating our daily and weekly schedules, and providing regular updates on the plague currently afflicting the country. On hikes, he is a talented bird-spotter and shares his passion for the natural world with us all.

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Franck teaching Malagasy Lesson

Franck Rakoto is our logistics coordinator, Malagasy Teaching Assistant (TA), and resident amphibian enthusiast. Franck is Malagasy and studied paleontology and primatology at the University of Antananarivo. Franck’s first expedition to Ranomafana was on a hunt for the elusive aye-aye, the strangest of the island’s lemurs. This species is nocturnal and incredibly difficult to spot. After months without finding one in the park, Franck exchanged his passion for the aye-aye with that for frogs and photography. Franck takes gorgeous photos and has a camera lens bigger than my forearm! Thus far on our trip, Franck has put together the puzzle that is getting us buses and vans that can fit 20+ people, keeping our dietary restrictions accommodated for, and has provided hours of laughs with his vague answers to our endless questions. Many of the group’s inside jokes originate from the words and expressions of Franck, our “class clown.”

Alicia Lamb is our second TA, lemur expert, and friend. She is currently in her gap year between earning her Master’s degree from Stony Brook and going on to complete her Doctorate. Only a few days before leaving with us Alicia returned to New York after spending three months researching lemurs around Ifaty, a coastal town we will be visiting on our cross-country trip. Alicia is an expert in living life in Madagascar as an American Millennial and had provided us with essential advice and tips including how to wash clothes using buckets and brushes, and how to get the best prices when negotiating with merchants. Alicia stands up for us when we are feeling overworked and does an excellent job of gaging our group’s interests and energy level. Her dog, Vas-y (French for “go ahead”), has been a ray of sunshine in our lives at CVB. When he makes his way to our floor it’s all smiles, laughs, and puppy kisses.

Madagascar is an incredible adventure and learning experience by nature, but having Tharcisse, Franck, and Alicia as our guides has elevated the experience significantly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A rather relaxed week by Tristan Franzetti

Week 4 was a rather relaxed week for our little gang in Madagascar. With the threat of our exam on Saturday looming over our heads, we were given some free time to study. But we were still very active, beginning on Sunday with our weekly market visit.

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Sunday market

Taking the hour long walk with my fellow students, Alicia, and, of course, Vas-y is always an adventure in and of itself. Walking past the local people and children who always giggle with excitement when they hear us say “Salama” or “Inona ny vaovao?” brings joy to my heart, as I know these children will grow up with fond memories of the Vazaha coming and adapting to their culture. I know we are building a relationship not only on a person to person level, but on a cultural level that will transcend all of us and will serve as a backbone for continued visits and research for decades and generations to come. Once in town, we further immerse ourselves in the culture, buying locally made goods and food.

Later in the week, we still remained active, having frequent lectures and even a night hike to give us a break from the studying. This night hike provided quite a few memorable moments, despite just being up the road! The excitement that comes when James yells “OH WOW” while pointing his flashlight at a nearby bush. Then you find the odd combination of disappointment and guilty satisfaction when you discover that it was just Alicia finding another deep hole of the side of the road for all of us. Of course, these night hikes are always filled with eyeshine from dwarf lemurs and mouse lemurs, usually high up in the canopy.

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Seeing a mouse lemur up close

However, on this particular night, I was able to spot a little mouse lemur no more than six feet away, just looking at me, as if he/she was posing for a nice picture! This was just so surreal for me, since lemurs, particularly mouse lemurs, have been my passion since I first learned about them 15 years ago. Being able to see a mouse lemur up close, with so much detail, so much natural grace, yet also being able to see it wild, in Madagascar; words cannot describe the rush that comes from a moment like this.

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At the tree nursery

We were also given the opportunity to visit the tree nursery here at CVB (happily only a 5 minute walk away). Here, we had a little friendly (and by friendly, I mean extremely competitive) competition to see which group could fill more plastic bags with soil—in which we later planted seeds. We were invited to come back towards the end of our trip to see if they will have sprouted yet, and I can’t wait to see the results that we will get!

The final break from the studying and lectures was a visit to a quaint village just past Ranomafana. Here we were introduced to the traditions and history of the village and were able to participate in some of them. With the communal sharing of homemade moonshine, and all of us in our handmade hats, we were treated to some amazing performances by a couple of local musical groups. They played for us in their own traditional style and even had a dance group accompanying them.

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Visit to the Ambodiaviavy village

All in all, we had some adventures this week, and we are always experiencing activities and culture that we would never experience back home. Now, as we prepare for our camping trip in Mongavo, we are savoring every bit of luxury we have here at CVB and we look forward to the new adventures that await us both in Mongavo and during the rest of our trip.

The Quest to Mangavo by Emma Hearthstone

Week 5 marked the most challenging experience so far for many members of our group. This was the camping trip in Mangavo. In order to get to our campsite though we had a long walk. After repeatedly grilling anyone we could, the best answer we had as to how long the hike would be was somewhere between five and a half and twelve hours. We set out early Monday morning with lots of water, a lunch bag containing a sandwich, banana, and some frego’s, and lots of determination. I had downloaded a couple audiobooks the night before since I heard this was recommended to pass the time. After the van dropped everyone off at the starting point of our hike I put my earphones in and hit play, mentally prepared to just walk all day. After about two minutes though I came upon our whole group gathered at the edge of a river. We needed to cross and the only way if you didn’t want to get half your body wet was a pair of tiny boats, piloted by a couple of older malagasy men with long poles to push and steer.

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Namorona River crossing

They could only take two at a time, and even like that the boats looked one pound away from going under. The river was also so low that they could only bring us halfway, drop us on some sand, and then pick us up on the other side. This whole process took awhile, but we made it across without incident and now I started again, putting in my earphones and trying not to think about how tired my legs were going to be.

The beginning of the walk was a nice combination of hills that weren’t too challenging, and often contained trees and shade, and rice paddies in the valleys. We would often emerge at the bottom of a hill, follow the most worn path along the small mounds that divided paddies, sometimes jumping over the watery trenches between them or crossing on sticks and boards. As time went on everyone spread out, some people moving quickly, others keeping a slower pace. Some stayed in small groups and a few like me enjoyed the solitude.

It seemed like perfect timing when at the top of a hill there was a log right across the path, just as my audiobook was ending. I sat down, had some water, and decided to eat half my sandwich, since breakfast at CVB is usually pretty small, just some bread and maybe an egg or yogurt. I checked my watch and realized it had only been an hour since we set out… I still needed to walk somewhere between four and a half and eleven hours.

When I set out again I put on some fast workout music, deciding I needed to pick up the pace a little. I moved quickly, sometimes with other students in sight but often following the many porters, carrying our luggage and supplies, that passed me. We went through many more paddies and small patches of forest, as well as the occasional small village, consisting of a few houses, made of wood and mud with thatched roofs. There was also usually a small crowd of children, some eagerly saying “Salama!” others shy and hiding inside. Besides people I saw a variety of domesticated animals, either by the village or in fields. There were the ever present chickens (“Akoho”), and many Zebu (“Omby”), some of which had calves and very large horns so I made my way carefully giving them a lot of space. A few times I worried I might be going the wrong way since I went for hours without seeing any other students but then I would turn back and see a group of porters coming my way carrying rice bags on their heads and the occasional duffle or backpack which I recognized as belonging to one of my fellow classmates so I would step aside, take a sip of water while they passed, and then follow them for as long as I could keep up. It was astonishing how quickly they moved along the small muddy paths, even carrying very large heavy bags, and often with only sandals or bare feet.

I had managed to stay relatively dry even crossing the little streams, stomping through the mud of the paddies, and hopping over places where the trail was just a muddy puddle. That is until I came across a place where the trail went directly down into a large stream and emerged on the other side. I stopped and watched as the porters all simply walked into the water and kept going. It came up past their knees and there were no stones or anything that could be used to get across dry. I knew I was going to have to go through it. I figured the bottoms of my pants would dry pretty quickly but I did not want to be hiking the rest of the way in wet socks and boots. I unlaced and pulled of my muddy boots and two pairs of socks, holding them high in one hand I stepped down into the water, and right onto a wet log. As soon I tried to step forward my foot slipped off the log and I splashed down into the water. My free hand caught the bank so I didn’t get completely soaked and ruin my phone and everything else in my pack but the hand with my boots was completely submerged. Of course right at this moment a group of porters was passing and they all stopped to stare at me struggling and splashing around in the water. I accepted my fate and walked barefoot out of the water and through the mud of a few rice paddies until I got to some dry land. I wasn’t sure how much longer it was going to be so I took a short break to try to let my socks and boots dry, but that was unsuccessful. Now with damp feet squishing every step, I continued on the trek.

I almost passed the small village of Mangavo, but was flagged down by some other students who were resting there with the porters. After a small break a guide led us to the beginning of the forest. It was a pretty big change of scenery from what we had been exposed to before. Gone were the open areas and rice paddies. No more villagers walking past or random Zebu. Now we were in the rainforest. Not only did it look different, so dark and green, but it felt different. It was a bit cooler, but the biggest difference I felt was the burning in my legs and lungs. The slopes were a lot steeper and seemed unending. Everytime I thought I was going to reach a peak I would turn the corner to see the trail winding up an even steeper hill. Just as I was losing hope, and felt my legs might give out a guide pointed out the smaller trail leading to the campsite. With new resolve I started out, telling myself “almost there, almost there…” After many more small hills I finally emerged to see a tent, and behind it a cooking area with a makeshift table and tarp for a roof. As I looked around I saw more clusters of tents underneath tarps, dispersed between the gigantic trees. I collapsed onto the ground and looked up at the mosaic of leaves against the blue sky. I had reached Mangevo.

A set of tents

Mangevo forest campsite

The next few days were much less strenuous. We went on hikes, looking for different animals, like the variety of lemurs that call this forest home. The group I was in hiked until we found some Varecia (Black and white ruffed lemur) and followed them to collect some feces that we could analyze back at CVB. We also learned about different techniques for capturing animals like pitfalls, which involve a bucket in the ground that insects, small amphibians, or other little terrestrial critters can fall into. These of course must be monitored so that nothing was trapped in there for too long and exposed to danger. A nightly duty was placing sticks into the pitfalls so that if anything fell in during the night it could easily climb out.

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Pitfall traps

We also learned about sherman traps which are used to catch small animals like rats or mouse lemurs. They are little metal boxes which we secured onto low vines or branches and baited with banana (a treat for mouse lemurs). When the mouse lemur entered and made its way to the back of the box where the bait was the door would close, trapping it inside until we came along to check them. We set the sherman traps every evening and checked them once or twice before bed, making sure to close them after our last check so nothing else could get trapped. On the last day that the full group was in the forest we visited a camera trap that was part of a network of TEAM camera’s. TEAM is a global organization that sets camera traps to monitor populations and discover species ranges, among other things. Their data is available for researchers to use and is a great resource for many. If you want to learn more follow this link. While at that site we participated in measuring trees. This was a great learning experience and day full of activity but unfortunately it also seemed to be a day that the leeches were very active. Leeches here are much smaller than the ones most of us in the the states are used to, more like inch worms, but they are everywhere. Anytime we went on hikes if you didn’t want to get bit you needed to tuck your pants into your sock, wear two layers of socks, and tuck your shirt in. Often after hikes people would find little leeches attached to their ankles, stomach/back, or even neck. That evening it started to rain.

The next morning it was still pouring. The heavy rain falling from the trees and thundering on the tarps over the tents and kitchen area. About half of the group was leaving to hike back to a small village for the rest of the trip and they left early in the morning. I stayed in the forest, and while we still tried to keep active there wasn’t much to do over the next couple of days as the rain continued relentlessly. Our attempts to find lemurs were fruitless, since they were most likely sheltering from the rain and not very active. Almost every hike turned into a frog catching adventure with the guides miraculously spotting the small camouflaged amphibians in the rain and catching them to show us and tell us a little about them.

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A little frog in Dominique’s hand

Besides frog catching, a lot of time was spent under the kitchen tarp, trying to keep as warm and dry as possible, hanging jackets and fleeces by the fire to dry and reading or playing cards. Finally on the last day, the rain seemed to get lighter, and by the afternoon had stopped, the sun finally shining. We all enjoyed a break from the rain, going on small hikes and watching the Varecia that liked to hang around in the trees above our camp site emerging to feed. In the evening we went out for a final check of the sherman traps. So far we had been unsuccessful, setting 10 traps each night but not catching any mouse lemurs. Expectations weren’t high as the guide went to each trap and said “open”. Then to everyone’s surprise at the final trap the guide told us “closed”. Finally we had caught something. There was still a chance that it could be a rat or have been set off by something else but a quick peek inside revealed the brown fur and huge eyes of the brown mouse lemur (Microcebus rufus). Tensions were high and everyone was excited as we all tried to figure out how to get it out of the small trap. The guides were scrambling and talking quickly amongst themselves but after some discussion the trap was inserted in a bag, and opened, while the top of the bag was held closed. Now a guide was able to reach in and catch the mouse lemur in his hand. This was all done with tough gloves of course since mouse lemurs, although small, are formidable predators, and will not submit easily to being held, biting anything that comes near. The guide and one of the students who had experience with mouse lemurs held it for a few minutes while we looked, and took some pictures, and then it was released onto a tree, quickly scampering away.

A little mouse lemur

Little mouse lemur ~ finally!!

It was a perfect ending to our week of camping in Mangavo. The next morning we were lucky to have clear skies again as we packed up the campsite and made the long walk back down the mountain, past the village, through the rice paddies, and then over the river in the little boats. After all of that it was nice to sit in the van, struggling up the winding roads, thinking of the shower I would take back at CVB.

 

Mangevo: The incredible primary forest on the edge of Ranomafana National Park by Rachel Brodeur

Week 5. Mangevo week. Many of you will not understand the validity of that statement, but anyone who has done research at Centre Valbio knows about this mystical place… Mangevo.

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Spirits are high to start the day

This is a portion of primary forest at the edge of Ranomafana National Park that is just a little more than a hop-skip and a jump away. But every step of the way is worth it, in my opinion. Mangevo is roughly 14 miles through a few different terrains that have their own set of challenges.

The first obstacle is a river that we (well some Malagasy people) have to canoe across.

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Canoe used to cross the Namorona River

The river is within just a few minutes from the start of our walk, but once we cross the river, the real journey begins. The hike starts with rifts and valleys with either clay sediment or dried leaves under our feet. These cliffs go back and forth between exposed valleys with lots of sun, to more cool, shaded, tree coverage that tend to come after an uphill climb. This section was one of my favorites because you can see the vast mountain ranges and small villages when you come to the clearings. Also, having some shade on the warm day was very pleasant.

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Views of the vast mountain ranges throughout the hike

The next terrain that we had to maneuver was the rice patties. This proved to be very interesting because it is very low in the valley, therefore very wet. We definitely gave up on trying to keep our feet dry, because it was either get your feet wet, or risk falling off the single branch bridges that were set over the mud pits. My balance did not condone the latter, so needless to say I got my feet wet. Other than the mud and nondescript trails that we were traveling, the patties were manageable.

Finally, after about six hours of hiking, we had reached the edge of the forest which was the last terrain we had to conquer in order to get to the campsite. Seeing the edge of this beautiful primary forest was both exciting and nerve-racking. We knew that this was the final stretch, but we also knew that these last two hours were going to be quite, well, vertical. So, after stopping in a nice shady spot for lunch, we were ready to tackle this mountain. At this point, we were already pretty tired, but we knew the campsite was just around the corner! My motivation came from the incredible trees and the insane amount of green that was surrounding me. I knew that it could only get better as we got deeper into the forest. And wow, was I right!

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Tena mafanaBe aho ~ I am very hot! Ready to take on the mountain

We walk into the campsite completely covered in sweat, basically shaking from that endeavour, but all I could pay attention to was this grand forest around me. The most spectacular thing was the buttress roots on the trees like nothing I had ever seen before!

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The amazing buttress roots

After the initial magic of the campsite had passed, I remembered how hot I was, so decided to head down to the river. Once again, took my breath away (it may have been because I was so tired, but we’ll give credit to its beauty)! There was a sequence of trickling water falls, frogs chirping, and beautiful moss covering the landscape. I submerged myself into the water and it was one of the best feelings I have ever had. I was here, I made it, I was in Mangevo.

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Pictures can’t do trees justice

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One of the small waterfalls along the river

The next two days consisted of lemurs coming to hang out int the trees near our campsite (apparently they like it too), a few hikes, frog searches in the river, and some really great quality time with the group.

My favorite part was getting to see a Tenrec, which is kind of like a hedgehog. I had been hoping to see one since coming to Madagascar, and there it was in one of the pitfall traps we set up.

Unfortunately, we did not see the infamous aye-aye (Daubentoniidae madagascariensis) because they tend to be pretty shy and stealthy. There hasn’t been an aye-aye sighting since 2015 on one of the camera traps, but we have seen evidence of them, so they are out there somewhere! Other than that, I just tried to take in the magnificence of the forest because I only had two days there, and then I headed off to Amboasary village to end my camping trip.

Thursday morning came around, and the weather was just as sad as I was to be leaving the forest, because it was the first day of rain since we arrived. The small group of us going to the village packed up our stuff, and headed back out on another interesting journey. Amboasary is about 80% of the way back to the road, so we had to do almost all of the hike again. Luckily, there were more downhills, but there were also whole new set of challenges now… wetness. I would say picture this hike as how I described it earlier, just add water-everywhere.

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One of the many obstacles we had to cross, not too wet yet

We were drenched head to toe from the rain, to the soggy patties, to rushing rivers (that were more like streams when we crossed the first time) and of course filled with mud! Honestly, it sounds pretty dreadful but it was a great group of people and we had a lot of fun! We were singing songs in both Malagasy and English, we had some great conversation, and we never even got thirsty with the constant flow of water soaking into our bodies.

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Foggy and rainy views from the hike on Thursday

We hiked for about 5 hours that day, and then we finally made it to Amboasary, and were greeted by the many village kids, as well as some familiar faces from the CVB research teams.

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We made it to Amboasary

It was an interesting day setting up camp because the ground had pools of water, and we had limited access to tree coverage. So, we set up in the old school house. A fair amount of manual labor went into putting tarps on the roof and clearing out as much water as possible, but everyone chipped in and we were so excited to take off our wet boots and chill before dinner. That evening was very relaxed, we visited the Amboasary King (this is part of Malagasy tradition when you come to a village), and practiced some self care and went to bed early.

Friday came around, and I was so ready to get to know this village! We set out to conduct surveys asking questions about forest conservation, hygiene, women’s health, music, and general aspects of the village. I learned a lot from sitting in on these interviews, and I would say it was a very successful morning because of that. Then, in the afternoon, we were finished with the surveys so we just got to hang out with all the kiddos.

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Singing with the kids and Madame Hery

They are very intrigued by us vazaha (foreigners) and stuck to us like glue. I didn’t mind though, because they are tana mafatifaty (very cute). They taught me a few of their favorite songs, and I did the same! Working at a camp paid off because they really think it’s funny that there are no bananas in the sky. I was lucky enough to know some Malagasy to communicate with them, but when there is music and games the language barrier is much less intense.

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Dance party in Amboasary

I had such a wonderful time learning about Amboasary, and the people there and it made it really hard to leave on Saturday morning.

When it came time to leave, we packed up early and waited for the “forest group” to meet us so we could travel the rest of the way together. It was hard leaving the village, but I was ready to get out of my wet clothes and scrub the inch of dirt off of me that had accumulated throughout the week.

The final leg of the hike was quite pleasant. It was a beautiful day, and since it was only about an hour hike back to the road everyone who stayed in the village was feeling strong that morning.

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Final views as we head back to CVB

We crossed the river by canoe once again, and I knew we were close, and it was only about 5 more minutes of walking and we made it back to the road. It felt so good to have accomplished this journey to Mangevo, it is a pretty legendary experience for people here in Ranomafana, and now I can see why. From the beautiful views, to the great people, everything about this week was rewarding. I will remember the rainforest and the people of Amboasary forever, and the sweat, rain, and sore calves will only be faint memories compared to those made throughout my time at Mangevo.

Mobile Health Team Visit by Amanda Mullaney

On Sunday, we were offered the opportunity to visit one of the local villages where Centre ValBio’s Mobile Health Team was working. CVB’s Mobile Health Team currently consists of one doctor, one midwife, and four nurses, who travel to 22 villages around Ranomafana National Park to deliver free medical services. health1The team is an incredibly important asset to the community as most or all of the villages they work with are only accessible by foot, meaning that the villagers must travel extremely far if they need medical attention. Due to the geographic barrier, the fact that receiving health care is typically far too expensive for villagers to afford, and due to other factors, the health team visits are often the only time villagers receive any sort of health care.

Most students here are interested in biology, conservation, or other areas of study similar to our program’s focus. health2I do appreciate what we study here and feel like I have learned a lot, but people and medicine are my passions. I’d like to attend medical school and eventually work for an organisation where I can practice health care in a global setting, particularly in a developing country like Madagascar. Having the opportunity to observe what Doctor Ando and the team do each day was a really great opportunity for me.

Arriving to the village was shocking initially because I didn’t realize just how far removed from the main roads it was. I imagined as we were walking there how difficult it must be to make that same walk, but minus the shoes and good health and with an added baby or two on my back. However, the people we have met are resilient. In most ways, they live much harder lives than we do, but they seem to appreciate so much more. All three village kings that we have met have been extremely welcoming, even going as far as to invite us into their own homes and offer us food and drinks. The villagers are no different, and try to communicate with us even though we come into their country, on their land, and don’t even speak their language. On another day in another village, I had taken off my shoes and socks after stepping in mud and a little boy around the age of ten picked them up and washed them in the river for me. That sort of kindness is exhibited here every day to us.health3

I also appreciated the villagers letting me sit in on their medical appointments as I can see how invasive that may feel. It was so different from how health care is practiced in the United States since of course they do not use any electronics. Each villager has to keep their own medical records in a little book and bring it with them each time they receive care. The doctor initially briefly reviews their medical history and then proceeds to assess whatever the patient has come in for. Most patients had some sort of flu, but some also came in with asthma, different types of infections, or burns and other injuries. The “office” was set up in what I would call a four to five person tent, which only has enough space to hold a table for medicines, a small table with two chairs for the doctor and patient to sit at, and a reclining exam table. Patients sat outside in a long line waiting for it to be their turn. After a while, the Health Team took a break and our group had time to spend with the villagers. We gave the kids candy and played music for them to play games and dance to. Overall, it was an amazing day and I’m looking forward to spending more days in the villages and with the Mobile Health Team.

“Typical” Madagascar by Amanda Thomas

Looking back on this past week, I hesitate to label it “typical,” but I realize that as we settle into familiar routines and finally begin to feel at home in our surroundings, this life has become our new normal.

Our study abroad group is still at Centre ValBio, where we enjoy eating hot meals, sleeping in actual beds, taking regular showers, and attending lectures with fancy things like projectors and tables. (Next week we’re camping in Mangevo, which will be a whole ‘nother story!) Outside of going to classes and catching up on required readings, we took a few excursions away from the research center.

Sundays are usually off-days, which means optional market visits, so this week I took the hour-long walk down to the center of Ranomafana. There, I tried fried street food, custom-ordered a handmade scarf, picked up some imported snacks, and perused the market stalls selling everything from local fruit to dishes to clothing items.

weaving

A weaving loom where scarves, tablecloths, and blankets are handmade by local women

One misty night, we grabbed our headlamps and raincoats to walk down the winding mountain road to see some nocturnal wildlife (and sleeping diurnal creatures, if we could find them).

Apparently, we weren’t the only ones with this idea as we met several other tour groups, but there were plenty of animals to share! Chameleons, frogs, birds, and of course lemurs were among the many rainforest animals we saw and heard. One of the easiest ways to find them, and probably my favorite thing about night hikes, is spotting their eyeshine (the reflection of light in an animal’s pupil due to the presence of an iridescent layer called the tapetum lucidum that aids in night vision). You can never be sure whose eyes they are until you get close enough to see the entire animal, which is all part of the fun. For example, you’re walking along the road (hopefully keeping a better eye on your path than Alicia, who managed to fall in a hole over her head!), slowly sweeping your flashlight across the dense, noisy vegetation and suddenly you catch a glimpse of something reflective. Is it the telltale flash of a skittish mouse lemur, watching you from its perch high up in a tree? The slow blink of a herd of docile zebu being rounded up for the night? The microscopic pinpricks of a large, gangly spider dangling from an even larger web? The sharp gaze of a stray dog, curious about all these humans wandering about in the fog? The translucent globes belonging to a tiny frog nestled in a damp stone crevice? Come a little closer, my dear, and find out!

frog

One of our froggy findings from the night hike. For such tiny creatures, they can make a big racket

Another afternoon, we took the short, but steep trek up to an endemic tree nursery. The students were seated in front of two mounds of dirt, given a brief demonstration on how to properly pack

soil into the plastic bags used to start saplings, and pitted against each other in a competition to see who could make the most dirt bags. After time was called (the team on the right won), we learned how to plant and cover the seeds (this time, the team on the left finished first). At the end of the day, we counted nearly 300 newly planted trees, which will eventually be handed over to local conservation teams for reforestation efforts.

tree nursery

Digging shallow holes with our fingers, planting the date-sized seeds horizontally, and covering with more dirt— a group effort

Everybody took a trip to a nearby village at least once this week, but many of us also took advantage of the two health-oriented village trips to see how local medical teams serviced the remote villages of Ranomafana National Park. Because some of the villages physically cannot be accessed by vehicle, they required a moderate hike through rice paddies and along narrow, hilly paths of sunbaked clay. These one-time hikes for us were hard enough, yet many villagers make the trek quite often in order to go to the market or even attend school. Standard procedure for foreigner visits to villages included visiting the village king first, who asked for the ancestors’ blessing with the sharing of moonshine. Afterwards, depending on the purpose of the trip, we observed doctor appointments with the traveling health team, sat in on general interviews, took turns playing games with the kids, and enjoyed song-and-dance performances put together by the villagers.

walk

A portion of the long, narrow trail leading to a remote village.  Note the signature traveler’s palm in the distance. 

Of course, it would be remiss to omit the fact that we just completed our first exam (last-minute study sessions and lots of hand-cramping included), but since none of us wish to dwell on it longer than absolutely necessary, I’ll end with this statement instead: a typical week in Madagascar sure beats a week back home any day!