Day 1: Travel
Any trip abroad makes me a little anxious because the distance I travel away from the comfort of home. However, venturing out of my comfort zone helps me embrace challenges. These challenges can lead to valuable personal growth. This study abroad trip is my first trip to Africa. When I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa and transferred to our flight to Madagascar, I had an interesting experience that I never have in an airport. Instead of going through a tunnel to get into the airplane we got onto a bus from the terminal to where the airplane was and walked up and onto it. I found this experience exciting as I got to see the airplane up close before I boarded. The overall travel took around 20 hours in total. I feel very jet lagged. But it was surreal feeling when the airplane touched land in Madagascar. I met Frank and Tharcisse for the first time at the Madagascar Airport. Frank helped us exchange our money. I also met the two Malagasy students who will be joining us on our study abroad trip. Their names are Fano and Antso. They have just recently graduated with their masters. After our introduction and exchanging money. We headed to Tana. Our group traveled in a green mini bus with all the luggage tied to the roof of the bus.
Antananarivo (Tana), Capital city of Madagascar
As we travel the roads of Madagascar, it was interesting to see how the cars and people went about traffic without the means of traffic signs or signals. The only sign of traffic was seen occasionally around a roundabout where a traffic officer led traffic. People would walk extremely close to the cars. It’s incredible to see how they navigated with such lack of signs and signals.
Tana is a very populated city. As we drove by the street and cities, it was easy to detect that Madagascar has been influenced by many different countries and culture as we drove by. From what I have seen, there seems to be large Asian influence with many restaurants advertising Asian cuisine. The Malagasy people themselves look like a blend of Asian and African roots. Along the streets of the city were shacks and stands of local vendors selling bits and pieces of spare parts for things used and new. There were also food vendors selling all sorts of Malagasy snacks. Used clothes were hung on racks and sold by the sidewalks.
I found it fascinating how the Malagasy people reacted to the 60-70° F weather. It’s different from that of people in the US. Normally in America around this time, people start to wear shorts and short sleeve shirts or even tank tops. However, in Madagascar, summertime for us is winter for them. The 60-70° F is cold for them and many people were seen wearing sweaters, hats, scarfs, long sleeve t-shirt and pants.
The group is staying at St. Laurent Hotel. I am sharing a room with Michelle and Fano. There is usually only one outlet in each room which I found annoying yet enlightening. It’s amazing to see how little importance electronics are to Malagasy people compared to people in the developed world such as myself. I didn’t realize how dependent I was on my laptop and phone until I came here. Wifi and access to internet was also something that I realized that I was so dependent on.
We had dinner at the hotel. I had chicken and rice for my first dinner here. The spices are different than what would normally be put on chicken back home. Another option for dinner which I wish I had tried because it was something new I never heard of before called zebu meat. Zebu is species like cows. I think in future meals here I will try to be more adventurous with my choice. Rice is a staple here and locals have it 3 times a day. This was evident by the abundance of Rice fields we passed by on our way to the hotel.
Rice paddies are all over
Overall, the travel and the first day in Madagascar were successful. Everyone arrived safe and sound. The getting to know everyone on my study abroad trip, cultural adjustment and learning the Malagasy language in the following weeks will help me have a successful study abroad.
I woke up early, at around 5:30 AM, and stood out on the balcony. The sun was just rising over the city of Tana. The air was fresh and dewy. We had to be up early and head over to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, where we’d spend the next 2-3 days. I was excited for what the day would bring. Shan and I got ready and headed down for breakfast. It was pretty delicious–I had a croissant with marmalade and guava juice. Dr. Patricia Wright had joined us to give a brief introduction to the study abroad and her role as director of Centre ValBio. She spoke about how the Centre back to be and the sort of work they’re currently doing, from lemurs to the Global Health Institute team. Listening to her speak made me realize how important it was for me to immerse myself into the culture and really make the most out of my experience at Madagascar and my research project. Once we finished eating, we were on our way. We first stopped at Madagascar Exotic Reserve Peyrieras, a reptile reserve near Antananarivo.
At the Peyrieras reserve
Once we got there, we were able to see and interact with many Propithecus coquereli (sifaka lemurs), which were recently introduced in the area. We fed them rice and bananas and took a bunch of photos. They were beautiful and soft to touch as well. We also saw Nile crocodiles, snakes, chameleons, butterflies, and frogs that were all native to Madagascar. The diversity of the wildlife present was incredible.
After we finished up, we headed over to a hotel near Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. We had a Malagasy lesson from Frank and Kate, who taught us the basics, such as how to say hello (Salama), thank you (Misaotra), good-bye (Veloma) and so on. It was overwhelming at first, but I was able to ask Fano and Antso for clarification and practice help, which I was grateful for. That night we went on a short night walk in search of lemurs and other wildlife.
We all went outside and turned on our red lights, to not disturb the animals. Our guides were making lemur sounds and shining light into the forest. They had said that if the light reflects back, it is likely the eyes of a lemur or the body of an animal such as a chameleon. We were able to see a mouse lemur, which is a nocturnal lemur. We also saw the Brown leaf chameleon (Brookesia superciliaris), which is the smallest chameleon. It was originally difficult to see, because it was sitting at the very tip of a leaf. Apparently they do this so that they can easily escape predators such as snakes.
Overall, the day was incredibly fun and I loved being able to step out of my comfort zone and interact with the environment in this way.
After 2 exciting days spent in Madagascar, we visited a National Park of Andasibe. The area has been protected since 1975, which is a wonderful testament to the Malagasy people striving to save some of the natural forest that remains. We toured the visitor center and learned more about various lemurs found in the park. I also posed near a life size cutout of a species of lemur that became extinct once the island was inhabited by people. I couldn’t fathom a lemur standing as tall as me.
An extinct lemur!
Today our group would be making a trip into the forest on a mission to spot Indri in their natural habitat. We were greeted by our tour guide, who actually grew up in a nearby village. It was very interesting to find out that he was knowledgeable in various languages due to the range of tourists that visited the park since beginning his job in the 1990’s. People from all over the world have visited this park just to see the rare Indri and I could now be counted amongst them.
Indri indri, the remaining largest lemur of Madagascar
We began our trek through a cleared path winding through the trees. Soon enough it turned into quite a hike, as we climbed upwards on steps carved out of the mountain. We reached a bridge spanning across a river and continued on. Eventually we were surrounded by the dense forest and the sounds of nature, as we listened to the call of the Indri. Voices hushed as they suddenly appeared, swinging from tree to tree above us. Everyone was in awe and tried their best to snap a picture of this elusive species. It seemed as though they were observing us, while chomping on their choice of leaves. We followed them further down the mountain and were able to spot four lemurs at once!
In what seemed like no time at all, they leapt out of sight, and we began our hike back. Along the way we discussed the diverse flora and fauna found in Madagascar. The tour guide spoke about some of the plants that are eaten and warned us especially about certain types of mushrooms and how to detect if they are poisonous. In these moments it certainly struck me that I know very little about the environment that surrounds me back home. Nature is not something that I usually consider part of my life, because I am so far removed from it. Yet, here in Madagascar, I am quickly learning how important it is to have a knowledge of the surrounding environment in order to cherish and preserve it for future generations.
Once we left the reserve it was time to return to the hotel for lunch. I would be having zebu and rice, which was usually my meal of choice. I have never eaten so much steak in my life until I arrived in Madagascar. Zebu is a prized possession among Malagasy and is not often part of their everyday meals. We learned from Katherine and Kate, the graduate TA’s who accompanied us on our study abroad trip, that most people eat a meal of rice and beans or vegetables. When we were driving to our hotel in Andasibe I recalled seeing zebu being used to plow fields on the terraced mountain sides, thus it seems they have more value as machinery for farming.
Looking across the table as we ate lunch I saw that some of us opted for chicken, seafood, or soup. The vegetables usually served with our meals included zucchini, potatoes and carrots, which may be in season now. Eating food only when they are in season is an issue we usually do not deal with in America, because many of our produce is imported. It was refreshing to eat fruits like bananas, and oranges and have guava juice, most likely picked that day or bought from a local vendor.
Later in the evening we went on a night walk, and were able to spot a tree frog nestled in some leaves. Our original aim was to spot mouse lemurs, but we were able to only locate their yellow eyes shining back at us a few times in the distance.
Spotting a tree frog at night
Aside from the many creatures lurking at night, I constantly found myself staring up at the sky amazed by the plethora of twinkling stars, that would usually be drowned out by light pollution where I’m from.
All in all, the joy I received from something as small as staring up at the night sky or ,on the other hand, the rare sight of an Indri, encompasses my experience in Madagascar thus far.
There is beauty to be found in all places.