Madagascar in Ten Photos and One Thousand Words

The day I received my Peace Corps invitation, I began (helplessly, subconsciously, but inevitably) forming wild expectations about what life would be like in the great beyond. I told others: “No, no, I have no idea and I like it that way. I will find out when I get off the plane.” In reality, I researched frantically, and even more frantically began building this alternative world in my mind, trying always to imagine the unimaginable life that awaited me there.
At the crux of this imaginary world was a narrative of personal struggle and growth, of obstacles surmounted, of ultimate acceptance in a place far beyond and far away. And when I finally did step off that plane, I found that world. Madagascar was exotic, and welcoming, and everything unimaginable that I thought it would be. And in keeping with the narrative, there have been countless times when I have stopped to think: I do belong here.


But there was a secondary narrative which equally defined my time in Madagascar. For every moment that I stopped to think I belong, I also recognized that I was something fundamentally foreign in this land. It was not just my white skin, or the fact that I was tall in a country of moderately to very short people. It was something that went much deeper, to my identity, to my worldview, to my understanding of myself. In my three years, I made countless friends, worked, lived, laughed, and shared among Malagasy people, but as long as I stayed I would be forever defined by my difference, by what set me apart.


 I know, from a distance life in Madagascar looks beautiful. And it absolutely is. Not just the tropical beaches, the coral reefs, the rain forests, the terraced rice paddies, the mountains and waterfalls. It is often understated, something quiet and simple. The pace of life removed from all the rush of the modern world. The people. Stalks of rice laid out to dry. The sound of rain on the roof at night. The slow rising of a village in the early morning. Mounds of fruit piled colorfully up in the market. Canoes scattered across a perfect blue sea.


But life in Madagascar can also be mundane, unpleasant, downright horrid. Only on the rarest of occasions is it glamorous. This photo is the view from my back porch in my first village: I would sit and stare at this for hours daily. Crushing heat, crushing boredom. Dust. Mud. Screaming children. Bugs in your food. Dirty water. No food. No water. My time in Madagascar was defined as much, if not more, by these long hours and small steady hardships as than it was by the beauty of the place and the people. They are two sides of the same coin.
I would be remiss though, if I did not concede that living in Madagascar was tremendously cool. There is no place like it. Chameleons stroll across the road in their strange jerk-step manner. The water always seems to be bioluminescent. Whole villages smell of cloves and vanilla. Lemurs may not actually be as prevalent as squirrels, but after three years they became routine enough to be unexciting. I witnessed bull sacrifices and exorcisms, met witches and conjurers. I drank coconuts fresh fallen from trees and sent kids out to fetch mangos. I did a thousand things I could not have imagined, things that it now seems unimaginable I could have not done.
In the same vein, Madagascar is an adventurers playground. Strike off in any direction, by brousse or boat, on foot, even by plane, and you are bound to stumble across the unexpected. It would be unfair and inaccurate to label the country uncivilized- but it is a land stuck in a different time. Or, if you will, a non-time, where the broken is never fixed, where isolation and disintegration work in collaboration, where the notion of a difficult journey must be redefined. The going was rarely easy, but almost always rewarding.
One side of the Peace Corps life that people rarely see, hear, or speak of, are the downswings. For every rewarding work experience, for every epic adventure and beautiful beach, there was a dark time. Constant illness. Loneliness. An overwhelming sense of the futility of what you are attempting. A reckoning with your own naiveté. Isolation. Heat stroke. Near constant mockery and harassment. Mefloquine dreams. Language barriers. Emotional and physical exhaustion. Fear of missing out, wasting away in obscurity, and being forgotten.
Of course, I ultimately discovered, these battles are with yourself. And standing at the end of a long and rocky road, I can say that overcoming each of these dark times, often many times, empowered me many times over. Come on, if I can bounce back from my face looking like that, I can bounce back from anything.


 Through it all- the good, the bad, and the ugly- the most important lesson I learned was simple. Simplify. In my village, the things that I used every single day hung in a row on my wall: keys, second-hand hat, backpack, bag, and rice winnower. (The snake stick was, admittedly, for extracurricular adventures). Already, I look back on this and it seems impossible. But the purest and calmest happiness that I felt in Madagascar was in those quiet village moments, when nothing much was happening at all.
 A country is not an empty place. You arrive to find it full of people living their lives, and when you depart those lives go on without you. Though I take many things, the greatest portion of the Madagascar-shaped hole in my heart is filled with the faces of those people with whom I passed my days. I will be forever changed by the things that they taught me, whether they meant to or not.
 In the end, I don’t need a thousand words to describe all that was Madagascar. I can do it in four: Just Embrace It All.
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Five Things

Five Things That Happened:


1. Robberies: Before I left, everyone said: watch out for crime in Africa! Now, returning wiser and decidedly poorer, I say: if you are going to Madagascar, save yourself some energy and leave anything of emotional or tangible worth at home. If you absolutely must bring an item of value, I recommend having it welded to your body. At least then you will have the satisfaction of knowing how it was stolen from you.

2. Snuggling with Lemurs: Yes, this happened. More than once. 



3. My Feet Will Never be the Same: I no longer have feet, I have scarred stumps where my feet once were. It makes walking awkward

4. Unimaginable Illnesses: Yes, this also happened. No, I never figured out why.



5. A Life-Changing Experience: Everybody said it would be. They were right. Some things are as advertised. 



Five Things That Didn’t Happen:


1. Evacuation: After being evacuated from Niger and landing in Madagascar, we were told that we would be lucky to finish out two years. Every successive training group was told the same thing. I finished out three. Total political stasis has its unexpected upsides.

2. Getting Married: Nope.

3. Having a Little African Baby: Definitely nope.

4. Adopting a Little African Baby: Also a nope. Though there were offers…

5. Getting Sucked into a Black Hole and Staying Forever: Apparently everyone’s greatest fear. Really people, Madagascar is cool but it isn’t THAT cool. 



Five Numbers:


1. Numer of times I was robbed (or, more accurately, relieved of items I had not welded to my body): 10

2. Approximate* Number of Lemur Species I have Seen: 35

3. Number of Children who were named after me: 1/2 (NOT an approximation)

4. Number of Madagascar Photos Stored on my Computer: 8,335

5. Number of Days in Madagascar: 1,032



Five Medications I am Required to Take After Leaving the Country:


1. Mefloquine: To suppress any malaria latent in my bloodstream.

2. Primaquine Phosphate: To flush out any malaria lying latent in my liver. 

3. Albendazole: To clear my system of any potential worms lying in wait.

4. Ciproflaxin: To clear my system of the very definite e. colis which was lying in wait.

5. Praziquantal: To clear my system of any potential schistosomiasis lying in wait. 



Five Must-See Places in Madagascar:


1. Masoala National Park: Much more than just rainforest! 

2. Isalo National Park: Roaming packs of ringtail lemurs!

3. Diego Suarez and the Bay of Diego: Northern Madagascar at its finest!

4. Tsingy (Ankarana or Bemaraha): A landscape unique to Madagascar and uniquely difficult to walk on!

5. Andringitra National Park: Just don’t go in February!



Five (Less Obvious*) Things I Will Miss:


1. The Inclusive and Exclusive We: You are probably not aware that there is a major gap in the English language, a gap which is a source of major confusion and, I believe, repressed anxiety. Has many times has someone said to you: “Yea, we’re going to that party tomorrow” and you thought to yourself “We? Does that include me? Am I invited? Am I expected???” Not a problem in Malagasy: the separate inclusive and exclusive we make it undeniably clear whether you are or are not invited to/expected at that party. 

2. Questionable English: It just makes me happy, unless you’re speaking it to me. 



3. TV that Looks like It’s from the 1970’s: Malagasy state TV…almost as technically impressive as that high school television channel that was produced down the hall from third period. Almost…

4. Yogurt Break: The number one reason in Madagascar to get to work before 10am.

5. Coke with Real Sugar: Not only is Madagascar Coca-Cola served exclusively in glass bottles, it is also still made with real sugar. That’s right, antiquity tastes better.



Five Things I Hate Right Now but Know I Will Miss (Someday…Eventually…Maybe):


1. Rice: I hate rice. I never want to see another grain of rice again. I’m hungry. Where is my rice?

2. Chaos: Every day in Madagascar is chaos. Nothing goes right or according to plan. When it does go right it only means you are accruing a chaos and unpredictability debt which will later be cashed in in devastating fashion. Someday, when I am leading an ordered and dull life I may long for these days past, but for now: please, life, just proceed as expected. 

3. Oppressive Heat: As it is looking more and more likely that I will spend the next two years of my life freezing in a sub-arctic climate (also known as the Northern half of the United States), I know the day will come when I yearn for days hot enough to melt my brain inside my skull.  But as my brain is still slowly re-congealing, that day is probably long off.

4. Unexpected Visitors: I love visitors. I even used to love unannounced visitors. Until I moved to Madagascar and they began arriving in (pick your favorite water analogy) streams, torrents, or deluges. Yes, I actually hid in my house. That happened.

5. That “Yes, the words coming out of my mouth are actually Malagasy” Conversation: Speaking Malagasy is cool. Speaking Malagasy to a Malagasy person who understands the Malagasy words coming out of your mouth but refuses to believe a white person is speaking Malagasy…is less cool. 



*Because only dorks count lemurs,

and I am not a dork.


**Because, of course I am going to miss 

tropical beaches, fresh fruit, and

100% flexible working hours.


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Reading Tolstoy in Madagascar

 Before I left for the Peace Corps, I did something a little unusual. I ordered a hundred books, used, off the internet, and packaged them up in ten boxes that lined the upstairs hallway of my family house. I’d heard that saving the world might actually include a fair amount of free time and figured that there was no better way to pass it than to read my way through the classics of modern literature. Besides, I told myself,  pending long future stretches of unemployment, forced commitment to a mental institution, or retreat to a nuclear fall-out shelter, I may never have such free time again.

      I started with Modern Library’s “Hundred Modern Classics” as a framework. Having already read about a third of those, I drew from other Top 100 lists. (I chose, of course, books with the vague potential to be interesting, deliberately neglecting those whose very titles threatened an instant coma. That’s right, Angle of Repose, that is why you didn’t make the cut). With some solicited recommendations, the list was rounded out, the boxes quickly filled and set to follow me to the other side of the world. 

      It took three years, not two, but as I leave Madagascar I am on the verge of finishing (98 down, 2 to go!). And as I look back, I realize that these books represent the greatest continuity in my past few years. Even as I have bounced around- from Niger to Madagascar, from training to life as a volunteer, in criss-crossing the island for work and play, and in moving from the west coast to the east for a final year- they have been the thread along which my experience was assembled, piece by piece. Often they were the lens through which I interpreted it. Wherever I went, whatever I did, one of those books was in my backpack.

      The books helped to pass the endless afternoon hours of village inactivity and the long deafening rainstorms that pounded the tin roof and made talk impossible. I read them while waiting at the taxi-brousse station in stifling heat and, more often than not, later too, while waiting in billowing roadside dust for the same brousse to be repaired. I read them at the bank, shielding my eyes from the impossibly long and disorganized line which stood between me and the money for a month’s survival. Sometimes, they were the only thing which made me happy, though occasionally they made me perfectly miserable (that’s right, Moby Dick, I am talking about you). I would go so far as to say that these books helped to keep me warm at night, but here in the tropical belt that was just never necessary.

      I read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying my first week in my village: its tone, and my mortal fear of leaving the house, made me only slightly envious of that poor woman in the coffin who gets holes drilled in her face. I brought Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men on my first trip to the countryside and, learning a thing or two about the pace of the Malagasy work excursion, read it cover to cover in one impossibly long and boring day. I lugged The Brothers Karamazov up a mountain- a mountain no one had mentioned in the directions- and cursed each of the brothers, their complicated lives, and Dostoevsky in turn. I tucked Leaves of Grass into my backpack when I went South for the first time, and though I didn’t read much of it, I came to associate the open, flowing prose with the hills, grass, and emptiness of pastoral life there.

      In fact, the things I read, the words that I was stuffing into my head, became deeply associated with where I was. The memories are entangled still. It is an association that extends far beyond place and has much more to do with what I was thinking and feeling about life in Madagascar. I remember reading Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained the first time I realized I was happy in my village; it was evening, the rain was passing, and the kids were running home from school. A long stretch of doldrums- heat and hunger season, illness and unrest- was marked by A Farewell to Arms. Nothing made me reflect more on the quiet and dignified poverty of village life than Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And yes, I read War and Peace, every single word, in a still and very happy week not long into my second year. 

      As I read my books, I left them behind. They piled up in impromptu Peace Corps libraries in Ambanja and Diego, in Maroantsetra and Tana. Then they scattered to the winds. I find them now in the oddest places and in the hands of people I don’t know. And I am always excited to discover my books again. It seems the most fitting thing, for the thread of my experience to be cast to the far-flung corners of Madagascar, the books to serve as someone else’s lens, the words recast in someone else’s narrative.

      So I leave, and I leave all but two of my books behind. I cannot, after all, be expected to embark into the next chapter empty handed. I bring with me arguably the greatest work of ancient literature, Homer’s The Odyssey, and the seemingly undisputed greatest work of modern literature, Joyce’s Ulysses. It isn’t an accident, or a fear of a great works of literature, which led me to leave these two for last. No, this too seemed a fitting conclusion to a three-year thread. What are they, if not different words to tell the same story?



 The Complete List*

  1. Ulysses- James Joyce 
  2. Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man- James Joyce (6/16/11)
  3. The Sound and the Fury- William Faulkner (2/11/11)
  4. Catch-22- Joseph Heller (8/11/11)
  5. Darkness at Noon- Arthur Koestler (9/10/10)
  6. Sons and Lovers- D.H. Lawrence (6/3/12)
  7. Hamlet- Shakespeare (8/23/10)
  8. The Way of All Flesh- Samuel Butler (11/2/11)
  9. I, Claudius- Robert Graves (9/26/11)
  10. To the Lighthouse- Virginia Woolf (9/13/10)
  11. An American Tragedy- Theodore Dreiser (12/7/12)
  12. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter- Carson McCullers (11/4/10)
  13. Slaughterhouse Five- Kurt Vonnegut (2/4/12)
  14. Invisible Man- Ralph Ellison (8/28/10)
  15. My Antonia- Willa Cather (4/2/11)
  16. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained- John Milton (3/14/10)
  17. Appointment in Samarra- John O’Hara (8/30/10)
  18. Winesburg, Ohio- Sherwood Anderson (11/11/11)
  19. The Ambassadors- Henry James (10/13/12)
  20. Tender is the Night- F. Scott Fitzgerald (2/26/10)
  21. The Good Soldier- Ford Madox Ford (11/22/10)
  22. The Golden Bowl- Henry James (2/18/13)
  23. Sister Carrie- Theodore Dreiser (4/1/12)
  24. A Handful of Dust- Evelyn Waugh (2/3/10)
  25. As I Lay Dying- William Faulkner (2/1/10)
  26. All the King’s Men- Robert Penn Warren (5/4/10)
  27. Howard’s End- E.M. Forster (12/27/12)
  28. Go Tell it on the Mountain- James Baldwin (6/17/10)
  29. Hard Times- Dickens (12/14/2012)
  30. Richard III- Shakespeare (2/6/13)
  31. Point Counter Point- Aldos Huxley (10/28/12)
  32. East of Eden- John Steinbeck (6/7/10)
  33. Nostromo- Joseph Conrad (11/6/11)
  34. Women in Love- D.H. Lawrence (5/5/11)
  35. Tropic of Cancer- Henry Miller (8/11/10)
  36. Portnoy’s Complaint- Phillip Roth (2/21/12)
  37. The Age of Innocence- Edith Wharton (5/15/11)
  38. Chronicle of a Death Foretold- Gabriel Garcia Marquez (6/2/10)
  39. Death Comes for the ArchBishop- Willa Cather (2/28/10)
  40. From Here to Eternity- James Jones (3/27/11)
  41. Of Human Bondage- M. Somerset Maughum (1/20/13)
  42. Heart of Darkness- Joseph Conrad (6/18/10)
  43. Main Street- Sinclair Lewis (10/20/10)
  44. House of Mirth- Edith Wharton (6/28/10)
  45. Farewell to Arms- Ernest Hemingway (2/23/10)
  46. A Room with a View- EM Forster (8/26/10)
  47. Midnight’s Children- Salman Rushdie (11/15/09)
  48. The French Lieutenant’s Woman- John Fowles (12/11/10)
  49. Sophie’s Choice- William Styron (4/2/11)
  50. Winter of Our Discontent- John Steinbeck (3/23/10)
  51. A Prayer for Owen Meany- John Irving (3/15/10)
  52. The Glass Menagerie- Tennessee Williams (12/5/11)
  53. Handmaid’s Tale- Margaret Atwood (11/28/10)
  54. Travel’s with Charley- John Steinbeck (11/24/09)
  55. Blood Meridian- Cormac McCarthy (2/24/11)
  56. Moby Dick- Herman Melville (11/20/10)
  57. The Satanic Verses- Salman Rushdie (3/20/12)
  58. Oliver Twist- Dickens (1/1/13)
  59. Brothers Karamazov- Fyodor Dostoevsky (8/5/10)
  60. Anna Karenina- Leo Tolstoy (11/21/11)
  61. American Pastoral- Phillip Roth (11/13/12)
  62. Crime and Punishment- Fyodor Dostoevsky (2/20/11)
  63. A Tale of Two Cities- Dickens (9/2/10)
  64. The Day of the Locust- Nathanael West (7/14/10)
  65. Walden and Civil Disobedience- Henry David Thoreau (4/12/10)
  66. The Golden Notebook- Doris Lessing (3/7/10)
  67. Gravity’s Rainbow- Thomas Pychon (4/3/11)
  68. Play it as it Lays- Joan Didion (11/29/09)
  69. Rabbit Run- John Updike (6/24/10)
  70. This Side of Paradise- F. Scott Fitzgerald (3/6/12)
  71. Wide Sargasso Sea- Jean Rhys (9/3/10)
  72. Leaves of Grass- Walt Whitman (1/25/11)
  73. Song of Solomon- Toni Morrison (6/30/12)
  74. For Whom the Bell Tolls- Ernest Hemingway (2/1/11)
  75. Jane Eyre- Charlotte Bronte (12/5/10)
  76. The Confessions of Nat Turner- William Styron (11/9/10)
  77. Middlemarch- George Eliot (6/24/11)
  78. Fountainhead- Ayn Rand (6/23/10)
  79. War and Peace- Leo Tolstoy (4/30/11)
  80. Twelfth Night- Shakespeare (11/5/10)
  81. MacBeth- Shakespeare (8/20/11)
  82. The Essential Kafka (1/14/13)
  83. Self-Reliance- Ralph Waldo Emerson (2/27/11)
  84. Labyrinths- Jorge Luis Borges (5/6/10)
  85. Native Son- Richard Wright (1/7/13)
  86. Suite Francaise- Irène Nemirovsky (9/29/10)
  87. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men- James Agee and Walker Evans (8/18/11)
  88. Disgrace- J.M. Coetze (12/4/09)
  89. Suttree- Cormac McCarthy (11/15/09)
  90. A Death in the Family- James Agee (3/25/10)
  91. Love in the Time of Cholera- Gabriel Garcia Marquez (3/20/10)
  92. The Odyssey- Homer
  93. Siddhartha- Herman Hesse (4/5/11)
  94. The Power and the Glory- Graham Green (4/20/12)
  95. Lie Down in Darkness- William Styron (7/23/10)
  96. We the Living- Ayn Rand (1/29/11)
  97. A Bend in the River- V.S. Naipul (3/26/12)
  98. The Stranger- Albert Camus (3/7/10)
  99. Revolutionary Road- Richard Yates (6/19/10)
  100. The Picture of Dorian Gray- Oscar Wilde (10/26/10)

*This list, while complete for Modern Classic

purposes, leaves off the other 75 books I read

during my time in Madagascar.  If you want

to know those, you have to ask nicely. 

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Akaiza Oala?

(Or, Part II of the Adventures of Katie and Kerry in Masoala)


Masoala has got to be one of the most pervasive mistranslations of the Malagasy language. (Admittedly, the competition there is not steep, as general interest on the subject is pretty limited). Every single guide-book and tourist brochure I have read, not to mention a number of more scholarly works, translates the name as “the eye of the forest,” from the respective Malagasy words maso (eye) and ala (forest). But a few months back I began hearing differently, that the root of the word was actually oala, which describes a channel through the reefs, a safe route into a cove and ashore. Apparently, this is highly-localized term, not limited to just the northern Betsimisaraka dialect, but a sub-dialect of coastal people. It is nautical terminology, a fact which explains why even most Malagasy are not familiar with the true meaning and appropriate translation of Masoala. Combined, maso and oala specifies a channel through the reefs which must be espied, is difficult to find.

My, how very interesting and entirely irrelevant to my life, you must be thinking. But I made that mistake once too! Never did I think that finding a safe route through a reef would be an important, dare I say critical, life activity. Not until our fateful return that afternoon.

We left not long after lunch, confident that our return journey to the campsite would be a breeze. The winds we had battled the entire way over would now be at our backs. We joked that we would manimba (fly) right on home. Drugged with dramamine we departed, the four of us crammed into our little wooden canoe. Even with our crazily-rigged sail, it was not long before we were all a little nervous about just how close to flying we were. Huge swells came up behind us, caught our little craft, and propelled us forward at incredible pace before dropping us to wait for the next. Looking forward, this felt like a conveyer belt to our destination, the helpful hands of God, but glancing back as the swells bore down, it felt more like we were bound to be consumed…

So, of course, we determinedly faced forward. And reverted to the philosophy which usually bears us through such situations, which goes something like this: “This man who we have hired to take us in this pathetically small boat, this is his livelihood, he does this everyday, look at him, he isn’t scared, he isn’t phased, I won’t be nervous until he is nervous…”

Then, this man in whom we were busily investing all our hopes and dreams, in whom we were entrusting our physical well-being, suddenly gave us very good reason to be nervous. “This is grave,” he muttered, “we need to go ashore now.” In one tense, jerking motion, all three of our heads (Katie, Kerry, Beonique), turned back to him as if connected by a string. I am sure that each our faces said the exact same thing: SAVE US, WE ARE VERY CLEARLY GOING TO DIE.

Using the paddle to steer, he turned our boat towards shore, the waves now crashing directly in front of us and over the edges of our no-longer-comically-small-craft.  Here, he says, handing me one of the ridiculous shards of plastic used here to bail boats, bail. Now our doom is confirmed: if a Malagasy person assigns a white person a critical task, the greatest depths of desperation have been reached.

To make matters worse, much worse, our steerer begins muttering to himself, under his breath but nonetheless quite audibly, “Akaiza oala? Akaiza oala?” With my insight into the true meaning of oala, I understand that this means: “Where is the channel? Where is the channel?” I want to turn around and yell, well use your EYE to see the OALA, man! As the illogical part of my brain is demanding I scream this, the logical part is busily and fatalistically thinking: he has no idea how to get through the reef…

Then we get caught on the crest of one of those massive waves. Beonique, our guide crammed at the very front, throws his paddle down, grabs the edges of the canoe,  and holding on for dear life, starts screaming. I am busy bailing, desperately and futilely.  As I toss out tea-spoons of water, facing backwards, I am only aware of a huge wall of water behind us and the sensation of being lifted. Water is now pouring over the edges of the boat, but out of sheer terror and attachment to the idea that I am doing something helpful to save our lives, I continue to bail. Everyone is yelling; we are surfing ashore, presumably through the OALA that our steerer finally espied with his EYE. The wave dies down and we are sitting in the ocean. There is no noticeable difference between the water level in and outside the boat. Our packs are floating. Still, I am determinedly using my chip of plastic to toss out tea-spoons of water. Kerry turns around to look at me. Her expression is not conveying the sentiment that my terrific bailing effort has saved our lives. On the contrary, it says: put down that ridiculous piece of plastic, you idiot. 

So, yet another change of plans. We return on foot to our campsite. And the next morning, instead of returning by boat up the coast, we enter back into the rainforest. It is a more manageable undertaking this time, with the knowledge that “three ups, three downs, then out,” actually means eight hours. Nevertheless, we are trying do a three day hike in one. If you will remember, this puts us on pace with Malagasy grandmothers and partial-invalids. At the end of the day, two hours from our destination, it was my turn to sit down in the trail, declare myself an invalid, and refuse to move. Kerry, having paved the way in this department, was tolerant. 

So, a final rewriting of the rules of success. A plan changed so often we could not remember its original form. An [expletive] ferret and an unseen oala. Another adventure in the books…

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If at First You Don’t Succeed, Change Change the Rules…

Weeks before our actual departure, we (as is said in Malagasy) “built a program” to hike out to Masoala and back along the coastal trail. While this would be an eight-day commitment at the least, it would save us the exorbitant cost of the boat and, as most of the trail was not actually in park, also the cost of a guide. There was only one hang-up with our brilliant plan: it required Malagasy approval for an unorthodox undertaking, in this case approval from the National Parks office. An initial visit received the expected reply: “um, yes, well, please, return at a later date.” So we did, again and again and again, to receive the same reply and no apparent change in the status of our request. Our hoped for departure date came and went.

Initial plan: abandoned, without lingering attachment. We cleaned out our bank accounts, hired a guide (Beonique, who would become well acquainted with our philosophy of success), begged a boat discount, and were on our way!

With great enthusiasm, a new plan was built. We would hike from Tampolo (located about halfway down the peninsula) to Cap Masoala (the peninsula’s tip). Though this was traditionally a three-day endeavor, we would attempt to do it in two. This accelerated pace would still put us a day behind Malagasy grandmothers and the partially disabled in overland trekking speed. Once there, we would stay for a day, then return along the same trail.

We started out on that first day with a sense that our task was ambitious, but doable (not, you may have noticed, an uncommon mistake on our part). Embarking early, we headed south along the trail, paralleling the ocean. Frequently we would encounter vinany crossings, places where river meets sea; previously friend (see: LEPTY LEPTY LEPTY, April 2012) these were now largely foe. We would find ourselves chest-deep, sinking in sand, backpacks precariously perched atop our heads, straps suddenly numerous and cumbersome. “I am fine, totally fine!” we would tell each other and reassure Beonique. “I do this every…” would often be partially lost in the rising water and sound of thrashing limbs. Beonique did not look reassured.

After lunch, we left the shore and climbed into the forest. This portion of the trail had been described in a very Malagasy manner as “three ups and three downs then you are out.” We climbed one short hill: “ONE UP!” we congratulated each other. Premature high fives all around. 

Seven hours and countless ups later, we our still deep and disoriented in the rainforest. We have long since stopped with the high-fives. The high-fives were a stupid idea in the first place. We have likely succumbed to heat stroke. Night is falling and we have no idea how far remains to the village at the edge of the forest. We push on until it is so dark we can hardly see. Finally Kerry, who in her delirium may actually have shown the most logic, simply sits down in the trail and refuses to walk further. A hurried conversation determines that really, girl is not budging. While I search for a flat-ish spot that is not 99% roots, a brown-tailed mongoose (rarest of forest sightings) strolls out and stops to sniff Kerry’s toe. “What the [expletive] is that? An [expletive] ferret??” she demands. Ok, that seals it: we camp here tonight, on this flat-ish spot that is only 93% roots.

Though we crawl from our tent at dawn feeling like we slept on a pile of sticks, the plan that second day remains ambitious, but doable. We will finish our journey! For most of the day we press on, leaving the forest and coming upon the village in two hours. Not long thereafter the trail reconnects with the ocean and we can almost see our destination along the shore. The heat builds and builds; every second in the sun feels like you have been cruelly locked in the car on a hot day by your neglectful owner. You wonder why you are thinking of yourself as an abused pet. You realize that you are undoubtedly delirious again. Stopping to get water, you look up and see a perfect little cove with a perfect little campsite. 

Change of plans: we will be spending the night here! 

The next morning, instead of completing the final two hours on foot, we choose to go by lakana, dugout canoe. As a local proverb makes clear- Antimaroa tsy mandeha tsy andakana, people of Maroantsetra won’t go if not by canoe- this is the area’s most reliable form of transportation. Or so we thought. A one hour journey dragged into three, as we bobbed like a rubber ducky on the swells and paddled into the wind. Gasping with sea sickness, we crawled ashore at the Cape. It was an hour before I could even talk. 

Countless changes of plan. One [expletive] ferret. A day late. We had at last reached our destination. 

 Now all we had to do was return…

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For a year now, I have talked a lot about Masoala National Park, about its pristine natural beauty and unrivaled biodiversity, about the need to protect and preserve it. But the truth is, except for a couple kilometers of forest corridor on the trail to Antalaha, I had never been to Madagascar’s most famous rainforest. (And in that stretch of trail from Antalaha, my feet hurt so badly I didn’t care where I was). In my year based in Maroantsetra, I have criss-crossed the region: on foot, by bike, boat, or occasionally plane. I have pored over maps and environmental health data, harassed the researchers who come and go for “insider information” on their studies, and assembled countless environmental education lessons on the natural wonder of the land next door. I was a busy busy bee talking about a place I had never seen. 

      Actually, that is not entirely true. I see Masoala every single day, stretching enticingly south along the bay, a densely-forested peninsula that drops steeply into a line of white sand and the blue of tropical waters. For a year, opportunities to visit, to tag along on WCS expeditions, slipped again and again through my grasp. For this national park, there is an issue of accessibility: unless one is willing to walk four days out and four days back, the only mode of transportation is by boat. Due to an undeniable Maroantsetra boat monopoly, one trip costs the equivalent of a Peace Corps monthly stipend. Despite my questionable budgeting skills (in this country, I live constantly on the brink of financial insolvency), I managed to scrape together the funds by mid-December. I cleaned out my bank account and we were off. 

      [For the Adventures of Katie and Kerry in Masoala, see “If at First you don’t Succeed…”]

      You would think that with my expectations piled sky high, Masoala would be bound to disappoint. On the contrary, it far exceeded. In our four-day trek down to the peninsula’s southern point and back, we passed through the most amazing, uninterrupted, untrammeled stretch of forest I have ever experienced. Striking in from the shore, we followed rivers fed by streams fed by branching trickles of water running over the rock, until we were standing on the mountain ridges, completely disoriented, unable to discern east from west. The density of the vegetation swallowed sound and, hiking as we were on the summer equinox, everything reverberated heat. The humidity was inhumane. I could not tell when the rain stopped and started: there was no noticeable difference in the moisture of the air. Take this a tree-hugger talk if you will, but it was humbling to be so enveloped. 

       I was most impressed though by how alive the forest felt. I have been to my fair-share of forest on this island: from the plateau parks of Ranomafana and Andasibe, to the dry deciduous forests of the west in Ankaranfantsika and Sahamalaza, and the eastern rain-drenched forests of Mananara and Makira. Often these forests feel like a shell, as though all animate life has withdrawn to some distant, safer core, far away from the destruction of human activity. And the life one does encounter seems timid- as with a troop of sifaka lemurs who called all around my friend Max and I in Makira, but never to our disappointment appeared- or, on the flip side, utterly habituated- as with the lemurs in Ranomafana who clamor for human food. All these other forests are porous and fragmented, the human presence, pervasive.

      Not so with Masoala. At 230,000 hectares, it is the largest uninterrupted swath of rainforest in Madagascar. (Makira is actually the largest protected area, but it is partially inhabited). It feels this vast, and devoid of human impact. We walked for a whole day on an established trail and passed two people. Instead, without even stopping to look, we saw six or seven troops of lemurs: white-fronted brown lemurs chattering and swinging in the lower canopy, red-ruffs loud and territorial, hooting and hollering at each other and the intimidated browns in the upper canopy. The trees rustled as they flung themselves overhead. We saw three other renowned and elusive species: a leaf-tailed gecko, flinging itself to forest floor in flight from a predator hawk; a blue-helmet vanga, apparently the type of bird birders spend their lives looking for; and a brown-tailed mongoose, which wandered onto the trail and sniffed our toes, then wandered off indifferently. (The last of these interactions prompted an expletive-laden diatribe about a ferret, but that is a different story). 

      This is the point that I want to make about Masoala. It is not just an area of tremendous, untrammeled beauty; not just a paradise coastline, coral reefs overhung by ancient rainforest trees. It is a healthy and thriving ecosystem, not just inhabited by, but exploding with rare and elsewhere threatened life. For a full year, I read about this place on paper, heard about it everyday, taught about it almost as often, and stared wistfully its way from many vantages. I could have returned to Maroantsetra via my very expensive boat with the sense that all I had done in year was not worth it. But instead I left Masoala with the feeling that as much as I have done, I have not done enough. 

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Fetin’ny Variky (or, the Conservation Question)

      This past weekend at the Fetin’ny Variky (Lemur Festival), hundreds of people gathered. They walked from nearby villages, or crossed the river delta from Maroantsetra in boats so heavily laden with supplies that water lapped over the gunnels. They came to celebrate, to eat rice and kill cows, to party all night long. They came to welcome the vahiny (the white strangers from afar) and to show off their local environment, the MaMaBay Landscape, which is thought to contain more than 1% of the world’s biodiversity. To go ahead and forestall any potential disappointment though, I should tell you now: there were no lemurs at the lemur festival. Why would you be silly and expect something like that?

     Along with twenty kids from our not-so-recently-concluded environmental course (you would also be mistaken to think anything actually ends in this country) we crossed the water in our own heavily laden boat. As part of the festivities, the students performed skits on lemur poaching, gave informational sessions on deforestation and climate change, and even led an impromptu discussion forum. Also, lugging out a projector and facing extreme danger of electrocution, we ran it off a generator to show the BBC Madagascar films to a large and eager audience. Having finally gotten our hands on an elusive Malagasy translation, we were able to be part of something incredible: showing people their own country for the first time. For people in rural Madagascar, especially in the isolated environs of Maroantsetra, rarely go far. Their homeland features countless things of which they cannot conceive: spiny forests, vast deserts without rain, stumpy baobabs, and spiky tsingy. And that is not even including the wildlife, which must be pretty fantastic to warrant its own television series.

      To see the captivation, even the disbelief on the faces of those who watched, to repeat over and over “yes, this is all in Madagascar,” was an awe-inspiring experience and a big part of the reason why I stuck around for another year. Yet, the whole weekend raised a question which lurks always in the back of my mind: the question of conservation in this country. Yes, all these people gathered; they sang songs to the lemurs; they spoke passionately of their love for the forest, of the need to protect Madagascar’s treasures. It was a lot of fun and there was, as with any Malagasy event, a great deal of pride in culture and homeland, in showing off to the visitors, and in being with each other. Yet, when it came to the conservation aspect of the weekend (Save the Lemurs!), I could not help but think it was a largely a show.

     Yes, cynical, but let me explain. Generally speaking, I support conservation’s various efforts across Madagascar and believe that they have been integral to preserving most, if not all, of this country’s natural beauty and biodiversity. But it is worth considering whether conservation is merely grafting an ethic onto Malagasy culture, and  if it is, what this means for the sustainability of the effort. While there are individuals who defy the rule, Malagasy culture is largely bent on conquering nature, on containing and subduing it. This is logical for a small population living under constant threat, beating the forest back from the fields, caught by cyclones that appear from nowhere. It was the nature of life in Madagascar for nearly two millenia, from its settlement to the population boom in the early 20th century. And it is this mentality which led Madagascar to its current state of near environmental collapse: keep in mind that this is a country that destroyed more than 90% of its forest with very little foreign influence. This is not the Amazon being systematically logged by multinational corporations. Environmental destruction in Madagascar is piecemeal and extraordinarily pervasive. To convolute a term: it is grassroots. 

     “Appreciation” of the environment, of natural beauty and heritage, is thus largely a foreign concept: not completely absent, but damn rare. Recognizing the tremendous ecological value of this country, does conservation thus have a right to impose its worldview? To take land and preserve it: for the world’s sake, for heritage, for future generations? This is the crux of the conservation question that lurks always at the back of my mind.

     A good place to begin addressing the question is by asking another: whose land is this? The answer throughout much of rural Madagascar is: technically no ones, as only a small percentage of is legally owned by anyone, including the government. Yet- even in the island’s remotest corners, even on land that appears barren, deserted, or totally wild- there exists an intricate web of ownership. It is land passed down through generations, traded, bought and sold in a perfectly legitimate, if not government sanctioned, system. Though it may not be legally owned, it is undoubtedly spoken for. Yet, with the creation of the Makira Protected Area in 2007, more than 350,000 hectares of land, over half of it considered occupied, was transferred to the protection and jurisdiction of Wildlife Conservation Society. Whose land was that? It is a question that no one seems willing or able to answer.

     In Makira and the other protected areas of the MaMaBaie Landscape (Masoala National Park and Antongil Bay), enforcement of protective laws is a result of top-down pressure, carried out by local police. There are beatings of accused poachers, incarcerations for land burnt or logged, confiscation of illegal fishing nets, and a crackdown on gold mining. White people in the countryside are rumored to be scheming after land not protected by title. In an economy where people hang by a thread, this threat to land and livelihood, engenders a resentment that runs deep and very strong. Often, I am advised when traveling around the countryside to not publicize my position with WCS, and I consider it wise to follow. A few years ago, a man appointed to confiscate illegal fishing nets died in a motorcycle accident in the city. When news of his death reached the small fishing villages up and down the coast, there were parties for days.

     This backlash, tangible and tense, gives me pause and makes me wonder. What is right in conservation? What is the role of enforcement and intimidation? If protection of this land is not forced, would it ever happen? My instinct tells me that in Madagascar, it would, but too late. When the forests are leveled and the hills bare, when the oceans no longer yield fish, when a world’s treasure trove of biodiversity is lost and future generations have arrived with nothing to live on. 

     This is what I was thinking as I watched the Fetin’ny Variky, the celebration, the show. Malagasy culture has not embraced conservation, though it goes through the motions. Seeing the desperation of poverty and the mindset that says “think of today, and worry about tomorrow when it comes,” it is understandable why it has not taken hold. But conservation’s efforts are hardly futile, especially when it comes to fostering appreciation of and pride in the local environment. Maybe that is the thing with grafting: at first its foreign, but in time it can take hold, can become a genuine part of cultural consciousness. 

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The Edge of Life: Rumors from Upriver

     Upriver from Maroantsetra is a vast inland watershed, a rolling landscape of mountains and valleys, a patchwork of dense rainforest and arable flats- on a sunny day, all impossibly green. It is an area known as Makira, derived from the word mahakiry, to see far. In this isolated network of rice paddies and waterways, more than a half a million people live in small villages of tilting houses and muddy trails. The primary mode of travel is poled canoe; of communication, ancient radios that hiss with static, picking up word of the outside world via Maroantsetra.

     Life here can appear to the passer-through utterly idyllic and removed. There are reigning rhythms of work, pause, and play: shouts as cattle are herded to prepare the fields, thumping felt through the feet as rice is pounded, conversation that starts and stops and never rushes anywhere. Not much has changed here in the past hundred years, and it is not likely that much will in the next. It is a quiet, distant place populated by hospitable and hardworking people. 


     Lately, however, a series of disconnected rumors have made their way downriver, rumors that remind one of just how close to the edge this small slice of humanity lives, how precipitous the drop and how thin the net to catch a fall. Just beneath the idyll of Makira- beneath the carefree singsong of shouted greetings, beneath the calm of hot afternoons spent in the shade of porches- there is a tremendous, unspoken fragility to life.


     The first rumor was of a canoe tipped in the river, hardly an unusual event in a place connected by water, except for the contents. In this canoe were twenty sacks of newly-reaped rice, 100 kilograms each, a single family’s yearly haul. Feebly, passing boats poled where the bags had gone under, but now heavy as concrete they were undeniably lost under fifteen feet of fast-moving water. This rice represented many things: a full year’s harvest, a year’s income, a year’s sustenance, a year’s school fees. The loss, in short, represented a year in the life. Where, one cannot help but think, is the safety net for that? In a community struggling along a thin line, some will be done, but there is only so much to give. The family will not starve, but they will suffer, they will be set far back. All with the flip of a canoe.

     The second rumor was of bad oil and an entire family deathly ill. Word- explicit word I warn you- was that holes could not be dug fast enough to contain the illness spewing forth from these unfortunate people. Far in the countryside, where there is no doctor, where the nearest hospital is a day’s walk away, where medical knowledge is astoundingly limited, this is exactly the kind of thing that can kill someone. But what defense does one have against bad oil and poor luck? (Fortunately, according to the grapevine, the family has recovered).

     The final set of rumors have leaked slowly out from Makira over the past months; they speak of a quiet gold rush in the rainforest. Whole villages- this I have seen with my own eyes- are deserted of young men, crops left unattended. They have all gone further inland, to descend into twenty foot holes mined by candlelight and prone to collapse. Hillsides are ravaged and rivers run choked with sediment. Campfires are dangerous (as the rainforest is protected and the activity therefore illegal) so men survive for weeks off the local-brewed (also illegal) liquor. There is a decent living to be had, maybe three dollars a day, but never enough to save up and get out. It is a desperation born of sustained dire poverty.


     It is easy to forget, passing through the beautiful landscape of Makira, through the villages calm or rowdy, through the fields where people toil under the hot sun or in the heavy rain, that this is a delicate and fragile life. That there is an edge one quickly runs up against. But the stories from upriver remind, there is something here clung to, quietly and simply yes, but with great tenacity. 

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Mpianatra Mafana Fo – Hot to Learn

     I like to think that I have a healthy skepticism when it comes to the intentions of teenagers, a skepticism born of the fact that I was once one. Sure, they have good hearts and one day they will turn into people I would like to hang out with, but if I remember correctly, teenage years are generally defined by an extreme narrowness of vision and a sense of a self-centric universe. 

     But the kids of our recently-concluded environmental course (that of leech infamy) repeatedly defied my expectations. Not only did they sign up, and show up, for forty hours voluntary education, but they did so religiously: two-thirds of our students boasted perfect attendance. They stayed late on Friday nights and often showed up early to our Saturday activities. The course was a five-week marathon: ten 3-hour sessions, a four day field trip, a research project, and a final, full-day commencement ceremony. I am still exhausted, but their primary complaint on that final day was that the course was ending (“what do you mean I have to take my certificate and go home?”). I will remind you: this was their summer vacation. These students are, in short, mafana fo mianatra: hot to learn.

Allow me to toss. My supposedly healthy skepticism. Out the window.

     For students that have come up through an education system that works largely against them and suppresses creativity at every turn, they never fail to impress me with their insight and willingness to grasp new, often difficult concepts. The whole point of the course was to teach these kids in a way they have never been taught and show them things that they have never seen. Sometimes this meant starting at a very basic level: rivers run to oceans, the earth circles the sun (a student puts on a headlamp and serves as the sun as our blow-up globe spins around him, seasons a-changing). But you build and build, and by the end they are watching “An Inconvenient Truth” and understanding the seasonal oscillations of carbon in the atmosphere.

     It is amazing to see the world through their eyes, to see things that are so familiar to me anew. It is a thousand little revelations: the incomprehensibility of the formation of the earth, the radical meaning of human evolution, the scientific mystique of Madagascar, the incredible diversity of life on earth and the pace of its destruction. We show them photos from space and watch as they wrap their minds around the scale; then photos of their own capital- where few from Maroantsetra have been- and they are shocked to see the pollution, smog, and overcrowding of extreme urban poverty. They see pictures of American farmland and simply cannot believe that it is tany olo araiky fo, the property of a single person. 

     It is amazing too, to watch them make connections, to watch them use their minds in pressing, unfamiliar ways. “How long until this plastic folder decomposes?” we ask. One month, one year, three years! are the shouted responses. Everyone looks at the three-yearer like he is insane, until we say: basically never. Then they are thinking, where does all that plastic go? Looking at a photo of the Great Pacific Trash Gyre they suddenly get it. We see them thinking through the math of exploding population growth, counting their five six seven siblings, and recognizing what that could mean for their country. The last day of class we draw a chart of the interconnections between all the environmental issues we discussed and the students researched, and as the lines squiggle back and forth the volume of their participation grows until finally one kid shouts victoriously: TSISY DISO! There is no wrong answer, and he is right, they are all interconnected.

     These are teenagers though, not a Hallmark commercial set to “We are the World.” Sometimes, admittedly, discussion devolved into “who makes airplanes?” and “an important issue of globalization is that the electric lights are killing all the bugs…” Um. What. Let’s refocus. When trying to delve into species distinction, asking the question “what is the difference between a cat and a dog?” and receiving the oh-god-please be joking answer of “only one is good for eating!” And finally, watching Wall-E struggle to sort a spork, a student yells: ratsy sotronazy, his spoon sucks! A maybe that is another revelation: a spork is pretty sucky on a planet made unlivable by mankind.

What I want to express about these kids is that I have thrown my skepticism out the window for good reason: they are genuine, they are interested, they care. On the first day of the course, we tried to teach them an exercise known as Props, in which students stand up individually to commend each other, on anything really: a good question, a concept well-explained. We thought, at the conclusion of this class, that Props was an utter failure: received with blank looks and non-participation. But as the course went on, the students warmed to it, thanking a classmate for translating our questionable Gasy, for carrying their bag up a mountain, for a presentation, for bravely picking a leech off their foot. On the last day of class, one of the students rose and said something like this: “We would like to give props to our teachers first, for introducing us to these new ideas. But we would also like to give props to ourselves, all of us students here, because we understand now that we must use this knowledge, that the future iankinatsika, depends on us.”


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Pause Dinta

     Sometimes ideas just snowball. One night you are sitting around and you suddenly say “we should show the Madagascar series to kids here, so they can appreciate what the rest of the world sees about this country” and somehow, three months later, you find yourself deep in the rainforest with thirty Malagasy teenagers, most of whom are disgustedly berating you about leeches. Actually, the course of events that brought us here was less of a snowball and more of an avalanche. First it was the BBC Madagascar series, then Planet Earth; a documentary and discussion course was planned; UNICEF got on board and a budget was allotted; plans correspondingly grew grander. By this time, the avalanche had begun and there was no escaping its momentum. By the beginning of August, we were teaching a thirty-hour course, which included a research project, a mural, and a four-day field trip.

     Which is how I found myself at the back of a long, straggly line of Malagasy teens as they climbed the sheer, slippery and generally unforgiving side of a mountain. Kerry (the other half of this avalanche-caught “we”) was leading the more endeavoring end of the line; I, in the rear, was doing my very best to encourage those students who thought, but did not say, that they in no way signed up for this. I could hardly tell them that I did not sign up for it either. Instead I told them that we had bought cookies for those who made it to the top. 

      To say that we brought these kids to the countryside would be technically accurate: we organized the paperwork and handled the budget, set the itinerary and created the curriculum, led (or in my case, followed and bribed) the group to its various destinations. But in reality, these kids brought us. Displaying the remarkable level of self-sufficiency which defines Malagasy youth, they planned and purchased all of our supplies, cooked (over open fire) our three meals a day. They woke up each morning at five, were ready to go with surprising punctuality, and, whether it was on foot or by boat, they brought their indefatigable ambiance– which is to say, they danced and sang the hours away. Oh, and when they were not doing all of these things, they were learning.

     We traveled by boat and trooped into Sahavilory, a portion of rainforest in the Makira protected area, where they conducted transects and counted species, in an effort to understand both the scope of biodiversity and the difficulty in assessing it. (They, as you likely will be, were shocked to learn that approximately one percent of the world’s biodiversity is found in the combined Makira-Masoala landscape). The next morning class started at seven, with a lesson on population growth and the associated environmental pressures. Noon found us in Andaparaty, a village far upriver and on the rainforest’s edge, where the students fanned out to conduct a community survey and natural resource assessment. No rest for the weary, we then crossed the river and entered into the forest. Which brings me to the leeches.

     Despite their remarkable level of maturity and self-sufficiency, these kids of Maroantsetra were efa lasa tsy zanaka ambanivolo, which is to say they were no longer children of the countryside. The mountain, sheer mud and a difficult climb even without bags and full pots of rice, was enough to ask. But when we entered that rainforest in Anjanaharibe and began our activities- hikes, interdependence demonstrations, and presentations on an active carnivore research project- the students encountered a foe simply too horrifying to bear. The leeches. 

     I will concede, there were certainly many of them, doing what they do in their unpleasant blood-sucking way. For a short period, the excursion devolved into borderline hysteria (despite Kerry’s best efforts to persuade the kids that “leeches are really just like mosquitoes, except better! because it won’t itch afterwards!”). But in the end, the students’ response exemplifies why I have so much respect for them: hysteria quickly gave way to acceptance of an unpleasant reality, this unpleasant reality gave way to humor, and in no time everything was leeches. Snack was immediately and irrevocably renamed from pause cafe to pause dinta, the leech break. 

     Even after our safe return from the land of leeches and endless muddy mountainsides, the dinta refused to die. Environmental problems? A student raises his hand in class and says with the utmost seriousness: “People killing animals. People killing leeches!” One kid asks another to open a window, and the latter responds without skipping a beat: “what and let all the leeches in? You must be crazy.” 

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