Now that we’ve reached the actual Madagascar adventure, let me introduce you to the cast of characters. Obviously, there is me. Frank and Michelle are the senior researchers. Michelle is a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and began working at Beza in 1987 for her dissertation work, and has continued her work at the reserve to build one of the most amazing long-term data sets on a long-lived primate I have ever seen. Frank, her partner, is a professor at the University of North Dakota and in his 10th year working at Beza. Frank is our organizer and has planning and organizing this trip down to an art form. Cora is our veterinarian, and my roommate throughout the trip, responsible keeping the lemurs safe during the capture, and performing the health exams on captured lemurs. Jim is one of Michelle’s graduate students, doing his dissertation work on feeding ecology in ring-tailed lemurs at Beza. Jim will be at Beza until the end of March! And the final Vaza (or Malagasy for “foreigner), Anthony, is an undergraduate who came to Beza to do his own research looking at the toughness and grit content of the foods the lemurs eat, and generally to assist in the captures and be the muscle for hauling and packing our gear. Then there is Jackie, our Malagasy collaborator, a former PhD student of Michelle’s who spent 7 years at Beza as the Park Manager while he did his research. Jackie is now a professor at the University of Toliara, and a post-doc at the Institut Pasteur in Tana, and is our project magician. Have a problem? Call Jackie, he’ll fix it within 24 hours (assuming of course that he’s has cell service or internet, never something you can assume in Madagascar). Andrina, our driver, wears a CONSTANT smile, even at 5 am or after 9 hours on Malagasy roads, and saved us all from dying in a car crash numerous times. There are two more people, Malagasy students, but they join our journey later, so more on them then. This most of the Vaza in our group in the Johannesberg airport!
Now that you know everyone, onto the trip from Johannesberg to Toliara (pronounced Too-lee-are)! Arriving in the Antananarivo airport was the first of many ‘experiences’. The South African O.R. Tambo airport is like any airport you find in Atlanta, Chicago, or Cincinnati. We arrived in Tana (the short version of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar), and … modernity, not so much. Passport Control consists of one desk. In front is a policeman, who glances at your passport, and then hands it to an airport employee sitting behind him. Since the policeman just glances at them, and the employee actually has to do some paperwork involving the passports, the security guard essentially collects an entire stack and hands them to this guy, who then proceeds to check them as a crowd of 20-30 people stand around. You stand by the desk, or go collect your bags, or get a baggage cart, or go to the bathroom, and wait for him to get through the stack to your passport. When he’s done with your passport, he yells your last name really loud and hopefully you hear him.
When you leave, you are surrounded by cab drivers trying to take you places, and children and women asking for money. Keep tight hold of your bags and don’t even set anything down or let anyone take hold of the luggage cart because they will run off with it. Most give up after a few seconds, but some of the smaller kids were much more persistent. Frank and Michelle own a car in Madagascar that seats 8 uncomfortably, so Andrina met us at the airport with it and drove us and our bags to Hotel La Varangue. Imagine 8 people and luggage for 6 weeks in the field in and on top of one car. It was an impressive feat of packing and you get quite comfortable with your seat mates as you bounce all over them, a prelude to the drive to Beza.
Driving through Tana is an indescribable experience. It’s like playing chicken at 40 km/hr with every type of vehicle you can imagine – cars, motorbikes, bikes, pousse-pousse, bike carts, zebu carts, the list goes on. Meanwhile, you’re on a road that’s at most 3 lanes wide, and only as wide as 1.5 lanes in lots of places. Now add a hundred pedestrians crossing the road in front of you per block. Some of the main roads are paved, most of the other main roads are really old cobblestones, and the rest are sand/dirt. There are no streetlights, and only at some major intersections are there security guys directing traffic. Then add in security checkpoints where men in army fatigues armed with AK47s might decide to point to any car to make it pull over so they can check your passports and “papers”.
Tana itself is a city unlike anything you find in the USA. Everyone walks, so there are people EVERYWHERE. There are no big stores and few processed goods. Rather the roads are lined with small stands and “storefronts” that are really just counters with some shelves behind them, or maybe a small room with goods, filled with every type of vegetable or meat or odd thing you can imagine, like a stand that sells license plates and hubcabs hanging on the thatched roof. Most buildings have a store on the bottom and a living space on top or in the back. Laundry is spread over the roof of the story below, or hung on the fence along the side of the wall, or laid out on the side of the road to dry. There are no yards, or spaces between buildings, although occasionally you’ll descend from the many hills that make up Tana to the valleys, which are covered in rice paddies and wooden farm buildings. Nice buildings are made of concrete, or the bottom floor is, while the rest of the building material is corrugated steel or old pieces of weathered wood, and the roofs are steel or wood or thatching. Tana is actually a really large city, but almost none of the buildings are taller than 2 or 3 stories. It’s alive and bustling and friendly and a little scary all at once, in a way that cities in the USA never are.
We stayed in Tana overnight, and then went shopping for all the food we would need at the Malagasy version of Walmart, Jumboscore! Then we, and by we, I mean the men from the hotel and the boys in our group, packed up the gear and food into and onto the top of the car. The plan was for Andrina and Jackie to drive from Tana to Beza to drop everything off, and then come from Beza to Toliara to pick up us and our few remaining bags and supplised up, and take us back to Beza. We, the Vaza, took the easy option and flew from Tana to Toliara. Next post, our stay in Toliara!
Tidbit – Perhaps one of my favorite things about Madagascar is flying. When you fly a USA or European company, and you’re about to land, the flight attendant usually announces that you “should be careful opening the overhead bins as items may have shifted”. In Madagascar, they tell you that you “should be careful opening overhead bins as items may fall out”.