Journeying to Toliara!

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!

This is the nicest part of Tana, gorgeous right?

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”.

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The Adventure Begins!

Me at the Cincinnati airport, about to check in with all my stuff!

Salama!  That’s “Hello” in Malagasy.  Welcome to the blog about my research in Madagascar this summer!  Hopefully, this blog will be an entertaining account of the adventures along the way, the lessons I learned, and maybe even include a little information about the research I did and am doing; however, let’s be honest, there will be more adventures and less work because waiting around all day for a ring-tailed lemur to poop is not as glamorous as it sounds…and it doesn’t really sound that glamorous to begin with, does it?

To begin, two years ago, I was lucky enough to develop an amazing collaboration with two American scientists who work on the health, ecology, and adaptation of wild ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) at Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve in Madagascar.  Beza is in the southwestern part of Madagascar, about 135 km from the western coast and the town of Toliara, but more about Beza later. I proposed an idea (or maybe five ideas) for a collaborative research project, and they not only agreed to put up with me, but also sent me tons of samples from the wild population with which they work, and emailed me 10 years of data they had collected, no questions asked.  They even sent me unpublished data from other collaborations that they thought might interest me.  They are an amazing duo and my PhD will be 100x more awesome because of their intellectual generosity.  Then, 6 months ago, I mentioned the idea of accompanying them to Madagascar on their annual field season….asked to go or begged to go, same difference right?  They were all for the idea, and through some amazing stroke of luck or temporary insanity on their and my advisor’s part, I found myself in the middle of planning a six week field season in Madagascar – one week traveling to the Reserve, four weeks in the Reserve conducting research, and a week to return to the U.S.A.

I began asking EVERYONE I knew who had been to the field and especially to Madagascar for advice on what items to pack, what it would be like, how to survive, and, most importantly, not make a complete idiot of myself.  Several people sent me the packing lists they used for their fieldwork, and I have three particular friends who gave awesome advice and were super patient with my uncertainty.  I ended up with an Excel spreadsheet, containing over 200 lines of items and three columns identifying which items still needed to be purchased and where I would purchase said items.  You may call it OCD, but I can honestly say that I didn’t forget anything because of that Excel sheet!

I began packing EARLY – as in, I was leaving on a Wednesday and was 90% packed by the Thursday beforehand.  Then…I got an email from Frank, who was in charge of organizing the trip, reminding me that while some of the tent pads upon which we would be pitching our tents were a bit larger, several were only 6 x 6 feet.  Now, to draw you a picture, these tent pads are concrete frames filled with sand that you pitch your tent on to keep it off the ground, although they seem to be more prone to ant invasions.  Thus, if a tent is larger than the 6 x 6 ft, it will hang off the edge.  Not good right?  The initial information I received weeks before about these tent pads, which I had used to buy my very roomy 3 person tent, had said they were 7 x 10 feet.  That’s quite a bit of difference actually, especially considering my first tent was 8 x 7 feet.  This email was like the 5th “Oh don’t forget X and Y” email that week, all of which had resulted in last minute overnighted Amazon.com purchases.   Don’t forget, I left on May 30th, which was right after a National Holiday weekend, thus nothing was shipping on time that week.  Sooooo I panicked.  I left work early, ran home, grabbed the tent pieces, took it back to REI and got a smaller one.  It worked out great…except remember I was already packed by that point on Friday afternoon?  Well I had packed the tent material at the bottom of one bag…and the poles at the bottom of the other, which meant I had to unpack everything to get to them.  Having made plans for goodbyes, etc, that weekend, I ended up re-packing everything in about six hours.  Six hours sounds like a lot of time, but when you have 90 lbs of gear that will BARELY, if you pack like a Tetras master, fit into your bags, 6 hours feels like 20 minutes.  Finally, however, I was packed, and headed to the airport to begin the 3 hour flight from Cincinnati, OH to Atlanta, GA, to meet up with the team, and then the 15 hour overnight flight from Atlanta, GA, to Johannesburg, South Africa.  We spent one night in Johannesburg, then onto Antananarivo, Madagascar, the next morning!

Here is what I learned from the pre-trip experience:

1) Begin your planning months in advance, including the purchasing of equipment, but also just accept that the morning you leave, you will be running to CVS or Best Buy or wherever because you forgot something..or five things.

2) If you are going somewhere like the 3rd world, where you will not have access to many of those things we take for granted, suck it up and pay the baggage fees for a 3rd bag or the extra weight.  Don’t leave your favorite snacks or that really good novel home because you don’t really have room for it.  This is the third time I’ve packed for field work somewhere I wouldn’t have normal access to the CVS or Whole Foods down the road, and inevitably, you pack up a bag with the essentials, and then end up with half a bag of “Things I Want but Don’t Need”.  Trust me, you need them.  At the time, it seems like the financially smart move to leave it behind because “It’s only a few weeks/months, I’ll be fine without it”.  You’re right, you will be fine, but you can’t really comprehend how much you will want that item or that snack until you’re three weeks in and all you’ve eaten for 10 days is oatmeal, rice, beans, and pasta.

3) For carry-on luggage, bring a backpack or shoulder bag of some sort and then make sure your 2nd bag is a rolling bag!  When traveling through countries like South Africa and Madagascar, you MUST keep your electronics, batteries, anything expensive, with you at all times.  That means that your 2nd carry-on probably has all your computer cords, video cameras, cameras, extra batteries, air mattress pump, etc.  You will be carrying this bag on and off for 10 hours over two days.  Your hands, shoulders, muscles, and back will love you if you put it in a rolly bag rather than something like a gym bag, duffle, or even a backpack.

4) Bring a handkerchief or cloth of some sort onto the plane with you when going to Madagascar.  They spray the cabin with insecticide before they take off and it can be very irritating to inhale.

5) And finally, although it’s embarrassing, I will share my ‘secret’ strategy for avoiding having your things stolen, or bags actively searched while in an airport.  We flew through Johannesberg O. R. Tambo airport, which is notorious for people getting things stolen out of their checked bags.  Although we all locked those bags which could be locked, all the locks and zippers were broken on our bags and each of our group had at least one item stolen from our bags.  And anytime I fly in America, I’m always annoyed when I open up my bag to find that they’ve “searched” it by what looks like dumping everything out onto a table and then dumping it back into the bag.  Everything is a foot from where you packed it.  Here is my strategy for preventing airport security from riffling through your things when they open your bag: feminine products, or more commonly called, tampons and pads.  I liberally sprinkle the top of all my luggage with these (about 4-5 laid out across the tops of the items before I close each suitcase, or stuffed into the top of the backpack).  If my bags get searched with these in place, I now find that they open the bag, and then just set the Search Notification right on top and close it right back up again.  I did in fact get a headlamp stolen at O. R. Tambo, but as the tampon in that pocket had shifted to the bottom, I still stand by this strategy.  Everyone else had much more expensive things stolen from the middle of their bags.  Nothing critical, but still very annoying.

Those are the things I learned in the first 36 hours of the adventure.  Our arrival in Tana and the experience of traveling from Tana to Beza will be in the next post, so stay tuned!