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  They even sent me unpublished data from other collaborations that they thought might interest me.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!

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