Beza Mahafaly – A typical day at Beza

Days at Beza started at 6:00 am for me.  Breakfast was not until 7 am, but since I was spending 6 weeks with the same 10 people, I did my best not to be a huge grouch in the morning.  No grouchiness meant I needed to be fully awake, so I was up at 6 in an attempt to be cheerful by the time breakfast rolls around.  First things first – head to the bathroom, not an easy task when you have to put on clothes while laying down (the tents were too small to stand up in), then find your roll of toilet paper, put on your jacket,  then put on shoes, etc.  Morning ablutions finished, I would usually go to the Lapalapa, stretch, and watch the sun come up.  If I had enough time, I would fill my shower bag, or do some laundry, or maybe even prep my gear for the day.  Finally, breakfast at 7!  Cora and I were usually the first ones over to the dining hall, as we had both been up for at least an hour and were hungry.  Everyone else usually got up at 7 and wandered over a few minutes later.  At Beza, you have two options for breakfast: whatever you brought with you, or warm rice with sugar.  The first week and a half we had nice, white rice from Toliara that was rock free.  The last week and a half, those eating the breakfast rice had better chew slowly as the rice came from the market in Betoiky and had its share of Malagasy pebbles.  I went with the “bring from home” option, so I had oatmeal brought from the States, and supplemented with muesli bought in Tana, since I like my teeth where they are.

After breakfast, it was time to fill up your water, finish prepping your gear, change out of pjs and into field clothes, lace up your boots and head out.  For my research, I was trying to get a morning and afternoon sample, from the same day, from each individual, to get a thorough sampling of the parasites in their GI tract (there is some evidence that some parasites shed more eggs in the morning or afternoon).  Thus, once I found a group, I stayed with them until I got two samples from as many lemurs as possible, and the 2nd sample had to be after 12:30 pm.  Sometimes the lemurs cooperated…and sometimes they REALLY did not.  It was not uncommon for me to be standing underneath a sleeping lemur at 4:00 pm yelling nasty names at her (it was ALWAYS a girl somehow) and contemplating throwing rocks at her, while she ignored me and slept on.  I never did throw anything, but I thought about it a lot.  Nine hours without food in the baking heat makes me super grumpy.  After the last sample, I would trudge back to camp and eat ‘lunch’.

Every day, lunch was rice and beans.  We have FIVE separate types of beans, which was super exciting, even though they mostly tasted the same, and the ‘good’ rice, meaning you only found a rock in it like once a week.  Lunch mantra: Chew slowly.  This is quite difficult when you’re shoveling food into your mouth after not eating for nine hours (Yes, I was bitter about the long period without food).  Also, the flavor and consistency was not helped by the 3 hours my lunch usually sat on the table until I got there.  There is no cold storage or way to heat things up at Beza, so my lunch usually was in a bowl, covered by a plate, on the table.   If I was super unlucky, and either the plate didn’t get covered, or someone or some lemur knocked off the plate, the flies really enjoyed my food for a few hours before I got to it, but it’s all just extra protein, right?

After lunch, I entered the day’s sample information into my computer, and then chores, or on every other day, I showered!  As sunset was around 5:15, I was usually hauling butt to get showered before it was too dark to see anything (or bring a headlamp).  It was dark by 6:00 pm, at which point we all went to the veranda or Frank and Michelle’s table for Happy Hour.  We would just hang out, unwinding, talking about the day, or listening to stories of past field seasons at Beza, and avoiding the rats that ran under the chairs or along the window sill.  After an hour or so, Frank would put dinner out for Lala or Sambasua to cook, usually around 7 or 8 pm.  In true European fashion, dinner was usually between 8 and 9:00 pm, and we usually even had electricity for the one lightbulb in the dining hall!  For dinner, we rotated between 4 types of pasta, canned tomato sauce, and some sort of treat.  Treats could be french fries, or steamed potatoes, or sliced pineapple, or even a tomato and cucumber salad a couple of times, heavily dosed in vinegar to kill whatever was in the water the veggies were washed in.  Always remember never to eat anything in Madagascar unless it’s cooked or peeled.  I cannot accurately describe how exciting these treats were.  The pasta was usually cold, although how they managed to get the pasta below air temperature in a place with no refrigeration, I’ll never know.  A lot of times the olive oil for the pasta ended up in the sauce, so we had a little sauce with LOTS of oil to flavor it.  After dishing your pasta, you got to choose between 4 types of spices, salt, and pepper.  The pasta sauce lost its appeal somewhere around day 5, the spices lost their ability to make it any better around day 10, so the extra veggie dish was always the highlight of the evening.  

Meals were always a fun internal conflict of hierarchy/manners versus hunger/selfishness.  You know you should feed the professors first, and you shouldn’t take everything for yourself, so how much do you put on your plate and how many more people are left to pass the dish to?  And also which people are left?  Some people ate a TON (like 3-4 helpings), some people ate only 1.  If you’re only going to eat one, are you justified in taking more now?  We usually sat in the same spots for every meal, and we would joke that once the food reached the ‘growing boys’ (or the students), it never came back.  So if you have to pass to them, do you take more because you know they will and there might not be enough for you if the dish comes back around for a 2nd trip?  Lunch was usually pretty plentiful, but dinner was a whole other ballgame.  After your own internal discussion about how much to take on the first go around, you then spent 15 minutes watching everyone else to figure out who they had to compete with for a second helping.  Fortunately, everyone was pretty polite about it or else things could quickly have deteriorated into a scene from the OK Corral.  When the food is rationed and there are only 15 fries left to be divided among 10 people, things can get ugly.  Stabbing forks even get involved.

After dinner, everyone headed to bed.  The campsite was pretty much one big bedroom, as the furthest person from you was no more than 5 m.  This meant that if anyone talked, or passed gas, or got up to use the outhouse, everyone heard you… and then commented on it at breakfast the next morning.  With all those beans, some nights we had a virtual symphony!

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