If it’s been a while since I’ve last updated, it’s been because there is little time left in the day after class, homework, and living in Malagasy culture to sit down and reflect over what has happened in the past two weeks living in Fort Dauphin. As I mentioned in my past entry, I am staying with a host family in the outskirts of Fort Dauphin, a forty-five minute walk to school every day. Homestays are exhausting but enlightening as well; I can’t imagine being able to adjust to Malagasy culture without my host family. I actually don’t spend that much time at home, since I leave my house at 7 for the walk to school and usually return around 6 or 7 at night after some post-school swims at the beach or hanging out at one of the two hotels in town that have wifi (provided you buy a beer or a pastry). My father works as Secretary General for the Anosy region while my mother stays home with their 1 year old Abigail, and I usually get home an hour or so before dinner. Malagasy cuisine to be honest has been a difficult transition point for the group, especially those of us who are vegetarian. Rice (vary) is the staple food which is served at every meal three times a day. Before I came to Madagascar I knew I would eat a lot of rice, but not as much as this, and I was also expecting some wonderfully seasoned rice dishes that would put the Uncle Ben’s dirty rice minute rice packets to shame. Unfortunately, the rice here is served plain in a dry form or a wet porridge-like dish (vary sosoa), and is quite bland. Meat is served at every meal, and has also proven to be an adjustment challenge. Zebu, the ubiquitous cattle, is eaten the most, followed by tough and skinny chickens. To my dismay much of the zebu meat is not in the form of familiar steaks and other beef cuts (which are considered the least valuable part of the zebu), but usually in the form of the various internal organs. So far I’ve had the dubious opportunities to sample tongue, kidney (very common), and intestine. Zebu intestine is one of the vilest things I’ve had the misfortune to taste, with the chief horror resting in its pale, slimy, quivering appearance and texture. Rice water (ranampango (spelling?)) is served quite often as a drink, and as one of the girls in our program stated, tastes the way old people smell. Vegetables are close to non-existent, and I would kill for green beans or leafy greens. Fruit, however, is plentiful and delicious, and even if the food has been difficult to work through at least everything is extremely fresh (I can see the abattoir from my house and I pass through the market every day where everything is fresh as of that day).
Classes on my program are all day affairs, quite a difference from my loosely scheduled college classes, with Malagasy, French, and conservation science classes all day. However, we are given the opportunity to do some fascinating excursions during our time here. We visited a conservation zone around the QMM/Rio Tinto ilmenite mine. The mine is around ten years old and has been a major focus for the first part of our program. While Rio Tinto has some appalling mining projects elsewhere in the world, they have chosen to use the QMM mine as a poster child for net-positive impact mining. They have made extensive efforts to recompense displaced persons, provide alternate income sources for those whose land has been impacted, conserved existing forest fragments around the mine while planning to restore 10% of native forest after the mining machine sweeps through a region, and finally planting fast growing exotic plants to provide an alternate source of charcoal and building supplies. However, many people have felt that QMM Rio Tinto has taken advantage of them, and that the mine is greenwashing their image with quick and cheap projects that have little impact. Furthermore, the mine has completely crashed the tourism business in Fort Dauphin, and there is a dichotomy in town between the workers who live in a gated community and the rest of the populace living in the labyrinthine town.
It was while visiting the mine that I began to feel quite ill. I had taken anti-diarrheal medication to take care of some annoying traveler’s diarrhea, but with the unfortunate effect of preventing my system from flushing out whatever bug I had and making me extremely dehydrated and verging on heat stroke. As the naturalist Gerald Durrell noted when he visited Madagascar, I would have gladly pawned off all of my internal organs to the first person who asked. I was rushed by the ever-indispensable program coordinator Mamy (which means “sweet” in Malagasy) to the clinic where my body was pumped with IV glucose, saline, Cipro, and several other mysterious bags which felt wonderful. I felt better within two hours and went home vowing to never ever take anti-diarrheals again. The only other guy on the program, Jake, also fell really ill with dehydration and heat stroke recently on our camping trip to Sainte-Luce, a protected area of littoral tropical forest where we were doing vegetation surveys. It’s amazing how much water you lose here by sweating. The difference with his case is that we were a good four hour taxi-brousse (bush taxi) ride along appalling roads to Fort Dauphin, and had to be driven home once again by Mamy.
Travelling by road in Madagascar is an adventure all in itself. The National Highway leading north from Fort Dauphin is little more than a rutted, potholed dirt track through villages and heavily degraded savannah where drivers rarely speed above 25mph an hour. Therefore short distances of 30km take hours to complete, and is, as Barry our professor stated, a bone-jarring full body massage. When we went to the fishing village Evotra to interview fishermen, we took a fleet of SUVs, but when we went to Sainte-Luce we took a wonderful taxi-brousse painted red, gold, and green and was emblazoned with the name “No Problem” across the front. No Problem was basically a small tractor-trailer (camion in French) with a few benches screwed into the back deck with our bags strewn over the rest of the truck bed and foam mats placed on top for lounging. This mode of transportation, while still jarring and tiresome, was still a great experience, as we were joined by our Malagasy counterparts from the Libanona Ecology Center (CEL) for this trip and so we were all sprawled out on the mats and watched the rugged Malagasy countryside bump on by through the open sides. While it rained torrentially during most our stay in Sainte-Luce, making the tent camping uncomfortable, it was great to get out into such a unique system that is the littoral forest. I saw my first troupe of lemurs (Red-ruffed brown lemurs if I remember correctly), chameleons, and a lot of interesting other critters.
There is so much else that I could write about which I just don’t have the time or energy to do, including going to a football (soccer) party and a zebu slaughter. We are leaving soon for a week-long village homestay in the Faux-Cap region in the extreme south. This region is in the rain shadow of the Anosy mountains, and is quite dry. There is currently a drought and impending famine in this general area (we are assured we will be fed), and so it will be interesting to see this compared to the wet climate and abundant food of Fort Dauphin.