August 29, 2010

Evidence the Browne Family Crossed the World (Photos)

Tonga Fianakaviana!!! (The Family Arrives)
Ankarana Nat'l Park
Diego, Northern Madagascar

House of Insect Horrors

A 'True' Lemur
They call this the 'Fishbowl Effect'
Sahamalaza Nat'l Park
Market, Diego
Village Life, Maromandia
Speedy Tropical Sunsets, Ramena
A Lepi Surveying the Hostile World, Ankrana
Madagascar Whizzing By
Most Persistent
Lemur, Ankify
Diego Suarez (Antsiranana)

Family Trip to the Market, Diego

Lemur Troop, Ankify
Ramena, Northern Madagascar

August 20, 2010

Save the Furbies! (And their Good-Lookin’ Blue-Eyed Friends!)

Ankarafa (not to be confused with Ankarana) is a protected parcel in the southern portion of Sahamalaza National Park and, even in the dry season, the forest is an absolute explosion of green. Bamboo grows haywire, tossed down like pick-up sticks among the already thick vegetation. It was here that I recently found myself again in pursuit of lemurs. The guides and researchers moved through this Discovery Zone with a stealth that led me to conclude that each of them was, in fact, the Last of the Mohicans. I- tripping over roots, stumbling down declivities, getting every last shred of clothing caught on thorns- whispered most unnecessarily as I Miss Trunchbulled my way through the underbrush: “They’ll never hear us coming!”

Luckily, the general ruckus that followed me did not much matter, because neither of the species we sought seemed to care. It turned out that the first- known to the Malagasy as fitsidika, to the lab-coated folk of the world as lepilemur sahamalazensis- could not be bothered to move much at all. This I found to be a bit surprising, given that the larger lepilemur family are commonly known as ‘sportive’ lemurs. Though I am not known to hold particularly high exercise standards, these fellows seemed an exceptionally mellow bunch, curled up in their tree-holes, staring lazily out at the world with wide, dreamy eyes. No longer such a stickler for logic these days, I was willing to let the misnomer slide, until someone happened to mention the fact that all lepis are noctural. Duh, I knew that. I’m no ignoramus.

This particular species, as the observant may have deduced, is endemic to Sahamalaza. Further, it is among the top twenty-five most endangered primates in the world. As if that is not enough to melt your animal planet heart, I feel obligated to add: they look suspiciously like furbies. Indeed, when they look out at you from within their little havens from a hostile world, their big black eyes implore: “Why am I endangered? Who would want to hurt me? Would you not rather hug and immortalize me in an incomprehensible stuffed animal craze second only to Beanie Babies??"

Their blue-eyed friends were equally shameless in tugging on the heartstrings. Eulemur macaco flavifrons, known to the Malagasy as ‘foreigner’ lemurs for self-evident reasons, are part of the larger ‘true’ lemur family (an easier name to live up to, setting aside debates of a philosophical or subjective nature). Also endemic to the park- where the species was (don’t ask me how) ‘rediscovered’ in 1983- it too is endangered, listed as ‘critically’ so. Needless to say, this is a shame, for they are beautiful creatures, the males a sleek black, the females tan, each boasting long tails and (no misnomer here) crystalline blue eyes.

Cavorting about in the canopy or on the forest floor, they hardly seemed bound by the same laws of gravity that had me stumbling about like a distant evolutionary forerunner to the Mohicans (say, knuckle-dragging distant). I was astounded too at how little they feared humans; whole groups would perch perfectly at ease within arm’s length. Of course, this only tempted me to reach out, clasp an adorable little furry paw in my hand, and swear an oath of undying loyalty. (To which any lemur in its right mind would give me one up-down and respond, “Could we have Captain Planet instead?”).

But, no matter which way you flip it, these animals are in trouble. Sahamalaza protects what remains of several degraded forest fragments, much of it secondary forest. As is elsewhere in the park, this forest is under tremendous pressure and enforcement is sparse at best. The greatest threat to both species is loss of habitat: deforestation from small-scale logging and tavy, a particularly destructive form of slash and burn farming widely practiced in the Madagascar. Plus, there is considerable threat of forest fire in the dry season. (I should mention that is why I was in Ankarafa: educating about and promoting cookstoves as part of an ANGAP firebreak project). Throw in poaching and live capture demand for the commercial pet trade, it all paints a pretty bleak picture.

There is, however, reason for optimism. A French NGO, AEECL (European Association for the Study and Conservation of the Lemurs), has established a research station and is extremely active in the area. Thus, if the adorable, little lemur eyes are haunting your dreams, take small comfort in knowing someone out there is crusading for the furbies! (Beanie Babies, on the other hand, the world might be better without…)

The Thirty-Minute Mark

Thirty minutes into a soccer game, my fellow center-midfielder and I- gasping for air, jerseys ripped, claw marks down are arms or something of the sort- would lock eyes, share a deep understanding of the soul, summon the oxygen, and speak in accord: “We are not going to make it.” Of course, we knew we would make it, even if we had to crawl off the field to receive our due accolades of “Well, you sure ran a lot out there.” It is just that at that one-third mark, looking back on the ground covered and forward to that which remains, one realizes exactly how long ninety minutes promises to be.

My fondness for citing thirds aside, there is a certain significance in reaching the nine-month mark of the (typically twenty-seven month) Peace Corps tenure. It might be succinctly stated as follows: “Good lord, two years can feel like a long time!” But that is not to say that just because I couldn’t breathe, I wasn’t enjoying playing soccer. I almost always was, and I would extend that to my life as a PCV. The hardships and struggles, the locked-eyes “we’re-definitely-not-going-to-make-it” moments are just part of moving through life, wherever it may be. And man do they make killer blog material!

So how do you know you are one-third of the way through Peace Corps? Well, when your bike becomes your significant other, that could well be a clue. (What should we do today? Another candlelit dinner?? You shouldn’t have!). When you take up flossing as a hobby, eagerly await the arrival of bungee cords, and discover that your flip-flop alternates as an instrument of infinite death, you might be on to something. Recently found yourself in an impassioned debate regarding instant mashed potatoes as God’s gift to Peace Corps Volunteers? (Katie for the affirmative!). Catch yourself mindlessly humming ‘Somewhere Out There’ at least three times a day? I would say you are in the thick of things.

In all seriousness though, when you are beginning to recognize the length of two years- the things you live and live without for that time- it helps you realize what you value. I do not miss electricity, nor running water (ok, maybe vaguely when the buckets hit bottom). I do not miss tv: each night I plop myself down to watch my two favourite shows, sunset and star rise, which fortunately for my busy schedule air back-to-back. Nor do I miss the crush of the current events culture: at first, it is a tad shocking to discover the ease with which your world moves on without you, then, in turn, the ease with which you carry on without the world. Nope, after nine months most of the tangibles have faded. I have even stopped craving chicken biscuits, if Liz Glanden could forgive me such a blasphemy.

It is the intangibles that remain and, if anything, grow stronger as time passes. It will not come as an earth-shattering revelation to say that the things one misses, the things that can stretch two years interminably, are not things at all, nor places, but people, and what you share with them. I am talking about two recent college graduates methodically working their way through the Paula Deen Kid’s Cookbook; the feel of no itinerary and the car pointed west; family dinners, of course of the literal sort (raise those SAT scores!) but also of a more flexible definition we PCVs might refer to as ‘the orphanage.’ I am talking about sharing the view of the city from the roof, or conversations of the deepest nature on street side, flea-infested couches.

Dear God, is this nostalgia? It’s all-consuming! Worse, it’s embarrassing! I almost caught myself saying I miss the thirty-minute mark of a soccer game…

Ankarana : Where the Wild Karst Are

The night before my Peace Corps departure, my parents and I went to see “Where the Wild Things Are.” It was a good movie, I think. Actually, I had a difficult time concentrating as I was distracted by the sniffling and suppressed sobs coming from the seat next to mine (need I say: the mom side). After we moved to Madagascar, I got some appropriate memorabilia in the mail; as my mother explained: “You see, it’s like, where you live…” (we both waited to see if she would continue, “…and what you are.”).

Unless one considers cockroaches and bush-taxis to be “wild things,” however, it might be an overly generous assessment of the stomping grounds. To be fair, though, I do often find my life to strangely parallel the moment when the giant, shaggy dog plods inexplicably through the desert (“Don’t feed him; he’ll just follow you”), in the sense that I often stop and think, no really did that just happen??

But on recent vacation (yes, we get those; I find that I often have to remind people that Peace Corps is not prison), Madagascar more than lived up to the moniker. Ankarana National Park boasts many things, the most spectacular of which are the tsingy and the vast network of caves that lie beneath. Tsingy- as the travel guide retrospectively informed us- are “limestone karst pinnacles,” a description to which we all nodded sagely, then admitted we hadn’t the vaguest what a ‘karst’ was, then spent another ten minutes debating its likelihood of being on the GRE. (FYI future GREers: a limestone region marked by fissures, sinkholes, underground streams, and caverns).

What ‘karst’ fails to do justice to is the violence of the landscape. The tsingy, razor sharp and stories high, pile upon each other like waves on a stormy sea. Once hiking through the Grand Canyon (translation: tripping over cacti), a friend remarked: “Everything here is trying to hurt you.” In Ankarana, the land itself was in on the attack; with no safe place to put a hand the balance-challenged (translation: me) were sure to struggle.

Below the tsingy, huge caves have hollowed out over time. We hiked (dare I say spalunked?) deep into them, clambering over smooth walls and squeezing through narrow passages, only the occasional handhold reassuring that our guide was not secretly leading us to our imminent doom. In the deepest cavern, we turned off our lights and felt the darkness pressing in, the awed, oppressive silence. Someone whispered, “What would you do…” to which I replied promptly and honestly, “lay down and die,” sparking a fiercer-than-karst debate over who could rightfully claim my meagre worldly possessions.

Of course, being Peace Corps types, even the most unusual setting failed to dislodge conversation from its well-worn grooves for long. In a show reconciliation and solidarity, we all agreed that many aspects of the cave’s interior indeed resembled frosted cupcakes. “Woops,” said the balance-challenged, “did I just use that stalactite as a handhold?” “Stalagmite, idiot,” said a voice behind me. Only the greatest respect for slow-building, subterranean forms prevented me from breaking off said stalac-whatever and using it as a weapon.

And, yes, there were Wild Things abound. Tiny, nocturnal lemurs peered out from their cubby holes with wide eyes; at sunset, their crowned cousins cavorted on the tsingy, skipping over the jagged spires. In the depths of the caves, huge bats flew heavily through the air, as their smaller brethren gathered in clumps by the hundreds, squeaking, squeaking, squeaking. Cave spiders, numerous and as big as my hand threatened to manifest a certain friend’s promise that “if there is ever another spider on your back this time I will kill it” (as opposed to, say, scream incoherently).

Fortunately for all, the day drew to a close with the promise untested. The feeling of goodwill fostered (no, really, it looked exactly like a frosted cupcake!) allowed us to overcome an unsurprising lack of bathing opportunities and- for the sake of moniker alone- sleep in a ‘real pile’ that night. I swear, it had absolutely nothing to do with being affection starved…