January 14, 2013

Last Months in Maroantsetra

Overlooking Marovovona
Laundry, Maroantsetra 
Pigs en Route, Maroantsetra
At the Catholic Church
Ajanahambo River, Maroantsetra
Judacael (Photo Credit: Kerry O'Neill)
Betsimisaraka Tombs, Andranofotsy
The Catholic Church
Spreading the Gospel of Soccer
Maroantsetra, From the Air
(Photo Credit: Jonathan Mason)
Dounia Port, Maroantsetra

January 11, 2013

Akaiza Oala?

(Or, Part II of the Adventures of Katie and Kerry in Masoala)

Masoala has got to be one of the most pervasive mistranslations of the Malagasy language. (Admittedly, the competition there is not steep, as general interest on the subject is pretty limited). Every single guide-book and tourist brochure I have read, not to mention a number of more scholarly works, translates the name as “the eye of the forest,” from the respective Malagasy words maso (eye) and ala (forest). But a few months back I began hearing differently, that the root of the word was actually oala, which describes a channel through the reefs, a safe route into a cove and ashore. Apparently, this is highly-localized term, not limited to just the northern Betsimisaraka dialect, but a sub-dialect of coastal people. It is nautical terminology, a fact which explains why even most Malagasy are not familiar with the true meaning and appropriate translation of Masoala. Combined, maso and oala specifies a channel through the reefs which must be espied, is difficult to find.

My, how very interesting and entirely irrelevant to my life, you must be thinking. But I made that mistake once too! Never did I think that finding a safe route through a reef would be an important, dare I say critical, life activity. Not until our fateful return that afternoon.

We left not long after lunch, confident that our return journey to the campsite would be a breeze. The winds we had battled the entire way over would now be at our backs. We joked that we would manimba (fly) right on home. Drugged with dramamine we departed, the four of us crammed into our little wooden canoe. Even with our crazily-rigged sail, it was not long before we were all a little nervous about just how close to flying we were. Huge swells came up behind us, caught our little craft, and propelled us forward at incredible pace before dropping us to wait for the next. Looking forward, this felt like a conveyer belt to our destination, the helpful hands of God, but glancing back as the swells bore down, it felt more like we were bound to be consumed...

So, of course, we determinedly faced forward. And reverted to the philosophy which usually bears us through such situations, which goes something like this: “This man who we have hired to take us in this pathetically small boat, this is his livelihood, he does this everyday, look at him, he isn’t scared, he isn’t phased, I won’t be nervous until he is nervous...”

Then, this man in whom we were busily investing all our hopes and dreams, in whom we were entrusting our physical well-being, suddenly gave us very good reason to be nervous. “This is grave,” he muttered, “we need to go ashore now.” In one tense, jerking motion, all three of our heads (Katie, Kerry, Beonique), turned back to him as if connected by a string. I am sure that each our faces said the exact same thing: SAVE US, WE ARE VERY CLEARLY GOING TO DIE.

Using the paddle to steer, he turned our boat towards shore, the waves now crashing directly in front of us and over the edges of our no-longer-comically-small-craft.  Here, he says, handing me one of the ridiculous shards of plastic used here to bail boats, bail. Now our doom is confirmed: if a Malagasy person assigns a white person a critical task, the greatest depths of desperation have been reached.

To make matters worse, much worse, our steerer begins muttering to himself, under his breath but nonetheless quite audibly, “Akaiza oala? Akaiza oala?” With my insight into the true meaning of oala, I understand that this means: “Where is the channel? Where is the channel?” I want to turn around and yell, well use your EYE to see the OALA, man! As the illogical part of my brain is demanding I scream this, the logical part is busily and fatalistically thinking: he has no idea how to get through the reef...

Then we get caught on the crest of one of those massive waves. Beonique, our guide crammed at the very front, throws his paddle down, grabs the edges of the canoe,  and holding on for dear life, starts screaming. I am busy bailing, desperately and futilely.  As I toss out tea-spoons of water, facing backwards, I am only aware of a huge wall of water behind us and the sensation of being lifted. Water is now pouring over the edges of the boat, but out of sheer terror and attachment to the idea that I am doing something helpful to save our lives, I continue to bail. Everyone is yelling; we are surfing ashore, presumably through the OALA that our steerer finally espied with his EYE. The wave dies down and we are sitting in the ocean. There is no noticeable difference between the water level in and outside the boat. Our packs are floating. Still, I am determinedly using my chip of plastic to toss out tea-spoons of water. Kerry turns around to look at me. Her expression is not conveying the sentiment that my terrific bailing effort has saved our lives. On the contrary, it says: put down that ridiculous piece of plastic, you idiot. 

So, yet another change of plans. We return on foot to our campsite. And the next morning, instead of returning by boat up the coast, we enter back into the rainforest. It is a more manageable undertaking this time, with the knowledge that “three ups, three downs, then out,” actually means eight hours. Nevertheless, we are trying do a three day hike in one. If you will remember, this puts us on pace with Malagasy grandmothers and partial-invalids. At the end of the day, two hours from our destination, it was my turn to sit down in the trail, declare myself an invalid, and refuse to move. Kerry, having paved the way in this department, was tolerant. 

So, a final rewriting of the rules of success. A plan changed so often we could not remember its original form. An [expletive] ferret and an unseen oala. Another adventure in the books...

If at First You Don't Succeed, Change Change the Rules...

(Or, Part I of the Adventures of Katie and Kerry in Masoala)

When you are planning an adventure in Madagascar, or for that matter making any plan at all, there is one golden rule to follow: if at first you don’t succeed, change change the rules! It is best to set the standards of success as you go.

I offer as evidence the recent Adventures of Katie and Kerry in Masoala. 

Weeks before our actual departure, we (as is said in Malagasy) “built a program” to hike out to Masoala and back along the coastal trail. While this would be an eight-day commitment at the least, it would save us the exorbitant cost of the boat and, as most of the trail was not actually in park, also the cost of a guide. There was only one hang-up with our brilliant plan: it required Malagasy approval for an unorthodox undertaking, in this case approval from the National Parks office. An initial visit received the expected reply: “um, yes, well, please, return at a later date.” So we did, again and again and again, to receive the same reply and no apparent change in the status of our request. Our hoped for departure date came and went.

Initial plan: abandoned, without lingering attachment. We cleaned out our bank accounts, hired a guide (Beonique, who would become well acquainted with our philosophy of success), begged a boat discount, and were on our way!

With great enthusiasm, a new plan was built. We would hike from Tampolo (located about halfway down the peninsula) to Cap Masoala (the peninsula’s tip). Though this was traditionally a three-day endeavor, we would attempt to do it in two. This accelerated pace would still put us a day behind Malagasy grandmothers and the partially disabled in overland trekking speed. Once there, we would stay for a day, then return along the same trail. 

We started out on that first day with a sense that our task was ambitious, but doable (not, you may have noticed, an uncommon mistake on our part). Embarking early, we headed south along the trail, paralleling the ocean. Frequently we would encounter vinany crossings, places where river meets sea; previously friend (see: LEPTY LEPTY LEPTY, April 2012) these were now largely foe. We would find ourselves chest-deep, sinking in sand, backpacks precariously perched atop our heads, straps suddenly numerous and cumbersome. “I am fine, totally fine!” we would tell each other and reassure Beonique. “I do this every...” would often be partially lost in the rising water and sound of thrashing limbs. Beonique did not look reassured.

After lunch, we left the shore and climbed into the forest. This portion of the trail had been described in a very Malagasy manner as “three ups and three downs then you are out.” We climbed one short hill: “ONE UP!” we congratulated each other. Premature high fives all around. 

Seven hours and countless ups later, we our still deep and disoriented in the rainforest. We have long since stopped with the high-fives. The high-fives were a stupid idea in the first place. We have likely succumbed to heat stroke. Night is falling and we have no idea how far remains to the village at the edge of the forest. We push on until it is so dark we can hardly see. Finally Kerry, who in her delirium may actually have shown the most logic, simply sits down in the trail and refuses to walk further. A hurried conversation determines that really, girl is not budging. While I search for a flat-ish spot that is not 99% roots, a brown-tailed mongoose (rarest of forest sightings) strolls out and stops to sniff Kerry’s toe. “What the [expletive] is that? An [expletive] ferret??” she demands. Ok, that seals it: we camp here tonight, on this flat-ish spot that is only 93% roots.

Though we crawl from our tent at dawn feeling like we slept on a pile of sticks, the plan that second day remains ambitious, but doable. We will finish our journey! For most of the day we press on, leaving the forest and coming upon the village in two hours. Not long thereafter the trail reconnects with the ocean and we can almost see our destination along the shore. The heat builds and builds; every second in the sun feels like you have been cruelly locked in the car on a hot day by your neglectful owner. You wonder why you are thinking of yourself as an abused pet. You realize that you are undoubtedly delirious again. Stopping to get water, you look up and see a perfect little cove with a perfect little campsite. 

Change of plans: we will be spending the night here! 

The next morning, instead of completing the final two hours on foot, we choose to go by lakana, dugout canoe. As a local proverb makes clear- Antimaroa tsy mandeha tsy andakana, people of Maroantsetra won’t go if not by canoe- this is the area’s most reliable form of transportation. Or so we thought. A one hour journey dragged into three, as we bobbed like a rubber ducky on the swells and paddled into the wind. Gasping with sea sickness, we crawled ashore at the Cape. It was an hour before I could even talk. 

Countless changes of plan. One [expletive] ferret. A day late. We had at last reached our destination. 

Now all we had to do was return...


      For a year now, I have talked a lot about Masoala National Park, about its pristine natural beauty and unrivaled biodiversity, about the need to protect and preserve it. But the truth is, except for a couple kilometers of forest corridor on the trail to Antalaha, I had never been to Madagascar’s most famous rainforest. (And in that stretch of trail from Antalaha, my feet hurt so badly I didn’t care where I was). In my year based in Maroantsetra, I have criss-crossed the region: on foot, by bike, boat, or occasionally plane. I have pored over maps and environmental health data, harassed the researchers who come and go for “insider information” on their studies, and assembled countless environmental education lessons on the natural wonder of the land next door. I was a busy busy bee talking about a place I had never seen. 

      Actually, that is not entirely true. I see Masoala every single day, stretching enticingly south along the bay, a densely-forested peninsula that drops steeply into a line of white sand and the blue of tropical waters. For a year, opportunities to visit, to tag along on WCS expeditions, slipped again and again through my grasp. For this national park, there is an issue of accessibility: unless one is willing to walk four days out and four days back, the only mode of transportation is by boat. Due to an undeniable Maroantsetra boat monopoly, one trip costs the equivalent of a Peace Corps monthly stipend. Despite my questionable budgeting skills (in this country, I live constantly on the brink of financial insolvency), I managed to scrape together the funds by mid-December. I cleaned out my bank account and we were off. 

      [For the Adventures of Katie and Kerry in Masoala, see “If at First you don’t Succeed...”]

      You would think that with my expectations piled sky high, Masoala would be bound to disappoint. On the contrary, it far exceeded. In our four-day trek down to the peninsula’s southern point and back, we passed through the most amazing, uninterrupted, untrammeled stretch of forest I have ever experienced. Striking in from the shore, we followed rivers fed by streams fed by branching trickles of water running over the rock, until we were standing on the mountain ridges, completely disoriented, unable to discern east from west. The density of the vegetation swallowed sound and, hiking as we were on the summer equinox, everything reverberated heat. The humidity was inhumane. I could not tell when the rain stopped and started: there was no noticeable difference in the moisture of the air. Take this a tree-hugger talk if you will, but it was humbling to be so enveloped. 

       I was most impressed though by how alive the forest felt. I have been to my fair-share of forest on this island: from the plateau parks of Ranomafana and Andasibe, to the dry deciduous forests of the west in Ankaranfantsika and Sahamalaza, and the eastern rain-drenched forests of Mananara and Makira. Often these forests feel like a shell, as though all animate life has withdrawn to some distant, safer core, far away from the destruction of human activity. And the life one does encounter seems timid- as with a troop of sifaka lemurs who called all around my friend Max and I in Makira, but never to our disappointment appeared- or, on the flip side, utterly habituated- as with the lemurs in Ranomafana who clamor for human food. All these other forests are porous and fragmented, the human presence, pervasive.

      Not so with Masoala. At 230,000 hectares, it is the largest uninterrupted swath of rainforest in Madagascar. (Makira is actually the largest protected area, but it is partially inhabited). It feels this vast, and devoid of human impact. We walked for a whole day on an established trail and passed two people. Instead, without even stopping to look, we saw six or seven troops of lemurs: white-fronted brown lemurs chattering and swinging in the lower canopy, red-ruffs loud and territorial, hooting and hollering at each other and the intimidated browns in the upper canopy. The trees rustled as they flung themselves overhead. We saw three other renowned and elusive species: a leaf-tailed gecko, flinging itself to forest floor in flight from a predator hawk; a blue-helmet vanga, apparently the type of bird birders spend their lives looking for; and a brown-tailed mongoose, which wandered onto the trail and sniffed our toes, then wandered off indifferently. (The last of these interactions prompted an expletive-laden diatribe about a ferret, but that is a different story). 

      This is the point that I want to make about Masoala. It is not just an area of tremendous, untrammeled beauty; not just a paradise coastline, coral reefs overhung by ancient rainforest trees. It is a healthy and thriving ecosystem, not just inhabited by, but exploding with rare and elsewhere threatened life. For a full year, I read about this place on paper, heard about it everyday, taught about it almost as often, and stared wistfully its way from many vantages. I could have returned to Maroantsetra via my very expensive boat with the sense that all I had done in year was not worth it. But instead I left Masoala with the feeling that as much as I have done, I have not done enough.