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Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

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Published on July 07, 2011 with No Comments

“You ready Danielle?” asked Mami.

It was a really chilly morning in Antsirabe. After nine hours of sleep, I felt like new and ready to go.

“Before we leave, I want to take you to a place to see what they do with zebus,” Mami drove through some dirt roads of the city that looked pretty much like a town in China.

We stopped of what it looked like a house, and entered to the patio where there were some seats.

“Madam, please sit” said a short man of dark skin, almond eyes and rounded face.

This wasn’t a house; it was actually a souvenir shop.

“You don’t have to buy anything. If you want you can pay for the demonstration,” said Mami.

I really like Mami, but I was very disappointed. I had told him from the beginning I was not a tourist and that I was not interested in shopping, souvenirs, or touristy stuff. I had come to Madagascar to be with the nature, and to be with the people.

Zebu performer

I wanted to walk away, but Mami was such a nice person that I pretended to be OK with it and just watch the “show”. However, I was definitely going to make sure he understood that no more souvenir stops were happening on this trip after this. Each minute I waste in a shop is a minute I could spend in the wilderness.

“Atention à la démonstration!” said in French the Malagasy man who first welcomed me into th shop and invited me to sit. Although I was the only listening to him, he spoke in a histrionic manner as if he was giving the performance of his life in front of a large crowd.

Another man came in with a zebu’s horn and started to burn it.

At that moment, three French tourists arrived and joined us. They started taking pictures as paparazzi while the zebu’s horn was converted into a souvenir. I took, instead, photos of the people’s faces in that house. I was completely fascinated by Malagasies’ rare facial features.

The zebu’s horn was burned, slammed, cut, burned again, shaped and polished until it looked like a bird.

The French applauded and eagerly went to the table where the souvenirs were being displayed. With no option left and in the effort to not be rude, I bought a hair clip made of a zebu’s horn.

“Did you like it?” asked Mami when we were already in the car.

“Souvenirs are not my thing Mami. Don’t forget that. I did get some nice portraits though,” I said to him.

We drove away from the city finally. As we entered the countryside, extended areas of lush rice-paddies and very dried mountains surrounded us. There were some areas completely “tree-less” and burned.

“Madagascar was the green island, now it is the red one,” Mami said.

Our surroundings were mostly naked red soil, which where decorated with brick houses of the same color.

Due to human’s settlement, the island has lost 95% of its forest. Although it is forbidden by law, locals continue to do use the slash and burn, which is devastating for the environment.

“People don’t know much about deforestation. It is a problem,” explained Mami.

The image I had in my mind of Madagascar was very different from the one in front of my eyes. I imagined an island covered with green and vast forests. I knew about the deforestation problem, but this was much worse than what I expected.
I looked at my surroundings, hoping to see some of that greenery, but we keep on running into rice paddies and villages as we drove through Route 7.

“Do you want to take photo?” asked Mami.

Laundry Art

The photo Mami was suggesting was actually of some clothes of different colors laid on the ground to dry. Although it may not sound like a picture potential, it did indeed look quite artistic. We stopped near a bridge where there are also hundreds of zebus and its herders.

“Do you want to pass the bridge? I meet you on the other size,” said Mami.

I crossed the bridge and met Mami. Some curious kids looked at me while herders were moving the zebus. I wanted to flaunt (and test) with the locals the only few words I had mastered in Malagasy “Salama, inuna nu vau vau?” (Hi, what’s up?”).
They looked puzzled.

“Mami, this is bad. I don’t think they understand what I am saying,” I told my Malagasy teacher.

“It is NA vau vau, inuna nu vau vau,” he repeated speaking really slowly.

I felt I was saying exactly that. Mami started talking to one of the herders and I approached some kids to see their reaction. They laughed and ran away!

“Mami, with those words I am supposed to make friends, but they are running away from me,” I told him when I joined him.
He was laughing out loud.

“What are you laughing at? I am that bad?” I asked.

“I was asking him (one of the zebu’s herders) how many Zebus for you,’ Mami continued to laugh.

“What is wrong with my guides? How can you sell me?” I joked with Mami.

But seriously. What’s up with my guide???? I wondered.

In Ethiopia, sweet Tariku wanted to sell me for 30 cows to a tribesman; now my price is being negotiated in exchange of
zebus to a herder!

In this country, it seems Zebu’s are like sacred animals or at least multi use. The zebus are used as food, as decoration, as form of transportation, as way to show your status and wealth. Zebus are used for various ceremonies: to announce pregnancy, engagements and burial. Zebus are everywhere in Madagascar!

As we are trying to get into an agreement for “my price”, a funny looking young man with rounded face, big-jumping eyes, punk hair and white wide smile came to talk to us. He was sort of a Malagasy rapper. Although he looked like a humble farmer, but Mami said his English was good enough for him to tell that young man had gone to school.

The kids of the town, who I wanted to talk to and ran away from me, were back and laughed uncontrollably with the gestures and the movements of the funny looking man, so did the other herders who didn’t understand English, but just this guy’s outspoken personality would make any one laugh.

“Here it is a kiss!” he threw a kiss from his palm as he left.

“”Here it is yours” I did the same.

Kids and adults laughed even harder.

“Veluma!!!” (Good bye) I said as I walked back to the car for another long curvy ride.

Mami and I jumped into the car.

“You see those Daniela? Those are tombs,” Mami pointed at huge square buildings constructed on the sides of the roads.

“Those are gigantic to be just a tomb Mami,” I said.

“It is important to us. Sometimes their tombs are bigger than the houses they live when alive,” Mami explained.

“So it is better life when dead than when alive?” I was curious. “At least definitely you get bigger homes!”

“We respect very much our ancestors.” explained Mami “Here it is very common the Famadihana.”

Burials vary from culture to culture. From cremation in India to the sky burial in Tibet (where the human corpse is cut in pieces and placed on a mountaintop for the birds to eat), I am used to various “exotic” forms of funeral ceremonies, but Famadihana is something… else.

It consists of the exhumation of the bodies of their ancestors from the tombs to rewrap them in fresh cloth. When it is ready, family and friends dance around the tomb to live music to then bury again the bodies.

“Do you want to stop here?” Mami parked near a red soil brick house. “You can meet the family and see how they live. They are part of the Bara tribe.”

Maybe Mami wanted to make it up for the “souvenir” situation of the morning.

I smiled and nodded.

These tribe people wore a distinctive round hat made of natural fibres and a piece of cloth hanging in their shoulder which can be used for carrying a baby or groceries, as well as for protecting from the cold.

A tiny skinny lady with no teeth but huge smile welcomed us. With 13 members, this large family showed us how to make juice out of sugar cane and took us inside the house for a closer look. It was a two-storey house. It was cool and dark inside. The first floor is to keep the supplies and animals, including a loud pork. The kitchen and the room were upstairs. There was a humble bed in the room. The parents slept there and the children on the dusty floor, and sometime even downstairs with the animals!

Not the best cook!

When we were outside, the older lady wanted to teach me how to remove the chaff of the rice. Her thin arms hide a lot of strength. She took a huge stick and pressed it into a bowl full of grains, slamming it over and over again. I was invited to help her. Cooking is not one of my abilities but I tried to help the family. After a few minutes in labor, I couldn’t keep up with her. I failed the test. One of the young kids took the stick and did an impeccable job.

“Sorry, cooking is not my thing,” I said.

Mami translated the comment and the family laughed.

Mami had taken some photos and videos. I showed it to them. They laughed and made comments to each other as they watched themselves on it.

It was time to say bye to the family and continued our journey.

The curves of road continued and got worse. The views of vast land that has no end were mesmerizing. That feeling of endless horizon I only felt it previously in Mongolia.

The soft blue sky contrasted with the red soil and the few green spots that are left.

Tribes family

We made a stop for a picnic. I had been warned by my friend’s wife about the high possibility of legumes (especially tomatoes) and some fruits (like strawberries) to carry parasites due to the fact that large part of the soil that is being cultivated is contaminated by human’s fecal.

I sat with Mami on the ground and look at our meal: baguettes, cheese and tomatoes.

I washed those tomatoes with water but I didn’t have with me any purifying. I knew it was risky but I couldn’t tell Mami I couldn’t eat it. I never reject food from locals because usually they have little. Being picky feels so wrong. Locals usually understand when I don’t eat meat because they think I am a vegetarian due to religious beliefs, but not eating tomatoes was something I couldn’t justify.

Well if I get a parasite, the worst it can happen is to take treatment at home.

I thought to myself and enjoyed our picnic.

After another hour drive, we had to leave route 7 to take another road into Ranomafana. As soon as we got in, the landscape changed into forest… deep forest. We could smell the greenery and feel the cool and wetness of the forest.

“This is Centre ValBio. Let’s see if your friend is there,” said Mami.

Ranomafana Park

Before leaving Tana, my friend has given me a contact of an American researcher who worked at the center. Her name was Eileen Larney and she was the Chief Technical advisor. I wanted to check in with her to make sure I get time to talk to her about preservation efforts and challenges in Madagascar for a journalistic piece about conservation in Madagascar.

Based in Ranomafana park, Centre VialBio is a research and scientific facility that also has education programs for locals about deforestation and preservation so they can understand why conservation is important for them and for the biodiversity.

From the outside, the building looked modern and new. Another building is being constructed next to it.

Mami and I walked inside the center to go to the reception, where we were both required to sign a visitor’s form.

Right after, I was invited to walk into Eileen’s office. She was a tall woman in her mid or late 30s with long blond her and blue eyes. She was from New York, but has been living abroad for a long time, including several years in the forest of Thailand. Eileen moved to Madagascar two years ago and made this change because she felt her work and experience were more needed in a country like Madagascar where there is so much to be done and so much at stake.

Eileen and I decided to do the interview next day as today some students from abroad were coming and had to be ready to receive them.

“Where are you staying?” she asked.

“I am camping in Ranomafana. I have a hotel booked in the city by the agency, but Mami told me that there is camping site so I prefer to stay in the forest,” I said.

I was actually very disappointed with Rija, the owner of the tour company I hired for this trip. I hired his services because I had only ten days, but I was very clear about my interests and one of them was: camping, being as much as possible in nature. I had requested camping but he sent me an itinerary with hotels. I assumed camping was not common in Madagascar. I checked again with him a few days earlier my arrive to confirm if there were some camping opportunities and he responded “no, only in Isalo”.

However, Ranomafana park had a camping site. I realized at that moment that Rija had lied to me. I was committed to live this experience my way, not my tour operator’s way, so I would camp. I had a tent and a sleeping bag, so I would send Mami to the hotel, stay in the camping site and ask him to pick me up the day after.

“Why don’t you stay with us? We have a camping site and you can use our showers and talk to the researches and the students if you want,” Eileen said.

I couldn’t be happier! This was much better than a hotel or staying in a camping site of the park because it would give me direct contact with the researchers working there.

“That would be awesome!” I accepted right away.

Eileen showed me around.

“These are the showers and bathrooms. This is our dining room. The kitchen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner here. Do you have any meals preferences?” asked Eileen.

The centre wasn’t only impeccable and well equipped, and I was even going to even have vegetarian meals!

“Daniela, feel like home. I am sorry I have to leave you but it is a bit hectic right now at the centre,” said Eileen.

“Please do not worry about me. I am the one crashing in here last minute. I see you tomorrow,” I said.

“OK Mami, enjoy the hotel. I will enjoy the forest,” I laughed. “I will see you tomorrow at 8 am?”

“Yes, 8am I will be at the entrance,” said Mami.

I went to the dining room which also serves as a living room, study area, play room, etc.

Most people were really young students from the Study Abroad Program or researchers in their mid 20s and 30s.

Catlin was 25-years-old and doing her PHD. She was doing her dissertation in mouse lemurs and hibernation behavior. She invited me to join her to walk into the forest at night to check the traps she has sent up to see if she has caught any mouse lemurs.

“They are so cute,” she would refer to her as if they were babies.

We left at 9pm sharp. It was really exciting that my first encounter with the forest was a dark.

Looking for mouse lemurs

“The good thing about this forest is that nothing can kill you here. There are no animals that can be a real threat to a human,” she joked.

We got inside the park and we couldn’t see much except the roar of a river. The Ranomafana forest is actually quite compared to other forests I have been.

We walked and walked checking the tramps but no luck. We got two little rats, but no mouse lemurs.

“We are finding more and more lemurs in our camping site than in the forest,” she explained.

That pattern is being evaluated.

Back in the centre I met Roberta from Italy and Anja from Germany, both with the Study Abroad Program. Both of them have been doing research in Madagascar before at this same centre.

The centre was like a mini UN in the middle of the forest.

It was 11pm and it was time to go to the camping site. But I had a little problem. I didn’t know where my tent was. Eileen had asked one of the guards to set up the tent and sleeping bag for me!

A kind Malagasy student that joined us on the night walk offered to take me to the camping site and look for my tent. We crossed the paved road outside the center and took a steep and dirt passage. There was no way I was going to even find the camping site on my own.

We walked around the dark, looking for an empty tent. That would be mine. We walked up a bunch of people until we finally found it.

“Thank you so much,” I said.

I got inside my tent, got comfy in the sleeping bag and fell asleep while being serenaded by the forest…

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