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Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

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Published on July 09, 2011 with No Comments

Tik, tik, tik

I heard the drops falling over my tent in the early morning. It may had rained over the night but I was so deeply sleepy I didn’t noticed it.

Mami was coming at 8am, so I had to get ready the backpack, the tent and the sleeping bag.

I rushed into centre because I also had an interview scheduled with Eileen.

Since the moment we met, we clicked. We were vegetarians, cat lovers, nature lovers, world people. I was so thankful to her for having welcomed me in the research center. It had been there for two nights and already felt like part of the family. I would have not minded to stay alone in the camping site of Ranomafana Park, but being at the camping site of Valbio gave me something I could have not gotten in the park: the insight of the researchers and conservationists, which was something important to me.

I don’t travel for the sake of travel. I always travel with a purpose. That’s what makes my travels truly special. I always come back home with a new perspective, a lesson learned, an experience… so for Madagascar, it was important to me to learn about its wildlife, the challenges it faces and its uniqueness as I immersed myself into the Malagasy culture.

“I am so sorry. I feel terrible, but I will say bye to the group that is leaving now, and I look for you so we can do the interview,” Eileen came to the dining room where I was having breakfast with researchers I hadn’t met.

Home and office in the forest

One of them was Thomas. He was a researcher from Atlanta. This tall American of green eyes and pale skin had made Africa his home for a while. He had come to Madagascar to do some analysis of the water in the region because a lot of kids have been dying due to diarrhea.

“We test the water from the river, and there were so many bacteria, our test couldn’t handle it. People don’t see that it is dirty so they don’t boil it. They think it is safe. The child mortality is so high for something it can be easily prevented,” he said with frustration.

Thomas, just as Aileen, had an interesting life, working abroad and doing research.

This was his first time in Madagascar as most of his work has been done in mainland Africa, especially in Uganda.

“I call Uganda home, I love it,” he smiled.

He worked with the mountain and lowland gorillas. Thomas also ventured into the wild Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Congo is very expensive. We had to pull out from there because we couldn’t justify the money we had to spend in bribes! It is insane,” explained Thomas.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard the challenges about DRC. Helgel, the German journalist I had met in Joburg, had mentioned that too. It seems that to travel around, to be saved there, bribes are the way to go. And despite all the stories about danger, bribes, instability, etc, I still dream of going there.

Ranomafana Waterfall

“I wanted to see the gorillas in Congo, but I ended up going to Uganda. I think it is the most amazing experience I have had as a backpacker,” I said to Thomas. “One of them came quickly towards me and I pretended to be a gorilla, and he calmed down,” I laughed.

“The mountain gorillas are nicer. The lowlands, oh friend, those are aggressive!” laughed Thomas about his first hand experience with the primates.

Despite his adventures in the wild zones of Africa, Thomas assured me that the craziest journey of his life was in South America.

“That region between Ecuador, Brazil and Peru. Oh wow, it was the toughest. We crossed a wild river in a canoe, and I thought I wasn’t going to make it alive from that place. It was amazing!” he said with enthusiasm.

“I think I should have been a researcher instead of a journalist!” I joked.

“Please let me know. I will be happy to guide you into some interesting and remote places with some truly fascinating stories,” said Thomas.

Thomas had to go, and Eileen came in.

“I am ready now,” she said.

We walked outside the living room and set up closer to the forest.

I adjusted the monopod and the camera. Eileen looked a bit anxious.

“I am not really that good at this,” she said.

“No worries Eileen. Don’t look at the camera, talk to me,” I said.

Looking at a camera can feel awkward. I remember clearly the first time I stood in front of one. I was supposed to do a story about a natural disaster in Venezuela. I stood mute in front of it.

“Senor Rojitas, no puedo hacerlo, no se que decir,” (Mr. Rojitas, I can’t do this, I don’t know what to say”) I told the experienced cameraman I had been sent to the field with. I was embarrassed and frustrated.

I went back to the newsroom of the TV station with the interviews and the story. I was able to do the report with my recorded voice, but didn’t appear on camera. I could write for sure. I could interview. I could find the news. I had gone to print journalism school, but TV was all new to me. The camera looked so intimidating. It was hard for me to talk to a lent! But with practice, talking to the lent became familiar. It actually felt save. It became easier and easier each time. Soon after, the camera was not longer a stranger; it was a friend I could tell a story!

“Ok, now we are recording. Look at me here,” I said to Eileen. “First, tell me about what Valbio is? This is like a UN reunion in the wilderness?” I asked her trying to make it casual.

And just with that, Eileen went on and on as she was a pro!

“Pretty much we don’t know what is going on in Madagascar still. There is so much to be discovered. As we find out more, there are more questions to be asked,” Eileen explained. “We have found new frog species, we are still figuring out the lemur species. There are constant reviews. There are new birds and spiders that can only find in Ranomafana. Actually, we have found in this park the toughest and longest spider webs, which can reach even 30 meters. Not only that, it has been proved that it is the toughest silk in the world,” she said with fascination.

Although Madagascar is blessed with a biodiversity that cannot be compared to any other place in the world, locals still use the slash-and-burn as a method to cultivate the land, which has become the biggest challenge for conservation.

As a scientist, conservationist and a person who cares about people, Eileen felt that it was critical to find a balance or a way to feed the growing population and preserve nature.

“The environment cannot longer sustain the local agricultural practices, but people need to eat. There are not enough food supplies. Food security and health are a big problem in Madagascar. To make it worse, there are a few roads as you have seen Daniela, so it is hard to get to those remote communities across the island to educate them why protection of the ecosystem is good for them as well as for the environment,” said Eillen. “It is not about the biodiversity. We are integrating the people in the landscape.”

The slash-and-burn agriculture is a mayor threat to the forest all across Madagascar, but there is another problem. In the northern part of island, large extractions of materials and resources have been occurring without the control of the government.

“And Malagasy people are not even benefiting from the commercial exploitation of their own resources,” said Eileen.

Not only is critical to protect the forest to save the habitat of animals, but it is important for humans’ health as well. As I talked to Eileen, I realized that there is a department dedicated to study diseases and potential cures.

“Large scale diseases, like malaria, can be treated with leaves found in this forest!” said Eileen.

I could have stayed the entire day talking to her, but Mami waited for me.

“It was great to meet you, and once again, thank you so much for letting me stay in your camping site,” I said good bye to Eileen and went meet Mami.

“Salama Mami, are you ready? Should be go,” I jumped into the car.

Mami and I were heading to Fianarantsoa, Madagascar’s second city.

We were going to make a stop there for lunch and for me to get some urgent money from the ATM before continuing our journey to Ambavalao, where we would spend the night.

The "bald" landscape and the rice paddies

As we went back to route N7, we left the beautiful greenery of the forest to go back to the “bald” and dried hills and rice paddies on each side of the road.

“Tonga Soa Fianarantsoa” read a sign.

We had made it to the city, which was just as hilly as Antananarivo. It also had cluttered roads and

The only reason why I was happy to be there was because I needed an ATM. Now I had my fingers crossed that it would work!

Fianarantsoa, Madagascar's second city

“Here it is Daniela,” Mami showed me an ATM. We walked out of the car. He seemed to have run into some friends… and I seemed to have been making new friends.

“Bonjour, vaza! Comment tu t’appelle?” a young girl of milky chocolate skin and beautiful almond eyes asked me. She was accompanied with two younger boys, holding handmade postcards for sale. Vaza is a common greeting to a white person in Madagascar.

“Je ne parle pas du français,” I said.

“Italiano? English? I can speak both,” said the girl with perfection.

“Je suis venezuelien. Je parle Español.” I thought it was the end of the conversation.

“Como estas bonita? Yo muy bien. Me llamo Caroline,” the little girl surprised me with her perfect Spanish.
The two boys started laughing and throwing some Spanish words they had surely learned from Spanish tourists, which are becoming more common in the island.

The street smart kids

“Wow. That is impressive. You guys are talented,” I said. “ Guys I had NO money, so let’s see if the ATM works. If I get money, then I will buy a postcard from each of you. Deal?”

The three nodded.

I was hoping it worked and not precisely because I wanted the postcards. I had a long way to go and only had US$40 on me. With the high guide fees, this was nothing.

My master debit card was useless, but my visa credit card worked. I would have to pay high fees of the cash advance, but at least I had some money until my return to Antananarivo.

“Thank God!” I said out loud. I was able to get US$300 in Ariary.

I went to meet Mami and the kids were eagerly waiting for me.

“Ok, so pick which one if the favorite postcard you have painted and that’s the one I got,” I said to the kids.

Each gave me their favorite. The girl looked at me with fascination.

“Nice,” she approached me and touched my face.

“Bye bye guys. Keep on practicing the languanges and go to study. You are very smart,” I jumped in the car with Mami.

“There is a problem with the car. Maybe I wait until Ifaty,” he said.

There was no way I would risk to get stuck in the middle of nowhere in Madagascar. A middle of nowhere is actually almost anywhere in the island.

“Mami, let’s check the car and we continued,” I said.

We stopped at a “carshop” which looked more like a trash hole. They didn’t have oil, so we had to go, get it somewhere else and come back. It took about an hour to get the car fixed under the burning sun.

“Ok ready, let’s eat something,” said Mami.

We stopped at what it looked like an expensive restaurant, especially for tourists.

I didn’t know if Mami just wanted to take me to a nice place or wanted to take advantage I had money, but I was so hungry I didn’t care.

Just when I was getting off the car, I saw three kids running towards us. They were the same kids I had met earlier at the ATM.

“Hola Caroline!” I said to the girl. The two boys rushed quickly after her sister.

We took some photos and started exchanging some Malagasy-Spanish classes.

“This is my email and my address. Please send the photos,” said Caroline.

I was having a blast with my three new friends, but I could see Mami was getting anxious. Maybe he was very hungry or just wanted to eat so we could continue to drive to Ambalavao. I wasn’t sure, but I was hungry too.

“Guys, we have to go. We need to eat and drive a long way,” I said. “It was great to see you again. I will email you the photos Caroline. We will be in touch.”

I am always amazed how witty, fast learners, and charming are some of the kids I meet while traveling. They don’t have the access to education that many of the kids back home have, yet they have the drive, the easiness, the curiosity. I wanted to take the three of them home!

“They are so witty. Such smart kids!” I said to Mami.

“You know Daniela, they were taught not to beg. That’s why they paint and sell postcards they made,” he explained.

Mami and I went inside the empty and fancy restaurant where we had a three course meal. It was a fixed menu for about US$5 per person. It may look like nothing, but in Madagascar you can have a huge meal and a drink for less than US$2 in a regular place!

Granite mountains on the sight

If I have had the time to travel on my own, taking taxi brousse (local transport) and picking my own hotels and restaurants, I was sure I could have spent much, much less than what I was spending in a 10-day trip across Madagascar with a tour operator. Oh well, I didn’t have that time to spare. Two weeks vacation was all I could get and it was actually a lot considering what most people back home get for time off.

With money in the pocket and our bellies full, Mami and I drove to Ambalavao.

The further we drove from the hills of the city, we encountered some striking landscapes with huge granite peaks. We stopped for some photos, and an entire village came out to greet us!

Dozens of children with running noses came to me and grabbed my arms with their tiny and dirty hands, all excited about what candies I had brought for them, but I had nothing expect protein bars.

“Mami, could you explain to them what these are?” I handed some protein bars to the enthusiastic kids.

Welcomed by villagers

“The women want to know if you have cosmetics,” said Mami. He didn’t look thrilled about it.

“Sure. I have a few bottles of shampoo and conditioner. I don’t think I will use them all, so let me get it from the backpack,” I said and about 20 people between kids and women surrounded me.

As soon as I got the little bottles out, they were taken out of my hands as if they were gold.

The older women opened them, smelled them and smiled.

They wanted more, so they surrounded me and touched me.

“Je n’ai pas plus” (I don’t have more) I said and smiled.

Mami seemed worried while I was surrounded by the crowd. They were not aggressive, just curious. I was completely fine with it. I smiled and they laughed too. These intimate moments with locals are what make my experiences more fun. I’ve much rather this moment than a souvenir.

“Au revoir,” I said from the window of the car to the villagers as Mami drove away.

Kid in Ambavalao

After about two hours drive, we finally arrived in Ambavalao. I started questioning if the writer of my guidebook had actually been in Madagascar or if the country had changed so much since the time the book was published. In the guidebook, Ambavalao was described as the “most beautiful cities of the highlands”, but for me it looked like a small, smelly and dirty town with wooden houses and tiled roofs.

Before going to the hotel, I walked with Mami around the town and the market, looking forward to seeing, discovering its beauty, maybe uniqueness, but no luck. I found nothing.

I went back to the hotel, hoping that soon I could enjoy the wilderness of Madagascar, where it is the true beauty and magic of the island.

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