It's officially been over one month since the start to my Fulbright experience in Madagascar and I am way past due on a blog post! So much has happened here in the last month and it started with my flight into Antananarivo (Tana) from JFK at the end of October. My exit from the United States was definitely a bag of mixed emotions as a spent the last day still frantically packing (and ending up with two overweight bags and one more than originally expected) and sharing heartfelt goodbyes with many of my amazing friends. Then it was just a 22 hour and 15,000 mile trip half way around the world! We landing in Tana around midnight and for the first time ever travelling internationally I actually filled out my customs form prior to leaving the plane (yay me!) so I was feeling much more comfortable than my last trip to the red island (it also helped that this time I knew a little bit of Malagasy). I gathered my four extremely large duffel bags and headed out to meet the driver from MICET (one of the NGOs that helps to facilitate research here in Madagascar) who helped me exchange money and take me to my hotel. My time in Tana was fortunately fairly uneventful, which means that my research permits were already set for me to go and I didn't have to spend much extra time trying to get approval to begin my project. While in the capital I did spend time gathering another six bags of equipment to bring down to Centre ValBio (CVB; the research station I work at in the Ranomafana region), adjusting to the time zone change, eating some great food, and enjoying the view of the Queen's palace from a balcony at my hotel.
Exactly one month ago today Arline (the Malagasy Ph.D. student assisting me with my research these first two months) and I hoped in the car for the 10 hour trip down the Centre ValBio. We arrived to a warm welcome by the staff and jumped right in to getting to know the other researchers as well as the study abroad participants that we staying there. Unfortunately during my first week at the station the guides I am working with were not free to begin my project, but I was able to keep myself very busy with a multitude of "remote" tasks to be done for some of the projects I have been working on in the states. Additionally, I took this time to being planning our first expedition with another researcher at the station, Daniella Rabino. Daniella is a Ph.D. student at the University of Sussex studying the way in which children perceive their environments and working near the Andringtra corridor south of Ranomafana National Park. Since I am planning to collect fecal samples from black-and-white ruffed lemur groups down in that region and took the opportunity to go with her and do a little reconn of potential sites as well as scope out how difficult the sites would be to get to (since they are quite far from the research station). It was an extremely bumpy, four hour car ride down to a town called Tolongoina, and from there we hiked about three hours out to the remote village (Ambodivanana) in which Daniella is conducting her research. Our week in Ambodivanana was definitely an interesting experience (for me at least as this was my first village-stay) filled with the entire village watching us at our tents from dawn to dusk (as if we were a television show) and everyone on our team getting fleas. Despite the fleas, the trip was very successful and I located and received permission to gather data from three sites in region which I plan to go back to in March after cyclone season is over.
We returned from Tolongoina just in time for the 25th anniversary party for Ranomafana National Park. It was an all day celebration that began with a zebu (cattle) sacrifice (of which I personally opted out of), then there was a live concert down in the town of Ranomafana, and it concluded with a huge dance party that lasted until the wee hours of the morning. It was so fun to see many of guides and head staff that work for Centre ValBio at the party and many of the them helped to teach us several Malagasy dances. I was definitely sore and exhausted after the night of partying, but had to jump right back into things the next day in order to plan our next expedition out. This time we were heading to a new site in the southern region of the national park near the village of Sahavoemba in order to collect fecal samples. Per usual, preparation entailed ordering food and cars, charging about 70 batteries for headlamps and GPS', and packing our bags with tents, traps, sleeping bags, etc. For this trip I was finally paired up the guides, Pierre and Jean Guy, that I will be working with for the remainder of my project and was great to get the chance to finally meet them. With everything prepped and ready to go we set out Wednesday the 23rd of November for the new site. Our departure that day was a little delayed since we forgot the mofo (bread) at the research station and had to wait for someone to bring it down to Ranomafana before we could start our hike out. We ended up spending our first night near the Sahavoemba village since we arrived in the afternoon and we didn't have a camping spot already planned in the forest which would take us a while to find a suitable spot (i.e. flat and near a river).
The first evening at our forest camp began my first bout of stomach sickness for this research trip, which was definitely an unwelcome surprise. Although I was feeling sick I still went out the next morning with the team to make sure everyone understood the sampling methodology but had to spend the afternoon in my tent willing myself to feel better (which ended that evening with me taking cipro and that doing the trick). After my stomach bug cleared the rest of the trip was wildly successful as we collect 53 fecal samples (a new expedition record!) from over 25 black-and-white ruffed lemur individuals. I am hoping all the sites I visit this year yield the same number of samples, but I guess only time will tell. On Friday, after our ten days in the forest, we hiked out to head back to CVB which ended up being the hottest hiking trip of my life. Coming from the mid-west (and now living in NYC) I am definitely not accustom to the intensity of the sun here and it was a brutal hike that resulted in me drinking water from the irrigation canal of a rice paddy since I had already sucked down my 1.5 liters I had taken with me from camp and we were at least two hours from the road back to CVB. I did use my handheld filter to filter the water before drinking it but rice paddy water is notoriously buggy and I definitely went through an internal struggle before choosing to drink from the irrigation channel (which consisted of choosing between potentially getting another stomach bug or having to worry about heat exhaustion/stroke). I successfully avoided heat exhaustion that morning, but I did wake up the next day with another stomach bug. I have spent all weekend trying to will myself to feel better in order to be up to my full strength for our next trip coming up on Wednesday, but since that hasn't worked I just decided to take cipro again (sorry gut microbiome) and I am hoping that will clear this bug up. Moral of the story is to never drink out a rice paddy again (or at least boil the water before drinking). Our next trip is to a site Miaranony in the northern section of the national park, so wish me luck in finding some ruffed lemurs and collecting a lot of their poop!
Disclaimer: The views and information presented in this post are my own and do not reflect those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.