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  • Nina Beeby

Nina's Notes from the Field: April

Attack of the Leeches Vol. II

As a primatologist, long stints in the field, living in basic campsites are just a part of the job. And for the most part, life at Mangevo is pretty sweet. I have a great little tent set up (pictured below) with washing lines, and a porch area to sit in under the tarp. The team all sit around the campfire together to eat meals, dry clothes, and drink ranopango (rice tea – it’s delicious). Ilari and myself have been practicing our Malagasy with the help of the guys, who must be sick of our questions by now! Felix is a particularly good and patient teacher, repeating words sometimes over ten times before we pronounce it right! I’ve also started to get used to bathing in the river, it’s quite refreshing, though as the weather turns colder this may change… Something I have really grown to love here is rice and beans. Not the most exciting foodstuff you might think, but I really look forward to my lunches in the field, and the cooks do a great job with such basic ingredients. So, I would like to take this opportunity to release my official ranking of all the types of bean:

  1. Chickpeas – 10/10 sauce, great flavour and texture

  2. White beans – pretty good sauce, a little plain, kind of like Heinz beans

  3. Butter beans – weak sauce ability, skins separate from beans, not great flavour

  4. Dried zebu* - deliciously salty, sometimes tender but often very tough/fatty towards the end of the expedition

*not a bean, I know, but also a staple of breakfasts and lunches

On the other hand, there are a few things about life in the field that I’m not such a fan of…

The leeches at Mangevo are bad; and everyone knows it. They’re infamous. I thought we had seen the worst of them (and the rain too) during the peak rainy season in January, but I was so wrong. This expedition we were lulled into a false sense of security by an entire week of no rain during the daytime. Then, as the second week began, the storms came rolling in and the downpours began; and then, They came. An explosion of leeches! Some days I must have picked off – I kid you not – over 100 leeches from my hands, neck and even face! And because they inject an anticoagulant when feeding, when you pick them off, you keep bleeding for a fair while afterwards – during which time 10 more leeches have found their way towards the wound. It’s a glamorous job! However, I should take this moment to give a shout out to CVB’s current assistant research liason, Laza, who made the best out of this situation. Whilst undertaking some fieldwork last year, him and a colleague collected leeches from their clothing and sent them off for genetic analysis – and recently heard news that they have discovered a new species! Pretty awesome and makes dealing with the leeches worthwhile. Maybe.

The other thing I’m not such a fan of is the latrine. I mean, it’s not a thing anyone really likes, but I had adapted relatively quickly to latrine life during the first two expeditions (there is something quite liberating about pooping in the middle of nature), however during this expedition I have had two rather harrowing experiences at said latrine…

Firstly, we arrived back at Mangevo in the wake of a pretty intense cyclone, so a lot of water everywhere is to be expected at camp. Also, life in general here is very wet, so you get used to everything being wet most of the time, but this was another level. My first visit back to the latrine was something I hope not to experience again, but sadly know I definitely will. Slowly walking down the slippery path, trying not to fall into the hole whilst balancing on slippery wooden slats, and then seeing ‘the pit’ completely full to the brim with water, and all the contents floating around was all bad enough…but the smell? Something else. The fear of anything splashing back at you? Even worse. But, when you gotta go you gotta go, and you gotta go to the latrine. Quite a terrifying experience indeed. (If you wish to read a similar, but far more harrowing tale, you may be interested in “The Side Hole”by Mariah Donoghue – another researcher who has worked at CVB and I hope to meet one day and share tales).

So that was that, and I was thankful to enjoy two weeks of relatively uneventful toileting afterwards.

Then my second experience came at the beginning of week three – a time when you always start to become a little worried about battery life… I ventured down to go to the bathroom after dinner, before settling down for bed, so took my flashlight to guide my way through the 50 metres of forest and down the slippery trail to the latrine. It’s really amazing that there is no light pollution here but does mean that when it’s dark it really is totally dark. So, I was just squatting, minding my own business, when BAM…my flashlight runs out. Damn. Damn damn damn. My first instinct was to shout to Felix for some light as his tent is the closest, but no answer. My second thought was ‘well someone will probably come down here soon to go to the bathroom and be able to guide me back up the trail, but then I realised everyone else uses the other, closer by, latrine in the night. So, third option it was; I had to make it back by myself. Using only my hands waving in the dark and the sound of the trickling steam to my right to guide me, I began shuffling back up the hill. It probably took me around 15 minutes to make the perilous journey, up the slippery slope, through the two big trees, over the rock, around the corner by Felix’s tent, over the big buttress roots, and finally over the logs and back to the safety of my tent. Thankfully, despite walking into a few trees and getting tangled in a vine, I did a surprisingly good job of making my way back: never has the crunching of tarp under foot been so comforting!

All of these experiences make for some pretty funny stories to share with both people here and at home though, so you have to laugh, or you may well cry! Still, I wouldn’t change being here for the world…(I must be crazy, but most primatologists are at least a little).

Some other big news from this month is that we said goodbye to my other half, Ilari, who is going back to Finland after being with us for 3 months, collecting data for his microbiome and stress project. He was a great character in camp and is very much missed by us all! So now I have two ‘solo’ expeditions with the guys before our new assistants Noro, Giulia, Rita and Marta join us hopefully at the end of June. Female researchers represent!

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