Last Week at CVB

This is our final week for data collection on our independent projects. I’ve been to around 10 different streams to catch and measure nearly 200 crabs. Some streams are nearby in the national park and for others I have taken a car to reach the destination. I also took 1 night last week to go deep into the rainforest, and I’ve decided to go again for 1-2 nights. I’ve been to a lot of the streams within 2 kilometers of CVB. So I will probably go to a campsite that’s about 8 kilometers away either from tomorrow to Friday or Thursday to Friday. Dr. Patricia Wright is also going out there on Thursday. I saw the IMAX movie before leaving with some of you; she is the woman who was the main star. She has been coming to Madagascar for 30+ years, and she founded Centre ValBio as well as Ranomafana National Park. She’s going to be looking at a species of lemur called the Sifaka, and she’s actually going to be tranquilizing some of them (safely) in order to interact with them up close. She is an amazing person and researcher, and she extended to me an invitation to hold some lemurs, which I’m excited about.

This past Sunday we had a chance to go white water kayaking in a big river that goes through the rainforest. That was an incredible experience. The kayaks were like rafts, they were inflatable and held 3 people in each. For the most part the 2-hour journey was fairly calm, but there were also some rapids that were pretty crazy. It was also pouring rain including heavy thunder + lightning for about an hour and it even hailed out of nowhere. That only made it more fun for me; it felt a bit dangerous and it probably was. By the end I was soaked all over and by that night I was sore all over. I don’t think I can get out there to do it again at this point but I would gladly go all the time if I could.

On this day I have exactly one week remaining at Centre ValBio before it is time for us to leave and prepare to fly back to New York. When we leave next Tuesday we will stop in a couple different towns for 1-2 nights on our way to the capital of Antananarivo. We’ll be presenting our research projects at the University of Antananarivo in front of students and professors there and it’s also where our flight leaves from in 11 days. I’ll be getting back into JFK at about 6:30am on Sunday the 23rd. There are some people and places that I will strongly miss that I will be leaving behind here. I haven’t even left yet and I already want to return to Ranomafana. I’ve been to so many areas of the country, but there is something about this rainforest and the surrounding villages that I love very much and really hope to see again. I even have some business ideas that I’ve discussed with some of my Malagasy friends that live and work here. I will definitely be keeping in touch with some of them; I have one very close friend named Khen that I see a few times per week. He is Malagasy but speaks English fairly well. His family owns the small restaurant that is a 5-minute walk from CVB. People from our study abroad group go there all the time because their food is seriously awesome and it’s a great place to hang out in the evenings. It’s also no more than 10 meters from the entrance to the national park, so every single tourist that comes here walks by. Right now they also have a small campsite on their property, but there are so many hotels in the area now that very few people stay there. But they do get a lot of people eating there as they come in and out of the park. If I ever save up some money I would really consider trying to turn that place into a little hotel with 5-6 bungalows, which could hold a group of 10 people. It sounds like a big project and it is, but building materials and payment for workers adds up to a very small amount of money compared to what something like that would cost in America. Who knows if it is something that will ever turn into a reality, but it is just something that seems extremely appealing to me. Khen and his family live simply but comfortably. I’ve added him on Facebook and I’m positive I will continue to speak to him.

All that being said, I am of course looking forward to seeing all my friends and family very soon! I can’t wait to tell everyone about my adventures and feelings towards this incredible country. I’ve only been able to hear bits and pieces of what everyone has been up to and I really want to catch up with everything that’s going on. It will feel great to be back and surrounded by people that I love and miss. Just a few days after I get back will also be Thanksgiving, which I know will be the best meal I’ve eaten in months. Get plenty of stuffing and gravy ready. I also feel like I could eat 50 cheeseburgers as soon as I get to New York. I miss cheeseburgers very much. There isn’t even cheese here.

In case this ends up being my last update I want to say thanks to everyone who has followed along and taken an interest in my journey. When I get home I’ll put up a final post with hundreds or thousands of pictures. See you soon.

Trey

Tuesday November 4

This past weekend was my guitar performance at Centre ValBio’s Halloween party in the town of Ranomafana. There was no DJ or anything, just one band that played more than 30 songs throughout the night. In the middle of the set I played 3 songs in a row with the band and a girl from the study abroad group sang them. The party was supposed to start at 9pm and pretty much everyone in the entire village and Centre ValBio were invited. So we waited until the place was pretty full before we played and it went really well. By the time we got onstage I think it was probably about 11pm and the party went extremely late into the night, but I left in the first car back which was at midnight. I have also made some Malagasy friends from around the area and from the local small restaurants. So they made it into the party and got to see me play which was cool. I might see if I can play a game of soccer on one of my friend’s teams in the village at some point.

Yesterday we went to a site to look for crayfish and crabs; it was an abandoned rice field. It was pretty much entirely mud. To catch crayfish you have to stick your entire arm into their burrows and pull them out with your hands…I caught a few that were more than 6 inches long and had some pretty big claws. I didn’t see any crabs in this habitat though. So for tomorrow (Wednesday) I’ve decided to go on a 5 kilometer hike to a campsite for one night. There are a few good streams there that it will be very good to check out for my crab research.

I don’t really understand why but they have made our internet here very slow. It’s hard for me to even load any webpage so pictures won’t go online for me. I’ll be able to share them all in person and definitely put them all online once I have a stable connection to do so. So much is going on for me here and I can’t believe I’ve been in Madagascar for over 50 days and have fewer than 20 remaining. I’m really looking forward to seeing people and eating some great food.

Things That Are Going On

This week we are starting our independent projects. We’ll do them for a few weeks and then present our findings at 2 different places. I decided to study the local freshwater crabs. It’s something that has really never been looked at in this area, so I’m excited to see what I can discover about the diversity and abundance of Ranomafana’s crabs. So far I’ve been out into the field twice to collect data. I’m also working alongside 2 girls that are studying Madagascar’s crayfish in the same locations as me. The way we are doing our collection is by walking in different shallow streams in 200-meter sections. We go with a Malagasy guide who is very experienced working in streams. The 4 of us flip over rocks and try to catch crayfish and crabs using only our hands. It’s really fun and we’ve been finding about an equal number of crabs and crayfish, which is good because everyone has plenty going on. I want to visit at least 8-10 different locations to see how many species of crabs I can find and identify.

This Friday is Halloween and this week is a lemur festival in the local town. It started off on Saturday day with a parade that we walked in and then we watched about 3 hours of introduction speeches that were all conducted in Malagasy so I didn’t understand a word of it. It was really hot and sunny that day so we sat in the shade until we left for lunch at 12. Then at 2pm on Saturday we had a basketball game. 6 people from our group formed a team for a small tournament that was a part of the festival. None of us were very skilled players and we played a full team of young Malagasy men that were pretty damn good. We also got 2 researchers from Centre ValBio to be on our team. There is a court in the center of the town and there were probably more than 500 people watching the game. The court is made up of some gravel and plenty of rocks so it was a big challenge to dribble the ball. There were referees who were calling fouls so it was pretty organized. We ended up losing 54-46. That was a great time and was probably the most people I ever played any sport in front of.

There is a Malagasy man who works at CVB that is part of a band and he has seen me play the guitar a few times here. Their band is playing at the festival this Friday on Halloween and there is also a big party organized by CVB that night. He invited me to play with his band at that performance and 1 girl in the group is going to sing. I told her to pick the songs she wanted to do so we’re playing Come Together, Sweet Home Alabama and Rude. On Sunday he drove us to a city called Fianar, which is about 90 minutes away for band rehearsal. He has a really nice setup with a great sound system and drumset there. So their band learned those 3 songs and I pretty much already knew them. That was a good experience and I’m looking forward to the real performance tomorrow.

I’m trying to get some pictures together, and if my internet ever cooperates while I want to use it I’ll attach them later to this update. I’ll see you all soon and I have plenty of pictures and stories to share.

Return From the Trip

Last night we returned from our 10-day trip by bus across Madagascar. Our research center in the rainforest is on the east coast of the country. The island is about the size of Texas, and we drove to the southern and western ends of the country. In the area of just a few hundred miles, we were able to see dry deserts, mountains, canyons, spiny forests, mangroves, and a beautiful beach. I’ll talk about all the places we went and things we saw, and the picture album below will be able to illustrate all the sights.

Right now these pictures are all mixed together with my original pictures. I need to find a better way to host them online. But my internet here goes in and out all the time and I also don’t spend that much time on my computer. To tell if the picture is new you can look at the date added. I’ll try to separate them and update that at some point.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/53021677@N06/?details=1

 

We left on October 13 and headed to Isalo National Park for 2 nights. We took some very long hikes into the gigantic park that spans over 300 square miles. The park is known for its wide variety of terrain, including sandstone formations, deep canyons, and grassland. It was very hot and dry during our stay, and one day we hiked 8 kilometers (5 miles) over an entire morning and afternoon. It was kind of tough but I was feeling good and filled with energy. I like to do the hikes here at a quick pace and usually right behind our guide that is in the front of the group. The guides here are all very knowledgeable about the areas they work in, and I feel like when I follow their exact footsteps on tricky terrain it makes it pretty easy to get through them without needing stops. The hike started by climbing up to the top of a plateau. We did have 3 stops as a group on that 5-mile hike through canyons and awesome rock formations. 1 stop was for lunch and the other 2 were to swim in these incredible natural swimming pools that are present deep inside the park. That was definitely one of the coolest parts of the whole trip (literally)….the water was pretty cold but it felt amazing to jump in after sweating it out for the long walk. We hung out in the pools for hours to take in the surroundings and relax. The water was also crystal clear and very clean; the water was flowing through waterfalls all around. We finished up that hike in time for dinner back at our hotel, which was a pretty nice place. The weather was great at night and some of us found an accessible rooftop to hang out on and view the stars until it was too late to stay awake. I had never seen anything like the stars there. The moon was absent from the sky and I could see so much of the vast universe that exists in every direction around us. The view was so complete that over the course of a couple hours I saw too many shooting stars to remember them all.

 

The following day we took another hike into Isalo; this time instead of being high up on a plateau we walked on the ground into a gigantic canyon. I had a blast exploring it as deep as I could possibly travel before I would have had to swim to continue further. I climbed some huge rocks and went maybe 2 miles in with a group of a few other people who were feeling adventurous. The walls of the canyon that we were in were so high up that I could barely see the top. As we got further the walls started to get closer together until they were almost touching and casting the area into darkness during the daytime. That was a really fun time and a cool sight to see. After that hike we had one more night at our first hotel before another bus trip on Friday morning.

On Friday we rode out to a city called Tulear in the morning and ate lunch there. The food was really good but we didn’t stay for long. We said goodbye to 2 researchers who had spent the first part of the trip with us in order to get to this city without paying for a ride. After lunch we were back on the bus for another few hours before we arrived at our primary destination…the beach! Our hotel was called Vovotelo, and we stayed in a series of bungalows no more than 50 yards from the warm water of the Mozambique Channel, the body of water that separates Madagascar from mainland Africa. We spent 5 nights there and it was just great. Each day we had a trip around lunchtime to a different place and then had afternoons to chill out and enjoy ourselves at the halfway point of our time in this country. Twice we sailed out from shore for about 45 minutes to a coral reef in some very shallow water, it was a perfect snorkeling spot! We spent a few hours each time there to explore the water and see dozens of species of fish and other animals. One time while we snorkeled some of the Malagasy sailors went out and caught many fish and lobsters and then cooked them up on the beach for an awesome picnic. Our boats carried 3-4 people each plus 2 Malagasy men working the sails. One day it was extremely windy and those guys had to work hard to keep the boats afloat and on course. We were whipping through the waves without a problem though. Those guys really know what they are doing. They were probably all in their twenties, but every boy in this area knows how to sail. We passed many boats of kids as young as 8-10 years old sailing in the rough seas. It is even a common way to travel for them. These are people that are pretty poor and those sailing kids will be the ones taking tourists on the water in a few years. I don’t think they get paid very much. There are also a bunch of people that walk around the beach and try to get vasa (Malagasy word for foreigners/white people…we hear it all the time and now we say it) to buy stuff like woodcarvings and other souvenirs. Those people are pretty annoying; sometimes they won’t leave you alone if you are sitting on the beach. They seem like people that are struggling to get any money at all, I saw some of the same people every day. I realize they are probably trying to support families, and I did buy a few things that I thought were cool.

 

On the other hand, I also met a good amount of locals at the beach that were extremely happy and satisfied with their way of life there, even though none of them have very much wealth. There was a restaurant and bar on the beach next to our hotel that was run by a woman from North Carolina. It was a really cool spot and unlike our hotel it sometimes got crowded at night. That was at least partly because they had some amazing live music going on. Most of the music acts we’ve seen in this country has been traditional and organized, with people wearing costumes and dancing along to 1 or 2 guys strumming a guitar that looks like it’s made out of a canoe paddle. The band that frequented this place was so much better; they played a reggae style with mostly Malagasy songs and plenty that they wrote. The coolest part was that the woman running the bar would never actually book anyone in advance. The guys from the band would just be hanging out there and elsewhere on the beach, and when enough of them were there they would jam out for hours. There was no stage, just a plenty of outdoor seating and couches for a lot of people to sit on. The band could speak English and they invited our group to hang out and enjoy the music. We watched them late into the night on multiple occasions. I played along to a couple songs on the bongos and it was great to be a part of. It was a group of maybe 10 people in the band total that was usually split into 2 groups every night, one at this bar and one at another on the beach. They had 2 guitarists and a bunch of drummers and singers. I think someone has a recording of at least one song that I will try to find. They were so good that anyone that stayed to watch them gave them tips at the end of the night even though they never asked. In talking to these guys I think they were some of the happiest people I’ve met in Madagascar, and really as happy as anybody I’ve ever met anywhere. In addition to playing music nightly, they spend their days finding ways to make money with their sailboats. They take people out for sailing, snorkeling, surfing, and anything else they can do. They expressed that they wouldn’t want to try to move or do anything else than what they do every day at the beach. But they are by no means wealthy. Often they take their sailboats out and go spearfishing for their lunch or dinner. It seemed like a really awesome existence from day to day. I wonder if any of them use the internet or if they ever have at all. I know I didn’t use it at all during the trip.

 

While I did feel a little disconnected from family, friends, and the start of hockey season, I really had no desire to connect to the web. While other people were suffering from technology withdrawals and walking all over the beach to find somewhere to check their Facebook, I was feeling no sense of this. I realized I hadn’t been on the internet in a week or more and nothing bad had happened to me. On our bus ride back from the beach we stopped at a restaurant that had WiFi. We had ordered in advance so our food was ready when we arrived. I was pretty hungry so I ate my chicken and fries in a few minutes and I was ready to get back on the road. When I looked up from my plate, the table was silent and not one other person had even noticed that the food (and other people) were right in front of them. Every last person was tapping away on their smartphones at the first chance they had in about a week to do so. I looked across the dining room and observed a similar scene. A vasa woman came into the restaurant with her teenage daughter and they were seated at a table. One took out a computer and the other a smartphone. I watched them for 15 minutes and they did not speak to one another whatsoever from the time I finished eating until the time we left. It struck me as bizarre that these 2 people had traveled thousands of miles together to get here and then had no sense of connection to one another or their physical surroundings. Meanwhile I have been enjoying the company of the other 15 students on the trip greatly. Everyone gets along well and it makes the experiences better to share them with my friends. Now we start to look forward to our 1 remaining month. We will have a couple weeks to do independent projects, and then return to the capital city before flying back home through South Africa. That will be less than a week before Thanksgiving. I don’t know what the plan is for that day, but I hope to see plenty of my readers there if not sooner so that I can point things out in pictures and try to make everyone feel like they came on the trip too. See you all in 1 month!

 

Trey

Cross Country Trip

Tomorrow at 5:30am we are leaving for a 10 day trip across Madagascar. We’re going to the dry forests, the desert, and we are spending 5 nights at a hotel on the beach. That will be on the west coast of Madagascar so it’s on the Mozambique Channel, the body of water between Madagascar and mainland Africa.

This is going to be sort of a like a vacation for us during our 10 week stay here. The weather has been great and mostly dry here, even in the rainforest. We are going to some much dryer places where it will probably be hot for a few days. Earlier this week we spent 2 nights camping in the rainforest.

That trip took us deep into the forest.  We made it to the campsite which was 7 kilometers away, and it was about 2 and a half to 3 hours on foot into the park.   On the way there it was raining and there were some leeches out.  When we made it to the camp, it was very small and on a hill.  We were able to see the black and white ruffed lemur and Edward’s sifakas which are very cool to come across in the wild. We also were able to see a fossa late at night.  They look sort of like cats and they prey on lemurs. It was trying to sneak into the camp to scavenge through our food.

 

When I get back from this 10-day trip I will definitely have a lot of stories and pictures to share. This past week hasn’t included much outdoor activity other than our quick camping trip. Centre ValBio has been a great place to stay for the past 3 weeks but this trip should be an enjoyable break from the humidity and repetitive meals that are served here. I have started walking to a nearby restaurant more often because they have some really amazing food and they make very good sauces to go along with it. I’ve eaten zebu (cow), eel, crayfish, shrimp, and an American breakfast plate at a small place about 5 minutes off of our campus. It has a great view into the national park and none of the food is very expensive at all. I’m going to buy some of their homemade hot sauce to bring back home before I leave.

I probably will not have any internet access for the coming 10 day trip so when I get back I will have plenty of new information and experiences to relay here. I have heard from a few people and it seems like things are mostly going well there. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone and talking about all of the amazing things that are going on here.

 

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Week 4 Blog Post

This past week it was my turn to write a blog about our experience in Madagascar. Every week 2 students are given the chance to write anything they want for the other students and their families to read. I used some of what I had already written for my own site and also added some additional info about this past week. The link to that site and my post is http://madagascarstudyabroad.wordpress.com/

A warning sign near a dangerous part of a trail
A warning sign near a dangerous part of a trail

Centre ValBio Life + Pictures

So far we’ve had a few cool outdoor activities here. This morning we woke up at 5:30am for birdwatching. Early in the morning is the best time to see as many species as possible that are native to Madagascar, and it was a good trip. We’ve had a few walks through the trails of the rainforest which are great places to see lemurs, frogs, snakes, chameleons, birds…as well as some awesome waterfalls and far views in every direction. We also took time for a couple days to visit a few local villages in order to see what their lifestyle is like. It was a big change from anything I’ve witnessed before. They live largely without electricity, running water, heat, bathrooms, or other things that seem (or formerly seemed) like basic necessities to me. Children run around and play while adults work long days in their fields of rice or other crops. I enjoyed interacting with the kids. They get very excited about having their picture taken and then looking at a camera to see what they look like. They showed us where they live, work, eat, and play, and where they keep some of their animals. Chickens and dogs roam freely in many villages, while pigs and cows are kept under closer guard. Meanwhile, the services that CVB provide us such as food, laundry, cleaning, and even hot water now seem more like luxuries than basic necessities. After interacting with the villages in addition to having camped outdoors for nearly a week, the way I think about these “basic luxuries” and approach utilizing them has changed from an outlook of indifference to one of better appreciation. I clean my plate during meals that I previously would not have taken a bite of, then I add a few more scoops of rice from the huge bowl that each table receives for every meal. When I put on clean clothes or take a hot shower, I think about people that I have now met that are not afforded those opportunities. I drink some soda and juice at meals but I also am taking advantage of the clean drinking water at CVB, filling and re-filling my large water bottle several times each day. I am hydrated, nourished, and healthy. I don’t know if there has been a single day (it’s been about 20 days) where all 14 people on the trip have been without illness. I am maintaining my well-being without issue. Here is a small collection of pictures from CVB so far. I will have many more when we start doing more hikes around the area.

Trey

Ranomafana

I have been enjoying myself at Centre ValBio (CVB) for the 5 days I’ve spent here so far. It really is a top-notch facility with researchers and visitors alike coming from all over the world. It was built recently so everything is new and clean and very cool. The rooms (for us) are akin to those of a college dorm, but the extensive staff of the facility makes it seem just as much of a hotel as a campus. There is a cleaning crew, laundry service, cooks, guides, guards, and administration that work every day to keep CVB running. Every meal is a 3-course meal that is cooked by the kitchen staff and served on individual plates. I’ve been eating plenty of rice and vegetables and have no complaints, everything has been great. There are also a couple small restaurants within a 5 minute walk that have tasty french fries and sandwiches.

CVB is situated inside Ranomafana National Park, which is home to many species of lemurs and other animals that are not found anywhere in the world outside of Madagascar. I have been lucky enough to see a pair of Greater Bamboo Lemurs, the only 2 such animals that are inside the entire national park. I’ve also seen snakes, frogs, fish, crabs, geckos, chameleons, insects, and more….all of which are endemic to Madagascar, meaning no other place on earth is home to these species. It is a very special place to live and work for the next few weeks. As nice as the buildings on campus are, I sometimes find myself wanting to separate even further from lights and electricity to spend more time camping outdoors and experiencing the environment and wildlife with zero external stimuli. We might have a few more nights of camping, I’m not sure yet. In about 2 weeks we do have a 10-day trip where we will travel across Madagascar into many different regions, including rainforest, dry forest, desert, and the beach. I’m looking forward to the voyage.

Also, as many of my fellow students on the trip continue to come down with various (non-serious) health ailments, I have managed to keep entirely healthy which has been terrific. That has not limited me from participating in any and all activities. I don’t feel limited in any aspect of daily life, and it is a very free and wonderful feeling.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Centre ValBio

Yesterday, on Sunday, we finally got to the ValBio research center. The past week has been spent camping out in the woods and staying one night in a village inside of Malagasy homes. The camping trip was in the forest of Maromizaha, and we had the opportunity to take hikes each day in order to observe various species of lemurs and other animals. We pitched tents to sleep in, and our meals were prepared by Malagasy (native to Madagascar) cooks who also slept at our campground. In Madagascar, every meal has rice and vegetables, and meat, chicken, or fish is also included. Some of the students on the trip got sick about halfway through the week of camping, and they left the site to see a doctor over four hours away…I was fortunate enough to avoid whatever it was that affected them, and have been feeling healthy for the duration of the trip so far. All affected students have since recovered and rejoined our group. Now we’ll spend the rest of the trip at the research center except for a 10 day cross-country trip at some point. The landscape is amazing here and I’m excited to get out into the forest and explore!

Ranomafana National Park