Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the impact of human land development on biodiversity and how it could potentially spread infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. Cara will focus on bubonic plague in small mammals and henipaviruses and lyssaviruses (two strains of viruses) in bats.
In French, they call the Milky Way “la voie lactée,” which translates to ‘the lactating path,’ a name that has never ceased to inspire in me an internal chuckle. But it is chuckle that comes frequently in my life, for francophone Madagascar has been the scene of most of my encounters with the bright smear of stars across the inky night sky—even in the remote wildlands of the American West, there is more light pollution than I see out here on the Eighth Continent.
I write to you newly—and briefly—returned to the civilization of Antananarivo after three weeks sur terrain at my field site in Ambohitantely Special Reserve. It feels good to have clean hair and a belly full of French delicacies, but a part of me is impatient to return to the hinterland yet again, for it is there that I feel most the powerful sense of isolation—and discovery—that first enamored me with Madagascar. Indeed, the stretch of road encompassing Ambohitantely is a blank page in my Madagascar guidebook. As Melville says, “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
It is a few days into our field work, and Christian and I decide to bike some 42km to the nearest town of Ankazobe to buy forgotten camp essentials and greet our newest team member—Princeton undergraduate, Evaline Cheng, who is joining us for the next month to work on her senior thesis. We purchased our bicycles the previous week in Tana, but as with many things in Madagascar, their reliability is somewhat questionable. My mouth waters over the American-brand mountain bikes issued to my friends in the Peace Corps, but Chris and I make do with our gaudy France Riders. A hundred meters down the road, and Chris’s bike chain snaps. We repair it, but only a few kilometers pass by before my handle bars start spinning freely with no control over the tires’ direction. It proves to be a long 42 km indeed.
But, again, as with all things Madagascar, life seems to work itself out. We stumble upon a village along the roadside just when our stomachs seem determined to growl on indefinitely, and a kindly lady feeds us rice and sugary Malagasy coffee. She is so entertained by the arrival of a vazaha—white person—on her humble doorstep that she rushes to her storeroom and returns with an armful of voasary, oranges. “Volandalana!” she exclaims. A gift! And presses them into my hands. “Ah, misaotra betsaka,” I reply, but wow, now I have ten pounds of oranges to add to the my bicycle load. “Matanjaka-be ianao,” says Christian, giving me a pat on the back. You are very strong. I scowl.
On our second journey to town, we think we have scored it lucky when we arrange a ride with the driver who fetches the Ambohitantely director from Ankazobe every Monday. But we get up at 5am to wait for his specified arrival time, and some six hours pass by before he trudges in to start the ignition in the car. Turns out he hiked halfway out to the preserve before realizing he had forgotten his keys back in town. Miangy fa’gasy, they say. Waiting like a ‘Gasy. In Madagascar, one learns to take life moramora, or one step at a time.
We hike and bike and scramble back and forth across the Ambohitantely terrain, fighting through the forest to set our traplines, calling up ArcGIS on my field netbook every few hours to try to place ourselves—there are no USGS quads to guide us here. We search out different fragments, and sometimes, we arrive at a site only to find the forest vanished. Our 2005 GIS forest cover layer is outdated, and the impacts of human extraction on this remnant highland woodland are only too apparent.
Some 90% of the once-green isle of Madagascar has been deforested via a combination of tavy—slash and burn agriculture for rice cultivation—and doro-tanetry, a less intensive burning used to augment grass growth for cattle grazing.
It is winter in Madagascar and mangatsika-be!—cold!—in the High Plateau. I remember vaguely a Sudest Madagascar so hot that the mere thought of a jacket made me nauseous; here, though, I pull my beanie around my ears and huddle close to Evaline in the tent. We eat our meals in a smoky little hut—we’re using our gas stoves, but somewhere the charcoal is burning still—and listen to the Malagasy radio as it cackles on. Our pants hang loosely from our hips—some combination of the fabric stretching out from wear and our own legs shrinking on this lean diet of rice, dry beans, and many kilometers. We learn that it takes only one zinga—a large mug—of water to wash face and hands and feet every evening, and I marvel at the massive quantities of water that run down the drain after my five minute shower in Tana. I introduce Christian to my Dr. Brommer’s biodegradable soap, and he is amazed to learn such a thing exists.
Our days are long and it is often dark as we walk back to camp, our path lit only by headlamp and la voie lactait. In the distance, I watch the fires blink in and out from the tiny villages of the Ambany’vohitra—which literally means those places beneath the hills. “The beacon of Amon Din is lit,” I whisper and smile because my companions do not follow the Tolkien reference. I’m in the Middle-of-nowhere-Earth Madagascar, and it feels like home.