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.
It’s the eve of my departure back to America-land, and the feeling is bittersweet as I reflect on my last three months in Madagascar. I’m a different person from the girl who wrote to you last May aboard an airplane over South Africa—undecided about her purpose and project, uncertain of her collaborators, unsure of whether she could succeed at being a scientist amidst this developing world chaos. Coincidentally, I return to Princeton almost three years to the day from that fateful September when I first set foot on the Eighth Continent—they say, after all, that those who drink the water from the Manangareza River always find their way back to Madagascar.
Indeed, I find myself thinking already of my next return, and it will be soon, very soon. I’ll be back in Mada-land in late October, and Christian and I will be mist-netting more flying foxes for henipavirus analysis—for bat viral phylogeography, I have decided, is going to be my PhD. I’m a second year PhD student now and supposed to speak assertively when people ask me what I study. And fortunately for me, I’ve fallen in love with a species and a question and could not feel more excited about the four years ahead…For the first time in my life, I no longer hesitate to call myself a biologist.
I spent the past few weeks chasing down flying foxes all over the District of Moramanga, where we last sampled a cliff roost of Eidolon dupreanum. We’ve been lucky enough to locate a host of roosts for both cave-dwelling Eidolon and tree-perching Pteropus rufus…I’ve never seen a Pteropus species in the wild before, and when the Ambakoana valley opened up below me, brimful of trees simply dripping with bats, I could not help but gasp. There were over a thousand of these beautiful yellow-backed, black-masked flying foxes, and when dusk fell, and they swirled en masse up into the night sky, it was truly a site to see.
It’s been an adventure, as usual, full of taxi-brousse delays, exploding camions, and motorbike rides all over the Ambanivohitra. Yes, Dad, you’d be proud—Afaka mamily moto izao…sy tena tsara koa. I can drive a motor-bike now…and pretty well, too. And I can speak Malagasy, albeit in a halting, grammatically disastrous sort of way. But I expect that will only get better with time. If nothing else, that makes me feel like the past three months of summer-that-was-winter were a smashing success.
But the success is due in large part to so many people who have been so kind to me over the past few months—from CRVOI flying me to La Réunion to discuss Leptospira sequencing to Institut Pasteur sending me off with donations of liquid nitrogen to Malagasy conservation NGOs driving me to bat roosts free of charge. I asked Christian how we managed to be so lucky with our project plans and collaborations, and—showering me with farewell gifts—he laughed and said, “I think it’s you. If it were just me, no one would bother, but somehow people always want to help you…”
And it’s true. There’s the woman next door who sells me 200Ariary-a-bowl vary aminy’anana for breakfast and then brings me an extra cup of coffee for free. Then there’s the lady around the corner who measures me a kilo of oranges and adds a toko of bananas as a “cadeau”—gift. And there’s the athletics director at the Catholic university who lets me run morning laps on their private track—usually reserved for the school’s sports teams. And the staff at my favorite Tana hotel who charge me for their cheapest room but let me stay in the nicest one available. I feel like I’ve been my truest self in Madagascar, and the world around me has come to know and trust and appreciate who that person is. And that makes me happier than I could possibly say.
From 10,000 miles away, I make an online reservation with my Visa card for a bus that will take me from Newark to Boston to visit my new baby niece next week, and I marvel to think of how certain I am—days in advance—that the bus will make that trip at the specified hour. It’s not quite Fasankarana, Tana’s southbound taxi-brousse station, with my pile of grubby Ariary bills…As always, America is going to take some getting used to. A week in Tana has gotten me started on the developed world reintegration process—I’ve played ultimate frisbee, swam laps in a hotel pool, and eaten home-cooked tacos—but there is no sensible way to conceptualize the simultaneous coexistence of places like Princeton, New Jersey and Maharidaza, Madagascar. They are separate and distinct worlds, and only the privileged residents of the former have the liberty to flit back and forth between the two.
I sometimes worry that my life is too transient, too scattered, leaving no time to make lasting friendships in any of the circles between which I so rapidly move. But then I think of how fortunate I am for such freedom and how blessed for so many unique experiences. Norman Maclean once wrote that, “Somewhere along here I first became conscious of the feeling…that comes when you first notice your life turning into a story…” and I have that feeling now. My life is a story and yet far from complete. And so it’s tsy veloma Madagasikara, fa mandra pihoana—not goodbye, Madagascar, but farewell. À manaraka, until next time, when I see you again…National Geographic Young Explorer, Cara Brook, on a motorbike outside of Moramanga, Madagascar. Photo by Christian Ranaivoson.