Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Moore, Oklahoma

This blog is about place.  Let me take a break from Madagascar to talk about another place, and other people.
To many of my family and friends I imagine Oklahoma is nearly as unknown as Madagascar.  But Oklahoma has been my on-and-off home for five years.  As I write, I live in Norman, the next town over from Moore.  Monday’s tornado devastated neighborhoods only 10 miles from my apartment.  Although I was not directly affected by the storms, the whole community feels the impact.  It has been an emotional couple of days here, to say the least.
Although this disaster may seem far away, I assure you it is real, and far too close to home for many of us.  For those who feel moved to do so, I encourage you to donate to Red Cross or any other relevant charity.  There are many here who could use the aid.
Everyone here is doing what they can—donating supplies, cleaning, and feeding and watering victims and relief workers.  I spent some time in Moore today.  I can’t tell you anything you haven’t heard in the news.  In the worst areas there simply are no houses left.  Residents pick through rubble, make hasty repairs, or sit and contemplate.  Clinics operate from nearby parking lots, restaurants serve victims and workers for free, and volunteers drive around with cold water and food.  People help each other, no one is alone, and flags fly from any available post.  I avoided photographing people, but I hope these pictures help to convey a little of what this community is going through.  Oklahoma has been good to me, and anything you can do would be appreciated.

 Residents emerged from shelters Monday to a missing neighborhood 

 Volunteers patrol neighborhoods with cold water and food

The Warren Theatre is the base of operations for news crews

I was not raised in Oklahoma, but I love it, and my heart goes out to my fellow Oklahomans.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Back to Tana

Nosy Faly was our last collecting location.  Afterwards we returned to the mainland and started our journey back to the capital.  We stopped for the night in Ambanja and reacquainted ourselves with urban life—cafes, cheap hotels, street food.  The familiar sound of the mu’ezzin delivering the call to prayer wafted over the city, an uncommon phenomenon in Madagascar.
I got a room in the gloriously dank Hotel Salama Rose, on a dusty side street.  It was prisonlike with concrete walls, sheet metal doors and a single communal squat toilet down the hall.  My room had no windows, only a narrow vent-like grating near the ceiling for ventilation.  Water dripped and pooled on the concrete floor of the hallway.  There was a mirror, and I saw my reflection for the first time since leaving Tana weeks before.  It was that perfect comforting combination of misery and familiarity, and I loved it.
We gorged ourselves on street food, eating plates of fried bread, roasted manioc, sweet onion and chili salad, roasted bananas, beer, and brochettes of zebu meat and fat.  It was the first meal in weeks with no rice.  We sat at a table in the street.  A woman put brochettes on the grill for us, and we ate manioc and bread while they cooked.  When we ate all the brochettes she put more on for us.  She left to take care of something, and J.J. took over the grill.  When we were full we told the woman how much we’d eaten and paid the bill.
The night was loud.  Rain poured into the hallway all night, and people yelled and babies cried until after midnight.  I woke around 0315, packed my things and went out into the empty street.  We loaded up the truck, said goodbye to Fidel, who lived nearby, and headed out a little after 0400 for our 15 hr drive to Tana.
Like that first drive from Tana, it was long and uncomfortable.  The road was bumpy and windy, I was hot and dehydrated, and we bounced up and down in the crowded back.  A flooded river blocked our path.
When Madagascar's silty rivers overflow their banks, truckers park on either side and wait days for the water to subside
One option is to pay locals to push you across by hand on a raft of planks and empty oil drums.  But we didn’t need a ferry.
For those with small enough vehicles, and who can afford it, a muscle powered ferry service is available
Brian and the team had prepared for this.  When packing the truck, all our waterproof gear was packed on the floor of the truck in water resistant sacks, and our personal gear on top.  At the river, Clive waded out ahead to guide us.  Those of us in the back climbed out and stood on the bumper, and we drove across.  I watched through the window as muddy water filled the truck up to the seats.  On the other side we opened all the doors to drain the truck, making sure none of our things flowed out with the water.  We made it across while the truck on the ferry was still being pushed along.  Three times we crossed the river like this.
The ferry would’ve been a new experience, but we crossed more quickly on our own
One reason I mention this whole flooding story is that the photos illustrate a dramatic consequence of deforestation.  The rivers in this part of Madagascar are today a deep reddish brown color.  Since the recent arrival of man, the massive central plateau of Madagascar has been almost entirely deforested and converted to pastures and farms, leading to massive erosion and river sedimentation.  Most of this landscape was originally covered in dense forest.  Now it is a sea of grasses introduced from Africa, with scattered crops and the occasional introduced eucalyptus or Monterey pine planted for fuel.  Barren hills stretch to the horizon in all directions.  The only natural vegetation is an occasional patch of marsh in ravines too steep to easily terrace for rice.  The central plateau is easily visible from Google Earth as a giant brown stripe spanning most of the length of the country.  Of Madagascar’s hundreds of native mammal species, almost none now live in this nearly lifeless area.  Bones of lemurs and other mammals are common, and attest to the landscape’s previous state.  Today’s red rivers and impoverished grassland have replaced relatively clear rivers flowing through lemur-filled forests.  We were clearly far from Galoka, although this might be a hint of that mountain’s future.  Driving through this landscape for hours was a disheartening reminder of the scale of the problems we humans face, and was one of the least rewarding parts of my time in Madagascar.
Today virtually no native forest remains in Madagascar’s central plateau, and introduced eucalyptus, planted for fuel, are some of the only trees to be found for miles
We arrived home in Tana at 1930 that night, and I went to my room at the Madagascar Biodiversity Center.  I had a couple nights before I started the next leg of my journey, a solitary trip to southwest Madagascar.  I spent my time in Tana binge eating at a bakery, processing specimens, and saying my goodbyes.  And, of course, avoiding rice.
Back in Tana I briefly enjoyed the amenities of city life before heading back out on my final Madagascar adventure

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Nosy Faly

In the afternoon of the day I got lost we traveled to the island of Nosy Faly.  After getting back to our truck we drove to the tip of a nearby peninsula and took an outrigger canoe across the small channel.

We left our truck on the mainland and took an outrigger canoe to Nosy Faly
Nosy Faly is about 6 miles long and a fifth of a mile wide at its narrowest.  We stayed at a fishing village at its southern end.  The rest of the island is covered in agriculture and semi-natural cow pastures—not a very promising location for collecting native species.  But Brian and his team had reason to believe they could find two rare ant species here, one of which had been found only once before.
The fishing village we stayed in is separated from the rest of the island by a strip of mangrove swamp
Compared to the rainforest on Galoka, Nosy Faly was a welcome break.  We spent three days here.  Each day we split up and leisurely collected on our own along the dirt path that ran the length of the island, or in the semi-natural woodland and mangroves along the beach.  When I got tired I sat in the shade, and when I got hungry I found a mango orchard.  We swam.  We ate our meals at the restaurant in the village.  All day long locals passed us in the field with a friendly “bonjour.”  It was hot and dry and never rained, and there was a nice breeze.  Our first afternoon we had our clothes washed and dried our boots in the sun.  I finally had dry things to wear.
Areas unfit for agriculture on Nosy Faly, like this mangrove woodland, remain in a semi-natural condition

Low-lying mangrove and palm savannas near the beach are used as zebu pastures
On our first evening Christian and I drank a beer on lava rocks on the beach.  To the east we could see Galoka in the distance.  It was strange to imagine that we had just been on the distant mountaintop that morning.  The contrast between the dark wet world on Galoka, and the sunny dry beach surrounded by people and agriculture was stark.  It brought home the threat to Galoka, and its ongoing conversion to tavy.  On the hike down, while I was lost and separated from the group, Brian met with the president of the village where we hired our porters, the man who had given us permission to camp in the village and travel to Galoka.  Brian thanked him for his hospitality, told him the forest on Galoka was important, and suggested that it not all be converted to agriculture.  The president was unreceptive.  His people just moved to the area within the last 15 years, and clearing forest for agriculture is what they know.
From Nosy Faly we saw Galoka, the faint mountain in the center-left, and reflected on the contrast between the world we were in and that we had just left
Being a small island with people and agriculture, Nosy Faly was crawling with introduced species, including Bell’s hinge-backed tortoise, Kinixys belliana.  These guys were everywhere.  To find one all you had to do was listen for leaves rustling—there was usually at least one tortoise within earshot.
Bell’s hinge-backed tortoise, Kinixys belliana, was introduced to northwest Madagascar from East Africa, and reaches high population densities on Nosy Faly
There were plenty of native species as well.

Early on I saw another day gecko, Phelsuma sp., eating arboreal ants in mangrove woodland

Though mantellas are typically rainforest specialists, Mantella ebenaui was common in the leaf litter on Nosy Faly and near rivers in swidden agriculture areas near Galoka

Madagascar has no venomous snakes, so you can catch any snake you find without worry.  This Dromicodryas species is a specialist lizard eater.

Camponotus darwinii was a common arboreal ant in the mangrove woodland

Often seen as a symbol of Madagascar, the crested drongo, Dicrurus forficatus, is endemic to Madagascar and nearby islands, and is common in just about any habitat, including agricultural areas

The mangrove swamps were a great place to find crabs and mudskippers, a fish that can climb trees

Rotting mangos attracted many species (like me), including this large flatworm
Our last night on Nosy Faly was my 28th birthday.  Christian and I walked to the village harbor to photograph the moonrise.  I had my shirt off and we walked along the beach.  We walked by two boys and their baby sister.  When the girl saw us she screamed in terror and started crying, and hid behind her brother.  Her brothers laughed at her.  Like the kids in the village near Galoka, I’d like to think she was terrified because she’d never seen a white man before, but I probably just needed a tan.
The village on Nosy Faly was a great place to relax after Galoka

In the Mozambique Channel to the west was the large tourist island of Nosy Be

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Land navigation

Galoka was amazing.  But rainforests are difficult places to work.  It rained everyday, and when it wasn’t raining it was humid.  We were either cold and wet or hot and wet.  My boots never dried after our first hike.  Even my dry things were not really dry.  Fungi grew on everything—not just my clothes and skin, but also a leather strap, and a patch of sweat on my camera gear.  Our food started to run out.  We had cuts and sores and infections.  We were bitten all over by leeches (I even got one in my mouth).  But mostly, we had a limited amount of time and other things to do.
So after nearly a week and a half on Galoka, we descended the mountain.  It took only a couple minutes to climb down the boulders and waterfalls and cross into tavy.  We descended the partially cut forest, the field of stumps, the grassy area, and followed the aqueduct back around the mountain and crossed down to the burned ridge with the bananas.  Ahead of me opened a valley with sparkling rice paddies and farmhouses.  Beyond that only a couple ridges, a village, and a maze of swidden agriculture and pasture stood between our truck and us.  The whole walk from camp to truck was about 10 miles.  I knew the route.  I thought.
Our route ran over the ridges to the top right of this view, through a maze of dense swidden agriculture and marshes
Before our first hike, Brian had given me some advice.
“The key to not getting lost in Madagascar is to never lose sight of the person in front of you.  Whenever we lose a visitor it’s because they don’t keep up with the porters and take a wrong path.”
This is sensible advice, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Porters are paid to get a load from one place to another.  If you’re a porter, it’s best to go as quickly as possible and get the job done.  However, we also relied on our porters to show us the way.  The porters generally take the route like they’re running a race, and sometimes you have to run to keep up.  Not fun when you’re carrying a 60-lb pack.  But on the hike down I relaxed a bit.  There were plenty of porters a good distance behind me, so if I lost track of those ahead of me I could just wait for the rear ones to catch up.  Plus, I knew the way…
So I took some photos, and about 15 minutes into the hike found myself alone.  The last person I saw was Brian as he sprinted past me to catch up to the porters ahead.  No problem.  I found my own way to the aqueduct and the ridge with the bananas.  I climbed down the sooty slope, crossed the sandy creek at the bottom, and climbed into the flooded rice paddy surrounding the last farmhouse.  Ahead I saw Brian and some porters walk from the farmhouse and disappear into the swidden agriculture on the other side.  I passed the farmhouse to the tree line and glanced behind me.  The nearest porters were just now coming off the slope and entering the paddy.  I could wait for them here before venturing into the web of footpaths and agriculture.  Or I could continue on and let them catch up to me on the trail.  I continued.
 Early on I didn’t mind that the porters were getting a little ahead of me.  There were others behind who would catch up...

So I slowed down to take some parting photos of Galoka
I waded across the sandy creek at a crossing I remembered from before.  There were boot prints in the sand.  The locals went barefoot or wore flip-flops—boots meant one of the team members.  On the other side of the creek the path rose into hard clay, with no footprints.  I followed the path until it entered a flooded pasture.  I didn’t remember the pasture.  I waded through the waist deep water past a farmer walking with his zebu, crossed a small wooden dam that I also didn’t remember, and followed the path up into a village.  I knew something was wrong.  We walked through only one village on our way to Galoka, and this wasn’t it.
I took a wrong turn after a creek crossing, and the porters in the rear passed me, leaving me lost and alone
After a few hundred feet EVERYONE came outside to stare at me.  It was obvious a troop of people with gear, including a white guy, hadn’t come through here.  So I returned to the creek, the last place I knew was right.
By this point I knew everyone behind me had passed.  I was at the rear of the line, and no one would know I was missing until they got to the truck hours later.  I was alone, lost in Madagascar.  I spoke only a little French, and the villagers didn’t speak much of that anyway.  I knew the general direction across the landscape, but not the specific paths.  I had to get out of this one on my own.  It was terrifying.  But what a great challenge!
I recently pried open my old Guidebook for Marines, and found these words of wisdom.  “In civilian life it is possible for a stranger to find his way around a large city or town by merely asking directions from any policeman or friendly native… Marines often find themselves in strange surroundings… Natives of a place can tell us lots of things to help us, but we have to be able to speak their language.”  Let the land nav begin!
I started with footprints.  I found a narrow path that broke off from the main one and wound through a tall grassy area past some cornfields.  There were boot prints in a muddy patch near the start of the trail.  Aha!  This was where I went wrong.  I followed the path as it alternated between water and clay.  The sweet spot in between, where there was mud, was my saving grace.  Every transition from water to clay I bent over and checked for boot prints.  Often I found none—they either weren’t there or had been obliterated by the barefoot porters and villagers.  I carried on this way for several miles.  Where the path went for long stretches over clay and rock I got scared and worried whether I was on the right track.   Paths crisscrossed the landscape every which way.  With no boot prints in these hard places I just had to go in the right general direction.  Every once in a while I asked a villager in broken French whether a foreigner had passed that way.  They always said yes.  But it’s hard to tell when traveling whether the answer is actually yes or people are just saying what you want to hear.

The path was often submerged, making it difficult to tell if the others had passed that way
At the top of a long climb up a ridge, I asked a man with a baby on his shoulders if a foreigner passed through.  He said yes, and motioned for me to follow him.  I followed the man and baby for 15 minutes or so along hard clay paths.  I asked if he was taking me to the big village, and he said he was.   We descended into a waist deep marsh, and on the other side climbed up onto the large village mound.  Finally!  I thanked the man and hurried to the plaza, where we had camped before, hoping to find the others taking a break.  No one, just locals.  But they all said the party had just been there.  I had made it this far.  The village was only 7 km or so from our truck.  But I was disappointed to miss the group.  I wasn’t done navigating…
I hurried to the opposite side of the village, where the path descended the mound into a large expanse of marsh and pasture.  About a half mile ahead I saw one of the team members and a porter—the tail end of the party—disappear into the trees.  There wasn’t much hope of catching up, but at least I was on the right path.  I descended into the marshes and continued, studying footprints and asking locals.
After three and a half hours alone, while wading through a swamp, someone called my name.  Christian was behind me with a camera taking a photograph.  A teenager I had not seen before stood beside him, carrying Christian’s pack.  Ecstatic, I thought I had found the group.  Unfortunately, Christian had also been separated from the group since the start of the hike.  His solution was a bit different than mine—he found a local whose brother was one of our porters, and paid him to carry his pack and guide him out.  Christian, in fact, was quite cheerful about the whole thing.
“Oh, I’ve had a wonderful morning.  I’ve been taking lots of photographs.”
After the stress of finding my own way across the landscape, usually not knowing if I was on the right path, a part of me was irritated by his lightheartedness.  But mostly I appreciated the humor.  After years of expeditions with Brian in Madagascar, this was Christian’s first time getting lost.  He appreciated the experience.
“When you describe this to people back home in Paris, they just don’t understand.”
A half hour later we reached the truck.  Other than facing the embarrassment of getting lost, all was well.  Brian made fun of me for not following his advice.  But he said when people get lost they usually have to send a search party, and that at least I found my own way.
That’s something to be proud of, right?