“It would be good to live in a perpetual state of leave-taking, never to go nor to stay, but to remain suspended in that golden emotion of love and longing…” –John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez
At the risk of over-quoting Steinbeck, I find myself yet again in my seemingly perpetual state of leave-taking. The summer rains are setting in on the Eighth Continent, the holiday season is beckoning back home in America, and it is goodbye again from Madagascar. It’s been too short a visit this time—a mandalo only—and it half-kills me to be leaving again just when I am starting to feel so comfortable with my life and work here.
But I’m a second-year PhD student, and it is crunch-time at Princeton. And so it is back to America for an entire six months—I have a course to teach, qualifying examinations to take, and some serious academic results to produce before I’m allowed to come back to Madagascar as, hopefully, a PhD candidate. Next time, I plan to stay for a solid year, more or less. I think I owe Mada-land at least that much after all that it has given me.
Though short in duration, it’s been an amazingly successful month and a half on the Eighth Continent—I’ve netted and collected disease samples from almost 100 megabats, both Pteropus rufus and Eidolon dupreanum—and my heat-treated serum is already on an airplane bound for antibody testing to henipaviruses at laboratories in the United Kingdom. It’s been quite a substantial feat negotiating import and export permits and finalizing details with couriers and clearing agents and airlines to get these pathogen samples safely out of Madagascar in the past few days—and I’m still holding my breath that they will arrive safely to their UK destination.
I’ve spent so much time in the field that I had only a few days in Tana to negotiate this incredibly time-pressured export business, but it seems to have come off successfully so far. Still, though, I’m looking forward to a more protracted period of time for data collection in Madagascar next year—I’m exhausted after weeks of not-sleeping under the bat net, followed by a few days of around-the-clock permit writing, emailing, and negotiating back in the city. It’s sort of handy that I now naturally wake up at 2am to check the nets because it makes me a much more efficient academic, but I admit I’m looking forward to sleep–not that Princeton is really the best place for relaxation, but at least logistics there are a bit more straightforward.
I write to you in the wake of my second Thanksgiving spent in Madagascar, and I can think of fewer times in my life when I have had more things to be thankful for. Of course, I am thankful to be returning to so many wonderful friends and family, and I am ever cognizant of how privileged I am for such remarkable research and travel opportunities. At the moment, though, I am most aware of how thankful I am to Madagascar for making me think so deeply each and every day of my life.
I sat in a thatch-roof hut in the middle-of-nowhere Antsirasoa the other day eating tsaramaso fotsy (white beans) with four Malagasy bat hunters and watched a starving cat gobble rice scraps from the floor. And I wondered at the chain of life events that has brought me to this remarkable continent. Madagascar is hard place, for sure—painful and desperate and sometimes terrifying—but also warm and welcoming and always magical. There are few other places in the world where one speaks three languages every day, where chameleons and lemurs and giant bats traverse the landscape, and where children of every hue grin at you so broadly from every street corner.
Until Next Time
I closed out this trip to Madagascar with a visit yesterday to the nearby town of Andramasina, home of what I have come to think of as my fiavanana Malagasy—my Malagasy family. Hanta and company are actually the family of my Peace Corps friend, Kim Conner, but as she is efa lasa Amerika—already gone home to America—they’ve adopted me as their vazaha friend in her stead.
In one of the more endearing anecdotes I have heard out of Peace Corps Madagascar, Kim took Hanta shopping at Shoprite La City, Tana’s most western supermarket, as a ‘thank you’ for two years of friendship at the close of her service. And though Hanta could have bought appliances or cell phones or imported spices on Kim’s credit card, she opted only for simple Malagasy fare and candy for her grandchildren—and Kim had to fight her from buying overpriced vazaha rice. This time, I brought Hanta gifts that Kim has sent from America and news from our mutual friends, and she excitedly exclaimed, “You can speak now!” And I laughed because I could speak before, of course—just not in a language that she understood.
In just the past few weeks, my Malagasy has turned a corner, and I can actually chat with people now—just in time to go back home and forget it all. But different from Peace Corps, as Hanta pointed out, my life is privileged in that I get to come back. And so, it’s another mandra pihoana—farewell—to Madagascar, and I don’t really want to leave this time. I wonder at Steinbeck’s words because it seems hard, not golden, to me, this perpetual state of leave-taking, but I take heart in the knowledge that at least I have manaraka, next time, to look forward to—and so on for many years still to come…