National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee Alizé Carrère is researching an innovative method of agricultural adaptation in the Malagasy highlands that has emerged in the face of severe deforestation. Known to locals as “lavaka”, literally meaning “hole”, they are massive erosional gullies that provide surprising agricultural and socio-economic benefits, turning a deforested landscape into one of opportunity, not hardship.
Behind every adventure…is an adventure.
Or at least that was the central and unifying lesson of my field research over the last four months in Madagascar. While I consider adventure inherent to fieldwork to begin with, I often found the details behind each excursion just as (or sometimes more) entertaining and colorful as what I was setting out to accomplish in the first place. A few of the more memorable moments…
On field time:
Unexplainable rashes and insect bites are commonplace in the field. If you got distracted in the forest by looking up at a lemur, you wouldn’t have noticed that leeches crawled up each pant leg and attached themselves on your knees, leaving you with a nice bloody, itchy mess:
You might sprain your ankle in the hottest place in all of Madagascar – so hot, in fact, that there is no ice to be found anywhere and you’ll have to wait several hours for it to be made while you watch helplessly as your ankle doubles in size:
When you’re not being bitten by leeches, spraining your ankle, or gathering important field data, you’ll end up spending all of your downtime staring at field maps attempting to locate your whereabouts, which, when in the bush, seem anything but straightforward (my mediocre sense of direction might also be partly to blame for that, but that’s beside the point):
You’ll be witness to some of the most spectacular sunsets imaginable:
For $1 USD you might get a delicious and fresh meal that looks like this:
Or, from a roadside stall, questionable balls of deep-fried mush at the appetite-inducing hour of 5:45am:
Or the chance to try new and exotic meats, not excluding grilled snake (FYI it tastes like a cross between chicken and crocodile):
Whatever it is, though, you will – without fail – get sick on many more occasions than one from something you ate and lose at least a week of field time due to bed-binding stomach misery.
Local transportation, otherwise known as taxi-brousses (“bush taxis”), can be the source of two things: 1) Extreme discomfort, frustration and anxiety, and 2) The subject matter of some of your most memorable and hysterical stories from the country (although they’re usually only funny in retrospect). Some of the colorful characters you’ll find yourself stuffed amongst for a 7 hour ride along winding and potholed roads include vomiting children (and adults, for that matter), old and babbling drunken men, breastfeeding babies, and the occasional crate of beeping ducks and chickens – all to the driver’s blasting soundtrack of things like Celine Dion’s best hits album on repeat (would you like me to recite to you every lyric of My Heart Will Go On? Because I now can!):
When you’re not traveling via taxi-brousse, it might be the only time in your life that your daily mode of transport calls for hours of dirt bike off-roading to get between remote villages:
Which will inevitably result in an equal number of hours pulling them out of mud pits (hello, rainy season!):
And when you’re not on a taxi-brousse or a motobike, you’re in a rental vehicle that probably hails from a bygone era and is thus held together with things like recycled refrigerator parts, which means that kaput engines, flat tires and other vehicular fails are both normal and expected:
And when you’re not on a taxi-brousse, a motobike, or in a rental vehicle, you just might have the incredible fortune of riding up front and center in a helicopter because you needed to take aerial photographs of your research subjects (but before you did that you ran around for an hour desperately tracking down antibiotics against contracting the bubonic plague, which happened to be alive and kicking in the village where you were departing from. Full story on that here):
On days off:
On a day off you might get to tag along for a surf outing with local guides of the best kind:
Much to your excitement, you could walk into a bootleg office supply store looking for colored pencils and discover that you share a name with a brand of erasers (this really was exciting for a name as unusual as mine, trust me):
And while trying to exercize your best nature photography skills, your photo subjects might suddenly decide that they, too, want to be behind the lens (it’s a lot more exciting back there, I agree):
But in the end, it was worth every second…I assure you!