The drive to Ranomafana is about 12 hours. After experiencing the Tana roads, I thought maybe it was close via bad roads, but it’s really 12 hours in a 4WD at relatively high speed but through winding roads. For 12 hours, I was tossed side to side, tires screeching on the road.
I was very passive in this adventure, which is ironic when I think that this project arose because the TMSE PTA asked me to offer an anthropology course several years ago when my kids were in 3rd grade. I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t have the time to take on any more service, but I wanted to do it because I wanted to be able to share what I do with my kids and help their school. I remember discussing it with DoVeanna Fulton, then chair of Gender and Race Studies, whose son had been a classmate of my kids. She said, ‘if you wait till you have more time, will your kids still want you to do it and will there still be an opportunity?’ Thank you, DoVeanna.
So, Duke Beasley and I collaborated on the course that first time, and it went well that first time. But only my sons Lux and Jagger took it. The next year, Bailey wanted to take it, so Duke and I offered it again. Still, I was never going to do it again, but it was popular and I’d got a curriculum developed that I could hand off to students to teach, so I kept it going. Later, I recognized an opportunity to turn it into a service learning course when I saw an application to develop a community service course. At the time, I had another course in mind and didn’t realize I was already doing one. Then later, Jason DeCaro came across a Wenner-Gren Foundation grant call because he was flying to New York and would be meeting with president Leslie Aiello. So I threw together a proposal, got feedback from her, tweaked the proposal, and got funding for this project.
I met Dustin Eirdosh, who has been my liaison on this Madagascar collaboration, just as serendipitously in a way. He was working with David Sloan Wilson and the EvoS Consortium for resources and in touch with Becky Burch. I started contacting Dustin to brainstorm about collaboration potential and saw that his energy is similar to mine. So I say “passive” when I describe my activity in Madagascar, but what I really seem to do is flap my wings hard and fast like a hummingbird until an opening appears, then I hit it hard and without hesitation.
I set this trip up without any real game plan. I deferred to Dustin and Josia to give me a lead that I would then take. So it was Dustin who suggested a trip to Ranomafana and Josia who booked the driver for me. The first one got in an accident the day before, so she arranged the second one at the last minute. She used the same company she books for her own research, but I’m not sure that that was the same in both cases.
The driver was going to cost 140,000 ariary/day (around $50/day, 460,000 ari total). Gas would cost me another 420,000 ari for the trip. Then I would need hotel for 3 nights, which I found for 100,000/night. That’s about $400, not including food or other things. That’s a sizable amount of money, considering I had no specific plans of who I was going to talk to or if I would even be able to get a meeting and had very little money with me.
This was covered by grant funding, but universities never want to give you your grant money up front. They want you to pay it out first and reimburse you. Presumably, there’s liability involved. I also think it’s being used in some slush fund somewhere or earning interest. When I asked for a $1,000 advance, I was treated like I was asking for money to go binge drinking. I was told I was asking for a LOAN and that it is against state policy to LOAN employees travel funds. Load of crap. We researchers have rents or mortgages to pay back home when we travel. Sorry to tell the world, but you don’t get much financial compensation for a PhD in the social sciences and humanities. I’m so deep in debt from student loans, I will never be free (see the notice of being served because of my student loan debt from the first day of this trip).
So $400 is a lot for money for me, as I was traveling exclusively cash and carry, with nothing in a bank account I could access and no place in Madagascar takes credit cards. What an adventure, right? This means I was riding for 12 hours in a car to meet with people I didn’t know would meet with me about what I didn’t exactly know and not sure I’d have enough money to pay the driver when I got back.
But this is not a mystery story, so I’ll let you off the hook. I stressed on the ride, tallying up my expenses, especially when Jao, my driver, stopped at a tourist hotel restaurant for lunch to eat “normal” food. Normal for me, is what I think he meant. Also, “clean,” he said. But it ended up costing me a pretty penny. The next meal was a little better, but I had to keep pushing him: “Let me worry about the food poisoning. Let’s eat Malagasy food at hotelys.”
And I had to ask Jao to help me change currency so I could pay him. Banks there won’t change $100 bills, which is all I had. And we were returning on a Sunday when everything was closed. So we had to meet a black market money changer by the side of the road on the way back into town. I don’t mean to make this sound in any way like Romancing the Stone or Indiana Jones crap. Other field researchers have a million such stories, as do all the people who live in such countries. And they are unfortunately not rare in the world. I borrowed my money belt and steel-reinforced bag from a friend who regaled me with stories of dealing with a cholera outbreak, regularly carrying vast quantities of cash on her to cover field school expenses, meeting sketchy money changers in strange homes, and drinking with murderous warlords during her field seasons. It’s all a matter of perspective. But this time, I was in Africa, while she was back home attending the premier of Beauty and the Beast!
I took lots of photos as Jao drove in silence. He listened to music all the way back. At the first, I felt bad he had obviously not felt comfortable playing music in the car until I heard him playing Otis Redding and asked him to turn it up. We listened to that and a Beatles album on the way back, which I loved singing along to, but then the next 9 hours were taken up by bad 80s hair metal and Celine Dion. And I was stuck with only Neil Gaiman’s new Norse Mythology as my Audible book. It was interesting for about an hour, but then stories of Thor’s dumb brutishness and Loki’s selfish mischief just lulled me to sleep.
However, the Betsiloa countryside was beautiful. They are the tribe that occupies the highland south of Tana. Their homes are tall and made of red brick that matches the red clay of the ground. Their terracing for rice, corn, and other produce is more distinctive than terracing elsewhere (I got great photos of this but—foreshadowing—those photos are sadly no longer with me). Apparently, they get three annual harvest, where other only get 1-2.
As we passed through Antsirabe, suddenly there were colorful tricycle taxis everywhere. “City of Pouse-pouse,” Jao told me. The region is resplendent with bicycles and pouse-pouses. I couldn’t get enough photos of them and the colorful markets (alas, many of those also lost with someone on the road to perdition—okay, maybe a little harsh, but I’m very annoyed about it).
We rolled into Ranomafana around 4, a bit earlier than expected. I got a place at Hotel Cristo, which came recommended both by Lonely Planet and Josia and Rija. It turned out to be very lovely.
Again, in true colonial style, I sat on the veranda watching the sunset over the rainforest and Namorona River, while people spoke Dutch and English nearby, and brown-skinned hotel employees brought me a double expresso. But at least they owned the place this time. Dear Malinowski…
Anthropology is Elemental is currently funded by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.