Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Practical

Seeing a mouse lemur in the wild was one of my hopes and goals when I went to Madagascar. While I did see about four of them, I didn't get photos of any of them as they are nocturnal and very fast moving. The photo above is of a mouse lemur, but was taken at the Lemur Park, so it is not a wild mouse lemur. I did see them in the wild scampering about the trees, and they would pause long enough for a look at their unbelievable cuteness, but then they were off. As I wandered around both the rainforest and the spiny forest at night looking for them, avoiding branches, and trying not to wear down my flashlight batteries by using it, I wondered at times if I truly was crazy to travel the world in search of rare and endangered animals. But, when I saw the leaf tailed geckos and the mouse lemur and the other nocturnal species, there was no question it was all worth it. I have to admit though, in my other travels in Africa, walking at night though the forest would be a really dumb idea. In Madagascar, with no lions, leopards, hyenas, elephants to startle, etc., it is safe by comparison.

The other photo is of a zebu cart. The poor zebu truly are beasts of burden. I saw them kicked in the gut from behind, and beaten horribly. Most have punctured noses with very rough sisal rope through the delicate nose, as a means of controlling and harnessing the animal. They are often starving or have little to no water, and they pull carts all over Madagascar. Instead of valuing these animals for all they provide - meat, milk, transportation, a monetary asset/trade good, etc., the people seem to view them as things, and things which do not need to be treated well in any respect. Even children were mean to them. It was heartbreaking to see them and their conditions.

The people in Madagascar are so desperate for the basics and so focused on survival, they have no compassion, towards their fellow man or fellow animals. Although I have seen very poor tribes and people in mainland Africa, I never got the same sense of desperation or of lack of compassion. In part, perhaps it comes from the desperation of being born on an island you can never get off of. All the resources you are ever going to have are there, and they are scant. It is little surprise after meeting them that the Malagasy on the whole have no interest in conservation, the environment or species protection. They are far more concerned with creating a boat from a tree, a meal from an animal, or an advantage from absolutely anything they can.

It used to be that everywhere you went in Madagascar people would yell "Vazha!" which means foreigner. I only encountered this a few times, and it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. But, usually when traveling I am asked about my own home and country. No one in Madagascar seemed at all interested in learning about anywhere else. And, if you knew you could never go there, perhaps you wouldn't want to know what was out there.

On the practical side, if you do decide to visit Madagascar, you have a weight limit for domestic flights which is strict: 11lbs for carry-on and 44lbs for checked baggage. I took a sleeping bag, Thermarest, and mosquito net...all useful, though I recommend a light sleeping bag as it is HOT. Obviously a good first aid kit, including Cipro, Oral Rehydration Salts, Immodium, anti-malarials, anti-inflammatories, antihistamine cream, anti-fungal cream, antibiotic ointment, and over the counter medications like Benadryl in case you have an allergic reaction. Sting pads for insects are also recommended. Bring band aids and moleskin for blisters. Water purification tablets are not a bad idea either.

For bugs, I highly recommend Ultrathon, a great lotion which contains deet and works wonders. When I applied it to part of my leg I could see a clear avoidance by mosquitos of it and everywhere I neglected to apply it I was bitten. For example, one night I forgot the part of my feet covered by sandals when I was applying the Ultrathon, so I got four bites there overnight.

I love Neutrogena sunscreen as it is non-oily and doesn't feel slimy, and also dust doesn't tend to stick to it as much. Portable Charmin is a huge must as this is largely a toilet paper free country. Also, wet wipes are truly indispensable, and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. I brought 3lbs of power bars and 4lbs of books and longed for more of each. The only item I didn't need to bring was my snorkel, though I would not have known that without bringing it to see there were no fish and little coral.

A headlamp and backup flashlight are essential, along with spare batteries and a spare bulb (as I learned the hard way). Plastic garbage bags and ties are needed to protect your stuff on boat rides, and bring ziplocs for all electronics. I always take the Wolverine for data storage and the digital camera with extra batteries and cards, and this is vital when there is no electricity for long periods of time to recharge. I carry a small contingency camera as well, which I did not regret, and binoculars. The night vision scope, though cool, was not worth carrying over there. The animals move too fast for it to be that useful and you can see them when they are sitting still with a flashlight as well as you can night vision scope. Also, you can't find the animals easily without the glow of their eyes in the flashlight.

A collapsible cup was something I wished I had. I brought vitamins, Emergen-C and Airborne, and took one per day, and I was very glad I did. I think that contributed to me not getting sick during the trip.

It was a grand adventure...one I am not sorry I undertook, but will likely never undertake again.

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