Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Mery

For no particular reason, here is a pic Meghan took of me. Malagasy kids are generally keen to have their photos taken, so that they can look at the image on your camera. Here I am showing them their pics.

Once again, the following is an entry from my journal a while back.

Aug 31, 2010 Toliara. 7:48am.

I am at some hotel in Toliara and am the first one of my peeps up. Am drinking coffee alone. I love this time of day. Its warm, but not hot and the air smells tropical. I have to go to the University and to do a bunch of shopping today. I hope to leave for Beza tomorrow morning, but am not 100% sure we can get everything done today. I miss Ron and feel a bit sad this morning. Its always hard to go into the field as I know that I will have little contact outside and it just feels scary.

BTW the former president who is currently in exhile, has been sentenced to life in prison by the current government/courts. I were told that the judges are going on strike because they were being pressured by the current president (former DJ turned coup leader turned self-appointed president) to make decisions he favored. But there has yet to be a strike, so I guess the judges must have decided the pressure wasn’t so bad OR the pressure got worse and they caved. Who knows.

Made it through the sapphire towns yesterday. Sketch. Had to pay off one gendarme and got stopped a zillion times by others. There's something about dudes with automatic weapons that makes me uncomfortable.

Ok, so I will now tell you about the Mery...

Noting is official in Madagascar without having been stamped. Preferably a number of times. Preferably by a number of people. Preferably a number of times by a number of people. Preferably a number of times by a number of people in a number of places. Often you need a stamp from one location to get a stamp in another location all so that you can go back to the first location to get a third stamp confirming that you got the first and the second stamp. Seriously.

All official government stamps are in red ink. I asked Roki (the wonderful Malagasy Botanist who is helping me with the immigration process) why I couldn’t get some stamps made (there are venders on every corner waiting to carve rubber stamps) and get my own red ink (which is readily available in the market). His eyes got wide and he replied "NO." He said “sure you could buy red ink, but you must not use it.” He reminded me that red ink was only for government officials. He said we could buy blue ink and use that. Venders use blue ink to mark “paid” on every receipt and you could get your own logo or signature stamp to use with blue ink. I asked “what about black, or green or pink?” He just gave me an odd look and said “you could, but why would you want to?” Good point.

The “Mery’ is the most frequently visited stamping locale. The building is just off of the Avenue of Independence, which is chaotic and frenzied and notoriously dangerous. Inside the building, the Mery room is fairly large and the periphery of the room is lined with makeshift tables and benches with staff. The entire place smells of freshly steamed broccoli and the Backstreet Boys are nearly always are playing. Immediately upon entering someone is telling you to grab a freaking clue and get out of the way, in another language of course. There is pushing and shoving and yelling and comments I don’t understand, but lots of dirty looks, which I understand. Loud and clear.

Every single person in there has stacks of papers to be stamped. I alone have an inch thick bundle ready to go. Any letters that you personally write and sign, must be stamped, in order for party B to know that party A (the Mery) checked you are who you say you are. Any copies of other bureaucratic documents must be stamped, such that party B will know that this is a legitimate copy of some document which was checked by party A (again, the Mery). Also, I had to HAND OVER MY PASSPORT to Door 7 in order to apply for a visa, so I also need to make copies of my passport and have those copies stamped. Any documents that a Malagasy person has signed must be stamped, but in order to have then stamped, you must have the person’s official Malagasy ID card with you. I could hardly believe this one. We actually had to get an ID card from Jonah, who runs the Durrell Fund in Tana and is a University Professor. I thought, no wait, actually, I said “get his ID card?! I may as well just ask for his pants while I am at it!”

Ok, back to the broccoli-smelling-Backstreet-Boy-playing Mery….Half-ish way down the line of staffers (whom can only be identified by their position on the other side of the table) I handed off my stack of papers to one unmarked person. He barely looked at the documents, but stamped each page in a frenzy with a number of different stamps, using only red ink. He then passed my stack on to another person, who was sitting a few seats down, and was also unmarked, for additional stamping. My papers get passed and traded and stamped some more until I am eventually given a small wooden chip with a number on it. I assume this means wait, but there is no order to the numbers being passed out. I got 94, but 218 , 361, and 7 were all ahead of me, I think. Eventually, I do get my stack back, and for the equivalent of $1.50 leave unharmed, but heavily stamped. Some of my documents have 7 fresh stamps on them and are literally illegible due to all the red ink. But, they look pretty freaking official in Madagascar.

In total I returned to the Mery 4 times that week, including the following very complicated side trek. We went to the Mery to, of course, get some things stamped and signed. Then we needed to go to the “District” which is similar in function to the Mery, but is at a higher level of bureaucracy and thus has more authority. With our bundle of Mery papers in hand, we braved the streets of Tana once more and went into an unmarked door and up a very dingy set of spiral staircases (which were clearly designed for house elves) in order to get the required stamps and signatures from the District. District staff glance at our papers and informed us, that in order to get their stamps and signatures, we must go to the “fokontany” , which is one level below the Mery. Oy. So we head to the outskirts of town to go to the fokotany to got our stamps and signatures. After leaving the fokotany, I promptly stepped in what I believe was dog diarrhea and then got back in the car with my incredibly sh*tty flip flops. I really have a knack for stepping in sh*t. Anyhow, we zip-zag back across town, to go to none other than the Mery, to get our fokotany papers signed and stamped before heading back to the District.

This literally takes all day. At 3pm we arrive back at the District, where they are kindly waiting for us. We go into a stale smelly room which doubles as a paper graveyard and a man pulls out a rather large typewriter and tell us that because this will take a while, we should have a seat. Oy number 2. Rocki and the District staff talk a little and Megan, Denise and I talk a little, and then through Rocki we all converse a bit. One of the officials needed to get in a cabinet behind me and politely said “excuse moi Mademoiselle”. To which I responded “No problem, but its Madame”. “Oh?!” he responded, looking shocked. I then casually suggested that I could be Mademoiselle if he could get me a visa. We all laughed but the men kept carrying on about this marriage proposal business and just how willing they were. They even sweetened the deal and suggested they would through in some Omby (Malagasy cows, which are often exchanged in marriage deals), but I said that wasn’t necessary, just the visa would do. What’s wrong with a little green card marriage between “friends” anyhow? After many many strokes of the decrepit typewriter, we headed back to the Mery to get copies, signatures and stamps of the papers the District had just created, signed and stamped. Once I was back at the Mery Roki informed me that the marital status on my paperwork may be a problem at Door 7 or when getting stopped by the gendarme (recall the gem stone town bribery). Why on earth would my marital status be a problem? Because the man at the District to whom I proposed marriage in exchange for a visa had refused to put “married” on my new Malagasy ID card, yet all of my other stamped and signed paperwork listed Ron Mombourquette as my lawfully wedded husband. Oy number 3.

I have yet to actually receive a visa and my temporary Malagasy ID will expire on October 26th. The following is a pic of the required paperwork for the visa application process. This is of page 1 of 5 and in fact, Door 7 added a few requirements, just for kicks.

Maybe I could get a few Omby after all…

Monday, October 11, 2010

Not proud

I am currently so stuffed that I can barely think. Thank goodness I have a backlog of posts and don't need to think...

Oct 5, 2010. 7:30pm. Tent.

Today was a challenging day and my coping skills were not, ehm, 100%. I am not proud of my behavior, but because I am an “over-sharer”, I will share.

I told a female ring-tailed lemur to “go f*&k herself.” She also may of, well does, have an infant who is 4 or 5 days old. And I may have added in a “and f*%k your baby too.”

NOT proud. My “habituated” group, who were behaving like 21 near-perfect lemur angels last week have gone all rangy and anti-social since a) the birth of the groups 3 super fantastic and adorable babies and b) the arrival of the Madagascar Harrier Hawk couples who like to feed their siblicidal babies the super fantastic and adorable lemur babies.

My day has gone as follows:

Wake up at 5am. Get suited up for the day. Through some coffee down my pie hole (yes I am back on a wee bit of coffee and no I don’t have any pie), eat something and get a move on. Catch up with lemurs by 6am*. Try try try to remember who each lemur is from their various peccadilloes, such as cap and mask shape, scars, ear tears, coat condition, tail condition, penis length (yes, really), etc., which is remarkably difficult. Find one individual I recognize, such as “Scabbers”, “Chubbers”, Pinky, 300 (less-half-an-ear), He-Snoze, Hoppy, etc., and begin recording everything the animal does. Number of bites take, what a bite consists of, plant food type, location and species, dominance interactions, location, and vigilance are of particular importance. As are getting representative sample of all plant foods and collecting all feces for hormonal and nutritional analyses.

As if all this weren’t taxing enough, since the arrivals of the aforementioned super fantastic and adorable lemur babies and the big scary Harrier Hawk, the lemurs are having no part of my antics. What to they do? Repeatedly grunt at me something that sounds an awful lot like “you’re a dick” and then run. Run far far away. Forest Gump style. I have yet to calculate the actual ranges, but these guys have HUGE territories. And what do I do? Chase, far far away. Through all things prickly thorny and generally hurty, I look for them, I listen for them, and do my best impression of a lemur contact call until, hopefully, I eventually I find them again. They have such an advantage in the really scrubby forest that sometimes it take a long time to catch up. Oh, and did I mention that it is 30 degrees Celsius by 7am and anywhere between 45 and 55 between the hours of 10am and 2pm? Well, it is. So, after 5 hours of this fun game of “let’s ditch Marni and see how long we can lose her for” I was fed up. When I caught up and got the “you’re a dick” grunt from "Babymomma", I snapped and cursed her and her 4 or 5 day old super fantastic and adorable baby. Oh, and I may have threatened to slap an ridiculously protective male, but males get slapped around all the time anyhow, so that wasn’t such a huge faux pas on my part. Not that I am advocating domestic abuse or violence against near endangered animals, but these guys really do get slapped all the time.

Tomorrow is a brand new day and I promise to try not to swear at, threaten, or bribe any lemurs. Again, I am not proud of my behavior. BTW, the babies are so ridiculously cute and squirmy and have a habit of not knowing which end is up or forward, which makes them even cuter.

*The TNP lemurs get up at 5am. Can you believe the audacity?! Bastards. The Beza RTLs don’t budge before 9am. Now Beza is the 'land of plenty' and the land of the civilized lemurs. Hmph.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A day in the life

I am in Toliara for a few days and am filling my face with all things chocolate. I am really jacked up on caffeine (but have taken my beta-blocker ;)) and will be online for approximately 100hrs. The following outlines what my days have consisted of lately...

Friday Sept 17, 2010. 7:56pm. Tent.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a wildlife biologist for a day? Although I am sure there is great variation in what wildlife biologists do, the following excerpt is what I did today. Please note that I am not complaining. Well, maybe I am complaining a wee bit about the flies, but other than that I am just stating what it is like. I love what I do and am fortunate enough to be able to do field work all the way in freakin Madagascar. Not many peeps can say that.

Sleep in until 5:45am. The lemur group (called “Akao” )Meghan and I will attempt to follow today sleep and sunbathe until much later than the other lemur groups here and so we take advantage and get a late start. At 6am I reluctantly roll out of bed. I am freezing. It is 10.6 degrees Celsius and I am wearing my toque and am inside my sleeping bag which is inside my tent. I very reluctantly crawl out of bed (a foam mattress on the ground), bundle up a bit more and dash to the lou. We are EXTRAORDINARILY luck that bathroom facilities were built here a mere 4 months ago*. However there does seem to be a mosquito problem in the squat toilet. As soon as I start to wee a grey army of evil mosquitoes emerges. Its actually a bit frightening. There are so many mosquitoes that they sound like the buzz that comes from a beehive. Ick. I brush my teeth outside and head over to the kitchen area for breaky. The flies have started stalking me and swarming my head. Lanto, our camp cook has hot water and coffee waiting. Wonderful! I down one small coffee and two small packages of instant oatmeal (from back home) and head back to the tent to get changed into forest clothes. Forest clothes consist of hiking boots, weirdo field pants with a lot of pockets, a tank top covered by a weirdo long-sleeved field shirt with lots of pockets, and a baseball style hat. Additionally I bring my backpack with radio telemetry receiver and antenna, camera, binoculars, data books, poop/bone/plant collecting pack (baggies, shovel, snippers, knife, sharpy marker), a small bag of peanuts (for snacking and totally unrelated to the poop/bone/plant supplies), sunscreen, keys and extra memory cards for camera traps, 3L of water, a GPS, and a compass. I take the long route (8km) to the lemur group in order to get some way points and check cameras traps enroute. I am curious to see if the lemurs are active at night and want all the camera traps to be functional for the upcoming full moon. I arrive at the lemur group’s home range at about 9 am when it is already over 30 degrees Celsius. On the way, I stopped several times to inspect poop on or around the trail, and also to note the location of a radiated tortoise skeleton, which I plan to go back for with a bigger bag than I have with me. The stalking (“stalking” because they follow you and are immune to near constant swatting or insect repellent) flies are driving me mad.

When I arrive the lemurs immediately start alarm calling. This group is the least habituated, and was a I bit more traumatized from the darting than the others because it took a great deal longer to capture the two animals, and thus they were being stalked by big scary humans for a lot longer. I sit down at what I think is a reasonable distance to watch the group and hopefully slowly get them used to my presence. We know from the camera trap photos that they generally leave their sleeping trees at between 9 and 10am. When they still haven’t moved at 11am, I decide to move around the other side of the trees such that I am farther away from their destination. This does the trick and they almost immediately move into the forest. I then go into the area of the sleeping trees which is partially a swamp and contains densely packed swamp plants that are about 7 feet tall. I somewhat carefully meander about looking for evidence of feeding or lemur poop samples. Its very difficult to maneuver in this habitat and every step is a bit tricky. Sometimes the ground is solid and will hold me, sometimes it is not at all solid and will not hold me, while sometimes it feels solid but then gives way before I can take my next step. I have no luck finding poop but do find a number of small pine cones that look like they have been munched. Pine cones are usually quite toxic, so I am not sure if it is the lemurs or maybe birds eating them. What an exciting little mystery! The stalking flies are driving me mad.

At 11:30 am I head back to camp for lunch. It is 5km away and the heat is nearly unbearable. It is 44 degrees Celsius and there is no shade to be found. I try to walk with my hands behind me, as they are perpetually burned and sore. My hands are the only part of my skin that is routinely exposed to the sun and even though I slather on SPF70 sunscreen, they are still always burned. The stalking flies are driving me mad. Seriously.

I have beans and rice for lunch along with lots of water. After lunch I pull out and get my generator running so that I can charge my computer, walkie talkies, satellite phone, etc. While that is running I work on trying to identify some plant samples and them wash a bit of laundry. All washing is done by hand and I must first pull water up from the well. I also pull up some water to wash myself and brave the mosquito den (aka bathroom) to have a bucket shower. I am only clean for about 7 seconds but the “shower” really cools me off and feels great.

The generator takes two hours to charge everything, so I ask Meghan to shut it off in an hour, and I head back to the forest to check on some other camera traps. I walk about 2k and have to shimmy down rock faces, up trees, under shrubs and through much lemur poop to check each camera. Once I get the cameras all adjusted as needed, I head back to camp and then back to the lemur group from this morning. The stalking flies are driving me mad.

Again, from the camera traps I know that the lemurs will head to their sleeping site between 4 and 5pm. I am there at 4 and get set up much farther away from where the group will be, than I had been this morning. I sit in the marsh, which immediately soaks my backside, and quietly wait. The stalking flies are worse than ever and driving me mad. About once a day I feel like I may cry if the flies don’t leave me alone for 5 seconds. These flies are driving me mad.

At 4:45 the lemurs show up and are not happy to see me! Oh, but I am glad to see them! The are so cute even though they are terrified and on high alert. Imagine if suddenly every time you went to leave or get into your bed there was a huge scary lion sitting there, quietly, with a camera and a big stupid grin… They stand bipedally to get a better look at me and take a long time to actually cross. But they eventually do and I get a number of photographs that should aid in identifying individuals. The flies are now accompanied by mosquitoes, both of which are driving me mad.

I head back to camp and arrive at about 6:30. It is just past dark and I have made it in time to see the resident camp mouse lemur emerge from its tree hole. So cute! The little bastards are also here, which is annoying, albeit cute. I have rice and beans and lots of water for dinner and exchange a few English words for Malagasy with Lanto and Felicien. I shoo away the little bastards a number of times and watch an oversized cockroach mozy on my. By oversized, I mean 5cm long body and equally long antennae. I swat away the mosquitoes and flies, whom you may have guessed, are driving me mad.

7pm is bead time. I head to the bathroom, which is literally crawling with insects, and then to my my tent which is FLY and MOSQUITO free. I take some Benadryl. I am covered in bug bites and a bizarre rash, and if I don’t take any anti-histamines I will scratch myself while I am sleeping and bleed all over my sheet/pillow (gross, I know). I check the satellite phone for messages. The battery in the phone needs to be replaced but I am able to get it powered up and read a message from Ron. Apparently the new episode of Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia is called “Mac fights Gay Marriage”, which makes me smirk. I read a bit and then listen to my Harry Potter audio book until I fall asleep.

I wake once to go to the bathroom, but the journey is uneventful. Out of my tent, flip flops on, avoid large spiders and scorpions (both of which I see everywhere), walk to the bathroom, fight my way through the army of evil mosquitoes, shoo the cockroaches, go, and then walk back to my tent and get cozy once more. It is chilly out at 15 degrees, but I am snug as a bug with Gary and my sleeping bag.

There you have it. A day in the life.

* Bathroom update. Bathroom is no longer functional. A shovel does the trip and the forest is much more pleasant anyhow.