how many trees? part two.

July 8

Today I was so super bad-ass. I wore my kiranis and worked my butt off, scrambling up slippery slopes and squishing my way across swamps like a pro, and at the pace of the porters! Thorns have, once again, shredded my shins, and I ignored most of the leeches that latched onto me (pulling them off, we think, is what makes the bites itch afterwards), and my already-disgustingly dirty forest pants are smeared with a fresh litre (note: this is potentially an overestimate!) of blood from those various cuts, scrapes and nibbles. But the porters smiled at me all day, and I think they were pleased with my energy – these are the same ones who saw me sick and pathetic, after all. I feel superb.

post swamp-crossing

at the end of my first triumphant swamp crossing of the day

Today’s work was the mise-en-place of the last few placettes, which, in practice, meant trudging through the forest with a rather long measuring tape and tying pink ribbon around trees in appropriate spots. Augustin thinks that we can do the actual counting in three days, which seems a tad farfetched to me. But I shall support his optimism, in the hopes that we can wrap this up and move on to Antaninary, where we can continue doing more of the same work, but in an older, denser forest, and with some new company (Ryan, Charles, Florent and Hery).

our evening commute! back to camp across the swamp

our evening commute! back to camp across the swamp

On the way back to camp at the end of the day, I was skipping along at a brisk pace with a bunch of porters, and Sarah and Jamila were walking behind us. Jamila’s still pretty weak from her illness… I mean, a week ago, she was horizontal on the bathroom floor, for goodness’ sake. Anyway, the distance between our two packs grew and grew, and we went around a bend in the swamp (note: “a bend in the swamp” sounds crazy, so maybe you’d have to see it… a clump of trees sticking out, really) and couldn’t see them anymore. But, we were close to camp, and so didn’t really think anything of it.

jelly shoes hard at work

jelly shoes hard at work

We reached our little island, Augustin turned on his radio, and we sat to rest our weary legs. After about ten minutes, Sarah and Jamila rolled onto the scene, both dripping wet up to their belly-buttons, Sarah wearing only one shoe and looking like she might shoot fire out of her eyes. The swamp is fairly densely packed with knee-high (and sharp!) grasses, but there are many spots where the grass isn’t as dense as it looks, and if you don’t see the hole (and often even if you do see it), you end up waist-deep in swamp, with your feet sucked into the muddy bottom. The porters are incredibly nimble in the swamps, and they can stand on a teeny patch of grass and use both arms to haul us out and giggle at us when this happens. (Silly vazahas – don’t they learn how to walk through swamps at home?) But when Sarah fell in this time, she was out of luck, since the radio overpowered her distant shouts for help, and she and Jamila were left alone to figure out how to haul Sarah out without either of them drowning or, more realistically, both of them getting stuck and having to wait for us to go looking for them. Oops.

we love trees!

we love inventory!

But that’s not even the craziest part. When Sarah pointed to her one shoeless foot, two of the porters took off at a trot and, without so much as a description of the swamp-hole in question (though I’m not sure how you’d descriptively distinguish it from the others anyway), returned ten minutes later with the shoe in hand. I mean, really…. WHAT? These people are incredible.

Ha! Today’s breakfast is also worth of mention. Augustin, as usual, tapped on the tent door around 7 to ask what we wanted to eat for breakfast. I, as usual, replied “oh, du riz et des haricots!”, since we eat rice and beans for every meal (and I adore them!), and the question seems to be mostly a formality. On this particular morning, however, Augustin said that they hadn’t soaked any beans overnight, and were actually hoping that we would make spaghetti for breakfast. (There’s no store in Tsaratanana so they don’t see a lot of pasta.) So Jamila was in charge of cooking the noodles, and I managed to create something of a (decidedly edible) sauce out of cans of tuna (they also love this stuff), tomato concentrate, curry powder, one onion, salt and pepper. And, of course, since we’re in Madagascar, we ate our spaghetti as loka – it was the side dish that we ate on top of our mountains of rice. Weird… but actually really tasty. I don’t think this is a meal they’ll go for at home, though.

In sadder news, I am truly an abysmal chocolate resource manager. I started out with four Robert chocolate bars, and after a mere week, I am down to 0.5. Sigh. Jamila has six, so I’ll just have to start buying bits from her, promising her the moon and stars, or my first born child, or whatever it takes.

July 9

Today was one of my best days yet. We had a near turn-back situation not 500 m from camp this morning, when Sarah ended up waist-deep in the same hole that tried to swallow her yesterday and emerged with dampened spirits and no shoes. But, of course, the locals are savvy, and spent five or ten minutes bent over, reaching their arms in (up to their shoulders!) to dig for jelly shoes. And, of course, they found them. So we carried on.

the Coba president supervises as porters dig for Sarah's shoes

Coba president supervises as porters dig for Sarah's shoes

I was in particularly high spirits today, and managed to tiptoe through the swamp with relative ease. When I got to the other side and triumphantly took my first step onto the solid ground of the forest, the Coba president gave me a nod of approval and said “Elisabeth, forte, comme un garçon.” I think I floated for the rest of the day on that praise. (Seriously. This is just about the greatest compliment he could give me.) I also managed to speak a fair amount of Malgache with him today, which he loved, and so did I. I’m learning! But whenever I clumsily lay down a few words, he gets pretty excited and starts saying “mahay miteny gasy anao!” (“you do speak malgache!”), to which I have to shake my head, laughing, and remind him that I only know like a dozen words. But that number is steadily growing.

Inventory is fun, but sort of… repetitive. I guess that’s the point. My job was to carry around the big 2m stick and hold it against tree trunks, so that Sarah and Jamila could use it as a reference point to estimate the heights of the trees in the A compartments (with diameters of over 20cm). It sounds easy enough, but I actually managed to screw it up – I left the stick behind somewhere (I suspect it was when we had to stop to change out of our hiking boots and into our kiranis at a swampy bit). But luckily, sticks are not scarce in humid forests, so it didn’t take long to find a new one.



Also, on the way back to camp this afternoon, the Coba president and a porter stopped and pointed at a hillside about 500m away, and everyone started chatting excitedly amongst themselves. We asked Augustin what they were pointing at, and he said, “they can see bees over on that hillside, and they can tell by the way they’re flying that their hive is in that tree.” I’m sorry, what?! So five or six of them ran off and, sure enough, they strolled into camp twenty minutes later with a huge beehive wrapped in leaves. So we got to suck the honey out! Yummmmm.




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