The “Road” Less Traveled

The story of the day a car ride ruined my hair. The alarm clock jars me awake at 5:30 a.m., as I am snuggled warm and cozy in my hotel bed in Antananarivo. Marina stirs next to me, and is clearly better at yanking her butt out of bed than I am. I just need 5 more minutes of snooze time, please. Jet lag is killing me! Slowly, I listen to the rational voice in my brain and get up, mentally preparing for the arduous journey to our field site. Teeth brushed, contacts in, and ever-present baseball cap on, I pack up my gear and lug it downstairs to the hotel lobby. The rest of the gang congregates, and we shake the sleep out of our brains. Our reliable mode of transportation, the trusty Land Rovers, pick us up and we head down the road to MICET (roughly translated as the Madagascar Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, in French) to load the rest of the gear and our spoils from the market. Now, I’m going to do my best to convey how awful the path from Antananarivo to our field site in Tsinjoarivo Forest is, but I fear as though I may fall short. Blissfully, the road (yes, road!) out of Antananarivo is paved, albeit ridiculously curvy and apparently the word “lane” doesn’t exist in the Malagasy language. After hitting the nearest “metropolis” 2 hours later, a town called Ambatolampy, for breakfast and some of the best carbohydrates ever, mofogasy (literally translated as Malagasy bread) and mofoball (bread ball, essentially a donut), we took a collective deep breath and trucked on.

Mofogasy and mofoball! Deliciously greasy!

Mofogasy and mofoball! Deliciously greasy!

Almost immediately the road turns into something other worldly. That is, a curving red clay path that annually gets washed out during the rainy season, causing one- or two-foot deep ruts that get perma-baked under the hot sun the rest of the year. Even the Malagasy drivers that are familiar with these roads utilize the white-knuckle approach to navigate them. A little hint to how bad the roads are: Our field site is ~130 km away. It takes us 8 hours to get there. You do the math. As a group, we’ve decided that navigating these roads is akin to challenging white-water rapids. Eek!

This picture does nothing to capture the nausea-inducing ride!

This picture does nothing to capture the vomit-inducing ride!

After 8 nauseating hours in car (including a river crossing with us still in the vehicle!) we tumble out of the cars, legs stiff, and suffering from slight whiplash, and are greeted by, seemingly, the whole surrounding countryside’s residents to help us schlep our gear to the campsite.

I'm sorry...what?!? We're crossing this river in the car!?!

I’m sorry…what?!? We’re crossing this river? In the car?

Over the mountain, in the valley below, we set up our temporary home sweet home. I look southwest just as the sun is beginning to dip below the crest of the nearest hill and notice that the forest is dotted with a lot more brown than I remember from last July’s field season. We learn that the vegetation has been devastated by a word we dare not utter around camp. The F-word. Frost. Our guava patch, home to the mouse lemurs I search for at night? Dead. My favorite peach trees, the only ones to bloom in the winter? Dying. The toes that try to stay warm during the night in the sleeping bag? Hypothermic. Bundle up, folks. It’s gonna be a chilly one!

Oh! I almost forgot about the initial point of this post. The day a car ride ruined my hair. An important life lesson learned: If you ever find yourself on a journey that forces your head to bounce at random intervals against the back of the head rest, don’t pull your hair out of its pony-tail! The regret will quickly set in as you spend an hour working out the rat’s nest that managed to work its way into the back of your head. That is all.

I later learned that to beat boredom on the car ride here, Martha made up a little poem. Here it goes:

Ruts and ridges,
Ridges and ruts,
Fall in a hole
And you’ll hurt your nuts.

She was, of course, referring to “nuts”, as in, “nuts and bolts”. Not…(ahem) something else.

It’s a jungle out there!

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