Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Banana a Day


Oink. Oink.

I looked out of the window of my room at the sun rising over Ambositra's green fields and the distant rolling hills.

No pigs there.

Then I looked out the side window. There they were, having their morning feeding right next door.

Pig sound, I thought, is gentler and nicer to wake up to than is a screeching rooster, which is like the world's most irritating snooze alarm. But then the rooster kicked in too. Oink-a-doodle-do.

I packed quickly, had yet-another-baguette-breakfast, and got out of my room for my day's trip to Ranomafana National Park. Time to see some more lemurs!

Wait, there's one now.

Oh no. That's not a lemur. That's a dog.

The streets were empty in Ambositra early on Sunday morning, aside from a few stray dog-lemurs. I didn't see any pousse-pousse rickshaws anywhere. The hotel owner stood next to me at the hotel gate and advised me to wait a minute while he called a pousse-pousse to take me to the taxi-brousse lot.

He turned right and emitted a piercing shrill whistle, followed by a loud call.


I remained dignified after his first call, but did not bother trying to contain my giggles when he repeated his shout.

Anyway, it worked. A pousse-pousse man scampered over to drag me and my backpack to the taxi brousse. 

Which was in a lot below the main street, and getting there involved a worrying hike across tiny aisles between deserted market stalls. Could this really be right?

It was, and this time when I bought my ticket, I noticed that prices were posted. How many trips had I overpaid on due to being unaware of this?

My bag went up on top of the van, but as the seats filled up, some obscure negotiations between drivers occurred. The van was replaced by another. All the luggage was transferred by men standing atop the two aligned vans, then wrapped in a tarp.

And we were off, making good time until we turned off on a dirt road to go through a rundown village full of people and chickens and wooden shacks. But it was just a short U-shaped detour, and then we were back on the main road again.

"We're going to Fianarantsoa, aren't we?" A few hours later, I was talking to a young Dutch couple I'd just met on the taxi-brousse. They wanted to see some lemurs too.

"Seems like it, doesn't it?" We'd passed the turn-off for Ranomafana.

But then we made a sharp switchback turn, passing a huge sign for Ranomafana National Park. We were simply taking the better of two roads. The small (but paved) road to Ranomafana wound through the mountains, as so many roads do in Madagascar.

The Dutch couple was ambushed by a guide when we disembarked in Ranomafana, and by the time I got my backpack down from the roof, they'd agreed to follow him to Centrest Hotel, which was also the hotel I'd chosen from my guidebook.

We moved into hillside bungalows--simple but charming--and arranged to meet the guide for a night hike along the road outside the park. But the park itself is seven kilometers away from the town.

"How will we get there and back?"

"There is always a way."

That wasn't so reassuring but we shrugged and agreed to his guiding us.

At dusk, the Dutch couple and I stood by the side of the road awaiting our guide. A small pick-up truck pulled up, full of young Italian men, a mattress, two Malagasy kids and their mother, and our guide.

"Get in!"

We jumped in—the kids couldn't keep their eyes off Nell, one of the Dutch, because she has blond hair—and the truck roared up the hill.

The Italians were working on a local semester-abroad development project and the mattress was their bed for the night. They were going to a house near the park, and the guide had negotiated to take them along on our night hike in exchange for a lift.

"I wonder how we get back," muttered one of the Dutch. I wondered that too.

Our night hike was similar to the Andasibe one in that we weren't allowed in the national park at night, so we had to look alongside the road for chameleons, insects, frogs, and the mouse lemur. This guide seemed much less in tune with the habitat we were in than my Andasibe guide had been. I doubted he had Dipsi's astute skills of observation.

But after a short walk, he stopped and said "The mouse lemur is here."

Where? We all glanced around. He hadn't even looked for it. How did he know where the mouse lemur was?

"Right there." He pointed with his flashlight.

Click. Flash. We all took photos. But the mouse lemur was shy and didn't want to come out for a good photo.

The guide turned off his light.

"No lights. Wait."

We stood in silence. The guide moved and went towards the branch, then returned. I caught a faint whiff of banana. I love bananas but I hate the smell of them and for whatever reason, I'm overly sensitive to it.

Surely I must be wrong...? 

He turned his light back on, and there was the mouse lemur, hanging out and nibbling on something on a branch.

The Dutch couple exchanged glances. I snapped some photos so I could take a closer look later. The Italians turned and walked away, and we did not see them again.

We looked at a few lizards, then waved down a passing truck full of steel pipes. The Dutch and I climbed over the pipes, and back at Centrest Hotel, over dinner, we expressed our reservations.

"Did he put banana on the branch? How on earth did he know exactly where the lemur would be?"

We all pulled up our photos and studied them.

Banana paste was all over the branch in my photo. Our guide hadn't done that in the few seconds the lights were off. The reason he knew where to find the mouse lemur was simple.

The local guides baited. They all knew where the mouse lemur was because that's where they left its food.

I wished I could find a way out of going on tomorrow's day hike with the guide. The Dutch had already begged off due to one of them being sick and the guide had turned to me in desperation. They'd gotten off the hook but I couldn't find a way out.

"I bet they all do it here," said one of the Dutch. "You're not going to find one who doesn't."

Depressed, I went back to my little hut to consider the ethics of lemur-baiting.

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