Madagascar: A Spiny Thicket and Zbu Away

The morning of my 21st birthday dawned hot
and dry over the spiny thicket of southern Madagascar. I was already sweating as I clambered out of
my tent, checking fastidiously for scorpions with every step. The first thing to know about the spiny
thicket is that the entire ecosystem has evolved to maim you. From the Euphorbia
tree that, when broken, leaks a milky sap that can permanently blind you to the
needle-like spines protruding from virtually all plant life to the lack of
water availability and extreme heat, I cannot help but find it miraculous that
generations of Tandroy people live, love, work, and grow old in the spiny
thicket. 

After dousing myself in DEET so
strong it’ll make your skin fall off, I sat down my breakfast rice next to the
two hot beers and assorted fruits that my academic director had given me as
birthday presents. I declined the offer
to watch the slaughter of my birthday goat (death before 7 a.m. tends not to sit
well with my stomach), packed up my backpack, and headed out for my morning of
lemur habitat surveys.

After three hours of measuring tree diameters and following
grunting lemurs as they hopped through the thicket, I returned to camp sweaty and happy, thorny twigs sticking out at odd angles from my cornrows (an
early birthday present from my host sister back in Fort Dauphin). After divvying up my goat among the
villagers, the program staff, and the group, I cracked open a birthday beer and
sat down to plates piled high with goat liver, heart, and cooked blood. Nothing says 21 quite like hot beer and goat
guts.

In the afternoon, my group went to see the
agricultural fields of the village and then stretched out under a tamarind tree
to “shoot the shit,” as they say, with two Tandroy men. The conversation meandered from polygamy to
creation stories to our respective cultures’ marriage traditions. As the sun set over the thicket, I walked
back for a dinner of pasta and veggies. A rather battered birthday cake later, the evening quickly devolved into
copious, Malagasy-rum-fueled tabletop dancing. As I watched my (mostly topless) friends dancing furiously to 2Chainz’s
“Birthday Song” below me, I wondered how I would ever celebrate a birthday
without them, without this country, without worrying if my triumphantly
pant-less dancing would lead to scorpion stings on my ass…

At this moment, it is impossible to imagine my return
to Scripps College. During the past year, I have
tried both “flavors” of study abroad. I
spent my first semester in Paris, sipping red wine at art openings, studying
French literature at the Sorbonne, and riding through the city on the back of
my lover’s motorcycle. And, as
incredible a semester as it was, it could never compare to my experience in Madagascar.

I am sitting in the “gargotte” of my independent study project
adviser as I write this column, watching the sunset over the rainforest of Nosy Be, an island off the
northwestern coast. In the distance, a
single pirogue makes its way across the bay, silhouetted in the dusky
light. The air smells faintly of ylang
ylang flowers, and Malagasy music plays softly from a house down the road. In this moment, listening to the soft hum of
the jungle and the waves lapping at the shore, Claremont seems worlds,
galaxies, and universes away.

I cannot help but
wonder how I will return to classroom learning after spending my class hours
reposing on a woven mat on a bluff overlooking the ocean. How I will return to the Claremont party
scene after partying on the white sand beaches of the “most beautiful island in
Africa” (according to Forbes)? How I will explain what it’s like to travel
16 hours over the worst roads in Madagascar in the No Problème, a bright
yellow open-air-livestock-truck-turned-party-bus, or the sheer terror you feel
when the rogue mountain zébu (a humped Malagasy cow) charges you with your
pants down in the middle of the night in Andringitra National Park?

Hannah Swan SC ’15 is majoring in French studies with an environmental analysis minor. She enjoys island-hopping, beach parties, gold chains, the ATL twins, and drinking whiskey from
the bottle.

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