Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Power of Pencils: Will You Help Me Send Two Malagasy Girls to School?

This past week, I camped in a fragment of forest near a village called Bevoahazo, and I nurtured a dream. As my colored pencils wore down to nubs, this dream grew stronger. I want to raise $1,200 and send two Malagasy girls to high-school for a year. Will you help me?

The kids of Bevoahazo show off one of our collaborative ecosystem drawings, complete with stream, frog, trees, a domestic duck, and a wild parrot labeled in English and Malagasy. 

Living in Madagascar has meant living amid poverty at a level I have never before experienced. At times, it has been a lesson in humility and gratitude. At other times, I feel shame because I don't deserve the resources I have while others lack shoes, food, medicine, and the chance to send their children to school. And there is part of me that feels paralysis, because I do not deserve this power to pity and donate. My capacity to be generous, raise money, and be thanked -- all these are just more privileges associated with my undeserved economic status. Yet, to do nothing is not a reasonable solution. As it happens, I have an undeserved amount of resources. What to do?

A close-up of our ecosystem drawing.

The answer came to me when I learned of a scrappy, young charity called Madaworks. It was founded right here in Ranomafana two years ago, in November 2015, by a Long Islander named Diane Powers. I read about Madaworks while flipping through VaoVao ValBio, the newsletter of the rainforest research station where I'm currently living. An excerpt:

"Madaworks is improving development in the Ranomafana region through: access to secondary education for girls from rural villages and economic empowerment of women. ... To date we have graduated one student (Julie Rakotozafy) from Sahavondronona. Her achieving her high school diploma inspired her to begin university studies in nursing. In the fall of 2016 Madaworks funded two girls (Avontrinaina Louise Sarah and Ravosolo Paquerette) on the path to a fully funded three-year high school education. Two more students will be selected to receive scholarships September 2017. Next year we hope to support at least 10 more girls. Centre ValBio staff provide support and logistical assistance in distribution of scholarship applications and disbursement of funds to the schools and the students."

For every $600 Madaworks receives, it can fund one year of high-school education. Unlike too many charities in Madagascar, Madaworks is accountable to their students for the long-term. They only take on as many students as they can fund for an entire secondary education. Best of all, Madaworks checks in on their scholars regularly, providing guidance and mentorship.

They've been featured by Mongabay and Women Deliver for their dual benefit to people and biodiversity through empowering girls.

There are more needs in this region that I could ever hope to meet as an individual. Everything I offer is accepted into grateful hands: extra band-aids, a bottle of ibuprofen, a sewing needle, sunscreen, pens, leftover soggy rice. The shoes off my feet would be put to use here if I could spare them. So how did I decide to support girls' education?

Two moments clarified this mission for me.

1. When I spoke with my wonderful guides, Menja and Zaka, both explained how their lives revolve around the unreachable goal of funding their children's education. I have met smart, ambitious girls who want to go to school. No matter what sacrifices their parents make, no matter how badly their village wants to support them, no matter how ingenious they may be, these girls flat-out cannot afford it. Even public school costs money here, and most rural children must drop out after fifth grade. To attend high-school, students have to live in rented housing in the city, away from their families, and pay tuition. Menja and Zaka work hard, and they earn less than $2 a day. Free public education is something we take for granted in the United States, and here it is an unthinkable luxury. It shouldn't be. 

2. On my first day at camp this week, after lunch, three children appeared at the edges of our tarp. They were hoping for leftover food. Silent, still, they made themselves nearly invisible, not wanting to intrude on our privacy. Our team cook, Mana, handed them a bowl of soggy rice and salty beans with three spoons. The food disappeared in seconds. The children hovered, intrigued, tentative. I pulled a notebook and a bundle of colored pencils from my backpack.

"Inona no biby tianao?" I asked. "Sahy?" What's your favorite animal? Draw?

Quickly they took the invitation. All three replied with the same animal: varika, lemur. So we drew lemurs. More children appeared up the slick clay path through the forest. They didn't mind that we had no more rice to offer. They circled around and accepted one piece of precious paper each, with outstretched hands and soft thank-yous. We traded vocabulary, they writing the Malagasy and me adding the English. House, trano. Butterfly, tataro. Duck, giroka. Tree, hazo. Mosquito, moka. Parrot, kevaka. Vine, vahy. We graduated from organisms to ecosystems, swapping papers back and forth, weaving together vines and lemurs and frogs and streams and trees.

More children arrived every day, and I had to get creative to find hard surfaces for everyone to draw on. An upside-down bucket for 12-year-old Fano. My bird book for 6-year-old Vonona. A plate for 11-year-old Lalao. Then I had to get creative about subjects, the usual lemurs and parrots having lost interest. I sketched my study organism, a mouse lemur, tsitsidy, and held it up as an example. A dozen kids drew their own unique tsitsidy in response.

My first mouse lemur, labeled in Malagasy, English, and Latin. A dozen more were offered by the kids. Take a look at each one below. They're all different and they're all awesome, like their artists.

One afternoon, we did an exercise in scientific illustration. I asked each kid to gather one leaf -- "ravina iray" -- and bring it back. We each drew our leaves in realistic detail, not a cartoon idea of a leaf but the thing itself. How many spines? How many veins? What shade of green? We investigated weeds, compared ferns. I learned the names of a dozen trees in Malagasy.

Lemurs, trees, and humans coexist in this paper forest just like the real one around us.

Then we moved on to animals. We gathered frogs -- sahona -- and tadpoles -- boboka -- and even a swimming spider -- hala -- from the stream and drew those. When the kids proudly showed me their drawings of the spider, I told them they did a great job -- miatsa tsara -- but challenged them to count the legs of our arachnid friend.

"Tongotra hala firy?" I asked. How many legs does the spider have?

The kids leaned in over the bucket, jostling for position. They counted. "Valo!" yelled the first confident voice. "Valo! Valo!" agreed a chorus. Eight legs. They amended their drawings.

Then we moved on to the giant pair of twig-themed stick-bugs on a nearby plant.

"Tongotra biby-hazo firy?" How many legs does the stick-bug have?

"Enina!" Six.

"Tongotra vorona firy?" How many legs does the bird have?

"Roa!" Two.

"Tongotra varika firy?" How many legs does the lemur have?

"Efatra!" Four.

Then, just for fun: "Tongotra hazo firy?" How many legs does the tree have?

A small voice answered. It came from the seven-year-old named Vitatsara, with twin dimples in her cheeks and a quiet firmness to her presence.

"Iray." One.

"Eka," I laughed. Yes. I believe she was right. I'd noticed her the day before when an older boy had ripped her colored pencil from her hand, and she'd let it happen without a fight. I'd worried that she was too passive, allowing herself to be bullied. I realized now that she was simply too wise to engage in a petty fight. Today, she sat in front of the crowd, pencil firmly in hand, eyes focused on me.

Vitatsara and a few of her organisms.

When I brought the stick-bugs down off their leaf for show-and-tell, most of the girls recoiled in terror. Vitatsara watched me carefully, noting my calm handling of the harmless insect. She slowly extended one hand, offering a platform for its six legs. For the next half-hour, she and I passed the insect back and forth. It would crawl slowly up her arm, and just as it began to tickle her neck, I'd rescue it onto my own palm. When it reached my neck, she'd rescue it from me. The older children watched in fascination, and one by one they offered their hands to the tickling sensation of a six-legged stick.

Vitatsara shows off her new friend, the biby-hazo or stick-bug.

Biby-hazo namana, stick-bug friend!

What did I accomplish these afternoons? I had fun, and I passed my hours while the lemurs slept. All evidence suggests the kids had fun, too. Maybe a few of them learned English words, as I learned a few in Malagasy. I hope I helped cultivate biophilia: a love of nature, a curiosity about ecosystems and a compassion for organisms that nourishes my own life. Above all, I was filled with a desire to help these focused, curious kids continue to attend school for as long as they wish. I want them to have paper and colored pencils to sketch spider-webs after I leave. I want them to read books about the environment, about national politics, about anything and everything they please.

The bird and mammal field-guides I had provided as tables turned into the main attraction. The kids were fascinated to look at color photos of their neighborhood wildlife.

This desire means asking for help. I want to raise $1,200 for Madaworks. That's enough to send two girls to high-school for one year each. I hope that Vitatsara and the others girls who sketched leaves and lemurs will apply. I hope, by then, Madaworks will have enough funds to support them all the way to college. Will you hope with me?

Here are three native animals I sketched for the kids as gifts: a blue coua, a red-fronted brown lemur, and a greater vasa parrot.

I considered making Go-Fund-Me page, but those things keep a percentage of the money, so I decided I will ask for donations directly. If you are inspired and able to help, please send a donation of any amount to my PayPal, my Venmo, or the Madaworks website.


Venmo: @Nina-Finley

Madaworks website:

If you send the money to me, I will donate it to Madaworks. If you send money to Madaworks, please post a comment or send me a message letting me know so I can add it to the total for my $1,200 goal. I'll post regular updates to the blog so you can watch our progress as we work together to send girls to school.

Rasôna thanks me for a sketch I drew her of her favorite animal, varika, a male red-fronted brown lemur. Help me give her more than a drawing. Help me give her the chance to keep going to school.

Menja: An Interview with the Soul of Team Tsitsidy

"Show me how you dance!"

That would be Raboavola Bernadette, known to everyone as Menja. You're likely to find her stirring up Field Cake over the fire, painting her face with handmade sunblock from the masonjoany tree, or inciting a dance party.

Menja shows off her masonjoany during a rainy day at our Antavindalona camp.

"Like this?" she asks, imitating my tentative dance moves. Dropping it low in a meadow of ferns and sugarcane feels wildly out of place, but Menja doesn't care. She's going to master this dance with the same patient attention she applies to her mosquito trapping for Team Tsitsidy.

One of Menja's mosquito traps hung in an Ampitavanana rice paddy. As an interesting aside, the red batik in the background is used by the rice farmers to scare away Madagascar fody, tiny scarlet songbirds than can devour a rice crop.

Menja has been working with researchers in Ranomafana National Park since 1998, five years before the first buildings of Centre ValBio were erected. She recounts how it all began. "My friend was the camp manager for researchers at the park," organizing their tents and meals before such luxuries as dormitories and kitchens existed here. "She needed a cook, so she asked me."

Menja rests in our Ampitavanana camp before the afternoon round of trap-baiting.

After two years as a backcountry chef, tending charcoal stoves in remote rainforest camps, a visiting scientist asked Menja if she would be not her cook, but her guide. I can picture Menja's enthusiastic grin as she told that scientist, "I want to do it!"

The tent Menja and I shared in Ampitavanana.

Menja remembers that first research project -- on the hormones of two brown lemur species, Eulemur rufus and E. rubriventris -- and every one since. She's recorded the behavior of Ranomafana's diurnal lemurs, from Milne-Edwards' sifakas to the rare species this park was founded to protect, the golden bamboo lemur. She has tallied leech and ant species by transect. Recently, she translated "child-led tours" for a Ph.D. candidate's study on perceptions of rural environmental identity. Menja summarized this cerebral project as "the same thing as usual, but with children instead of lemurs."

A pair of red-fronted brown lemurs, Eulemur rufus, observe our behavior.

That's something you'd notice about Menja within minutes of meeting her: she's down to earth. When our car dropped us off at Tsaramisoandro, a roadside village from which we began our hike to the forest, there was chaos. I watched helplessly. Menja organized throngs of shouting porters into an orderly line, each person carrying a reasonable load and paid a fair amount. She taught me how to bathe at camp and where to bury my toilet paper. Her only advice for how we could improve on our first expedition: buy a live chicken instead of dried fish. That tip resulted in tonight's delicious akoho sy vary, boiled chicken over rice.

The team Menja helped organize to pack our gear out from Ampitavanana village, including local cook Edmonde, local guide Njara, master's student Gaetan, and Centre ValBio guide Zaka. Photo credit: the one and only Menja.

Menja thinks forest conservation is important for three reasons: to keep the rains coming, to keep the water potable, and to provide "clean winds." When I pressed her for preferences, Menja's tastes were characteristically practical. Favorite animal: giant bamboo lemur, because it's easy to follow. Favorite research: fanadihadihana, interviews, because she gets to sit in a house and ask questions, "no hiking!"

Menja poses with a massive nest of a hamerkop. This uniquely Madagascan bird has the soaring pattern of a raptor, the dietary habits of a heron, and the silhouette of a hammer.

Even so, Menja's hiking puts mine to shame. For every trap I bait, Menja baits two. After hours of sweaty bushwhacking, banana juice coating her fingers and spiderwebs lacing her braids, Menja still has energy to seek cell service on the nearest hilltop. Her motivation: hearing the voice of her twelve-year-old son, Tsiafoy, who spends most of his time two hours away in the city of Fianaratsoa so he can go to school. Menja had to drop out after fifth grade because, she puts it simply, "no money." She's determined to send her son to school "until the end," as far as she can. She hopes he will become a doctor, she tells me, but for now he prefers playing with his friends to studying. He's halfway through seventh grade.

Menja stands at the heart of our camp kitchen in Antavindalona.

"If you had a magic wand," I ask Menja, "what would you---"

"Ina?" she interrupts. "A what?"

After a short digression to explain magic and wands, I continue. "If you had a magic wand, and you could create one new national park in Madagascar, where would you put it?"

"The beach," she tells me with a mischievous grin, the same one she wore when she told me she was from Texas. It emerges after much laughter that she just wants to go to the beach, like she wants to visit Texas.

I press further, and she spins a tale of her dream park: a strip of protected western coast where the forest meets the ocean. Menja has a fondness for that edge, the meeting of two worlds. I am reminded of Menja herself, a person where goofy joy washes up against serious determination.

At our Ampitavanana camp, Edmonde and Njara spent their free morning digging us a latrine, complete with a log platform for squatting on. I was so excited, I asked Menja to take my picture demonstrating how to use it. She then asked for a reciprocal photo. Thank goodness for Menja's enthusiasm and lack of inhibition.

"What would you name your park?" I ask.

"Rainalatrondro," she answers as confidently as if she'd had the name picked out for years.

"What does it mean?"

"Raina means waterfall. Ala means forest. Trondro is what lives under the water," Menja explains. She's checking on the strips of beef drying on a branch over the campfire's smoke.

"You mean fish?" I clarify.

"Yeah." For a brief moment, she gazes into the flames. "Rainalatrondro," she repeats. "I like that." Then she's back in motion. Her ears have registered the faint brush of raindrops on tarp.

As I scribble her last words in my notebook, she zips tent windows and rescues our nearly-dry laundry from the line.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

First Quarterly Report: Three Months on the Watson

The Watson Foundation doesn't require much in the way of deliverables. The only products it requests are four quarterly reports in the form of "long letters home" and a short presentation at our final conference. Here's the first of those reports.

First Quarterly Report

Date: October 27, 2017
Countries you were in: Brazil, Madagascar
Countries for next quarter: Madagascar, Indonesia
Current location: Centre ValBio, Fianarantsoa Province, Madagascar

Dear Watson Foundation,

I’m writing from a slate-tiled balcony attached to Centre ValBio above a bamboo rainforest in eastern Madagascar. The research station is nestled into a cliff face. To exit on ground level, I can walk down three flights of stairs, or up one. Either way, I’ll be surrounded by tree ferns, rain that rises from the ground as mist, and the tinkling song of Souimanga sunbirds, an endemic species that fills the ecological role of hummingbirds. Right now I’m watching a Mascarene martin swoop insects at eye-level. The sun is casting a brilliant white light on Cumulus congestus clouds, a brewing thunderstorm. Today is my break between lemur-trapping sites, so I’ll be cozy and dry as I listen to raindrops strike the roof.

Looking down on Centre ValBio Research Station from Ranomafana National Park.

As you’ll probably hear from thirty-nine other Watson Fellows, my experiences over the first quarter of this year have been too expansive to summarize in a letter, but here goes! I spent my first two months in Mato Grosso do Sul, a Brazilian cattle-raising state that you can locate by pointing your finger smack-dab in the center of a map of South America. My initial plan was to study peccary leptospirosis and its impact on food security in Pantanal. That didn’t work out. The Wildlife Conservation Society unexpectedly closed its Pantanal program a few months before I arrived, so I was welcomed into the Watson by scientists at loose ends, without funding, unemployed. At least, I figured, my worries were minor compared to theirs.

Lygia led me up to the edge of a cliff in Cerrado with my eyes closed so she could surprise me with this panoramic view of Pantanal below us.

I feel extremely lucky to have found a homestay with two women who I’ll call friends for life, environmental journalist Lygia Freitas and Cerrado botanist Duca Andrade Santos. Duca spent the past decade as outreach director for the WCS, and she’s called “the Mayor of Taboco” because she’s the person everyone turns to for help. I lived at Quinta do Sol, the postage-stamp nature preserve Duca built from scratch. At first, I was disappointed to realize I would be living not in my dream ecosystem, the Pantanal wetland, but its arid neighbor, the Cerrado savannah. That disappointment turned to gratitude as I fell in love with Cerrado’s wacky fruits, endemic buriti-palm swamps called veredas, and semi-deciduous forests.

Alexine, me, and Duca looking out over an expanse of intact Cerrado ecosystem.

Duca and I crafted a low-cost research project: a survey of vaccination in domestic cats and dogs. The project is a step toward conservation of jaguars, pumas, ocelots, maned wolves and crab-eating foxes, all of which can contract canine distemper and other diseases from pets. It was also an ideal excuse to meet fifty of Duca’s neighbors and move quickly beyond small-talk into topics like zoonosis, human-wildlife conflict, and vaccination. If we stopped by a house between the hours of 12 and 2, we were nearly always invited to stay for amorço, a lavish meal for which “lunch” is a bland translation. One of my favorite menus was feijoão (soupy, salty brown beans), arroz (white rice), salada (raw cabbage or tomato with vinegar) and cebollada (sautéed chunks of zebu beef with onions).

One rancher told me about his practice of placing dead cows in termite nests as a form of pest control. A vegetable-farmer treats her ill chickens with injections of milk. A man from town shared his pathogen-specific protocols for eating beef, explaining in Portuguese, “To prevent rabies, foot-and-mouth disease, and carbuncle, you just have to cook it well, but brucellosis is hard to kill––you must cover it with salt and leave it in the freezer for at least one night before cooking.” I have no idea how these practices align with institutional scientific knowledge, but I’d be interested to test them on a sort of Microbial Mythbusters.

I taught ultimate frisbee for gym class at Taboco's public middle-school.

Beyond the anecdotes, I developed a deep map of Taboco through its culture surrounding animal disease. Nearly all residents vaccinate against rabies, which affects humans, but very few against other diseases that can cross into wildlife, like canine distemper and parvovirus. As a conservation tool, I’m proposing that the Brazilian Ministry of Environment, whose mission includes endangered-species health, and the Ministry of Health, which runs the annual rabies campaign, work together to offer vaccinations against critical wildlife zoonoses to Cerrado pets.

Need a rabies vaccine? Are you a dog or cat? You've come to the right place.

When I wasn’t discussing puppy diarrhea over lunch, I realized my dream of swimming with giant vitoria rede water lilies in Pantanal, completed my first freshwater scuba-dive in the nobody-knows-how-deep Lagoa Misteriosa, and showered in the wind-blown Rio Peixe waterfall. I waded up to my waist through a mossy slot canyon at Vale do Bugio until Lygia noticed an enormous rattlesnake, coiled on a chilly boulder and blocking the way forward. (On my way out, I counted the bodies of seven bloated bats floating around me, another good reason to leave.) I learned to vaccinate cats against rabies by first holding them up to a tree, which they conveniently latch onto with their razor claws, and then injecting the bubblegum pink serum under a tent of skin. I played ultimate frisbee with middle schoolers, surveyed a forest for peccary-edible fruits, drank guaraná soda and terere tea at barbeque dance parties, and sat in on a falconry class at the Federal University. For my last week in the country, I attended an infectious disease conference called DIERN and incubated a whole colony of thoughts on collaborative survival with microbes, the topic of my most recent blog post. The best moments surfaced when I stuck my neck out and struck up conversations with strangers.

The Lagoa Misteriosa sinkhole before my first freshwater scuba-dive.

On a personal note, I struggled in Brazil with the lack of structure. When I woke up without an agenda, I was pulled in two directions: inertia coaxed me to the computer screen, where I’d organize data or write a blog, while momentum urged me to hike through a vereda or plant seedlings in Duca’s agroforestry garden. Either way, I felt uncertain if I was doing the right thing. How late should I sleep? How often should I help wash dishes? I reflected on my anxious thoughts, which I like to call brain weasels, and realized how much I fear disappointing the people I look up to. Living, eating, and working in the same home as my mentors gave me little space in which I felt okay being imperfect. When I opened up about these insecurities in a blog post, Lygia and Duca responded with tears, hugs, and hours of advice about the struggle to balance life goals, avoid workaholism, and just be happy. They helped me relax. I started singing while I cooked, sleeping in a bit later, and saying no thanks to invitations when I felt overwhelmed. Duca and Lygia challenged me to love generously and live intentionally. I can’t thank them enough for helping me transition from the rigid scaffold of college into the open-ended uncertainty of a Watson year.

Facing my fear of heights by peering out over the cliff of the Rio Peixe waterfall.

My flight from São Paulo to Johannesburg was delayed by an hour-and-a-half, just long enough to strand me in South Africa for a night with no currency and no clue. I managed to arrange an afternoon tour to Lion Park, where I met the megafauna species I’d grown up watching on TV: white lions and sacred ibis, blesbok and giraffes. My taxi driver gave me a thorough, unsolicited, and hugely appreciated lesson on Apartheid and South African politics. The detour to continental Africa turned out to be a highlight of my Watson experience, perhaps because it was so unexpected.

Unusual white lions at the Lion Park outside Johannesburg.

The next day, I arrived in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, or just Tana. In the customs line, I was handed a pocket-sized tourist pamphlet advertising the tropical beaches of Nosy Be and a public service announcement: Pour prévenir la maladie à virus Ebola, eviter de changer de siège assigné au cours du vol. English translation: “For prevention of Ebola virus disease, avoid changing seat assigned during the flight.” Intriguing, from a disease perspective, if a bit unnerving. In Tana, everything felt different than anything I’d felt before. Verdant green rice paddies filled roadside ditches. The smoke of burning garbage was heavy in my nostrils. Within 48 hours I was vomiting, and an outbreak of pneumonic plague had one out of every four pedestrians wearing facemasks. The streets felt hostile. After three frantic days of organizing research equipment, I was relieved (and more than a little nauseated) to leave the city behind on a nine-hour drive to Centre ValBio, my current home in the eastern highland rainforest.

A market in Antananarivo.

Plague surveillance in rural Madagascar: a military-medical checkpoint where cars are stopped and the passengers are asked if they feel sick.

My initial plan was to assist Dr. Sarah Zohdy with her lemur-disease project, but when Sarah decided against visiting Madagascar with her new baby, I found myself running Project Hydra. For every challenge I tackle, three more sprout in its place. There are the scientific tools, camping equipment, food, schedule, transportation. There are the traps. There are the Microcebus mouse lemurs, or tsitsidy in Malagasy, world’s smallest and cutest primate. There’s blood to draw, lice to collect, hairs to tweeze, feces to scoop. There is money to wire, cash to withdraw, receipts to submit. There was the government minister who suddenly announced he would be tagging along for a week in the backcountry, and the equally sudden cancellation of said visit. There was the evening a Malagasy graduate student knocked on my bedroom door to inform me he would be joining the project. Somehow, I turned out to be a grad student’s mentor. Rakotondrasoa Maminiaina Gaetan, the student, has turned out to be an integral part of Team Tsitsidy.

Our nocturnal, outdoor "lab" on a blue tarp.

An especially orange mouse lemur, Microcebus rufus. We will let her go back on the same tree where we caught her, once we've stolen her lice and taken a blood sample.

On expedition days, Team Tsitsidy swells to include fourteen porters, a local guide, American scientists, Malagasy researchers, and a cook. In interstitial moments, the team condenses to its nucleus: me, Gaetan, and our expert guides, Zakamanana François (Zaka) and Rabaovola Bernadette (Menja). We spend eight days at a stretch camping in the fragmented forests around rural villages, isolated from internet and electronics by a half-day hike. These days are precious. My mouth waters over unsalted white rice with round-beans. Uninterrupted, I sit cross-legged on a rice bag and read book after book. I press ferns in my journal. Some afternoons, I trade sketches for Malagasy words with girls who intrude shyly into our camp after school.

Our local cook, Velomanana Edmonde, serving bowls of white rice for Team Tsitsidy at our camp near the village of Ampitavanana.

Inside Centre ValBio, I’ve struggled with the sterility of life in a research dorm. I miss the fruit bats that roosted in my bathroom at Quinta do Sol, the tree frogs that lived in my toilet, and the jubilant smiles of Duca and Lygia at breakfast. Another regret is that, ironically, I’ve had little opportunity to explore the primary rainforest for which Ranomafana is famous. My focus on fragmentation and disease draw me to the seedy outskirts of ecosystems. I wade through vary, rice paddies of translucent orange water and shocking green leaf, and tavy, slash-and-burn agriculture whose smoke obscures all but the nearest mountains.

The vegetable market in Ranomafana Town, where Menja helped me purchase tomatoes, ground beef, and rolls so I could prepare American-style hamburgers for Team Tsitsidy.

Rice paddies are flooded because rice can grow dry or wet, and the water keeps pests at bay.

On the fifth of December, I’ll ship a box of dried blood, ear lice, and lemur hair off to the States and set out to explore more of Madagascar. I have my eye on the spiny dry forest, the boulevard of baobabs, the Ifaty coral reefs (which I’ve heard are thoroughly bleached, making for an interesting comparison to my next stop), the gorgeous mitso color of Phelsuma day geckos, and any bird-watching tour I can join for cheap. On Christmas, I’ll fly from Tana to Bali. I’ve heard the Indonesian island will be on collective holiday through the first half of January, so I’m looking forward to solitude, writing up my thoughts, and acquainting myself with the local curries and seafood and birdlife before diving (get it?) into a project with Reef Check Indonesia. I’ll be helping two coral conservationists, Derta and Jaya, evaluate how successful their reef restoration program has been so far. I can’t wait to move in with a homestay, survey diseased reefs by scuba, and improve my limited Bahasa Indonesia vocabulary from the few tantalizing lessons I took this summer in a Minneapolis Starbuck’s.

The surface is ringed in forest as I float in Lagoa Misteriosa. I'm excited to do saltwater diving in my next country, Indonesia.

The past seems like a lifetime ago, and the future is nearly unimaginable through the tangled underbrush of the present. Thank you, Watson Foundation, for trusting me with this enormous year. Until next quarter!

Yours truly in bamboo and bacteria, Microcebus and microbes, vary and viruses,