Wednesday, Dec. 10
Maroantsetra, Madagascar

“You don’t have to get into this mud if you don’t want to,” Chris told me as he slid off his flip-flops and stepped into the thick sludge.

He knew what I was thinking: which disease would I contract by tromping barefoot through this stuff?

But I very much wanted to harvest rice with the locals. I’d take the risk — I was going home soon anyhow.

The first step was the deepest, up past my calf. But then I got the hang of walking on downed rice stalks, and the mud sloshed only over my feet, slimy between my toes.

I used the sharp tool Chris handed me to cut the rice bits from their stalks, accumulating a handful before stuffing them into the basket over his arm. We were partaking for fun, but those around us were working for cash — the equivalent of 50 cents for each full bag, several hours of work.

We stayed only 20 minutes or so, largely because of the mosquitoes that feasted on our legs. These suckers left a drop of blood where they bit, and my legs quickly became covered with little red spots that I later smudged away.

Until now, I had spent most of my time in Madagascar as a tourist, whiffing bits and pieces of life here. But this week, I got to experience the country as I had hoped, making friends with Malagasy people, joining them in their daily chores, eating as they ate (all rice, all the time).

My pass into the real Madagascar was Chris, a friend of a college friend who is researching how bushmeat — mammals like lemurs that are hunted in the forest — affects nutrition.

Chris and a few members of his Malagasy family, plus the guy who is building his house without a single power tool!

Chris and a few members of his Malagasy family, plus the guy who is building his house without a single power tool!

He has spent so much time in Madagascar over the last handful of years that he considers it a home away from home. He speaks the language and has a family here who has adopted him as one of their own, plus plenty of Malagasy friends. That’s what really impressed me — the friends — because I’ve seen how difficult it can be for foreigners in Africa to cross cultural and economic gaps to forge real friendships.

Working on cloves in the village... Check out the little guys smile in the back.

Working on cloves in the village... Check out the little guy's smile in the back.

I hung out with Chris for several days in Maroantsetra, the small city he uses as a home base, while he prepared to enter the field for his project. It was one of those places I might have overlooked as a tourist, but perfect for observing everyday Malagasy life.

The city smelled strongly of cloves, since it was the time of year when everyone harvests the cash crop, spreading it out on mats on the ground to dry. I helped Chris’ Malagasy family prepare the cloves to be dried, separating the soon-to-be-spices from their green branches, all of us sitting on the ground around a red and yellow pile.

Chris also took me out to taste a bit of Malagasy nightlife; we drank beers — only one brew here, the local THB — with his friends outside a small bar on a street that was lively, but dark, since the power was out. (Electricity cuts are common here.) The scene reminded me of nights out with my friends from home, and I wished I could understand the jokes they poked at one another in Malagasy.

Within a few days, Chris, his two research assistants and I headed to one of his project villages, a three-hour hike from the road. Here’s a shot of us heading into the forest:

Walking to Chris village.

Walking to Chris' village.

Plus a photo of the homes we passed along the way. Those are cloves drying out front: