The first two weeks adjusting to Honko’s simple shower bucket and outhouse was adventurous at worst and incredibly gratifying at best. The minimal use of water was a reminder of the horrendous amounts of water that I waste in California and a great relief that I don’t have to feel guilt over water usage at Honko. A simple diet of rice meals (nutty, vegetable, bean, and meat varieties) with pasta on the weekends was somewhat more bland than what I was used to at home, but in the face of possible digestive problems incurred by Crohn’s Disease, the simplicity was most welcome.
I eased into working on the monitoring projects that Honko does, first building plots in the mangrove and sorting local fishery catches for biodiversity and economic records. The mangrove monitoring had been established a few years ago and the work was relatively mundane, checking topographic changes, pH, leaf litter abundance and species surveys. The fisheries project was much newer and had a lot of work to be done, primarily matching local names to identifiable species. Once a comprehensive guide to categorizing fish catches is established, reliable records that can be continually kept by more volunteers to come.
I got to know the other volunteers and organizers. Arianne is an ecology student at Sherbrook University outside of Montreal. She was the groups expert and reference for anything having to do with the French language. Arianne’s time overlapped with my time at Honko so that we would spend most of the time volunteering together. She is an enthusiastic birder and helped organize the bird guide workshop.
Nina was raised in a family working in a multitude of countries, including Bangladesh, Mexico and Indonesia. She went right into Madagascar NGO work after college in Ohio and has only visited the US since. She was set to move back to America a few months after me, completing her two year stay at Honko. She is a calm person that maintains a relaxed attitude toward most situations.
Tess is a gregarious and structured mother-hen type of personality when it comes to managing the Honko Center and the volunteers. She spent two years in Ghana in the Peace Corps after college at Purdue, coming to Honko for another year afterwards before planning to return to the US to work in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Tess was the one who held our hands through the first few trips into Tulear.
The Malagasy staff is what made the experience the most rewarding. Three of them know English to certain degrees. Lalas stayed at Honko and supervised most of the work projects for the volunteers. He worked at a nursery before starting at Honko and is very enthusiastic about the mangroves and plants in general. He is always quick with a joke and makes the effort to befriend everyone he works with. Sala, the English-speaking mangrove guide, spends much of his time working with Honko with many of their projects and learned English mostly within the past two years by speaking with Honko’s international staff. Josepha is a liaison from Tulear that spends his time in both Tulear and Ambondrolava. He helps the organizers with their outreach in Tulear and organizes alternative fuel wood projects in Ambondrolava. He is always happy to see you whenever you meet him and isn’t afraid of being the first one to dance at a party.
The other Malagasy staff speak little English which made it difficult to have conversations with them. Zarina, the cook, only speaks Malagasy. Philemon, the French-speaking guide, knows almost no english, and I am never confident with my French or Malagasy to start conversations with him. Both Zarina and Philemon are very polite about it, however, and always smile when I greet them. Jeannot, the guard that lives behind the volunteer house, always starts the most hilarious conversations. The conversations generally have few words and a lot of hand gestures.
The end of January culminated in a large cyclone called tropical storm Fondo, which flooded Honko and the surrounding area with 200 meters of rainfall in 24 hours. I felt the most prepared so far at this point when I was able to use the emergency parka that I brought last minute. The storm was such that Tess, Arianne and I had to change our plans to see Isalo National Park for the following weekend. The amazing trip to Isalo will be covered at another time.
The following week Tess left to go back to the US and Lara officially took her place. Lara is a French-speaking woman from Belgium whom has spent time as a tourist, student and volunteer widely abroad, having tours throughout South America (Ecuador and Argentina), Africa (Cameroon and prior experience in Madagascar) and Southeast Asia (Thailand and Burma). She is hilarious person and brings a lot of fun to Honko.
Through February I worked on completing fish profiles that had been started by the last volunteer, Arthur. Once I had a majority of them finished (although revision is always necessary as the fish still need identification help) I organized spreadsheets of fish length and abundance data for each week that we observed the sorting and weighing of a catch. Having only a basic taxonomic training in fish (my focus was in entomology) I am always perplexed on how to identify the fish in the field and have resorted to taking some back to the center to check key characteristics. The goal of identifying to species name always seems to be a far away goal.
One of the rewarding projects I had the pleasure of seeing unfold was a special trip to Tulear on March 13th to see Honko’s environmental educator deliver a lesson to primary school students. I visited one nearly full classroom that held enough desks for 50 children and got to see the educator explain the ecology of mangroves and the activities of the community-based association for the mangrove area, the VOI Mamelo Honko. There was singing, dancing and games that he used to explain the importance of monitoring over-exploitative practices in the mangrove. It was an awesome experience to join in and have fun learning with the kids and, as a vazaha (foreigner), experience the awkwardness of failing to fit in.
Later in march, we had a two-day bird guide workshop where I got to experience birding for the first time. There was also a huge planting day on International Day of Forests (March 21) at Honko where nearly 200 people attended to plant mangroves. I helped in the planting and mapped out the planting area with GPS afterwards. March was the month when I finally had time to go on bug hunts and get my collection started.
Unfortunately, after some medical complications, I decided that I needed to leave Honko early. I decided on two weeks early set to leave on Easter to make time for the next trip I would take to Andringitra and Manakara, which I will cover in the next blog (travel edition). The decision to leave was difficult so close to the end of my term.
The end of my stay at Honko will be a bittersweet one, like with most vacations. It will be good to see my family again and to get well, but thought of staying and experiencing Honko to its fullest is tempting because I still feel well most of the time. Still, the time I have spent have been as memorable as I have expected and more.