Friday, September 2, 2011

On the joys of primate fieldwork, or "There's flies in my eyes": Marni LaFleur

In the next installment of Dispatches from the Field, graduate student Marni LaFleur humorously recounts a series of misadventures during her dissertation fieldwork in Madagascar:

I am a 33 year old graduate student in anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder and last year, I lived in Madagascar in order to study ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) for my dissertation. I worked in a very remote area and spent nearly 10 months living in a tent. During this time, and like many who do field work, I went without luxuries such as running water, a bathroom, electricity (other than a small generator), the internet, or medical care, not to mention my husband or the people I love at home. It can be tough, but that is life in the field.

Now, I've worked in Madagascar before and have experience in all sorts of forest types and other countries. So, I figured I knew what I was in for. WRONG. None of my experiences or elaborate plans prepared me for the challenges that ensued. Some were to be expected (heat, bugs, etc.), albeit terribly difficult to tolerate. While other challenges were more of a surprise (illnesses, cyclones, using cold French fries to pay off drunken AK-47 yielding crooked cops, etc.), that you just have to chalk up as part of the joys of doing field work in an un-developed nation. The following are some of highlights of my field work highlights:

The heat. Day time high of 55°C and an overnight low of 32°C is miserable. Especially for months on end. There is no way to acclimate. It is horrible.

The tormenting flies. They simply torment you. Endlessly. And they are everywhere and so gross. For goodness sake, they literally barf on you and then lick up their own barf. On you, and on your food, and dishes, and eyeballs, and all forms of feces. And they have the audacity to continually land on the same spot, like the tip of your freaking nose, and will happily fly up your nose and down your throat. For months. Sick.

The incessant mosquitoes. I don't think I can even accurately describe the mosquito horrors. Let me just say that in addition to 3 layers of head to toe clothing (including two pairs of socks on my hands), I tried to set up a mosquito net in the forest, and it didn't help. Better yet, picture what SWARMS of mosquitoes do when you drop your drawers. Countless swollen burning potentially Elephantitis infected mosquito bites on your private parts, repeatedly, is about as bad as it gets. Trust me.

Everything I own falling apart. In August I left my husband behind and my heart crumbled. In September my hiking boots died (which is a big freaking deal). In October my radio receiver for tracking animals died. In November my tent and water filter died. In December my body kicked the proverbial bucket, as did my duct tape. Seriously. I didn't know duct tape could die. In January my second radio receiver arrived, and promptly died. In February my generator died. In March, I was given a human raised pet lemur, who escaped from my tent and I am sure died (this is a long sad story from which I am still heartbroken). In April, I dropped my Ipod in a bucket of dirty laundry water and it died, which is admittedly less traumatic, but nearly unbearable by this point.

Illness and mystery parasites. In December I had Dengue fever, which in hindsight, nearly killed me. After that, I had one malady after another. A calcium deficiency serious enough to threaten heart and other muscle functions, followed by a magnesium deficiency, followed by Mononucleosis, followed by an immune reaction which was at least consistent with malaria. Not cool, my friends, not cool.

The car ride from hell. After the calcium, but before the magnesium deficiency, a routine by-monthly food supply trip that normally took 10 hours, turned into a 5 day epic journey. Probably the one and only time I will sleep inside a car (with 4 others) which is A) short a functional transmission, B) cozily parked in the middle of a lake, and C) surrounded by the deafening calls of wildly mating frogs. I did more than my share of wading in stagnant wriggly tadpole water over that 5-day period and yes, I had open wounds on my feet. As one does.

Cyclone Bingzia. The 2011 "cyclone season" opened with Cyclone Bingzia and was responsible for the car ride from hell. It was much more destructive on the eastern coast of Madagascar (I was on the west) but did manage to make rivers out of "roads" and bring a 2ft deep flash flood through camp, which of course included my tent home.

Attempted assassination on the president and a sequential 4 day internet black out. To be honest, this happened when I was out in the forest, and I actually had no idea, but it sounds pretty dramatic. The government has been unstable and under dictator rule since 2009 when a popular 30 year-old former DJ decided to stage a coup and then ousted the actual elected president. The former DJ has been in power ever since, and remains so, without end in sight.

That, I believe, nicely sums the unpleasantries of my dissertation field work. I must, however, admit to already planning my imminent return to Madagascar. Why? I love the animals. And I'm banking that an equally horrible field experience would never happen to the same person twice. Right?

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