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Madagascar: A Safari Tour

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Photo: Brown W Cannon III

When we reached the camp, I was ready to kiss the ground. Dinner was whipped up by two quiet women bent over a big fire, and then we went to our tents and collapsed.

At seven o’clock sharp the next morning, a troop of ring-tailed lemurs showed up in camp. There must have been 30 of them, including some mothers with young tucked up under their bellies, and though they were treated by the camp staff as familiar nuisances, for us it was completely hilarious, and I didn’t mind the fact that they snatched and ate my breakfast of bananas with condensed milk. We were enchanted, and they seemed happy enough to preen in our enchantedness and strike comic poses. They were rascals and bandits, raccoon-like personalities, and they jumped endlessly, sometimes onto the table where we were eating, and then went climbing in and out of the plastic buckets at the well and rushing after scraps near where the cooking ladies were still at work (had they been tending that fire all night?) and swinging in and out of trees.

We found one Verreaux’s sifaka, who was enjoying the sun atop a tamarind tree at the camp entrance, gazing down on all this as though it were as strange to him as to us, and perhaps slightly embarrassing.

The reserve at Beza-Mahafaly is divided into two sections. Parcel 1 is "gallery forest," dry and oriented toward a river that runs in the rainy season, and Parcel 2 is "spiny forest," parched and desert-like. It was Alison Richard who had sent us here, where she has been monitoring lemur populations for three decades. The team documents the location and situation of every ring-tailed lemur and sifaka in Parcel 1 with monthly census data and charts of troop movements. It was great to understand the science after weeks of safari voyeurism.

After we finished what we could salvage of breakfast, we set off through Parcel 1 with Jacky, the chief of research for Beza. We soon found ring-tailed lemurs in the trees and tried to capture their leaps on film, two dozen photos in which a moving foot occupies the top of the frame, the rest of the animal having bounced entirely out of the picture. A bit farther on, we found a family of sifakas, and really I could spend my life watching sifakas, as elegant as Audrey Hepburn. They cast their tender glances our way and struck dancerish poses in the trees, and their manner was somehow polite, as though they were touched and surprised by our kind attention; in fact, they were so courteous I thought they might send thank-you notes after our visit. We finally tore ourselves away and walked toward the riverbed, finding several nocturnal sportive lemurs asleep, though one woke up when we took its picture. We also saw reptiles and birds. There was intimate magic to it: the lemurs were neither tame, as at Nosy Komba—really a private zoo—nor so wild that they remained obscurely far away.

After lunch we set off for a village funeral in Mahazoarivo. Among the peoples of southern Madagascar, a funeral is a great send-off, an expensive affair that lasts several days and involves the consumption of many zebu (oxen) and much alcohol. The family has to save up enough money for it, so the dead are embalmed and put in mortuary huts built just for them. One of my travel companions relayed information from Jacky that corpses were once preserved in chunks of cheese, which masked and contained the odor of putrefaction. A further conversation with Jacky revealed that they were actually preserved in "trunks of trees" (he had a bit of an accent): encased in a hollowed-out log. The funeral that day in Mahazoarivo was for two people who had both been dead about a year; at its end, the deceased would be removed to tombs in the hills, and their mortuary huts burned.

There is feasting for the whole village, and the men carry spears or guns, and the women wear their brightest colors. These are also nights of love; any girl who gets pregnant during the funeral process is thought to have good luck, and her husband can never ask her who the father is, but must take the infant as his own child. Unmarried girls try to get pregnant so they can demonstrate their fertility, which improves their chances of subsequent marriage. The village owns a generator for these occasions, and the village musicians hook up to scratchy amplification and play funky traditional-ish music. Whoever feels like dancing just gathers in front of them and dances. The big zebu carts stop all around the village. The family of the deceased sit outside their house and receive visitors, giving presents to everyone (we got a bottle of lemon soda). The men shoot homemade blank cartridges whenever anyone arrives, which is about once every five minutes. Newcomers parade up the center of the village; it’s all extremely dramatic. The music was good and the people were beautiful and there was much pleasure all around. We were greeted as dignitaries, for being foreigners and for having come with Jacky and Andry; we had a hundred best friends and a wake of children wherever we went. I felt like a talisman of good luck.

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