If you dig a hole through the center of the Earth from San Francisco you wouldn’t end up in China. You’d end up in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But the closest major land mass would be Madagascar. In other words, the big island is a long way from home. Still, getting to Madagascar in the late 1990s was surprisingly direct: just two flights, with a stop in Paris. But my mother, concerned I would miss the flight and possibly end up on the Russian carrier with a dodgy safety record, had me stay in Paris for a few days. Between my inability to sleep on planes, the time change, my desire to explore a new city, and my excitement about being so close to realizing a lifelong dream, I didn’t get much sleep in Paris. By the time I reached Nosy Komba, that island off an island off Madagascar, I essentially hadn’t slept in four days. I was a walking zombie to the point where I nearly nodded off into my soup at dinner.

Going to bed that night I didn’t take my normal precautions of booby-trapping my hut. When I travel to places with uncertain security I take safety measures until I get to know a few people and the surroundings. I tie strings around window latches, use a rubber wedge under the door, and secure or hide my bags. Whether or not this is a wise idea is another question: would I really want to make life difficult for an intruder if he went through the trouble of breaking into my room?

In any case, I didn’t do any of these things that night; I was on the verge of collapse from exhaustion. I put my passport and an envelope full of money under the pillow and crashed.

A couple of hours later I woke to a disturbing sound: rustling, like someone was fumbling through bags. Was the noise coming from within the hut, a neighboring hut, or outside? I couldn’t tell; it was pitch black and there was no electricity. My flashlights were still packed.

As I strained to see into the darkness that lay beyond my mosquito net, my door suddenly slammed and I heard the sound of bare feet on packed earth.

I jumped up, untangled myself from the mosquito net, and ran over to where my bags had been. There was nothing.

I opened the door to my hut and ran out. It was really dark. I ran down a path into the middle of the village, but since I had arrived at dark I had no idea where to go. There was no sign of anyone.

Defeated, I went back to the hut. As I got back into bed, I thought maybe this was a dream. After all, I was on Lariam, an antimalarial drug notorious for causing strange dreams and, in extreme cases, hallucinations. Maybe once I was awake everything would be fine.

Female black lemur on Nosy Komba. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Female black lemur on Nosy Komba. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Male black lemur on Nosy Komba. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Male black lemur on Nosy Komba. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

A few hours later I awoke to the menagerie of village sounds: roosters crowing, pots being clanked and scrubbed, and voices. I remembered having a vivid dream about someone entering my hut and stealing my bags. I untucked the mosquito net.

To my horror, there were no bags.

Over the course of my next five weeks in Madagascar, I was the victim of an attempted mugging, survived a boat capsizing, was interrogated by police and the military, experienced horrible food poisoning, witnessed a terrible car accident, and missed my flight home.

Yet some good things happened. I saw more chameleons than I could count, met inspirational people, experienced incredible kindness, and spotted nearly three dozen types of lemurs, including the strangest of them all: the elusive aye-aye. Not once, but on three occasions in the wild.

Aye-aye feeding on a coconut. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Aye-aye feeding on a coconut. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

After that introduction, a reasonable person would probably say, one trip to Madagascar is enough. But I’m not a reasonable person when it comes to Madagascar. I vowed to return. After all, a second trip couldn’t possibly be worse than the first, could it?

In 2004, I fulfilled my pledge and retuned to Madagascar, a trip that set in motion my future involvement in what I consider the world’s most interesting country. Upon my return, I officially launched a new website, WildMadagascar.org, which would go on to have a real impact and land me in some trouble. Details of that experience will come in a later post, but the context ties in with this reporting.

Rhett Butler looking out an airplane window on my return trip to Madagascar in 2004.
Me looking out an airplane window on my return trip to Madagascar in 2004.
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