On a bright and sunny day in the eastern rainforests of Madagascar, I prepared for another day in the field, following a group of wild lemurs. I filled my water bottle, grabbed my lunch, threw my backpack over one shoulder and set off up the hill to meet my local guide at our usual meeting spot near the park entrance.
Although very friendly and accommodating, my guide was a man of few words. Just like every other day, we hiked in silence, passing through the arc of the park entrance, and down the long line of stairs to the river’s edge. We crossed the bridge over the rushing river that divided the parks trail system from the local village, and began our upwards climb into the dense forest ahead.
In the hopes of quickly finding our study group, we first explored the trails that we knew were most central in their home range. Before long, we were delighted to find the group foraging on some fruit in a favorite tree not far off trail. Although we were lucky in that the search for our animals had been short-lived, the day did not proceed as easily as it had started. After a rather long foraging bout, the group took off in a frenzy in search of the next exciting endeavor. Racing up and down the steep embankments that straddled the river and its tributaries, I desperately sought to maintain contact with my guide, let alone the group itself. As a novice to wild primate research, I admired him as he followed the group with seemingly little effort.
After fighting my way through an entanglement of vines, and sliding down several muddy hillsides, I finally caught up with my guide at the base of a second fruiting tree. He seemed so relaxed, leaning up against the tree with one leg bent up in such a way so as to gracefully support himself, snacking away on an apple. It was as if he hadn’t been running at all, but rather had just appeared there, as nonchalant as could be.
Exhausted, frustrated, and hungry myself, I pulled out my packed lunch in an attempt to self-sooth. As I unwrapped the tinfoil encompassing my sandwich, my mouth began to water in anticipation. Without looking- or even thinking really- I took an enormous bite to satiate my ravenous appetite.
To my surprise, and utter disappointment, I spat out that first bite on the leafy forest floor. I recoiled in horror and disgust, as whatever had just entered my mouth severely mismatched the taste I had expected. I looked down to find a soggy piece of hoagie surrounding a wet and shiny fish-head. In place of the cheese sandwich I had ordered from the kitchen the night before, my sandwich had instead been hiding a small colony of unwelcome anchovies. I sat in silence for a few moments, looking at the unsightly meal I had unveiled, quite unsure as how to proceed.
When you’re expecting a sandwich filled with delicious cheeses, being met with a set of eyes staring back at you is less than ideal. I retraced my steps from earlier that morning and realized that during the morning preparations I must have made the amateur mistake of mixing up my sandwich with that of another researcher. Defeated by my act against myself, I rinsed the fishy aftertaste from my mouth and resolved to discard the pungent innards of the sandwich and subsist only on the remaining bread shell.
Although this story may seem trivial to those unfamiliar to fieldwork, it is more meaningful than you think. When you are expending an enormous amount of energy chasing monkeys, something as simple as your packed lunch can bring you an unimaginable amount of joy. Indeed, on the hardest of days it is that midday recess that breaks up the monotony and tiresome lack of control fieldwork inevitably imposes. Needless to say, I pack my own lunch nowadays, for fear of swaps of an unpalatable nature.
Author: Josie Hubbard is a 1stst year PhD student in Animal Behavior. She studies non-human primate social behavior. This field fiasco occurred during her undergraduate work at SUNY Stony Brook while studying abroad in Madagascar.