When I returned to Madagascar from Mauritius, I encouraged Andre, a Malagasy guy who had run the reception at the Cultural Center, to leave Madagascar. He was a fine musician and I encouraged him to go to La Reunion and join up with the jazz family. I knew it was very difficult for someone to leave their native land, especially the first time, so I encouraged him as much as I could. In fact, eventually, he did make the jump. The only thing I ever heard about him was from Ginger, the guy I went to Fort Dauphin and traveled on to La Reunion with. I received a letter from him telling me that he had run into Andre in Bombay. I don’t know anything more about what happened to him. I wish you the best Andre.
I had made plans to teach one more term at the Center, after returning to Madagascar and making a trip to Tulear in the southwest of the country. This was a solo trip for me, and on this trip, I met one of my best friends in Madagascar. I traveled to the south by my usual means of transport, hitchhiking. While waiting for the next ride out of a small village, I was offered a ring-tailed lemur for sale. He was a young male that they had on a rope leash. I paid not more than a couple of dollars, if that. Still, that didn’t make me any less annoyed when shortly after buying him he got away and went up a tree. Eventually, he was retrieved. I was sure that his fate with me would be better than it would be staying around that village. When the next truck came through town, Maki, which is what I decided to call him because that’s the Malagasy word for this kind of lemur, and I headed out. I kept hold of his leash and he kept hold of my hair, perched on my shoulders, his back feet on my shoulders and his chin resting on the top of my head with his little primate hands holding my hair.
Ring-tailed lemurs also like to sit in their own yoga posture. They sit up straight with their arms outstretched and palms facing outwards, as if they are warming their hands. I saw Maki do this in front of a fire made to keep us warm while traveling with the trucks and I also saw him do it many times as the sun was setting.
Lemurs are unique to Madagascar. This is because they developed before Madagascar split off from the African coast and also before predators evolved. This left them in relative safety on the island of Madagascar, whereas on the African continent they were wiped out. I always describe them as part dog, part cat, and of course, part monkey. The monkey part is obvious: the tail, climbing in trees, jumping from tree to tree. Their fur is soft like a cat, not at all coarse and they make a sound that is quite similar to purring. As to the dog similarity: they make a kind of dog bark and their heads are more dog like. Ring-tails have an elongated snout much more like a dog.
We made friends right away. Well not right away, first we had a crisis. We were walking down a dusty trail and he kept holding onto my hair. This was a habit that I was trying to break. In a moment of unawareness and annoyance, I pulled on the leash and almost threw Maki to the ground. The entire world came to a halt. I was shocked and he was shocked. He remained still and I prayed that he was okay. After what seemed like a few minutes, but was probably no more than a few seconds, he revived. After that I never lost my temper with Maki again and he never pulled on my hair.
When it was time to return to Tana, I took a train from Fianarantsoa. I had to hide Maki under my clothes because one was not allowed to travel with a lemur. He was very accommodating. He just snuggled up and no one knew about the secret passenger. At our house in Tana, he was not kept on a leash and was free to roam the neighborhood, much to the dismay of some of our neighbors. He did like to go in through their windows and help himself to fruit. But mostly the neighbors were quite fond of Maki. In general, the Malagasy respect their forest friends. The endangering of the lemur population is not due to a direct threat from humans but the indirect threat of loss of habitat. At night Maki slept with me, lying above my head on the pillow.
One day Maki went missing. Voahangy and I walked the neighborhood with her asking everyone if they had seen him. We could follow his path with one person pointing us on to the next that had seen him. We eventually found him. Some Malagasy had become too fond of him and had tied him up. He was happy to be liberated. When I left Madagascar, I entrusted Maki to the lady who shopped and cooked lunch for us. She had grown very fond of him. Unfortunately, Maki used to like to tease dogs. They would charge him and he would jump straight up in the air about four feet high and they would run through where he had just been. When he landed the dog would turn around for another go. Apparently, he did this once too often and a dog got hold of him by the back and gave him a pretty good bite. He died from the wound. Rest in peace, Maki.
This is from the collection of stories, essays, poems and insights that is compiled to form the book From Lemurs to Lamas: Confessions of a Bodhisattva. Download a PDF or order the book Here.