In late 2007 FIFA announced that Brasil had been named host for the 2014 World Cup finals. Ryo was already becoming fully invested in the soccer culture that is his by maternal heredity. I adore South America, and I had already shared an adventure in the Pantanal of southern Brazil with his older brother. We decided then that the two of us would be making this trip as a pilgrmage to the world’s biggest sporting event held in the most intensely football-crazed nation and continent of all. Ryo would be seventeen and could soon be taking a path less amenable to such whimsical trips. And I was coming off a year that included back surgery and testicular cancer, and I really needed this to look forward to.

We also had a lot more dispensible income back then. It was pre-recession, and both boys were small and thus dirt-cheap to maintain–clothes, a few toys, and really not much else. After the past few years of frozen salaries and adding the financial demands of two licensed and insured drivers with cars and social lives, our situation is not at all flush any more. We’re still taking the trip, but it will be on the thinnest of shoestrings and paid for in part by selling off some jewelry and coins that no one was ever going to wear or spend anyways. We’re still going to do as much fun stuff as possible, but there are going to be bills to pay when we get back, so no going nuts, yeah?

The preparations have been in the works since the tickets went on sale last August. We had put in our application to purchase the 4-game package to follow the Italian National team, including all three games of group stages as well as the first game in the elimination rounds. It also meant that we would be traveling to different host cities but wouldn’t know which ones until the schedule was announced in December, when we learned that our games were going to be in Manaus against England on the 13th of June, in Recife against Costa Rica on the 20th, and in Natal against Uruguay on the 24th. The fourth game will be either in Rio de Janeiro on the 28th or back in Recife on the 29th, depending on the outcome of group play. Good. It’s taken a while, but I’ve managed to program out the trip through our third game, including a little trip up the Rio Negro for a quick, 3-day fix of Amazon forest ecology/biology in between the England and Costa Rica matches.

Travel visas procured, shots for yellow fever and typhoid done. All set, right? The only decision left to make is whether I was going to blog this trip in Communing with Artifice. I still need to replace my trusty iPad that has served my writing needs in previous trips but is now AWOL in my house somewhere (I think). Nobody remembers who used it last and it’s been lost for a while. I took a laptop with me to India but that was more than I want to be schlepping around Brazil with me. But yes, I think I will be blogging again (especially if I get another iPad). Here’s the basic itinerary in map form.


Don't drink the water in India.

Don’t drink the water in India.

This is the post that will sit at the top of the Communing with Artifice page for a good long while. I’ll start by recapping the previous sixteen posts of this India blog sequence. You can link directly to the specific post that you want to read. The actual blog post follows below the list.

1) Warm-up post—did this in the Lufthansa Business Class lounge in Frankfurt.

2) Arrival—mostly just me whining about how bad the air quality was. Little did I know that back home they were dealing with the worst smog in decades.

3) A little excursion to a site near Coimbatore, and then our trip out to the Siruvani Forest Reserve.

4) Sampling day one at Siruvani—I’m getting to see the routine. There’s also a bit of discussion of the tribal people (Mudugar) and their relationship with the rest of India.

5) More sampling at Siruvani and onwards to Silent Valley National Park (Christmas Eve 2013). Some notes on driving in India are here as well.

6) Silent Valley National Park and onwards to Anamalais Tiger Reserve/Topslip. Sidebar discussion today is on activism that works, but the epilogue is more sobering.

7) Sampling day one at Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. Sidebar commentary is about the use of English in conversations and the role of social status.

8) Sampling day two at Parambikulam at a site that is just upstream of a proposed hydroelectric project, similar to the one that was defeated at Silent Valley.

9) Travel day—return to Coimbatore and then the bus ride to Cochin. A short visit with the Chief Conservator of Tamil Nadu forests leaves me impressed.

10) Touristy visits to Kerala Backwaters and hunting for fishing nets in Fort Cochin.

11) One really bad haircut, our return to Coimbatore, and the bus trip to Cumbum.

12) Periyar day one. Lots of waiting around to get into the Tiger Reserve (New Year’s Eve 2013).

13) Periyar day two. Whirlwind boat ride to and from Mulakkady Station on the far end of Lake Periyar (nearest some real wilderness). Meeting with Sanjayakumar, director of Periyar Tiger Reserve.

14) Gavi and our return to Coimbatore. Lots of photos and some words about India and its relationship with alcohol.

15) Meeting Bharathiar University faculty, my talk to students, my meeting with the Vice Chancellor. More cultural notes from a guy who has no interest in culture.

16) Travel and two days of sampling in Wayanad Reserve Forest. Catfishes, marauding monkeys, and… toddy!

My last day in India was filled with activity, though nothing happened that was particularly blog-worthy. I shared two nice meals with Mani’s family. Arun and Magesh took me to a modern shopping mall in the middle of Coimbatore to do some last minute gift purchases—which were very few and modest as I had basically no money and there was little that I wanted to take back with me. We did make a stop at a roadside cart for some of that non-fermented palm juice, which I liked a whole lot more than the toddy I had sampled up at Wayanad. The guy hands you a palm leaf for a bowl, and then extracts the pulp from a ripe palm fruit directly into the leaf-bowl—sweet gelatinous endosperm with a slightly bitter integument—and then ladles a cup and a half of the non-fermented palm phloem. Drink the juice, eat the pulp, and it comes with refills of the juice.

After goodbyes I made it out of Coimbatore no prob, but checking in for my international flight at the Bangalore airport, I was advised of a prob. My checked bag could not be put through directly to LA, so I would need to collect my luggage in Shanghai and re-check it for the trans-Pacific leg. But I didn’t have a VISA for China, and therefore I would not be able to clear customs in Shanghai, and I might be detained or—at best—given a chance to purchase a transit VISA to complete my trip home. The word detained resonated in a moment of slow-motion action. How much would it suck for me to be stuck in China? It didn’t seem right, and yet both the management of Singapore Air and the experts of the Bangalore airport seemed to be deeply concerned for my situation.

In reality, China does not expect people to get a VISA for transit through the country—you get a permit to stay for as long as 72 hours, provided that you can show a plane ticket for a destination outside of China. Totally reasonable, and I don’t know why the Bangalore personnel was so clueless about this.

In the days following my arrival in LA, I was under a tsunami of classes to prep, trip photos to sort and edit, blog entries to tidy up and post. There was a delay when my photo editing software finally crapped out (and in replacing it I went from version 6 to version 12) and these last couple (since Gavi) were delayed by a period in which I couldn’t locate my folder with the photos.

Dr. Mani and son Ezhil

Dr. Mani and son Ezhil

I owe a special thanks to Dr. Mani–he was very kind to arrange to spend nearly all of his holiday on this multi-stop research junket in the Western Ghats. I look forward to assisting in whatever way I can with the data crunching as well as with the development of the scholars in his laboratory. In the wake of my first visit to India I have new friends and new collaborators with whom I intend to maintain contact for the foreseeable future.

I came to India wanting to observe the balance between conservation of biodiversity/remnants of primary habitat and the superdense human population of southern India. Really it can hardly be called a “balance,” because the pressure is all exerted from the human side and it’s only because of either state or federal fiat that wildlands continue to exist at all here. Hurrah for government—enough wild space has been protected to allow the Western Ghats’ designation as a top-ten biodiversity hotspot by UNESCO.

Mr. Magesh and Mr. Arun Kumar

At the same time, this same government could do more to encourage international research within the country and to provide resources to Indian scientists to allow for their own research and to science educators to bring the country up to speed in basic science (as it already is in areas of applied science and technology).  I have already communicated these impressions in earlier posts.



Seeing as it’s over two months since I returned and I still have not wrapped up this blog sequence, I’m putting things into overdrive and putting both days of Wayanad into one post.

4 January.

This hood was up for a fair part of our trip to Wayanad

This hood was up for a fair part of our trip to Wayanad

The day starts early—a 5 am departure from Coimbatore in the borrowed Maruti Gypsy—theoretically a 4×4 but it is stuck in 2WD mode and the lever to shift into 4WD is broken off anyway. We are joined by a third scholar, Mr. Eswaran, who will be advancing to the Ph.D. program at the end of this year. With 3 scholars and a whole lot of gear an a non-opening rear door on one side, I don’t decline the offer of a front seat this time—our last sampling gig in my India visit, and I don’t have business class for the flight back. For the first time we are heading northwards from Coimbatore into the Tamil Nadu state of Nilgiris, for which the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve system is named. The famed mountain city of Ooty is along the way, and it was reported that the temperatures there dropped below 0°C the night before. I had only a light fleece sweater, so I kept Mani’s padded camera bag on my lap for extra warmth.

Approach to Ooty

I fell asleep almost immediately, but once we hit the climb to Ooty I awoke to a very loud grating noise made by the Gypsy every time the road curved to the left, and the noise seemed to get louder in combination with the incline. At our breakfast stop Arun managed to perform some kind of adjustment under the carriage that made things marginally better for the rest of the trip. Mani noted that there was no power in third gear, and this made the driving a bit more challenging than what was already presented by the considerable incline, the cavernous potholes, the relatively heavy traffic, and the hairpin switchbacks that were so tight that buses and longer trucks were forced to take them as three-point turns, stopping traffic in both directions.

European conifers and hardwoods, planted by homesick Brits.

European conifers and hardwoods, planted by homesick Brits.

We blasted through Ooty and onwards for a couple of hours to Sulthan Bathery, from which we took the road towards Pulpally, stopping at a small community of Chethalayam, where there is a forest guard station and guest house. At some point along the way we passed from Tamil Nadu into Kerala. The last part of the route took us through a forest of introduced conifers—presumably planted in a misguided to effort to re-create an English copse by homesick colonists. There isn’t a lot of native forest in evidence here. The scenery along the ascent to Ooty was probably closer to primary vegetation. Due to its steepness and relative inaccessibility, there will have been a lot less pressure from India’s chronic infestation of humanity.

A little catfish with no spines on the pectoral fins.

A little catfish with no spines on the pectoral fins.

After unloading and taking a bit of repose at the Chethalayam Bungalow, we headed to the first sampling site, which we reached from an access road just across from the ranger station. Past a few farms the landscape transformed to a sort of dry deciduous forest/scrub habitat, and there was a perennial stream flowing through it. The water wasn’t moving too fast through much of the stretch that we sampled. In fact the water was slow enough that we got a slow-water catfish species, Silurus wayanadensis, which was cute enough but strangely uncharacteristic of catfishes generally in its lack of pectoral spines and adipose fins. I had thought the type genus for the Siluridae family would be more typically catfish-like.

Dry deciduous forest/grassland-- a very open habitat (perfect for elephants, of course)

Dry deciduous forest/grassland– a very open habitat (perfect for elephants, of course)

The Danio we were catching here had a distinctly deeper body compared with those we had been getting at other sites. The difference is reminiscent of the body shape polymorphism seen between pelagic (elongate) and benthic (deep-bodied) sticklebacks and yellowtail. Another dissertation for a future Mani student (let’s hope).

The lads deployed a gill net to leave on site overnight. Given its proximity to our lodging Arun could make a run out early the next morning to collect the net and its harvest before we move on to our next site.

Toddy is naturally fermented palm phloem sap.

Toddy is naturally fermented palm phloem sap. Note the classy 5L Nalgene vessel.

Back at the guest house, the guys surprised me with five liters of toddy, purchased in bulk from a local toddy shop for something like 70 rupees per liter and delivered to me in a classy Nalgene carboy. They figured I was still wallowing in disappointment for having missed the toddy shop experience in Cochin, and a trip to India would not be complete without sampling the local brew of Kerala. Toddy is not permitted in Tamil Nadu. Mani says its because the government there makes too much money on taxes of hard liquor, and if toddy were available nobody would drink other forms of alcohol. Personally, I think that if the objective is to reduce alcohol consumption, wide availability of cheap toddy was a brilliant move. The stuff is so weak that large volumes must be drunk in order to acquire even a mild buzz, and there are physical limits to how much toddy a person’s stomach can accommodate. It would be require a high degree of conditioning to reach a skill level required to become seriously drunk off toddy.

Toddy in the tumbler. Hold your nose and choke it down. Over and over again.

Toddy in the tumbler. Hold your nose and choke it down. Over and over again.

Oh, and the stuff is nasty. Mildly sweet, somewhat mucilaginous, and carrying a not-so-faint odor of sulfur, I was able to down about three tumblers with relative ease, and after that each re-fill became exponentially more difficult to empty. After the sixth tumbler I could not take any more—my toddy experience was complete.

The process for making toddy is simply collecting the sap from the stump remaining after a palm flower is cut, usually into an empty coconut shell. The fermentation begins immediately, courtesy of microbes present in the shell, and no other step is required besides just the tapping of the tree and collection of the sap. By the time enough sap has dribbled into the coconut shell to pour into a larger vessel it’s already mildly alcoholic. A different drink can be made with the addition of calcium carbonate to the coconut shell, and this inhibits the fermentation so the liquid retains a much higher content of fermentable sugars.  Interesting that the extra step is required in order to not ferment. Toddy is typically drunk on the same day it is collected, and it’s not surprising to hear that with greater time the pleasantness of the quaff declines while the alcohol content rises. Again I’m convinced that this works as an effective discouragement from deliberate self-intoxication through alcohol.

This looked like a museum piece but it was just furniture at the inspection bungalow where we stayed. The long extension of the armrests doubled as footrests (I think).

This looked like a museum piece but it was just furniture at the inspection bungalow where we stayed. The long extension of the armrests doubled as footrests (I think).

5 January

The original plan was for us to sample all day, stay at Chethalayam, and return to Coimbatore on the 6th in time for me to catch my flight to Bangalore. In the new plan we’re returning to Coimbatore this evening after sampling today. Dr. Mani needs to be in his office by 10 am, and he would also like to provide me with the security of not being so far away on the day of my departure and with a less-than-reliable vehicle. Having spent a day with the Gypsy, I can’t say this is a bad idea.

This is the beach where I fought off a legion of giant sabertoothed monkeys.

This is the beach where I fought off a legion of giant sabertoothed monkeys.

Arun made an early run out to collect the gillnet set at the site from the evening before, and after breakfast we headed to a larger stream for our sampling. The site is just off a main road and the river splits and re-forms around a small island–the sampling area was fairly large, and I stayed close our the base site on a little beach, where I kept the day’s catch alive in cool aerated water and defended our gear against a small troop of langurs. The male was particularly determined to get at our groceries, and he bared his teeth at me and feinted attacks while I clumsily swung a stick in his general direction. It didn’t help that this particular stick (more like a small tree) was way too heavy for me, but it was the only thing I could grab that might look threatening.

Unlike last night’s guy (who just stood around), the forest guard we had on this day was a competent fisherman and we collected plenty of fish including a few species that were new for the trip. Good site. After the sampling and photographing we headed back to Coimbatore and this passage was not without its dramatic moments. The engine shut off from overheating, and we even lost headlights for a bit. Pulling off the road, we were across the street from some residences (for once, hurrah for India’s superdense human population), and we were able to buy a plastic bucket and a scoop with which we rehydrated the tapped radiator, after which the Gypsy amazingly started up again.

This post will not be the most ringing endorsement of the Maruti Gypsy. But to the car's credit, it did start back up after we added water.

This post will not seem like the most ringing endorsement of the Maruti Gypsy. But to the car’s credit, it did start back up after we added water.

It was quite late when we got back to Coimbatore, and I stayed that night at Dr. Mani’s house in the boys’ room that was vacated for my benefit.

3 January.


My talk at Bharathiar University on climate change.

The point of my trip to India was to see the Western Ghats and to tag along with Dr. Mani and his team on their fish ecology junkets. The fact that I am enjoying their company is an immensely nice extra. But somewhere along the way, we realized that it was appropriate and made sense to insert some official-ish business while I’m here—talks in regard to a potential MOU between my institution and Bharathiar University and a seminar/lecture that I would give to the students and faculty. Dr. Mani’s original idea was for us to cram all of this in during the morning hours so that we could make our start up to Wayanad for our last sampling trip in the early afternoon, but the Vice Chancellor rescheduled our morning meeting to 3pm, so now the new plan was for me to visit with faculty and students in the morning and I would give my talk after lunch. Then we would meet wid da VC and git outta Dodge by the late afternoon, which might actually give us a shot at making it into the protected area before the gates shut us out (as had happened twice before already).


Me and the Env.Sci. posse at Bharathiar U.

In our previous Coimbatore stopovers I had been hanging around the department offices and labs enough to have met a few of the people, but since the university had been on holiday since my arrival this was the first day in which all of the professors and most of the students would be back in classes.  The Department of Environmental Studies at Bharathiar is a bit of a mix of loosely related disciplines. There’s a crop scientist, two ecologists (Dr. Mani and Dr. Arul), two environmental toxicologists, and the chair (Dr. Usha) whose research interests seemed to span from human genetics to cultural anthropology. Bharathiar University serves only postbaccalaureate students, which seems kind of unusual though not entirely unheard of in the States (UC San Fran, for example). The Indian educational pathway to a doctorate is substantially different from ours. The bachelor’s degree, for example, is a three-year program at colleges specializing on undergraduate education. Students seeking advanced study would most likely go to a university like Bharathiar to embark on a two-year course of study as an “embassy student” to achieve a master’s degree, after which there is a required extra year for those who wish to proceed into a five-year doctoral program. Overall the years add up the same eleven years as a four-year B.A, a two-year M.A, and a five-year Ph.D. Personally, I am not inclined to equate education with the number of years spent in school, but here it rare or impossible for someone to take a different path—either shorter or longer—to the endpoint of Ph.D.

A course of study—for example as an embassy student—consists of a prescribed sequence of “papers” (which I think is the equivalent of what we would call “classes”) that are taught by the faculty, and “practica,” which are based on laboratory work, overseen by a combination of faculty and laboratory technical support. All instruction is carried out in English, though English as a first language is nonexistent in India and (as I have mentioned earlier in this blog) the level of English proficiency is highly variable both among students and university staff.


Notice the rapt attention on the speaker. Notice the complete segregation by gender in the audience. Coincidence?

The rapport between faculty and students is very different from what I’m used to—there’s an understood superior/subordinate relationship that is way more pronounced than anything you’d find in the States—at least outside of the military. When a professor enters a room, all of the students stop what they’re doing and stand at attention until given permission (a.k.a. “At ease, people!”) to do otherwise by the prof. It also seemed like students were unaccustomed to being asked questions. After I was introduced to several environmental toxicology students I asked them whether they thought that chemical or biological methods were more effective for removing toxins from freshwater habitats—from the introductions I learned that about half were focused on chemical methods and the other half on bioremediation, so I figured this might generate some interesting responses. Instead the students gave me a very distressed look and deferred to their prof, who basically answered my question for them. This was just very weird, and I’m not sure that I could ever get used to it.

ImageI have already seen some evidence that there are suboptimal circumstances that might be inherent to the Indian system for higher education. Two I’m pointing out here are in my opinion serious obstructions: having all instruction take place in what amounts to a second language for both teachers and students, and a disconnectedness between teacher and student that is founded on an understood huge disparity in level that hinders or arrests the students’ intellectual development beyond just the basic lessons. This situation is not universal—I have seen over the past two weeks that Dr. Mani treats Arun and Magesh with both respect and fatherly affection, but he tells me that he is the exception in this regard and most of his colleagues wouldn’t be as chill to grad students. The three of them also communicate with each other freely in Tamil, and I have no doubt that this alone dramatically increases the comfort level.

There is the other obstacle of limited funding that affects more than just teaching. I have been telling Dr. Mani so many times that Bharathiar University should provide the 4×4 he needs for his field excursions that this has become the running joke of our sampling trips. So far we have rented vehicles, taken buses, received free transport from Mani’s contacts, and on this day in Coimbatore Arun was out begging a friend to loan us a Maruti for out trip out to Wayanad.


Dr. Usha is the one in a turquoise sari. Dr. Arul (the newlywed) is on the right.

Dr. Mani and I had a very productive morning meeting with his department chair, Dr. Usha Rani, and we talked out various scenarios for a potential intellectual exchange through the MOU that was now on the table. There are obvious difficulties matching a community college with an institution focusing entirely on postgraduate education. Dr. Usha made a brilliant suggestion that MiraCosta students might take benefit from short research-focused programs in the Western Ghats that could be based in Coimbatore, while Ph.D. scholars could benefit from internships shadowing and practice teaching with a MiraCosta prof. This might actually work.

For lunch I was invited to join the faculty and staff in a special celebration of Dr. Arul’s recent marriage to a scholar who is close to finishing her Ph.D. at a different university—Pondicherry, as I recall, which is pretty far away, and she just happens to be in town right now. We caravanned to a nearby restaurant and sat at a long table. Interestingly all of the men were at one end of the table and all of women ate together at the opposite end. Okay, maybe a coincidence. By this point I had thought that I was close to proficiency in the art of eating without utensils, but my approach of mixing several dishes together was apparently still considered scandalous. Fortunately the others did not make a big deal about it, and I figured this was a good rationale as any for sheltering the females (with, you know, their more delicate constitution and all) as far away from the disgusting foreigner as possible.


Yes, I used the same slide that Bill Nye used in his debate with the Ham-ster.

I arrived in the seminar room for my talk about fifteen minutes late, because Dr. Mani kept me in his office that long working out the details of my flight out of Coimbatore for my trip home. [I think he was making sure that I didn’t commit the faux pas of showing up on time for my lecture.] At this point I was less surprised that the whole audience of mostly students stood up when I entered, but I was not expecting the complete gender division of men on one side of the center aisle and women on the other. I guess the seating arrangement at lunch had nothing to do with protecting the women from having to watch my manners after all.

I delivered my talk—which I had rehearsed once with an audience of students and faculty at MiraCosta—and it was well received. By now I was not surprised to not have any questions from the students in the room, and I was able to answer all of the questions from faculty without any difficulty. The topic of my talk was climate change, selected because of its immediate relevance to India as a nation and also because of a documented lack of awareness among the Indian population in general about the science supporting our understanding of its causes and the projections of future impacts on both ecologies and human populations worldwide. I think the topic choice was good. Mani paid me the compliment later that he was surprised that I “did not bore, even though the talk was very long.” [For the record my talk ran exactly 50 minutes!]


I’m still perplexed by the gender segregation thing. In the fuchsia shawl behind Dr. Usha is Dr. Arul’s newlywed spouse.

After a bit of post-seminar chitchat with the faculty group, Dr. Mani, Dr. Usha and I rounded up our documents and headed over to the office of the Vice Chancellor, which happens to be in the only marble-paved, teak panel-lined, frostily air-conditioned wing of the university’s main building. There was a waiting area, a larger space for a small army of staff and a secretary (there was another secretary inside the VC’s office). As it happened, the VC was held up in another meeting that was going overtime, and we were told to wait in the antechamber, which was appointed with comfortable seating and a large flat-screen display monitor playing a loop of mostly photos of the VC from some of the recent events that he attended as dignitary. I had a nice conversation with Dr. Usha about some of her earlier research with the tribals of Ooty, which is a town in the mountains of Tamil Nadu through which we were going to pass on our way to Wayanad. Dr. Mani caught up with another colleague who was also waiting for an audience with the VC.


Not exactly sure about the significance of a pink kangaroo, but this li’l mascot was the holder of all waste receptacles on the Bharathiar University campus.

The wait was long, and Dr. Usha had to repeatedly remind the outside secretary that our appointed time had passed and that Dr. Mani and I needed to depart for our next sampling trip as soon as possible. When we finally made it in to meet with this very important dude, it seemed that while he was aware of the MOU proposal, Dr. Usha was informing him for the first time of the details and potential opportunities for students on both sides. We did our best to exchange pleasantries, we shared some coffee, and there was some standard discussion about education-y things like room use, which was all too familiar to me from my two turns as department chair back home. At the end, we were directed to take the documents down to the legal department, who would evaluate the MOU draft that I had brought, make recommendations, etc.

The legal department was on a floor below and had no air conditioning (but a much stronger air of authenticity), and after answering all of their questions, Dr. Mani and I made it back to the Env.Sci building well after 6—far too late to depart and make it to Wayanad at any decent hour. We would stay the night here and make an early start the next morning. Back at the International Guest House, I finally began to catch up on my notes for Periyar—I was discouraged from bringing along my laptop on that trip because we anticipated no electricity and lots of risk of water damage during the stay at Mullakkady. Dr. Mani brought me an interesting dinner of some more elaborate dishes that I had not sampled before.




minus the smog and plus Julie Andrews, this might be Austria

2 January 2014.

The way Gavi was described to me elicited the mental image of a Sound-of-Music-y über-pastoral setting in India with green hills of endless meadows. Like Austria but with elephants. Sporadically throughout our little side trip to Cochin, Magesh would tell me about how we were going next to this place that was a truly beautiful place in India. He really wanted to go there. We even watched a movie (in the car we had hired in Cochin) that took place in Gavi. In reality we had not been scheduled to be coming here at all, but due to the denial at Mullakkady, here we are on the road to Gavi. Magesh’s wish is granted.


Tea plantation between Thekkady and Gavi. The tea I bought there was “dust tea”–pretty much standard issue for domestic use. The good stuff gets sold abroad.

Situated a bit south of Periyar, Gavi will be the lowest latitude that I reach (‘bout 9.4375 N) on this trip. Magesh, Arun and I are getting tossed a bit in the back of the Jeep that Sanjayakumar has graciously provided to us, along with the most bad-ass breakneck driver to date—and we are doing some serious moving. But oops—what’s this smell? The thin plastic bag holding the sambar for our lunch has been compromised and its contents is spilling down Arun’s leg. And sambar is not the most flattering decoration for one’s trousers. But the driver finds some cord to tie the bag shut and we are back on the road.  It has the feel of a less-serious collection day from the start, and we’re just going to grab whatever fishes we can get at a couple of stops along the way.


This dude could drive a Jeep and throw a net.

At stop #1 our driver strips down to his bikini briefs, and it turns out that he is the most expert of anyone yet at getting the cast net to make a huge round spread every time. With his skills at collecting fish, Arun and Magesh can work on the trap nets, stream measurements, and tissue sampling while Dr. Mani concentrates on photography. The division of labor works out nicely, and we get through the sampling and have our lunch back in the Jeep pretty swiftly, compared to past days.


Magesh: “I’m a Gavi boy”

Then a bit of sightseeing at Gavi. Despite its reputation as a site where one can view nature, this is another landscape that has been pretty dramatically altered by humans. Shola grasslands are natural to the area—it’s a biome that takes over where the conditions favor grasslands over forest, and this usually means drier. However, someone (cough—the Brits—cough) figured out that imported eucalyptus actually do pretty well under these climatic conditions. And I guess they thought they were doing everyone a favor by putting forests of non-natives in where there would otherwise be stupid ol’ native grasslands. Sheesh. Their M.O. was pretty evident. It would be too much work to plant a whole forest, so what they did was plant their trees up along the ridgeline of the hills, so that their seeds would be able to disperse by gravity, thereby allowing these invaders to spread at maximal speed.


The drill: pull off road, unload gear, sample/measure/photograph/process, eat, load gear, go.

There are two other highly invasive non-natives that are everywhere in India: Lantana camara (Verbenaceae) and Eupatorium glandulosum (Asteraceae). These shrubby weeds have spread through just about all reaches of India’s protected forests where they outcompete native plants and may be the main cause of extinction occurring in the Western Ghats today. Both species were there along the trail out to the Gavi overlook.


The pipe carried fresh water from above the rock-wall dam to some users down the hill

There was time for one more sampling stop. This one was on a rather tiny creek that had been blocked by a small rock-and-mortar wall, and the upstream part (the stillwater side) was connected via a plastic pipe to some destination down the hill for the provision of fresh water. The site really didn’t look too promising at all—stagnant shallow pond above the dam and tiny flow below—but the sampling here turned up a new genus for us (Sophiocephalus), so we ended up spending a bit of time here before returning to Thekkady.



Our motorcoach to Coimbatore was leaving Cumbum at 9:30 that evening, and we made it there with barely enough time for Mani to take me for a beer. The situation with alcohol in India is something I never quite figured out. My impression is that its consumption is highly discouraged and even considered by many as a sort of despicable activity that leads to the general spread of various forms of evil… and yet there is a lot of the stuff is consumed—evident by empty containers of hard liquor everywhere—and it is relatively easy to get. Outside of larger hotels (where a bar is expected), Indian watering holes are not set up in a way that would make it easy for a foreigner to find them. Moreover, these establishments are set up to protect the identity of their patrons, probably because of the enormous taboo surrounding drinking. This dingy place at the end of the road in Cumbum was not only unmarked (though I can’t comment about signage in Malayalam) but consisted of private rooms around a general courtyard space. A waiter took our orders, brought us snacks and our drinks and disappeared, so we could engage in our degenerate tipple without anyone seeing us. The Goa fruit (guava) that we were served there, though, were very nice.


Dr. Mani takes pictures of other things besides fish (once in a while).

It was quite late when we arrived at the drop-off in Coimbatore. The taxi that Mani ordered to carry the four of us and all of our luggage to Bharathiar turned out to be a compact Mahindra, and it was only through our finely developed clowns-in-a-car skills that we succeeded in using that vehicle for the passage, at the end of which arose once again a fare dispute with the driver demanding a per-bag fee that wasn’t agreed upon at the outset.


Another non-fish Mani masterpiece

I spent the rest of that night in the university’s International Guest House where I somehow managed to get some sleep before stepping into the role of official visiting scholar for a day. I probably had pleasant dreams of all the cool things I had seen over the past eleven days. Lucky I also had a set of clean clothes reserved for the occasion in my bag.




and for the herpers, a Malabar Sarapam.

Periyar, Day 2


1 January 2014.


Elephas. Periyar Lake, Kerala.


Elephas. Periyar Lake, Kerala


Dense dry deciduous forest around the western part of Periyar Lake, Kerala.

Day Two in Periyar was much like the first as far as delays, confusion about permissions, and longish periods of waiting. The new year started out inauspiciously as we found that the gillnet we had set the previous night had ended up hopelessly snagged on a submerged tree, and there was no pulling it free. I’m proud to say that I managed to serve as more than another body in payload this morning by having my Swiss Army knife on hand, which we used to cut the line that was wrapped on the snag, and we were then able to pull from both sides of the cut thereby removing all of the net and leaving none in the lake. Abandoned gillnets continue to kill for decades, and in managing to extract the nylon web o’ death we dodged committing an act that would have been nothing short of tragic.


Moving eastward Periyar cuts into some classic shola grasslands.

We packed our stuff from the rest house and went back to Thekkady. We met a field science colleague of Dr. Mani’s who had come to take part in interviews for a new ecology-related position in the Periyar management. He and his family were staying at the Inspection Bungalow. We met another group of university students/recent grads from the states who were there on holiday. It was probably a couple of hours later that we could load yet another vehicle and head to the marina where we would board a cutter for the Mullakkady Forest Guard Station. At the marina, our boat was blocked from departing as a trio of officials inspected our boat, recording lengths of just about every dimension conceivable. I’m not sure if this was to assess changes since the previous inspection or to confirm the boat’s identity, but it took another hour.


The cutter we rode from the marina to Mullakkady. Periyar Lake, Kerala.

The boat ride was long and pleasant. We saw wildlife—elephants, a pig, an otter, several ungulates, lots of birds. Periyar is large enough to cut a watery swath through mostly dry deciduous forest on its west end through mostly shola on its eastern half, though not too much farther east from the lake we would get back into more forest. The rest of the passengers were uniformed forest guards who were heading out for their shift at the station. The Mullakkady arm is Periyar’s easternmost and extends into what looks like a deliciously large and undisturbed tract of forest lying to the east of Periyar Lake. In Dr. Mani’s plan we would have come here the previous morning and hiked out to sampling sites far upstream of where the Mullakady River flows into the lake. Yes, that would have been way cool. [Going out to the rest house was pretty great, too.]

But these remote sites in unspoiled wilderness would remain out of reach for us—at least on this trip. Out of reach for us today time-wise certainly, because we made it out to the Mullakkady station far too late even just to get out to the sites, let alone sample and return to the station before night falls and tigers and elephants take control of the forests. But even a sampling session for the next day was out of the question, as Dr. Mani would not receive the permission needed to get out into the forest for what would amount to a sightseeing excursion for my benefit. By the next nightfall we would need to be on a bus back to Coimbatore for my appointments at Bharathiar University—I’m giving a talk and meeting with the Vice Chancellor to discuss the possibility of an MOU with MiraCosta. It was disappointing not to be given the permission to trek into that part of the tiger reserve east of Mullakkady, but I can see that this was perfectly justifiable given the circumstances—we truly had too little time to do anything of value. I optimistically think that a research proposal with a more realistic timeline would have been given more consideration.


Arun photographing sambar deer. Mullakkady Station, Periyar Lake, Kerala.

There seems to be a lot at Periyar that would be of interest to scientists of many stripes—population biologists, ecologists, conservation biologists, geologists—and there are adequate facilities here to house researchers safely. From what I’ve seen, there is a ready availability of personnel that are capable of providing the mandated escorts to field sites, and in almost every case these forest guards are also skilled guides with abundant knowledge of local flora and fauna, and they are also very willing to help out with fieldwork. The lack of any scientific equipment (including refrigeration) other than what one could carry in could be easily remedied with an influx of cash. It’s partly an absence of funding that prevents research from blossoming here, and with apparently little interest from the international scientific community in establishing well-equipped field research stations in places like Mullakkady this doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. I think I’ve already mentioned earlier in this blog how India’s reputation for stratifying layer upon layer of maddening bureaucracy has squelched any interest from abroad, and it is tolerated by Indian scientists only for lack of an alternative way (other than for them to migrate out of country).


Veranda outside dormitory. Mullakkady Station, Kerala.

Events being what they were, our only option was to return to Thekkady and get an early start the next day for sampling sites in Gavi. The boat ride back was long and uneventful, though the sun setting over Periyar Lake was kinda nice. It was well after dark when we pulled back into the same Inspection Bungalow where we had been so many times and waited so many hours, and where would now be spending this night. Arun and Magesh unpacked the vehicle and took dinner directly, while Dr. Mani and I would have to wait for Dr. Sanjayakumar, who would be stopping by the bungalow for dinner with us.


Dry deciduous forest/Shola grassland ecotone. Mullakkady Station, Periyar Lake, Kerala.

Sanjayakumar is a VIP in the circles of India’s Reserve management. He is the one recognized for developing Parambikulam into a model of conservation management in India, and this is the main reason for his gaining his new prize, the directorship position at Periyar, which with its much larger and more cosmopolitan visitorship is of much greater importance than Parambikulam. I congratulated him on his successes in involving tribals in land stewardship, after which he invited me to go on a night patrol later that evening with anti-poaching guards. I was about to accept when the conversation took a different turn. We found out that a young fish ecologist from the Ashoka Trust in Bangalore had been given the task of putting together the poster of endangered and endemic fishes of Periyar. Krishnakumar (or as Sanjayakumar called him “this young kid”) was also in the process of describing a new fish species he had discovered within the boundaries of Periyar. This was a blow to Dr. Mani who is perhaps the senior fish ecologist in southern India and who had not been informed of any of these events. Mani was already smarting a bit for not having been invited to be on the interview panel for the hire that was going on at Periyar, and it was particularly painful that the task of creating the poster had not been offered to him, since he is the one who had made the spectacular posters for Parambikulam’s fishes as well as other reserves across the Western and Eastern Ghats. Mani’s photos are spectacular—he takes great pains to get high-resolution shots of live fishes with perfect lighting. Indeed, the Periyar poster of endangered and endemic fishes was nicely done, but the quality of fish shots was inferior to Dr. Mani’s photos.


I watched this dude jump in the lake from the shore on the right side of the boat and swim to the shore on the left side of the boat. He was a lot faster in the water than I am.

The picture that unfolds here is a complex and messy one. India has its famous multi-layered systems and bureaucratic oversight that can be constricting and suffocating. Compared with other countries, there is a very miniscule pot of funding and opportunity for researchers like Dr. Mani, Arun, and the young hotshot from Bangalore. I think that Sanjayakumar has decided to spread these few opportunities somewhat equitably—some of the work goes to Dr. Mani, but the young rising stars also need a chance to sit under the sun. I see good intentions here rather than a snub, but still this was a bit of a harsh finish to a day that had already had its share of denials and disappointments. [I wasn’t bummed, though—the trip out to and back from Mullakkady alone yielded tons of great shots of elephants and sambar deer, and I was shocked to see how fast a wild pig could swim!]

I wonder what kinds of opportunities will be there for Arun when he completes his Ph.D.—this will happen no later than June 2014. I think that he could benefit tremendously from some postdoctoral experience in the States, but how does a community college instructor like me go about promoting even a very promising scholar, especially after being out of the research game for so long? I wonder how extensive are the lacunae in his foundational knowledge and if this would hinder his success as a candidate for a postdoc.

ImageThe greatest challenges of this India trip are the ones that will await me upon my return to the U.S.: help get Arun a postdoc and assist with the preparation of manuscripts out of Dr. Mani’s data.

Periyar Day One


31 December.


View of Periyar Lake from near rest house

Periyar Tiger Reserve is one of the best-known and most heavily visited sites in the Western Ghats. It’s centered on a large reservoir in a part of the Ghats that is farther south from Parambikulam, and it was a five-hour bus ride from Coimbatore to Cumbum where we arrived at around 4:30 am and were met by a driver who took us the rest of the way to Thekkady, which is the town where most Periyar visitors stay. But despite our early arrival to the gates of Periyar, it would be late afternoon when we were finally cleared to enter the park. Apparently there was a rest house out in the reserve, but we would have to wait for its current guests to clear out before we could enter. I suspect the “current guests” that we were waiting for were actually tourists who were using the station as a picnic stop on their trekking excursion or as a base for the bamboo rafting trips offered through the ecotourism functions of the reserve. Once the last of these more generously-paying visitors were clear from the space, we would be allowed to occupy. None of this was clear to me at the time, so I dutifully stuck around close by all the while thinking that we might be given a green light at any time.


Pod with stacked seeds from a tree at the Inspection Bungalow, Thekkady, Kerala.

I spent most of the day watching from the Inspection Bungalow’s front porch as small groups of tourists arrived and were made to don leech gators and given a sack lunch with sandwiches and bottled water and then assigned an armed forest guard/guide who would walk with them and keep them from doing stupid things that would compromise the forest and/or their safety. It appeared that the two most popular trips were a borderlands trek and a bamboo rafting outing, and both of these brought the visitors precisely to the field house where we would be allowed to stay that night (which was New Year’s Eve, no less).


Arun’s casting lesson, Periyar Lake, Kerala.

The main attraction of Periyar is the wildlife spotting from the boats that run from a main marina area on a different arm of the lake and are accessed from a different reserve entrance. Most of the visitors I was seeing entering from this side of Thekkady were the ones who had already been on the boat and seen their elephants and gaurs and were looking now for a wilderness experience involving at least a bit of physical exertion. Unlike in the previous Western Ghats sites I had been to over the previous week and a half, the visitors here seemed to be largely from abroad: Europe, North America, and Asia. Dr. Mani says that it is really only the foreign tourists who sign up for these trekking tours, so what I was seeing here was really a non-representative sample of Periyar tourists, who are actually mostly Indian and do only the boat tour.


Waiting is waiting. As for me, this is the kind of waiting that I prefer.

I don’t mind waiting, and this wasn’t the time or place for impatience. I found out later that our staying in this part of the reserve was not in the original plan at all. Dr. Mani had hoped to take a boat out to station on a remote arm of the lake, from which we would be hiking 10 km to some truly remarkable sampling sites. Something went awry with the arrangements and now the word was “maybe tomorrow.” In the meantime we could go out to this field house, do a little informal sampling and enjoy a peaceful New Year’s in the forest. All right.


Somehow Magesh ended up taking an unintended swim when we went out to set the gillnet. I had nothing to do with it. Seriously.

So we loaded up another vehicle and schlepped all of the stuff out to the site. A hornbill (Great Indian Pied Hornbill) was in a banyan tree behind the station. We took one of the bamboo rafts out to set a gill net, stringing it between two snags—Periyar has thousands of submerged trees sticking out from its waters. It’s really amazing is that this lake was built in 1896, and it’s been that long since these long-dead trees have remained standing upright with their roots spread in the valley floor now flooded.

After returning from the gillnet setting, I was handed the telescoping pole again and told to catch something good for a special New Year’s dinner, but this was just not going to happen. I had brought along a spool of 10 lb. Spectra line—this turned out to be a good idea, since the line on Mani’s reel was fairly heavy mono and was not very good for casting. There was still the problem of terminal tackle. Mani had a kit with various floats, a few very heavy sinkers, a couple of spinners, and some pre-tied hooks. The easiest option was to tie on a spinner and hope for something like a predatory mahseer, though mahseers are characteristically river fish and it would have to be both foolish and totally lost in order to be catchable where we were. The angling effort wasn’t a total waste, though. I was able to give Arun and Magesh some instruction on how to operate a spinning reel. Dr. Mani demonstrated how to snag the bottom, and Arun demonstrated how to wade/swim out to liberate the snagged lure.


The 2-burner stove at the rest house on Periyar Lake.

There were two forest guards with us at the station. One was particularly good at operating a cast net, and we spent the rest of the evening until after dark following him around and harvesting the little fishes he caught (nothing big enough for the table). There are bazillions of very large tadpoles in the lake, and many of his casts resulted in hauls of a hundred or more of the golf-ball-sized wiggly, gloppy things.

Dinner that evening was more elaborate than usual and collaboratively prepared. We had sliced raw veggies, fried onions, and fried cauliflower to go with the rice and sambar. The kitchen at the station used fuel wood fires and the only light was from our torches, and yet somehow a very fine multi-dish meal was brought to the table and enjoyed. Food was not a problem at all throughout my trip, but on this evening I ate too greedily and my digestion suffered a bit the next day. We had just started eating when the new year arrived in Tokyo and we were all asleep by the time it came to India.

30 December. Got a haircut. And a shave. And a head massage. And an eyebrow/’stache trim.


On the road back to Coimbatore.

Caught a bus to Coimbatore and met back up with Dr. Mani.

Caught another bus to Cumbum (pronounced “Come, bum.”) From there we will have Jeep transport to Thekkady and Periyar.


Really? You’re taking a pic now?

And that is all.


Kerala Backwaters. It goes on like this for a lifetime.

29 December. Kerala Backwaters/Fort Cochin.

While all of our collection sites to date have been in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, we have been in the hills—the Western Ghats. On the Kerala coast there is an enormous network of lagoons and canals similar to the American Bayou but much larger, as it is fed by several major river drainages and spreads for hundreds of miles both north and south of Cochin—the Kerala Backwaters. This is an internationally known tourist destination, and the thing to do here is to hire a houseboat with six or seven of your friends and go on a multi-day cruise, dining on seafood and enjoying long hours of relaxing on the boat’s shaded prow and watching the scenery.


Cap’n Arun at the helm.

I’ll admit that when I first made the plan to visit Cochin I had a ridiculous idea of what the Kerala Backwaters would be like. I knew I wouldn’t have time for a long cruise, and the whole notion of dolce far niente isn’t all that appealing to me anyways. But for some stupid reason I had expected that there would be some unspoiled nature close by. Maybe it’s because I had been to Louisiana and was stuck on the idea of riding the canals of the Indian bayou into some wildlands within a day or so of Cochin. But now having actually been in India for a week I knew how impossible this romanticized, Cajun-flavored vision was.

Kerala’s population is about 33.4 million (roughly that of Canada), and its area (including waterways) is just a bit bigger than Maryland. This is 860 humans per square kilometer, and for India that’s only around mid-range as far as density of inhabitants. Louisiana’s population density is over twenty times less—a paltry 40 humans per km2—so let’s face it, there will be no wildlands in coastal Kerala. These backwaters extend through an vast area that is just as totally inhabited and intensively used as the rest of the country.


Sacks of rice loaded for transport through backwaters.

Through the hotel’s concierge, we booked a taxi to take us around for the day—3500 rupees for the driver and 4000 rupees for a two-hour boat tour from Aleppey. This was a lot of money by Coimbatore standards—but it was clear that in Cochin and outlying municipalities (for technically we were in Ernakulam) pricing was adjusted to take advantage of the generally greater wealth of foreigners, who were there in significant numbers. Since stepping off the plane in Coimbatore I had not seen a single Caucasian face—in over a week! Inland Tamil Nadu and the lesser-known reserves of the Western Ghats are evidently not heavily visited by international tourists, and according to Dr. Mani they are not heavily visited even by Indian nationals from the Hindi-speaking north. The throngs of humanity in Cochin streets, in contrast, had a handful of bodies that were strangely tall, unnaturally wide, or oddly pale, and I observed a couple of those bodies walk out into oncoming traffic because they had been looking in the wrong direction (I did this myself once or twice).

Actually 3500 rupees for the taxi seems downright cheap. That’s about 65 USD for all-day (9 am to after 10 pm) vehicle and driver, including back and forth to Aleppey (85 km each way) as well as little side trips to look for the fishing nets. The 4000 rupees for a short ride on the houseboat was more of a tourist-priced deal for the boat operator to make a bit more cash before his next big gaggle of passengers.


Ferry from Fort Cochin to who-knows-where. We were on the next one out–second boat trip of the day.

But really anything more than an hour out and an hour back would have been too much. Another three days on the boat would be three days of pretty much the same scenery—endless canals beyond endless fields of rice or coconut or manioc. I could see how this might be enjoyable for some, and I could also see from the map that there was no significant breaks of pure nature in the highly human-tinged landscape—it was peaceful and pretty enough with lots of birds (though not a lot of diversity)… and not a whole lot to do. Two hours was just perfect, thanks.

The highlight of the Backwaters trip was Magesh’s demonstration of Badaga dance, which must originate from the Badaga tribe in the Ooty hills of Tamil Nadu though it’s now something that everyone in Tamil Nadu is totally into. The moves are pretty basic and also quite awesome. If I could practice a bit the four of us (Mani, Magesh, Arun and me) could do a closing dance montage for Dr. Mani’s fish video compilation. Upon returning to the dock I celebrated with a nice fish curry at a roadside restaurant.

Our taxi driver—who was actually a pretty cool guy—next took us to the market at Fort Cochin, where there was a place that he knew would have the nets we wanted. It turned out that what they had were just small plastic dip nets used by children to catch polliwogs. Oops—haha. I then proceeded to show no interest in any of the cultural or historically significant sites of Fort Cochin, so instead we decided to talk up the fishermen for advice on where cast nets could be bought.Image

At Fort Cochin the most accessible fishermen were the ones operating the Cheena Vala or “Chinese fishing nets,” which are basically gigantic dip nets that operate from short piers on a cantilevered lower-and-lift mechanism in which a broad, flat, square net of about 10 meters on a side is counterbalanced by stones hanging from ropes. The net goes down into the water—which at the time was flowing from right to left as the tide was going out—left a few minutes and then lifted by manpower to harvest whatever fishies were unlucky enough to be swimming above the net at the time of the lift. A few unmanned ropes are there for tourists to participate in the lifting. Doing this over and over again must be really good for developing upper-body musculature, because it is dead easy to identify a fisherman from the rest of Indian males by his huge back and shoulders.


With the ancient fisherdude at his home.

We found an ancient dude who had some extra cast nets at his home, but when we got there it turned out that his nets were enormous—like 3 meters radius—and the mesh size was too large to hold most of the little fishes we had been catching in the hillstreams of the Western Ghats.

At this point daylight was getting thin and still on our to-do list was a visit to a toddy shop and dip Ihara’s toes in the Indian Ocean. But just getting back to Cherai Beach—which was kind of on the north end of Ernakulam and really too out-of-the-way to be a good location for a two-night visit to Cochin (my bad—I booked this hotel without doing the proper research)—was a long way around unless we took the ferry across the harbor.


On the ferry. Our car and driver in the foreground. Driver was pretty cool, but he probably wasn’t too happy with us when we complained about the fare.

Between the long cab rides and the long queue for the ferry we had plenty of time for ev bio lessons—one memorable topic we covered that day was sexual selection. Having Magesh join in slowed things down a bit but made them more entertaining. Species that are habitually monogamous are almost always sexually monomorphic (males and females looking similar), while polygamous animals will typically have males that are either large and intimidating compared with the females or a lot flashier and ornamented. “Monogamy” and “polygamy” were new terms (at least in English) for Magesh, so I explained them. “I think I like polygamy,” Magesh said with a giggle, “but polygamy for us is not available.” He followed that up with, “Monogamy is not available for us,” and Arun and I nearly busted ribs laughing.

Marriages in India are arranged through intense searches and painstaking negotiations between the parents of the betrothed-to-be. Sure, the offspring have a say in the matter and can theoretically decline a match, but Arun’s parents have been working for months interviewing the parents of promising daughter-in-law candidates and consulting horoscopes, all in the interest of identifying the very best spouse for their son and the very best mother for the grandchildren. It would be a very serious matter bordering on indignation for a child to refuse his parents’ selection. Guys like Arun and Magesh anticipate accepting the brides their parents choose for them, and until that happens it may seem like marriage and monogamy may as well be a distant dream.


Cherai Beach at night. Soft surf, warm water, and lots and lots of people.

I’m not sure which ferry we took, but looking at the map now it would have made sense for us to take the Fort Cochin/Vypin ferry, as that would have put us on the same spit of land as Cherai Beach. But as I recall the boat ride and subsequent drive to Cherai were quite a bit longer than it would have been had we done this. I’m guessing that our ferry landed us on the mainland part of Ernakulam from which we trudged our way through heavy traffic all the way to Cherai, only to find the government-run toddy shops closed because it was Sunday. No problem—at that point I wasn’t really in the mood to drink large volumes of palm juice that is only weakly alcoholic and marginally hygienic. I rolled up my pants and waded shin deep into the surf of Cherai Beach. To me it was weird to feel beach water so tepid. It was also weird to share the beach with thousands of people after 10 pm–it was that late when we bailed out of the packed boardwalk area and headed back for beer and peanuts at the hotel bar.


Brickmaking in Pollachi.

28 December. Today is the start of my holiday-within-my-holiday. A visit to India without ever seeing or touching the Indian Ocean seemed incomplete and in any case I wanted to visit coastal Kerala for at least a couple of days and maybe do some boat touring in its extensive estuarine systems, the most famous of which are the “Kerala Backwaters” accessed from Aleppey. The original plan was for me to do this part alone, but since there were some purchases that needed to be made in Cochin (new cast nets) and I could use some help negotiating my way around town, it made reasonably good sense for me to invite the scholars along. Dr. Mani would get a rest from playing tour operator, and I would have a nice opportunity to provide the ev bio instruction to Arun that he desired. Magesh is fluent in Malayalam, the language spoken in most of Kerala which is only marginally similar to Tamil.


The driver of the truck (whose door is open) was passing a motorcycle when it had to steer left to avoid a collision with oncoming traffic–pushing the motorcycle off the road. The motorcycle came charging back, cut off the truck and stopping traffic in both directions, and proceeded to pick a fight with the driver.

India is either enriched by its extreme linguistic diversity or severely hampered by it. Neither of Tamil nor Mayalayam is remotely close to Hindi, which together with English is an “official” language of India. Hindi is spoken throughout most of the north, and by the greatest fraction of the nation’s well-over-a-billion-and-rising inhabitants. For a westerner, Hindi should be a bit easier to learn as it is part of the same Indo-European language family as English and Italian, while Tamil and Mayalayam belong from a totally different (Dravidian) language family. And while English is theoretically the unifying language of India, not everyone speaks it with fabulous fluency.

Along our route to Coimbatore from Topslip, we stop to visit with Dr. Rajeev Srivastava, Chief Conservator of Forests in Tamil Nadu and the friend in a high place whom Dr. Mani called a couple of nights before to gain entry into Topslip after hours. Actually we were passing through Pollachi when I noted a sign for the Chief Conservator’s office right there in town, and so Dr. Mani gave a quick call in to see if he was available for a social visit. He invited us to his home, which is in a well-appointed compound just off the main thoroughfare in Pollachi. Dr. Mani had maintained contact with Dr. Rajeev without meeting in person for the past 20 years.

Dr. Rajeev spoke in excellent English (which was, of course, used throughout this conversation), and we had a very nice visit. He had recently completed a Ph.D. in fire ecology, and he shared with us the highlights of his dissertation, an impressive tome of studies conducted in his spare time while he was working full-time in the capacity of a high-ranking forest official. His dissertation was legit, too—not just a manufactured degree to pad his CV. Forest fires stand to play a significant role in major ecological transitions that India will be seeing in the next fifty years as its climate becomes drier. Monsoon failure is projected to increase in frequency and severity, and the physical conditions determining dry deciduous woodland vs. shola grassland is likely to shift in favor of shola. Dr. Rajeev’s dissertation focuses specifically on fires in the woodland/shola ecotone. Academic pursuits with relevance to a pressing issue—how cool is that.


Upon arriving in Coimbatore I had enough time to re-pack for Cochin, exchange some dollars for rupees, and catch a ride with Arun and Magesh to the pick-up point for our motorcoach to Cochin, which was also the office of Supaa (as in the way Indians pronounce “super”) Travel. Once securely on board and under way, Magesh went promptly to sleep while I gave Arun the first set of lessons using the back of some of my travel documents as a whiteboard.


Pakoras–vegetable fritters–dipped in a tamarind-based chutney

For Arun’s lessons I tried to stick to areas that might bear some relevance to his work on Puntius under Dr. Mani’s direction. The essentials of cladistics. A basic rundown of phylogenetic relationships between major taxa of life. Current views on the phylogeny of fishes. As daylight faded we moved the discussion over to topics that were less dependent on visual aids, like the basics of allopatric speciation, and then as it became totally dark we bailed on the lesson and napped until our arrival in Ernakulam.

In the interest of not wanting to waste time going over material that he already knew, I told Arun to stop me if I ever got into an area that he was already knowledgeable—this never happened. The paradox I was seeing was that of a remarkable scholar—Arun has a comprehensive knowledge of Puntius morphology and ecology worthy of a Ph.D. candidate—who was also unfamiliar with fundamentals of evolutionary process and ecology that could be very important to his research.


Arun, Magesh, and me

Arun recognizes that there are significant gaps in his knowledge base and is highly motivated to fill them. In the few, sporadic hours that we spent from here on through the rest of my time in India, he was fully engaged and learned the content well enough to teach it (using Tamil) to Magesh, whose English is not as strong and who was running a fever during the bus ride from Coimbatore to Ernakulam—I didn’t know about this until after our arrival.

Magesh’s physical condition has been deteriorating over the past week. When I first met him he was limping from a foot injury that he had just incurred in a motorbike accident. He was also suffering from gastric ulcers, and the irregular timing of our meals—around travel and field work—had been exacerbating his distress. I finally asked him about the meds he was taking for the ulcers, and his treatment was disturbingly (to me) old-school: a magnesium citrate suspension and a combo drug that paired a proton-pump inhibitor with an anti-psychotic, presumably to diminish stress. From my standpoint of casual knowledge of medicine I would guess that in a 28 year old ulcer patient with no history of drug use the cause would likely be bacterial and best treated with an antibiotic (in combination with the proton pump inhibitor and magnesium citrate that he was already taking). But Magesh had not been directed to take any antibiotic.


Magesh in Aleppey, Kerala.

Now it just happened that I was carrying with me a 20-day supply of ciprofloxacin—a prescription that I had gotten just in case I found myself with traveler’s diarrhea. I had to request this from primary care doc, and he was glad to oblige, but he instructed me to leave the cipro with someone in India if I didn’t use it, because it’s a better class of antibiotic than what is available here. [By the way, having the cipro really saved me when I got some type of funkiness in Perú—probably from swallowing some water during one of my Amazon swims.]

So Jeff saves the day with his wonder-drug from the U.S., right? Well, not exactly. I did explain to Magesh the relationship between ulcers and Helicobacter pylori, and I gave him the cipro with instructions on how to take it (not with milk) and told him that once he starts he must continue the treatment for the entire 20-day period. But over the next day or two I would ask him if he started the treatment, and he would give an excuse of not knowing how the drug should be taken—with meals or on an empty stomach.

At that point the cipro might have helped Magesh in three ways: addressing the cause of his ulcers (assuming that it was bacterial), helping to heal his foot injury, and also possibly knocking down the cause of his fever, which I feared may have been bacterial having gained entry through the wound’s exposure to river water during the past week’s collecting trips. In fact, Magesh’s increasing reluctance to enter the water (because of his foot injury) was becoming a burden for Dr. Mani, who was counting on the two scholars for carrying out tasks, many of which required wading. It may have been the threat of not being allowed to continue with the fieldwork that finally induced Magesh to start taking the antibiotics a couple of days later. I have no idea if he completed the course as I directed or if there was ever any improvement in his ulcers.


Fort Cochin, Kerala

Upon arriving in Ernakulam, we had a long and bumpy mototaxi ride to our hotel in the Cherai Beach area. There was a moment of tension when the driver decided he wanted an extra 50 rupees—450 instead of the previously agreed upon 400—because we had made him wait while we took dinner (the hotel’s restaurant was closed and they advised us that food would not be available on our arrival). I think Arun and Magesh felt that the driver was taking advantage of the foreigner in this party. Maybe he was, but 450 rupees is $8 plus change and it was very late. I did my best to wiggle my head in the correct way as if to say, “Everything’s cool” and paid the driver the extra 90 cents. The hotel itself was a pretty posh joint, and it even had its own wi-fi (it was there that I made the first couple of posts from India to this blog).