Gavi

08/02/2014

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sophiocephalus.

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.

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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.

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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.

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and for the herpers, a Malabar Sarapam.

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