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.