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.


My second leech bite in two days. These terrestrial leeches hide in leaf litter and are heat-seeking, attaching to any warm-blooded thing that happens by. Messy but not dangerous, and I’m told that after a rain the leeches come out in full force. We were lucky to have dry weather.

December 24. Summary: checked out of Patiyar, ran the gill net, and collected in two spots just downstream and just upstream of the third check point. Had a near-miss on drive to Silent Valley, and we received some bad news upon our arrival: Arun and Magesh are sent back to Coimbatore to return the Jeep because the owner decided he needed it urgently. Took dinner and slept at Silent Valley Guest House.

After getting nothing in the gillnet, we checked out from Patiyar and drove down to where we had parked the car the previous day. Today’s sampling sites are just upstream and just downstream from the checkpoint so there was not a lot of hiking to do.  I was able to rinse off my dust in one of the pools, and yes the water was clear and clean—both Arun and Magesh had no issues drinking directly out of this stream, though I opted to stick with purified water—in my view, there is too much wildlife nearby, and I know about Giardia. I’m also quite determined to have formed stools throughout this trip.


Garra stenorhyncus. from a side or a top view it looks like the mouth is on the top half of the fish’s face, as one would expect of a top-feeding fish…


…but the real mouth is on the bottom of the fish. I’m not sure of the significance–adaptive or otherwise–for the horn-like structure that makes the “fake face”

The collection itself was an easy one—no long hikes through elephant-ridden leech havens (though I did manage to feed another leech today—that’s two bloody spots in my sneakers so far). We harvested mostly the same species here, with the addition of a couple of species of barb (genus Puntius), and maybe even a new occurrence for one of the Garra species (Indian algae eaters). Some of the Garra we saw were intriguing–some species had mottled brown/olive/tan blotches, others had tubercles on the head, and there is one (G. stenorhyncus, I believe) whose head is shaped in a way that makes the fish appear as a top-feeder with an undershot lower jaw, but this “lower jaw” is actually the fish’s nose and the real mouth is underneath just like other algae eaters. There was an abundance of the Indian trout (Barilius), and the forest officials who accompanied us to monitor our activities (and also to help) were delighted to take all of the Barilius we caught—I’ll bet they were quite tasty.


The water was clean, fresh, and about 20°C.

From where we were in Siruvani it’s a relatively short jog over to Silent Valley National Park. However, short in distance does not translate into speed of travel. Roads in India seem to come in either the “dilapidated” and “extremely dilapidated” varieties, and when it comes to switchbacked mountain roads, the latter might actually be preferable, only for keeping things within a safe speed. Once we got into some better road on the climb to Silent Valley, Mani hit a turn a bit too fast and came close to rutting the vehicle against the uphill slope (i.e., a wall of rock) and then overcompensating we ended up going the other direction and planted the Mahindra at the edge of the downhill side. Mani was a bit shaken and very apologetic, but it was just a mistake. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic. Driving in India is unquestionably very difficult. You must anticipate the reactions (or lack of reactions) of other vehicles, pedestrians, livestock, and dogs and cats, while doing your best at avoiding pot-holes and slowing for omnipresent speed bumps. There’s always slower traffic to pass and faster cars that will pass you and cars coming in the other direction and passing each other, seemingly without acknowledging your head-on collision course—it is, of course acknowledged and skillfully calibrated so that collisions don’t happen (or happen at extremely low frequency compared with what you’d expect). Add to this the facts that most roads are either unmarked or identified in an alphabet that I can’t read (Tamil or Malayalam) and they drive on the other side of the road, and there is plenty of reason for me to decline any offers of driving here, and I’m perfectly happy to forgo making use of the international driver’s license that I had gotten specifically for this trip.


It’s some kind of bird, right? Beyond Gallus gallus, my South Indian ornithology is a bit rusty. Nice photo by Manimekalan.

Upon arriving at Silent Valley we received notice that the owner of the Mahindra urgently needed his vehicle back, and there was no way to say no. It was after 11:00 pm that Magesh and Arun drove the vehicle back to Coimbatore to secure a new vehicle (with a driver) and return to meet us the next day. Dr. Mani stayed with me at the Inspection Bungalow and we would be taking a Jeep tour of Silent Valley the next morning until Arun and Magesh returned from Coimbatore.


Elephant moat around Patiyar. One of the downsides of weighing 2000-5000 kg is the effect on jumping ability. A tiger would cross over this without even recognizing it as an obstacle. Elephants are far more common and would not recognize Patiyar’s brick walls as an obstacle.

Adding to the building frustration of the evening was the fact that Dr. Mani’s iPhone had a dead battery while his charging cable was en route to Coimbatore with Arun and Magesh. My Motorola was dead as well, and even though I had my iPhone with a full charge, swapping the SIM cards did not work–apparently mine is a “locked” phone that cannot be used with a different SIM card than one that is on my ATT account. We would have to wait until morning to find a shop that was open (on Christmas Day) where we could get enough charge on the phones for Mani to get in contact with Arun.


The biggest challenge of Siruvani? Downing a full bottle of warm Black Knight. It’s the love child spawned from white-wine-in-a-box and Colt 45.