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.


Topslip is the part of Anamalai that is adjacent to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

26 December 2013. Summary: Spent morning negotiating the accommodations with officers at both Topslip and Parambikulam. Collected at two sites deep within the core area of Perambikulam in an area of no public access, with Selvan our accompanying forest official for the day. Today’s sites would be 1) a tributary of the Kuriarkurthi River way below the dam at Turnakadavar Reservoir, and 2) a slow stretch of the Kuriarkurthi itself in the same general area.

The Anamalai Tiger Reserve and Parambikulam Tiger Reserve together comprise a fairly large tract of protected area south of Coimbatore and detached from the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which includes the forests of Siruvani and Silent Valley. Anamalai is the part occurring within the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu and it includes the Topslip Forest, which is where we stayed at the guest house. Parambikulam is the part within the state of Kerala. Each reserve has its own administration, paid for by the state in which it occurs. Research and collecting permits are issued by the state government, and while Dr. Mani has permission to collect in Kerala, his permit is not valid in Tamil Nadu. However, Dr. Mani is a big fish to the Topslip management because of his history there. He has spent a lot of time collecting at Topslip in the past, and he provided all of the fish specimens at the little natural history museum they keep at the visitor’s center.


Preserved specimens of fishes collected by Dr. Mani and on display at the visitor’s center in the administration area of Topslip.

The gap between Anamalai/Parambikulam and the Siruvani/Nilgiri Hills to the north is a break in the Western Ghats called the Palakkad Gap, and this is a corridor for westerly air movement from the onshore flow coming off the Arabian Sea. Lower in elevation, it is also entirely under intensive use by human activity, including major routes of travel between the two states. Neither Anamalai nor Parambikulam can claim a large percent of cover by primary vegetation—being so close to the transportation corridor, this area has a long history of exploitation. During the period of British rule it was found to be ideally suited for the cultivation of teak, whose wood is highly valued for ship building. Native forest was cleared and replanted with teak, and even though timber harvest is no longer permitted, much of the landscape is teak monoculture with patches of bamboo. In time (it is hoped), native vegetation will slowly work its way back through competition and succession. Topslip was so named by the British because of its topography. Teak logs could be hauled up he hill and allowed to slide down into the Palakkad Gap—hence the name “top-slip.”


I noticed a sign saying “Bridge out. Do not pass” and there were several broken planks.

Dr. Mani spent much of the morning putting out metaphorical fires: phone calls to the high official who reluctantly bent the rules in allowing us to enter after hours, placating the on-site rangers whose bosses were called to make the exception to what is otherwise a strictly enforced policy. We also didn’t have a place to stay for the next night—the guest house at Topslip was going to be occupied by a different group. We went to meet with the Topslip Ranger in his office–I sat in that meeting, presumably as a bit of leverage, as in, “We must provide some nice accommodations for our international guest.” That meeting transpired entirely in Tamil. On our way in to Parambikulam we made a stop to visit the District Forest Officer (DFO—a higher rank than Ranger) to see if there were strings that could be pulled to get us some lodging there. Again I was brought in—only this time the meeting was conducted in English.


Dr. Mani tests his camera case for underwater photography after recording some observations made with snorkel/mask.

At this point I’m beginning to notice an intriguing pattern. Both of these officials were native speakers of Tamil with passable English skills. Somewhere in between the levels of Ranger and DFO was a switching point. English use is a demonstration of education and worldliness. Sometimes English is necessary, as when one of the players is not a Tamil speaker. But an Anglophonic conversation between two Tamil Nadu natives of status is like a staring contest, and having to switch over to Tamil language is like blinking. I wonder about the efficacy of this social code. Although I do not understand Tamil at all, it was evident that the conversation between Dr. Mani and the Ranger in Topslip was fluid and comfortable while the other seemed stilted by the socially imposed formality of using what is a second language for both parties. We had the same objective for both meetings—we needed to secure lodging for that evening and no quarters were available (officially) in either place. Both had the same outcome: nothing promised, but if a cancellation were to occur then we would get that space.


A substantially sized turd with berries? It can only be bear shit, a.k.a. “nature’s fruitcake.”

It’s possible that my presence may have added to the impetus for speaking in English, but I do not believe that it was a major factor. In Dr. Mani’s many phone conversations he spoke either Tamil or English, and I was not party to those exchanges. When I asked him how he decided which language to use, his answer basically confirmed the model that I had been formulating, described above. What is the overall cost of this practice, in terms of effective communication? I suspect that communication is fine at the two ends of the hierarchy: the highest-ranking officials are likely to be very fluent in English, while workers in the lowest levels don’t even bother and just go about their business using their mother tongue. But in the many tiers of middle management where the English of one or both parties is imperfect, there is going to be some breakdown in communication resulting only from the conversants’ pride and unwillingness to switch over to a more comfortable language.


Travancoria sp. This flat-bottomed, sucker-mouthed cyprinid holds tight to rocky bottoms in fast-flowing parts of the stream.

Corporations in India tend to organize personnel into many-tiered hierarchies, and position within a hierarchy is what defines status. An employee interacts with others as equals, subordinates, or superiors, and the authority of one’s superiors is accepted without question. As an academic Dr. Mani is outside of the forestry hierarchies, and over the course of 25 years of fieldwork he has established connections with high officials in forestry and wildlife as well as many long-tenured employees in the lower ranks—we spend a lot of time meeting and catching up with Dr. Mani’s old acquaintances at all levels. But it is having the friends in high places that has gotten us the favorable results of entry into Patiyar and Topslip after hours. Dr. Mani has played this angle twice already—with some implicit detriment to his credibility. Both delays were unforeseen and unavoidable (vehicle issues), but he tells me that from this point forward we will have no further trump cards to play.


The second site along the Khuriarkurthi River, where I ate my first Puntius carnaticus and saw my first Great Indian Pied Hornbill.

It was getting close to noon that we picked up Selevan, a forest guard from the tribal community, to accompany us for the afternoon’s collection. Our route took us deep into the core area of Parambikulam well beyond the parts of the reserve that are available to tourists. Over a wooden bridge that was signed “unsafe bridge—do not cross” and alongside a stretch of river flowing over a chiseled bedrock of basalt, and further down we pulled up to a tiny tributary for the first of the afternoon’s collections. The spot had many of the same general fish forms as before—Garra, Rasbora, Puntius, Barilius, and loaches—but there were a couple of genera that we had not gotten at Siruvani. Danio is the same genus as zebrafish, which is one of the most important model organisms for developmental studies. Travancoria is a fast-water algae eater with a streamlined body and a strong sucker-mouth allowing it to hold tight to boulders in the fast-flowing runs that it prefers. And Tor, which is the fabled mahseer of sport-fishing fame. We only caught a couple of very small mahseer, but their presence indicates that this stream has perennial flow. We collected fish, recorded stream data, and Dr. Mani put on his snorkel and mask to conduct some observations and to test out the waterproof case that I brought him for his very expensive Canon DSLR. The case held its water-tight seal, but some moisture had been introduced inside the case by wet hands resulting in glass fogging and poor photo quality. No photo shoot of collected fishes today though as we were time-constrained.


Puntius carnaticus sautéed in coconut oil and coated with fish-fry masala, salt, and wheat flour.

The second site was a wide, slow stretch of river and the team deployed a gill net while I tried to “sample” with a telescoping rod and reel that Dr. Mani kept in one of the many bags we hauled around. I didn’t have any luck, but the gill net yielded one fat Puntius carnaticus, which was dispatched, clipped for DNA, and then prepared for my special lunch.

Today’s lunch was prepared entirely in the field. Magesh cooked rice in a pressure pot over a gas flame, and he also prepared chicken curry from scratch. Well, almost from scratch. Chicken, vegetables (onions, green beans, carrots, potatoes), and masala. The Puntius was scaled, eviscerated, split, and the skin was scored. A “fish-fry masala” was mixed with salt and rubbed into the flesh, some flour was added, and this was fried in a dosa pan (basically a slightly concave crepe pan). Cyprinids (minnow family fish) aren’t considered food fish in the U.S., but this was really good.


Great Indian Pied Hornbill. Photo by Manimekalan. Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

As afternoon stretched into evening, Arun and Magesh processed the fish we collected from the earlier site. A Great Indian Pied Hornbill alit on a tree across the river from us. Without binoculars, the bird was clearly visible but distant. With the super lenses on the cameras that Dr. Mani and Arun were carrying, however, it was possible to capture some nice detail, even without a tripod for adding stability on the long-distance shot. On the road back to camp, we got views of Spotted Deer, Gaur, Sambar Deer, mongoose, and civet cat.


Spotted Deer. Photo by Manimekalan. Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

That evening Dr. Mani pulled out a couple of almost-cold beers from his backpack, and this was better than what we had taken to Siruvani. I ask Arun if I was meeting his expectations, and he confided that he had hoped to be learning from me. Maybe it’s a hierarchy thing—I was a professor, he was a student, so I supposed to profess while he absorbed the pearls of scientific knowledge spilling forth from my parotta-hole. To this point I had been on the receiving end of the learning, although this was mostly because I was reticent to take a lead role in teaching the Indian scholars about Indian natural history. But it was also becoming increasingly evident that both Arun and Magesh were a bit behind the curve in some foundational areas of ecology and evolutionary biology. I could contribute by helping to fill some of those gaps with lessons along the way. The problem with this idea was we were continually traveling under cramped conditions or working on the fish collections, and Dr. Mani kept the scholars busy at other times with cooking, equipment maintenance, loading/unloading of the vehicles. There was no opportunity for me to offer any substantive lessons to the scholars, though I did have abundant time in discussions with Dr. Mani.


Indian Gaur. Photo by Manimekalan. Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

My proposed solution: after Parambikulam I was planning to take a couple of days to travel to Cochin by myself—to see and soak my toes in the Indian Ocean, eat some seafood, and take a backwaters tour. Why not invite the scholars along? They could enjoy a couple of days reprieve from heavy lifting, stay in a nice hotel, and take an opportunity for some more substantial biology lessons along the way.