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.




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.