Brickmaking in Pollachi.

28 December. Today is the start of my holiday-within-my-holiday. A visit to India without ever seeing or touching the Indian Ocean seemed incomplete and in any case I wanted to visit coastal Kerala for at least a couple of days and maybe do some boat touring in its extensive estuarine systems, the most famous of which are the “Kerala Backwaters” accessed from Aleppey. The original plan was for me to do this part alone, but since there were some purchases that needed to be made in Cochin (new cast nets) and I could use some help negotiating my way around town, it made reasonably good sense for me to invite the scholars along. Dr. Mani would get a rest from playing tour operator, and I would have a nice opportunity to provide the ev bio instruction to Arun that he desired. Magesh is fluent in Malayalam, the language spoken in most of Kerala which is only marginally similar to Tamil.


The driver of the truck (whose door is open) was passing a motorcycle when it had to steer left to avoid a collision with oncoming traffic–pushing the motorcycle off the road. The motorcycle came charging back, cut off the truck and stopping traffic in both directions, and proceeded to pick a fight with the driver.

India is either enriched by its extreme linguistic diversity or severely hampered by it. Neither of Tamil nor Mayalayam is remotely close to Hindi, which together with English is an “official” language of India. Hindi is spoken throughout most of the north, and by the greatest fraction of the nation’s well-over-a-billion-and-rising inhabitants. For a westerner, Hindi should be a bit easier to learn as it is part of the same Indo-European language family as English and Italian, while Tamil and Mayalayam belong from a totally different (Dravidian) language family. And while English is theoretically the unifying language of India, not everyone speaks it with fabulous fluency.

Along our route to Coimbatore from Topslip, we stop to visit with Dr. Rajeev Srivastava, Chief Conservator of Forests in Tamil Nadu and the friend in a high place whom Dr. Mani called a couple of nights before to gain entry into Topslip after hours. Actually we were passing through Pollachi when I noted a sign for the Chief Conservator’s office right there in town, and so Dr. Mani gave a quick call in to see if he was available for a social visit. He invited us to his home, which is in a well-appointed compound just off the main thoroughfare in Pollachi. Dr. Mani had maintained contact with Dr. Rajeev without meeting in person for the past 20 years.

Dr. Rajeev spoke in excellent English (which was, of course, used throughout this conversation), and we had a very nice visit. He had recently completed a Ph.D. in fire ecology, and he shared with us the highlights of his dissertation, an impressive tome of studies conducted in his spare time while he was working full-time in the capacity of a high-ranking forest official. His dissertation was legit, too—not just a manufactured degree to pad his CV. Forest fires stand to play a significant role in major ecological transitions that India will be seeing in the next fifty years as its climate becomes drier. Monsoon failure is projected to increase in frequency and severity, and the physical conditions determining dry deciduous woodland vs. shola grassland is likely to shift in favor of shola. Dr. Rajeev’s dissertation focuses specifically on fires in the woodland/shola ecotone. Academic pursuits with relevance to a pressing issue—how cool is that.


Upon arriving in Coimbatore I had enough time to re-pack for Cochin, exchange some dollars for rupees, and catch a ride with Arun and Magesh to the pick-up point for our motorcoach to Cochin, which was also the office of Supaa (as in the way Indians pronounce “super”) Travel. Once securely on board and under way, Magesh went promptly to sleep while I gave Arun the first set of lessons using the back of some of my travel documents as a whiteboard.


Pakoras–vegetable fritters–dipped in a tamarind-based chutney

For Arun’s lessons I tried to stick to areas that might bear some relevance to his work on Puntius under Dr. Mani’s direction. The essentials of cladistics. A basic rundown of phylogenetic relationships between major taxa of life. Current views on the phylogeny of fishes. As daylight faded we moved the discussion over to topics that were less dependent on visual aids, like the basics of allopatric speciation, and then as it became totally dark we bailed on the lesson and napped until our arrival in Ernakulam.

In the interest of not wanting to waste time going over material that he already knew, I told Arun to stop me if I ever got into an area that he was already knowledgeable—this never happened. The paradox I was seeing was that of a remarkable scholar—Arun has a comprehensive knowledge of Puntius morphology and ecology worthy of a Ph.D. candidate—who was also unfamiliar with fundamentals of evolutionary process and ecology that could be very important to his research.


Arun, Magesh, and me

Arun recognizes that there are significant gaps in his knowledge base and is highly motivated to fill them. In the few, sporadic hours that we spent from here on through the rest of my time in India, he was fully engaged and learned the content well enough to teach it (using Tamil) to Magesh, whose English is not as strong and who was running a fever during the bus ride from Coimbatore to Ernakulam—I didn’t know about this until after our arrival.

Magesh’s physical condition has been deteriorating over the past week. When I first met him he was limping from a foot injury that he had just incurred in a motorbike accident. He was also suffering from gastric ulcers, and the irregular timing of our meals—around travel and field work—had been exacerbating his distress. I finally asked him about the meds he was taking for the ulcers, and his treatment was disturbingly (to me) old-school: a magnesium citrate suspension and a combo drug that paired a proton-pump inhibitor with an anti-psychotic, presumably to diminish stress. From my standpoint of casual knowledge of medicine I would guess that in a 28 year old ulcer patient with no history of drug use the cause would likely be bacterial and best treated with an antibiotic (in combination with the proton pump inhibitor and magnesium citrate that he was already taking). But Magesh had not been directed to take any antibiotic.


Magesh in Aleppey, Kerala.

Now it just happened that I was carrying with me a 20-day supply of ciprofloxacin—a prescription that I had gotten just in case I found myself with traveler’s diarrhea. I had to request this from primary care doc, and he was glad to oblige, but he instructed me to leave the cipro with someone in India if I didn’t use it, because it’s a better class of antibiotic than what is available here. [By the way, having the cipro really saved me when I got some type of funkiness in Perú—probably from swallowing some water during one of my Amazon swims.]

So Jeff saves the day with his wonder-drug from the U.S., right? Well, not exactly. I did explain to Magesh the relationship between ulcers and Helicobacter pylori, and I gave him the cipro with instructions on how to take it (not with milk) and told him that once he starts he must continue the treatment for the entire 20-day period. But over the next day or two I would ask him if he started the treatment, and he would give an excuse of not knowing how the drug should be taken—with meals or on an empty stomach.

At that point the cipro might have helped Magesh in three ways: addressing the cause of his ulcers (assuming that it was bacterial), helping to heal his foot injury, and also possibly knocking down the cause of his fever, which I feared may have been bacterial having gained entry through the wound’s exposure to river water during the past week’s collecting trips. In fact, Magesh’s increasing reluctance to enter the water (because of his foot injury) was becoming a burden for Dr. Mani, who was counting on the two scholars for carrying out tasks, many of which required wading. It may have been the threat of not being allowed to continue with the fieldwork that finally induced Magesh to start taking the antibiotics a couple of days later. I have no idea if he completed the course as I directed or if there was ever any improvement in his ulcers.


Fort Cochin, Kerala

Upon arriving in Ernakulam, we had a long and bumpy mototaxi ride to our hotel in the Cherai Beach area. There was a moment of tension when the driver decided he wanted an extra 50 rupees—450 instead of the previously agreed upon 400—because we had made him wait while we took dinner (the hotel’s restaurant was closed and they advised us that food would not be available on our arrival). I think Arun and Magesh felt that the driver was taking advantage of the foreigner in this party. Maybe he was, but 450 rupees is $8 plus change and it was very late. I did my best to wiggle my head in the correct way as if to say, “Everything’s cool” and paid the driver the extra 90 cents. The hotel itself was a pretty posh joint, and it even had its own wi-fi (it was there that I made the first couple of posts from India to this blog).