Wayanad

10/03/2014

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.

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