Coastal Kerala and the Jan Shatabdi Express

“Lays! Biscuits! Chocolate!” the man calls, hefting an enormous crate on his shoulder as he walks the aisle of the Jan Shatabdi Express.

Milky Bars

He was but one of the half dozen or so gentleman plying wares on the train. One man with fried bananas, one had vada, a sort of savory donut, one samosas, one had “cutlets” (fried again, but we opted for no on that one, unsure of what kind of cutlet to expect). At lunch time they bring through biryani and sandwiches. If you wave them over for these delicacies, they prop the enormous tray or crate they’ve been carrying on their head or shoulder onto the back of your seat to make the transaction.


The parents were most thrilled when the coffee man and the chai man came through—they each carry a large urn in one arm and a stack of small paper cups in the other. If you stop them, they serve up their drink one way—with milk and sugar—and it’s great. You had better believe that the kids were most interested when Mr. Lays! (That’s potato chips) Biscuits! (That’s cookies) and Chocolate! came through. We had to pull Alice aside to explain why it was rude to signal to this man as if she were buying something every time he passed. We did, of course, get something on both the trip to Kochi and our journey back—but he knew a mark when he saw one– and must have walked through our cabin two dozen times during the trip. It was a rollercoaster of delight and disappointment.

We were on the train because last week I had the pleasure of presenting at a Fulbright conference held at the very schmancy Le Meridien hotel in Kochi. It was a fun experience to meet other scholars based in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan and their families! We have been communicating with some of these families, so we already knew that our kids and husbands would be spending a lot of time by the pool. The dads rallied one day to take the kids to Wonderla amusement park and you can bet they thought it was more fun than anything at the conference, even the pool, the tire swing, and the climbing trees.

Only Alice and Willy accompanied us, though, as James’ school took a trip to the hill stations of Ooty and Wayanad.  As a {relatively} normal thirteen year old, he much preferred to take a school trip than go to a conference with his family. It was a great opportunity for him. No phones were allowed, which was a smart move on the teachers’ part. Instead, the teachers created a large WhatsApp chat and shared photos of the group and updates. That’s when we came to understand that James had immediately used his pocket money to buy a rainbow wig that he wore throughout the trip. I said relatively normal thirteen year old.

James Wig

It was an amazing adventure to a tea plantation, waterfalls, an amusement park, and nature areas in the Western Ghats.

Since the Kochi conference was not discipline-specific, it was an amazing opportunity to learn about the research of other scholars in the program. I was able to see presentations ranging from a man studying Elephant conservation in Sri Lanka to a woman who was in India to learn about the way fabric is made and sold. There was also a woman studying a mid-century modern furniture maker in Mumbai who had preserved images of their designs in gorgeous watercolor (The photos! Amazing!) and a student studying DJ schools. Yes, there are DJ schools in India. It was a lot of fun to learn more about Fulbright and also to be in a bit of an American bubble for a few days.

Since we arrived, Mike has been knee deep in a review of all the research on mycorrhizal networks. He is working nonstop to learn everything he can about this research and taking the time to plan the perfect masters project. Good times.

Now that some of the student exams have ended I have been able to visit several beaches and to engage in a couple of debris cleanups. In addition, I’ve made visits to schools, made presentations, and even had a chance to take part in a press conference with USIEF at Kochi. Here are a few shots of the work I’ve been doing.

Thangassery Beach, sorely in need of a cleanup.

Thangassery Beach

Here’s our first collection at Kollam beach…


including the well-deserved lunch after.

Me with the amazing Dr Jaya

2019-02-22 07.54.18-1

Making a speech on the spot at the Vidyasadan school.

Vidyasadan School


Collaborating with students and divers from Bond Ocean Safari on a cleanup at Kovallam beach.

Here’s the beach itself, a sort of cove near a fancy 5-star hotel.

Kovallam Beach

Here is the amazing team and just a bit of what we found.

We could also watch the fishermen at work.

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Here they are prepping the net where they’ll dump the catch.

And I’m excited to announce that, working with colleagues at the University of Kerala, I applied to a National Geographic explorer grant under their plastic pollution program. I never imagined that I could even apply for an Explorer grant, because to me that means you’re trekking in the Arctic or studying tree snakes in Borneo. As they’ve focused on plastic pollution in the last few years, they now have grants in my field. I applied and got the grant. Yay! Now if we could just get the complicated paperwork aspects of a multi-national project sorted out, we’ll get to invite 100 teachers from across India to Kerala to take part in a training workshop.

2019-02-05 12.06.15All cover images the intellectual property of National Geographic– these are just to show a few of my favorite issues of all time. 


That pretty much wraps up our February– lots of good food, many grand adventures, hard work all the way around, and we’re ready for even more in the four months to come.

4 thoughts on “Coastal Kerala and the Jan Shatabdi Express

    1. We’re having a good time overall. Lots of adventures! I know– that wig. It’s something else. I told him, that’s the one thing you could have bought that is available in our home town! But to him it will always be from India. :0)


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