The adventures of Hunk McShunk

First– I forgot to mention a few of our most important books in my reading post.

Right now I’m reading Amitar Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies set in the era before the first Opium War, and really loving it. So much history and very beautifully written.

Sea of Poppies

But the books that are keeping us entertained on a daily basis are these little gems we picked up in Denmark. They feature the beloved bear cub Rasmus Klump and as they’re in Danish, we have only the images to guide us on his adventures. Alice loves to regale us with the tales of “Hunk McShunk” as she calls him. How do a bear, a penguin, and a pelican all live in the same climate? Is that dog gigantic or just badly drawn? Did his rocket really take him to the moon? We don’t have answers to these questions. Sometimes you go with whatever works.

Hunk McShunk

So much has been happening that I’ve struggled to keep up with posts. We have been busy in the last month since our trip to Kochi.

A few days after our return, my colleague Dr. Jaya took Mike to meet the former director of the Tropical Botanical Research Institute, which was a great bit of networking for him. He has since signed up for a short course on Agro-Ecology Action Research (this announcement is from an earlier iteration) co-led by researchers from a Norwegian university that begins this week. He’s also trying to make connections to do a little volunteering with mangrove ecosystems while we’re here.

In research news, I have started to evaluate the debris picked up in master student Alwyn’s first cleanup at Kollam beach. He is going to make this study the focus of his own work, but I asked to use what he found to complete a brand analysis.

A brand analysis is when you evaluate the material collected and record which brands are being found among the debris. When you think about it, producers wrap their products in material that will take from dozens to thousands of years to break down and then walk away. It is consumers and communities who must contend with the costs of disposing of what everyone knows is a material that will pollute our soil and water for generations. The producers glean the benefits—the costs are all passed on to taxpayers, communities, governments, and our great great great grandchildren and beyond.

So, I am working with students to record the brands within what we found to publish an analysis, hopefully to highlight how unsustainable this is.


In the last few weeks the University of Kerala hosted a lecture series with noted coastal oceanographer and ecohydrologist Eric Wolanski from Australia’s James Cook University. He has published a bit on modeling the dispersal of marine litter, but this is just a tiny fraction of his hundreds of publications, which cover many many topics. He has over 18,000 citations of his work! It boggles the mind. His lecture series was integrated into a national seminar on the environmental status of estuarine and coastal ecosystems in India. I was able to present an overview of my own work at the seminar and to hear presentations from local researchers and students.

Top left, then clockwise: Everyone wore sarees for the first day, which was really amazing; Eric is presenting my statue for being an invited speaker; lighting the ceremonial candles; more students in sarees, and me speaking.

The entire event has led to some neat collaboration opportunities with faculty and students here, which is exactly what the Fulbright folks hope will happen as a result of the exchange program, so it’s a real boon for me.

At the end of that week, we took the kids to Kovalam for a night to enjoy the beach. We looked for a “hotel” that was inexpensive and very close to the beach, which is exactly what we got. I’m not sure we’d go back to that particular spot, but it was a fun and relaxing trip. While there were some tourists, it wasn’t as overwhelming as Varkala had been, and the food was excellent. Beachside services included deliveries of chai and coffee from the man who rents beach chairs and umbrellas, and fresh fruit plates of papaya, pineapple, and mango. It really could not be beat.

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Fresh crab grilled with a garlic sauce

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Panoramic view of the beach

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The kids being observed at play by a nice group of ladies.


Upon returning, I spent a day with Dr. Jaya and students collecting at our neighborhood Menamkulam Beach. We found a great deal of material, which we’re still sorting through and counting. We also visited Shankamugham Beach that day, the Shangamugham art museum, which had an amazing show of Indian artists, and then the Biodiversity Museum in Trivandrum proper.

From top left, clockwise: Menamkulam waves and Menamkulam Beach, students at the shark sculpture at Shankamugham Beach, a piece of art from the museum, and the biodiversity museum’s entrance. 

If that wasn’t enough, the week ended with Leslie and Philip arriving from Hartford by way of Mumbai and Bangalore! Leslie and I have worked together at Uhart for the last ten years and fortunately, Philip’s work coincided with our time here. They brought Cheerios and left their spare travel medicines—what more could you ask for? We also loved hearing about their experiences in Mumbai and Bangalore, which are very different from Kerala. Together we visited Ponmudi Hill Station just at the edge of the Western Ghats.


2019-03-23 11.15.57The River County Resort is a little riverside compound accessible only by a walking bridge (the luggage comes across in a wheelbarrow, thoughtfully lined with a cloth. It is surrounded by mango, cocoa, and palms. They served up a series of excellent meals that kept us happy and full.

Alice at Meenmutty, together with me, and with the supermodel/forest officer who works there. 

We were able to view a little wildlife (primates, birds, and bugs), visit Meenmutty Waterfall, and take the twenty-two hairpin turn drive up the mountain to Ponmudi.

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River County is just to the left of this photo, taken from the walking bridge

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Primate by Meenmutty Falls

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Big guy meets bigger tree (it’s a Kapok, for the record)


It was an adventure—they label each of the twenty-two turns, which allows you to track your progress. This can be a mixed blessing. Ponmudi itself was awe-inspiring.


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There was a lot of throwing arms wide to the open sky on the mountain top

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In this case with dad saying, “get down, NOW, before you fall”

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A panoramic from one side of Ponmudi



Overall it was a relaxing trip—it wasn’t much cooler in the mountains, but a heavy rain on Saturday night was a welcome relief. Visiting with Philip and Leslie was a true delight, and as the parents of two adult kids, they could roll with the craziness you encounter when traveling with a family.

And we even managed to take a couple of selfies before they had to be off.

The kids are thrilled that their school year is winding up—Alice will be done by mid-April and William by the end of April. James’ exams will conclude in April, and then the students begin working on their ninth grade curriculum for the month of May. He is lobbying hard to skip this “extra” material, despite being reminded that he is actually finishing up his school year a month early.

Our neighbors have all finished their exams: the International School is on a slightly altered calendar. It was pretty amazing to learn that none of the neighbor kids were able to play in the afternoon for the month preceding their finals. Instead, they spent every single afternoon and most weekend days preparing for their examinations. As one father explained to me at the playground, “jobs are very competitive and to get them you have to have high marks.”


The system is quite different here—in most US states, the idea of a comprehensive final exam that measures all your knowledge on a topic each year seems, well, incomprehensible. We’re thrilled that the kids get to experience this system and see how seriously their new friends take their education. For the record, I haven’t noticed any of this academic seriousness rubbing off on our kids, but I am hopeful they will take it in and remember it.


We are actively seeking camp opportunities here so that Mike and I can do the work we need to do in the coming weeks.


Mike has been busy finishing up what seems to be the world’s longest literature review. His first draft was given a big thumbs up from his advisors, so he’s really happy. He’s polishing it up and prepping for the experiments he will run upon our return. We’re also both working to establish long-term contacts and collaborations here that we hope will allow us to return for many years to come.


If you can believe it, we’re just now passing the halfway point of our adventure!

We’ve bought most of the tickets home, and will be visiting Karen and family in Laos for a few days…


Creative commons photo by laotian4laotian

Making a quick jaunt to Tokyo to hopefully see the Ghibli museum, or maybe just cry outside the gates if we can’t get tickets


Ghibli Museum creative commons photo

Then flying via Honolulu to Alaska for a week.

If someone has ideas for twelve (potentially cranky) hours in Honolulu, send them along.

From there we will fly back to Hartford in time to catch the last wisp of the Connecticut summer.

It will be here before we know it!





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