And, some photos

Phillip sent along some of his photos from the trip and we had to share.

It’s so nice to have someone capture the family with a real camera!


The kids playing in the river near our accommodations near Ponmudi– yes, that’s real river debris sitting next to them. It’s everywhere.


Willy’s first instinct was to build a dam!


Best. Christmas Card. Ever.

Truly, one for the album– if we had such a thing. Alice is falling, James is hanging upside down, I’m supporting Alice and Willy is …managing!


Big guy with big rocks: Ponmudi.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The boys would have gone off exploring for hours if we’d let them. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Alice loved meeting this family– several of the women were wearing beautiful pink dresses and that was all it took to enchant her. Here we are asking the kids their ages. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The view over the bridge to the River County Resort.

Willy on Malayalam

A short interview with Willy about learning Malayalam.

Q: What do you think about Malayalam so far?

A: Well, it’s complicated. It’s different than English in many ways, but overall fun to learn.

Q: When I look at the letters, I can’t see letters– how do you learn a whole new alphabet?

A: During every class I basically learn a new letter set. I copy down those letters all through about two pages of my notebook. Then the next lesson, I copy all the letters I’ve learned so far.

Q: What’s a letter set? In ABCs we learn them in one big group.

A: So there are  groups of letters and you learn them differently. You learn the vowels as one group, but for the consonants each row is one set.

Consonants: വ്യഞ്ജനങ്ങൾ (pronounced venginakswara)



Vowels: സ്വരാക്ഷരങ്ങൾ (pronounced swarakshara)



Q: I still see the letters as pictures, so I think “bug head,” “squiggly B,” and “golden arches,” when I see some of the letters– do you use pictures to remember them, or do you see them as sounds now?

A: At the very beginning when I only knew 8 letters, I associated their names with their shape. The first letter [rha] is a simple arch. When I saw it, I connected it with the picture of a rising sun and the Egyptian sun god Ra.

Q: That’s a great way to remember it.

A: I know. For my second letter [na], I was stuck. I couldn’t associate two arches with anything. This is the one you called “golden arches.” I eventually just remembered them.

willy malayalam

Q: Do you think you’ll learn Malayalam while you’re here?

A: Fluently, no, but I’ve already picked up some useful phrases like:

Hello (Namaskardam)

How are you (Sugmarnoh) and  I’m Fine (Sugmarnoo)

What’s your name (Peru Endarnuh) and My name is ______ (Ente Peru ______)

A: I’ve also learned some words that I can recognize when my friend Shambhu and his family talk to each other, especially the names of family members. I found it interesting that the word for younger brother and younger sister are very similar. And older brother and older sister are very similar.





Elder Brother-Cheyta

Elder Sister-Cheychee

Younger Brother-Aniyan

Younger Sister-Aniyathi


See how some Malayalam letters are made here.

“Close all the doors and windows, the bees are hunting”

Sunil makes this pronouncement, then hangs up the phone.

Our caretaker is a man of few words.

This message about the bees is not totally surprising, as we have noticed a lot of honeybee activity in the last week. We’ve found anywhere from 1 to 3 inside our house each night as the sun sets. Having bees up at the 13th floor seems strange. It’s not totally out of left field, though, as our neighbor, delightful fourth grader Shambu, mentioned in passing that Sunil had to remove a large hive from the floor above ours last year. We close the doors and windows and seem to have escaped a hive that may or may not be seeking new digs. For this day.

I am a lifelong lover of all things insect, and while I’ll take beetles over ants any day, I do love a good ant. Much of this is to do with my deep affection for the myrmecologist E.O. Wilson. I even have a copy of his treatise The Ants, co written with Bert Hölldobler. It won the Pulitzer for non fiction in 1991. Have I read it cover to cover… no. At 700+ pages and weighing in at over seven pounds, I have not. I only own it because in the late 1990s a guy I was dating said he wanted to buy me “something expensive” and it was the only thing I could think of. Ugh. Glad that didn’t work out. Back to the point. I hope this demonstrates that I am okay with ants, generally speaking. But the ants in India have been a bit much. There are many species. Allow me to describe them to you, not in scientific terms, and in no way informed by Wilson and Hölldobler’s The Ants.

There are large red ants which reside all around the playground– they crawl along the walls. They also create bundles of leaves in the trees above the playground, which leads us to believe they are weaver ants. It can be disconcerting to have them drop onto you as you stand under the trees. At *least* they are large and you can bat them off pretty quickly. It’s something.

There are the small red ants that I found on the tea kettle last week. I didn’t realize they’d been hanging out there until it was much too late. This is a plug-in-the-wall kettle, and it was well on its way to a hard boil before I noticed the macabre rave happening on the lid– two dozen small red ants frenetically moving faster and faster on a burning hot dance floor. It wasn’t pleasant, but was kind of fascinating to watch. After a nice cup of tea I calmed right down.

There are the pale brown small (thankfully) non stinging ants that reside in my office. They blend in with the brown and gray tablecloth that covers my desk/table. So much so that it might take a moment to realize the whole surface is moving. They are opportunists who will flood the room if even a crumb is left behind. Forget having an office stash of snacks. If an unnamed husband accidentally leaves his lunch container in said office and only realizes after returning home, then one must encourage the unnamed husband to make a hurried call to a colleague to remove it from the office immediately. Or so I imagine.

These may be the same ants that crawled in and out of my computer with regularity the first month I was here. There is a thing, apparently, with ants being attracted to electronics. If you don’t live in a region with the Rasberry crazy ant count yourself lucky. But don’t get too snooty about it, thanks to climate change you will meet them one day.  When they come in contact with electronics and complete the circuit, they are fried– but they leave a pheromone signal that attracts other ants, furthering the cycle. Crazy ants are not here, but the phenomenon of ants sending a signal from my computer to other ants seemed to be happening for about a month. I wiped the machine down daily for a while and it seems to have stopped the cycle. Big sigh of relief.

Some of the worst are very small black ants that we encounter often. About the size of a typical flea, they can be found in your house or out in the wilds. My first interaction came when I was trying to discuss the Indian school system with a parent at the playground. About halfway through our conversation I noticed a stinging on my neck, a few minutes later, one on my chest, then on my torso, then my side. I tried to wrap up the conversation to get back home. I assume I had brushed up against a bush or they had fallen from a tree. The initial sting is painful, but it’s the second day that it really hurts– that’s when the quarter-sized swelling produces a terribly intense itching that lasts for days.

Another ant can also be found in our home– it’s pale like the office ant but engages in different behavior. We’ve found these ants on two occasions. We tend to hang on to the boxes for electronic equipment– not sure why. Maybe we’re still working under the delusion that things aren’t designed for the dump (don’t get me started on planned obsolescence). Twice, a family member has gone to pick up one of these boxes, only to find (after lifting it from the shelf) that something small and pale was … dripping isn’t the right word, but it’s almost the right word… let’s go with… dripping from the box. After a quick run to the porch and a swift opening of the box, we found the ants had overtaken the space to create a large nest. The ant eggs were the pale drips cascading from the lifted box. You know, like one might experience in a HORROR MOVIE. Twice was more than enough to encourage us to clear all of the electronics boxes from the apartment.

The most common house ant is a bit different from all of these. It’s darker brown than the office ant, but not black or red. It does not sting. These ants tend to have a trail marching toward and from the compost bin and trashcan at all times. For these we wipe the trail down each day, and they begin again. They at least keep to the kitchen area. If someone forgets to put the lid on the compost it turns into a real party up in there, but for the most part we hold them at bay.

This is just the tip of the Indian ant iceberg. A listing of common ants doesn’t even mention most of these pedestrian house varieties. We are learning a lot about this branch of the insect family– though you won’t catch me saying I’m eager to meet them all.

Weaver ants from the playground

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!





Students learn by doing– but when it comes to marine debris, do they also get depressed?

For my National Geographic grant I have signed up for a blog writing bootcamp– and I need to post my assignment! Enjoy!

Perhaps our experience ebbs and flows like the tide, pulling us in surprising ways: depressing us, enlightening us, and empowering us all at once.

For now, that’s what I’ll believe.

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What we’re reading

We are long overdue for a real post about our lives– we’ve had a jam-packed month of conferences, research, data collection, and article writing. We’ll post a real update with photos soon– until then, take a gander at what we’re reading.

We’re all readers but we didn’t bring many books with us to India– so we’ve bought a few books along the way to entertain us. Here are some of our favorite finds.

We’ve gotten a couple of coloring books, and the coolest part is the way they spell it.

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A fact book to teach us all about our temporary home– we love DK series and this is packed with info that helps us all get up to speed on the long and complex history of this beautiful country.

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One for mom– not connected to India– but I wanted to see if any of du Maurier’s books can match the wonder that is Rebecca. Haven’t started it yet, but can’t wait.

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This great book has activities and puzzles, mostly geared toward Willy’s age group, but we’ve all had fun working on it. We bought two different themes (this one is festivals and celebrations) and they are superb.

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A sparrow travels through India and shares all kinds of exciting information! Alice loves it.

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Hoping to entice James and Willy with this one… fingers crossed.

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For the grownups– so much history, so little time to read it.

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Some fun mysteries for me, set in the region.

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It is easy to find British writers here and I love a good Agatha Christie. This one is new to me and I’m hoping to read it soon.

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A slightly more modern history– only a few hundred years!

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This publisher has great stories with folklore and folktales– the kids love these– usually  feature a morality tale that ends with a wedding of the hero and heroine! Of course they do!

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I got about 3/4 through this one. I wanted to be a little more surprised about the solution of the mystery, but it was okay. LOVE the cover, the title. and the premise (a police inspector forced into early retirement becomes a private detective, aided by a baby elephant). C’mon. You cannot go wrong with that!

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This I loved and highly recommend. A great little mystery set in 1920s Bombay that was delightful. I cannot wait for her next Perveen Mistry novel, which comes out soon. The crux of the story involves the intricacies of inheritance law, which doesn’t sound super exciting, but it was. Sujata Massey has written loads of books, so I’m thrilled to find a new author to follow.

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Still working our way through this one, which is Alice’s current bedtime read. It’s just starting to pick up and we’re enjoying it. It’s a Victorian era tale with a cast of nutty characters, including a re-animated Wooly Mammoth, written by the comic David Walliams.

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A gift from a colleague from Tasmania, where this book is set, that follows the history of the people who have lived at an island lighthouse over hundreds of years. Loved the story and the way it was constructed– so much so that I wanted to re-read it as soon as I’d finished.

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Imagine a book that seems as if it was created by Person #1 watching Disney movies without the sound and then relaying the story to Person #2, who then writes, illustrates, and compiles the tales but limits themselves to one page per story. 



Then some of the stories are a medley of themes and fairy tale tropes, mixed and blended in surprising ways. I mean, it is 101 Fairy Tales, which is a lot when you think about it.


It is really something else and makes for an exciting read. Alice loves it, especially the creatively licensed Disney-like princesses. Sometimes we let her “read” us her version of the story, which produces almost the same result.


Hospitals and other zoos

We had our first visit to the hospital in India this week. Mike has been feeling off, at times with an elevated heart beat and a bit of dizziness. Because of the racing heart we thought it was important to get it checked out.

Taking Mike to a hospital is an adventure in itself.

One doctor took him onto a ward to lie down while another motioned me over, presumably to give pertinent medical information.

“You are from?” she asks.

“US,” I answer.

“And is this,” she waves a hand at Mike’s retreating back, “a normal size for people there?”

I don’t want to use the word abnormal, so I answer, “No, uh yes, I mean, he’s considered tall there.”

“And is the condition hereditary?” she inquires.

“Yes,” I respond, “He has four brothers and they are all tall– but he is the tallest.”

Once we had that sorted the medical examination could begin.

Let me help you envision what Mike looked like on the ward bed:

ned in bed

To be fair, he does not fit in hospital beds in the US either.

The doctors were all fantastic. They had a mobile ECG machine to take his vitals, did a quick jab for blood sugar (levels were low) and then gave him an IV of glucose. The consensus was that maybe it is a touch of vertigo, but probably more so that the heat is hitting him a little harder than the rest of us. We followed up with Dr. Krishna from the University on Thursday. He agreed that it wasn’t his heart but likely an inner ear issue with dehydration. Mike has been taking it easy since, staying cool when possible, and watching his water and electrolyte intake. The good news is that we now know a hospital in the neighborhood if we need one in an emergency. We paid out of pocket for these services to the tune of $19.


On Saturday we went early to the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo, which is one of the oldest in India. We have been meaning to visit since we arrived, but as we live a bit north of town, we needed to make an effort to get there. It is a large complex. Alice had a rough time getting ready– she wanted to wear her fancy dress.

Alice dress

We tried to explain that this is a nice dress, better suited to a party or a wedding. We reminded her that it would be hot at the zoo and this dress would be uncomfortable and very sweaty. After a good half hour we talked her down and got her into a simple cotton dress. Then we called an Uber to ride to the zoo. After being dropped off outside the gates, we turned the corner… only to see a group of at least fifty girls all wearing their very fanciest dresses. I gave Mike a signal, as if to say, Quick now, let’s get around this group before she notices.

But you know she noticed in a second. “These girls!” she shouted, “They’re wearing their dresses!”

“You’re right,” we said, “you can wear your fancy dress next time.” Because apparently it is a thing. Those kids must have been so hot and uncomfortable in their dresses, though, because it was incredibly muggy with no breeze stirring. Mike had to sit out  for a while. It’s a nice zoo, though they were working to renovate several areas and there were piles of construction materials here and there.

Triv ZooZoo fish

Actually the complex includes so much more than just a zoo. There is the Sri Chitra Art Gallery, The Napier Museum, and a Natural History Museum as well as parks, gardens, playgrounds, and what seemed like hundreds of tree specimens. Our plans were much less ambitious. All we could manage was the zoo.

Here is a bat-filled tree, some bears eating watermelon, a tiger, and a portly hippo. We got to see the tiger eat his dinner at close range. He feasted on huge hunks of meat of unknown origin. The tiger cages were quite small, causing them to pace around relentlessly. We’ve heard that Yann Martel based the tiger character of Richard Parker from The Life of Pi on a tiger from this zoo.

As dresses were the theme of the day, we thought it in keeping to ask an Indian woman in a beautiful dress to take a photo with Alice. Everyone is always asking us for photos, so we felt this was an acceptable request. We had been walking behind this couple for a while and she and her dress were just so lovely. They told us they’d just been married and so we shared our heartiest congratulations.

Alice and friend 1


The heat is building here and we can see the wetlands around our apartment drying up. The days are muggy with temperatures in the 90s.

This little adventure might be all we can manage for excursions beyond our home base for a few weeks. We’re looking forward to Connecticut friends Leslie and Phil visiting us in late March, when we’ll take a trip up to the hill station Ponmudi.


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

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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.

The Real or the Spectacular

I like to travel but dread being a tourist.

I don’t like crowds.

I don’t like getting the packaged ‘song and dance’ of any place.

If someone says, “if you go to (blank) you just have to (blank),” you can count me out.


I’d rather meet regular people and talk to them.

I’d rather find a weird restaurant that serves home cooking.

I’d rather get lost and discover something that’s not necessarily spectacular, but definitely real.

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This weekend we went to Varkala. I think by Indian tourism standards it’s not even that bad— it is not as crowded as Goa. It is not an enclave of only Europeans, as there were tons of both Indian and Western tourists. These photos don’t do it justice, because when in an actual crowd I am watching all three kids at once and not able to take photos.

That said this was by far the most interaction we’ve had with Western tourist crowds since we arrived six weeks ago. With all the baggage that goes along with that.


It meant we had to be wary of our belongings more. We saw beggars for the first time. There were dozens of feral dogs. People tried to sell us t-shirts and cheap drums and ice cream and rides to “an elephant festival” and a “silk sleeping bag.” Those were a no, a yes, a hard yes, a no, and a yes (it’s as ridiculous as it sounds: a rectangle shaped cloth envelope. We got three of them).

There weren’t any seabirds– none– but there was an employee of the hotel restaurant whose task was to use a slingshot to keep back the crows that threatened to overtake the open-air dining room. In other words, Willy found his dream job.

“You have to be careful,” the young man told us, “that you don’t hit the people.”


Periodically a small bus would stop at the beachside road and vomit out another two dozen tourists. In one batch, backpackers, their lives squashed into enormous packs that towered over their shoulders and threatened to teeter over. Later, a group of yoga enthusiasts with mats, loose-fitting clothing, tattoos, and manbuns abounding, marching like ants toward some destination down the boardwalk.


Among the crowd were some odd folk.

How best to put it… walking around Varkala made me want to review the FBIs most wanted list. You know, just in case I could lend a hand. There were very sketchy Western folks in abundance—and I say this as someone who happily lived on Folly Beach in South Carolina in the 1990s and thought it was grand. I can handle weird, old, kooky, quirky crackpots. But some of these folks looked like they were running. Running from something terrible.


The Indians we met were nice, but at times the attention became overwhelming. We were as friendly as we are at our home base. But of course we’re protected in Trivandrum. In Trivandrum we are surrounded by our lovely neighbors and colleagues. Yes, if I wait on a corner for James’ bus, people will point, but our friends and neighbors here treat us like humans and not like a zoo exhibit. At Varkala we became exhausted with the requests for selfies. People would form crowds and stand near us, hovering and watching as we spent time on the beach. I’m not exactly sure why. There were certainly other westerners around to observe.


I don’t want it to sound as if we didn’t have fun. The hotel was great and we loved its restaurant. Admittedly, it was a bit of a red flag when they ask how I wanted my eggs Benedict cooked. But we were comfortable. We were close to the beach. The shells were amazing. We enjoyed everything we ate. Many of the people we met were friendly and we learned a lot from them.


Like the very kind pair of Indian gentlemen who came to talk to Alice and me while the guys swam. I pointed out the clay pots the children had been finding as the tide went out. We could see them in the shallows, and the kids began fishing them up, making a row on the sand. By this point we’d lined up half a dozen. Several of them were still whole and we couldn’t believe our luck. We planned to bring them back with us.

Clay pot

“What are they for?” I asked, “These pots. Do you use them for baking?”

Rajeesh shook his head, his eyes veering skyward as he searched for the right words, “No, these are for when the people have died, and we burn the bodies.”


My jaw dropped, “You mean to say, these have been used as urns, for cremated humans?”


“Yes!” he said, smiling that we were communicating and I understood.


“Oh no, no no no,” I said, aghast, “but are these sacred, have we destroyed something sacred?” Surely this is not what the Fulbright people had in mind for our cultural exchange.


“No, it’s okay,” he told me, “it’s not sacred.”


Despite Rajeesh’s assurances we did not bring the clay pots home.


We did meet regular people and talk to them.

We found a weird restaurant that served somebody’s version of home cooking.

We experienced the real more than the spectacular.


That’s something, right?


The food, y’all, the food

We like Indian food. Ha! Even as I type that I have to laugh to myself, because yes, we like Indian food, but of course in INDIA it’s just food, and it’s what’s available morning, noon, and night. With few other options. Because it is India. So, liking Indian food in the sense that you order it once a month is not the same as being here. Of course it isn’t!

“But the food,” the mothers say to me at the playground in the evening, “how is it for your family with the food?”

“Good,” I answer, “we like Indian food,” I say, “but we’re not accustomed to eating very spicy things at every meal.” They nod along. The constant onslaught of very spicy things can be overwhelming. To us at least.

One afternoon some very kind neighbors took us to their restaurant and ordered a selection of options for us. It was incredibly generous and thoughtful, but we were not in control of the spiciness. James was a champ, literally sweating through an amazingly spicy but very tasty chicken dish.

We have become masters at remembering the dishes at each restaurant that haven’t been too spicy. If they were consistently not spicy, this would be the perfect solution. Instead it’s always a bit of a gamble. We order a lot of Uber eats and switch out the Indian options for the Arabic menu on occasion because they are flavorful but not as hot. During our first week here we had Pizza Hut at the mall. It is a testament to our desperation to eat anything remotely like pizza that we ate every bite. And loved it.

A colleague from India warned us that we should be very cautious of eating any beef or pork here. Depending on the community it could be culturally offensive, which is reason enough, but it also might not be as safe as the meat we encounter in the US. We’ve seen bacon on the menu of a couple of hotels, but are always told it’s “currently unavailable.” I secretly wonder if it is ever available. If you order sausage, it will absolutely be chicken. The same goes for any “burger” you see.

At hotels we are treated to a mix of Indian and Continental options at the breakfast bar—idly and chapati, chutneys and curries, but also omelets, toast, and something like a croissant. Fresh juices are always available, but sometimes the flavor is unexpected. Thinking I was getting watermelon juice one day, I was sorely disappointed to realize I’d fixed myself a large glass of tomato juice. V-8 it was not. Actual tomato juice isn’t salty at all and is a little tough to chug. Especially if you were hoping for watermelon.

The traditional Kerala food is perhaps our favorite. I love it because there is a mix of options. Served on these large divided metal plates, you’re presented with a heaping helping of rice and then a mix of sides. Something green, something red, something yogurt based. A platter of additional dishes is brought over. I always go for the dal (lentil) one because it is mild (at least at our canteen—not true at all restaurants). What each dish is exactly, I am not sure, but they’re all beautifully prepared and delicious. I love to go to the campus canteen for this specialty. The first day, my friend Hassena helped me order a fish to go with my meal. I’ve ordered fish twice since on my own, and never gotten the same thing. Once it was a full pan-friend fish. Once it was a small dish of small fried fish. Another time it was a dish of spicy fish curry swimming with wee fish skeletons.

Leaving food on your plate is very rude here. I have tried to moderate the amount of rice I’m served with the Kerala meal, as it can be daunting if someone gives you a large amount (which they love to do). Servers walk around the restaurant with huge stainless steel bowls of rice to give you seconds. When at a restaurant we always ask to bring any of our leftovers home, horrified to imagine people will think we waste food.

Sidebar: that food is called “take away” not “to go.” Willy loves the differences in language and likes to point them out. It’s a lift, not an elevator. A flat, not an apartment. Maths not math. Specs not glasses.

There is so much food still to discover! Just today our dear neighbor Shambu brought by Payasam made by his grandmother. It’s a kind of porridge (with rice or vermicelli) with sweetened milk and cardamom, served hot after a meal.

Here is a selection of photos from some of the amazing food experiences we have had:


Visit to the tea shop for tea and vadas (a savory fried item).




Fruit and veg, only some of which we can identify! Those are gooseberries on the right top corner and jackfruit on the bottom right.



Fresh cane juice with lemon, mint, and ginger.


Fish available at the local shop.



Fried fish at the campus canteen, kerala meals, a different fish at the campus canteen, and another example of kerala meals.



Payasam made fresh by Shambu’s grandmother (which Willy tells me is amuma in Malayalam) served in this great little canister that you can place right on the stove to heat up.

Edited: I forgot the best part– Kerala meals are eaten without utensils. For the first few days we were here, we didn’t totally realize this, as we were in hotels and because we also eat so early (they eat lunch at 1 PM or later not noon, and dinner later than our 6 or 6:30). Initially, we didn’t comprehend how it would even work. We have many hand-held foods of course, but rice with curries? The cool thing is that they have everything set up to make it easy. First, in restaurants there are open rooms of sinks where everyone goes to wash their hands before they dine. It is as if there was a “bathroom” with no door, filled solely with sinks. It’s great– and as a mom I’m always thrilled to see hand washing made a part of a meal. It is customary to only eat with your right hand, for reasons I’m not going to delve into on a post about food.

How does it work? You may be thinking. For one thing, the rice served with the Kerala meal is a larger variety than we’re used to. It is not basmati, though basmati is served with other dishes. It looks almost like hominy. In the world of rice grains, it’s an easy to grab variety.

Yes, Katharine, but how?

Well, if you’re hungry– you figure it out. You pull your fingers together and create a little scoop, and scoop it up to your mouth. It’s not a free-for-all of food flying. It’s not particularly messy. Yes, your right hand has food on it, but you proceed through the meal and then visit the washroom again. The first time we tried this at a restaurant, we did not know what we were doing. We plowed through the napkins, which do not help the situation. It was a sticky, uncomfortable mess. After that we followed cues from our Kerala friends and did not introduce napkins into the equation.

Our friend Mani told us that people here don’t believe you have really tasted a meal unless you have eaten it with your hands. They consider it a part of the culinary sensory experience, as you would tastebuds, smell, and the texture you experience from food in your mouth.

He has a point. So try it the next time you have a rice dish– but please do wash your hands before and after.

More to come!