I like to think that we, as a species, are capable of great things. In a very short amount of time, humans have mastered the ability to quickly traverse the furthest reaches of the globe and beyond. It is my belief that we travellers are responsible for positively influencing the world around us while being receptive to the lessons it has to offer us.
Growing up, whenever my father had to take my brother and I out of school to go on some trip to a remote corner of the planet he often remarked, “Never let school get in the way of a good education!” He’s been traveling his whole life, some 150 different countries as a human, 120 as a sea turtle. More on that later.
Yes, there is much to learn while traveling. One thing I have found is that some places—situations, rather—are conducive to strong magnetism. This is usually because of the people you meet while you’re there, and the friendships and experiences that are made. We create black holes, centres of gravity that grow out of our hearts, latch onto a location or an event, and pull us back after we’ve left. For me, Panama, Costa Rica, Chicago, New York City, Herndon, Colombia, Istanbul, and now India.
As a traveller, the first question you’re most frequently asked by strangers, especially if you’re light-skinned and racially ambiguous like me, is “Where are you from?”. That one’s easy. I came to India nearly seven months ago from Washington DC with my partner, Radhika, and spent the first two weeks traveling through Gujarat with her to visit family in Ahmedabad, Surat, and Vadodara. Then I planted my feet in Bangalore, Karnataka for an extended visit to the Dakshin Foundation. Dakshin is a non-profit, non-governmental organization and a charitable trust whose mission is to inform and advocate conservation and natural resource management while promoting and supporting sustainable livelihoods, social development, and environmental justice. I took that blurb from their website.
The second question you get as a foreigner is usually “Why are you here?” and for me the answer was never a simple one-liner, and I never feel prepared. I feel like most people usually have very direct responses, such as “I’m here on vacation,” or “I’m attending a five-day conference my company paid for,” or “I’m an assassin and my target is here in the city.” In my case I usually piece together a response from the myriad pull factors that brought me here. Of course, there was Radhika and learning more about her culture, but I was also interested in visiting colleagues, playing and writing music, learning new customs, volunteering, making new friends, general tourism; but the true answer invariably led back to one thing: turtles.
I bet you think I’m spinning a yarn, but I dare you to think again. Since my father’s metamorphosis, we have accumulated a treasure trove of digital assets. As a creative writer, musician, and artist, I have taken it upon myself, with a little help from my friends, to mobilize this content through a global social media campaign. But how to begin? You’d think that a traveling sea turtle would get more attention when it poses in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Colosseum, but you’d be surprised.
I came to India with the intent of weaving a new narrative for Mr. Leatherback, one that promoted ocean conservation and cemented his legacy as a flagship species and motivator of positive behaviour change. It’s a work in progress. I treated this Mr. Leatherback mission like any art project – because that’s what I know best. Like any painting, song, or story, the process determines the end result, and I was walking into unfamiliar territory. I needed to learn more, see more.
My contacts at Dakshin had given me a place to stay and work in the outskirts of the city, my own home base, and in return I made myself available to them however I could. I worked closely with Manini Bansal, a fellow artist and the managing editor of Current Conservation magazine, alongside a few other talented creatives to reinvigorate the magazine’s social media presence. We were part of the newly designated Art, Community and Engagement (ACE) programme. I brushed up on what Radhika, a lady in tech, had taught me about User Experience Design, shared my knowledge, developed new skills, and learned how to use efficient tools to begin the Mr. Leatherback project. But I still needed a story to tell.
So I had this mission, sure, but you know what they say about all work and no play. After all, I was in India! I wanted to see as much of it as I could, meet people, make friends, visit temples, see ruins, learn some dance moves, and eat with my hands! I did my best to say “yes!” to everything that came my way.
Third on the list of frequently asked questions is “Is this your first time in India?” and the answer is “No.” In 2010, I attended the International Sea Turtle Symposium in Goa, India, to present a film I had helped produce with an organization called Ocean Revolution. The film explored the cultural ties the Guna people of Panama have with marine life. I had lived for two months in the Caribbean archipelago with the Guna Indians, conducting interviews with local leaders, learning their customs, and traveling along the coast to visit their villages. I returned several times since to follow up on the conservation initiatives that were happening there, and I became very familiar with the intimate relationships that exist between humans and the ocean.
The bottom line: we depend on the oceans. Even if we never see their shores, everything from the food we eat to the air we breathe is connected to the health of our seas.
The fourth and perhaps final question is “What do you do back in America?” This question is usually followed up by a curiosity of how much things cost in North America compared to India, but I won’t get into that here. Before I came to India, I was a music instructor who coached bands and taught piano and drums to students anywhere from the ages of 4 to 78. I loved my job, and over the course of a year I saved enough money to fund this journey.
My former occupation made introductions exciting and unusual for the fine people at Dakshin, most of whom were scientists and researchers. For the first month, even I was wondering what I was doing there. Luckily, Kartik Shanker, one of the founders of Dakshin whom I had known since I was a boy, was very keen on supporting conservation through the arts. This is how Current Conservation and the ACE program came to be.
In our Skype sessions prior to my leaving the states, Kartik expressed great enthusiasm about me joining a few jam sessions. He and his wife, Meera, welcomed me into their home like family, let me play their piano, fed me delectable home-cooked meals, and introduced me to all their friends. We shared many evening jam sessions and told stories into the late hours of the night. I couldn’t have asked for a better reception. I even started giving their son, Vishak, piano lessons to keep my teaching skills sharp.
It did not take long to become well acquainted with all the intriguing characters at Dakshin. I had come at the right time, before all the researchers planned to leave for their field sites. They were all working on something different and fascinating to me, and they knew how to have a fun time.
Know this: Scientists are party animals. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
As I revelled with my new friends, I learned of the many research projects happening around the country, and the process of my own project began to reveal itself. I wanted to experience it all, immerse myself in the action, see where conservation starts and what it looks like. My host, Muralidharan Manoharakrishnan (Murali for short), was the field director of Dakshin’s Biodiversity and Research Monitoring programme. He gave me some great advice and helped me chart a route to visit some of the field sites during the course of my seven-month long stay in India. It wasn’t long before I had a rough outline of what my trip was going to look like.
On planes, trains, boats, buses, and everything in between, I got where I needed to go and saw more of India than I ever expected to. In the end it panned out like this: Bangalore – Sri Lanka – The Andamans – Bangalore – Odisha – Delhi – Jaipur – Udaipur – Ahmedabad – Pune – Dandi Beach – Goa – Bangalore – Chennai – Bangalore – Ahmedabad – USA (home).
Lastly, something else that I have learned through my travels and in struggling to begin this story, is that the beginning is not necessarily the best place to start, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I jump back and forth through time as I tell my tale which begins near the end of my seven month journey through a wild country. Bear with me…
It is Monday, April 2, 2018. I have returned to Bangalore after a month of backpacking from Odisha to Goa. The image of a sea snake I nearly stepped on this morning at basecamp in Dandi Beach, Maharashtra is still burned into my retinas. I can’t wait to tell the story to my friends.
That night becomes an evening of long-time-no-see drinking with Murali, Chetan Rao, Manini, and several other friends. They take turns convincing me that I have one more trip across the country left in me, to Chennai. In my mind I think I’m too tired for another trip so soon, but after six months I’ve trained myself to ignore that whiny voice that wants to take it easy and have a nap. The trip to Chennai presents an opportunity to see baby turtles, so I can’t decline.
The next day I start to make plans with Murali to stay with his mother and sister at their apartment in Chennai. A few days later, I secure train tickets for an early morning departure from the Cantonment Railway Station…
Three Days in Chennai
It was the second morning of my three-day visit to Chennai. I awoke in confusion to Murali’s mischievous yet innocuous smile. “Rise and shine!” he announced standing over my sweaty body. My pillow was drenched. I hardly slept through Chennai’s damp heat, bobbing in and out of my dreams like a big fish in shallow water. He laughed and left the bedroom. I changed out of my night clothes and hobbled after him.
Sumathi, Murali’s sister, and their mother Parvathy were already awake and in the living room. “How did you sleep?” Sumathi asked.
“Great!” I yawned. It may not have been a wholly true statement. After spending so much time in the cool climes of Bangalore, I wasn’t used to this heat.
“How was yesterday?” Murali asked.
“Good,” I told him. “I got in around noon and visited the KM Conservatory of music. They had a piano there that I could play. Felt amazing. There was also this ridiculously good tabla player practicing there and I sampled some of his session. Had a great time.”
The day began shortly after with a full South Indian breakfast down the street from the apartment at a chain called the Murugan Idli Shop. We ate idli, pongal, that biscuit thing I keep forgetting the name of (vada), and uttapam with all sorts of chutneys and sambar.
We had made plans the night before to visit a few tourist destinations that day. Murali hired an OLA cab for the day and we set off to pick up a friend, Ridhi Chandarana and her young cousin visiting from Kutch. Our first stop was Dakshin Chitra, an artisan village and museum of art, architecture, lifestyles, and performing arts. The grounds are made up of many different houses that you can walk through, each made in a style particular to a region of South India; Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh.
It was fascinating to see all the different livelihoods of the south. The four of us perused the crafts being sold there and stopped for a while to observe the detailed works. I purchased a tapestry from one of the artisans, a happy fellow from Orissa. Something for a future living space, I planned.
Next was the MCBT, the indisputable highlight of the day. Of the hundreds of reptiles we saw there were salt water crocodiles, dwarf caimans, iguana (a couple named Monty and Caesar), giant tortoises, star tortoises, komodo dragons, water monitors, Gharial crocodiles (my personal favorites), pythons, and a Mexican giant musk turtle brought by Peter Pritchard in 1993!
“You send me your poems and I will make as much music as you want,” I promised her.
“Let’s stay in touch,” she replied.
She and Murali talked a bit after that, and I learned that Dakshin Foundation would be absorbing ANET, a fact which was at the time something of a secret. Ridhi introduced herself as well and spoke about her work in Orissa. When we left Zai’s office to tour the rest of the grounds, I had the chance to ask Ridhi a few more questions about her work as an ecologist. I made a note to interview her later via email as a means to replicate our conversation.
“What was your favourite part of the day?” I asked her.
It was one of the first things we saw when we arrived at the MCBT. It was in a circular enclosure and Pavithra was hosing down the area. She was wearing a green staff vest over her kurta and had her hair tied in a long ponytail. Caesar, the male, who was resting on a log in front of her, knew that it was feeding time and repeatedly climbed up her side and rested on her shoulder with his claws in her hair. Pavithra would have to carefully remove him each time and continue her routine.
“How long have you lived here?”
“I was born in Chennai. I left to do my masters and since then I have been living in different places. Chennai is home. The comfort that comes with familiarity, be it with water, weather, or knowledge of roads and the language is very relaxing.”
“What kind of work did you do in Orissa?”
“I was working as a project assistant. I did a sort of reconnaissance survey in the 2014-15 season, then I was there for next two seasons. We were trying to understand why there was tension between fishers and turtle conservation activities—if there was tension—and what could reduce it. In particular, we were exploring the potential of alternative and supplementary livelihoods like ecotourism to reduce the impact conservation could have on their current livelihoods.”
“How did you get involved with this work?”
“I have always loved animals. I came across a lot of stuff about global warming and the destruction anthropogenic activities are causing to the planet. I slowly began to change my lifestyle and started volunteering and reading more. I had a very inspirational teacher in my undergraduate program and she got me interested in the research aspect of studying animals. She also organized a turtle walk for us to go on and that’s when I decided this was the kind of stuff I wanted to do.”
“One of the things I’ve been trying to understand throughout this trip is what conservation looks like and where it starts. What do you think?”
“To me, conservation is a process of compensation where we are trying to always strive to retain or get to that equilibrium which the industrial development-centric half of our species is constantly upsetting. So it doesn’t really have much to do with welfare but more so with fairness and justice over sharing space and resources with other species on the planet. Kind of trying not to let the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ materialize. It often seems futile though.”
Futility. I often think about this word. Why bother protecting species? Do the distinctions of what is natural and what is artificial even exist? If not, aren’t we, humanity, just another organism in the grand biome? Aren’t our actions part of nature’s course? We are living in the sixth mass extinction, and climatologists say our carbon emissions have passed the point of no return; it seems that we are fixed in our bad habits and that people will never change. So what’s the point of trying to save anything if it’s already too late?
The first thing that comes to mind when I try to answer these questions for myself are the experiences I’ve had diving. I recall all the amazing things I saw several weeks ago exploring the reefs of Havelock: flourishing life amid slowly decaying reefs, creatures in their daily struggle to survive, the inherent peace and entropy of a boundless ecosystem. I’ve decided, life is a beautiful mess struggling against itself.
What’s the point? I’ve believed for a long time that there’s no point in doing anything unless you make a point of it. It’s up to us to find something beautiful, treasure it, and save it from being ruined; a difficult task with many challenges. The calling of conservation is a Sisyphean struggle.
“Last question—I’ve asked everyone this one in my interviews. What’s the weirdest most bizarre thing that’s happened to you in the field?”
“This is more of a funny, bizarre incident. Because my work was primarily with the local communities I had to dress accordingly. I always had to wear a dupatta. There was this time when I had to go to the village and I used to ride the scooter to go around. I don’t know if you remember our field station but our neighbors are cowherds, so the street in which our field station is located is sometimes scattered with cows, and it is a real maneuvering act to ride the scooter through the street. There was this time when I was slowly making my way from between the cows and my scooter stopped. While I was trying to get it started again something began to choke me! I was completely bewildered and super confused! Then I saw that this cow had begun to chew on my dupatta which began to pull at my neck. And while I was wrestling to get it out of her mouth the neighbors were just watching me.”
I pictured this perfectly in my head, recalling the narrow street that led to base camp, and the heaps of cow dung one had to constantly dodge.
Our next move was to the beach where we met some of Murali’s former colleagues who worked at a turtle hatchery there. The programme was called Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN), which had been started nearly 30 years ago. Like any other hatchery, it was a fenced off area built on the beach’s berm with a large canvas tent stretched over the area. There were dozens of spectators pressed against the wooden barriers, and inside there were volunteers assisting baby turtles as they emerged from nests and placed them into smaller circular pens woven from reeds. The ones deemed ready to leave were placed inside a pink bucket separate from the other enclosures.
Murali reconnected with some of the folks there that had also worked in Orissa some years ago, and he introduced me to a friend of his, Arun, a tall fellow with a welcoming smile and curly black hair that was tossed about by the strong northward winds. He was one of the programme’s trustees who had been working there since 1997; when it was finally time for the turtles to be released he gathered the crowd to him as the other volunteers marked a rectangular area in the sand for the hatchlings to safely crawl to sea.
It was twilight by the time one of the volunteers came out with the pink bucket from earlier and began shaking out the turtles onto the rectangular patch of sand. Early morning or late evening are the best times to reduce the hatchlings’ chances of being preyed upon by birds, dogs, or crabs. The other volunteers, Murali included, made sure that none of the babies went outside the boundaries, and turned them back to face the water if they started moving in the opposite direction. The audience watched attentively. Children tugged at their parent’s sleeves in awe of the spectacle. Some of the adults bent down with their cameras and tried to capture the moment in the dim light.
Parvathy and Sumathi also came out to see the hatchlings off. At one point, Murali came up to me and said exactly what I was thinking about the whole event, “It’s great that so many people come out to see this.”
Maybe it was because I only had a few weeks left in India, but I remember standing on that beach feeling a sense of finality as I witnessed the beginning of another life-cycle. “This might be where the story ends,” I thought.
Sometimes, when I meet strangers and tell them about my connection with sea turtles, their eyes light up and they get excited. Sometimes they’ll tell me a story about they once saw one in the wild and never forgot it. Maybe they were just a kid when it happened on a beach like this one. For an instant that person travels back in time and space to relive that story, to that moment when this mysterious and ancient creature made its first appearance in their lives.
It’s almost odd that these little creatures have inspired so much in ordinary folk. Some of us are willing to cross the globe just to see them. As the hatchlings slip away into the surf they are faced with the dangers of the sea. For all its beauty and wonder, I can’t think of a more enigmatic and terrifying place than the ocean. I think about that aspect of a sea turtle’s life the most. From the moment they hatch they rush headlong into a world of uncertainty to face the myriad challenges awaiting them.
I try my best to keep that in mind when I’m faced with a new turning point in my life. Be like a turtle.