Switch-backs and the slowly decreasing intensity of heat helped us realize we were indeed heading into the hills. On the way up we enjoyed far more forest and greenery than we’d previously seen in Kerala, and Emil befriended Biju, the assistant manager of one of the several tea factories in the area.
Munnar is a long narrow town – on first impression it looks like a real outpost with lots of corrugated tin stalls lining the roadsides and no apparent centre. After a little more exploration, we did find a busy central area… but it definitely wouldn’t win a contest for most beautiful city. On the other hand, the gorgeous green tea plantations that stretch for miles around in all directions are a true feast for the eyes.
Once again, we found a guest house with very friendly and helpful staff. On our first day, they sent us on a 12 km hike past a small cardamom plantation, through a vast tea plantation, to a waterfall and home. We ran into a bunch of tea pickers who were in the process of unloading kilo after kilo of freshly picked leaves. They kindly shared some of their delicious tea sweetened with jaggery (homemade, smoky tasting sugar.) Pretty soon, their supervisor noticed the party and began yelling at the workers to get back to their shears. They seemed to take his barks with a grain of salt, taking their time to head back down the narrow windy pathways between the plants. Most were women dressed in saris, with rough canvas aprons and shirts on top. It may not have been as hot as Kochi, but we were sweating in the 28C sun as we hiked. Imagine how warm they were!
I can’t say we loved visiting the Tea museum – A phenomenal multi-tasker, our guide wasn’t not great at capturing our attention! With a wonderfully monotonous tone, he recited rote information about the curing process while gesturing instructions about moving here and there or waiting outside. On top of that, the rollers,dryers and conveyor belts made so much noise we could barely hear him, let alone decipher his Malayalam English. The real message we got was that he was completely bored with his job! But, it was cool to see the rollers and the drying trays and to smell all the lovely fresh tea.
A third day we hired a couple of rickshaws to take us about 35 kms higher in the hills to visit Biju and family at an operational tea factory. This time we thought we’d get a proper tour… but unfortunately the factory was shut down for maintenance work and we weren’t allowed inside! A little detail Biju forgot to mention (or perhaps that Emil misunderstood.) We did have a lovely lunch and visit with Biju and his wife Anitha, and learned both a little about life in a company village in India and something of the tea process… for example that tea can be harvested year round, but the best harvests are during the monsoon season. Then the pickers often go way over and beyond their 18 kg per day quota (and earn bonuses, which I’m sure they deserve since they must also get total “prune” fingers, toes and perhaps even noses!)
Anitha’s chapatis were the best we’ve had, and her vegetable korma (coconut based curry) was scrumptious! For dessert she served the usual bananas along with strawberries – the first on our trip and a testimony to the cooler climate of the area.
The landscape between Munnar and the small town is absolutely gorgeous with its endless green - mainly of tea plantations interrupted by the odd natural forest and a large experimental cattle farm (they’re cross-breeding Swiss cows with Indian cows). There is a large reservoir nestled in the valley – it reminded us of Shuswap Lake with its gentle mountains rising all around!
But, there were differences. For one thing, I’ve never noticed elephants in the Shuswap area. Here, we were able to stop at a roadside stall and find out how what it feels like to ride one! The two elephants we hired could easily carry all six of us astride their backs. We considered ourselves fortunate that there was no sitting box, only a blanket between us and the big gentle beasts and, for a short kilometer, we felt very exotic!
On the way back down we took a “back road” passing through the company elite’s private golf course and then still another small company town. Contrasts, once again!
The kids thoroughly enjoyed the 23 and 18 year old guest house employees (don’t worry; they were far too short for our girls!). They joked around lots, taught the two young men card games (they’d never played cards), and were delighted when the owner suggested that his employees could take our kids for an early morning hike one day. He had taken Christian and me on an 8 km hike the morning before… again through tea plantations and company villages. Our destination was a dark and smoky little “social club” for company workers where we sipped tea, what else! The kids headed up a different hill, past several small temples and shrines and saw a couple of Nilgiri Tahr (small antelopes) along the way.
Tea workers are relatively well paid (somewhere in the neighbourhood of 130 rupees or $3.50 per day.) As well, they get subsidized housing and free health care. Of the people we spoke with, a number had one adult employed on the plantation or in the factory and the other adult at perhaps a slightly more lucrative job (such as rickshaw driver, who might pull in 200 rupees or, on a lucky day, more). Seemed like smart planning to us.
On our way back down from Munnar, we again hired rickshaws (the one driver was such a smooth talker, it was hard to resist!) About 20 kms down, we stopped for an Agri-tourist experience of the smelly kind. Good smells that is. This was a spice plantation… we saw something like 52 usable plant species from cloves and oranges to coffee and “diabetes plant” to neem and pointsetta (trees) to cinnamon and lemon grass. Totally my cup of tea!!