After a few days in Periyar, Glancy drove me about 100 kilometers to Munnar where every mountain and hillside is covered with tea plants for as far as your eyes can see. Here in India, what should really just take an hour takes more than double, triple, or quadruple the amount of time. In this case, it took 4.5 hours to cover 100 kilometers ~ 65 miles (I should note that we did take one chai break along the way). The roads in Kerala are extremely narrow and for the most part, just one lane. It takes real guts, fearlessness, and I think a faith in God to share the road with auto-rickshaws, cars, trucks, jeeps, giant tour buses, cows, bikes, ducks, dogs, goats, and people. At least once a day I have a moment where I shut my eyes real tight and mutter to myself “oh dear lord” as I watch a bus packed with people swerve to pass an auto-rickshaw or we find ourselves heading directly into the path of a speeding vehicle.
Well, to go to Munnar we started at 8AM from Periyar. A few hours into our drive, he told me he’d like to find a chai walla for a short break. We were making what seemed like our 200th hairpin turn around a corner when we saw a small shack tucked under a hill. Glancy slowed down the car, rolled down the window, and asked whether they had any tea. We received a quick nod from an old man standing outside, so we pulled the car over and headed inside the little shack. The shack was the world’s smallest roadside shop where the old man sold tea, bananas, soda, and some pastries. And it also doubled as the family’s kitchen. The shack was half filled with smoke as their lunch was in the process of being prepared with wood burning fire as their heat source. The water for our tea was boiling from an open wood fire as well. The whole place had a nice woody, smoky, and cozy feel.
Typically for chai, tealeaves are put in a large strainer/sieve, and hot water is poured over it. But for our black tea, the tealeaves were put into a small glass and boiling water was poured over it. A minute or two later, we let the leaves settle to the bottom and poured out the steeped tea into another glass to drink. It was strong and bitter. By this time, the ladies of the house were in the shack with us (the old man’s wife and the couple’s daughter-in-law with her son in tow) and through Glancy asked me a bunch of questions. By now I’m used to the Indian interrogations I get daily so I was ready with my answers. Where am I from, what do I do for a living, am I married, how old am I, why am I traveling alone, etc. The old man said that the shop was busy this morning and there was a lot of traffic- Glancy whispered to me that they probably had about 4 people stopping by. Our two glasses of chai was 5 rupees ~ $0.12 USD. I couldn’t help but wonder how they were making ends meet. I had read somewhere that the average household income in India is $1,000 USD per year. This family seemed to be on the lower end of the spectrum. But they were genuinely curious about me and very sweet- all of them stopped whatever they were doing and chatted with us for the whole time we were drinking our tea. They allowed me to take photos of everyone and everything in their kitchen/chai walla. The old man’s wife even took off her headscarf and put on a big smile for me. I thought really, generosity and kindness don’t have anything to do with how much money you make…
The topic of sweet and lovely people leads me to three very special boys, Deelip, Deepak, Deepu, and their parents Tomy and Rajee in Munnar. 3,500 feet above sea level in the hills near the Western Ghats sits a lovely home of Tomy Joseph and his wife Rajee where they set up a great homestay about 7 years ago. Their house, called Rose Gardens, is about10 kilometers outside the town of Munnar and I spent the past two nights enjoying their company and seeing how they live. Having read and heard about the beautiful tea plantations of Munnar I was looking forward to a peaceful and outdoorsy visit, but what I got was so much more. I arrived to find my large room being cleaned and received immediate offers for tea and snacks. Within minutes Tomy and Rajee came over with a large pot of the most delicious cardamom tea, cookies, and a plateful of passion fruit from their garden. After tea their 14-year-old son Deepak gave me a full spice, vegetable, and flower garden tour. Tomy, who has a degree in botany, works hard to produce various vegetables and spices including cabbage, cardamom, tomatoes, etc, and they also harvest their own coffee beans and roast them to serve at breakfast!
Rajee told me that she was going to make chapattis for dinner so of course I volunteered to help her in the kitchen. She was cooking for 12 people that evening and she was practically finished with everything when I joined her. After watching her for a few minutes I asked if I could roll out the chapatti dough and cook it myself. Luckily for me, she had no problem handing over the rolling pin and the griddle. My first chapatti came out relatively round and decent looking, but there were some that looked more like naan than circular chapattis. For dinner, we had fried cauliflower in “sweet and sour” sauce (I saw her making a sauce similar to the Chinese sweet & sour sauce, using an Indian version of ketchup), sautéed cabbage with chilies, carrots, and a beef dish I didn’t eat (the family is Christian and they eat meat). At dinner I met some of the other house guests- two sisters and their two kids from Australia, a couple from Singapore, and British father-daughter travelers. They had all traveled quite a bit to get to Munnar that evening so we all went to bed as soon as we were finished with dinner.
I got an early start the next morning so that I could have my yoga practice, eat breakfast, and meet up with Glancy by 8AM. For breakfast, there was Rajee’s cardamom tea, toast, fresh pineapples, bananas, coconut (shaved coconut with a bit of sugar and rice water, I think), and Rajee’s homemade pineapple jam (she swears it’s made only with pineapples, sugar, and cloves but I think she’s got a secret ingredient she’s not sharing!) She also had herstrawberry jam and that reminded me of my Mom making strawberry jam when I was little. I would walk home from school and I could smell the jam cooking from several blocks away… I thought how much Mom and Dad would like this place and south India in general. I would have to insist that I come with them though.
Even with my early start, the Eravikulam. Park was already packed with domestic tourists and the queue for the bus (you are required to take the park bus to the actual entrance) was a mile long. One of the things about traveling for so long is that you start to forget what day of the week it is. I realized that it was Sunday and everyone was going to the park to spot the Nilgiri Tahr (a kind of mountain goat found in Munnar) before the park closes in mid January to February to protect the breeding season for these precious goats. Glancy also pointed out to me that for domestic tourists it only costs 25 rupees for entry, making it relatively cheap where as for foreign tourists I would have paid 200 rupees. Rather than spending the next hour waiting in line, I decided that Glancy and I should head back to the town of Munnar and get some tea. By that I mean, a second breakfast for me and breakfast for Glancy. Since Glancy goes to Munnar at least once a month for work during the peak season, he knew where all the good places were. After we parked the car, we walked through a market and up a small hill to a place called Saravana Bhavan. It was packed with locals and instantly I felt all the eyes on me, but I put on my Mona Lisa smile and followed Glancy farther into the restaurant. We got a table just as a group was leaving so I got a chance to see how they clean up after customers. At this restaurant, there were no plates since banana leaves are used and you use your fingers to eat. Once you’re done eating, you simply fold your banana leaf in half and go. As efficient as this process is, you are bound to get some chutney and water, and other liquids on the table. As soon as someone leaves, the bus boy runs over to the table with a rubber spatula/ squeez-y. He quickly glides the spatula across the table to push the food and liquid onto the dustpan, and the table is now clean for the next set of customers. Fast and simple.
For my second breakfast of the day, I had a plain dosa. In the south Masala dosas are the things to eat but I was still full from my first breakfast so I opted for a plain one without any spicy potato stuffing. Once your crispy dosa, vada (savory doughnut), and your vegetable stew arrive on your banana leaf, a man comes by with steel containers with different chutneys and scoops them out for you. I had one that was deliciously spicy and another that was a lot milder, both with a coconut base. Even though this is a very typical breakfast meal here, I’ve seen people eat it throughout the day. Except for the doughnut (I gave mine to Glancy), it’s pretty light and healthy. And cheap- two plain dosa meals and two cups of sweet chai for 65 rupees ~ $1.50 USD.
The tea museum was next up on my agenda and as soon as I arrived, I was ushered into a dark room to watch a film about the history of Munnar and the tea plantations. It all started with the East India Company (they fought with the king of Mysore in the 1700s) who first discovered the hills of Munnar, and it was the British who first surveyed and mapped the surrounding area in 1817. From 1877 to 1879 a few British investors worked with a local tribe (Moduvans- spelling?) to try to figure out what could be done with the land. In 1880, tea was first planted after discovering that these plants can grow in high elevation, on an incline (Munnar is very hilly), and they don’t compete with other vegetation. After changing hands a few times over the past two hundred years, the tea plantations in Munnar are now under a company called Kannan Devan Hills Produce Co. where its employees are the majority shareholders (69% of the company is owned by 12.5k employees). The film noted that it is the largest “participatory company” in India.
Aside from the history of the tea plantation, I also learned that a tea plant can grow to be close to 10 feet tall and live for 100 years. For tea production however, they keep the tea plants at around 3 feet and every week to 10 days, young green leaves are picked. After the film, we walked through a factory set up (it was just for show, not a real tea factory) where the leaves go through different processes. I was itching to walk and see the tea plants in person, so Glancy drove me to a nearby tea plantation where we went for a hike. Along the way, I saw some elephant footprints (Glancy informed me that there are wild elephants in the area) but overall it was quiet and the perfect way to enjoy the hills of Munnar.
Walking for an hour or so got me in the mood to be a bit active in the afternoon so after lunch (yup, I ate again when I returned back to Rose Gardens), I went for trekking down the mountain behind the house. This time, my trekking companion was the 8-year-old Deepu, who with unlimited energy and spirit wanted to run all the way down to the sea. It was tough to keep up with the little guy. The only thing that saved me was him stopping every now and then to pick cardamom pods, and my cracking them open so that he could eat the seeds inside. He figured out how to use my camera within seconds of getting his little hands on it, and he insisted that we use the self-timer for a photo together. That boy is precious!
My homestay at Rose Gardens continued with another cooking lesson that evening. This time Rajee called me into the kitchen just as she was beginning to make dinner so that I could actually see how each dish was prepared. We had shredded green papayas and coconuts cooked together with chilies and turmeric powder, a thick potato stew with mustard seeds and turmeric, sautéed green beans, and puri. A nice vegetarian dinner.
I was sad to leave this wonderful family in the morning. I told Tomy and Rajee that more than anything else, I will always remember the boys smiling and working hard around the house. They cooked with their Mom, set the table, helped serve our meals, washed the dishes, gave tours of the garden, went trekking with their guests, and everything else in between. No sassy attitudes, no complaints. It was just lovely to see and be a part of it for a few days. Because of them, I will look to do more homestays going forward… What a great way to experience a country and its people!
Next up, Fort Cochin.
NH 49 Road, Karadipara – 685 611
Ph: . +91 4864 278243
Mob: +91 94473 78524