God I love tea. I love it so much. I don’t think there’s any other liquid that I revere above tea, not even beer or Jägermeister and I’m pretty fucking fond of both of those things. Tea is the one that’s there for me the morning after to pick up the pieces after beer and Jäger have kicked me in the head and stolen all of my thoughts. It’s there throughout the day, keeping my bladder on its toes as I contemplate investing in a packet or two of Tena Lady, and it’s there in the evening to slake my thirst until the wine is sufficiently chilled. Tea makes angels sing and water interesting. I don’t know if I could live a life without tea, and Munnar is proof that tea is beautiful right from plant to mug.
I don’t usually hang out of the bus window taking photos on account of feeling like a bit of a prick doing it, but the road into Munnar is worth being labelled a shameless tourist. It’s not just the emerald green tea fields, it’s the rugged, hilly backdrop. It’s just utterly fucking breathtaking, and not just when the bus rounds a hairpin turn and nearly collides with an equally huge bus coming the other way in a flurry of horns and panic. Yeah ok, it’s probably me that’s panicking ay. Tell you what though, gone are the days of loads of women moving slowly down the rows, picking the tips of the tea by hand. They were going at the bushes with these shear type things with a box on top, proper hacking at them. It won’t look as good on your Instagram page but I bet it gets the job done a fuck tonne quicker.
Anyway, Munnar then. Even the little town is lovely with a really nice feel to it. It doesn’t smell as good as Kumily but there’s still a spice shop on every corner and there’s a metric fuck tonne of homemade chocolate available an all. Kerala is where most of India’s spices are grown so if you were going to stock up this would be the place to do it but I’ve not bought any spices yet on account of the fact I’ve had no fucking clue how to use them and figured they’d just sit in the cupboard at home, unused, whilst I boil the kettle for another Pot Noodle. But since Khan’s Cooking Class in Varkala clearly I’m some manner of culinary genius, so today I purchased a packet of… wait for it… garam masala! I kinda feel a bit grown up.
I only got that one because everyone keeps telling me that you have to mix it yourself in the UK and that’s just a step too far for someone who only recently adjusted their definition of cooking from “open tin, place contents in a microwave proof bowl and heat on full power for three minutes” to actually chopping ingredients and using more than one hob at a time. I love the idea of buying everything I need from the actual spice region of India, but I like the idea of then having to cart the fucking things around India and then Nepal for the next six to nine months a lot less. I already have a package the size of my head to send back with Tarrant when she’s here, I don’t want to lump her with a year’s supply of cooking ingredients an’ all.
But anyway. The hotel I’m staying at is really nice too and the manager, Benoy, plied me with tea as soon as I got there so obviously I love him a little bit. It was good tea too, not chai as I know it to be, but a milkless tea with the tiniest amount of sugar and a touch of cardamon. I think I could retire here. True story. He’s an eccentric chap, I’d Whatsapped him to confirm my booking as it was a bad line and he replied with four photos of himself and a simple, “Belass (sic) you see you tomaro (sic).”
He offers yoga and meditation, and he’s a qualified reiki healer with plans to study so much more including massage and Ayurvedic medicine. And if you don’t like the meditation songs at 6.30am? Well, sunshine, you can just do one. Join in or jog on, that’s Benoy’s motto. Actually it’s not, I totes just made that up, but he does get you to read a declaration stating that there will be meditation and songs, you may be woken up, you’re welcome to join but if you don’t like it then you best look for somewhere else to stay. Fair enough, really. He runs a clean, friendly place in a great location and he’s generally always full at this time of year. The few times I was at reception he was constantly having to turn people away. If you want to stay here, book ahead.
Once you’ve done a circuit of the town and realised that you’re back where you started in the space of ten minutes, why not have a little mince up to the tea museum to learn about tea? This place is like my temple or something. The exhibits aren’t tea related, they’re just random things like furniture and a switchboard which were around during British time, but there’s an information board that told of the Kanan Devan Hills Produce Company, the British tea company who established tea plantations here, and the currency they introduced in the early 1900’s. In a classically British dick move they minted their own coins and used these coins to pay their workers so that even once they’d gotten paid they couldn’t leave the tea plantation and spend their money elsewhere because it was useless anywhere else. What utter wankers ay. They might as well have paid them in rice.
There’s a documentary which I caught the last half of, which they play every hour I believe. I walked in just as we were being told how wonderful The Company were because not only did they encourage the plantation workers to bring their families to live with them they gave their wives jobs as tea pluckers and it turned out chicks rocked at plucking. The company provided the housing on top of their salary and they educated their children. Health care benefits were introduced, maternity rights and care were brought in years before the rest of the country caught up. After Independence in 1947, Indian managers were trained and when India made it law that all overseas companies had to “Indianise” to a minimum of 60%, the company was sold to Tata who are like an Indian Nestle in that they own fucking everything. Tata, to me, are the bus people. They make the buses favoured by the Rajasthani government so it always surprises me when I learn what else they do that doesn’t involve building some manner of vehicle.
They went onto improve loads of stuff and even brought in education for differently abled youngsters and provided ways for them to earn a living/make money for the company, in dyeing fabrics using natural dyes or growing strawberries and making preserves from them. Before I came to Munnar someone had told me about Tata pretty much owning the place, providing houses and schools, which sounds great. But they’ve essentially taken away everyone’s choice. They’re told where to live and how their children are to be educated, and once they retire at 58, what happens to their house then? I think they’re given a pension, but are they kicked out unless their kids work on the plantation too and are thus entitled to company housing? Who knows. So the film went on to say how Tata then sold most of the tea plantations to the workers in the form of shares. 69% of the shares are owned by the employees, and the employees direct the company. Tata still have shares but not many. It’s all very confusing, this business stuff. I don’t get it. Tea isn’t meant to be this complicated.
Onwards to the good stuff that doesn’t involve politics and shit. You can head upstairs for a “briefing on tea” where a bloke who’s more evangelical about tea than me will, well, bang on about tea for a bit. Seriously, the way he was going on about it you’d think it’d cure AIDS or some shit. A lot of his words were lost, distorted by the loud speaker, but he told us that before the British planted tea in India it was only grown in China. India didn’t know what tea was, they were drinking milk with sugar. Then along came the tea fields in Assam and Munnar and various other places, and whilst the rest of the world puts milk in the tea, Indians started putting tea in the milk.
He told us that black and green tea come from exactly the same plant, it’s just the process that’s different. Green tea is steamed and dried, black tea goes through a different process which involves something called oxidisation and I think that’s what turns it black. Anyway, I wandered off when he started going on about free radicals which just sounds like the collective noun for hippy activists.
Also, I’ve decided that I shall be installing a mini tea factory in our hallway at home. We do have a particularly massive hallway and I’m sure the neighbours wouldn’t mind the racket if I invited them over regularly enough for a cuppa, or threatened them with an axe if they complained. Of course I’d have to turn the living room into a tea plantation greenhouse on account of it being too cold in Brighton to grow camellia sinensis outside. Nothing huge. Just nine or ten bushes would do, you can pick tea from the same bush every ten days for 100 years so I wouldn’t need millions. We’d probably have to throw the sofa out to make room but y’know, small sacrifices for greater pleasures an’ all that.
They have a tiny replica of a tea factory downstairs here which kinda works but in very small quantities. You follow the CTC (Cut, Tear, Curl) process along as the leaves are chopped four times, oxidised then dried at 104°C, then it looks like it’s put onto a shakey machine which sorts it into buckets according to how coarse it is. It smells great. I love the smell of tea. Then you get to the shop where I didn’t buy anything for the same reason I haven’t stashed seventeen different kinds of spices at the bottom of my backpack, and then you can buy a little cup of tea for ₹5. The evangelical guy upstairs had said to get the green tea, keep your teabag then use it to make a litre of fluid and you can use it instead of mouthwash to freshen your breath.
“Smell your mouth in the morning!” he said, “Then drink some of this, then smell your mouth, and the smell will have gone!” Yeah nah, I don’t think Listerine need to start shitting themselves anytime soon.
Oh oh oh! And they have these little posters up telling you about how the tea plant was thought to have been created, because obviously something so fantastic and incredible can’t just have grown from nowhere like a fucking dandelion or some shit. My favourite is the one about the Indian hermit, the founder of Zen Buddhism, called Bodhidharma who went to China in 526BC and took up residence in a cave temple the emperor gave him so he could meditate for nine years without anyone hassling him. Buuuut he fell asleep which is pretty easy to do when you’re sat there with your eyes closed and when he woke up he was so pissed off with himself he tore his own eyelids off in disgust and threw them away. A little dramatic for a Buddhist, but there you go, and where the eyelids landed a plant grew with the power to drive away sleep and sluggishness. Turns out it was tea. Boom.
And in other news, I’ve decided that I need a teapot in my life so I can have proper tea. And a tea cosy. A knitted one. I may even knit it myself. But if you catch me shopping for patterns for those weird doll thingies that cover your spare bog roll, you have my full permission to stage an intervention.
Munnar, Kerala, India
Stayed at: Kaippallil Homestay