Tea, Spices And General Munnar-ness

Bugger me backwards, it was cold this morning. Definitely cold enough to make your nipples sit up and take notice. And you don’t have to worry about Benoy’s early morning song singing waking you up because the fucking rooster will have you awake at 4am anyway. I really, really don’t like roosters. Like, at all. Short of them being strangled, plucked, stuffed and roasted. But today I was going on a guided walk through tea plantations, spice plantations, and up a fuck off great big hill to gawp at some views. It was still dark as I shuffled into the street to find a tuk tuk to take me to Green View, and that’s another thing about Munnar; people keep quoting me fair prices. I was told on the phone yesterday when I spoke to Deepak about the walk that it should only be ₹30, so I’d approached a driver fully prepared for a fight and when he said, “Green View? Yes, thirty rupees,” I was stumped. I think I may have opened and closed my mouth like a stunned goldfish for a few seconds before saying, “Yes, thank you, that’ll be great,” and climbing into the rickshaw.

It’s a bloody good job you’re gorgeous, Munnar, or I’d be less than impressed with the current temperature.

So we were plied with black tea and biscuits as we waited for everyone to gather and there were quite a few of us so we were split into two groups. Our guide was a happy fella whose name I remembered for about half the day then all of the braincells containing it were replaced with information about tea and I forgot it. I think it was Anwin. This is what we shall call him. He introduced himself outside as I got reacquainted with what my breath looked like. Fuck it was cold, but it was also very pretty, so I forgave it for the cold part. And the first fun fact of the day? Munnar is so called because it’s where three rivers meet, and “munnar” means three in Tamil. Kiiiiinda… Actually something similar means three but I can’t remember what the actual word is. I fail.

Our guide, Anwin. At least I think that’s his name but to fair I barely remember my own name at this time in the morning.

We made our way to the tea fields and as we walked through the rows, Anwin told us about the lives of the tea plantation workers. His family have moved back to Tamil Nadu now but his parents and grandparents worked here. Women would start work picking tea at 8am and finish at 5pm with a morning and afternoon break and a break for lunch. His mother would wake up at 4.30am, prepare breakfast and lunch for the family, go to work and in the evening when she got home she’d make dinner, do the laundry, the washing up, all of the usual jobs expected of a woman in a traditional Indian family, before she could go to bed. The men only worked from 8am until 1pm, spraying crops. Anwin’s father also had a second job in the afternoon in a hotel and second jobs are common. No one works harder than Indians. It was interesting to hear what Anwin had to say versus the documentary I saw yesterday. Whereas at the tea museum you’re lead to believe they educate all of the children of the plantation workers in their schools, actually they only educate the spawn of the managers, or officers as Anwin called them. Everyone else goes to a government school. He did tell us that once you’re retired the company gives you a pay out and a pension, he didn’t say what happened to their houses. And that most of the fields barring a couple of private ones still belong to Tata.

And all of those trees growing in the plantations? They’re there for shade, oxygen and long roots. The plantations are on hills, some of them steep (and just think, some poor sod has to walk up those fuckers to pick tea) and during heavy rain the long roots of the trees help keep the soil in place. Given half a chance, tea would be a tree too though, it’s just deliberately kept short, I assume so it’s easy to pick the top, light green leaves. The dark green leaves at the bottom are no good for tea. And here’s a fun tea fact (not that all tea facts aren’t fun), I already learnt that green and black tea are the same plant, different process, but white tea which I have to say I’ve never put in my facehole, also comes from the same plant. See the tiny little pointy bud between the leaves? That’s white tea, and it costs more than Kim Kardashian’s arse. Tea is, like, so amazing!

What you don’t think about when you’re drooling over views like these are the poor buggers that have to climb those hills to pick tea.

You’ll also notice a fuck tonne of eucalyptus trees growing in the area. Actually this is a lie, you won’t notice until someone points them out then you’ll be all like, oh yeah, loads of eucalyptus trees. The forest wasn’t able to support the workers’ need for firewood back in the day, they were burning it faster than it could grow, so back when the company was still British run they smuggled some eucalyptus seeds in from Australia, hidden in the stockings of the general manager’s wife. It grows quickly, it burns well.

Oh hello, sunshine. I wondered when you were gonna show up.

Anwin is a clever fucker though, a year ago he didn’t speak English and it was only working for Green View that helped him to learn. He reckons he knows words but can’t put them into a sentence but he does a pretty good job as far as I can hear, and once he’s learnt a word he remembers it. He’ll ask someone what something is in their language, like a stick or a fruit or a spice, then he’ll commit it to memory and tell you what it is in all the other languages he’s learnt it in. He is, however, utterly perplexed by Hindus. He showed us a tiny blue flower, the name of which I forget because I’m not a knowledge sponge like Anwin, and he told us that when they’re in full bloom the town is full, and the towns around are full, because people come from everywhere to see it.
“The Hindus believe something,” he said with a shrug, “I don’t know. Hindus believe a lot of things. I don’t understand.” Later on he showed us a plant called Holy Basil and told us, “Hindus walk around their temples and do a ritual and eat this. I don’t know why. I just know it’s good for health.” He stuffed it in his gob then showed us where the Hindus had tied a sandal to a papaya tree. Yeah fair enough, Anwin. I’m with you. Flowers and basil I can go with but I draw the line at trying to work out why someone would strap footwear to a fruit tree.

This poor woman was just trying to get on with her laundry when a hoard of foreigners showed up and asked to take her photo. She was very gracious though.

One of the reasons this trek is amazing (aside from the camera fodder and all of the learning, natch) is the food. We walked up a hill to a rock where we met with the other group to stuff bread and eggs and pineapple into our faceholes and call it breakfast. It was an awesome place to chill with views all around where we could watch birds of prey swooping as we sipped tea. I’ve decided that my new favourite way to consume this tasty hot beverage is perched atop a rock whilst staring at views. I shall purchase a thermos on my return to the UK in order to make this possible. There are views back home and not just of chavs fighting outside Primark, in fact one of the things we do pretty well are views, you just generally need to be wearing more thermals whilst you enjoy them and you have to be prepared to wave cheery hellos to everyone that walks past you brandishing an OS map and a pair of walking poles. It doesn’t matter about the difficulty of the walk, the British will generally break out the hiking boots and the compass regardless.

Breakfast views.

Anyway, the next leg of the walk involved us picking our way very, very carefully down some stupidly steep hills where my toes became very well acquainted with the inside front of my trainers. They are not currently happy toes. I think if body parts had the ability to divorce their owners my toes would be sobbing in the solicitor’s office, stating physical abuse and irreconcilable differences as grounds whilst my liver stood in the background, nodding its support. It was a very pretty downwards slog through grasslands and tea fields but toes don’t generally give a flying fuck about that kind of thing, y’know, on account of them not being able to see. They’re toes.

Heading down through the spice plantations. This is cardamom, fact fans.

Anwin told us a bit more about the workers, how the women earn ₹200 a day for every 21kg they pick and that, my lovelies, is a fuck load of tea. I wonder how long it’d take me to get through that much tea and if my bladder would ever forgive me if I tried, or if it’d be stood defiantly with my toes and my liver demanding better conditions or they’d do one.
If they harvest less than 21kg their wages are cut, but with the scissors I saw on the way up they generally pick their quota and then some. He told us that if they pick over they do get extra money which surprised and pleased me, and last year Tata introduced a machine which only requires four people to operate. So there are pros and cons to this, both are obvious. If you only need four people to operate a machine that picks tea at a rate that four people using scissors would never even dream of matching, people will be out of jobs. Tata will save a lot of money on people power but people who have worked with tea their whole lives and basically don’t know how to do anything else, what will happen to them? Progress is important, of course it is, but you can’t help but think about the human cost of progress in this case.

Folks operating this machine won’t look as good on your Instagram feed but it’ll sure as fuck get some tea picked.

It was scorching by this point. Seriously, Munnar. Pick a fucking climate and stick to it! Next food stop involved appam which is a big, white spongy thing and Keralan parotta which is woven by angels, and some curry to spoon over the top. You can’t accuse them of trying to starve us. I fucking loved it. We were given watermelon an’ all, but with black pepper on it. I shit you not. Only in India would they even consider putting black pepper on watermelon. No one back home would slice a watermelon, take a bite then announce, “You know what this is missing, guys? Some black pepper.” It works surprisingly well though. I mean, I won’t be adding it to my list of Shit To Try Once I Get Back Home, but as a one off it was very doable. Then we wove our way through spice plantations, mainly cardamom. The pods grow at the bottom of a green, stalky type plant, but not stalky in the way I am when I have a crush on the barmaid at my local. As in, it’s stalks with green leaves and the pods grow at the bottom and yeah, I kinda feel like I just admitted something I probably shouldn’t have…

Loads of cool shit grows here. Tapioca. I don’t even know what tapioca is but everyone else seemed to be able to put it in context and I figured out it has something to do with pudding, but that grows here. There was black pepper, mint, a lone pineapple plant, banana trees, ginger, rubber trees, coffee and nutmeg. Anwin showed us some nutmeg which was covered in this weird looking alien stuff which is apparently called nutmace and is used to flavour food like biriyani. Cocoa is grown here too and we walked past a house where they were drying the beans in the sun and it seemed that Anwin knew them. He knows everyone here, every time he picked something for us to try he was like, “It’s ok, they are my friends here.” Cocoa starts life in this massive pod which you break open and then kinda wish you hadn’t. It looks like alien spawn, these big nuts covered in this white slime which you can put in your mouth, largely without dying unless you choke on one. It’s fucking weird, it’s just this sweet tasting slime which I spent a minute trying to decide if I liked or not before spitting it out. The bean itself, once dried, tastes weirdly like chocolate and no, I have no idea why this surprised any of us. It’s chocolate but without the sugar if you can imagine that? It wasn’t bitter either which I think is what I was expecting.

Cloves. They’re here too. They’re green on the plant then they’re sundried to the little stabby things we know and love and enjoy sticking in oranges at Christmas. You can break them and smell them and then all you can think about for the next ten minutes is how much you need a mulled wine in your life right now. They’re used in Ayurvedic medicine too apparently, but I think everything is! Aaaaand finally, betel nut trees. They have these bands on them and they get four bands every year, and the length of the band indicates whether there was a lot or a little rainfall during that period. And what the actual fuck are betel nuts, I hear you cry? They’re the things they chew on here which turn their teeth red. I think they’re slightly addictive, the whole chewing process (and I only learned this by watching a group of women on a train) involves the nut, a specific kind of leaf and some white powder which for some reason I’m assuming is an alkaline, such as bicarbonate of soda. Probably because that’s what’s used in Boliva when they chew coca leaves. Could be entirely wrong. They chew chew chew, spit red, chew chew chew. If you’re walking along and you see red splashes like something small just got slaughtered, it’s probably betel nut spit and the older generation literally have red stained teeth. Sexy.

Just when I was thinking that I couldn’t possibly walk down another fucking hill, we were met on a road by a couple of jeeps and taken to Green View Cottages for a final, massive, all you can eat feed of rice and stuff to mix into the rice. It just kept on coming until we’d all had our fill. Seriously, this walk, it’s worth the price in food alone. Often, what Indians consider trekking, we would refer to as a casual stroll. Anwin had told us at the beginning of the walk that when he first started this job he hated it because Indians hate walking. They hate it. They’ll ride or drive or a catch a tuk tuk distances that we wouldn’t even consider any manner of transport for, and walking for fun? They must think we’re on crack or some shit. But by the end of this trek my feet felt like they consisted entirely of bruises and I knew my legs were gonna be proper sore the next day. Awesome. Not even sarcastic awesome, I genuinely love that post-hike feeling, when you collapse into a chair and ease your feet out of their prison and tell your muscles that it’s aaaaaall gonna be ok. Unless you’re on a multi-day hike in which case, this would be a small lie.

Stop digging ginger roots up, Anwin. We’re not gonna put it in our mouths.

One thing that kinda does my nut in is the habit guides in India have of tearing bits off things to show us. In Kumily during the border hiking, one guide went and picked six lilies and gave one to each of us. Not necessary, dude. If you wanted us to smell them we could have gone over there. Sometimes they break bits off to smell or try, and that I can understand, but just to look? Guys, we can see it whilst it’s still attached to the plant. Anwin pretty much had us putting everything we walked past into our faceholes or up our noses. It got to the point that I had to kindly refuse to eat raw, fresh ginger and gently tell him that no, I didn’t want to eat the clove. Or the pepper. Or that… thing… whatever it is that you just picked up off the floor. It was an amazing day though. One of my favourite walks so far I think.

will never tire of tea plantation views. You’ve probably noticed to be fair.
Bonus photo: I asked the guy on the left if I could take a photo of the betel nuts he was selling. He said I could as long as I took a photo of him and his friend too. Fair deal there, mate.

And in other news, nothing makes you realise what a fucking feral bush pig you really are like washing your own clothes. I’ve taken to washing singlets and undies in the shower which I know doesn’t get them properly clean, but clean enough so that people wouldn’t rather stand for four hours than sit next to you on the bus. I finally have access to hot water here so I thought I’d do a biggish wash and when the water is still filthy after the third pre-wash rinse, before you even put the powder in to get the real dirt out, you know you may have mild hygiene issues.

Munnar, Kerala, India
Stayed at: Kaippallil Homestay

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