Indian Tales 8 – Munnar Tea Plantations

In India it’s not uncommon to hire a car and driver for certain journeys. They may be when you’ve left booking a train too late, or more often where there’s no direct route. Our driver for the trip to Munnar was booked by our Homestay host, and arrived promptly at 9am for a long drive. We hadn’t forgotten to book the train.

Munnar is a small town in the Western Ghats Mountain range in India’s Kerala state. A hill station and former resort for the British Raj elite, it’s surrounded by rolling hills dotted with tea plantations established in the late 19th century. However, it’s a four hour drive from Fort Kochi. At least the car had air con, a necessity for us westerners not used to January heat.

It was a while until our breakfast stop, a restaurant set back from the road under a canopy of green. The square space was covered, but open to the countryside. It was busy with Asian families and one other table of Europeans. We chose our usual Keralan curry and dosa breakfast, accompanied with black tea for me and green for Dinah. I still wasn’t clear how they made their black tea, but we were headed to the right place to find out.

We drove on into the mountains; curving roads and crazy blind corner overtaking by others. Our driver was an unusual local driver; careful and considerate. He stopped for the ubiquitous waterfall photos and continued on, uphill. After another hour or so we stopped at building that was signposted as a spice garden. Did we want to visit? Sure.

We tumbled out and into spartan jeep type vehicle. The driver fired the ignition, and nothing much happened. It turned over, but didn’t catch. Bonnet up, fiddling about, try again. This time it started and we were off.

We crossed the road, and dived down a steep track. I had visions of going down a tortuous track, clinging to the roof straps for longer than would be comfortable. But after five minutes the track flattened out and crossed a river valley. Our guide jumped out and took us through their spice garden. Every plant was useful for food or ayurvedic medicine (pepper below). Some he got us to smell, others were clear by their look, many were unfamiliar.

Twenty minutes later we were back in the jeep and taken up the winding, dusty track to the shop. Time for the ayurvedic sell. The shop was clean, spicy in aroma and staffed by three women. Two were in white lab coats, the clinical advisors. Dinah headed for other lady in charge of the chocolate. I sat down for advice.

Plenty of Indians in this situation have asked about my breathing and are on the cusp of asking what is the cause when I point out the long, horizontal scar and say, “Rebuilt.” I imagine that they think about cancer, but I don’t clarify. They seem satisfied.

I headed off that conversation by saying, “I have eczema.”

“How long have you had it?” asked one of the two lab coats.

“As long as I can remember.”

Two white plastic containers rattling with tablets appeared.

“You need to take these twice a day with meals for two months.”

This was a common treatment. “How do they work?” I asked.

“They purify the blood.”

Later I googled the tablets. “Nimbadi tablets help to relieve inflammatory skin diseases due to the antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of the ingredients, especially Neem. It also helps in neutralizing the toxicity and impurities of blood.”

I’m near the end of the first bottle, as I write this. Nothing to report. Yet.

Back to the car with tablets and chocolate. Another long stretch later, stuck behind buses and trucks, we break out into the tea plantations. The vibrant green leaves dazzle against the clear blue sky. We stop four times for photos. It’s spectacular.

Later we pass through busy Munnar; one main, chaotic road, and onto the tea museum. We join with an Indian/Canadian couple over to visit the homeland from Ottawa, to be guided through the tea making process from our experienced guide. First job is handling the picked tea, “Do you know what the different teas are?”

“Green and black?” someone answers.

“And white,” he says handing out sprigs of tea. “The flower is for white tea, the top leaves for green, the bottom leaves and stalk for the black.”

Ok, got it. We are taken alongside a variety of machines that strip and separate the required parts. Eventually the leaves and stalk go into a mincing machine and then on to be roasted. The brown powder that is cooled and appears at the end of this process is a higher grade than the dust that goes in our tea bags.

We pass through the shop and look at the various options available. They don’t use tea bags. The tea, black and green, normal and flavoured, are sold in powdered form. You use them in a strainer, pour water through and leave them sit for 2 – 4 min, dependent upon type. We buy black, in ginger and lemon flavours, and Dinah’s favourite, green lemon flavour.

After this a discussion ensues with our driver. We have miscalculated. The top hill station is another ninety minutes up the hill. It would be close to six hour journey home. We could have done the trip over two days, stayed in Munnar one night. Ah well, time for a quick visit to a large dammed lake and then off for some food.

Lunch in a Munnar restaurant was the usual high standard, after which we resigned ourselves to the long journey home. Four slow hours later we needed beers. Slipping out to the bar two doors up from our homestay, we were welcomed back with four strong Kingfishers and savoury cornflakes. Strange, but welcome. Tomorrow was going to be another long day travelling on the train the Varkala.

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