Munnar, magic mountains of tea

Well I’d just you written a long winded pompous discussion on cultural change in an internet savvy media educated India and the sad loss of naivety and values in the name of economic development. But it came across snobbish and ethnocentric which was not my intention so I ditched it. Progress inevitably changes people, I am happy that many Indians have thrown off the vestiges of the British Raj and see themselves as equal with the best in the world, I just hope 5000 years of culture survives embracing western “values.” But if John my driver is any indication I have little hope.

I don’t like him, I may yet yell at him (he wouldn’t get it he’s so blissfully self-confident he could be a gen-y) but I’m stuck with him so I’ll cover my girls thoroughly and tell him to mind his own business when he wants to know everything from my weight to whether my husband lets me have other boyfriends. Yes I invented a husband who I’ve now had to flesh out for 500 subsequent questions. I have now swapped to “that’s never a polite question” as a standard response. It’s my holiday and so long as he continues to accept my instruction not to poke the accelerator like it’s a prostitute I won’t vomit in his car.

So moving on from critical observations… Today I’ve moved to Munnar up in tea country, does 5,000 feet sound right? The boys in the hotel in Cochin farewelled me with a four course breakfast which was lovely and fortified me for the 5 hour drive. Less said about the actual drive here the better.

day-4-img_4957There’s not too much to say about Munnar other than it’s lovely. The steep hills are covered in tea bushes which are plucked regularly by women, it’s totally manual. They must get osteo and RSI injuries. Their access paths and the regular trimming of the rows of camellias make the hills look like pin cushions or maybe tea cosies. They are dotted with granite boulders and occasional thin spindly trees to control temperature and give the birds somewhere to sit, it makes them look like a Japanese painting in steaming hazy tones of green. Everything smells of tea and you can inhale the anti-oxidants.

I went to the tea museum and did the obligatory tour of the tea factory with its steam punk technology, even bought some tea. That was crazy. Clearly this is a domestic tourism area focused largely on honeymooners, not that I thought tea was an aphrodisiac. Anyway you’d think it was a) better than viagra or b) that there was a tea famine the way people were climbing over each other fighting to buy. Like 8am at the Boxing Day sales it was crazy. Not being averse to a bit of elbowing and climbing in pursuit of a bargain I did manage to procure some tea at what was truly an amazing price. I’m not sure about rose iced tea but I’ll give it a go.

Then it was back to the hotel which is 18 very nice bungalows in manicured grounds in the middle of a coffee and cardamom plantation. There are 20 women here doing a yoga retreat but I managed to resist their invitation to join and instead today’s exercise was a 1.5hr vertical walk to, from and in a cardamom plantation. It is truly the smell of heaven.  One gardening tip I might try at home though it needs more space – purple hibiscus, red poinsettia and yellow/orange cannas make an incredibly mass planting. Like an oversized, tropical English cottage garden.

Tomorrow we have a 3.5 hr drive so anything could happen. I wonder if I’m insured if I drag him out of the driver’s seat and take over myself?

Three days later, and A Change in Driver

Mmmm home grown honey from the bees that pollinate the cardamom. Breakfast is winning on this trip so far.

That was days ago in Munnar, you remember the cardamom plantation? Excellent honey. At that point things spiralled a bit and I didn’t write, not wanting to sound like a neurotic self-obsessed teenager on her first trip away from home!! Sigh. Breathe. Choose how to remember. Move on.

We drove from Munnar to Thekaddy, Lake Periyar. John chose a shortcut which did save 30mins in a 4 hour drive but was mm by mm of bone jarring roadworks. I felt quite ill by the time we arrived at a Thekaddy Spice Farm (there are many) for a tour. I noticed it was Christian like John, before I was surprised at the low level of facilities and that I was expected to pay. I got back in the car refusing to pay and asked to be taken straight to the hotel, all the while telling John the spice garden was paid for in the booking. I smelt a rat along with numerous other unsavoury items decaying in the undergrowth.

After making several phone calls while he was driving, John conceded it was paid for and we would reschedule after lunch. Surprise surprise after lunch we went to a nicer different spice garden, which he paid for (expenses provided by the tour company) and where there was a proper auyervedic guide. (These are 2006 spice tour photos as I clearly wasn’t feeling like photographing on the day in 2014.)

From the Spice Garden John took me to the Kathakali performance that had been relocated from Cochin, and I made the double billing for some impressive Keralan martial arts.

But for John the day had been the last straw – after the intrusive questions, swearing, repeatedly asking me to go for beer, leering at me and poking at the accelerator, I’d had enough. I nearly guilted out, but didn’t thanks to Alison and 6 Welsh Witches, I mean the six women that I met at dinner and who noticed I was nearly in tears so patted me on the head and told me he had to go.

I emailed the Australian company and asked that John be replaced. Of course they emailed the Delhi supplier, who rang me directly at breakfast; what is problem madam, why didn’t you call us? Ok new driver no problem. He then rang the Cochin contractor who also rang me by the end of breakfast. But within 24 hours John was gone and I am now driven (not escorted thank you Cathy) by Karthik.

While John was being replaced I had a massage – the massage was borderline but, hmmm have you ever been bathed in hot milk steeped in medicinal herbs? And I’m not talking climb in a tub bathing, I’m talking sit on a stool and have jugs of hot infused milk poured over your naked person. I’ve seen photos of Indians pouring milk over statues of gods but not people. Wow it was totally relaxing. Just amazing, I couldn’t believe it. Never felt anything like it. So medicinal. Post massage (and shower) I was off on a cruise of Lake Perriyar.

Last time I was in Periyar was 2006 and staying in the palace on the lake was not then over $500 a night! Reduced this time to a boating trip with the plebs I was garbed in compulsory life jacket and placed in the front row in the boat. The life jacket was also a new addition following the drowning of 45 people when a tourist boat sank in 2009. It’s not Africa but we saw three elephant, bison (that aren’t, they’re actually some kind of buffalo), deer, wild boar, lots of birds and nice scenery. (Here are some 2006 accommodation photos)

I had told John that when I visited in 2006 I bought carpet from a shop run by a man called Farouk. I wanted to see Farouk again if possible but couldn’t remember the location of the shop. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but after I returned from the boating John announced that he’d found Farouk so off I went shopping. “Maximum sorry” John was actually helpful.

As soon as I walked inside I knew two things 1) I’d been there before and 2) I’d bought nothing, it was not the right Farouk. But presented with a Farouk and carpets in Thekaddy I had tea, I looked at carpets, I had more tea, I chose a carpet. I went to leave, we bargained, I went to leave again. We had more tea. I now have a new carpet coming home to Australia.

Feeling somewhat unwell I had Maximum sorry John return me to the hotel. In my room the phone rang – hotel reception, travel agent has been calling madam, can we call him back now? Yes, phone rings again, Delhi office, madam new driver will be with you in the morning. Yay I thought hanging up the phone, I don’t have to spend 3 hrs next to Maximum sorry John all the way downhill to Madurai. Phone rings again, Cochin office, new driver will be there in the morning madam. Thank you good night I said wanting to be in my loo.

Phone rings again, I answer thinking that I seriously don’t know this many people in India! “Madam it’s Farouk’s son, we have been waiting for you since morning time. Please come and have tea.” I knew the first shop and Farouk were wrong! Two carpet shops in one small town both with Farouks, go figure! It turned out that the auyervedic spice guide knew the right Farouk and had told him I was in town. So after a brief pause that relieves, I parcelled my unquiet stomach and broke my own rule by walking up the road in the dark to the right carpet shop. Actually it was worse than that, I snuck out the back laneway to avoid Maximum sorry John who was probably off “finding a new girlfriend” anyway.

My visit to Farouk was only ever going to end one way, we all know that. We drank tea, we told stories, they lamented not seeing me early enough in my visit to be able to prepare me a meal, I was silently grateful given inner disquiet. I bought my library a new Sufi carpet. It was always going to end that way. Sigh.

Interestingly Farouk had his receipt book from 2006 and knew exactly which carpets I bought then for how much. He offered to buy them back at 4 times the price. That’s a better investment than any of my shares!! I returned to the hotel amid promises to meet in 3 years’ time in Kashmir. About 3 hours later I woke in utter panic at the money I’d spent given my new life as a poor student. I rushed to the loo and stayed there in fiscal and intestinal panic till the dawn call to prayer at 530am. I now blame the sickness for the mental panic attacks which Alison put up with on Viber all through my night. Thanks again to the goddess of wifi. Once the illness passed so did the panic. Yes I spent too much but such is life, the shopping demon bites again. And apparently Sufis are wise so maybe carpet wisdom will seep into my studies.

I have to say it did occur to me that I might not be allowed back into Aust without a grilling if the authorities ever hear of me asking around India for two Kashmiri men each named Farouk both of whom look like… well they’re thick bearded devout Muslim gentlemen from the border regions of the Hindu Kush. What can I say?

Anyway, after my night of horrors I met my new driver Karthik, a shy Hindu man with a sandalwood Ganesha on his dashboard and we transferred smoothly to Madurai. Karthik is a lovely Hindu guy who was clearly terrified of me, but is relaxing as I prove not to be the next incarnation of Kali (goddess of destruction, killer of demons.)

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Author: Wendy's Out of Station

I write as a way of processing and reflecting on experience, and as a way of sharing that experience. When I travel I used to write email journals back to friends, family, anyone who’d read and risk immersing themselves in my reality for a while: writing for them was a way of writing for me. Borrowing from Graham Greene in a flip of Travels with my Aunt, I imagined writing letters to my nieces, as their travelling aunt. Crafting the sentences became a way of extruding the experience, giving it birth, drawing its meaning from my soul, nurturing it into something tangible with a life of its own. The aim of my blog is to open the world to my thought-children, to let them out of the safety of my friends and family and let them experience the world. And in the process I get the honour of taking a larger group with me when I’m wandering around India and beyond, or just reflecting on parallel truths, thinking thoughts that take me to new places new beginnings. Please journey with me

2 thoughts on “Munnar, magic mountains of tea”

  1. Thanks, back then I was using a Canon digital SLR. Thought about bringing it on this trip but it was too heavy compared with carrying an iPhone. It’s been novel only having the phone, probably wouldn’t do it again.

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