|Lush rolling hills of the Munnar Tea Estates in Kerala, India|
Kerala is sometimes referred to as “Gods own Country”. Once we left the congested roadways around Kochi and started climbing up to lush green rolling hills of the Munnar Hill Station’s tea estates, we could see why.
Situated at the confluence of three rivers: the Madhurapuzha, Nallanthanni and Kundaly, Munnar is about a six-hour drive from Kochi. More than half of our drive was on winding mountain roads best suited for a single lane of traffic rather an two. Curiously, our bus had not only a driver, but also a “spotter,” who helped the driver gauge clearances am provide a second pair of eyes on the road. The horn was used liberally.
|We leave the city of Kochi behind as we head into the Munnar Hills.|
|We passed the Kerala "Backwaters" on our way. Vacationers can rent houseboats|
and spend time relaxing in this natural and peaceful setting.
|One of the two waterfalls we encountered on the way.|
We were to have lunch in Munnar. The small city wasn’t quite what I expected. The term “Hill Station” evoked images of a bygone era, of genteel English garden estates, rather than the haphazardly overbuilt, dusty and grungy commercial area we drove through. There were billboards everywhere. One billboard, which we had seen frequently on the drive and also here, mysteriously demanded, “Call Aishwarya xxx-xxxx.” And I wondered – why?
Once we got off the bus, we started walking uphill. Our surroundings transitioned slowly until we came to an imposing gate (including a gatekeeper). The gate opened into a resort hotel, set within manicured grounds. This was more like what I expected. Beyond the beautifully tended gardens, we could see the distinct landscape of tea on the surrounding hillside. Everyone was thoroughly captivated. My only quibble with lunch was that they didn’t serve masala chai. However, they did have ice cream, which for Gary and the forty or more students, was a fitting reward for our hours in the bus.
|One of the resort's gardeners.|
|Lake created by a dam that was built by the British during their occupation of India.|
After lunch we piled back on the bus and drove for another hour or more. The scenery was just beautiful. I could feel the collective anticipation spreading among us. We couldn’t wait to get off the bus and start hiking!
|The patterns and textures created by the paths navigating the gently rolling hills and the|
individual tea bushes, was just breathtaking.
In the back of my mind, however, I had one nagging concern. How hard would it be for me to hike for two hours carrying my pack, taking photographs, AND manage to keep up with a bunch of 18 – 21 year olds? I breathed a sigh of relief when our guide told us that the bus would let us off and then proceed to a parking area that would be about a fifteen minute walk from our camp, so we could leave our packs on the bus if we preferred. I preferred! But interestingly, most of the students, including Gary, decided to carry their packs. I have no idea why.
We tumbled off the bus. It was just so beautiful – blue skies, puffy white clouds, clean mountain air. Even without my pack, I was often at the end of the procession. It’s amazing how far behind you can get when you stop for even a minute or two to take photographs every five minutes. Gary kept me company now and then, and fortunately, we had an additional guide at the rear, keeping track of all the photographer stragglers.
|Off we go!|
|A single family home and vegetable garden carved out of the tea bush landscape.|
We made it into camp as the sun was setting. The tents were all up, the crew was busy preparing dinner, and an area was reserved for a campfire with fifty folding chairs set in a circle around it. One student – an eagle scout, no doubt – took it upon himself to scrounge for firewood and soon had a fire going. As we lost the sun, the temperature began to drop rapidly. The crew put out tea and snacks, and we sat around the fire and talked.
That night it got really cold. The zipper of my sleeping bag was broken. Our sleep was fitful. The camp toilets were, well, camp toilets. We were roughing it! But the crew was earnest and wonderful. The multi-course dinner they prepared took a great deal of effort (and time…we didn’t get to eat until 8:30pm…but then an Indian dinner for almost fifty people is not like having a barbeque…) and was absolutely delicious.
We woke to a brilliant sunrise, and what promised to be a beautiful day. We had a full day of hiking ahead of us, and a picnic lunch.
|What a brilliant morning!|
We learned a little about tea bushes – that they could survive for a hundred years – and that the leaves were plucked almost every day by hand, or clipped with modified shears that pushed the leaves into an attached bag. The type of tea grown here is Nilgiri, an aromatic black tea.
Most of the “pluckers” were women – a cheerful bunch who responded easily to our greetings and smiled for our cameras, Though they didn’t make that much money by western standards, their employment benefits included free healthcare for the entire family and free education through high school for their children.
|Women plucking the tea leaves in the mid morning.|
|Detail of the tea plant. Only one variety of tea, Nilgiiri (blue leaf), an aromatic black tea, is grown here.|
|One of the tea leaf clippers.|
|Around lunchtime the tea pluckers bring their harvest down from the hills to be weighed.|
|Then they bag it up again to load on the truck.|
|A village near our lunch spot.|
|A Shiva Temple perched on the hillside amid the tea bushes.|
As often as we'd see a Hindu temple, we'd see a church or Christian shrine.
|The village where our bus was waiting to take us back to camp.|
As usual the hike downhill was more taxing than the climb uphill. Though the terrain was changing. We left the hillsides with tea behind and rolled into a village, creating a bit of diversion for the local children.
|Children in the village are happy to pose together for a shot.|
|One last photo!|
After a short ride in the air conditioned bus, we got back to camp, tired but content. Some of our group had the energy to strike out on their own for some additional hiking before dinner. The rest of us settled in for the evening. As the crew began preparations for dinner, our guide told us that we could get a lesson in making the Kerala Parathas that would accompany our meal.
Unlike the parathas I was used to (roll out, layer with ghee, fold over into triangular shapes), these were rolled and then twirled - a bit like a pizza, but not up in the air - and slapped on to the table over and over, until they achieved the correct thinness. then they were spread with ghee, cut in half, and rolled by hand to look like a cinnamon roll and left to sit. After half an hour or so, they were flattened - by hand and then with a rolling pin - and cooked on a grill. Finally, after four of them had been grilled, they were stacked up and "smushed" together so it separated into layers. They were truly delicious, as was the entire dinner.
The next morning we said our goodbyes and thank you's to the crew, then settled into our bus to enjoy the spectacular scenery of "God's own Country" one last time.