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Munnar actually has a town, and it’s actually cute and kind of fun. This came as a bit of a surprise, since tourists don’t generally go to Munnar to visit the town. They go to Munnar to visit the resorts and spas, healthfully and ecologically sensitively set in the mountainous countryside, such as the delightful Blackberry Hills Retreat and Spa where we stayed.  They go to see the stunning scenery, to enjoy the fresh mountain air, and to learn about tea.

I don’t think that going to town even ranks in the top 34 things to do in Munnar in tripadvisor.

Well, true, the town is kind of small, but we enjoyed visiting it all the same.

There were, for example, craftsmen hard at work at their craft. This man is, I believe, doing something involving fire. And gold. And jewelry.

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There was a fruit and vegetable market–which Dan and I always find interesting.

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And maybe best of all, shops piled on shops in a jumbled pattern that for me was sheer delight.

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Yes, it was our own choice to eschew the standard tourist fare and instead hire a four-wheel drive vehicle to take us to Kolukkumalai Tea Estate, allegedly the highest tea plantation in the world. But after about thirty-seven hours of bouncing around on rocky and rutted terrain that only loosely resembled a road, we were beginning to wonder whether this was a good idea.

Actually, I have slightly exaggerated the amount of time it took.

Also, you have seen pictures of the scenery along this road, and you’ve learned all about how they make the tea at the Kolukkumalai factory, so I’m sure you’ll agree that this excursion was in fact a very good idea.

We stopped for some photos at the entrance to Kolukkumalai Estate, with stunning vistas of the mountains on both sides of the–dare I call it?–road.

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I have this uneasy feeling that the haze, even in this remote mountainous area, may be at least partly smog. I hope I am wrong about this, because the place is truly beautiful.

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I’m sure you’ve been wondering how tea gets from those lush green mountainsides into your teabag in your steaming and delicious cup of tea. Well, wonder no more. You have questions, I have answers. I even have answers to questions you didn’t know you had.

First, the tea is picked. At a distance, you might hardly even notice the pickers in the, er, fields? of tea.

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The pickers are literally trimming the “tiny little tea leaves” from the growing edges of the plants, and they make their circuit of the plantation every ten days or so. Which completely explains why the landscape has that magical and completely groomed look.

The implement used for this task is a large set of shears with a collection box attached.

med IMG_3886After the tea leaves are clipped and collected, they are brought to the factory.

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I don’t really understand the tea factory. Yes, I was there. Yes, I took pictures. Yes, I listened to the explanations. But I was so fascinated by the antequated beauty of the machinery and the timelessness of the process that I couldn’t take in the words. So here’s what I know, and if words fail me from time to time, I hope you will enjoy the pictures of what I saw.

Freshly picked tea leaves are brought first to a room where they are spread out in large troughs to wither, which is one of perhaps many stages of different kinds of drying.

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After the leaves are withered enough, they are rolled, which causes them to lose their green color and become a kind of coppery red. I think this solid old “Britannia” machine is for rolling.

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Then the tea leaves are subjected to a process of “fermentation,” the term used for oxidation. The tea must be kept cool for this process. It is therefore spread out on a “bacteria free” cement floor. Fermentation takes maybe two to three hours. At the end of this time the tea begins to smell like tea. (Which is delicious!)

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The tea is then further dried, removing its remaining moisture to stop the fermentation process. The speed of the drying machine is the critical component that determines the production rate of the factory.

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After drying, the tea is sifted through a machine with different size meshes that extract any remaining fibers and grade the tea according to size (the smallest leaves are the best).

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All of the output of this factory is earmarked for Saudi Arabia. Except, that is, for the small amount they sell to tourists right at the factory either in bulk or in a refreshing cup of tea.

 

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Munnar is more than beautiful–it’s exquisite. First, of course, there are the mountains. Mountainous scenery, whether wild or cultivated, tends to be beautiful. The scenery in Munnar is mostly cultivated, and the jigsaw tea bushes growing along the slopes add something so beautiful it’s almost painful. So beautiful, at any rate, that your friendly photographer could not stop clicking. And clicking. And clicking.

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These tea bushes are low and neat-looking beneath the trees, but some of them are surprisingly old.

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Even the houses and factories and shrines seem to blend into the scenery.

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More views…

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Now, you may be wondering why or how the tea bushes are shaped the way they are. In the next post we will look at harvesting.

 

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I didn’t know about Munnar before I started researching the trip to Kerala, but it didn’t take long to find out. High in the mountains of the Western Ghats, Munnar is famous for its tea and for its beauty. And after the heat of the coast, we were ready for a couple of cool evenings in the mountains. So we asked our houseboat manager to find us a driver, and off we went! Wide expanses of rich, flat farmland, rivers, and lakes gave way to hills and these to the usual–and welcome–mountain scenery.

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We arrived in the late afternoon at the welcoming Blackberry Hills Retreat–which our very competent driver had no trouble finding.  There was a different problem about the driver–he didn’t want to say goodbye. He explained that he used to work at the tourist bureau and could easily show us the sights in Munnar tomorrow, and then drive us on to Kochi the next day. The problem was that we didn’t want to see the tourist package of sights. We wanted to visit the Kolukkumalai tea plantation, at 7,900 feet supposedly the highest in the world, with amazing views and one of (I think) only two tea factories that offer tours to the public. And Kolukkumai is accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle, an all-day trip. So we turned down our taxi driver’s offer. But he was persistent, and we finally agreed that he would drive us to Kochi the following day at the price the hotel indicated was fair. This seemed to make sense, since Kochi is very close to Alappuzha so that in effect he’d get some money for his return trip.  And so he slept in his taxi in the parking lot while he waited for us. The Blackberry Hills Retreat is built as a series of two- and three-story buildings cascading down the side of a mountain.

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Probably every room has a lovely view from its balcony. Certainly, ours did.

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Yes, you probably guessed it–those green maze-like bushes growing up the slopes and under the trees are tea! More on this in the next post.

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Still moored by the small village, we woke the next morning around dawn. The houseboat that had been moored next to us on the right was already gone, and the village was full of activity. To our left, two people prepared to go out fishing. A boy and his grandmother, I thought at the time, but it could equally well have been his mother.

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They are late. All those dots in the lake in the background are fishing boats, already out there and fishing. The sun is barely up.

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Meanwhile, the mother is taking care of the laundry, and colorful clothing blossoms on the line.

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To our right, across the space where our neighbor houseboat used to be, some men have begun working, unloading a boatload of–muck from some canal or riverway they were trying to clear? fill for some swampy area they were trying to turn into a field? or both? They have exquisite balance, walking along the rail of the boat and then across narrow boards to the shore.

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I like the cooperative work of these men, and of the fishermen in Varkala, and I feel sad for the woman washing her lonely laundry.

But our crew has been hard at work too, and it’s time for us to leave. A delicious and plentiful breakfast awaits us as we head out across the lake where the fishermen are still hard at work, and back down the waterways to Alappuzha.

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In the stunning green world of Kerala’s backwaters, the people with their bright homes and clothing stand out like jewels–especially the women. We couldn’t make real contact, motoring by on our houseboat, but we could watch them on their way from, well, somewhere to somewhere else, threading the narrow path between canal and rice paddy.

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…or hanging out by their houses. 

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From our lazy houseboat perspective, even the buildings themselves clustered in their small villages or strung out along the canal have a certain charm.

sm DSC00290  sm DSC00286  sm DSC00311 sm DSC00312 sm DSC00313When we docked near a village for the night, Dan and I went out for a walk. On land. Something a little different. And here, as elsewhere in Kerala, I was approached by children. Elsewhere in India, they are likely to be beggars. But not in Kerala. Kerala has virtually no beggars, and certainly not the children. What these children wanted was simply to make my acquaintance, and maybe practice a little English.

“Hello,” they say.

I smile–I can’t help it!–and they smile back. “How are you?” they ask.

“I’m fine,” I reply. “How are you?”

“I am fine. What’s your name?”

So I tell them, and I learn theirs, and sometimes we get as far as, “How old are you?” (That would be me asking them, not the other way around. They probably don’t know numbers bigger than, say, ten.)

“May I take your picture?” I might ask, or they might ask it, in words or in gestures, these bright, shining children. “Please, take my picture.”

So I do.

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I don’t remember when I first heard about Kerala. It was years ago. I learned that it had the highest literacy rate of all Indian states–over 90% for both men and women–and the greatest religious diversity and tolerance, with large minority populations of Moslems and Christians. There had also been, I learned, a significant Jewish presence in Kerala from the destruction of the second temple until well into the twentieth century–and that all minorities lived in peace in Kerala. For years I wanted to visit a state in India with such impressive diversity, education, and tolerance.

Also, I knew that Kerala has been a center of the spice trade for thousands of years and is also famous for its tea. The best black peppercorns–Tellicherry peppers–come from Kerala. However, when I mention Kerala to friends and acquaintances in the USA, if they’d heard of Kerala at all, they did not mention any of these things. What they were curious about was:

Were Dan and I going to stay on a houseboat?

I’d never heard of such a thing, but research revealed that traveling the backwaters of Kerala in a houseboat was, in fact, the number one tourist attraction in Kerala. Who knew?!

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You just don’t know what you’re missing until you’ve plied the miles of intertwined canals and rivers and lakes in a boat woven of wicker. And Alappuzha, the center of this remarkable tourist attraction, is filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of such houseboats, all waiting to take you on this unforgettable excursion.

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As for us, well, if we were going to take this trip, we wanted a certain amount of luxury. Air conditioning, the ability to close up against mosquitoes, and a private bathroom were requirements. The Pickadly Royal Suite Honeymoon Luxury Houseboat filled the bill–and more besides. Forget the mere private bathroom. We had an entire dedicated private houseboat, complete with a full-time crew of three–a captain, an engineer, and a chef. The food was some of the best we had in Kerala, where all the food was phenomenal. We departed the dock in Alappuzha promptly at noon and almost immediately entered an enchanted world.

Kerala backwater scenery

We, and several dozen other houseboats that all offered overnight trips that depart the dock promptly at noon.

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Do not confuse these whimsical yet luxurious vessels with the houseboats that started this whole craze years ago, the ones on which some of the residents of this enchanting region actually live.

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Actually, many types of boats ply these waters.

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The scenery is idyllic.

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Next post: More about the people.

 

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“I think this is the Arabian Sea,” Dan said as we ate dinner on the beach. “The Arabian Sea!” I didn’t know what body of water this was, but–the Arabian Sea!? “Isn’t that where the Somali pirates operate?” Dan looked out at the water, frowning as if he might bring those pirate ships into focus. “Is it?” It’s amazing, really, what we don’t know about geography. “I think,” Dan said, pushing his food around on his plate, “that we’re a long way from Somalia.” But as soon as we got back to the room, we checked. Yes, the beautiful sea we were on the edge of is indeed the Arabian sea, but it’s over three thousand miles from Kerala to Somalia as the crow flies, which is, presumably, also as the pirate ship swims. This seems a safe enough distance. I decided not to worry about it. Despite a vanishingly small risk of pirates, we slept soundly. With a long drive ahead of us, we rose before the sun. In the ocean in front of our hotel–there was a boat!

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In fact, there were similar boats all up and down the coast as far as we could see.

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The boat landed…

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…and soon the familiar tug-of-war began again. And so we came to understand that the fishing activity we’d observed yesterday was the second catch of the day, and that these fishermen are hard at work even before dawn.

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Not everyone cared to watch. They’ve probably seen it all before.

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The fishermen were still hauling in their catch when it came time for us to go. And even today, weeks later, they probably still haul in a couple of catches a day–undisturbed by pirates.

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I ended my trip but began the Indian blog posts, with Varanasi. Time to backtrack now, almost to the beginning. The first stop on the trip was in Kerala–Thiruvananthapuram (a name that I am inordinately fond of, having gone to great lengths to memorize it, but you can call it Trivandrum for short). I’m going to skip Thiruvananthapuram, but I may backtrack here later; I have some pretty neat pictures of a wonderful wooden palace two hours deep into Tamil Nadu but still part of Kerala. But somehow I sense you’re probably pretty tired of architectural wonders.

So let’s skip that for now. Let’s go to the beach.

We arrived early in Varkala, about 10:30 in the morning. We understood that our room would probably not be ready. This was fine. We were happy just to sit near the ocean with nothing to do.

We did not expect to find a serious game of tug-of-war going on just on the other side of our hotel. Wonderful, I thought, that the hotel was organizing games for the guests. But… there was something odd about this particular game. For one thing, where were the women? The children?

Varkala tug of war

Come to that, where were the tourists?

This was no game. This was, it turned out, the local fishermen earning their daily keep. There were two heavy ropes, each being pulled by some ten or twelve men.

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As the rope came in, the group on the rock wall moved closer and closer to the one on the beach.

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They coiled the rope behind them. At the end of the rope was the end of a very large net, and this too they gathered behind them.

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Now both groups, close together, pulled in earnest.

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A man riding a kind of a–surfboard?–helped guide in the far edge of the net.

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As the net was pulled in, the catch became visible–an abundance of small silver fish.

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The fishermen scooped up most of the fish into a basket.

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There ensued a heated discussion with a man who, like us tourists, had been only a bystander until this moment. Now emotions ran high.

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You didn’t have to speak Malayam to understand that a negotiation was in process. The buyer turned in disgust to leave. One of the fishermen ran after him. More discussion, calmer this time. A price was agreed. Two men took the basket, following the buyer off the beach. The fishermen divided up their gear and the remaining fish. The catch of the day had been disposed of.

Dan and I checked into our room and then went for a walk along the beach. If they could photoshop reality, they would make it look something like this.

Varkala beach looking north Varkala beach looking south

The sun, as it usually does, set.

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We stopped along the way for a drink (a surprisingly good mojito).

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And then later, we had dinner by candlelight on the beach.

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