Pluck, Cut, Tear, Curl and repeat… for 138 years:
I may have actually stumbled into “relaxation”… (after the 12 hr journey from Varanasi to Kochin Christmas Eve, although even that was chill as I finished a book during the five hr delay in Varanasi))
12 hr trip (flights) from Varanasi to Bangalore to Cochin
I’m now defining my days by where I am and what I’m doing rather than the day of the week. This is awesome, other than mucking up the day to FaceTime with the fam (I kind of skipped over Boxing Day…lol). Given typically North American obsession with time and day, I’m taking this as a really small step toward some sort of chill version of me. Not quite nirvana, but a step in the right direction. It also helps that the South of India just seems a bit more chilaxed overall (beaches, palm trees and pineapples!).
Drove from Kochin yesterday to Munnar, four hours to go about 130km inland and 1,500m up into the hills.
4hrs drive to Munnar (130km)
This morning was a hike through a stunning, 3,000 acre tea plantation then a visit to the 138 year old factory to see the CTC (Cut, Tear, Curl) process of withering, drying, cutting (four times) oxidizing, drying, sorting and packing of tea. Can’t say as I know that I’d ever seen a tea tree before. Probably did in China and just didn’t know it.
CTC Tea stages
Amazing story of complete terraforming of these high and steep hills in Munnar by private British companies starting in the mid- 1,800s. Brits purchased the land, which was evergreen forest, from the local royal family for a deal, as no one expected anything could be grown on it. Coriander and Cocoa thrive lower down in the valley but historically nothing much this high up. The re-work of the land included bringing in Arbutus trees to dry the soil a bit and mosquito killing trees from Africa (after a major flood in 1924).
The two main plantations I’ve visited are now employee cooperatives, with all primary education and health care provided (given snakes, cows and elephants in the fields, on-site medical makes sense!)
However, with Karala State having a 97% primary education rate, the plantations are having a harder time attracting new employees, as kids go off to more gainful and less labour intensive employment.
Their mothers and grandmothers however still pick tea leaves by hand on the very steep slopes, as getting the fresh (light green) leaves and or just the tips (for highly prized white tea) is still best done by hand. Women in the field, men in the factory (although did see a couple of women in the company office). Niyaz (see below) tells me that although the wages are relatively low, the health and school benefits are a real perk, and the women work from 6am’ish to 11am’ish daily,
The plantations are experimenting with plucking machines (hovering lawn mowers at about the 4′ height of the tree), which are fairly efficient but can only work on fairly level terrain where the trees are planted in straight lines vs the historical organic patterns.
Tea trees can grow up to 15m high and live up to 2,500 years (gonna hafta Google that one Niyaz!) and are at their best production somewhere between 40 a and 125 to 150 years. Trees are harsh primed down to about 4’ high every five years so the new leaves on top of the plant can be reached by hand.
Cool story: Niyaz, my hike guide, has started a local Eco-Tourism, in cooperation with the plantation Co-ops and, he hopes, to help them out economically as labourers become harder to find. We started off on our hike just as he was finishing off a three day camping trek with a bunch of kids from North India on Harleys. This country never ceases to amaze!
Niyaz’ s company (The Glamping C0.) does short and multi-day hikes in the plantation and adjacent hill country, overnight camping, jeep rides on the “real” off-road trails, kayaking and India’s longest zip line. This past week he had guests from 91 different countries, with Guatemalans being the number two participants (after Indians, followed by Germans). Jeep touring is big here!
Munnar Tea Hills
Niyaz is a super energetic young guy who is really excited about eco-tourism here and around the world (parenting with a French company for in-forest cocoon stays). I would come back for that!
Sarath, is stuck with me negotiating the fairly wild roads of Karala for ten days, More 20′ wide highways and a semi-paved road from Munnar last night for about 2 hrs that was crazy steep with blind switch-backs, half collapsed in part and would qualify as 4×4 only at home, meantime our lil’ car, tuk tuks and mopeds are zooming all over it. Sarath grew up in Kerala with 33.5M neighbours in the state, and speaks four languages, the native language of Malayalam plus Tamil, Hindi, decent English and a bit of Arabic. His wife if three years is a nurse and he himself has a college degree, but just likes guiding rather than a corporate gig. They have a 2 yr old daughter.
Local food, everything seems to have a tea leaf or two mixed in.
Airlines have been great (when on time) and start their announcements with “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls” and then introduce each of the crew members noting their home city in India. Super cute.
Most hotel and even roadside restaurant offer Chinese or Italian dishes (I have not tried these). Italian food seems to be a thing here
As Hindi isn’t the primary native tongue here in the south, there is a LOT of English. Very weird sitting in a room packed with about 40 Indian people ( plus me), watching a 29 minute movie on the history of tea, all 100% in English. Nobody blinked, and nobody spoke a word of English that I heard coming into the theatre or when EVERYONE crushed for the door about five minutes before the movie ended, cuz….that’s just what you do! Like boarding planes, I just waited till everyone was out.
the stupid tiger print keeps trying to get away, but has not yet been lost. Although the damn thing had to be checked luggage from Varanasi to Kochin. It is taking on a life of its own.