Cardamom Tea

It is easy to see that today’s global Indian, NRI or not, favors exotic vacations, whether he takes a cruise to Mauritius or strolls in the islands of the Mediterranean. Having returned to India recently after 14 years in the United States, we decided to start by first exploring the natural beauty and diversity of India.

Although the hot summer months are not ideal for traveling in India, families with school-age children are left with few options and we were certainly no exception. What set us apart was our naïve assumption that getting to our choice destination would be a breeze as long as we planned ahead. Only when we tried our luck at train tickets did we realize what “advance booking” truly meant in this context. Our lack of foresight diverted us from our pre-planned destination of the hills of the Northeast region to the tiny southern state of Kerala.

As is the norm in India, the Toyota Qualis that we rented in Bangalore came with a driver. The SUV-like Qualis offered a smooth ride for the long drive we had planned but our driver’s high-speed driving was most unnerving. We drove down to the tea country of Munnar via Tamil Nadu. The wide, smooth, black-topped national highways that connect the country offer two lanes on each side of the median. The regulars on these roads are the neon-colored air-conditioned tour buses and macho trucks bearing the typical “Horn OK Please” message along with various symbols to ward off the evil eye. Every so often the broad highway would shrink to a fourth of its width to facilitate construction or metamorphose into a narrow street meandering through small villages. And then our trip would get more intense and exciting as our driver swerved around wandering goats or unsuspecting dhoti-clad villagers.

When we approached the outskirts of the sleepy town of Munnar, lights blinked on the slopes like brilliant fireflies. A kind, uniformed policeman heading home on his motorbike stopped to give us directions to the fairly new resort where we had reservations for the next three nights.

“… First left … Straight … Bridge … Dam … Blossom International Park … Right … five kilometers.”

In spite of our complete ignorance of Malayalam we were saved by the sprinkling of English words that ultimately led us to our destination. After being cooped up in the car for over 12 hours, we crawled under the blankets and slept peacefully in a room with no ceiling fan, air conditioning, or heating.

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ROOM WITH A VIEW

I woke up early the next morning to see the delicate rays of the sun peeping shyly from behind the mountaintops. Ribbons of sunshine played on the verdant mountainside lined with tea plantations. Even in the sultry month of May, weeks before the onset of the furious monsoon, Munnar was green, gorgeous, and at its scenic best.

Weaving through the hillsides on remarkably pothole-free roads we came across uninterrupted vistas of green. From afar, a few tea plantations seemed to have been planted in ruthless symmetry with the rows stiff and parallel, as if combed with a wide-toothed comb. On other cliffs, the bushes milled around in largish circles, like bouquets of broccoli heads. Flaming red gulmohar trees dotted the landscape like brilliant bindis. Although many of the tea estates still bear their original names, most of them have been taken over by Tata Tea, which is probably the largest employer in the area. At various times in the day we spotted tiny specks on the slopes—people picking fresh leaves and dropping them into bags hung on their backs. By evening, groups of tea pickers could be seen at the weighing stations, accounting for their day’s pickings. Tiny row houses built for the employees stood out like scars in the hillsides while signs pointing to the assistant manager’s bungalow showed well-tended roads leading down intriguing slopes.

At Mattupetty Dam, located about eight miles from Munnar, we had our first of many boat rides. We descended the steep slope to the waterfront, slipping along the sandy boulders and awaited our turn amidst small families and large tour groups breaking the silence with loud laughter. The honeymooners were easy to spot, with the brides proudly displaying their radiant faces and brightly hennaed hands and feet. The motorboat ride gave us a better view of the deep green water reflecting the tops of the tall eucalyptus trees on the hillsides that surround the reservoir. A little later, I had my first taste of the local street food—tender carrots with sparkling green leaves still attached, a treat any rabbit (or fresh veggie lover) would die for.

On the way to Echo Point, we stopped beside a gently sloping hill carpeted with almost fluorescent grass, perfectly landscaped by celestial hands, totally free of pesky crabgrass and weeds. I chased Aparna, who ran around barefoot in the fluffy grass like a child-Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. The most striking visuals came from the countless shades of green—the pale translucence of the new tea leaves, the tiny spheres of the peppercorns, the silvery green of the eucalyptus, and the luminous stalks of lemongrass.

At Echo Point fruit vendors did brisk business with tart mangoes and sliced juicy pineapples sprinkled with salt and chili powder. I don’t know if it was the ambience or the spicy twist, but those were the best pineapples I have ever tasted. On sale were other unfamiliar fruits like green peaches and eggplant-shaped tea tomatoes, claimed to be the ideal fruit for diabetics. Tea stalls doled out steaming cups of fragrant cardamom and lemongrass tea as the little ones ran around shouting out to their friends, trying to gauge if Echo Point deserved its name.

All along our drive we came across lush tropical plants and occasionally we would round a corner and have a glimpse of a miniature waterfall. Small sheds held up by rickety supports serve as bus shelters to protect travelers from the whims of the unpredictable but generous rain gods of this region. I was reminded of the tree-lined road to Hana that we had traveled upon on a vacation to the island of Maui. But we came across other sights that reminded us firmly of our location. Being election season, posters of candidates hung on wires like laundry left out to dry on clotheslines. Men wearing lungis folded over to end just above their knees and umbrellas tightly clutched in their hands were a common sight. Minor shrines, dedicated to Christian and Hindu Gods embedded into tiny niches, marked the mountainous roadside along with bright orange optic fiber cable markers.

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LOCAL GUIDANCE

One evening we walked towards the dense vegetation of a cardamom grove in the direction of a nearby residential school. Other tourists had pointed the plants to us but no matter how hard we looked at the branches, we could not spot the pods. We hesitated at the edge of a construction site until a friendly face came into view. In broken English and Tamil we conversed with Xavier, the caretaker, who was only too pleased to point us to the base of the cardamom plants to show us the budding pods arising from leafless stalks. He handed us a few unripe coffee beans and explained how the coffee plants had been cut away to make way for the resort, leaving the more lucrative cardamom untouched. We picked a few peppercorns dangling from the creepers clinging onto the larger trees. We thanked Xavier for his hospitality, and in turn he repeatedly asked us to visit his hometown of Kochi.

The next day we headed northwards to the Nayamkad falls, located about five miles from Munnar. In May, the falls are not swollen with rainwater but it was impossible to miss the gentle whoosh of the falling water once we stepped out of the car. Munnar and its surroundings are widely advertised as being “plastic free,” a recent measure adopted by the environmentally conscious hill stations that repeatedly suffer an onslaught by tourists every summer. While most roads are amazingly litter-free, I was disappointed at the sight of smashed water bottles, candy wrappers, and chips packets, just a few steps from these pristine falls.

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WILD DENIZENS

The slopes of the mountains on the way to the Eravikulam National Park are carpeted with plants that bear the elusive Neelakurinji flower that blooms once every 12 years. The wildlife information center had an album of pictures taken in the 1994 season. A large tourist influx is expected in the 2006 season as well. As the car slowly made its way up the steep hillsides, we came upon low-lying clouds giving misty kisses to the mountains. The sun played hide-and-seek with the mountains, painting the scene with alternate shades of light and dark like a curtain fluttering in the breeze. Popularly known as Rajamala, the hills are home to the Nilgiri tahr. These wild and hardy mountain goats are endemic to the Western Ghats. A sign at the park entrance warned us about this being the “habitat of wild denizens. Seeing the animals is a matter of chance.” Not expecting much, we were nevertheless pleasantly surprised by an adult and a baby goat happily munching on the greens just a few feet away. Up the mountain we saw several other goats precariously balanced on the slopes, working their way through a mid-morning snack.

The route to the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary passes through the only sandalwood reserves in Kerala. A forest officer pointed out a tree that was about 40 feet tall and only five inches in diameter, and indicated that it was at least 100 years old. These slow-growing trees are highly priced and if the forestry department gets even a whiff (pun intended) of smuggling, they impound suspected vehicles as evidenced by the very large parking lot littered with automobiles of all shapes, sizes, and condition. Somewhere en route, the lush greenery gave way to dry, deciduous forests indicative of the rain shadow region. Chinnar is home to several species of wildlife including elephants, tigers, langurs, and spotted deer. We declined a mid-afternoon three-hour trek by the river, knowing that the chance of spotting wildlife in the middle of the day was very low. Maybe to reassure us, a family of langurs appeared on a tree branch near the car, carrying on their business, with no interest in our activities.

On the drive back, we stopped at a lookout with other cars and tried to identify the source of excitement amongst the other tourists. Once our eyes got accustomed to the down slope of the adjacent mountain range, it was easy to spot herds of elephants making their way up from the river in the valley. We spotted a young calf obediently trailing its mother in one group. Even with high-power binoculars, the elephants looked no bigger than medium-sized dogs.

On the last day, my husband went to a computer shop to download the photos from the digital camera whose memory was crammed with gorgeous pictures.

“Great photos,” the shop assistant commented.

“It was easy. It’s a great place,” replied Sai.

When we left Munnar, our bags bore no cheap magnets or plastic miniatures. We carried only the natural souvenirs that Xavier had given Aparna—a bunch of peppercorns (dimpled like mini golf balls after a day), green cardamom pods, and a few coffee beans. Writing about this gem of a town in Kerala feels like letting out the secret location of a little-known bookstore tucked away down a narrow side street off the beaten track. To be fair, if I were asked to list one thing missing in this breathtaking tea country, I would state the obvious—a good cup of coffee. n

Ranjani Nellore, a former San Francisco Bay Area resident, now lives and writes in Hyderabad.

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THREE RIVERS

Munnar (pronounced by the locals as Moon-nar), meaning three rivers, is essentially a quaint “tea town” located in Kerala’s Idukki district. Once a popular hill station patronized by the British, Munnar is located at an altitude of 5,000-8,000 feet amidst lush tea plantations.

GET THERE

Munnar is 83 miles from Kochi due east on national highway 49. It is also accessible by road from Madurai, Coimbatore, and Kodaikanal.



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