Monday 5 February 2007

Munnar. Spices and tea.

Given my dislike of five hour local bus rides, the only way to get to Munnar is by taxi. So at 6.30 my taxi was waiting for me. The 100 or so km ride to Munnar, which is in the hills that separate Kerala from Tamil Nadu, costs 1900 rupees plus tip (about 24 pounds). Incidentally, changing money is so easy these days with cash machines (ATM seems an international word), or rather it would be, if the machines had any money in them. We stopped at three machines in Kochi but none would give me more than 50 pounds, which makes the exchange costs too much.

My driver, Joga, was pleasant enough, though he spoke very little English. As usual, the roadside straggle of Kochi lasted for miles, but at last the road started to climb and the scenery became more attractive. We seemed to go uphill all the way to Munnar and about halfway there we stopped at a spice plantation.

At first glance it was not very prepossing: a rather scruffy farmhouse, with some scrubby green plants beside it. Then Joga and a woman started to pluck seeds and fruit from what looked at first like weeds, and I began to realise that I was surrounded by spices. Then the woman's husband arrived and led us down a path through thick trees to yet more spice trees and bushes. At one point we took an extremely precipitous route up and down an earthy hill - my heart sank as I had not brought my stick with me, but both men solicitously helped me over streams and rocks.

I've taken photos of these anonymous looking plants, in the vein hope that I may be able to match names with plants later. What I do remember was that I was shown nutmeg, cinammon, cardamom, betel, vanilla, rubber, cocoa, coffee, tapioca, apricot (well, a relative of ours) and pineapple, all crammed next to each other. Naturally, given my culnary ignorance, I did not recognise half of them when the two men handed them to me, and also they tasted different, as in many cases they were not yet dried.

The rubber was particularly interesting. This farmer has a thousand rubber trees, so my short tour must have only scratched the surface of his land. He showed me how he cuts the rubber tree until it bleeds a white liquid - the rubber. He then picks some long leaves and carefully bandages up the cut in the tree trunk. He does this each day and it takes six trees to produce a kilo of rubber, for which he gets 100 rupees (just over a pound). He then showed me a shed (rather like the huts for smoking fish in Scotland) where he dries the rubber - and then two large iron mills (like old fashioned wringing machines) which are used to flatten the rubber into large flat sheets.

Actually, I think despite appearances this must have been quite a prosperous family: not only did he have several workers, but - a rarity - a car.

We arrived in Munnar about lunchtime, and I took an immediate dislike to it. My hotel (not my first choice) is one of those impersonal antiseptic places, perfectly clean, bt lacking any charm, and as per usual, I have a small room with no view. The town is really little more than a village which straggles for a kilometre or so along the road. It is obvious that this is a place undrgoing rapid change; originally it was little more than a stopping place to get to the old colonial tea plantations which, since independence now belong to giant Indian corporations such as Tata. Now there are signs that Munnar has decided to take on tourism as well, and all over the place there are ugly concrete buildings going up. The final straw was that the tourist office, usually so good in Kerala, was distinctly unhelpful. So I decided to try and fit tomorrow's trip into the afternoon and move on to Coimbatore tomorrow, a day earlier than planned.

I found a private travel office near the rickshaw park and hired a taxi for today(750 rupees) and one for tomorrow (1900) to take me on to Coimbatore, a total with tips of nearly 30 quid. Hopefully thereafter I will be back to trains.

My afternoon trip was to Top Station, about 35 kilometres from Munnar, on the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border. As soon as we left Munnar, we were suddenly in tea plantation country, and it is breathtaking.

The tea shrubs, which my driver, Salim, said were mainly planted a hundred years ago (largely by Scottish tea planters, my guide book said) are perched on precipitous slopes, like patterned green carpets. The pattern is the narrow pathways created so that the women who pick the leaves can pass between the bushes. They are rather like a denser, squatter version of the rows of vines we get in Languedoc Roussillon (though the soil looks richer here, and the monsoon leaves everything so green). Salim explained that the shrubs were pruned every five years, with only 18 inches taken off the top, and then the tea pickers work their way through the plantations, picking just three leaves a time from each bush. The leaves picked just after the monsoon are regarded as the best, but the harvesting goes on all year (apart from the monsoon).

The tea pickers are all women - the men are apparently busy elsewhere, doing heavier work, said Salim. A good picker can pick 14 kg a day, for which she gets 82 rupees (bout a pound), though in high season, she may make an averate of 100 rupees. Salim pointed out the rows of shacks which are the housing provided for workers by Tata. In addition they have land to plant vegetables, and free schooling and healthcare. I asked if tea pickerschildren followed their parents on the estate and Salim said they had until about ten years ago (when Munnar starteed to expand) but that now many were moving to the town to make more money. Who is picking the tea then? People from Tamil Nadu, Salim said. This sounds a bit like the story we heard from the Goans, that the Tamls are the cheap labour force which does the work others no longer want to do.

As well as the bushes of tea, the steep hillsides were covered with plantations of extremely tall trees, rather like eucalyptus trees, which Salim called something like 'grandees'. These apparently take less than ten years to grow to an immense height and are used to provide fuel for the tea drying, with the surplus sent to Kochi to be turned into paper pulp for newspapers. There were also some extremely attractive trees with red flowers, which Salim said were planted by the British to counter mosquitoes, but which have virtually disappeared (been cut down) since the British left.

We continued to climb up the hill, the light becoming more hazy and the clouds more menacing. The mountains (about 2000-2500 metres high, are rounded rather than craggy, but otherwise rather reminiscent of the Cevennes. The panoramas when I reached Top Station were breathtaking, but impossible to capture in photos, particularly given the haze. On our return drive, the tea plantations took on a lovely velvety hue in the evening sunshine. At Top Station itself, the viewing point is reached by a precipitous descent, using roughly hewn and steep rock steps. I was pleased I had remembered my stick and felt a sense of achievement at climbing them without being totally winded!

So, I have had two lovely car trips with a rather unsatisfactory period in the middle. I was tempted to postpone my departure, but I fear the only way to continue with similar experiences is to hire more taxis. (The young have the option of hiring mountain bikes or trekking through the plantations.) But at least I have had a taste of this beautiful plantation scenery.

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