Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tea time. Munnar.


After we left the monastery, we drove towards Munnar. We wound our way up one hill and down the other. Soon, the hillsides were covered with tea plants. The way they had been planted created interesting patterns on the hillsides. Along the way, we passed women picking tea. Unlike the tea pickers in Darjeeling who have to pluck the tender leaves by hand, here they use a cutter - a box like contraption that has a blade at the bottom that essentially slices off the top layer of leaves. That explained why the tops of all the plants were so even.


The rolling landscape of tea plants was punctuated by trees. According to Smitha, they are blue spruces and she surmises that they are grown to help keep the soil intact. Who knew she knew so much about tea? :-)

Thanks to Regi asking the driver to stop, we had several opportunities to get out of the car, stretch our legs, admire the view and take photos. It was turning out to be a very enjoyable ride through the tea estates.

Eating never stopped on this road trip. With lunch barely digested, Smitha whipped out another one of the bags of snacks that she had bought. This one was slices of fried dough held together by sugar icing - I think it was just a paste of confectioners sugar that had been mixed with water. Can't go wrong with fried dough with sugar!

Along the way, we saw a sign for a sales, that would be for tea, outlet. We kept our eyes out for the place because you can't come to a place where they grow tea and not buy any. Especially, if you are a tea drinker like me. Last time I was in India, I bought tea in Darjeeling and this time, I will bring back something with me from Munnar.

Just as we rounded a bend in the road, we saw the outlet building. The driver pulled over by the side of the street and the rest of us got out. It was a small building but the entire back wall was lined with different selections of teas. On the left wall were cosmetics and soaps. On the left wall were nuts and spices.

I headed directly for the back wall. On the shelves were differently varieties of tea. I didn't recognize any of the names. As we stood on one side of the counter, the salesman pulled different varieties for us to take a closer look at. Both Smitha and I wanted the whole leaf tea so that make the salesman's job easier as it greatly limited what he pulled from the shelves. Smitha eventually settled on whole leaf black tea and I picked a whole leaf green tea. My plastic jar of 200 grams of green tea cost me 172 rupee which is a little over$3! If I were to buy the equivalent quality and amount in the US, it would probably cost me 4 times as much!

Prior to coming to India, I had been having a cup of green tea before going to bed every night. Like it or not, I'm going through that stage in life where hot flashes wake me up in the middle of the night, interrupting any chance of getting a restful night's sleep. Drinking the tea before bed doesn't completely make the hot flashes go away but I do think it helps. I've been drinking from a tin that Lei's mom gave to me last year and when I'm done with that, I will have the green tea from Munnar to sip on.

In addition to buying what we figure was a year's supply of tea for her in-laws, Smitha also bought some face cream, soap, and spices.

We returned to the car with our bounty and continued on our journey. Not only is this tea country but it's also the land of cardamom. Unlike tea plants which grow out in full sunlight, the cardamom is grown under the shady protection of the trees, thriving in the cool, damp atmosphere. As we drove along, Smitha pointed out the cardamom plants to us; at one point asking the driver to slow down so she could show the clusters of fruits that eventually become the green pods that I see sold in the spice markets. Who knew Smitha knew so much about cardamom? :-)

We wound our way in and out of tea estates and forests peppered with cardamom. Occasional road signs pointed us in the direction of Munnar.

Before we knew it, we had arrived into town and back into the chaotic traffic that is characteristic of India. As with all the other small towns we had passed along our way, Munnar was not an attractive place. It might have been during colonial rule but now it looks like every other crowed Indian town. Pretty much every other store sold either tea or spices or both. No surprise.

Smitha was determined that we would not leave Munnar without enjoying a cup of tea and having some Indian snacks. For her, it would bring back memories of her childhood days. Smitha wanted to go to some place "nice" which in this neck of the woods more often than not translates into a hotel. We had no idea where to go for tea so there was the occasional stop to ask for advice. Someone did point us in the direction of a hotel. We pulled into the driveway and stopped the car but unfortunately, the restaurant was closed so we had to continue on.

We eventually ended up at a place called Tea County which is a hillside resort. The restaurant was opened so the driver dropped us off and we headed on inside. The restaurant was on the second floor and the waiter seated us at a large table by the window overlooking the front entrance. The driver joined us as well - he deserved a break for all the driving he had to do.

Smitha ordered tea for the four adults, a plate of chicken spring rolls, mirchi pakoda which is chili pakora and veggie cutlets which are bits of vegetables that are held together by mashed potatoes, made into a patty, coated with bread crumbs and pan fried.

It was a lot of food for an afternoon snack but the greedy lo of us devoured every bite. I don't think we even left a crumb.

Back in the car, it was time to make our way home. With full bellies and jet lag kicking in, the kids nodded off and so did Smitha. The car fell quiet.

Poor Rohan though. Suffers from motion sickness. He was sitting on Regi's lap and at one point, all of what he ate during the course of the day came back up and out. The driver pulled over so Regi could get Rohan cleaned up in a nearby stream while Smitha cleaned up the mess in the car. Neha had fallen asleep against my shoulder and I did not have the heart to wake her up so I stayed, sitting in the backseat.

After a few minutes, Regi and Rohan reappeared. Rohan's shirt was soaking wet so they had him take it off and wrapped a towel around him.

For the next bit of the ride, he continued to sit in Regi's lap but the queasiness took hold and we pulled over so he could sit in the backseat with us. Smitha held him in her lap the rest of the way home. The poor boy was dead tired and he soon fell asleep.

The rest of the ride home was uneventful and by the time we arrived back, night had long fallen.

It had been a long day of travel and it was good to be back in the house. Dinner had been prepared but all of us were so full, we all declined a bite.

Naturally, Regi's parents and sister were curious about how their grandson/nephew was doing at the monastery. From the smiles on their faces, they liked what they heard Smitha and Regi telling them. Of course, there was no escaping mention of what Smitha referred to as my "celebrity moment" with the monks. That brought a round of chuckles from everyone, including me :-)

Before heading up to bed, I got on Regi's computer and booked a room at the Leela at Kovalam Beach which is where I'm heading tomorrow for an overnight stay. At $138 a night for a superior room with beach view, it seemed like a great deal for a stay at a 5 star hotel. First the Taj and now the Leela, I could get spoiled by all this luxury :-)

At the same time that I would be at Kovalam Beach, Smitha and her family would be spending the night at a Taj hotel in Chennai as Regi has some business to conduct there. We would all meet back up at Smitha's house on Friday night.

Smitha, with help from her father, had kindly arranged for a car and driver to take me to Kovalam. I had to be ready to leave at 6am so I decided to call it an early night.

Up in my room, I showered to wash away the day's grime and then went about the task of packing an overnight *bag* for Kovalam. I then set my alarm for 5:30a and went to bed.

It had been a long and wonderful day spent with Smitha and her family. I will forever cherish the memories of this day.