Anyone for Tea?

For Liz, I remember us joking that at some stage I would write to you in the style of a melodramatic Victorian explorer. With this in mind, here is my dedication…

Our Dearest Elizabeth

We pray that this letter finds you in robust health and fine spirit.

These last long months have seen us bear due south from the Indus, before facing the arduous interior of the Ghats range. Wrestling with all manors of exotic flora and fauna, we climbed the seemingly endless mountains until, one glorious day we arrived in Tea country!

Having rejuvenated ourselves and regained our strength we recalled our last mountainous experiences with you. Oh how we miss those halcyon days spent roaming the craggy uplands of the North West along with dear young Robert and Lisa. Why it seems both yesterday and an epoch past, and on occasion the yearning for home does torment us so.

Stay true, dear friend, and god willing, we will be reunited in the fullness of time.

Yours faithfully, Robin Livingstone and Catherine Stanley xx

P.S. I know that Livingstone and Stanley are of the wrong continent, but that’s all I’ve got!

Following the wonders of Hampi and a surreal 36-hour journey south to Kerala, we started week 7 with some down time in Kochi. We then headed back inland to realise an ambition, staying and hiking within the tea plantations of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Natural beauty, wildlife and unexpected luxury were the order of the day as we learned about the history and culture of this uniquely British/Indian industry…

Week 7 – 10th to the 16th of November

Kerala was the first destination in India that had any kind of history for Catherine and I.

Several years ago we bought a guidebook for this southern state but ultimately decided it was too far out of our comfort zone for a two-week holiday. Over the years we’ve questioned this judgement and because we had contemplated this visit for so long we were extra excited to explore our new surroundings.

Painted trucks in Kochi, Kerala
Southern Indian truckers avoid death by putting their faith in the saints of Christianity!

I think a combination of our heightened expectations, choice of homestay and clash of tourist cultures led to our first stop, Fort Kochi, being a bit of a let down, at first. The homestay (which we booked in advance from Goa) was clean and good value, but the room was a bit of a coffin and about half a mile from the main streets of the historic area. This resulted in having to run a gauntlet of touts every time we wanted to go into the centre.

The area is a major stopping off point for cruise ships and when they offload their human cargo, the streets around the seafront are swamped by hundreds of long lens, camera-wielding mega-tourists. These large groups have a finite amount of time to ‘do the sights’ and gather their souvenirs and this leads to captive market conditions.

4 chinese fishing nets, located in the Fort Cochin, Kerala
The famous Chinese fishing nets adorn the shore of Fort Cochin

The result is that a vast number of rickshaw drivers and Kashmiri traders have set up shop, all working hard to get their share of the free flowing holiday money. We had experienced tourist-focussed traders throughout India, however, in Fort Kochi it felt too intense and it left us feeling stressed out and in need of escape.

To be fair, I should also point out some of Kochi’s positive features. The large city surrounding the historic Fort Kochi area (Ernakulam) is modern, clean, organised and better developed than many other cities we had seen in India.

In Fort Kochi itself, watching the fisherman auction off their catch next to the visually stunning Chinese fishing nets is a real treat. The tightly packed streets just south of the nets have some fantastic homestay accommodation, good quality small label design shops, excellent cafes and top-notch restaurants. In fact the whole area seems to be alive with artistic endeavour.

As well as art supply shops, gallery-cum-coffee-shops and artisans working in full view, a number of spectacular Kerala theatrical and martial art traditions are on show nightly in pretty little theatres providing high quality and cheap entertainment.

On our first full day, we found out that the theatre belonging to the Kerala Kathakali Centre (as seen on the BBC no less) was less than 100m away and so we checked out a couple of shows. For £3 I got to spend an hour watching 4 students of Kerala martial arts spin, flip, kick, punch, whip and clash swords.

Later in the evening Catherine and I went back together to watch a performance of Kathakali, the extremely flamboyant and mildly impenetrable traditional Kerala theatre. The first hour of the tourist version is spent watching the actors apply copious amounts of makeup, masks and costumes. Followed by an explanation of the main forms of communication, consisting mainly of eye and mouth movements emphasised via physical gestures.

a man lying down having his face painted in the style of the folk dance tradition Katakali, namely the demon character Pacha. Kerala state in India
Taking face painting to a whole new level at the Kerala Kathakali Centre

The eye and mouth movements reduced Catherine and I to a fit of the giggles. Essentially the eyes flicker back and fourth at headache inducing speed whilst the lips quiver and gurn to portray surprise, shock, confusion and a number of other emotions. Think human emoji! Physical gestures communicate actual phrases such as ‘mother’, ‘father’ and ‘go away’. The overall effect is undoubtedly artistic and incredibly detailed, but also wonderfully camp.

Once our basic grasp of what we were about to witness was in place we were treated to an hour-long rendition of 4 abridged scenes from a play that normally takes a whole night to perform. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the names of some of the characters but the plot was essentially:

  • Girls father treats her very badly,
  • Shiva finds out and summons two demons to go and kill him,
  • Father is killed halfway through a ritual that, if left incomplete will wreak havoc on the universe (oh-err!),
  • Shiva brings father back to life with the head of a goat so he can complete his ritual and bring balance back to the universe,

So plenty of scope for some good masks and costumes there then!

3 kathakali performers and two drummers in full costume undertaking the classical Indian dance-drama Kathakali
Kathakali is nothing if not dramatic. Check out the costumes!

The show was fantastic and you did get a clear sense of how much effort goes into the art form. The full plays are strictly choreographed to hours and hours of constantly changing drum patterns and we left our highly abridged version in a state of happy bewilderment.

The following day we also took in a fantastic little culture museum. Catherine had read about the place and relayed the story of its creator, an antiques dealer who had amassed a large personal collection of Kerela’s cultural antiques. One item in his collection was an entire wooden Kathakali theatre!

3 cow masks mounted on a high wall at Kerala Folklore Museum
Scaredy cow masks in the Kerala Folk Museum

The collection is housed in a stunning 3-storey building that demonstrates different architectural styles on each floor. The overall effect is startling and gives the impression of a kind of Noah’s Arc for Kerala artefacts. The 3 floors and numerous stairwells of the museum were packed with beautiful and highly evocative costumes, carvings, carriages, litters, masks and all sorts of other memorabilia. The top floor theatre was nothing short of a masterpiece of woodcarving that the Medici would have been proud of!

An interesting backdrop of our time in Kochi was also provided by local elections that were being contested during our stay. The fact that they were so vibrant and intensely campaigned made it fascinating to observe. The local politics are dominated by the Communist LDF party that has governed Kerala for much of the time since independence. I found it fascinating that a democratically elected communist party has succeeded in keeping the electorate happy within a larger capitalist democracy. The influence of this could be felt throughout the area in both positive and negative ways.

local election candidate station on a busy road with lots of people discussing the upcoming vote, in fort cochin, Kerala
Local elections, Kerala style

It seemed safe to presume that the same governing system that led to the existence of some of the most miserable, dour and unhelpful job-for-life public sector workers (Don’t go to the Post Office in Kerala) also led to a noticeably narrower gap between rich and poor, which is undeniably marvellous. In addition we were seeing as many campaign posters for women as for men. This would seem unlikely in other parts of India we had visited.

One of my favourite idiosyncrasies that we had seen previously in Goa was also in evidence. Each candidate was associated to a little icon like an aeroplane or football. Presumably this is to ensure that you can easily find your candidate on the ballot paper, even if literacy is an issue. This is obviously a really good thing, very inclusive and right in the spirit of Ghandi. However, it leads to all sorts of bizarre choices of icon and associated slogans. Therefore, we saw…

  • Vote for Cindy doll
  • Vote for Filing cabinet
  • Vote for Wardrobe

We eventually left the city during Election Day and it was quite a sight watching all the marches (one for each candidate) taking place throughout the city. I’ve never seen a Hammer and Sickle adorned with lotus flower garlands before!

Despite doing plenty of interesting stuff we realised that cities were not really that high on our agenda. With that in mind we had planned the rest of our time in Kerala/Tamil Nadu to consist of half a week each in the Tea Plantations, a Wildlife Reserve and the Kerala Backwaters, with a couple of overnight stops in between. Given the isolated nature of our destinations we were advised to make reservations in advance.

The most obvious place to visit and stay within a tea plantation in Kerala is Munnar, 3 hours by taxi from Kochi. This then leads most people on towards the most visited national park of Periyar. However, reading up on Periyar was not much of an incentive, a visit was portrayed as a mass paddle around a lake looking at the few remaining animals that had not already decided to go elsewhere.

This led us to consider the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. This reserve, the so-called ‘hidden valley’ reserve, sounded good because it had some remote tree house accommodation (we’re easily excited by a tree house) was sparsely visited and seemed to have a wider range of wildlife. It wasn’t easy to get to from Kochi, but was just about reachable from Munnar.

The numerous phone calls with the Reserve Information Centre were painful to say the least. Unfortunately, the constant change of languages throughout India had left me effectively mute and highly prone to double negatives. Denied my trusty hand gestures over the phone things did not go well.

There was lots of discussion about the fact that we were there on Diwali, something about rats and many repetitions of the word confirm, though whether I needed to complete some other process to confirm (as is so often the case in India!) or had confirmed was far from clear. As for the dream tree house, well, repeating the words tree and house loudly for about 30 seconds is all I could tell Catherine I had managed.

Back to our booking in Munnar and staying in a tea planter’s bungalow was something that had always ranked highly on our romantic scale of desirability. However, we had always been concerned by reports we had read on workers conditions, rights and environmental impact. To this end we had researched a plantation that seemed open and transparent about such policies.

We were dismayed therefore, when they called to say that we could no longer stay in Munnar as plantation workers in the area had gone on strike. The manager offered us an alternative at Valparai in Tamil Nadu, but our greatest initial concern was whether we were dealing with the Devil or not.

With both of our stops into Kerala now uncertain we asked locals about the strike and the company we were dealing with and were told by everybody that we should see for ourselves. So after much debate we decided to go but to make sure we made the effort to look into conditions for ourselves.

An elelphant and its trainer at the elephant training centre in Kodanad, a small village on the banks of the Periyar river about 40 km from Ernakulam and 65 km from the Fort Kochi
Close encounter with an elephant at the Konadad Orphanage

Having accepted our change of location and free transfer from Munnar to Valparai (a further 3 hours drive to travel just 60km as the crow lies!) we set off for Munnar the following morning. Our luck started to change when the taxi driver told us he knew a better way to Valparai that was 2 hours quicker and much prettier. Not only this but it took us past a small elephant orphanage. Bingo!

The drive to Valparai from here on was great. The orphanage at Konadad consisted a handful of orphaned or rescued elephants that were housed, cared for and taken to the river each day for a wash and play. The spot in the river was very pretty and the crowds were pretty small, just 15-20 people. We left there feeling good even though seeing such a fantastic animal in captivity was difficult under any circumstance.

As we then climbed up into the mountains the driver volunteered that Valparai was far nicer than Munnar and much less developed. The winding but good quality road up through mountains proved to be a fantastic journey with several stops to take in the scenery and try the various spices growing alongside the road.

Veiw of lake on route to Valparai
The hill top drive through Kerala towards the tea plantations in Tamil Nadu

After 5 hours we finally arrived at the Stanmore Tea Bungalow, a fantastic 1930’s bungalow overflowing with late Art Deco features and decoration. The main bungalow was surrounded by 8 eco-lodge rooms that peered out over the endless skin of tea bushes draped across Telly-Tubby-esque peaks.

view from the accommodation looking onto the tea planation, wooden chalets on the stanmore estate part of Briar Tea bungalows in Valpari Tamil Nadu
Tea bushes and Silver Oaks, draped like a skin across the mountains

It is a startling visual scene that we have seen several times now, having also travelled through Sri Lanka. Each plantation has a large roadside sign made of rock, stone and other local natural materials. Signs direct you to Managers Bungalows, Inspectors Bungalows, and Workers Bungalows, Processing factories, weigh-bridges and an intricate network of major and minor paths through the highly undulating tea fields. The crops themselves create one of the most beautiful agricultural landscapes I have ever seen.

Obviously it is at the forefront of your mind that this was once virgin forest and that thousands of animals will have been displaced or killed in their creation. Geography A-level also haunted me with tales of the inherent dangers and environmental impacts of large-scale mono-crops.

a tea planation at dusk showing the silver oak trees that are evenly distributed throughout so that their roots keep the soil in siteu
The tea planation is held in place by the roots of the silver oak trees

Tea fields however, had the same effect on me as a giant wheat field at the height of summer. Still a large-scale mono-crop but achingly beautiful. The most startling visual sign of the environmental engineering at play is the use of Silver Oak trees to prevent soil erosion. These slender trees help bind the soil and provide the plantations at Valparai with a dainty parasol of flickering shade, creating fantastic light effects at dawn and dusk.

It was clear that the environment was being treated in a more balanced way as we saw the workers being moved due to leopard or elephant sightings rather than the animals themselves being chased off. Furthermore, tracks of forest are retained in just about every valley to provide wildlife corridors just like the hedgerows and set-aside of UK farms. We also saw monkey bridges, met a fantastic naturalist employed by the tea company and met the governments wildlife police who took a friendly but firm approach to putting animals first.

In the hour after we arrived we realised that our troubled booking had triggered an entirely over-the-top response from the bungalow company. So extreme was their attempt to compensate that it appeared we had the best 2-story eco-lodge, the entire complex to ourselves for 2 of our 4 nights and our own team of staff including but not limited to:

  • Sachin – Our naturalist
  • John – Our own driver
  • Daison – The bungalow manager
  • Chef – Our own amazing, completely top drawer and quite eccentric…well…chef!
  • 2 caretakers – for anything else we wanted

This level of attention put us way out of our comfort zone but we realised early that we essentially had no choice and so we should smile and engage with it, which we did wholeheartedly. The result was 4 of the most beautiful, relaxing, friendly and interesting days we could have imagined.

Catherine and Sachin looking at leopard tracks in the mud
Which way did the leopard go? erm…

Arriving just after lunch we had the first of several south Indian banquets. This consisted of Chicken, Fish, several types of curried vegetable, Dahl, Papad and enough rice to feed a family of 6. Chef had worked for the company for 35 years and was very proud of having started as a washer-upper before being trained in India and Europe. He had an amazing repertoire and coined our favourite catch phrase.

Chicken, Fish, Vegetable…Tea

These four words, imparted in a deep tone through a wonderfully elastic mouth and chin became a signature sound of our visit. Despite being delivered as if it was a list of options, the truth was you were going to have it all. In fact you had to stand your ground pretty bloody hard to prevent 2 servings of each and a desert. The best part though, was the final part…Tea.

Now I like tea, but I don’t drink much and I’m not fussy. On the other hand Catherine loves tea and is always keen to ensure the perfect brew. You would hope that a man who spent 35 years working for a tea company could make a good cuppa and said man did not let us down!

a group of 4 women taking a break from plucking tea on the dirt track next to tea bushes
Plucky pickers taking 5.

The tea itself was so clear as to look weak and under-brewed. However, it was strong, mellow and bloody intoxicating. It was so good that I took it without milk or sugar, unheard of for me. On the third night Catherine set me the challenge of obtaining dunking biscuits and I did my duty, sweet-talking the chef into sorting some out. My stock soared on that achievement!

Back to our first afternoon and, having arranged a dawn trek with Sachin for the following morning we spent the remaining daylight enjoying the epic view down a broad valley to a rocky river and learning what we could about working conditions. Watching the workers come back through the plantation at 5pm we could see that they were all carrying low weight tea nets and protective skirts (tea is rough stuff to work in), which was reassuring as we had read that the better companies used these.

The following morning we were up at 5.30 and ferried over to meet Sachin at another un-restored and even more beautiful bungalow at the centre of another site owned by the company. Sachin was a great guy. This was clearly a situation where a guide was necessary and he was an intelligent, funny, calm man who was great company. Best of all Sachin was not an industry mouthpiece in any way. He quite openly discussed the plusses and negatives of the industry and the companies within it, whilst taking us on some memorable treks.

catherine holding a 25cm shied tailed snake.
A rare type of Shield-Tail Snake caught by our guide Sachin

This first of these was the best for wildlife as we got up close to Mongoose, Guar (Bison), Porcupines and Eagles as well as a number of smaller birds. We also started to learn that, when it comes to the star attractions of Leopards, Tigers or Elephants, you are far more likely to see footprints and poo than their originators. On the way back we also bumped into a group of tea and coffee pickers and had a nice 15 minutes chatting with them. Clearly in good health and spirits we were able to ask the ladies any questions we liked and Sachin was in the same boat as us, being new to tea plantations as well as not speaking Tamil.

Having been shown around the antique and still original bungalow that he shared with other workers we headed back to Stanmore and came upon a large group of the areas star attraction, Lion Tail Macaques. Unlike other varieties of Macaque, Lion Tails are calm and not really interested in Humans. They are only found in the Kerala / Tamil Nadu borderlands and it was clear that much effort is being put into their conservation. We were fortunate enough to spend a good half an hour watching them migrate across the canopy above us whilst feeding and grooming. More monkey joy for Catherine!

In the afternoon we went to visit a Tea factory, again with Sachin. When we arrived it turned out that the factory that tourists are usually shown was having its electrics refitted. However, having looked thoroughly crest-fallen at the closure, Sachin and one of the caretakers decided to take us to a different factory. This was great as there was no planning, no time to change anything; so we were going to see a factory under normal working conditions.

We were mightily relieved when we arrived to find a well organised, safely run factory with happy, helpful and relaxed staff working for a manager who was highly passionate about the quality of what they produced and the way they produced it. I love a good bit of engineering and the access we got to see the entire process was well beyond what I had hoped for. Catherine loved it every bit as much as me and we both learned a lot…too much to try and note hear you’ll be glad to hear!

hills covered in tea bushes leading to a river at the bottom of the valley
Around every corner there were stunning views across the unique landscape of the tea plantations

The next day we planned to go on a longer trek and Sachin mentioned that, as he had only been in the area a few days, perhaps we could go off-piste and try to find a new path. As he put it

‘You’ll discover what I discover’

What we discovered was a shit-storm of Leeches (our newly invented collective noun). Halfway up an exciting but oppressively humid jungle hill we suddenly realised that we were all covered in 20-30 of them.

I’d like to say that we were intrepid, burnt them off and then continued our push in to the jungle interior. That is not what happened.

Back out in the gentle rolling tea hills we returned to spotting mongoose, birds and hoping beyond hope to see a wild elephant. Having only failed on the last count, we returned for our twice-daily dose of ‘Chicken, Fish, Vegetable…Tea’ and went over to Sachin’s bungalow for the evening.

He struck us as being quite lonely in his role and seemed to welcome our company, as much as we both welcomed someone interesting and charming to talk to. We had a great evening finding snakes and using torches to spot various mammals such as Samba Deer in the thick woods.

For our final day in Valparai we decided to have some time away from all the staff and guides (as wonderful as they had been and as churlish as that sounds) and relax in the unique environment. After much discussion, some ground rules and a bit of subterfuge, we were able to go out walking on our own and went off in search of elephants down at the river. Although we were again unsuccessful we did achieve the level of relaxation that allowed us to invent the ‘elephant shit flick stick’ and ‘balance a water bottle on your head whilst scrabbling up a hill’ games.

A productive day indeed.

tea on the veranda overlooking the hills of Stanmore tea plantation in Valparai, Tamil Nadu
A very fine brew indeed! Complemented beautifully with old fashioned biscuits

That last evening we had our final triumphant curry on maximum spice setting before retiring to our veranda to reflect on what we had experienced. The summation would be that, whilst pay is low, working conditions in our plantation were acceptable. They were certainly far better than most of what we had seen in India. Education and health was provided to a reasonable quality and hours were not long. We went out of our way to meet people that were not on our host’s itinerary and everyone we met was well, happy and had good things to say as well as bad.

As the sun set we resigned ourselves to the fact that we would not see a wild elephant just yet. However, as hundreds of fireworks signalled the impending arrival of Diwali, we still thanked our lucky stars that we had been privileged enough to experience this wonderful place.

I hope you like this weeks post. It led on into an incredible couple of weeks for us and has been fun to recall.

Miss you and look forward to trying to keep up with you on rough terrain!

Robin and Catherine xx

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