I have mentioned before that there aren’t many chalkies around these parts and from this vantage point we quickly grasped that we were the main attraction. Everyone who went on that escalator stared at use for the full duration of the journey. I don’t believe that anyone meant to be rude moreover perhaps they thought we weren’t real, more of a ‘dice man’ installation. After a while it was a little uncomfortable sipping coffee with this ever changing audience studying us in the Starbucks fish bowl so we moved on. While strolling around the shops I happened upon a section in a department store which was selling suitcases. Now for those who don’t remember how this started as a student gap year with all the trimmings, hostels, rucksacks, sleeping bags (for the love of God what made me think I could travel that type of budget when I didn't have too!). The last vestige of the student backpack trip was my rucksack and today I was retiring it for a lovely giant suit case with wheels.
Next effort was to actually look for the items we had set out to buy. Now at 58 years I don’t believe I am very old but I do know I’m not young. I don t believe I am morbidly obese but I do know I’m not skinny. I am not small but neither am I particularly tall. I believe I am the average Irish Mammy and all I am looking for is a simple pair of knickers. After looking in many lingerie shops in this very sophisticated shopping mall and only being offered teenie weenie utterly cosmetic pants of no practical use whatsoever, I finally fell upon M&S, such a relief. Well I was relived until I saw what was on offer. Honestly, I was in shock at what was on offer. I don’t know what their target market is but they don’t reside in India. I have seen no expats and if I had they would have had to have been on the vastly rotund sizing to fit what was available. In India, women, at least those I have seen, are mostly small in stature and even if wide in girth these offerings by M&S would house a small family. So I’m stuck between itsy bitsy and a hammock suffice to say I ain’t no itsy bitsy teenie weenie anything and beggars can't be choosers. I was happy with my giant suit case on wheels to carry my giant knickers. Now, I think that’s enough about my very comfortable knickers.
Munnar Tea Plantation
We left our hotel at 6am on a Sunday morning to make the four hour journey to Kerala - ‘Gods own country’ although I don’t know who names it such, I can understand how it came about when you see the beauty of the place. The sun was just raising as we left the city. There were many people up and busy on this very early Sunday morning. On the outskirts of the city I noticed a group of young boys getting ready for soccer practices. It was 6:30 am and these young boys were already on the pitch. 10 am sports practice in Ireland GAA on a Saturday morning used to make me feel heroic, feeling a little inadequate looking at these guys who must have been up at 5:30 am. The driver tells me that soccer has become very popular in recent years and if they don’t turn up these boys are off the team. Many families see soccer as their way out of subsistence and anyone can make it big through soccer despite the caste system as the game is about skill and nothing more. I remember the beautician I met in Goa had said the same about her son and his soccer skills and I really hoped they were right. The cynic in me said money always matters for the equipment you can buy, the training you can buy, even for the slave money can be for disappointment but I kept that thinking to myself and hoped I was wrong. We drove on through the country and passed through a few towns.
In the square of one small town we passed I noticed there were upwards of 100 young men well dressed but casual. It was now around 8am. These men look just like your average student with laptop in their backpacks slung over their shoulders. I asked the driver what was going on and he told me the guys were waiting to be hired. I was shocked. Perhaps my shock was more to do with my naïveté assuming that education protected people from these types of demeaning hiring fair practices but not here. I am back again to realising how lucky we are to live in a location where hiring and firing is not solely the remit of the bosses. Although the zero hour contracts introduced to help Economy’s during the crash shows just how easily gains can be taken away. We passed through that town heading for the mountains when the driver suggested stopping for a bite to eat. I live in mortal fear of Delhi belly and will go without food rather than risk that particular travel experience. We stop in at a road side cafe the driver directs us upstairs and he goes downstairs to join the other drivers. Its a Sunday morning and just like home the cafe is busy with people having their breakfast. We are given the menu and pick the thing least likely to cause damage. Its very clean but I suppose there is no avoiding flies in this type of heat so a few hoover around. I’m having buttered toast and bottled water. Róisín has acquired a taste for Chai tea so she orders that along with toast for her breakfast. Toast arrives already buttered, WHY!? Because of the heat in the places where I have tried butter it tends to be rancid so I have gave up trying. I discreetly try to hide the toast in some napkins and hide it in my bag with the intention of feeding it to the monkeys if we pass any. We get back into the car and the stink of butter wafting from the bag is really off putting. Our driver asks if we enjoyed breakfast and I lie and say it was great. It really was a good place but I am not taking any chances when it comes to food. Up the mountains we go and we pass many colonies of monkeys but there is no discreet way of getting rid of the toast so we are stuck with the stink. Up into the mountains we go and eventually we arrive at the town of Munnar where we meet our guide before heading out into the tea plantation. Our driver drove us up to the walkway through the plantation. Our guide was in his early 20s and this was a part time job for him to help pay his way through college. He was studying law but would have preferred to study medicine however the fees were way out of his family's reach. Everyone who can afford 3rd level here seems to do either Law or medicine. Third level is out of the grasp of ordinary citizens. He was a very nice guy and knew the history of the plantation as his family had lived in the area for generations. He seemed to be running a bit of a temperature as he was sweating profusely and naturally being Irish I was too polite to ask and just hoped he was on the beer the night before. Him being hung over had a better outcome for us than him having covid as we were due to fly to Sri Lanka the following evening. The plantations were truly beautiful and could be seen stretching for miles over every mountain top and up to the edge of the national park and wild life reserve. The climate in these parts is very comfortable it was very easy to see why the English colonised it. We walked around the grounds for about an hour. Our guide explained that the plantations are now owned by the Tata organisation and that the workers were paid less than average wage but they got homes with the job and medical care also. The managers did appear to have lovely homes with well kept gardens and the field workers homes were bunched together with little I could see to commend them. I did ask our guide what happened to the workers when they retire but he didn't have an answer.
We went to the tea plantation museum. Here we got lose up to the equipment used in the harvesting and processing of tea. First we sat in a small cinema and were shown a film of the history of tea and how it came to be in this location. Apparently back in the age dot this English guy came traveling in the region and on discovering the area was perfect for growing tea he approached the local Maharaja and offered him peanuts for the land. The peanuts were accepted as the Maharaja did not believe the land had any value, so he pretty much gave it away. I’m adlibbing a little but not a lot. I’m surprised that this film is clearly depicting the Maharaja as a fool and the English guy as the smart man and this is being played to an audience of Indian people with the exception of Róisín and Myself. It went on to tell us of the great works the English owners did for the people and how they were the very first to think of land conservation. They had créches for the children where the older women would mind the children while the younger women worked the fields. I did start to think that perhaps I was being a little too hard on the colonialists after all they seemed to be introducing supports for women workers. They were also, I was informed by the movie, the first to consider conservation and habitat protection back in the 1900's. Well now I am truly feeling ashamed of myself for judging these English emigrants so harshly by assuming they only came to get what they can at the expense of the local population. They also had education programmes for the children of the workers so lots of good works being done. These interlopers generated enough wealth that they were able to build a hydro electric power station here and for themselves. Can you imagine how much tea had to be sold for that little trinket. When we left the movie the first room I pass through is the trophy room with floor to ceiling of animal heads and walls of photos of trophy hunters standing over every type of animal. The cynic in me suggested that when you have enough money to build your own power station you don’t need more tea but perhaps you need to conserve some land for you shooting gallery hobby. We continue on through the different rooms depicting a life and time that no longer exists but I get the distinct impression was much admired. The good works are being stripped away one by one. Education was for the managers children not for everyone. Heavens forbid that education would be given to the tea pickers they might realise they were getting a raw deal. The last straw falls when in the final room we are shown the money the plantation owners paid their workers. In addition to their hydro electric power station they also had their own mint. Yes they paid their workers in coin tat had no value outside of the plantation...need I say more. The final part of this tour brought us into the processing rooms. Here we learned how tea is processed and quality assigned to each blend. So first cut is white tea and this is the best and most expensive. Its made from the first 3 shoots of the new season and its dried quickly to maintain colour and flavour. The more processing the leaf gets the more its quality diminishes. The guy who came up with the tea bag must have made millions for the Tea companies. Before tea bags this stuff was swept off the floor or brushed out of the drying machines as dust. Yes we who drink so many gallons of tea are actually drinking the worst of the tea production. We end our visit to the plantation with serious reconsideration of the convenience of tea bags.
Processing Tea Leaves
Machinery made in Ireland from the Munnar Tea Plantation
Chocolate Factory and Boat Ride
Heading back to the city we stop off at a chocolate factory which made real chocolate. I hadn’t realised there was any other kind but apparently there is a compound chocolate which replaces cocoa butter with a cheaper fat. Yuck, just thinking about that is off putting. So saw a full demonstration from cocoa bean to finished wrapped sweet and had little tasters of different samples along the way. I am baffled how anyone discovered this bitter little bean, if left to rot for two weeks, then drying it, roasting it, grinding it would deliver the most wonderful irresistible product! We bought a few samples then realised we were flying the next day so of course we had to eat it to reduce bag weight. Final part of this very busy day brought us to a beautiful park with a beautiful lake. Our driver dropped us at the entrance where we made our way down for a boat trip around a lake. Our driver thought to suggest a speed boat but we were happy to wait for the public ferry, no pleasure in tearing around a lake at break neck speed. I decide a bathroom trip was called for before the boat arrived so off I went in search of the loos. I think perhaps most Europeans have a fear of being confronted with a squat toilet, that hole in the floor that we have no clue how to approach. Well in our park visit I was confronted by such a dilemma and it would be a further 3 hours before we got back to our hotel. Luckily there were two mature Indian ladies just ahead of me and here is the trick, you pull the legs of your pants above your knees before you proceed to pull anything down. I hasten to add the toilets weren’t an open plan affair just that the ladies were pulling their trouser legs down from their knees when I arrived. So for all you adventurers out there I hope that was a helpful bit of observation. We are nearing the end of our Indian leg of the journey. We needed to get a covid PCR test for the flight to Sri Lanka and asked our driver if he knew of any place near us. He not only brought us to a test centre but he also waited 40 minutes for us and returned us to our hotel. Now tell me any European taxi drivers extending that courtesy to anyone out there?
Boat Trip in Munnar
Hi, I'm Olive and I am the writer of this blog. I am traveling the world with my 22 year old daughter, Róisín, who has just graduated University. I wanted to document this journey because it is unusual for a woman of 58 years old to go on adventure that most students do on a gap year. I will try to share my insights into this epic journey with you along the way and maybe inspire more people my age to go on these crazy adventures too.