Friday, January 22, 2010

By George, Is that Orange Pekoe?

I opened my eyes to remember that I was in the mountains now. My sleep had been completely calm and deep due to the atmospheric cold and the weight of the blankets on top of me. It was something that I haven’t felt since leaving Austria. I looked to my right and noticed a palm branch greeting me at the window. I hadn’t been able to see out the window the night before because I had arrived into Kumily after dark. Looking down now, I could see the length of the grayish coconut trunk descending four stories to ground level. I opened my laptop and logged on to Skype to call my girlfriend Lauren back in New York. No doubt she would be jealous of these surroundings.

After munching on some plantain chips fried in coconut oil and taking a cold, bucket shower, I shot down the elevator shaft and began searching for breakfast…it’s never too far. Finding a little place called Lord’s Family Restaurant, I ordered a coffee and their breakfast specialty, the egg roast with appam. It may strike you as odd that the name of the restaurant was Lord’s, but it definitely is not a surprise to me after spending two months in India. Every title, every sign, every business name is a profession of one’s faith...when you’re first meeting someone, the first thing from their mouth is, “Christian?” Yes, I always reply.

My breakfast arrived post haste, a glob of reddish-brown mixed in with some hard-boiled eggs. The white, stretchy rice cakes (appams) had steam rising off of them. I tore off a bit of the appam and dove into the reddish brown paste as the entire table to my left watched intently. It was spicy as hell, but I didn’t show it in my face…that’s what the locals expect. Not only was this egg roast spicy, but it was fiery. I’ve had some hot food in India, but this one had a special kick to it. Yes, there were gleaming hints of cinnamon and ginger, but they were quickly shut down by the heat of the dish. I surveyed the glob again and found that it was made of onions, garlic, mustard seeds, green chilies, curry leaves, cinnamon a lot of chili powder, some tomatoes, and probably some other spices like turmeric powder and ginger. Everything in Kerala has turmeric in it. This spice root has been a pivotal part of Indian life for thousands of years as I’ve learned from the ancient texts. For instance, a few days before a virgin girl was to lose her virginity, the family would begin smearing the girl’s body with a turmeric paste multiple times during the day in order to increase virility. Turmeric was also worn as a decoration on the forehead as a sign of auspiciousness. Medical uses also exist for turmeric; many use it for cuts and skin lesions. Now it pervades the cuisine.

Leaving the breakfast table, my lips sufficiently on fire, I sauntered down the street to survey my surroundings. “Lord’s Spice Market,” “Spices Supermarket,” “Periyar Spices,”…there were 10s of shops touting spices. I stopped in to check out some prices and also found myself surrounded by raisins, dates, peanuts, cashews, cherries, mango slices, pineapple, papaya, tea and coffee powder. These valleys are lush with agricultural diversity.

I have to be honest; I had no leads entering into these mountains. I was hoping that I could create something out of nothing as I have done before. Information is what I needed, so thank God for the government sanctioned tourism office…I knew someone would speak English there. They did. I learned of all the different things I could do in the area. I could take a nature walk through the tiger preserves…it’s like meals on sneakers. I could take a boat around Thekkady Lake; I could visit a tribal village; I could visit the cardamom auctions up the hill. In the end, I decided to hop on a tour that was fortunately leaving in ten minutes. The schedule read, “spice gardens, a tea plantation, a coffee plantation and some flower gardens.” I’m not especially fond of touristy things, because I like to see original things, but I really had no other leads. Plus, I had noticed that there were two people already waiting to go on the tour. I had heard them speaking English, so I jumped at the opportunity.

I quickly edged my way into conversation with the two others who were attending the tour and found that they were from New York…but looked Indian. Actually, Mr. Ashok Gandhi and wife were born in India but had migrated to Flushing in 1974 because Mr. Gandhi got hired to GE Medical. Mrs. Gandhi worked in a bank. Both are now retired and live in Queens. I was overjoyed at the information and began shuffling through possible topics of conversation in my head.

We headed out in our little van toward the spice garden, but first stopped at the Gandhi’s hotel…Greenwood something or other. The place was serene—a veritable oasis with a tree house lounge for sipping tea and coffee. My country boy roots bristled with excitement at the sight of a bamboo tree house. I was informed that the place only cost $100 a night, just another reminder of why Kerala is now among my top choices for a tourist destination.

As our van wound up the hill, I did my last minute check for the backpack essentials. Passport, check. Water, check. Contingency plan…Freakonomics, check. Camera, check. Camera battery charge….crap!! There are some oversights that I have to deal with, but having low battery while entering the spice forests and tea plantations is just abysmal. C’est la vie.

We pulled into “Abraham’s Spice Garden,” and filed out to meet our guide, Krishna. I was surprised to hear the Hindu God’s name in a decidedly Christian establishment. Usually the two religions don’t mingle. Krishna showed us three different kinds of coffee trees, nutmeg trees, low-lying cardamom plants, pink pineapples, bamboo trees, cinnamon trees, vanilla beans, turmeric roots, cocoa trees, cloves, decorative pink bananas, allspice trees, papaya trees, banana trees, a tomato tree (yes, a big tree spawning tomatoes), eggplants, bamboo trees that grow 9 inches per day, and a whole slew of tropical flowers and other fauna. I was particularly intrigued with a plant called the “shy lady.” It looked like a little tree with a bunch of ferns, but when touched the ferns would close up against each other; the branches would also bow out of reach of your hand. They say you should talk to your plants for the CO2 exchange. Well, not only can you talk to this plant, but you can actually interact with her, although a shy lady she is. I think a nice chat over coffee is about as far as she might go, though—which, come to think of it, is exactly what I did. The beans of the coffee robusta tree were just to my left.

Money plants, the locals call them. Cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, clove, nutmeg. Most of the people in these mountainous regions rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. The towns would not exist without the presence of the spices. Tea and coffee must have intruded on the spices’ glory. I took a closer look at the Coffee Arabica tree, which I knew had been brought from Yemen by Arab traders in the very early days of trading. Yemen can no longer grow this coffee because of global warming the guide was saying.

As I looked closer, I saw something move above my head. Then, my heart took a dive as I viewed a spider the size of my hand. It had a long slender black and yellow body with long, wiry legs. It looked militant. And it was. Krishna told us that these spiders are called tiger spiders and can be dangerous. I immediately lost all ambition to stray from the path.

The forest was piquant, a blend of spices befitting of a Christmas cake. The landscape rose and fell in rocky pathways, ponds emerged from the greenery, and the reds, greens, yellows, and purples of the flowers warmly invited all the guests into their tropical domain. Abraham’s spice garden was both educational and relaxing.

Our vehicle climbed higher in the mountains to reveal hillsides of manicured tea plantations shaded under jackfruit trees. Pepper vines released their foliage from the trunks of the jackfruit trees (pepper vines in the picture on right). Neighboring mountainsides provided a rocky backdrop for the scene, while the sun filtered light through the treetops. Ashok Gandhi and I talked about his fellow employees wonderment at how he and his wife were so wealthy so quick after he reached the U.S. He said to me, “we didn’t have some sort of black magic or anything; we were just…thrifty.” Yes, the U.S. is filled with careless spenders and plastic touters, but it’s also filled with this immigrant class from poor nations that know how to save their money and make things happen for themselves. These people were just as American as the next except they ate out less often, didn’t drink and didn’t throw money into the wind. They worked long hours and paid their dues. As a result, they had a nice retirement to live on and were enjoying it profusely. Now that’s something that’s respectable.

The tea plantation was immaculate. There were long rows of tea bushes contoured along the landscape, the roads were paved nicely and they seemed to have an efficient little factory spitting out bags of fragrant tea leaves. Speaking of fragrant, it felt like I was swimming in a cup of tea. The smell of black tea was diffuse across the estate. This tea plantation bore the name “Connemara Tea Plantation” and was started by an Irishman back in 1875. The factory had been running since 1941. As I strode up the hill, I saw a man in a lungi with a bandana on his head perched atop a single bamboo shoot that had produced natural branch steps on it. He was transferring little green pepper berries from the vine into a sack on his back. Our tour guide told us that they make 130 rupees per day, which is about $3/day; 75% of their income will go to feeding themselves and their families.

Our pink polo clad tour operator led us around the property a bit and gave us a brief history of tea. Apparently it was the Dutch traders who first introduced tea into Europe in 1610. Afterwards, the British developed a special bond with the aromatic beverage. By 1684, all of Europe was enamored with the exotic product. Now the tea-manufacturing operation is fine-tuned and spits out tea leaves 24x7…the factory produces all night long. The tealeaves are picked from the trees every 7-14 days and are then sent through an antiquated factory with machines that belch steam, rattle and bounce all over the place in order to transfer the tea leaves from place to place. The steam boiler is still wood fired. When first picked, the leaves have no special appeal or aroma. They gain all of their aroma, color, taste, pungency, bright infusion and strength after being shuffled down an assembly line that withers, shreds, tears and curls the leaves, then grades them and rolls them through tumblers to ferment them for 24 hours. During this process, the chemical polyphenol is catalyzed into other chemicals such as quinine and theoflavin. Afterwards, the leaves are dried and graded into large cloth sacks…ready for the wholesale market! Some of the leaves are fully fermented, which make a nice strong brew. The quasi-fermented leaves are for the ninnies that opt for mild tea.

Connemara tea factory produces about 7000 kg of tea per day, which sells for 130 rs. per kilogram. That’s about $19,300 in revenues per day…not bad.

After the tea estate, we headed up the road where there were blue tarps laid out with thousands of coffee beans on them. They were drying to bring out their flavor. The coffee acreage was up a dusty, rocky pathway lined with more tiger spiders than I care to be around…these ones were bigger. Putting two and two together, I determined that tiger spiders like coffee just as much as the rest of us. As I rounded the crest of the hill, I saw 10s of cloth sacks full of freshly picked coffee beans and hundreds of acres of broad-leaved arabica, robusta and Liberian coffee trees. The robusta is a South-African breed and the Liberian are from Brazil. There were millions of little red berries ripe for the picking; unfortunately though, the place did not smell like coffee. I learned later that the coffee is roasted by cooperatives in each of the agricultural towns. Arabica, having the better taste, sells for about 62 rupees ($1.32) per kilogram and the robusta sells for about 45 rupees per kilogram (96 cents). Remember that a kilogram is about 2.2 pounds. I headed back down through the spider lair to the street and headed to a church on the mountaintop.

The church was Roman Catholic, but retained a lot of the Hindu tradition. There were no seats, just a large green floor and there were boxes in three or four corners encasing statues and statuettes of Jesus, Mary and various saints. People would approach the box, stare, drop their heads, and then carry on. Unlike the marble and metal of churches in Europe, this church was adorned with wood carvings...a little more budget. The exterior of the church was actually textured stone, which is much different than most of the churches I see as I pass through the mountains. The usual church is a mix of pastel pinks, whites or blues and has a flat, plaster look to it. Most of the time, the figures and decorations are very round and brightly painted…Indians have a pension for the gaudy. While driving through the hills I noticed that the churches are very large and well built. The grounds are also manicured. It would certainly seem that the townspeople set aside a large budget for these structures. Considering the extreme devoutness of the people, it’s no surprise. After comparing my white toes to the brown ones next to me, I approached the door of the church and examined the landscape. The Keralites call it God’s Own Country. Seems fitting.