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Tea and pharmaceuticals as close to heaven as it gets

[NOTE: I've been traveling in India with (brave or perhaps stupid) friends Janine and Jaya for several weeks. My apologies in advance for any delays in responding or posting. I’ll be adding updates about our adventures as quickly as I can get to places with internet connections.

[NOTE: I’ve been traveling in India with (brave or perhaps stupid) friends Janine and Jaya for several weeks. My apologies in advance for any delays in responding or posting. I’ll be adding updates about our adventures as quickly as I can get to places with internet connections.

When I look back on my trip to India, a couple of things stand out. The great meals. The even greater advances in readily-available prescription drugs. Before I headed to India, I asked for recommendations from a friend who had recently accompanied her husband there on a business trip. Her advice was simple. Don’t eat. And if you absolutely have to eat (because, say, you’ve finished off all the McVitties Digestive Biscuits she recommended packing instead of clothes), don’t drink anything that you haven’t personally boiled first.

I nodded, and agreed that she was probably right. But in my heart I knew there was just no way I was going to miss out on all that fabulous Indian cooking. So I bought all the generic Imodium I could find, along with some industrial-strength Pepto Bismol and the maximum two boxes of dissolvable ibuprofen they let you buy here in the UK.

Once there, I did drink bottled water and asked for my drinks “warm” (for Americans, this is almost as exciting as sipping warm dog piss) so there was no risk of contaminated ice. But despite these elementary precautions, my memories of India are of incredible meals mixed with handfuls of pills cheerfully dispensed by my two roommates.

Puttu with Kadala  [photo credit: nashplateful.blogspot.com

Puttu with Kadala
[photo credit: nashplateful.blogspot.com

Take our trip to Munnar, Kerala’s tea-growing country. We said goodbye to the boats and canals of the Backwaters and headed for the tea-planted hills around Munnar. Making only the bare minimum of stops—tender coconut water right from coconuts that had been on the tree hours before, fresh-squeezed pineapple juice (ditto for the trees), coffee, of course—we made it in time for breakfast with Jaya’s brother. There is no way that you’re going to “drop in” on anyone in India, let alone relatives, without getting a huge and probably delicious meal. What her brother and his wife just happened to have ready and waiting, however, was beyond fantastic. Perfect little dome-shaped rice and coconut cakes, almost too pretty to eat. But eat them we did, along with chickpea curry, steamed plantains (bananas) and chai tea.

IMG_0542We staggered out and back onto the road to Munnar. By now, we were traveling beyond rubber trees and pineapple to hills covered with tea gardens as far as you could see. Stopping only for snacks/coffee/lunch/more snacks/tea, we finally made it past the city of Munnar—another twenty kilometers straight up as close to heaven as it gets, and our hotel, Club Mahindra Munnar.

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Next morning, we headed back through Munnar and all the tea gardens/plantations and over to the Mattuputty Dam. I’d been sneezing ever since we hit the tea plantations the day before, so Janine passed along some allergy meds that she swore wouldn’t make me drowsy. Of course, I spent the rest of the day in a drugged stupor. 

On the plus side, I was blissfully unconcerned as we faced death along one-lane but two-way mountain roads that had Jaya and Janine deciding the word “precipice” should figure prominently in the description of the day.

On the plus side, I was blissfully unconcerned as we faced death along one-lane but two-way mountain roads that had Jaya and Janine deciding the word “precipice” should figure prominently in the description of the day.

unnamed-2I barely opened my eyes when we stopped for tender coconut at a tiny roadside stand. As the vendor hacked open the coconut with an ancient scythe, we commented on how simple and traditional her little business remained. That’s when she held up a hand in the universal “give me a minute” signal, and answered her cellphone. When she was done, she pulled out a camera and asked if we’d like to have her take our picture and print it out instantly while we sipped our coconut. Apparently, under the counter she had a printer running off a car battery.

I thought it was vaguely funny when the sound of horns honking even louder than usual woke me, and I saw that we were in an Indian faceoff. Our lane was blocked by left-turning traffic at a standstill. But we wanted to turn right, and Jaya reminded us that in India people are very kind. So our driver Suresh simply moved into the oncoming traffic lane and headed downhill.

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If I hadn’t been so medicated, I might have been concerned as the other car came closer. And closer. And the bumpers met. Horns were blasting, and Suresh was waving for the oncoming car to back up. The two drivers faced off in a testosterone-charged standoff. Bystanders offered opinions. I mentioned…just as an observation, of course… that we were completely in the wrong lane, blocking traffic, and um…a LOT smaller than the other vehicle. Mere technicalities, Jaya sniffed. They saw us coming and we were in (their) lane first, so they should have let us pass.

unnamed-4Finally, Suresh surrendered to his opponent’s superior size and began inching backward. Of course, this was an Indian street and not really set up for two-way traffic under the best of conditions. With only millimeters to spare on each side, our progress was slow, and made more difficult by the other car nudging forward to claim each inch we gave up. Finally, with one last insulting gesture to our losing car, the victors pulled forward and passed us. Immediately, Suresh pulled back into the oncoming lane, down the hill, and across the intersection. Shaken by our defeat, we consoled ourselves with a fabulous Kerala lunch served on banana leaves.

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After lunch, we headed for the KDHP Tea Museum. Jaya was appalled at the 75-rupee entry fee (about $1.20) but we decided to live on the edge and go in anyway. Of course, I slept through the documentary movie that started the tour. Sadly, the rest of the museum was a dusty bust, especially the “Briefing On Tea” delivered in a flat-voiced monotone by a guy who managed to be very excited and supremely boring at the same time. He insisted that the history of tea goes back 4000 years, and he seemed determined to discuss every one of those years. About the time he started explaining how tea cured Hiroshima victims’ radiation poisoning, we gave up on the briefing and escaped to the tea store downstairs, no wiser about actual tea production than when we arrived.

unnamed-5Luckily, as we were leaving Jaya waylaid an employee and demanded an explanation of how tea was processed. When he pointed to the tea briefing, she made a face and shook her head. He brightened up immediately and began giving us a private tour of the tea production process, including running the machinery from rolling to cutting, aerating, and drying. His terrific demonstration made the whole trip worthwhile.

By evening, I was finally emerging from my drugged state. We were watching the sunset from the bench swing overlooking the tea valleys spread in front of us when a cute baby toddled by. Jaya saw the baby’s father and remarked that he looked like her cousin Arvind. Turns out it really was her cousin, along with his baby and wife. Because in a country of 1.3 billion people, why wouldn’t you run into a close relative in a remote mountain inn?

Tomorrow: Spice gardens, put-downs, ancient story/dance, and how to leap through fire. Previous posts include:

  • Part 1 Indian Drivers
  • Part 2- Temples, trains, and the kindness of strangers
  • Part 3 – Agra is closed today
  • Part 4 – The Taj Mahal is very clean today, and Bargaining in India: beware of the chair and the special suitcase
  • Part 5 – Tastebud assault, Indian medicines, and an iron-mystery
  • Part 6  Delhi is closed today, and how to queue in India
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