I slugged my last sip of black tea from the petite juice glass and we set out to see where the leaves grew. I trekked up the steep, narrow dirt path into the hills of Munnar on the heels of our guide R. Mohan, a tea expert and local.
We quickly left the dusty, honking roads and entered lush wilderness of the Western Ghats. I had done a long run along the hilly roads earlier that morning and my quads ached a bit as planted my trekking poles and stepped up the hillside. It was just past one in the afternoon, so the puffy clouds hiding the beating sun, provided some relief. A pleasant breeze rustled the canopy above us.
As we entered a seemingly endless tea plantation I went from being breathless from the walk to being breathless from the view. I was blown away by the finely manicured pillowy quilt of bushes that engulfed us and lined the tiered mountainside for as far as I could see. It was like something plucked out of Alice in Wonderland and I half expected the Mad Hatter to pop out from behind the chest high tea shrubs offering us some tea.
There are nearly 2400 hectares of tea plantations in Munnar, which produces nearly 47,000 metric tons annually. That's a lot of tea picking. While this used to be done solely by hand, these days machines chop off the tops of the bushes and the leaves are then sorted by hand. In the distanc,e two workers clad in brightly color yellow and pink sari's worked in the fields. This particular tea plantation and many in the Munnar area are owned by TATA, who is a main supplier to Tetley. You see TATA trucks and signs all over the Kerala region.
As we stepped out of the serene plantation, we followed narrow damp twisty trails through the thick, humid wilderness. Unlike the wide, rolling trails cutting through the tea plants, these were super steep and rocky, which made me happy I brought along my folding trekking poles that almost got left at home during my pre-trip packing editing. I powered up steep hills, cutting through brush, over logs and tried to avoid getting whipped by branches snapping back from Mohan, who charged ahead. As sweat beads lined my forehead, we stopped for a breather. Sweet mountain flowers and filled the thick, clean air and I sipped in a little extra at each stop.
When we reached our lunch destination about three hours after starting out, it was at the top of a grassy plateau that had a stunning 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains. I was starving and ready for a hearty lunch. Mohan put out baby bananas, oranges and unpacked four rectangular cardboard boxes that looked like something you'd get at KFC. No secret recipe chicken: Three chipati flat breads and a small plastic bag filled with cloudy white veggie curry lay inside. There were no utensils, but I wasn't going to let that get between me and a meal.
It's traditional for locals to eat with their hands, a skill groomed since childhood that enables them to scoop up soupy curries, fine grains of rice and slim slices of sauteed veggies without missing a drop. After a serious Purell moment, I attempted to scoop a slimy carrot from the pouch by wrapping it in a piece of the flat bread. The soft carrot slipped onto the ground. I tried again and again, but only ended with soggy bread. Finally, frustration won out and I just dug my hand into the bag, snagging a carrot, potato and piece of cauliflower. The curry had a touch of sweetness from the fresh coconut, sourness from the fresh tamarind and welcoming spicy kick at the end. The Munnar-made dark chocolate with cashews and dried was a nice sweet treat at the end and also served to put out the fire in my mouth.
We packed up and headed on to the next tea plantation. It had been a long walk already, but I wanted to be back among the bushes. I may be a coffee drinker by nature, but I wanted nothing more than to linger in the tea.