Taking a breath in the mountains of Wayanad

Our introduction to the southern Indian state of Kerala – famous for its Communist government, distinctive coconut-infused cuisine and chart-topping rates of literary and other human development indicators – began, as so many good things do, with a bumpy bus ride.

We boarded the state-run bus at the station in Mysore, destined for the hilly city of Kalpetta, the gateway to and capital of Kerala’s famous Wayanad district. The bus was run by the Kerala State Roads and Transport Coalition, which confusingly has identical initials to its equivalent in the neighboring state of Karnataka, where we started our trip.

Having come from Bangalore earlier in the day, the bus’ seats were mostly full when we got on, so we took a middle and an aisle seat next to an older woman who spent the ride alternately dozing and re-wrapping the end of her cream-colored sari around her bald head. She had a somewhat flexible definition of where her seat ended and mine began, so between me, Spencer, and our large backpacks, we were in for a tight squeeze.

Though we gained considerable elevation over the course of the four hour ride, I don’t recall going up any noticeable hills, for which I was grateful. My travels in Latin America have made me more aware than I’d like to be that it is physically possible to drive a Greyhound-sized bus up a partially washed-out steep mountain road mined with potholes at dizzying speeds.

The bus we rode up the mountains.
The bus we rode up the mountains.

Dizzying speeds were part of this journey, but being near the back of the bus, we remained blissfully ignorant of the many head-on collisions our driver narrowly managed to avoid while swerving around other trucks and motorcycles and women walking down the side of the road. Instead, we were slammed forcefully into the seats in front of us only once, and could pass the time enjoying the views as we rode through fields of coconut palms, orange flowers and eventually a national park where we spotted monkeys and deer in abundance.

Some guidebooks advise against visiting the lush, mountainous Wayanad district during monsoon season, but for people accustomed to the constant drizzle of the Pacific Northwest, it was immediately relaxing. Roads meander through greenery on all sides – tea bushes and coffee plants growing in the shade of carefully scattered palms. It’s not cold by any stretch, but both pleasantly cool and quite humid, a combination I found refreshing even if it left my skin a bit sticky by evening.

Our first night was at a homestay with cousins of the father of a friend in Portland. Though our friend said her dad had called ahead to warn his relatives of our arrival, they seemed confused when we showed up and quickly sprang into action, bringing us tea, providing the wi-fi password and showing us to our room. Dinner was a feast of half a dozen traditional Keralan dishes which I struggle to name or describe (other than the ubiquitous chapati), but all were tasty and left me wishing coconut were a more commonplace ingredient back in the U.S.

The next morning, we set off for the luxurious portion of our monthlong trip: a two-night stay at Tea Terrace Vythiri, a “boutique resort” featuring eco-friendly cottages spread out over a hill of black tea bushes. After a late breakfast, we headed back to Kalpetta on a standing room only bus, which we quickly realized was gender-segregated after boarding. Spencer moved to the back with the men, while I tried to hold onto my swaying backpack with one hand and the railing with the other, all while keeping my billowing skirt out of the faces of the women sitting beside me.

Eventually, I hauled my possessions towards the front in the hopes of leaning my backpack against the wall behind the driver. A woman sitting on a long bench next to the driver took pity on me and offered me a seat with a smile, so I joined the four women already seated there and spend the rest of the ride trying not to fall on anyone, hold my backpack up and avoid having a finger sliced off by the bushes we were driving past at high speed.

From Kalpetta, I figured we’d take an autorickshaw to the resort. The area is small-town enough that most people seemed to know where things were, or at least know someone they could ask for help. The first two drivers we asked refused to take us to Vythiri, while the third acquiesced. “One hundred fifty rupees to Vythiri,” he said. The implication was something like, “After that, I have no idea where we’re going and am not responsible for the fare.” We agreed and set off.

As it turns out, the resort is about half an hour or so from Kalpetta. We didn’t know that, though, so it took us over an hour to get there. First, we got to the town. Then, our driver stopped and asked three people in quick succession for directions before taking us to an out-of-the-way dirt road and pointing to a sign for a different tea resort. No, we told him, that’s not the one. We called the resort and our driver spoke with reception for a while before driving us all the way back to town and down a different road on the other side.

Antics like this continued until finally we went up a torturously steep mountain road and met a guy from the resort in a Jeep, who took us the rest of the way. Our driver remained good-humored throughout and only charged us about $12 for his troubles. And at last, we could relax.

We were completely surrounded by tea fields, something I’d never seen before. The bushes growing all around us smelled more like generic leaves than I’d expected. They can be harvested every two weeks, the guy at the resort told us, but a kilo of leaves fetches only 10 rupees (about 16 cents). The resort was started by a bunch of IT guys who got burned out and wanted to try something new. It catered mostly to domestic tourists coming from larger cities to get away from it all, and we had the distinction of being the first foreign tourists to visit.

The relaxation continued until the next morning, when we set off in another autorickshaw to visit a tea factory and see the stuff being processed. Half an hour of bumping down mountain roads in the the tripedal vehicle treated us to sweeping views down into the valley below, though the high speeds and cloud cover didn’t let me take any decent pictures. We’d been told there was a minimum tea purchase requirement of one kilo per person at a fixed price of 100 rupees. After the road levelled out, our driver pulled over and another autorickshaw full of men pulled up beside us, asking for the cash. They handed two large plastic bags of tea to our driver and demanded 20 more rupees, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on. This deal concluded, they departed and our driver took us the remaining few kilometers to the factory itself.

The mysterious tea factory.
The mysterious tea factory.

Our arrival at the tea factory caused some consternation with the supervisor. “You need the manager’s permission to enter,” he said, in a tone suggesting he very much doubted we’d secured the required permission. We tried to explain our hotel had phoned ahead, but he wasn’t moved. After five minutes of negotiation, during which Spencer tried to phone our hotel and clarify things, our driver suggested producing the receipt for our tea purchase, which magically changed the supervisor’s demeanor. “Of course, come in,” he told us, suddenly eager to begin the tour.

I wish I could provide a detailed step-by-step account of the tea production process, but the whir of machinery stretched my hearing abilities too far and I opted to take pictures inside the dark rooms instead. From what I gathered, tea is harvested and left to dry upstairs, then ground down into a paste with water, blown dry with hot air and sorted by grade. Mostly, we walked past a lot of impressive machines that smelled like tea while the factory’s workers either waved or glanced at us with a deer-in-the-headlights look. Our whirlwind tour was over in about 10 minutes, after which we boarded the rickshaw back to the resort.

Spencer and I left Wayanad this morning, saying goodbye to what has to be in the top five most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life. I hope we’re able to go back someday, but if nothing else, we now have four and a half pounds of tea to remind us of our brief foray into the mountains of Kerala.