Kerala calls herself “God’s own country” for its beautiful beaches, green jungles, and fresh air mountains. Munnar, one of a few hill stations the British established on top of the “Ghats” (Mountains), is surrounded by endless rows of well-trimmed tea bushes on impossible slopes.
The views are otherworldly, rows upon rows of tea bushes show up as we take the 5 hour trip from Kottayam to Munnar. The way is packed with impressively big churches scattered through the villages along the way. The population here is predominantly Christian, since the Portuguese and dutch missionaries came in in the 17th century.
Following other travelers advice, we arrive at the Green View hostel at the edges of town, where they also arrange tours in the surroundings the village, such as tea plantations walks and trips to the waterfalls.
It was Tal’s responsibility to once again wake up at impossible hours (7 AM) to follow Bismal, our young and smiling little guide, filled with energy. We climbed from 1800m to 2500m to have one of the best breakfasts in India so far: Pineapple, rolled eggs, toasts, and coffee. We finished right in time before it got extremely hot to walk through cardamon, coffee, vanilla, and countless more plantations. Then it got extremely hot, and we kept walking, in total 17 km to have lunch at 3 PM just before fainting.
Our was a heterogeneous group, three german students girls, a french elder couple, a cycling English woman and four Venezuelan exiles spread throughout the world (Barcelona, Zurich, Buenos Aires) that converged to travel the world for one year.
Bismal, our guide is the youngest son of a traditional tea plantation family, his parents are tea collectors as his grandparents and so on. He’s incredibly well spoken, self-taught English by contact with tourists and he’s knowledgeable about every plant and fruit in the area. His parents work for TATA, a mega-conglomerate that controls most of the industries in the country as metallurgy, communications, petrochemicals, food, cars manufacture, tourism and more…
TATA owns about 70% of the tea plantations in Munnar, and their system of employment is not far from slavery or a feudal one. For 300 rupees (5 USD) a day women pick 25 kilos of tea leafs and get one more rupee of each extra kilo, kill me but I don’t get the math behind it. Men take care of the maintenance of the plantation: fertilizing, fumigating and taking care of the logistics, for the same mere 5 dollars a day. The luring appeal of the big tea estates is their offer of housing, health insurance, and free educations up to the 4th grade of the children, just enough for them to learn to count to 25 kilos.
Bismal was strong enough to break out from this dynasty of dependency and perpetuation of poverty and decided to become a tourist guide, while is brother will work at the plantations and probably his kids will too.
A kilo of tea is sold at the local market at 200 rupees, tenfold abroad, 1600% profits on the back of the illiterates hooked up to the big corporate system.
On the other hand, private estates pay only 100 rupees more…
You can only conclude: being poor sucks.