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From The Land of Tea: Munnar, Kerala India

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After a six and a half hour drive from Kochi (with a few stops along the way), we arrived in Munnar around 4:30pm. Our homestay was called Jade Munnar, the sister to Jade Kochi (where we just came from). Anoop and Dorrie, a fabulous couple that I will talk about in greater detail later, own both places. They live at the Munnar location while Josey and Elsie manage their Kochi location. We loved Jade Kochi so we sure were excited for the next three nights here.

Towards the end of our drive, our initial thought was where in the world are we? For a good twenty minutes, we kept making turn after turn, winding around and around, driving higher and higher up tiny unpaved roads that frequently required first gear. We were wondering if Josey's car was going to make it but then again, he does this commute at least twice a week. When we finally arrived, we couldn't help but automatically feel our posture get straighter and our weight become lighter. Surrounded by nothing but greenery, a cool breeze and fresh air, it was absolutely beautiful. The weather difference was fairly drastic, going from 95 degrees with 80% humidity to about 78 degrees with very little humidity. Amen. Anoop, Dorrie and their precious dog, Ginger, were there to greet to us. We said goodbye to Josey, thanked him for his hospitality and followed Dorrie to our room, which sure did have a wonderful balcony with a wonderful view.

The land in which their home sits on is quite massive and basically consists of two different houses, a natural swimming pond, a fabulous outdoor patio and a few common areas. The word Jade refers to the thousand shades of green that surround the place and the color that is associated with balance and relaxation. Most of the area is agricultural with the main crops being tea, pepper, cardamom and coffee. Cocoa, cinnamon, nutmeg and tapioca are also commonly cultivated. Frequently seen trees are Rose Wood, Teak, Jackfruit, African Tulip, Jacaranda and a wide variety of fruit trees. Regarding animals, it is filled with a variety of birds, butterflies, small lizards, snakes, dragonflies, crickets (who are partiers at night), and other interesting bugs. All of this was told to us on a sheet of paper that they laid on our bed. And just like the laminated information from our AirBnB in Jaipur that had me jumping like a Mexican jumping bean, this had clipart images all over it. Love it. I mean, things just keep getting better.

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Munnar is situated at the confluence of three mountain streams - Mudrapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala. 1,600 meters above sea level, this hill station was once the summer resort of the erstwhile British Government in South India. It boasts of tea-plantations, spice-plantations, tiny towns, astonishing scenery and majestic waterfalls. A nature lovers heaven.

Now let me tell you a little bit about Anoop and Dorrie, who are both so generous, accommodating, happy, entertaining and so it seemed, incredibly in love still. Their story is fascinating as well (I sure hope I am telling it correctly). Dorrie was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, USA while Anoop was born and raised in Fort Kochi, Kerala, India. When Dorrie was thirty years old and tired of being in the Corporate America advertising/marketing world, she packed up her belongings and traveled the world (ummm, sounds a little too familiar). Her first stop was India where I believe she lived for six months and where for the first time, she laid eyes on Anoop. However, Dorrie at the time was a free spirit, wanting to spread her wings wherever and whenever she could. After India, she lived in Japan for a year and then roamed from country to country for another year. Her and Anoop kept in touch with letters. Yes, letters. How amazing is that? No email, no cell phones, no FaceTime. Simple letters. When she returned to India after a few years, she attended what sounded like a hippie festival in the very north where Anoop went to find her. A few days later, they were married. Now, they have a nineteen year old son, a sixteen year old son and a lovable twelve year old dog, Ginger who without even trying, puts a smile on your face. Up until about four years ago, they lived in Fort Kochi at the house we stayed in. But the weather and humidity got to them so they decided to move up to the mountains in Munnar, where it's much cooler, go through two years of renovation and then two years later open a homestay. I am so glad they did. And, we later found out, that they opened Kashi Art Cafe in Kochi where we ate twice but sold it a handful of years ago. Everything they seem to do becomes a success and that's because great people deserve great things.

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Our lodging here was 4500 rupees (or about $66) a night, which included breakfast and dinner. But this wasn't your typical hotel or homestay cooking. There was so much thought and creativity that went into the menu each and every day. It was always different. The breakfast rotated from Western to Kerala and the dinner always included one non-vegetarian dish accompanied by about a handful of vegetarian dishes. All were fresh, flavorful and beyond fulfilling. They buy their own produce daily and wash it with their filtering system so it was nice to have vegetables and not worry whether or not we would be sick afterwards. The best part about the meals though were the people. The first night, it was Anoop and Dorrie, me and Vinny, a local guy from Mumbai named Abbas, his friend Barbara from Germany and then a quiet yet sweet older couple from France. It still fascinates me that with eight people at the dinner table, there were five different first languages yet everyone spoke English. The other four were German, French, Hindi and Malayalam, which is the official language in the state of Kerala. We sat at the dinner table for hours talking about life, where we've been, where we want to go and everything in between. We laughed about the pharmaceutical epidemic in America and how everyone over the age of forty has a pill container filled to the brim for every day of the week. And how Germany's food isn't any less processed and fake than ours is. And how the French go to Italy every year for a holiday because it's so close (tough life). It's always nice to meet other American's but it is equally, if not more as important, to branch out and meet others from around the world to truly appreciate where you come from yet learn what to strive for next.

Here was one of our Kerala breakfasts (those bananas literally melted in your mouth)...

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Here was one of our fusion dinners...

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At dinner, I noticed that Dorrie and Anoop were eating with their hands. Kind of like what we had to do at Bukhara in Delhi. And again, it wasn't sushi or pizza or chicken tenders that are meant as finger foods. It was rice, curry, chopped vegetables, water buffalo and other wet foods. But watching them was as captivating as watching a Cirque du Soleil performance. There was a real method to their process. They would take the rice and mold them into the less firm items and then with their finger tips, pick it up and place it not so daintily in their mouth. But they would only use one hand (their right hand) and kept their left hand clean. This is a state wide characteristic.

Something I learned tonight is that I have been unintentionally disrespectful to the Indian culture for the past five weeks without even knowing it simply because I am left handed and of course, eat with my left hand. In India and supposedly all across Asia, rule one is eat with your right hand only. The left hand is for wiping your bottom, cleaning your feet and other unsavory functions (you also put on and take off your shoes with the left hand), while the right hand is for eating, shaking hands and so on. Sorry to the millions of people I have offended. Blame my parents:)

The next morning, Vinny and I woke up to the sound of a hundred different birds chirping. They were all in perfect harmony as if I bought a sound machine from Bed, Bath and Beyond and put it on the nature channel. So peaceful. One of the birds was called the whistling school boy. After breakfast, we headed out on a self guided nature walk. Dorrie put together a hilarious map that she drew with fun images and very clearly mentioned it wasn't to scale. We took the map and figured how lost can we really get? Well, really lost. What should have taken us twenty minutes to get to a specific place ended up taking us three hours. But that was totally a-okay because we weren't lost in the Bronx or in Compton, we were lost in a town that had incredible visuals every direction you looked. Getting lost was part of the fun. And the people were just so friendly and willing to help guide us as much as they could.

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Along the way, we saw a man picking peppercorn from a tree...

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An awesome makeshift bus stop...

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Some banana trees...

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A man trying to camouflage himself...

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Lots of roosters and chickens...

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A curious woman...

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A family of goats...

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A few good men asking me to take their photo...

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You could imagine the sigh of relief we let out when we finally made it to Modern Bakery, a local spot Dorrie recommended for some snacks. She warned us it wasn't a "modern bakery" but that was just their name. And she was right. But it was perfect for what we needed. We ordered pineapple juice and we literally got juice from a pineapple...

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And then we got three local treats including a Pazham Pori (fried banana or plantain), all for 130 rupees or $1.90. I'll take it.

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That night at dinner, it was just Anoop and Dorrie, me and Vinny, Abbas and Barbara. Abbas is a co-founder of a company called India Someday that offers assistance to anyone from 18 years old to 80 years old wanting to travel to India. The bottom of the Titanic to the upper class of the Titanic, they help you plan your trip as much or as little as you want. Ironically, our family friends who are coming to India in October, Mark and Dorith are working with him and his partner. I mean, come on. What are the odds?!? And when Abbas told me I did a great job planning our seven week trip, on my own with no travel agent, I gave myself a pat on the back (okay, a few pats on the back). He was impressed with the accommodations I chose and the activities I booked and recognized how much effort and research I put into this journey. Of course I did, it was my full time job for two months. I went to bed that night feeling confident and accomplished.

Our last day in Munnar we did a tuk-tuk tour with Bijou for about five hours. I didn't even need to stop at any "must see" sights, I just loved being in the open air vehicle and enjoying every inch of the beauty Munnar possesses. Bijou pointed out some ginger fields, black coffee trees, waterfalls, cardamom trees and every other spice that grows here. You never have to go to the market, just pick it all yourself. About twenty minutes into our drive, I saw a sign that said "Accidents bring tears, safety brings cheers". That says it all about this town.

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Next we walked through a tea plantation...

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At the end of the tea plantation, Vinny and Bijou went rock climbing (well sort of)...

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Then we drove through the actual town of Munnar, which is pretty run down and underwhelming. I'm glad we weren't staying in the city center.

One of my favorite and most heartfelt stops of the day was the Srishti Center, which runs various programs for the education, training and rehabilitation of "differently-abeled" people of Munnar's tea plantation workers. They make a variety of products from fruit preserves to handmade paper and confectionery to all natural dyes for clothing. Their stuff was really impressive. I couldn't take any photos inside but there were a few quotes written on the walls that really stuck out to me. "Rough Seas Create Tough Captains" and "Impossible is possible because impossible itself says I M Possible". Leaves you warm and fuzzy to see these people, working through their challenges, striving to get better and creating a life of their own.

The last stop was the Tea Museum. Very neat to see the process of how tea is made from start to finish, especially after visiting the tea plantations, but nothing overly exciting.

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After a hard day of sightseeing, Bijou took us to a much deserved lunch at Guru's. Let's talk about this place for a second. Wow. What a thrilling experience. It was as crowded as the Grand Central Station in New York City and if you even dared to move an inch off your chair, someone would try and swoop in. Plus, all the locals order the same thing and to watch well over thirty people eat with their hands the way they do was incredible. It's a real science. I could have sat there for hours.

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The views the entire way back were just breathtaking...

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For the remainder of the evening, we hung around the property, enjoyed the natural swimming pond from above and of course, stuffed our faces with delicious food.

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When you leave a place, it's very easy (especially for Americans) to reference the positives but outweigh them with the negatives. Their peanuts weren't salty enough, their mattress was too firm, the mints they left at night wasn't real mint. But there is absolutely nothing bad we can say about Jade Munnar. It wasn't a five star hotel, they didn't clean your room everyday and room service wasn't an option but that's what made it so special. It was as if we were staying with our Aunt and Uncle. It felt like a home. A far away home.

We sure are going to miss our breakfast and dinner talks on their patio, our own personal french press coffees in the morning and late afternoon, the sound of nature at your doorstep and Anoop gently reprimanding Ginger to go to bed. She never wanted to be the first to leave the party. Oh Ginger. This was truly a memorable experience.

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The next morning, sad to say goodbye, we were picked up by Mr. Tomy at 9:30am and headed to Thekkady, which is about a three hour drive.

From the land of the tea, I will leave you with this. "If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are hot, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you. Tea is a cup of life".