Normally, I would run up to the edge of the road to see the panoramic picture of the valley and try to spot a rainbow, but right now the furthest I can get to is the roof of the house. India has been under curfew for a few weeks now and leaving the property is plainly asking for trouble.
Just less than a month ago I used to hit these rolling hills every single morning and run until I’m out of steam (or water). Some days I would run up and down a steep hill and other days I’d venture out to the neighboring village or Doddabetta (the highest peak in South India which is less than five miles from where we are).
This is officially the longest I’ve stayed in India. With tea business coming to a temporary halt and nowhere to go, apart from the tea factory and the tea garden underneath, I’ve decided to hunker down and embrace the slow paced lifestyle of a South Indian village.
The sun rises at 6.30 am sharp regardless of the time of year. Typical in sub-tropical climate, the darkness of night turns into day light as if someone has flipped a switch. The morning sun looks like a giant red circle surrounded by a golden ring of fire, as it slowly emerges form the bright pink edge of the sky. The roosters may have crowed long before I’m awake but the sounds of the bells coming from the nearby temples announce the start of the day without fail. I linger in bed for a few minutes, partly to admire the colors of the rising sun and partly to make sure I can see clearly and do not step on a spider that could have creeped inside during the night.
The open patio downstairs is a perfect spot for morning devotions and a workout. Despite not being able to run outside I’ve been exercising religiously every morning, either by running up and down stairs and throwing a few squats, pushups and planks in the mix or by watching a video posted by my trainer back home. Working out gets me ready for the day, helps me keep my sanity and connects me to the piece of the world I belong to. This morning, however, my heart rate was up for a different reason. Shortly after I came down to the tea garden I saw a neighbor rushing through the bushes, shouting wildly and throwing rocks into what later appeared to be a herd of 30 bisons visiting our property.
I saw a pair of horns turn away and vanish behind the trees.
Believe it or not, every day life here in the hills is not all centered around the wildlife encounters. In fact, no-one, including me, gets impressed about spotting a pair of horns here and there. And luckily, we haven’t seen cheetah yet! Though, there are plenty of colorful birds, spiders and all kinds of moths and bugs that don’t stop to amaze my toddler. I swear, a spider has taken a permanent residence in our bathroom. Keeping an eye on it when I brush my teeth helps me to feel I’m in control for a moment; but as soon as it starts moving towards me, I leave the premises.
As you may have guessed, the day begins with tea. A sweet concoction consisting of black tea, milk and sugar is a must have first thing in the morning. In fact, I remember being awoken at 6 am on a sleeper train so that I don’t miss my glass of chai. It’s that important.
After the tea and the morning devotions my mother in law puts a stainless steel jar in a small plastic basket, the kind every woman carries around here. Milk shop up the road is open 6-9 am, so it’s a busy place in the morning. The milk shop seems to be more of a men’s hangout spot, so, more often than not, she gives the basket to the neighbor and he brings it back after a little while, filled with fresh milk and eggs wrapped in a newspaper.
Just like many foods in India, milk is never consumed raw. It’s boiled promptly; a part left to cool in a stainless steel jar, a part mixed with yesterday’s yoghurt for a fresh batch of curd. Curd, a more watery variation of yoghurt, is served with pretty much every meal. Despite of the fact that South Indian dishes don’t contain milk or cream, a fair amount of it is used in tea, curd and sweets; and anything left over becomes homemade butter.
As we all have learned from the COVID-19 crisis, we can make do with very few things. Life at the hills is like that, simple and essential. Rice, vegetables, spices and lentils are daily staples, with chicken being an occasional Sunday treat. Long after I’ve declared state of pantry emergency, my mother-in-law continues to whip up meals, seemingly out of nothing!
Since single use plastic is banned in the Nilgiris, people are pretty ingenious about using rice and flour packaging as vegetable storage or trash bags. And you’ll be amazed about all the things you can do with newspaper! I doubt anyone even remembers anymore why newspapers exist in the first place. At least, I’ve seldom seen anyone reading one.
Another important commodity worth preserving is water. Unlike a big city where water comes from the pipes mostly abundantly, here in the hills you need to be strategic obtaining and using water. Well water is collected using pumps and stored in large containers high on the roof. The higher the container is placed, the more pressure is created for your shower or tap. After you’ve put such an effort into the process, you’ll think twice about wasting a drop of water. And it sure tastes twice as delicious this way.
If there is something worth splurging on, it’s clothing! It’s sort of a tradition to wear a brand shirt or sari on the New Years day, birthday and other occasion. It’s considered good tone to wear a fresh outfit each day. Hence, a lot of washing is going on. In lieu of a drier, clothes are simply laid out flat on the roof or hung on cords on the balcony. Hot afternoon sun takes care of the drying in no time. Daily washing is a lot trickier during monsoon season, I reckon.
Similar to most eastern cultures, food is a huge part of life in India. Offering a freshly prepared meal is an unequivocal expression of love and hospitality. A large part of the day is devoted to peeling, chopping, soaking, grinding, pressure cooking one thing or another. As soon as lunch is over, it’s time to start thinking about dinner. Each meal is cooked fresh from scratch, including snacks and sweets. I remember once asking my mother-in-law for some desicated coconut. To my surprise, she took a whole coconut out of the cupboard, went outside to crack it on a rock and then scraped the flesh with a special tool. No big deal! Certainly not when compared to peeling pounds of tiny onions or garlic cloves for a dish. Needless to say, dried coconut flakes I was used to suddenly felt like processed food!
Tribal food is very simple but very special at the same time.
Breakfast usually consists of dosa (a thin rice crepe) or idli (steamed rice cakes) with sambar (spicy lentil curry) or some sort of chutney. Sometimes uppma, a dish made of wheat with onions and green chillies is served. My personal favorite is appam, a fermented rice and coconut pancake cooked on in a bowl like pan. Noteworthy, fruit or eggs are never on the breakfast table. Eggs are reserved for lunch and fruit – for an afternoon snack or custard desert.
After breakfast my father-in-law goes to the factory or the tea plantation to supervise workers. There is never shortage of work at the tea estate. Factory needs to be run, cleaned and maintained, the tea bushes need pruning and the tea leaves need to be dried and stored before the end of the day.
Mid morning is a tea break for everyone including the workers. My mother-in-law fills a thermos of piping hot sweet concoction and sends it down to the field along with some stainless steel glasses.
Lunch is the most important meal and always includes white rice, a few curries, an egg omelet and homemade yoghurt/curd. Darkened chicken curry or a special kind of beans are some of the local delicacies, along with a purple blob of raagi (millet) flour mixed with hot water. I’ve never quite acquired a taste for the latter.
Afternoon is the hottest time of the day, so it’s a good time for a little siesta, as long as there is no urgent work to be done.
Come six o’clock in the afternoon, the road fills up with women walking back from the fields carrying large baskets or metal jugs on their heads. Cows are returning from the pasture and the last tea trucks make their way to the factories carrying sacks of green leaves. This also means it’s time for tea. Late afternoon tea break is more elaborate and could almost qualify as dinner in my books. Variation of the tea snacks are truly unlimited: from spicy mix of nuts and lentils to deep fried sweets packed with jaggery (brown sugar), coconut, ghee and gram flour. Rice, lentils and sugar can be transformed into virtually anything.
With such a heavy afternoon snack, dinner time naturally falls to late night hours, usually past my bed time. Chapati (whole wheat tortillas) are a common alternative to rice (because a meal is not a meal without a carb!)
When you live on a tea estate, tea can be experienced in many forms. I love walking in the tea garden, making a path between densely planted green bushes, observing the fresh leaves and looking for the newest white buds. The buds is the most delicate part of the tea plant and are used to make white tea and the highest quality green, black and oolong teas. You may have heard the expression “two leaves and a bud”. I pluck just enough buds for a day’s worth, to have fresh silver needle tea the next morning. Green tea requires a bit more effort: the leaves need to be steamed and rolled to extract the flavor before drying.
Each time I go out there I feel that my eyes and fingers get more adept at spotting the right leaves to pick. Yet, I’m not anywhere close to the professional tea pluckers who collect bags and bags of green leaves every day.
Plucking and making tea is no easy task and there is no better way to learn its value than doing it yourself. The fragrant and delicious brew you get as result is definitely worth it.
The day wraps up as abruptly as it started. The starry sky somehow feels higher than I’m expecting it to be. The occasional growl of a wild animal coming from the woods break the silence.
Today I discovered the spider’s hiding place: under our bed.
Good night, the Nilgiris