Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Day in Kumily

We had quite a memorable Christmas here in Southwestern India.  It included a morning elephant ride…



followed by a traditional Keralan lunch with our rickshaw driver and his family.  It is his business idea and we think it was a very good one.  Anita was able to help prepare the food…


They use tons of oil. Below we fried cashew nuts and raisins followed by onions and carrots.


Our hosts – Sheril the rickshaw driver and his wife Asha.


Part of their cooking experience provided to foreigners is the BBQ in their front yard.


Their 2 year old son is the joy of their lives.


While we waited for the final product, we were shown their wedding album…


The final product was beef biryani, to us a great Christmas feast.


Later on in the day we each had a “full body massage” that left us both laughing pretty hard and we had our funny stories to share after the fact.  At one point the guy giving me (Tal) a massage told me that he practices martial arts. Shortly after this comment he started hitting my head so hard that I could literally feel the fillings in my teeth start to loosen!  Let’s just say that it wasn’t a relaxing massage for either of us, but it sure made us laugh! 

We then found a cyber cafe that allowed us to read Christmas cards and send some Christmas wishes.  We were also able to skype with Anita’s parents which was so fun because they just installed Skype along with a new web cam. It was also nice to see the white Swiss mountains outside and to see their cat Diana. 

We then had our own little gift exchange which finished the day well.

Merry Christmas to all of you!  Thanks for keeping up on our lives and we wish you a happy new year!

Spices and Black Tea Production in Southwestern India


So today is Christmas Eve and we are far removed from the usual Christmas frenzy, which is quite nice, though we miss our families and the usual festivities at home. It is so nice to not be bombarded with Christmas songs, the materialistic aspect of Christmas, the pre-holiday stress and the Christmas trees/Santa Clauses everywhere. (Sorry, I guess that’s only how I feel, because as I write this Tal is listening to Christmas songs from the soundtrack of the movie “Elf” on his ipod). 
In order to “spice” up our Christmas (meaning Christmas Eve and Christmas day), we have placed the following on our agenda: visits to the spice garden and a tea plantation, an elephant ride, a home cooked Indian meal and a typical Indian massage. Maybe we should make it a tradition!

Today (the 24th) was a very informative day and we wanted to share what we learned. We first visited a spice garden where we got to see, touch, and taste spices that we usually only know from a glass container or a can at the local supermarket. Our guide was amused by our ignorance of recognizing these very common spices in their natural environment, but was happy to share with us both the name and use of each herb/spice.

First – pepper. After years of knowing pepper only as a basic on the spice rack, seeing how it actually grows was very enlightening and exciting to me.
These bush-like pepper plants, as seen below, do not stand on their own, but rather find a tree to wrap themselves around in order to gain height and spread out. 

IMG_2368 Pepper

The pepper kernels grow in a string/cluster form (see below). One can easily taste the pepper by chewing one of these kernels.


The following is a vanilla bean. We have now learned of two ways that one can extract vanilla flavor.  We were told last year during an orchid exhibit at the Bronx Botanical Garden in NYC, that vanilla is extracted from a specific orchid. The guide here in Kerala was unfamiliar with any other type of vanilla plant outside of the bean seen below.

IMG_2374 Vanilla bean

The next spice is taken from the bark of this tree. It can be tasted when chewing the bark, but it is a very faint taste and so it was hard for us to guess. It is cinnamon.

IMG_3748 Cinnamon

For everyone who has never seen how pineapples grow, this next picture is hopefully as exciting as it was to me the first time around. This is not the first time I have seen it, but it still gets me excited.  Perhaps because I enjoy pineapples so much or perhaps because the plant seems so quaint.

At the same time, the pineapple plant somehow appears to me as if it should be poisonous. Perhaps I feel like this because it reminds me of a very poisonous berry in Switzerland that looks equally as inviting, but is in fact deadly. (Mami, Du waisch wellas, gell!) Luckily pineapples are not and they are particularly delicious here.

IMG_2367 pineapple

Guess what this is…


It is coffee beans laid out to dry before they get roasted. The best coffee in India, the Arcadia, gets exported all over the world. Coffee consumption is getting more popular in India, especially in the northern cities like Delhi, but in most parts of the county, tea is still the preferred beverage.

For all chocolate lovers, the following picture shows a cacao plant. When the fruit turns yellow (as seen below) it is ready for harvesting. Inside the fruit are many beans that are dried and roasted to produce the chocolate so many of us love.

IMG_2377 Cacao

And now on to a non-spice tree, the rubber tree. In order to extract the rubber from the bark, the bark is cut with a knife. The trick to this is to not cut too deeply into the tree, because once the wood of the tree is touched, the bark will no longer yield any rubber. So it has to be handled very carefully. The cutting can only take place between the cooler hours of 5–7:30 am, after which the bark will no longer discharge any rubber (due to the rise of temperature).

IMG_2380 Rubber tree

The picture below shows how the rubber gets collected in a little container as it runs along the cut in the bark.


This is all from the spice garden. From there we went to one of the many tea plantations here in Kerala.


First a few facts:
- tea is mostly harvested in the south and northeast of India
- tea consumption in India in 2008 was 701g/person, which means  about 2 cups of tea a day per person.  
- tea production in India in 2008 was 980 million kg
- the tea plant is actually a tree, but is kept as a bush for better harvesting
- tea bushes live for 100-200 years. But after 50 years of harvesting, the plant needs to be replanted to improve its productivity.

Below is a picture of the tea plantations in Kerala. 


One more…


And one more….


At the tea plantation we visited we learned about the harvesting and process of black tea. We wish we had pictures of all these steps but were not allowed to take pictures inside the factory. Hopefully the words describe it well enough.

Tea  is harvested in a variety of ways. Originally it was hand collected, but with the growing demand , it is now mainly harvested with large machines. It is interesting to note is that tea does not have a specific harvesting season, as it can be harvested 26-38 times/year.

The tea leaves are dried in a trough for 12-14 days.

At this point the leaves are being cut into small pieces.

Then they are crushed into even smaller pieces. It is at this point that the leaves change their color from green on the darker brown/black color.

Crush, Tear, Curl
During this process the leaves are cut even further until they appear like a mushy paste.

For 90 minutes the leaves are placed in a large metal tube where air, along with some water, are blown in to cause fermentation.  

Then it is moved to a large machine where it is left to dry for 15 minutes at 135 degree Celsius. During this process the remaining waste (stems, fibers etc.) is removed.

Further cleaning is performed.  

The tiny particles of tea are now separated into kernels and powder. The kernels are used for lighter tea and the powder for stronger tea.

Some more cleaning is performed.

Final cleaning
There cannot be enough cleaning going on for some good tea!

Tea tasting
Specialized workers taste the tea for taste, flavor, aroma, strength, etc. They do not drink the tea, but rather gargle it for 10 sec and then spit it out. During this short process they can tell if there are any defects with the tea.

From the local tea plantation it gets sent to larger distributors, who then sell the tea worldwide.

More on Christmas in the next blog…

Friday, December 18, 2009

First week in India


And so on December 12th we made it to India. Our first stop Chennai. Here are some words that Tal wrote down to describe Chennai:

Kind people, smiles, auto rickshaws, head bobble, rank smells, cacophony of sounds, cows, horns!, no personal space, squalid streets/houses, vivid colors…

So of all the words listed above the head bobble may stand out to you. It did to us, because when we arrived here we did not only get a nod for yes or no, but a head bobble. We first were not sure whether it meant yes or no, but by now we figured it simply means “yes, ok”.

India is crazy – we have never seen anything like it. I personally have never heard that much noise all at once and it’s just chaotic. But it’s wonderfully beautiful and we are getting accustomed to it quickly.

Here are some pictures of our first week.

The first night we arrived we took a little rickshaw to a guest house. Here is Anita buried under our packs…


Hindu colors to be applied to their foreheads.


Offerings to the gods in front of pretty much any Hindu temple.


Hindu Temple


Cute kids we met on a little detour off the main road.


Scenes in Chennai



The next day we made it Puducherry. Our first meal…$1.50 for both of us. After that we decided to step it up, because it was just a bit too dirty (found two flies in my dish). From then on we have started living large by spending $3/meal.


This is the nicest place in town. The French Hotel L’Orient. It was a fortune and still only $16 for a three course menu for both of us.


And here Tal very happy eating some fine French food


We wish we had more pictures of Puducherry, because it’s one of the most charming places we have seen (ok it’s only been one week, but still). The French resided here for quite some time and so it has a European flair. There is also a beautiful Ashram in town that pretty much dictates the atmosphere here. It’s the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and we felt it was the oasis we needed after Chennai.

Here are a couple of shots of the people in Puducherry



You can find anything here…literally.


Loads of bikes…


And motorcycles..


Fresh eggs in the market


And no we did not want to eat those fish. Flies were swarming around them and the smell was horrendous.



So tonight we are off on a overnight train to Kerala. Don’t know yet how well we will sleep, but we are excited to make it to Kerala. According to me brother (Martin), it is paradise and so we don’t want to wait any longer to get there.

Talk to you soon and if we won’t be able to write another blog before Christmas – Merry Christmas to all of you!


So here we are in Dubai now. A whole new world and it was fascinating all around. Here are some pictures of our two day experience in Dubai.

This is currently the tallest building in the world. It opens on January 4th and is 800 meters high. But Dubai has already the next building in construction. It will be 1 km tall and therefore the tallest building.


So we wanted to have a picture of us and the building and so I asked this really nice German guy to take it for us. Here is me talking to him.


We really got a kick out of him taking this picture, because you can barely see us on the picture he took. Because the building was so tall, he backed up 10 feet, looked up, backed up some more, looked up…and so forth. We were worried he was going to take off with our camera, he was so far away. And as you can see, he still did not get the whole building on it…


We then entered the biggest mall in the world, called Dubai Mall (to the right of this picture). Since we both don’t really like malls, we ditched the high end section (where you can find anything you want) and went to the Arabian section, which was so much more interesting. I had so many questions regarding traditional wear and so I entered this store to ask some questions about traditional wear in Dubai and the Middle East. This guy from Syria was very nice and in his best English explained it to us and started dressing Tal and me (see below). It was only under those circumstances that we felt comfortable putting them on. We learned a lot and appreciated the store managers openness to teach us.


The famous 7 star hotel in Dubai…


One of the beautiful mosques in Dubai.




Another mosque…



Now on to the “best” part – Ski Dubai.


The entrance was closed off for non-skiers. So we told them that I am from a ski resort in Switzerland and they got us in immediately so we could see how authentic it is


Two locals eating dinner by the slopes…


Trying skis on….


We could not help but have some dinner at the St. Moritz Cafe here at Ski Dubai. And what did we eat? Fondue. And believe it or not it was very tasty.


This was our white Christmas!

The next morning we were off to Chennai….more on that in the next blog.