Learnings from Kashalnagar

Cue Manchester terminal 2, 5pm, "What the hell have I done?!" I found myself stressed, "Where will I stay first night? How do I get there? What should I pay? Will there be massive cockroaches…?"
Stress turned back to pride when the pleasant fella next to me was genuinely in awe of my imminent adventure….his wife snoring next him, She had booked fully inclusive, with an extensive non-curry range.
“I am going to find out exactly what happens to coffee before it turns up at the office in hessian sacks, that’s the point of the trip”

Having endured our ‘nothing’ weather in the London for the best part of 9 months, stepping out in to the sun to explore is like therapy. The sun this close to the equator warms you to the core. My fifteen minute walk down the hill to the beach started alone, but by the time I arrived 6 kids had joined and asked me everything, from whether India would win the cricket, to where Wales was in England and, most importantly; did I happen to be carrying any Bieber merchandise....Then back to India will definitely win the cricket. Being so alone, somewhere so far, was going to be fun.

Capturing everything through a lens and moving from place to place, picking local foods and home-stays; every new place brought different personality and experience, a different feel. Everything is bigger in India. Besides the obvious scale of the country; noise and interaction is bigger, trees tower and nature holds its own. Nature is unafraid, it really is an incredible place. The beaches are crystal clean, the cities grubby, overpopulated but completely vibrant.

On a 14hr train journey to Kerala, a family loaded me with bananas, rotis, omelette sandwiches (decent) and Chai tea. They would not accept money. It’s surprising how quickly such a long journey can slip away with a carriage of new friends firing questions, exchanging music and stories, advising on what to see. This is an experience to remember forever by itself. A bit different to the Victoria line, earphones in, music on!

Food in Kochi is to pick a freshly caught fish from the harbour, and then find someone to cook it for you. Anas, my tuk tuk guide of the area for the day, offered a ‘whatever you think I’m worth’ price guide before setting off! He took me to temples, shrines, his cousin's shop, Chinese fishing nets, street performers, elephants, his other cousin's shop, Kerala’s most famous local biryani restaurant, his brother's shop, then his friend's shop. Then I told him off. I told him to take me somewhere where there weren’t wooden elephants or pashminas…..he took me to a water temple, used only once a year, overgrown but completely beautiful.

Having checked coast was clear, over the fence we went for better pictures. Overgrown in the UK means creepy crawlies, maybe a rat or two: Overgrown in India saw me face-to-face with an 8ft black Cobra, that had just caught it’s lunch; the biggest toad I have ever seen.

Hands shaking and with Anas terrified, jumping up and down, I took as many pictures as I could without dying! It was ruthless, apex predator, etched into memory forever. Heart recovered I paid Anas 1200 rupees (£14) for the day, unbeknown to me, 3 days salary for the man. He was taking the next 2 days off to be with his family……the experience for me with Cobra was worth every penny and more.

I could go on and on, story after story, but it’s tough to share. It’s the experience that only travelling can offer, stepping out of comfort and genuinely into the unknown. Being alone magnifies it, I wasn’t wearing a sign that said ‘come and talk to me’, but I might as well have been. The people, they just want to chat. It’s great!
And so I headed to the Coorg region and as far as the eye could see, the incredible site of coffee plants spread out, met by Dinesh, Daya and Rupesh my coffee education was about to begin, we were heading to meet Geoffrey.

I love coffee, love being able to talk coffee, love being able to make coffee. It’s a wonderful position in which to sit: More knowledgeable than most about such a relevant thing. I work with a team who share and live my passion. We make great coffee, we are proud of it and it’s variety. We have great kit to help deliver the coffee. I care about my company, I care about my job. But how much did I actually care about the coffee itself. On meeting Geoffrey, one of our coffee farmers, I was about to find out.

Greeted at the door, with a freshly made cup, he introduced his family and home, took me out to see his dogs, and then allowed me to pick a fresh avocado, to which he added some chilly (obviously). Walking through the plants together, he was radiating pride. The plants, some more than 75 years old, had been his father's and grandfather's before him. 30acres of land, all covered by palm trees to help control shade during the drought, India being the only country to apply this method. Some plants cut back, some plants given support, every plant cared for, 12 months of the year. He showed me damage caused by elephants, scratches from the Civet Cat, and tracks from King Cobra.

He told me stories of how methods had changed, but the basics will always remain the same, every cherry hand-picked over a 4 month period. He picked me an orange, a kiwi, white and black pepper, a lemon, a lime, a handful of bananas, a papaya and a juicy red tomato. The plants cleared to reveal an area big enough for 3 small houses, here the workers live, rent free, without bills and with as much food as they can eat.

The condition: As families they would care for his land and coffee. The 4 months for picking would see 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, everyone from grandparents to children, working together. I met and asked for pictures, they smiled and posed, before carrying on with purpose. Geoffrey said something in Indian, everyone laughed. Clearly confused, he explained they had never seen any man wearing bright blue socks and converse before!

Geoffrey called his farm a Paradise that needed caring for like a child. That it was as good to him, as he was to it. I don’t think I have ever met such a generous and welcoming man, and I still feel humbled by my experience.

Everywhere takes 14 hours to get to in India by the way! Such times spent on public transport offers much time for reflection, and my journey away from coffee and back to beach was no exception. I felt a brand new obligation, bursting to tell people about how much coffee means to the people I had met, how proud they were of it, and how hard they worked to deliver it. He had explained that a good harvest was always followed by a poor one, rich to poor…how food and living was glorious one year, to a struggle and hardship the following. Every coffee plant meant something to him, every single plant was important.
I had previously taught that coffee was often machine picked, and it is elsewhere, but not here, at this farm, everything delicately picked when ripe, millions of coffee cherries! Coffee is easy to waste, bad shots thrown away, wrong grind set up, coffee pre-ground for customers going stale…..never again. It would be completely disrespectful to Geoffrey and the other coffee farmers to do so. I have mentioned before, the process takes 6 months for green coffee to arrive at the UK only to be ruined in 10 seconds…..I take that statement back, it actually has taken 75 years of culture and understanding, pride and respect to deliver our green coffee…..we will not ruin it!!

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