"Come carefully," Joseph warned, leading us down a path into his jungle spice pantry. For the past 20 years, Joseph A. K, 52, has been the...

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KERALA, India — “Come carefully,” Joseph warned, leading us down a path into his jungle spice pantry.


For the past 20 years, Joseph A.K, 52, has been the caretaker of a 12-acre cardamom, coffee and pepper plantation perched 3,500 feet atop a cliff in the mountains below the former British hill station of Munnar.


“Taste this,”‘ he said, kneeling down and plucking a seed from the base of a broad-leaf cardamom plant. “Very good mouth freshener.”


Joseph is our host at Kollenkeril Homestay, where we arrived after four hours of uphill driving along a two-lane road filled with hairpin turns.


This is an area rich in wildlife, with a bird sanctuary and a park with a rare breed of wild mountain goats, but I felt so carsick that all I wanted to do was lie down.


Nonsense, said Joseph. There was a plantation to explore, so he settled us on the veranda with a tonic of ginger, lime and honey, and before long, I was recharged and ready for a tour.


Joseph pointed out nutmeg trees and had us chew on fresh clove buds. He scraped a piece of bark from a cinnamon tree. “Taste it, it’s sweet.” My mouth was getting numb, but there was more: Curry plants, allspice, bananas, vanilla beans.


Information



Rates at Kollenkeril Homestay are $80 per night for a double with breakfast. The hosts provide dinner for an extra $3 per person. For information, see www.homestayskerala.com


Joseph and his brother, James, manage Kollenkerial Homestay for a rubber-plantation owner who used to use the house as a vacation retreat.


Made of rosewood and wood from the jungle jackfruit tree, it has three large bedrooms, all with private bathrooms, a living room and a veranda where the brothers serve tea each afternoon.


The air is cooler here, a welcome respite from hot and humid Kochi. We woke our first morning to the whistle of a marble thrush and the smell of coffee ground from local beans.


The brothers whip up what Joseph calls “homely” food.


Dinner our first evening was cauliflower curry, vegetable fried rice, steamed vegetables and chapati. James begged us to let him make his special spicy beef (the brothers are Catholic and unlike Hindus, eat beef), but we’re sticking to a vegetarian diet.



Tea and mountain goats



Ten miles up the road and another 1,500 feet higher are Kerala’s tea estates — around 30 in all — and Munnar, an alpine town filled with shops selling spices, cashews and flower oils.


The scenery is dramatic, with manicured tea plantations that look like giant green carpet squares.


Farther up is Eravikulam National Park. A rare breed of wild mountain goats roam here, and the kurinji, a type of blue flower that blankets the hills for a month every 12 years, were in bloom.


Cars and buses park in a lot, and mini-buses transport people into the park entrance. From there, it’s a quarter-mile walk up a mountain path to see the goats.


Tour buses usually drop off tourists at the tea museum nearby, but the park is a local attraction, and we were among just a few foreigners in a sea of people hiking along the path in rubber sandles.


Nearly everyone we passed stopped to say hello, ask our names, introduce themselves or tell us that they had relatives living in Texas or New York.



Today, I learned …



Tropical crops grow best at different altitudes. On the drive to Munnar, we went from sea level to an elevation of 5,000 feet, passing plantations filled with bananas, mangos, cashews, nutmeg, rubber, cardamom and finally tea.

Coconut and rubber grow below 2,000 feet; coffee, cardamom, nutmeg and other spices between 2,000 and 5,000; and tea above 5,000.


On the way back down, we shared a mini-bus with a family of 20 brothers, sisters, uncles and cousins.


They asked to take our picture and invited us to visit their village the next time we were in the area.


It’s these kinds of chance meetings that we’ve come to treasure during our time in India, usually more than the sights everyone wants us to see.



“We make you fatty”



We never met the rubber baron who owns our homestay, but Joseph and James were excellent hosts.


On our last morning, Joseph took us to his house on a piece of land just below the plantation.


He and his wife, Shanty, have lived there since they were married 20 years ago. They raised two boys in three small rooms surrounded by a garden and pots and pots of colorful impatiens.


In the kitchen were a propane stove and a wood fire for cooking. I noticed a sweet smell and asked what it was. Joseph took us into the bedroom. Piled on one side were burlap sacks of cardamom that he’s been saving, hoping the price will go up.


James fixed a breakfast of puttu — rice flour and coconut steamed in a bamboo tube. He served the first tube with vegetables, then another with bananas and cardamom honey.


Like doting mothers, he and Joseph insisted we take seconds.


“You come next time and stay for one week,” Joseph urged us as we said goodbye. “We make you fatty!”