Thursday, 4 February 2010

14th November – from Tea to Kaziranga…

The factory sirens didn’t disturb me and I woke at 06:30 feeling good. Phil and I had the usual tea and coffee from the house servants whilst we washed and then wandered over to Sanjay’s bungalow for our 08:00 rendezvous. Today we would see the tea factory.
Green leaves picked from the plantation were spread over vast drying trays where huge fans blow air from various angles to dry them. When sufficiently dry, these were taken to the main factory for processing. The factory floor was covered with a host of machines and conveyor belts linking everything together. There were rollers, cutters, threshers, shakers, heaters, blowers and sifters. Detailed flow charts hung on the walls describing the Orthodox and CTC manufacturing processes (in case anyone forgot?). Sanjay took us through each stage of the process and let us examine the tea as workers eyed us from their machines. It was an amazing combination of highly controlled mechanization and intense manual labour. At one point in the process, women with metal sifting trays sorted the entire tea stock coming down the production line to manually remove stalks and other foreign objects. The tea would then be put back onto the production line for its final sorting and packaging. Tea ‘gurus’ (who had spent a lifetime with tea) wandered about the factory floor to oversee the entire process and make adjustments where necessary. At the final stage of bagging up, a very accurate weigh-scale was used to measure exact amounts of tea into each sack for onward shipment. This weigh-scale was used to settle a long-running argument that had raged for the entire trip on the river.
In some rapids, big stopper waves risk collapsing the front of the raft and hence, possibly swamp or flip it. The larger/heavier people are usually placed at the front of the raft to prevent this. The downside of this is that these people invariably end up drenched for most of the time. Bob had insisted for some time that he was not the heaviest in the group and had objected to being placed on the front of the raft to ‘stabilise’ it. He thought that Chris and/or Rup should take turns in front as they were equal, if not heavier than him. The scales would resolve this once and for all. Over the din of the factory I couldn’t quite hear the result but I think that Bob was judged to be the heaviest according to the scales which shut him up.
Sanjay led us from the factory to the tasting room where cups of amber tea were laid out for him to sample. Sanjay tasted upwards of 100 cups of tea a day and had such an attuned palate that he could now tell which part of the manufacturing process required adjustment in order to produce the correct quality of tea. We watched as he noisily sucked in a mouthful of each cup, swilled it around his mouth and then spat it out into a container nearby. He would make comments about each tea on a clipboard which was then fed back into the manufacturing process. Sanjay produced a kilo of vacuum-packed Assamese tea and generously handed a bag to each of us. The tea was Tippy Golden Flowering Orange Pekoe (I think) which is the best quality tea.
Back at the bungalow a jeep arrived to take us to the last place on our holiday, the Kaziranga National Park. We loaded our rucksacks, said our goodbyes to Sanjay and Devicar, Billy and Alka and then drove out of the tea plantation for another day’s bumpy ride.
We drove across the Assamese plains and arrived at our hotel in the Kaziranga National Park in the middle of the afternoon. After a freshen up, we drove into the park for a mini safari which we hoped would result in us seeing some Rhinos a tiger or two and lots of other big wild animals.
As it was, we saw a few distant grey rocks (which were Rhinos), a domestic elephant and its cub right by the entrance to the park and a few raptors in the trees. We stopped by the Brahmaputra for a break and a freshwater dolphin surfaced in the water by us. These mammals are blind and navigate in the murky water via sonar. Phil also found a cobra snakeskin in the sand. So our highlight of the park was a blind dolphin and an empty snakeskin. After our adventure on the river, this felt so wrong and pointless so we drove back out of the park to our hotel. The drive home was freezing and we huddled together in the open-backed the jeep to keep warm. We walked down to a local restaurant and had a great supper washed down with plenty of beer before retiring to bed.

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