Nature Observations (lockdown 2021)

leaves

 

We often talk about time as if it is real, yet according to Albert Einstein and many scientists, time is only an illusion. Time is subjective and personal, and everyone has their own concept of time. In Zen Buddhism, the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen Zenji (1200–1253), also wrote about time or ‘uji’ in Japanese, which is usually translated as ‘Being-Time’. The most common interpretation of the two kanji characters is: “time is existence and that all existence is time.” According to Dogen, we are time, and time is us. Time is a complex subject, and I don’t intend to dwell on it here, but personally, the lockdown has made me become more aware of my relationship with time.

During the pandemic, my digital calendar and paper planners were mostly blank for about 2 years. I had no work events or social engagements to attend, and no upcoming holiday to look forward to. I am sure that many people experienced some sort of anxieties when all the short and long term plans suddenly came to a halt. And with so much ‘time’ on our hands, how were we going to spend it?

Perhaps for the first time in life, I did not have to check my watch, clocks and calendar frequently. I stopped planning, and after a while, time became ‘insignificant’. I could ‘waste’ it day after day without feeling guilty about not being productive enough. When I finally let go of ‘time’, I felt liberated. I learned to slow down and live each day as it comes.

Instead of obsessively checking the clocks for time and calendar for dates, I began to observe time through plants and flowers when I went out for walks during the lockdown. Nature became the measuring device for me.

 

Winter

Perhaps it is a misconception to think that flowers do not bloom during winter. In fact, there are many evergreen shrubs and flowers that thrive in the winter like Snowdrops, Hellebores, Eranthis, Primrose, and Viburnum tinus Eve Price etc. During my lockdown walks, I would come across some blooming flowers despite the cold weather. With less distractions and stimulations, I found joy in identifying unknown plant species during my strolls around London.

 

Hedera colchica  Algerian iris

Hellebores

japanese skimmia  Iris foetidissima

First left: Hedera colchica/ Persian Ivy; First right: Algerian iris; 2nd row: Hellebores; bottom left: Japanese skimmia; Bottom right: Iris foetidissima

 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of winter plants or flowers are the array of vibrant colours. There are bright pinks, reds, violets, and yellows – these are colours normally associated with spring/summer, yet they can be seen during the winter too. Time passes quickly when you place your focus on the surrounding nature rather than on yourself – the lockdown probably created an environment for introspection, yet too much of it would make us too self-focused due to less interactions with the outside world.

 

Red twig dogwoods  red maple leaves

img_5079

Eranthis   Mahonia

 Viburnum tinus Eve Price

Viburnum tinus Eve Price  Hellebores

First left: Red twig dogwoods; First right: maple leaves: 2nd: snowdrops; 3rd left: Eranthis; 3rd right: Mahonia; 4th & Bottom left: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; Bottom right: Hellebore

 

Euonymus europaeus  Chaenomeles

Chaenomeles

WEIGELA PINK POPPET

Magenta Hebe

First left: Euonymus europaeus; first right & 2nd: Chaenomeles; 3rd: Weigela Pink Poppet; last row: Magenta Hebe

 

Crocus tommasinianus 'Ruby Giant'

Erica carnea, the winter heath

Clematis armandii

Primrose – Primula vulgaris

First: Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’; 2nd: Erica carnea/the winter heath; 3rd: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; 4th: Clematis armandii; Bottom: Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

 

My favourite time of the year is autumn and spring. Around late February and early March, the day light hours would last longer, which means spring is in the air. The gradual increase of sunshine and day light makes a huge diference to the ecology and humans. We start to notice daffodils blooming everywhere, and seeing the golden yellow colour covering the parks immediately uplifts our moods and spirits.

 

daffadils  daffadils

daffadils

daffadils

daffadils

Daffodils

 

On the grounds, there are daffodils, and when we look up, we would see seas of sumptuous white and pink magnolias over our heads. Magnolia shrubs seem to be ommonly planted in people’s gardens in London as I tend to see them a lot when I walk around my neighbourhood.

 

Magnolia  Magnolia

pink magnolia

Magnolia

White and pink magnolia

 

For those (including me) who yearned to go to Japan but couldn’t for the last few years, the joy of viewing cherry blossom seemed to have become a distant memory. Yet London is also a good place for sakura viewing; even though it is not as spectatular as Japan, the number of Japanese cherry trees being planted in the U.K. have been increasing over the years. As far as I am aware, there is only one white-flowering cherry tree (Prunus x yedoensis) standing alone the middle of an open field in Hampstead heath, and when it blooms, it is quite stunning. The next obvious place to view sakura would be Regent’s Park, both inside and on the outer ring.

 

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

A white-flowering cherry tree/ Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) in Hamspstead heath

 

cherry tree

cherry blossom

cherry trees

cherry blossom

Cherry trees in Regent’s park

 

The lesser-known sakura viewing spot is the residential neighbourhood, Swiss Cottage. The open space in around Hampstead theatre and Swiss Cottage library features rows of white-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x yedoensis) and pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’). When the flowers are in bloom, they do look quite spectacular and make you feel you are in Japan for a second. Since it is a recreation space, it may even be possible to have a viewing picnic party there (weather permitted).

 

cherry blossom

cherry blossom  cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

The stunning pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’) in Swiss Cottage

 

In spring, we would often see a lot of beautiful camellias in various colours, especially Camellia japonica, which is the predominate species of the genus. Besides that, we might be able to spot some ravishing rhododendrons or azaleas ( particularly at Kew Gardens) blooming in people’s gardens.

 

Camellia Japonica  img_5512 

camellia

img_5643  img_5321-min

img_5727

Camellia – Top & 2nd rows: Japonica Camellia

 

rose

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

buddleia

primrose

First: rose; 2nd & 3rd: Rhododendron; 4th: buddleia; botton: primrose

 

If you are not a fan of showy ornamental plants/flowers, there are plenty of wild spring flowers that are captivating too. Personally, I am quite fascinated by gorse/ulex (commonly seen around the UK especially in Scotland), which is an evergreen shrub with bright yellow pea-like flowers and spiny leaves. The flowers are eible and can be used as a medicinal tea, as well as a natural dye, producing a yellow colour on the fabrics.

 

Forsythia

gorse

Top: Forsythia; Bottom: common gorse

 

Spring is also the season to enjoy various lilac/blue/violet flowers like Ceanothus, Periwinkles, wisteria, lavender and bluebells. Ceanothus are popular garden shrubs in the UK, and their lilac flowers are particularly impressive.

However, when it comes to popularity, wild bluebells certainly rank quite high up on the list. Besides cherry blossoms, the bluebell seasons are highly anticipated by many too. It is quite easy to spot bluebells in spring, but the best places to view are still in the woods. Whenever I see a stunning carpet of blue in the woodlands, I would feel instantly quite ecstatic. There are two main types of bluebells in the U.K.: the British bluebell, (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), and the native ones are being protected by law as they are under threat now.

 

Ceanothus Yankee Point

Ceanothus Yankee Point

Periwinkle

bluebell

bluebells

bellflower

Top & 2nd: Ceanothus; 3rd: Periwinkle; last three: bluebells

 

When I immerse myself in nature, I could see the cycles of nature and life. Flowers bloom, wither, and are replaced by other species as the seasons change. When there is a beginning, there will be an end… though the cycle will continue to repeat itself indefinitely. It does not matter if we can’t figure out what ‘time’ is, the more important thing is to live in the present. We are now living in a more precarious and unpredictable world, hence we ought to enjoy each day as it comes. If you feel down/ stressed/ anxious, why not head outside and spend time in nature to get lost in time? I highly recommend it.

 

Lockdown walks in London (Winter/Spring 2021)

hampstead heath

Hampstead Heath, 28th Dec 2020

 

It is January 2023, and I have not updated my blog for about 2 years. Although a lot has happened in the past three years, everything seems like a blur to me now. How did I pass my time during the lockdown days? When did the lockdown end? I don’t recall much now. Luckily, I did take many photos during that surreal period, and now I am looking at them trying to recall my weekly activities. After being stuck in Hong Kong for most of 2020, I returned to the U.K. at the beginning of Dec 2020, just days before the second/ third lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson. In hindsight, I would not have returned if I had known that there would be another lockdown. However, I was lucky to have missed the initial lockdowns in 2020, and only had to endure four months of lockdown in London, which turned out to be not as challenging as I had imagined.

 

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath  hampstead heath

winter

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

Hampstead Heath from winter to spring

 

For months, I did not take any public transport and I walked everywhere. I walked to Camden Town, Hampstead Heath, Paddington, Oxford Street, Regent street, Covent Garden, Kings Cross etc. I saw a London that I have never seen before – deserted. Yet it enabled me to appreciate the city’s beautiful architecture, especially around Oxford Street. Perhaps the hardest part for me during the lockdown was not being able to meet up with friends (apart from a couple who live near me), and I had to rely on the weekly farmers’ market for some human interactions (not via zoom or Facetime). And over the few months, I became rather obsessed with cooking – though as much as I enjoyed creating new dishes, I was completely sick of eating my own cooking by the end of the lockdown.

 

primrose hill

primrose hill

primrose hill

primrose hill

Primrose Hill

 

Walking around London during the lockdown made me notice the surroundings more – I started to see all the architectural details that I had missed in the past. Usually I would not look up while walking down Oxford Street as I am more concerned with avoiding the crowds around me. Yet without crowds or heaps of tourists, I was able to saunder down the streets and appreciate the historic architecture in the city.

 

Regent's Park

Regent's Park  Regent's Park

Regent's Park

regent's park

Regent’s Park

 

Oxford Street and Camden market are places that I would normally avoid as I don’t really like crowded places. However, during the lockdown, it gave me joy to wander through the empty (and rather eerie) Camden market. Meanwhile I also felt sympathetic towards the shops and businesses, and was particularly sad to see my favourite eateries/cafes in the neighbourhood close down due to the pandemic.

 

chalk farm

camden town  camden town

camden town

regent's canal

camden tow

camden town

camden town

Camden Town and Regent’s canal

 

At the end of winter, Hampstead Heath and Regent’s park were becoming as packed as Bond Street before the pandemic, and I started to change my walking routes. Instead of going to parks, I did more walks along the Regent’s canal. I headed east towards Kings Cross and west towards Paddington along the canal… these walks lasted only a few hours but they were uplifting especially on a clear and sunny day.

 

kings cross

kings cross

Kings Cross’s Coal Drops Yard

 

Two years on, it seems unlikely that we will experience another lockdown soon (fingers crossed), and what I miss most about that period is the sounds of nature ( like birds chirping while walking down the streets) and cleaner air. The pandemic made many of us (city dwellers) evaluate our relationships with nature and our cities. It is hardly surprising that many Londoners decided to move to the countryside during/ after the pandemic. Nature has healing power, which is why so many of us turned to nature during an anxious and unpredictable period.

 

abbey road  abbey road

covid

Little venice

Little venice

paddington

paddington

paddington

Top: Abbey Road; Second: Maida Vale; 3rd & 4th: Little Venice; 5th to bottom: Paddington

 

According to a report commissioned by the City of London Corporation, London is the greenest major city in Europe and the third greenest city of its size in the world. The metropolis contains 35,000 acres of public parks, woodlands and gardens, hence 40% of its surface area is made up of publicly accessible green space. Our public green space is precious, and I hope Londoners will continue to cherish and protect it.

 

london  bbc

regent street

carnaby street  carnaby street

oxford street

riba  riba

Regent Street, Carnaby Street, Oxford Street; Bottom: RIBA

 

mosque

img_5138

img_5153

img_5162

img_5169

Top: The London Central Mosque; Regent’s Park’s Outer Circle

 

covent garden

covent garden

Covent garden

 

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

A long walk around Chorleywood and Hertfordshire in spring

Six years on: Peng Chau revisited

Hong Kong skyline

ferry to peng chau

peng chau

 

After my trip to Japan was cancelled due to COVID19, I was stuck in Hong Kong for many months… and like many locals, I felt rather claustrophobic after spending days on end indoor. Luckily, unlike the U.K. and many Western countries, there was no lockdown in the city, hence it was still possible to roam around town – at your own risk.

When the covid cases dropped and the hot summer was over ( I found it hard to cope with Hong Kong’s humid summers), I was able to do more outdoor activities again. I decided to revisit Peng Chau after a six-year gap (see my earlier blog entry here), as I thoroughly enjoyed the island’s tranquil and unspoilt environment. Has the island changed over the last six years? Yes, certainly, but currently it is still less ‘developed’ than other islands such as Cheung Chau and Lamma Island.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

 

One notable difference from my last visit was that there were considerable more visitors due to the global travel restrictions. Stuck within the small city, many lcoals are starting to appreciate nature and fresh air, and they are desperate to get out of the urban jungle – who can blame them? In the past, Peng Chau was probably the least visited Outlying Islands in Hong Kong as it is the smallest and the least commercial. However, the pandemic changed everything, and even Peng Chau has become a hot spot for local tourists.

When I visited six years ago, the island’s eateries were divided into two categories: big seafood restaurants or small cha cheng tengs. Western-style cafes were almost non-existent, let alone bars… now there are a few more cafes including a cosy Island Table Grocer Cafe (9 Peng Chau Wing Hing St) and a tiny Japanese tea room, Daruma Chaya (38 Wing On Street).

 

peng chau

peng chau daruma chaya

peng chau  peng chau

 

There was not much to see at the dilapidated Grade III listed former leather factory six years ago aside from a plaque commermorating the island’s once booming manufacturing industry. But over the past few years, a local resident, Sherry Lau, rented the 4000 square metres factory and began to convert it into an art hub filled with junk collected from the island. An alleyway off the Wing On Street would lead you to ‘My secret garden’, featuring some interesting junk art, street art murals, and an antique shop (also an Airbnb). It is very unusual to see junk yards like this in Hong Kong, and I am glad that Ms Lau took the initiative to transform the derelict space into something so unique. It seemed very popular with local tourists as it certainly was a selfie hotspot during my visit…

 

peng chau  peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

my secret garden

peng chau

peng chau  peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

‘My secret garden’/former leather factory

 

Since Peng Chau is a very small island (0.99 square kilometres to be exact), it is easy to walk around the island within a few hours. I went up to Finger Hill first, the tallest point of the island, but the view here is a bit disappointing, so don’t get your hopes up too high. Personally, I prefer walking along the Peng Yu Path, a coastal path where you would pass by many empty sandy beaches with Hong Kong’s skyline as the backdrop.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau  peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

 

One significant change took place since my last visit and it is the new addition of residential developments on the island, notably the row of luxury residential houses overlooking the sea near the pier. I can’t say that I am surprised by this because property development is contantly taking place in Hong Kong. But I am wondering if the island will lose its charm as more (wealthy) outsiders move here. Will the island become another Discovery Bay, which is full of expats, upmarket restaurants and bars? Six years ago, I was charmed by the island’s unspoilt, low-key and calm environment, but I wonder if this is under threat now – I sincerely hope not.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

 

When I headed back to Central at around 5pm, the waiting area at the pier was completely packed and social distancing was all out of the window. And to my surprise, every seat of the ferry was taken despite the fact that this was a weekday afternoon… Not being able to travel meant that bored Hong Kongers are seeking out local sights to visit, and hiking has become one of the most popular activities during the pandemic. It would be fine if people respect nature and the environment, but many of them don’t, which is very frustrating. I think the pandemic has made many people realise the importance of nature in our lives, but outdoor ettiquette needs to be followed too.

I wonder how Peng Chau is going to evolve in the future, especially if more people are looking into moving out of urban areas after the pandemic. Perhpas its limited infrastructure is stopping people from moving here, I guess only time will tell.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

papaya  plant peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

Peng Chau’s tree, plants and flowers

 

 

Spice walk & tour of the Windermere Estate, Munnar

munnar

tea plantation munnar

tea plantation munnar

tea plantation munnar

Tea planations in Munnar

 

If you love nature, you would definitely love Munnar. Aside from tea plantations, I recommend doing a spice walk to learn about local spices and plants. After an inspiring guided walk at a spice garden before the conference, I was keen to do another one. At the Blackberry nature resort, the manager organised a guided spice walk for me in the morning to explore the surrounding area.

Unlike the previous walk, which took place within a spice garden, this walk focused on wild plants and spices. On this walk, I saw coffee plants and raw coffee beans for the first time, and tasted tree tomato (Tamarillo) picked from a tree. Often we forget that tomatoes are actually fruits, partly because they don’t taste as sweet as other fruits. Yet the tamarillo I tasted was quite sweet and juicy, hence I tasted more like fruit than vegetable.

 

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar 

spice walk munnar

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar

tea   coffee bean

spice walk munnar

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar 

spice walk munnar  spice walk

 

Besides wild spices and plants, Munnar is also popular for bird-watching. There are many bird-watching and photography tours that attract bird lovers from around the world. There are about 142 species of birds are reported from Shola-Grassland and 162 species from Chinnar-Marayur plateau. I don’t know much about birds, but I do love hearing them chirp and sing every morning from my room at the resort.

 

bird watching munnar

munnar birdwatchers  spice walk munnar

flowers munnar  flower munnar

flowers munnar  flowers munnar

flowers munnar

 

After learning that the nearby Windemere Estate is set up in a 60-acre of tea, coffee and cardonmon plantation, I went and asked them if I could join their daily two-hour tour of the plantation. Even though the tour is for guests only, they kindly let me to join without charge.

Inspired by the Scottish Highlands and old plantation houses, the Windemere retreat is a boutique retreat with only 18 rooms. I particularly liked the cottage-style accommodations and garden full of colourful flowers.

 

windermere estate munnar

tea

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar  windermere estate munnar 

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar  windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar  windermere estate munnar
In the middle of the estate, there is a semi-open Chai Kada (tea shop) where guests can relax and enjoy chai or coffee. I was kindly offered some coffee brewed from the beans grown at the estate before the tour – the first Keralan coffee of my trip.

 

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

 

Sadly the coffee harvest season had ended and there were barely any coffee fruits to see. However, the guided tour around the estate was really interesting and I felt like I have gain a lot of new knowledge in just two days.

My extended stay in Munnar finally came to an end, and it was time for me to move on and head down to the sea. Munnar is truly a paradise for nature lovers, so I would love to return here again one day.

 

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar 

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar

 

 

 

Blackberry Hills – a tranquil eco resort in Munnar

blackberry hills resort

 

I was due to leave India for Hong Kong after the Aranya conference at the end of February, but at the time, COVID-19 was starting to spread in Hong Kong, hence I decided to prolong my trip at the last minute. Luckily, the airline did not charge me for the change due to the circumstances. Looking back, I guess I was extremely fortunate because there were very few cases in India then, and I managed to enjoy another 2 weeks traveling around Kerala.

Since I was feeling quite exhausted after the conference, I wanted to relax and recuperate in Munnar for an extra few days. There are a numerous resorts in Munnar and it was not easy to pick one. After a bit of research, I booked the eco-friendly Blackberry Hills nature resort and spa, which is about 20 mins’ drive from the town centre.

Built on the slope of a hill, the resort offers a magnificent views of the Western Ghats. I knew I had picked the right place when I saw the surroundings and view.

 

blackberry hills resort  blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

 

There are 16 cottages over 15 acres of land, and the hotel kindly upgraded me to a larger room with sitting area and a balcony facing a mini forest. This balcony was where I spent most of my time, and it was probably the most tranquil spot during my journey.

Every morning I would hear birds chirping and chatting to each other, which was a joy. In the afternoon, I also saw two Malabar Giant Squirrels (Ratufa indica) jumping from one tree to another. I haven’t stayed at other resorts in Munnar, but I think this resort is perfect for nature-lover and the eco-conscious travellers.

 

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort  blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

Malabar Giant Squirrel

 

There is one restaurant at the resort, which serves Indian and international dishes. The view from the restaurant is splendid, and you can easily enjoy a long lunch here. There is also afternoon tea tasting session where guests can taste different types of tea like green tea, cardonmon tea and masala chai etc.

 

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

 

Besides the stunning environment, I also enjoying chatting to the friendly and hospitable staff. When I asked the manager about an odd-looking fruit growing within the resort’s grounds, he said he wasn’t sure but would find out for me. A day later, after enquiring his botanist friend, he told me that the fruit is called tropical soda apple (solanum viarum). Interestingly, it is is a perennial shrub native to Brazil and Argentina, and an invasive species. The colours of the golf-ball-sized fruit resembles a watermelon, but it is toxic. Yet no one has any idea how this South American plant end up growing in India…

 

blackberry hills resort  blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort  tropical soda apple (solanum viarum)

 

The resort occupies an entire mountain side, and there is a trekking trail that leads all the way down to the nearby village cum tea plantation called Attukad. However, due to hot weather, I abandoned trekking downhill and opted for a late afternoon walk westwards recommended by the restaurant manager. He told me that there is a great sunset spot about 45 mins’ walk west of the resort, and he was right. The sun setting behind the tea plantations and mountain was truly beautiful.

After extending an extra night, I ended up spending 4 nighs at the resort, which enabled me to recuperate fully. I believe that nature has healing powers, hence being surrounded by trees and mountains worked wonders for me, and I was very energised after my stay.

 

munnar  munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

 

Two-day natural dyeing workshops at Aranya Natural, Munnar

aranya natural

 

The first two days of “The sustainability of natural dyes” conference took place at Eastend hotel in Munnar, followed by two days of natural dyeing workshops (at an extra cost) at Aranya Natural’s HQ. Due to limited numbers, all the spaces for the workshops filled up quickly, but many conference attendees requested to stand by and watch, which subsequently overfilled the workshops on the first day.

It was hard to blame those who wanted to watch the workshops as it was a rare opportunity to learn from three leading natural dyeing experts and a group of Japanese indigo farmers and dyers. Since the process of natural dyeing involves the understanding of chemistry, many of the experts would focus more on the chemistry rather than the aesthetics. To me, this is quite valuable, as I believe it is crucial to understand the science behind it all in order to achieve the desired results.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

 

The first workshop that I attended was conducted by Michel Garcia, a world-renowned botanist, chemist, dyer, and naturalist. He is the founder of Couleur Garance (1998) in Lauris, France, and established Le Jardin Conservatoire de Plantes Tinctoriales (Botanical Garden of Dye Plants) in 2000. I have long wanted to attend a workshop by Michel, but he doesn’t seem to conduct many regular workshops, and I can only watch his videos online. In person, he is very funny, passionate and creative, you can really feel his passion for plants and natural dyeing.

In natural dyeing, a mordant is often needed to fix the dyes onto the textiles, and the most common mordant used is alum/potassium aluminium sulfate. At the workshop, Michel demonstrated how to use old tea leaves as a natural mordant, which was very interesting. However, the workshop was extremely packed, which made it difficult for us to hear and follow him properly. It was a shame that this issue was only addressed on the next day.

 

aranya natural  michel garcia

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

Screen printing workshop using natural dyes with Michel Garcia

 

The afternoon workshop was conducted by Jagada Rajappa, who is an independent textile entrepreneur/consultant on natural dyes. She demonstrated dyeing silk yarn with kapila (mellotus Phllipinces) and lac (coccous Lacca), which resulted in vibrant red and yellow. The results revealed that naturally dyed colours are not dull and muted as many would expect.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

Jagada Rajappas workshop and ceremony

 

The next day, the workshops were restricted to those who had originally enrolled, which made more sense. The first workshop was conducted by Linda LaBelle, who is a weaver and natural dyer specialising in indigo. She also runs the website The Yarn Tree that sells fair-trade indigo and other natural dyed items. After yesterday’s observational workshops, I was longing to get my hands dirty. Finally, we got to do some doodling with natural indigo on some cotton fabric that has been pre-dyed in myrobalan. It was a fun session and we got to taste some indigo tea grown by Linda.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

Indigo Doodles workshop with Linda LaBelle

 

The last session was the one I had been looking forward to since I signed up months ago. Buaisou was established in Tokushima by a collective of indigo farmers in 2015, and it is partly responsible for the revival of natural indigo worldwide in recent years. Not only it has over 44K followers on Instagram, it also collaborates frequently with other fashion and textiles companies to promote Japanese indigo and the colour ‘Japan Blue’. Buaisou is renowned for its indigo leaf farming – from cultivating the raw indigo, fermenting the indigo leaves (Sukumo), dyeing, and designing, all the way to production. Since the fermentation process takes around 10 days, Kyoko (the manager) had to arrive 2 weeks earlier to set up the vat.

 

buaisou

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop  buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

 

Since I have previously tried katagami (making paper stencils for dyeing textiles) and katazome (the Japanese method of dyeing fabrics using a resist paste applied through a stencil) with Bryan Whitehead in Japan (see my earlier post), I was quite familiar with the process. This time, I didn’t need to design and cut my own stencils as there were many beautiful and complex precut designs to choose from. We were all given a cotton bandana to work on, and after applying the paste through the stencils, we all took turns to dip the fabric into the indigo vat with some guidance.

I would say this was a taster workshop, and would love to learn more from them when I next visit Tokushima (which was supposed to happen this year but it got cancelled because of COVID-19).

 

buaisou workshop  buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

 

After the workshop, it was time to say goodbye to everyone. Over the four days, I made many new friends from around the world who share the same passion as me, and got the opportunity to chat to many experts in the field, hence the conference has exceeded all my expectations. The fact that it managed to take place just before COVID-19 became a pandemic was extremely lucky.

After exchanging contacts with many attendees, a few of us decided to walk back to town and have dinner together. It was a pleasant walk downhill and we had a fun girls’ night out – something that I haven’t done for a long time.

In the past few years, the pursue of natural dyeing has opened doors for me and enabled me to make new friends from around the world. This was completely unexpected, and it made me realise that I am on the right path.

 

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

munnar

munnar

aranya natural

munnar

munnar

 

 

Aranya Natural & Athulya at Srishti Welfare Centre in Munnar

aranya natural

 

Before visiting Munnar, I was not aware of the health issues related to tea plantation workers in India. Often foreign media would focus on the working conditions of garment factory workers, yet the problems related to tea plantation workers (primarily female) are largely ignored. Although they are not stuck inside cramped factories, tea plantation workers have to deal with other serious safety and health issues. Locals told me that workers not only have to work long hours at low wages, they also have to live together in communial dormitories with poor sanitation at the tea estates. Health awareness among the tea plantation workers is poor, and often they give births to children with various health conditions and disabilities, yet they receive hardly any government support.

 

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

 

In 1991, the Srishti Trust was formed, backed by Tata Tea Limited, to support differently-abled children of the estate workers. Founded by Ratna Krishna Kumar, the Trust launched two major projects: Aranya Natural and Athulya, aiming to rehabilitate local youngsters in a safe and fair environment. Later, Nisarga (the strawberry unit) and The Deli (a bakery and confectionery) were added to make preserves, breads and cookies using locally-grown ingredients.

Most visitors to Munnar would head to the main tourist attractions, but few would seek out the Srishti Welfare Centre. Well, they are really missing out. In 1996, the Srishti Welfare Centre moved to an abandoned shed in Tata Tea’s Nettimudi estate outside of the town centre. Their beautiful site is open to the public and visitors can meet many happy workers who are trained at natural dyeing and paper-making. What started out as an experiment has paid off for Ratna and her all-female team’, now even big corporations have employed the Trust to make paper and textiles-related products.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

 

Aryana Natural is the natural dyeing department at Srishti. All the textiles here are created in a non-toxic environment and all the dyes are azo-free. Many dyes are locally sourced, like eucalyptus, Nilgiri kozha (eupatorium), tea waste, pine cones and other leaves, petals, roots and bark are harvested from the forest nearby. Some specific dyes are sourced elsewhere, like indigo from South India, lac from Jangir Champa, and myrobalan, from traditional medicine shops in Coimbatore. Only natural fabrics such as cotton and silk are used as they work best with natural dyes.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

 

Every newcomer would receive training by volunteered trainers for about six months on skills particular to their aptitude and interests. Each artisan would specialise in at least one technique i.e. shibori or traditional block printing. World-renowned Japanese textile artist and researcher, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, regularly visits and acts as mentor to the young learners. She introduced many traditional Japanese shibori techniques to the trainees, which enable them to develop the skills further. Most of the artisans I spoke to told me that they really enjoy their work, and it was amazing to watch them work – they are fast and very skilled.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

 

Athulya is the handmade paper unit that creates handmade paper from recycle waste paper, cut boards and other stationery waste. It is committed to use only natural additives in their paper, most of them are found around Munnar like tea, eucalyptus leaves, lemon grass, pineapple leaves, onion peel, flower petals, elephant droppings and water hyacinth (which is a weed affecting our back waters).

Now around thirty people work in this unit and they produce over 52 eco-friendly, azo-free, biodegradable recycled paper products by hand. It is also encouraging to see Starbucks hiring the unit to produce their shopping bags.

 

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya  Athulya

 

At the back of the sheds, there are a line of greenhouses growing organic vegetables and plants. Seasonal vegetables are picked and used in the Srishti canteen where nearly two hundred employees have lunch every day. There is also a playground for the staff’s children to play, and an award-winning flower garden that features a wide variety of flowers.

 

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

 

One cannot come here without stopping at the shop. The Aranya Natural shop has to be the most beautiful shop in Munnar. It sells one-of-a-kind handdyed scarves, clothing and home accessories made by the artisans next door. The prices are extremely reasonable and you would not be able to find them elsewhere. If you purchase here, you are directly helping the centre and the artisans, thus making a bold statement supporting sustainable textiles and fashion.

 

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

 

The Srishti Welfare Centre is not only a beautiful site, it is also an inspiring organisation. Before my trip, I knew little about this place, and I am flabbergasted that few people outside of the textiles world have heard of it. If you have only one day in Munnar, make sure that you spare time to visit this centre because it is well worth it.

 

 

 

 

Munnar: Greenland spice & Ayurvedic garden

greenland garden

 

Munnar is not only famous for tea, you can also find abundance of spices here, and prices are much cheaper than Kochi. I asked the driver to take me to a spice garden, and he said he knew just the place. Greenland spice and ayurvedic garden is located in Thekkady, and it is one of the few spice gardens that is approved by the government.

Out of all the places I visited on the day, this was my favourite. It was fascinating and educational – I highly recommend it. The entry price includes a guided tour (you will need someone to identify and explain all the spices and herbs here) of the garden, which resembles a mini jungle.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden salvia L

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden Thunbergia mysorensis

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden Musa velutina  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden torch ginger flower

3rd row: Salvia; 4th row: Thunbergia mysorensis/ Mysore trumpetvine; Bottom left: Pink banana (Musa velutina); Bottom right: torch ginger flower

 

Many of the spices and herbs in the garden are used in ayurveda, which is considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science. Ayurveda originated in India more than 5,000 years ago, and in sanskrit, it means ‘The Science of Life’. Plant-based treatments in ayurveda may be derived from roots, leaves, fruits, bark, or seeds. Aside from ayurveda, many spices are commonly used in South Indian cooking e.g. cardamon, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, ginger, cumin, turmeric and mint etc. Interestingly, many of the ayurvedic plants can also be used as natural dyes, so they are extremely versatile.

South India is world-renown for its ayurveda retreats and centres, and many Westerners would spend weeks or months getting detox and wellness treatments here. After I left Kochi, I spent a few days at a yoga and ayurveda retreat before heading to Munnar. Upon arrival, I had a doctor’s consultation, and was given some plant-based tonic twice a day along side with massage treatments daily to restore body balance. It was an interesting experience, and I particularly enjoyed the healthy and flavourful vegetarian/ayurvedic meals.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden jackfruit

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden peas

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden black pepper

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden murikooti

2nd row right: Jackfruits; 3rd row: peas; 4th right: black pepper/Piper nigrum; Bottom row: Murikooti – a wound healing plant with leaves that can be turned into a paste

 

The most exciting part of the tour was seeing cocoa trees and tasting cocoa pulp for the first time. I love eating dark chocolates but I have never seen a cocoa fruit (Theobroma cacao) before. Inside the fruit lies a cluster of cacao beans surrounded by a thin layer of white pulp. The guide opened the fruit and let me tast the white pulp, which was surprisingly juciy and sweet. While some cacao pulp is used in the fermentation process of cocoa beans, most is simply thrown out as waste. It was only recently that cacao pulp is being used as a substitute for refined white sugar. Not long ago, Nestle released a 70% dark chocolate bar in Japan under its KitKat brand that has been sweetened with cacao pulp instead of refined sugar. Yet historically, cacao pulp has always been drank as juice by cacao farmers, and their immediate communities around the world.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  cocoa

cocoa

nutmeg seed  cardamon seed

1st to 3rd rows: cocoa fruit, bean and pulp; Bottom left: nutmeg seed; Bottom right: cardamon

 

Like most tourist sites, there is a shop located by the exit to avoid you leaving empty-handed, Apart from different varieties of spices, there are also ayurvedic medicine and skincare range available. I went for the mixed spice packs as I think you can’t get much fresher spices than the ones being sold by the spice garden.

 

 

Munnar: KFDC Floriculture Centre & tea museum

KFDC Floriculture Centre

 

In Munnar, there are many botanical gardens, and KFDC Floriculture Centre/Munnar rose garden is one of them. Run by Kerala Forest Developerment Centre, KFDC Floriculture Centre is built on a hill slope, and has a nice view of the nearby tea planation. I think the term ‘floriculture centre’ is appropriate because it is not really garden. There is, however, a lovely rose garden within the centre. It is rare to see rose gardens in Asia but here you can see a variety of species in shades of red and pink covering the hill. Besides roses, there are many beautiful dahlias and other native flowers, as well as herbs, medicinal plants, cacti and bonsai.

My advice is to come early as it can get quite crowded. Luckily, I arrived soon after it opened, so I was able to avoid the crowds.

 

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

 

Tea factory visits are on the itineraries of most day tours, and Kannan Devan Tea Factory is one of the most popular in Munnar. There are English guided tours throughout the day, but it does get very busy. Since I missed the tour and couldn’t be bothered to wait, I decided to visit the KDHP Tea Museum instead. Both tthe museum and factory are owned by the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company (KDHP), a plantation estate that dates back to the 1880s. It is under the Tata group, which seems to own everything related to tea in Munnar.

KDHP/Tata Tea Museum is a small museum that traces the history of tea-making in Munnar. It exhibits many old photographs, curiosities and machinery; visitors can also watch a short documentary on the Munnar’s tea history. In a larger room, visitors can learn about the various stages of the tea processing – Crush, tear, curl – and the production of Kerala black tea variants.

A mandatory tea shop awaits you at the end of your visit, so you can shop til you drop. There are many varieties of tea, including black, white and green; meanshile prices are very resaonable too. It is a good place to buy your souvenir here.

 

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

 

To be continued…

Kerala’s picturesque Hill station: Munnar

Munnar

A view from the Top station in Munnar

 

Situated 1,600 metres (5,200 ft) above sea leverl, Munnar is a famous hill station in Kerala, and known as the ‘Kashmir of South India’. It is not only popular with foreign tourists but also with the locals. From 1880 onwards, Munnar flourished as a tea-producing region started by the British and Europeans, it is now the largest tea-growing region in South India, largely operated by corporate giant Tata.

I didn’t come to Munnar for sightseeing, but to attend a textiles conference on natural dyeing (see my future posts). The easiest way to reach Munnar is by road as there is no railway station nearby. It took me about 5 hours to reach Munnar by car from Thrissur (where I spent a few days at an Ayurveda and yoga retreat) including a lunch break.

After reading about Munnar’s natural beauty, I was horrified to see the chaotic, polluted and ugly Munnar town centre when we arrived. Essentially it is a dump. And the minute I saw the conference hotel, which stands right in the middle of town, my heart sank. For the next six nights, I had to endure the noise from both inside and outside of the hotel, crappy service, internet connection and breakfasts. It was baffling for us to understand why this hotel was chosen as the base of the conference except for its location.

 

munnar

Munnar

Munnar

Munnar

Munnar

Munnar  Munnar

Munnar

Munnar’s town centre

 

Besides breakfasts, we also had lunches and dinners prepared by the hotel during the 3-day conference. As I get older, I have less tolerance for mediocre food and accommodation. It is not so much about the cost, but more to do with the quality and value for money. The room rate of the hotel is considered quite high in India, but I felt that the service and quality did not match the cost.

With very few decent restaurants in town, we found comfort and relief at the cheap and cheerful vegetarian restaurant Saravana Bhavan. I had breakfast and dinner there and I loved it. Their dosas are some of the best I have tried during my journey, and their staff are all very friendly. The food and service here is so much better than the hotel, yet the price is only a fraction – I highly recommended it.

 

masala dosa Saravana Bhavan munnar

Munnar Saravana Bhavan

Saravana Bhavan

 

Munnar

Munnar

On a positive note, I did enjoy the sunset view from my hotel room, though it was accompanied by noisy traffic and people’s various activities from dusk til dawn

 

Since I arrived 2 days before the conference, I had one full day to do some sightseeing in Munnar. Upon arrival, I tried to get some advice from the receptionist but the guy was very unhelpful, so I had to turn to the internet. I didn’t like the itineraries of the guided day tours available, and I spent hours online searching without much luck. Finally, at the last minute, I found a tuk tuk driver on Airbnb, and decided to book a day tour with him at a very reasonable price. Although the driver spoke little English, we managed to communicate without any issue. The best thing was that I could stop whenever I wanted to, which was more flexible than joining a group tour.

We started early in the morning to avoid the crowds, and that was a wise decision. The minute we left the town centre, my vision turned green… apart from the blue sky, everything was green! This was the Munnar I was hoping to see, and it is within 15 minutes’ drive from the town centre.

 

Munnar tea plantation

Munnar tea plantation

munnar tea plantation

munnar tree  munnar

munnar tree

munnar honey bee tree  munnar honey bee tree

 

Besides the scenic tea planations covering the mountains, I also love the beautiful trees especially the tall native Eucalyptus trees. My driver/guide suggested to stop by a famous honey bee tree en route to Mattupetty dam. This tree has attracted many bees to built their hives here, and my driver said it is due to the smell of its fruits. Since this is the only tree that has many bee hives, someone has placed a small shrine under the tree treaing it as a ‘sacred’ tree.

 

Munnar

Munnar

Munnar

munnar

 

Most guided tours would include a visit to the Mattupetty dam built in the 1950s. Honestly, I didn’t want to stop here, but since we took some time to reach here, I did get out for a short walk. It is very picturesque here, but I think you can easily take photos from the car/tuk tuk without getting out.

 

Mattupetty dam

Mattupetty dam

Mattupetty dam

 

Another popular sightseeing spot is Top station, located 32 km away from Munnar. It is the highest point (1700m above sea level) in Munnar where you can enjoy the panoramic view of Western Ghats and the valley of Theni district of Tamil Nadu. Top Station is, in fact, located in Tamil Nadu, but accessible only from Kerala. This area is also famous for the rare native Neelakurinji flowers (Strobilanthus) that bloom once every twelve years. Unfortunately, I missed the bloom of the monocarpic plants in 2018, so the next bloom will be 2030! You can learn more about this plant on the BBC website here.

 

Munnar top station

top station, munnar

Munnar

 

Nonetheless, you can find some rather special flowers in Munnar without a 10-year wait. To my surprise, Poinsettia (also known as Christmas star) can be seen dotted around Munnar. It is believed that the plant (native to Mexico) was introduced to Munnar by British planters and was used to decorate their bungalows.

 

Munnar

munnar

munnar

 

The journey continues…