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Smell the coffee!

Friday, June 08, 2018

To enjoy Chikmagalur, you need to live on a coffee estate and be exposed to the lives of the people who work there, says Shantanu Kishwar

A mug of water is set to boil as two heaped spoons of powder are placed in the top compartment of the coffee filter. The boiling water is poured over the powder, and the drip-drop-drip-drop of water into the lower compartment is heard as bubbles escape to the top. The concentrated decoction is poured into a mug and topped off with hot water till it reaches the right strength.

This ritual of coffee preparation has been a crucial part of my morning rituals for some years now. I am party to the growing fondness for black coffee spreading across urban India, fueled partly by an increased exposure to US pop culture. Naturally, the district of Chikmagalur, which advertises itself as the home of coffee in India, became a Mecca for me. In December 2017, I embarked on my pilgrimage.

Nestled in the lower Ghats in Karnataka, Chikmagalur is a small town in a district by the same name. Be it a cappuccino at Café Coffee Day, a steaming hot cup of South Indian Filter Coffee or a bitter espresso, they all have their Indian roots here, and owe their existence to a bit of economic espionage indulged in by a little known Sufi saint from the 17th century.

Baba Budan is the forefather of all Indian coffee addicts. He developed a fondness for the beverage while on a pilgrimage of his own to the actual Mecca. He chanced upon coffee in the town of Mocha in Yemen, and his infatuation with the drink led him to smuggle seven beans back either by strapping them to his chest or hiding them in his beard (there are multiple versions that make the rounds). Successful in his act of espionage, he returned with these beans to the district of Chikmagalur and planted them on a hillside in the region. The bean quite literally took strong roots in the region, and the hillside was renamed Baba Budangiri in his honour.

I went to Chikmagalur dreaming of two-days of coffee-induced euphoria, only to be disappointed ultimately. I had booked myself a bed in a Zostel (a hostel chain), which advertised itself as being situated on a coffee estate. Though technically true, the hostel was cordoned off from the rest of the plantation, taking away from the expected atmosphere. Located six kilometres outside the town, it was in a no-man’s land where it lacked the charm of nature and the conveniences of urbanity. Getting to the town was a tedious task that involved either an hour’s walk, or the more complicated task of explaining in sign language to either a bus conductor or a passer-by giving me a ride where I wanted to go.

Chikmagalur was still in its infancy as a destination for backpacking travellers like me, and only got busy over the weekends courtesy people from Bangalore looking for a quick getaway. I found myself the sole occupant of the entire property for my first night, equal parts peaceful and unnerving. The bulk of tourism here was more luxurious and took the form of resorts run in larger plantations which was beyond my plans and price range.

The town itself was quite small, traversable by foot in under an hour. The Chikmagalur of my mind was a place where coffee found its way to every nook and cranny; bags of beans lining the road, the smell of roasting coffee permeating the air and smiling people who’d just had their morning caffeine-fix walking the streets. Reality was a let-down; besides the Café Coffee Day factory on its outskirts and the occasional coffee trader’s shop, there was little to distinguish this from your average South Indian town.

The closest here to a tourist attraction was the coffee museum, though it was located another six kilometres beyond the town limits. Small as it was, the museum was possibly the highlight of my visit. It was well maintained, unlike most museums I’ve been to across the country. Despite this though, it was a place that didn’t seem to expect visitors (the lights and interactive exhibits in the display room were switched on specially for me) and where nothing really seemed to happen. Senior officials led laidback lives and had the time and the kindness to give me a personalised tour.

The museum itself was a two-room affair, one in which the coffee production process was explained through miniature models, and another where exhibits explained the history and speciality of coffee in the region. All in all, it took about half an hour to make my way through it. As I was leaving, I asked one of the staff where I could purchase coffee powder from and got in response a sheepish smile and admission that the museum didn’t sell powder. Even for a cup of coffee, I would have to make my way to a stall set up near the bus stand.

Of the ten-odd places I travelled to while backpacking down south in December, Chikmagalur was perhaps the one I enjoyed the least. For all that though, it’s not a place I’m going to write off, because I realised it’s a place meant for a different sort of travel. To enjoy Chikmagalur you need to live on a proper estate and be guided around, exposed to the life of coffee and its growers. Personal transport would go a long way in making the visit enjoyable, as it would allow you to visit the nearby hills and including the famous Baba Budan Giri. It’s not a place that I’d recommend backpackers visit, but that in no way means it’s not a place I want to visit again. At the end of it all, I still have amazing coffee powder from the town that helps me get my day going, which is invaluable!

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