[Coorg] Want Coffee, Will Travel

Two weeks after I turned twenty-five, I got carried away and traveled 2400 kilometers to buy coffee. I returned with 70% Arabica mixed with 30% Robusta, experienced a first by staying alone at a hostel in India, and brought back many stories of the kindness of strangers.


I have been coffee crazy since as far back as I can remember. More specifically, filter coffee crazy. I was raised a TamBrahm which possibly explains a lot. Maybe my parents were experimenting by starting my habit at a very young age. But I’m just as dysfunctional as most of my peers, so perhaps things turned out fine. On my twenty-fifth birthday, I was gifted two brass coffee filters of the small and medium size variety (I already own a large one) along with a brass tumbler-davara set to match. It then made perfect sense to travel to Coorg and score me some coffee powder. With the exception of trips to Chandigarh, this was probably my first trip planned five days before setting out. While not quite the thrill of reaching the airport/station to buy my ticket and take off, this did well.

This story is about how I purchased my coffee.

My co-passenger on the bus to Kushalnagar (from where I would have to figure out a certain private bus to take to the Zostel or negotiate with auto rickshaw drivers – none of which I was looking forward to, in an unfamiliar language) was an elegant older woman. I did her the courtesy of sleeping for the first hour of our journey. She looked out for me nonetheless when we stopped on the highway for breakfast – calling me when it was ready to leave and pointing me to the right bus. Aunty and I began talking the second the bus left the restaurant. She was the second person to ask me in 24 hours to ask me why I was going to Coorg. She was the second person in 24 hours to treat my answer like it was the most sane reason to (“I am going for the coffee.”). She was heading there to attend a nephew’s wedding (a reason more sane than mine). She gave me the single most useful tip for my trip – to pretend I was from Madras and spoke Tamil (which wasn’t very far from the truth). Many locals understand Tamil and so would not overcharge me for being North Indian. We spoke throughout the journey about various topics and she would routinely point out any place of significance on the route.

When we got off the bus at Kushalnagar, I turned to thank her and say goodbye. Before I could do that, she introduced me to her brother and stated simply that they would be dropping me off at Zostel.  I tried to do the dance (not actual physical movements – in hindsight, they would have left me behind that instant if I actually danced). The one where I would say I'll manage, wait for them to say it was no problem, where I would reply with it would be too much of an imposition. None of this was entertained. As we sat in uncle’s ambassador, I sensed him sounding a little grumpy about dropping me off on the way. The grumpiness went away in minutes when he found out I was south Indian and was in his ‘hood for coffee. And so, my grand tour began - complete with passing a former finance minister's estate, a history of the region, types of coffee plants, and a social history of the migrant population. Uncle proceeded to dictate to me instructions of how and where to purchase my coffee. He said that I must walk or take an auto to Siddapur from Abhyatmangla (Zostel). In the market, near the petrol bunk, I would find Raju coffee mills (saved in my Google Keep as “raju core mills”). He said that I must ask for 700 grams of Arabica and 300 grams of Robusta mixed. At this point, aunty registered her protest against the proportions he suggested. He stood his ground. He said that if I wanted to make my parents happy with the filter coffee powder I was bringing home, I had to stick to his instructions for best results. Lastly, he told me to tell Raju that Madhu had sent me.

When we reached Zostel, I felt as thought my parents had come to see me off at the boarding school – they were exactly that thoughtful. Turns out the property belonged to uncle’s school bestie. They came to see me check in. They made sure to ask whether lunch was available for me. When all potential small talk was exhausted, we said goodbye.*

Siddapur was a little over 4 kilometers from Zostel. I opted for a slow, exploratory, ambulatory first day, because there was not much else I could accomplish without a personal vehicle in the late afternoon. Many cars and the occasional auto whizzed past me. 
Petrol Bunk, Siddapur
I grew up in cities – small and big. I’m aware of how towns look like. But I had no idea what small towns looked like, especially in a region where almost everyone I had interacted with till that point owned estates. When I was told to go to a 'mill', I expected one like I had seen on TV. I expected the petrol bunk to look like the one I was accustomed to pulling my car into. Before I knew it, I had crossed half of what was the market/main street of the town. I walked back wondering how I missed a mill or a petrol bunk. I saw a run-down petrol bunk of course, but that couldn’t be it, could it? My mobile data was failing me with poor connectivity. I purchased coconut water in exchange for information about Raju and his coffee mills: a dialogue fit for a Bollywood thriller. One man pointed to a shop that advertised selling coffee, opposite what resembled a petrol bunk. I decided to take my chances and walk into Laxmiganesh Rice Mill and Spice House.

Guess who I met? Raju.

A middle-aged, ever-smiling man, Raju could speak Tamil. His store had this unique mix of smells - freshly ground coffee and other spices. He was expecting me. Madhu uncle had stopped by a few hours earlier to inform him of my impending visit. When I insisted on the 70-30 mix, he mocked my sincerity by asking whether I’d be okay if it was 80-20 or 65-35. But he knew Madhu uncle couldn't have been messing with me. I purchased multiple kilograms for family without considering whether my backpack could take it. When I handed over a 2000 rupee note to pay, Raju stared at me in disbelief. I wondered if the note was fake or if he didn't have enough change. Raju hadn’t seen the magenta spectacle before – it had been in circulation for a year by then. He stepped out of his store and asked passers-by for change. Soon other store owners and passers-by joined him in looking at the note and exclaiming utter fascination. From the girl who came to Coorg to buy coffee, I became the girl with the 2000 rupee note.            

After the excitement died down, I asked Raju to recommend my evening coffee destination. He told me to find the Udupi Hotel near the bus stand. Here’s the thing: I knew what bus stands looked like. I could handle that. I could speak in Tamil. Yet, I took 2 rounds of the entire market (and perhaps most of the town too) in search of the bus stand. Upon asking, I was laughed at and told it was that huge empty area where a few busses stopped intermittently. No one seemed to know of an Udupi Hotel. Instead a couple of people pointed me to the fancy department store (south Delhi fancy). The blink-and-you-miss-it Udupi Hotel was empty, tiny, and dimly lit. It did however have super yum coffee and vadai-chutney. Satiated, I walked to find an auto back. Raju waived goodbye and said he would see me soon.**


*I have no specific details about them. If you ever read this - thank you very very much uncle and aunty! 
** I really hope I see him again - that coffee powder was an absolute hit. 


Popular Posts