Traveling Through Two Worlds in India
The author joins a clothing designer who meets her fabric makers in rural India
By Stacy Cunningham
“India lives so many centuries side by side at any given time.’ -Indian photographer Raghu Rai
It has been my good fortune to be able to travel with Eco-designer Laura Siegel for the past two seasons while she develops her new collections. With her youthful backpacking style and nomadic inspiration Laura Siegel creates a sustainable lifestyle collection every season steeped in preserving Indian craft.
Traveling in India is like const antly stepping back and forth in time, take a step back, then forward, as we journey through the country.
Munnar is a sleepy town in southern India’s backwaters, in the state of Kerala. Designer Laura works with Aranya Naturals to create her wealth of naturally dyed textiles. All fabrics are hand dyed by ‘differently-abled’ (Indian version of handicapped) men and women that are taught the traditional craft of dying techniques.
The dye is made with materials are natural and harvested locally from Kerala’s lush surroundings, from plants grown nearby.
Where to stay: While in Munnar my favorite place to stay is at JJ Cottage. The owner, JJ, and his family give a warm comfortable feel to your stay even when you are far from home. For a splurge stay on the top floor front room with a beautiful view of the Munnar tea hills and jungle- you might even spot one of the town’s elephants!
Best buys: After you leisurely wake up to the symphony of exotic bird’s songs take an auto-rickshaw into the market to buy spices and beauty and spa goods all made and harvested locally. Hikers note: go for the dried fruits, be sure to ask the shopkeeper which is for eating and which is for ‘cooking.’ Don’t get the ones for cooking!Spices and BeautyBest experience: Go trekking! If you’re on a tight schedule take the tea plantation hike for 3 hours and explore the heights surrounding the town of Munnar. Be shocked by the beautiful view! We suggest taking the six-hour hike that includes about an hour plus trekking through the jungle.
Enjoy seeing coffee, cardamom and lemon greased growing wild and the possibility of sighting the Asian elephant. After a long hike reward yourself with dinner at Rapsey’s in Munnar’s town centre. Their biryani is delicious!
Tea trees in Munnar. Stop in at the Tea Museum to learn about the history of tea in Munnar and see a full mock-factory of how tea is processed from leaf to powder.
Next take an auto rickshaw to Aranya Naturals. Pop in the gift shop to stock up on locally made craft items from saris to paper and jam. While you’re there stop by the bakery for a treat. (Hikers note: stock up on the ‘health cookies’ for packing along.)
Next Stop Bhuj
Next stop in the whirlwind Laura Siegel India tour is Bhuj in the Kutch region known for craft; it’s in the dry state of Gujarat.
How to get there: Travel is most scenic by train from Ahmedabad. If you’re traveling with a friend the overnight bus with sleeper cabins is an authentic experience and cheaper.Color and fabric choices are nearly unlimited.
Where to stay: Prince Residency is right outside of town but has friendly staff, clean rooms and avoids the hustle, bustle and roaming livestock of the city center.
Many hours were spent in their lobby using their internet to communicate with the rest of the world and I recommend spending a little time there just to enjoy the sounds of the Dr. Seuss-sounding horns that pass on the busy road nearby.What to do: A short drive outside of town visit the Kutchries, enjoy the drive as your driver swerves around whole families on motorbikes and auto-rickshaws narrowly missing the giant colorfully painted truck heading straight at you.
Meet the Doctor of craft at the Kutchries, if Dr. Ismael is in he will insist on having tea with you. Ogle at the beautiful array of silk saris and scarves lying on the fields for drying, dying and de-gumming (part of the block printing process). This family has been making block printed fabrics for centuries. Ask for a tour and see the family’s centuries old wooden blocks strewn about the yard and piled neatly in boxes in the printing room.
Indian countryside view via autorickshaw. Buy: If you don’t make it to the Kutchries visit Qasab’s shop right in town. Find crafts created locally which sustain families, just like the block printers, in the area and their heritage. Visit the antique textile dealer market for some truly beautiful and unique finds.
Buy Silver? Not Gold?
Buy silver! While the rest of India is obsessed with gold the tribes of this region favor silver. Bhuj is one of the cheapest in the world to purchase silver and most of it is of beautiful handcrafted quality ranging from small tiny diamond rings for about to $12 to the most extravagant dowry jewelry you can imagine.
After developing textiles in Bhuj and Munnar next stop with Laura was to New Delhi to piece it all together for her collection.
Monkeys by the roadside.
Where to stay: Try AirBandB.com for a local, family experience. In a ginormous city that can feel overwhelming and hard to grasp it is soothing to have a host family. If you can afford an upgrade stay at Crowne Plaza in Oklha and enjoy hearing the honks of crazy traffic below from there outdoor balcony pool.Where to eat: If you’ve been traveling to the far reaches of India and are missing the comforts of home we suggest Diva in GK2 market. The chef that owns Diva is the chef for the Italian ambassador and it is hands down the most delicious Italian food we have ever had anywhere. (This is coming from a New Yorker spoiled with good Italian around every block.) GK2 is an upscale Delhi family neighborhood and if you fancy any spa treatments or western supermarket food this is your place.
What to Buy: Make your way over to the rowdy and bustling Parhagunj. It is a backpacker area full of hostels and shop stalls aplenty. Bargain, bargain, bargain! If you don’t hear the price you want and can’t waste any more breath on negotiating leave. You will see the item in another shop undoubtedly. Get your hands traditionally henna-ed here. If you’re brave let the henna artist have free range to create a design of their choice!
Stacey Cunningham grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and currently residing in New York City. Between cuddles with her chiahweenie pup, Chai, she works full time as a fashion stylist for editorial and advertising photography.