Tuesday, March 22, 2016

How I got steeped in tea - a journey from Darjeeling to upstate NY.

My first recollection of tea was bruising; by which I mean I got physically bruised, nastily enough for me to remember it after all these years. I was small then maybe five or six, when we were allowed to wander off beyond the edge of our village, where the tea plantations were to play. We were playing hide and seek and I decided to sneak under a tea bush. I quickly learned a tea garden was no place for a child’s play, literally. Since the bushes were just as tall as us, the stiff branches painfully poked every part of me at the same time.

I would not return to the tea bushes until much later in my life, when I began to learn how to “play” in a tea garden in a way that would eventually alter the course of my life.

Today, I own a small tea business called Happy Earth Tea which is based in Rochester, NY. The business is in its fourth year, and steadily growing. All of it sometimes feels surreal: running a tea business, living on the other side of the world, the big yellow bus in which my children leave every morning. Yet, the only thing that ties this disparate world together seems to be tea for me.

Happy Earth Tea Studio
Our Tea Studio in downtown Rochester, NY.

I grew up and lived for most of my life in Darjeeling. Now most of you would be familiar with the name for obvious reasons. But many of you may not know that Darjeeling is actually a district (or, county, as you would call it here) in the state of West Bengal, India. It is located in the foothills of the Himalayas, a popular hill resort during the colonial era (where by the way, Vivian Leigh was born), famed for its tea and breathtaking views of the Himalayas.

The British first planted tea in Darjeeling from seeds and cuttings of tea bushes that were smuggled out of Fujian, China in the late 1840s. To the triumph of the colonialists, who were trying to break the monopoly of China over tea supply, the plant thrived in the new world. Also because of Darjeeling’s high elevations, the tea acquired a distinct refinement in its flavor making tea aficionados hail it as the champagne of teas.

Sunrises over Mt Kanchenjunga, the world's 3rd highest mountain, as it towers over Darjeeling town,                        perched on the bottom left ridge.

But all that did not matter to me as a young man. I was keen to break out of the provincialism of the place. So I headed far away from the mountains and fine tea, to the bustling city of Calcutta where there was much cacophony and street chai, and conversations around Lenin and Trotsky (West Bengal holds the record of democratically electing a communist government for the longest period in the world) to pursue a career in Journalism.

As fate would have it after a few years I was posted by my newspaper as a correspondent back to Darjeeling. I covered mainly political stories, but because tea was the primary economic force I was regularly writing about it. Many of my old friends who were working as managers in the tea gardens, and other helpful acquaintances in the industry opened the doors wide to me. 

Another view of Darjeeling town, this time with Happy Valley Tea Estate in the foreground. Yes, those are tea bushes!

Before long the tea bug had me bad and I quit my job as a journo and opened a tea shop exporting Darjeeling tea to Europe and the US. The internet cables had just been laid in the hills and suddenly I had friends and customers in tea all over the world! The time coincided with me befriending an American volunteer who was in town helping a women’s empowerment organization. By the end of the year, we were married. The twists and turns of life had come to resemble the curvy mountain roads.

It was one of the most beautiful times in our lives, taking trips to far off tea gardens, spending the afternoons in tea garden bungalows with our manager friends who would tell us about their adventures in running a tea garden, cupping endless rows of tea and enjoying the hospitality of the tea workers. There is nothing as invigorating as the smell of fresh tea being made, which emanates from the tea factory and wafts about the hills.   

Tea pluckers at Jun Chiyabari Tea Estate, Nepal. Taken during my trip to the place November 2015.

In 2010, a good six years after our marriage, with two kids in tow and a pile of boxes, we came to America having decided to switch our countries of residence as it were. It was my turn, as my wife put it, now to enjoy the hospitality of her country. That is how we ended up in Rochester, NY, a place I had never heard of before 2010, and where I began to build a tea business from a different perspective.

Living in America has opened the world of tea even wider to me. I have come to learn so much about other tea traditions and have to come to appreciate them all. It is really silly to imagine that there is one correct way to making and drinking tea. Tea is one of the oldest beverage around mainly because it is very adaptable – you can make it in a tin pot over open fire like the Bedouins in the desert or sip it in the royal gardens, or have it with iced with tons of sugar, or with plenty of spices, or sit down with a tea master for a bowl of matcha in an austere Japanese tea house. 

That's me with tea pluckers in Dootheria tea garden in Darjeeling. Autumn 2014.
The way of tea, or Chado as the Japanese call it,  is wide and inclusive. And for me, it always bring me home.