What makes a cup of tea taste good? Is it flavor notes? The feel of the loose leaves in your hand? The memory of the place where you bought it or of the person you brought it to you?
For many, the story behind the cup of tea is as important as the taste. The faces, personalities, and landscapes we associate with the teas are woven into the steam wafting from our cups and enhance each cup we sip and share.
As part of our annual sourcing trips and cultural exchanges to India and Nepal - I was lucky enough to visit the people growing, plucking and processing one of my favorite teas, Darjeeling Long Leaf Green, through a homestay program at the Makaibari Estate. These homestay programs allow visitors a chance to step deeper into the lives of tea garden workers and communities. In addition, fees for the program go directly to the host families where women can earn additional income outside their professional garden work. We arrived at Makaibari one late October afternoon. After riding the narrow mountain roads, tossing honks back and forth with the other skilled Himalayan drivers, I was happy to have my feet on the ground. Upon arrival, our things were whisked away and brought to our respective residences for the next few days. Mine was a house right off the main road belonging to Manju Devi, a household where three generations and a drum-set lived together overlooking the steep terraced slope. The matriarch immediately set to work preparing lunch, a noodle dish that tasted less Indian and more Nepali, a testament to the Ghorka’s (the Nepali ethnic majority) living in the region. While we waited for the vegetables to cook, we were serenated by her son who had a drum set. A skilled musician, his hands danced wildly over the apparatus as I watched in awe. Soon Manju Devi summoned us for the meal.
After lunch and a little rest, we were invited to walk the tea fields with estate owner Rajah Banerjee and other guests. The realities of Himalayan life were immediately apparent - nothing is flat here. Life on a tea estate is a test of leg strength and lung capacity as work on the mountainside means two things: up and down.
The tea gardens were a landscape of their own; polycultures of waist high tea plants among towering jungle forests. The mountainside was cut with rivulets running perpendicular to the terraced gardens, oasis’ of bird life and big mammals (including panthers). Rajah proudly described his gardens as “a sea of forest surrounding islands of tea”, highlighting the various hues of green invigorating the mountainside.
We returned from the walk as the sun dipped low and the sky relaxed into that light blue of dusk. I walked into our home where Manju Devi was squatting on the floor beside her small roti rolling platform. I spoke to her in English explaining I wanted to help make roti. She understood my smile and hand gestures and handed over her tools. I was able to slowly produce imperfect rounds that kept her laughing as she pulled them over to warm over a pan and then sear quickly with the flame. We swaddled the roti in cloth as they came off the fire, and when a sizable stack was produced we sat down for a delicious gobi (cauliflower) stew.
Despite the well-traveled day, my first night sleeping in the mountains was fitful. Whoever said that roosters crow first thing in the morning was wrong. With hiked up plumage billowing over their chicken skinny legs, these proud poultry ignore all midnight sensibilities, their tenner solos accompanied by howling choirs of dog-song, a sound track to the starry sky above.
I lay awake and watched the light to tiptoe into the house. From the wooden bed tucked in the corner of the living room where I slept, I could hear the waking of human activity outside: pots banging, the sweep of the broom against the steps, and morning greetings, “Namaste”. At home, rising at the crack of dawn sends shivers up my spine, however the sun coaxed me from my sleep and I joined the grandfather on the steps as he stood there watching the day roll in. I wondered how many mornings he had done that.
Manju Devi was outside doing last nights’ dishes, squatting low at the bottom of the stairs leading to her house. We smiled at each other and I made the motions of exaggerated yawns and stretches to communicate I was waking-up slowly. She smiled back and said something in Hindi which made me feel like she understood. She asked “chai?” and I said “haan” meaning yes. She had already prepared tea and went inside to pour it from a thermos. She gave me a cup steaming in the light; a floral, unsweetened black tea from the very hillsides I watched being revealed in the morning sun.
This was my first of three mornings at Makaibari as part of the homestay program. Each night I slept better, and each day I learned more about the tea and culture of the Himalayas. The homestay program is a special opportunity to engage with other, not over profession or language, but by the laugher that comes from sharing smiles, chuckles, fumbles over communication, and the ever-present roti rolling that are staples of Himalayan life.