A Tale of Tea…

So in my lockdown state, I have been going through pots and pots of tea, reminiscing on each packet or loose leaves or spices that came from a faraway place. It is something of a tale of tea

Yesterday morning I opened a packet of Royal Myanmar tea, one of only a few I’ve got left from my trip to Burma in December, and a flood of tea-related memories wafted up with the hints of spice in my cup.


It was in a tea shop in Split (Croatia), my head stuffed with a cold I’d acquired in Montenegro, that I found another link to my curiosity (read: obsession) with tea. I was looking for an herbal tea to remedy my congestion, and I noticed that the tea the lady gave me was called Bronhovit Čaj. (lit, Bronchial Tea). But my brain got caught on the čaj part… I started to formulate the Balkan phonemes so strange to my North American tongue, ch…a…y. Chai.

Croatian tea is chai, my brain excitedly chirped as it connected the dots. (Okay, not so much chirped in its present state, but rather snuffled excitedly in any case…)

Cha if by land; tea if by sea… I had read that adage some time ago. As it turns out, and not really so surprising, what a country calls this multi-cultural beverage steeps from how it got to them from China; arrival via land or sea was in different dialects as well as trade routes.

So tea landed in central to Northern Europe, the Americas, and West Africa as thé and Tee and tea and té and tii; and in Southern European countries, North and East Africa, and South Asia as chá and τσάι and çay and شاي and chai and chaī and chā. And, of course, čaj.

The reason? To some extent, chameaux. Camels. (chaimeaux?!)

Having drunk litres and litres of chai and its offspring all along the silk road, this linguistical brew makes sense to me. Perhaps the Silk Road should have been called Spice Strada, Tea Trail or the even the Chemin Chai… Each cup tells a story, and each memory is like its own ceremony, conjuring up markets and spices and street sounds and temple bells in each telling.

Morocco: I sat in a quiet early morning Jemaa el Fna, sipping delightful Moroccan Mint شاي, as I watched the vendors set up the day’s market. The tea would have perhaps made its way across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain and renamed té when it landed, only to be re-renamed by the French in the souks of Marrakech as thé, and re-re-renamed thé/tea/شاي as Morocco reclaimed its independence and opened up its doors to tourisme chameau from all corners of the globe.

Istanbul: Here, chā seems to be a verb as well as a noun. The warm welcomes in this electric city, where East really does meet West, are extended as more a demand (Tea? Çay? Please, come sit…), and the brewed black tea is served steaming, alongside lumps and lumps of sugar, in glass cups. It is sort of a boring tea if I’m honest; stark in comparison to the energy one feels in the streets and markets here. A crucial stop along the Silk Road, Constantinople was what they meant in those days: “all roads lead to (Eastern) Rome.” Come sit, have some tea, do some trade in carpets or spices or these luscious fabrics…it’s a city that gets into your blood, its warm, colourful tea running through your veins.

In Burma, I had just gotten off a dive boat, and made my first entry by sea into a foreign land. They dropped me on the Burmese side of the Thailand/Myanmar border, in this peculiar little town called Kawthaung, at the southernmost tip of the country. As I wandered around the town on a blazingly hot afternoon, I ran into one of the guys who worked on the dive boat; apparently it was his 2nd job as he had a day job in an office here somewhere. He was taking tea with some friends at a corner tea shop and they invited me in to share tea and stories. Through broken English, emphasized and punctuated with many hand gestures, and not withstanding a peck on the finger by a sassy minah bird, I came to know the warmth of Burmese culture in the span of an hour over tea.

India: In a market in a little town called Jojawar, tucked neatly between Jodhpur and the Aravalli hills, I met a chaiwallah who brewed possibly the best chai I’ve ever had. His secret? Hand-smashed fresh ginger in each pot. To this day, I smash ginger in a garlic press and crush spices with a mortar and pestle before adding them to my tea mélanges.

Thailand: ชา or chā is taken hot, and equally often iced, in something that pop culture has turned into an addictive artform: Thai tea; their version of the chai latte. It is essentially brewed tea with condensed milk; not only is it completely satisfying in the Thai heat, but also completely addictive! The beauty of Thai street food is that it is everywhere and also usually ridiculously good. So on a hot afternoon what’s better than street snacks and Thai tea while you wander around a market? My first time in Thailand, I can still remember with all my senses the scene as I sat in a little café in Ayutthaya, across from the ruins of the old capital of Siam, eating the best Tom yum goong soup I’ve ever tasted, drinking their “house special” Thai tea.

Home: if home is where the heart is, for me, what feels like home is where the tea is brewed. By hand. There is ritual and history and healing power and sensory explosion in a cup of tea, whether it is a few simple leaves of pu’erh, barely tinting the water a golden brown, or the medicinal notes of an herbal blend, its peppermints and earthy roots commingling into a liquid salve. It’s the process of selecting one’s ingredients and concocting a nourishing or soothing or energizing blend. It’s potion-making. It’s the moving meditation in watching tea leaves boil with cardamom pods and ginger in a pot of chai, the cinnamony notes wafting me back to noisy Udaipur streets. It’s a simple gunpowder green tea mixed with fresh mint and honey that echoes the call to prayer across a buzzing medina. It’s the steadiness and balance that comes with pouring from an iron teapot and holding a warm cup to your lips for the first sip that brings visions of piles of tea leaves and spices in one of the oodles of foreign markets I’ve had the privilege of wandering.

a snapshot of my tea shelf

Final Notes: As I type this, I’m drinking a pu’erh concoction with some botanicals added (dandelion root, licorice root, tulsi, ginger, turmeric, elderberries, burdock root, to name a few). But I am merely a student of the tea, and I learn little bits and pieces every time I travel or turn new pages (leaves, as it were). I like this word-nerd blog post on the history of the word Tea.

When the world opens up again, I hope to share the new blends I’m concocting, and I long to drink cups of tea from chaiwallahs in far-flung places. In the meantime, I wonder if it’s too late to be an Anthropologist when I grow up. ॐ 

Onwards through the fireswamp

Yep. Travel plans are pretty much in limbo for the foreseeable future. So any pipe dreams for diving in April or hiking in May are certainly dashed. Don’t even know if my niece’s graduation over Memorial Day Weekend is a possibility at this point, even a month and a half away. They’ve closed schools here until May. We’re on semi-lockdown and there is still a shortage of toilet paper and dry goods in the grocery stores. It’s madness. It’s weirdness. It’s an unsettled quiet like I’ve never known in my lifetime, even after 9/11. And my stepmother put it well the other night: those events, 9/11, the Marathon bombing, Paris, Brussels…they all were time-boxed. There was a thing, it happened, then it was over and we moved to the healing phase. This thing, it has tentacles and 6300 legs, and we don’t know who it will touch next, or where (or if it has already come… or gone).

So if you’re like me, you may be feeling antsy and anxious and cooped up and sad and worried and exasperated and exhausted and near-claustrophobic, over-worked, under-slept, and really very laden. I’m often the go-to person, but in all honesty I am out of ideas at this point. I’m simultaneously managing my own isolation, my dog’s demise (he has recently been diagnosed with lymphoma) and a work cadence/velocity/schedule that I never signed up for. I’m feeling more than a little broken. So I was thinking that since most of the things that keep me sane and keep me, me are in the realm of wandering and pondering and investigating and, yeah, travelling… instead of a travel blog post, I’d craft an inertia post.

Except I really don’t know how to write about inertia, unless it’s about ways to avoid it! This point in time feels like a game of hopscotch through a fireswamp where the rules are more or less arbitrary and are subject to change without notice. But here goes: my guide for surviving this Corona-lockdown-madness without actually succumbing to it or being eaten by monsters along the way.

In no particular order:

Move. My goal: 10-15,000 steps a day; 10+km on nice days. Walking the dog. Walking on the treadmill. Walking around the flat at 11:30 in a zombie state to clock those last 550 steps before bed. They all count. And when the dog only wants to walk to the end of the block and won’t poop when you want him to, the steps still need to be stepped. As an old Rollerblade friend used to say, “if you stop, you die.”

Stop. As important as activity is, being still and letting go of all the news, chatter, stuff you just cannot control is maybe even more-so. Stretch. Read. Hug the dog. Sit in a quiet corner under a blanket with a space heater pointed at yourself, listening to the Liquid Mind channel on Amazon Music; close your eyes and feel the warmth and the music and know that there is an “other side” to this worldwide hell we’ve collectively entered. We’ll come out into the vernal sunlight as new hatchlings with a clean slate to fill. Stop. Breathe. Cultivate hope.

Engage. This is perhaps surprising coming from a card-carrying introvert. Here’s the thing that is most shocking to me: we introverts have built a lifestyle around choosing when and with whom to interact. We make these choices carefully and deliberately, avoiding gatherings and social interaction unless absolutely necessary or with intentionally-selected others. Social Distancing is really one of our artforms. But here’s what I’m learning about myself in these strange days… because I am careful about how I spend my social time, it tends to be infrequent but of high-quality. So now that I’m not even allowed that, I feel boxed-in; even more imprisoned within my own existence than I’ve ever felt. I’m not craving parties and social events, I’m craving connection. More specifically, I’m feeling isolated from those who make me feel like a better version of myself. And more-so because I’m not allowed to see them. (N.B.: Introverts do not like rules imposed over their own social rules.)

So, yeah, engage. But now, electronically.

It doesn’t feel quite right and it’s not in any way solving my need to be free and adventuresome with those I care about, but I’m doing yoga online with my teacher of 12+ years. At work, even though my team is distributed across the globe, we’re super-connected. We’ve been doing more meetings with our webcams set to “on” these days, and it’s nice to see the faces of those I interact with so often (just have to do something about the quantity of meetings…). I’m still not talking on the phone because I hate it, but the WhatsApp calls with those closest to me are a bright light in my day.

I said this to a friend the other day: I feel like those that remain in our lives after this thing is done with us are the only ones that really matter.

Hope. Life is upside down right now for most of us, trying to bodge together some semblance of normal today and to figure out where to go next with this invisible thing that shatters the boundaries within which we feel safe. Work, friends, family, school… Fences have been erected between the different parts of our lives, forcing us to get creative, think differently, look at our social structures with a fresh lens, reassess priorities, act more humanely. These weeks, although stressful and overwhelming, I’ve observed more simple kindnesses, put more faces to names on those videoconferences, heard more please and thank yous, and seen collaboration like I’ve never seen before.

There’s a glimmer of hope. That we’ll emerge from our coccoons on tentative new wings, more careful and more kind and more aware of the fragility of the present.

Observe. Quiet times afford us the opportunity to watch and to really listen. I’d love to be in one of these madhouse places that have for the moment gone silent: Delhi, Istanbul, Bangkok even… A place where if you stop the modern madness it will take you back in time. Where the migratory birds can be heard and the blue skies dawn like a new era. The scent of spices and flowers and home cooking emerge from behind the smog. The green shoots of spring, visible in a quiet and locked-down new reality.

But I’m here, trying to mesh the sadness of my home with the frenzy of my work with the uncertainty of all That out there… I’m checking in: with myself to make sure I’m okay as I get up each quiet day; with my dog to make sure he’s breathing, and then that he’s enjoying these last weeks he’s got here; with those close to me (and those also slightly broken), because connecting with them these days helps me feel like there’s still an opportunity to make a difference even in a cattywampus world.


The croci have come, as have the daffs and the forsythia… the songbirds are making their way back, and the undertones of spring wafts in the air. There’s hope. There’s springtime haiku. Travel will happen. Projects will end. Hugs will be allowed once again.

The crazy thing in all this is the silver, or maybe green, lining. Fewer cars, less unnecessary air travel, more walking, ironically-less excess. There’s a glimmer of hope that maybe we’re injecting more peace or less ugliness into the world by coming together on such a universal level that the batshit crazy powers that be won’t be able to stop it.

Video interlude: All We Are/Matt Nathanson (Some Mad Hope)

Day by day we have to get through these things that feel like monstrous hurdles where regular life used to be. Onwards through the fireswamp, I say, because the alternative is unthinkable.