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 

Yggdrasil, in Newbury.

Once upon a time, when the line between myth and history was even thinner than today, there was a tree called Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Nordic myth tells us that Yggdrasil was the nucleus that connected the 9 worlds: the world of the humans (Midgard) and those worlds of the two tribes of Norse gods (Asgard and Vanaheim), the world of the giants (Jotunheim), the primordial worlds of fire (Muspelheim) and ice (Niflheim), the worlds of Alfheim (elves) and Svartalfheim (dwarves), and Hel (well…).

Yggdrasil’s roots held the underworld down, and kept Midgard (land of mere mortals) at a neutral place, where prankster-gods like Loki couldn’t cause (as much) mischief from his perch on the upper Asgardian branches. That said, according to legend, he did his fair share. Yggdrasil was the home to myriad woodland creatures and a dragon, and was the epicenter of woodland resources. I paraphrase (and probably get some of it wrong), but if Yggdrasil were to fall, this would signal the end of days.

Oh, the irony.

So yesterday, when I wandered along a new trail and came out of the forest into a meadow on a hilltop, where this gleaming green giant simultaneously welcomed one into, graced, and held dominion over the space, I was awed. Yggdrasil is merely a symbol, of course, because gods and dwarfs and elves and giants don’t really exist. But the World Tree, whose roots tether the real world in all its fragility to the stories, and reach down into the well of Mimir, whose waters hold the depths of knowledge (sought by Odin for which he sacrificed an eye, but that’s another story), stands tall and solid and proud nonetheless.

Trees hold the keys to the wisdom of the land. One must be kind to nature (or trade an eye?) to drink from its well. But, I digress…

Norse Mythology is especially fascinating to me because if you look at it in parallel to the other polytheistic belief systems and their pantheon of gods and goddesses (Hindu, Greek, Roman, etc.), there are striking connections between their symbols and stories and philosophies, yet the Scandinavian relationship with the natural world is much more deeply-pronounced, as evidenced in their folklore (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface!).

I’m spending more time on local trails in these dragging Corona months, hunting egrets for marshy photoshoots, seeking refuge in quiet, wilder spaces (nearby, with safe social distancing and the fewer people the better); escaping the trappings of Zoom meetings and over-blocked Outlook calendars, daydreaming of the day I can hop a flight and head East. If I’m honest, where is of less concern to me right now than when.

But before I wander down a forest path and get lost in a macramé of Indra and Zeus and Thor and Jupiter, I’ll come back to my quiet present, walking these trails with flamboyant ancient characters spinning their stories in my mind, blue skies holding any thunderstorms at bay. Thanks to Surya or Freyr or Ra or Apollo or Sol for the skies on this brilliant afternoon!

So before me stands Yggdrasil, or a simple Oak (or beech or ??) standing tall, surrounded by a ring of boulders. Mind wanders to covens or whatever the collective noun is for philosophers, scholars, arborists, students or, like me, curious photographers that have stumbled upon this wonder… The tree, and its empty auditorium, stands in a meadow whose ridge overlooks the overbuilt town below. The clear day enables me to see beyond the rooftops towards the sandy shores of Plum Island, and from there, out to the Atlantic, only a few miles away as the osprey flies.

I sit in the embrace of Yggdrasil’s shade for minutes, or maybe half an hour, contemplating what, I can’t now remember. But the shriek of a quite small but very insistent human (read: petulant) refusing to move any further “or else” jolts me out of my quiet reverie and back into the real world of he who yells loudest gets the snacks. I get a “he does this all the time” look from the mother and Damien gets rewarded in the form of a juice box and cheese crackers, the bright orange ones whose cello packaging I often see littering the beach. Practice is stopping there: you don’t know her circumstances, I remind myself, and wish them happy trails as I traipse onwards.

I look to the tree as if it could understand my dismay with the world as it is, envisioning the irony of a tree offering a hug to a human, understanding its precarious footing these days.

The birdsong resumes, as does my walk. I spot a scarlet tanager, a fleeting flicker of blood-red in the lush green treetops, and I remind myself to log these outings as I do each of my dives. When we log experiences, we are less likely to take them for granted, I suspect.

I end the day with egrets and an oriole (or was it an American redstart?) and big toads and slithery garter snakes; even a curious white-tailed deer who looked on, perhaps even entertained, as I was assaulted by greenheads (note to self: leap year or non, these f*ckers are always on time).

And there it is: another Day ticked. In the logbook of my mind, I note that as with the now-waning light, we are entering into the spring of the last half of this famously infamous year. I’ll look to the gods of humility and patience and tolerance and forgiveness and humour to guide me through these next trees.

Safari-in-Place: A Lockdown Safari Story.

There are so many places on this planet I’d rather be right now, and for so many reasons… I’ve missed my niece’s graduation and also a half-baked, not-yet-actually-planned hiking adventure with my favourite co-conspirator. I’ve put off summer plans for a photography expedition with said niece, and I’ve all but lost hope for fall intentions. I’m trying not to think more than a few weeks out right now; even that seems like a massive, whale-gray bank of fog I’m not prepared to chisel through as yet.

So to get out of my own house (and head) if only for a few hours this weekend, I made it a mission to go somewhere I’d never been.

There’s an obscure nature reserve across from a just slightly less obscure one*. I figured out how to get here last weekend, but it was high tide and I didn’t have the right boots to walk the tide-swamped chemin rocheux.

This was last weekend, and the impassable rocky path…see, it’s a little boggy in the middle?

So this weekend I decided to try again, first checking the tide tables and moon phase, which sounds like a fairly new-agey thing to do, but when a full moon can make or break an outing in these parts, it’s worth the effort. The Universe is working in my favour: I had two hours before high tide, and the moon an agreeable waxing crescent. I donned the correct footwear just to be safe**.

This place was deserted, and it was refreshing to be alone in nature, rather than alone in the bubble I’ve occupied for the past 3 months. It felt like I had an alien landscape all to myself. Actually, it reminded me of the Okavango Delta; so much so, that had an ele been foraging in the reeds, I might not have been entirely surprised. Except, of course, that this is New England, on the East Coast of the entirely wrong continent, so there’s that.

I’ll call it a Lockdown Safari; a much-needed escape from this weird hamster wheel we’ve been riding, and a reminder that it’s okay (read: necessary) to step off this merry-go-round if nothing else but to remember that there’s a “there” out there… and even though it’s not Norway or Turkey or Germany or Spain or East Africa or Indonesia or Greece or a dozen of the other places that were or would-have-been under consideration for a visit, it’s still a place I’d never been, full of vibrant springtime colours and resounding birdsong. And a field of poison ivy, the likes of which I’ve never seen…

Today I’m grateful to be able to take at least this small dose of vitamin N(ature), and I’m happy to report that my LightRoom catalogue is looking quite like a page from an Audubon book these days. I’m grateful for the technology that makes it feel like the rest of the world is still there, outside these little personal bubbles in which we’re all semi-trapped; I’m grateful for relative health and thankful for those working so hard to keep us safe. I’m thinking about my niece, whose graduation was a webcast, and my proud-aunt cheers were sadly sent via text and .gif. (Jules, I’m taking you on an adventure as soon as we are able to go!!)

My own recent Audubon collection: Red bellied woodpecker, yellow warbler, osprey, eastern bluebird, bobolink, eastern kingbird, brown-headed cowbird***

I went to sleep last night feeling that same mix of anxiety and hope and gratitude and quiet paranoia, that dull ache in the pit of my stomach I’ve felt each night of the past several months now. I know I’m not alone, but it’s vexing to fall asleep each night wondering what is this? When will it end? Is it just the beginning? What’s next?

What’s next indeed.


*This place is on the back side of a much less obscure place; that one, the more popular and now closed to car traffic one, is likely in that state because of some entitled individuals exercising their right to… to what exactly? But that’s an entirely separate rant!

**N.B.: Living in New England, I’ve noted that one needs at least 8 different genres of footwear (rain, snow, hot, cold, running, walking, mucky, working) and ditto outerwear, as seasons change haphazardly and frequently (and frequently haphazardly!) here.

***Also very cool for bird freaks, or even wanna-be bird-heads: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has put out a fantastic bird-finding app, called eBird, with photo ID, bird calls and a quick bird ID library for birds around the globe. Find it here: https://ebird.org/home.

An introvert’s guide to solo travel: 5 rules to a successful adventure

I posted this on my Medium page, not knowing if it falls under “Travel Writing” or plain essays. In any case, I’ll cross-post here and hope for the best!

There’s something of an art to balancing over-planning a trip and have it be so much I’ll just wing it that the trip becomes a logistical nightmare once you arrive. And as I didn’t do a wrap-up post for my Southeast Asia Adventure, I’ll let this one stand in its place.

It begins like this…

I’ve just returned from 3 weeks in Southeast Asia. It had been a rough few months at work, with an overload of “on”: meetings and projects and deadlines, and too little of the quiet, nature-filled and people-free moments that enable me to adequately recharge my batteries. So when the opportunity to visit my uncle in Bangkok over the holidays presented itself, I seized the day, as it were, to carve an itinerary around that visit.

I’m also the textbook definition of an introvert: I avoid parties and am exhausted by small talk and crowds; I’m very careful about who I share my thoughts and feelings with, and I need my “alone time” to recharge and feel human again. I plan and read and write and consider…and I often find destination inspiration from mythology or historical fiction or travel writing. And it seems strange, but I tend to bump into my kind of people when I’m travelling. Once away, there is little time for small talk, and there are usually mutual reasons for being in that place; so conversation, even with complete strangers, doesn’t feel like a burden or a chore. I don’t feel judged or awkward or out of place because, well, I am out of place…so that thing is an immediate known, and it is therefore immediately off the table as a source of anxiety. This is the contradictory and backwards logic which rules an introvert’s life (yet confounds many an extrovert), but also that which makes so many other things accessible in far-flung places.

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Southeast Asia, Part VI: Bagan, a Sea of Ancient Relics

I’d seen photos of this place for years: its ancient temple-tops peering out over the jungle canopy, fog burning off across the landscape, a sea of relics strewn across a massive plain, a centuries-old board game interrupted by the future. Like something out of an adventure movie, Bagan called to me.

And so it was that I travelled from Inle Lake to Bagan to start this leg of the journey.

I arrive in the evening (a far less traumatic taxi ride than the last), my taxi depositing me at the hotel, a gardened temple replica tucked behind a tour bus-filled street thronging with supping masses. A pit of dread lodges in my stomach as I hope my experience here wouldn’t be this, erm, crowded. The staff: doting; the room: miniscule. Luckily, I wasn’t planning on spending much time inside anyway.

Bagan is an ancient sacred Burmese city, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the summer of 2018. That means protection and restoration (and the climbing of temples now prohibited), but it also means it’s not an under-the-radar destination anymore. I’m glad I’m seeing it now.

Essentially, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is a minefield of temples and stupas and pagodas and monasteries strewn across a 100 sq km area, encompassing over 3500 complexes built between the 11th and 13th centuries. In its day, there were over 4000, and by some estimates there are/were over 10,000 individual structures here.

My first day’s mission was to see some of the larger sites. I hired an e-bike and set off. You pay the equivalent of about $5 for a day’s rental of a silent scooter to shuttle you about Bagan. It’s necessary, I soon learn, as the place is enormous, and the air is hot and dry. If nothing else, the breeze is refreshing as the red dust nestles, well, everywhere!

I make it to the Shwezigon Paya early-ish, and the market is not yet in full swing. A pushy but not unfriendly woman points out a good place to park my scooter, and duly notes a good place to leave my shoes while I wander the site. She comments that I should come visit her shop in the market on my way out. Similar to Shwedagon in Yangon, this paya is thronged with tourists even at this early hour, so once I’m done, I bee-line it out of there to get to some of the other sites before the mobs do. The experience walking through the gallery on the way out of the pagoda made me feel not unlike a piece of meat: vendors, like dogs, drooling and nipping at me to get me to buy something; some more rabid than others.

Annoyed by the time I get to the door where I left my shoes, I was verging on incensed when I realised they weren’t there. The lady at the shop has them I was informed. My shoes are being held ransom I thought. After gathering my shoes from the woman, at the risk of being hexed for not making a purchase, I hastily make my way out of there.

I was not enjoying Bagan at all as yet.

The thing about Bagan is that there is a temple of some sort pretty much every 20 feet. So I head down the main road towards Old Bagan, joining the melange of motorbikes, horse-drawn buggies, taxis and e-scooters going my way. In the process, I found some pretty amazing sites. I also tracked down the only Hindu temple in Bagan, which is also said to be the oldest here, built in the 10th or 11th century. It is a temple to Vishnu and houses statues and wall paintings not only of Vishnu, but also of Brahma, Shiva and Ganesha.

I spend the rest of the day alternately cursing tour buses (and their occupants) and gaping wide-mouthed at the temples large and small, as I maneuver around the sites on my e-bike. It is really no wonder they’re here (the tourists, that is), but the crowds also make for a less-than wonderful experience. The afternoon wanes, and in trying to escape the throngs and hawkers and sleazy tour mongers (want to see the sunset? … want to buy this [trinket/bauble/blanket/hat/postcard/painting]?…want to go to a secret spot to climb a temple?), I finally find a hilltop from which to watch the sunset (empty when I arrive but full as the sun dips below the horizon).

I end the day not overly impressed with the Bagan experience thus far, while being simultaneously floored by the architectural wonders around me.

My goal for Day 2 is to avoid the swarms and visit only sites that have no parking lots, no tourist buses, no mobs of people milling about. Before I embark on this mission, my morning starts with one of the 2 or 3 splurgiest things I’ve ever done: a hot air balloon ride over Bagan.

It was a surreal hour, beginning as the sun came up, and ending with us landed in a field, drinking a glass of champagne (as one does).

Hedonistic as it was, the flight really helped put the scale of this place into perspective! Each temple, pagoda, stupa, or monastery feels like it ought to be an historic site on its own, so seeing this (collective) wonder from above was just an amazing experience. Highly recommended!

I spend the rest of the day scooting around the city, taking interesting-looking and/or less-travelled dirt roads (one even led me into someone’s yard!!), then wandering down bramble-lined paths among and between the ancient structures… I explored large temples and small, even stumbled upon a spectacular monastic complex hiding in plain sight.

This day ended with me feeling fuller, and more fulfilled, than I did the day before. I even took in a traditional puppet show at dinner.

In a nutshell, I spent two very long but very different days amongst these ruins at Bagan, seeing the well-known and the, well, not-so-much. Some of the sites clearly generated something like magnetism for me, drawing me in through their stone archways and ancient doors. And some made me want to forget that I’d ever been there. There is certainly energy afoot, and it’s not surprising that each of the structures calls to different people differently: what I find fascinating might be a dull pile of old brick to the next wanderer-by; the ghosts of each temple chanting centuries of silence to those who listen carefully.

I said goodbye to Bagan before dawn this morning and boarded a boat to Mandalay, hoping one day to be back.


Read More: [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part IV] [Part V]