A wall, a missed connection, and a dark past (aka, escaping reality: part III)

Throughout Germany, and many other countries in Europe, there are small brass cobblestones marking the threshold of homes and businesses. Stumbling stones, they’re called. Stolpersteine. Here lived… Here worked… a soul whose days were cut short. I had read about these stones but hadn’t seen any until one morning I (almost literally) stumbled across some at Rungestraße 5, two families’ plights in the stones at my feet.

Here lived Günter, Leo and Ella Brauner…murdered in Auschwitz. Here Lived the Abrahamsohns: Grete…escaped and resettled; David…deported, murdered in Theresienstadt; Walter…escaped, caught, deported, murdered in Auschwitz; Rudolf…Escaped, ran, hid, ran again, resettled.

Stumbling stones at Rungestraße 5

I spent a week in Berlin, walking kms and kms (>50km if add up all the daily steps) seeing where history (and infamy) were made, where brave hearts broke, and where madmen walked. I am here as an experiment in working remotely, so I walked when I wasn’t working, trying to take in as much of the city as I could, in-between time zones, before and after Teams meetings.

I can’t say I fell in love with the city. In fact, a small part of me detested it. But the other part of me started to consider the great lengths this city, this country, has taken not to bury its past, but to exhibit its ugliness in full view and make policy to make certain the atrocities that led to and pervaded during the Nazi rule don’t ever happen again here. Coming from a place whose brief history has been so whitewashed, this approach is morbidly refreshing.

I visited the requisite monuments: Brandenberg Gate, where black and white photos of Nazi parades dance in your head as you gaze in half-awe/half-disgust. Checkpoint Charlie, a now innocuous-looking guardhouse that once made or broke the lives of German citizens, and now commemorates not only the former divide between East and West Berlin, but is a symbol of the different levels of conflict wrapped up in that madness.

I saw the Berliner Dom, the imposing cathedral that looms large on the edge of the Spree. I walked around the hulk of the Reichstag building and I wandered around World Heritage Site, Museumisinsel, gaping at the brilliant architecture of the museum buildings, tucked amongst the modern and brutalist mayhem that is modern-day Berlin. I don’t know what I expected architecture-wise, but since most of Berlin was bombed to smithereens during WWII, there really is no old city left. What emerged from the rubble was spartan at best, gray on even a brilliant summer’s day. I made efforts to find interesting buildings and bridges and monuments each time I set out on foot.

I saw the East Side Gallery, its vivid and evocative murals adorning some of the last intact sections of the Wall. There was the Topography of Terror, an outdoor museum of sorts, bringing the timeline of the Reich and its downfall into the daylight.

I saw the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (aka, the Holocaust Memorial), a strange visit because I was expecting a solemn place, where one could get lost in sadness for those lost lives. Instead, it was a microcosm of chaos, small children running and shouting amongst the columns, the reverberating chatter making me anxious and uncomfortable. Or was it just the place?

Between the historical sites and the city-cum-history lesson were a smattering of parks, and one of the biggest surprises was the Volkspark Friedrichschain, where fountains and monuments and ponds and even a manmade waterfall in an Asian garden make you feel like you’ve stepped out of the grayness of the city for a while. There is art everywhere here, murals and sculptures and brightly-graffiti’d entryways, flashing light into the stone.

The constant reminder that these are not normal times was in the air: the friend I had gone to Berlin to see in the first place ended up being sent to the dungeons of quarantine due to a COVID exposure at work and we missed our opportunity to meet. Par for the course in these strange days…we vowed to meet again soon.

I left Berlin on a DB train, heading towards a stay with another friend and perhaps some greener pastures. The severity and starkness of the city clung to me as I sat on the train and thought about how I’d describe Berlin. It is an imposing city, both in history and in stature. It’s immense and sprawling, a wide city, interconnected with trams and metros and buses, Mitte being the middle of a multi-spoked carriage wheel whose trajectory might have been thrown off a bit by all the cobbles. I’m not a city mouse, I found myself thinking as the train headed south and east, one of its passengers trying to shake the grayness and correlate that with the visceral pulse of the city: there was street music everywhere, a bass-y urban thrum that gave the wide avenues a lifeline. I stumbled across a pot parade which turned into a rave in a park near Alexaderplatz. Electric scooters zoomed down every street. Art. Graffiti. Gelato. For me, the evening lights of the old domes reflecting in the river were one highlight. And I had some fantastic falafel. And I learnt that you must confront, then learn from, your history if you are to move on.


And onward we go… to where the journey caught an unexpected thermal in the ethers and went from a sojourn to a much more substantial experience.

On castles and forests, fairytale villages and quite a lot of chocolate.

When I think about Europe, what arises is the semi-fascination I have with castles and old brick. I gravitate towards cobblestone pavements and the shells of old architecture as much as, perhaps, to the stories and secrets and folklore these contain. And so, rather than sites and landmarks and tourist hotspots, I wanted to experience the essence of Belgium in its culture and villages and the warmth of its red brick. All credit is due to my adventure-spirited Calvin, who (as he does) interpreted my indecisiveness and planned us a route through Belgium that Lonely Planet couldn’t have possibly outdone.

But first, the Ancestors.

Our ancestors are totally essential to our every waking moment, although most of us don’t even have the faintest idea about their lives, their trials, their hardships or challenges. –Annie Lennox.

My grandfather arrived on Ellis Island from Russia, via Poland and then Antwerp, on a ship called the SS Kroonland. The Red Star Line had a fleet of these ships; immigrant ferries, really, that transported fleeing Europeans to a land of new opportunities. On 12 December, 1921, Josel Widra travelled with his mother and siblings on a 10-day transatlantic journey that would seed my New York roots.

So when I was deciding where I’d go from Holland, I set my sights on Antwerp as a starting point, as this is where my travelling genes were pollinated. Maybe.

It turns out that the Red Star Line had a helping hand in the processing of emigrants as well as the shipping. There were lodging houses and disinfection stations and days, if not weeks, of waiting and cleaning and more waiting and more disinfecting. This, after many days’ journey in crowded trains, all the while the passengers were inspected (for lice and disease and of course proper paperwork) at each step of the way.

While I unfortunately didn’t learn any specifics of my grandfather’s emigration (the museum’s research room was closed due to COVID), I did learn about the collective journey, and thus emerged from the experience with more questions than answers about the lengths that a solo mother (my great-grandmother, Tillie), went through to ensure a safe passage from Eastern Europe to a new life on the other side of the ocean.

The hardest of my hardships pale in comparison.

Exploring.

As is our bent, C and I explored Antwerp on foot, basing ourselves in the center of the old city by the Cathedral of Our Lady, a brilliant and towering Gothic church which served both as home base and a lighthouse of sorts when our (read: my) navigational skills failed. We sampled local beers (thumbs up) and local sweets (ditto), perused local art (Rubenshuis), learnt about local legends (Brabo), and experienced a unique sort of local hospitality that I have not yet categorized in a Soup-Nazi-meets-Falafel-King experience that we’re not soon to forget (yet resulted in some of the best falafel I’ve ever had!).

The city is equally charming and confusing, its architecture is an ad-hoc mélange of step-gabled beauties and 1970’s mishaps, with a surprisingly large red light district that cuts a swath across the gray concrete near the harbour. Leaving, I was relieved that the Belgians seem to be taking this pandemic thing more seriously than the Dutch, and I looked forward to exploring both the Belgian countryside and its fairytale villages. Also pralines.

Napoleon was here.

My personal guided tour of Brussels and its surrounds began in the municipality of Rixensart and had us trapising through the lovely trails on the grounds and surrounds of the Château de La Hulpe (trees! flowers! gardens! ponds! and a castle! 5⭐) and then the magnificent remnants of the 1000-year old Villers Abbey.

“Si je n’étais pas l’homme representé dans mes images, j’aimerais être l’oiseau. J’ai toujours envie de m’envoler, de bouger, de partir dialoguer avec le vent.”

Folon

A short ride away, we explored the battlegrounds at Waterloo, my American education’s rendition of European History glaring in its unenlightenment, and then Brussels proper, where I was as equally stymied by the arbitrary architecture as I was in Antwerp. Even more strange was the reenactment of some obscure tradition we stumbled into at the Grand-Place, involving giant puppets, a speech, a parade, and some ceremonial carrying of cheese (or an egg or something) to Greece. I may have some of these details slightly wrong.

We perused the fantastic Cook & Book, saw Mannekin Pis (because, Brussels), and ate gaufres (ditto). After 1/2 a day, a torrential downpour and not enough castles, we were headed to Bruges.

Des pralines et les rues pavées.

The quintessential image of Belgium (in my head at least) is of the medieval cobbled streets and picturesque canals of Bruges. Apparently, after its main waterways silted up (500 or so years ago), Bruges lost out to Antwerp as a major trading/shipping city and this setback ended up preserving the area: its medieval façades remained virtually intact as other Belgian cities gentrified, and Bruges was spared most of the damage from WW1 and WW2 that other cities faced. Today, to say that Bruges’ centuries-old architecture delights and enchants is an understatement.

So we wandered, delighted and enchanted and content, through the rues pavées, over canals, along the river, and in and out of praline shops (n.b., we managed to find the absolute BEST pralines in Belgium)…my only regret of the trip was not buying an entire kilo, as we also managed to consume the lot by the end of the week.

And into the hills…

Fairytale villages, eclectic architecture, historical battlegrounds and loads of chocolate behind us, I had no idea what to expect for hiking in the Ardennes, except that it was to begin with a kayak trip “on that river by the castle”. I had seen pictures, and wanted to experience it for myself.

Fast forward, and we’re kayaking down a semi-bloated river which only weeks before had been the scene of horrific flash floods and unfortunate casualties (life and property). And while the cranky shoulder did complain, the sight of a castle as I’m kayaking down a tree-lined river in the heart of the Ardennes with one of my favourite people on the planet really put into perspective what’s important: the best things in life aren’t tangible, but instead are stitched together from these feelings of warmth and belonging, of peace and ok-ness even whilst floating on a river with a throbbing shoulder thousands of kilometres from home.

(photo courtesy of Chris G.)

The day continued with another castle (la roche en Ardenne), some of the best strawberries I’ve had this season, local beer, Dutch cheese, some borrowed butter, and deep sleep in fresh country air. More kudos to my tour guide for finding us the most precious and absolutely picture-perfect maison d’hôtes in a former farmhouse situated in the heart of rolling farmlands and quaint country villages.

We rounded out this leg of the adventure with a hike: it should be mostly flat…it’s just the perimeter of a lake, after all. Famous last words, but a quite enjoyable 15km trek around the lake/river, its ups and downs testing our wander-weary limbs. The climbs were technical, the views were lovely, and at the end of the day, its two adventurers were sweaty, muddy, hungry, but nonetheless sated…

So I said au revoir to Belgium, leaving things on a to-do list for next time: more hikes, a 1-month sojourn in said guest house to hunker down and study French, more storybook towns and ditto castles.

Next stop, Berlin: Unexpected detours and an experiment in remote work.

On windmills and cheese: A trepidatious foray back into the world.

579 days ago I stepped off a flight from Burma, via Thailand, through Hong Kong, and into a new world order. In that many days, I have spent face-to-face time with fewer people than I have digits on my left hand. This morning was the first meal I have eaten indoors, in a restaurant, in 18 months.

Anxiety, social awkwardness, uncertainty, stranger-danger, general uneasiness… all feelings that have been percolating these last months. And with that also brewing was a weird claustrophobia, leaving me feeling stranded on some desert island. Sans desert…or palm trees…or anything remotely resembling bright blue seas.

So about a month ago, when the EU opened its gates to blue passport holders with that magic little card, I felt like I was holding not a vaccination certificate, but something of a golden ticket. I found myself clicking “purchase” on a round-trip flight to Amsterdam with a long window of unknown in the middle.

Fast forward a few weeks and I’m sitting in a hotel in a little city just north of A’dam, having spent the afternoon amongst canals lined with storybook architecture and meticulously cobbled streets, marshy canals teeming with European waterfoul, and centuries-old windmills looking, even in their retirement, as impressive as the day they were commissioned.

Alkmaar windmill. Yes, this is real.

Welcome to Amsterdam.

I’ll back up a few days to Sunday morning, when I landed in Amsterdam, met a friend at my hotel, and began a whirlwind couple of days traipsing back and forth across the city. Me: masked; the rest of A’dam: much less-so!

My first impression is that travel has changed not least because there are more things to worry about: standing too close to someone in a queue; whether there is outdoor seating at a restaurant; putting on a mask, taking it off, putting it on again, then wondering if it’s ever okay to maybe not wear a mask for a bit; Borders! Did I fill out the right entry form? Can I even enter, or have the rules changed again? It is quite honestly a little stressful. And so I’ve arrived on the other side of the proverbial pond, but have arrived also quite apprehensive. I’m feeling a bit shell-shocked by the amount of “outness” in more than a year and a half. We introverts were able to spend this time mega-introverting…this is hard. And a bit weird. And I’m not entirely sure I want to go back to the old verison of normal.

That said, the architecture is lovely, and I managed to also try many of the local delicacies on offer: stroopwafel, frietjes, and broodje haring. Note: unlike the stroopwafel, broodje haring is definitely a subjective taste: it’s salt-cured herring with pickles and onions on bread, like a cross between pickled herring and a oniony, jello sandwich. Or something. I gave it a thumbs-up! Ditto to the fresh stroop wafels, hand-made using the secret family recipe!

Onwards. Holland, Part II: Windmills and cheese.

Did I mention the trains? Coming from Boston where the T works when it feels like working, and the Commuter Rail takes one far enough as to be only semi-convenient, the trains in Holland are like magic. Take Dutch perfectionism and overlay that onto a web of trains and trams and metro lines, sprinkle in speed and cleanliness, and one gets from point A to point B quickly, conveniently and hassle-free.

As such, it took about 1/2 an hour to go roughly 40km, and like that I was literally transported to that little city north of A’dam: Alkmaar for Part II of my Holland experience: Windmills and cheese.

My first day in Alkmaar was a train ride and a wander about the town, where I stumbled upon a busy-ish main shopping street (bleh) and a load of tourists (no masks: bleh x2), and a local park where I found a windmill and some very strange outdoor art (flanked by a sign in Dutch that read pas op loslopende mensen” which loosely translates to “watch out for stray people” – this, I found amusing!). I went to bed that first night a little disappointed and wondering where had all the windmills gone? (and maybe a little about the stray people)

So it was to my very pleasant surprise the next morning, when I got into a conversation with a local college student out walking her dog, and she offered to show me her city. We ended up at a nature reserve on the other side of town (that I’d never have found on my own!) where there are 4 intact-but-dormant windmills. I learnt that the town had a castle in medieval times, and although the town sat higher than some of its surrounding area, these windmills (there were originally 6) helped ensure that the water flowed away from the castle and the town. From there we looked at the Grote Kerk (literally, big church; more formally Grote Sint-Laurenskerk), wandered about some more, and found possibly the best cheese shop I’ve ever been in.

Windmills and cheese, sorted.

A simple conversation with a stranger led to a serendipitous afternoon and a mini-adventure I’d never have known about otherwise. These are the things I’ve missed during lockdown: small kindnesses, chance encounters, simple but new experiences, cultural connection, situational spontaneity, small wonders with old (and new) friends…


And, so, the short sojourn in Holland ended with my getting on another train… this one to Antwerp for the next leg of the journey: Adventures in Belgium: Castles and forests.

Birb-spotting: adventures in Covidville.

Not all my adventures in Covidville have revolved around cultivating sourdough starter or rehabilitating broken body parts. Last summer, shortly before I broke said body part, I bought a new camera and a ridiculously big lens. I figured that since all travel was on hold for the foreseeable future (I had no idea how long the foreseeable future really was…), I’d invest in something to help me see the local landscape and its natural wonders a little more clearly.

But, the lens was backordered. And it arrived about a week after I was released from the confinements of my sling. And, at the time, I could barely lift it with my left arm. I nearly cancelled the order a couple of times in my exasperation. But something told me to stay.

The waiting is the hardest part.


So it turned out that birdspotting became a part of my physical, if not psychological, therapy during these disheartening and altogether gloomy months. The fact that you actually need to leave the house (sorry, sourdough starter) and situate oneself in a place where there is a plethora of nature, and an anti-plethora of people, meant that I would need to spend quite a lot of time outdoors (good), in open, quiet spaces (better), where there were few people (best; on a lot of levels).

So while I know a bit about some birds, it was a new learning experience to be able to literally zoom in and see them more clearly. And so, over these past 9 months or so I’ve really birthed a new passion, or at least a new pandemic obsession.

Once again, Nature as antidote.

In the late summer and into the fall, I began getting used to the lens. It’s big and heavy, and my shoulder was healing and I sometimes didn’t know if it was helping or hurting to be hauling this thing around all the time, as I wasn’t really supposed to be lifting any weights until at least the 3 month mark. And I don’t like using a tripod (there, I said it!). And I’m really trying to shoot mostly manual these days. So a lot of the early photos were crap. And I almost just gave up on a few occasions.

Osprey in predator mode © Lesli Woodruff 2020

Then I went back and visited an osprey nest I know. Getting that much closer to these majestic beings made me better understand why, for me, photography is like meditation. I hold my breath when I shoot, focused for those microseconds on the only thing that exists in that moment: whatever it is in the viewfinder. Ospreys are keen hunters, powerful rockets when honing in on their prey, yet graceful in their strength. I’m in that moment with them, focusing on the target, learning from them their patience and perception and precision and tenacity.

The photos that came from that outing lifted my mood and made me want to get better. Physically. Mentally. Photographically.

Hummingbird © Lesli Woodruff 2020
Hummingbird

Throughout the fall, there were more ospreys and the autumnal waterbirds… and then, week by week, they began to fly south to winter. Which, of course, I wanted to do as well: fly somewhere as the days grew shorter and the Covidness became darker and seemingly unending, unyielding, unrelenting, un…….

With winter on the fringes, ospreys and egrets are replaced with a parade of literal snow birds arriving on the scene. We get snow geese and snowy owls and snow buntings, plus the wintering birds of prey like bald eagles and short-eared owls and hawks of all sorts. All of which were a thrill to see, and maybe a bit of an obsession in trying to find. And a good way to wile away the cold and dark days.

And as seasons go, so do the migration patterns. With the thawing rivers and marshes, the wintering birds fly elsewhere, and longer days bring with them the sights and sounds of spring: early April the ospreys begin arriving again. Then the reeds are alive with the sounds of warblers. Then the vibrant bluebirds give way to orioles and thrushes and kestrels and waxwings and tanagers. Spring indeed is a cacophony of birdsong, plumage and mating dances.

One of the joys of living near the shore is the return of the shorebirds. I’m seeing an influx of the ducks and egrets and sandpipers that can only mean that brighter, warmer, longer days are upon us.

Which brings me to this week. Although the piping plovers return at the beginning of April, they don’t get to nesting in earnest until sometime in May. There are only roughly 7500 piping plovers in existence, about half on the East Coast of the US. Every chick is sacred, as they say. I’m very respectful of distance and restricted beaches (most of their nesting area is roped off or beaches completely closed to help protect the species), so the long lens helps a great deal!

My pandemic patience and persistence practice, as well as my affinity to avoid crowds have paid off: I’ve found some baby plovers and their relatives.

Piping plover hatchlings can eat on their own on the very first day but won’t fly for about a month. In the process, they peep and skitter across the sand like little worm-eating machines, learning about life in the big bright world as they go. And, boy are they cute!

And there are the killdeer: I’ve created something of a narrative around these birds even though they are slightly less adorable. I’ve been looking for killdeer chicks the past couple of weeks in a place I know there’s a nesting pair. A few days ago one of them was acting really strange so I had an idea there may be chicks around. I went back just before dusk on Friday and finally found them… It was like a small avian circus really. Killdeer are cousins of the plovers and so their chicks are also precocious – the technical term is precocial, meaning they can feed themselves and move around right after hatching, but precocious is more like it. Cheeky, even.

I digress.

Killdeer #1 was tending the flock (4 or 5 that I could see), and as the sun got lower s/he started to gather them underneath her to settle in. But as soon as they all seemed to tuck in, one would pop out and start exploring again…then another…and another. And then s/he had to go herding. At one point, s/he got so exasperated that s/he called her mate to take over. S/he flew off and complained to the willet sitting on a dirt mound nearby while the mate took over fledgling-wrangling duties.

The look on the poor birb’s face was something like a bedraggled mother trying to wrangle scurrying toddlers: “ffs, if you don’t get in here right now Wally, that giant pterodactyl is going to come down and grab you and you’ll never eat any of those yummy marsh grubs again!


It’s been a rocky time in Covidland. I’m grateful daily for relative health and a job I love and and a modicum of sanity and the luxury of being fully-vaccinated…but I’m not taking any of it for granted because it all still feels a little precarious right now.

So my bird tales end here for the day, but the lessons I’ve learnt from birdstalking with a larger lens are clear:

  • Do the thing if you can, especially if you get to learn something new in the process
  • Find nature, experience open spaces, smell the leaves, listen to the birdsong
  • Stay focused on what’s in front of you; there’s a lot of swirling chaos out there that will exist whether or not you pay attention
  • After you’ve gone through a bad day (or a string of them), congratulate yourself for the accomplishment…nobody else may have even noticed, as their days may be equally as trying as yours
  • Bring snacks. It’s easier to stay a little longer doing a thing you didn’t know you’d enjoy if you’re not starving!

Here’s to brighter skies, warmer days and a return to adventuring in earnest.

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