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 

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.

On wings and sunlight, harbingers of spring

I’ll parrot an Instagram post I made today…

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After a blizzardy day, the sun decided to make itself known again. This photo says something aspirational to me. Maybe it’s the light, tap-dancing on the storm’s receding waves. Maybe it’s the idea of flight; the allure of escaping, by wing, to warmer climes. The touch of warm sun on cool earth, like spring’s teasing foreplay, as dormant life finds new purchase and scrabbles for its footing amidst a slippery, snow-covered terra (not-so) firma. Or it’s just seagulls, doing what they do.

These cold days, as winter winds down and attempts its last hurrah, I’m drawn to the sea and to watching the birds: the real harbingers of springtime; nests built in a race against the seasonal clock, their spirits (and their birdsong) warming the skies with the slowly-warming days. Today I named seagull moods (despite a dear friend’s observation that maybe this hibernating mermaid needs more hooman interaction):

A blizzard this week, and who knows what the rest of March will bring (of late, it seems to come in like a lion and go out like a pissed-off yeti rather than lamb), it will be weeks before we feel true warmth here in New England. Until then, I’ll watch and wait, planning the next tropical adventure, a continuation of Year of Africa and a land-locked mermaid’s dream; my own spirits warming with the increasing daylight.

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Year of Africa: On wrapping up the year, elephants, and what comes next.

Towards the end of 2016 I sat, dumbfounded, unable to cobble together thoughts that weren’t alternately angry and helpless, or weren’t internal pleas for relief from who-knows-where. A certain level of resigned what-the-f*ck-ness filled and somehow glued me to my spot, writing blocked, spirit dampened.

In December, hoping to move some energy, release some creative something…hoping to get my body out of a place where my mind sat traumatized, I planned two trips to Africa. If there were any hopes of surviving the next 6-12 months (let alone the next 4 years) in this new version of the land I call home, this year would require open spaces, breathtaking nature, empathy, awe, wonder and adventure…

But first, we marched. We marched, some wearing pink hats and some carrying rainbow flags; some hoisting signs and balloons and banners… I didn’t want to go; because a Women’s March seemed exclusionary to me (little did I know what was to come in the following months), but a small-yet-persuasive band of male friends, gay and straight, helped change my mind. I was marching for freedom of speech and body; for the rights of my friends near and far; for equal pay and equal respect and equal human-ness, regardless of colour, accent, sexual preference… I marched because in some ways I felt guilty to be among the privileged whose marriage or healthcare or way of life wasn’t immediately threatened by the disease now infecting the White House. I marched in solidarity. I marched to say f*ck you to the orange disaster.

And for a few weeks, it felt good to be outspoken about politics. And it felt okay to write some things and get some of the crushing inertia off my chest. And, slowly, like an ice floe might creep up on you to encase your ankles in its bone-chilling grasp, it became horrifying to read the news. Because Russia and misogyny and pee tapes and climate deniers and North Korea and Access Hollywood and lies and propaganda and golf outings in lieu of job responsibilities and resignations and firings and more lies…Look! Squirrel!

I lament that we’re in a time where one must be a carefully-crafted brand to get noticed; when quantity (of likes) wins over quality (of most everything); how the president of my country governs rules in 140-word gibberish, his sycophants eating up the doublespeak and rhetoric.

So, when January came and went, then February, and planning was in full gear for Africa trip #1 and Turkish Airlines changed my return flight to include a 2-day layover in Istanbul, I considered it a bonus. More-so in hindsight, now that my passport is worthless there. For the record, Turkey is gorgeous.

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Blue Mosque

Despite the political climate, I was determined to squeeze the most from this year. 2016’s angst would not become 2017’s tumour, if I had anything to do with it. And so 2017 was dubbed Year of Africa (tho only 2-1/2 weeks were spent there in total) …a series of adventures designed to escape a weirdening world and celebrate a half-century on it.

Milestones: I visited 7 countries, stepped foot on 3 foreign continents, experienced myriad cultures; I saw wild elephants, lions, zebras, ostriches, warthogs and more birds than I can name; I restocked my spice cabinet with Zanzibari cardamom (fantastic) and Turkish tea (not so much), cumin from Qatar, cloves from Pemba Island. I spent my 50th birthday in Paris with a favourite human. I named a spirit animal. There’s always an elephant.

D72_5250A couple of years ago, a friend asked me what I thought my spirit animal was. I didn’t have a good answer. Turtle, I wondered. I feel most free when diving. Turtles are remarkable creatures; humble and curious, diligent and persistent. Eagle? I am mesmerised by birds of prey, bald eagles most profoundly. Eagles represent freedom and power and keenness and precision. But the elephant has been a guiding light throughout my life and a recurring theme these last several years. Ganesha, my Hindu patron saint, represents the light of new beginnings; he’s the remover of obstacles. In other cultures, the elephant stands for power and strength; empathy, loyalty, wisdom… I had not seen one in the wild until this summer, yet only recently have I begun to notice the overriding ele theme in my flat. My last day in Botswana burned into my heart an experience I won’t soon forget. And so it’s now more than ever that I am humbled by the magic of elephants.

The doing part of this year was good. My hard work has paid off, duly rewarded with more work. Tho procrastination has paid off as well, rewarded with inner frustration and a book yet-to-be discovered (anyone know a good literary agent…or someone famous?). I gave my Nikon D80 to my niece and I’m excited that she’s got the camera bug too. I put more of my photography out in the world. Some of it, I’d even venture to consider decent. I feel more like a writer and a photographer than I have in ages, and with that comes responsibility: to have integrity, to resist publishing crap for popularity’s sake, to learn the difference between constructive criticism and trolling (and how to respond to each), to find my niche…

I’m ending this year feeling more vulnerable than I started. Like I’ve opened doors I need to walk through or be forever disgusted with my own inability to follow-through on something that has a 50/50 chance to end in disaster. Mind churns: What if I’m wrong? …But what if I’m right?

I’m ending this year feeling conflicted. I’m afraid that the future of intimacy might be at stake. I wonder whether all the good men are walking on eggshells each day, not knowing what to say (or what to do with their hands), lest they be branded a predator. I wonder if we’re overreacting, and in the same breath or thought, I wonder if we’re not reacting loudly enough. Yes, #metoo. And, yes, many of the most fantastic people in my world are men. Yet there are so many assholes in power who still think the rules don’t apply to them, it’s unfathomable. It’s not really all that hard, is it? No means no. Permission must be granted. Call me daft, but most women still don’t like unsolicited dick pix or catcalls or when you talk to our boobs or grab our ass on the subway or use your power to make us feel like we haven’t got any. The men I’ve got in my world already subscribe to this, yet I fear they’re the ones who will pay for #metoo exposing pervasive asshat behaviour.

And I’m ending this year more dedicated than ever to bring what I learn on the mat, off it. To think and feel and do in equal measure; balancing the head and the heart and the body to stay sane in a time where each day’s news bulletins are more absurd and frightening than the previous. To not let equanimity cancel out passion, and let iccha guide the fork-in-the-road decisions: What feels right, usually is. Right isn’t always easy. Easy isn’t always the most fun. The most fun isn’t always the right path. The right path will make itself known if you allow it. Then the journey becomes brighter…

Who’s with me in calling for peace and love and compassion and empathy and fairness and kindness and humility and integrity to be the prevailing tendencies in 2018?

A Year of Dog Wisdom: Reflections on what this year had in store.

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Last year, I wrote an article called On Messing Up the Bed and Other Things I’ve Learnt From My Dog. Having an aging companion, we begin to reflect upon the things they add to our lives and the things we learn as our days with them become of the numbered variety. And so, on January 1st I tasked myself with a project. Seemingly simple, I was going to take one picture of my dog each day and post on Instagram. Lest I become boring or, gods forbid, that crazy dog lady, I began to add anecdotes and, as the weeks marched on, Dog Wisdom. And so began the #instagus project.

In June, I wrote a story, A Month (or so) of Dog Wisdom, reflecting on the first leg of the journey. Several weeks later, I was asked to write about the project for Pup Journal, and the result was an essay on the whys and hows of embarking (get it?) on this year-long photo essay.

Against a backdrop of fear, name-calling, hate-mongering, loss (So. Many. Untimely. Deaths.), frustration, exhaustion, disbelief, anger, resentment, uncertainty, instability (…) this year, I was determined to focus on the simple truths of what was known, the realities of what lay in front of me and the notion that I am only able to change myself, how I view the world and how I interact with it each day. Dog wisdom channels Yogic wisdom, and one wonders where each begins and ends. Perhaps dogs are, in fact, the ultimate yogis.

During the year, what emanated from the posts were pleas for introspection, for kindness, for an adherence to values. Dogs teach us that there is magic in simplicity, that a methodical butt-sniff tells us if we’re dealing with friend or foe (regardless of breed or gender or silly dog attire), that kindness exists regardless of pedigree or socioeconomic status. And in this surreal year, a year in which humans tried to teach us that we must deceive and humiliate and pimp out our values in order to win; that a book should not be read, and moreover, should be judged by its cover; that some lives are more important than others; that money trumps pretty much everything, I’ve been compelled to live by Dog Wisdom rather than emulate these human actions. If I’m frank, humans have not been good for humanity this year.

I thought it fitting to wrap up this chaotic, merciless, infamous 2016 with a some of my favourite Dog Wisdom posts and reflections on how this galumphing, snoring, sometimes smelly-headed, fart machine helped me get through this year…

While uncertainty reigns, hold fast to the values of truth, integrity, humanity, kindness; appreciate natural beauty. Satya. Ahimsa. Asteya. Bramacharya. Aparigraha.

Dogs don’t see uncertainty around them, the world is just what it is. We humans project our fears, biases and ignorance on the world we encounter each day, while dogs see (and seek) love, food, shelter and kindness. Yoga teaches us 5 Yamas — Satya (truth); Ahimsa (non-harming); Asteya (non-stealing); Bramacharya (restraint); Aparigraha (non-grasping) — I’ve found these to be powerfully simple guides to help get through the overwhelming barrage of negativity that 2016 flung at us.

Dogs help us see that happiness is a good stick, a walk in the woods on a perfectly crisp fall day, and a warm place to sleep. They teach us to cherish the little things and seek adventure (or at least the spirit of it) in the everyday routine. 2016 sucked in countless ways. But there were highlights, too. There were parties and friends coming to visit; faraway holidays and European chocolates; neighbors helping neighbors and free concerts; hiking and kayaking and swimming in the ocean and beautiful sunrises…

Set intention, allow for the unknown, and the Universe responds in interesting ways.

Ever notice that when you stop fighting and yearning for something very specific, if you really identify what it is you’d like to see realised and stop making things so complicated, that opportunities and ideas and resources make themselves available? Dogs seem to go at their days with the intention of a nice romp or a long walk or simply earning a treat. The chased squirrels and found tennis balls and random dogish interactions are part of the journey. Canines show us that it’s our job to conjure up a willingness to explore every day, and embrace a belief that there’s just a little bit of magic left in the Universe to help things work out.

Focus intently on that which is in front of you. Expect bumps because there are no perfectly smooth paths; in doing so, distractions won’t warrant that much attention when they arise.

Yoga sutra 1.30 says that there are several kinds of obstacles that can be expected (doubt, carelessness, laziness, failure to detach from want, ungroundedness, illness, etc.) that distract us and get in the way of our path. By focusing on the immediate, the real, the stuff going on in front of our eyes, we can live less mired by the “what-ifs” that usually don’t come to fruition unless we let them. By paying attention, we can get more out of what we’ve got instead of attaching expectation (or anticipation of failure) to what may never come to pass. In this way, we don’t take for granted the good, we can let go of what isn’t serving us, and most of all, we can appreciate the cosmic humour in daily life.

Dog Wisdom: 99% of car rides result in an adventure. Our minds get mired in the “what-ifs” of misadventure that detract from the possibility of great adventures ahead.

This is the important stuff: Taking time to sniff out the truth. Listening to the heart. Letting go of what keeps us small and fearful. Surrounding yourself with those who care about your imperfect self. Giving to, or doing for, those who need it more than you do. Laughing at, and learning from, your mistakes. Sharing what makes you feel strong. Spending an afternoon in the forest. Listening to the soft snoring of a woods-weary pup…


Happy 2017, my friends… here’s to a new year full of possibility and new adventures.

And to 2016: You’ve been unceremoniously unfriended. Please don’t write.

[this essay cross-posted on Medium]