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 

Southeast Asia, Part III: (re-)Entry to the Society of Land-Dwellers

Culture shock again, as I step off the boat and the guy tells me wait here. As if I have a choice… someone in the vicinity has my passport, and in it, the stamp that will allow me to roam freely in this rustic place. Rustic isn’t necessarily the first word that pops into my head as I look around, the buzz of this port of entry, with its tuk tuk and scooter beeping all around, street food vendors everywhere I look, and what appears to be pagodas and stupas on the hills in all directions.

I’m on a dock, in something like no-man’s (or woman’s) land, an immigration office to my right and the boat on which I’ve arrived still at the dock, my fellow divers waiting for their exit stamps. It’s like a miniature version of Bangkok, or perhaps what it looked like before the westernization and mass build-up happened there. The gilded arches are impressive for this place, reminding me a little of Jaipur in its buzzing frenzy.

Major observation #2: I am wearing the wrong shorts. Having just landed from a week of wearing not much more than a bikini and/or wetsuit, I have put on a pair of normal (read: Western) shorts for the transfer. As I look around, I recall the conversation I had prior to leaving Bangkok about what (not) to wear in Burma. I have forgotten to put on one of the pairs of Burmese fisherman pants I’ve been given for this leg of the adventure. And now I appear to be the only westerner in this town, standing on the dock with my luggage, no passport, and in the wrong shorts.

The guy comes back, my passport in hand, loads me onto a tuk tuk and sends us off to my hotel. I know zero Burmese, which does not go in my favour, as I try to pay for my hotel room. They cannot change dollars, nor do they accept credit cards, and I’ve used up most of my Thai Baht. My only option: go to the market and change money.

Note: It is 700 degrees outside (F or C, it really doesn’t matter…this may be the hottest I’ve been. Ever.) and I am still in the wrong shorts because I haven’t gotten into my hotel room because I do not have any money. I walk down the street, find the market and then a bank, but most of the US dollars I have are either folded one too many times, too used, have a small ink mark on them, or are not acceptable for myriad other reasons. I am able to change $70. This will pay for my hotel and get me to Yangon tomorrow. They, too, run off with my passport, but I am finally given 103,000 Myanmar Kyat. And I thought conversion to/from the metric system was complicated math.

I am looking forward to a shower and then a change into clothes in which I can wander about comfortably, for a given value of comfortable. The good news is that the room comes with a bathroom. The not-as-good-news is that it makes the boat shower I’ve just had for the past week look good, which means I’ll do any luxuriating in my Yangon shower once I get there.

So I do. Wander, that is. First, up to the temple I’ve seen from the port, which I find out is Kawthoung’s most impressive landmark, the Pye Taw Aye temple complex, with its gilded hilltop pagoda. From here, I walk down and across town, passing through the market again. I’m stopped by 3 little girls whose mum runs a shop that sells all manner of local wares, and they want to paint my face with the traditional thanaka, a bark of sorts that is used not only for design but for sun protection and medicinal purposes. Face painted (of course I purchased some with my newly-procured local wealth), I march on… receiving smiles and waves from everyone I see along the way. And the next smiling face I see is one of the boatmen, who is having tea with some of his colleagues from his other job. I think I’m beginning to understand this culture a little as I’m invited to sit with them for tea and snacks.

My first real day on land here in Myanmar rounds out with a sunset atop the park that marks the southernmost point in Myanmar.

Tomorrow really begins the next leg of the journey, and with it a trip northward to Yangon.


Read more of these adventures in Southeast Asia: [Part I: Bangkok] [Part II: Diving in the Mergui Archipelago] [Part IV: Yangon] [Part V: Inle Lake]