Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Greetings from: Happy Valley Tea Plantation

Let us sing the praises of tea! How it brings succor to the soul, warmth to the being, and peace to the mind. Its fragrance brings forth flowering gardens; a still lake by a pagoda; the smoke from a gypsy campfire. A small leaf, unfurling in hot water, bringing life to the liquid and to its imbiber. How can all these miraculous elixir emanate from a single bush, from a glossy green leaf with soft, serrated edges?

As it turns out, the guide at the Happy Valley Tea Plantation was happy to show David and me. He lead us into the room where the tea sits in long, flat bins, blown first by cool air, then hot air to remove moisture. Then, off to the machines! Monstrosities with gears and rotors and rollers; they seem as if they’re more likely to propel a steamship than to produce a delicate, almost effete, beverage. There’s a machine to roll the leaves, another to dry it, and yet another to sort the leaves according to size and grade. The leaves get a short respite before drying on a long, tiled fermentation table, but it’s the metal that coaxes them to give up their secrets.

Okay, perhaps the process isn’t so mysterious after all. But it is time-intensive, and reminds me of the long, laborious path of rice, from stalk to plate. Inside the final processing room, women sitting on the ground sifted the finished tea to clear it of dust. They tossed it in the air from wide, shallow baskets and caught it in a smooth, simple motion, over and over again. The entire room smelled of tea; you could steep the air and sip it.

And would I like to buy some tea? Maybe.

Back in town, the salesman at Nathmull’s, the renowned tea shop, demonstrated the different varieties of the local Darjeeling; he took a handful of tea, gently crushed it in his fist, blew into his hand, and invited me to smell the aroma, from the generic black tea scent of the lower grades to the floral and earthier scents of the higher grades. Each tea represented a certain estate, a certain season, a certain flavor.

So let us sing the praises of the tea picker! Women wrapped in swathes of color who roam the rows of tea bushes. They carry bamboo baskets on their backs, and their fingers skim over the tops of the plants, knowing exactly which leaves to pick and which to leave behind. They separate bud from stalk, and the baskets slowly fill with green. To protect themselves from the sun, they open umbrellas -- dots of color among the green hills. They smile at strangers and boldly ask for tips for photographs. And when a stranger gives them a shiny 2 rupee coin, they laugh, standing straight up for a moment, a quick, breathy break before returning to a hunch, the leaves awaiting their nimble fingers.

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