In October, I visited the small Chinese-Thai community of Mae Salong, in Northern Thailand. I went with a good friend from Chiang Rai. With his friends, we visited a family that owns and runs a small-scale tea farm and store.
The morning after we arrived, we rode in the back of their pick-up truck to the farm-land, where we helped harvest tea, picking leaves for hours.
After weighing and bagging the leaves, we returned to the store, where we air-dried the tea, then processed and rolled the leaves. Two days later, our tea was packaged and ready to enjoy.
The tea we made, Cha Kow Hom (“Fragrant Rice Tea”) is an oolong with that has notes that remind me of buttered popcorn or freshly ground peanut butter. It’s so good, and I love that I know it was home-grown and hand-picked by me and my new friends in Northern Thailand.
– Bree O’Keane is the International Program Coordinator of the Khon Kaen Education Initiative, a grassroots alternative and sustainable education project in northeastern Thailand. Living in Thailand on-and-off since 2003, Bree has developed a strong community of friends and family in the region. Resulting from her interest in tea and inspired by working with Samovar Tea Lounge, Bree returned to Thailand last May with the hopes of sharing her interests, experiences, and belief that tea unites cultures and individuals. An idea for a tea house/community space was born and rapidly grew to fruition. Bree has just returned to Khon Kaen and Wong Nam Cha (the tea house).
When Lorraine and I first arrived in Taiwan, we were so excited, we were filming and photographing everything. We were ready to engulf ourselves in all of what the tea culture had to offer us, and we did.
At first, we had no idea what we would be doing, since our entire itinerary was in Chinese. We spent the majority of the first day traveling from Taipei to Puli; a four hour drive (on paved roads, of course). By the end of the day, we had visited Mr. Chen’s tea company Bih-lu Tea, met our translator Tinja, and Mr. Chen’s wife Kate and baby daughter.
In the late afternoon, we ended up at a Buddhist Monastery on the top of a mountain for the night. We had a full view of one of the world’s largest and tallest monasteries. It was beautiful.
I of course, almost forgot to mention the highlight of that day—the amount of food we consumed with the commissioners of the monastery along with our team. We even had our very own chef. That day, we found out that Taiwanese people love to eat 12-course meals. We were fine with it.
On that note, the next morning was followed by some great soy milk and sweet bread. It was a lovely experience, as we ate and prepared for our hour-long drive to Mr.Chen’s gardens to start our day picking and processing the beginning stages of tea. That morning, we also met our new translator Rebecca, who was there with us the duration of the trip.
A typhoon had damaged the majority of the roads the week before, so it was a wet and semi-dangerous road to travel in. We also had to take a different route since the main bridge to Puli had also collapsed in the damage. It was an interesting experience to say the least.
When we arrived at the gardens in Puli, there were so many women in extremely bright floral printed outfits and similar hats—it was almost as if it was a strategically planned wardrobe coordinated by one of the twenty or so women who surrounded the fields.
It was something I’ve never experienced or seen before, and it made me smile as I entered the tea gardens to join them for the day. I was ready for my own Martha Stewart hat and basket.
This time, I will try to take a closer look at the specifics of culture and life in India. I don’t mean to plunge into any elaborate analysis, but rather draw a couple of examples which might strike a
foreigner, make him think, laugh and wonder.
In India, you can experience uniquely diverse, colorful and spiritual culture – women of all castes gracefully wearing sari, Hindu gods smiling from the temples, markets full of scents, spices, people,
animals and shouting…
Of course, the holy cows have unlimited access everywhere and so do the numerous stray dogs. There are billions of people living in India,and at least the same number of animals on the streets. No wonder that my friend who was coming to pick me up just recently, used a curious but a very credible excuse for running late – he hit the buffalo on the way, since it was dark and the black buffalo certainly didn’t have any night lights.
Westerners, especially girls, might be scared of mice, cockroaches or spiders. I haven’t seen yet any of these species here. Instead, there is an army of lizards creeping on the walls, in the bathrooms and windows. The girls at our home are all scared of them to death, while I think they are rather cute and harmless.
The local shopping center looks as a nearly abandoned market with exclusively over-the-counter type of shops. No vast parking lots, no shelves of goods, no trolleys…but a kind “uncle” who speaks broken English and is extremely helpful. I can also sing odes to the mango shake I’ve had once at the juice stand. After some doubts as for hygienic reasons, I have consented to try the famous potion which was positively the best mango shake I have ever had. With raisins, cashew nuts, dried fruit and ice-cream. Yum!
Every country has its own ways, America has its Jamba Juice, India has, for instance, Pappu Juice Corner – find 10 differences.
Talking about the services, what an unexpected surprise it is to realize that Pizza Hut over here is not a fast food place, but one of the most popular restaurants at the Connaught Place in New Delhi.
People are waiting in crowds outside to be seated (imagine a good sushi place in SF) and then ushered to a restaurant with booths, waiters, porcelain plates and menus. Yes, that’s Pizza Hut in India.
In my opinion, what makes any culture specific and different is the people. And let me tell you – the Indian people definitely let you feel that you are in a different place. Their generosity, boundless curiosity and constant smile never wear out. It is so natural for the Indian people to engage in a conversation with any foreigner (who is always easy to be spotted). I have been attacked by questions ranging from the education and economic system of my country to my private life (in a detailed cross check). Indian people are curious and at the same time let you know their pride over being Indian. They eagerly explain about their traditions, food (which is a crucial part of their culture), religions, movies, languages (they are sometimes very fierce to teach you Hindi)…etc.
It is amazing how most people here know English and there is hardly any need for the foreigners to step out of the language safety zone. However, their English is the “Queen’s English” as they proclaim, which means that some words are almost obsolete and hardly even used in today’s England. For instance, my little girls have never heard the word “dress” but daily operate with the term “frock”. To describe a teacher, one of the girls told me “she is a learned woman”. It has been some time since I’ve heard teenagers speaking like this.
As a part of cultural pattern, I never stop wondering at the emphasis Indian people, especially women, place on good looks. They are extremely outspoken when it comes to appearance. It is normal to comment on weight and overall looks to the point when one woman says to another “You look so beautiful!” whether they know each other or not. Good looking people seem to have naturally gained an authority and respect.
The general idea of beauty is ruled by the fairness of your skin – the fairer, the better. In amazement, I watched a TV commercial advertising a product for men called “Fair and Handsome” – some kind of a skin lightener. You could see a guy in the commercial being surrounded by sexy females, after he used the product mentioned (which makes a good idea for a crazy souvenir).
There is plenty to learn and explore every day. The children uncover hidden Indian secrets for me and teach me how to live, be happy and fight life’s hardships. If I could teach them half as much as they teach me, I would be able to leave content and satisfied.
With this I leave you for today. Be well and make others feel good.
From the Faraway state of Uttar Pradesh, all the way to Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco, this is Tea Ambassador Teresa reporting from afar…
In another words, a place where time seems to stand still and therefore it comes as a surprise to me that it has been almost 3 weeks already since I arrived here.
This red brick 4 storey house, full of all those joyful faces of girls running around, really feels like home to me now. That is where I wake up every morning and before going down for breakfast, take an Indian bath. The whole intricate system of taking a shower in an Indian way lies in one bigger bucket full of water and a small pitcher with which a person splashes the water over himself/herself. So instead of “taking a shower”, it is more like “taking a bucket”. However, it serves the purpose fairly well.
The daily routine starts with a breakfast (invariably toasts and hot milk or mildly spiced chai) and follows with my workshops with the older girls. There is some time to exhale and wipe off the sweat before lunch is served. (The secret word is: 215) Lunch as well as dinner consists of chapatis (“pancakes” made out of flour and water, rosted on open fire), rice, raita (yoghurt-like sour concoction) and cooked vegetables of different sorts but bigger amounts, so that all the 50 hungry throats in the house would get fed.
After lunch, I’m having English classes with the little ones for a few hours that naturally flow into an art workshop (yes, the girls love to draw) and sometimes basketball or a game of cards. There are also moments I steal away a little time for making tea from my own collection.
Dinner comes as late as 8pm and then there is just a little time left for the weenies to brush their teeth and play in their roomsbefore they get too tired and often crush at any random place in a house (from where the older girls carry them to their beds). Seeing a little girl sleeping on a concrete floor is a common phenomena, which quickly stops being a matter of concern. The older girls (and I) stay up till about midnight and talk, study or iron their school uniforms (the older ones still go to school in the mornings). Night is the time I get to know the older ones as they become more open and eager to share their personal stories, their passions but also fears and worries about their pasts and their futures. It is at night when you get to hear the most touching, most frightening and most sincere stories of their lives which you wish they never had to live through.
English classes with the little ones would rather deserve a title “Teresa’s preschool play group”, since we are mostly drawing, playing, crying, screaming, laughing, sleeping (and all that the 6 year olds love to do) and, of course, we try to do all that in English. The personality development workshop with the older girls has revealed many areas that should be worked on – the ability to listen, express oneself, work in a team, not to give up easily, take challenges, think in abstract terms, be creative, trust and understand. Generally all that everyone of us needs to get better at, right?
Well, these girls need special attention and care since their reactions are sometimes not adequate to the situation. The management of their own feelings might be one of the tricky parts. So it happens a girl can start crying during the class for seemingly no reason at all and stays inert until the end of the workshop, one 6 years old princess threatens another 6 y/o by shooting her dead (obvious knowledge of handing guns), and I even witnessed an ostensibly symbolic gesture of suicide. That all and more. The light tone of my voice serves merely to make the tragic reality digestable for general public.
It is not an easy work at times, but then, don’t get the impression it is all just dealing with difficult deep-tissue problems. Thegirls are adorable and after all, they are just kids who want the same like any of us in their age. They need to play, to hug, to have a cry sometimes, they are smiling most of the time, running and calling at each other from the inner porches of the house, they help aunties in the kitchen and although none of them has or knows her parents, each has 40 other sisters living in the same house. It feels like a big loving family.
My time here has recently had two other highlights – a very positive one, when a Danish girl Camilla joined me here as a volunteer and became my friend and a work colleague for 2 weeks; and a not-so-great one, when I was shot down by a typical Indian sickness (which means 3 days of strong headaches, fever, diarrhea and being sick). This is apparently a common “tax” that every foreigner has to pay if he/she intends to spend more than 2 weeks over here. The local people are completely chilled about it and always have the remedy that gets you up to your feet again within 3 days. Just another typical Indian experience (usual for other hot-climate countries as well).
Alright, today it was mostly about “the daily life in one orphanage in India”. There are much more impressions and observations which I will keep for later. Anyone who should have any specific questions from social/cultural/touristic or any related areas, feel free to drop me a line. Next time, I will try to focus on confrontation of cultures (get ready for some surprising and funny bits). Hope a few pictures get through for you to get a better idea what I am writing about.
Many greetings and best wishes! Keep making small differences in the world and drinking good tea!
Teresa — [email protected]
Since every journey has its beginning, this one starts in the cozy shelter of Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco, and ends on the streets of India.
Having loved tea with its different varieties since my teenage years in the Czech Rebpulic, it has always been a necessity for me to find a good tea spot wherever I live. So when I moved to San Francisco last August and started my desperate tea search, Samovar was one of the names that came up. I soon realized it was my favorite place to visit, and, yet that if I kept up my student life, I would go broke drinking up my savings!
And so, knowing well that I loved the environment there, I decided it would be a perfect place to work (and, I could drink all the tea I wanted!) It was always wonderful to cross the Yerba Buena Gardens when going to work, which never really felt like work but rather like a community of people sharing similar values and love for tea. Doing matcha services, smelling the opening leaves of dong ding, hearing the church bells from across the Mission street, joking with my colleagues (who I miss and send my love to)…that all was part of my job which I very much enjoyed.
When the idea of my leaving to India came up, I was, of course, sad to say goodbye to all the tea-lounging of Samovarites and to all the friends I made there within the few months I was part of the TEAm. At the same time, I knew the India experience would bring a lot of joy to my life and to the life of others as well.
My mission in India is to make a difference, to help other people live their life in a rich and satisfying manner—and I decided to put my educational training (in education) into play by starting a program targeted at helping homeless Indian girls.