Old drinks, new skins

Old drinks, new skins

Nestea in plastic cups in Darjeeling
Modern Times in Darjeeling: Bag of imported Darjeeling tea in a plastic cup.

On the tea stands glasses and earthen pots are more and more replaced by plastic cups. The tea wallah explains the advantages: Less breakage, less costly and less work. Glasses are multi-use, but have to be polished – and water for the tea stand mostly has to be fetched in a canister. This will be filled with drinking water at a near-by well and then carted to the stand. The earthen pots are simply dumped after use. “The nice terracotta bowls” I had thought the first few times. But it is unburned clay, multi-use is unhygienic. 100 earthen pots cost 20 Rupees. But there is breakage, not all of them reach the tea stand in proper condition. The plastic cups are easier to pile, 100 pieces cost ten Rupees and after use they are as well simply thrown away. The earthen cup manufacturers – entire villages live of its production – will hopefully keep up their countenance about the triumph of the mass product. In most cases my tea comes in two piled cups. Either the cups are not solid enough or the tea is too hot for one cup. I’ll need a cuppa to cross-calculate that.

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Wait, see and sip a cup of tea – From the home of a most respected hot drink

Wait, see and sip a cup of tea – From the home of a most respected hot drink

Am Fuße des Himalaya wird in großem Stil Tee angebaut. Weite Grünflächen, durchsetzt mit Schattenbäumen prägen das Landschaftsbild.
Darjeeling, the Dooars, Assam: On the foothills of the Himalaya tea is grown in a big style. Vast green areas interspersed with shade trees characterize the landscape.

Tea consists of hot water and herbal extracts. And the essences of one particular plant were extremely attractive to the British colonial administration officers in India’s Northeast: Camellia sinensis. The whole turned out to become a success story – at least for the culinary world. In search of adequate planting areas the landscape was eagerly transformed to cultivate the new discovery. Since, India is one of the biggest global tea producers – and Assam and Darjeeling are world famous.

But today, India’s tea industry is often yearning for the golden times. Prices have cracked down on international markets, competition has increased from other areas abroad and the decrease in domestic demand – the soft drink industry is poaching clients away – are making problems. Several tea gardens already had to close down and one can imagine that this is not causing happiness of the population in such labor intensive industry.

Vast green areas, tranquility, fresh air and an old English ambience – Tea gardens have a very special appeal, besides its production function. Some visionaries have recognized already years ago, that tourism and tea go well together. By now, the travel industry is praised as sheet anchor and panacea for the suffering industry. Public authorities are supporting the new dream couple with 60 million Rupees for infrastructure development.

Schnell waren die jugendlichen Teegarten-Arbeiter begeistert von der Idee, den Gästen ihre Lieder und Tänze vorzuführen.
The young tea garden workers liked the idea to perform dances and songs for the guests.

If the plans succeed, soon the masses will start flushing in, to appreciatively sip tea from porcelain cups while they watch the tea pluckers – female ones, male ones I have not noticed so far – plucking the leaves. They will learn how the plant is processed into a dried substrate and perhaps – ideally – they will participate in the rich cultural treasure of the tea-garden workers. From near and far they had come once, in search of labour. Tea gardens offered discounted food rations, schools, and health-care – many things that made even hard work attractive. Thus microcosms have evolved, melting pots of various ethnic groups, with different songs and tales, and culinary diversity. Moreover, the ample plantations are a valuable habitat for sundry animals. On the premises of several tea gardens wide-stretched forests are found that are inhabited by such rare animals like the clouded leopard. Pools inside the properties especially in the upper areas of Darjeeling are home to the Himalayan Newt, a species on the edge of extinction.

With that tea tourism had additional attractions to offer. Necessary ones, I think. As whether the ambience, the tranquility, the remoteness and the display of the production process alone are sufficient to permanently draw the attention of the volatile masses of tourists in a global travel circus not scarce of ever new alternatives, we have to wait and see.