From May 26th to June 7th, I had the incredible opportunity to spend two weeks in India touring Darjeeling and Assam with the Tea Association of Canada. It was a completely astonishing trip and it gave me the chance to meet so many amazing people and see so many things I never imagined I’d have the chance to see.
I'll be posting part of the story every Thursday.
For a little under a year now I have been taking classes with the Tea Association of Canada's Tea Sommelier program. This is a really great program which covers every aspect of tea, starting with simple things like "What are the different kinds of tea?" and progressing all the way to things like business, food pairing, and the science of tea production. The whole thing is written and taught by the wonderful Shabnam Weber of The Tea Emporium. So, one day Shabnam mentioned that TAC was organizing a trip to India and that anyone who wanted to come should send an email requesting the info. I have always wanted to visit India, even before my interest in tea. So I asked my husband "Should I do it?" and he of course said "You have to!"
Maybe it's crazy to agree to visit a new country with a group of people who you have never met before (some people certainly told me so), but you only live once and how many chances would I get to see India's tea estates? So I flew across an ocean with a bunch of people I met for the very first time at the airport. Luckily everyone was incredibly kind and enthusiastic. In total there were 8 of us, most of whom owned successful tea companies already. And then there was me, only thinking about this company and not sure if I should actually do it.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that visiting India changes a person, and after seeing India I can completely understand why.
It’s not easy to get to India from Canada. It’s a long way away and there are no direct flights. It took 30 hours, 4 airports, 3 planes, 2 buses, and 2 taxis, but I finally arrived in Kolkata, India completely and utterly exhausted around 4 in the morning local time. It’s a strange thing to arrive in a new city before the sun is even up, but it can afford you a unique look at a city. It was so early that the streets were almost empty of cars. As we drove to our hotel, some people were starting to wake up, wandering around the streets, getting water, starting their day. Frankly, it was all a bit of a sleep deprived blur and I felt very far from home with no concept of what time it was. Nothing looked familiar, which was both exciting and a little bit intimidating.
Our hotel was an oasis of calm and quiet. I collapsed and got a couple hours of sleep and then we hit the ground running again.
We headed out into the blistering Indian sun, right in the middle of an intense heatwave. Some areas of India were so hot that the roads were actually melting. People were dying. Luckily we were in the north, so the temperatures we only (!) around 40 degrees celsius, not 50. We were never in any actual danger, but it made our complaining about Canadian summers seem pretty ridiculous. And it turns out I wouldn’t even know what it meant to be hot until we got to Assam a week later, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Speaking of Canadian complaints that seem quaint, I will never complain about driving in Canada again. I love car trips, and for some reason I love driving in really crazy situations that most other people would freak out about. I get a kick out of the adrenaline rush, I guess. Mountains, cliffs, and narrow roads? Bring it on! But driving in Kolkata definitely has its own brand of fear to bring to the table. The traffic is inconceivable. The honking is constant. Streetlights seem to be nothing more than pretty decorative coloured lights to look at as you go zipping past them (when they exist at all). Seatbelts don't really seem to be a thing either. And everyone treats this as completely normal. During our couple days in Kolkata we probably had over a dozen near-miss accidents, including one with a bus that very nearly sideswiped our car, right in front of me. The whole thing would have given my mother a heart attack. I am very grateful to our driver!
We crawled through the traffic in our blissfully air conditioned car to the Kolkata Tea Auctions. We were given a very warm reception by everyone there and were made to feel very welcome in India. The auctions are where all the tea in India comes to be valued and sold to the worldwide market. In the past this would have all be done in person, but now it's all done online (except for the Darjeeling teas which are still done the old way) and teas can be bought through auction by anyone with an internet connection. It's kind of like tea Ebay, but 100 times more complicated.
We headed upstairs to the J Thomas tasting rooms and had a cupping of about 18 Indian teas: green tea, 1st flush Darjeeling, 2nd flush Darjeeling, Assam orthodox and CTC. It was a nice little primer for the regions we would be visiting in the coming days.
The tasting room must have contained thousands of teas, all in little tins, filed away in drawer after drawer. There were rows and rows of cupping sets and all I could think of were how many cups of teas the tasters must taste in a day, a week, a year. It’s mind boggling. That's right, there are people who get paid to taste tea all day. It's not all fun and games. It's an important and precise job. At J Thomas the tasters are responsible for tasting each tea that come to auction and passing a judgement on it that will determine how much the tea ends up selling for.
By the time we were done, night had fallen and we took a quick detour to Mother Teresa’s tomb, which was peaceful and thought provoking.
When we got back to our car there was a goat hanging out next to it, like it was no big deal. I tried to get a picture of it, but it was wily.
We all ate some food and had a well-deserved beer and hit the hay nice and early. We’d have to be up at the crack of dawn to catch our flight to the hills of Darjeeling, where we'd get to see our first tea estate.