India - Part 5 - Wild Ride

This is part 5 of my Indian tea adventure. You can read earlier entries here.

We were sad to leave Darjeeling. It was a long drive down the mountains, slowly leaving the mist behind us as we emerged into the plains again. We had been invited to a dinner by the Goodricke group and we caught a flight to Kokata, fingers crossed we would make it in time. It took nearly 12 hours of travelling to get from Darjeeling to Kolkata and we arrived at our hotel, running late with only 10 minutes to get cleaned up and change into our nice clothes. At this point my nice clothes were kind of relative since everything was wrinkled. We made it to the dinner only slightly late. The food was excellent and we met some wonderful people who were great to chat with. We were all completely exhausted after another day of solid travel, but we had a really nice time. Thank you for the lovely party, Goodricke.

The next day we hopped on yet another airplane, this time to Assam, where we would be spending the rest of our trip. Immediately upon landing in Assam, it was clear that it was a very different climate from Darjeeling. While Darjeeling had been cool and misty, Assam was HOT. So hot, so humid. Here in Toronto we think our summers are hot and humid, but I had never felt anything like this before. 

An Assam tea estate, flat and seemingly endless.

An Assam tea estate, flat and seemingly endless.

Assam is the world's largest tea-producing region, and right away it's pretty clear that tea is king. Everywhere you look there is a tea estate. There are huge estates with tea as far as the eye can see, and tiny little plantations no bigger than a backyard.

Assam's land is very flat, and seems to revolve around the Monsoon. We arrived just before Monsoon season was expected to start and everywhere we went people we speculating about rain. All the tea fields are crisscrossed with trenches to help the inevitable water drain away without flooding. In Darjeeling this wasn't a concern because it's pretty hard for water to build up on steep mountain sides, but in Assam the rain can be a blessing and a curse. You can't get tea without water, but if you get too much water the tea leaves will grow too quickly and will produce a flat and tasteless harvest. Beyond that, heavy rains frequently lead to flooding which displaces people from their homes and can even lead to deaths.

We headed to Keyhung Estates, where we were treated to a crazy fun ride through the tea plantation. This was something we didn't get to do much in Darjeeling since all the plants were on hillsides. Since everything is flat in Assam the estates are laid out differently: large fields intersected with dirt roads that can be driven to get from one place to another. So we all piled into the rugged SUVs that are pretty ubiquitous in Assam. The one we picked was like a safari jeep with no seatbelts. Four of us piled into the back and settled in for the bumpy ride. This definitely wouldn't have passed safety regulations back home, which might have been why it was so much fun. It was just approaching sunset and the cooling air blowing through the jeep was refreshing after the heat of the day. And then out of nowhere it just started to pour. We didn't really have windows in this jeep, so we had to scramble to roll down the canvas and plastic walls, but we still got pretty soaked. The rain gave us a chance to see how the trenches in the tea fields worked. The ground was immediately soaked and the water poured along the trenches very efficiently. Pretty neat!

Bouncing around in the back of a safari jeep. Having way too much fun.

Bouncing around in the back of a safari jeep. Having way too much fun.

Here comes the rain!

Here comes the rain!

The sun went down and we headed to the factory to get our first glimpse at how tea is processed in Assam, which is a bit different than in Darjeeling. The first step though is the same: after the tea is plucked, the first step in its processing is called withering. This is where the leaves are spread out flat in the air until the moisture content reduces and the leaves soften enough to be processed. When we visited the withering troughs, the air was filled with the most beautiful scent. As the leaves soften, they release a strong fragrance and the leaves at Keyhung smelled exactly like lilies. Big fans blow air over the leaves to help with the withering process. Processing tea is a science, but it is also an art. Withering takes a different amount of time depending on a lot of factors including the temperature, the moisture in the air, etc. So to check when the leaves are actually finished withering, you squeeze them in you hand to see how they feel. If the leaves are soft enough to hold together in a ball, they are done. If they spring apart or break instead of bending, they need some more time in the trough. Once the leaves have reached the desired moisture content, they head into the factory for the rest of their processing. We'll take a closer look at what happens then in a later blog post.

A withering trough at Keyhung. Air is being blown over the tea to reduce its moisture content.

A withering trough at Keyhung. Air is being blown over the tea to reduce its moisture content.

One cool thing about Assam: Lizards! In Darjeeling there were some giant spiders, which I have to admit I'm not wild about. But tiny little lizards are everywhere in Assam, especially at night. You can see them running around on the walls and they're adorable.

A small Assam lizard says hello.

A small Assam lizard says hello.

Next week I meet some incredibly inspiring people, wear another silly outfit, learn about the next steps in processing Assam tea, and even dance a bit.