“Did you see that man in the pith helmet,” I asked Chris as we walked down a grassy two-track into the village. It was strangely quiet compared to all the festive hoopla coming from the same direction earlier. The air was still cool, but I could tell it would be plenty warm soon.
“That was the guy from dinner last night,” Chris answered. “You know, the one you sat next to? I thought you talked to him most of the night.”
“Sherman? Wow, he looks different in a hat.” Not that I’m any good with faces anyway, especially when seated with ten other strangers at a communal dining table—all while recovering from a back-busting ride down a wildly steep, potholed dirt path with hairpin turns.
But I did remember what Sherman had said about India and its customs. In between bites of coconut lamb curry and Tibetan momos, he told me about how he and his wife had visited the country nineteen times. “Once you come here,” he said, you can’t stop coming. India is fascinating.”
Sherman said his wife’s family had been part of the British Raj, something she felt a great deal of shame about now. Still, she wanted to learn about her grandfather born in Calcutta in 1928. Thanks to the meticulous record-keeping skills of the Indians, she’d been able to locate his school records. “Now we have a trail to sniff out,” he said.
Maybe that’s where they were off to today while Chris and I were poking around the village school in hopes of observing its students. Lined up along the hill’s edge, the building’s four rooms overlooked a spectacular view of the Himalayas. Inside sat wooden benches and tables in neat rows. Posters on the walls pointed out the body parts of boys and girls in English: head, leg, eye, finger, elbow. The small chalkboards were all erased. Thanks to a twelve-day festival (something about a god coming back as a king), school was out. We’d have to meet the children another day.
Now it was time for the plantation tour. Because of the festival, we would see only a handful of the estate’s 1,050 workers, but Raju, the assistant manager, escorted us through the nearly empty facilities and explained how a leaf plucked from a bush ends up as a magical tonic in your tea cup.
Right away it was evident that this tea plantation was nothing like those I had read about in the newspaper a week ago. In the village and here in the factory, the few people we did see seemed healthy, happy, and well regarded. No signs of squalor here.
After we donned our lab coats and hair nets, Raju led us through the small factory’s stations for withering, rolling, fermenting, drying, sorting, weighing, and packaging. Inside it smelled like, well, a giant tea bag. Blowers the size of small jet engines brought air in from the outside and circulated it through a series of connected drying racks. During monsoon season, these blowers are essential to prevent the tea from molding while it dries.
As we moved through the stations, we learned that all teas—white, green, black, and oolong—come from the same plant, camellia sinensis. The qualities of the different types of tea are a result of the age (first flush, second flush) and season (spring, monsoon, autumn) they are harvested, as well as their length of fermentation (if fermented at all). At one end of the spectrum, you have your white tea: buds picked young and then air-dried in the sun. No rolling, no fermenting. On the other end, you have your robust black teas that undergo several more production steps, some resulting in a bold malty flavor. It’s all very complicated and specific. Suffice it to say, a lot of knowledge goes into a cup of tea.
At the end of the tour, Raju presented us with spoonfuls of the concoctions to let our palates decipher the flavor profiles of each type. The experience was not unlike a wine tasting in Napa Valley, and I couldn’t help feeling like we were part of something extraordinary: a product whose history has unfurled across thousands of years and many cultures to meet us here on a Darjeeling mountainside.
Despite the puckering price tag, I bought a bag of the exclusive First Flush Spring Leaf, rationalizing that the money would be well spent to bring the taste of the ancient Himalayas back home to our dwarfy Rocky Mountains.
Meanwhile, it was going to take something more potent than tea to see me through the next day. At sunrise, a driver would take us back up the tire-spinning, neck-wrenching switchback to meet our guide, Nidup, at Mile 7. From there we would begin an eight-day journey into the heart of Sikkim. I checked my stash of emergency muscle relaxants and was relieved to see I had a few pills left.