We are sitting in a tea bar, high above Manhattan. Far below us, taxis honk and the city is a never-ending stream of fast-moving cars and people. Not here though. Here there is peace. Soft music is playing through the speakers, a smell of freshly dried tea is wafting through the air and we are seated on cushions around low chairs. There are no clocks.
Across from me is an elderly man, his skin brown, his eyes wise and warm. He sniffs the tea-infused air. “I love this,” he says, a serene smile spreading across his face, “It is the greatest scent in the world.”
I look around. The place is full. Plenty of people agree.
The man orders tea for both of us, and we settle deeper into our cushions and then the man begins to speak.
“I have loved tea,” says the man, “Since I was a child. We lived in a small village in Ceylon. It used to be the name of a country, but now it is only a region in the middle of Sri Lanka. It was a beautiful time and beautiful place. The countryside bumps and undulates in green waves like it has been covered by ancient temples and pyramids long since grown over. And the green of those hills – it is the deepest green. It is verdant and lush and all-encompassing. Amongst those hills, most plantations produced black tea. But our little village specialized in something far more rare. White tea.”
The man closes his eyes, “I remember the tea plants as a child. They were just taller than I was and my friends and I used to run through the fields. We’d wave our arms like birds, jumping to see over the tops of the plants and whirling to avoid our parents – who worked in those fields. We were only kids, but we could feel the flow of the seasons. Not four seasons like here. Rather, a year of careful maintenance followed by three days of furious activity. You see, the white tea only flushed for three days and we had to pick and collect those buds in that short space of time. In those three days, every child who could toddle or walk was conscripted into service. We carried baskets and our parents would carefully pluck the tea buds from their plants.”
He opens his eyes. Our tea has arrived.
He places his in front of himself. I am about to drink mine when he places his hand on my wrist. “No,” he says, “Let it brew.”
I put my cup down and he continues his tale.
“After those three days, a peace would settle over the village. We would dry the tea on the slopes and when the tea was just perfectly wilted, it would be steamed to lock in its flavor. Before long, the entire crop was ready for sale.
“In those days, we used to wait for a travelling tea merchant. Villages like ours were rare. Most tea was grown on plantations and brought to auctions. But white tea is different, and our tea was the best. The love with which we crafted it came through in its incredible quality. And everybody knew it. A tea merchant came to us. I remember, he drove a truck – the only one we ever saw. It gave him a feel of authority. We negotiated a price, and he left with our tea. We kept some of course, and we celebrated the harvest on a cool night filled with the sounds of the village and the aroma of our pride.”
The smell of the tea is rising towards me. It smells of pine trees and honey – of a forest bursting with life. The man gestures to me, telling me to wait.
“As a child, I used to wonder where that merchant took our tea. When I reached the age of 11, I asked the village elders for permission to take a few pounds of our tea myself – and see whether a better price was available. They did not immediately grant me my request. We had what we needed and they were frightened of upsetting their good life. But, eventually, they let me go. I took five pounds of our highest quality white tea with me. And I secretly followed the merchant out of the mountains. After many miles, he came to a town. A British town. And in that town there was an auction. People bidding on lots of tea. I watched with pride as our tea was presented. And I was shocked when it sold – for four times what the merchant had paid. I wanted to scream in protest, but I held myself. And then I wanted to sell my five pounds – but again I restrained myself. There was a huge amount of tea there, nobody was going to drink it that night. Perhaps they too would bring it to their buyers and fetch five times the price. And so I noted who bought our batch and when he loaded it into his small fleet of trucks, I stowed aboard and rode with him.”
The aroma is wonderful and calming. Just breathing it in. I look out the the window. The traffic seems even more distant.
“The man went, cargo in his truck, to Colombo – the ancient trading city of Ceylon. His buyers were not in Sri Lanka. I jumped out of the truck at a stop and followed it to the docks. The cargo was put aboard a ship. When it got dark, I climbed aboard as well. I didn’t mean to stay on the ship. I just wanted to think about my options. I could return home – five pounds of tea, maybe 15,000 individually picked and dried buds, unsold. Or I could go with the ship, worrying my parents and convincing the village never to change. Already, I told myself, I knew enough to make us far better off. But then, I nodded off. When I woke up, the ship had sailed and my decision was made for me.”
He gestures to me. It is time to drink.
I pull the pale golden cup of tea towards my mouth and drink, slowly. The taste is subtle.
“Close your eyes,” says the man. I do. And then the tea transports me.
I imagine myself surrounded by those green hills. I’m taken there, laughing amongst the tea plants. Sitting in the moist earth. Surrounded by beauty.
My eyes are closed, the tea at my lips, as the man continues to speak.
“The ship came here,” he says, “To San Francisco. I followed that tea from ship to warehouse and from warehouse to store. I watched the mark-ups and I watched the prices. And I counted the money my village could collect. And then I followed from store to home. And with that, everything changed. The people who bought seemed more British than others. You would call them WASPs. They were rich, rich enough to know white tea. And when they brought the tea home, they just drunk it at their dinner tables, or while listening to their cabinet radios. Or, if at work, while chatting with colleagues. The tea was secondary – a pricey distraction for the wealthy. After days of watching people just drink my tea, I found myself a park. I sat in the grass. I closed my eyes. And I thought.”
I take another sip.
“And I realized that my tea had traveled thousands of miles – but it had come alone. It had not brought Ceylon with it. I stowed away back home. I sold our tea at the market. I studied English. And when my village had the money, they sent me back to America. And when I got here, I opened the first of many tea bars.”
I open my eyes. My cup is empty.
With a wave of his hand, the man orders more.
And then, with a smile, he says, proudly, “And I brought the Ceylon with me.”