Monday, April 13, 2009

the tea is fresh in bangladesh

greetings from sunny bangladesh! we have been here at the teatulia tea estate, which is called the kazi & kazi tea estate (KKTE) in bangladesh, for a little over two weeks now. it is 180 degrees different from where we were in india - and i don't just mean because it's that much hotter.

for one thing, this was what walking looked like in makaibari:

maggie, standing up straight. not trick photography, just the himalayas

meanwhile, everywhere here is as flat as can be, for as far as the eye can see.

after a long, grueling trek from makaibari, including a 3km walk uphill (see previous photo), a 1.5-hour shared jeep ride down to the plains, 2 hours of lugging our stuff all over hot, crowded Siliguri trying to find a bus, a 2 hour bus ride, a 20 minute flatbed cycle rickshaw ride, a cup of tea with money exchangers, 20 minutes filling out immigration forms, getting our passports stamped at multiple tables and seth telling the Indian border officials that his favorite movie is City Lights , we made it to the bangladesh border, which we walked across.

maggie on the flatbed cycle rickshaw as we neared the border

how they expect us to quickly drink, let alone hold, a glass filled to the brim with piping hot tea, i don't know. not that i'm complaining, though - try getting some free fresh tea at a currency exchange office in the US!

the border

we were met at the border by two representatives from KKTE, who instantly recognized us. not surprising as we were quite likely the only two white people to walk across that border in a long time. one of the representatives was dhali bha (brother dhali), the division manager at the tea estate, who has been our host since we've been here. he's awesome.

dhali bhai in action, cruisin' through the tea

we've since spent our time soaking up everything we can about organic tea production in bangladesh (this is the only organic tea estate in BD, by the way), and everything else this amazing company is involved in. we've got a ton to say, and you can bet we'll say it, but for now we're finishing up our last couple days here before heading down to dhaka, the capital city of bangladesh, to see the tea's first destination once it leaves the factory. wish us luck!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

sikkim the most eco state of india

31 march 2009

or is that just because it is the least populus and most remote? sikkim, the indian state just to the north of where we've been staying in the Darjeeling Region, was it's own country up until 1975.

in darjeeling we thought we were at the cross roads of the world. this is even more true in sikkim, which borders nepal to the west, bhutan to the east and tibet (on some maps we've just seen it identified as china) to the north. and speaking of china, they do not recognize that sikkim is now part of india.

after 3 hours spent in darjeeling getting our permits to allow us to enter sikkim we were ready to begin the 1 1/2 hr shared jeep (like a bus but smaller to pass on these narrow windy mountainous roads) ride to the north. getting back to these permits-they are only required for foreigners. they do not cost money-just time.

it involves going to the magistrates office and filling out a form. the person at the window transcribes (by hand-at government offices i rarely see any computers) all of our personal information into a large ledger book and then stamps our form. we then walk our form across town to the foreigner's registration office, where another man transcribes all of our personal information into a large ledger book (again by hand!) and then stamps our form. we now walk the 30 minute walk across town back to the magistrates's office and in exchange for our form we are given our permit. oh india.

complaint and suggestion boxes in the magistrates office building. i wonder if anyone ever checks these boxes?

with our permits in hand we decided to refuel before beginning the journey north so we went to hotel lunar for lunch. this was one of several general listings in our guide book and by far one of the best meals we've had in a restaurant on this whole trip. the service was attentive while giving us space and time to enjoy our food and conversation. i love how many restaurants have personalized tableware

gobi parantha, aloo gobi, chana masala, rice and crazy indian pickles (which maggie likes and seth doesn't)

after we ate they gave us each little bowls of warm water with lemon wedges to wash our fingers. feels so nice!

we made our way back down to the shared jeep area. all of these narrow windy unpaved roads would be even more treacherous in a bus so most of the public transportation is in large jeeps. this would be safer for everyone except more often than not the outside is covered with men. you usually don't have to pay if you hang onto the back or ride on the top. a nice bonus since you'd probably be instantaneously killed in case of an accident. it is good to see the efficiency of travelling with so many people in (and on) one vehicle. the highest we experienced (on another ride) was 21 people.

life on the wild side. note the tea growing along the side of the road.

our time in sikkim was limited, so we decided to head to the less tourist-visited areas in the western part of the country. here are just some of the highlights-

orchids are so plentiful here that restaurants used long stalks full of them on each table as centerpieces.

we spent our first night in Namchi. everything we had read about Sikkim hyped it up as the cleaner smarter cousin of India. we were still shocked to see when we arrived that towns actually were cleaner. the town center had a lovely fountain and aquarium-it felt strangely european. plastic bags are banned in Sikkim ('though we did see some) and they have plans that all vegetables grown there will be done so organically by 2010.

one weird thing we discovered about Sikkim is that many restaurant names begin with the word 'hotel', so it makes it a bit misleading when looking for lodging.

the town of Namchi is putting itself on the map with the construction of large Buddhist and Hindu monuments.
first we visited Samdruptse, the world's largest statue of the Buddha, an impressive 138' of pure happiness. His Holiness (himself) the Dalai Lama laid the foundation stone on 22 oct 1997.

and what makes the Buddha so happy? the longhorns, that's right!

on the hill across town is Solophok, the sprawling Hindu complex still under construction. while he is 'only' 102 tall, there will be many more buildings than the Buddhist neighbor across the way. we were amazed that at a site under so much construction we were just able to wander around on our own. no one wore hardhats, i dont even remember seeing all of the workers wearing shoes. it was fascinating to see such detailed architecture in progress.

maggie with Lord Shiva the destroyer. let's hope all of this construction isn't for naught.

from Namchi we headed further northwest to Pelling, the land of hotels. and these were actually lodging hotels, who also had restaurants, and not just restaurants called hotels. we stayed at the Hotel Garuda, which had delicious local cuisine (stay tuned for more in a future posting). we had to know what to ask for and look on the last page of the menu as most travellers (disappointingly) don't have any interest in the local fare, said the hotel staff.

the main attraction of Pelling are breathtaking views of the Himalayas, however this time of year there is a lot of haze so we were only able to get a couple of small glimpses. those alone were very impressive and we would love to come back in the fall when the sky is clear. we imagine it would be like Montana Big Sky Country but with massive mountains instead of sky.

a few kilometers from town is Pemayangtse, the second oldest Buddhist monastery in Sikkim. there are 3 floors and as we climbed higher the detail of the paintings, sculptures and adornments increased as well.

Buddhist prayer flags in honor of victims of 9/11, coalition forces in iraq afghanistan and innocent civilians, late karma ishering and sonam zangmoo, sergio-de-lemo (UN Envoy) and Anna Lindh, madrid train blast, iran 2003 earthquake, and victims of genocide, mass murder ethnic cleansing around the world.

happy seth after spinning a ~12' tall prayer wheel. we have a video of this and when we can get a faster internet connection we'll put that up!

apparently seth's shoes are not made for walking because they have been falling apart at the seams. we'd been seeing shoe repairmen (never women-they are too busy carrying heavy things on their heads) in our travels and we finally had the time to have the work done. in the end it took about 25 minutes and it cost 60 Rupees (that's $1.20). it was beautiful to watch this man's hands at work.

the most environmental way to be - repair it, don't just throw it out and buy new.

when we read that there were hot springs in Sikkim we knew that no trip would be complete without a visit. fortunately our guidebook didn't give any more information than a passing mention. so when we eventually arrived we were the only non-locals. it was way more low-key that what we had been expecting. a line of sandbags pooled up the warm sulfury water from flowing into the adjacent Rangit River. i made sure to be well covered wearing a swim suit, under a t-shirt and long flowy pants. meanwhile local women already soaking away when we arrived were ready for the S. Padre Island Spring Break wet t-shirt contest.

seth in tato pani (tato=hot, pani=water) having cold river water poured onto him by a naked little boy.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

tastes like dragon

the next couple of weeks were spent learning the ins-and-outs of cultivating and maintaining a 150-year-old (this year!) mountainside tea estate. we saw bamboo bigger than we'd ever seen before (it's freakin' HUGE), learned about the permaculture principles applied on the tea estate, made momos (tibetan dumplings) learned about the proper application of compost and mulch, made momos, learned the secrets of the biodynamic process, made more momos, and learned about proper pruning and "rejuvenation" techniques. hopefully one day we'll have enough bandwidth and be on a computer with a new enough version of internet explorer to make a couple posts on these experiences possible, but for now, you get the reader's digest version. (for the record, the fact that we are in rural southern asia and there is any internet access at all is amazing, so don't think we're complaining).

which brings us to our final week at makaibari. with the rajah in calcutta for family reasons, we were left to make our own schedule, and we decided to focus on the processing and tasting sides of things. so we got to the factory at 5 am to watch the final stages of the withering process of tea that was plucked the afternoon before. we followed the leaves from the withering troughs, where they are dumped after being brought in from the field, to the rolling machines, to the drying machine, and finally to the sorting room, where the processed tea is separated into countless different classes and grades of finished tea.

leaves wither from 12-18 hours, depending on moisture levels. a 15-minute difference in withering can mean a huge difference in taste.

that afternoon, we set up a tasting session with mr. sanjoy, the asst. manager of the factory. we met in the tasting room, where the woman who makes tea for visitors (i forget the nepali word for this position...) steeped 2 grams of 6 different kinds of tea for exactly five minutes each. they had prepared for us a sampling of their 6 main types of tea - first flush, second flush (muscatel), oolong, silver green, bai mu dan (white tea), and silver tips imperial.

we were invited to first look at the color (liquor) of the tea, then to look at the dried leaves, then to look at and smell the steeped leaves, and finally to taste the tea, using a specific slurping method to send the tea all around your mouth and open up the flavors (hoity-toity as it may sound, it really does help). we figure if we're ever going to make tea, we need to train our palates so we know if it's any good.

see how different the colors of these cups of tea are - all just through slight variations of processing.

mr. sanjoy was very helpful and informative, and after he left, we lingered for a while longer, inspecting the leaves and quizzing each other with blind taste tests. we left feeling exhilarated, alive, and ready to drink more tea.

white tea leaves

makaibari's silver tips imperial tea is by many accounts the most expensive tea in the world. seth thinks it tastes like licking a dragon, which he swears is a good thing.

maggie inspecting the bounty

seth blindly tasting

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Makaibari Tea Estate

Greetings from Darjeeling! Well, technically, we're in Kurseong. Actually, we're in a village called Makaibari, which is a bit south of Kurseong, which is 29 Km south of the town of Darjeeling. But it's all in the Darjeeling district, so who's keeping track? And it's India so do you really expect anything to be straightforward (insert head wobble)!

After a hair-riaising taxi ride - our first of many - up here from the train station, we arrived at the Makaibari Tea Estate (, our home for the next month or so.

maggie arriving at the estate

Seth used to serve and enjoy Makaibari tea many years ago when he worked at Tealuxe, and we both had been planning for this moment a long time, so it was an incredible experience to actually show up at the place where it's all grown an processed.

a bird's eye view of the factory and surrounding village

The people here are wonderful - everyone is extremely nice and welcoming, and all of the village children are eager to practice their English on a couple of fair-skinned folks passing by. It is weird to think that we are still in India - the people here are an ethnic mix of Indian, Tibetan, and, especially, Nepali. Most people here are fluent in Nepali, Hindi, and Bengali, and a lot are pretty good at English. We're doing our best to learn a few basics of Nepali.

Shortly after we arrived, we were introduced to Pasan, whose house we are staying at while we are here. It's a wonderful slice of Makaibari life. We share the house with Pasan, his wife Sonju, their 5-year old son Sonam, his two parents, his cousin-brother (male cousin) Rupak, 4 goats, about 8 chickens, a dog, a cat, and an 11' x 12' cherry tomato plant.

seth in front of the house where we're staying. it's the green one.

the giant tomato plant coming in through the kitchen window

In our first week we had a quick crash course in the whole operation, and got to spend an entire day plucking tea, learning the proper "two leaves and a bud" technique. There's definitely more of that to come. By the end of the week, we were sat down at a meeting with all of the field managers and grilled by them as to our future plans with tea. At the end of the meeting, all of the managers, as well as the owner of Makaibari (more on him soon) applauded us and our plans. Incredible.

typical sight.

even more typical sight.


our new friend lila showing us the proper pluck.

maggie plucking properly.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Darjeeling Limited (with unlimited food)

Our final day in Delhi was a bit hectic, with a couple tourist-y things on the agenda while making sure we got to the train station in time to catch the 2424 Rajdhani Express out to New Jalpaiguri, our stopping point at the foothills of the Himalayas. Before we left, though, we wanted to make sure to visit Gandhi Smriti, the place where Mahatma Gandhi was living when he was assassinated in 1948 and where he was shot.

gandhi smriti.

footsteps showing gandhi's final path before his assassination.

Then we took a quick rickshaw ride around the block to the Indira Gandhi museum, which is situated around the house she lived in and the place where she was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984 (pretty amazing that she and Mahatma - no relation - were assassinated so close to one another.

Then we took our final rickshaw in Delhi to the New Delhi Train Station (for those IHPers reading who know there's a difference...), where we joined the throbbing mass of people heading towards their trains.

seth in the train station.

Finally we found ourselves situated in our 3-tier AC cabin, surrounded by people from all over India (and 3 Japanese teenagers on spring break - woohoo! India! Spring Break!) - our home for the next 24 hours. We'll let the pictures (and their captions) tell the rest of the story...

view of the mighty ganges from the train.

the bank of the ganges.

maggie bein' productive on the train.

meals on wheels!

the meal on wheels!

i wasn't getting enough tea on the train, so i jumped off the train at a stop to get some chai from a little stall.


ingenious water bottle holder beneath the little table between seats. very discreet. so discreet that maggie left her bottle on the train.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

a list of animals we saw in delhi

many dogs (stray)
many cows (also stray)
an elephant (being ridden down the highway)
several chickens
a few big mice (under our feet in a little food stall. we left.)
several goats (stray?)
many parrots (wild)
several monkeys (in the rafters at the train station)

Monday, March 2, 2009

where the **** is DHL?

our time here in delhi has been great. we are in constant amazement at how many people there are. there seems to be a constant stream of people moving throughout the city. not surprising since the population is over 13 million people!

we've seen many of the important landmarks that are to be seen here, which by the way is the site of no fewer than 8 successive cities. several of these i saw when i was here on IHP (the International Honors Program,, but it has been wonderful to revisit them and to share them with Seth.
just down the block from our hotel is the Lotus Temple, a Baha'i Temple. the architecture is breath-taking, and as you get close to the building, especially near the steps to the reflecting pools it feels like you're in the middle of Logan's Run. that's a shout out to all you Texans reading along!

we've ridden on many of the transportation options available in delhi, not all by a long shot. the city is in the process of building a METRO. this is scheduled to be completed no sooner than 2021 -this could become India's Big Dig Project. we've been in taxis and auto rickshaws.

and today for the first time we rode in a cycle rickshaw.

unfortunately the Indian postal service, especially with packages is incredibly unreliable. today after walking the streets back and forth and asking directions from five different people we finally found DHL where I was able to mail the fabric

i purchased for my wedding dress.

tomorrow we leave for darjeeling. buying the tickets was true india. a man desperately trying to convince us that we should leave the train station and follow him across the street to the foreign ticket office. try as he may we made it to the real ticket office for foreigners and man was it worth it! not only did we hassle free purchase our tickets, we got to see Indian design at it's best. check out the relief wall map

that giant ridge on the upper right of the country? that's the himalayas. we'll be going partially up that to get to darjeeling, where we'll be living and working for the next month. my favorite, though, is the map of the room telling me where i'm at.

we will be travelling by train-it is scheduled to be about a 20 hour trip. onwards and upwards (literally), to darjeeling!