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In 2008 I travelled with a dear friend to India for the first time. If you have ever been or have met anyone who has been to India, you will know that it is a place of complete opposites, never stagnant and never one complete thing. Beyond the enticing lure of enthralling contradictions, India touched me in an unexpected way. It taught me about connectivity.
When you walk down any street, hop off any train, walk into any shop, or traverse a mountain, desert, forest or cityscape, you are met with tea. Every person you meet, or person who wants to meet you, happens through the means of tea. Tea in India is synonymous with welcoming, sharing, and intimate relating. It is the excuse to strike up a conversation and share worlds. The people of India are fascinated with Westerners, and are so proud to share their tea with any traveller. Every person and household has his or her unique mix, majority of which is crafted by the very purveyor of it. When they share that brew, they are sharing an essence of their very raw selves. They are so honored and excited to do so. In exchange, it is with the intention of getting to know you, and everything that is your essence.
In China and Japan, tea is a prerequisite for almost everything. No business meeting or home visit goes without first drinking tea. Tea is honoured as a way that brings one to the present moment, where one can more effectively be present to the person being interacted with, leaving the outside world and all that has proceeded behind. That is a way of honouring the other person, and being honoured in return. In Japan, it is taken further by honouring the environment through subtle representations of the seasons, knowing that just as you are not separate from yourself, you are not separate from the environment and therefore not separate from anyone else for that matter.
Tea is a way to connect to the self, the other and the environment. When entering a traditional Chashitsu, tearoom, it is done so through a very small door that requires one to crawl on hands and knees into the small room where tea will be shared. The symbolism of this is to show that all are equal in the house of tea, regardless of your wealth, societal order, religion or gender. It is only when you relinquish all these things can you truly be a receiver of tea, and more so because you are receiving it from another, the tea master. Tea is the ultimate catalyst for connectivity.
In Morocco and Turkey, tea is a sign of hospitality. It accompanies every meeting, encounter, and food event. When you walk through the markets, down the streets, enter an eatery or come into a home, tea is served. It is the very essence and foundation of sharing, of host offering a part of them humbly and with openness to the guest, and the guest receiving this gift in return offers himself or herself.
In Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Yerba Mate, a local herb from the Holly family, is a tea that represents as its very essence and core, connectivity. The entire ritual of drinking this herbal tea evokes sharing. The tea is served in a gourd with a metal straw. Everyone drinks from the same gourd and the same straw. The host is responsible for preparing and serving the beverage, there is particular etiquette when receiving, drinking and returning the gourd, moving clockwise from and back to the host, touching each and every lip as conversation, laughter and invigoration unfolds.
In the UK, tea has become directly related to its culture and in fact a place from which stereotypical jokes and jest is formed. Tea was originally brought over from China by the British and was part of what created the first trade routes of the early days. The Chinese were very reluctant to share this elixir with the British because they didn’t believe the British, or Western mind set, was capable of holding and receiving its effects. After first tasting this beverage, the British were overwhelmed by these very effects, so much so that they were responsible for opium addiction as a way of gaining access to and trading tea. High society ladies of the old days would host afternoon tea events as a way to connect with their friends and family, and of course to show off their wealth. Fast forward to today, tea has become a daily experience for the British, with teahouses and high tea establishments on every street, a place and opportunity for people to connect and come together.
In South Africa, tea can be found in every home. We have our very own, unique and indigenous herb initially used as a replacement for expensive-to-import black teas from Sri Lanka when the British first occupied South Africa as a colony. Today Rooibos tea is consumed as regularly as water. It is a symbol for comfort and family, friends and strangers alike, a deep, historical and unique method of connectivity. Rooibos as a plant is a metaphor for this very act, as a legume it has nodules in its root system that convert nutrients in the air to usable substances in the soil. It does this not for itself, but for its community plants, becoming a vital part of what keeps the ecosystem functioning and thriving. It is the ultimate connectivity between all the plants, the soil and the air. It is ultimate reciprocity and sharing, without expectation.
Physiologically, tea invites calm, invigoration, refreshment, inspiration and openness. It has a magic and lure that by its nature initiates sharing. As a Tea purveyor for the last 7 years, I wish I kept a journal of every single encounter I had as a result of tea. I would have written a library full of storybooks. The caravan was my first step on this path. I shared worlds with people, and tea allowed people the safety, comfort and inspiration to share their worlds with me. Tea is the vehicle that bridges gaps. These gaps can be anything from culture, wealth, religion, gender, location, other, environment and even self. Tea brings back harmony through initiating and facilitating connectivity. Tea is connectivity.