Sound of old tea factory machinery (funny imitation!)

Alan Lane, my dear friend and a retired tea veteran of Assam fondly remembers the start-up sound of the Lister diesel tea machinery of bygone days. Here is an amazing and ingenious imitation by two little Indian kids.  Please turn up your sound to enjoy. You won’t believe it! Thank you Alan, for sharing this lovely video.

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New year, new beginnings

This was the most beautiful rainbow I saw in the parking lot, the day I turned in my manuscript for Flame Tree Road
The incredible rainbow I saw in the parking lot, the day I turned in my final revisions for Flame Tree Road

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I am shocked to realize it’s been a whole year since I posted anything. 2014 was a crazy year! I turned in my final manuscript for Flame Tree Road (my second book) in mid-December – just before my editor went on maternity leave. That same evening I saw the most glorious full-arc rainbow in a parking lot. Being an incorrigible optimist, I take that to be a good sign.

Now to clear up some confusion: there has been a name change for book #2 from Song of the Flame Tree to Flame Tree RoadThere’s also a new cover in the works which I will share soon. The pub date for Flame Tree Road (as of now) is 30th June, 2015. These are very exciting times but more updates in separate post. Right now, I am trying to ease myself back into blogging as it feels like I’ve just returned from a long expedition to the North Pole.

Beautiful tea party setting for my author event put together by the West Side Stories and CELC Book Clubs of Goodyear.
Beautiful tea party setting for my author event put together by the West Side Stories and CELC Book Clubs of Goodyear.

Added to my writing deadlines  were a string of author events last year. Teatime for the Firefly has drummed up some serious interest in Assam tea. Readers want to drink the same tea I drink, even though I insist it’s no fancy tea– just good, strong Assam CTC. Several events I attended  this year served Assam Tea. Some groups went to extraordinary lengths to plan elaborate tea parties complete with exquisite table settings, fine bone china and dainty treats. Seeing all the excitement and appreciation over Assam Tea, I am convinced the days of the frufru herby teas are numbered.  America now wants earthy and good, strong Assam tea is right up there with the mud-clumped beetroot, goat cheese, pork belly and crusty bread.

If you want to try Assam Tea try this Assam Tea Sampler from Upton Tea
If you want to try Assam Tea, check out this excellent Assam  Sampler from Upton Tea. There are some nice varieties here. The CTC is the kind I drink because it brews stronger and takes milk well.

There’s breaking news on the caffeine front as well. New medical research shows Caffeine is good for you and a regular caffeine intake can prevent the onset of dementia and Alzheimers. If you consider the copious amounts of high-octane Assam Tea I drink, I should be sharp as a stiletto, yet I can never remember where I last set down my tea-cup! There are half-drunk cups of tea all over the house, and possibly a dead one trapped in the microwave.

But nothing brings more cheer to a winter’s afternoon than the old cuppa, don’t you think? I will need plenty of cheer, I tell you, as I roll up my sleeves to tackle Book#3 this year. The electric kettle has just come to a rolling boil, as I write, and here comes the welcome “ting” as it shuts off. So join me dear friends to welcome this beautiful new year and thank you for your continued love and support. You keep me bushy-tailed and wanting to tell stories. Cheers!

Elephants in Tea

A herd of wild elephants stray into a tea plantation and cause irreparable damage. Photo courtesy: Ambereen Yousuf. Here is an interesting tidbit from veteran tea planter Davey Lamont: “In the early years , tea bushes were planted in triangular patches, creating a zigzag path instead of rows. This allowed tea pluckers to escape from elephants!”

Assam is prime elephant country. It’s a land of big rivers, dense bamboo groves, rain forests with long, drooping moss and startling orchids. In the jungle clearings, elephant grass shoots up to over 10-feet to shelter a teeming wildlife. Assam Tea–the finest tea on earth– chooses to grow in this wild terrain and nowhere else. Not surprisingly “elephant trouble” a frequent complaint in the tea plantations.

Tea garden elephant with company logo

Every tea planter has a plethora of elephant stories and I have a few of my own. When I seven, a semi-domesticated elephant grabbed me by the ankle and almost got me but luckily I was yanked back by a nearby adult. I still have bad dreams about that one! Another time a baby elephant came floating down the flooded Koilapani River. For two weeks he lived in the taro patch behind our bungalow and played peek-a-boo with a hen before he was shunted off to Calcutta zoo, much to our heartbreak.

Elephant pulling car out of monsoon mire (1920’s). Photo courtesy: Fettes Falconer

Along with owning their tractors, trucks and trailers, most tea gardens own an elephant or two. Domesticated elephants are invaluable to the tea industry.  They are trained by special elephant trainers called mahouts. Elephants render a multitude of services that range from forest logging to rescue missions for tea garden residents stranded in the flood. Assam is the wettest place on earth. The monsoons hit with a fury each year; rivers overflow, bridges collapse and tea plantations are marooned for weeks without power or supplies. Elephants are called to the rescue when river currents get too strong for a boat.  My favorite story is about my Aunt Baruna who dropped her high-heeled slipper in the  floodwaters when she crossing on elephant back to get to the gala at the Planter’s Club. All evening she hobbled  on one shoe while standing tiptoe on the other foot and nobody could tell anything was amiss under her long saree!

Tea garden kids get a joy ride outside their bungalow. Historical photo: source – koihai.com

Tea garden kids are the envy of their friends. Town kids have puppies and kittens but guess what we had as pets? Monkeys, elephants and the occasional leopard cub! On birthdays and special occasions the garden elephant made a grand appearance to give us  kiddies fun rides. Old Jumbo also showed up all tinsel-decked at the Club Christmas party with (an often slightly inebriated) Santa perched on top.

Elephants help to rebuild the Mariani Planters Club after it was destroyed by the fire of 1960. Historical photo courtesy: Alan Leonard. Alan says although the club burnt down the original teak wood floor which was “tongued and grooved” was still intact. It was lifted very carefully, nail by nail, refitted and relaid in the new building. Amazingly it was as good as new.”
Logging elephant in tea garden. Courtesy Davey Lamont.

Elephants are useful during shikar (hunting) to track down game, mostly man-eating leopards and tigers that prowl the tea plantations to prey on humans.

Elephants in herds are usually harmless but they can create plenty of damage. A herd of elephants  often invaded the sugarcane patch behind our bungalow and  had to be chased out with lighted torches and the beating of tin cans. I still remember the sound of their wild trumpeting in the night: it is the most eerie, bone-rattling sound on earth!

A bull elephant in “musth” is a very dangerous animal and can sometimes attack without provocation.

Encountering a rogue elephant in the wild is very bad news. Rogue elephants can destroy everything in their path with mindless fury. There is the horrific incident of a local postman who was cycling through the jungle road to a tea garden when he came face-to-face with a rogue. The elephant picked him by the feet and smashed him into a tree and (this is really gross) the poor man had to picked off the bark like putty. That is the fury of a rogue.

With increasing deforestation in Assam, elephant problems in the tea gardens continue to be on the rise. Here is a National Geographic article about Elephant problems in Assam. Please share your elephant story, if you have one. Thanks and cheers!

Other related articles: The Story of the Elephant Boy of Tea

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Teatime for the Firefly is Shona Patel’s debut novel. It is a love story set in a remote tea plantation in Assam, India. You can read the SYNOPSIS and the FIRST CHAPTER by clicking on the red links. Shona Patel is represented by April Eberhardt Literary.

A sippa or a cuppa –it’s all zen to me

Ah… tea and wine. Two drinks that make you surprisingly jolly and one can get you into more trouble than the other. I am talking about tea of course 😉

Historically, both tea and wine have been used as a stimulant and intoxicant. The caffeine is tea, though mild, is still addictive. This is why the Mormons don’t drink either. After all there is always a temptation to sit God down in the back porch and say “Hang on, I’ll be right back after that cuppa”. I plead guilty of such transgressions.

Yet both tea and wine are indelibly woven into history and deeply embedded into the ritual, religion and customs of the world. And the similarities do not end there:

A tea plantation in Assam. Learn more about Assam Tea Here.

Tea & wine both capture a sense of place: Terroir’ is a French word that means the combined effects of geography and climate on wine. In other words the soil, climate topography and seasons all play a role in determining the quality of grapes that go to make the wine. And every batch is different even though the wine may come from the same vineyard. Tea follows the same logic. The leading tea regions of India can be broadly compared to the French wine growing regions of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Languedoc. Also like wine, Indian teas are named after the place where they are grown– each tea carrying the distinct aroma of its region. Darjeeling, “the champagne” of teas” is pale in colour and has a natural delicate, muscatel-like flavour. Assam plays “burgundy” to Darjeeling’s “champagne”. The best Assam teas, particularly the 2nd flush teas, have a robust flavor and depth of color that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

Like wine, tea flavor involves both taste and aroma. Many teas and wines have their own intrinsic flavor with fruity, floral or woody notes. This should not be  confused  with herbal teas which have artificial or natural flavors added to a tea base. For example, the litchi flavour of the Gewurztraminer comes from the grapes grown in the Alsace region of northeast France.  Assam Teas have a deep woody note to them. Woody teas are a great after-dinner drink, and aid in digestion.

Fresh grapes, hand-picked makes the best wine

Hand picking ensures premium quality: Good wine and tea are never made from mechanically harvested crop: they are very carefully hand-picked. Exclusive wines are made from hand-selected grapes just as GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) the top grade Orthodox Assam Tea is made from hand-plucking only the pubescent tips of a tea bush. The fresh picked harvest has to be processed immediately while the leaves are still fresh to ensure optimum quality. The same goes with wine.

Tea leaves hand-plucked have to be processed within 24 hours otherwise it will spoil

Expertise and know-how are critical in tea and wine making. The decision of when exactly to finish the fermentation of rack a wine is as crucial as that of when to start or stop hand-firing a tea. That can only be learned by experience and determined by experts because wine and tea, are both living, artisanal product where top quality depends on instinct and knowhow.

Bacchus: The Roman God of Wine. To read more about the ceremonial uses of wine CLICK HERE.

Ceremonial & social uses:  In ancient Greece and Rome the mild intoxication offered by wine was valued as a means of

Click here to read an excellent article in Fresh Cup Magazine on the "Rituals, Rites and the Religion of Tea."

entering the irrational realm of Greek divinities. Buddhist monks use tea to help enter a meditative state. Rikyu, an influential historical figure who studied tea coined a phrase that roughly translates to, ‘You can either sit on a cushion to gain enlightenment or you can make a bowl of tea.”

So here I am sitting on a cushion AND drinking tea– that should qualify me for double enlightenment, don’t you think? So whether it’s a sippa or a cuppa, share one with me, will you? And cheers to you, my dear friends!:)

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Since the Book of Grapes (and DANG, it’s a good one!) has  already been written by Johnny Come-First, Shona Patel decided to write a story set in a tea plantation in Assam. You can read more about Teatime for the Firefly HERE.  Shona Patel is represented by April Eberhardt Literary