Saturday, August 25, 2007


Today I visited Happy Valley Tea Estate and The Mayfair Hotel, and I learned a lot about tea politics.

After a breakfast of momos, I walked down the mountain a bit to Happy Valley Tea Estate. Happy Valley is not particularly known for its tea, but the estate itself is in most of the India guidebooks because it is so convenient to Darjeeling proper and because (until recently) it offered tours of the field and factory. I navigated winding roads, narrow paths between houses and sharp drops, slippery stone stairs, and a rocky trail through the estate grounds to find a group of men milling about outside the factory. I asked them if I could take a tour and (after some discussion amongst them in Nepali) a young man stepped forward, eyes darting about. Halfway through the "tour," I discovered that the tours had been discontinued and that I wasn't supposed to be there without permission from the manager. "May I see the manager and ask him?" "No. He has seen you with me already. He'll be angry." So, I didn't get to see the factory and the information on the fields was limited. However, I did learn Lesson One: Always ask who is in charge.

After the "tour," I stopped by the "cafe," which is actually a tiny house with a snack stand operating out of the kitchen and a "tearoom" in the bedroom. I drank Happy Valley tea, which is "the world's best tea" ... or so I'm told by the woman selling it. Her reasoning? "It brews in only five seconds." I know what you're thinking, right? "No way." Well, let me tell you this: It DID brew in only five seconds. Maybe even less. And it tasted pretty good. How is that possible? She used about 1/2 cup of FTGFOP1S (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Top Grade) tealeaves per cup of water. ... Yes, really. The other tourists in the room with me were eating it up. Lesson Two: Don't believe everything you're told, especially if you're a tourist.

Over the course of my visit to Happy Valley, I spoke with several employees. Each one told me, in no uncertain terms, that Happy Valley is, well, not so happy these days. They USED to be, but a recent change in management has caused a lot of strife. Complaints ranged from bureaucracy and hipocracy to cuts in sick days (from 14 days per year to 3 days per year if I remember correctly). Lesson Three: "Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our PAST behavior." (Empahsis added.) I hope things get better soon.

After the trek to (Un)Happy Valley, I walked back up the big hill to The Mayfair Hotel for afternoon tea. Just as I was starting to feel very cynical about tea in Darjeeling, by luck, I was recognized and caught by Nalin Modha, a tea professional who was the youngest estate manager in the entire Indian tea industry. Over tea (with freshly baked butter cookies and cucumber sandwiches) and (later on) dinner (which was delicious and enormous), I learned Lessons Four through Four-Hundred from Nalin. We talked about tea education, workers' health, the tea market, the ecosystem, and numerous other things related to tea and (generally) to politics. He's very knowledgable and I am glad to have run into him here. Tomorrow, I'll be meeting him to see some of the surrounding area. Exciting!

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