Friday, August 17, 2007

Makaibari Tea Estate

Today, I got my first taste of Makaibari Tea Estate. It was astounding, but first things first... Breakfast: Darjeeling tea (of course) and toast with ginger-plum jam and local honey. Yum. After breakfast, Natalia and I walked down the mountain a bit, making our way through the quiet, secretive mists and searching for glimpses of the surrounding landscape. Suddenly, we saw it: "MAKAIBARI TEA ESTATE." The mist had parted to reveal the estate's name written across the entire roof of the factory (this kind of sign is common, as it allows you to identify the estate from afar), the offices, some of the neighboring houses, and (a small) part of the (very large) garden.

Upon arrival, we met The Man himself, Rajah Banerjee, otherwise known (much to his chagrin) as "The Lord of Darjeeling." Over tea (Makaibari's second flush muscatel--excellent), we talked with Rajah and with Katie (a volunteer from outside London who is at Makaibari to teach the local children about health and hygene).

After tea, we were wisked away to the factory to see the withering room (where the tealeaves are partially dried), the 120- and 140-year-old rolling machines (which bruise the tealeaves and begin the oxidation process required for black and oolong teas), the oxidizing shelves (where the teas are tested by their "nose" (aroma) to ensure that they reach their peak flavor), the drying machine (which looks a bit like something out of the original "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"), the sorting and grading room (where we got to join some of the ladies in sorting tealeaves by size and quality), and the packing area (where wooden boxes are labeled with stencils and filled with some of the worlds' best teas). Very illuminating.

After the factory tour, we met Rajah for salutations to Ganesha, stopped off at the stables to feed carrots to Rajah's ex-racehorse Storm Centre, and began a trek through the gardens. Rajah stopped every minute or so to show us a medicinal plant, unusual butterfly, or other point of interest. We learned about Makaibari's six stages of permaculture (most permaculture only has three stages), which include legume trees (which deposit nitrogen into the soil), fruit trees (mango, cherry, guava, pear, etc.), marijuana plants (with a high THC content to repel pests), tea bushes (of course), small neem trees (a staple in India), and clover (for mulching). The soil itself was the richest, most fragrant soil I've ever seen. It may sound silly, but it was ALIVE. There were worms and ants and microorganisms crawling all throughout it and it was absolutely beautiful.

I won't bore you with the details of the rest of the day, because it was almost all talking and eating. I will say that we had a phenomenal white tea (Makaibari was the first Indian tea estate to produce white tea, this one was light and floral, yet strangely earthy), some incredible food (notable dishes: a gingery version of saurkraut and a dessert of fresh mangoes with double cream), more tea with more volunteers (Mike and Dana from Pennsylvania, who teach at the local school and are building a library for the locals), and great conversation with everyone we met. It was lovely.

First impressions of Makaibari: I can tell there's something very special (magical?) about this place. Everything is so green, the people look so happy, and there's a particular energy radiating about everywhere you look. It's simple in its complexity and vice versa. It's alive and full of life (which are two different things). It's dynamic, connected, sustainable... I have the feeling I should have visited other estates first to avoid disappointment!

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