Saturday, September 18, 2010

happy valley

The five-second lady
Our final full day in Darjeeling fell on Biswakarma Puja, a Hindu holiday dedicated to the god of machines and tools. we toured around, passing makeshift temples with incense and music blaring, to see some monasteries and watched the Toy Train stop at a war memorial. Then, Prati and Cayden returned to the hotel and Blonde Kim and I headed out through the rain to visit Happy Valley Tea Estate, one of about 84 tea plantations in Darjeeling (the touristy one). The sign at the entrance says that the tea harvested there exclusively goes to Harrod's, though a quick website perusal is inconclusive.

The driver inched up a lonely dirt road toward Happy Valley. It was rainy and dusk, and nobody else was there. Kim and I descended the stairs, following signs to the office, which was made into another celebratory temple with loud music and a few drunk employees dancing in the small room.

One of them came out to greet us. He told us the factory wasn't running that day because of the puja but that he liked me, so he would show us around. He led us into two fragrant, silent warehouses where tea  leaves are normally being processed and swept his hand in an arc that encompassed the whole thing.

"This machine is from Belfast," he said between hiccups. The supervisor, whose permission we would normally need to tour the facilities, barely glanced in our direction, indicating to our guide that he was going home. He packed his things and closed the metal guard door to the entrance halfway.

The last thing I wanted was to be stuck in a dark room in a remote place with one innocent abroad and a drunk man leering in my direction, so we backed out, only getting back up the stairs after the man, grasping my hand too hard for me to pull away, kissed it multiple times, told me he liked me and asked if we wanted to join their celebration.

We were searching for the driver when a short, elderly lady with light hair and a gemstone bindi walked out of a small cafe on the hill above the factory and hailed us.

"Want to do a tea tasting?" she asked, after we told her about the partiers downstairs. Kim and I followed her into the cafe's cozy back room whose walls were edged with built-in benches with a table in the center filled with a platter full of tea leaves.There was a lone guy lounging back there already as she ushered us in, bustling around in the kitchen in front to boil some water. We chatted with the guy while we waited to see what was happening; he was from Japan and had gone to college in the U.S. and was at the tail-end of a year-long, 'round-the-world voyage.

When our hostess, Kusum Rai, returned, she picked up a tea plant clipping, explained its different parts and then challenged us to guess which tea leaves on the platter came from which part of the plant. I had some trouble understanding her accent and waited gamely for the quizzing to end and the drinking to begin. She gave us tea made from the young part of the plant which, as she demonstrated, only takes five seconds to brew. The "five-second lady" is world famous, she assured us, adding that the tea sold in the cafe was brewed from leaves picked by the workers beyond their quota, so the little man got any profits.

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