For as long as I can remember, I’ve always declined an offer for tea.
But when you say, “No thanks, I don’t like chai,” to a fellow South Asian, reactions range from quiet amusement to mild disbelief to utter bewilderment.
An addition to this collection of expressions came from two Sri Lankan butlers, who watched in sheer horror, as I popped three sugar cubes into my cinnamon tea.
Having accepted a last-minute invitation to stay at a boutique property in the northern province of Haputale, Sri Lanka, I found myself in a beautifully refurbished tea planter’s bungalow, surrounded by 20 acres of manicured tea gardens. I had been reluctantly packed off for a two-night stay at the property – without any company, internet or a choice – but a hell of a lot of tea.
On my first afternoon there, I decided to join the bungalow’s staff for a stroll in the garden. The only problem was that everyone had assumed that I’m some kind of a seasoned connoisseur, putting me at high risk of running into a cup of tea at every corner. I had nowhere to hide. The aroma of spiced tea filled my senses no matter where I went and I had a distinct feeling that I was being followed by a plate of scones and butter biscuits.
It was only when I finally settled down on the couch, did I notice two liveried butlers who were actually following me around with trays in hand.
“What will you have, madam?” One of them asked.
“We have the finest variety of tea, handpicked from our gardens and processed here, at the factory on our estate. We’re so happy you could make it here to sample some of our fare,” he added.
“Did you know, Sir Lipton was the first to export tea from one of these estates in Haputale? That’s how Ceylon tea first found its place in the world. Well anyway, do let us know, what will you have?”
“Ummm, green tea, maybe?” I gulped.
“Sure, we have lots of herbal teas. We have cinnamon, chamomile, ginseng… there are more than 50 types. We recommend cinnamon.”
And that’s when I traumatized them, by nonchalantly popping sugar cubes into my teacup.
However, I wasn’t the only one scandalizing people there.
Later that same evening, I was invited to a small gathering in the property’s plush ‘cigar bar’. The message read 8:00pm sharp. It was an eclectic, handpicked party of the elderly, with the average age of the gathering being approximately 70 years.
“Oh no matter, I’ll just grab one quick drink and leave,” I thought.
“What shall I pour for you?”, a very suave, seventy-eight year old in a checkered bowtie was on the opposite side of the room, asking me this.
“Aw, thank you so much, Sir.” I said. “I’ll have a small shot of vodka with cranberry juice please.”
He looked up very slowly.
‘Dear God, he meant tea, didn’t he?,’ I realized. ‘I just had tea like an hour ago. Also, who drinks tea at this time?!’
“The British,” he said, as if he read my mind. “The British drink their high tea around the dinner table. Also, it’s a good habit to drink your tea before dinner, rather than after. Better still, take two drops of honey and a dash of lime in your tea for digestion. I promise you your stomach will be squeaky clean and bowels will have the perfect consistency the next morning.”
Everyone nodded solemnly.
I must’ve looked rather miserable stirring my tea with the tiniest of spoons because he worked his way around the room again, saying, “You know, I was quite the ladies’ man, back in the day. I used to woo the girls in my college abroad by using some Sinhalese phrases… like ‘ Honda Hitha’ which means ‘you have a good heart’. It always made the girls go awwww.”
He grinned showing off his near toothless smile.
“You think it’ll still work?” he asked, pointing to a sweet, grey-haired cherubic lady sitting across the room. I thought she looked a lot like Julie Andrews.
I giggled nervously and asked him to give it a shot.
And what a shot it was. An hour later, as I was engaged in conversation about Sri Lankan politics, secret beaches along the country’s North Eastern coast, pol sambol recipe variations and the latest advancements in artificial dentures, my new friend chimed in with a beaming Julie Andrews by his side.
“I’ve invited her over for a date… I’m going to make my special edition lamprais for her. What do you think I should wear? A tuxedo or a Speedo?” he said in a stage whisper.
He laughed uproariously before clinking tea cups with the rest of the gang.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” I realized I said that out loud, while rolling my eyes.
“I’m actually having a cup of smoked Ceylon Pekoe, “he replied. “It was our regular during my days in the military, when my late wife used to pack little boxes filled with my favorite tea leaves. Me and my fellows used to brew it over firewood every night at our campsite. Ah, how the aroma takes me back.”
For the first time, I saw the man behind all that garrulous behavior. It lasted for about 15 seconds.
“You know you should spend time with people far outside of your age group sometimes. It teaches you things that you’d never learn otherwise.” He smiled.
“Like geriatric flirting. Where else will you learn that?” Another loud chuckle and a clink.
From cooky characters to drinking about a hundred cups of tea, my sojourn at the Lankan tea estate was nothing short of a revelation. I still don’t like the beverage but I’d say I’ve cultivated a sort of respect for tea.
Besides, a lot can happen over coffee, they say, but I think tea drinkers see far more happening. Just ask the old timer. I bet he wore the Speedo.