Among the plantations worthy of attention recently is Pathivara, in Nepal. Here, I’m with the plantation’s father, the man who started it. In just a few years, he’s succeeded in producing delicious teas, so far with very modest resources. What’s more, the teas are certified organic. A new building is going up; I laid the first stone on my previous visit. It will house more sophisticated machinery, although the team is already producing some very fine teas. Since the start of June, I’ve bought three batches: Pathivara Classic, Pathivara Black and Pathivara Dragon Yeti – these mountains are full of poetry. Each tea is very different, with very varied aromatic profiles. Here, poetry and gastronomy come together.
I’m concerned about the state of the planet, and the proliferation of plastic is one example of this. We might think of tea plantations as idyllic places high in the mountains, some on steep slopes, far from cities, surrounded by beautiful countryside. And all that is true. But tea requires a lot of manpower, and many people live in villages around the plantations. These people buy products that are often packaged in plastic, and this plastic needs disposing of.
On the tea plantations, it’s not unusual to see rubbish lying on the ground between the rows of plants, simply because people don’t think about it and throw away a bag, a packet of cigarettes or biscuits, in the middle of the field. This waste accumulates! The ground is sometimes littered with it after people have eaten their meal. The best solution I’ve seen involves holding a litter-picking day, once a year, for all villagers, including children. The atmosphere is good-spirited, it makes people take more responsibility, and at school on the same day, they talk about the lifetime of the different types of rubbish. A plastic bag will last for 400 years!
My blog is about tea, but it’s also about meeting people. I didn’t know this lady. She was just standing outside her house, opposite a tea factory. I liked her pretty purple hat and the touches of purple under her coat set against the purple backdrop behind her. I knew nothing about this lady, except where she lived; we simply smiled at each other and I held up my camera – by way of asking her if I could take her photo – and she agreed. And there she was, and here she is. I’m so happy when I’m travelling, walking down the lanes of remote villages, or through the fields. I’m so happy when I photograph them, these men and women… we exchange a few words, we laugh and often we sit a while together, on a bench, a step, a stone… any place will do. And we get to know each other – just a brief encounter – then I go on my way again. And to share them with you, these faces, these moments… as I see it, that’s just as important.
I find it very rewarding to tell you about the men and women who make the teas you drink. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Saran RAI. Based in Arya Tara (Nepal), Saran produces different grades of tea, but just 300 kg a year. He uses my favourite cultivar: AV2. It is a very small, very high-quality plantation. Half of the fresh leaves that make his teas come from his own fields, and half come from the 50 or so local farmers. When I ask what he is most proud of, Saran replies: “being visited by people from afar”. It is true: he receives very few visitors. The route is arduous, especially the last few kilometers. I walked them, on an almost impassable track, surrounded by beautiful countryside. Although his plantation is not certified organic, I have no doubt that Saran uses organic methods.
In Nepal, factories often look quite makeshift, from the sheet roofing to the very basic structure. Teas are tasted outside, on trestles. This is a long way from Darjeeling, with its British colonial influence. But we shouldn’t judge by appearances. Inside these modest-looking buildings, the equipment is not only very good (small rolling machines from China or Taiwan, quality ovens, machines that delicately shape the leaves, etc.), but most of all, you find a unique expertise and creativity. The people are young and passionate – again, very different from the image of the established planter in Darjeeling. They live and breathe tea, and think of almost nothing else. Their sole objective is to make delicious teas, whatever the colour. The lack of a tea tradition in Nepal undoubtedly frees them up to explore new leaf shapes, new types of rolling, new approaches to production in general. “Handmade” Nepalese teas (as opposed to the crush, tear, curl teas and the big factories, which also exist in the Ilam region) have a bright future ahead of them.
In the Himalayas, people love music. Whenever the opportunity arises, they take up their instruments – sometimes a guitar, sometimes something more traditional – and they sing and dance. Here, with the Limbu people, everyone is wearing traditional dress to celebrate my arrival. They played and danced until the last rays of the setting sun, overlooking magnificent mountains. Later, they lit the fire. It’s a moment of pure happiness.
Divinities differ from country to country, and while some people are celebrating Christmas, on other continents they worship Shiva, or pray to Allah, or follow the words of Buddha. Through my work I’m lucky to come across people from different cultures and religions, and I love this variety. Happily, we don’t all think the same way yet; our customs and rituals change and we speak different languages depending on where we’re born, and I hope this continues as long as the world exists. It makes travel more interesting. Some people follow a religion, others don’t – although the latter are rare in the parts of Asia and Africa I visit. Among them, I find a multitude of different rites. People pray before a wall, from a pulpit, at the foot of a minaret, or around a stupa. They pray to the wind or fire, they place offerings at the foot of simple statuettes. Whoever or whatever you pray to, and even if you don’t pray at all, I wish you all happy holidays!
I like silence. I hate it when people make noise for no reason. I don’t have a television. I don’t see the point of listening to music constantly. I’ve noticed that many people are afraid of silence. They go around with headphones on, they talk even when no-one is listening, their thumb constantly swipes their phone screen. They are filling a void that feels threatening. But what is there to be afraid of? I’m happy with silence. I’m happy surrounded by nature, away from human noise. It’s the same with photos. A good photo needs no commentary. No noise. You can just look at it.
A few days ago, while walking in a remote part of Nepal on a track that winds through hamlets and tea fields, I remembered my first trip to this country a little over ten years ago. I remembered the curfew, the war, the ban on driving at night, the fearful army who pulled your vehicle off the road, made you get out and pointed an automatic weapon at you. I remembered the Maoists who held villagers to ransom, who took their belongings if they couldn’t pay their taxes, and sometimes even one of their sons. I remembered stories of executions, a father or mother in tears. I remembered all this pain, and now, on this little path surrounded by glorious nature, I thought that sometimes we forget to be happy, we forget to see the good things. It’s easy to spend your life lamenting, as if everything was so much better before, as if everything is going to ruins, when sometimes the world is improving. It’s a shame not to think about this, to forget to be happy. So I stopped walking, looked all around me at the incredible landscape in this peaceful country that has put war behind it. I took my time to appreciate it and to feel thankful. Sometimes the world is beautiful.
In Nepal, the effects of the earthquake are ongoing. Whole villages are still in ruins, their inhabitants living among these ruins, in houses that have half-collapsed, covered over with a tarpaulin for a roof. In Kathmandu, only the old town was affected. There too, there is no sign of reconstruction. A significant number of the capital’s most beautiful monuments have been reduced to dust, and surrounding houses are in a fragile state. While they await repair, they are being propped up by wooden struts, and signs warn people of the risk of collapsing buildings.