Rajeev and The Magic of Glenburn
Rajeev and I loaded into the car at the Darjeeling town center and I opened up my saved Google map entry. A multi-linguist, my driver Rajeev spoke Bengali, English, Hindi & Nepali and asked me, “Aaj kaisa jayenghe sar?”
It is December of 2018 and I’ve been traveling through India for the past month and change. Though I don’t know it at the time, this trip will eventually solidify my decision to open a chai cafe in NYC.
However, right now, I’m worried about today’s agenda: a trip to Glenburn Tea Estate. From what I was seeing on my map, the roads looked like any of the roads in Darjeeling, sweeping snake-like switchbacks. What I didn’t realize at the time was how different the topography was here. While Darjeeling is a town upon a hill, Glenburn Tea Estate is located deep in the valley. As we exited the main road and turned into a steeply inclined dirt path, my stomach lurched. Rajeev shot me a worried look and said, “Dheere dheere jayenghe sar” — he was going to take it slow and I was glad we were on the same page. We were in a Toyota Innova, a small, front-wheel drive, mini-mini van and I noticed the cars parked on the hillside houses were slowly yet distinctly all becoming 4x4 Jeeps and Tata Sumos. Our car, not fit for this terrain, skid and slid down the dirt roads.
After an arduous hour-long drive down this never-ending valley we finally arrived at what was unequivocally a tea estate. Small camellia sinensis bushes spread down as far as the eye could see. Larger shade trees created an organized grid across the steppes, creating beautiful, winding layers. A couple workers were in the fields, pruning the bushes, a process I later learned was done during the off-season to save the tea plants’ energy so it didn’t grow too much until plucking season came.
Like many tea estates, Glenburn also functions as an all-inclusive hotel and retreat. As our dinky mini-van approached the front gate, an old British couple departed in their stoic Tata Sumo. We were greeted by Mr. Mahesh Lama, a mustached manager at the Tea Estate’s factory. He wrapped a Khata — or embroidered scarf around my shoulders — a welcoming gesture in Nepali & Tibetan customs. Quite promptly, one of his assistants came out with an iced auburn-colored drink in a whiskey glass. They asked me to wait as the tea tasting was being prepared and I sat in a old woven lawn chair, the sun beating down on me over the Himalayas and took a sip.
What a sip it was! Since I was visiting in December, the iced tea I had was made with the Autumn harvest which has a generally more full-bodied, complex flavor. Steeped generously, the tea is brewed strong and then cut with sugar, fresh mint and lemon (lime won’t work, I tried). This creates a perfect drink for a hot day — caffeinated yet refreshing. After that first sip, I knew I needed this drink in my life and was excited to tinker with it when I got back.
Mr. Lama came back and proceeded to take me on a tour of the tea factory and explained the entire production cycle of the tea leaf and how its harvested, processed and sorted for human consumption. The craft of plucking, withering, fermenting and rolling tea is something akin to making Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italy, requiring immense amounts of skill, tradition and art. That deserves a separate article and is something that we delve into in our tea tastings.
On the way back up, the downhills became uphills and our Toyota Innova stood no chance. One hill in particular was impassable. Rajeev valiantly burned his wheels out on the steep inclines, driving side to side, attempting to find some kind of grip on the dirt roads. For hours we tried everything from removing rocks on the path to me vacating the car and letting Rajeev go at it alone. Nothing worked. I could see the fear creeping into Rajeev’s eyes. In a house nearby, a baby howled while the water from a local pipe trickled infinitely. The sun was starting to set and I found myself slowly descending into panic — I was in the middle of nowhere with no one to help. Desperately, I called back the estate and told them we were stuck.
In no time, a small Nepali man zoomed up in his own car and curtly took the keys to our Innova. To this day, I’m still not sure what happened next. He told Rajeev and I to sit in the back and hold tight. He then revved the engine and magically zoomed up the unforgiving hill. He kept going. This man cooly drove us up all the way to main road in a matter of minutes. Stunned, Rajeev and I muttered thanks and I scraped my wallet for some extra rupees. He didn’t say anything and quickly caught a ride back on another vehicle descending down the hill. Rajeev goofily uttered a prayer and then took a piss in the woods. We drove back in silence.
Lesson learned: The next time in Darjeeling, rent an all-wheel drive vehicle. However, those minor moments of anxiety were well worth discovering the magic of Glenburn and the tea it produces. Since we can’t take a trip to Darjeeling right now, I’ve found a way we can metaphorically transport ourselves with our new Glenburn Sweet Tea. Now available at Kolkata Chai Co.