I remember my first walk through the old city of Jerusalem. My body was jet-lagged, walking with two of my best friends. We started going down famed King David Street, and before long it was a scene I had never seen before. The streets were so narrow and crowded that you had to squeeze your way through. The men were yelling loudly in Arabic, and some of the women were fully veiled in dark black. Lining the streets as far as the eye could see were small garage shops selling wooden camels, hookahs, and fancy chess boards. For the record, camels do not live anywhere around Jerusalem.
The second the shopkeepers realized that three Americans were walking towards them, we heard a constant echo of a broken English, “Hello, hello, shopping? Shopping? English, shopping? Hello?” After about twenty minutes wandering lost through this new chaos we arrived at a bright green door that led to a clearing. It seemed like the best way out and we were ready to leave the claustrophobic streets behind. When we were just a few feet away from walking through the door, we were turned away by two confused armed guards yelling harshly at us in Arabic and pointing their guns up in the air.
This was not what I imagined when I first decided to take a six month pilgrimage to the Holy City. We were made to turn around and head back through the dense sprawl. We were tired, confused, and disorientated. Finally, a shop keeper came up to us speaking perfect English. We figured he would explain where we were, so we decided to enter his shop. Immediately he turned to a boy sitting on the street and he snapped his fingers at him. The boy got up and ran down the street. The shopkeeper invited us into his shop, telling us that all green doors were entrances to the Holy Temple Mount, which in 2001, were only open to Muslims.
Within a minute that small boy was back with a tray of steaming tea. The man quickly brought out four folding chairs and passed us each a steaming porcelain cup. It was a Moroccan mint tea with about as much sugar as water can dissolve. It was the first moment in the past half hour of confusion that felt normal. We sat there for ten minutes sipping our tea and talking about the Holy City. I started to think to myself that maybe living in Jerusalem would not be such a bad thing, but the story ends with us getting up to leave without buying anything, which turned the nice shopkeeper into a mad shopkeeper. He started to yell what I assumed was profanity at us in Arabic, and off we were again through the narrow streets to find our way back to our school.
I do proudly say though that by the end of our six months living in those streets we considered ourselves masters of the area and could get to any point in the city without hesitation. We also enjoyed countless cups of Moroccan tea with two shop keepers who became dear friends. In the end, it was that first day’s mishaps that taught me an important life lesson. Tea makes a good travel companion.
Fast forward 9 years and, yet again, tea played a pivotal role in my life. I was sitting on a boat in the Beagle Channel off the port of Ushuaia, Argentina. Ushuaia is on the island of Tierra Del Fuego, and it is the port that 90% of people heading to Antarctica travel through. Yes, it is the furthest south city in the entire world. As our small boat left the harbor, it passed huge cruise vessels that were about to embark to the cold southern continent. They looked more like high-tech whaling ships than pleasure cruise boats.
Now, the entire time I was in Argentina I was hindered by my lack of Spanish. Lucky for me my lovely wife is fluent and she did most of the conversing. However, I was longing for real interaction. Our guide and captain seemed like pleasant enough guys so I tried to make small chat, which did not seem to work too well, until they pulled out a thermos and started pouring hot water into a gourde with a metal straw. I recognized that they were making real Mate the Argentinean way. I had read about Mate, the strongest of all tea which they were about to brew, but had never had the opportunity to taste it before. They saw my interest in it and offered me a sip. We began to pass it back and forth, and started to talk.
Mate tastes like a hyper concentrate of a bunch of grass and twigs. It generally grossed out the other members of the boat who tried it, but I was hooked on the insanely strong flavor. I think that impressed the native Ushuaians. It was here that I fully began to understand how one small beverage can connect people. After two full weeks of travel, I finally felt like I belonged in that beautiful country. It felt like the people there were happy I was there too.
Thinking back, my life is filled with other tea traveling memories, including drinking a steaming cup of Stash’s Licorice Spice Tea after spending a long day in the Icelandic back country. Another was pouring a cup of Sleepy Time tea near the top of the world in Barrow, Alaska to help me fall asleep after spending a day being toured around by an Inuit guide.
I’ve also learned that it does not have to be an exotic location that makes you enjoy or remember a cup on your travels. Just last week I brought a thermos full of raspberry herbal tea on an 8 mile pouring-rain hike through the woods around my home in Massachusetts. Tea traveled just as well there as it did in Jerusalem. Some lessons are hard to learn, but this one has been easy. Tea is now always by my side. It is a good, faithful, and memorable friend on all my travels around this world.
Photo: Steve Evans