12-15 minute read. Note: We are currently in southern France, house-sitting through April this year. //
Welcome to 2019! The start of a new year always seems to be the best time to think back upon the last, a society-wide moment for self-reflection. The past year was a busy one. Busy physically, busy emotionally, busy professionally. Physically, we pulled up our nomadic socks and got a move on, visiting fifteen countries in the year, eight of which were new to us. We honed our packing skills to the minute and the gram, and know the exact weight of our possessions (53.3 kg, which includes a travel tea set, about a dozen teas, britches and riding boots). On average, we spent 3.5 weeks per country, though the summer was much faster paced than that especially as we often changed city within the country more than once. Emotionally, we went through the tumble dryer of almost being killed in the Lombok earthquake in August, resulting in on-going adrenaline rushes whenever we hear a thump). Professionally, we dove into the world of e-commerce and launched a home décor shop selling V’s photography (Radiant.Travel), and have been building a herbal teas store (MatchaAlternatives.com) that will be launching this month.
[Caption: Our luggage (and us), one of our Radiant.Travel pillows, and a MatchaAlternatives.com tea]
Our year was intended to follow tea, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, we also ended up following the trail of colonialism and the vestiges of wealth, whether in its raw form in the ex-colonies or back in wealthy Europe where all the wealth piled up.
We started in Kerala with its centuries of British rule, resource exploitation, and relatively recent independence (1948). Vestiges of British rule are everywhere, but interestingly many older generations in the areas we visited remember the Brits with great fondness while younger generations who did not witness the events of the past, also don’t seem to hold any grudges. For them, only the infrastructure (physical and political) remains. India’s tea consumption is enormous (full history here) due entirely to the British transforming so many of India’s mountains from wilderness to tea gardens. The ghosts of sahibs (the Hindi word for Europeans, but particularly Brits) are felt and heard everywhere: although English is one of the main languages in India, it is a form of old English, full of British phrases and vocabulary last heard in the UK sixty years ago: one is far more likely to 'avail' themselves of something than to 'use' it. Street names tend to be classically English and even some old English laws are still in use. And the architecture varies from traditional Keralite to ornate British villas. Our experience was primarily in the state of Kerala, so future visits and future years will help us compare to the rest of the many Indian states.
[Caption: The names for the various bits of riding kit are a mix of old-school British English and riding remains a rarefied activity]
We then headed east and south to the island of Singapore, where the British ousted the Dutch from their perfectly-placed trading hub, raising Singapore to the status of the busiest, wealthiest trading port in the world during the height of the Empire. In Singapore, the diversity is staggering: everyone looks different from each other, and it hit us more here that the British (and Dutch) moved people around like any other resource. The Indian quarter is next to the Indonesian quarter is next to the Chinese quarter is next to the Malay…and so on, all to enhance trade as groups of people were invited or brought in, for one purpose or another. The gem quarter felt like stepping back a few centuries: dozens of gem shops, filled with open boxes of uncut stones. You walk in and design your jewellery, then come back a few days later once their artisans have drilled, cut and polished your ideas. The prices were low, too: we almost made a pair of amethyst and gold earrings, and they would have been only £80 versus hundreds back in the UK. This trade has been running for centuries. Regarding tea, the culture is a glorious mix of British milk tea and Chinese tea, all with the understanding that afternoon tea is the queen of all. There is also plenty of India-like chai, silky with cream and cardamom.
[Caption: Singapore in a photo: the old colonial shophouses mixed with steel modernity]
Then north to Penang, the small Malaysian island that had been the mecca of British trade routes before Singapore was ‘secured’ when it lost much of its wealth and status. (For a bit of Penang history plus a summary of our time there, read this.) Penang feels similar to Singapore in its diversity of people and tea culture, and with deep fondness for the English. It is common to study or live in the UK, and the English spoken plus the British sensibilities mean that multiple people we spoke to said that, although they had never left Malaysia, they felt they could easily move to London tomorrow and have no problem adjusting. The afternoon tea in Penang were about as formal colonial as you could imagine, including the classic English treats of curry puffs and Coronation chicken sandwiches.
Up in the tea-growing Cameron Highlands, the two tea companies are prime examples of the diversity engendered by colonialism: Bharat Tea was founded in 1920 by an Indian man, Shuparshad Bansal Agarwal, who came to Malaysia as a young man to make his fortune. He ‘won the trust of the local British rulers’ and was granted land to grow tea. BOH Tea, the larger of the two, was set up in 1895 by a Malaysian-born Englishman, John Archibald ‘Archie’ Russell, who wanted to expand his mining, construction and railway empire into tea. His family continues to run the company, and is considered to be fully Malaysian. A full blog post about Malaysian tea is in draft form, so I’ll limit myself here!
[Caption: Vien casually enjoying afternoon tea in Penang and the Boh Tea Estate stretching to the horizon; click to enlarge]
We then travelled further east to Vietnam, where the Chinese ruled for 1200 years (not a typo), then, after several centuries of (mostly) independence, France ruled and plundered before the Americans took a brief stab at intervening in the name of democracy and anti-communism. The French seemingly left most of their mark on Hanoi in the north, with facades and boulevards that seem twinned with Paris. They also left the love of baguettes: banh mi is the classic, especially in Hoi An, a baguette sandwich filled with slices of two varieties of cured sausage, pickled vegetables, fresh vegetables, a few spicy, sour sauces and the taste of needing another one immediately. The Vietnamese language is between 30-60% Chinese vocabulary, and then more modern words are Vietnamese adoptions of French words.
We ended our month in Vietnam with a few days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south, and noticed it was far more industrial that the faded jewel box of Hanoi. A Vietnamese friend told us that HCMC’s industrial nature was due to the Americans holding/supporting the south of the country, and that after they fled Saigon the winning Northern government was shocked by the city-economy’s strength. HCMC remains the capital of industry and overall is larger than Hanoi, making up what it lacks in loveliness with plenty of cold hard cash. Vietnam is also a prolific tea producer and tends to make green and oolong teas. In the deep countryside (read more here), tea is often consumed fresh (no processing or drying) and we saw dozens of motorbikes almost buried under branchfuls of tea heading to market. However, all this tea is nothing compared to the amounts of coffee: yes, the French were definitely here! The best coffee I had was made with condensed milk and the coffee was slowly filtered onto ice cubes and into the cream; I couldn’t stop jittering for four hours.
[Caption: Vietnamese oolong and coffee (top) and HCMC, industrial with a memory of 'Merica]
At the end of June, we headed further east to Taiwan, where the Japanese ruled for a few brutal decades in the first half of the 20th century, subjugating the government of China, who had shifted the capital there only a few years earlier as they fled the People’s Republic of China. The architecture in Taipei is fiercely Chinese with Japanese flair, and, as my sister said, Taiwan is what happens when the best aspects of China and Japan are combined. (Given these two cultures are obsessed with tea, we drank very well during our two weeks there but that’s another blog post in itself!) One tea point, though: in Taiwan, the reputation of Vietnamese teas is quite bad, due to fears that the leaves may be toxic from the Vietnam War, and so we gave our Airbnb hosts in Alishan a shock when we offered them some oolongs from Vietnam. They politely but firmly declined. (We haven’t encountered this stigma anywhere else, and suspect Taiwan may want to restrict cheaper oolongs from entering their market and driving down prices…)
Taiwan’s population is almost entirely of Chinese or Japanese origin, and the 500,000 indigenous peoples that remain are given protected tribal status. The 16 official tribes mostly live in the mountains and work to keep their cultures and languages alive with limited engagement with the non-indigenous community. The main language in Taiwan is Mandarin (unlike Hong Kong, which speaks Cantonese), but the written script of Traditional Chinese (like in Hong Kong), which was abolished in mainland China after the PRC took power and replaced with Simplified Chinese. Our host, who teaches Mandarin, explained that each character tells a story and teaches history: for example, the character for ‘man’ depicts fields and strength. So that's Rice fields + Toiling = Farmer = Man. So this is still true for a man who is now a senior white-collar executive. With the abolition of the alphabet came the erasure of China's history, and this is one reason Taiwan continues to use the Traditional alphabet. Of course, with the symbol for 'debauchery' being made of the character for 'woman' three times......maybe some things could be updated. The age old question is, who decides?
[Caption: This Taipei statue could just as easily have been in Tokyo; look at that Traditional Chinese alphabet! And mind the gangsters.]
We then flew even further east, to Busan where the Chinese and Japanese have batted the city and the peninsula back and forth for centuries, with Russian and American involvement more recently. We have been told that if Taiwan is the best of China and Japan, Korea is the worst: a people exhausted by invasions, insane working hours (the average workday is 13 hours, second longest in the world after Japan), too much smoking (cigarettes were only recently removed as a core ration during mandatory military service addicting almost all the country’s men) and a deep suspicion of outsiders. Korea has Japan’s flair for gimmicky iced teas and coffees, but its Busan’s traditional tea culture has faded to almost nothing as far as we could tell. The Korean tea ceremony is as complex as Japan’s, and Korean tea bushes are from Japanese varietals, but the only ceremony we could find was in the cultural museum, and the only tea house we found was an odd junk shop with a guarded proprietess. During our visit we managed to find one small selection of Korean green tea for sale and one afternoon tea service in a hotel catering to foreigners. We found plenty of sweet potato bubble tea though.
Again, the language bears the marks of invasion and occupation. However, in Korea's case, the entire language (spoken and written Hangul) was invented in the 15th century by King Sejong the Great, to create a uniquely Korean language and replace Hanja Chinese as a way of reasserting national identity. Prior to this new language, only the elite were literate, but once Hangul was created it was taught to everyone and literacy rates soared. It is also very easy to learn: My nephew visited Korea for a few days and learned to read and speak the language during his visit!
[Caption: Busan is too lovely to not invade, endlessly, for millennia. And the food is another great reason.]
[Caption: Maybe Korean literacy rates are so high mainly due to public shaming. Ya BASIC.]
Then south to Indonesia, with its bloody Dutch and British history, as the two powers handed it back and forth to be ‘watched over’ and finally to have it become British so it could produce tea for the British market. In Lombok, we found a dearth of tea, but this was most likely due to being in a significant French tourist hotspot (coffee si vous plait) and not being on one of the tea producing islands (e.g. Java). However, our AirBnB came with a kettle and everyone spoke English, and the government buildings in region capital Mataram had a distinctive British flair. For the most part, though, our small peek at Indonesia gave the impression that its smaller islands had been left to their own devices. Probably a good thing, except for the inadequate building standards for constructing in an earthquake zone.
***As a side note for readers who missed it, we were in Lombok during the earthquake in August. Our AirBnB collapsed on top of us and we just narrowly dodged being crushed by falling ceilings, walls and carports in four different instances. The trauma is still with us, although lessening with time, and a loud thump or something falling is enough to send me sprinting across the room before I have time to realise it was just the drying rack tipping over, a pan falling off the counter or a sonic boom (thanks, nearby French air force base). Now our travel planning includes researching building codes and likelihood of tsunamis, earthquakes, storms and volcanoes. Before they had felt far-fetched and exotic, now natural hazard maps are an essential part of our planning...***
[Caption: Lombok is delightfully laid back, with even the most popular beaches feeling relatively wild and empty]
HONG KONG AND MACAU
Then to Hong Kong and Macau, where the British and Portuguese leased and held power for a surprisingly long time so they could trade (of course in a coercive) with China, as well as the rest of Asia. (I have a two-part piece on the teas of Hong Kong that will be published soon, and more about Hong Kong, Britain and China can be found here and here.) In Hong Kong, it feels like London has been overlaid on a Chinese city, with its identical double-decker buses, British road markings and groceries stocked with Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose products.
In Macau, Portuguese rule only ended in 1999 (two years after the UK released Hong Kong), and the city centre feels like a humid Lisbon. There are sprawling plazas, tiled buildings and winding cobbled streets that are distinctly Portuguese. However, beyond the city centre the city is grimy and forgotten with crumbling buildings and a somewhat post-apocalyptic feel of cramped tenements with no hope of maintenance. And then beyond that, the gleaming casinos that bring money in rather than leach it out, essentially funding the government. In addition, part of the earnings are distributed to Macanese citizens each year, meaning that everyone is a little bit richer and public maintenance of buildings or infrastructure seemingly goes un(der)funded.
[Caption: Macau's three faces: European charm, gritty tenements, and gaudy casinos (fun fact: Macau's gambling industry beats out Las Vegas to be the largest in the world)]
And then back to London, the seat of the British Empire, the engine that transformed the other side of the world to meet British needs.
FRANCE, AUSTRIA, SLOVAKIA & GERMANY
After a brief time in the ex-Empire’s shiny city, we visited Lyon, where the architecture felt spookily similar to Hanoi; and Vienna, which is where the wealth of central Europe seems to have settled in the form of marble palaces and palatial boulevards. From Vienna, we visited Bratislava, Slovakia, our first time going behind the Iron Curtain, and again felt the weight of how many things an idea can excuse. In Munich, the riches of even a late-to-the-game empire were not lost on us (Germany only joined the colonisation ‘game’ in 1871, taking four African nations, two Chinese cities and handful of Pacific islands and part of Papua New Guinea), with the industrial outskirts a reminder that modern or ‘informal’ empires are not based on political treaties but on trade agreements.
[Caption: A standard building in Vienna, a city of a hundred palaces]
SPAIN & FRANCE
We then flew south to Toledo and Madrid to spend a month with old friends and the remains of Spanish colonialism, with yet more palaces and grandeur that only South American silver could buy. (Quick factoid: Argentina = argentum, Latin for silver.) We finished up the year back in France to housesit for six months in the South West department of Gers. The area has many British ex-pats, and the remnants of Britain’s old empire is evident at the speciality market stall selling all things English: Madras curry paste, mango chutney, sesame oil, rice noodles, nori, and of course so many types of tea. This was the argument for empire in the first place: go and find the best things, sanitise them, and bring them home to sell for a nice high price.
[Caption: The British food section in a supermarket in France: note the amount of Indian foods!]
As we plan our rough course for the coming 12 months and delve deeper into the world of tea, we are curious to see more of how the world’s thirst for tea and spices influenced European powers’ thirst for empire. We are particularly fascinated by the clash of Europe and China, a foreign power with the power and political expertise to partially resist colonialism although it still eventually succumbed to having Britain as a suzerain (a ‘higher monarch’ above the Chinese government even if not formally). Perhaps 2019 will see us back in southeast Asia, though this time we’ll be consulting earthquake maps as well as tea drinking opportunities.
So: thank you for being such loyal readers and happy 2019! As always, may the coming year bring everything you desire and everything you need – which of course may or may not be the same thing.
Happy New Year's from Travelling for Tea!