‘Were you in love with my Chile even before this visit?’ Jorge’s eyes crinkle with disbelief, as his tapering fingers tousle his coffee-brown mop of hair. ‘You cited Neruda in your visa application letter to our embassy in New Delhi. True?’

I nod, helplessly.   

‘To me, Neruda’s poetry is like… dolphins playing in Villarica’s shimmering lake, reflecting dark peaks, the silvery crescent moon,’ says his wife Catalina, pregnant with their first child, reaching for a slice of gold-green avocado to layer over pao-like marraqueta  bread, slathering it with buttery queso mantecos cheese.  

It is November 2013, around 8 pm on a Thursday evening. We are in Villarica (population 55,000) in southern Chile. Jorge’s aunt is hosting me in her charming flat upstairs.

I am at a typical once (pronounced ohn-say) with this 27-year old couple. I originally met them at my home in Bangalore, when they conjured up brilliant illustrations for my only fantasy novel for children.   

The once marks my fifth day in Chile, after a month of wandering through Argentina. It is part of a 99-day trip through Latin America, a bank-breaking gift to myself to celebrate my 60th year on earth.

I seek local cues from Jorge and Catalina to unravel two mysteries: Why do Chileans have a breakfast-like meal for dinner? Why is the nation obsessed with tea, which it imports by the tonne?

Reaching for a ceramic teapot with hand-painted geraniums all over, Catalina pours me more green tea, adding another teabag from a tile-inlaid, delicate mahogany chest. Impulsively, she goes to their packed bookshelf, overlaid with an embroidered Indian throw, and picks out a gold-embossed, blue leather volume.

She reads aloud in English, ‘Box of tea,/ like my/ own heart/ you arrived bearing/ stories,/ thrills,/ eyes/ that had held/ fabulous petals in their gaze/ and also, yes,/ that/ lost scent/ of tea, of jasmine and of dreams,/ that scent of wandering spring.’

Eyes shining, Catalina  says, ‘That was Ode to a Box of Tea by… Neruda.’ I gasp. Since my teens, I have revered the Neruda of intense love poems, of revolution, of beautiful homes. I am keen to explore his homes at Isla Negra, at Valparaiso, at Santiago before I return home in January 2014.

As she reads, intangible boundaries collapse. I take in pot-bellied Ganeshas that border the block-printed tablecloth, a flashback to the couple’s recent lives in Dharamsala, in Bangalore. Across the Mughal flower print lies a wicker basket with Chilean breads like marraqueta and hallulla (a pitted, pita-like flatbread). Alongside plated local cheeses including farm-fresh, creamy quesillo, and goat’s milk cheese, queso de cabra. My tongue already prefers these to blue-veined Gorgonzola or even a Brie. As I do sticky, potted manjar, Chile’s take on dulce de leche. And chunks of ripe avocado (‘we love palta, don’t you?’). Unmounded salami on a Khurja earthen tray. Delicately scrambled eggs in a hot dish. Ripe peaches and apples, Chilean summer bounty in November. And an electric kettle plugged in to provide an unending stream of tea.

Ticklish mysteries yet unresolved, I turn to Jorge in my sub-basic Spanish, ‘But… but doesn’t once mean eleven? It’s not 11 am now, nor even 11 pm…’

‘Take the eleven. Tomar once,’ says he. ‘You’ll hear this all over Chile in the evening. Much like…  Oota aayita? (have you eaten?) in Kannada across post-lunch Bangalore.’

Catalina  adds, ‘We Chileans have a lighter but similar breakfast or desayuno. Then, a big almuerzo ~ that’s lunch – around 2 pm.’ A pause. ‘Which once story shall I begin with?’

Jorge edges in. ‘Chile teems with copper and nitrate mines. My Papi says once began as a mid-morning snack for miners. It gradually slipped to later in the day. Or maybe it was translated from elevenses, eaten by 19th century British settlers along our long coast…’  

‘My uncle thinks once was originally a code word for a drink in the mines to dodge fines imposed by the owners,’ giggles Catalina. ‘Whenever miners sneaked away for heady aguardiente (fire water), which has 11 letters, they used this word.’

Beyond word puzzles, I love the pale gold, calming notes of Chinese jasmine tea, the delicacy of the first flush from Darjeeling, and the bitter-savoury Lahpet Thoke, the fermented green tea salad of Myanmar. But I remain a tea novice.

I know the British spread the tea culture through India in the early 20th century through a hard-nosed campaign by the Tea Association. But wouldn’t it be more logical for Chileans to drink yerba mate like their Argentinian neighbours or coffee like the Brazilians?

Jorge’s brow creases, as he shares a story from his Mama, ‘Britain tried to elbow into the trade with South America,  even using the slave trade as cover around 1713, but the Spanish kept them out. In 1769, there were just two Britons in La Serena in the north; by 1808, merely 16 in all of Chile…’

Reaching for his mother’s dog-eared history textbook, he reads, ‘British ships first came to Chilean waters to hunt for whales and seals in the 18th century. By the early 20th century, over 10,000 Britons lived in Chile. They worked on the railroads, mining, shipping and banking. Their food habits travelled with them.’

Even at 10 pm our once is far from over. I recall jottings from Neruda’s Memoirs, the only book I am travelling with. Noting that the average Chilean drinks tea about four times daily, the poet recalled a widespread strike by nitrate workers. The reason? Shortage of this exotic product. When an English businessman once asked Neruda what Chileans do with exorbitant quantities of imported tea from India, Sri Lanka and China, the poet-ambassador quipped, ‘We drink it!’

I sip deeply from Catalina’s tea box. (Each tea box a family heirloom, I find, in southern Punta Arenas, even in Valparaiso.) By my fifth cup, I have tried Sri Lankan green tea, Darjeeling orange pekoe, apple blossom tea, hibiscus tea – and now I inhale the peppery, herbal notes of Moroccan mint tea.

‘During our years in India,’ says Catalina, only half-kidding, ‘I really missed once, because the right breads and cheeses were not available. You grow tea. I envy you!’

We allow Jorge a digression: “As a boy, whenever Papi took me to a football match, he would always buy me a drink – cold, sweet mote con huesillo, made of wheat and peaches. Nothing could be more Chilean. Yet, we have only one national drink: tea, tea, and even more tea. I think even our unborn baby may want to drink tea from the feeding bottle. Soon. To prove that he or she is… truly Chilean!’

We raise a toast with tea to their round-faced, pert-nosed Felipe, born just months later. Today, I wonder which his first gulp of tea ever was. From a bottle, or a baby sipper?     

Illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin

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  1. Rita Nayyar Reply

    loved it Aditi, as I do all your writing, will always think twice now, when i see once!

  2. Monica Nanjunda Reply

    I did not know tea was such a big celebrity in Chile. Though I was born and brought up in a coffee growing area, I have always enjoyed tea more than coffee. I have been teased for the same very often. Chile will now be in my list of places to visit. Thank you Aditi.

    • Cheers to many more fabulous cups of tea, Monica ~ and a real-time trip to Chile. I had no clue you preferred tea. 😉 Thanks.

  3. Asha Nehemiah Reply

    Such an evocative piece it made me brew a cup of Darjeeling right away! I love the Neruda poem on the languid delights of tea!

  4. Asha: Thank you. I’m not counting. May a million cups of perfect Darjeeling follow through your life.
    Wow! can you imagine how excited I was when I came across Neruda’s poem, one I had never imagined even existed?

  5. Saritha Rai Reply

    What a delightful read. Chile, a country that doesn’t grow any tea, desires it so. India, a country that grows a lot of the world’s tea, finds coffee-drinking cool.

  6. Aditi , I read your piece on tea and loved it . I am an Assam tea fan myself.

    It was interesting to note that Chileans love their tea .

    • Thanks, Viji. I sometimes feel that we are as individual as the tea we choose. 🙂

  7. sandhya rao Reply

    Delightful and evocative…. thanks for taking us to Chile, Deets!

  8. Sandhya: just a virtual detour for now, until you make it to Chile in real time, I guess. Thank you.

  9. Cheryl Kerwin Reply

    Fascinating! I was sitting here in Maryland reading emails, contemplating what my first tea for today would be…now I know, my beloved darjeeling! Chile? Who knew?

  10. Thanks, Cheryl. Enjoy your cup of Darjeeling! I had no clue either, until I chanced upon Chile.

  11. Rasheeda Bhagat Reply

    What a delightful piece of writing…so evocative…felt I was right there in the once…with you Deetu, , Catalina, Jorge…with a cuppa! Now how far can Chile be from Mexico…hope to make it there one day!

  12. Rasheeda Bhagat Reply

    What a delightful read… so evocative. Felt like I was there at the once, sharing a cuppa with Catalina, Jorge and you Deets. Now how far can Chile be from Mexico city…? My fourth visit there is coming up… and soon, who knows, Chile, and Brazil and my Argentinian friend might get a visit! Yeh dil mange more Aditi.. keep writing!

  13. Thanks, Rasheeda. I know you’ll get there one day soon. Wishing you wings to make those dreams come true.

  14. Aditi! that was a fun, delightful read. And now, something on coffee too, please..

  15. Thanks, Eliza. One day, for sure. But not on this blog, which is all about,… tea. 😉

  16. Pingback: A 99-day South American adventure - Tea Stories | Best Tea Blog | Still Steeping - The Teabox Blog

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