For me, mountains are home and walking through them is the perfect passing of my time.
And true to the nature of mountains, the course of walking through them also takes an undulating route. There are blister days, also blisteringly hot days. There are short days, which mean three hours of walking, and rest days with no walking at all. There are 30 km-long days, and days you’re gaining more kilometers vertically rather than horizontally. There are days that are so sunny that all you want are clouds, also days when the clouds just won’t part and all you want is some sunshine. There are days you have to wade through thigh-high freezing rivers, also days spent lazing along a tiny stream that gurgles as it runs. There are tough days, easy days, lazy days, sweaty days, bad days and good days. But each day starts and ends the same way—with a mug of tea.
From zipping out of the tent in the early am to zipping into the sleeping bag in the not-so-late pm, tea is either on our mind or in our bellies.
On treks, tea is a kind of ritual and as with any other ceremony, the convener (in this case, the cook) fixes the time and place, accommodates a few suggestions— mostly about milk and choice of spices— and ignores others, especially the oft repeated requests for less sugar.
Given the kind of person I am—bred in the city but with a heart that belongs to the remote wilderness—it is always a strange conundrum when it comes to planning my excursions to the high hills. Ideally, I would like to pick up my bags and take off. However, in the Indian Himalayas, my fitness and courage levels don’t go well with independent trekking. Which only leaves me the option of organized treks. Which come with a contingent including the guide, a cook and several support staff. Which, in turn, gives me a lot of heartburn.
On a trek, though, heartburn of the literal kind is not uncommon, the kind that’s born in the gut and inch upwards leaving a trail of fire. It’s often caused by getting into the sleeping bag soon after dinner. The remedy for this is also tea.
The tents – a smaller sleeping tent and the larger kitchen one, warmer and cozier.
Tea is what adds those precious minutes between the last meal and the night’s sleep. Often we ask for the addition of a spice, such as cinnamon or saunf (fennel seeds ) to the brew. The cook while judicious with the use of spices, not wanting to run out when it’s required most while cooking, compensates with sugar. So the last drink of the night, a milky sweet chai also doubles up as the dessert, but no one complains.
Sitting cross-legged in the big kitchen tent with the steel tumbler warming our palms, time seems to slow down a bit. Conversation turns to the highlights of the day’s walk and the next days’ challenges, interrupted by sounds of wild icy winds being broken by the thin sheet of tent cloth flapping inches away from us, to watching the staff eat their dinner and realizing they are the ones who are working hard and we are privileged because of them. We sit there after the tea has been drunk, until the warmth has left the tumbler. And in this time, our dinner has been digested. As we step out of the larger dining tent to return to our smaller tents for the night, the winds finally hit us and we hurry to get into our sleeping bags. But on nights like this, no one complains of heartburn.
On my treks, I also have a lot of time to think about things. On a recent one, I found myself contemplating my own laziness. I don’t even make myself a cup of tea, I rued. And then my thoughts turned to the people who have made me many cups of tea.
My mother tops the list, of course. I love her tea. It is the touch of gentleness that separates it from all other teas. And even on a trek, with the most glorious views in front of me, and with grass to lie on and a blue sky overhead, I think of her tea.
But, coming second on the list of those who’ve made me the most cups of tea was Dharampal, the cook on two of my treks. These treks were both 20-days long and every day, Dharampal made me three cups of tea, making it a total of 120 cups!!
The first cup was on a trek through the Parvati valley and we’d stopped at the first camp. All I remember of Dharampal was how shy he was. How we rained praises like the drizzle outside, how we asked for another cup, because that is what rain makes you do. But he spoke little. The last, the 120th one, was at the final camp on a trek to Darcha-Lamayuru where he hung out mostly with us, all traces of shyness gone. Between these two have been an assortment of about 40 tent-teas (trek version of bed-tea. Yes, we were spoiled.), tea with pizza (to celebrate successfully scaling a 5,200m pass), tea with cake (all of us had birthdays on that trek), tea with pakoras (for no special reason), tea for cold, tea for digestion, tea with Rusk, tea with Parle-G, tea after a fight, tea because everyone had reached camp, and once, tea because we were lost.
All photographs by the author.