Each morning I make my way to the nearest tea stall and start my day with a street side chai. It’s 8 am, and I’m already coated in sweat, but I will not refuse this hot, sweet, velvety drink. At the going rate of 5 rupees a cup, how can I?
I like to push my way to the front (women in India seem to reserve such privileges), knocking elbows with the Indian gentlemen as they gawk and stare, gawk and stare.
I began this tendency in Trivandrum, fresh off an overnight train from Bangalore. It was my first day in India, a country that evidently operates in functional chaos.
At any given tea stall in India, as I soon discovered, you’ll find hordes of men gathering before work or school, consuming the hot tea in a single swallow, and munching on balls of fried dough and lentils wrapped in newsprint.
It’s rare to see a woman drinking a street side chai, but I had to have it. And so, I let these gentlemen wonder each time I loudly requested “one chai, please!”
It was here in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, that I first fell in love with these morning excursions in search of a caffeine fix.
Although coffee tends to be the preferred morning beverage in southern India, there is certainly no shortage of chai, and the drinking of it appears to mark a daily social routine.
Street side chai stalls – run by tea makers known as chai wallahs – serve as gathering points for the young and old, both in the morning and early evening. It’s a happy hour of sorts with cups of spiced chai substituting pints.
The men running the stalls are constantly concocting fresh vats of the drink, boiling and straining the mixture of black tea and fragrant spices before repeatedly allowing the milky liquid to cascade over the rim of a stainless steel jug and into waiting glasses.
It was my desire to live the Indian culture, to go with the flow, that led me to my first chai drinking experience.
By doing what those around me did, I was confident I’d learn more. And certainly have a better time.
Sometimes one must be a leader, and other times a follower. This was the perfect time for me to throw Western manners out the window, dive right in, knock some elbows, and get myself a chai! For if there’s one thing I dislike about travelling, it’s looking and feeling like a complete tourist.
Throughout my travels in Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, I never found myself far from a chai vendor. They exist on busy street corners, and tucked away in narrow back alleys.
I found them in the country and in the city, and on every train that crisscross the subcontinent. On trains from Varkala to Kochi and Margao to Mumbai chai came to me in urns carried by men repeating “chai, chai, chai” as they meandered through the dimly lit aisles.
And while my joy of riding the rails never ceased, it was often one or two or ten of the small cups that got me through twelve hours of sitting on rock hard seats.
A cup of chai became a comfort, part of a routine. It became something familiar in an unfamiliar place.
The routine was something I could enjoy alone, or with others. In the unknown (to me) backstreets of Mysore, I stumbled upon a small hut where incense and essential oils are made.
After I lingered in the selection of jasmine, rose, and sandalwood scents, the gentleman running the joint invited me to sit with him and have none other than a cup of chai. It was an invitation for conversation, to perhaps learn something about each other and our respective cultures. Our love of chai was our commonality, and something we could share together.
All of us who venture out to see the world do so for different reasons, and we all take away different memories and experiences. When I am old and wrinkled, and I think back and fondly remember my time in India, my thoughts will not go to temples visited or amazing meals eaten.
Instead I will recall the smaller, seemingly insignificant experiences such as my daily chai, and the people I met as a result. For it was the morning chai that made me feel at home when, in fact, I was not.
And while many of us travel to escape our comfort zone, it is always…well, comforting, when we find something that can act as a substitute until we find ourselves surrounded once again with what we know.