The Chai Wallah’s Gift

“Chaiiii! Chaiiii! Garam chaiiii!” The loud, nasal cry winds its way through India’s trains early in the morning. Travelers stretch their cramped and jolted bodies and rustle through their pockets for change. The chai wallah arrives with his silver urn and little paper cups. He pours a cup of steaming, milky black tea in exchange for a five-rupee coin. The passengers lift the cups to their lips, steam curling over their faces, the scent filling their noses. They forget the smell of the bathrooms at either end of the car. They forget the mouse they’d seen running over their feet. They smile at each other.

The year I lived in India, I learned chai isn’t a luxury: it’s a necessity. No matter how hot the weather, the chai wallah always travels the streets with his wire rack of tea in glasses, serving it to street vendors and shopkeepers alike. Mornings, my roommate left the house before I was up, but she’d leave me warm chai on the stove. Twice a day at the school where I worked, Anita would make us rich cups of chai; she showed me how to boil the milk and water together, and how to grate in the ginger.

Upon my return from India, I began making chai for my family and friends. I bought the whole spices: green cardamom pods, cloves, fresh ginger, and long cinnamon sticks. Often I only have time to chuck a tea bag in a pot of hot water, but when I can, I love making chai from scratch. People stop by the stove to see what I’m doing and ask me to show them how. I strain the chai into my fancy teacups, one by one. I want my guests to know they’re worth the effort.

The first time I had JusTea’s chai was at a family reunion. A big urn of tea sat on the edge of the picnic table. We were drawn in out of the dark toward each other, warmed together, with the same experience of delicious taste and smell.

Tea is about connection: waiting together at the kitchen table for the kettle to whistle, a full cup of tea handed from one person to another, a long conversation extended by a second (or third) cup. You can’t share a cup of tea through Facebook or a text message; it requires you to be in each other’s presence. Coffee might be your caffeine fix, your jolt to fuel an overworked day. But tea is a reminder to slow down and appreciate the people around you.

This is what JusTea does: brings you closer not just to your family and friends, but to those in a far country who may seem very different than you. It’s about cutting out the layers of disconnect between what goes into our teacup, and those who made it. It’s about appreciating the effort involved in what we consume. We won’t all have a chance to drink tea in Kenya, but JusTea shortens the distance between us and Kenyan farmers, and helps us realize the gift a cup of tea can be.

~ Liz Snell