After three fabulous days in Darjeeling, drinking tea and relaxing in the mountains we thought it was time to venture out and see how the delicious tea was made. We had heard about the Makabari Tea Estate that allows you to visit the tea fields as well as doing a home stay with a local family. It sounded like the perfect!
The tea estates were in a smaller town of Kurseong, about halfway down the mountain. We decided we would take the ‘toy train’, a one of a kind steam train running on tiny tracks, down to the town. We were looking forward to chugging along while looking at the scenery but unfortunately it didn’t go to plan. Not only was the weather abysmal but after about an hour we came to an ubrupt stop. Turns out while going around a bend the train had come off the tracks. We were told it would take 45 minutes to fix so we stuck it out rather the getting a taxi. We didn’t really count on ‘India time’ though and two hours later we were on the move. We eventually got there after five hours!
We arrived at the tea estates and made our way into the office where we met a Russian bio-chemist called Dimitri who started telling us all about his work on the tea plants. Was kind of hard to focus on what he was saying as he was dressed as a monk and the whole situation seemed slightly ridiculous. Thankfully our home stay advisor found us and took us to our little cottage where we were staying. Right behind the factory, next to the tea fields there is a little village filled with houses of workers for the tea estate. We stayed with Robin (the estate park ranger) and his wife Hama (who I think worked in a shop selling tea) and their 11 year old son Rohan in their cute little house. I wasn’t sure what to expect but was happy to find we were staying in a comfortable little annex to their home.
The home stay included three meals so after a quick wander around the village we went into their kitchen for dinner. The food was delicious and I can now say I had an authentic Indian dinner. We chatted with Hama as much as we could. Her English was great but after a little while it was hard to think of questions. We did find out that it wasn’t just the three of them in the house next door but they had five other extended family members living there too! I think they were great to take us on considering Hama would have to look after 10 people. There was a power cut while we were there too which wouldn’t have helped the situation!
We woke up the next morning to a rooster crowing and we were treated to a yummy breakfast before heading over to the factory to see how the tea was made. We had to put on face masks, caps and little shoe booties before going in which was probably the first instance of health and safety I had witnessed in India. As we wandered through the factory with our guide, we learned the different processes that go into making the different types of tea. Makabari tea is organic and they don’t use pesticides and do their bit for the environment around them. The tea is also measured in ‘flushes’ according to when it was picked and processed which gives it all different flavours. There is way more to making tea than I realised.
Part of the tour was a wander through the tea fields where we learnt about the types of tea plants (which I forgot about two seconds later) and got to watch the ladies work in the fields. The estate is over 670 hectares which means each day there is about 500 -600 women working in the fields. They pick tea for nine months of the year and even in the dry season they spent time fertalizing and getting the fields ready. After seeing how it was processed it as time for a tasting. Our host Sanjay took us through all the different types of tea that Makabari produce. We had to use a spoon to take a mouthful, swirl it around before spitting it out. It was almost as intense as a wine tasting but at least you didnt have to comment on the ‘woody undertones’ or flavour! While we were there we met Rajah, the boss and he was a riot. He spent about half an hour telling us crazy stories about visitors to his estate, visits he had done to Australia and telling us about his vision for a greener earth. It was quite a treat to meet such an interesting character.
Once the tour wrapped up we headed back home for lunch and farewell. The home stay and tea estate were a massive highlight of the trip so far. It was so much fun staying with a family and getting mothered a little and discovering more about tea at such an interesting place full of interesting people. It is something I won’t forget quickly!