Shunali Khullar Shrofftakes her daughters on a wi-fifree family bonding trip to West Bengal’s tea estates—and they live to tell the tale.
We all want different things from this trip. My 14-year-old, Zara, henceforth referred to as Child 1, wants to be compensated monetarily for being taken away from her hectic social life in Mumbai and subjected to things like mountains, valleys and other apparently hideous forms of nature. Child 2, Rania, at nine years of age is still innocent to the seductions of the material world and simply wishes to accompany her mother somewhere. As for me, having spent some time in the tea gardens of Darjeeling as a child, I am keen my daughters experience a different kind of a holiday, one that does not include Swiss ski resorts, London high streets or Orlando theme parks, where we have flocked year after year like devout pilgrims. I decide that we will spend a week in West Bengal’s tea estates, just us girls, and we—they, especially—will love it.
It is a languorous drive to Darjeeling on an unusually narrow road, through spotless mountain villages, flanked by gardens of tea. I expound to my children upon the inglorious ways of the British Empire. Child 1 isn’t impressed. “Ya, ya, it’s all green and stuff, but why are you so excited about it?” she asks. Her eyes light up briefly when the driver offers us cakes and sandwiches, but soon she lapses into her previous unmoved state. When I request the driver to take us to the hotel via Darjeeling’s iconic Raj-era Glenary’s Bakery & Café (www.facebook.com/glenarys), near the Mall, the girls squeal with delight. “There’s a mall here?” Child 2 asks gleefully. I consider banging my head on the dashboard and then tell them, equally gleefully, that it is the name of a road.
From Darjeeling, it’s a short, smooth drive to Ging Tea House (www.gingteahouse.com; doubles from 15,000) in Lebong Valley, where we are given a warm welcome by Sumedha, the director of the tea estate. Built in 1864, the bungalow is delightfully old-fashioned. From the dark teak flooring to the antique furniture, marble fireplace, the piano in a corner, vintage etchings on the wall and chintzy furnishings, every element makes me feel like I’m on the set of a BBC period production.
We’re served homegrown organic tea and cookies and then shown to the Blue Lady Suite, the same colour Child 1 turns when she is given the crushing news that the wi-fi at the property isn’t working and 3G reception is poor, too. Her facial expression morphs into a scowl, one that stays for the majority of the holiday. Child 2 then comes in, shrieking. She has seen a moth in the bathroom and needs me to vanquish it. I hold her hand and we inspect the bathroom. She breathes a sigh of relief when she realises she’d imagined it and that our suite is undefiled by the presence of arthropods.Ging has six beautiful suites. Apart from us, there are five other families, all of whom seem to have established an easy intimacy among themselves. Each morning, guests are served tea in bed, in exquisite porcelain dressed up in cosies, and later, served breakfast in the viewing decks on the lawns. A Raj-era routine is observed to perfection over the multicourse meals we are served at fixed times by the smiling ‘beras’ (bearers). Sumedha introduces us to different flushes of tea. We learn that every season produces a different tasting tea from the same bush, and that the difference between green, white and black tea depends not only on the flush, but also on the process of production. The organic tea from Ging is sold mainly to traders in Germany and Japan, who then package it under different labels and send it across the world.
Early mornings are the most beautiful part of the day, when the gentle rays of the sun caress the mountains. The lawns overlook the stunning Kanchenjunga. With much struggle, I have risen at the crack of dawn in the hope of seeing the famous peak, but it is currently hidden behind the curtain of clouds, just like Mount Fuji was when I went to Japan. I always seem to be travelling great distances only to look at clouds. That said, the clouds in these parts are no ordinary clouds. They are vagrant and restless one minute, static the next, sometimes above you, sometimes below.
On our second day, a tea garden tour awaits. The children accompany a group of tea pluckers in colourful shirts with saris worn like skirts. Child 2 enthusiastically learns to pluck the new buds correctly, keeping the first two leaves around them, while Child 1 manages the impossible task of plucking tea while staring at her phone in the hope of 3G signal. I am impressed with her determination. On another occasion, we walk through the clouds, down the terraces to a factory where Child 2 and I learn how green leaves are turned into packaged tea. Child 1, however, chooses to stay in the factory’s tasting room to read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4.
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