How I Learned to Navigate India through its Obsession with Chai

Travel Features

It had been less than two weeks since I arrived in India when I boarded a bus for what would be the longest trip I’d ever taken. The 17-hour ride from the holy city of Varanasi to Jaisalmer in the western desert included a long stretch near the heavily militarized border with Pakistan—a fitting backdrop to what promised to be a jarring ride.

A Western woman in India, I often felt like a prime target for being ripped off or otherwise taken advantage of and found it hard to trust anyone. As my girlfriend and I settled in for the ride, I started talking with a young boy, he was probably in his mid-teens. With a smiling face and twig-like arms that poked out of his striped polo shirt, he was non-threatening; his soft voice put me at ease.

We stopped abruptly at what would be the first of many pauses as a chai wallah—tea vendor—boarded the bus, shouting, “Chai!” while swinging a metal canister as he made his way down the aisle. The boy motioned to the vendor to bring three tiny plastic cups—the sort you’d get at the dentist to rinse your mouth out after a cleaning.

I wouldn’t typically accept a drink from a stranger—or consume anything on public transit in India—but chai is more than a drink.

“Chai is an important symbol in India,” the boy said, handing a cup each to my friend and me. “The brown tea and the white milk mix together like the British and Indian culture.”

I looked at the thick, caramel-colored liquid dotted with cardamom seeds. The symbolism was apt for India—sometimes abrasive, sometimes pleasant, but always unpredictable.

Photo via Getty by Mark Kolbe

Indians had been steeping spices like cardamom and ginger in hot beverages to use as ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years by the time the British brought their tea culture to the subcontinent.

Pre-colonial masala chai—spiced tea—contained no actual leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. When the British popularized black tea with milk and sugar—in addition to demarcating tea-growing regions across the country—in the mid-1800s, Indians adopted the recipe, adding spices to make chai in its current form.
When the British left in 1947, India reverted to many of its former ways—evident in the transit and public systems—but its obsession with tea remained.

Today, the tea leaves are almost always boiled with spices and then boiled again after the addition of condensed milk. This is the opposite of British-style tea, where the leaves are steeped in hot water and the milk and sweetener are added later.
Though strains of the basic recipe appear everywhere, each home or chai wallah makes it differently, adding his or her own personal touch.
Looking at my warm chai on this bus brought me back to the first cup I ever had in India.

On my first day in Delhi, the country’s capital was living up to its reputation as a minefield for unsuspecting travelers. After airport trouble, countless encounters with would-be scammers and wandering lost along Outer Ring Road for hours, I grew frustrated and walked into an air-conditioned clothing store to compose myself.

A beautiful woman with cocoa-colored eyes, wearing a red, embroidered sari approached me. “You look so tired, my dear. Would you like a cup of chai?”

Still reeling from a 2 a.m. arrival, I jumped at the offer.

“I would love some. Thank you.”

I would come to learn that, in addition to being served after meals, chai was customary upon entering someone’s business or home as hospitality.

The server and context are important too. Even the poorest person will serve you chai in their home. Cunning shopkeepers like this beautiful woman will refill your cup for hours as they walk you through rooms of richly-colored silks and show off trays of gemstones, until you let your guard down. And it works; you almost never leave a store empty-handed.

While chai is foremost a gesture of friendship and hospitality, often the person offering it has an ulterior motive.

Photo via Getty by Daniel Berehulak

Back on the bus, we were well into the night’s journey—still clutching our cups—when the young boy said: “I have something to show you. Can I come into your sleeper compartment?”

Taken aback, my friend and I refused. He would ask a few more times before leaving us alone in uncomfortable silence, wondering if his chai offering was to be followed by an ulterior motive. We didn’t want to find out.

For the rest of the ride, we turned our gaze outward. Outside the cities, the roads are in very poor condition. As we bounced from pothole to pothole, the window slid itself open to reveal soldiers in front of barbed wire fences and people huddled around fires. We didn’t sleep at all.

We finally arrived in Jaisalmer at 7 a.m. The sun, already strong, cast a golden hue onto the desert town.

We stumbled toward our guesthouse to find the owner, Abu.

“I was so worried about you! You were supposed to be in an hour ago. When I didn’t see you, I thought something happened.”

He took us in and brought us warm blankets and a steaming pot of chai. The warm drink seemed comforting even then under the hot desert sun.

“I get so worried for my guests sometimes,” he said, as he poured three cups of tea. “India can be difficult at first, but it really is a good place.”

Christina is a beach kid living in Brooklyn and a world traveler on a budget. She writes about food, style, travel—and the occasional short story.

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