Premal and I spent a few days in the highest village in India south of the himalayas. The area is famous for the lush green patchwork of tea gardens that blanket the hillsides. The plantations look like something out of a fairytale. They're too green, and the fog is too perfect, and the crisp mountain air is too welcome a retreat from the oppressive heat of the cities to be real. The town consisted of a clump of rainbow colored shacks, each hung with an immaculately carved door and a sari or two drying out on the line. Children and goats rambled about the ragged road with equally impressive dexterity, and girls walked to their one-room school house with books in their arms and jasmin blossoms in their hair. 

And yet, I kept my camera down. Because as stunning as my surroundings were, I couldn't shake the feelings of guilt the welled up in me every time our jeep rolled through town. When grown men and kids alike would come and peer into our windows at the tourists from the big city. I became acutely aware of what I had, and what they lacked, and all of the small things I could have done to brighten their world. I started a running list of small items I might bring to give to strangers on our next trip: chewing gum, chocolates, glow-bracelets...

 But it did little to ease my mind. 

One night, as we sat by the fire in our little cottage, we decided to watch a TED talk Premal had downloaded before we left. The subject of the talk was happiness, and I felt like it was written especially for me in that moment. I know I won't do the talk justice here, so I really encourage you to watch it for yourself. But essentially what Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert says is that human beings like being happy. In fact, we're engineered to be happy, especially when there's nothing we can do about it. So, don't pity people, and don't feel guilty, because that doesn't help you and it certainly doesn't help the objects of your emotional patronage. 

The next morning we went out for a hike, armed with a new resolve to see the best in my surroundings through my camera. We took an absurd number of pictures of the hills, and ourselves, but when we came upon a group of plantation workers I put my lens down. Soon they all started to point at me and my camera, clicking their tongues and yelling at our guide in a language neither Premal nor I was familiar with. Like a bolt of lightning the guilt was back, and I felt my face flush hot with shame over being "that insensitive tourist." Premal asked our guide something in Hindi, then looked at me and laughed. "They want you to take their pictures" he said. So I slowly lifted my camera, and as I did, these women of the field stood up proud and strong and smiled. And my guilt washed away, and I'll be damned if it didn't leave a solid dose of happiness is its wake.

Since the beginning of our relationship, chai--or "cha" as they say in Gujarati--has inhabited a special place in my heart. On weekends, Premal will brew us big mugs of the spiced tea, and we'll sip it and pretend that there's nowhere else we have to be. I used to be completely terrified at the notion of making cha from scratch, but like lots of the best things in life, it's best if you don't complicate matters.

Simple Cha:

  • 2/3 C water
  • 2 t loose black tea
  • 2 T fresh ginger (grated) OR 1 sprig fresh mint OR 3 pods green cardamom
  • 1/3 C GOOD FATTY milk
  • sugar to taste

add the tea and spice to your water and bring to a boil for a couple minutes. Add milk and bring back to desired temperature. Strain. Sweeten. Be happy!

Notes on sugar: In India they drink their cha so sweet your teeth will sting. About 2-3 tablespoons of sugar and you'll be authentic. I tend to use slightly less than a teaspoon in mine.