The air today is thick, unmoving, so unlike the constant cool breezes that caress this picturesque Northern California seaside village. I’m an anomaly here in Sausalito, without a car, in a town where even the maids drive used Mercedes. I focus on the lush, green Mt. Tamalpais I see from the bus stop, steps away from my houseboat moored along the bay. The view is a comforting reminder of India’s majestic Himalayas that surrounded me every day for a month as I explored Darjeeling tea farms, research for my book on chai, the spiced tea drink of India.
I loved everything about my visit, especially the conviviality of tea workers and the warm hospitality of the farm’s Indian owners who opened their home to me. What struck me most was their fatalism, especially about things one cannot control. I quickly absorbed it, supplanting my gotta-do-this-NOW American urgency as I followed my hostess’s admonition, “Just wait,” said whenever the electricity went out, or an animal blocked our walks, or a large truck of hot tar clung close enough to the mountainside to allow our car to pass an impossibly narrow road.
I find myself floating in that limbo of numbness that comes after prolonged waiting for the bus, my mind empty, not even curious when a small blue Lexus glides in front of me and stops. Assuming the driver is one of Sausalito’s many tourists needing directions, I get up to help the gentleman who leans over the passenger seat and asks, in a musical Indian accent, “You go to San Rafael? Come, I take you! Is very hot today.” With the memories of Darjeeling kindness, and the confidence of a seasoned traveler’s positive experiences, I step into the car.
My skirt and blouse, an impractical cotton knit, feel heavy, like velvet drapes. The driver’s gauze shirt and pants expand like billowing sheets hung out to dry, a brilliant white contrast to his skin. During my trip, I met Indians from three different Indian states, and both Pakistani, and Nepalese workers on the farms, so I’m hesitant when I guess, “Are you Pakistani?”
He turns to me and smiles. “Yes,” he says, and we drift into a comfortable chat. He asks what I do.
“What do you write about?”
“Tea. Chai. I’m a chaiwalla, although I really don’t sell tea as chaiwallas do. I write for people who sell tea. I’ve just returned from Darjeeling where I visited tea plantations for a book.”
He smiles again, this time exposing his perfectly straight teeth, white, the front ones considerably longer than the side ones making him seem more youthful than the stardust of grey in his hair implies. “Ah, chai, yes. I make very good Kashmiri chai.”
With great flourish, he gestures with his right hand, imitating the mixing and stirring of this spicy tea drink. He explains his personal method: boil the tea for at least an hour and a half, pouring hot water over the leaves many times during the cooking process, add the spices, in just the right amount: cinnamon, clove, pepper. “The time is very important because the leaves are not delicate, they are, how you say,” tugging at my little finger, “like this, very …”
“Thick? Hardy?” I prompt.
“Yes, so that is why we cook it for such a long time. Then we add milk; that makes it creamy and spicy and invigorating. It is very good, my chai. In Pakistan, we get up very early in the morning to make good chai for everyone to drink all day long.” Lifting up his chin with pride, he adds, “Every time I make my chai here, all the neighbors come by and ask, ‘What is that wonderful spicy aroma?’ I am so happy to share.” Perhaps grateful his chai resonates with his neighbors, he smiles even more broadly. I return the grin.
The cars traveling beside us are a kaleidoscope of moving bits of color, as the driver tells me how Indian dancers and musicians entertained at the recent street fair in San Rafael. “Americans, they seem to like Indian music; I don’t know why, but they come every time to hear us.”
“Are you a musician, too?”
“No, but I sing very well. Here, listen,” he says, pointing his index finger upward, like a conductor readying the orchestra. “I will show you.” He sits up more erect in his driver’s seat, his head faces forward assuredly. His light baritone pours out a lilting song for several choruses, ending when he turns and smiles.
“Very lovely,” I say, about to ask him about the lyrics when he taps his forefinger on my hand.
“Wait, wait. I’ll sing you another. Listen careful, now,” he admonishes, like a father rewarding a child for good behavior. As he sways his head from side to side, from out of his smiling lips comes a melody, haunting, poignant.
“What does it mean?” I whisper, fearful of breaking its spell on me.
“Love is like a paper boat, love is like a paper boat,” he says, weaving his hands from side to side through the air impersonating a gliding boat. “And it sails along the water, sometimes with the wind, sometimes not. It sails or sinks, because love is like a paper boat.”
He slows to a stop, abruptly ending my reverie. “I let you out here.” He slips his car into the middle lane and is off without another word. Throughout the day, I hum the melody.
That night, my houseboat emits a soft baritone sound, soothing as a lullaby. As the houseboat sways up and down, side to side, I float into a deep sleep, dream of wisps of boat-like shapes bobbing in the mahogany darkness, the tangy fragrance of spiced tea leaves scenting the night.