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Travel, Time, and Tea

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For those of us who love the world of tea, the symbiotic relationship it shares with tourism and travel is a unique one.

Some people travel just to experience a delicious cup of fragrance and send their taste buds on a roller coaster. Other people go to exotic locations and discover something new to whet their palate. For us connoisseurs, it’s hard to imagine anywhere else in the world other than Asia and India to be associated with tea. Areas in Africa such as Rwanda also grow special artisan crafted teas.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

Peru, though, is a unique culture that has a unique flavor, coca.

The coca plant is most notoriously associated with cocaine, but did you know it makes a unique brew that will be memorialized in the confines of your brain. Every time I go to my local Peruvian restaurant, I always make sure I grab a cup and experience the nostalgia as waves of memories wash over me.

That is the magical essence though, isn’t it?

To be back in a time and place from years ago, and feel the memories flow through you like they happened yesterday. That’s what happens every time I indulge in coca tea (legal in prepackaged tea bags, don’t confuse with cocoa.) My journey to Peru was already a memorable one, but to be back in that place just from a cup of liquid is glorious. Green tea can do that too, or any tea that you consider your favorite brew. After all, it is your favorite for a reason. The right tea can bring you back to a memorable warm summer day, or some iced tea can bring you back to a great family gathering that happened years ago.

Memory certainly works in mysterious ways, but let’s break down why coca leaf tea likes to transport me through time, and hear a firsthand account from someone who originated from that country.

There are many things that work in mysterious ways in this world, and the brain is certainly one of them. In a world where everyone is different, that definitely applies to your noggin. When it comes to recalling memories, studies show that tastes and smells are associated the most with dredging up the past. For me, tea has a profound effect on my body already, but when I recall my travels to Peru, I get giddy. As my favorite trip so far, I constantly revisit pictures, read literature about it, and reminisce about immersing myself in a different culture.

My first cup of coca tea came from the airplane.

The stewardess was patrolling the aisles asking for drink orders on my last leg of the flight, so naturally, I asked for a ‘mate de coca’ which I had read about in my pre-trip text. The next thing I knew, earthy goodness consumed me, and I was hooked for the rest of my stay. Right next to my hotel they sold tall large sized cups of the tea, which I engorged a couple times a day, nearly burning an additional hole in my mouth by consuming too fast.

I didn’t guzzle just for the fun of it though, locals say that it helps to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness, which ironically is perfect for the elevation of the city anyway. The leaves of the coca plant contain within them a set of alkaloids, which is extracted chemically to create cocaine. Although, in just the raw leaves, there are not enough to affect anyone trying to indulge in the tea. Only about an eighth of the alkaloids exist in a cup of coca tea than they do in a ‘line’ of the street drug, still making it a mild stimulant.

An energetic buzz, release of a torrential headache that plagued me, and a fresh feeling that lasted awhile were my symptoms.

Don’t try to take some of this stuff home though unless it’s in prepackaged tea bags, which have trace amounts of alkaloids, much in the same way a non-alcoholic beer has trace amounts of alcohol. Don’t be a goof like me and find some actual leaves in your jacket pocket when you get home, that could spell trouble and a relaxing stay at the local Peruvian prison. If you have a local Peruvian restaurant in your city, they may carry the tea like mine does. I always know that I can stop by to grab a cup, but to have a place that lets me revisit fond memories is priceless. My wife doesn’t share my same sentiments, but that’s because she hasn’t traveled like I have.

DEPTOLLA, CUE, PORTER, 2. – Chef Paz, a Peruvian restaurant, at 9039 W. National Ave., in West Allis, is chef owned by Maritza Paz. November 20, 2012. GARY PORTER/GPORTER@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM

I had a chance to catch up with the head chef and owner of Chef Paz, a self-titled Peruvian restaurant down the street, and she had some words of wisdom to share with me. I asked her about how frequent her trips to her home country were, and if she brought back tea and ingredients with her for the restaurant. Chef Paz assured me that she always brought tea back with her, which is the reason why I can find it so easily at her establishment.

(Photo: Garrett Heng)

This prestigious chef also shared that the coca leaf tea, which she enjoys, also is able to transport her back to Peru, along with Peruvian Chili’s, which I am sure I have sampled in her delectable dishes.

Chef Paz also informed me that when it comes to tea, she prefers cups that are free of caffeine such as cinnamon, fruits, or a piña colada tea she buys at a local store. I was ambitious enough to starve myself for a morning recently so that I could deeply indulge at one of her buffets that she administers. I was in heaven, or at the very least back in Peru among the llamas and alpacas, seemingly traveling through time to be in a place that meant so much to me. These feelings are likely to continue for the rest of my life, hopefully.

I yearn one day to travel to India and China to experience the best of the best when it comes to tea. I’m sure I will get my chance to create new memories for future recalling in these destinations. The brain is finite, but it doesn’t seem like it when you can remember every detail of a special vacation or every word of a song back in a summer from ten years ago.

As long as my brain keeps running normally and doesn’t one day overload to the behest of my significant other, I will be fine. Immersing yourself in another culture is the easiest way to take a mental video of your trip, but bringing along a camera certainly doesn’t hurt either.

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Garrett Heng

Author, dedicated father, and gym nut. I spend most of my days either working, planning future travels, or watching the seasons battle each other in Wisconsin.

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