Of All the Tea in China, One Place Rules…

The sweat of migrant workers is essential to bring the famous West Lake Dragon-Well Tea (西湖龙井茶) to tea mugs around the world.  It is in the village of Meijiawu, the heart of Longjing tea production, where the workers proudly offer us these roasted green tea leaves, and do so with smiles on their faces and laughter in their hearts.

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Today, as I sit back and watch the dancing tea leaves swirl in rhythm with the spring water in my mug, my mind drifts back to the hills surrounding a village outside of Hangzhou city, the origin of the green tea I am enjoying.  This tea is commonly known as Longjing tea, the most famous green tea in China and therefore, I believe, the most famous in the world: a true delicacy among tea connoisseurs.

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The West Lake Longjing green tea I am now enjoying is special: one of the first lots of Longjing tea picked in the West Lake area this year, and with only 168 square kilometers making up the West Lake Longjing tea area there is a limited supply.  Through a farmer (Mr. Yang) in the village of Meijiawu (梅家坞), I was able to explore and experience this region for a few days and accompany a group of migrant workers into the hills.  Every morning, after a breakfast of steamed buns and pickled vegetables, we would make our way into the hills and pick the highest quality tea leaves available (or in my case, just photographing the picking…a much easier task!). 

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For me, this trip was completion of a decade long dream and one I almost failed to make as both exhaustion of travel and travel delays left me stranded elsewhere.  The small harvest window for these special tea leaves (perhaps a week or so depending on the weather), made getting to Meijiawu a priority and I ended up putting together a 48-hour trek to arrive in time.

Arrival at my room at Mr. Yang’s guesthouse was pleasant enough, a place to lay down and hot water is all I need, but one surprise my first night was that Mrs. Yang was also hosting a small group of Shanghainese women for the night… and there was only a paper-thin wall separating me from a very energetic mahjong game that went strong until 3am. The ladies were very polite and hoped that I would play, but I have had many expensive mahjong lessons in China, so while it is a beautiful game, it is best to stay away from the pros!

The long night did make the 5 a.m. start a bit difficult, but the hilarious and upbeat group of peasant ladies that took me in during my time there made the mornings wonderful.  One of the women, Ms. Li, provided many of the details: they were all from the same town in Anhui and have an annual contract with Mr. Yang.  Every year they return to work his fields for they admire his tea (they describe it as more beautiful than the rest) and since his tea is known to be one of the best, it gives them face as well as better pay.  Laughter did erupt after this explanation, as the other ladies joked “she put pay last, but actually it is our first reason!”

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I have found that the migrant tea leaf pickers come to Meijiawu and the surrounding area for about one month for the tea harvest season, generally Mid-March thru Mid-April.  And as in the States, when harvest season arrives all available sunlight means time in the fields.  The premium tea is picked the first week, followed by later picks (and lesser quality tea leaves).

The first evening I arrived, I took a long walk up through the hills to check out the area so I could have an idea of what to shoot, with some apprehension on how open the workers would be with me photographing them.  As some of the workers were preparing to return home I politely asked them if I could take a few photos of them, expecting a shake of the head or wave of the hand…but was met with laughter and teasing among the women about their future stardom. Every group I talked with enjoyed discussing their work, explaining their ideas about tea and their history in harvesting the famous Longjing.  Seamlessly, photography would work into our discussions and, without a pause, the words would continue to flow as the shutter started clicking.  Extreme pride in their work and their role in the industry.

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The group of ladies from Anhui on my first morning were no different. After our morning introduction at breakfast there was endless joking and laughter with not too many hints of shyness or discomfort that many migrant workers have.  It surprised me.  Perhaps this is linked to the knowledge that:

1. They are here for only a month, and while the work is hard, they are all here with a family member or friend from their home town.
2. They know their contribution to this fascinating niche of the 龙井茶 tea industry is invaluable… A billion RMB industry annually, and without experienced migrant workers – the local plantation owners could not efficiently harvest more than a fraction of what they do now.

The spirit of these women is absolutely inspiring.  The commitment to their work and the harvest reminds me of the farmers in Eastern Oregon, breaking their backs to make a living and provide for the rest of the country (and world).  Being reflective and considering my work and salary (quite a bit higher than these great ladies), and I am not just humbled, but a little embarrassed… especially when after a couple hours of shooting the first small plot of land, I excused myself to go back to the guesthouse to get a few more zzzzzz’s.

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Above photo: preparing the leaves prior to roasting (Longjing tea does not “ferment” as other types of teas such as Oolong, Black Tea and Pu’er).

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Above photo: roasting of the tea leaves is done after picking, and while there are electronic roasters most of the high quality tea leaves are done by hand.

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Above photo: sorting after roasting is an important step, making sure that only the top quality leaves are kept especially since the tea culture in China is so advanced that buyers (large tea companies or individuals) will look at the leaves presented in front of them and immediately be able to tell the quality.  This makes presentation of the tea outside individual stores important as well (below photo).

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There is always something special about drinking or eating a product fresh from the source, at the source. A Guinness at St. James Gate outside of Dublin, fresh oysters or salmon while sitting along side the shore on Hood Canal in the Puget Sound, or sitting in the fresh air with a glass of fresh 龙井茶 (LongJing tea) brewed with local spring water…nothing, it seems, could ever taste better.

One of the first lessons anyone will ever learn about drinking tea: water quality can be just as important as the tea itself.  This is why, as it was explained to me, that almost 400 years ago, Longjing tea was declared an Imperial Tea for its exquisite flavor and appearance, and because it was brewed with the sweet Meijiawu spring water, it became historic.  It is great to see how much pride there is with the locals and their tea.

Over my first cup of this year’s harvest, Mr. Yang made clear that from the tea pickers to the roasting and sorting (which him and his wife control), there is a pride knowing they are contributing to a very ancient and important craft that remains vibrant both culturally and economically in China.  Along with this cultural significance, he added, the long friendships and camaraderie that is created and shared every season makes this a wonderful life.  Pretty cool.

The final day ended on a fun note.  As we were returning to the house, we ran into a good friend of the ladies who for the past three days was too shy to have her photo taken…but finally through the determination of the team we got the shot. I told them I would e-mail them a copy of the photo, and Ms. Li said “no, we have decided that you must also come next year and you give us all a copy of your photos…and this time, you will actually pick your own tea leaves” which ended up in laughter as we learned earlier in the day that my tea leaf picking skills are atrocious.

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The immediate impact this trip has had on me is pretty obvious, and that is I have a huge affair going on with my Longjing tea right now. Granted, nothing will replace that first cup of coffee in the morning (the influence of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest), but recently putting a couple healthy pinches of those roasted tea leaves into my mug after lunch has been invigorating.  Endlessly refilling my tea mug throughout the afternoon, as Longjing tea holds its flavor for a very long time, I not only get to enjoy the dancing tea leaves but I also get to reminisce about the wonderful journey of my tea from the hills of Meijiawu to my glass.

A Holy Time in San Miguel de Allende

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There are angels who walk on Earth, and they can be found in the sleepy town of San Miguel de Allende of the central Mexican state of Guanajuato…which I suppose is not so sleepy any more, as it has become an art & culture center for much of Central Mexico.  The people of San Miguel de Allende have become well-known for their great artistic skill as well as their incredible hospitality.  From my experience of Holy Week, the city and festival is a perfect testament to the brilliance of the people, creating not just a fascinating city, but a home.  Perhaps not a physical home for those just visiting, but definitely a home for the heart.

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In early spring, to celebrate and honor the Holy Week of Easter, the town comes alive with pageants and processions that express the passion of the local people and their religion.  There is not a better time to understand the local culture and gain new experiences and memories of new friends sharing a day.  Throughout the week, I had often been told “this is a city where at dawn the city is full of strangers yet at sunset full of friends.”

While the city and area has much to offer, being there during the Holy Week festivities created an atmosphere perfect for photography and contemplation.  Of the many different processions of Holy Week, the San Juan Dios Procession was my favorite as I was there with a group of photographers and it was a great opportunity to lose myself in shooting…to focus on the scene, people and the lighting so I could extract the emotions of the day.  It was made easier by the continual warm reception we received by the local population and the participants of the day’s procession.

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When it comes to shooting a moment like the SJD Procession, there is always a fear that the presence of a camera could create some tension and take away from the day, the reason being is pretty simple: photographers, at times, can generally be viewed as a disruptive bunch when they do not take into account their surroundings and only shoot for themselves.  Fortunately, such fears vanished quickly as I was stunned at the opportunities to shoot people in a relaxed, natural state…there are not too many places in the world where that is possible.  It seemed all photographers were keenly aware that this event was for the community, and took a back seat to the events.

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One of the main reasons of the relaxed nature of SJD Procession was the number of children with their parents and friends, all smiling and accepting the day for what is was: a celebration.  Even as I started the day with the intention of focusing fully on my photography, I could not help but become removed from my role as a photographer and instead dive into my role as a participant.  The reception, as is often the case with warm cultures, astounded me as all of my subjects had a smile to share and a helpfulness that creates a mood where we are all one big family.  

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As I sat down to watch the procession with my camera in hand, protecting my prime shooting position I had claimed, a group of young children from across the street with whom I had joked around with earlier in the morning, motioned me over to come sit with them.  I do admit that my immediate concern of photography and leaving this prime location almost caused me to shake them off, but it was only for an instant and I quickly jumped over to the other side of the street instead and sat on the curb with my new friends.

A big thanks to Araceli Moreno Bustamente and Josefina A. Hernandez, whose children and friends sat me down and immersed me into the festivities, culture and their celebration…even if just for a brief period of time.  It was such a great time laughing with them, trying to translate words/expressions with my poor Spanish (which was the endless cause of laughter with the kids), and the beauty was simply watching this large family interact so effortlessly and take in all the day offered.

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The SJD Procession was definitely the highlight of the trip, perhaps not so much for the photography as it was for just ‘being there’.  Culturally, I felt very much a part of the procession, which I did not think was possible.  If there was another moment where similar feelings were created, it had to be the evening of Good Friday when the ceremony of Via Dolorosa and the Procession of the Holy Burial took place.  While this procession was much more solemn, it also contained more intense emotions.  The timing of this procession was perfect, just getting underway as dusk began to darken the town, setting the scene perfectly.  Starting at dusk, as photographers, we have the great challenge of shooting with limited light even though by now I had learned that photography definitely takes a back seat to all the emotions and pageantry that the participants bring and share.  This procession did not disappoint as the participants engulfed us all to become part of the somber celebration.

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To have such waves of emotions around you with a camera in your hand, is the golden time to create ambiance within your photographs, such that you can be transported back into the scene again and again.  I suppose that is the beauty of photography, it allows you to contemplate life while previewing the current scene and selecting the piece of life you wish to “immortalize” in your shot.  As you later go back and review the shot, be it days or years later, you again contemplate your mood and the scene… an experience we have all had with photography.  The ambiance within the photo you created also gives the opportunity for others to view the scene, contemplate and perhaps create their own story and mood.  Ideally the photo sparks a thought that blooms within the mind of others and the creativity of the shot continues.  For photographers do not shoot photos just to shoot, they shoot photos to be experienced…     

For this incredible ride that Holy Week and San Miguel de Allende provided, I have to give a big thanks to go to my sister who made it possible.  The early morning coffees, discussions of photography and most important enjoying the food and margaritas after a day of a long shooting made it a great week.  A cerveza or two during our breaks in shooting with the locals didn’t hurt much either!  At the end of October every year, there is also the annual “Day of the Dead” festival in San Miguel de Allende, and I hope to travel back to this wonderful land a create another week or so of magic.   

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An important note to add: the experiences of Holy Week were made possible by an incredible number of people, and specifically through Raul Touzon, an absolute master of light and thus a master of photography. His work can be found on http://touzonphoto.com/ .  My photography improved greatly through watching him work and perhaps more by viewing his work.  Even today, when I receive his newsletter and see his latest work, I notice how he “bends light” to suit his needs…and I learn a little more.  Inspirational.

The internet has been a blessing for all photographers, as there is such a great mountain of superb photographic work out there, it can do nothing but inspire me to push the envelope even more and improve.

The Mighty Egyptians

Egypt-2006-2 There are few places on earth where I feel like I have slipped into a mythical time period, and Egypt is one.  The ancient Egyptians were geniuses, creating some of the greatest marvels of the world.  During my visits, the historical sites were never-ending and always impressive, but what intrigued me most were the people.  Incredibly insightful, and very willing to discuss life, politics and cultural issues over tea. Egypt-2006-3-2 Egypt-2006-2-2 Egypt-2006-4-2 The openness of the people was surprising, and enjoyed talking with them more than I enjoyed the tourist sites (don’t get me wrong, the sites are truly incredible achievements).  Over tea, we could delve into these discussions of politics, history and philosophy, all of which added to the flavor of country and its culture.  The one consistent trait that seeped into every conversation I had with my Egyptian friends, was their great pride in their country and their astute eye to Egypt’s problems.  The pride is deservedly so with their rich history, and the criticism mirroring their frustration in seeing their country fall from once a great empire to one rife with political struggles and a growing lack of opportunities for their population.  True patriots.

Cairo still fosters great philosophers and ideas, but outside the large city the educational infrastructure is in tatters.  An educational system in tatters does not bode well for the future, and Egyptians understand this yet are paralyzed with the current changes within their country.  Egypt is a country rich in tradition, from the Bedouin to the arts and sciences, and more than one Egyptian believed that it is this same rich history that has the power to pull the country apart at the seams.

Egypt-2006-4 “What is our next step as a country?” was the frequent question, and then as if to acknowledge the futility of an easy answer, they would ask my thoughts about the last historical site we visited.  While I did enjoy the smaller villages and great historical sites with Karnak and the Nile Valley perhaps being the highlight of the trip for me, nothing came close to the relationships (however short they were) developed with the people, our guides and security team that accompanied us.   Egypt-782 Egypt-780 Nile Delta-777 Cairo has always fascinated me, and will always remain a city where I would like to spend more time even though I doubt that could ever be possible.  When mentioning to my Cairo friends that we were going to the Sinai Peninsula, they immediately told me to take time for an early morning hike up Mount Horeb, (also known as Mt. Sinai). The hike is about 7,500ft. change in elevation, and roughly a 2.5 hour climb starting at around 3:30am to ensure arrival at the summit prior to the sunrise.  One friend, Ain, stressed that at sunrise we would be able to feel the history of a great Egypt and with the morning energy it would then be possible to successfully head into the future and one day return the promise to return to Egypt in glory.

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The words were prophetic, as we made it to the summit prior to dawn, ate a small and simple breakfast and as a few more hikers arrived, together we witnessed a beautiful sunrise.  Among strangers, we all shared that great moment and I wondered just when I would make my return in glory to this great land of Egypt…

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As the hikers began to leave, I started prepping for the trek down when one of our guides and a security agent told us (3 other Americans in the group) that we could stay awhile, and they would prepare a smoke on the hookah so we could enjoy the serenity and talk for a while before heading back down.  I realized why I have enjoyed travel: rooted in most cultures is a desire to learn.  Sitting down to share ideas, be it over tea, coffee or a smoke.  Ideas that may be contradictory to the other, but nonetheless concepts that are shared.  Looking around at the peaceful surrounding, I thought it pretty cool to have the top of the mountain secluded for another great learning experience.

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The current strife and chaos within the Egyptian political system is very disheartening, especially as many Egyptians understand the country needs to be engaged with the west and the US.  While I have yet to make it back to Egypt, there is much to share, learn and grow between us.  More conversations over tea, coffee and smokes are needed to bring greater understanding and peace.  Wish my Egyptian friends the very best.

Power of Nature and Change

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I hadn’t planned on writing another blog entry on Cambodia, but then it is a good excuse to show some of the more iconic shots of the power of nature at Ta Prohm and discuss the inevitable change around us.  Of all the photos I have seen of Cambodia, these tend to be the most common: nature coming in to continue the cycle of change…to return everything back to its source.

Change is a challenge nature throws our way, and how we reconcile change within our lives makes us who we are.  Today’s world has undergone a paradigm shift in terms of how technology has removed us further from the physical world.  A change that has many people struggling to understand what lies ahead.  Where in the past we had a better understanding and thus security, today we float through ethernet cables from quarks to parallel universes.  Yet fear not.

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This is the beauty of evolution.  When we understand that change is the only constant there is in our lives, it makes it easier to recognize our own purpose and meaning.  We either adapt or struggle (e.g. blaming politics & the world until our last breath).  At times, I have been terrified of change and struggled until realizing that change brings experience to life and, in essence, brings out a hero quality we all have inside.

This is perhaps why I find Ta Prohm so fascinating.  Mother Earth has taught us: change & evolution is inevitable and in the future more great monuments may become covered in brush & vine as society decides to moves on.

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The Hall of the Dancers at Ta Prohm intrigued me the most, mainly because some locals were filling me in on its history and I walked away knowing that it is futile to fight change.  Understand change, embrace its inevitability and continue to move forward and add value to our lives and to those around us.

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The 16th verse of Laozi addresses this well:

 致虚极,守静笃。万物并作吾以观其复。夫物芸芸,各复归其根。归根曰静静曰复命。复命曰常,知常曰明。不知常,妄作凶。知常,容,容乃公,公乃王,王乃天,天乃道,道乃久,没身不殆。

Empty your mind and heart and be at peace, while around you is turmoil: endings become beginnings and beginnings will end.   Everything flourishes and everything ends, it is what it is: the cycle of life.  If you do not understand your source and nature, you will stumble and life will stagnate.  

Understand your source and you can fulfill your destiny.  Be tolerant among change and you can deal with all life brings your way until you are ready for the cycle to begin again. 

My simple take on this verse:  By allowing yourself to accept change, you to return to your source (your nature) where you are able to begin to understand how your world really works. With this understanding, you  are ready for all life can offer…thus will accept the end.

Cambodia: Beauty of Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat is famous for a very good reason: it is stunning in its beauty as well as its mystery.  The largest religious temple (Hindu) ever built almost a millennium ago and hidden from all until just recently.  While photo opportunities lie everywhere, the ambiance of this vast piece of art is felt only by wandering through its amazing halls and structures.

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While there is a peacefulness that surrounds the area, I cannot help but wonder about all the strife and tragedy that has occurred over the past thousand years…taking what was once a mecca of Khmer life and while never fully abandoned, fell silent as the forces of nature took over as regional politics and war ebbed and flowed.

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In the jungle north of Angkor is one of my favorite spots, the Preah Khan temple, and unlike Angkor Wat, it has remained in ruins as there has been very little (if any) restoration.  However, the lack of restoration actually creates more electricity for me.  The temple is full of sacred images of Khmer women protecting the temple with their auspicious presence and as I sat down with my lunch (the fried cakes shown a couple posts earlier), I contemplate how vivid life must have been almost 1,000 years ago.

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I admit to a certain naiveté, wishing that I could have been an explorer back in those days, understanding that it was a very hard life, for sure, but I imagine the unexpected delight that around every corner was possibly a new & vibrant culture to be experienced would have been worth the struggle.

My advice to any and all people can be best expressed by an article Jeff Goins wrote, I think it should be required reading for all: http://goinswriter.com/travel-young/

Cambodia: Morning at Bayon…

The first morning light brings with it the promise of a new day, and with it new dreams.

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Morning can be difficult to claw yourself out of bed, especially pre-dawn.  However, once your up and feel the anticipation of the day and the peacefulness that surrounds, there is not a better feeling.  Bayon, outside of Phnom Penh was such an oasis.  In the pre-dawn darkness, alone among ancient ruins, ruins that at the time were some of the greatest in the world, it was a blissful feeling.

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Starting each day with dreams and hopes of happiness allows us at the end of the day to  reflect on the beauty the morning brings to us.  Reflections in photography are a powerful way to express an emotion of that time when you released the shutter.  When what you felt can be reconciled with what you saw, and can then be shared with others.

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Happiness in the most unlikely places…

Traveling to many countries we would consider 3rd world, I am buoyed by the spirit and love for life that I see from people who live day-by-day.  The people of Phnom Penh and Cambodia in general were some of the most optimistic and life-loving people I have ever met.  Morning Worker-2 My Lunch

Walking around town, I was amazed at the relative ease in communicating with the locals, even though I only spoke at the very basic level of Cambodian (1-month crash course prior to my trip), and they had very limited – if any – English skills.

After graduating in the USA, I found work managing a bicycle & ski shop which allowed me to pursue two great loves: cycling and working on bicycles (skiing was a 3rd hobby, but clearly took a back seat to cycling).  While walking the streets, I met two very energetic and busy guys who had a cycle repair shop on the streets and were very happy to try to explain their work/life/happiness in doing what they did in Phnom Penh.  Generally they agreed that: “We are lucky, and we get to travel back home to see our families every year…”

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Life is not so much a collection of material goods, but a collection of experiences from which you decide on your happiness.  Lao Zi, the author of the Dao de Jing, once wrote (Chapter 44):

  • 名与身孰亲?
  • 身与货孰多?
  • 得与亡孰病?

甚爱必大费,多藏必厚亡。故知足不辱,知止不殆,可以长久。

  • Your name or integrity, which is more dear?
  • Your health or money, which is worth more?
  • Your strife for gain or time with those you love, when facing death which is most important?

Fulfillment does not come from the admiration of other, but with admiration of yourself.  When you know when to stop & to love, the whole world belongs to you.

Look into your heart, and decide what is real and what is true.  Know when to stop, reassess what is right and then follow your spirit.

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