El mundo en una taza de te (“The world in a cup of tea”)

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

For those who love football, the FIFA World Cup is an event that equals the Olympics for the excitement it generates. While countries like Argentina and Brazil in South America are better known for their strong national teams, Costa Rica is also known as a perennial powerhouse in Central America. As a matter of fact, Costa Rica’s national team adavanced to the quarterfinals in the 2014 World Cup held in Brazil before losing out to the Netherlands national team in a dramatic penalty shootout. The players who represented Costa Rica will have to go back to their home teams to train themselves for yet another opportunity that will not come until 2018, if they are to realize their dream of holding the World Cup in their hands to share the joy with their fellow Costa Ricans.

Considering the tough competition they face, holding the World Cup in their hands may be a distant, if not an impossible, dream for Costa Ricans. But Costa Ricans can certainly hold the world in a cup of tea any time they sit down in one of the teashops in San Jose and other cities in the country. Needless to say, Costa Rica is a country known for its coffee production, like its neighbors to the north and the south. While its share among the country’s exports has declined in recent years with the rise of industrial products, coffee, called El Grano de Oro, or “The Golden Bean”, by Costa Ricans because of its economic and cultural importance, is still regarded as among Costa Rica’s major agricultural exports, along with fruits, potatoes, and sugar. Indeed, considering the important role coffee has played in the country’s history economically and culturally, we would hardly expect tea to be the favorite drink of Costa Ricans. However, the fact of the matter is that tea is gaining its popularity among Costa Ricans, as evidenced by many teashops where they can choose to sip their favorite tea imported from tea-producing countries such as oolong and white tea from China, Darjeeling and Assam tea from India, Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka, green tea and sencha from Japan, mate tea from Argentina, and rooibos tea from South Africa. It is not surprising, then, that one of the popular teashops there prints the phrase, “el mundo en una taza de te, or “the world in a cup of tea”, on its placemats.

The phrase, “the world in a cup of tea”, means that when you drink tea in Costa Rica, you are drinking tea imported from these tea-producing countries around the world. But there is more to the phrase than the fact that a cup of tea you sip in Costa Rica comes from a far away land such as China, Japan, or South Africa.

In the first place, there is the history of how tea has spread around the world from its place of discovery, China, to other countries. For example, it was monks who brought back tea to Japan from China, where they had gone to study Buddhism. Best known among them is Eisai (1141-1215) who wrote a book on medicinal values of tea, called Kissa Yojyouki (“Medicinal Values of Tea Drinking”). As for the spread of tea to the rest of the world, colonialism has a lot to do with it. The Dutch had established a trading post in Java by the end of the sixteenth century and, by the end of the seventeenth century, tea was readily available to people at all levels of society as the price of tea came down with increased imports. Tea was also an exotic and expensive commodity in England available only to royalties, and it was only in the eighteenth century that tea drinking started to spread among people at all levels of society. And it was European settlers who brought tea to the remote corners of the African and South American Continents. And how can we forget the violent incident known as the Boston Tea Party when we talk about the spread of tea from the Old to the New World?

Then, there is the matter of cultural differences among countries as to how tea drinking is treated. For the British, tea drinking used to be a civilized pastime for royalties and aristocrats, as we are reminded by the names such as Earl Grey and Lady Grey representing British tea. Or, consider the lines written by G.K Chesterton (1874-1936) in his “The Song of Right and Wrong”:

Tea, although an Oriental,
Is a gentleman at least

These lines, too, remind us of the aristocratic origin of tea drinking culture developed in England. It was, however, the Japanese who have turned tea drinking as a highly spiritual activity with stylized rituals as to how it is prepared and how it is drunk. Whether there is truth to the claim that tea drinking was encouraged among Buddhist monks to keep them from falling asleep during meditation, it was under the influence of Zen Buddhism that tea drinking has been turned into an elaborate ceremony that is regarded equally effective as Zen meditation in guiding us into serenity and insight. For most people in the rest of the world, though, tea drinking is just a relaxing pastime whose popularity has dramatically increased as evidenced by the Tea and Coffee World Cup, now held annually in cities around the world.

Beyond history and culture, there is of course the role that climate and geology play in tea production, considering that most tea farms in the world are located in hills and mountains in the temperate climate zone. Darjeeling, located in the hills averaging about 2,000 meters high with its summer rainy season brought by monsoons, best represents the kind of climate and geology suited for tea production. Or consider rooibos tea, whose popularity among tea lovers has increased dramatically in recent years, as evidenced by its availability in a country like Costa Rica. Made from the rooibos plant, also called the red bush, rooibos tea is grown only in a small coastal region of South Africa, where the climate and geology are especially suited for its growth.

When we think of the role climate and geology play in tea production, we are of course thinking of the vital role the natural environment plays in producing tea that we drink, in addition to the role humans play in bringing tea from tea producing countries to tea consuming countries backed by centuries of know-how behind its production, development and refinement. And we must not forget the hard labor of tea growers that goes into its care and harvesting. The reason there is the world in a cup of tea is because tea is made of non-tea elements, as Thich Nhat Hanh would say. Just as you see a world in a grain of sand, as William Blake reminds us, you see the world—indeed, the universe—in a cup of tea. That is something to reflect on, even if you are not a Zen practitioner.