Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tweeking Tea in Cups and History

Tea must have some stigma in America for coffee definitely dominates. Maybe we just don’t want to take the time to do it right. The British and their former colonies still put on elaborate high teas, which is more about the tea cakes and tiny sandwiches than the tea, it seems. Try the top of the line at Claridges, The Connaught, or the Ritz, or for the extreme experience, go to Harrods food floor in London. Now the delicate tea ceremony fades on all fronts as we rush hither and yon,  but in private homes in Japan and in some version in  spanking new hotels in China, it is a spiritual art that is very important to peace, karma, tranquility in the lives of tea drinkers. 
Giant Painting of Tea Cups

Chinese Apothecary for Teas

Green tea, suddenly the miracle salve, more benefits than a super-vitamin, now jams up our supermarket refrigerators as cold thirst quenchers and energy boosters,  mixed with everything from lemon-grass to mangos. A century ago, it was Coke Cola that for years hid an opiate in its formula,  bragging that it was an Intelligent Beverage and Temperance Drink, and contained a valuable brain tonic  and nerve stimulant (from the coca plant and cola nuts) and a cure for all nervous affectation. Now green tea  with its energy and healing qualities has galloped to the forefront of the health drink craze, overtaking all but beer in America, and requiring no semblance of high ceremony to be performed when consumed. Pop bottle top and swallow. But to really get the benefits of green tea or any tea, it must be prepared and ingested in the traditional ways, with grace and respect, elegance and formality. Dare one ask to have their tea leaves read?

We in the deep south are accustomed to sweet tea, a sugar overload  on ice which has few benefits but to satiate thirst and wet the mouth. It is a salve on extremely hot and humid days , a good liquid to wash the barbecue pork down, and I guess, though certainly not healthy with all the sugar, it’s no worse than soda pop. The tea is usually a Lipton product. That’s what we are most familiar with. My Mother made a tasty spiced iced tea which she kept fresh in the icebox and offered her tennis group and us when we stopped in for a visit. As much as I don’t like tea (cold or hot), and cannot touch it or coffee after lunch or I have sleepless nights, I loved mother’s tea and could guzzle a gallon after a tennis match or just smoozing by her swimming pool. Maybe tea is relevant to the moment. And, there are teas made not with tea leaves,  but with grasses and herbs like lemon-grass tea and chrysanthemum tea (popular in China). 
Japanese Tea Ceremony

Pouring Welcome Tea

Tea has not only a suspect, rowdy, raunchy and violent history - remember it was the cause of our own Boston Tea Party tea dump, protesting taxation - but it has always been a vibrant source of life for Asians and East Africans, and today, it appears in every niche of food: green tea energy pills, green tea candies and logenzers, cookies, ice cream - who doesn’t grab for the green tea ice cream after a long night of sushi-sashimi topped with green wasabi. Also in southeast Asia there are green tea cakes and pancakes and mochi and puddings and balms, even. As in most fads in this country, once someone says something is “good for you”, it shows up in every kind of consumption item.

In Britain, and its current and former colonies, and in those countries the Brits moved into historically to build railroads, high tea and  tea parties remain somewhat of a tradition. In South America, (Uruguay and Argentina) high tea was a relief so you could make it from lunch at noon til dinner at 10 p.m. And  high tea, with those three layered trays, is  yet an experience of scones and strawberry jam (they even serve it at Wimbledon Tennis Tournament in England) and small pies and petit fours, tiny sandwiches on thin bread (have you ever tried a watercress sandwich with a slight slap of mayonnaise? No peanut butter here.) and stabs of fruit and fondant cakes from Harrods. In Uruguay, it was a joyful way to experience everyone’s cooking skills and to get together and to fill up on “tortas” usually stuffed with dulce de leche. At my home in Montevideo, I made gooey chocolate chip cookies  for tea  at a time when chocolate chips did not exist in Uruguay (I brought sample sacks in my luggage in my last days there to encourage the supermarkets to import chocolate chips rather than our having to chop up bars of chocolate in lieu of chips.)  Part of my mission, seemingly, was baking chocolate chip cookies not only for tea, but to carry to prisoners. 
Green Tea to be Picked

The Best of the Best Tea

But tea, which is from the camellia family, was what propelled the British ex-pats to nostalgia, while coffee was the drink of the South American nations (where it is grown) along with yerba mate, a tea like leaf of the holly family, which is sipped from gourds through silver spoons as hot water is poured over it from a thermos. Yerba Mate marks an Uruguayan or Argentinian like nothing else and it gives them energy, I think, and some sort of tranquility. Watching families strolling along the “rambla” (sidewalk of the street that borders the ocean) on weekends, kids on bikes or kicking soccer balls, parents sharing and sipping the “mate”, was heart-warming. Families did things together, healthy things, inhaling the rich salt air of the sea.

The point of this is to lead into a sharing of information I learned on my recent trip to China (where green tea was birthed) and Southeast Asia, (where tea is second only to rice as a valuable crop). Tea was the stimulant for much of history in the 19th century, when the greedy European traders forced China imperial rulers to open their doors to an improper, one-sided trade with them. The aggressive colonialists, once they tasted the bitter tea, became addicts to it and no scruple was ignored in order to get what they wanted when they wanted and at what price they wanted.  The British, once they discovered tea, would sell their souls to obtain it, sort of like a meth or heroine addict today, although tea was not an illegal opiate. It’s fellow trade item became, though, opium. Tea for opium, opium for tea and that got complicated when silver paid the bill. 
Whipping Green Tea

Wash tea over Special Frogs


The actual origin of tea has never been established but probably appeared in the Shang Dynasty  (1750-1100 BC). There are legends, but facts are hard to come by. The plant Camellia sinensis appeared first where northeast India, Burma, China and Tibet came together, but it was considered medicinal not recreational in the beginning. One Chinese claim is that Emperor Shennong, (Fire Emperor or Emperor of Five Grains),  originator of Chinese herbal medicine and agriculture, one of three “divine sovereigns” to have ruled ancient China about 5000 years ago, probably discovered tea while experimenting with plants, many of them toxic, to find out how they reacted to the human body. Apparently he was in conference with his subjects in some form of garden where there were the Camellia sinensis shrubs, and as he was drinking a bowl of boiling water - having ordered that all drinking water be boiled - A a green leaf blew into his  cup, causing the water to turn green and send out an odor. He took a sip and it made him feel good. With more testing, he realized green tea was an antidote for his battle with poisonous plants. He was also given credit for taking pulse measurements, acupuncture and moxibustion, and is considered the ancestor progenitor of the Han Chinese. He died, supposedly, having tasted the yellow flower of a weed that ruptured his intestines before he could sip his antidotal tea. Later, the philosopher Laozi (dated 600-517 BC), called tea “the froth of the liquid jade”, hence the elixir of life. Not a bad judgement. Today healers say green tea cures cancer and other tricky diseases.
Pu'er Tea from Yunnan Valley

There were only a few tea plants for centuries, so during the Han Dynasty (202-220 AD),  it was limited to use by imperial royalty  and the rich. By the Western Zhou Dynasty - tea had become a religious offering.  More tea plants were discovered during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and that is when it sort of  was sieved down to the lower classes. Then the government planted tea plantations and actually built tea shops so every class could have a tea time. 

It was during the Tang rule that tea spread to Japan - some say through Japanese priests studying in China. It is often associated with Zen Buddhism in Japan because the priests needed to stay awake during meditation. Through Eisai, an abbot of Reisenyi, in 805 A.D. and other Zen Buddhist monks the tea seeds from China  were brought to Japan, and Eisai wrote the first book on tea, even though, at that time, tea drinking was limited to the religious classes until the warrior class was given permission to imbibe. 

To run through green tea’s development, as tea plantations arose in the Yangtze River Valley, the ceramic trade
Green tea jelly

Green Tea Mochi
developed (for tea cups and pots), and still, the emperor kept its production a secret. Tea reached the rest of Asia in brick-like block form, vis a vis the great trade routes of horse and camel caravans of  the Arabians and Marco Polo, who were transporting salt. For tea to get from China to Russia, for instance,  took a year by camel and so it cost a precious price..

During the Tang Dynasty, tea drinkers packed tea in cakes, crumbled off a pinch, boiled in water and flavored with ginger, onion, orange peel, peppermint and served in a wide bowl. In the Song Dynasty, powdered tea was created and was the basis of the Japanese tea ceremony, as it is today. The powdered tea mixed with hot water is beaten rapidly with a bamboo gadget , and that fluffs it up and takes away a lot of the bitterness.  (Both my granddaughter and I learned how to prepare tea for this sacred ceremony in Japan in June.) Then in the 13th century tea leaves were roasted and crumbled rather than steamed. There is also a legend that in one village plagued by monkeys, if the villagers made the monkeys angry, they’d run up the tea trees and then begin tossing the leaves down on them. This is called “Monkey picked tea”.

In the Ming Dynasty, the tea pot was first used as was loose tea leaves, because only that style would suit as a gift to the emperor. Tea was then served in tiny cups to enhance its fragrance. The smallest cup of tea I experienced in China was at Namu’s Restaurant  in Linjing where the glass cup, like a small balloon, had a diameter smaller than my little finger. Just a couple of sips, that was. 

In the last of the Dynasties, the Qing’s (1644-1912), tea  was no longer unique to China.  The British and Western traders had battered down China’s imperial doors and forced it into trade so the addicts of its population could have all the tea in China for all the opium it could find.  First teas, only green tea,  were brought to Europe in the 1600s. It’s stringent flavor was satiated by honey but soon the sugar cane trade grew in the colonies and the British imported tons and tons of sugar from the Americas to supplement their tea craze. Meanwhile Highland Asians, Mongolians and Tibetans mixed tea with milk or yak butter to supplement their cold climate diets.  Butter tea kept them warm and gave them energy. 
Green Tea Shaved Icecream

Green Tea Sponge

In the Qing dynasty, the emperor decreed that “China was the center of the world and had everything they could ever need, so all trade with foreigners must be paid for in silver” (you should see the silver ornamentation of women in the hill tribes.)  This meant British had to pay for its tea with silver bullion, dipping into the British wealth almost too deeply.  But Britain exported opium from the traditional growing regions of India (where it is stilled grown legally but this  originally was in the zone of what is Afghanistan and Pakistan today). Opium use in China was not new, but British importation of opium (beginning in the late 18th c), increased five fold in 16 years as addiction exploded in China.  Because tea was overtaxed by the British empire and the ban on opium trade created a funding problem for tea importers, this led up to the First Opium War which was an embarrassment for China.  British smuggled tea plants out of China, and created plantations in Darjeeling, Assam in India and Ceylon so they didn’t have to depend on Chinese tea. And, yes, tea was responsible for Britain’s global domination in the trade world and it still seems a reminder of their colonialism and domination efforts all over the world.

In Britain, over 90 per cent of the tea is black tea, usually served with milk and sugar and it’s packed in a tea bag, which is a travesty to most people in Asia who would never degrade tea in that way. The tea in tea bags, like it or not, I was told many times, are the broken leaves, the lesser grade, the easier to harvest. Since the British made India their garden of tea, from Assam to Darjeeling, and the East Indian Trading Company monopoly over Chinese trade in 1838 helped free tea trade and tea growing in India, three types of tea developed: 1) green tea, unfermented, after plucking to prevent oxidation and preserve color, was often scented with jasmine or chrysanthemums; 2) Oolong Tea, semi-fermented leaves withered in the shade for 5 hours then pan fried ten minutes, rolled, twisted and oxidized to deter color. Fermented leaves are reheated in an hourglass shaped basket where it stays up to three hours to stop oxidation. Then it is pan fried again on low heat for up to twelve hours before being packed to ship. 3) Black teas are fermented leaves, withered up to 24 hours, then rolled, sifted and spread out on spotless surfaces for a couple of hours to oxidize, then dried by hot air in a machine and sorted by size and grade of tea.
Green Tea Torte

Fancy Tea Thermos

In the 17th century when King Charles II married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, she turned the masculine love of passing the day in tea houses mixing business with tea drinking , into a social event appropriate for royal ladies, but in private homes.  Because of Catherine, it is said,  the East India Trading Co. ‘s profits soared and the British government taxed tea so high that smugglers wheeled and dealed tea leaves to those who could not afford it. So happened our Boston Tea Party.  In addition, Australian Aboriginals drank tea picked from the leptospermum plants, now known as ti tree.  And eventually, as the British planted tea plantations in their colonial Kenya (next to coffee), business has so thrived that it is the largest exporter of tea to Britain today.


On my recent trip to China, I visited the Longing/Dragonwell tea plantation, where the highest quality of green tea is handpicked and can cost up to a thousand dollars a kilo. Pu-er tea is another very high priced tea from Yunnan Province in China and is considered the finest tea in China. It is packed the old fashion way in blocks. Lotus tea from Vietnam is fascinating high-priced drink, because the green tea leaves are picked and put into lotus flowers between their petals overnight to absorb the exotic scent of the Lotus. It is supposed to be superb for your health and good on auspicious occasions. It cost $350 a kilo. Most green tea addicts carry a thermos filled with fresh tea leaves over which hot (not boiling) water is poured, and can be re-enforced during the day. These thermos are in the world of fancy - a solid silver one or one covered in crystals or engraved with dragons. But if you don’t have time to deal with making and carrying tea, there are tea tablets (tiny things) which you can pop during the day to reduce the anti-oxidants in your systems. These are easier for those who don’t like to drink green tea all day long as advised by tea growers and Chinese herbalists. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rambling Through the Great Opium Museum in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Poppies and opium were not part of my own history, directly, although in Uruguay, not only as pastor for the British Community and also chaplain for the British Foreign Legion, I knew in November there was a Poppy Day (remembering Flanders Fields and all war dead from World War I and II) because that was the day the British ex-pats came out of their homes to attend Mass in our Cathedral. And I preached that Sunday for many years.  And poppy seed cakes and breads popped up in bakeries.
Museum Sign in Chiang Rai
Entrance to Opium Museum

It was when I began working with youth in Memphis, the delinquents, the abused and abandoned, and those with drug addictions that seem to have familial connections, I began to investigate the “why” of the drug world, how did it rev up in America, and when. Having lived in South America, I associated drugs with cocaine and violent Colombia, but in the ‘60ties I was a protestor and hippie during the Vietnam War (when drugs became an issue among many more than blues musicians and South American war lords). It was obvious that the drug habit crawled into the souls of our soldiers in that guerilla tragedy in Southeast Asia, a place we knew nothing about nor really had reason to care, but that France needed some forceful backup. And it hasn’t been the same since. 

Centuries ago, Opium was the carrot that the British dangled before its Asian charges to be able to get into their chambers, to open the Chinese up to agreed to trade and to get all they wanted of the tea, which had become an obsession, and still is, for the British just as opium became an obsession to the people in Southeast Asia, and particularly those countries in the Golden Triangle and China.  

I spent many hours in the Opium Museum, taking notes of the history compiled and displayed brilliantly in its halls. Sadly, no one can take photos and there is no catalogue, but the information in that place explains a lot of things, many of which I have heard  in tidbits but never the whole story.  The sad thing, this is my second visit to that site and the first one, 18 months ago, is where I learned so much about the Vietnam war and how drugs were part of the method, and how the US Air Force transported opium on its planes and how military of rank closed their eyes and ears to the ever growing drugging of our troops in these hot and humid and treacherous lands - Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Mynamar (Burma) and Thailand, although the latter was not an enemy in wartime. All of the references to the US participation and the discussion of Vietnam’s war has been removed. I can guess why, and that’s discouraging. 
Large 10 lb Weight

Opium Weights in ounces

But still, the truth about the origins of opium (poppy tears) and its trade is fascinating and I will try to share “my notes” with you. In addition, in this museum, there is much helpful information about tea, since tea was the product that put opium out in the legal and illegal markets Even today opium - poppy somniferum - is still grown legally (for medicine) in North India, Turkey and Tasmania in Australia, and illegally in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia and Hungary. It is the only one of the poppy species which produces the sap that can be made into opium. But it  grew abundantly in the Golden Triangle along the Mekong River that was the crossroad of trade and cultures, and here, for so long, opium fields, factories and illegal drugs, trumped up by crime and corruption, instigated the abuse damaging civilizations across Asia and into the Western world.
The oldest sign of poppies was from the stone age in a Switzerland Lake, and about 3000 B.C., there was a Sumerian tax on opium. In Grecian to Egyptian art, there are dried opium poppies depicted. The Greeks scored the pods and associated poppy with the gods, as did the Romans. Claudia, the wife of Emperor Augustus, killed the son of Nero with an overdose of opium so her stepson could inherit the powers. In the Middle Ages, churches trading with Arabs and Jews, indulged in opium trade, as in the Renaissance. Thomas Sydon standardized opium which was used widely in Europe. In 18th century apothecaries in the Americas,  since opium was a remedy for cough, pain and diarrhea, and still is.
From the 7th to the 13th Century Arabs controlled trade and opium was a product. It arrived in India in the 8th century, and Emperors had control over the production and sale in China in the 10th century. During the Mongul wars, elephants were fed opium to calm them so they could be controlled in battle. In the Tang Dynasty, Sun Si Maio, a physician, wrote a treatise on drugs and opium. And of course today we have Perfumes like Kenzo’s and Yves St Laurent made with oil of the papaverum
Opium was introduced 1000 years ago as a trade item but it has only been illegal less than 60 years and became a cash crop and way of life for the hill tribes in the Golden Triangle area and pinches of China near the borders. Currently Mynamar is the major producer, Laos, 2nd; Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan,in China, small amounts. 

When planting poppy somniferum, it takes 3 seeds for one hectare, it germinates in 1-2 weeks. Morphine is in the latex which must be extracted quickly or else it dries out and little morphine is left in the pods. The Latex for opium is extracted from pods by scoring - a one millimeter slice cut with specific knives, done in the afternoon, then left to ooze out overnight when it is scraped from pods early in the morning. Each pod can be scored 3-7 times. Latex is pink when fresh, black after long exposure to air. 
Opium Cutters

A bunch of opium pipes

The setting up for a opium smoke is fascinating, based on the Chinese policy of living well : pleasing the eye, delighting the mind. The pipe is long and comfortable when lying down; On a special tray, there must be a lamp, scissors to trim a wick; extra dampers arranged with special cleaners to remove dross from inside of the damper; a small box to collect the dross; small opium case for opium pellets, copper pot to boil one’s own liquid opium; opium needles to shape the opium and hold it to the flame and insert in the damper. Opium needles are 15 cm long. One end is pointed to insert opium into the damper; other end is hammered flat like a small spatula to scrape residue from the damper hole after smoking. 

How to smoke: Need a special room - dim, quiet, free of draft, opium bed with cold-hard surface like tiles would comfort smokers if in for a long smoking session. Pillows and a tray with equipment since don’t want to be disturbed, a tea set, sweets tray and spittoon within reach. The smoker dresses in lose clothes and lays on his side. He takes a piece of opium  the size of a small pea (0.5 grm), from opium case and rolls between thumb and finger til soft enough to stick to end of needle. The smoker warms the lower side of damper over lamp - kneads opium on dampers hot surface until it becomes deep amber color. Roll sticky opium around tip of needle, placed near the hole of damper, rotate damper to 45 degree angle about 2.5 cm from flame. Place lip on mouth piece tight before inhaling smoke to fill lungs: Opium will sizzle and release vapors til dosage finished. Smoker slowly exhales through nose. Opium is most potent on empty stomach before a meal. At least 2-3 pipes  are smoked each session. Smoker rests till effects ware off. If same pipe used, damper must be cleansed or changed after 10-12 smokers. 
Tattoo needles sometimes used


There are so many opium items now in antique shops. (A friend in an antique shop in Bangkok let me photograph items for this blog.) Most interesting are the weights, which are a series of metal figures, usually animals, from as tiny as your small fingernail up to the sizes of modern weight balls. They are expensive treasures. Each country had it’s own particular style:  Royal weights were fashioned from one of three mystic animals: lion like Singa, swan like Hamsa, and the Karawek bird. When British took over, that was wiped out. There are others: Shan weights are 12 animals repeating the cycle of 12 years of birth: turtles, fish, birds, soldiers.  Lanna (North Thailand) use elephants. Laotians use monks bowls or animals; Khmu Hill Tribes - elephants with their bases formed to be useful as a seal; Chinese weights - birdlike creatures. Burma weights are either geese, swan, or ducks.  Then there antique scorers of wood used by hill tribes, and scrapers, dampers and the most confusing, sharp edged porcelain pillows - big squares of porcelain, which once the smoker comes down from his high, will feel uncomfortable so he will get up and leave after the effects are gone. The Chinese have a tradition of hard pillows, but these are modified to suit the opium smoker, some a child kneeling, or reclining monks or Buddha, or mystical animals. Some have a hole for the ear to make long sessions comfy. 

How opium obsession came about was really the fault of the British. Industrial Revolution in the mid 1700s which radically changed trade patterns. There were two triangles of trade: 1) Britain, Africa, Americas  and 2) Britain, India, China. Every aspect of trade favored the British somehow, except trade with China.  Silver flowed from Britain and other countries into China. And Opium trade from Britain to China reversed the flow of silver. 

In the 1500s Portugal controlled the sea trade with the East; Spain controlled with new found Americas; by 1600 the Dutch became masters of Eastern Trade until Britain and France began to compete. London became the great world port for spices, silks and porcelain from the east; sugar, tobacco and cotton from the Americas. After the defeat of Napoleon and France in 1815, Britain was the major economical and political power for trade in the entire world.
Wooden Opium Pillows

But it was the Dutch who introduced China tea to Britain in the early 1600s. First it was a curiosity available in a few houses and apothecaries for medicinal purposes. Catherine of Bragonza, wife of King Charles II, changed tastes and history when tea became her preferred drink. It became so popular that it became East India Company’s most important trade commodity and the British Trade Ministry, taking advantage of a strange thing,  began to level more than 100 per cent duty on the tea leaves. London coffee houses were only for men, such as Lloyds coffee house where economists and financiers met  - it became the insurance power Lloyds of London - as did the Jerusalem Coffee House, also favored by financiers and captains of ships to Asia. Eventually all coffee houses where tea was the drink became male only until  Catherine made tea drinking chic for ladies and it was served in private homes. 
Spoons and Opium Boxes

On top of this, the use of porcelain for tea services created a whole new industry  for England in the 1700s. Wedgewood was founded in 1812 for this reason and Queen Victoria made afternoon high tea (all those little sandwiches, scones and cakes) popular in royal circles.  The wealthy kept valuable stocks of tea locked in special containers or tea caddies, until the prices fell in the mid 1800s. Then working classes could buy tea dregs (brewed tea) from the rich.  

In the mid 1700s, the East India Trading Company shipped cheap manufactured cotton cloth from Britain to India and metal cookware. By mid 1970s, it imported spices, gums, resins from Asia tropics and tea, porcelain and luxury goods from China to Britain.  Tea almost bankrupted the trading company. It was forced to pay for it with silver it didn’t have. Meanwhile the British put high import duties and kept tea prices low to avoid smugglers. By 1772 British loaned the East India Trading Company over 100 million pounds, then Parliament past the Tea Act of 1773 to assist the EITC, giving them direct and sole access to the tea sales and taxation in American colonies: this and taxation without representation angered our colonial ancestors and hence the Boston Tea Party, to protest the Tea Act and it was a step toward the Revolution three years later.

For centuries, India was.is the largest producer of legal opium grown in the Ganges Plain (Patha or Bengal opium), and in Mathya Pradesh and Gujaret (Malawa Opium). Even today, it is still harvested under close and controlled supervision: spring collection of opium in clay pots: large factories employ thousands of men to clean it, mix and boil the sap down; make cakes (opium balls); and to dry, stack and store opium. A specialist makes 60 balls a day and up to 16,000-20,000 in a factory in June and July. After stacking, each ball must be given a turn once every six days to dry over the next two months. Chests are prepared in September and October, packing  40 to a case (20 on bottom, 20 on top). After October, chests were sent to Calcutta for sale. Auction started in January in the 1800s, two times a year, but by the middle of 1800s, monthly.
Opium Damper

First Portugal then the Dutch used opium profits to pay for spice trade in the Orient. Dutch bought the first opium in Bengal in 1659, and by mid 1700s shipped 1400 chests (100 tons) of Opium to Java. When EITC took control of Bengal 1757, it had control of opium and in 1816 sold that control to China. When British government abolished the EITC and took rule over India in 1858, it also took over the opium monopoly, selling to private traders. The British Government claimed they were not responsible for trade with China or its problems. Then  Sir Thomas Raffles appeared, founder of Singapore, who started as a clerk in EITC and became governor of Java. Singapore became a stop off to unload goods and in 1826 a British trader set out to sell opium in Siam. Opium from India shipped on barges near Linten Island at mouth of Pearl River. Guangzhou merchants bought opium and sent small Chinese boats to unload from the barges so as to smuggle it. 

The fastest vessels at this time were the clipper ships and they were used for high value trade and to beat the competition, prevent spoilage or avoid embargoes. They were used in the slave trade as well.  British competed to be the first and the best with tea shipment because the first crop each year brought the higher prices, as did opium, so the Clipper ships were the answer to their prayers to be the fastest and firstest. 

In China, Emperor Lin Zexu (1785-1850) set up a special commission in Guangzhou to end the opium trade. He believed in superiority of China over barbarians but this led to a humiliating defeat of China by those barbarians (British) in the first Opium Wars for which he was exiled. During the Daoguang empire in 1850 there were 30 years of turmoil and conflict with Western powers concerning opium addiction and the depletion of government treasuries to pay for the increased opium imports. But he continued to resist legalization. Empress Dowager Cixi (quite a character in history), concubine to Hsien Feng, emperior 1831-61, reigned during the 2nd Opium War. She ruled in Qing Dynasty.  There was much wheeling and dealing of leaders and merchants during both Opium wars. But Opium stayed in power.

Causes suggested for these two wars were:  1) conflict between Britain and the Chinese Empire; China felt opium a threat in 1729. By 1800 EITC adapted policy to pay for tea with opium.  1839 China opium sellers spent 100 million taels of silver draining the treasury. China wanted to stop the trade. 2) Westerns wanted opium legit like tobacco and alcohol. (it was smoked mixed with tobacco from America’s eastern shores. ) 3) Vast conflicts over diplomatic conventions, freedom of trade, rights of missionaries and even manners. So the Treaty of Nanking, Aug 1842, a humiliating inequal treaty was forced on China. 4)  Then came the Treaty of Tientsin (1858). In 1881 Russia annexed Llin Northwest China where Lin Zexu had been exiled after first opium war. 1895 Japan took Taiwan. 1898 New Territory (islands) north of Kowloon was leased to Britain for 99 years - and large areas on the penninsula to Russia, Germany and France.  China was losing from evert side.

The Immediate effect of Opium War was it lifted trade barriers. Tea export rose from 75 million kilos to 42 million kilos between 1843-55. Silk from 2000 to 56000 bales; opium from 68000 chests in 1850 to 6 million kilos by 1873. 

Many said the Opium War was the start of revolution in China. Qing Dynasty declined after decades of war. Millions suffered and corruption was everywhere. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) was greatest threat to the Qing Dynasty. Hong Xiuguan declared himself King of Heaven (brother of Jesus) in the Worldly Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. He added the prohibition of smoking opium to the Biblical Ten Commandments. Western powers preferred working with the Imperial regime to nationalists because assumed they could manipulate them better. So, the Qing Dynasty and Imperial China ended with republican rebellion of 1911 - then for 38 years warlords fought over the country. Japan took over Manchuria, then invaded the rest.  Nationalists and communists fought a civil war and opium was widely available. The communists in 1949, outlawed all smoking of opium, ending the vice that had helped subject China to a century of conquest, shame and crime. During Mao’s rule, opium trade and production came pretty much to a halt. Rice was the crop he wanted everyone to plant, believing each family needed to be farmers, not anything else.. Opium production was sort of pushed  back to or across the borders of neighboring countries such as Mynamar, Laos and Thailand. The fact now is that opium is becoming a popular entertainment drug again and it is moving back across the Golden Triangle borders, but also across the seas to our own country. 


 Post Mao, In 1988 the Princess Mother of the King of Thailand began a royal research plan for the highlands and remote villages to rehabilitate the hill tribes and change their dependence on the opium poppy. This Opium Museum is an effort not to glorify opium, as some have criticized, but to show the truth and educate people - a great part of the museum is about the impact of illegal drugs and there is, in the end, a Hall of Reflection, where visitors are asked to think about what they can do to stop the opium trade, which, sadly, is growing again, especially in the US. If this report is a bit jagged, it’s because I copied information as it came in the layout of the museum. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Elephants in Paradise - Kiss Kiss

You haven’t been really kissed until you’ve been kissed by an elephant. 
First Kiss from Watermelon

Goodbye Kiss 
It was part of my daily ritual (3 mornings) during the beyond-one’s-dreams stay at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort. At breakfast on a open deck, sitting at tables under umbrellas drinking passion fruit juice with the awesome view of the Golden Triangle where Laos, Mynamar and Thailand come together at the Mekong River,  “Watermelon”, the friendly elephant, joined us for a little share the bananas moment. What blew me away was “Watermelon” came through the building and walked -- gingerly -- down two sets of stairs to join us on the deck. Then she began to sway a bit and fly her trunk through the air to see not only if the pile of ripe bananas were present, but who the heck was going to feed them to her. Of course, I was first up, first offering them one by one to her trunk which quickly threw them in her throat, and then she lifted her trunk up and I was able to shoot the bananas directly into her open mouth. The bananas were gone quickly (a few other guests braved it for a photo), and then I grabbed fruit from the breakfast fruit bar - apples, whatever - and gave her a few extras. Then the Mahout (the owner, caretaker, provider of the elephant) asked if I wanted a kiss - not knowing what that entailed but trusting it was earth-shaking, I said “Sure.” So “Watermelon” wandered her trunk over my face until she found my cheek, then she sucked the biggest kiss I have ever had - She did it about 3 times, covering from my eyes to my chin, and leaving a little elephant juice just for good measure. 
You Think This Is Easy?

An Elephant In The House!

There is a true jungle paradise in this corner of Northern Thailand where life centers on elephants. Most of them have been rescued from the logging industry where they worked with their mahouts until the government stopped logging, and a bunch of elephants and a bunch of mahouts were out of employ. Places like the Anantara Elephant Camp, with purpose of saving the elephant and the mahouts from starving and  being badly abused, create a safe and healthy environment for both, so the elephants have a good home, plenty of food and very little work to do, and the mahouts can stay close to their elephants, living in homes with their families right on the grounds. This also includes education for the children and health care for all, including the elephant.
A mahout, who wears blue denim uniforms, knows every sway, every balk, every kind of greenery the elephant is going to grab for a snack as they walk through the jungle, every rumble of its stomach which sounds like a motorcycle rocking through champagne bubbles. So I was offered a 3-day “course” in being a mahout. Think I’d refuse that?
A Little spray, not perfume

DAY ONE ON PULAB

The first day I was a bit anxious. It’s been a year and a half since my last elephant experience, and these elephants were definitely tall. Most were ages 9 to 25 and there are a couple of babies in the stables. We were driven up to the camp in a jeep (reminded me of Tanganyika days) and there was Pulab (Lucky), who had been chosen for my training. Primarily it meant learning the language: “Pai” means go forward, “Ben” to turn - if you kick behind the left ear - and believe you me I don’t kick hard so I don’t know if she got the signal - she is to turn right, and vice versa; “How” means stop; “Toi”, backward and there you go. There is also a signal for getting down on a knee so the awkward rider can attempt to get her leg over the neck by grabbing the opposite ear. Oh well. Not graceful. I was never good at mounting horses either although I rode them most of my life. 
Once up there in the wind and the stars, above everything but the tree-tops, you take a breath and have to bend your knees like a horse jockey - you are smack on top of the elephants’ head and neck - and nestle your toes (barefooted for me) in that warm place in the bend of the ear from where you will give directions, I hoped. However at 75, bending that tightly for a long period of time has a price - soreness. But it was worth it. Once I was able to weave successfully through a small obstacle course, we were off and I was sure I was going to fall off that high place. Grab the ears, her real mahout said. But if I had zagged when she zigged, I might have lost it, although the mahout told me my elephant was sensitive to my lack of balance and somehow would keep me from a plunge. So you start moving with the flow, that means your pelvis is pushing back and forth according to the gait. And I kept my hands pressed on top of her head - brushing them over her hair strands now and then, and saying “good girl”, which she didn’t understand. I think it’s something like “Di”. We swayed and stopped now and then for a check on a healthy looking pile of long grass or a bamboo stand, which she pulled with glee, and finally reached the pool where the elephants swim. 
Resort Entrance

Watermelon's Eye
Of course I’d get wet. I had sloshed around in a raging river to wash elephants in Chiang Mai a year and a half ago, but this was riding the elephant into the lake. Actually the mahout was sitting behind me at this point, so we sunk step by step down into the cool brown water of the pond and at once I felt a peace and glow that this was the best thing I had ever done. Pulab was so secure under me and she even ducked completely under water (I was chest high at that moment) and then came up and filled her trunk with water and sprayed it back over me - a playful gesture. It was so cool because I knew I wasn’t going to topple into the water -- as some elephant poop floated by. Well, it’s for the elephants, not me.  After much praise and thanksgiving, and sopping wet, we rose back up out of the water and I felt I had been baptized again. Somewhere, it has to have a spiritual intention. Then Pulab - without shaking off the water like a dog would do, thank God - headed slowly (you don’t know how slow an elephant walks until you are up there on top), and gracefully to the entrance to the hotel as I used all the Ben, Pai, Ma and whatever sound I could make to do the mahout thing. This was kind of neat. Front door service. I hated for it to end but my legs were limp from trying to hold on for an hour or so. Step one of mahout school was done.

 
Nothing like a banana


Are you a mahout or not?
Fancy meeting you here
Thru the Jungle we go
Day two after playing with “Watermelon” at breakfast (more kisses) and also visiting the baby elephant still in the pen with her proud mom, watching him butt and kick an enormous ball - which shows the marks of wild play - and learning to make banana flower salad, pomelo salad and my favorite desert with the hotel chef - we had a special  elephant event scheduled for the late afternoon: a sunset ride to the top of the mountain (this resort must cover about 400 acres of jungle and swamp - much of which was once rich with poppy fields). This time we had to use the box-like saddles, thickly padded so as not to hurt the elephant’s skin, and really how most people ride an elephant. The incline and decline were pretty steep and so this helped lighten the load for both of us. My elephant was Phuki,  the biggest male with a set of fairly long tusk for Asian elephants. He sure seemed like a giant, but I was able to crawl on from the top of some steep metal steps. We were off one heap big elephant step at a time. He steps were so slow and concentrated that I could say “supercalifragilisticexpedalidocius” before he took another. He had a lot of weight to shift, and not just mine.  It was a languishing kind of ride as Phuki wrestled with greenery samples on this route he obviously knew in detail. With a groan, he’d pull down a bamboo cluster or tear of more kudzu vine (yes, they have it too) than he probably wanted. I had no control but his mahout got to call out the commands, not too strictly because this was a leisurely trip for the elephants as well. We passed by a couple of elephants already turned out for the night - they are chained by one foot to a strong tree, but have about a football field of slack to roam and eat the grasses. This is not only to stop them from running away, but also, and it is a problem, from being kidnapped by someone wanting an elephant to make money with. 


The sunset lookout
graduation day
The trip was rocky and slow but the scenery was brilliant and when we reached the top, there was a “Wow!” moment as we climbed up to the special deck, covered with a thatched roof, with a table set before us ladened with snacks and tea and my proverbial glass of crushed ice. (The service at this resort is beyond belief) . The sun was setting as haze flowed over distant mountains like a blanket of lace and one could only thank God for this moment, this prayer - and also the elephant. Once again in my view were the three countries come together with the Mekong River flowing around them, the major site of most of the illegal poppy trade in the 20th century, and possibly still incognito in the hill tribe areas which are so difficult to get to.  Soon it was time to embark again, using the steep stairs to crawl back in the seat, and  Phuki was not stirring his speed any faster, calculating each step as we went down hill - downhill was always harder for me as a hiker than uphill, and so it is for elephants. We had to make camp by dark because elephants don’t move easily in the dark. When we got near to the mahout camp, we could hear music and that seemed to perk Phuki up a bit, he covered the last few hundred feet at a better pace. We came around the curve at the thatched roofed houses, and Yikes: a set of baby kittens were scampering around. I held my breath (thinking of the tale of the elephant and the mouse) and worrying if he might smush one unintentionally. But, delicate as these beasts are, he carefully somehow focused his wide eyes or sensed the problem with his trunk, and he stepped around the kittens who had no idea the danger they were in.  The jeep was there to meet us as I stepped off Phuki,
The Balloon Prayer ready to go
Decorating the ceremonial balloon

thanking him in Thai “Kop Kun” and giving him some ear scratches.  Exercise two completed. After dinner, we were told we would be honored (for our elephant enthusiasm) with a special balloon ceremony. I was asked to add something to the drawings the staff members had already drawn and I wrote "God bless these great elephants and keep them safe." Then he it the two circles inside the tall balloon (the hot air balloon theory of flying) and we launched it into the clear night air and watched it soar to the heavens - a really long 15 minutes or so I could see the light getting closer to the stars and further from our stance. Once it burned out, it would fall to earth somewhere, and our prayers would be answered. Wasn't that a cool honor? 


The final test happened at 7 a.m. the day we departed. Pulab was back to give me my final mahout ride - and this time she met me at the hotel entrance (and before breakfast). I felt so comfortable on her neck this time I couldn’t believe it.  I was  full of faith and confidence to take the helm once again, and went through the vocabulary of directions, although the real mahout re-enforced


when mine didn’t work so well. And then we squeezed through a narrow gate onto the lovely walkway through the gardens (you wouldn’t believe the beauty and upkeep of this jungle garden) right past some of the rooms on the way to what they call the baby elephant camp, where younger elephants are kept and trained. It is down below the hotel in the jungle area and there is a road running through it, which was our pathway. I enjoyed the warmth of my toes behind Pulab’s ears and swayed and rocked with whatever pace she allowed. Motorcyles and cars passed at ease, as workers arrived. Pulab never bobbled. It was such a fitting end to my visit at this camp and resort, where elephants are sacred and given the best of care. None of that creepy painting of them or making them do crazy tricks. This was real elephant living his real life, but with a stranger now and then taking a ride.  As a fitting end, I was presented with my own denim mahout outfit with my name on it, and a certificate for having completed the school (which I had doubted I’d do the first day), and pictures of my elephants. Could life get any better? I hope I can live long enough to return here with my grandchildren. Thank you Jesus. Kiss Kiss.




Saturday, October 11, 2014

Wat Pho, The White Temple, the Black House : Short Pilgrimages in Thailand

Thailand beams adventure and for me there is a draw to end my trips in this country if not only so we can fly home on Thai Airways (US should study what real airline service means) but there are three pilgrimages I take that challenge the beauty of the spirits in this world: The gold Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, which is across the street from the villas I stay in, and  the White Temple and the Black House, both in Chiang Rai. All three are unique examples of spirituality with a creative bent. 
Head of Reclining Buddha

Long view of Buddha

Going to Wat Pho is like a “thank you” to my God and all the other helper spirits out there who have gotten me safely thru my adventures.  It’s real name is Wat Phea Chettuphyon Wimon Mang Khlaram Ratchawaramahawihan - anything with that kind of a name is worth a visit. When you see the 160 ft long reclining Buddha, propped up on the right elbow, resting on two Thai box pillows (sort of like the ones  opium smokers used in their long sessions), with seven gold umbrellas for the ceiling, and you walk the length (it’s always crowded, so much so that now they give you a blue bag to carry your shoes in so no one will mis-take your shoes) of the long golden body to greet the feet, everything else fades into a blur. His two feet pressed together are 3 meters high and 4.5 meters long. The bottoms are inlaid with mother of pearl and divided into 108 panels, displaying symbols by which Buddha is identified: flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and altar accessories. This number 108 has more significance and it is part of my pilgrimage. On the figure’s backside, there are 108 bronze bowls  in stands, so you buy 108 coins in little metal bowls and start with bowl one, hoping to have enough to make it to number 108. If you get diverted and lose count, it can be messy. So I drop one coin into each pot, hearing the clang, hoping that it secures good fortune, as claimed, and it helps the monks maintain the Wat. This Wat has lots of corners, besides the 91 stupas, 4 vibonas and the bot: there are 71 small stupas containing ashes of the royal family and 21 big ones containing ashes of Buddha. (Buddha’s ashes are everywhere Buddha seemed to have stepped.) But more than that, Wat Pho was site of the first public university of
Bottom of Buddha's feet


Dropping 108 coins
Thailand, offering Thai medicine, religion, science, literature all taught through murals and sculptures, and eventually it became THE THAI MASSAGE center. The serious Thai masseuses, like my friend Elizabeth Drapela in Jackson Hole, travel here almost every year for refresher courses with the masters. Here a Thai masseuse will cross the street and give you a massage right as the moon rises. And on the street side walk leading to the entrance, there is every kind of strange medicine and reflexology and hand pressure point gadget and cures than you could imagine. There is just a funky atmosphere at this place  (two of the giant concrete guards wear top hats?) and it is convenient.

Chiang Rai, of course, is a lovely short flight on Thai Airways It’s in the northern part of Thailand where the Golden Triangle still stands: Laos, Mynamar and Thailand come together in the river bed (Mekong), recalling the days when all this land and all business was based on opium. Here also is the magnificent Opium Museum put together by the Princess Mother of the Royal King because she wanted to make sure opium trade and production died, and instead new crops were financed, supported and encouraged so the hill tribes could earn a decent living with education and health services. She did it. It apparently worked. (More on the museum in next blog.)
The White Temple

Hanging Evil Things

On approaching Chiang Ray by car, off to the left, you begin to see weird white things, points, glittery, and then you come upon the famous White Temple or Wat Rong Khun, built by artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, who aimed to build the most beautiful temple in the world and to glorify modern Thai Buddhist arts, of which is a major member. He works with 60 workers to achieve this life-time goal, now in its 17th year of labor of creating something on the standards of Ankor Wat or the Taj Mahal. To me, it is already there, but he projects that to complete his dream  will take 60-90 years after his death, therefore he inspires his co-workers to stick it out. He states that he wants to be the only artist in the world who can create anything with the utmost freedom. Not only is he creating new creatures and temple buildings every day (the framework for large architectural additions are very obvious, but he is constantly having to renovate and repair the existing structures. An earthquake last spring toppled a steeple on one of the temples and it hangs there, today, since he will let nature do what she will. However, visitors cannot go into the major temple, I guess, until some repairs are completed. Ajarn has studied art history, but wants to be totally original - not a Picasso or a Warhol nor a standard Buddhist temple copier. He wants completely originality, and he frequents the scene sort of incognito, walking through a gallery of his canvases and sculptures and asking a viewer if he likes the works. Ironically, he recently has done a few sketches on his travels, mostly to churches in England, but there is a sketch of the Sun Studio, done in September of 2013, which makes me think he was in Memphis. No photos allowed so I couldn’t share it with you.
Hands in Hell

Prayer Tree

Ajarn  has built gold structures as well, looking like flames of fire, these being non-temple, like the gold toilet restrooms have their own exotic building. One wanders around the grounds and finds nooks and crannies that surprise, and all sparkle in the bright sunshine reflecting in mirrors and silver edges on everything. On trees hang gross heads, like satan and Halloween creatures, mouths wide open and streams of grass pouring out like vomit. What is the point? We are to interpret. Evil is probably more interesting an art form than goodness.  The intention, it seems, is at the entrance one sees a sea of 500 hands grasping in the air like the bodies are underwater, a semblance of hell, “the beauty of anguish.” And as one walks the bridges to get to the temple (before the earthquake), he goes through a redemption of a sort to reach heaven/enlightenment.  You could take a thousand photographs and never get it all. 
Prayer for MPD

A Rabbit 

My favorite part is the wishing/prayer trees - where you purchase a thin metal offering (after tossing a coin in the golden well) and write your prayer or dream on it with a sharpie, which is provided. Last time I prayed for the Grizzlies in the playoffs. This time I prayed for our Memphis Police Department. Then hung it on the tree. None of these are ever thrown out, and the roof of a long archway is now packed with these prayers. It’s impressive. 

The second of these environmental art experiences is the Baan Dam (The Black House), further down the road in Chiang Mai. This is not a temple, but the artist, who died a month ago, attempted to re-invent aspects of Buddhist architecture. Everything looks like temples except for four white domes with tiny metal doors to enter into an almost empty space, which implies a silence for meditation, but then there are wooden statues of well-endowed males, penises being symbolic in Thailand and wooden ones sold for fertility in souvenir shops and antique stores. Really. Another sort of out of character structure is a giant metal whale with oval windows for its eyes where nationally known artist Thawan Duchanee, who was in his 80ties and sported a long white beard over a black mahout sort of outfit,  spent the night when he visited the site. 
The Main Black House

Horn Throne


But truly, this place is stunning, very masculine, with horns and alligator hides, and enormous gongs and drums, and guns and bones and skulls of long horned water buffalo and deer, yak tail dusters, animal-skin rugs, giant sea shells, arrows, knives, daggers, spears, swords, shot guns, and two strange guns with ninja knives for handles that are as big as a couch. The colors are black and brown with some beige in the ornate decor around temple doors. There are teak pillars, teak points on roofs, deep carved reliefs on huge timber doors, and around every corner something to shock you out of your comfort - like a small black building with its doors thrown off to show an all white toilet - shades of Duchamp. He was also obsessed with giant stones, like pillars of Stone-henge type and stone labyrinths are situated around the territory and all buildings being black, sometimes there is nothing but a small building with temple roof and steps up to a platform too high for me. Duchanee’s paintings are on exhibit (and for sale) in the reception area.
Typical Interior


3 Domes of Contemplation
They are enormous canvases in red black and white of contorted animals like elephants. it’s too garish and confrontational for me, but he is considered a respected artist in this country. It is worth the trip to see these two unique forms of art, be they religious or egotistical.