At the end of October, I did something completely out of character. I traveled to a city I’d never visited . . . for a tea festival. Stranger still? I flew out for said unknown (to me) city on Halloween. Nothing about this—my motivation, my ambition, what-have-you—added up.
The city? Chicago.
The event? The Chicago International Tea Festival.
There’s a lot to talk about . . . and a lot I can’t talk about. So, you’ll pardon me if I gloss over some details to get to the point of this here narrative. Getting to Chicago was rough.
Due to an early snow flurry, flights to Chicago were delayed. Some were outright canceled. Mine was one of those. I spent the “better” part of eight hours at my hometown airport waiting for a plane to arrive. All the while, subsisting on red oolong to keep the rage away.
Eventually, I was put on a plane bound for San Francisco, and there, I nabbed another flight to O’Hare. Finally, I got to my hotel at around midnight, all the while asking myself, Why am I doing this again? I almost canceled before they redirected my flight.
The next day, I got together with blogger friends Rachel “I Heart Teas” Carter, her hubby Ralph, and Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin. And we did a little sightseeing. I got my fix of doing dorky tourist stuff.
Shortly after that, we hit the festival we were there to attend. And that’s when the next three days became a blur. Well, even more of a blur, which makes glossing over some details conveniently easy.
I met up with old and new friends, and encountered familiar tea luminaries.
Attended classes. (I’ll get back to that.)
And, of course, I drank tea.
A LOT of tea.
The festival went from barely populated on the first day to positively slammed.
Credit to the organizing team, the quality of tea vendor representation was topnotch. Not only was their local Chicago representation, but some familiar tea festival circuiteers also had a presence. What surprised me the most was international representation. Japan and Nepal had quite the influence over the tea flow of the fest.
Which brings me to the last day of the fest . . .
Now, originally, I hadn’t planned on attending the last day at all. I had one mission in mind: to head to the Field Museum and see Sue—the most intact Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the world. Everything else was secondary.
At around 10AM, my Lyft driver picked me up; a delightful young woman who blasted gospel music from her car stereo. For some reason, that had me immediately jazzed. As she drove me to the Field, we talked religion, tea, and everything in between. After she dropped me off, I wished her a “blessed day”, and skipped up the steps of the museum proper.
Once inside, I beelined for the dinosaurs. At the end of the paleontology exhibit rested Sue in all her tyrannical glory. Per a request from Rachel, I snapped a picture of the T-Rex with a teacup.
What? We tea people love our puns.
On the way out, I happened by the botany room. Not sure why, but something was pulling me into it. So, in, I went! A few displays down, I beheld it.
I have no clue if it was real or fake, but I found it oddly serendipitous that I would encounter a life-sized, small leaf tea bush at a history museum. The whole point of this particular sojourn was not to do something tea related. However, I took it as a sign to head back to the festival. I’m glad I did.
About those classes . . .
On the first day of the fest—Friday, November 1st—I accidentally attended James Norwood Pratt’s talk on “The Language of Tea and Wine”.
I meant to leave, since I only wandered in to drop friends off, but one of the organizers told me to sit down. And sit I did. Wine didn’t interest me, anymore, but even I couldn’t deny that some of the “language” was applicable to tea. I acquiesce that . . . begrudgingly.
Norwood Pratt waxed poetic and nostalgic about the histories of both beverages, and how there were developmental similarities. No one could deny that the way tea spread, and how it proliferated, echoed wine’s more ancient migratory route. Only in reverse. Two botanical hero journeys crossing paths from different ends of the Earth.
Then Pratt went off script.
I love it when he does that.
He went off on entheogens. Meaning: “a class of psychoactive substances that induce any type of spiritual experience aimed at development or sacred use.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) He argued that—much in the same way alcoholic drinks (“spirits”, get it!), and other fun fauna led to altered states—tea could be classed as such as well. In a way.
And he lost me.
Flash-forward again to Sunday, as I hit the festival floor for the last time, I caught up with new friends, old friends, new acquaintances, and old contacts. During one such encounter, a vendor friend introduced me to a new chap who had a curious angle of wanting to market tea to Catholics. Then he hit all of my favorite buzzwords when he mentioned that the journey of the tea leaf—from tree to cup—reminded him of a Campbellian hero’s journey. The agony the leaf must have gone through to reach its ultimate potential as an extractor of spirited flavor, one that could soothe a tormented soul, seemed like a good fit for a Christian-leaning clientele. And I ate it up.
That’s when it donned on me.
Everyone at this festival were on some leg of a journey. Some were at the beginning of that journey, others were near their end. Others still lingered on in the tea community—such as myself—unsure of which way to point their proverbial compass. (Or cup.)
On the second day of the festival, we held one of our usual Tea Bloggers Roundtable panels. I was drafted to moderate (at the last minute), and I totally spaced I was asked to do so until the last minute. Luckily, I had questions prepared from a prior panel.
It was one of the most successful panels we ever held. The room was packed. And it also helped that, along with the usual suspects, we had some new blood to round out the talk. However . . .
This was the first such panel where I truly felt . . . old. That and impostor syndrome hit pretty hard; a feeling like I didn’t belong there, anymore. I even mused to a friend that it almost felt like I was passing a torch. She corrected me on that, and we both agreed it was more akin to letting someone else drive the community car. While the old-timers reclined the backseat to nap.
No matter how far I seem to drift from this odd little community, I always get pulled back. If only out of an obsession to continue to witness the “hero’s journey” of the leaf, and to drink from it—to feel the “spirit” of said community in a cup. Just as when I walked through a museum on a completely different dinosaur quest, a tea tree still managed to find me.
Tea is not my entheogen. But the stories attached to tea are. I suppose I’m only beginning to realize that.
Call it my . . . entheogenesis, if you will.
Or maybe I’m just going off script.