Interview with Katrina Wild
Tea Alchemist, Creative Storyteller & Explorer
Tea Alchemist, Creative Storyteller & Explorer
After arriving in Thailand from Taiwan, I am now heading to South Korea, where I will be spending some time continuing to research tea and immerse myself in the cultural landscapes of this part of the world. I am looking forward to the Boseong and Hadong Tea Expos, as well as tea tours organized by the Korean Tea Board, especially some tea hand-making experiences and Gwangyang's oldest tea forest in Korea.
Harmony. Looking back on my first encounter with tea more than eight years ago, it seemed that the 17-year-old me was simply captivated by the mystical and exotic atmosphere of a teahouse and the meditative process of brewing tea. Today, I feel that it was somehow preordained and my soul was seeking an elixir of life that brings balance and peace amidst the storms of life. Since then, tea has inexplicably enriched and cultivated my mind, body, and soul. Similarly, as during the Japanese Sadō ceremony, tea teaches us about deep appreciation for the subtleties of this beautiful world. Tea has also inspired me to study and explore other crafts and arts, as well as connect and share meaningful moments with loved ones and those I would not have met otherwise. Tea opens pathways to connections. With others, with the world, and with oneself.
At the moment, my mission relates more to community building, creative storytelling, and being of service by sharing a cup of tea with people I meet along the way.
Since September 2022, I have been exploring Asia to learn more about tea and the culture surrounding it. One of the main goals is to learn artisan tea making skills and further deepen my Gong Fu practice (as in philosophy and lifestyle rather than prescribed rules of a specific tea ceremony school). Every day is an adventure full of lessons.
Tea is a warm, welcoming and friendly gesture in all parts of the world. From the Amazighs in the Sahara to the donkey caravans on the mountainous Tibetan trade routes. From the meditation halls of Japanese Zen temples to the wild, ancient tea tree forests of northern Vietnam. From inviting Turkish bazaars to fancy Scottish castles and their scone towers. From hidden lane, old Taiwanese tea houses to Russian samovars embellished with a boot on top and the smell of burning pine cones. Tea is simple, though paradoxically, it contains so many intricate complexities. You do not have to be a connoisseur to appreciate it. The world of the senses and experiences are all uniquely yours.
Tea is a very somatic experience as we go deeper into our perception. What do you smell? What do you taste? What are the sensations in your body and how do all these intricate details change with each cup? It's a lesson in listening (along the lines of Rumi or even John Cage), an exercise in shifting your attention inward while simultaneously being aware of your surroundings. Tea taught me about the exhilarating subtleties of the world. How does the fresh air taste when walking in the forest; what song are the birds singing today; how does it feel when the sun kisses the skin; how do my bare feet feel when they connect to the Earth beneath them? Tea reminds me to feel and fully experience this world. I get to play with timelessness, constant change, and the multidimensionality of everything.
When I worked in tea stores in Latvia and Scotland, I perceived my tea practice in a very monastic way. I started the day each morning by sweeping the wooden floors and drinking a cup of the health elixir we call tea. While I was cleaning the outer temple, I felt that I was also introduced cleanliness, order and discipline in my soul. I was creating more space for a deeper breath.
At that time, I wanted to continue studying tea more deeply and learn how tea is made, from growing to harvesting to processing. I was convinced that the only way I could better understand the essence of tea was to work directly with the plant on a farm, close to nature.
In addition to working on the farm, in the factory, on tea tours, and in content creation, my project included researching Japanese tea varieties (free .pdf for downloading “The Short Guide to Japanese Tea Cultivars”).
My time at the tea farm offered a lot of practical hands-on skills, but I gained more than just experience and knowledge there. The wonderful environment of supportive staff, kind locals, and interns who became close friends provided the space for me to believe in myself more and gain confidence to continue journeying on my path. Japan was a great experience overall and I look forward to coming back.
When I do not have the opportunity to sit with tea, and when I do not spend a lot of time in nature, I feel out of balance in both scenarios somewhat equally. I do not believe we are meant to be disconnected from nature and spend our lives isolated in these "unnatural" four-walled boxes that tie us to a chair with a false sense of security.
For me, being outdoors is not a hobby. It is my temple, it is my home. The sense of belonging is strange for a nomad, and yet when I find myself in any wilderness landscape, I feel that way: healthy, peaceful, and in love. Metaphorically, being in nature has a similar frequency and teachings as tea. The same is true for martial arts. Or any other craft you practice. Some people achieve the meditation-like state by drawing an arrow with a bow, others by drinking a cup of tea, while others by hiking in the mountains, and others throw a cup on a potter's wheel. There are endless possibilities, do it your way.
Women play a central role in tea. In many tea-producing countries, for example, such as India and Nepal, women make up the majority of tea pluckers and farmers who do the hard labour, yet they are often underrepresented in the higher levels of management. Even in the more developed tea-growing countries, women sometimes have a hard time becoming tea entrepreneurs and main tea makers because they are not taken seriously as it happens quite often in other fields.
In some large Vietnamese commodity tea factories, I have witnessed very poor conditions for workers also. And even more disturbing, women in Kenya have reported that they’ve been forced into sex by their managers while working on tea plantations that have been owned by British multinationals for decades. And that is the reality. As people who appreciate tea, we can choose to support the small communities and family farms rather than the multinational mass production farms.
The greatest lessons on womanhood ironically were received in Siwa Oasis, Western Sahara Desert, Egypt, when I lived in male-dominated society for nearly 8 months and worked as a tour guide, helping at a local cafe, doing photography and co-organization of women's retreats with ODNA (@odna_experience) among other small errands and shenanigans with locals and bypassing voyagers. Siwa was a passage of rites for me where some parts of me got shattered and rebuilt, and the Desert taught me motherly about femininity and how beautiful it is to be a woman despite the societal challenges that come with it. As much as I tend to dance in my masculine "yang" energy, the feminine aspects of our soul guide us towards receptivity, sensuality, and creativity. The wisdom of intuition and presence. We do need the armor to protect ourselves to an extent, and yet there lies great strength in softness, vulnerability and raw expression.
I am still learning about embracing those parts of myself while the circle of fellow women have greatly supported me in the integration processes.
Perhaps the latest surprise happened in Taiwan. I briefly volunteered at a permaculture farm in Chiayi, not far from Alishan, and had to leave during the Lunar New Year holiday when everything was closed. I arrived in Tainan without a plan and wandered around, hoping to find an open tea house and a quick breakfast snack along the way. Still sleepy and tired from the road and carrying the heavy backpack full of teaware and tea, I took the "wrong" road (i.e. not the one Google Maps recommended), so I decided to sit on a random bench for a quick break. From here on out, we can call everything fate. Allen was also on a break, we were complete strangers, and yet he decided to sit with me and chat. In the course of the conversation, he learned that I had come to Taiwan to learn more about tea, and I learned that he was helping his wife Carol organize a multi-day tea event across the street at Wu Garden in conjunction with Daybreak 18 Teahouse, which resides in a 105-year-old Japanese wooden building. Across the street!! I could not believe the coincidence, honestly. The 5-minute break, I was about to take on that bench coincided with his short smoke break. The owner of the tea house Mr. Ye sang many beautiful Taiwanese songs about tea during the New Year tea session guided by his son Sammuel. I could not resist showing my appreciation for this fateful encounter by giving Allen and Carol a tea from Tsūen (通圓), the world's oldest tea house founded in 1160 in Uji, Kyoto, Japan (my backpack is a small tea treasure universe after all). Since then, I ended up being a guest of this friendly family, teaching 9-year-old Liam English and collaborating with Carol on her events on Taiwanese food, culture and tea. As my dear friend Gundega once said, "Trust the tea leaf and it will show you the way". It was confirmed that if you follow your gut, all the pieces of the puzzle will eventually fit together where they belong. Or, tea being the guiding North Star in this case.
This year seems very promising in terms of wonderful collaborations in various tea regions in Asia, as well as the launch of our start-up app TEA TEA ME, which aims to be an inclusive global tea community and a platform for booking tea tours, events, educational courses and other tea-related experiences. While I am vagabonding, I can exercise my creativity around tea, write articles, and network with tea masters, tea farmers, and tea lovers from all walks of life to find ways they can benefit from the platform we are building.
As for my longer-term dream plans, I envision a simple life on a tea farm where I can make the tea myself with care and continue to find ways to support the community via creative means. Wherever that may end up being.
Indulge in the refreshing flavors of homemade Matcha gelato.
Tea Alchemist, Creative Storyteller & Explorer
Gyokuro is a high-quality Japanese green tea that is grown in the shade for several weeks before it is harvested.
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