At the conclusion of 32 hours of air and land travel, and upon a delirious 3:00 AM touchdown in New Delhi, I heard my name called over the plane’s loud speaker. Before I could grasp what was happening, I was led from the plane by an unknown, but very official-looking Aeroflot pilot (you know all of those Russian planes that crashed?), before the other passengers were allowed to exit. A novice of Indian travel, I didn’t question what was happening as I was passed through customs in mere seconds. The pilot then rushed me past the hotel driver who was holding a placard of my name: MUZYKA. I felt a wave of panic that I was being kidnapped, but before I could run, the pilot felt my panic and enlightened me that I was the very special guest of Suganda Bavertee. Gulp, “Who?”
When I got to the car, I was introduced to Suganda with much fanfare. The pilot bowed to him as the door of the black SUV opened and a billow of cigarette smoke poured from the cavernous vehicle. With a thick lilting accent, Suganda said: “Oh, ZEEENA, I heard you were arriving from America, so I thought would take the opportunity to introduce myself as India’s finest supplier of tea.”
3:00 AM, no formal introduction, strange feeling in my gut. Before I knew it we were driving madly through the abandoned streets of India’s capital to my hotel while Suganda proceeded to get my commitment to spend every waking moment I had in India with him, his family, and his cousins and – while I nodded in a state of shock – I think I agreed to buy a large lot of Assam tea from him.
Now, I had casually mentioned to an Indian jute bag supplier at a tradeshow months prior that I would be visiting India to see the tea fields and work with a women’s co-op sometime in December. But how did Suganda (not his real name) find out about me? From the jute bag supplier at the trade show? I could not deduce any other way I could have become the recipient of such remarkable attention from a self-proclaimed business tycoon who sold India’s finest teas, handmade jute bags, hand-pressed tin packaging, silver tea pots, Kashmiri jewelry, pashminas, and spices from the distant reaches of the imagination. Suganda had a cousin in every supply line in India. At the time, I was a woman with a small tea cart (making $50 on a good day) in a friend’s store, and trying to sell enough tea to pay for my son’s and my own basic needs. I believe he thought I was a maven in the U.S. Boy was he in for a surprise.
I had scraped together enough money to make this trip and so I had only 10 days to accomplish many goals – prove fair trade was credible (I was told it was not by naysayers in the tea industry) by visiting the tea gardens, learn to make the best chai by making a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, travel to the south of India to taste teas, and then go to Sri Lanka to visit the world’s first biodynamic tea garden.
When we arrived at the Taj Mahal on Mansing Road, the car screeched to a halt, and without thinking, I jumped out and bolted up the steps. I was stunned to see a woman who looked EXACTLY like my Aunt Lala standing on the steps of the hotel. Thinking it might help my situation to strike up a conversation with her, I introduced myself as Zhena of Zhena’s Gypsy Tea, and asked who she was. She turned her head slowly to look at me and said, “Who am I? Well, I am Queen Sherma, of course, Queen of the Gypsies. How can you have a Gypsy Tea and NOT know who I am?” Suddenly, I knew, my destiny had arrived.