Diaries. The word alone conjures up dreams, disappointments, secrets, confessions. . . .
When my husband found his grandmother’s diary, we felt guilty opening it—as though we were violating her privacy, although she passed away decades ago.
But after reading—repeatedly—that the day’s laundry dried well, we didn’t worry so much about the ethics. Because her words didn’t offer much insight into her as a person.
Yet the mundane details that she recorded provide a snapshot of everyday life in a Midwestern farming community in the 1930s.
And much more exciting travel journals can serve a similar function.
In the early 1930s, inveterate adventurer Walter N. Koelz traversed—by yak and by horse—the rugged western Himalayan mountains, maintaining his diary throughout.
Taking incredible adventures (and multiple mishaps) in stride, his mission was to collect zoological and botanical specimens—as well as Tibetan objects—for botanical gardens and museums.
Avidly seeking out artwork and jewelry, Koelz also amassed household items, including teapots and tea tables.
Offering us a window into the ordinary while on an extraordinary journey.
In his 1931 diary (p. 121), Koelz notes that he
bought an ancient curiously carved tea table. . . . The carving is bold and graceful and of a totally different character from that of the tables nowadays manufactured. The top was soaked in generations of butter imbibed from the tea that had been spilled by the guests of the ages and the gay paint that the people in this country apply to all carvings has been toned to grey-black by similar agencies.
For those who lived in this cold and rugged mountain range, adding butter to their tea contributed much-needed nutrition.
The butter would have been high-fat-content yak butter, with a consistency closer to cheese. Using a churn, the tea and butter would be frothed and then drunk with milk, a practice still followed in some Himalayan regions.
In the early 1930s—as today—tea and hospitality intertwined.
Throughout his diary, Koelz mentions both serving and being served tea, as well as both offering and receiving tea as a gift. On July 2, 1933, he was offered tea and tsampa, “a staple Tibetan food of roasted barley flour, usually served mixed with butter and tea” (Sinopoli 2013).
And tea was everywhere.
Koelz met caravans of mules carrying tea through the mountains. He writes of:
- bricks and cakes of Tibetan tea and a cake of HR tea;
- buying Kangra tea in July—at Kulu’s October prices (today, Kangra and Kulu are districts in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh); and
- seeing walnuts ground so that the oil could be added to tea.
He bought teacups and teapots—of wood, a Lhasa teapot, some made in Spiti (located between Tibet and India), a copper teapot of “Mongol design.”
He bought tea tables—including one in which “a little bedbug village had located itself” (Sinopoli 2013)! (In case you’re wondering, he put the table in the sun to draw the bugs out, where they died.)
And as it still does today, tea—and water—quality varied.
Complaining on October 30, 1933, that their “Lipton tea had a drugstore taste,” Koelz used prianku (a high alpine, lemon-scented perennial herb that grows in the Himalayas) to add flavor; he goes on to say that they “bought a cake of Tibetan tea that didn’t have any taste. Our herb remedied that too” (Sinopoli 2013).
On January 19, 1934, he writes that their “water makes bad tea so we bought a jugful from a well a couple miles away”; on the following day, when they located “drinkable” water, they drank “tea copiously” (Sinopoli 2013).
In modern America, it’s unlikely we need to add prianku to our tea, adding butter is definitely a personal preference, and we probably don’t have a dedicated tea table.
BUT, we continue to serve, be served, buy, give, and enjoy tea. Because it is always more than just the tea.
It’s community, hospitality, friendship.
–Koelz, W. N. “Diary of the 1931 Expedition to Western Tibet,” Journal of Urusvati, Himalayan Research Center 2:121. 1931.
–Sinopoli, C. M. The Himalayan Journey of Walter N. Koelz, Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan. 2013.
Tea pictured above is available at TeaHaus.