Ceylon and tea. So intrinsically connected are the two that they earn a place alongside other famous combinations: Belgium and chocolate, France and wine, Coloumbia and coffee. The link became increasingly stronger when, on reaching independence, the island happily let go of its former name in favour its new one, Sri Lanka. With the fading of its primary association, for many the word Ceylon became an exclusive reference to a brand of tea rather than to an island surrounded by the Indian Ocean. But this was not always destined to be the country’s most celebrated asset, before Ceylon was to produce what became known as the world’s best tea, it was coffee that left its shores in abundance. In 1852 the thriving coffee beans and the opportunities that came with it, brought a 16 year old Scottish boy that would alter the island’s fate. His arrival marked a change in the tide.
In the height of the coffee run, James Taylor’s visionary employer bucked the trend by instructing the young man to research the merits of growing tea. Taylor was later described as being married to tea and in those early days the country reaped the benefit of a man in love. He shifted through lessons of cultivation and process from nearby North India, turning his verandah into the first Ceylon tea production line. Using the potential of the ideal climate and soil, he experimented with the leaves, rolling them by hand, spreading the leaves out to ferment, tasting every batch to perfect the blends in his makeshift factory. The favorable results and his enthusiasm gave birth to the first Ceylon tea plantation, covering a mere 19 acres of the island’s land. Unbeknown to him, in sowing those seeds, he was to change the country.
In 1869 a rust fungus covered the island’s coffee trees and in a few short years decimated the once lucrative industry. Desperate and in need of a quick recovery, the estate owners focused their attention on Taylor, following his lead they planted tea bushes over the grave of the coffee trees. A new, lasting industry was born, with Taylor’s initial acres spreading like wild fire across the hill country of Sri Lanka. His dedication transformed the landscape and with it, the entire nation.
Years later, 2010 to be exact, a similar pioneer walked straight off a yacht into a dingy lecture room on Hiddingh campus, University of Cape Town. On the first day, when class paused for the scheduled tea break, he said to no one in particular, just as James Taylor must have done on learning of the soil and climate in Ceylon:
“This will be perfect”
First learned at the agricultural university better known as Rhodes, he had carried the knowledge with him, across gulfs, bays and unpronounceable islands. This man had travelled the world! Against his better judgment he had returned to teach what he had long since mastered. He brought with him the T game.
There were 43 students that filled the small classroom. Unaccustomed to socialising with non-celebrities, Yacht Boy, aka JC, bided his time, sussing out his classmates for weeks before approaching the 8 players he had identified as up to the challenge. Finally, a month having passed since the lectures began, he had all 8 surrounding him as he carefully explained the rules:
‘The point of the game is to get someone to say the letter t on its own. If you say it, you have to make the rest of us tea in the break.’ he said, folding his arms as he finished.
‘Is that it?’ I asked, adding confidently, ‘I will never say it.’
‘I know that women’s brains are half the size of mens,’ then he held up his hand to stop my protest, ‘It’s science, but for the sake of the intelligent among us, try to keep up,’ he retorted, ‘The game starts now.’
After the lunch break, I thought briefly about the T game, dismissing it as lame and then completely forgot about it during the afternoon slump. At 3pm, a few of us walked to the car park across the street. JC walked in the same direction to his house a few kilometers from the campus.
‘Whose driving the mom’s car?’ JC asked.
‘It’s mine and he is beautiful.’ I responded.
‘How old is it?’
‘About seven years. Would you like to see its service book?’ I asked sarcastically.
‘I was just wondering whether a car that old ever had one of those old yellow Gauteng number plates, you know with the…um what was it again?’
‘T.’ I say too quickly to stop myself.
‘Rooibos, no milk, no sugar,’ he said with a wide grin. As he walked away I heard him softly imitate me, ‘I will never say it.’
The difficulty with the T game is that it takes place in the full swing of life. There is no beginning or end, it continues without a whistle, pounces on your brain’s aptitude to regurgitate correct answers. It relies on our tendency to fill in other people’s pauses, impatient for them to get the words out. Amateurs, come in too strong, searching for the T from the get go. My first clumsy attempt went a little like this:
“What sports do you play Yacht Boy?” I ask JC.
“Oh you know, the usual, a bit a lacrosse, polo, the horse variety and on weekends I like to jump out of planes.”
“No, seriously, tell me.”
“If you have to know, I play tennis, golf and cycle.” he said.
I had been hoping for this, trying to act natural, I went on:
“I don’t think golf is a proper sport. I tried a few days ago, I just hit the ball straight off the grass, not a fan of those other things, you know the ….”
“The peg?” he helps.
“No, there’s another name for it. I thought you played golf?”
“You mean the grass.” he says.
“Stop it” I say conscious of what he is doing.
“Pathetic attempt. Truly,” he laughs.
Skilled practitioners of the T game use courtship: starting a conversation that seems everyday as they subtly direct you to where they intend you to go. In no hurry they casually ask a question that has you pouring hot water into eight cups: five normal, three rooibos, milk in six and sugar into whoever is lucky to get any. And in that confusion someone leans over and points to the black tea:
“Is that coffee?”
“I’ll have the same tomorrow and the day after that. Maybe just make it for me everyday, saves everyone the trouble of having to write it all down,” JC taunts, then turning to the others he says, “what did I tell you, brains the size of a pea.”