Chicken Soup for the Prejudiced Unprejudiced Tea Lover’s Soul

IMG_3978The best cup of tea I ever had was served to me by a Berber man, in a cave, near Todgha Gorge in the High Atlas Mountains. While I was initially expecting sweet green tea infused with fresh mint (as is customary in Morocco), I watched as he instead prepared it using thyme. Truth be told, I’m not quite sure why I trusted this man as he enthusiastically ushered me inside a hole in the mountain (literally), but I felt no fear. And I know that for as long as I live, I will never make this beverage taste so delicious, nor appreciate it so much as I did inside that dark, confined little space. It goes without saying that someone who can make a pot of tea so good must possess some sort of old world alchemy, and there was something magical about this man; a nomad who lived life by the seasons, who travelled with his wife, son, and their donkeys from place to place throughout the region. The deep lines on his face were balanced by a sparkle in his eyes and a spring in his step, such that he might have been fifty years old, or eighty— I had no idea. And although our conversation was broken and contained mostly hand gestures, laughs, smiles, and pictures drawn in the dirt, I was reminded that day of how special something as simple as a pot of tea can be. He gave me the best he had, and for over an hour we enjoyed each other’s company. As I left, I went to offer him money (I honestly had nothing else to give him in return for his generosity), but he refused it. Perhaps sensing my concern, he simply took my hands and smiled, reassuring me that it was alright, and wishing me a safe and peaceful journey.

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I spent a total of five weeks in Morocco in the summer of 2011, and this encounter was around the mid-point of my trip. A week later, accompanied by a group of Brits, I climbed Adrar n’Dren, the first of three 4,000+ metre mountains* we summited over the course of two weeks. Despite the fact that this was not the highest of our peaks, the terrain of Adrar n’Dren was by far the most unstable and challenging: the ascent was an excellent lesson in determination, reaching the peak was incredibly rewarding, and descending was a plain old riot. Still, despite the achievement and joy I felt from all three of our summit days, my favourite memory from the trek was easily the short time I spent drinking tea in a dusty, rocky hole with the most hospitable man in the Atlas Mountains.

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Last week I was invited to tea by my friend Zach. We met in Guelph a couple years ago, and although we both ended up at UBC for grad school (working within three buildings and about 150 m of one another), we see each other far too infrequently. At any rate, Zach suggested we meet up at O5 Rare Tea Bar in Kits for a good post-Christmas catch-up.

Now allow me to preface the following by saying that although I try not to judge anything before trying it (a character trait that I’ve worked really hard at for the last few years), ever since I first saw O5, I maintained a sincere dislike for the place. No, that’s not quite it. It was worse than that. In fact, if I were to say that no one has ever avoided a tea shop with such purpose or conviction, that might be coming close. And since DavidsTea is only four doors down, this animosity was a regular occurrence. The origins of my dislike are unclear and entirely unprovoked, although they may have stemmed from the fact that O5 seemed to pop up out of nowhere amidst the local hipster and hipster wannabe-ness. Or maybe it was their neon sign and the sketchy marshmallow lights hanging from the ceiling that I found naturally off-putting and excessively zen. But whatever the reason, from Day One this place seemed to ooze pretentiousness. So, understandably, I was not looking forward to tea with Zach. However, instead of suggesting an alternative venue, I chose to go along with his suggestion because (lurking deep inside), there may also have been a slight glimmer of curiosity. (Well, mostly just an insatiable desire to have my suspicions confirmed.) Anyway, before I knew it, I found myself walking down 4th in the dark and pouring rain, opening the door to Snobville, and sneaking quietly inside.

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Well, let me cut to the chase. Long story short: I was wrong. So wrong in fact. And I sincerely apologize. O5 is amazing. It’s nothing like DavidsTea, and while I think they are both wonderful, they serve two very different purposes in the tea lover’s world and thus they are not comparable. The owner of O5, Pedro, is about as far from pretentious as it gets. In fact, he is actually one of the most down-to-earth, passionate, friendly, and social people I’ve met in the city. And when it comes to tea, he seriously knows his shit. Far from the Svalbard glacier I was expecting, as soon as I walked inside, I felt an immense sense of warmth and hospitality; drinking tea at O5 was an experience, and in so many ways, it brought me back to my cup of tea with the Berber man. Pedro enthusiastically explained about the handful of farms around the world from which he gets his tea (where he knows all the farmers personally), and Zach and I tried a few different varieties, all of which were ritualistically prepared with great care and attention to detail. He gave us sugared hibiscus flowers to eat (although other more substantial and less exotic tapas options were also available), and as we chatted about life and tea and life again, I realized that I’d forgotten how time can pass so quickly and so elegantly.

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I’ve always maintained that the greatest joy in any beverage stems not as much from the taste or presentation, but from the company in which it is shared. And while O5 easily surpassed my expectations on the first two accounts, more than anything, the ability to just relax, make a new friend and catch up with an old one was the most enjoyable part. I won’t go into any more detail because I think this is enough for one post. However, I will say that anyone who really loves tea, or who just needs an evening escape from life, should absolutely head over to O5. In fact, head over there with every angry, jaded, sad, prejudice, stressful thought you’ve ever had— I promise you’ll leave with none of them.

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*The height of Adrar n’Dren varies quite significantly depending on the source such that I actually don’t accurately know how tall it is. (The map used by our guide listed it at 4,001 m, although I’ve seen it elsewhere as low as 3,900 m or as high as 4,016 m.) That said, I personally am not too bothered my such numbers because altitude alone doesn’t tell you much about the difficulty of a climb, other than the oxygen restrictions you’re dealing with. (I assume I’ll feel much differently on the matter once I climb Everest.) For reference, the other two mountains we climbed do have official measurements as they are the two highest in the Atlas Range: Jbel Toubkal (4,167 m) and Ouanaoukrum (4,089 m).

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