Saturday, October 10, 2015

Tea Time and Trains

Those of you who read this blog know I have a thing for trains. When confronted with the option of flying, busing, driving, or traveling via rail, I most often choose the latter. I don't mind long train trips, either. In fact, I began writing this post from one leg of a trip from London to Amsterdam (five odd hours) before my computer battery died, but you may also recall the post I wrote on a cross-country trip from Washington, DC to Seattle. Trains are hailed as a less carbon-intensive way to get from point A to point B, compared to flying, and enable reasonable mobility for those of us who cringe at the thought of sitting behind a steering wheel. On the other hand, trains are not cheap and thus maintain a bit of an elitist reputation. And as I discovered during a recent literary indulgence, the history of railways is shrouded in a fine mist of colonialism, corruption, and changing landscapes. Among other things, the creation and spread of railways across the world facilitated the transport of agricultural products, changed diets, and hurried us along a path of a globalized food system that is conspicuous today.

This brings me to tea, which is quite an oddity. Stereotypically (and yet truly) central to the daily lives of Brits, this brewed beverage of steeped, smoked leaves hails only from tropical climes, and serves as a constant reminder of a colonial past. Like the trade of spices, which drove tensions and tiffs between European powers as they clamoured to control the supply and sale of these goods from the Far East, the tea industry prompted considerable investment and infrastructural development, still evident in today's largest producing countries. According to this book I alluded to earlier, in many territories of the empire, rail lines were built during the mid and late 19th century for the primary purpose of transporting commodities (often agricultural or mineral) to ports for shipment overseas. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is an example of this, built originally to move rice and to enable a viable trade in tea, it is now relegated to the realm of touristic attraction. Similar phenomena occurred in East Africa, particularly Kenya, in the early 20th century.

On the one hand, these railroads spurred economic growth, broadened access to transit, and facilitated an entrenched tea culture. Yet it is also interesting the consider that the mode of 'green' transportation was one of the initial enablers of large-scale landscape change and habitat loss. While it's hard to get a sense of the extent of change historically, there is documentation of contemporary forest incursion from tea plantation expansion in countries like Uganda, India, and Kenya. Well, it's something to mull over with a nice cup of tea!

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