The first time I heard of The Essence of Tea, I felt dismissive; why would I buy tea from China to be shipped to me in the USA via the UK? If I was going to order pu-er online—which is pretty necessary outside of Asia if you want anything of quality—why not just order directly from Asia, e.g. Yunnan Sourcing?
Since then, Essence moved its base of operations to Malaysia for humid aging potential and Panang curry, and I took the plunge on them and have experienced their consistently potent stock.
The 2005 Chang YuHao Yiwu, which I acquired during their Malaysian-storage sale, but is still the most expensive cake I’ve ever bought, is a perfect example of their ability to acquire whole-body-mind-altering pu-er. I tried a sample of this tea with a previous order and was blown away by its strength and depth, vowing to purchase it if it ever went on sale and became a little more affordable.
For a 10-year old (small-scale production?) humid-aged cake of premium Yiwu material, the compression is surprisingly hard. Also, the leaves are small, a bit coarse, and don’t seem particularly special in any way. But, pu-er is like the aikido of tea–cheating is allowed and encouraged, and appearances are deceiving. The energy and longetivity of this tea is simply incredible. With most pu-er, even those I mentally bookmark as “powerful,” 8-10 g is good for a super stimulating, 1-2 hour psychoactive session. With the Chang YuHao Yiwu, 5 g is enough to send me into deep orbit.
If TwoDogTea had made this cake, he should call it Ahmad’s Green, or maybe The Awakening, or Autumn Rain. To me, Ahmad Jamal is an endless source of inspiration, one of the most pivotal figures in jazz—and still working. Like his music, this tea starts out smooth with barely any hints of astringency, then sneaks up behind you, WHAM, and slams you into the mat like only a 5th+ dan can. Like the motifs that Ahmad weaves into his playing, the effervescent returning themes, doubling back again and again with slight variations, this tea creates a myriad of subtle but intense feelings and moods—fiery stomach-qi, a happy, calm sensation that all is right (in this scary world) in the universe, a true lucid tea-drunkenness (a phrase that I usually think is the epitome of annoying geek-talk but is actually true here), an occasional tingling in the extremities.
A friend of mine stopped in an Indian grocery store this morning after our aikido practice to buy a large quantity of black teabags. I half-jokingly told him I could give him some real tea if he wanted, guessing what the response was going to be.
“I don’t want to mess with all that.. [gong fu tea, etc.], I don’t have time for that.”
This is a valid complaint, but for those of us involved in high complexity art forms, (the person in question is a 3rd dan in two martial arts, a collector of ephemera, and a PhD engineer), good tea seems like (or should be) such an easy sell. Compared to the rigors one puts oneself through in studying an art or discipline intensively, the huge costs involved for many hobbies (martial arts, airplane flying), the enjoyment of quality tea still seems like a bargain to me. We all have to rest. Good tea restores and rejuvenates, allows space for contemplation, and for me, is so excellent and damningly pleasantness, the way it twists and warps a tired or tense self back into a stable and creative position, that it seems to make life worth living as much any experience.
A fama had a wall clock, and each week he wound it VERY VERY CAREFULLY. A cronopio passed and noting this, he began to laugh, and went home and invented an artichoke clock, or rather a wild-artichoke clock, for it can and ought to be called both ways.
This cronopio’s wild-artichoke clock is a wood artichoke of the larger species, fastened by its stem to a hole in the wall. Its innumerable leaves indicate what hour it is, all the hours in fact, in such a way that the cronopio has only to pluck a leaf to know what time it is. So he continues plucking them from left to right, always the leaf corresponds to that particular hour, and every day the cronopio begins pulling off a new layer of leaves. When he reaches the center, time cannot be measured, and in the infinite violet-rose of the artichoke heart the cronopio finds great contentment. Then he eats it with oil, vinegar, and salt and puts another clock in the hole.
Buenos Aires is a city out of time. A place which seems to look to the past, be stuck within a certain slice of Iberia circa 1990, where steak and wheat is always on the menu, and which a gothic cemetery is among the principal attractions. It’s seen better days, but still seems to ride on its reputation as the “Paris of the south” (not much of an endorsement to me). So how about it?
Argentina is economically dysfunctional. Our Airbnb host, Diego, is an anomaly in Argentina—a quick moving entrepreneur who shrugs his shoulders when describing the byzantine difficulties of importing items into his country. Countless items that would arrive in two days to an American household can simply not be bought in Argentina, so he ships purchases to Brazil or Paraguay and moves them by land across the border, or buys electronics on trips to the US for use in his Airbnb apartments and brings them back himself. Inflation is 40% per year.
“We don’t really buy new clothes for several years,” shyly admitted his girlfriend Nati, a microbiome researcher.
Everyone changes money on the black market. The official exchange rate when we were there was around $8.5 pesos/$1 USD but the “blue dollar” hovered around 12.5. We traded our bills by asking the Chinese grocer next to us if he knew where we could change money, having been told he himself, of course, was a money changer.
“Yes, I can,” he said in Chinese, with merely a short glance.
Other money changers that had previously been open a week or two before were now shuttered.
One day Diego showed us a list of all the different unofficial exchange rates pegged by various institutions and rates. It was like looking at a multi-city bus timetable.
“The pink dollar, the blue dollar, then there’s the white rate..”
The Argentinean economic climate is a complex and longstanding matter, like the rhythms of fog in San Francisco,
“convoluted to the point of incomprehension,” said my friend Chris.
Like grey weather, there seemed to be a consistent gloom about many Porteños.
“You could be falling down in the street here and no would help you,” remarked Diego, whom, along with his girlfriend, is from the far Northeast, Misiones province, a short drive to Iguazu Falls.
Despite the large size of the city and its dense apartment buildings, I was often surprised by how dark it was at night. This lent an eeriness and occasional malice to the streets.
“Yes, they are empty, a lot of foreclosures,” Diego said, “Perfect for airbnb.”
My favorite anecdote from Diego concerned his attempt to start an online fishing rod business. Apparently fancy fishing rods are a big thing in Argentina, but like most of the economy, has typically been done in a traditional brick and mortar setting; he thought by doing an online business he could significantly cut costs and sell the rods for cheaper with the help of his brother. It seemed to be successful, but it didn’t last long; soon other fishing businesses were threatening him, asking him to raise his prices. They tried to find out his address, a deliveryman quit after fearing for his safety, and finally Diego and his brother decided it wasn’t worth it.
“Too easy to be killed here if someone wants you gone.”
No matter how sexy some people want to play up tango, beef, and dilapidated colonial buildings, constant inflation and a lack of security in one’s own currency are not great aphrodisiacs.
Not vegetarian-friendly or gluten-free
The Argentinean diet is pretty much steak, pizza, pasta, empanadas, and pastries. Tomatoes and peppers count as vegetables, there’s surprisingly little fruit given the relative proximity to subtropical climates, and plenty of Italian pastries.
And there’s gelato. The gelato is actually the best in the world I’ve come across, and deserves its own section, but for a non-meat loving gluten-free person, Buenos Aires sucks. Argentinean cuisine is unhealthy and I can’t imagine most locals possess a high diversity of intestinal microflora.
Gelato from n-dimensional spacetime
What makes the gelato in Buenos Aires so good? Certainly it was one of the consistent highlights in an often-gloomy cityscape reminiscent of a Spanish or Portuguese city…25 years ago–right down to the mullets, faded coats, and 10 PM dinners. Most people didn’t even seem to bother coming out at night until 1 AM.
Our search for holy gelato led us to intense flavor and a particular creaminess that I have never seen in ice cream or gelato anywhere else. The texture was often vaguely reminiscent of soft serve frozen yogurt but much richer, and produced, I’m sure, by different mechanisms. The Pampas, infinite grazing ground for high quality cows is surely part of this, but is probably only a partial answer. We visited a few of the most acclaimed gelateria:
Volta, in Recoleta, with its sleek interior and hanging topiaries, would not be out of place in San Francisco, were it not for the somewhat old fashioned uniforms worn by the staff (a mark of better gelato places, we decided), and all gelato sold in styofoam containers in sizes up to a heart-shattering 2 kilograms. Each scoop was flavorful, creamy, and introduced me to that particular sticky quality unique to Argentinean gelato.
Jauja, was small and modern in the upmarket Palermo Soho neighborhood, with more casual and friendly staff, and we felt, more unique and even intense flavors than Volta. Also very creamy, but perhaps a bit too sweet. It had a local café feel to it, various middle-aged people in too many sweaters were talking in a heated manner in that 1990 Italian style. Very low tables.
Arkakao, saving the best for last, once again in Recoleta (that neighborhood of old wealth and slumbering hotel doormen we weren’t enamored with but couldn’t seem to escape), was like a fashion parlor cum gourmet café, an event onto itself. The staff certainly seemed to think so. Compared to many other places, this was one of the only that showed their gelato totally exposed in a refrigerated container (as is the norm in the US) rather than the submerged metal pots elsewhere in BA. Before going to Argentina, the Italian owner of a relatively new gelateria in Berkeley tried to convince me his use of these covered metal parts was part of the reason his gelato was supposedly superior to other offerings.
Clearly it is not the deciding factor. This was the best gelato I’ve ever eaten in my life. All flavors were intense, rich, extremely creamy, exactly the right amount of sweetness. If only we hadn’t waited to go until our last night.
No Camellia sinensis to save your life but plenty of yerba mate
Curing the mate is a delicate process. We picked up a nice one on our way out of the airport and then fretted for weeks that we were cultivating a new species of mold rather than a suitable vessel for brewing. I enjoyed this little leaf, a stimulating healthy green particularly valuable in a sea of morose concrete and car fumes (Buenos Aires has one of the lowest tree cover % per person of any major city in the world, less than hyper dense and developed Tokyo).
A homogenous city of mostly European descent
We saw virtually no one of African or Asian descent. Sometimes people, especially kids, stared at Cathy and called out, “chino!”
This ties in with the other strand of BA being a place stuck in the past in some similar but imagined continent—in its faded elegance, mirrors of other places that are sort of like what they purport to be, but not exactly, one can understand the forces that one foment a Borges, a labyrinth of self-similar parts and out of time quality that would appeal to a hermetically sealed writer. A Borgesian city.
On our last afternoon we wandered through the famous Cementerio de la Recoleta, an imposing place of grandeur and one of the top tourist attractions in Buenos Aires. The contrast with the surrounding blocky apartments and a luxury McDonalds across the street couldn’t have been stranger, and I felt an intense heaviness from being in this Parisian simulacrum patrolled by endless mangy cats.
And then we went to Arkakao.
The best part of Buenos Aires?
Our wonderful Airbnb hosts, Diego and Nati! Seriously, we spent more time talking to them, sharing tea, enjoying delicious home made flan with dulce de leche, and eating steak than probably anything else we did in the city, especially on days when we didn’t leave the apartment until late afternoon (good luck going to bed before 2 AM).
Gracias..but next time just take us to Misiones.
In 24 hours I will be on a plane to Buenos Aires via Houston. Pictured above are a few of my unique travel accessories. Almost everyone who travels, or just lives their daily lives (of a certain band of socio-economic class) predictably carries and uses certain items: clothes, food, phone/music player, toiletries, books/information/means of reading. These substances are inextricably part of most peoples’ daily lives. Like everyone else, I bring them with me when I travel, but I also bring some other items that provide an encapsulation of my essence, those material items most dear to me because they somehow enable my particular strand of activities and use of time on this Earth.
Here are mine, which I think may be a bit different than most travelers:
1) Martial arts dogi, for practicing at aikido dojos. When I traveled across Europe 10 years ago, I periodically dropped in on different dojos all over the place, in just plain clothes. This led to some of my most interesting local experiences and info, a common bond and passion between people I could sometimes not even linguistically communicate with.
This warmth I experienced ranged from a Sensei in Granada telling me in halting English, after practice, “Whenever you come here, this is your home,” to a Copenhagen Sensei nonchalantly instructing at the beginning of a class, “Today we have a visitor from America, so I’m going to teach in English.”
Now that I’m a black belt (not pictured–already packed), I find it a bit unseemly to just show up in sweats, so I don’t mind packing one of my lightweight uniforms.
2) Tea pots, cups, and leaves: Anyone who has spent a bit of time with me knows I am a tea, and specifically, pu-er afficianado. While my depth of knowledge still can’t hold a candle to innumerable old Chinese men and seasoned bloggers like The Half-Dipper and Marshal N, it’s still astonishing for most people in most of the world to see me whip out these tiny ceramics and strange leaves all because this particular brand of ceremony and qi is so valuable to me.
3) Digital recorder: It boggles my mind to think I lumbered across Europe for 6 months with a huge guitar in the past. When I traveled through Japan 2 years ago, I decided I didn’t want to mess with that anymore and satisfied myself with occasionally playing guitars of various qualities (usually crappy to mediocre) that I came across and temporarily bottling my musical urges into other pursuits. After thinking about it for several years, I finally acquired a digital recorder this year, which I’ve been using to capture musical ideas, ambient sounds, and aiding me in my own music production. I hope to use this as part of my documentation and impromptu jam sessions on the streets and mountains of Argentina and Bolivia.
It’s liberating to be a backpacker because it forces you to carry everything that is useful or holds value for you. Make no mistake, I still prefer having access to my multiples gis and wooden weapons, my guitar, bass, synthesizer, and computer, and bings and bags of semi-aged pu-er, but it’s a worthwhile experience to encapsulate these traits and possessions while on the road.
Going to a club is a rare enough of an event for me that it warrants some writing. Last Friday I went to Public Works in SF to see Max Cooper. Despite feeling already sleepy by the time I got there (past 11, as he wasn’t slated to start until 11:30), I managed to hold on for a couple hours. I had been there once before. I’ve been to many clubs all over Europe and beyond, and most just copy cliched motifs: the gated line, dispassionate bouncers, thick walls and too much bass–this effect permeates to the visitors–the sleekly dressed but apparently unhappy, disinterested women, overly bro-ish guys, sticky floors and feigned conversations, all for the supposed effort of maintaining a “scene.”
Asking him about his interest in Max Cooper, he admitted he had never heard him before and was there only for a birthday party.
“I wouldn’t say he’s house,” I retorted, “more like melodic techno with some IDM influences.”
“Yeah, huh, we’ll see,” he said, going back to checking his phone.
Inside: plenty of people, but not too many. The volume was enough that I was glad I brought my earplugs–the degree of bass which interferes with my heartbeat, when I start seeing the sleeves of my shirt vibrating, I find particularly unsettling, causing me to move to the periphery. The first guy playing was very much house, which is what I think Public Works and their sound system is optimally designed towards. I found myself unconsciously dancing, as I hadn’t heard the music before; on the other hand, hearing some of the familiar Max Cooper tunes later on, even as they were more abstract, I felt no such inclination, as I had plenty of internal, psychic movement. Which has led me to the conclusion, as a musician and listener, that I now largely feel the urge to dance perhaps as a way of understanding unfamiliar [rhythmic] music, but if I know the tune, I don’t need to, or feel the urge.
Max came on and people cheered. The weird “4-D” esque visuals appeared, very much what I’d think of as 90s esque IDM-UK videos: geometric shapes, arterial passageways moving with objects, traversing the realms of space. Has any piece of genuine music ever been truly enhanced by these meandering animations? It wasn’t unpleasant, but would the show be less without it? I don’t think so.