In Search of Lost Time*

On the Horn of Africa, prior to changing our survey location, Jean-Pierre Jacquard would meet with the headman of the local area to which we were moving—probably a good public relations move, even in the Somalia of 1975.

I recall one time when we landed on the edge of a very small village. The headman’s minions came out to greet us and we were shepherded to the center of the village where we were introduced to the headman. We were then seated on the ground and offered chai.

I looked up at the glass of hot chai as it was handed to me. Cloves, what looked to be crushed cinnamon stick, and un-dissolved rock sugar were evident. There was also a fly suspended in the middle of the glass of tea. I figured that the fly must have been boiled with the water, since it wasn’t floating on top of the tea.

Of course I drank it, since it would have been considered an insult had I not.

What I remember most clearly, tempered by time, is this: That was the best tea I have ever tasted. It was spicy, it was sweet, it tingled the palate, and it went down like fresh water. I couldn’t believe chai could taste so good. Whether or not the fly contributed to any of this, I have no idea.

When we departed, the entire village, dressed in their finest and most colorful clothes, had come out to see us off. It remains a picture (that I unfortunately do not have) that I will never forget.

I’ve been trying to duplicate the taste of that tea ever since. I think I almost have it now.

*À la recherche du temps perdu—with apologies to Marcel Proust. (Link updated September 2017)

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