Home is a Cup of Tea

Sketch artist and writer Candace Rose Rardon tells the story of her search for home through the different teas she has discovered while traveling.

Candace Rose Rardon | Longreads | July 2017 | 10 minutes (2,882 words)

Let’s play a game. It’s called, “Being You, Right Now.” Perhaps you’re reading this on your way to work, defending your corner of the train with a well-placed elbow. Or are you at home? If so, please, put the kettle on. Yes, right now. I’ll wait.
The thing is, this story goes really well with tea — be it ginger, Moroccan mint, or Assam. Okay, back? Ready to continue? Now — take a long, slow look around you. Is it the home you once envisioned for yourself?
Well, maybe that’s a bit deep. We are only getting started here. Let’s begin with something a bit easier — like, bookshelves. Are there bookshelves? How about windows? Is there a fire crackling in a wood-burning stove? I’ve always wanted my own wood-burning stove.
Nothing quite compares to the scents of cedar and woodsmoke wafting through the air. The story you’re reading right now is the story of how I came to find, and redefine, home. As you read along — at home or on the train, but always, I hope, with a cup of tea in hand — perhaps you’ll feel compelled to do the same. For the next few minutes, take everything you thought home was or should be and put it on hold. The results just might surprise you.
I was born in the state of Virginia, where my parents had also lived since they were children. We moved only once in my childhood, into the house my dad built for us when I was 7. There, on Cedar Creek Lane, home was family dinners around the worn kitchen table. Home was the wood-burning fireplace in our living room.
Home was the pot of English breakfast tea my mother always had brewing, and the tea chest she kept by the stove. I loved dreaming of the home I would have one day — the family dinners I would host and the cups of tea I would serve. But at the same time, a part of me wanted to see the world. So after graduating from college, I decided to live abroad for a while, beginning with six months in England.I had always preferred milk in my tea — to now be living in the country that had arguably invented the custom felt every bit like coming home again. I moved to New Zealand next and was surprised to find a tea culture even stronger than that in England.
Electric kettles — or ‘jugs,’ as I also heard them called — were a ubiquitous appliance in Kiwi houses. And at my new job in Christchurch, morning and afternoon tea breaks were sacred. Twice a day, we were summoned to the break room with the same two-word phrase: “Jug’s boiled.” Finally, a few years later, I moved to India, where I discovered masala chai. It was unlike any tea I had ever tasted.
India’s steaming cups of tea were tiny, far smaller than the mugs I was used to. Chai was brewed directly with milk, slowly turning the color of caramel.
Most striking of all, every tiny cup of chai I drank was packed with texture and flavor, a thousand layers of cardamom and cloves, cinnamon and ginger, star anise and black peppercorns swirling together. The more I moved through the world, the more I saw the flavors and shape of tea evolve — and so, too, did my idea of home.I kept traveling in my 20s, becoming a travel writer, then an artist, moving more than I ever had as a child. Once, I rented a yurt for three months on a rural island in western Canada, where I instantly loved living in a circle. I loved the sound of rain falling on my canvas roof, the calling of owls in the woods, and the snapping and crackling of fire in the yurt’s wood-burning stove. After starting a fire every morning, I would sit at my desk writing or painting until, like clockwork most afternoons, I’d hear the gravel driveway begin to crunch as my 3-year-old neighbor Zyah approached. She’d let herself into the yurt, kick off her purple rain boots (usually worn on the wrong feet), and say, “Hey Candace, can I have some chai with milk?” Chai, I had explained to Zyah, was the name for tea in India.
And though the chai-flavored tea bags I bought from the island’s supermarket were a far-cry from the spiced concoction I had fallen in love with in India, they still kept me connected to the country. I also tried to explain to Zyah, while we waited for the kettle to boil one afternoon, about the way tea works. “We have to let the tea bag stay in the water for a few minutes. It’s called letting the tea ‘steep.’” The next day, I asked her if she remembered why we needed to wait before taking the tea bag out of the water. “To let it get darker,” she said, and I figured that, for someone who’d just turned 3, that was a perfectly acceptable answer. When the tea was strong enough — or “darker” — we would toast with our mugs, Zyah saying “clunk” instead of cheers. At the end of every tea, I would thank Zyah for stopping by: “It was nice to see you, Zyah.” Her reply was the same every time: “It’s always nice to have friends over.” When my three months in the yurt came to an end, I cleaned off my desk, cleaned out the ashes from the stove, and thought about the final explanation I would have to share with Zyah:my upcoming departure. That afternoon, I poured the last of my milk in our mugs and threw the carton into the recycling bin. We said cheers and clunk, took our first sips of tea, and then I told Zyah I was leaving the next day. She grew silent. I wondered if she hadn’t heard me or was simply ignoring the news, when at last she looked up and said: “Well, when you get back, you’re gonna have to buy more milk.”In a life of constant movement, home had changed for me, and change itself had become home. One year after moving out of the yurt, I was an artist-in-residence in Spain for six weeks. Every two weeks, I moved locations, checked into a new rental apartment, and spent my days sketching and painting until it was time to change apartments again. And that’s when it hit, what I would forever refer to as: The Tea Kettle Crisis of 2015 During the third installment of my residency, I went to make a cup of tea one night in my latest apartment.I pulled out the plastic electric kettle from where it was stored under the sink, filled the kettle with water, plugged it in, but I couldn’t get it back on its base. I stood there in my new kitchen, rattling and shaking the kettle, while something refused to connect. “I swear there’s something wrong with the kettle,” I wrote to a friend that night. “I’m tired of having to figure out a new kettle every other week.” And then: “Sometimes, I think it’s in the smallest moments that you can sense you’re ready for a change.”


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


When my residency in Spain was finished, I had one last trip booked — to Guatemala. I rented a house for the summer on the shores of Lake Atitlan, where I planned to work on a book about my search for home. The day I arrived in Guatemala, I met a fellow traveler from the Netherlands. He told me he was in the process of backpacking from Brazil to Alaska; I told him about the book I was writing, and the home I felt ready to settle into. During dinner that evening, he turned to me at one point and said, in all his Dutch directness: “There’s a question I want to ask you. What about relationships and love? Because can’t a person be home for us as well? You know how even when a family moves a lot, the parents can be home for their children. Is that part of your story?” I carried his question with me that summer, as I traveled from Antigua to Lake Atitlan and began setting up the house. I thought about it as I wrote at my desk in the mornings, while I walked alone along the lake at sunset, and as I brewed my nightly cup of tangy hibiscus herbal tea,the water in my mug turning not darker as it steeped, but a deeper shade of red. Perhaps the house I felt ready for wasn’t a physical place, but an emotional one. Perhaps my search for home wasn’t over just yet. At the beginning of 2016, I journeyed above the Arctic Circle to Norway’s Lofoten Islands. With the book still to work on, I rented a room in a wooden yellow hostel, a former shelter for fishermen built in 1934.In the hostel’s common room was the building’s original wood-burning, cast-iron stove. Just like I’d done in the yurt, I helped start a fire in it every morning. I began toasting my bread on the stove, frying eggs, and boiling water for tea. While I bought black tea at the supermarket, there was also a box of chamomile on the hostel’s free shelf.I’d always found the tea too muted in flavor compared to hibiscus or chai, but chamomile seemed to suit the soft, snowy world of Lofoten. Many of my rituals stayed the same — starting the fire every morning, working on my book, drinking tea — but I could feel other habits changing. I started connecting with my friends on a more regular basis, and being more present in their lives — even from afar. And the sheer fact that I was living in a hostel was a deliberate decision I had made. As much as I loved solitude, living alone in the woods or by a lake, this time I had made a choice to place myself in a community. Perhaps precocious 3-year-old Zyah had been the true teacher in our friendship, as she shared her daily maxim with me:“It’s always nice to have friends over.” Each day, I made time for meeting other travelers passing through the hostel, who were usually Western European. But one day, I met tall, dark-haired José. “I’m from Uruguay,” José said. “In South America.” José was an architect, with a passion for Scandinavian design. He’d come to Europe to work on his portfolio and perhaps intern at a studio.On a map, José and I were from completely different parts of the world, but we soon discovered shared interests in photography, sketching, and music. Neither of us minded being alone all day, working on our respective projects and then coming together at night for simple dinners, rounds of cards, and walks along the coast. It was on one of our walks that José turned to me and said, just as the Dutch traveler had in Guatemala: “There’s a question I want to ask you. It’s quite deep,” he said, “but — how long do you have to stay in a place before you can say that you’ve lived there?” I was still forming my answer when José continued: “Actually, it’s not about time. It’s how you feel about a place.” I shared that it takes a few things — it’s about the relationships you have there, and the rhythms that give shape to your days.Our conversation continued as we returned to the hostel and began cooking dinner on the common room’s stove. “It’s about happiness, too,” I told José, and — I realized, thinking about how much I enjoyed showing newly arrived travelers around the hostel — it’s about a sense of ownership. José said that was a harsh word for it, but the sentiment was right — that it’s about comfort and familiarity. “If I close my eyes,” he said, “I can still picture this room. I still know where everything is, I know where the glasses are.” That was it, we decided, the equation for home: Relationships + rhythms + happiness + familiarity“Time is irrelevant in that equation,” José said, “but feeling at home in a place still takes time.” Until my conversations with José, I had never given much thought to the role of time in finding home. And so, too, did time play an invisible but essential role in another story for José and me. For five weeks, we had been living side by side, sharing our meals, going on walks by the sea, until the night José’s hand first held mine; until I leaned over and kissed him; until we went from friends to more than friends. We’d taken our time falling in love, and then everything moved rather quickly.After Norway, we met again in Paris, where we celebrated my 30th birthday. And one week after I returned to the U.S., we made plans to move to Uruguay together. In some ways, Uruguay felt arbitrary, another redirection of my path by chance. And yet there was one thing that made me know the move was entirely meant to be: Uruguayans love tea. Yerba mate tea, that is, whose bitter leaves come from the holly family, but to me, it was tea nonetheless. I was immediately fascinated by the mere components of mate:the gourd-shaped cup the metal straw with a sieve at the end, called a bombilla in Spanish and the thermos of hot water tucked into the crook of every Uruguayan’s arm. I was equally fascinated by all the rules governing mate — that in a group setting, one person will assume the role of preparing and serving the mate, and that this person is called the ‘cebador.’ And when they offer you the mate, that you shouldn’t say ‘thank you’ until you don’t want another round.It was a level of ritual I had only ever seen rivaled by a Japanese tea ceremony. But what I loved most of all was how communal mate felt — how a single gourd and straw would be passed around a group; how José’s family would ask us to “go for a walk and a mate”; and how mate is, essentially, a drink to be shared. The more I learned about mate, the more fitting a tea it felt for this new chapter in my life.Sometimes, I would think back to the questions the Dutch traveler had asked me in Guatemala: “What about relationships and love? Can’t a person be home for us as well? Is that part of your story?” Two years later, I could finally say yes. England, India, a yurt on an island in Canada. Guatemala, Norway, and Uruguay. We’ve covered some serious ground, you and me, and I’m back to tell you we’ve made it to the end of this tale. Well, almost.I had always planned to end this story with yerba mate, until I began writing about my mother’s tea chest in Chapter One. As I sat at my desk in Uruguay, I suddenly remembered José’s mother showing me her own tea chest nearly eight months earlier, on my very first night in the country. And so as I neared the end of this story, I was inspired to look at the chest again. The first teas I saw inside were what you might expect to see: neat rows of green tea and Earl Grey. Next, I saw a few bags of English Breakfastand an entire compartment of masala chai. I smiled as though I’d run into old friends, having just spent so much time writing about the two teas in this story. But then, I noticed two last flavors in the back of the tea chest and was completely astonished by what I saw. Here, in a single box, was every tea I’d discovered and come to love in the last nine years of traveling. They had been brought together, and yet the teas all had their place inside the tea chest —each in its own compartment, each with its own unique flavor. I could taste the sweetness of chai the tangy sharpness of hibiscus and the soothing calm of chamomile.And so, too, could I picture the places where I had discovered each tea — each place that had been home for a time, each home with its own unique flavor. As I had prepared to leave each home, I always felt a certain sadness; nostalgia for a place I’d not yet left. Now, having seen a tea chest full of every tea I’ve loved in the world, I believe that home isn’t something we change or replace with another, but something we add to. Home is the aggregate of our journeys, a collection of people and places, memories and experiences, each home building on the last. It’s the same beauty found in icicles, honeycombs, and pearls. But this doesn’t happen overnight — like José himself said in our equation for home, and like Zyah and I would always wait, letting our chai steep in the yurt. Just like a strong cup of tea, home takes time.

***

Candace Rose Rardon is a sketch artist and writer based in Montevideo, Uruguay. Her work has appeared on National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel site, World Hum, BBC Travel, and in Lonely Planet travel anthologies, among others. She is also the founder of Moment Sketchers, an art and travel blog and global community of artists.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands