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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Mali: Tuareg Tea

Tea is one of the most universal of all drinks; I can't think of a country that I've visited that hasn't had some kind of tea on offer, even though sometimes it's barely recognisable as such. Drinking tea of some kind is a global phenomenon, and the world is a better place for it.

Teapots and tea bags are common in most western countries – probably the most vexing cultural question is whether or not to put the milk in first – but throughout my travels I've come across local tea that's quite, quite different to tea at home. My first seminal tea experience took place in Hong Kong back in the early 1990s, where I discovered that green tea is simply the best accompaniment to Chinese food, but it was Indonesia that gave me my first taste of a tea that I couldn't get at home. Indonesian tea is slightly aromatic and they serve it weak, in tall glasses and in large volume. After a hot day stalking through the tropical heat of the Indonesian islands there'll always be a flask of hot tea waiting for you outside your hotel room – even in the cheapest places – and although it's identifiable as tea, it's a distinctly Indonesian thing.

India is another great tea experience. Although famous for producing such subtle teas as Darjeeling and Assam, served in silver and with colonial elegance, real Indian tea – or chai – is practically unrecognisable. It's brewed for ages by boiling up milk and sugar, and dipping what looks like an old sock into the mixture (the tea leaves, it turns out, are stashed in this sock). The tea is poured many times and from a great height throughout the brewing process, and the result is a sickly sweet, dark brown concoction that almost totally fails to quench the raging thirst that the Indian climate produces. It's a fantastic drink, and sitting on a charpoy drinking chai with your mates is practically India's national sport. It's wonderful.

Tuareg Tea

Tea is huge in north Africa, too, where it has assumed a social significance that makes the English habit of taking tea at four o'clock look positively blasé. The north African tea ceremony is well known to be the oil in the cogs of commerce from Morocco to Egypt; it spread along with the Sahara's nomadic tribes from the Berbers in the northwest to the Tuareg in the Sahara, and if you ever try to buy a carpet in a carpet shop or a pair of slippers in a souq, you'll be offered tea. It's an unavoidable part of life in desert Africa.

The Tuareg are particularly into their tea ceremonies, and as you wander through countries where the Tuareg proliferate, such as Mauritania, Niger and Mali, you see people brewing tea everywhere. The process goes a little bit like this:

And that's the Tuareg tea ceremony, a routine you see performed everywhere, all the time, from the side of the road to the deck of a pinasse. It's not so much the tea as the whole ceremony that goes with it; it's the tea drinkers' equivalent of rolling your own cigarettes, and it's just as satisfying.

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