Grand Tea Road by journalism student Sara Hameed

River Jhelum

Dec. 24, 2019

The worn five-seater jolted to a halt outside the proud Tulip Hotel, on the banks of the sheer River Jhelum.

“I’ve heard this is a decent place, I’ve heard it,” the driver announced in his thick Punjabi accent, shifting the manual gears to park. He waited patiently for the family of four to exit the vehicle. 

“Are you sure?” Junaid Hameed skeptically examined the giant building, then looked around. He was in his sixties; albeit he liked calling age a ‘number game’. In his chestnut eyes, brisk walking was a saunter.

Clouds descended unto open space, partly sheathing everything in sight. It was the only tower for miles, that faced not only the grey river, but also a near-empty parking lot shielded by slate canopies. Opposite was an isolated, short structure, with rectangular, dark-wood signs pointing to staff bathrooms, tucked behind cream walls. Hameed nestled his chin into the collar of his leather jacket, then turned to face his family. The driver, with his knitted beanie, pierced ears and striped, monochromatic sweater, seemed to be so confident of this rest area, they could not help but trust him.

The lobby smelled thickly of Earth after the rain, and furniture polish. Exquisite marble flooring with intricate jet designs, led us to the restaurant as silent as the afternoon. As Hameed marched ahead, a small waiter took over, and we were seated by a wall-sized window, the view clear of the icy waters. Directly below was a sitting area reserved for sunny days. The sky was silver; yet, the coziness of the indoors made one forget of thinly escaped winter. Pillars of gold occasionally stood, in our case, blocking the sight to the glass entrance. 

The waiter from earlier, in his posh, black waistcoat, matched with a bow-tie and crisp cuffs, handed us our menus. 

“Oh, we won’t be needing these,” Hameed said, when Tehmina Hameed, his kind wife, shot him a small glare. She was wearing a warm, chocolate shalwaar kameez, and draped over her short frame was a black shawl. Her soft complexion bloomed rosier from the cold.  

Ibrahim Hameed, 19, was sturdy and tall, clad fashionably in charcoal. With caution, he suggested it would be wrong if they do not get something, which left Hameed momentarily pondering. 

“Okay, fine,” he surrendered, and proceeded to order a club sandwich and the place’s signature chai. “But please hurry, beta, we need to reach Lahore by 4 p.m.” 

“It’s only 1:30 right now, Baba,” his son rolled his eyes behind framed, rectangular spectacles, trying to make a point.

“There’s going to be a rush on old GT Road if we don’t hurry,” Hameed slipped foiled lunch out of its blue plastic bag, and began to unwrap it, “Now, your Phuppo made these kebab sandwiches for both you and your sister with such love, let’s start eating.” The boy picked up a triangle, and took a small bite, yet his father had nearly finished one already. 

“Where is he?” he impatiently asked, glancing over his shoulder while he continued to chew, “I told him to make it quick!”

“He’ll come, Junaid. It takes time,” his wife gently answered over her helping. “Especially since they must be preparing it from scratch.” 

Meanwhile, two waiters had moved a heater closer to us, for we were the only ones in the extravagant hall. It began smelling of gas as well, but Hameed was more concerned about their order. 

A band of female wedding guests had begun rolling in, with their glittering, vivid clothes, and gaudy jewellery. The once quiet room was starting to fill with inept chatter, and loud giggling.

The waiter maneuvered past these obstacles with a massive tray, and placed before us the meal. “I apologise it took so long,” he politely said, his hands folded courtly before him. “Shall I bring you anything else?”

Hameed thanked him, then took a small sip of the chai. It was in a porcelain cup, with a fancy, square handle. It was thick, creamy, with a gentle sweetness that lulled its drinker into pure bliss. 

“What?” The family leaned forward, this magic potion seeming to calm the worry that creased stern features.

“It’s… water buffalo milk,” the boy explained after tasting the chai for himself. “Probably from a farm nearby.”

A pause, and Hameed laughed nervously, “Maybe we don’t need to hurry, after all.”