Tiger Heart and the power of one

Impromptu trip to India inspires tea shop owner to house, educate country’s displaced young women.

ExploreRead Part 2 of Katrell Christie’s journey as she expands Learning Tea’s reach to Chennai and Kolkata.

To reach Darjeeling, you travel a slender, deeply rutted road that threads up the Himalaya Mountains. It rises from sun-baked plains to an India veiled in cool mist. Tiny villages materialize improbably along switchbacks that climb slowly to this tea-growing region. On clear days, Mount Everest is visible on the horizon.

In a small home — decorated in pinks and florals, bedrooms stacked with bunks -- live seven young women. One was trafficked through Nepal for sex. Another lived under a tarp in the woods. She was so malnourished that, for a time, she could barely walk. There is the daughter of an illiterate tea picker. Some are orphans. One woman’s mother died in a tribal hunger strike; the parents of another gave her up but kept her male siblings.

They are India’s throwaway girls: no dowry to marry and no resources to continue their education. Under India’s rigid caste hierarchy, they might have ended up as domestic servants or in a brothel.

Instead they all attend college. Two of the women graduate this month and will go on to earn master’s degrees.

Since 2009, Katrell Christie has made the journey to Darjeeling more than 15 times. It was a restless whim that first brought her to the so-called Queen of the Hills. Today, it’s her second home and her life’s calling.

A former Atlanta Rollergirl and the owner of a tea shop in leafy Candler Park, Christie, 40, has become benefactor and big sister to these girls on the other side of the world.

“My life is so strange,” Christie says. “One minute I’m wondering if I have enough butter for the tea shop, and the next I’m worried about some tribal uprising in Nepal.”

But it’s clear which role has her heart. The tea shop has become a means to keep the India project going.

“This is not a choice anymore,” she says. “They depend on me.”


The ‘Up-Up Road’


The cry goes up one recent May evening as the four-wheel drive rumbles up to the home on what locals in this vertical city call “the up-up road.” Christie is traveling with a small group of supporters and a journalist.

Christie comes twice a year, but that’s not nearly enough for her scholars. They envelop her in hugs and usher her inside for lemon ginger tea. In the living room sits a lone computer the girls share. A handlettered, posterboard school project on medicinal herbs covers one wall. Books on economics and politics are neatly stacked on makeshift shelves. The girls’ energy bubbles over with excitement as they introduce two newly adopted kittens, Biscuit and Gravy, the names an homage to Christie’s Southern roots.

The girls are in their early 20s but, surrounded by Hello Kitty figurines and toy tiaras, they seem younger.

Tomboyish Mingma has her eyes set on holding political office one day, while impish Rinzee entertains the others by doing impressions. Stylish Lakmit is the motherly figure. Lakshmi — called Lux — has a gentle but commanding demeanor. She is a top student in her teacher training class, one of just a handful selected for the competitive program. Husky-voiced Angel knows every word to “High School Musical 2.” Binu and Sujata, both petite and quiet, are the pair set to graduate college. Both are aiming to continue their studies in English and history with the goal of becoming professors.

“Do you have school tomorrow?” Christie asks Binu as the group settles in to eat a meal of rice and dal the girls have prepared.

“Yes,” Binu replies.

Christie frowns then catches herself.

“I mean, ‘Yay! School!’” she says with mock enthusiasm.

Christie struggles to wedge in time with the girls between their studies. Drawn to art classes instead of academics, she acknowledges she wasn’t the best student. But the girls take school seriously. Slacking off isn’t an option.

“I love to study. I love my schoolwork,” said Sujata without a hint of irony.

Life could have been very different for her. Sex trafficking of young women is commonplace in India, and victims are often those lacking families to provide for them. Without college the best the girls could have hoped for was a job as a sales clerk or, more likely, manual labor, carrying heavy loads or breaking up rocks. The local tea plantations pay female pickers 90 rupees a day, the equivalent of about $1.30.

“I try to protect them,” Christie says.

As a result, they have bestowed on her a nickname.

“Because she is brave,” says Lux. “Fierce,” chimes in Rinzee. “But also kind.”

They call her Tiger Heart.


Takillya Sunrise

Anna “Katrell” Christie’s philanthropic streak began at an early age. Her mother, a prekindergarten teacher and hospital volunteer, came home one day to discover her young daughter had donated the family’s pots and pans to the neighbors.

Raised in Midtown and later the suburbs of Chamblee and Doraville, Christie was an only child. But she surrounded herself with a large group of friends and was particularly close with her dad, a civil engineer for the state who grew up in Japan, the son of a U.S. Marine. A frequent daddy-daughter date was the roller rink, where Christie honed the skills that would eventually earn her a spot on the rough-and-tumble Atlanta roller derby roster. Her nom de guerre was Takillya Sunrise after her drink of choice, and her game-day ensemble included tequila shooters in a holster on her hip.

But the tough girl has a cultured side as well: She attended school at Atlanta College of Art, where she studied 18th century French and Italian painting. For a while, she worked as an art restorer.

An avid baker, Christie had long wanted to start her own business, and when a tiny storefront opened up in 2006 near her Candler Park home, she snapped it up.

She selected the whimsical name — Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party — because she liked it, not because of any particular connection to India. Although it would prove prescient.

Christie decorated the store in a quirky, shabby chic style: Colorful parasols dangle upside down from the ceilings; thrift store paintings adorn the scarred walls; used paperbacks spill from the shelves.

Cate Powell, a Rotary scholar who was planning a trip to India for a philanthropic handicraft exchange, became a regular customer. One day she impulsively invited Christie to come along.

“I think she figured me — a Rollergirl — I’d be the muscle,” Christie recalls. “I told her, ‘Girl, if I’m going anywhere, I am going to Destin to the beach, not India.’”

The friendly lobbying continued as Powell held planning meetings for the trip at Dr. Bombay’s. Christie didn’t give it much thought. She was a new business owner struggling to keep her tea shop afloat, but the pressure was also taking a toll. In the space of a few days she had to fire one employee, and another one quit. She was stressed and at her wit’s end when Powell breezed into Dr. Bombay’s and asked again.

“OK. I’ll go,” Christie said, surprising herself with the answer.


Follow the orange

When Christie boarded a flight bound for the other side of the globe, she had a Lonely Planet guide book and a vague idea that she wanted to see “where the tea came from.” Flying on a friend’s “buddy pass,” she planned to meet up with Powell in Hyderabad a few days after she arrived.

As Christie’s plane descended over the Mumbai airport in the summer of 2009, she peered out at the jumble of teetering rooftops that comprised the city’s legendary slums. The World Bank estimates that India is home to one-third of the world’s poverty. The heat, the smell and the teeming humanity of the city left Christie breathless as she fought back panic.

I don’t think I can do this, she thought.

She needed to escape the city of 12 million people, and she needed to do it fast. She flipped through her guide book and was drawn to a photo of Varanasi, the sacred Indian city more than 900 miles away. It was an image of the legendary ghats — or steps — that descend into the Ganges River from buildings saturated in hues of saffron and turmeric. Death rituals performed in the ancient, spiritual city guarantee entrance to heaven, according to Hinduism. So, Indians from all over bring the bodies of their dead loved ones to the ghats for cremation.

Cranking Steely Dan on her iPod to calm her nerves, Christie boarded another plane and plunged into the heart of the strange country. She arrived after midnight at a threadbare hotel. The staff was asleep on the hard lobby floor.

As the proprietor led her to a room, he gave the wide-eyed tourist some advice: Before dawn, follow the orange.

A few hours later she found herself on the street in the pre-dawn darkness. Spotting a Hindu monk dressed in a traditional orange robe, she did as instructed and shadowed him as he passed through the narrow streets. Others joined and soon her lone pilgrimage turned into an unwieldy throng. She emerged from the choked streets onto the ghats she had seen in the photo.

Day was breaking and the crowds were swelling. The air was thick with the ashy smell of charred remains. Loud speakers blared prayers in Hindi. As the crowds pressed in around her, Christie accepted the offer of a boat ride and was soon floating on the Ganges, watching the hordes spill into the river from what seemed like a safe distance.

She’d finally begun to relax when she noticed a foreboding darkness beginning to swallow the pale morning light. A storm seemed to be approaching and she urged the boat skipper to take her back to shore. He spoke only Hindi; she only English. Her panic mounting, she was ready to grab him when he finally uttered a word she could understand: eclipse.

It was July 22, 2009, the day of a total solar eclipse — the longest lasting one in 100 years. Christie had stumbled by complete chance into the holiest Hindu city in India on the day of a mystical eclipse. Floating on the Ganges River in the growing dark, she did what many do when they come to India. She surrendered.

Fate, she decided, had brought her to India for a reason.


Finding potential scholars

Still reeling from her experience in Varanasi, Christie headed to Hyderabad in South India to help Powell with her project. But her first moments in the Muslim city left an impression. Climbing off the bus into the dusty street she nearly collided with two women cloaked in heavy black burqas. One was being helped by the other, and Christie glimpsed what remained of the older woman’s face: two holes for a nose and a gash for a mouth. The skin between was slick and scarred. She’d been burned in an acid attack. It was Christie’s first exposure to how India sometimes treats women.

While assisting Powell with her project helping women market their homemade handicrafts, Christie was struck by the enormous impact a single person with a modest amount of money could have on India’s poor.

Rather quickly she formulated a plan. Food and medicine helped temporarily, she reasoned, but educating girls could change their circumstances and those of their daughters and their communities. She decided she would try to find a girl to sponsor, preferably an orphan, who would not have a father trying to marry her off.

So Christie, who Powell describes as “the kind of person you could drop anywhere and she would figure out what needs to be done, how to do it and probably get a pedicure in the process,” boarded a train to Darjeeling, the land of tea plantations.

Darjeeling is closer to the borders of Nepal and China than the Indian capital of Delhi. The famed sherpa Norgay Tenzig, who shepherded Sir Edmund Hillary up Mount Everest, hails from Darjeeling and it has the rootless feel of an expedition town. The vivid silken saris that cloak women throughout much of India are replaced here by woolen pashminas in muted colors.

Christie soon discovered the naivete of her plan when she tried to find an orphanage in a city where few spoke English.

“You couldn’t exactly look in the Yellow Pages,” she quips.

At one point she found herself by mistake in a mental asylum where desperate hands grasped at her, and she was shouted at in a language she couldn’t comprehend. After three days of searching, she found the Buddhist Girls Orphanage.

She learned that three girls were nearing 17, the age at which they would be kicked out of the orphanage; two of them were Lakmit and Mingma (the third girl eventually dropped out).

No one objected when she asked if she could walk with them in the village. They spoke almost no English. It was a relationship based largely on pantomime. The girls had never been in a car. They’d never been in a restaurant. They looked at the menus blankly, not sure how to order and were too timid to meet the waiter’s eye. The multiple plates of food that arrived confused them.

Before she left a few days later, Christie made a promise: I’ll come back in six months with money so you can keep learning.

“I think they thought they would never see the ‘crazy white woman’ again,” Christie laughs.

Lakmit and Mingma remember it differently.

“I knew she would come back,” says Mingma.

On the long flight home, Christie’s plan crystallized. She would raise the money at her tea shop.

When she got back to Atlanta, she called a meeting of her waitstaff and excitedly laid out her idea of pooling their tips to donate to the girls’ education fund. The staff was less enthusiastic. After all, they had bills to pay, and most quit. So she set up a collection jar at the counter and began selling photographs from her trip. She downsized to a one-bedroom apartment to save money. Eventually she scraped together about $4,000.

Six months later, she returned to Darjeeling. Ringing the buzzer on the orphanage door, she saw eyes peering out at her from inside and then heard happy squeals.

Because the girls were aging out of the orphanage, the first thing Christie had to do was find an apartment, so she wandered the streets looking for buildings without lights on and then knocking on doors. She took the girls to the dentist, and she bought books, clothes and shoes.

“I wanted them to have some nice things, some pretty things so they know they are worth that,” Christie said.

Slowly, the contours of what would become her nonprofit organization, The Learning Tea, emerged.

She would scrape together tuition, a place to live, a house mother to watch over them and money to cover their living costs. And in return, the girls must agree to maintain good grades, to remain unmarried while in the program, and to complete 20 hours of volunteer work a month. Most work with Darjeeling’s ubiquitous stray dogs or at a home for the elderly, where they clean and cook. For Christie, teaching the girls to give back is as essential to the mission as stellar grades.

Christie set out to find more needy girls through the Buddhist orphanage and became friendly with the director of a Catholic charity who helped identify potential scholars and a house mother, Nita, who would become the glue holding the brood together.

The endeavor hasn’t been without its problems. It was a disappointing but temporary setback when one of the original three girls dropped out, ultimately deciding a college education wasn’t for her. The casual corruption that infiltrates transactions in India complicates everything.

And Christie was initially treated with suspicion. This is a city, after all, where girls are trafficked to red light districts. Some people wondered if her philanthropy was a veneer hiding more sinister intentions.

But since those humble beginnings five years ago, the girls have moved twice to larger homes to accommodate more girls, and this month, the Learning Tea’s first two scholars graduate college.


Success hard won

If there is a universal truth that spans the globe, it is that everyone loves pizza. The Learning Tea girls adore it and on this particular night they are about to dive into several pies at a Domino’s Pizza at the Darjeeling Mall.

But they are also distracted by a TV screen showing a popular Indian pop idol gyrating in a skimpy top.

“Her face is very pretty,” says Lux.

“She’s too sexy. I think her kurta’s too small,” says Christie, referring to her tunic.

“What do you think? Should we send her some some bigger kurtas?” she says to a wave of giggles.

Christie is a blend of mother and big sister to these young women, most of whom have had neither.

The girls and house mother Nita have formed a close unit, a makeshift family tightly bound by emotional ties. When they walk through town together, they invariably link arms. On the couch, they curl up together, heads on each other’s shoulders. They share chairs. It is a small home, but they don’t appear troubled by the intimacy of the close quarters.

Still, as bubbly as they are about the present, they are reluctant to discuss their painful pasts.

Before joining the Learning Tea, Binu had to rise before dawn for the 90-minute walk to school. Her own family, she said, “wasn’t happy.”

Given up for adoption by her mother, Mingma remembers little of her life before she met Christie. Occasionally she bumps into her mother in town.

“It is hard,” she says with a tight smile and a shrug. “We say hello.”

In their dining room is a chalkboard where the girls often scribble their favorite quotes. Rinzee, whose mother died of tuberculosis, invents her own.

“Never be afraid to face the wall of struggle,” reads one. “But always remember where there is a will there is way.”

Taped on the wall alongside her bed is an ambitious “Daily Routine,” where she pledges to get up at 4:30 a.m. and study for two hours before her 30-minute walk to school.

“I want to work very hard,” she says. “Without this I’d be roaming around looking for any kind of job or I’d have to get married.”

Does she ever want to get married?

She scrunches up her face in mock disgust. “No!”

“This is our family,” says Mingma.

On Christie’s last night in Darjeeling, a party is planned to celebrate Binu and Sujata’s graduation. The others fan out across the city to purchase decorations and cake on the day of the proceedings.

Later they cloister themselves in one of the rooms for several hours, laughter and music occasionally spilling out into the hallway. They have a surprise in store for their guests.

When the festivities begin, the lace covered tablecloth is set with sprays of fresh gladiolus and lit tapers stuck in plastic water bottles. The girls emerge, their hair twisted into braids with leis and strands of beads draped around their necks. They wear traditional costumes — silken, kimono-style chhubas, cinched at the waist with a sash, trimmed in whites and pinks at the neck and wrist. The thin, ethereal sound of flutes, cymbals and drums emanate from an iPhone, as the girls perform a Nepali dance, their hands flicking and twisting in the air as they gracefully move in time to the music.

The performance eventually morphs into a free-for-all dance party fueled by a melange of Shakira pop hits. It’s like any other pink house full of girls who are happy with their lives stretching out before them full of hope.

As the cake is cut, Binu offers a short tribute.

“You have given us so much Katrell,” she says.

“Not as much as you have given me,” Christie responds.

During a reflective moment, Christie is asked to describe India in just two words.

“Beautiful disaster,” she says without hesitation.

It’s hard to say whether it is the disaster or the beauty that keeps Christie coming back. Probably both.

India is a land of deep contradictions, heartbreaking poverty and life-affirming resilience.

Christie — herself a paradox — is drawn to each in equal measure. And she recognizes a kindred spirit in the young women scholars. She knows they simply need the same opportunities she had to find their own paths.

“These girls never had a dad to lace up their skates,” she says. “How could I walk away?”

Shannon McCaffrey first heard about the Learning Tea through her 9-year-old daughter's Grant Park Girl Scout troop. The Brownies had taken on India as a project for the year and one of the troop leaders knew of Katrell Christie's work. After attending a fundraising dinner at Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party in Candler Park, McCaffrey knew she had a story that linked the disparate worlds of Atlanta and India. McCaffrey accompanied Christie to India in May and spent two weeks traveling to Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Darjeeling. Along the way she had unprecedented access to Christie and her scholars and was able to chronicle the challenges and rewards of acting as a one-woman global philanthropist.

Suzanne Van Atten,
Personal Journeys Editor

About the reporter

Shannon McCaffrey has been a reporter for nearly two decades in New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. She has spent much of that time covering legal issues and politics. For the past two years, she has worked as an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She loves writing hard-hitting watchdog pieces but likes to occasionally dabble in reporting that captures the human spirit at its best. She has two young daughters.