Amy Jones is a tea-obsessed writer, cyclist, linguaphile, and adventurer born and raised in southwest England. Her entrepreneurial spirit led her to work for startups in Berlin and Singapore where she fell in love with the idea of cycling the world. An endeavor that would eventually call her to set off on a journey all the way from the United Kingdom to Georgia, where an entirely new chapter of sobriety, personal growth and newfound appreciation for Georgian tea culture would unfold.
Let’s start with the obvious, tell me about cycling from the UK to Georgia. What was that like, and what was the biggest lesson you learned?
That’s a question that’s impossible to sum up in a paragraph. Physically, the journey took me 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) across 16 countries. It was everything from exhilarating to boring, heart-breaking to ecstatic, lonely to welcoming and many more things in between. It taught me that it’s worth taking risks and that hard work usually leads to the best rewards. The view from the top of a long climb and downhill afterwards are always the sweetest. It also showed me that I am capable of pretty much anything, even if it frightens me. I would often wild camp anywhere I could find a hidden spot. Lying scared in my tent, I would tell myself it would be better in the morning. Sure enough, it always was.
When I was planning my cycling trip, I was already excited to come to Georgia, but my original goal was actually to reach Singapore. I arrived in Georgia in autumn and decided to take a break to avoid riding through the high mountains of Central Asia in winter.
I found work as a journalist and writer, adopted a street dog and settled into life in Tbilisi. Many people joke that Georgia is an easy place to get stuck, which is absolutely true. Although the country is troubled by many social and political problems, it’s very much alive. Its diverse landscapes, wildlife, open-hearted people, singing, traditions and the constant sense of adventure made me stay. I never cycled to Singapore.
What has been the most impactful experience you’ve had in the country thus far?
Spending time in a rural village in Western Georgia made me re-evaluate a lot of my perceptions. I saw the value in community and self-sufficiency. Everyone there looks out for one another, they help each other and they share. Most foods are home grown. For example, when they eat meat, they slaughter an animal from the garden. It’s a hard way of life in many respects, but it made me question the way we live in the UK and the amount we consume.
On the one hand, there were some difficult moments being a single foreign female. I had to assert myself and set boundaries many times. One night, a man even tried to break into my house. Although this was hard, I think it has made me much stronger and able to stand up for myself than before.
Massive congrats on your tea initiative, nela-nela! Can you tell me more about nela-nela and what your overall idea is with it?
Thanks! The idea came about when Tim (co-founder) brought some blueberry leaf tea on a trip with Tom (co-founder) and I. I couldn’t believe it was made from the leaves of blueberries! I’d never had tea like that before. When I saw that these teas weren’t available outside of Georgia, I knew we had to start a company. Luckily, Tim and Tom thought the same too.
The unique thing in Georgia is that they dry, roll and ferment the leaves as you would to create black tea – but they use fruit plant leaves instead. They’ve been making teas like this for hundreds of years, using the plants which were available to them before the tea plant arrived in Georgia in the 19th century.
Many people don’t know that Georgia was the world’s fourth biggest producer of tea during the Soviet Union, and sadly today all that is left is mostly abandoned plantations and factories that are used to graze cattle. Some Georgians are now working to revive the industry but it’s hard for them as many find it difficult to market and sell their teas outside of Georgia.
We want to share Georgia’s unique teas with the rest of the world whilst benefiting the local community and environment. That’s why we founded the tea company nela-nela. In Georgian, nela-nela means slowly slowly. It’s a common expression that’s almost more of a philosophy – don’t rush, things will work out. Life is to be enjoyed.
Have you always had an interest in tea?
As a Brit, I have to say yes, of course! Tea is to the British as wine is to Georgians. A milky tea is the taste of home for me. It’s what we offer our guests and the comforting drink you share over deep chats with a friend. Since living abroad, I had to widen my tea horizons when my Yorkshire tea supplies ran out. I discovered just how many great teas the plant world can offer – hence I was so excited to find fruit leaf teas!
What inspired you to dive into Georgian tea culture specifically?
Tucked away at the end of a valley against wild mountains in western Georgia’s Samegrelo region is Balda village. a place I was fortunate enough to call home for a short time. Waking up at 6am with the mist lifting over the forested slopes and birdsong surrounding me – that’s a memory I will never forget. The UK simply doesn’t have nature like that anymore. The other side of that coin, is that while living there, I experienced first hand the economy on its knees. Many young people leave to bigger cities as they can’t find work, which cripples life in the regions and those that stay are often forced into illegal jobs such as logging – there’s simply no other option.
Georgian tea has the potential to create valuable employment in rural areas and in turn, will help protect the spectacular nature in these regions. We also hope it may have a knock on effect and inspire others to revive the tea industry in an ethical and sustainable way. At the moment, most Georgians don’t see any value in the abandoned tea plantations.
I understand that nela-nela is run by a trio including you and two of your friends. What can you tell me about the other folks behind the scenes of nela-nela?
Yes, we are a team of three – myself and the two ‘Ts’, Tim and Tom. Tom was hitchhiking and hiking across Europe when he stumbled upon Georgia. He had visited the Turkish tea plantations on the Black Sea coast and was looking for a destination to spend Christmas. He helped to build a hostel in western Georgia and, like the rest of us, ended up staying. As well as running nela-nela, he works as a photographer.
Tim is the philosopher of our trio. He studied at university with the daughter of a well-known Georgian tea maker which led him to discover the country, and its tea, 11 years ago. Tim knows the lay of the land better than most and speaks fluent Georgian. He’s hiked all over the country and even spent days living in a cave in the desert close to Azerbaijan (before being discovered by the border patrol). I fondly say he’s probably the most Georgian American you will ever meet. As well as starting nela-nela, he’s renovating a house in Lechkhumi and setting up a distillery.
I understand that sobriety has been a part of your life in recent year(s) can you tell me more about that? What have you learned from the mindfulness it has lent you?
From the first day of university, I became a heavy binge drinker. I used alcohol as my social crutch because I didn’t think I was an interesting person otherwise. For many years, I thought that drinking was the elixir of fun and sometimes, it was. However, alcohol began to show its true face more and more often as the years went by. I continued drinking heavily at night and would often spend days in a hungover daze. I missed important work meetings, avoided speaking to my parents out of shame, gained a lot of weight and became very anxious.
From the outside, most people didn’t know I had a problem, but deep down I knew. When I arrived in Georgia and started working online, my night time drinking hit an all-time-high. I started to realize something drastic had to change as my days were often consumed in self-loathing and I often couldn’t remember coming home at night.
In July 2019, I decided to travel to Central Asia with my dog and Tom. One night in Bishkek, I spontaneously committed to quitting alcohol for 30 days. I knew that it would be easier as we were headed into the mountains of Tajikistan where alcohol and bars were far away. Tom listened patiently as I unpacked my relationship with drinking on our long car journeys. The vastness of the landscapes and the spectacular open starry skies at 4,000 meters above sea level help you to reflect. I came to the realization that I had to quit for longer than just 30 days.
I had to unlearn many things on the way, but changing my relationship with alcohol was the most transformative thing I’ve ever done. My mental health is better, I am much more creative, reliable and kinder. I lost 44 pounds (20 kg), gained a huge amount of confidence and generally just feel totally different than when I was in my worst phases of drinking. nela-nela wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t quit, or at least if it did, I wouldn’t be a part of it.
What are you most excited about right now?
At the moment, I swing between being overwhelmed and excited. Everything is taking longer than we expected as new things come up that need to be solved. When the excitement hits me though, I feel like a little girl the night before Christmas. It’s been such a wonderful journey so far.
I’m back in the UK now to spread the word about nela-nela. I haven’t spent a summer in the UK in nine years. I’m looking forward to seeing both new and familiar places in my home country with the eyes that I have now, eyes that are fully open.
Keep up with Amy and all things nela-nela related here.