fOur experience in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka began as we took the train and headed up into the Hill Country. You could never visit a tea plantation here and still see a whole lot of tea life just by taking the train, up from Kandy, through the hills, through Hatton, Nuwara Eliya and onto Ella.
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It’s a magical ride. The train clunks its way up hills, round curves, through plantations. You’ll see tea pickers, and oceans and oceans of green.
Patterns like quilts of the greenest sea, accented with bright reds and oranges – and the grinning faces of the pickers as you pass. No waves though, these (mostly) women are working. And it’s a tough task that they have.
At the Pedro Tea Factory that we visit 4 kilometers outside the town of Nuwara Eliya, we’re told that the pickers must deliver 16 kilos of tea each day to get paid. If they deliver 10, they get a half days pay.
The wage here is minimal – and as recent reports have shown, life is tough for a plantation worker. Imagine yourself getting 500 LKR a day for delivering 16-18 kilos of tea. Each and every day. And while women make up the majority of the workforce they also earn less than the men.
We’re taking a tour here – after a short 200 LKR tuk tuk ride to the factory, we don the aprons and hats in order to walk around the factory and join our guide after paying the 200 LKR fee that will also include a cup of tea at the end.
First, we see where the tea is brought in from the fields.
We follow our guide up the stairs and wait as one of the plantation workers loads up three bags of tea and carries them up the stairs. We carry water and day packs.
The tea is put into dry slightly and to wilt for 16 hours. These 30 meter long containers are about 30 centimeters deep with hot air blown from below to take the moisture out of the tea.
Curl a leaf between your fingers when it’s wet and it will snap. When it’s sufficiently wilted, it will bend. The hot air comes from a wood fired furnace in another building.
We move on and photos are forbidden. In case, presumably we are there to steal the century old technology that is being used here.
It’s all incredibly simple. There are a series of machines around the room, each does one particular job. From cutting, to sorting, to drying. The smell is wonderful. The machinery is old. Presumably original. And yet it all works.
We finish the tour sitting on a balcony overlooking the plantations below – sipping a cup of tea in porcelain cups, then head to walk down through the bushes themselves.
It’s only the tips of the leaves that are picked. And only the young leaves, before they become too tough. The bushes are picked every six days. We try it ourselves. It’s pretty easy. Picking one, I mean. I decide that picking 16 kilos a day might be somewhat more difficult.
We learn that there is one type of tea bush – the Camellia sinensis. Just one. Whether you end up with green tea, black tea or silver tip, it’s all about how the tea leaf was processed that makes it into what ends up on the supermarket shelf.
- GREEN TEA is made from tea leaves that are dried and steamed after harvesting.
- BLACK TEA is dried and crushed – this process allows enzymes to convert and create the more distinctive flavor and darker color of black tea.
- SILVER TIPS – or WHITE TEA is allowed to wither in natural sunlight before processing. The name comes from the fine silvery-white hairs on the up-opened buds of the tea bush, which gives the plant a whitish appearance.
We end by understanding more about the grading of the tea, from the highest quality to the lowest grade. I am astounded that I am so ignorant. To me, tea was always just tea.
There is Orange Pekoe, there is Broken Orange Pekoe, and four other process types right down to dust. Yep. Dust. The dust is for local use only, the lowest of the tea grades for the poorest of the people.
We catch the bus back for 15 LKR each and enjoy a pot of tea at our guesthouse, wondering whether this is the local dust or the higher quality tea. Either way, it tastes good.
We take another factory tour, at the Dambatenne Tea Factory, high over the town of Haputale, after walking down from the foggy Lipton’s Seat, where we’d enjoyed hot tea, jaggery and the most amazing samosas and curried potatoes with roti for breakfast.
This factory is slightly bigger, but noisier. Our guide’s accent and the noise makes it hard to understand a lot of the commentary, but we end in the store room, where we find bagged produce ready to go.
This will go to auction in Colombo, where it will raise around 34 US cents a kilo. (December 2014 prices)
Each cup of tea accounts for around 3 grams of tea. Each bag here holds 48 kilos. I consider buying a bag that will last me the rest of my days, or at least another 16,000 cups. At an average of 3 cups a day, that’s more than 14 years.
But, it would be pretty hard to tote around in the backpack…
Tea became popular in the UK during the late 1880’s – shipped primarily from China, it wasn’t until Sir Thomas Lipton (of Liptons Supermarkets and Liptons Tea fame) visited Sri Lanka – then called Ceylon – bought himself some defunct coffee plantations, planted tea, shipped in Tamils from nearby South India and cut shipping times and costs, that it became available to the general public.
(there’s more about Lipton, his history and tea plantation in the blog on Hiking)
Drinking Tea in Sri Lanka
We’ve drunk tea throughout our travels, but here in Sri Lanka it’s the first time it’s been presented in a tea pot, with white tea cups and saucers. It was in Nuwara Eliya that I had the best cup of tea that I’ve ever had. Turned off the evil stuff by a bout of Glandular Fever and oodles of hot sweet milky tea at the age of 13, I’ve been a conscientious objector to the stuff since.
The Trans-Mongolian, two months in China and a month in Japan brought me back into the fold. Sri Lanka has made me a positive supporter. But I must say, I’m a fan of light, sweet black tea. No sugar, no cloying milk to despoil the delicate flavor. And please keep that strong evil Yorkshire tea away from me. Chai, too, will turn my stomach.
There’s something so quintessentially civilized about taking tea that comes out of a tea pot. That is poured into a tea cup. That’s sitting on a saucer. It feels almost decadent and the tea bags and green tea powder weighing down my Osprey backpack feel dirty in comparison.
So much of this tea experience revolves around the people. Everywhere we travel in this country, we find friendly, helpful people. Wanting to know your name. Where you’re from. And more times than not, actually not wanting to sell you anything. Well, not in an aggressive Vietnamese sort of a way.
They do, however, want pens. The kids at least. “Pen, pen? School pen?” You’ll hear them cry as you wander through the plantations. We wonder what’s caused this pen problem. Is there a chronic pen shortage in the country? And underground market in them? Perhaps one day someone mistakenly gave away a Mont Blanc…
Haputale – Where Sri Lanka Played England
We arrived in Haputale in the misty, foggy gloom of early evening. Bumping into the owner of the ABC Guesthouse. It was on our list of places to take a look at, so when he met us, we figured, why not and headed to take a look.
ABC as is common of many guest inns or homestays here in Sri Lanka – where the family live on one floor, and other floors are given up to visitors. Food is usually available – and usually a lot better than restaurants in the local area. At the ABC, it was a family affair. The eldest son was in charge of taking the food orders and also the internet access, mum produced the wonderful smells and tastes from the kitchen and dad hauled himself up the hill for each train to see if he could fill a few more rooms.
It was the job of the middle son (the smallest child being a babe in arms) to entertain visitors. That worked especially well if you were prepared to play cricket with him. No matter that there were windows galore and a working TV right next to the stumps, no matter than the bowler was 40 years younger than the batsman, Sri Lanka V England was a well contested game.
When the game moved outside the following day after the rains had stopped, the game was cut cruelly short, then the Sri Lankan batsman’s enthusiastic boundary resulted in a ball lost to the tea plantation that surrounded the homestay.
More than any part of Sri Lanka, it was in hill country, in the tea plantations and the good homestays, it was walking and meeting people and staying in their homes, that we got a true sense of Sri Lanka.
While the beaches may be nice, the transport a slice of culture, the games of cricket a party and the food worth getting fat for, it is the people who make Sri Lanka. The most welcoming, friendly, genuine folks that we’ve met, who welcome you to their country with both arms outstretched – and who make sure you have a card to give to others, who you’ll recommend them too.
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