Tea Trails of Sri Lanka
My husband, Jim, and I are coffee drinkers by nature and by habit, but each of us will enjoy a “lovely” cup of tea now and again. Because we brought some really good tea back from Sri Lanka, that’s become our go-to brew. But every time our daughter, Yao Yao, sees us preparing it, she reminds us of the plight of the women working on the tea trails of Sri Lanka. And that doesn’t suck all the joy out of it – only some of it.
The tea cultivation region in Sri Lanka is high in the Hill Country in the country’s center, where the climate is cool year round. Nuwara Eliya, where we stayed, is situated at an altitude of 6,128, so it’s brisk up there. (Yes, I am using tea verbiage – nice catch!) Wealthy Sri Lankans have second homes here, to escape the heat of the summer on the coast or in the lowlands. We had caught the tail end of the monsoon season, it seems, so the rain here was pounding and relentless, adding dankness to the cold.
Nuwara Eliya is a scant 76 kilometers from the cultural center of Kandy, which was being hit by the late-season monsoon as well. Water was pouring down its streets, and Kandyans were standing around ankle deep under umbrellas, looking like they’d never seen rain before. (They probably hadn’t this late in the season!) So after a day and a half of this, we headed for the train station for the trip “up country,” as the locals say. Once there, we were lucky enough to be invited in the see the mid-century (that’s mid-nineteenth century) switching station, unchanged from the Golden Era of the British-run Ceylon Railway system, complete with the original levers for switching the tracks. Yao Yao had a great time playing railroad worker, while the actual workers ensured that the tracks were put back into their proper alignment before we left. (This was a working switching station, after all.)
Train travel is the great equalizer, and as often happens, we got to know our train-mates, who generously shared their snacks (and conversation) with us over the next four hours of the trip. The scenery was dramatic, going from jungle to pine forest to tidy, vibrant green tea plantations as we gained altitude.
Nuwara Eliya and the tea country are decidedly different in feel from any other area in Sri Lanka. The town is referred to as Little England, due in part to the mock-Tudor architecture and the hotels, which still serve high tea and British fare – all remnants from the days of colonial rule. Tuk-tuks, makeshift markets, and women carrying long twigs on their heads for firewood still feel local, but they stand in sharp contrast to the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, tea shops, and Indian restaurants with a distinctly British feel.
Like many people who visit Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, we came to see the tea fields and experience more of the “tea culture.” Much of the coffee served in Sri Lanka is Nescafe, so we decided we’d try to “go British” while we were here, and drink tea. We were not disappointed. The tea fields are stunning and the tea is, well, delicious, and to top it off, I think I might have appropriated a vaguely British-sounding accent, much to the irritation of Yao Yao. (I also insert the phrase “isn’t it” at the tail end of every sentence, looking for validation, the way the British often do: “That tea plantation is lovely – isn’t it?”)
She just rolls her eyes.
Tea was introduced to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, by James Taylor, a British planter who opened a plantation near Kandy, in 1867. The abundant rainfall and cool nights created a perfect climate for growing the famous and coveted Ceylon teas.
There are many factories in the area you can visit and take a factory tour. We got conflicting recommendations, but finally decided on the Pedro Tea Company, the closest tea plantation to Nuwara Eliya and one of the best.
The tour began with the guide (a coveted position at the factory) showing us where the tea workers clock in. Right from the start, we got the idea that tea picking is no picnic, as there were rigid rules about how you clock in, and when, and for how much (about $5.00 a day!). It’s a cool retro factory, but you quickly get the feeling that there’s nothing cool about working in it. It’s damp and cold and the equipment is beyond antiquated and yet – I have to admit, it was really beautiful. Our guide emphasized the safety features in the factory. We get to see the process from beginning to end: How the bags of tea are picked in the adjoining fields and how they’re dried, processed, and sorted. We learned all about the different grades of tea, and then we were escorted back to the tearoom and retail store, where we got to sample (and purchase) the different wares. (I should note the factory had just a skeleton staff, as much of the factory work is done in the middle of the night, after the day’s pickings are brought in.)
Yao Yao and I walked into the fields to get a closer look at the tea plants, and there we met a young woman picker who answered questions we couldn’t get answered on the tour. Her mother and grandmother were both tea pickers, as was her sister. She had other plans for her life than tea picking, but she was unclear what those plans entailed. She just wanted out.
The majority of the tea pickers are Tamil people from southern India, and they’re treated with less respect or concern than the Sri Lankans. I was told they typically start early, around 6:30 in the morning. We were there later in the day, when the women are coming in from a day of picking with their heavy baskets of tea strapped over their shoulders. (We were appalled that the women were made to walk up numerous flights of stairs from the fields to the factory, right past the windows of the visitors’ center – hey, why not send a truck down to get it?)
The monsoons were late this year, so it had been raining for days. The fields were soaked and full of leeches and snakes, and the young woman picker told us that her mother had huge marks on her feet and legs from leeches. But it’s the weight of the tea they carry on their backs that causes the permanent injuries. Most women can’t work past their early 40s, and then they are too damaged to do much of anything else. There’s no retirement, no pension, and no work. Make no mistake, this is back-breaking labor that requires meticulous attention, and if you don’t pick your daily requirement of 18 kilos, you get paid less than your already meager wages. This is a foolproof way of keeping these women in poverty.
The process hasn’t changed much since the introduction of tea to Sri Lanka. Owners are under tremendous economic pressure, while tea pickers are mired in poverty. It paints a very different picture than the bucolic fields we came up the mountain to see.
Yao Yao said to me, “They’re kind of like slaves, Mom.” Actually, they’re more like residents of paternalistic “company towns” where there are few choices of where to live or shop, where your basic needs are taken care of but there’s little chance of bettering your situation.
“I don’t think you should drink tea anymore, Mom.” For anyone who thinks their kids can’t expand their horizons when they travel, think again.
Many come for hiking or the spring festivities of that include horse racing, motor cross, clay pigeon shooting and carnival features and much more. Hotel prices double or triple and the little hamlet is packed. The spring boasts beautiful flora and a plethora of birds.
Pedro Tea Factory
Take the half-hour guided tour of the factory, originally built in 1885 (although parts have been rebuilt after a devastating fire), and stay for a lovely cup afterwards.
Across from the Pedro Tea Factory you can begin your hike to Lovers Leap. Just follow the signs to the tea manager’s bungalow and veer to the left when you come to a fork in the road. It’s only a 5 km walk and you get a beautiful view and a waterfall as your reward.
Horton Plains National Park
Bookmarked by Totapola and Kirgalpotta (the second and third highest mountains on Sri Lanka,) the draw is the spot where the cliffs seemingly disappear and there’s more than a half a mile drop to the plains below. It’s often referred to as the End of the World, for very good reason.
The building is the focal point of the town, but the pink victorian post office is now sharing it’s quarters with a convenience store, making for an odd experience.
This is a little respite from tuk-tuks and general bustle of the town. It has a little children’s area and café. It’s not as nice as the Botanical Gardens in Kandy, but it’s still a charming spot.
Good family day spot where you can rent boats, snack, stroll the banks of the lake, and the like. It’s stroller friendly, too.
The Heritage Tea Factory is a old tea factory that has been converted into a hotel. It’s a unique hotel and a view into a life of years gone by.
The Anilana Craigbank is a quirky English Manor or Bungalow with four rooms and lovely gardens. It has a quaint feel about the place but is a bit foreboding for little ones. The grounds are lovely and don’t miss the two chubby labs out back.
The Anilana Craigbank
EXPORAIL – Schedules and more on train travel in Sri Lanka
The Man in Seat 61 – Good information about train travel in Sri Lanka
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
There are some wonderful novels and non fiction books on Sri Lanka. If you want more recommendations drop me a line!