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Tea-Induced Time Travel

SRI LANKA | Wednesday, 30 September 2015 | Views [653]

When I sat down to write this, I had a cup of tea next to me. When I sat down to finish it, I had another cup of tea. A third cup will keep me company as I edit the photos. Tea is my ritual, my companion, my main source of caffeine. For some reason, though my body has opted to reject coffee, it has enthusiastically embraced the concept of dried, fermented leaves soaked in water.

By day 5 of the trip I’d seen tea on the bush and watched how it’s picked, but I hadn’t yet seen how it’s transformed into something drinkable. So, after our very filling lunch of idli and chutney, we stopped by the Dambatenne Tea Factory, which was built 125 years ago by Sir Thomas Lipton and is still in operation.

Factories like this one are scattered all across Hill Country, though some now sit empty, their windows cracked and grounds disheveled.


This visit was one of the most surreal experiences of the trip, and it pains me we weren’t allowed to film or photograph inside. I’ve found a few images online that help, but I guess I’ll just have to buckle down, act like a writer, and use my words…….

Being inside the tea factory was the closest I’ve come to time travel. Visually speaking, these factories haven’t changed much since they were built; they’re tall, box-like structures that scream “English Industrial Revolution!” complete with ornamental hedgerows out front.

Inside the lobby (where we were allowed to photograph), the walls were hung with prints of colonial-era propaganda: idealized images of tea planters (the name given to British and Scottish plantation managers) and hyper-sexualized drawings of Sri Lankan women.

With the exception of a few newer (circa 1960’s/70’s) machines, the factory itself looked as though nothing had changed in a century. Everything - including the workers themselves - was covered in a fine layer of tea dust, a sort of 19th century patina. Inside it was noisy, warm, and smelled like damp tea leaves, as though I’d stuck my nose in a teapot and inhaled. The workers wore faded green uniforms, and there was always someone sweeping with a twig broom, trying to keep back the endless tide of dust.

We climbed worn wooden stairs to the attic, where the newly-picked tea is spread to dry on massive tables.


Next, it moves down to the main floor, where an elaborate series of drying machines and grinders transform millions of leaves into powder. This powder is either packed down and left to ferment into black tea, or dried immediately to keep it green. A few more machines sort it according to quality, then the finished tea is packaged into large sacks and sent to auction.

Another aspect that felt old-worldly was the bureaucratic order of the place. While standing in a tea factory in clear view of tea, cups, and a kettle, we were denied a cup because, “The man who makes the tea is not here today.” The man who gave us the tour delivered this ironic news, then asked if we would like to buy some boxes of bagged tea. Seth asked if we could buy some, open it, use the kettle to boil water, and make a cup ourselves (the poor guy just really needed to get some footage of me drinking tea). Nope. Denied. We thanked our guide very much for the tour, then drove back into Bandarawela (still chuckling and shaking our heads) and got ourselves a cup in a small café.

It was busy with people consuming trays of short eats and butter cake, as well as hoppers made by a vendor out front.   

Our time travel continued that evening. We drove high into the mountains, through the town of Ella, to visit the home of a tea planter, the title given to a high-ranking plantation manager. For reasons I’m not totally clear on, but obviously respect, we weren’t allowed to photograph him either, or know the name of the tea corporation for which he works. By this time, Seth and I were wide-eyed - we had no idea the tea industry was so clandestine!

Our host was a tall and handsome man who, for censorship purposes, I’ll call Frank. Here’s the curious thing about Frank: he’s a born and raised Sri Lankan who lives the life of a 19th century white British tea lord.

The hierarchical system that supports the tea economy is almost exactly as it was a century ago, except now it’s all Sri Lankans running the show. People like Frank are hand-selected out of school to become “planters” (the managers), and undergo intensive training in every aspect of the industry. Once they’re managing operations for a company, they assume the house (and lifestyle) of the white colonial managers who came before them. Frank, therefore, lives in a huge house at the top of a mountain all by himself, with grounds maintained by several gardeners and employees who do all the cooking and cleaning.

When we arrived, we sat on the verandah and admired the view, which that evening included a rainbow.

One of the servants brought us tea served in English China, and we sat and talked. We spoke about Frank’s education, how it’s nearly impossible to find tea that’s sourced from a single plantation (though that’s what we were drinking, an obvious privilege), and eventually headed inside to the kitchen. Along the way we passed the house’s multiple dining and living rooms, almost all of which had a wind chime in the doorway.

I helped cook a dinner made entirely of tea; we prepared a pork curry flavoured with tea leaves, rice cooked in tea, and a tea-based custard.

Though we cooked everything on electric elements, the back of the kitchen had a huge empty space, where I’m assuming the wood-fired hearth used to be. We were served the meal in the dining room, the walls of which were covered in black and white pictures of composers and classical musicians, and had a fireplace, as did every other room I saw.

Architecturally speaking, the house had such a colonial air to it, I felt as though we should all have been gathered in the drawing room dressed in safari gear, post-leopard hunt, while servants delivered trays of whisky and cigars. So much has changed in Sri Lanka over the past century, and yet there are moments when it feels as though time has stood still.

Time to make myself another cup of tea.

Tags: culinary travel, food, hill country, sri lanka, tea, tea factory, world nomads, world travel

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