Thursday, November 10, 2011

Misty Mountain Morning in the Lipton Tea Fields

When we woke up this morning we happily admired the spectacular view that stretches from the mountain ridge that we are on in central Sri Lanka all the way down to the south coast. From our high vantage point we look out at the rolling green hills getting smaller and smaller before they eventually flatten out into plains dotted with lakes that glisten in the morning sun. What a view to wake up to!

Needless to say, it appeared to be the perfect day for the hike up to Lipton's Seat- the view point that Sir Thomas Lipton, of Lipton tea, himself would climb to to survey his tea empire from. The views were meant to be breath-taking and I had been looking forward to it since I had started planning our Sri Lankan itinerary. First, though, we had to go to the Dambatenne Tea Factory, started by Lipton in 1890, and still 'growing' strong, providing Lipton tea lovers around the world with their morning cuppa for over a century. Pretty cool. Sri Lankans are proud of their tea- and rightly so- they are the world's second most important tea-growing nation, and, from experience I can say that their tea is pretty darn tastey.

I steam-rolled Jonathan until he agreed that it was time to get up and start the day. We went to our fave local eatery, where they love us and seem intent on stuffing us full of delicious Sri Lankan food and tea for as long as we'll keep nodding at their re-fill offers. In the end, our bill came to a whopping total of $2.75 and we were sure we wouldn't have to eat again until dinner. The friendly bus station men led us to the exact spot in which our bus would stop and then we collected (by no effort of our own) a group of overly-helpful locals who made it their mission to ensure that we were entertained while we were waiting, and ready the second the bus pulled up in front of us. As we waited the clouds started to roll in. Boo. By the time we had paid our 20 cent bus ticket and the rickety bus had rumbled and belched its way down the cliff-hanging road of a hundred turns and deposited us in front of the factory, everything was enveloped in clouds. Up here in the hills, the sky doesn't just get cloudy, the sky actually falls around the town. We were in the clouds and mist and could visibly see cloud wisps as they blew by. It would have been great, if I hadn't known that there was something spectacular hiding out there beyond the clouds.

Travelling off season has many benefits. Lack of other tourists being the main one. We paid our $2 and set off on our private tour of the Lipton tea factory. We started up on the second floor where 10kg bags over-flowing with tea leaves were being hauled in from outside. Tea leaf collectors, all women, bring their loads in to the factory three times a day. Each woman collects about 20kg a day! During the day, the factory processes thousands and thousands of kilos of tea leaves. It takes 1kg of leaves to make 250g of bag-worthy tea! Ponder that next time you are enjoying your Orange Pekoe.

The process is fascinating. First, leaves are individually inspected for quality. Only the youngest, lightest leaves will do. They are then poured into troughs where they are aired for 16 hours with warm air from a big fan underneath. Our tour guide dug down to the bottom of the trough and let a gust of air blow up through the leaves setting them off into a dancing frenzy, blowing up into the air and swirling around us. Tea leaves scattered everywhere. Judging by the amount of tea in its various forms laying at random around the factory floor, I figured that they had some to spare. This may be a world renowned international brand, but we are still in Sri Lanka, we laughed. After they're blow dried, the tea leaves are dropped down a hole into huge barrels. More dancing ensues, as the leaves shake, rattle and roll themselves into longer stick-like form. They are cut one, two and three times down to miniscule size with a little more bouncing around in between, of course to separate the superior quality from the seconds. The tea is fired, separated again and then bounced around some more to divide the different size morsels. The best quality tea is packed up and shipped away for us westerners to enjoy. Lucky us!

Its amazing that within 24 hours tea can go from a young leaf on a branch to a black pinch of dust ready for your mug. It was also funny to walk around the factory and see all the millions of cups of tea bouncing, cooking, or just lying around. There was tea absolutely everywhere.

After our lesson we left the factory to wander around some of the hundreds of acres of tea plant covered hills. Unfortunately the clouds had not lifted in the least and we could see no more than a couple hundred metres ahead of us. I was disappointed again as we started to stroll, but the spectacular atmosphere changed my tune pretty quickly. The clouds/mist itself was beautiful to walk in. The vibrant green tea plants that immediately surrounded us were a bright contrast to the opaque whiteness of the cloud and the trees that dotted the plantation looked like blurry silhouettes adding dimension to our limited view. When the clouds momentarily parted to reveal steep green mountains lined to their peaks with rows of tea plants and speckled with butterfly-like tea pickers in their colourful sarees, it was absolute magic. The scene vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared, almost as if it wasn't actually there at all.

Speaking of things appearing out of the mist, on our way back down through the hills, I turned back momentarily and my heart stopped. Was that... could it be... a gorilla emerging from the mist behind me! A gorilla in the mist! Gasp. A quick second take calmed my nerves. No gorilla... for better or worse, it was just my hairy, hairy husband bringing up the rear... haha!

ps. Ceylon tea is tea from Sri Lanka. I didn't know this. The Brits changed the name of the island (from the name the Dutch had already changed it to, from the name the Portugese had changed it to...) to Ceylon back in the day. And then they planted a bunch of tea in 'Ceylon'. Ceylon Tea! In 1972 Lankans restored their island's name to what they had always known their country as, 'Lanka', adding 'Sri' as a respectful title.


Gina said...

This tea lesson was very interesting! (I read it while drinking tea, too.) Glad the clouds parted long enough for you to catch a glimpse of the view!

Parentals said...

Are you going to start a 'tea' collection to go along with the scarf collection? We can have a different tea while wearing a different scarf each day of the year.

Anonymous said...

Hi J and K,
I thoroughly enjoyed " my" trip to the tea plantations of Sri Lanka. You described it well and it made me thirsty for a cuppa. The Sri Lanka folk seem to be very friendly and anxious to please. Another nice thing about them was the fact that their food was so inexpensive. I reckon you will be sorry to leave them. We wish you all that is best as you move to your next destination.

Parentals said...

Grandma likes 'tea-a-lot" and she is looking forward to having a cuppa with you. I've got her expanding her 'tea - a - lot" and she now likes 'chai' !!