A Cup of Tea at the Source in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is known for its tea, rugged terrain, and civil unrest in the past. English is still commonly spoken, but not as much as earlier. Under Dutch influence, canals and extensive irrigation systems have allowed the successful cultivation of previously non-productive and hilly terrain. The canals were used to transport spices and herbs to various ports and the railroads were constructed to transport tea, rice, and rubber to market. Only recently has any form of interstate highway construction begun. Local people travel by train, bus, and tuk tuks (taxis).

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The main roads are two lanes in width and black topped and other roads are narrow dirt lanes. Expanded air travel hopefully will bring more tourists and international trade to Sri Lanka, and increased tourism is seen as vital to this country’s economy. The population of the island is 20 million people and 17 million cell phones are currently in use. Moreover, many different religions are part of the culture including Buddhism, Hindu, Islam and Christianity.

We started our day taking pictures of an Asian elephant (named Monica) on the pier, bedecked in a red costume, who posed with passengers for photographs. A short time later a group of local dancers performed for us before we had to leave on our shore excursion to visit a tea factory located in the hills outside of Colombo.

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We saw many Buddhist domes/and temples during our drive and were made aware of the Jami ul Alfar mosque as being one of the most visited landmarks in the city of Columbo. Muslims have been part of this culture since the 8th century.

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As we traveled through one village today, police were very evident in the town center as white clad school children gathered and Buddhist monks arrived. Recently there have been protests in India against the monks, and the school children and adults were rallying against the Indian protests.

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Traditional dress is similar to that seen in India, but many people are now wearing Western attire because the clothing manufacturers and outlet stores that are now located in this country make overruns and seconds very affordable.

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The people of this country rely on the tea industry for employment, recognition and refreshment. Over one million people are employed in the tea industry alone. Not only is tea important to the economy but also other agricultural products such as rice, rubber, tobacco, palm oil, cinnamon and other spices play an important role in the country’s economy.

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We finally arrived at our destination and drove up a steep incline to the tea and rubber plantations. By growing both crops, both men and women in a family can be actively employed and the land can be profitably kept in production over many years. First land is cleared and the soil prepared for planting over a 14-month period. The tea plants are set out and irrigation ditches provide water to the plants and a way to walk between the rows to trim, pick and maintain the crop. It takes some time for tea plants to reach about three feet in height and broaden out.

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The top three or four tea leaves and flower buds on each branch are hand picked. Several pickings can be made during each growing season of which there are two: a long one October through March, and a short one July to September.

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The pickers, mainly women, carry large bags on their backs into which they put the fresh cuttings. We were able to get out of the bus and talk to and photograph the tea picking ladies. They seemed to enjoy the attention and the photographing. Each picker is expected to pick 20 Kilo a day – about 44 pounds.

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Freshly picked tea leaves and buds are the taken to the tea factory and wilted for 12 hours before processing. We entered the factory and watched as the barefoot employees (both men and women) processed the leaves and buds to produce tea. The process involved many processes: grinding and fermenting, drying, removing foreign matter and grading and separating at least twice more before bagging and being sent to another facility for packaging into tea bags or just packaged as loose tea for sale and distribution worldwide.

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Our guide showed us and gave each of us a samples of the output from each of the steps in the tea production.

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Each time a process is completed the tea has to be loaded by hand shovels into plastic rectangular boxes and carried to the next station. The tea that falls on the floor and not on the protective tarps is swept up and discarded.

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Within the factory some of the product is temporarily stored in multi-colored silk sacks and stacked by grade. Before shipment from the factory, the processed tea is put into large heavy plastic bags and then shipped to another facility for packaging and wholesale and retail distribution either as loose tea or tea bags.

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People in the Western world seem to prefer teas made from the finer tea leaves and buds and not the larger, coarser leaves that are also processed with a few stems mixed in as well. White tea is the finest and also the most expensive tea produced. Flavorings and other spices are added to some tea blends before final packaging.

When the tea shrubs get too tall and/or coarse they are grubbed out. At that time the rubber trees may be about ready for tapping. A ground cover is then planted between the trees to protect the soil from erosion, control weeds and put nutrients back into the soil. The rubber trees are tapped and the sap is collected daily for several weeks during the two primary harvesting seasons if the rainfall is sufficient.

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One fresh diagonal cut is made in the outer layer of bark of the mature tree and the sap is collected daily from the little cups attached to the trees. As one cut quits emitting any latex, another is cut. The cuts do not encircle the tree and a narrow strip on one side is not cut into at all. The collected sap must be dried and processed daily to prevent it from spoiling. The dried latex sheets are then sent to processors both within and outside the country for making into rubber for a myriad of products and uses.

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From the tea factory we went to estate manager’s home for a cup of tea (which was delicious) and a piece of cake served English style on china. We could also buy packages of loose tea produced at this factory to take home. The landscaped grounds and flowers in various beds were all lovely.

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We enjoyed our excursion to the tea plantation as a different way to look at the brew that forms our love of High Tea in the afternoon.

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