The pictures lie. Mist does not descend on the hills of Sri Lanka’s tea country; it just sits there — permanently. So when the bony but bold silhouette of a woman emerged from it, she did not look like an illusion.
She was as real as the lines that snaked across her sun-damaged skin and cracked it open when she broke into a smile. It was not a smile with the warmth of a stranger’s welcome but a sly invitation, like the witch who took Hansel and Gretel in for the night knowing her motive was far ?from innocent. “Photo?” she asked aggressively. She held up two green tea leaves that could have been taken from any plant and shoved them against a bush, in a brash pretence that this was the source. She offered herself as the subject. The refusal sent her into a rage. She scowled, then smirked, then stormed away. Her seething followed her like a tail.
The nameless faces of Sri Lanka
It does not matter what her name is; her story is the same as the roughly 120?000 female tea leaf pluckers in Sri Lanka. They are landless, most are illiterate and they long for a better life. Posing for a tourist to take a photograph would not solve any of those problems except that a tip may be more than the minimum wage of 380 rupees a day, the equivalent of R31.21. Foreign tourists started to flock to Sri Lanka after the 26-year civil war ended in 2009 and found their pockets a lot fuller than they would be at home. A British pound is worth 210 rupees, a Euro 159 and an American dollar 130 but it is not just Westerners who have money to burn. The Chinese have 21 times as much in Sri Lankan rupees as they do in yuan, South African rands are worth 12 times more and Indians are twice as rich. It’s hardly surprising that, in ?the first eight months of this year, Sri Lanka had 23.1% more visitors than last year. A snap survey will reveal that tea drinking is one ?thing many of them have in common and make them easy pickings for ?one of Sri Lanka’s major tourist attractions.
The tea industry naturally extends into hospitality because of the way it was designed. Large estates with ?lavish bungalows were set up for British plantation owners and ?managers and some of these have been turned into guest houses that give travellers a taste of the ultimate colonial life. For an all-inclusive fee ranging from $100 (R1?105) a night to more than $400 at the fancier establishments, you can indulge in a hefty breakfast, a morning walk or cycle, a light lunch, a nap, afternoon tea, sundowners and a big dinner. Every meal will come with a selection of tea from smoky and strong lapsang souchon where sips can seem like inhaling a fire, to the delicate floral notes of a green tea. You will also be offered a tea tour, which is best enjoyed by rail to ?get the full experience of life in the countryside. The stations are Victorian-designed with calligraphy-inscribed signboards, old-fashioned clocks and separate waiting rooms for women and men.
Making the best tea in town
The lesson you will learn is the higher up the country you go, the stronger the tea but the softer and more dreamy the landscape. The journey will begin in Kandy where the Temple of the Tooth is the main attraction. It is home to one of Buddha’s pearly whites, although you will not be able to see it because it is stored safely away from curious eyes. In Nuwara Eliya there is the Grand Hotel, which these days serves Arabic buffets because the customers increasingly come from the Middle East, the Hill Club, with a bar ?that requires men to wear a jacket and tie to enter after dark, and the golf club. In Ella, there is a two-hour trail up to a viewpoint where the vistas will steal your breath when they can be seen through the low-hanging fog. Tea factories open their doors ?in each of the three towns. Along ?the way the processes, from plucking to packaging, are explained. In ?a dimly lit industrial building, visitors are ushered past withering ?tea leaves to the stations where they are rolled, fermented, dried and sorted. At the last stop the guides point out that the process has become quicker, thanks to improved machines from China and Japan.
Photosensitive technology makes the final process possible without any human involvement. It separates the leaves into colour categories and a series of sieves sorts them by size. All that is important for producing the highest-quality tea and, if that can be done at a lower cost, the capitalists won’t complain. This may mean the number of people employed in tea factories will be reduced dramatically and the chances are the men will be the first to be dispensed with. There is a reason women make up about 80% of the employees in the tea industry, according to one independent tea factory owner. “Women handle the delicate work well — and they are very obedient.” The women are unhappy with their lot, but as a guest you will only know it when someone like the photo lady enters your frame of reality …