Tea, curry, and a handful of sugar.

As a child, one of the earliest images I associated with Sri Lanka was of lush green hills carpetted with tea plantations, dotted with Indian women dressed in colourful saris and a giant basket on their backs. I cannot remember where I got this mental picture, probably off the boxes of my parents’ tea bags sitting on the dining table in the mornings. High on the priorities for this trip to the former Ceylon, then, was to visit a tea plantation and watch the tea pickers in action.

Having had a most delightful cup of tea (or four) at the rather gimmicky Tea Castle opened by tea production giants Mlesna in the little tea town of Talawakelle (I quite enjoyed saying the name of the place), I asked the waiter if he knew of any tea plantations  I might be able to visit. Although Talawakelle was overrun with tea plantations, I didn’t know if they were open to intrusive tourists bashing their way about the tea bushes. With a slightly confused look on his face and the universal head waggle, the waiter replied Everywhere is tea plantation, ma’m. You can walking, is no problem. He then pointed me to a plantation right behind the Tea Castle, and I was off.

You can almost smell the tourist trap…good tea though.

When I got to the plantation, there seemed to be no one working the fields and I thought perhaps I should visit another plantation instead. But the smell of tea leaves was intoxicating, and I decided to take a short stroll anyway. Suddenly, I heard giggling and whispering from the bushes behind me – a group of tea ladies were having their break from plucking leaves all morning, and were very amused by this stranger foreigner bumbling through the tea bushes, tripping over and cursing at the prickly branches. Of course, in true Sri Lankan fashion, I was invited to “come, sit!

Tea ladies having their morning break

Once I had made myself comfortable on the soft soil ground, the lovely tea ladies began the interrogation that I had been and would be subject to throughout my time in Sri Lanka. “Where from?” “How long you are staying?” “You are liking, Sri Lanka?” “Your name?” “How old you?” “Married?” “Student or working?” “Working what as?” “Singapore is beautiful, no? Singapore. 10 days. Yes Sri Lanka is beautiful. Sarah. 24. No. Working. Aerospace engineer. It is different, very unlike Sri Lanka. Having exhausted all of their English-speaking and my Sinhala-speaking abilities, we turned to the universal language of smiling at each other. One lady in a watermelon-coloured sari pressed a piece of naan into my hands, urging me to “eat breakfast“. Another offered her dish of fiery red chickpeas curry as accompaniment. Deciding that it would be too difficult to explain my intolerance of spicy food through hand signals, I dipped the tip of my naan gingerly into the dish. “Nooooo, like this!” Watermelon-coloured Sari Lady grabbed my hand and mopped up a good third of the curry with the naan. I felt the fire even before I put the bread in my mouth.

The tormentor of my tastebuds

While it is decidedly difficult to explain in non-English that you take a little but are not good with spiciness, it is extremely easy to show when you have had too much chilli. I panted, fanned my open mouth, and looked in my bag for the water bottle that I had left behind in the guesthouse. Like magic, a hand extended a thermoflask of tea in front of me. Another hand poured sugar from a little brown paper bag into my palm. I popped the sugar grains into my mouth, and drained the tea in 4 gulps. Fire extinguished, I looked up to see six very bemused faces. When I expressed my regret for having inconsiderately finished someone’s tea, I was told “Is okay, we are drinking much tea, that’s why we are being so black“.

With breakfast sorted out, I was crowned with a bindi on my forehead, declared a true Sri Lankan, and break time was over. Back to work. A lady dressed in a grape-coloured sari, clearly the team captain, took me by the hand, and started instructing me in the skills of the trade. Pointing to different leaves and categorizing them as pick and not pick, I was taught to identify the tea leaves primed for picking. I was then strapped with a basket to my back, and put to work. And in the company of these lovely ladies, I spent a quiet afternoon picking tea leaves with rather sorry efficiency (my embarrassment was apparent when I returned with a quarter-full basket, while everyone else’s baskets were filled to the brim and heaping). Not many words were exchanged that day, but what a precious memory it will be.

My sensei

Sarah Tham

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