The Meaning of Tea

Everywhere in Sri Lanka they grow tea. On my 12 days of riding a bike here, almost every day winds through a lush green tea plantation at some point. 

Tea grows in tiers, little round bushes in wave after wave up luminous hills. The hills are dotted with women “plucking” tea leaves.  Like everyone in this country, they look up and smile at us. I flicker through grateful warmth at the connection and embarrassment at my exertion “for fun” while these women stand in these fields all day every day, monsoon rain or fierce sun. Picking the tea that we pour before bed, carry around in Starbucks cups.

We visited a tea factory the day after Christmas. The women were out plucking but because it was the day after a holiday, our tour of tea processing was of silent cold machines. 

We weren’t permitted to take photos but our guide Kailaivani was incisively candid.

“Are women the only ones in the fields?”

“Yes, it is tradition. It is very hard work.” She wore a sari and had a beautiful 3 colour bindi. “They must pluck 18 kilos per day to get paid. They make 760 rupees per day.” This is about $5. “I have taught myself English so I can be a guide. My mother plucks tea.”

“What do the men do?” 

She looks tired. “They work in the factory but they are lazy, they drink.”

I see what’s in the rows between the carefully planted, strong  bushes of tea. Men and women, bosses with Anglo names. Later that day, we ride hard down a mountain waved with tea fields and stop at a faux British castle for tea and cakes. 

In our time with Kailaivani, we learn about the withering room, drying, fermentation, sorting into grades. Chris the biology teacher in our group quizzes her about fungus, the fermentation process, whether the dust ever catches on fire. She gets a bit flustered and says she doesn’t know the answers. “Maybe I’m not a good guide,” she says matter of factly. “I must study more.” 

We chide Chris for exposing what she doesn’t know, ask her why the safety signs and machine labels are in English. “For visitors,” she says. “Most people here cannot read even in their own language.”

There is a government school at the factory, but it isn’t good and most of the children of the workers will repeat their parents’ lives. 

We ride around 500 km through this country, winding through the villages in the tea plantations, each with a tiny Hindu or Buddhist temple, waving greetings. Many places, people are in their doorways right next to the narrow hilly roads, waving and smiling huge smiles at us. I am complaining because the mountain bike is heavier than I like. I try to imagine what 18-20 kg of firm green leaves on my back would feel like six days a week every day of my life.

We drink tea at every break, and I stop putting in milk or sugar. The essence of tea, the taste of women’s lives. 


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