Location: Sri Lanka
**Edited for MatadorU Assignment
I sit on a balcony in a hilltop guesthouse in Haputale, a town 4695 feet above sea level in the Uva Province of Sri Lanka. I look out over rolling green hills. It is mid-afternoon and I have arrived from Nuwara Eliya, the Little England of the tea country, exhausted after a train ride that felt like a lifetime. Hiba, the owner of the guesthouse, comes out of the kitchen with a plate of rice topped with coconut, chilies, curry, omelet, and the popular Lankan dish called kesel muwa or banana blossom. I finish my meal in minutes.
Hiba appears again this time carrying a porcelain teapot. She takes an empty cup from the table and fills it.
“Tea?” she asks. “You can put milk or no.”
“I can’t drink tea,” I say sheepishly.
Hiba raises her eyebrows. “Why not?” she asks.
I point to my chest. “I have a heart problem.”
Tea tastes sweeter with milk. I once loved tea. But my affair with it (along with coffee) ended two years ago when my cardiologist showed me a mammogram of a defective heart valve. I used to think that giving up tea was more bearable than not being allowed to skydive, but when you’re in a country that consumes it at least three times a day, refusing it feels like an abomination.
I walk toward the balcony’s railing that overlooks the main highway, which is usually empty except for a few buses heading to the capital every hour. Further down is a railroad that cuts through a sloping barren land. The tea hills beyond are covered in fog. I can hear them calling. But I rethink my agenda and say goodnight to Hiba, leaving the tea cup on the table.
I arrive at Dambatenne Tea Factory just before noon the next day with my tuk-tuk driver Dinesh whom Hiba highly recommended. We meet the tour guide who leads us inside the production area where enormous machines work daily to steam, roll, and dry the tea leaves. We then head to the second floor where the tea leaves undergo the withering process. “Thousands of kilos are brought in daily,” says the guide. “Only the best ones are picked for our international clients.”
I leave the factory after the short yet informative tour. I want to speak with the person responsible for the tea leaves in Dambatenne’s withering troughs: the tea-picker.
Tuk-tuk driver Dinesh drives me to the vast tea plantation on a hillside about a kilometer way. He stops his tuk-tuk at the foot of the dry walkway that divides the rows of tea bushes. We climb up in the oppressive heat and wade through the tea plants to reach a woman laboriously picking the best leaves. She looks up from her work.
“Hello,” I say.
Dinesh speaks to her in their local language. I wait for him to finish and ask him to translate for me.
“Can you tell me how much tea you pick in a day?”
The thin woman squints into the sun. She wears a loose red sweater. A blue sack hangs from the back of her head. She speaks to the affable tuk-tuk driver in a soft tone and goes on picking leaves. Dinesh turns to me and says, “She picks 18 to 20 kilos of tea leaves every day. Five days a week.”
“And she earns?” I ask.
“600 rupees, 6 hours. Start in morning. Rest for lunch. End 4 o clock.”
I pluck a few leaves and hand them to the tea picker who inspects them carefully and puts them in the sack.
“May I take her picture?” I ask Dinesh who translates. The woman nods as she picks more leaves. I take a photo of her and the other colorfully-dressed tea pickers ornamenting the clumps of green. Do they share the same story?
I return to the guesthouse just a few hours before sunset and sit once again on the balcony. Hiba comes out of the kitchen and serves my favorite dish. I don’t feel hungry but I eat anyway. I can’t stop thinking of the numbers that occupy the tea picker’s day. I look at her photo. She looks directly into the camera and cups a handful of leaves.
For years, many tea pickers have organized to call out for permanent dwellings and better lives. But nothing has changed since the 19th century. The tea picker in the photo, along with her husband and children, continue to live in destitute conditions, with no right to the land they should call home, much less a fair share of the billion-dollar industry they help built.
Once again, Hiba comes out of the kitchen carrying the porcelain teapot. She takes the empty cup from my table and starts pouring.
“Tea?” she cheerfully asks.
I say thank you and take a sip.