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Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Monday, 11 February 2019

When I was five years old my aunt gave me a battered old hardcover school atlas, presumably one that she had used at school circa 1970. It immediately became my most jealously treasured possession. I devoured the information in that atlas. I learned the names of all the world's capital cities, I taught myself how to draw every nation's flag from memory, I could recite by heart which languages were spoken in each country. I knew that one day I would see these places.

I grew up on a low-income public housing estate in southwestern Sydney. My family was better off than most of our neighbours - at least one of my parents was always in work, usually both of them had jobs - but money was always tight. Interstate travel was usually out of the question, let alone international travel. Holidays consisted of a week spent in a grotty caravan in Forster-Tuncurry or nothing. I am not complaining - those holidays form bright spots of light in what was sometimes a bleak childhood - but even as a child I knew that travel must consist of more than eating fish and chips from paper wrappers on picnic tables under scrawny Norfolk Island pines next to a fishing harbour while being mobbed by greedy seagulls.

It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I was prosperous enough to travel overseas. Australia is very far from the rest of the world, international air fares tend to be very expensive compared to other parts of the planet, it takes a long time in the air to get anywhere from Australia and even though air fares are becoming more affordable a very large proportion of Australians still don't have a passport and have never been overseas. I have many friends and relatives who have never been outside Australia or have only travelled overseas once.

I was thirty-two when I landed at Changi Airport in Singapore one morning after an excruciating red-eye flight from Brisbane via Brunei. I had gotten maybe half an hour's sleep and my mind was racing. I presented my passport to the silent poker-faced immigration officer, she scanned it, stamped it and handed it back to me. I was free to proceed. I spent the next two hours stumbling around Changi's impressive terminals in a confused daze. I was finally overseas! I finally did it! Wow! I'm overseas! I can't believe that I am actually overseas! Am I really overseas? Is this a dream? No! I am actually overseas!

Perhaps it is because I do not take international travel for granted, because I am grateful to have the opportunity to go overseas, because I am aware that there are so many people back home who have never had that opportunity, because I had yearned for so long to explore this world but couldn't, that I feel this urge, this irresistible duty, to share what I do, what I see, what I hear, what I taste and what I learn with people who read this blog. Perhaps it is narcissism. Perhaps it is altruism. Perhaps it is some combination of the two. In any case, I do hope it is entertaining and I thank the hundreds of people who have read this blog for coming along for the ride. I am honoured.

Speaking of rides, the day began leisurely until my vehicle for the day arrived in the late morning. My guest house had arranged my own personal tuk-tuk for the day for three thousand rupees. The little black tuk-tuk, obviously much better maintained and loved than your typical dusty taxi tuk-tuk, was driven by Susantha, a mild-mannered, softly-spoken middle-aged man who instantly made me feel at ease. This old cobber was no greasy little scam artist.

The tour took in two tea factories and three waterfalls strung out along the A5 highway from Nuwara Eliya in the direction of Kandy. Susantha wasn't like any other tuk-tuk driver I have seen. He drove safely, courteously and mostly obeyed the law. Until now I had assumed that it was a prerequisite to obtaining a Sri Lankan driver's licence that one must drive like a psychopathic methamphetamine addict.

About ten kilometres out of town along the twisty highway was our first destination, the Damro Tea Factory. This was a busy place nestled in a ravine surrounded by terraced tea plantations with a congested car park out the front full of tour coaches and tuk-tuks. Above it all was a big sign, "DAMRO TEA", in big white letters on the hillside like the Hollywood sign. I went on a quick twenty-minute group tour of the factory where a knowledgeable guide taught us how tea was made.

Tea production is not an especially complicated process. First, the freshly picked tea leaves are laid out on long wire racks and under the racks are high-powered fans that force air through the leaves to dry them. Twelve to eighteen hours later, the leaves are crushed and rolled in a large machine with a rotating blade to chop them into smaller, flatter pieces. Then the crushed leaves are spread out thinly on large stainless steel tables for three hours to ferment. "Fermentation" is strictly not the correct word, there is no yeast or bacterium involved. "Oxidisation" is the correct word; being exposed to air oxidises the compounds in the leaves, develops their flavour and turns the leaves black. (Green tea popular in East Asia does not go through this oxidisation process; the dried and crushed leaves are immediately sealed in air-tight containers.)

The tea leaves are then fired for twenty-one minutes at ninety degrees Celsius to stop the oxidisation process and to completely remove all moisture from the leaves. Next, the tea leaves are graded. The product from the ovens consists of a heterogeneous mix of different leaf types and particle sizes and fragments of stems which are worthless. The dried leaves are then sifted through a series of electrostatic rollers that attract the lighter, smaller particles. The larger whole leaves are of higher quality and attract a premium price on world markets. The smallest particles, called "fannings" or "dust", are the strongest, most bitter tea grade and are often used in cheaper tea bags.

After this tour we were shown the gift shop where we all bought souvenirs. For some reason there were a lot of visitors from Britain and the former British Dominions. I am shocked.

A short distance further down the highway was another tea facility, Blue Field Tea Factory. I went on another guided tour. I was the only visitor on that tour and I got to ask a lot of questions from the guide, Farhasan, about the details of the procedures that I wasn't able to ask on the more popular tour at Damro. While being led through the factory I saw me first tea plantation workers, two Tamil women in saris loading oxidised tea into the drying oven.

Tea production in Sri Lanka has an imteresting history. The Hill Country was originally virgin rainforest inhabited mostly by hunter-gatherer tribes called the Veddha. After the British conquered the interior in 1815, the colonists found that the cool highland climate was perfect for growing tea, that substance George Orwell called the Englishman's opium. So the British cleared thousands of acres of hilly rainforest to plant tea bushes.

There was only one problem - nobody wanted to work on them. The Sinhalese had their ancestral villages, their inherited plots of land, their fishing boats that allowed them to reap the infinite bounty of the sea. Why would they give that up just to work for British capitalist pigs on some remote tea farm for a pittance?

So the British did what they often did - import people from elsewhere in the British Empire. In this case, they brought in thousands of starving, landless Tamil peasants from the Indian mainland to do the dirty work.

The Tamils are still there picking tea. They are distinct from the Tamils who live in the north and east of Sri Lanka who have been on the island for many centuries. It is no exaggeration to say that the Plantation Tamils, as they are called, are among the most oppressed peoples in Asia. One of the first things newly independent Ceylon did in 1950 was to strip these poor souls of their Ceylonese citizenship. The government in Colombo claimed they were Indian. India didn't want them back or to grant them citizenship - why would they, generations of Plantation Tamils had lived in Sri Lanka for a century and now had few ties to India - effectively rendering the tea workers stateless.

Many NGOs and charities are working hard to improve the lot of these exploited tea workers. Still, the conditions of these workers are absurd. They live on the plantations in long, ramshackle, rusty shacks called "lines". The lines are divided into a series of segments, each segment being home to one family. The typical pay of a tea picker is eight hundreed rupees a day - about six Australian dollars. To put this in perspective, at Cargill's white rice is Rs. 79 a kilogram, bananas are Rs. 75 a kilogram, potatoes are Rs. 170 a kilogram, a small frozen chicken is Rs. 500, a twin pack of bar soap is Rs. 99, a 1.5 litre bottle of safe drinking water is Rs. 70 and apples are a whopping Rs. 500 a kilogram. The plantation workers might not have to pay for their on-site accommodation, but it is clear that eight hundred rupees does not go very far.

To earn this majestic amount of eight hundred rupees, the pickers have to pluck twenty kilograms of tea a day. I don't know if you've ever seen a fresh tea leaf but they are feather-light. Only the small, young, tender leaves are picked. It must take all day to reach that quota. It takes five kilograms of fresh leaves to make one kilogram of final product. I calculated in my head - twenty kilograms of fresh leaves make four kilograms of final product, eight hundred rupees divided by four is two hundred rupees per kilogram of final product - about A$1.60 per kilogram, a tiny fraction of what tea costs in Western supermarkets. Keep that in mind when you next make a nice cup of tea.

I had an excellent rice and curry buffet lunch at the Blue Field factory, bought some more tea souvenirs, and got back in the tuk-tuk with the ever-patient Susantha. The A5 highway descends from the Hill Country plateau to the central plains around Kandy, we had descended by about nine hundred metres from Nuwara Eliya before we arrived at the next stop, Puna Ella Falls. The Hill Country plateau is fringed with waterfalls on all sides of the plateau where streams plunge off the highlands onto the surrounding plains, and Puna Ella is one of the smaller waterfalls that can be seen from the highway at a distance.

A short distance down the hill was the next waterfall, Ramboda Falls. This is actually a complex of two waterfalls, Upper Ramboda Falls and Lower Ramboda Falls, one above the highway bridge and one below. The upper falls are magnificent enough but Susantha led me to the lower falls.

It was a bit of a hike. First you have to walk down from the highway along a very steep switchbacked driveway to the Ramboda Falls Hotel. You then have to walk down three storeys of stairs, then exit the hotel, and walk down the steepest, narrowest staircase I have ever seen.

It was worth it. In some respects, the Lower Ramboda Falls are more awe-inspiring than the Ravana Falls at Ella. The Ravana Falls are much higher but quite narrow. The Lower Ramboda Falls are wider and more powerful.

Then we had to climb back up. My goodness, those stairs! They were more like ladders. They were so narrow that whenever people came from opposite directions one person had to risk breaking their neck to let the other through. After an arduous climb, we got to the hotel. There is an elevator but it is for guests only. Everyone else has to buy a ticket. Susantha and I climbed the three stories but right outside the exit at the top of the hotel, there was a rude, loud, French-speaking woman smoking an extremely strong cigarette that smelled like burning tyres.

I had an asthma attack, the first of my trip. Susantha looked curious as I administered by Ventolin puffer to my aching lungs, I don't think he had seen an asthma puffer before. He promised me that we would take the driveway up to the highway where the tuk-tuk was parked nice and slow, he even offered to carry my daypack for me. What a legend.

The next feature of the tour was the Ramboda Tunnel, a piece of infrastructure that enabled the Hill Country to be connected to Kandy by a direct road. Sri Lankans are so proud of this tunnel that it appears on the front of the one thousand rupee note.

We stopped at a lookout perched above a souvenir shop a bit further on, from here all three waterfalls were visible, as well as a lovely prospect over the Kotmale Reservoir towards the mountains near Kandy.

It was time to return to Nuwara Eliya. Scattered in the hills through all the terraced tea bushes are small vegetable farms worked by impoverished smallholders. They stand on the side of the A5 holding their produce in their hands offering them to passing vehicles. I asked Susantha to stop at one and bought a punnet of strawberries from one old lady for three hundred rupees. They were the reddest, sweetest, juiciest strawberries I have ever eaten. What is it about Sri Lanka and its divinely inspired fruit and vegetables? This is how fresh produce should be everywhere.

Soon we were back in Nuwara Eliya and it was time to say goodbye to Susantha and his marvellously well-polished black tuk-tuk. Visiting Sri Lanka is a study in contradictions. One minute its people's inability to give accurate advice about anything, the feckless inefficiency, the chaotic lack of planning, the scamming tuk-tuk drivers and the fact that nothing quite works almost sends you into a nervous breakdown. The next minute, the genuine warmth of its people, the gentle soft-spokenness, the friendly smiles and the incredible politeness restore your faith in the country. Sri Lanka never ceases to surprise and to amaze and to challenge and to inspire.

Susantha dropped me off at Victoria Park. One of the good things about the British Empire is that wherever the British colonists went, they built magnificent parks modelled on those back in Britain. Of course this doesn't justify the theft of whole continents from innocent indigenous peoples, the exploitation of farm and mine and plantation workers for the benefit of British capitalist interests, the divide-and-conquer philosophy that to this day seems ethnic groups in former possessions of the Empire at each other's throats, or the countless bloody wars to maintain Britain's grip on one-quarter of the world's land area. But the parks the British built are at least something in their favour.

I paid the three hundred rupee admission fee to Victoria Park and was shocked. This was not Sri Lanka! If it wasn't for the ceaseless honking of horns from all the buses and tuk-tuks on the surrounding streets, I would have thought I was in Bowral or Orange back in New South Wales.

Rustic paths weaved across emerald green lawns, a rose garden was laid out in a series of geometrically perfect concentric circles, ducks danced on lily pads on green ponds, and mock-Tudor cottages and glasshouses dotted the landscape. There are parks just like this all over Australia, especially in highland towns with cooler climates in New South Wales. There was a large children's playground with a miniature railway just like some parks back home. What made it feel even more Australian were all the Australian trees - Norfolk Island pines, bunya pines, hoop pines, she-oaks and most importantly, eucalypts, the most common type of tree all over Australia.

There are so many eucalypts, which Australians colloquially call "gum trees", not just in Nuwara Eliya but all the surrounding countryside. I pointed them out to Susantha, huge stands of tall gums on the ridges above the tea plantation slopes. He never knew that those trees were Australian, he told me that they were grown to make paper and people called them "paper trees".

It was starting to get dark so I decided to explore a nearby neighboirhood full of nineteenth-century mock-Tudor hotels built by the British when Nuwara Eliya was the colonists' favourite place to get away from the horrible tropical climate of the lowlands. There are a series of these hotels, one larger than the next, until one reaches the famous Grand Hotel, an imposing peach-coloured edifice with half-timbered walls and bay windows.

I decided to see the inside and stop for a drink. I went up to the front portico and the doorman told me that yes, sir, there is a public lounge bar inside, if sir would be pleased to follow me? I'm a working-class boy. Being treated like some business tycoon doesn't sit well with me. Just speak to me like a normal human being.

We went through chambers full of timber panels and chandeliers, past a grand piano, past an expensife jewellery store, and the doorman showed me through to the public bar, a cosy little chamber of dark heavy timbers and soft, comfortable armchairs.

Most of the patrons in the bar, about eighty percent, were older, gammon-faced, bossy, upper-class English Home Counties twits of the sort who voted for Brexit and write indignant letters to the editor of the Daily Mail signed "Disgusted of Royal Tunbridge Wells". The other twenty percent were their equally arrogant and entitled Australian counterparts, the kind of people who I cross the street to avoid back home. Needless to say, I did not introduce myself to my fellow Australians.

I was astounded by just how rudely and contemptuously they treated the hotel staff. I guess they were under the mistaken impression that the British Empire still exist and the locals are still their lackeys. It was disgusting. I don't care what colour the hotel employees are, I don't care how wealthy you are, you say your pleases amd thank-yous like everybody else.

I ordered a drink, a mint gin, a bright green Incredible Hulk-like concotion of gin, lime juice, mint syrup and soda water. It was very nice. It was also very expensive, sixteen hundred rupees. As I sipped my drink and ate the complimentary soybean snacks I was overcome with self-disgust. Here I am, sitting in a posh hotel surrounded by bourgeois pigs, sipping a drink that would cost a tea picker two day's wages. How on earth is this fair? I'm a socialist, and a proud and active member of my trade union, for crying out loud!

I would like to think that I work moderately hard. I endure the well-paid sedentary drudgery of an often mind-numbingly soporific job in the Public Service. When I am not bogged down in trivial administrative minutiae, it is often a very stressful job. I am in a position with some responsibility, there are many competing demands on my attention, and I am required to train and supervise people who could most leniently be described as "bloody difficult".

But I don't have to work from dawn to dusk, my back bent over double, a hessian sack slowly getting heavier on my shoulder, performing the intellectually stimulating job of looking at a tea bush and trying to figure out which leaves will keep the foreman happy, picking, picking, picking until my fingernails bleed, just so posh twits in Britain and elsewhere can sip on their Earl Grey in centrally-heated conservatories in Berkshire and feel oh-so-sophisticated while I get paid a wage that is enough to buy a small frozen chicken, two kilograms of rice and two kilograms of bananas for my family. Stuff it. This world is not fair and it bloody well should be.

Posted by urbanreverie 17:19 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged waterfalls tea sri_lanka tuk-tuks nuwara_eliya tamils Comments (0)

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