Sri Lanka sure can seem that way once you’ve explored it over a long stretch. A special winter vacation report.
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I’VE NEVER ENJOYED the taste of coffee, and have always enjoyed tea, so being in a place that produces some of the finest tea, learning about the history and the process (including visiting a tea factory), and tasting various teas was for me nearly as enjoyable an experience as my travels in Burgundy, Napa, and the Barossa where I’ve learned a bit about and sampled an even more preferred libation.
The making of tea, like the making of wine, beer, champagne, cognac, coffee, cheese, and chocolate, is a combination of art and science, with different qualities of final product based on where the source material was grown and how it was processed, and those resulting products being given grades such as (whole leaf) Orange Pekoe, BOP (“Broken Orange Pekoe”), the superior Golden Flowery BOP, and the inferior (but stronger tasting) fannings or dust, those two most often used in tea bags or sold to Arabs and Russians whose sensibilities tend toward stronger rather than more subtle tastes.
There is only one true tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, whether you’re talking about tea from China, India, Kenya, or Sri Lanka (in order, the world’s four largest tea-producing nations), and whether you’re talking about black, green, or white tea. Herbal teas, rooibos from South Africa, and other such drinks, although delicious, are not true tea.
The part of the tea plant that is picked to make tea is usually the top two leaves and the unopened leaf bud between them at the top of the stem. Together, this bit of valuable but wholly ordinary looking stuff is called the flush. It looks like an ordinary leaf, and prior to drying and processing has no particular taste or smell, unlike, for example, curry leaves or cinnamon both of which are grown in large quantity here. In Sri Lanka, each tea plant is picked every five to seven days, depending on the season, in plantations where the plants are arranged in beautiful rows along nearly every arable piece of land in hill country, including on steep hillsides. The Tamil (the main Hindu minority in the country, and the majority in the far northern part of the country) women who comprise all the tea pickers labor across each row, laying a 6-foot section of dry bamboo across the bushes to mark off each section as they pick it.
For their toil, tea pickers earn a base salary of about $6 or $7 per day (quite a bit higher than just a few years ago) for which they are required to pick a minimum of 20 kg (45 lbs) of tea leaves, then earning another 40 rupees (about 30 cents) per kilo above that amount, expected to end the day with around 30 kg of leaves. It is a difficult, exhausting life and the pickers look older than I assume they are. Yet every one of them has a smile and a wave for us, either proactively or in response to our greeting, as we walk by.
The pinnacle of Sri Lankan tea is called Silver Tips or Golden Tips (depending on the sub-variety of tea plant), which come from the picker taking only the small bud atop the plant, and leaving the leaves. Then, unlike most Sri Lankan tea which is heated after drying to make it black, Silver Tips are not heated, leaving them in a class called White Tea, with a delicate aroma and flavor — not suitable for Russians or Arabs.
While BOP sells for about 1000 rupees ($8) per kilo (wholesale), the going price for Silver Tips — which is generally not produced by the large-scale factories — is closer to 20,000 rupees ($160) per kilo. I bought 50 grams (sounds like buying drugs, doesn’t it?) at a shop in Hatton, which was all he had, and returned the next day to buy the 100 grams that was his allotment for that entire day — only a few hundred kilograms of Silver Tips are produced in a given year; it felt like buying drinkable gold (or perhaps silver would be a more appropriate metaphor).
You’ve never really seen “Sunday best” until you have seen Sri Lankan women and girls, down even to the age of 2 or 3, wearing their holiday saris with matching scarves. Perhaps, like women everywhere, even modest poverty — maybe more than modest by our standards — does not keep them from having something pretty in the closet. Each full moon day is a national holiday here, based on full moons being auspicious in Buddhism. The streets of Hatton, on that day in late December, were a riot of brightly colored and patterned cotton and silk. Taking it all in for a few minutes was something like watching a Jackson Pollock painting come alive — but more gorgeous; a sartorial fireworks display. Surely, such common yet sparingly displayed beauty not only reflects Sri Lankans’ happiness, but also enhances it.
ON THE DRIVE FROM COLOMBO through Kandy to the tea-covered hills, I saw a mosque in nearly every small town. Although Muslims represent just under 10 percent of the population of Sri Lanka, which is about 70 percent Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, and 7 percent Christian, the Muslim influence on commerce seems outsized. In Hatton, for example, although a much higher percentage of the population is Hindu (due to the Tamil plantation workforce) than in other parts of the country, I would guess that at least a third, perhaps over half, of the town’s businesses are run by Muslims.
One small town we drove through appeared almost entirely Muslim, and our Buddhist driver commented how “in this town, they never smile at you.” That sort of perception of Muslims fit, too easily perhaps, with my own biases, but as the trip progressed my view of Sri Lankan Muslims, if not of the religion overall, became dramatically more positive, on which more in a few moments.
From Tea Country we made our way about 6 hours southeast by road to Yala National Park, the second-largest park in the country, bordering the Indian Ocean and teeming with wildlife including many beautiful birds along with a few large mammals including several species of deer, crocodile, Asian elephants, leopards, and sloth bear — even rarer and harder to see than leopard.
We first got set up in our South African-made safari tent, which comprised four rooms: a main room, about eight feet across, which led, going forward, into a room with a queen-sized bed, and going left or right into small rooms each with a twin bed, where the children slept. Each sleeping area was separate from the main room by a zipper-and-Velcro fastened panel, with mesh windows to allow air but prevent mosquitoes. The tent was set up in what appeared to be jungle, yet walking just 100 yards east, your feet are in the sand of an Indian Ocean beach, usually empty except for the safari camp’s guests, though sometimes visited by local fishermen.
We headed out on the first — and what turned out to be the best — of the three game drives we did with Kulu Safaris, another group I can highly recommend. About half an hour into the drive, the guide got a call on his cell phone (something of a surreal experience in a remote wilderness on a 2nd- or 3rd-world island), and he promptly hit the accelerator, taking us to a clearing where about half a dozen other safari vehicles were full of tourists looking about 75 yards away at a mustard-colored spot in a tree. Taking the binoculars, I saw my first wild leopard.
The sighting made the entire trip to Sri Lanka worth it — not that it wasn’t otherwise a wonderful experience. But as if good karma (what else would it be in such a Buddhist country?) were following me, just a few minutes later as we were driving down the road, another leopard crossed the path just 10 yards in front of us, walked through the bush next to us, then crossed the road again 10 yards behind us. Having tried to see leopard in the wild over a few dozen game drives during four trips to South Africa since the late 1980s, I felt a sense of satisfaction (quite different, I realize, from accomplishment) that is, at least for me, truly rare, as if by seeing one of nature’s most beautiful and majestic creations I’d done something I have always wanted to do and may never do again.
WE SPENT A MAGICAL New Year’s Eve on the beach, celebrating my father-in-law’s birthday, as he and my mother-in-law joined us a few days earlier, traveling from Australia. After a wonderful beach barbecue, my wife thought it would be nice to do her part to relieve at least a single plant from any drought it might be suffering. She grabbed a flashlight and headed down the dune toward the dark beach. Less than a minute later, I heard her yell “Ross, come here! Hurry!” I did as I was told, as one would in that situation. As she was about to water a beach plant, she heard a scraping noise on the sand right behind her. Turning around and shining her flashlight, she saw an enormous — roughly 4-foot long and nearly 3-foot wide green sea turtle laying eggs in the sand. Others came to look, shining flashlights, causing my wife to suggest that the turtle might enjoy a little privacy.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online