Tea from Ceylon

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Asia » Sri Lanka
November 9th 2018
Published: December 2nd 2018
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After travelling for ten days already, this is our last night in Sri Lanka; we have been so busy exploring this island nation that I have not had time, nor the will, to write. This little country with its beautiful name, Sri Lanka has both terribly congested cities and gorgeously beautiful landscapes that take your breath away. Colombo has little beauty; it is another overcrowded Asian city with modern signing on shops crammed next to each other on dirty city streets, plus it has the distinctive disadvantage of also having internationally known name brand stores, places I never want to shop in any country. How these expensive stores survive in poor countries is beyond understanding, but perhaps people feel that by having these expensive monstrosities their country can also partake in western culture, or at least they can look at some of it through the store windows. I did not enjoy being in this falsely genteel, retail part of Colombo at all, preferring to see the mass of any big city jumble of unpleasing to the eye shops and storefronts, litter, garbage, noise, crazy traffic, crowds of people, areas where pedestrians have to dash across busy streets with traffic coming in all directions, hearing horns constantly beeping, walking along broken sidewalks avoiding holes and discarded building materials, skeletal dogs lying just anywhere, seeing very poor people with their lives' treasures hidden in plain sight as jewelry in their noses or worn as necklaces and bracelets. This is the city life I travel to see, the real parts, the real people. I am here, more than halfway across the world again, in Asia, and I want to see what real life is like in this country, in little Sri Lanka.

On our first full day here we visited a Buddhist monk. 70% of Sri Lankans practice Buddhism, a religion I find both comfortable and confusing. He and his six young trainee monks led us through a meditation session and then a prayer ceremony. A few of the young monks appeared distracted, wiggling about in their chairs, looking at us and then staring off into their own distant thoughts; normal children. The boys left, and we then had a chance to ask questions of the monk. This turned out to be very pleasant; in trying to learn more about this religion I had taken a course in Buddhism at the University of Maine many years ago, but there were still several sticking questions that made no sense to me. The monk took our questions seriously, attempting to answer the unanswerable. For me this was the best part of our visit; I could have stayed speaking with him for hours, but visits are orchestrated well: it was time to eat. Our little group of five travellers was led into a narrow room where we served them a silent lunch; each carried his own large bowl, and stood in front of whatever foods we were serving, placing their hands over their bowls when they had enough. No words were spoken, but I tried to look each child in his eyes; some returned the gaze. Then it was our turn to eat, but not with the monks. The local community prepares and serves visitors their meals; although I didn't know it at the time, this lunch turned out to be one of the best meals I ate on the whole trip.

We visited temples, fortresses, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Royal Botanic Gardens, climbed to the top of the rain-slippery Lion Rock, and went to the sacred Temple of the Tooth, where it is said one of the Buddha's teeth lies shrouded within. Also, on one of the visits that turned out to be most impressive, in Kandy we visited a girls' shelter, where girls as young as eight years old come, or are sent, to escape sexual abuse, to receive therapy, to learn a trade. Some are pregnant; some of these children have already had their babies; all are safe here.

Today we went to Matara, to a lovely tea plantation. Ceylon tea is known as the very best tea in the world, and today we found out why. Everything here is organic; everything served is grown here; everything is done by hand. Every picker picks each leaf singly, by hand! They do not use machines to cut down bushes at will, including all the rough spots, small branches, or damaged leaves. Here each leaf is chosen for its perfection, hence the end result will be a perfect cup of tea. Pickers in the fields do backbreaking work, while those in the factory work in heat and humidity ensuing from the tea making process. After picking the leaves comes the drying part, then the chopping, then fermentation, then packing. It is said that it takes twenty-five pairs of hands to bring any of us a cup of tea, including the last person who hands us the cup. Who ever thought making tea would encompass such intensive work? I will think of this plantation now whenever I drink a cup of tea, newly appreciating all the effort that went into its preparation before reaching my cup.

Sri Lanka is a most beautiful country! Outside of its capital, Colombo, are gorgeous vistas, winding roads along lush green tropical forests that grow all by themselves, propagated from spreading roots or seeds blown by the wind; this climate is conducive to boundless life. And its people are friendly, even more readily so than I found in Thailand. Here people smile back at you when you say hello. And as we found in Jamaica even the men will smile and ask where you are from. Foreigners don't stay strangers very long in Sri Lanka. The people here are beautiful too.

Tomorrow we fly to Chennai, India.


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