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Traveling to Origin: The Tea Fields of Sri Lanka

By Erin Dickerson

When I landed at Sri Lanka's Colombo International Airport, it was well after midnight and I was beyond delirious. It was my first time traveling anywhere in Asia. Earlier when I I boarded the first of three connecting flights, the anxious butterflies really kicked in.

Over the span of 36 hours, I had flown halfway around the world to meet my boss, Abigail, and a dozen other tea enthusiasts in one of the most beautiful island countries in the world. I was excited, anxious, intrigued…and so ready to drink some tea!

A kind face greeted me in the arrivals terminal and helped me load my luggage into the back of the private car that would deliver me to a soft bed. As we zipped through the streets of Colombo en route to the hotel, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the coastal city. It has the brightly lit high rises reminiscent of any urban city in America, but with that South Asian flare that you really must see firsthand to understand.

To be honest, I don’t remember much else about my arrival as my body and mind were beyond exhausted from my day and a half of travel. The last thing I remember thinking before my head hit the pillow in my hotel suite was "I can’t believe I am finally here…"
The next morning, the other trip attendees gathered in the hotel lobby to board the private tour bus that would take us deep into the tea fields of Sri Lanka. We were a motley crew comprised of a bed & breakfast owner from Napa, a tea shop owner from New Hampshire, a sales rep from Bunn, a researcher and development professional working for Bigelow Tea, and Abigail and me, proudly representing TeBella Tea. I would be remiss in not mentioning our fearless leader, a tea guide extraordinaire and truly charming Englishman, Gilbert. Gilbert had lived in Sri Lanka for years working for the East Indies Tea Company and was an expert on all things Ceylon and the Sri Lankan tea industry.

Over the next week, we spent countless hours in that bus, and the sights I glimpsed out of our windows were unparalleled by anything I’d ever seen before. We worked our way further north, away from the sea, and began to climb up into higher elevation. Lush forests and bumpy city streets melted into breathtaking mountainscapes, with winding roads that veered perilously close to craggy drops.

Our steep climb in elevation brought us to a misty, green wonderland called Nuwara Eliya. More than 6,000ft above sea level, this small city is nestled between rolling hills of tea; it felt like a completely different country than Colombo, Sri Lanka, where I had flown into just days before. Here we visited the Pedro Tea Estate, which was by far my favorite. It was the most idyllic and picturesque scene I could have imagined. A light fog hung low in the air the whole day as we roamed through rows and rows of camellia sinensis bushes.

Off in the distance we could see tea pickers slowly combing the plantation, their canvas bags carrying freshly plucked tea leaves fastened snugly around their heads. After a self-guided tour of the grounds, we were led into one of the most beautiful tasting rooms I’d ever seen. As we sampled some of their prized harvests of Ceylon, we were bathed in the first swatch of sunlight we’d seen since we arrived.

The resident tea master then walked us through their harvesting practices and showed us their processing facility. All of the factory staff, as well ad their group of American guests, were required to wear safety goggles, booties over shoes, and the always en vogue hairnet.

The machinery used to process the scale of tea they produce annually was truly impressive. Imagine commercial-sized drying machines, used to extract any remaining moisture from the tea leaves after they’ve been withered. 20-foot-long oxidation tables in humidity-controlled rooms, piled high with leaves that would eventually become black tea. There were multi-layered sorting machines that would shimmy and shake the leaves through gradually smaller grates to separate the smaller tea particles (that would eventually be used for bagged tea) from the prized orthodox grade, large leaf tea that for higher end tea shops like TeBella. It was all so fascinating to see how the unassuming green bushes we’d walked through earlier that day eventually became this product that is at the center of so many lives.

I could probably go on for days about my experiences in the tea hills of Sri Lanka. We went on to visit half a dozen more tea estates across the country, ending our journey in the Sinharaja Rainforest. Throughout that whole week abroad, the one theme that I kept coming back to was just how inspiring the people of Sri Lanka are. Everyone we met was so kind, warm and welcoming. The tea industry professionals and their dedicated staff take their jobs and roles in the tea world so very seriously. So much so that they earnestly invest in their employees, providing on-site housing, schools, medical facilities, and even childcare for the men and women spending their days in the fields.

Sri Lanka was never somewhere I thought I would visit, not in my wildest dreams. I can definitively say that it changed my life to be able to experience that country firsthand, and truly immerse myself in the world of loose tea. I hope that everyone has a chance to go someday, and that they are able to gain a deeper insight into the complex industry that has brought them their beloved teatime classics.

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