Traveling around the South Asian island nation, I bypassed the beach resorts and saw Sri Lanka for what it is: an island nation that, despite decades of conflict, is teeming with treasures.
The man in the khaki vest slurped noisily from his cup, descended briefly into scowling meditation, spat the contents into a sink and then unleashed a torrent of approving descriptors, lavishly rolling his r’s along the way: “No foreign taste, very refreshing, robust, strong tannins, a tingly sensation at the end of the tongue — good show!”
I sipped as well and nodded gravely, thinking: right, but it’s still tea. Granted, it was excellent tea, cultivated just outside the Norwood Estate processing factory where we stood, surrounded by whirring machines and immense bags stuffed with tea leaves.
Here, near the town of Hatton, in the alluring hill country of Sri Lanka, some of the finest tea in the world is grown at an elevation exceeding 4,000 feet. And as Andrew Taylor, the vest-clad Norwood resident planter and native Sri Lankan, had made emphatically clear, everything about this beverage required martial exactitude, from the small-handed women who carefully picked the leaves to the 170 minutes the leaves spent being machine-oxidized, to the 21 minutes of drying on long trays, and at last to the 6 minutes Taylor cheerily advised me was optimal to consume my drink after it was brewed — “so bring your stopwatch, ha ha!”
Sri Lanka is a sunny heartbreak of a nation, a welcoming South Asian island country beset by three decades of ethnic war that came to an end in May of 2009, when the Sinhalese government routed the Tamil Tigers in a brutal show of overwhelming force. As many as 100,000 Sri Lankans died along the way. Another 38,000 were killed when the tsunami of 2004 pulverized the country’s eastern coast.
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It’s entirely possible to visit the country formerly known as Ceylon in a state of blissful ignorance, to ogle its elephants and leopards roaming about in the national parks or to languish on the many beach resorts in coastal Galle and Batticaloa, and in that way sidestep altogether the tragic history.
By contrast, the hill country stretching across the island’s midsection presents an authentic side of Sri Lanka that can be visited without experiencing pangs of guilt. Although largely unblemished by the long war, the roots of conflict — proud Buddhist nationalism (as evinced by the region’s great temples), the residue of British colonialism (apparent in its tea estates) and Tamil militancy (expressed in a single but notable act of violence, a deadly bombing in a Buddhist temple) — are all here to be discovered and pondered.
Navigating the hills by rail can be a beguiling experience but also a time-consuming one, as the trains move slowly through the undulating rough country and run infrequently throughout the day. I opted instead for a van with a cheerful Sinhalese driver named W.S. Yapa, who has been ferrying tourists and journalists throughout Sri Lanka for over three decades. (Sri Lanka’s roads are invariably two lane but well-paved and safe. And the country’s better hotels typically offer lodging for tourist drivers at nominal or no charge.)
On the 3-hour drive from the capital city, Colombo, to Kandy, Yapa pulled over twice so that I could visit roadside stands selling delicious locally grown cashews and boiled corn on the cob.
Kandy sits in a valley beside a placid lake that was ordered by the region’s last Sinhalese emperor. Like most Sri Lankan cities, Kandy, which has a population of 109,000, has the unzoned, mangy atmosphere of a once-small village that proceeded over generations to become sloppily urbanized.
But Kandy has its attractions.
A sumptuous marble temple contains two large shrines, along with a series of paintings that memorialize the odyssey of the Buddha’s tooth from one place to the next until the end of the 16th century, when it at last arrived in Kandy and is presently entombed in a small gold casket. Upstairs from the shrines is a small museum with incense, jewelry and other relics of the imperial era. One floor up was a memorial of a different kind: an exhibition of photographs depicting the temple’s wall in a state of semi-demolition, the result of the 1998 bomb blast attributed to the Tamil Tigers that killed 11. Sixteen years later, security guards were still frisking visitors before they entered the temple complex.
From the temple I wandered a few hundred yards into the Kandyan Art Association and Cultural Center just as an hourlong performance by traditional dancers and fire-eaters was getting under way, led by a Sumo-sized but fervid and surprisingly nimble young male dancer.
Later, Yapa and I drove from the temple into the hills above the city, where I was due for an evening at Helga’s Folly. The visual pandemonium of this rambling 35-room chalet-hotel — Dali meets Addams Family — overwhelmed me at first, like tumbling through a kaleidoscope of oil paintings, vintage furniture and spicy fragrances. As the photographs on the walls attested, the Folly’s guest dossier includes Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Sir Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck and Vivien Leigh.
Tea plantation country
I left the hotel the next morning for the 2.5 hour drive to the upcountry town of Hatton. The hills were tropical, and fruit stands girdled the two-lane A-7 highway, which had little traffic beyond the ubiquitous feral dogs and three-wheeled Asian taxis known as tuk-tuks.
As we continued to climb, past 4,000 feet, the vistas opened up to reveal majestic waterfalls and terrace after terrace of tea plants. We pushed through the compressed beehive of Hatton, past Castlereagh Lake and into the heart of tea plantation country, a world of verdant staircases occupied by laborers with heavy bags across their shoulders. I stepped out of the van into the crisp mountain air enveloping the spectacular gardens leading to the bungalow where I would stay that night.
I had arrived at Tientsin, the oldest (built in 1888) of four bungalows operated in the Hatton area by Ceylon Tea Trails, Sri Lanka’s first Relais & Châteaux resort. Shortly after I was shown to my colonial high-ceilinged room (one of six in the bungalow), the chef knocked on my door and proceeded to describe the three-course lunch and four-course dinner he had in mind for me to make sure that I had no dietary concerns.
I sat on the patio overlooking the terraces and enjoyed a near-perfect meal of carrot and coriander soup, fresh bread, grilled tuna with tarragon sauce and apple crisp. I was about to order tea when the manager informed me that wouldn’t be necessary: I had an appointment in 15 minutes at the nearby Norwood tea factory with their planter in residence, Taylor.
Two hours after my tea-slurping seminar, I went for a long stroll through the tea plantation abutting Tientsin. Along the narrow roads, the only other pedestrians were women carrying freshly plucked leaves in large sacks or bundles of tea plant branches to use as firewood back home.
The female laborers greeted me warmly and chatted among themselves as they, with their armloads, walked off into the setting sun, but I suffered no illusion that their $4-a-day livelihood was a particularly happy one.
Then I was alone again, moving through the sea of leaves, past residences pumping out local music and Bollywood dialogue. Behind me tucked into the hills was a single aglow building, the Tientsin bungalow, and I would get there, to my home away from home, when I got there.