A letter from Ceylon

Dear friend,

have you already had your tea today? Do you like it black, green or white? Do you just pour hot water onto the dry leaves or you carefully follow a ritual to get the most out of it? Have you ever wondered where the tea in your box came from, smartly packed in small bags? Which way it travelled before, flooded by the boiling fluid, it helps you to wake up, calm down, or warm up? Martin Luther King said once that “before you finish eating breakfast, you've depended on more than half of the world”. In the morning, I usually eat cereals with yogurt and a chopped banana, plus coffee with milk and some nuts. How many of these things didn't come from my own country? And if not from here, where from?

Dear, today I am writing to you from Sri Lanka. I want to tell you about a rather unusual adventure that happened to us here. As you probably know, Sri Lanka (until 1972 called Ceylon) is known for the production of tea. Currently, about a million people work directly or indirectly on it! This little island is the forth producer in the world, just after China, India and Kenya, producing 350 tons of tea per year. This is seven times less than China, although the proportion changes if we consider the production per person - China produces 1.7 kg per person, while Sri Lanka ... 16 kg!

I know, I know, numbers are hard to imagine. That's why I'll tell you that wherever you go in Sri Lanka, you can see tea plantations. They stretch in every direction, and tourists like to look at the green waves the rows of plants form along the hills, especially from the windows of crowded trains. The most famous track goes from Kendy to Ella, such a must that tickets have to be booked several months in advance. But let me tell you a secret - the route of almost every train crossing the inland of this country looks similarly impressive. Tea bushes stretching to the horizon are breathtaking, making you forget the issues that come along with monoculture - growing only one kind of plant. And Sri Lanka has had the opportunity to understand these consequences quite well.

Cylon tea is quite a fixture. Yet, did you know that tea farming is relatively recent in Sri Lanka? It was started by the Scot James Taylor in 1867. Tea, like previous crops, was brought in by the colonizers. It started with cinnamon, which was produced under the Dutch occupation, but the English thought that cinnamon wasn't profitable and began to grow coffee. After several decades, the crops were attacked by a fungus called Hemileia vastatrix, which destroyed literally all the production. At that time, coffee bushes covered most of the island. Disinclined to learn from their own mistakes, the English opted for another monoculture. After a few experiments with cocoa and cinchona, they finally switched to tea. That means tea production in Sri Lanka has been a matter of just 150 years ... enough to dominate not only the landscape, the labour market, and the culture, but also the perception outsiders have about Sri Lanka. Visiting a tea farm is one of the main attractions for tourists. We also had such a plan: we dreamed of volunteering for a farm, so that we could not only understand well how tea is produced, but also feel on our backs what does it mean to collect leaves hour after hour. Unfortunately, we didn't find volunteering opportunities, but thanks to couchsurfing.com, an hospitality exchange platform, we met Michael - the owner of a huge tea plantation, who immediately invited us to visit his place.

We arrived in the evening, too late to go immediately roaming in the plantations, so we all gathered in his huge mansion, over beer and Arrack (a kind of vodka distilled from the sap of coconut blossoms), to get to know each other in between discussions, singing and playing drums. There were four travellers and four of Michael's friends involved in one way or another in the farm activities. In addition, the cook and the plantation manager, both in their late 50s, clearly from a different class, which in Sri Lanka is quite a thing. And yet they were treated with great respect, as part of the family. In Sri Lanka, as in the nearby India, the class system is sort of rigid and people from different background are still not that willing to mingle with each other, they have different duties and they are unlikely to exchange them. It's hard to see people from, let's say, the middle class, cooking or cleaning. It is still common not only to eat separately, but also to use separate dishes. There are fairly hidden traits, thing you may not notice at a first glance; We stayed in many different places, both here and in India, and we tried to make questions and understand patterns and still it is for us such a complex issue.

At Michael's farm, the cook didn't sit down and eat with us, or at least he waited for everyone else to finish, but it was more due to his deeply ingrained feeling rather than Michael's expectations. And it has to be said, food was delicious! Rice, every time different kinds, 2-3 dishes of boiled or fried spicy vegetables, plus a piece of meat, for the few who aren't vegetarians. Most people eat with their hands, cutlery is available on request. I must admit that it took me some time to convince myself about eating with my hands, but Andrea picked up the idea immediately. Eating with hands has its own philosophy, it allows for a multi-sensory feast, you get to know the structure and texture of the food before you experience its smell and taste. However, this isn't an easy art, especially with rice. It requires some experience.

Before, after and during the meal, tea is always available, brewed from the leaves grown in the plantation. As we discovered during the evening talks, this plantation belonged to Michael's family and it was divided between him and a cousin with whom they are on good terms, although they have a different approach to business. It manifests itself in the fact that they sell tea leaves to other factories. Michael's cousin has his own factory, but Michael decided not to use it, hoping for a better deal, free of family ties. He did promise to show us his cousin's factory anyway, so we could see the tea making process from the very beginning till the end. But tomorrow, tomorrow, for now let's just play the drums...

Tomorrow started with breakfast (rice, vegetables, a piece of meat, there are no big differences from meal to meal) and obviously tea, and then slowly, with one of Michael's friends, we walked around the whole farm learning the secrets of tea production.

Just a few steps behind their house, we met the first woman picking tea. With a huge sack on her back held by a belt on her head, she was leaning over a tea bush, deftly plucking leaves with both hands. It seemed as if she collected them without much thought, but in fact that was a very careful process - she took only the two highest leaves and a bud, delicately, carefully, despite what seemed to me a dizzying speed. After a few seconds, when both hands were full, she threw the collected loot into the bag and started over. Hand-picked leaves are more valuable than machine-cut ones, which is why Sri Lanka tea is renown for its high quality. This is one of the few countries where machines haven't yet taken over the harvest. White, green and black tea come from the same plant, but their taste differs depending on the specific soil, weather, height (the higher, the more delicate, better-quality tea), and the method of further processing. If we are interested in the production of black or green tea, we tear off the two topmost leaves and a bud from each branch. If we want to deal with white tea, we only pick the bud, gently and necessarily at dawn. White tea is sometimes called Silver Tips, because of the colour the fuzz cover in dew shows. Not by chance it is the most expensive. It is the only tea made entirely by hand. The collected buds are wrapped one by one and aren't subjected to the fermentation process. There is less caffeine and more antioxidants in it, which makes white tea one of the healthiest. Green tea is also not fermented, thanks to which it retains more antioxidant properties as well. Black tea undergoes fermentation, which we got to see with our own eyes in the factory.

But for now my thoughts are still with this woman. She looks quite old, weathered by the long hours outside, and yet fast and agile. Her body is completely covered by baggy pants and a plaid shirt, though the day is hot. On the head a colourful scarf protecting against the sun, gold earrings in ears and nose. She doesn't pay much attention to us. After a series of questions, we discovered that collecting leaves and buds is mainly a female task. They collect about 18-20 kg a day. If they manage to collect more, they receive an additional bonus. Fortunately, they don't have to carry the 20 kg on their backs the all day - the leaves are delivered twice to the factory: before lunch at 12.00 and at the end of the working day at 3.30 pm. There are also various storage compartments on the farm, where they can safely store tea if needed. Their work starts at 7.00 am and lasts until the break at 10.00 am. After half an hour, called by the siren, they get back on picking, to take advantage of an hour-long lunch break at noon. From 1.00 pm to 3.30 pm, last round of collection. While women call the day to move on to their own chores, most men take over additional jobs. From the morning, their duty is about pulling out weeds and clearing the land. In the afternoon they can continue the same work elsewhere on the farm to gain some extra. And in the evenings they drink mostly cheap wine made from the sap of flowers of various kinds of palms, called Toddy. Ten times cheaper than the Arrack we tried the day before, and yet that's what so many workers spend most of their salary on. Thinking about the future and planning expenses is often too abstract for them. To be sure that collectors' families have enough to eat, Michael at the beginning of each month takes shopping lists and buys food for each family, so that they have at least basic products till the end of the month. Wholesale shopping makes it also cheaper, and tea pickers don't make much money. On Michael's farm they get 20,000 rupees per month (about 100 euro). Farmers also have free homes they have lived in for generations. The houses, or rather barracks, usually consist of a long row of small rooms, each for one extended family. Most of them are Tamils ​​from India, brought to Sri Lanka back in the times of coffee production, when there was a need of working hands. However, they haven't learned the local language, so communication with the farm owners is relatively limited. They come from a different culture, often from a different religion, celebrate different holidays, and follow different customs. Yet they live in Sri Lanka and none of them think about changing the situation. Every now and then a young couple gets married in secret and escapes the farm hoping for a better future, but they come back after a few weeks or months asking Michael for a job. And he accepts them because there is never a shortage of work. Rather, there is shortage of employees. Maybe because it is physically demanding and it must be done regardless of the weather. Rain, wind and heat cannot stop the pickers from showing up in the designated sector of the farm every day to begin their monotonous movements. Tea plants take 10-14 days to grow back their leaves before you can harvest them again. Longer than that the leaves get too tough and lose their value. There is no specific season - tea can be harvested all year round. It happens that young people work on the farm, maybe not children, but teenagers do. They have access to schools, but often after a few days or weeks they stop being interested in it, and parents don't see much value in education, since their future is anyway on the farm to collect tea. There are also some other plants on the farm for the benefit of its inhabitants, like local fruit and vegetables, but also pepper and cloves, which actually grows as a huge tree. Teenage boys specialize in collecting them, and when the season comes, it's time for them to earn a few rupees climbing trees.

Those who don't collect tea help in the factory. The one belonging to Michael's cousin prepares tea with the help of traditional machines, which, although require more work, allow for better quality. As a first step, the collected leaves are brought to the first floor, where they are laid over long conveyor belts and exposed to a hot air flow. This helps to get rid of excess water from the leaves. After about 8 hours, the dried leaves, are offloaded straight onto a machine in the ground floor which cuts, crushes and twists them - the chemicals stored in them are released from the damaged cells and combine with the oxygen of the air, starting the oxidation process - especially important for the production of black tea, the one which is produced in this factory. It is very important to control time, temperature and humidity during this process, as even slight deviations can significantly affect the final product. The outcome is piled and left to ferment. Leaves already have a different colour - from green they turned brown. Then another drying machine, which work at higher temperatures, reduces further the hydration and stops the fermentation processes. Finally the leaves are transported to a different section, where separation takes place: scrap is divided by powder and by larger pieces of leaves, which are then packed as a final product for auctions in Colombo, the largest city in the country. Bigger leaf fragments produce milder tea, which is drunk for example in England. On the other hand, the dust can be used to obtain stronger tea – very common in Poland, for example. Sri Lanka mainly exports its tea to countries of the former Soviet bloc, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Great Britain, Egypt, Libya and Japan. In Sri Lanka, tea is not allowed to be sold directly to a given customer, they are all auctioned, and the price changes from year to year. Plantation workers know that good quality tea has a better chance of being sold at a good price, which is also good for them, so everyone works hard. The factory runs 24/7. People operate the machines in various shifts, immersed in noise and rising dust. They don't usually change job position, everyone prefers to operate the same machine, which they already know. The first room - the one for drying, cutting and fermentation - is mainly served by men, while in the second room, where the powder is separated from the leaves, it is mainly a female job. The whole process - from bringing the leaves in to packing the bags with ready brown gold, takes about 16 hours. One 20-kg bag of leaves makes about 6 kg of tea.

I don't know about your tea, but mine in the mug next to the computer has cooled down long time ago, and breakfast time changed into late evening. Sri Lanka slowly goes to sleep, in the silence of the setting sun you can hear workers and plantation owners celebrating (separately) the end of the day. We start to hear birds and other animals – the plantation belongs to them during the night. There are no walls or fences here, they can enter as they wish, tea bushes don't really have enemies in the animal kingdom. There are a lot of snakes, frogs, insects, but also palm squirrels – a rodent that emits a characteristic sounds -, sometimes a small leopard or another wild cat, so better to be careful. After drinking up the cold tea, which has long lost its prised features, I wonder what I can do to support people who work hard in this part of the world. What can I do to make my daily consumption in Europe a bit more responsible towards people, animals and planet? The first rule is to eat local and seasonal products, but it's hard to find tea plants in Europe. It's a good idea to buy Fair Trade products that meet certain criteria, but it is worth bearing in mind that this type of certificate is sometimes too expensive for small farms. They often create their own local certification systems that meet similar standards but have lower costs, such as the certification system proposed by the Good Market, a Colombo-based organization that supports hundreds of people producing in Sri Lanka according to the principles “good for people and good for the planet”. The Saturday market they organize, as well as the store they opened recently, are becoming more and more popular - people want to buy healthy, local and fair products, even if they cost a bit more. It is an investment in ourselves, the planet and the society that is worth making. In Sri Lanka and anywhere else in the world.


  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Instagram Icon
  • White YouTube Icon

We are Anna and Andrea, a Polish-Italian couple traveling around the world. We are looking for changemakers,  in order to describe and share their stories.

Our journey is based on exchange: story telling and other skills in exchange for a place to sleep and food. 

Join the GoodNewsLetter

Domain: exchangetheworld.info Token: 8f33766246f6a39ac26f12d885511de2616edb4d1c5396105cb312c07a5d1a5f