Tea-Induced Time Travel

When I sat down to write this, I had a cup of tea next to me. When I sat down to finish it, I had another, and a third will keep me company as I edit the photos. Tea is my ritual, my companion, my main source of caffeine; for some reason, though my body has opted to reject coffee, it has fully embraced the concept of gnarly-looking fermented leaves soaked in water.

By day five of our trip I knew how tea grew and was harvested, but I did not yet know how it was transformed into something I could drink. So, after our very filling lunch of idli and chutney, we stopped by the Dambatenne Tea Factory, built 125 years ago by Sir Thomas Lipton and still in operation. Factories like this are scattered all across Hill Country, though some now sit empty, their windows cracked and grounds disheveled.

This tour was one of the most surreal experiences of my trip, and it pains me we weren’t allowed to film or photograph inside. I’ve found a few images online that help, and I guess I will be forced to use my words…….

This was the closest I’ve come to time travel. Visually speaking, these factories haven’t changed much since they were built; they’re tall, box-like structures with ornamental hedgerows out front, each declaring, “I am a Product of The English Industrial Revolution.”

Inside the lobby (where we were allowed to photograph), prints of colonial-era propaganda hung on the walls. They were mainly idealized images of tea planters (the name given to British and Scottish plantation managers), with a few hyper-sexualized drawings of Sri Lankan women.

With the exception of a several newer machines from the 1960’s and 70’s, the factory itself looked as though nothing had changed in a century. Everything—including the workers themselves—was covered in a fine layer of tea dust, a sort of 19th century patina. Inside it was noisy, warm, and smelled of damp tea leaves, as though I’d stuck my nose in an old teapot and inhaled. The workers wore faded green uniforms, and there was always someone sweeping with a twig broom, trying to keep back the endless tide of dust.

We climbed worn wooden stairs to the attic, where the newly-picked tea was spread out on massive tables to dry.


Next, it moved down to the main floor, where an elaborate series of drying machines and grinders transform millions of leaves into powder, which was either packed down and left to ferment (for black tea), or dried immediately (for green). A few more machines sorted it according to quality, and the finished tea was packaged into large sacks and sent to auction. Huge, multi-paned windows bordered the top third of the building, filtering in a golden, natural light. This only added to the feeling I was hanging out on a typical Wednesday in 1901.  

At the end of the tour, when we asked for tea, we discovered the old-world bureaucratic order of the place. Though standing in a tea factory in clear view of tea bags, tea cups, and a tea kettle, we were denied a cup “Because the man who makes the tea is not here today.” After we realized the guide who delivered this ironic news was not joking, Seth asked if we could buy some tea bags they had for sale and make it ourselves; the poor guy just needed to get footage of me drinking a cup. Nope. Also denied. So, we thanked our guide for the tour, drove back into Bandarawela, and settled into a small café where tea was very much on offer.

It was busy, with people sitting in groups of twos or threes and sharing short eats off plastic trays. Butter cake was also a popular snack, which the man behind the counter sliced off big, dense-looking square slabs.

Out front, another man was tasked with making piles of delicate, fresh hoppers.

Our time travel continued that evening. Passing through the town of Ella, we drove high into the mountains to visit the home of a tea planter, the title given to a high-ranking plantation manager. As with the tea factory, we weren’t allowed to photograph him either, or know the name of the tea corporation for which he works. By this time, Seth and I were wide-eyed—we had no idea the tea industry was so clandestine!

Our host was a tall and handsome man who, for censorship purposes, I’ll call Frank. His jeans, boots, and pocketed camel-coloured shirt made him look like a safari guide, but here’s the most curious thing about Frank: he’s a born and raised Sri Lankan who lives the life of a 19th century white British tea lord. How, exactly?

The hierarchical system that supports the tea economy is almost exactly as it was a century ago, except now it’s all Sri Lankans running the show. People like Frank are hand-selected out of school to become “planters” (managers), and undergo intensive training in every aspect of the industry. Once they’re managing operations for a company, they assume the house (and lifestyle) of the white colonial managers who came before them. Frank, therefore, lives alone in a large, stately house at the top of a mountain, with grounds maintained by gardeners and employees who cook and clean.

When we arrived, we sat on the verandah and admired the view, which happened to include a rainbow that afternoon. A servant brought us tea in fine English China, and we talked. Frank told us about his education, how it’s close to impossible to find tea that’s sourced from a single plantation (though that’s what we had the privilege of drinking then), and I told him about life in Canada.

Eventually we headed inside to the kitchen, passing the house’s multiple dining and living rooms along the way. Each had a wind chime hanging in the door way.  

I (sort of) helped cook our dinner, all of which—the curry, rice, and even custard for dessert—included black tea.

We ate in the main dining room, which had walls covered in black and white pictures of classical composers and musicians, as well as a fireplace, like every other room I’d seen.

Architecturally speaking, the house had such a colonial air to it, I felt as though we could have all been gathered in the drawing room wearing safari gear, post-leopard hunt, while servants delivered trays of whisky and cigars. Then Frank told us how much he likes listening to Boyz II Men, and I swiftly returned to present day. Actually, I returned to 1995, but close enough.


*This is part of a series of posts I'm writing for World Nomads, as part of their incredible Passport and Plate program. Read about it and their other scholarships here!