In the Hills of Sri Lanka’s Tea Country

Up countryThe 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 six minutes Mr. Taylor cheerily advised me was optimal to consume my drink after it was brewed — “so bring your stopwatch, ha ha!” Nonetheless, I confessed that I had other liquid preferences.

“Coffee has almost no medicinal effects,” the planter scoffed. A regimen of four cups of tea a day, on the other hand, would indemnify me against indigestion, heart disease and general dysfunction. I asked Mr. Taylor how many cups he consumed daily.

He beamed and replied, “Five to six.”

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 its eastern coast.

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 scabs of 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. Though 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.

At the same time, the region feels like its own country, as it essentially was when the Buddhist Kingdom of Kandy held sway over the hills five centuries ago. It is noticeably cooler, higher and greener than elsewhere on the island, with the omnipresent terraces of neatly pruned waist-high tea plants as its aesthetic and economic organizing principles. Today Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth-biggest producer of tea; most of it, along with the island nation’s excellent cinnamon, comes from the hill country.

The names of the plantations — Strathdon, Shannon, Kenilworth — are distinctly Anglo and many of the field workers today are descendants of the “plantation Tamils” who were transported by boat from southern India to pick the first tea leaves cultivated in the 1860s. (Shortly after the British awarded Ceylon its independence in 1948, the new Sinhalese government stripped the Indian Tamils of their voting rights, setting into motion ethnic grievances that would eventually lead to war.)

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 three-hour drive from the capital city, Colombo, to Kandy, Mr. 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.

I killed a couple of hours gathering up dried peppers and cinnamon at the local market and wandering through the tearooms — but really, one comes to Kandy for three principal reasons. One is to visit the Royal Botanical Gardens, across from the university about three miles from the city — though I’ll confess that I did not do so, because it was drizzly and the grounds are famous above all for their orchids, and even on a dry day I am strangely underwhelmed by orchids.

Besides, Kandy’s other two attractions were easily worth the trip. The first is the famed Buddhist sacred Temple of the Tooth, in the very center of town. While paying 1,000 rupees (about $8 at 125 rupees to the dollar) for admission, I noticed the security guard informing a female tourist that her dress did not cover her knees. Unruffled, the woman walked over to a nearby clothing vendor and, for about 25 cents, rented a sarong, wrapped it around her waist and strolled through the security gates. I slipped off my shoes, entered through the security booth and found myself in a crease of the city where all is suddenly hushed and orderly.

The 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.
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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 underway, led by a Sumo-sized but fervid and surprisingly nimble young male dancer. Watching them hop across a bed of fiery coals reminded me that I needed to retrieve my shoes. I did so, called Mr. Yapa on my cellphone and together we 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 — 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 60-year-old guest dossier includes Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Sir Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck and Vivien Leigh. The suite I stayed in felt like a large, dramatically lit family scrapbook. A sign admonished me to keep the windows closed so that monkeys wouldn’t raid the kitchen. Peering out, I could see a few of them scampering from the treetops.

While eating my excellent curried lamb in the candlelit dining room connected to my suite, a red-haired, pale-skinned woman in a crushed velvet dress and oversized sunglasses materialized from an unseen staircase. This was the proprietress, Helga Perera. She asked if she could join me and then told my waiter to bring me a different dessert, her personal favorite — though, to be honest, I was no longer paying attention to the food.

When I inquired as to what planet she was from, Ms. Perera said that she was born and raised in Kandy, the daughter of a prominent Sri Lankan politician and a mother who was active in Berlin’s Bauhaus art scene. For the last few decades she had lived in the private quarters upstairs with her third husband, a former local tea planter and presently a “total recluse” surrounded by weathered books.

Ms. Perera said her mother had designed this structure as their family home, as “a sort of Bauhaus” artist collective, and that to this day artist friends stayed at her hotel to pursue their inspirations. I found myself wondering if Jack Torrance, the murderously blocked writer in “The Shining,” might have found a more agreeable balance of work and play at Helga’s Folly.

I left the hotel the next morning in a lingering state of stupefaction. The 40-mile drive upcountry to the town of Hatton took us two and a half hours. 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. When 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 suddenly lost all memory of that unforgettable place in Kandy.

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, Mr. 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 British planters had long since left the hills: Their estates had been expropriated by the new government in the 1950s, then returned to them a few years later, though the ensuing years of war and government-initiated land reform efforts had compelled their interests elsewhere.

Even under local ownership, however, a colonial air pervades the region. The women 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.

Presently I was alone, 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 when I got there.

Mr. Yapa picked me up the next morning at 7:30. The three-and-a-half-hour drive along the A-5 to Ella was even more absurdly beautiful — velvety mountains, the mighty Devon Falls, the twinkling Gregory Lake, the wildly baroque roadside Rama Sita temple — than the previous day’s journey. And an even sweeter surprise was Ella itself, the one town I would unhesitatingly recommend as a destination. (Caveat: I didn’t have time to visit the much-touristed city of Nuwara Eliya with its profusion of vegetable gardens and fine colonial buildings.)

Ella possesses an agreeable scruffiness, the tea plantations and noble birch trees sharing the landscape with a host of ramshackle restaurants and guesthouses. A couple of miles past town, we pulled in to the Secret Ella, a sleek resort that had opened only two months earlier. The concierge showed me to my shiny wood-and-concrete room and presented me with a mobile phone with which I could summon him at a moment’s notice.

Though it was getting chilly, I could not resist the rolling views from the dining patio, where I was presented with enough food — fruit salad, wild mushroom soup, curried fish — to fortify five of me. I did what I could before wandering down the road to the Secret Ella’s big sister, the lovely 98 Acres Resort, with its swimming pool seemingly hoisted up by the tea terraces.

I took a drink at the bar and continued my stroll downhill toward Ella. Then the rain began to fall hard. Drenched, I staggered into a place called the Curd & Honey Shop, at the town’s main junction. Those gathered on the covered patio were similarly soaked: a German family of four, a Chinese female traveler and an American techie named Neil who had cashed out a few years ago and was now backpacking across Asia, with tomorrow’s destination being Kandy where a five-day course in meditation awaited him. I counseled Neil to visit Helga’s Folly. Then I ordered a pot of tea, which cost about a dollar.

I sat there for an hour or so, watching the rain thin out while the ancient properties of the local beverage worked their magic on me. Newly imbued and somewhat dry, I marched back uphill.(New York Times)

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