Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sri Lanka Tea Country–Madulkelle

At dawn, a blue mist hovers in the distant mountains. Waking birds begin their songs, as smoke rises from the village below. Suddenly the hills come alive with sound, blending Hindu bells, Buddhist chants, the Muslim call to prayer. Presently, figures appear on the road, moving among tea bushes to take up their places, their bent backs dotting the hillside.
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It was a good thing the predicted rain hadn’t materialized. As we wound uphill, you could cut the uncertainty with a knife. Both Mark and our driver Leslie seemed to think that the hotel we’d booked could not be this far, not on a road this rugged.  But as we passed village after village, easing around water tanks, lorries, and tuk-tuks, we kept seeing tiny signs with arrows: “Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge.”

Keep going, I insisted. Finally, we rounded a curve to see, like an apparition, a white, rounded building perched on a not too distant hillside. “There it is!” Mark was still doubtful but I recognized the tea plantation estate house I’d seen on the website. “There’s the pool! That’s it. I know it. Keep going. Trust me.”

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After the day-long drive from Colombo, it was a great relief to climb out of the car to the greetings of the hotel staff, who were rejoicing to see that we’d made it. They know how difficult the road is, and when guests arrive it’s a victory. They ushered us in, handed us welcome drinks, and in no time we were escorted to our lodging. Meanwhile, they directed Leslie to the driver’s quarters, where he would stay for the two nights we were there.

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From the moment we got to Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge (pronounced model-kelly) I was in absolute heaven. Each lodge – I think there are 18 of them, but we could only see a few, they blend in so well – is a stand-alone tent cabin built on a platform facing Sri Lanka’s distant Knuckles mountain range, which really does look exactly like the knuckles of my hand.

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The surrounding hills are contour planted with row after row of verdant green, uniformly pruned tea bushes. It seemed impossible that a land could look this perfectly manicured. It looked the California wine country in spring, with the fresh green growth, but different. Like it had just been given a haircut with electric clippers.

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The estate house, which is designed as a great room and has the feeling of a large and comfortable home, has a library alcove and a sitting area with a large fireplace where guests gather and chat over a cocktail or glass of wine before dinner, or just relax and read.

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The dining area and outdoor seating on the veranda have views of the gardens, infinity pool, and mountains beyond.

Sri Lanka  (732)The kitchen serves local Sri Lankan dishes made with fresh organic produce grown right next to the estate house. The French director, Philippe, was onsite while we were there, and spoke with me about the hotel’s mission, corporate farming, and GMO. Madulkelle is the first of its kind in Sri Lanka, and there are plans underway for another property, designed using permaculture priciples.

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Philippe said, almost apologetically, that the tea production of the property is small; they only have 10 hectares, or about 24 acres, and 10% of it is planted in tea. They just don’t have the land for more; the rest is taken up by the estate house, gardens, pool, paved pathways, and other infrastructure.

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The tent cabins are heavy-duty canvas, with all the amenities – electricity, full bathroom with hot shower, comfortable bed with mosquito netting, in-room coffee and tea. But no internet! And no TV! Only the spectacular views from the balcony, with the world of tea spread out below us. In the morning, we woke up to a view of the mountains, the music of the surrounding villages, and drank our tea and coffee outside. We used the wireless internet in the estate house at breakfast.

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The first morning, I sat on the porch with the binoculars and cameras, looking at the mists and the trees and watching the village directly below come alive. Tea workers live in one or two rooms that are built side by side in rows known as line houses, on land owned by the tea companies.

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A line of women, with white sacks on their backs, moved uphill along the road, and a group of workers, one man and the others women, formed a bucket brigade, passing water to the man who poured it on newly planted tea bushes.

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Then I noticed a movement in the bushes just below me. It was a Toque Macaque, a species of monkey that lives only in Sri Lanka. He seemed to be doing the same thing I was – watching the sunrise and the workers, and reflecting on the goodness of life. Then his fellow troop members arrived for a play session.

Sri Lanka  (559)Despite the small percentage of tea on the property, tea bushes line the pathways and surround the cabins. On our way back from breakfast, we found several tea pickers just outside of our Hornbill tent cabin. They continued picking without a pause, but smiled for my camera. Tea pickers, and tea sorters in the factories, are mostly women, usually several generations from the same family, and are very poor, making about 500 rupees ($4) per day.

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Tea pickers are Hindu Tamils, descendants of Indian Tamils who came to Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, during the period of British control in the early 1800’s to work as coffee pickers, until the coffee industry was wiped out by disease around 1870 and quickly replaced by tea.

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They pluck just the top two leaves and bud from the plant.

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Carrying their bags on their backs and picking with both hands, they reach over their heads to place the leaves in the sack. Each worker is paid by the kilo, with a daily target of 15 to 20 kg per day.

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Mark and I both fell in love with this place. So peaceful. A swim in the pool will make you feel like you are on the edge of a mountain. Which, actually you are, at 3,000 feet. The views were otherworldly, the food was beautiful, everything was perfect.

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The best thing of all for us both was that, unlike Africa, we could walk. Anywhere and everywhere. The tea country is riddled with paths, following the contours, cutting through the rows, connecting to each other and the roads. All you have to do is put your feet on the ground and start moving. You are exploring, and the opportunities are limitless

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That morning, we hiked directly uphill from our cabin. Near the road, we found ourselves at the Staff and Driver’s Quarters, and there was Leslie with a beatific smile on his face. “I slept very well! he said. He, like us, would enjoy a relaxing day with the other drivers.

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Up the road, we came to a village. What a colorful world. As we approached I asked, using gestures, if I may take photos, and received nods. At the preschool, one little girl appeared at the door, soon joined by several of her classmates, all saying “Hello! Goodbye! Hello! Goodbye!” That’s about all the English most villagers seemed to know.

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The hotel has a social responsibility program (the sign in this photo has something to do with it) and works with the villages, providing seed money and helping with fundraisers for education and the arts. Philippe admitted to me that the program was growing slowly; everything takes time, and the hotel has only been open for a year.

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The children were so cute in their little uniforms. All school children in Sri Lanka wear European-style uniforms to school except for the Muslim girls, who wear cloaks and head scarves. Overall, the literacy rate  is about 90%; most children in Sri Lanka go to school.

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I climbed the up the road to see the Hindu temple and view the village from above.

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Our afternoon walk took us downhill, where there was a village with a “pharmacy” that Mark wanted to go see. Mind you, this would be nothing like the pharmacy you might go to. Think of a dark, gritty, unorganized shop, in a row of hole-in-the-wall businesses, with a mishmash of mostly unidentifiable items of indiscernible age and provenance … I wondered what he was thinking. Also, he wanted to check out a place called “Madulkelle Club.” Whatever that was.

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Didn’t matter, we never got there. We got ourselves lost in this wonderland, found the waterfall, the laundry pool where a young couple was washing their clothes, got further downhill than we had meant to, completely missing the pharmacy village without realizing it but finding another village, which was named Madulkelle, where the children said, “Hello! Goodbye!” as we walked through.

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Finally, we decided to hail a tuk-tuk. Have I mentioned tuk-tuks yet?

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They are as ubiquitous as the palm trees, the tea bushes, and the stray dogs. Every village seems to have at least one. Every few minutes, even in this seemingly remote place, we could hear the familiar “tuk-tuk” sound as the little three-wheeled vehicle appeared around the bend, hauling schoolchildren or shoppers uphill to their villages.

We hailed one on his way back down. He didn’t quite understand where we wanted to go, mainly because we didn’t know ourselves; we didn’t realize that the village we thought we were going to was now back uphill.

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Didn’t matter. We ended up at the Hatale Tea Factory, where we were given an impromptu tour by the manager. We arrived at the late-afternoon changing of shifts, so the rolling, firing, and grading machines were still.

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Workers were hauling in the day’s pickings, refilling the troughs where the tea leaves are first “withered” removing moisture using the ambient temperature and large fans.

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There are several more steps, including rolling and twisting the leaves using an ingenious rolling machine to bring out the enzymes, then fermenting, firing in a high-tech wood-fueled oven to preserve flavor and color, and grading. The finished tea is packed into paper bags, checked for quality, and transported to the packaging facility.

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We were also introduced to the many types of tea, the main three being black, green, and white. White tea, or “silver tips,” is made using just the single bud of the tea plant, and is rolled by hand and dried in the sun.

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In addition to the factory, Hatale has a museum. Unfortunately it was getting late, and the sun was getting ready to set. We didn’t want to miss sundowners on our little balcony. Our tuk-tuk was waiting to take us uphill to the lodge.

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As darkness descended, we heard drums in the village below.  Oh, how I wished to see the drummers, how many were they? Was there dancing? Was it a special occasion? It was spellbinding.

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We’ve been to a lot of places in the past couple of years. Castles in Rhineland. Cafes in Paris. Palaces in India. The Taj Mahal! But, I have to say, Madulkelle had us … enchanted.

Next: A harrowing drive to Galle, the likes of which had never been done before.

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