BY JOE SIMRANY
Back from a whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka, Joe Simrany, president, Specialty Tea Institute, chronicles the recent trip the association organized and embarked upon this past summer.
From the four corners
of the U.S. and from as far away as Argentina, the little band of intrepid travelers descended upon Sri Lanka. Their motivations for participating in the tour were as varied as the individuals, but each was united by a passion for tea. Planning for the trip began well over a year ago as part of the Specialty Tea Institute’s producing country Spotlight Membership Plan. A plan designed to focus attention on the uniqueness of the Specialty Teas produced by specific member countries.
The planning phase was a time of great expectations and of great disappointments. Less than a month before the original departure date the trip was postponed because of the threat of impending war in Iraq. Thanks to the perseverance of the organizers, the patience of the participants, and the resolve of the travel agents, the trip was rescheduled for the period of August 8 through August 17, 2003.
For the most part we traveled in a comfortable bus that seemed to be so out of place on the narrow, steep roads of Sri Lanka. Thanks to the skill of our driver and his trusty assistant, we managed on most of the roads until it was necessary to transfer to vans or four-wheel drive vehicles. It was only then that we learned to appreciate the relative comfort of the bus - and why Dramamine was invented.
Our single most lasting impression of Sri Lanka, besides its mountains of tea, is the beauty of its people. Wherever we went we were met with genuine smiles that communicated: “Thanks for coming to Sri Lanka, we are happy that you have come to visit with us.” The country literally exudes a feeling of warmth and hospitality, from the workers in the fields to the country’s Prime Minister, Ranil Wickemesinghe, who several of us had the honor of meeting.
It is difficult to convey the feeling of excitement the first time one of our group spotted a tea bush. The bus nearly toppled over as we suddenly shifted from one side to the other to get a better look. Perhaps our reactions would have been more subdued had we realized that the single bush would soon be replaced by millions of bushes clinging to the mountainsides all the way up to the sky. The bushes grow in areas where you would think nothing could possibly survive. Yet the tea bush not only survives but flourishes. Nourished by the warm days, refreshed by the cooling mists, challenged by the cold nights, regulated by the steep terrain, and preened by the caring pluckers, tea covers the land as far as the eye can see.
During our tour we visited several tea estates, most of which were winners in an Estate Tea of the Year competition sponsored by the Specialty Tea Institute. The Estates had names such as Lumbini, Kirkoswald, Delmar, Concordia, Venture, & Pedro. In every case we were treated like visiting royalty and made to feel welcome. We met with owners, planters, managers, factory workers, and field workers. We plucked, tasted, smelled, and photographed tea. We watched tea being processed, we visited tea nurseries, we learned how tea is grown, and we were immersed in tea for the entire period of the tour. The only thing we could not do, with very few exceptions, was to learn how to properly pronounce the names of the cities we visited or the dozens of people that we met. Thankfully and thoughtfully, many of our hosts abbreviated their names so that we only had to remember Raj instead of Venmathirajah, or Nish instead of Nishantra Wickramasinghe.
While learning about the great Ceylon teas and the nuances between low, mid, and high grown varieties, we took time to learn about the Sri Lankan people. Some of our fondest memories are of interviews conducted with field and factory workers and we came away with a renewed commitment to help improve the market for tea as a means of improving the working conditions for this fabulous group of people. It quickly became obvious to us that we are dependent upon one another for the good of the industry. We are inextricably tied synergistically much as the tea plant is dependent upon its roots for nourishment; we are dependent upon the infrastructure that produces this near miraculous beverage.
Following our tour of the estates, we stopped at the elephant orphanage and learned how to tiptoe through the “tulips” while avoiding getting stepped on by the elephants. We lunched at a restaurant that overlooked a river while 50 or so elephants bathed only meters from where we sat. We visited a tea museum, gazed upon innumerable waterfalls, and watched as the clouds drifted across the valleys. We marveled at the monkeys as they demonstrated their acrobatic skills, the Komodo dragon we spotted alongside the road, and the king-sized bats hanging from the trees. We were mesmerized by the intense stare of the ox by the bend in the road, we cursed the lowly leach for being so prolific, and we even stopped for tea at a truck on the Rothschild Estate in Pussellawa.
During the course of our travels we ate lunch in a converted tea factory, visited the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy and shopped until we dropped in cities with names like Nuwara Eliya.
Yet another highlight of the tour was a visit to the Tea Auction in Colombo where we marveled at the rapidity of the transactions where the various auctioneers attempted to move between four and five lots of tea per minute. No snoozing allowed at this auction - and please don’t move a single body part unless you want to own the lot of tea being auctioned. For some the tour was almost over by this time and for others new duties unfolded including participation in a Food and Agricultural Meeting and the Sri Lanka Tea Convention and Trade Show. It was tough to say our good byes but thanks to the Convention organizers, who invited the entire group to the opening dinner and show, we did so in very comfortable surroundings. The cultural show featured the top dance troupe in Sri Lanka and easily rivaled a Las Vegas production.
Credit for the success of this tour must go to the Tea Board of Sri Lanka, The Planters Association, the Regional Plantation Companies, the Consultant Chamber of Commerce, John Keells Conventions, and to The Colombo Tea Traders Association. Also, to numerous individuals such as Anil Cooke of Asia Siyake, George Pelpola, Chairman and Hasitha DeAlwis of the Sri Lanka Tea Board, and Dillan Ariyawansa of Sri Lankan Travel, Inc. Finally we must recognize the many new friends that we made who will be forever known as Arjuna, Bez, Chaminda, Dharmasiri, David, Geo, Godfrey, Johann, Kenneth, Maithri, Maxwell, Mirzan, Nish, & Raj. Thank you for helping to make our dream a reality.
Tea & Coffee - October/November, 2003
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