Sri Lanka is my soul’s home. I’m sorry, Mother India, but your little sister island stole my heart and has kept it since my first visit in 2001. Since then, I have returned many times, but with the civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government, and the tsunami only a few weeks before another scheduled visit, my sojourns to the great island have been a bit limited. However, not so limited that my fiancé and I didn’t elope to our favorite tea estate there during the final cease fire. Undeterred, next month, I am taking a group of travelers with me to experience tea nirvana among Sri Lanka’s towering landscape of temples, tea fields, and awe-inspiring landscapes of mountain meets ocean meets tropical haven meets end-of-the-earth views of vast ocean vistas.
Upon arrival in Sri Lanka, I always go to the Galle Face Hotel, perched on a low-lying cliff in Colombo – the love-worn hotel of queens, saints, and the literati of the past 100 years. With its intricate balustrades, white-hued plaster colonial detail, rumored ghosts, and black-and-white checkerboard dance floor leading to the palm tree-lined beach, this is a place I call home and like to stay as long as they will keep me. It is a bit tattered, worn to threads, and loved equally by all who visit. Now that the civil war is over, I won’t be peering up from the saltwater pool to a young soldier in a watch tower balancing a 50-caliber gun on his shoulder while I splash around in a red bikini.
Sri Lankan teas are of exceptional quality. A perfect balance of sun, soil, precipitation, and altitude produces some of the world’s finest leaves. Several gardens are cherished for their distinct character – primarily for black teas, but more and more for designer teas, white teas, and green teas. I love the teas produced by the Ceylon estates in the Nuwara Eliya region. This hill country produces teas that vary from buttery, rich, and raisin sweet with perfectly balanced tannins to teas with strong citrus notes, tobacco flower, and crisp bright liquors. The best teas are produced during the dry season when the monsoons are not dousing the plants with excessive rain. In Sri Lanka, often the drier conditions produce more complex teas.
Next month, I am taking a group of winning baristas and consumers with me who all competed to win a trip to the tea estates with “The Mistress of Tea” (I find this title a lot more fun than “the person at the tea company who does just about everything!”). We will taste teas of several biodynamic, organic, and fair trade estates and travel to the “World’s End,” where we will stay at the Tea Factory Hotel, which is a 4-star hotel converted from a working tea factory.
I have not returned since my wedding a few years ago, the war came to a peak, and my pregnancy kept me quiet for a while. It will be exciting to see the tea plant my husband and I planted when we were married, the estate manager promising to harvest it only when we returned. If it is like my marriage, it will be a complex and healthy bramble of sweetness that may steep itself into a fruity and slightly zany cuppa. If the harvest is enough to share, I may bring some back to gift to friends in a special tin called “Happy Married Life” tea. One point that the tea pluckers who threw our wedding were very clear about was that in a Tamil Hindu traditional wedding like ours, we are married for 7 lifetimes. So maybe the tea should be called “Pray we still want to be married in 600 years” tea.
My son is the reason I started the tea company, and yet this will be his first trip to the tea estates. I was always so worried about his health that I insisted he stay home with my family while I trekked through developing nations in my quest for the best teas and the most intriguing stories. He just turned 11 and will fly with me to Dubai for a long layover, where we will have a meal in the famed sail-shaped building and then head to Sri Lanka ahead of our guests in order to have time to meditate in the temples and sip tea on the verandah of the Galle Face. He is most excited about visiting the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, while I am most excited to share him with our tea growers and estate workers as he was the inspiration for my tea company. It will be the melding of two dreams and passions into an integrated moment in time. He will see how the children of this beautiful country live and I pray it will open his eyes in a life-changing way as it did mine.
I anticipate many entries for T Ching to be inspired by this next trip of mine. After this trip, it’s potentially China again and certainly India, and I am opening my journeys up to guests who want to join me. It’s a kind of an eco-tourist project that I think may be compelling to those who want a gypsy tea lady as a host. I will report back from Sri Lanka, as my next post is due while I am there. I anticipate my posts will include news on the newest batches of tea and all of their glorious nuances, many good travel stories, and the effects our fair trade dollars continue to have on the gardens from which we source our lovely teas. My hope is to inspire you to visit this country and enjoy its divine offerings in both fine tea and spiritual bounty.