Growing up I drank tea every morning. I was never thrilled about this routine, yet my mother and Sri Lankan culture were insistent that it was to be apart of a healthy breakfast. The older I became, I realised that I had grown to like tea, without the fixins of milk or sugar.
Recently, I had the chance to visit a tea estate in Sri Lanka for the first time in over a decade. As a child, I was overwhelmed by the beauty. However, this recent trip was accompanied by the prominent feeling of discomfort.
The first time I went to a tea estate was during a vacation with my parents when I was around five years old. My most notable memory of that time was how beautiful it was and how big the house we stayed in was. We spent most of our time walking through the fields and getting an experience of the tea plantation which was entirely from the perspective of the owner. We could leisurely enjoy the acres of beautiful land whilst hundreds of women plucked tea and worked in the factory around us, to provide the tea we drank, and which I never did enjoy when I was young.
The first thing I noticed when we got to the resort this time was the women picking tea. They were working right outside the door to the room we stayed in. We came to the estate on my insistence, because I love tea and wanted to experience what I had as a child as an adult.
Tea is habitual for me, it calms me and keeps me awake. It's become my go to drink whenever I'm stressed or studying or simply need to feel comforted. It's something I drink daily and I wanted to see how it was created. I knew how tea was produced and had seen the workers and their state of living before, but the change in my level of understanding since then meant that I could now understand the implications of the tea picking womens’ circumstances. The realization that these women work from seven am to five pm every day, during misty, rainy weather on dangerously high cliffs, and cannot afford the tea they pluck.
In Sri Lanka, very few people can afford to drink the best quality tea. Tea is graded according to size of the leaves and their placement on the tea plant. Most of the best teas are whole leaf and are plucked during very specific times of the year. These teas are quite expensive for the average person who works at a tea plantation, and even the average person in Sri Lanka. The type of tea that people can afford here is called Fanning and Dust. Fannings are made up of very finely broken coarse tea leaves and Dust is the leftover broken leaves from making better quality tea. These two types are of the lowest quality. The best quality teas are sold and exported to over 40 countries around the world, mainly countries of the former Soviet bloc and the United Arab Emirates.
I personally dislike Fanning quality tea. In Canada, I don't drink it because good quality tea is only slightly more expensive than the lesser quality tea. And this was where the magnitude of my privilege becomes clear. My privilege is in my options. It's in how I can completely disregard the only type of tea that most Sri Lankans can afford to drink — despite it being grown and harvested there. Even the most middle class Canadian is incredibly privileged. I am in the top 10% of the world’s wealthiest people and it's uncomfortable to realise that.
I was incredibly discomfited throughout my time at the tea estate and I think that was entirely appropriate. I feel that many people from first world countries live in too much of a privilege bubble and traveling moves one away from that. Though the living conditions of the tea estate employees are quite difficult, their level of education and literacy is rising. There are also workshops and foundations which have been created to aid tea plantation workers in becoming more economically independent and stable.
I enjoyed this recent trip to Sri Lanka. I also enjoyed visiting a tea estate as a child, but these two are distinct experiences. It was easier to find the beauty in the location and have fun when I was young and naive. This time, there was a constant undertone of guilt. I was constantly "checking my privilege". It was an experience more about expanding my social awareness than it was about enjoying a vacation but it was one that I do not regret.