Tea Time

I have been nominated by LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) to be artist in residence at Sura Medura in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. I will be researching the production and consumption of tea.

It was a Scot, James Taylor, who in 1867 supervised the sowing of the first commercial seeds of camellia sinensis, the evergreen plant from which we make tea. 2017 marks the 150th anniversary. And even after only a few days here I have witnessed the iconic status Taylor has here, amongst tea industry folks.

Sura Medura, which translates as ‘heavenly place’, was born out of tragedy. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, sometimes known as the ‘Boxing Day tsunami’, affected 14 countries, caused major destruction, and killed hundreds of thousands of people. It devastated much of the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. Neil Butler (artist, curator, surfer) who has had a relationship with Hikkaduwa for many years, asked the local community what he could do. They told him to set up an art centre. The residency scheme is part of his programme of work. I am one of 5 artists currently visiting on a rolling programme.

Until the dedicated building is completed, artists visiting Sura Medura stay at Sun Beach hotel, which sits, as the name would suggest, in the sun, on the beach. It is one of many hotels along the treacherous Galle Road, which stretches 125km from the capital Colombo, to the Dutch colonial port city of Galle. On the west side of the Galle Road is the ocean, on the east is the jungle. It’s quite a polite jungle here, somewhat tamed by the villas and more modest homes that are scattered among its narrow concreted pathways, but it gives you a sense of what might lie beyond.

You don’t need to look very far to see why Sri Lanka has a reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful islands. Flowers frill, spike, and pleat their bright colours on a background of rich green leaves.

Those same leaves are used to particularly stylish effect in this woven wall-blind-door system, which wrestles the unruly natural world into a practical and pleasing thing.

This picturesque ‘jungle convenience store’ had an extremely charming set of balance scales.

And then there is the beach: miles of golden sand and surf. Hikkaduwa is a ‘surfer’s paradise’ and that is one of the main draws for Neil Butler. I admit to not really getting surfing. In New Zealand last year I gave it a go and found the 5 second exhilaration of cruising the wave too small a pay-off for being battered by the board, the rip tide, and the salt-water assault. Neil says you either let it go straight away or become an addict. He also explained that part of the hippy culture that has become synonymous with surfing is about a respect for the ocean, an understanding of global tides and currents, the physics of the wave, and learning to be in tune with the white-capped swell. This has given me a better appreciation for what surfing might be: not so much an attempt to control nature but rather a way towards better understanding it.

My trip to Sri Lanka however, is not about the water that rolls out of the ocean but rather that in a teacup.

After China and India, Sri Lanka was for many years the third largest tea producer in the world. (It has now been overtaken by Kenya.) More than 1 million people are involved in the tea industry (5% of the population). Tea is responsible for 2% of GDP.

Tea is the stuff of social chitchat and of international wars. Tea is at once a very English thing and at the same time ‘foreign’. It is an example of how international connections and trade routes have made England ‘English’. Tea challenges the common sense assumptions about nationhood because it is an immigrant culture that has been assimilated and transformed. It is immigrant to both Sri Lanka as a non-native crop, and the UK as our favourite drink. Tea troubles the politics of identity. It is also a refreshing drink.

I want to explore some of the contradictions inherent in tea (from tea garden to pot). Travelling from the ocean at Hikkaduwa to the mountains of Kandy, mirroring the journey of the seeds that were planted 150 years ago. Tea operates on the social level between two individuals chatting over a shared pot of tea, and on the global scale of major nation defining industry.

Although there is more surf culture than tea culture in Hikkaduwa, tea is everywhere in Sri Lanka. At the local ‘wholesale and retail’ merchant, Golden Lanka Tea, the signs appeal to customers in Sinhala, English, and Russian. (There are many tourists from Russia in Hikkaduwa.)

I order my first 100g of tea from the famous Nurawa Eliya region, often referred to as Sri Lanka’s ‘champagne of teas’. The owner delved into a massive sack with a scoop and measured it out. She scores 101g on her first attempt. She deposits the contents into a simple foil bag and secures it with a heat seal. It cost 150Rs, about 80 pence. In conversation, I express some basic knowledge of tea varieties, regions, and preparation methods. She gives me a bunch of samples. “Try them and come back when you’ve decided which one you like,” she says.

Along the road is the supermarket. It is wide-aisled and pristine, though no less interesting than Golden Lanka Tea, albeit for very different reasons. Tea is the most expansive section.

It is packaged in an amazing array of boxes. Elephants feature widely.

Of particular interest were these oddities. Tea caddies carved out of coconut shells in the shape of monkeys and bunny rabbits. I think it would be safe to say these are seeking to appeal to the heart of the tourist market rather than a local, or a tea connoisseur.

And the cultural appeal is often very targeted. What is essentially the same tea, is packaged either as authentic Sri Lankan…

…suitably Russian…

…or perfect for that English breakfast… oh, or, erm, that Finnish breakfast.

This is especially interesting to me because it seems like ‘evidence’ of the slippery way which tea is somehow performing nationhood and belonging.

For my own part, I chose to save my life. Although Sri Lanka is known for its ‘red’ tea, or what we know as ‘black’ tea in England, 1982 saw the first production and exportation of green tea. It has struggled. Green tea is marketed as a medicinal product. Nowhere could this be more explicit than on the packaging for this Paradise Farm Organic Green Tea. A blazing typeface proclaims potentially fatal diseases: cholesterol, strokes, cancer, gastric, diabetics. ‘SAVE YOUR LIFE’, the helpful label proclaims, ‘with Organic Green Tea’. How could I resist?

And I might need my life saved, because I have been getting some sharp electric shocks from my tired computer charger cable. In fear of both the shock and of being in this garden of Eden without the ability to check my emails (erm…), I decided to take the 2 hour train journey to Colombo to try and find a replacement. The picturesque image of the tracks stretching north through the jungle belies the reality of the most extraordinary theatre of the train. Next time I shall attempt some discrete documentation. Hawkers, buskers, beggars, inspectors, clergy, lovers, families, and workers, pass along the gangway in a constant flow of human activity. It was an extremely filmic and rapidly changing world that passed in front of me. I barely turned my head to look out the window, and at 160Rs (about 85 pence) one of the best value experiences of my life.

Arriving at Colombo Fort station I was immediately accosted by a plethora of tuktuk drivers and after some failed haggling, I agreed the price. (“You may have paid 160Rs to get from Hikkaduwa to Colombo but there were 3,000 people on that train. We will be crossing to the other side of the city. It will take half an hour. Just you and me. I am a licensed driver!” Fair enough.) We were on our way to Future World, one of the few official Apple product resellers in Sri Lanka. This first experience of Colombo was of my tuktuk driver’s bun and the heady taste of carbon monoxide. I felt I might as well have been sucking a car exhaust as though a straw.

I was however safely deposited at the relative serenity of Future World where the authorized technician told me there was nothing wrong with my cable charger. In the euphoria of having successfully found the shop and in the suspicion that he might be wrong, I allowed myself to make the purchase anyway.

As I was in Colombo with a few hours to spare, I decide to further my research, and walk the 20 minutes to the Sri Lanka Tea Board.

The public face of the Sri Lanka Tea Board is tea sales, where you can be assured that the ‘Ceylon Tea’ symbol of quality means what it states.

Here you can buy a full range of Ceylon Teas, from the everyday to the exceptional.

A sign on the wall asserts the ‘DIVERSITEA IN SPECIALITEA’ and indeed the regional variation of tea taste resulting from the land in which the gardens are planted is, by all accounts, unparalleled for such a small land mass.

I had not come to buy tea. Instead, I make my way around the side of the building to the office reception. The first sight that greets you is an enormous bust of pioneer tea planter James Taylor. (It’s difficult to tell from the photograph but his head and torso reach up to the height of an average man.) A sign reads, ‘It is to him that Ceylon Tea owes its worldwide fame.’

The most welcoming of receptionists asks how she can help me, and on the presentation of my business card and my request, she calls up to the Librarian. Skirting round the building a bit further I come to a sign marked ‘Analytical Laboratory’. This is the action end of the Tea Board, where the quality of Ceylon Teas are established and checked. It is also the site of an archive.

A little overwhelmed by the volume of titles, all on one subject, I skim the shelves for something that might be useful. This may only be the first of several trips but I want to make the most of it.

I stumble upon an explanation of the way in which the plantations historically operated almost as tiny surrogate states.

‘In structural terms, the estate sector was developed under the colonial administration as an enclave separated from the rest of the economy due to the plantations depending mainly on foreign entrepreneurship, immigrant labour from South India, and either imported or reinvested capital. They cultivated just one important indigenous resource – land suitable for cultivation of tropical tree crops. This land was cheap and plentiful.’
[Snodgrass, D.R. (1966) Ceylon: An Export Economy in Transition p.4]

This further promotes the idea that tea sits at a cultural intersection, oftentimes one that is painful. It also complicates the Tea Board’s assertion that Ceylon Tea is ‘…a product of Sri Lanka and no other origin’. Of course it is a product of Sri Lankan land, but not Sri Lankan land alone. The seeds that grew the plants on this soil came from Assam. They traveled as part of a global network of trade routes, commercial exploitation, and colonial power.

One the way out of the building I pass the Tea Tasting Unit. Wafting from this humble door is the wonderful smell of fresh, perfectly brewed tea. It is overpowering: floral, malty, fresh, and alive.