High in the hills of central Sri Lanka sits some of the most absolutely beautiful farmland I’ve ever seen. Stretching for miles and miles and miles, the tea plantations which cover the region to the south of Kandy show off a landscape that is impressive in many ways. Nearly the entire countryside is planted; every available inch – right up to the edge of cliffs – seems to have some tea growing on it.
And this is not land that is easy to work. At least it wouldn’t be with most modern machinery. Instead nearly all of the work on the land is done by hand, allowing for more of the land to be planted and harvested.
The plantations are somewhat inconsistent in their layout. Some are quite orderly, with straight rows of plants which look "normal" to someone coming from a mechanized farming view. Others appear more haphazard, with clusters of bushes crowded together. Because only humans, not machinery, pass amongst the plants this actually works quite well in both arrangements, with the planting pattern maximizing the coverage of the land.
The tea is planted right up to the edge of the highways, again maximizing the coverage. There are areas marked as "buffer zones" but it is not particularly clear what the impact of that is in terms of the planting or the harvest.
And then there are the women – nearly all the field workers are female – out in the fields, working the land. The seem pretty happy to show off for tourists passing through with cameras, even if they are basically being paid unlivable wages for toiling in the fields. They gather the tea leaves into bags they carry on their heads, cashing out at the end of a shift when the field boss shows up to weigh the bags and document their productivity for the day.
This woman managed to chase us down on the side of the road to pose for a photo which earned her a few rupees for the effort. While that’s certainly one reason it seems many of them might be happy to pose, the folks up in the hills obviously don’t get paid for putting on their smiles.
In addition to driving through the tea country we also stopped in at one of the plantations to tour the processing plant and taste some of the products. Walking through the factory side of the operation was fun and quite educational. There is still a lot of processing done by hand and a lot done with relatively old processes that haven’t changed notably in the 150ish years tea has been harvested from the hills. Probably the most surprising to me was the grinding table, where the "working" surface is still wood, even while the other bits have been mechanized and moved to other materials. Naturally the tour ends in the gift shop where we picked up some souvenirs to bring home.
Beyond the tea plantations there are some other impressive sights scattered across the highlands. One of the major reservoirs for the region sits in the middle of the farms, making for a beautiful backdrop looking across the valley.
There are several waterfalls also along the side of the road as well, some more dramatic than others.
There are also terraced fields scattered about. In some cases this was done to grow other crops – rice is also quite common to see growing in the area – though much of it is still tea plantings. The visual effect of the carved steps of farmland offers up a wonderful view.
I’ve got plenty more photos from the drive and also from our train trip through the tea area; it is, without a doubt, some of the most beautiful scenery that I’ve ever seen. Well worth the long drive on crazy, winding, narrow roads up into the hills to take it all in.
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