Day 17 - Mirissa

As much as I love tea, and I do, Sri Lanka isn't just tea so my next stop was to see a different side of the island nation, Mirissa, a beautiful seaside tourist destination on the south coast. I've always loved water, fresh water or salt water makes no difference, if the sun is shining and the water is accessible than I'll usually take a dip.

Water on water

Check in

Great swimming areas

The kind folks at Galaboda Tea Estate supplied me with a driver who drove us to Mirissa around twenty kilometres south of the estate. Mirissa has long been a coastal town but due to its tranquil setting and some decent surf offshore it has become a popular tourist destination so it didn't take me long to find a nice hotel at one end of the beach built on a rocky outcrop. It was perfect for some Sri Lankan chilling.

   The morning catch

The morning catch

   The morning coffee

The morning coffee

For the next couple for days I did very little of anything, just caught the vibe. I got up early each morning to catch the sunrise and film the fishermen while they sought their early morning catch and later watched surfers pick waves from the pool terrace at the hotel. The setting was idyllic with blue waters rolling in rhythmically while warm breezes filtered through coconut trees. There wasn't much impetus to do anything else as it was so relaxing.

   Marissa is all about palm trees and the ocean

Marissa is all about palm trees and the ocean

   Surfers waiting patiently

Surfers waiting patiently

   A local casting off the point

A local casting off the point

When I finally managed to pry myself from my veranda chair we went whale watching from the next bay over. Sri Lanka has a burgeoning whale watching industry so off we went in a tuk tuk to the Mirissa Fisheries Harbour to catch a boat out into the big blue. It was a half day venture and an enjoyable excursion though we didn't spot any whales. That's the problem with wildlife viewing, they don't always appear on cue, still, maybe next time. To be honest I wasn't really bothered as I was too busy chilling before the next part of my journey back to Colombo.

   Fishing boats in the local harbour

Fishing boats in the local harbour

   Whale watching is popular in Marissa

Whale watching is popular in Marissa

   What a place to end the day in

What a place to end the day in

Day 16 - Part 2: Galaboda - The 'Tea Boutique.'

So, the good doctor had shared the Galaboda tea fields with me, he'd shared the Galaboda black tea factory with me and he'd shared the new Tsara green tea factory with me, now it was time to visit the Tea Boutique.

Housed in a new purpose built building at the head of the drive the Tea Boutique sat on the location of the old Manager’s Bungalow site. Traditions lie deep in the Sri Lankan tea industry and Manager’s Bungalows were always present and usually located in prime spots but this time the spot had been repurposed.

The new Tea Boutique

A great place to learn and sample

The sign says it all

Inside the Boutique I found the staff waiting for me, they were going to take me through a tea tasting session, one that is available to anyone that wanders in off the main road a short distance away. It really is a worthwhile excursion visiting an estates public areas. At Galaboda the Boutique is the last part of the tour as guests are first taken into the hills to take a gander at tea bushes up close, then they might get a quick boo inside the factory itself and in the end they’ll usually savour a cuppa in the shop or boutique if the estate has one.

Galaboda was no different but as I had already seen the tea bushes and factory floor yesterday today I was going to have a closer look at the boutique itself. Tea from Sri Lanka is still largely referred to as Ceylon Tea, even though Ceylon, the British Colonial name for the island country, became Sri Lanka back in 1972. Successful brands are usually the result of hard work, an identifiable logo or word, and a duration of time over which the brand has developed. Usually when a country changes its name it would have little bearing on brands within that country, but when the name of the country is featured in the brand then things can get a little complicated. Tea drinkers around the world have enjoyed Ceylon Tea for over a century so the Ceylon Tea brand has become a very powerful moniker and even though the country sports a new name the tea industry stuck with the Ceylon branding as it made good business sense. There are no doubt tea drinkers out there that don’t understand that Ceylon tea comes from Sri Lanka, and they probably don't care, all that matters to them is that they can still ‘get’ their Ceylon Tea. Never mess with a successful brand.

   Pouring the first 'cuppa!'

Pouring the first 'cuppa!'

   Like being in school

Like being in school

As I entered the Tea Boutique the first thing I noticed was a display with numerous teas visible and the Ceylon quality logo purposely displayed front and centre which made sense, after all this was a place where excellent tea was sought out, tasted and bought. The display of teas had a structure to it, jars of tea were lined up like soldiers on the parade ground with the nearest row covering organic green teas while the row behind covered black teas and off behind the display in another area was a third row of flavoured teas. Tasting tea is like tasting wine, there is an order to the affair as taste buds can’t be reset after each taste. A strong Orange Pekoe off the top will drown out the delicate taste of a fine organic green if drunk before, so an order of consumption must be adhered to to truly appreciate the different nuances at play.

galaboda tasting 3.jpg
galaboda tasting 2.jpg

I must say I really enjoyed the experience. It's one thing to go down to your local store and throw a box of tea in your basket, it’s quite another to actually see tea leaves plucked in the hot sun, walk the factory floor, and taste tea produced onsite while someone explains to you what you’re experiencing.

The staff in the Tea Boutique were amazing....thank you!

I loved my visit to the Galaboda Tea Estate and Boutique and would highly recommend it to any visitors in the area, even those that don't drink tea, as to visit Galaboda is to immerse yourself in a very interesting aspect of Sri Lankan culture. Many thanks to the good doctor and the staff on the estate that made my stay so enjoyable. Thanks!

Day 16 - Part 1: Galaboda and Tsara Green Tea

I've already talked about Orthodox Black Tea at Galaboda in the last couple of blogs, this time I want to talk about Tsara Green Tea. I was still a guest at Galaboda in the south of Sri Lanka and while interviewing Dr Sanjeewa De Silva he filled me in on how Tsara Green Tea came about. As I mentioned previously the doctor had given up practicing medicine in England to return to Sri Lanka to carry on the family business. That part is fairly straightforward, it's what he did when he returned, and what he's doing now that's of interest to me, of interest because he rolled the dice.

When the doctor returned he approached the industry in a very pragmatic way. Sri Lanka is bursting with tea estates, many of which fall under corporate umbrellas, and how does a relatively small estate compete with corporate economies of scale. That is a problem that faces many of the older traditional tea estates. When faced with overwhelming odds something different must be brought to the table in order to survive and that's where the doctor did his homework. Today’s consumer is more conscientious, is more informed, especially where additives, preservatives and the environment are concerned. Organic foods have gained huge traction in recent years and have become big business globally, why not tea?

Rolling

Drying

There is a distinct movement towards ‘wholesome’ products afoot and those that offer an organic alternative to the mass produced status quo have a good chance of finding new markets. This isn't necessarily an easy transition however. To be classified ‘organic’ requires long term commitments from producers and a certificate by a recognized authority attached to each product so consumers can purchase with the knowledge that product fulfills its organic claim. In the case of Tsara Tea that certificate comes from Switzerland.

The decision to go ‘green’ at Galaboda has its roots in the doctors background in medicine and a suggestion from his sister. The medicinal merits offered by green tea are well documented, but to take something that is supposed to offer health benefits and encourage its growth in an unwholesome way, ie. with the use of fertilizers, is counter productive to the process. With that in mind the doctor made the decision to go 100% organic. If green tea is supposed to be good, then let’s make it as good as it can be, but not just for the consumer but for the environment as well, that was his thinking.

So, new crops were planted, a new green tea factory was built alongside the black orthodox factory and the doctor and his main man went to China to learn all about the process. Months later they returned to Sri Lanka and started Tsara Tea, a new Galaboda brand that would offer nothing but the best in organic green tea. Different green teas would be offered but the pinnacle product would be their ‘Champagne Green Tea,’ made exclusively from buds, no leaves in the mix, not a single one, just 100% organic buds.  That's quite a break from an orthodox black tea past, kind of exciting I'd say!

With an eye to covering the Tsara green tea angle I headed for the green tea factory with camera in tow and filmed the process there. The first thing I noticed about the factory was its physical size, it was contained on a single floor and was a fraction the size of the black tea factory. It was new and all the machines were laid out in order of processing on a bright shiny concrete floor. Immediately to the left upon entering was the steamer that began the process and all the way to the right was the dryer that was the last stage before packaging. In between was an area for rolling. The size of the factory floor was telling in that it wasn’t built for huge volumes of leaves and buds passing through, the best way I can describe it would be to liken it to a car assembly line. The black tea factory was equivalent to machine assembled cars on a production line whereas the green tea was produced in lower numbers by hand.

   Quality, not quantity

Quality, not quantity

   Feeding the steamer

Feeding the steamer

   Feeding the dryer

Feeding the dryer

I enjoyed my time in the factory though I had a hard time keeping the sweat from my eyes due to the heat. That aside it was bright, clean and modern and where the Galaboda factory echoed themes from a long black tea past the Tsara factory sought to create new green tea themes in the future. Only time will tell whether the doctor's decision was a wise one but I personally think he's onto something. Niche markets exist because there are always those that want something better, in this case certified 100% organic green tea, and they will pay a higher price for what is not only perceived as, but is, a better product.

   Spot checks and certification to authenticate what's represented on the packaging

Spot checks and certification to authenticate what's represented on the packaging

100% Sri Lankan Tsara Green Tea

Day 15: A 'Day in the life at Galaboda'

Galaboda at dawn

Always a cuppa to be had

More traditional Sri Lankan food

The next morning I awoke early as I wanted to film a ‘day in the life’ at the Galaboda Tea Factory. It started with the arrival of the workers. Those that lived on the estate walked to the assembly area while those that lived off estate were brought to Galaboda by truck. Once all the workers were present a roll call was made by the Field Officer, Mr. Pateran. He was an enthusiastic chap with a long history in tea. Dressed in shorts, smart shoes, spiffy shirt and a brolly for the sun and rain he doled out the days work details. The structure of the event reminded me of my army days and I could immediately see the organizational side of the business kicking in. The workers were a chatty bunch and there was a distinct social side to the days doings.

With the Field Manager - a very pleasant chap!

Morning check in

To the fields

   Tractor maintenance

Tractor maintenance

When role call concluded and the workers had left for their assigned areas Pateran took me on a tour of the tea fields. As we set out I was again reminded that Sri Lanka is a tropical paradise with different plants and trees occupying the same real estate. Today there is a lot less jungle then there used to be, but that source of green foliage had been replaced by tea, bananas, rubber, coconuts and other exotic crops so that one is never far from a vibrant setting, if they aren’t already traveling through one. We meandered down behind the factory and followed a road, then a path up the other side of the small valley into Field #6. Even though it was still early in the day the sun was already sweltering above and sweat began to run to my eyes as we climbed to the highest parts of the estate. When we arrived at one section pluckers were already at work plucking the ‘two leaves and a bud’ from each bush. Pateran had sent the pluckers to this area so I could film which was much appreciated. I carried on my business as the social atmosphere I’d picked up on at roll call carried on in the fields with chatter carrying across the leaves.

   Hiking up through Field #6 - it's unbelievably hot and humid in Sri Lanka

Hiking up through Field #6 - it's unbelievably hot and humid in Sri Lanka

   Trees provide shade for the pluckers

Trees provide shade for the pluckers

Camellia Sinensis

   Two leaves and a bud

Two leaves and a bud

Tea bushes, which are in fact trees, are planted a certain distance from each other and pruned every three years to maintain a consistent waist height to aid in the plucking process. The pluckers each had a large basket on their back and a smaller one at their waist and worked as a group moving through the bushes. They would rest their sticks on the bushes in front of them and use them as markers as they plucked the leaves and buds. The leaves would go over their shoulder into the larger basket while the buds were deposited in the smaller baskets. As I filmed them at length three things stood out in my mind. The first I’ve already touched upon, the social side to the process, the second was the pluckers attire which was very colourful and usually included a form of headdress to counter the direct sun, and the third was the presence of strategically placed trees in the fields to offer shade to workers and bushes alike.

Once I had the footage I needed we started to make our way down the other side of the hill at a leisurely pace. It was a beautiful walk. Sitting above us on our right was a beautiful Buddhist temple that caught the early morning sun while down below to our left the tea factory was framed by towering trees and everywhere in between were tea bushes with paths that dissected them at random. There was a rural flow to the scene that made me want to whistle, don’t ask me why, just did. And of course we had a cuppa with the workers on the way down during a tea break.

A 'tea break'....naturally!

Back at the factory I grabbed some more footage. I’d already covered a black tea factory with Dilmah but explored Galaboda's all the same. Not everything is always carried out the same way between estates and the Galaboda factory itself had a very interesting history, in fact it wasn’t even meant for Galaboda when it was first built. I say 'meant' because quite a few of the old tea factories were designed and built in packages for clients throughout the country. Orders were submitted, materials amassed then transported to factory sites where they were assembled, only the tea factory that now stands at Galaboda was meant for a different location. The problem was when they designed this particular factory they didn’t take into account the difficult roads that led to the original buyer's property so an entire tea factory started a journey to a destination it couldn’t reach. This worked to Dr Sanjeewa's grandfather's favour as he received a brand new factory at a discount rate as the builders tried to cut their losses. Originally it had been a two story factory with the lower floor dedicated to the rolling, fermentation, sifting and packing processes while the upper floor was dedicated to the withering process. The doctor's father added the third floor, a second withering floor, at a later date. As it stands today the Galaboda Tea Factory continues to produce ‘Orthodox Black Tea’ from leaves plucked on site and from independent producers in outlying areas. The bushels are brought in at the end of the day from the fields at Galaboda and by tractor from the outlying areas for weighing before being put in the withering troughs on the second and third floor before the estate winds down for the day.

   Returning from the fields

Returning from the fields

   The weigh in on the ground floor

The weigh in on the ground floor

   Loading the troughs on the third floor

Loading the troughs on the third floor

Yesterdays pluckings being processed  on the main floor

As I finished poking around the factory floor Pateran told me the pluckers were coming in from the fields so we made our way outside to catch them as they brought in the days pluckings. I had to admire their strength and stamina. I had sweatily laboured up to Field #6, only a ten minute hike, and here they were at the end of a scorchingly hot day coming into the weigh house with full bushels on their heads chattering away like school girls talking about the upcoming weekend. It was amazing to see.

   End of the day

End of the day

What an interesting day at Galaboda it had been, one which gave me an in depth understanding of how such an estate operates on a daily basis, and how one particular estate had operated on a daily basis for three generations, and hopefully for three more.

Last weigh of the day

   All done

All done

Day 14: The Galiboda Tea Factory

   The Galaboda Black Tea Factory

The Galaboda Black Tea Factory

My next stop was back in tea country. When I’d originally sent out my query letters the first reply I'd received back was from Dr Sanjeewa De Silva. The good doctor owned and operated a tea factory in the low country about an hours drive from Galle on the south coast. His story, and the story of the Galaboda Tea Factory and Tsara Teas was an interesting one and one that I wanted to cover as it involved generational transitions.

   Black Tea

Black Tea

   Green Tea

Green Tea

The Galaboda Tea Factory was founded in 1935 by Dr Sanjeewa's grandfather. He had plucked and rolled tea by hand and allowed the tea leaves to undergo natural fermentation under direct sunlight. That had begun over 80 years ago and from those humble beginnings the doctor's father had taken over the business and run it for 57 years. Now it was in the hands of Dr Sanjeewa which is a testament to the concept of family business. I say that because the doctor didn’t study tea with an eye to taking over the business, instead he was educated in Australia before becoming a doctor in England where he lived for many years and practiced medicine.

When his father decided to step back from daily operations the doctor was faced with a life changing decision; to return to his native Sri Lanka and continue in his father’s footsteps, or to remain in England and practice medicine which would have surely led to the end of a generational family business. I can only imagine the kind of pressure that comes with that kind of decision, we all want to lead our own lives, but there's also something to be said for continuity. The doctor made the decision to return to Sri Lanka and take over Galaboda.

Two generations of the De Silva family, incredible hospitality.

Since arriving in Sri Lanka I'd been in touch with the doctor and when I'd finished my time in Galle a car and translator, Tony, was sent to pick me up at the Jetwing Landesi. Tony was quite the character who spoke very good English as he'd spent a good portion of time in England. During our drive to the Galaboda Tea Factory questions ripped back and forth between us as it turned out he was just as inquisitive about me as I about him. He appreciated the fact it was my first time in Sri Lanka and that I was there to film and so went into ‘location scout’ mode right away. As a result we stopped at a temple along the way and a rubber plantation where he pointed out some trees that were being tapped before arriving at Galaboda in the southern lowlands.

   One of many temples along the way

One of many temples along the way

   A rubber tree

A rubber tree

At Galaboda I met the doctor, his mother, Mrs Sunethra, and his father, Mr Piyasena. The arrangement was quite different from the Dilmah experience where I'd been introduced to the corporate family, here I was actually meeting the family in the ‘family business’ sense. I was shown to my room in the 'Proprietors Bungalow' and when I asked the doctor if there was anything I shouldn't film he replied, “You film anything you want. I’ve already talked to the staff and you have full access to the whole property.” I was a bit surprised by that, usually where a business is concerned there’s discretion involved as ‘trade secrets’ etc aren’t willingly shared. When the doctor saw my surprise he followed up with, “No sense in coming to film here if you can’t film. There’s no secrets, film what you want.” I thanked him for that, what an opportunity for me to get the footage I needed.

   The Proprietor's Bungalow

The Proprietor's Bungalow

   So different from Canada

So different from Canada

   A very organic feel

A very organic feel

   Part of  Mrs Sunethra's beautiful garden

Part of  Mrs Sunethra's beautiful garden

   Before the rain

Before the rain

As the day was drawing to a close we agreed that I would start filming in earnest the next morning which left me a bit of time to get my bearings. As I wandered the grounds I had to admire how the buildings were clustered, there was a flow to where things were located. Maybe two hundred feet from the Proprietor's Bungalow was the office, next to that was the original black tea factory and at the far end of that factory was the new organic green tea factory. In the opposite direction a short distance away was the Tea Boutique. Everything was close, was handy and could be reached with a short walk, even the tea fields were a short walk away. I liked that for no apparent reason other than there was little vehicular traffic which added a sense of peace to the place.

   Tea fields with trees for shade

Tea fields with trees for shade

   A bit of pepper along the way

A bit of pepper along the way

   The Galaboda Black Tea Factory

The Galaboda Black Tea Factory

   Inside the Green Tea Factory

Inside the Green Tea Factory

   The Office

The Office

   The Tea Boutique

The Tea Boutique

The rains came as I returned to the Proprietor's Bungalow from my wanderings, but before I popped in for a lovely traditional Sri Lankan dinner I stopped for awhile to watch a bird dance a jig on a wire above. It was mesmerizing, the power of water, it played a role in every aspect of life in Sri Lanka.

A traditional Sri Lankan dinner...absolutely amazing.

   A plucky bird doing the late afternoon rain dance

A plucky bird doing the late afternoon rain dance

Day 11: Dilmah - The Rilhena Estate & the Road to Galle

Day 11: Dilmah - The Rilhena Estate & the Road to Galle

My last day with Dilmah turned out to be much more relaxing than the previous six. I had seen black tea at the Dunkeld Estate, green tea at the Park Estate, witnessed their conservation project at the Elephant Transit Home, and many of their Small Entrepreneur Programs during the last couple of days. Today there was only one stop on the itinerary, and that was the Rilhena Tea Estate.

Day 10: Dilmah - MJF (Part 3)

Day 10: Dilmah - MJF (Part 3)

I arose early the next morning to catch the fisherman launching their boats and mending their nets. It was a glorious day, glorious, and after a hearty breakfast we set off to visit more of Dilmah's initiatives. First up was the Gemi Aruna Agro Production Society where the society's president, a man by the name of Samantha Rajapaksha, met us to show us around.

Day 9: Dilmah - MJF (Part 2)

Day 9: Dilmah - MJF (Part 2)

The Subhagya School for Differently Abled Children is another Dilmah initiative. The core thinking behind the program is to help differently abled children lead a normal life. There have been long standing stigmas attached to many of those deemed different in many societies, but thankfully today there are those that work to reverse those stigmas. Those that believe we should all be treated as equals, regardless of physical or mental differences.

Day 9: Dilmah - MJF (Part 1)

Day 9: Dilmah - MJF (Part 1)

If yesterday had been a glimpse into Dilmah’s commitment to Wildlife Conservation today was all about a different kind of commitment, one to the less fortunate. Through their MJF Charitable Foundation, named after Dilmah's founding father, Merrill J. Fernando,  they have created a program to kick-start creative people with a desire to take their businesses to the next level, or create new ones. The program is called SEP, or Small Entrepreneur Program. Our driver took us to meet Shantha Devapriya, the project officer and ‘man on the ground’ who was going to show us around over the next couple of days.

Day 8: Dilmah - Elephants and Buffalo Curd!

Day 8: Dilmah - Elephants and Buffalo Curd!

I have a soft spot for elephants, especially baby elephants. There's something about the way they move and look you in the eye. There seems to be a given trust from the onset. How many animals, especially of an elephants size, tender that. Not many. Our first stop of the day was at the Elephant Transit Home, or ETH. The ETH is a place where orphaned elephants from around Sri Lanka are brought to live until they are roughly four or five years old, an appropriate age to be released back to the wild.

Day 7: Dilmah - The Park Estate - Green Tea and on to Udawalawe

Day 7: Dilmah - The Park Estate - Green Tea and on to Udawalawe

I was up early to grab some local footage, after all we were in Nuwara Elya, the heart of Sri Lankan tea country. Of course I shot the grounds at the Grand Hotel, their beauty couldn't be ignored, but I also wandered down the road to the round-a-bout where tuk tuks jockeyed for position and a beautiful Stupa caught the early morning sun. It was going to be a beautiful day.

Day 6: Dilmah - The Dunkeld Estate - Black Orthodox Tea

Day 6: Dilmah - The Dunkeld Estate - Black Orthodox Tea

3AM wake up call, yes, 3AM! We loaded up into our respective buses and whistled through the deserted Colombo streets on our way to our first tea plantation visit, Dunkeld. We left Colombo behind and started the long climb into the hills where the tea plantations thrived above a certain elevation.

Day 4-5: Introduction to the Dilmah School of Tea - Colombo

Day 4-5: Introduction to the Dilmah School of Tea - Colombo

So my education on tea was about to begin, and what better place than the Dilmah 'School of Tea' to start the ball rolling? For my tea documentary I was very fortunate that Dilmah Tea, a powerhouse in Sri Lankan tea, were receptive to my idea and had arranged a spot for me at their ‘School of Tea.’ I was very excited to be a part of this Dilmah experience as the Fernando family, the owners of Dilmah,  have a very interesting story.

Day 1-3: Touchdown - Negombo & the Jetwing Sea

Day 1-3: Touchdown - Negombo & the Jetwing Sea

I arrived tired but excited in Negombo after 36 hours of flight hopping. Customs and immigration was a breeze and a driver at the airport took me to the Jetwing Sea at Negombo Beach for 1,500 Rupees, around 15$ Canadian. Arriving at 5:30am I was a little punch drunk but too excited to go to bed, instead I wandered the beautiful hotel property to get my bearings and couldn’t resist a swim before breakfast.

Jetwing Hotel Group

Jetwing Hotel Group

Well folks, Sri Lanka is almost a reality. I've been hard at drumming up support for my trip and it looks like things are paying off. Through a connection in Jakarta, Indonesia, of all places, thank you Thayalan Bartlett (Barty), I've been put into contact with the Jetwing Group and they've very kindly offered their assistance during my stay in Sri Lanka. What I love about the Jetwing Group is they're not a 'one trick pony.' They don't 'just' offer stunning seaside luxury resorts, they cover the whole spectrum by offering Eco-Hotels, villas and even old world beauties from a bygone era. In short they have the island covered with options to fit every taste.

Sri Lanka: Galaboda Tea Factory

The preparations for my trip to Sri Lanka are coming along nicely. It was my intention to spend time at three tea estates on the island during my visit. One each at the 'Low,' 'Mid,' and 'High' countries. It is with great pleasure that I can announce the first tea estate to offer their assistance, and that would be Galaboda Organic Tea Factory. Galaboda, or Tsara Green Teas, is a family run affair spanning three generations over 75 years. I look forward to spending time with them and learning all about what goes into a good 'cuppa.' Below is a beautiful short video of what they do at Galaboda.

Tsara Green Teas

Thank you Nalin.

A lovely introduction to Tsara Green Teas

Sri Lanka Here I Come!!!

Well folks, I've decided to carry the momentum from the Bolivia trip through to Sri Lanka. With the B&B busy from May through September I needed to pull the trigger sooner rather than later so so here I am. Tea on Two Wheels will be a one hour documentary and an adventure travel motorcycle book by the same name. It will take in the whole island and I'll be using tea as a backdrop, or through-line.