Life on a tea estate

DessfordIMG_1199One of the best highlights of my recent Sri Lanka trip was staying on a Tea Estate in Nuwara Eliya for three days with the Estate Manager, Nishantha, his wife Aditha, and daughter,Theru.  We also had the company of Aditha’s parents who were visiting from Colombo.  The house where they live was built in the late 1800’s –large, but single story and full of quaint originality.  They are a lovely family who welcomed us into their home and treated us to yummy traditional meals, lots of fresh tea, good conversation, and friendship.

Dessford Tea Estate is approximately 800 acres of Camellia sinensis—grown and plucked year-round to process into black tea.  The tea pluckers, mostly women, live with their families on the Estate grounds and typically, the entire family is involved in the tea business.  Many of the men work the tea gardens replacing bushes, grooming, and processing the tea leaves in the factory.  For every family on the Estate, a house is provided, or they may elect to request some land to build their own house.  The houses we observed were very small and modest—varying a lot in quality and structure.

Most tea processing families live in clusters (kind of like mini-villages), but some live more remotely.  The Estate gives the families land to grow vegetables for their own use.  There are churches or temples on the estate, as well as a medical clinic and school (Sri Lanka mandates that all children must attend school until age 17).

As an outsider it was all magical and beautiful, but for an Estate Manager’s family it might feel a little remote and isolating.  Dessford is about 15 miles from the town center of Nuwara Eliya and while we were visiting the roads were all torn up for replacement.  Given a good downpour, the roads got to be a pretty big mess which means you don’t just tootle off to town without a lot of thought and planning.

Very commonly an Estate Manager’s children move to one of the major cities—either Kandy or Colombo with their mother to attend primary school.  They come back on long weekends to the Estate, but reportedly that is about once a month.  One of the Assistant Estate Managers we met described his life as “married to the tea”.  It is truly a way of life in Sri Lanka—accepted for all the advantages and sacrifices.