Tim & Yas

My story – Yas

Sri Lanka – a top honeymoon destination, and why not? A country filled to the brim with culture, new sights and sounds, wonderful friendly people, good food and beautiful beaches. So we booked it and on the 9th of November 2007 set off for the trip of a lifetime.

What we hadn’t anticipated was that this would changes our lives.

Forever.

White flags?

Sri Lanka is the home of quality tea. The different regions of the country give rise to a whole host of flavoursome teas – and we’re massive tea heads (well I am – this is Yas, hello!). So we wanted to see where they grow it, the process, you know, that kind of thing.

I’ve seen all the beautiful pictures with the ladies with the baskets on their heads and the lush green tea fields. It looks so peaceful and serene…and a wonderful place to spend 24 hours after the arid dryness of the cultural triangle located further north.

It was a few hours drive up to the plantations on long winding roads that slowly climb upwards towards the Sri Lankan hills where the delicate tea bushes flourish. As we climbed, I could see white flags dotted everywhere. I was perplexed. What did these white flags mean? So I asked Hasantha, our wonderful driver who was showing us around the island.

They weren’t flags, they were white plastic sacks.

And each one was tied tightly to the head of a teapicker to collect tea leaves.

18 kilos of leaves. A day. Around a person’s head.

Horrors of the humble cuppa

Over the next 2 hours the horrors behind the humble cuppa began to emerge and our romanticised notion of happy smiling women carrying beautiful woven baskets on their shoulders and lovingly weaving themselves between soft bushes of bright green tea leaves was truly and utterly smashed.

Picking tea is a bloody hard and thankless task in most cases. Women leave at dawn to begin their daily slog of picking tea from spikey, scratchy, rough bushes covered in thick spider-webs. Many wear only flip flops to protect their feet from snakes and leeches. In the searing heat they’re there, picking for 8-10 hours, 6 days a week. In the monsoon weather they’re still there, with only a bin liner wrapped around them to keep them dry, trying desperately not to slip or get tangled in the wet undergrowth.

And all for approximately 40 pence a day.

And that’s not even the half of it. The British brought the tea pickers across from Tamil Nadu, South India about 150 years ago, promising them a better life from the harsh famine they were living through and their place in the Hindu caste system.

But things were little better and even in a new country they were still classed as the lowest of the low.

In terms of the conditions, nothing has changed for these people 150 years on.

They live in line-rooms – 8 to 10 people in two rooms, one for general living, the other for sleeping in. Hot water and electricity are available to only a few, the majority sharing outdoor cold water taps and toilet facilities.

What’s more, the social systems that exist in Sri Lanka means that it is nearly impossible for tea-picking families to progress, move up in society and leave the tea fields for a better life. If you are a tea-picker, you are right at the bottom of the barrel….actually you are below the barrel and you stay there, because that’s your place.

The poverty of the tea plantations has given rise to a whole raft of social issues arising from negative coping mechanisms to help navigate through their way of life. As there is no way out, many people turn to alcohol and substance abuse. This gives rise to domestic and sexual abuse of women, which leads people to self-harm and, in extreme cases, suicide.

I live in a country that teaches me to believe I can do anything, achieve anything, but these people know as soon as they are born they are destined to a life of back breaking manual labour, servitude and abuse.

An accident of birth with tragic consequences.

Fighting at the fancy hotel

Hearing all this made me feel pretty sick on top of the severe travel sickness I was experiencing (due to the long windy roads). I felt even worse when we rocked up to our very luxurious hotel set slap bang in the middle of a tea plantation!

Now, as sick as I was feeling, Tim was angry, really angry, and went to have a chat with the hotel manager about what this affluent hotel was doing to help the local tea-picking communities around it. They were, after all, the main reason people came to visit the area.

He was gone for over 2 hours – my travel sickness had gone by then but had been replaced by panic. Where was he? Two foreigners throwing their weight about in terms of human rights abuses wasn’t going to win us any friends here – probably get us thrown right out of the country!

We have to start a school!

But at 10.25pm he burst in garbling ‘we have to start a school, we have to move here and start a school!!!’.

Who-the-what-the? But what about my hot yoga?!! What about my spin class?!!

The manager had explained that one of the few opportunities that young people on the tea estate had to get them off the plantations was helping out with local hotels, but to be able to grasp them, they had to have English-speaking skills. English-speaking skills were key to getting well-salaried positions in many of the businesses in Sri Lanka.

And there began a night of excited planning for Tim, trying to convince me we HAD to do this, whilst I tried to sleep. We’d been together less than 2 years, had only just moved in together and now Tim was deciding a future that meant relocation, learning another language and adapting to a culture totally alien to us.

I was not impressed!

At around 6am as the sun was rising, we put on our shoes and had a walk around the tea fields that surrounded the hotel. It was a Sunday and only a few women were picking as it was a day off for them. We saw a really lovely lady who smiled and said hello. She was so friendly – if I were her I would have turned my back, her suffering a legacy of our heritage. But she said hello and let us have a picture of her.

As we turned the corner I saw a little old man boiling a kettle outside of a room he lived in. It was made of thick plastic black bags.

Something inside me went snap – if we weren’t going to do it, who was? And you know, I still feel like that now 9 years on

Tim and I talked and by 10.30am that day we had decided that we were going to come back and do something. We weren’t sure how, but we were moving to Sri Lanka and we were going to try and help the group of people in Sri Lanka who had been stamped on in the name of British colonialism.

And our love affair with the people of the tea plantations began…

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