Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
27Trip End Dec 15, 2007
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Tea goes from bush to beverage in just 24 hours. The first stage is plucking - only the top two leaves and the bud are taken, to guarantee flavour and freshness. At the factory, the first stage in the production process is withering, during which the plucked leaves are dried in huge trays. Next, the withered leaves are crushed, releasing enzymes which trigger fermentation. Leaves are left to ferment for a short period, then placed in an oven and fired, which removes all remaining moisture, arrests fermentation and turns the tea black
Like wine, tea comes in an endless variety of forms and flavours. Tea is first categorised by its place of origin (Assam, Darjeeling, Ceylon, etc.) and by its basic type, either fermented (black), unfermented (green), or semi-fermented (oolong) - most tea in Sri Lanka is black. The basic grades of Sri Lankan tea are Orange Pekoe (OP), signifying a tea made with young, whole leaves, and Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP), which uses broken pieces of the same leaves. "Flowery", "Golden" and "Tippy" varieties of OP and BOP include varying quantities and types of young buds mixed in with the leaves to give the tea a distinctively delicate flavour, such as the prized FTGFOP - Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe! At the lower end of the leaf hierarchy are smaller particles known as "fannings" (BOPF) and even finer residue, unappetizingly described as "dust".
By early afternoon we finally arrived at Kandy, set amidst precipitous green hills at the heart of the island. Kandy is the proud bastion of an independent Sinhalese tradition which preserved its freedom through two and a half centuries of attacks by the Portuguese and Dutch. The city, Sri Lanka's second largest, has a unique cultural heritage which is apparent everywhere - in its music, dance and architecture. Equally important, on this trip, was the fact Sri Lanka were due to host England in the first Test match of the series, beginning on 1st December
Desperate to sample some culture before the Barmy Army marched into town, I headed out to the Kandyan Arts Association on the north side of Kandy's large artificial lake to view the nightly show of Kandyan dancing and drumming. This is Sri Lanka's iconic performing art, featuring carefully choreographed displays accompanied by pulsating barrages of massed drumming, with acrobatic performers clad in elaborate traditional Kandyan costume.
Overall, the audience was treated to a sequence of nine dances, all featuring troupes of flamboyantly attired dancers wearing sumptuous attire and various chest, waist, neck, leg and arm ornaments which jangled as the dancers moved around. The dances are typically highly mannered and hugely athletic, combining carefully stylised hand and head gestures with acrobatic manoeuvres including back flips, high-kicking leaps and dervish-like whirling pirouettes which made me feel dizzy just sitting in the audience. Finally, the dancers completed the show with some fire walking. I was pretty impressed until some over-eager stagehand splashed too much fuel onto the hot coals leaving me checking my eyebrows for singeing from the resultant ball of flames (I was in the front row)!