Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tea Time

My first thought as we entered the Lungla Tea Garden was that it looked like Africa. Now I’ve never actually been to Africa, but the low bushes, sporadically growing trees, and grassy plains matched what I’d seen in movies. This wasn’t what I’d expected in the gardens. But as we continued to drive up the narrow and very bumpy dirt road the scene began to transform. The rolling hills covered in low, evenly pruned tea bushes looked like islands in rivers of grass. Individually each bush looked like a smooth river stone (or for those of you who remember the Disney movie Aladdin, they looked like the lava bubbles in the Cave of Wonders as it collapses), but together, they looked like one continues green carpet.

Ann and Mike's bungalow.
We pulled up to the bungalow. Now you may imagine, like I did, a rustic, simple wood house, perhaps even with a thatched roof. Instead the circular driveway lead us to a white, one-story building. The roof of the large veranda extended over the driveway where the car parked directly in front of the steps. Salek, the Assistant Manager and his wife, Polly, stood to welcome Ann, Mike and I.

As we sat in comfortably cushioned bamboo furniture sipping lemonade, Salek told us that Lungla was established as part of the Duncan Brothers tea estate in 1877. In this place, I could feel the history and even see it. I imagine that the vistas we were looking out onto differed only insignificantly from what existed here over a century ago.

After lunch, as I rested on the veranda, which was quickly becoming my favorite place, I noticed the sounds. In many ways it was much quieter here than in Dhaka – there was no honking, no construction noises, no vendors shouting to sell their goods, or calls to prayer blaring through the air. Yet, it wasn’t totally still. Nature was filling the air with her own soundtrack – the leaves rustled in the breeze, birds sang, geckos called, and crickets chirped.

Later on, Salek, Mike and I went on a tour of the estate. First stop was the boarding school. Its student body is made up of the children of Duncan’s employees from Lungla or any of the other fourteen gardens. We stopped by the various rooms where students were preparing for an array of exams. Each time we entered the class everyone stood up and would stay standing until Mike asked them to please relax and have a seat. In each room we did a quick little spiel about where we’re from and how this was my first time to the tea gardens. The students’ attention and the way the headmaster and other school employees took us around, you could have thought we were visiting royalty. After signing the guest book we left the school and drove down the road to the tea factory, but not before I took a photo of the intriguing buckets filled with sand and labeled “fire” - a relic from the past that is still being used in this part of the world. 

Outside the factory, were rows of double-decker troughs where the freshly picked tealeaves were brought stored. As soon as we entered the building, the strong smell of freshly cut grass hit my nose and the sound of rumbling equipment filled my ears. Salek took us through the process.

From the trough, the tealeaves were brought indoors on an oddly tall, three-wheeled cart, from which they were unloaded into a sort of grinder. Passing through this machine, they were turned into damp, green mulch. They rolled along a belt, traveling through increasingly find grinders. At the end of the first row, a teenage boy piled the refined mulch into a box. The box was carried to the next conveyor belt by a man who likely looked much older than he actually was. Salek, picked up the “leaves” at various stages of the process, allowing us to feel the texture. At one point, hot air was introduced into the process to help try the leaves, making them feel warm. By the end, what had started as damp, shredded, greenery had turned into dark brown sand so fine it could have been used in an hourglass. Later, when I smelled a cup of freshly brewed tea, it smelled exactly like the factory. And it tasted like it too.

I was eager to explore more of the gardens, and was very pleased when Mike suggested that we go for a walk. As eager as we were to see more of the gardens, so was Salek to show us the dam the dam that was being built. Looking down from the top of the dam, it really felt like we’d gone back in time. There were no bulldozers, no wheelbarrows, no cranes, no heavy equipment of any kind. The tools consisted of hoes and baskets. The machines were human.

The workers resembled ants as they moved about efficiently on predetermined paths passing off baskets from one head to the next as others continued to dig. I was transfixed. With Salek’s permission I descended into the pits. The rushed manner in which they moved made it clear that the loads they were carrying were uncomfortably heavy. Knowing this, there was no way I was going to ask them to pause for a picture. It was only by chance that I caught one person looking directly into the camera.

We could see the sky darken as we stood on the dam and soon realized that if we were to avoid getting soaked we’d have to start heading back immediately. As the thunder and lightning drew closer, we picked up the pace. Following the narrow pathways we made it back to the bungalow just before the skies opened up. The suddenness and the amount of rain were mind-boggling. Within no time the gutters were overflowing. The rain on the metal roof sounded like roaring applause. We sat on the veranda feeling as though we were under a giant umbrella, until the rain started to come in sideways, which is when we moved indoors.

In the days that followed, we were invited for dinner at another estate, attended a Bengali New Year party and visited the cemetery and rubber factory.

Sheltered among the tall rubber trees, is the Duncan Brothers Christian cemetery. It is the final resting place for many of Duncan Brothers earliest managers and their family members. It just so happened that we visited the site on the exact same day that one of the people buried there had died – 126 years earlier. Though it was chance that lead us here on this exact day, it made the experience just a touch more powerful.

Our final stop before we left for Dhaka, was the rubber factory. The smell outside the car was peculiar – the scent of latex was easily identified, and made sense, but the other odor was indecipherable to me. Affixed to the floor of the factory, which was a building with one side and a roof, were tubs of white liquid into which men were sliding rectangular metal sheets. The liquid contained fresh latex, which had been harvested from the trees that morning, and acid. As we stood by, men and women continued to deliver buckets of this diluted, Elmer’s glue-like liquid. Next to the factory, was a rustic side-less shed with rows and rows of drying latex sheets. At this stage, the white liquid had turned darker and the sheets resembled the rawhide dog bones. Beyond this, hanging like clothes over a line, were the fresh white latex sheets that had been produced that morning. The quantity was extraordinary, especially when you considered that this product was the result of human efforts alone. 

The one thing I hadn’t seen during my visit was the tea pluckers, women whose job it was to pick the top most bud and the two leaves below it on every single bush. I was a bit disappointed, but as luck would have it, we saw them working in the hills as we drove through the estates. Getting out of the car, I unsuccessfully tried to avoid the muddy patches of grass in order to get closer to them. I said hello and, as usual, spoke my few words of Bangla. Since it is piece rate pay (meaning they are paid based on the amount of tea they bring in), some of the women didn’t stop their work. Those who did, were delighted to see pictures of themselves on the camera screen. I nodded and thanked them. They thanked me in return.

When all is said and done, the tea gardens were a fascinating glimpse into a time gone by, a relished escape from the bustle of Dhaka, and a chance to see yet another face of Bangladesh.

1 comment:

  1. No pressure but I am hoping that you continue this blog while traveling through Cambodia and Thailand. Please?