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To Uncover the Magic of Sri Lanka, Go Small

Our small tour van was the only vehicle we’d seen for miles, yet the woman smiled as if she’d been expecting us. Mid-morning haze still lingered on the verdant mountain slopes, but she had already been working for hours when we saw her. At about 4,000 feet above sea level, the basket on her back brimmed with ripe tea leaves.

Parvati, sri lanka
(Photo: Shannon McMahon)

The monsoon season during which I visited might not reflect it, but up in the Sri Lankan tea country of Haputale, tourists are increasingly common. Parvati—this tea picker—is accustomed to busloads of tourists stopping at the side of the winding, paved road to snap her photo. Most visitors likely continue on their way without ever learning much about her or her way of life.

But it seemed the strangest form of voyeurism to explore this mountain side and observe its people without connecting with or learning from them. So with the help of Intrepid Travel, my small tour group and I made sure that we did.

During our ride through Agarapatana Plantations to explore the bustling Dambatenne tea factory and Lipton’s seat—the Scottish tea baron’s lookout point—our local tour guide, Bala, passed photos and books around as he explained the complexities of these fields. It didn’t take long for us all to quietly acknowledge that what we were experiencing was much more than just astounding natural beauty and a cup of tea from the source.

More than 1,300 pickers live on site at Agarapatana. Each makes about $6 per day to collect the 40,000 pounds of tea the factory produces daily. In recent years, human rights campaigns have called attention to the low wages and controversial conditions—especially those imposed on women—that are the bedrock of Sri Lanka’s tea market.

Yet during those same years, the region’s plantations have experienced an influx of tourism, as has the rest of the country. The idea that the tea plantations enhance the standard of living in this isolated, impoverished area persists—and it’s not necessarily untrue. Our guide shared this and more essential knowledge with us on that day, and on every day of our tour that followed.

Lipton's seat, sri lanka
(Photo: Shannon McMahon)

The small, tear-drop-shaped island is home to natural and man-made wonders like elephant-filled Yala National Park and ancient Sigiriya Rock. Rainforest trails, waterfalls, pristine golden beaches, ornate temples and mosques, and these very tea plantations have long been walled off by conflict and disaster, but they are now open to curious travel addicts. The nation is finally recovering from a decades-long civil war that ended in 2009, and in 2004 the Indian Ocean swelled up in a tsunami that killed upwards of 35,000 on the island’s southern shores. Sri Lanka has so far maintained its authenticity and natural beauty amidst the change, and last year elected its first post-war president. It’ll take Sri Lanka longer than that to rebound from its strife and tragedy, however, and the country remains in transition even as it opens back up to the world.

That’s where small, locally led tours come in. In such a complex country I strove to do more than just see it. I wanted to meet locals to experience their way of life, contributing to them directly. Especially in countries recovering from political conflict, one of the best things you can do as a traveler is to give back to the people. And that’s what drew me to Intrepid’s Real Food Adventures, which use cooking classes and educational food experiences as a mode of connecting visitors with locals.

Cooking sri lanka
(Photo: Shannon McMahon)

Intrepid Travel employs locals both as individual guides and as families for home visits, on which travelers take part in cooking a meal and learning about the cultures and religions that make up that specific area of the country. In my 12 days traveling around Sri Lanka, we had six meals in local family homes or on farms and learned about food industry-based activities. We saw coconut sap tappers work high up in a network of palm trees, learned how families on farms make traditional buffalo milk yogurt in terra cotta pots, and watched the stilt fishermen found only on this island cast lines from perches that sit among crashing waves and bobbing surfers.

(Photos: Shannon McMahon)

Each local we connected with was compensated not only by Intrepid but also by tips from our 10-person group—given by one of us on a rotating basis throughout the trip. We bowed and extolled thanks in the local language of Shinhalese—‘stuti’ and ‘ayubowan.’ By creating a tourism market in which locals directly profit from their own talent and resources, Intrepid Travel creates responsible tourism in places that need it most.

It’s easier than ever to experience newly stabilized places responsibly, in constructive ways that increase perspective and don’t disregard local culture or the destination’s well-being. The areas of Sri Lanka where tourists are few quickly became my favorites. Void of the new, towering hotels we saw in the larger cities of Colombo and Mirissa, these roads less traveled are rife with wildlife, villages, natural marvels, and spicy Sri Lankan food.

Haputale village, sri lanka
(Photo: Shannon McMahon)

The peaks and tea plantations of Haputale are too lush and innately Sri Lankan not to experience, but the vulnerable people who live and work here should be more than just a photo-op. Thanks to our guide and tour style, those of us who did take photos with Parvati in the tea field on that dewy monsoon-season morning could ask permission for her portrait. We gave an appropriate tip for her help, and ate at a nearby family’s home later that day for a closer look at how the people in these villages live. Three more members of that tiny village are employed to assist guides on other Intrepid Travel Sri Lanka tours, meaning four families in this area alone are employed by the company.

It’s the rare gift of travel to truly connect with the citizens of a place so unlike home, to make a difference and to carry those impressions through a lifetime.

Safe to say I’ll never think of a cup of tea the same way again.

(Photo: Shannon McMahon)

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Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. She visited Sri Lanka on a Real Food Adventure as a guest of Intrepid Travel. Follow her adventures on Instagram @shanmcmahon and on Twitter @shanmcmahon_.

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