I guess that many of you may have seen photos of beautiful peaceful tea plantations on the hills with tea workers in colorful clothes plucking tea leaves and chit-chatting to each other cheerfully. I have to admit that despite being a coffee drinker, I have often imagined myself strolling in a tea garden observing tea pickers while they are working. For me, the peacefulness, various shades of green tea leaves and tea pickers in exotic clothes are the main appeals of tea gardens.
That is why on my first trip to Bangladesh in May 2013, visiting tea gardens was on the top of my to-do/see list. Bangladesh may not be widely known as tea-growing country, in comparison with its neighboring country India or the producer of Ceylon tea, Sri Lanka. However, the commercial tea production in this small has been running for a long time, dating from 1854, when the British set up the first tea estate in Sylhet Division, northeast of Bangladesh, where most tea estates are located today.
Bangladeshi tea is regarded as low-grown tea, which is grown on an elevation from sea level up to 600m. This type of tea is exposed to a long period of sunshine, warm and moist conditions. It gives a burgundy brown liquor with strong taste.
First, I took a train to Srimangal, which is regarded as the country’s tea capital, with my Bangladeshi friend, Tanveer. We visited a few tea plantations in the vicinity. The tea gardens were nice, but it was quite a pity that we saw only just a few tea workers working amidst tea bushes far away from the road. Admittedly, it was not a good photo opportunity for me.
Later we traveled further north to Sylhet and hired a CNG (three-wheeled auto-rickshaw) for a day-trip from Sylhet to Jaflong, in order to get out of the town and see rural life in Bangladesh. The narrow road from Sylhet leaded us through small villages and vast rice fields, which are flooded during the monsoon season, known as “hoars”. But when we approached Jaflong, the surroundings started to change: More and more rows of lushly green bushes could be seen on both sides of the road, looking like an endless meadow from afar. Their leaves, which had various shades of green, sparkled in the sunlight.
I was admiring the scenic view of on both sides of the road, until my eyes caught colorful moving spots dotted around the bushes. I asked the CNG driver to stop, jumped off the car and walked into the bushes. There, I saw women dressed in bright clothes plucking leaves from the bushes. Right, we were in the middle of a tea estate now.
The tea pickers were a little bit surprised when they saw me, the only foreigner at that moment, but they gave me friendly smiles and giggled, while their hands were plucking tea leaves nimbly like scissors. I was astonished at how fast they worked with their hands. They were wearing colorful beautiful saris. Their heads were covered with traditional woven hats and/or clothes, folded neatly as a support for heavy bags of freshly picked tea leaves hanging down on their back.
I was amazed by the sight in front of me. It was just like in the photos I have seen in magazines and internet, the scene I have been searching for a long time. As people say, life is full of surprises. You never know what you will encounter on the road.
Most tea-estate workers are descended Indian laborers brought in by the British from the then more established tea-growing areas, such as West Bengal, Orissa, which are located in India nowadays. But behind the beautiful sight of these tea pickers working in a tranquil tea garden lies a sad truth. I have read in a local newspaper later that the average wage for tea pickers is just around 55 Taka (0.71 USD) per day. Local NGOs are trying to help and improve their living and working conditions.