“Mike, you do realize this is the most ‘white devil’ stop we’ve ever had on vacation, right?”
Watching a throng of British tourists being waited on by servile Sri Lankans in traditional attire…. Yes, the thought had occurred to me. To be clear, we’re sort of co-opting the “white devil” term to refer to remnants of the more distasteful aspects of western colonialism (E.g. this attitude). However, the term has some more interesting etymology that is largely unrelated to colonialism (E.g. here and here).
The British colonial period in Sri Lanka was certainly responsible for a great deal of suffering for local peoples. Sri Lankans were stripped of their land, and people were brought in to work as slaves under miserable conditions to supply the demand for tea and coffee in Europe. Knowing this, it really doesn’t seem like a period that would be celebrated by Sri Lankans. The idea of a theme hotel on an historic colonial era tea plantation seems… questionable. I imagine it being like opening a southern plantation-themed hotel in the U.S., maybe where guests could pick some cotton or tobacco and be otherwise waited on like real plantation owners. My guess is that that is not a business idea that would be successful. Alas, though, it seems to be a winning idea in Sri Lanka.
The Heritance Tea Factory is a theme hotel on the of the site of the Hethersett Estate tea plantation. The Tea factory was built in the early 1800s (rebuilt after a fire in 1930s) and was a working plantation and factory until closing in 1968. The place sat empty and dormant for several decades until being “discovered” in the 1990s. The place was converted into a kind of boutique 4-star theme hotel and is the top-rated hotel in the area. It is located in a very rural area, perched atop a large hill at one of the highest elevations in Sri Lanka, far removed from anything other than tea fields and a very impoverished village. Probably a third of the guests are Sri Lankan or Indian, the majority of the rest of the guests (during our stay at least) being British. We found the British clientele, particularly the older ones, to be a fascinating slice of irony. Like they came all this way to relive the glory of their grandparents. The people watching (other guests) can be a bit entertaining. (E.g. …An older British lady snapping at another [non-western] guest at breakfast “I’m getting some sliced pineapple, you need to get behind me, sir!) Enjoying a cup of tea watching people toddling around on perfectly manicured lawns overlooking rolling green hills of tea is a bit surreal.
Martha seems to be relaxing nicely, although she is also a little under the weather recuperating from the sniffles since we got here. As for me, the place has me a little stir crazy. I’ve gone out hiking through the surrounding forest and hills a couple of times, scouting for the choicest sunrise/sunset photography spots. Some friends may know of some times when that has been a recipe for disaster, but I swear I haven’t gotten lost in the jungle or into any trouble. The altitude makes outings here feel nice and brisk, and I’ve found that more relaxing than lounging around. We also did an outing where we picked some tea ourselves and toured a little miniature working factory that they have on site. Being both coffee people more-so, I think we learned a few things.
The setting is absolutely beautiful here and I really can appreciate how this hotel has been successful. While reflecting on the seeming absurdity of this place as an opportunistic microcosm of western imperialism in the modern era, I realize there are more nuanced ways of viewing it. The hotel repurposed an empty and otherwise useless building into a source of revenue and jobs for locals, in an area with extremely limited opportunities. It improved local infrastructure (roads, electric grid, fresh water). It has attempted (and maybe, in some ways, is successful) in being respectful of the cultural heritage that tea represents locally. Nevertheless, it’s been a bit of a different type of stop than we’re used to. We’re both nice and rested now, and tomorrow we’re gonna be back on the road, ultimately connecting by train to Kandy.
The rest of our stay in Sri Lanka should be a little more backpacker/flashpacker, and not so much white devil colonialist.