We swooped down in tea country. The mountains were cooler than Colombo. The tea hills rolled emerald-green, lush, and orderly. Mist rolled through the hills, tall slender trees swayed in welcome. They looked like animals gathering, bending, crouching on the hills.
The car rumbled along tea bushes on steep hillsides. Orderly rows on vast lush hills in perfect symmetry. Step pyramids of tea. Narrow roads wove through the picturesque tea fields.
My father and aunt had been in Colombo. The plane had glided like a shark through the Indian Ocean, a long, finned shadow below him and landed, beached on palm-fringed tarmac. Coconut palms swayed on the island. Colombo was leafy green, yellow fronds jutting out of houses tucked into fields. The island was swathed by a jungle of emerald green. Cars chugged, crawled, and came to a halt on the road.
He had flown to Colombo in July. When he came out of the plane, the humid heat fell upon him like a net and his wet shirt clung to him. He came during the monsoon and spent a month in Colombo. His suit had been soaked in the heavy rainfall. The scent of coconuts suffused the island. He had plodded through the heat, lugged bottles and jars of coconut oil. He had been soaked in coconut. Coconut-scented oil, water, soap, air. The smell of coconut hung on his shirt, trickled down his skin. He lugged pots of coconut oil from Colombo. My aunt Hind bought boxes of coconut oil and trinkets and spices. She ambled in markets, fanned herself, heaped coconut oil and cinnamon sticks on stalls. Her brother heaved coconut-scented boxes and bags.
He came home laden with assorted wooden hand-painted elephants. My mother arranged a family of decorated elephants in her parlor. I would kneel over and peer at the bejeweled elephants stacked together like a family. I ran my palms over the simple woodwork and intricate paint.
It was family lore that he had been in Sri Lanka. It must have been then that the desire to follow suit had taken root in me. I had come to tea country. When Nadim rolled two suitcases out of the airport, Colombo smelled of cinnamon. Nadim brightened at the swathe of jungle. Did he know that I had harbored that wish, that my father had been to Colombo, and we once had a grand guest when I was impressionable? I remembered my father and the scent of coconut.
My father had been to Colombo, but we traveled deeper into tea country. The car jolted along and wound through the hills. Tea estates, ravines, and waterfalls whirred along a palm-fringed lake.
A burst of brightness flared in the green fields. A canary-yellow sari swayed in the tea hills. A woman strolled down the valley, her skirt flowed over a path, a twirl of yellow winked in leafy emerald hills. There was a smattering of red blossoms on a patch, ceremonial flowers in the greenery.
“We are having a guest.” It was a solemn occasion, and we were to make a special appearance. The guest swept into my grandmother’s pistachio-green parlor. Her sari rustled on lotuses embossed on the marble floor in our hall.
It was 1981. My grandmother had invited the guest to tea. She was in Cairo and had wanted to meet my grandmother. My grandmother welcomed her into the green parlor. Formal phrases sprinkled with smiles were exchanged. They had tea and my grandmother sent for us.
I had to look prim in a lace-trimmed frock with hair held in ribbons. We were herded into the green parlor where my grandmother welcomed her guests. We came in pretty frocks and well-combed hair for the formal occasion. The guest smiled and shook my hand and Sara’s. I stared at the guest’s sari wide-eyed. I didn’t know what a sari was. The rolled-up cloth. That bold fuschia. The sumptuous sari pinned around the guest. I wished I could feel the drapes and folds. I wondered how the sari was spun and knotted. She sat and the cloth looked ceremonious. What is your name? How beautiful! She smiled. We welcomed her in dainty English accents. We must have looked like dolls beside my grandmother’s writing-desk.
I didn’t understand how I could not whirl my dress around me like that. I would roll the large crimson curtain in the hall around me, while my mother was visiting in the parlor, and disappear in a swathe of cloth. I wondered how I could roll myself into a sari.
My almost half-Scottish mother, fine-featured and elegant, impressed the guest with her decorum. Her impeccable English tinkled in the green parlor.
When we came out of the parlor, Narguis whisked us upstairs, but we harangued her to let us out into the garden where we scampered to the loquat trees.
Years later, I hoped our tea was passable. I thought about pluckers in the tea estates of Sri Lanka. I wished my grandmother had offered her guest guraiba. She would have loved her freshly-baked soft Arabic sweets.
I didn’t know then that boxes of tea arrived from India and Sri Lanka for my grandmother. We had flavorful tea in our pantry.
But when I was six, after I was summoned to meet our guest, I already knew it was Bandaranaike. I remembered a fuschia and tangerine sari.
All of a sudden around us leafy tea plantations burst with color. It was a lovely scene. Above, the pluckers swirled amid the tea bushes. Tea pickers in colorful saris knelt over rows of deep green bushes, bright specks of color in the fields. They plucked buds and leaves, pruned bushes, swiped and snipped with shears. Cloth pulled over their heads billowed bright yellow among the bushes. Brightly colored saris blazed through the verdant hills. Clusters of yellow, pink, periwinkle in a plot. A plucker in a blazing red sari and tangerine blouse passed us.
Misty hills rose above us. A tuk tuk swooped on the twisting roads. I saw the tea pickers, hands nimble as if they were plucking the strings of a musical instrument, a qanun, on the bushes. Elderly tea pickers smiled, chatted, called out to each other. Young tea-pickers were rare. They held palmfuls of fresh leaves and buds. They fluttered over bushes, faces bent down and brows furrowed in concentration. Every now and then, they tossed tea leaves backward into sacks as though they were tying loose hair, tucking in wayward strands. When we were near, I saw that they were in flowery and bright blouses and aprons. Some had straps around their heads and hung yellow sacks of tea. Occasionally, men in sarongs kneeled over bushes.
Mist half-hung over the hills. Nadim and I trekked through the hills, lush and abundant. We passed a tea field and came upon slender pickers. In the hills, a plucker paused and smiled. A short plump picker opened her palm, full of tea buds. “Silver tips,” she said and smiled.
I leaned over a bush and looked into her palms.
“Silver tips,” she said softly. The leaves silver-tipped as if they were covered in frost. Her yellow sack hung from a strap around her head. The bushes were brightened with swathes of color. Marigold, poppy, canary-yellow, saffron.
Nadim coaxed me to stroll through the fields. I felt that I was outsized in the tea fields and had trespassed upon the pluckers.
The tallest and leanest picker smiled shyly. I stepped over twigs and branches to climb onto the path and tottered over the grass. I looked at them and smiled. I scoured the tea fields. I wished I could stroll among the pluckers.
Our bungalow was perched high on the mountains. I came to an empty tropical tea garden of invisible croquet and rested on the porch.
“Look! A mongoose.” I thought it was a cat but something about the way it stopped and looked around and calculated and its ruddy face made me wrinkle my brow.
“They eat snakes,” Nadim chimed.
A mongoose slinked through the bushes, paused at a step, looked backwards out of curiosity, and scuttled away. A three-striped palm squirrel scuttled onto the porch, slid, and fell. Splayed flat on the tiled floor, it looked surprised and displaced. I laughed. It picked itself up and scuttled away. There were coconut, mango, and cinnamon trees. Three little squirrels played hide-and-seek, scampered down a tufted tree, and climbed up quaint cane chairs in the garden.
After a lunch of fresh fish, prawn curry, rice, coconut sambal, and mango chutney, we retired to our bungalow’s verandah.
“Have some tea,’ Nadim said at teatime. There was a fresh, steaming pot of brewed tea. He poured a cup of tea and disappeared into the bungalow. There were scrumptious scones and cakes and sandwiches and clotted cream. The bungalow belonged to an Englishman. I look at our orderly tea garden. Whether Egypt, Sri Lanka, or India, the English had picked some lovely spots.
The mist swirled out over the mountains where the tall slender trees looked like the cut-out people my mother made me when I was sick and bedridden. When I was a girl. A chain of paper dolls that felt cheery when the afternoons wore on, when it was my mother and me. They rolled now in the mist and loomed on the hills. There was something sickly and cheery about them and I didn’t want to fall into them. I was so far from home, but something of my father and girlhood was here.
It was late afternoon. I sipped cinnamon tea on the verandah, slowly, looking at the rolling mist. Afternoon cinnamon-flavored tea. Geckoes climbed up the walls. I remembered my grandmother’s tea in our garden. She would brew a pot of tea and share her tea with me at breakfast. She cossetted me with honey, breadsticks, and white cheese. I sipped tea in a cup like my grandmother’s gold-rimmed china teacups.
Women’s chatter gurgled along a path through the garden. Curious, I brushed off my shawl, stepped down the steps of the garden and peered above the clipped bushes.
Women ambled on a path, they were so near I could reach out and touch them. First, one, then two. And another two. They were walking home from the fields as the mist rolled in, hair piled in headscarves, sacks hung down their backs. Another three appeared, yellow and pink tarpaulin sacks full of fresh tea leaves (twenty kilograms), bundled on tiny frames. A plucker drew slices of dried fruit from a tiny plastic bag and ate as she walked. They were likely on their way to weigh the tea. Afterward, the tea would be sorted, withered, fermented, dried, and baked at the tea factory. Some of it would be flavored.
One of them looked up, nodded, and smiled at me. I smiled shyly. I thought I was invisible. I felt that I had shrunken. It was a brief moment of acknowledgment and then she was on her way.
She walked away, lightly. Tea pluckers followed suit. They labored over the bushes. They were graceful in laborious tea-picking.
The bushes were empty now. There was no movement. No bursts of color. No chatter. Rolling hills of green. This was the tea, the flavor, that came to my grandmother’s garden.
My father had been to Sri Lanka. He had been young and sturdy.
I looked at the empty path and the prized paper cut-outs in the mist. I turned to my little nook on the verandah. The steaming pot of tea. The tea the plucker had to carry and walk up and down the hills, the length of the tea estates, and weigh. My shawl draped neatly over the dainty wicker chair. A swathe of cloth in a tea garden. I was no longer there.
Tahia Abdel Nasser is a writer and the editor of Nasser My Husband: A Memoir. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Rigorous and elsewhere. She is an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo.