Monday, May 26, 2008

400 not out! (And My Sri Lankan Diary: Part 2)

Yes, this post marks my 400th piece of bloggery. Where has the time gone, eh? And what better way to celebrate than with a cup of tea, high in the mountains of Sri Lanka ...

Part Two: Little England, Big Lizards

“It is very much like England up here”, explained our guide.
“You haven’t been to England have you?” I asked.
“No”, he said.

That much was obvious. Even with the windows open, the interior of the van was like a sauna.

Nuwara Eliya, known locally as ‘Little England’, is Sri Lanka’s mountain region and home to its thriving tea plantations. It is a little cooler than the rest of the island but the humidity still makes everything feel sticky. We'd had our first experience of this during the night. The bedsheets felt worryingly moist and I woke in the morning with hair like a mad woman's breakast. It didn't matter what I did with it - the air was so full of water that for my entire time on Sri Lanka, my hair took on the texture and quality of cooked vermicelli. The humidity even affected our money; the local banknotes always felt damp and grubby. We understood that the government was experimenting with plastic Rupees, but we never saw any.

On the subject of money, it did take us a few days to cope with it. Having dragged our spending money through two different currencies (Sterling and $US travellers' cheques), we ended up with thousands of Sri Lankan Rupees but had no idea how much they equated to. For the first two or three days, we were tipping people with medium-sized bills not realising that that we were giving people enough money to feed their family for a year and put the oldest child through university. Not that I would have minded that. It's a very poor country. We'd been told to take some 'luxury goods' with us for the children. By 'luxury goods', I mean pens and pencils. I took hundreds with me and Dawn and I dished them out to schoolkids whenever we saw them. They were so grateful, bless them. It's humbling to see someone so excited over a Biro.

Anyhow, after breakfast, we engaged the services of a local guide (much better than the ones the tour company provide) called Linton to take us to Little England. As a serious tea drinker I was keen to see where my favourite tipple came from. The road we travelled to get there was steep and narrow and wound around the mountains like a helter-skelter. Sri Lankans drive on the right, a left-over from the days of British Imperialism. But that was the only similarity to British roads or road usage. It was quite alarming to look out of the window and see how far we would fall if we veered off the half-made road. And that seemed a real possibility as there were no crash barriers and Linton insisted on overtaking slow-moving vehicles on every blind corner. Some mysterious and hitherto unknown physical principle allows Sri Lankan drivers to do whatever they like as long as they hold their hand on the horn. It didn’t matter that the road could only accommodate one emaciated gentleman on a bicycle – the Magical Horn would somehow allow us to pass safely by. At several times, I swear I felt the edge of the road crumbling beneath our wheels. My heart was in my mouth for most of the two hour journey. Thankfully, to take my mind off things, there was much worth seeing.

As our journey took us up above the tallest trees and bamboos, I could make out small brown monkeys - bearded langurs - sitting in the trees feasting on the abundance of fruit and foliage. At one point, we passed a tree that looked as if a hundred or so black umbrellas had been hung there by an enterprising but insane brolly salesman. Obligingly, one of the umbrellas launched into the air as we drove away allowing me to get a great shot of a Fruit Bat for my album.

Eventually, we arrived safe and sound at the top of the mountain. Praise the Horn.
We took a tour around a plantation. Well, it would be rude not to, wouldn't it? They are so proud of their Ceylon tea. We saw how it was harvested - still all hand-picked mostly by women - and then left in piles on marble floors to ferment for several days. This brings the caffeine and tannin out and gives tea its distinctive pick-me-up. Then the tea is loaded into large hoppers and dried and graded by size. The larger leaves (the freshest tips don't break up quite as much as older leaves) become the top quality tea. The slightly smaller leaves become loose tea. Disturbingly, we were told that the dusty chaff that falls out of the bottom of the sorting machines is what they sell to the tea bag companies. I'll never drink PG Tips again.

It was informative and interesting and culminated in a tasting session where I was presented with a cup of traditional Ceylon Orange Peko. I drink my tea black anyway, but the liquid tar they offered me was blacker than any tea I’d ever seen before. Utterly opaque and as dark as sin, even light seemed to be sucked into it. I took a sip and suddenly found myself wishing for a lemon. Or some sherbet. Or anything to take away the bitterness that puckered my lips and sucked my cheeks in. It felt as if a vacuum had formed in my mouth.
“It is good, no?” said the plantation owner.
"No", I replied, smiling.
He smiled back. I smiled again in a polite English ‘No but I’m not going to make a fuss’ kind of way and then headed for Linton's van, praying for something sweet and wet to rescue my ailing mouth as soon as possible. I even considered sucking on a banknote. Thankfully common sense (and a dubious yellow stain) prevented any such thoughts from becoming a reality. I suspect that their soggy currency is an ecosystem in its own right.

However, my prayers were answered during our perilous trip back down the mountainside. Spotting a roadside shack ahead, Linton asked if we fancied some fresh fruit. We nodded enthusiastically and he pulled over to the edge of the road. And by edge, I mean edge. There was no grass verge, no hard shoulder, no lay-by. If I'd got out of the wrong side of the van I'd have plunged the sheer drop into the lush forest below. While he negotiated the price of a jackfruit and some bananas, I found myself staring at the fruit sellers' hut. There was something altogether odd about it. And then I realised what it was. This little Sri Lankan jerry-build was floating on air. Its frontage butted onto the edge of the road but around, behind and beneath it, there was only air. Yet the shack hung there, defying the laws of physics and looking like some impossible creation of M C Escher. Thinking perhaps that the heat (or a tannin overdose) was causing me to hallucinate, I walked a little closer to the abyss. The hut wasn’t floating on air at all. It was worse than that. It was standing upon five slender legs made of bamboo. They were oly as thick as a man’s leg and must have been at least 50-60 feet in length, each one made by lashing several long lengths together. The whole place was supported by sticks. It looked impossible. Even though I know that bamboo is as strong as steel (they use it as building scaffolding all over the far East), it still looked like a house standing on flamingo's legs.
We ate the jackfruit and threw the seeds to another troupe of monkeys that hung around us looking for tidbits. Jackfruit look like large warty green Rugby or American Footballs. They grow like a parasite (maybe they are?) on the sides of trees. When split open, a jackfruit has the same kind of internal structure as a pomegranate; loads of seeds, each one inside a tasty, juicy bag. With jackfruit, the seed is the size of a Brazil nut and its bag is yellow. It's slightly chewy, like the texture of ham, but tastes like a cross between a melon and a banana. Lovely stuff.

Linton then took us to an Ayurveda centre for some traditional Sri Lankan massage and a spice garden. We're so used to seeing pepper, cumin, cardomom, cinnamon, coriander, vanilla and other spices in jars that we forget that they all start life on a plant. I was particularly taken with the cinnamon trees. The spice we use - either in the form of sticks or powder - is the bark of the tree. As the expert spice gatherers strip the bark and roll it for drying the air is filled with the most gorgeous sweet smell that makes you crave apple pie and custard.

Stopping once more to buy freshly roasted cashew nuts and red bananas (Sri Lanka grows four kinds - two yellow, one green and one red. The red banana is very sweet and is generally exported for use in food flavouring. So now you know why it's that colour), we sat and watched a glorious waterfall at Ramboda. Then we watched a pair of German tourists hastily pulling off their shorts and t-shirts to escape the leeches that had fastened onto them when they'd gone too close to the falls. Apparently, this particular species hangs around on wet leaves and attaches itself as you pass. Linton carefully removed the remainder while the sheepish tourists apologised for their impromptu striptease. I said I didn't mind at all. Oh, did I mention that they were both ladies?

Back at the hotel, a barbecue was in full swing. There was a huge fish on the coals with a mouthful of teeth to rival the entire Osmond family. There were steaks and burgers and some kind of chicken-based sausage (Aha! So that's what we'd had on the plane!). Most Sri Lankans are Buddhist and vegetarian. The remainder are Hindu and do not eat beef. Consequently, we never identified what the steaks were ... other than tough and undigestible. The burgers were better. We decided it was best not to ask what they were made from. But the fish! Absolutely wonderful as was all the seafood we tasted during our stay.

As we ate, large monitor lizards the size of labradors (if they crawled along the floor) waddled among us, begging for food. They turned their noses and flicking tongues up at bread and fish but seemed to really enjoy the burgers. We named them McLizards.
The sun was going down so we all headed to the beach to sit on the white sands and absorb the beauty of an Indian Ocean sunset. Almost every little seashell I picked up contained a tiny hermit crab and the beach was littered with dead and broken coral. Apparently, the reefs offshore have suffered at the hands (arms?) of a foreign invader - the predatory Crown of Thorns starfish that mooches about among the reef hoovering up the living coral polyps. As a result, the reefs are dying.

The sun eventually dipped below the horizon, painting the sky with broad strokes of orange, red and blue. Night fell very quickly and we headed back inside, surrounded by fireflies. Eschewing the curious pleasures of the world's worst disco ('Ultimate Power') - the DJ hadn't quite learned how to mix between two records and invariably chose ones with different time signatures ... and he also had to cope with the frequent power cuts that happen every night - we headed upstairs to hide from the mosquitoes and play 'Who's been drinking my water' with the geckos.

I counted eight in the room tonight. They're multiplying.

Next: The Elephant Orphanage and a Bloody Big Buddha

10 comments:

willow said...

Oh Stevyn, what a very interesting and exotic post!

Thanks for the heads up on tea and tea bags. Ick. I never knew that they were made from the dusty stuff from the floor.

I love M.C. Escher, BTW, but hope you don't continue to see much of his work on your trip. ;)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Glad you liked it Willow - more to come.

As for M C Escher ... the only times I usually see stairs growing out of walls and ceilings is after a few too many beers ...

Me said...

Your delivery in May of blogs of worthy has been stupendous. Your record of 50 in a month has been smashed!
Well done you!
x

Stevyn Colgan said...

Blimey Me! I was so intent on getting to my 400th that I hadn't even noticed that I'd beaten 50!

I should explain that I haven't sat down and written 50-odd brand new posts ... it's about half and half new stuff plus old stuff from the Colgan archives. As you know, I've been writing, almost every day, for the past 18 years and I have plenty more to post yet.

You poor, poor people.

Michele said...

Fantastic photos! And a writer on the edge--quite literally this time. Wasn't there something about being "on the edge" on your old banner?

Living in suburbia my entire life, it always takes me a moment to remember that there are places where monkeys, fruit bats, and monitor lizards roam freely.

And the way you've described the heat... Wow, that humidity would definitely take some getting used to.

Have a great trip!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Michele - Nice to have you back! (Have you been hiding? Or on some secret governmnet mission?)

It was hot - hotter than it ever gets in wet olde England anyway. The great thing about the USA is that it's so mind-bogglingly big that you can literally drive from snow to desert in a day or two. I'm a bit jealous of that. Best we can do is drive from drizzle to downpour. However, it does mean that us Brits do travel a lot. Sri Lanka was a great experience (more instalments from my travel diary coming soon). Then I'm off to Lanzarote in a few weeks. The Canary Islands are great, Spanish hospitality, African weather. Then I may be off to San Diego in July.

It's all go!

x

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Michele - Nice to have you back! (Have you been hiding? Or on some secret governmnet mission?)

It was hot - hotter than it ever gets in wet olde England anyway. The great thing about the USA is that it's so mind-bogglingly big that you can literally drive from snow to desert in a day or two. I'm a bit jealous of that. Best we can do is drive from drizzle to downpour. However, it does mean that us Brits do travel a lot. Sri Lanka was a great experience (more instalments from my travel diary coming soon). Then I'm off to Lanzarote in a few weeks. The Canary Islands are great, Spanish hospitality, African weather. Then I may be off to San Diego in July.

It's all go!

x

Michele said...

LOL, no. Nothing as covert as a secret government mission. We had a young family member become gravely ill and ended up in the intensive care unit for a couple weeks, so I've been focusing on family. Fortunately, he's made a remarkable turnaround and is expected to be released from the hospital soon--possibly today. :-)

Oh, and in Southern California, you can go from snow to desert in an hour or two. California is wild because it has every climate out there--rain forests, deserts, Mediterranean, tundra, mountains, ect.. I've lived here my entire life and I still have so much to explore in my own state...let alone the other 49.

And we're going to be in England in a few weeks--can't wait!--but it will probably be while your soaking in the sun on Lanzarote.

San Diego is vibrant and it's my stomping ground as well. We head down there as often as possible. In fact, I lived there for a few years and would move back in a heartbeat. I think you'll enjoy that trip, especially if you love history, culture, Mexican food, and music. :-)

You guys travel as much we do! I love it.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Sorry to hear about your family trials and tribulations - but I'm glad that all is well now. Also nice to meet someone who enjoys travelling. You can't beat it. Typical that you're over here when I'm somewhere else! I'm off to the Canaries on the 15th for a fortnight. Two glorious weeks of sun, volcanoes and art. Hoorah! I hope you have a great time here.

Who knows ... it may have stopped drizzling by then.
x

Stevyn Colgan said...

Sorry to hear about your family trials and tribulations - but I'm glad that all is well now. Also nice to meet someone who enjoys travelling. You can't beat it. Typical that you're over here when I'm somewhere else! I'm off to the Canaries on the 15th for a fortnight. Two glorious weeks of sun, volcanoes and art. Hoorah! I hope you have a great time here.

Who knows ... it may have stopped drizzling by then.
x