Monday, December 29, 2008

Lashings of ginger beer

There's something about Sri Lanka that makes us think of a Caribbean island, even though neither of us have ever been to one. It might be the delicious fiery ginger beer we're drinking. The lazy way to describe the country and the people is to say it's like India but with less people. This isn't true and anyway, there isn't anywhere quite like India. The landscape is green and forested and varies with altitude, yet we have only seen a relatively small area. There has been no sign of extreme poverty or squalid slums but people do sometimes beg. The only urgency we have seen is on the buses or trains when a seat becomes vacant. Otherwise there's a fairly laid back feel and people seem to be accustomed to things that we struggle with. Public transport is the test for us. The roads are good but the transport system is crowded and overloaded. Buses fill up with standing passengers for long hot rides and the drivers drive fast and recklessly on straight roads. Actually, they drive fast and recklessly on the winding roads too. Happily there aren't many long rides for us.

It seems only the older folk wear the traditional clothes of sarees for the women and lunghis for the men. Youngsters go for the jeans and t-shirts and long skirts for a modern conservative look. (Lots of t-shirt slogans, such as "Don't walk on the grass - smoke it" or just nonsense in English.) Everyone carries an umbrella - handy for occasional rain and useful as a parasol around midday. In Kandy we also saw them used at night time as people walked under trees full of crows and fruit bats - judging by the excrement on the pavements, rather wise. Sinhalese, like Hungarian, appears to use an inordinate number of syllables and everyone speaks fast - sometimes overhearing a conversation is like listening to horse racing commentary.

Invariably everyone is helpful and friendly to us, and on the coast it is sometimes easy to forget there is a full-scale military battle going on in the north of the country. In Haputale there were many soldiers around, possibly because of a visit by the President to a nearby airbase. On longer bus journeys we have passed through checkpoints where most people have got off the bus to have id checked and bags searched. (We're not sure why not everyone gets off - and the searches seem a bit cursory and futile. We were once searched entering a bus station and again on the bus before leaving, but 200 metres down the road picking up more passengers anyway....)

We've come to the south coast for Christmas to visit one of the quiet beaches just a little beyond the developed coastline closer to Colombo. We find a great little guesthouse in Mirissa run by a friendly couple who obviously think we are underweight judging by the breakfasts they serve. Tellingly, we are their first guests since October - everyone says that this year is bad for business. On the beach there are a few quiet restaurants and hotels and not many people to enjoy the clean sands and big surf that comes crashing in. Gayle is immediately in the water, beyond the big waves, paddling around. The water's as warm as a bathtub. This is our second Christmas away from home and it still feels like funny weather to be having. We meet up with others on their Christmas hols, and celebrate Christmas with beers and fish curries on the beach.

On Boxing Day morning there is a minute's silence in remembrance of the tsunami victims. In the evening candle lanterns are lit on the beach. The following day we visit Galle, which has an old Dutch fort. There are school holidays here and lots of locals on holiday. At the fort gates the armed forces have put on a display of weaponry as part of a recruitment drive - with all the fun of the fair. Inside the fort is quiet, but people promenade along the walls, and young men offer to jump off one of the bastions into the sea below.......for a price, of course. Gayle looks over the wall. "That doesn't look hard." "For three hundred rupees, I'll jump" says a long-haired youth in long shorts that are hanging off his hips. "You're joking - I wouldn't give you that!", she laughs. "Have you come from India?" he asks. "Yes. Why?" "No-one who comes from India gives us any money" he says ruefully.

We've been enjoying the fruit here, especially the bananas. There's lots of varieties including pink ones, but our favourite has been the little fat flavoursome ones that the EU has probably banned in Europe. Perhaps this could be our lazy way of describing the country - a banana republic.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Island of Jewels

For some reason, we seem to become very happy on finding a supermarket in Kandy - obviously something has been wrong. After a couple of days in Sri Lanka we have yet to find any good affordable food - and John, as Gayle knows only too well, travels on his stomach. It is fair to describe Sri Lankan cuisine as a kind of fusion - nuclear fusion - brought about by the obligatory combination of green and red chillies. There is no flavour to rice and curry here - just an explosion in your mouth, followed by watery eyes, snotty nose and hiccups. Eating has become a full-bodied experience - relived several hours later upon moving one's bowels. So what do we buy in the supermarket, you may (or may not) wonder? Lemon Puffs. Fortunately normal service is resumed when we work out what the locals do - snack in some very English-looking bakeries (everything savoury is deep-fried in breadcrumbs and everything sweet is a bit dry and dull) and get take-away lunch 'packets' - a pile of rice, dal and fiery curry wrapped up in plastic and newspaper.

Kandy is described in the guidebook as the "spiritual centre" of Sri Lanka - but I suspect this really may be only true for the Sinhalese majority , who are Buddhists. For in the middle of Kandy, beside a lake, stands the Temple of the Holy Tooth Relic. An orthodontist cult? No, this refers to one of the Buddha's molars, wrapped up in cotton wool and a golden casket and enshrined for the faithful to visit. And they do. But it's three quid a pop for foreign tourists, so we pass on the opportunity. Instead we visit the nearby botannical gardens and take a walk through the nearby countryside, visiting a couple of temples. The Tamils are Hindu, and Sri Lanka also has Muslim and Christian minorities, but the ongoing troubles here are not specifically to do with religion. In the 1950's, in an attempt to break the hold on power by an English-speaking elite, the newly-elected Sinhalese government introduced a 'Sinhala-only' language policy. This chauvinism directly affected the Tamils too, who felt that as a large minority they were being penalised. Now, after a prolonged period of armed struggle, terrorism, ceasefires, failed deals, and Indian intervention the current government have embarked on a new campaign to destroy the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). The army is now fighting to regain territory in the north of the country and the civilians are being caught up between the two forces. We were shocked and surprised to be told that at one temple they were holding a ceremony to pray for the army's success, but then the Buddhist monks here have always been at the forefront of Sinhalese nationalism. At the same time everyone complains about the President and the corruption that enables his family to have hold of many businesses. These are, sadly, echoes of other countries we have passed through.
We journey into the hills to climb one of the higher peaks called Sri Pada or Adam's Peak. This is a pilgrimage site, and there is a very long flight of stairs to the top where a 'footprint' in a rock indicates where Buddha stepped off on his way to Paradise, or where Adam first set foot on leaving Eden, or possibly even Shiva stood here - something for almost everyone then. We set off in the early hours of the morning to arrive at the top for sunrise - an optimistic strategy bearing in mind the weather has been decidely cloudy and rainy in our first week here. We climb with some other tourists and meet ex-pat Sri Lankans and other nationals on their slow way up. Sure enough there's even a shower as we get close to the windy top, but it soon passes and we join more pilgrims who have overnighted at the top. There is a large silver foot beside the temple on the rocky peak - but it's not clear whether it's coming or going, so no clues as to whose it is. The expected sunrise is blocked by clouds but the views are still wonderful. Don't look over the edge - the mountainside is thick with litter.
We amble down for breakfast and head off to Haputale - a small Tamil village in the middle of tea estates just a bit further down the railway line. The trains are delayed though and we wait a long time before we finally set off. The British built the railways and it looks like the trains date from pre-Independence days. Unfortunately there are too many passengers - it's the holiday season here - and we have to stand. A reflection of the times - the Railway Protection Force work their way along checking id and bags. Above a doorway is the picture of a hand grenade and a warning in Sinhalese. We are extremely grateful when someone gives up their seats for us. Despite all the problems, the people here are invariably kind and helpful (rickshaw drivers excluded of course). We have been warned to take care of our bags in Haputale - a typical attitude towards the Tamil people - and completely unwarranted. We arrive in the dark in a squally shower and as we trudge along back country lanes to find our guesthouse we begin to think we have stepped onto the moors at home.

Our days in Haputale are spent recovering from our climb by taking more gentle walks around the countryside. As far as the eye can see there are tea plantations - these are perfect conditions for growing - steep slopes and warm humid weather. The Tamils in these parts were brought here by the British from south India to work the land, and it's tough work. Only women pick the leaves - carrying their harvest in a sack hung on their back from a band around their forehead. The plants are low and sit row upon row on very sharp inclines. The men carry out other jobs around the estates, and everyone lives on site - in small clusters of houses, with rusty corrugated roofs and what looks like fairly basic facilities. However, we see none of the extreme rural poverty that we've seen in India. There are schools and dispensaries dotted around. Everyone smiles and greets us as we wander around one of the estates, originally owned by Sir Thomas Lipton, but since the 1950's in Sri Lankan hands. The estate is enormous and spreads over the hills - it is an impressive sight, and the tea shines luminescently in the sun. From up here we can look out over the low southern plains disappearing in the haze.

The Arab traders who came here for precious gems called this island Serendib - literally lsland of Jewels - but I'm buggered if I can concoct some witty and appropiate sign off using the word serendipity. The heat has gone to my head...........