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...........


fabien said...

hello and happy new year on the move dear!!!
This is fabien (haputale and mirissa), i hope health is good and that the trip goes well.
The blog is great and full of nice souvenir as i go through Indian's pictures.
I am looking forward to see the one from Lanka for i've lost my camera in the plane or the airport well anyway it is gone, so i feel sorry for all the friends who wanted to see my pictures........
An other time i suppose !!

Take care and again happy new year 2009, please carry on giving us news from the world for it'is going to be a very special for all of us.

Bye, fabien.

The Sloths said...

Hi and a happy new year to you too! Bad news about the camera - the photographs are our most valuable possessions probably - just can't trust our memories these days.....
Hope the winter is not too hard for you,
The Sloths