February 6, 2013
The city wakes. Cars honk, crows craw, children play, workmen on building sites call out to each other; people descend from the hill on the way to work by foot, moped and car. A new day begins. A brass band practices in front of a school where girls in sparkling white uniforms, hair neatly braided, wait for the door to open.
During a breakfast of tea, toast and fruit, an American couple sitting at the next table tell us about their travel adventures in Asia. We’re overjoyed to meet experienced travelers and bombard them with questions. The joy we felt on arriving in Asia has already evaporated and all but disappeared, leaving us overwhelmed by the chaos and the uncomfortable feeling of being constantly hit on by hustlers anxious to sink their teeth into us. The attention is daunting and forces us to assume arrogant, cold masks, sadly repelling the very people we were hoping to interact with. The conversation between us flows smoothly, and soon Joel and Carol join us at our table for a 2nd cup of tea. They undertook their first exploration of Asia using the cult book,
– Across Asia on the Cheap, an account of Tony and Maureen Wheeler’s honeymoon journey in 1972, an overland road trip from London to Sydney undertaken in a beat-up van. The young couple did what others thought impossible, arriving in Australia happy and with only 27 cents left to their name. Constant questions about the trip inspired them to write an account of their six-month journey, which they felt was too wonderful to keep to themselves (the first copies were stapled together at their kitchen table), unexpectedly selling 1,500 copies the week it was issued, and bringing Lonely Planet into existence. Their second book,
– South East Asia on a Shoestring, was published two years later, and Lonely Planet went on to become the world’s most popular guide book.
Carol and Joel, confirmed backpackers from Oregon, have spent the past 40 years traveling according to the principles popular in the early 70’s and never journey anywhere without a Lonely Planet guidebook in their luggage. Christof booked a tuk tuk taxi driver to show us around Kandy, a recommendation he got from the hostel owner this morning. On hearing this, our American friends explain that they avoid booking ‘services’ whenever possible, and although they don’t come out and say it, in their eyes it’s extremely ‘uncool’ to be chauffeured around. Born a decade later, we have different inclinations and ideals, and although we love to hear their stories and advice, we don’t feel like emulating their rough and ready lifestyle. They will take their tour of Kandy on foot, which, they say, makes it easy to avoid unnecessary tourist traps set up for commercial purposes.
Joe and Carol have been coming to Asia for the past 40 years, sometimes on month-lng trips like this one, other times for months or a year at a time. If they weren’t granted a leave of absence from their jobs, they would quit and travel for as long as their money lasted. As they got older, both their job level and pay decreased. Nonetheless, they are pleased with their life style choices, and don’t regret having chosen traveling over career building, especially since neither of them harbors any illusions about their importance in the world. Christof and Joel are in agreement that our guest house owner is too unfriendly to warrant our business. Joel is going to spend time this morning looking for another hostel, but I’m not up for the hassle involved in making a change. Yesterday we looked at a number of grungy places in a similar price category, and if forced to choose between cleanliness and friendliness, I would pick cleanliness any day of the week!
Because our tuk tuk driver, Nima, is waiting for us outside, we agree to meet up with them again at the end of the day. We thoroughly enjoy the luxury of being chauffeured through traffic, and being able to dreamily lean back and watch the world float by from the back seat of a tuk tuk.
Nima lets us off at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya, established in 1843 although its predecessor already existed in the 14th century. One section of the park is devoted solely to spice plants, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, coffee and allspice.
The park is a popular rendezvous for courting couples; shade spending avenues lined with ancient trees, their tangled roots providing ample seating, offer myriad romantic spots for a tryst.
Some trees balance their sprawling limbs by spreading out equally wide-reaching roots. Others, like an ancient giant Kauri, have roots that disappear into the earth, enabling the trunk to reach up to enormous heights and the branches to – almost – disappear from sight.
Three hours is hardly enough time for an overview of a garden that contains more than 4000 different plant specimens.
Because it’s known for its orchid collection, which is housed in a charming 19th glass house, we spend a great deal of time observing their different forms and colors before aimlessly strolling about amongst an enormous variety of leaves, tiny and thin to huge and broad, bark colors and textures, smooth to flakey to rough, and wandering past bamboos and succulents, cactuses and artistically arranged annual borders.
Although we inform Nima of our lack of interest in visiting yet another Spice and Herbal Garden, he claims that the one we saw in Pinawalla yesterday wasn’t any good because it wasn’t registered with the tourist board, assuring us that because the garden he is taking us to see is, it will be a very different experience.
Our guide, who speaks in broken and almost incomprehensible English, introduces himself as a Doctor of Ayurveda, immediately informing us that he is not a business man. Although this garden is larger and more beautiful than the one in Pinawalla, the program is exactly the same. We are given a tour of the spice and herbal plants, the medicinal properties of each plant is explained at great length, and since it is overcast and muggy, the mosquitos bite us fiercely during the lecture. Our guide observes this (oddly the mosquitoes don’t bite him) and mixes some citronella and lemongrass, which he takes from two brown glass jars, in the palm of his hand before bending down to massage it, with an incredibly soft yet strong hand, into our legs. After his treatment the insects leave us alone for the rest of the day!
He invites us to sit on a bench in front of the ‘pharmacy’ and explains what can be achieved by using 100 percent natural products. At first we have difficulties understanding what he is saying, but after adjusting to his accent, find his manner of presentation charming, each description effectively kindling a wish to purchase the product he is describing.
– You take a leetle of oil from red sandalwood tree and mix iit with balm of seven herbs, massaging gently before the sleeping time, morning wake up like new person. Pains gone, fresh energy. Cream from white sandalwood tree mix with oil of white sandalwood and natural aloe vera, make own Oil of Olay. No chemical, 100 percent natural, good for pimple, for wrinkle, for dry spots, not greasy. Tissue absorb completely. Take juice of wild pineapple together with honey fermented five years. Sugar completely gone, he says, holding up tiny brown opaque bottle to demonstrate his point.
– For people want to slims down, one or two kilo, get natural weight. Good for ladies who have the stomach after baby, for cholesterol, for blood sugar. Mix wild pineapple juice and fermented honey, one spoonful morning, one evening, take 42 days then never have problem whole life. Cholesterol good, the body weight good.
Because a massage school is attached to the Spice and Herbal Garden, he offers us a complimentary massage. A massage student works on Christof while the doctor massages me. His touch is sensual yet exceeding relaxing, as he gently loosens tensions I was unaware of having. What a world of difference to the experience we had in Bangkok! I feel refreshed and invigorated after only a few minutes. The doctor hands me a business card, and offers to come to our hostel where he could give us an hour long massage for a ‘special price’. I’m enthusiastic and would love to arrange for a treatment, but Christof is angry with me for even entertaining the idea of inviting a perfect stranger into our room. How gullible can a person be?
Nima drives us to the Ceylon Tea Museum, a tea factory where visitors can watch fresh tea leaves being processed and dried by historical machines. Tea, we are told, was discovered by the Chinese emperor Shen Nung, when some leaves accidentally fell into his freshly boiled water. He drank the mixture overcome by its taste and merits which he claimed gave one ‘vigor of body, contentment of mind, and determination of purpose.’
Although Ceylon is synonymous with tea, (when it became a republic in 1972 its name was changed to Sri Lanka) originally coffee was the island’s main crop. In 1869 a coffee-rust fungus destroyed most of the coffee plants, forcing estate owners to look for alternatives. The Loolecondera Estate had already begun experimenting with a tea crop as early as 1866, choosing a young Scottish immigrant named James Taylor, who had gathered some rudimentary knowledge of tea cultivation in India, to head the initiative. The first experiments of drying and hand rolling the leaves were primitive, but by 1872 James Taylor had set up a factory and in 1873 his first crop of tea was sold at an auction in London. He produced 23 pounds of tea in 1873 but by 1880 tea production on the island had increased to 81.3 tons, and a mere decade later, to almost 23,000 tons! Today Sri Lanka is the third largest tea producer in the world.
As tea began to flow into Britain, larger companies took an interest in growing the crop themselves, and in 1890 Thomas Lipton purchased four floundering estates on the cheap. The son of poor Irish immigrants living in the slums of Glasgow, he was forced to leave school at the age of 1o to help in his parents’ grocery store. He later emigrated to America and by the age of 21 was running a successful grocery store and learning new skills of marketing and advertising. Returning to Britain, he founded a grocery chain and, using the know-how acquired in America, soon became a millionaire. On a voyage to Australia, he stopped over in Ceylon where he purchased four estates and, determined to avoid the unnecessary costs of middlemen, began producing tea himself. Tea had been unattainable for the British working classes, but Lipton, who imported his own product, cleverly marketing colorful packets with the inscription ’Straight from the tea gardens to the tea pot’ introduced a product so affordable it soon became a national British pastime.
The fresh leaves, laid out on racks, are dried by a source of constant heat blown up through fine mesh screens for a period of ten hours before being transferred to a grinding machine which twists them. The leaves are ground and twisted in four different machines after which they are dried over a wood-burning oven at 130 C. for twenty minutes. The stalks are sorted out by a machine that shakes and separates the broken leaves from the whole ones, sorting the Orange Pekoe tea into graded piles.
The name Orange Pekoe doesn’t refer to the fruit, but stems from the Dutch colonization of Ceylon and refers to the Dutch Royal House of Orange. Pekoe is a Chinese word ‘bai hoa’ meaning something like ‘white hair’ and indicates the silvery white tips of young tea leaves.
Flowery Orange Pekoe is high quality whole or broken leaf tea including many tips.
Orange Pekoe is a whole leaf tea with a few tips. Flowery Pekoe are whole leaves rolled length- wise.
Broken Orange Pekoe is a broken leaf tea with many tips.
Green tea is made from the same leaves using a different fermentation process.
White tea is made up of the finest youngest buds, and is the most delicate and expensive sort.
We try a complimentary cup of Orange Pekoe in the tearoom, which doubles as a shop. It is a light amber-colored drink served in fine white tea cups, too thin to add milk to. We prefer a stronger bodied, fuller tea that can take a generous dollop of milk.
Nima, who hangs around chatting with other taxi drivers while waiting for us, takes us to a bakery for lunch. We try some vegetable rolls, and although we repeatedly invite him to join us, he prefers to buy his lunch – a burger and fries – out of his own pocket.
Nima, whom we first met yesterday evening waiting on tables during dinner at the Sharon Inn, is not adverse to a bit of gossip about the Innkeeper’s unfriendliness, a topic introduced by Christof,
– Boss make big money but not happy, Muslim. I Buddhist, have big heart, not greedy. What day gives, enough for me. I open heart, he says throwing his arms up in the air for emphasis, rix.
Christof checks to make sure we understand him,
– You mean rich?
– Yes rix, open heart. I friendly happy person, he says and putting on his largest grin, adds, you come live in my hotel.
– You have a hotel? Christof asks.
Yees, he says with a smile that broadens out wider than before, I own house, two rooms with view of lake. You come my hotel.
We say we’d like to look at it, and a few minutes later the tuk tuk is struggling up an unpaved alley running straight up the mountainside. There are no guest houses or tourists here, and everyone we pass stops for an unabashed stare.
Over lunch Nima shared the fact that he is married, and the father of a twenty-two-year old daughter, who was very good in school but can’t find a job anywhere, and a sixteen-year-old son who is still in school.
In the small entranceway protected from the elements only by a rough corrugated roof, he gestures proudly towards two shelves containing a few dusty articles,
– My wife have shop.
– Who shops here? Christof asks with a disbelieving voice.
– People not want to walk down hill.
Inviting us to sit down for a cup tea, we’re installed in plastic chairs while he gathers his family together. Nima is well dressed in jeans and a clean tee shirt, with a pair of sunglasses stylishly perched amongst his shoulder- length curls. His long yellow fingernails, the red brown stains on his teeth (betel chewing), and the prominent scar on his arm all testify to a rough past on the streets. Orphaned at the age of eight, he has been able to protect his own family from the rougher sides of life by working odd jobs, and his wife and children are beautiful. He leads us up a dusty outside staircase to a half-finished, bare room.
– You first guests, not much work left. Tonight polish floor, build up bed, coconut, he says affectionately patting a headboard still wrapped in plastic.
The floor is half-painted, but the walls and the bathroom, which has been tiled, are freshly painted, the exact shade of blue we saw advertised everywhere on gigantic billboards. Downstairs we are served a strong cup of sweet tea his wife has prepared in our absence, and Nima points out an ancient computer in the corner.
– I internet. Soon more rooms, next year put slab in, then three more rooms. No more tuk tuk, hotel.
We don’t know what to say. How to explain that we can’t possibly stay here? But we must, if we don’t want them working all night harboring illusions we are too cowardly to head off.
We say that we appreciate his kind offer but . . . and our voices trail off as we murmur something vague about not being able to climb the mountain on our bikes. Nima is quick on the uptake, and smoothly changes gears,
– You want I show you other hotel close to lake?
When we return to our guesthouse Joel and Carol are waiting for us, having purchase tickets for a dance performance near the temple. Because it is raining, they book a separate three wheeler and we set off, stopped by a traffic jam at the bottom of the hill, where our tuk tuks wait next to each other for a chance to make a right-hand turn. A young policeman gestures for Nima to move his cab, because he was standing on the wrong side of the road. Everyone on the main road, which has jammed to a stand-still, watches as he walk towards the policeman, as two tuk tuk’s collide on the very spot he just vacated. Because there is no damage, the drivers laugh and drive off. The policeman, who followed the incident, ignores it and continues filling out a fine of 1,500 Rs which he hands to Nima after confiscating his driver’s license.
This is the exact amount we agreed to pay him for chauffeuring us around the city all day long! Despite his cheerful disposition, as we drive off he is close to tears. I beg Christof to give him double what we had agreed on, so he can retrieve his license, but he says that throwing money around, even if it is well meant, is offensive and paternalistic. He’d rather give Nima a 500 R.s tip at the end of the day.
Carol and Joel wave, having reserved seats for us, and almost immediately the hall goes dark and a Sri Lankan dance performance begins. On the stage dancers in colorful costumes kick up their legs, knees bent and feet sticking straight out, heels touching the ground, as they raise their arms above their heads, forming a cradle, and moving them back and forth in wondrous isolation. The performance closes with a fire show of two men, who slowly roll the flames of their torches across their arms and chests, eating the flames and blowing them up into the dark air where they flare up in high bursts of color, before walking barefoot across glowing coals.
After the show, the crowd presses towards the Temple Of the Sacred Tooth Relic, lining up for a security check. I am not allowed to pass through to the temple because my dress is improperly short and my shoulders and arms indecently exposed. A vendor, strolling around for this type of eventuality with an arm full of rough cotton cloths, approaches us. Christof, who loves bargaining, says his offer is unacceptable and much too expensive, and turns to leave. The vendor, who seems to enjoy the game as much as Christof does, runs after us offering to ‘give’ us the same piece of cloth for half the price.
With my newly purchased sarong, I easily pass through the security check, but the guard, unhappy with how I’ve tied it, steps out of her box to retie it in a more elegant fashion. Barefoot, we enter a throng of worshippers carrying votive flower offerings into the festively candle-lit temple. The air is grey and thick with the pungent odor of burning incense, and song and eastern drum music create an unfamiliar religious atmosphere. Orange-clad monks take the flower offerings and dump them unceremoniously onto a table thoroughly covered in exotic blossoms. The worshippers, having delivered their sacrifices, sit cross-legged on the ground to pray. The holy chamber of the tooth closes just as we reach the line, so we watch the visitors filing past the holy tooth – kept in an ornate golden case – on a TV screen mounted on the temple wall.
Nima, who is waiting for us outside, drives us to an elegant jazz bar where Joel and Carol are having cocktails on a terrace overlooking the city.