I travel to Colombo, Sri Lanka, on a whim. Choking and coughing in Delhi smog, and hearing that Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon under British rule, is less densely populated and offers more nature than India, I book a flight. Southwest of the southern tip of India, and surrounded by the Indian Ocean, this island nation of 22 million people is slightly smaller than Ireland. Sinhala and Tamil are national languages with English spoken for business and tourism.
Beaching it at Unawatuna
Leaving the capitol, Colombo, on a vintage British train built before independence in 1948, I make a beeline to Unawatuna, a beach town on the southern coast. Here, I swim in an aqua ocean with expansive white sand, and begin to learn about the culture. Touring around on a Tuk Tuk (three-wheeler), we stop at a beach where fishermen are hauling in nets, sorting and selling heaps of cuddle fish, shrimp, crab, barracuda and tuna on the spot. I explore the largest foreign-built fort in Asia, which dominates the shoreline in neighboring Galle and where locals gather for sunset.
Most people are Buddhist while Hindus, Christians and Muslims comprise the remaining 30 percent. My first night in Unawatuna, I order blue fin tuna (ahi) seared rare with rice and salad ($5.50) and am puzzled to see many people, mostly tourists, at neighboring tables drinking tea at 7:30 p.m. Then something peculiar catches my attention. As a man pours tea into a cup, it forms a head of foam. The couple is British (iconic tea lovers), so I ask about it. The story is that this is full moon night (Poya), a Buddhist holy day when alcohol sales are prohibited.
Uda Walawe National Park
Sri Lanka is graced with 11 national parks and bountiful wilderness preserves. Up at 6 am, we explore the park in a safari truck, observing elephants, water buffalo, spotted deer and exotic birds, including the Pink Painted Stork poised gracefully in shallow lakes. Peacocks strut and monkeys swing from trees all over Sri Lanka and populate the park as well. I chuckle when my guide points out an exotic bird called a Jungle Fowl, which looks like a close relative of our “bird of paradise” that rules Kauai. The most touching scene, right up close, is a family of elephants protecting a one-month-old baby who playfully moves around between his mother’s giant legs.
Hill Country Tea Estates: Ella
Arriving at the British Hill station town, Ella, I check into a guest house where the owner, a teacher with five kids, and a husband working in Qatar, welcomes me warmly. A tall green peak dominates the view from my bedroom window and promises an opportunity to connect with nature. Climbing to the top of 3,400-foot Little Adams Peak affords a 360-degree view of surrounding verdant green mountains carpeted with tea plants and dotted with tiny tea worker villages. Women wearing large sacks attached to their bodies are Hindu tea pickers brought to Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu, India, by the British. These high altitude tea plantations emerged after a blight killed British coffee crops and led to the birth of world renowned Sri Lankan Ceylon Tea in the mid-19th century.
Walking along the only commercial street of this sweet town, I stick my head inside a shop with a large sign advertising Hawaiian coconut cookies. Curious, I say that I’m from Hawaii, but the staff doesn’t know what or where it is. On the contrary, young people I previously met at the beach know Hawaii as a famous surf spot that has huge waves. I visit the 2,000-year-old Dowa Rock Temple where a 18-foot-high Buddha emerges from the chiseled cliff. Walls of the tiny cave’s rock walls are painted with religious murals. On the opposite side of town, I trek up a mountain trail, passing a monastery where boys and young monks play ball. A 12-year-old breaks away to guide me to the historic Buddhist/Hindu Ravanna Ella Rock Temple, which was inspired by the Hindu Ramayana story and, interestingly, also displays images of the Buddha.
Tea taken seriously: Haputale
The visually stunning train ride from Ella to Haputale snakes along and through mountains with breath-taking views of tea plantations blanketing emerald slopes. Haputale, which clings to a long mountain ridge, is the home of the Dambetenne Tea Factory, started in the late 19th century by a Scotsman, Sir Thomas Lipton. Although there are several factories, I purposely choose this one. But I’m disappointed, upon arrival, to be told, “no photos.” Not daunted, and the only one on the tour, I say how upset I am, since I drink Lipton tea every day and want to share this tour with American friends. Relenting, the guide gives me a detailed tour and afterwards asks that I send photos. It’s a fascinating process: sorting fresh leaves, drying, fermentation, more drying, cutting and tea tasting for quality, finally, the giant bags of tea are sold at an auction.
I stay in a guest house with a lovely Muslim family who serve delicious curries and rice. Vegetable gardens and shops thrive here. Hindus are vegetarian, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims eat meat, and everyone enjoys curd with honey or in lassies (smoothies). I learn that yogurt is made from cows milk and curd from water buffalo milk. Love them both!
I’m picked up at the train station by a man in an older blue Mercedes, owner of the guest house where I’ll spend two nights. Called Little England, the town is peppered with vintage houses and hotels, complete with furniture left by the British (including my guest house), and a golf course to boot!
I hang out with a young couple who sit next to me on a bus going to the Botanical Garden. She speaks English, so we keep talking as we stroll around admiring flowers and plants. Her plan is to study at an Australian University where an uncle lives. My overall impression is that this country values education and many women have educational opportunities. I walk back to town along the lake, relating to some people with a wave and others with conversation, but always delighted to find such friendly people in Sri Lanka.
Arriving by bus with beautiful valley/hill tea vistas along the way, Kandy City surrounds a lovely lake and a giant white Buddha sits serenely on a mountain top. I employ a knowledgeable tuk tuk driver, Mohamed, to drive me and the first night attend an energetic, cultural performance that includes a tea picking dance.
During a tour of the Tea Museum the next day, I learn that Kandy is lower (under 3,000-foot altitude) than the previous Hill Stations at 4,000 feet and above. Ceylon quality diminishes with the altitude and tea grown below 1,000 feet is flavored with cinnamon, cardamon, ginger or fruit.
But the big draw in Kandy is the vast golden-roofed Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which enshrines a tooth of the Buddha. I encounter uniformed school children here, because this is the week where schools make field trips to significant places. Enthusiastic kids are always friendly, wanting to speak with me or just grin and wave.
On the downslope of the happiness curve, I visit a 200-year-old graveyard where British soldiers were buried during and after the colonization war. Lucky if they lived 40 years, one grave stone informs that a 31-year-old soldier succumbed to “acute diarrhea,” and another that a 24-year- old was “kicked by an elephant.”
My two-week visit to Sri Lanka nearing the end, I spend the last couple of days in a beach town, Negombo, near the International Airport. Once again, I enjoy fish/shrimp dinners, swim, and interact with lots of locals. Also, I discover a new food at a street stand where a Muslim family sells porridge made from mung beans blended with yogurt. Very tasty and nutritious, indeed!
Now it’s time to fly back to India, to a town in the state of Kerala that a British man in my Nawara Eliyan guesthouse told me about. He described an ancient Hindu ritualistic trance ceremony so vividly that I’m intrigued enough to check it out.
Gabriela Taylor is an author and resident of Kauai.