|Serendip and School-Pens|
"Bubblegum?" They switch to a substitute when we hesitate. There are only about four of them jostling as we try to photograph the vegetable market stalls clinging to the roadside precipices near Kandy, in the highlands of Sri Lanka. We want pictures of cabbages and strawberries and local carrots. They want - well, they want school pens. Or bubblegum.
These kids are no surprise to us. They have been with us since the coast, popping up at every stop, surprising us with their similarity of facial features - glowing black eyes and strong even white teeth. We almost wonder if they have hitched a ride along on the back of our minibus, hopping off just to hassle us again each time we pull up. Their bobbing heads and waving hands have popped into more than one photograph, and they elbow into the van, trying to follow us too as we move away. When this happens our Sri Lankan driver sends them scurrying with a burst of Singhalese and we escape laughing.
But if we can get away from their grasping hands, we can't escape the car horns. The first night they echoed in our dreams. Sri Lankans toot everything. You get to believe it is a reflex action. In fact I am sure it is, because finally as we headed south on our first day, Galle Road finally empty for the first time in hours, our driver still tooted every few moments. "It is the law," he told us, "We must let them know we are overtaking." He tooted a scrawny chicken to demonstrate.
Not that it makes any difference. Chickens, bullocks, high wood-panelled Indian-style trucks, motor scooters, cars with clapped-out horns (can you guess why?) the inevitable surge of people, all were barped under control and out of the way as we ploughed through.
Yet in all the surge and flurry of traffic, a dozen near-misses a day, a thousand horn-blasts, we never saw a raised hand. Not so much as a frown. Or even, amazingly, an accident. The Sri Lankans seem to take it all in good part. You can't help but wonder: is it their Buddhist beliefs? The karma certainly seems to be good as they weave and pick their way through the throng of one of the world's most densely populated countries. Each of them, it seems, is equipped with at least two wheels, if not four - and the mandatory noisy horn.
For centuries this country, once called Ceylon, has also been referred to as Serendip after the legendary three Princes of Serendip who made amazing and unexpectedly delightful discoveries there. The word 'serendipity' has lodged in English because of them, and we hoped we would follow their lucky lead.
Today's Sri Lanka often chooses to retain the old name of Ceylon to underline its links with the product that made its name famous, and it still supplies much of the world's tea needs. Once you pass through the steamy lower level flatlands reserved for rice, into the cooler hill-country, Ceylon tea rises abundant in row upon clipped row, like green mazes on every hillside. Women carry picking bags suspended from belts around their heads and look as if they have just stepped off my mother's tea-caddy as they stoop over the smooth green hedges. The work must be arduous and beastly hot in the humid 30C-plus heat, yet in their impeccably clean saris they still manage to look elegant and graceful. Some of them would appear more at home on a catwalk, than plodding the narrow alleys of a tea plantation, you feel.
Those saris no doubt are later scrubbed and beaten clean in a nearby stream. We saw washday a hundred times a day on every riverbank and, at roadside wells, women emptying pails of water over themselves for an impromptu clothes-and-all shower. In rivers at midday, there were elephants too getting a scrubbing from their mahouts. At the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, we watched enviously as a long train of them aged from a few months upwards lumbered to the river for their daily bath.
We wanted to join them as we had realised an important fact. Sri Lanka is far too hot to visit in April just prior to the May monsoon when the humidity reaches catastrophic proportions. Better, we were told, to come at Christmas. Or January - and, sweating filthily, we noted that for next time!
This avocado-shaped and coloured island is a little north of the Equator and hangs just off the southern tip of India. It is about as big as Tasmania yet has the same population as Australia. Colombo, the capital, is hot, busy and dirty. Here the horns screech constantly in the swirl of people and traffic and unless you have a good reason to be there, make your escape swiftly to somewhere like the lovely western beaches or the hills. And if you want to be cooler, there is one choice only.
The hills. Here the temperature drops ten or more degrees below the coastal sauna. At 2000 metres in the town of Nuwara Eliya, slurred by the locals into sounding something like 'Noorellia', you might even need a jacket in the crisp morning air or chilly evenings. Even in April.
Here the hills, striped like green corduroy by the tea plantations, fold across to the horizon. Here the river valleys are crammed with gardens growing cabbages and carrots, strawberries and onions that find their way to those corrugated-iron and plastic stalls on the roadsides.
On my next-year's calendar, January is already circled and boldly marked: Sri Lanka. Beside it, remembering those eyes and scrabbling brown fingers I have scribbled 'School-pens. Bubblegum'.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
The south and western parts of the country are generally quite safe. Keep away from the north and eastern parts. You may need to take malaria tablets and you should drink bottled water.
WHERE TO STAY AND WHAT TO EAT
Accommodation is generally very affordable. There are five-star hotels such as The Oberoi in Colombo, and excellent luxury resorts on the Western Beaches such as the fabulous Saman Villas at Bentota. Accommodation can be as low as $30-$40 per room in a reasonable hotel elsewhere. Meals are quite inexpensive too, featuring fiery curries and pancake-like 'hoppers'.
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