Sri Lanka: A Guided Tour All Its Own


Written and read by Carolyn Oei, 08 August 2017

Listen to this audio story on Anchor:

The train pulls out of Colombo’s Maradana station and is en route to Galle.

We are in Sri Lanka.

Travels out of your own country invariably have you hoping for difference – a difference in pace, in cuisine, in scenery. And we look to guides – whether online reviews, travel books, or people on the ground – to point out those differences to us.

For urbanites who live in concrete jungles, the verdant landscapes of Sri Lanka provide a much needed break for the senses.

Nature isn’t far away for most people who live here. If the Indian Ocean isn’t your backyard, it might be the green hills and tea plantations or coconut and banana groves. Or it might even be a lake the size of a town.

From hill-station-pretty Ella in Sri Lanka’s South, we drove about an hour and a half southwest to Haputale.  There, we walked through the Dambetenne Tea Estate and Lipton’s Seat. The air was so cool and misty that we imagined ourselves walking through clouds.

But of course we visited a tea factory! I’d heard about how our favourite tea bags were filled with sweepings from the factory floor. So, during a tour of the inside, I had to ask.

“No, madam,” the kindly but bored factory lady said. “These we throw away.”

With eight people looking at her for an answer, I don’t think she could have said anything different.

And then there is cricket. As inescapable as Nature is in Sri Lanka, so is the sport of cricket. Where there’s even 20 square metres of space, there is a cricket game going on. But, how do they run so fast in slippers?

Just as how do they drive massive four wheel drive jeeps shod in flip flops? The statuesque gentleman who drove us in his jeep on a tour of Yala National Park was dressed in a thread-bare T-shirt, a sarong and slippers.

Quite aside from deftly handling the vehicle, turning this way and that avoiding potholes and making U-turns, Mr Jeep Driver had eyes as sharp as a scorned lover’s tongue. He would stop suddenly on a seemingly boring trail and loudly whisper, “Look! Kingfisher bird!” And we’d whisper back, “Where???”

Pointing to some random place in the sky, he’d reply, “There! In the tree!”

We didn’t ask his name. Which is odd and uncharacteristic of us. Perhaps we were so in awe of his driving and guiding skills that we forgot to ask.

And if we had, he might have said, “My name is Kingsley Santiago” or “My name is Tharindu Chamil” because Sri Lankan names are so fabulously diverse.

Equally fabulous are the cake shops that dot every square mile of the island. Old-school confectioneries that serve butter cream deliciousness. With names like nut fudge slice and chocolate cream, they make you want to eat a slice a day. Which is what we did.

In the heart of Sri Lanka is its second largest city, Kandy. Kandy boasts a cake shop cartel known as Devon Bakers Best. They even have a restaurant that caters to the tourist’s need for air-conditioning and cutlery. But as charming as it all is, the hipster lattes are seeping through. Just a few doors away from Devon’s Bakers is Ceylon Tea Cabin serving flat whites, croissants and wifi.

Kandy also boasts a certain Mr Jack – an aging English Cocker Spaniel with a limp and a mole, which looks like a tick, on his muzzle. I picked at the mole thinking it was a tick. Mr Jack tried to tell me that it wasn’t a tick but actually part of his face. But I ignored him and carried on picking, earnestly and confidently and appalled that everyone else stood by doing nothing. Mr Jack snapped at my fingers and I immediately apologised.

Mr Jack lives with Ajit Jacob and they run The Cherry Tree, a guesthouse in the hills of Kandy.

We were at the tail-end of our two-week visit to Sri Lanka. We were missing our flat and our cat. Pulling into the driveway of The Cherry Tree, my first thought was, “Will there be an animal to greet us?”

Mr Jack was a source of untainted joy. A home isn’t a home without an animal. And so, we were made to feel comfortable and welcomed and well taken care of. Peace, quiet, home-cooked meals and conversation remind us that we are as similar as we are different, wherever home might be.

So, enjoy Sri Lanka and all its differences. Sip it like you would a rare single malt whiskey, savouring the essence of its wooden cask. Allow Sri Lanka to lead you on a guided tour of its own.

You’re listening to Mackerel Magazine. Bye for now. 


The Cherry Tree

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Cover photo of Ajit and Mr Jack: Marc Nair