KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
It’s very seldom that we backtrack in our travels, but right from the time we first left Ella, we planned to return for a second week there. Driving back into the mountains was wonderful, a little like coming home after a long time away. The air became noticeably cooler as we climbed; refreshing after a long day of driving and a longer time in the heat and humidity of the east coast.
As we entered the town of Ella, a woman standing by the side of the road waved at the car and Manjula pulled over. Anil remarked that she must be Manjula’s mother; the resemblance between mother and son was striking. We had been teasing Manjula throughout our trip because every morning and every evening, either Mom or Dad had called Manjula on his mobile to be sure he was safe. I know his wife called as well, but he made less of an issue of her calls. They are due to celebrate their first anniversary on February 19th.
Speaking of calls to his wife, I have to tell you of a funny thing that happened in that regard. One morning, quite early, Anil sent a text message to Manjula. He wasn’t sure if he was awake, but wanted to reach him where he was staying in the driver’s room at the hotel where we were guests. Shortly thereafter, a text came back, but it was in Sinhala. Anil didn’t realize that it came from Manjula. Later that day, Anil showed the text message to Manjula and asked him to translate. I couldn’t believe the look on Manjula’s face when he looked at the message.
Finally, he blushed deep red and confessed to us that it was a message he had sent to his wife. When Anil’s text had arrived early in the morning, Manjula had thought it was a text from his wife, and must have sent her a lovey-dovey message back. Because it was a reply, it came to us instead of Situ. I spent the rest of the week trying to get Manjula to translate the text for us, but all he would do was blush. What fun!
As we drove up the extremely steep driveway at the View Point Villas we could see Villa #1, the once we had chosen to stay in the week. We were surprised to stand on the terrace and have a different view of Ella Gap; it stretched away below us but we were looking at it from a slightly different angle now. The dogs all came to greet us and before long, even the little cat, with the little meow, arrived too.
Manjula bid us goodbye, but we knew we would see him again during the coming week. He had asked us if we would be willing to come for a meal with his family, so that we could meet his wife and his father. We were only too happy to do so; I wanted to tell them in person how much we had enjoyed travelling with Manjula, and to give personal congratulations to his wife Situ, who is expecting their first child in April.
The day after our return to Ella, the election of the President of Sri Lanka took place and everyone we talked to was excited about the possibility of a change. The news media seemed to think that it was a tight race between the incumbent and the army general who was responsible for the defeat of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) last May. Many people had warned us to be sure to stay in one place on election day; and for the following few days. No one knew if things would be peaceful or not, depending on who won the vote.
As it turned out, Manjula invited us for lunch on election day, and as we drove into Ella, all was exceptionally quiet. Manjula had gone to the local school and voted quite early, he even showed us his pinky finger, which had been stained with a dye to indicate he had cast his ballot. We learned that many of the workers at our hotel were not able to vote because they would have had to return to their home village in order to do so. There is no such thing as advance polling, absentee ballots, or arrangements for citizens to vote when they are away from home. Actually, to correct myself, we were told that government workers could vote if they were posted ‘out of station’.
Manjula picked us up in his little van and we drove the 6km into the village with him. He turned off the main road and started down a very narrow winding path to reach his home. Down, down we went, along the seemingly vertical face of the hillside and then we came to a slightly wider area where we left the van and set off on foot. We continued to descend, but this time on narrow steps cut into the side of the hill. When at last we reached Manjula’s home, we could see the corrugated metal roof below us, and more steps took us into the narrow yard surrounding the house.
We had learned that Manjula’s father is a building contractor, so it did not surprise us that the house was sturdily built and freshly painted in a nice bright colour. There were potted plants around the pediment and the main door looked out over the valley and across to the highway that rises up from Wellawaya. It was from here that Manjula’s mother had spotted his small van the day we returned and had raced up the stairs to the highway to greet her son. We were introduced to the whole family and sat for a cup of tea with the men while the women busied themselves in the kitchen beyond.
We chatted throughout our lovely Sri Lankan meal, but only Manjula and eventually Situ sat with us to eat. Mom and Dad hovered nearby but would not join us. I think they wanted to be sure that we had everything we needed so they watched over us instead of sitting and eating as well. It turns out that Situ speaks a little English, but I think Manjula’s parents may understand some of the language but were hesitant to speak. Perfectly understandable.
I asked for the latest news of Manjula’s uncle, the younger brother of Manjula’s mother. He is part of a contingent of 300 soldiers that were sent to Haiti just days before the earthquake struck there on January 12th. After two very worrying days, news came through that all of the peacekeeping Sri Lankan soldiers were safe and that they were busy helping with the relief effort there.
It’s times like this when one really feels how very small our world is. Here we are, a world away from the Caribbean, but a family we have become friends with is deeply affected by the events taking place there. We had brought along an atlas we travel with and were able to show the family where Haiti is located in relation to Sri Lanka and to Canada. We also looked at the map of the Middle East and located Saudi Arabia. Manjula’s only sibling, a brother, is working in Riyadh as a security guard and is due back for a visit in March.
The rest of our week in Ella was spent very quietly, with long walks into the village and long walks in the other direction as well. The scenery was so very beautiful in all directions; we wondered why we hadn’t explored further afield when Adia was with us. One hike that I had really wanted to make was the climb to Little Adam’s Peak, but Adia wasn’t keen, she just wanted to relax, so we had vowed to see it when we came back for our return visit. Time was running out, so we made a plan to do the hike on our last day in the mountains.
Little Adam’s Peak sounds to me like a strange name for a hilltop in Sri Lanka. But there is a ‘Big’ Adam’s Peak and I should tell you a little about it. Sri Pada, or Adam’s Peak is a major pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka, and has been for over 1,000 years. The peak is known by three different names:
Adam’s Peak – where Adam first set foot after being cast out of Eden
Sri Pada – Sacred Footprint, left by the Buddha as he departed for nirvana
Samanalakande – Butterfly Mountain, where butterflies go to die
Still others believe that the huge ‘footprint’ at the top of the peak is that of St. Thomas (Christians) or even of Lord Shiva (Hindus). Whatever motivates the pilgrims, they start the ascent in the evening and climb the countless (some say over 5,000) stairs throughout the night in order to reach the peak to watch the sun rise. When we read that it’s advisable to take a sleeping bag because it is cold at the top, we decided the climb was not for us. I’m still not certain we made the right decision, but I can think of it as leaving something for our next trip to Sri Lanka.
Little Adam’s Peak is no pilgrimage, not is it any great challenge. However, everyone we met asked us if we had made the climb, so I was determined to do so. We decided to take a local bus from our guesthouse at km 6 to the beginning of the hike at km 1.5. As we walked down the steep driveway, we noticed a bus passing along the road below us. Rats, we had just missed the bus. We set off walking thinking that another would come along shortly. They always seemed to do so when we didn’t want one in the past.
We walked towards Ella and made it almost two kilometres before the next bus arrived. The seats were already taken so we stood in the aisle, much to the interest of the local people on the bus. We teetered along the small road, travelling at a snail’s pace, but we wanted to save our energy for the hike. At every turn, the bus stopped to take on more and more passengers as well as huge bags of vegetables. Before long we were stuffed like sardines and it was beginning to get a little ‘stuffy’ if you get my meaning.
When it seemed that we couldn’t take on any more passengers, the conductor kept waving more on board. At last we reached our destination, and we were happy to create a little more space for the others by squeezing out through the throng and stepping out into the fresh air. As we caught our breath, I realized that it was a Sunday morning, no wonder there were so many people on the bus, it was a holiday and people were heading into Ella and beyond to the street market in Bandarawela.
The hike starts very pleasantly, through a vast tea estate. We had been hoping to walk along the paths in a tea garden, but so far had stuck mainly to the road when we walked into Ella. It was so very quiet; there weren’t any pickers that morning, though I do think they harvest the tea seven days a week when the plants are ready. We met a few other tourists coming down from the peak, they had made an earlier start.
We came upon a man selling necklaces and bracelets made of local seeds, but we told him we would have a better look on our way down. He indicated that there were two ways to go up, one via the staircase and another by following the switchbacks that led up to the left of the stairs. He drew us a clear map by using a stick in the dirt on the path. I was happy he had guided us; I didn’t really want to take the stairs both ways.
The hike up was very easy, and the views were stupendous. We passed a couple of young fellows having a picnic on the edge of a precipice; wonder what they did with their garbage? Before we knew it, we were at the summit and had a 360° view. There were a couple of French tourists at the top, polluting the air with their cigarettes. How unfortunate; they didn’t look like they were in any hurry to go down. I continue to be amazed at how many young Europeans still smoke. Time for them to get with the program!
The top of the stairs was a little hard to locate, but before we knew it, we were climbing down the side of the hill overlooking Ella. It was a little disconcerting; no handrail and drops into the abyss just over the edge. We both thought of our friend Dilip and how impossible this would have been for him to venture down. I’m writing this entry with both arms intact, so I am happy to report we made it down safely.
After our climb, we continued into Ella to use the internet there. Just as we passed the local school, dozens of children came down the path to the school, all dressed in white. The girls had white ‘made-up’ Kandyian saris on and the boys were dressed in white shirts and white sarongs. They all carried a small bags filled with paper, pencils and colourful pencil cases. I learned that they were just finishing morning ‘Buddhism’ school. Regular school fills their weekdays, and just like home, they go for ‘Sunday’ school on the weekends.
You can’t see it easily in the photo I posted, but the little boy in the middle has a pink pencil case with Barbie all over it. It seems to matter little to him that this would be considered completely ‘uncool’ in the West. He’s got a great case for his belongings and who cares if it’s pink. He slings the bag over his shoulder and heads for home and lunch. Now, speaking of lunch…