"Heah- have some!" Two brown hands empty what looks like about half a barrelful of prickly, bright red egg-shaped fruit into our laps. When we look around, somewhat bewildered, at the bright grins and gleaming eyes around us, one of our many Sri Lankan friends deigns to explain: "Rambutans- try some- you’ll like them," and as we Indians start to peel one each- a little hesitantly- adds, "we call them hairy balls!"
Uh oh. Wrong place to start. Let’s start at the very beginning- a very good place to start (with due apologies to Oscar Hammerstein).
It’s a late morning in Colombo, and long after dawn and a filling breakfast, we’ve set off for Kandy. Sri Lankans and Indians, all of us pile into a huge van (15 easily; 20 thin ones at a pinch; and 25 two deep). There are only about 12 of us, so it’s nice and roomy, and the ride to Kandy is, besides being comfortably short, punctuated by pleasant stops along the way- at a roadside stall to eat fresh, syrupy pineapple, livened up with a liberal dose of salt and powdered red chilli (lethal as it may sound, this is actually very good); at a tiny cashewnut-growing village called Kajugama (`Cashew Village’- not much ingenuity used here when it comes to names); at a pretty spice garden, bursting with cardamom and cinnamon, cocoa, coffee, pepper; and at the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnewala. We reach the Orphanage just in time to see the baby elephants being herded along by their foster mothers, down to the river for their morning baths.
Kandy, home to the spectacular Temple of the Tooth (it actually houses a tooth of the Buddha himself), lies amidst green hills and is centred around a serene, tree-lined lake. The temple itself, a World Heritage Site, is a must-see; but so is the pretty stone church of St Paul’s next door. And, as if that isn’t enough, there’s a Hindu temple in the neighbourhood too, its wooden columns intricately carved with lotuses, not one of them the same.
In the evening, there’s a very neat show of martial dances and fire-walking at the local club, followed by glassfuls of fiery arrack and spicy curries. After that little bit of partying, Kandy goes to bed- as we do, tired but eager for whatever the next day brings. Which, as it turns out, is a trip to the pretty hillside town of Welimada, and further on, through miles of rolling green tea estates, to Nuwara Eliya and a cool, crystal-like mountain spring where we wash tired feet and wish for more holidays like this.
Journeying on, we pass gem pits- ugly and dull looking quarries which belie the gorgeous stones they produce. Strawberry Fields: a Benedictine monastery which makes luscious jams; a roadside tractor-and-transport museum; coconut groves and paddy fields- all flash past, in a whirl which will remain, despite its brevity, etched for years altogether on minds completely enchanted.