Greetings everybody and welcome to another post in a series about my first of three trips to Sri Lanka. I undertook this one in January – March 2014 and which seems like a world away now that I am under virus house arrest. I know that almost everybody reading this will be suffering the same to a greater or lesser degree and I do sincerely hope you have not been too badly affected. These are difficult times.
A quick word for anyone who has just discovered this post and may be brave or foolish enough to wish to read the whole saga from the beginning, you can do so here.
Those of you who have read my previous post will know that I spent the 5th and 6th of February “making like a tourist” and “doing things” by climbing the mighty Little Adam’s Peak and mounting a major expedition of a 28 mile round trip to the equally rarified atmosphere of Lipton’s Seat (by train and tuk-tuk) and it had obviously taken it’s toll! Yes, I am joking.
I had to spend the next two days indulging in “rest and recuperation” (R&R), so beloved of service personnel the world over. Unbelievable as it may sound I did not take a single image in two days and you know by now what I am like with the little compact in my pocket. I photograph everything in sight including my thumb, forefinger, shoes, trouser legs and even the inside of my pocket on the odd occasion.
I think we shall gloss over those two days and write them off as “assimilating Sri Lankan hill country culture and bonding with the villagers of Ella” and bonding I certainly was.
By then I knew just about all the staff in the Chill Café by name, I had been invited to a party by one of them as previously reported, and whilst they were always extremely professional (Darshan would have got rid of them double quick if they had not been) there was a certain relaxation of the strict customer / staff member protocol. We used to laugh and joke together. One of their favourites was to put a reserved sign on the table I always sat at even if I had not said I would be in, they just knew I would be.
9th February, 2014.
Over my two days of doing nothing I had received another couple of messages from my mate Jo enquiring as to when I was coming to Kandy to see her. Soon Jo, soon.
This day does not have a lot to report although I did take an image of a couple of the guys in the open kitchen where they turned out consistently excellent food. The entire brigade with the exception of the head chef appeared to be very young and I did find myself wondering about the situation regarding catering in Sri Lanka.
I do not know if there are catering colleges or if people just learn on the job. I know you can leave school at 14 there so perhaps it is possible that young men (it is always men in restaurants like this, never young ladies) go the old-fashioned route and start as potwashes or KP’s (kitchen porters) and then work themselves up as many top Western chefs have done. In may ways I think this is a good way to learn your craft.
I was often in the Café early, sometimes even before official opening time but that is another story, and I would hang about in the kitchen area and chat to the cooks who gave me several impromptu cooking classes on Sri Lankan cuisine which were much appreciated. I would have paid good money for a cookery class here and no doubt Darshan has considered it as he appears now (2021) to be expanding this already wonderful business extensively.
Chef had seen me a few times and had obviously worked out that I had an interest and one day he invited me for a tour of the prep kitchen in the rear which was a great thrill not to mention that they obviously had literally no “dirty secrets” hiding out the back.
Years previously I had had occasion to be in the kitchen of one of the major “name” hotels in the heart of the West End of London (another long story) and I have never seen such filth in my life, it was an absolute disgrace. Don’t ask me to name it as they can afford better lawyers that I can and regrettably the law in the UK is “he with the biggest chequebook wins”.
I spent my usual pleasant day in the bar but I did have a plan for the evening, I was going to go to a spa. Yes, I know what you are thinking, that thug in a spa? Yes. Someone had told me about traditional herbal steam baths in Sri Lanka and it was an experience I had had in Luang Prabang in Lao and thoroughly enjoyed to the extent I was taking a couple or three a week so I thought I would try the local equivalent.
I told you in a previous post about my “travel inertia” whereby I go to a place for a few days and spend a lot longer, Luang Prabang was like that, I could not get out of it. Here I was in Ella six years later and subject to the same old problem, not that it actually was a problem in the accepted sense of the word, it was no problem at all. Another settlement, another herbal steam bath, brilliant.
I had decided that I would wait until the evening as I didn’t see much point in getting all relaxed and then walking out in the blazing sun to get completely sweated up again. I had asked several of my new local contacts which of the three or four spas was best and the consensus was Sowit Pardeepa just down the street from the Chill.
Several of the large hotels out of town offered spa facilities but that was not what I wanted, I was looking for something local and authentic. Don’t bother looking for this place now as it is sadly long gone and the massive boom in Ella’s popularity means that there are now over a dozen spas in and around the village. Ella really seems to be the “happening place” in Sri Lanka, or at least it was until this Chinese pandemic destroyed the world.
As I have been writing this series of pieces about Ella I have been wondering if, should it ever become possible again with the world as it is and specifically regarding travel and my health issues, I should return to the village. I am terrified it will be a commercialised disappointment. That would sadden me beyond belief, the loss of something so wonderfully fresh and ever so slightly exciting.
There is an old travel saying that you should never go back to the same place and there may be an element of truth in that. On my travels I have met older travellers (yes, such people do exist, even older than me) who talk longingly about going overland from London to Delhi in the 70’s and what Thailand was like before mass-tourism etc.
I count myself lucky to have visited many places (Burma / Myanmar springs to mind immediately) before the “masses” got there and, whilst this may seem like a selfish view, it is how I feel and I hope it does not appear as “travel snobbery” which I really do not like. Ella is a case in point.
I have said it many times before here, there is no right or wrong way to travel, there is only your own way. If you are comfortable on a guided tour with everything planned to the minute, go for it and I wish you all the best, have fun but it is not my way.
Oh dear, it has happened again, hasn’t it? Enough of my rambling (the word used intentionally) travel philosophy but I have had a lot of time to think, perhaps too much time. I am writing this in the early hours of 17th February, 2021 and in a week I shall have been effectively confined to my home for a year. I have not been more than a mile from my front door and it is starting to take a toll. It would be easier if there was an end in sight but there isn’t, despite the politicians usual lies. Come back this time next year and tell me if I am wrong.
Back to Ella in the halcyon days before the human obsession with control plunged the world into this mess. I took the short walk down the hill to the spa and asked for a herbal steam and massage. No problem, it was not as if they were mobbed with clients. I had to wait a little while in the comfortable waiting room, presumably whilst they fired up the steam. I do not think they were expecting a huge rush that night.
The whole establishment was very homely and I was comfortable there. Eventually the young man came and ushered me into the “inner sanctum” where I got stripped and put a towel around me for modesty’s sake. I could smell a gorgeous aroma of herbs although what they might have been I could not tell you. I do remember sandalwood but the rest was a mystery.
What was also a mystery was the contraption I could see which looked to me for all the world like a reclining Iron Maiden instrument of torture. In Lao the herbal steam bath was like a very small sauna so I was not expecting this but in I got and I had a slight problem.
I put my kitbag here to give a sense of scale in the image but I should say that the steamer was not designed for 6’5″ Westerners. It had obviously been made for slightly more diminutive Sri Lankans and it looked as if it had been constructed when people like me were a complete rarity in Ella and would not have considered indulging in the local practices, that was not the British colonial way!
I managed to squeeze myself in somehow and whilst it would have been more comfortable to lay full length, it was very relaxing with the heat rising around me and the smells were absolutely divine. I lay there, wondering at my good fortune in life to be in that position, in that place, some things just etch themselves on your mind.
I could not tell you exactly how long I was steaming for, perhaps half an hour and just enough to cook me rare to medium rare, and then I was removed from the oven for a cold shower. After that it was onto the table for a massage.
I have had some fairly brutal massages over the years which were all like suffering the agonies of the damned (if you subscribe to Judeo-Christian mythology) but which always felt so good afterwards. This was not one of those, ther were no bones cracking in my neck or back but there was sufficient pressure to move the blood round and seperate the muscle fibres which I believe is the idea.
When I got up and dressed I felt utterly relaxed and at one with the world, which is not meant to be some sort of “hippy-trippy” comment, I just felt really good.
On my way out I was invited to peruse the large display of herbal / local / folk lotions and potions on display for sale but I didn’t bother. I firmly believe in the power of natural remedies and lament the loss of the knowledge of them, largely due to the Christian persecution of “wise women”, who they considered witches and burnt, a great loss to humanity.
Feeling so good, it was off out for a meal which looks to me very much like a devilled dish, just look at the chiilies.
I was on automatic pilot by that stage and probably exchanged greetings with the officer at the police post at the junction of the main road and the Passara Road where I was staying. Even late at night there was an officer posted there, I suspect to stop inebriated and disorientated travellers heading out the road towards the Falls I told you about and falling off the edge. Deaths, even if the fault of the drunken deceased, are not good for business in a tourist-driven village.
Need I say it again, safely home and another lovely night’s sleep?
10th February, 2014.
This day was unremarkable (yet again) except for my decision to have a rice and curry set for my daily meal and I do mean daily meal, which I should explain.
I have said many times that I have an appetite like a sparrow, which is true now. As a child I ate like a horse and remember having potato eating competitions with my late Uncle Billy and my poor late paternal grandmother having to cater the event. I remember once eating 24 decent sized potatoes and losing!
Without wishing to bore you with my medical history which I know is tedious as there is nothing in the world as monotonous as listening to another’s medical woes, I probably had the beginnings of a potentially dangerous duodenal ulcer then and it was to come back and bite me hard later which you can read about here if you have a strong stomach unlike me, it all went a bit silly.
Given what I have said above, it seems almost ludicrous that I went back to the Chill and ordered the rice and curry set. No, it is not ludicrous that I went back to the bar, that is standard procedure, it was still open which is good enough reason for me but to order what I knew by then was going to be a gargantuan feed was the act of a madman. Enter Fergy stage left!
I have told you dear readers before that I believe everything in the world goes round in circles and so it was here. I had been chatting to the cooks earlier in the day and now they were cooking for me. I am sure they probably hated me as a rice and curry set is more traditionally a lunch dish rather than evening, and they would have much preferred to knock up burgers and pizzas for the assembled tourist masses but there was never one word of complaint.
I suppose I should have complained that there were only ten dishes to go with my rice as I had been served 11 in the Village restaurant but I didn’t have the heart. It was a lot tastier than my poor image can ever convey and I did, once again, manage to weigh my way (another wordplay, I do need to rein myself in) through the vast majority of it.
Without wishing to become repetitive, you have to taste Sri Lankan cuisine in Sri Lanka to “get it”. The same anywhere really. Eat pork knuckle and sauerkraut in Bavaria, eat catoplana in Tavira (Portugal), eat an Isaan curry in the highlands of Thailand, eat local Hampshire produce in Winchester in England, the principle is the same. Eat what is local, fresh and good. I do not wish to sound boastful but I was doing this years before it became a trend.
After this feed and possibly a nightcap arrack (I have no images and beer was out of the question) I headed home to my lovely room above the grocery shop on the Passara Road. I think you could say I had gone a bit “native”, an expression of derision amongst the Victorian colonialists but one which travellers now spend inordinate amounts of money to supposedly achieve. Circles.
I think that is more than enough for one post and I do apologise for the lack of travel content with rather too much general thinking. As always I shall read this at least three times to ensure that what I say is what I mean, this has been my purpose since beginning this blog. I realise I say things that may not accord with the standard and usually media driven view but this again is one of the many joys of having your own blog, away from the political correctness of mainstream websites.
I promise sincerely that in the next post I shall actually get out of Ella, the very fact that I am not writing this from there (much as I wish I was) proves that. It is one of several places in the world I would consider living. If you want to see where I go and what I get up to then stay tuned and spread the word.