- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

Sri Lanka’s pineapples are the sweetest in the world. Stop at one of the many roadside stands selling fruits and vegetables from the local area and ask the vendor to trim a pineapple, cut it into cubes, add a bit of salt and pepper and shake it in a plastic bag. Pineapple doesn’t get any better. Yes, salt and pepper.

Other vendors display stacks of yellow-hulled king coconuts, which they trim for sipping — they also supply straws. Whenever the subject of fresh coconut came up, every Sri Lankan I met said it is good for the kidneys and recommended the juice of a king coconut each morning. Ignoring the kidney elixir, I looked forward to the pineapple, orange-fleshed papaya and watermelon on the fruit platter each morning.

Sri Lanka once had orange plantations, but several people explained that Australian consultants were called in to advise growers on improving their crops, but the orange trees died, and now Sri Lanka imports oranges from Australia.

Sri Lanka is tea country, as in Ceylon tea, which uses the country’s former name, bestowed during the British occupation. The island is one of the world’s leading exporters of tea, the most prized of which is grown at the higher elevations, where it rains often and clouds and mists cover the hillsides and valleys.

The tea plantations were started by Scotsman James Taylor in 1867, when the first tea was grown on the island on the Loolecondera plantation near Kandy. The island’s coffee plantations had failed because of a fungus, so Taylor thought tea might thrive there, for the terrain gets enough water, the soil drains well, the climate is warm, and the elevation reaches into the clouds.

The tea on Sri Lanka, as in other tea-producing countries, is camellia sinensis, which originated in China. Green tea comes from the bush as orange pekoe, a black tea; the difference is in the process; green tea undergoes no oxidation.

If a tea bush were not continuously plucked and occasionally pruned, it could grow more than 30 feet tall.

Sri Lanka’s tea country is in the central highlands and southern inland foothills. The growing area is divided into three main varieties and six districts:

• Low grown (Ruhunu district), at elevations up to 2,000 feet.

• Medium grown (Kandy district), 2,000 to 4,000 feet.

• High grown (Nuwara Eliya, Udapussellawa, Dimbula and Uva districts), above 4,000 feet.

The higher the elevation, the smoother, more mellow and more expensive the tea — and the more spectacular the terrain.

The mountainous roads in the tea country add another dimension to driving about the island. Almost all of the roads could be much wider; the outside wheels of a vehicle often are on the shoulder, and passing cars in traffic can be thrilling or knuckle-whitening, depending on one’s fear factor. With the rate of about $25 per day for a four-door sedan and a driver, many visitors may prefer to let someone else do the driving so they can keep their eyes focused out the side windows rather than watch traffic maneuvers — including passing on curves — through the windshield.

Despite the road and driving conditions, I saw only one accident in a week on the island, and that occurred on a modern divided highway.

Other traffic obstacles include an occasional entourage of elephants at work or carrying tourists. The narrow, curving roads in the misty mountains in the tea area, especially, can be alarming, but there and elsewhere, drivers look out for each other with a politeness missing from many highways the world over.

More than 100 waterfalls are another draw for the tea area. On weekends and holidays, city folks drive out to the country and park at roadside or at overlooks to bathe in the pure water that cascades down mountainsides. They believe bathing in this water is good for their health, a back-to-nature treatment.

The tea factories are recognized easily amid the plantations. The factory usually is the tallest and longest building on a plantation, is painted white and has many windows and a white or silver-looking roof to reflect the outside heat. Some estates offer tours and explanations of tea from planting and harvesting to the cup sold in a nearby tearoom. Packaged teas — loose or in bags — are available for purchase.

One of Sri Lanka’s historic tea factories has been turned into a hotel, appropriately called the Tea Factory. The hilltop setting in Kandapola in the Nuwara Eliya district is magical, with views of tea plantations on nearby hills and mountains.

The hotel was created from a factory, which closed in the 1970s, on the Hethersett Plantation, so named after the hometown of a Mr. W. Flowerdew who came to Ceylon from Hethersett in Norfolk, England, in the 19th century. In 1891, silver-tip tea from the estate sold for a record price at the London tea auctions, helping to make pure Ceylon tea world-famous.

During the factory’s conversion into a hotel, the architect retained some of the equipment, such as pipes and elevator, and integrated them into the hotel.

The Tea Factory, at 6,800 feet, is a very pleasant hotel, comfortably furnished and with excellent bathrooms and several dining venues, one of which is an old rail passenger car outside the main building. I visited for lunch but easily could have spent a couple days for a relaxing time, reading amid the roses and hollyhocks blooming outdoors as in an English garden, and staring at the clouds covering some of the nearby tea estates.

The hotel is just 20 minutes from the Nuwara Eliya Golf Course, praised as one of the finest in Asia, and it is near trekking paths and the Hethersett Nature Reserve. The drive from downtown Nuwara Eliya goes along mountain roads and through a valley of neat, lush vegetable gardens.

Nuwara Eliya’s climate is cool enough for a winter-clothes market to flourish, and although it was not cold to me, many people wore stocking caps at night. All of this about 550 miles north of the equator.

In Nuwara Eliya, I spent two nights at the Hill Club, a private club that takes in guests and offers white-glove service at dinner. I overheard several ladies affectionately say that the Hill Club reminded them “of the old days” and that they experienced “pure nostalgia” while staying there. I found it more tired, tattered and tacky than nostalgic. The clerk claimed he could not find my reservation for about 15 minutes, and although I was changed to another room the following day — after I complained about everything in the room — the second room was only a slight improvement. The large Grand Hotel nearby was much more inviting.

Kandy, warmer and at a lower elevation than Nuwara Eliya, was the capital of the Kandian kingdom, which fell to the British in 1816, completing their takeover of the island. Britain ruled until 1948, when Sri Lanka gained independence. Centuries before British rule, the Portuguese, beginning in 1505, and then the Dutch controlled much of the coastal area of Sri Lanka, but not the whole island.

Kandy is still regarded as the cultural capital, and for 10 nights each June and August — the dates depend on the full moon — the city stages the Kandy — or Esala, after the Hindu month — Perahera. One of Asia’s best-known festivals, the Perahera — or procession — reaches a climax on the last four nights as the parade route lengthens, but the largest crowds gather on the last night.

The cast of thousands includes 50 or so elephants adorned with lights and fabric, and palanquins, dancers, musicians, banner carriers, torch bearers and jugglers, whip crackers, pilgrims and swordsmen. The parade begins with the firing of a canon, and it ends with the elephant called the Maligawa Tusker carrying a gold casket from the Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth, where the parade began. The actual sacred tooth relic of the Buddha remains in the temple for safekeeping.

Raja, for about 50 years the Maligawa Tusker, died in 1988, but it still can be seen, thanks to a taxidermist, in the Temple of the Tooth. During the Perahera, the temple is festooned with lights outlining roofs, windows, doors, everything with an edge or side.

Kandy is very crowded during the Perahera, and most of the spectators stand four or five deep on the sidewalks to watch the spectacle. Reserved seats are available for a price in restaurants and stores along the route. I watched from a second-story unfinished room — no windows yet — in which tiered, crowded seats were arranged for the occasion. Otherwise it is a long time standing on the sidewalks, where sitting is not permitted.

On the Mahaweli River in the outskirts of Kandy, the comfortable Hotel Mahaweli Reach has a large pool, tennis courts, large rooms and good food. The presidential suite costs about $250 per night, and more modest but still large rooms begin at about $35.

Another hotel worth a stay of several days instead of the many one- or two-night stops tour buses make is the Kandalama Hotel north of Kandy in the so-called Dry Zone and the cultural triangle of Kandy-Anuradhapurra-Polonnaruwa, which were three of Sri Lanka’s capitals. When the hotel was built a decade ago, residents of the area were opposed to an intrusion into their area; Buddhist monks objected; and environmentalists were against a hotel.

The hotel is a model of sustainable development in an ecologically sensitive area; many of the local residents now work for the hotel and realize it has improved their lives.

Kandalama, from the structure itself to the beds, tables and lamps, was proposed by Sri Lanka’s late premier architect, Geoffrey Bowa. The hotel is built into rock outcroppings and overlooks the Kandalama Tank, a lake; the roofs are flat and planted with grasses and vines, receiving water recycled from the hotel’s wastewater. Garbage is sorted for proper disposal, and much of the waste evaporates.

A glass wall in the shower has no curtain, but the only eyes on the outside belong to the monkeys that thrive in the rocks above and behind the hotel. Guests are cautioned not to leave windows open because the monkeys are forward and seem to delight in snitching objects.

On one night at Kandalama, I was awakened by a persistent thunderstorm and opened the curtains to watch the light show.

The Kandalama is an oasis in the Dry Zone and convenient for visiting some of the Buddhist shrines and ruins in that area. Anuradhapurra, Sri Lanka’s first capital — for about 1,000 years, beginning in 380 B.C. — is a 11/2-hour drive away. Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital of Sri Lanka, also is about 11/2 hours away. Most of the guests dine buffet style in the large restaurant with windows giving views of the lake and the monkeys. The hotel also has two other restaurants; one is casual, while the other offers more elaborate dishes and is much quieter than the crowded buffet venue.

The spa’s ayurveda herbal treatments are excellent and, by American standards, inexpensive. One young masseur said he was hoping to get documents that would enable him to go to England and work there to earn money for his daughter’s education. A driver from Colombo said he hoped to get to London after completing courses in aircraft maintenance on Sri Lanka.

Because of the unemployment in Sri Lanka, many people go abroad for work when they can find a job. Women often leave to work as maids, especially in the eastern Mediterranean countries, which has the disadvantage of leading to the breakup of marriages and neglect of the children the women have left with their husbands.

In Colombo, the commercial capital, the major hotel is the Hilton, which is comfortable and convenient, with several dining options, including a trendy and elegant steakhouse; outdoor dining specializing in local foods that include numerous curries; and a buffet serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The rooms are large, and the hotel offers the services of an executive floor.

The bustle and traffic jams make Colombo seem like a different country from the cultural triangle, the festivals and tea plantations in the interior. Colombo must be visited, but the traveler should not tarry there when an hour away lie some of the beautiful beaches for which the island is known, the cooling mountains, historic forts and Buddhist shrines, the ruins of the ancient cities, the tea-covered hills. Even the pineapple is sweeter on the road.

Health care, job skills bring hope to poor

Brother Emmanuel Nicholas is pleased with the work he and his Christian Brothers order have accomplished in Sri Lanka, especially in improving the quality of life of those who were stranded in a shantytown where maternal and infant deaths occurred regularly.

It is Brother Emmanuel’s nature to be pleased with his work, not proud, and still be aware there is more to do. The village he helped create stands on the site of the Henamulla shantytown and garbage dump on the outskirts of Colombo, the nation’s commercial capital.

When he began work in Henamulla, a child was dying every week; now there are no infant or maternal deaths. Lasallian Community Education Services — LCES, which also stands for Love, Care, Education and Sharing — has 450 children from ages 3 to 5 in preschool programs; 135 young women in training for jobs ranging from sewing to catering, and 175 young men learning various trades from agriculture to auto mechanics.

The youngsters in the program are Sinhalese, the predominantly Buddhist major ethnic group of Sri Lanka; Tamils, who are mostly Hindu; and Muslims, a minority with about the same number as the Christians on the island. Brother Emmanuel stresses that they all live, learn and work in harmony and all are free to practice their own religions with no interference.

Brother Emmanuel has always faced the obstacle of raising funds to carry out LCES programs. He gets little financial help from the government, but he looks to people in business and international foundations for support. He says he needs $8,000 each month to continue his work and that the Christian Brothers Conference in Landover accepts funds for the Sri Lanka LCES.

“We are carrying on with courage,” he says. “My biggest problem is finding money to pay for the program.

Often he is aided by volunteers from churches around the world, especially in the United Kingdom, who come to Sri Lanka to assist during school breaks, such as summer holidays.

These volunteers contribute their talents, such as building, painting animals on school walls and teaching. All of this on the site of a shantytown and garbage dump.

Brother Emmanuel, born on Sri Lanka, attended a Christian Brothers high school and later joined the order. He was invited to work in Pakistan and worked with the poor there for 11 years, sometimes as a school principal. He also attended Fordham University in New York City, where he earned a master’s degree in counseling and did postgraduate work in education. While in New York, he lived in the South Bronx and came to understand poverty in the United States.

He returned to Pakistan, and after two years, the Christian Brothers in Sri Lanka asked him to come back to help train members of the order there and in India and Pakistan.

“While training young brothers, I felt the need to expose them to the poor — the purpose of our founder (St. John Baptist de la Salle) was to educate the poor,” Brother Emmanuel says in an interview.

“I looked around in Colombo to see poor people in shanties or slums. Some of the Catholics told me not to go there because it was dangerous and I should not take the young brothers to such places.

“This was 1980. I felt this was what God was asking of me, what I had to do. On the next day, I took six young brothers into the shantytown.

“I was shocked at what I saw, and in a short time, I did a survey. In one shantytown there were 800 families — Muslims and Buddhists. A child was dying every week. The infant mortality rate was 90 per 1,000 babies.”

Brother Emmanuel says that although education was free and there was compulsory primary education in Sri Lanka, 800 children were not going to school.

“I gathered and fed people, and we started working with these people, and within three years, we stopped all the infant deaths,” he says, crediting this success to prenatal counseling and food programs to ensure the mother was eating properly and to increase the birthweight of infants during critical early development stages.

“We eradicated child malnutrition and stopped infant deaths. Then we started free schooling in the shantytown,” he says.

Training programs have helped reduce the school dropout rate with courses in fields such as electrical and motor wiring, plumbing, welding, carpentry, factories, bakery and catering and hotel work.

Girls also are trained in catering and hotel work and also in sewing, for one of Sri Lanka’s major exports to the United States is finished garments, many of them made for major brand names.

“There were about 5,000 shanties in this whole area,” Brother Emmanuel says. We have been working with all of these families to protect every child and every pregnant mother.”

He again speaks of the harmony existing between the people of different religions in the program. “A Buddhist lady is in charge of a preschool, and a Hindu at one and a Christian at the other. We have all faiths and all languages working with us.”

Brother Emmanuel also speaks of the improvements in sanitation: “Twenty years ago, we had five bucket latrines; now we have toilets built by the government.”

He also laments the breakup of families: “About 70 percent of the mothers [who emigrate] go to the Middle East as domestic help. They send money back. The husband takes another woman and abandons his children. The grandmother gets the children to look after. “The mothers go for money, and the family is ruined,” he says.

“Poverty destroys the soul of the people, and they lose all self-esteem and courage to live for the next day,” Brother Emmanuel says. “Nearly 80 percent of these people have only one meal a day, and nearly 60 percent earn less than $1 a day.

• • •

Brother Emmanuel Nicholas’ address is Lasallian Community Education Services, 25 Temple Road, Colombo 15, Sri Lanka.

A volunteer from the United Kingdom decorates a classroom wall at a Lasallian Community Education Services facility in Sri Lanka.

Tourism benefits from truce

After two decades of civil unrest, occasional attacks and fewer visitors, the tourism industry is trying to adjust to the demand, to make improvements in accommodations and roads as much as the national budget and private funds will allow.

In one daring action during the hostilities, the Tamil rebels destroyed most of Sri Lanka’s commercial and state-owned fleet of aging aircraft. Lately, though, the airline was privatized, with control going to Emirates Airlines, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Under Emirates, the SriLankan Airlines fleet has been modernized with new Airbus jetliners, and the routes extend from London to Tokyo.

With scarce government and private funds to invest in promoting Sri Lankan tourism, SriLankan Airlines has been sponsoring travel journalists to promote the island and, consequently, the airline. I visited Sri Lanka on such a trip, flying on British Airways from Washington to London Heathrow Airport and then on SriLankan to Colombo.

The SriLankan flights were comfortable, very clean and stylish, as one would expect from an Emirates Airlines product. The business-class cabin was a restful sandy shade, with color added in linens and pillows. Emirates, incidentally, announced this week that it will begin nonstop service June 1 with A340-500 aircraft between New York and Dubai, its first route to North America.

Peter Hill, chief executive officer of SriLankan Airlines Ltd., said tourism has been picking up and the target of 5 million visitors was on track for 2003. “It is difficult to be ready for so many visitors after 20 years of stagnation,” Mr. Hill said in an interview in Colombo.

>He said about 6,000 Americans come to Sri Lanka and most visitors flying on SriLankan come from Western Europe. He predicted more tourists from India and China and said more inquiries about travel were coming from Japan.

“We are trying to move away from sun and beach tourism,” Mr. Hill said. “We own the sun and beaches, but Sri Lanka has a lot to offer in eco-tourism and sports tourism. In six hours, you can go from one end of the island to the other and experience the changes in climate from cold and wet to dry and hot.”

The government is restructuring the tourism sector, and the Sri Lanka Tourist Board has been establishing a school for hotel workers.

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