The Wildness of Loch Tay: Highlands of Scotland

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We left behind the rolling hills and wooded valleys of East Lothian to drive into sharp-edged mountains and deep-cut glens. Autumn had arrived and Scotland’s heather, firs and bracken were turning a fiery russet.

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It was the first day of November – and we were camping. But our Loch Tay geodome was not your average tent: we lit the wood-burner and sank into beanbags by the candlelight of a low table. I marvelled at the sense of space and comfort in the geodome.

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By the dying embers of the fire, we snuggled under the duvet of the bed – no sleeping bags or cold air-mattresses here – and watched the light fade out behind the hills.

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The next morning, we were up at first light to cycle the 35 miles around the loch.
Cloudless days in Scotland are as precious as gold-dust, and on this first day of November, the Highlands were a blazing gold and burnt-sienna, the shadows long and the air as sharp as splinters.
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At the estate village of Kenmore, we crossed the bridge to the street of workers’ cottages, Scotland’s claimed oldest hotel, and the turreted gateway to Taymouth Castle.

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The circular cycle now took us along a section of Sustrans Route 7 on the south bank – a quiet country lane of little traffic. A farmer on his quad bike stopped to encourage us up the hill, telling us we’re ‘just a field and a half away’ from the summit. I’d never heard distance measured in fields before and I chuckled to myself as I rode away, thinking every short distance in the countryside should be measured by woodland, meadow and hill.

Four hills away
Just two copses on
Three fields on your right

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And as we turned a corner, the magnificent Ben Lawers came into view on the other side of the Loch. More steep ascents were followed by long freewheels until, at last, Killin by the Falls of Dochhart Falls came into sight.

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Back at Loch Tay Vacations, we fired up the wood-burner and waited for the hot tub to warm up and revive our bones.

 

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Tree House High Under Harvest Moon East Lothian, Scotland

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Harvest Moon Holidays draws up a list of what to bring to their tree houses and safari tents on Lochhouses Farm in East Lothian. It’s a list of Danish ‘hygge’, conjuring up cosiness and well-being, and Danish ‘lykke’, happiness – but on the east coast of Scotland rather than Scandinavia.
Guests are instructed to bring:
– wellies or boots
– torches
– binoculars and bird-book
– seashore book of shells
– books to read in the evening

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It’s a recipe for happiness, a to-do list of contentment. It’s a slap in the face for modern technology (there’s no internet on the estate). Harvest Moon Holidays  gently pushes its guests into the outdoors –  to woodland, links, dune and sea.
It’s a list conjuring up slower, more innocent times and old-fashioned fun: bird-watching on the lochan, shore and in the woodlands; beach-combing on Ravensheugh Beach; storm-watching at twilight; moonlight walking on the dunes after dark. Star-gazing. It’s toasting marshmallows on the fire-pit wrapped in a blanket, or snuggling high up in the tree house with a book by the wood-burning stove.
Lochhouses Farm’s coastal estates reminds me of my childhood Enid Blyton books, when excitement was high tea and lashings of ginger beer, building huts in the woods and camping out on the beach.

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We set off on our bicycles through the Dale estates past farmyards and hamlets to Seacliff Beach. The road took a sharp northeast and Bass Rock was suddenly there before us and it felt as if I’d cycled straight into an Enid Blyton novel – the sheer-sided volcanic plug a scene from the Famous Five on Treasure island or Demon’s Rocks.

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At Seacliff, we flew down the muddy track on our bikes to a sandy cove, Bass Rock, just off-shore at this point. From here we turned inland, taking quiet country lanes back to Tyninghame.  We crossed the John Muir Way and freewheeled down to Whitekirk (the church actually red) and back to the farm.

Later, I found out that the American naturalist and environmentalist, John Muir had been born just down the road in the fishing port of Dunbar (where there’s a small museum in his memory). I also discovered this place of gentle wildness had inspired another writer – an adventure novelist – not the fifty’s Enid Blyton of my childhood, but the Victorian Robert Louis Stevenson.  Related to the Dale family who own Lochhouses Farm and Harvest Moon Holidays, he’d spent boyhood holidays on the farm at Scoughall, and the area became an inspiration for Stevenson’s novels such as Kidnapped and Treasure Island.

This hidden corner of Scotland is full of history. We bumped into Chris, the site manager on the edge of the links on our coastal ramble the next day. A local lad, he knew the history of the area well.
“The locals had a reputation for being ruthless in the 1800s. Called the ‘Wreckers’, they’d lure ships onto the rocks on stormy nights with their lanterns.”
“They were friendly folk around here then,” I laughed.
“You could say! On one occasion, the Wreckers lured a ship with a freight of brandy onto the rocks. They took the bounty, drank their fill, then hid the remaining barrels on the land. The problem was when they woke up they were still in a drunken stupor and couldn’t remember where they’d hidden the stash!”

Robert Louis Stevenson also heard the stories of the Wreckers on the farm at Scoughall. The ‘Pagans of Scoughall’ had a particular reputation for their heartlessness. Stevenson heard how they’d tie a horse’s neck to its knee, attach a lantern to the rope, then lead the horse along the coast, so that sailing vessels thought the horse was a ship bobbing on its anchor. The misled ship would sail towards the light, only to be wrecked on the rocky reef; then plundered. The stories gave Stevenson the idea for his story The Wreckers. And in Catriona, the sequel to Shipwrecked, Stevenson talks about the ‘lights of Scoughall’  and puts the character Tam Dale in charge of the prisoners on Bass Rock.

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I asked Chris about the concrete blocks lining the dunes: “Are they from the war?'”
“Yes. The area was taken over by the Ministry of Defence. They used the Dales’ coastal outbuildings to watch the coast, and put anti-tank blocks in. The meadow here was full of landmines.”
“Isn’t that potentially dangerous for the glampers?”
“No, it’s quite safe,” Chris laughed. “When they cleared the field of landmines, they grazed cattle on the field to take the hit for any landmines that might have been missed!”

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By the end of October, the light fades out shortly after five in East Lothian. We took our torches that evening and headed down to the beach in the darkness, feeling our way through the dune bushes. Out on the beach the moon cast a silver light on the North Sea. We stumbled back through the dunes and links, hearing an owl screech in the darkness.
Holed up in our house on stilts on the edge of the woods, we felt as snug as the owl in its tree. It was womb-like in the small octagonal hut high above the ground with the wood-burning stove blazing in the corner.
We’d found something close to serenity in our tree house at Harvest Moon, and in the nature around it. The tree houses and their surroundings ooze Danish hygge and lykke in this idyllic corner of East Lothian.

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“Courie in,” my Scottish husband said. ‘Cosy in’. And I guess that’s as close a translation you get to hygge in the local venacular.

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Outer Herbrides, Scotland

I.
Night-sky

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In the Scottish summer, daylight never truly blacks out, and neither do I as I make the drive through the night from Glasgow to Uig on Skye; to the island ferry.
Ahead, Loch Lomond is a granite slab of speckled grit in the gloaming and the hills on the other side of the water black humpback whales outlined with silver pen – like a child’s drawing.
There is no sound on the road other than the rumble of wheel. There’s no movement but for a startled pair of doe on the grass verge – later a stag crashing through the undergrowth. And a fawn. There is no conversation other than in my head. Everyone is asleep – Tom nodding in the passenger seat and the boys tipping into each other in the back seat. There’s just me and the night and the nocturnal wildlife, and the car following the contours of loch, pass and base of hill.
Through Glencoe, the sky darkens to charcoal. This is as dark as it gets. By three, a buttery-yellow seeps through cloud and spreads across the glens, the lochs and mountains.
This is how we arrive at Uig. I fall into an exhausted sleep, stretched out along the back seat of the car as the ferry makes its way across the Minch from Uist to us.

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II.
Rainstorm

Big skies fill your vision on the Hebrides. They are a symphony of movement. Shafts of light shatter mist and strike the earth. Rain-filled clouds form and reform until they burst and storm across the island in horizontal sheets carried by the wind. The elements are violent here, the water gushing off the hills – sometimes blowing back up again in defiance of gravity.
We run from car to house, shoulders hunched and heads bowed, buffeted by wind and rain. Everything is washed dishwater-grey: the hills, the sea, the rock and grass; even the lily ponds.
Our cottage is empty and cold. I strike a match to the set fire and wait for the damp to dissipate; wait for the warmth to leave the hearth and spread across the room.
I think I will go crazy in this water-saturated place. How will I survive a week?

We drive into Tarbert and go mad buying bags of logs and peat and coal from the grey, flat-roofed garage. Never go shopping for food when you’re hungry. Never go shopping for fuel when you’re damp and cold.

Soon Manuela, Michi, Gian and Aurelio will arrive, and the house will be filled with the aroma of cooking food and the sound of Swiss-German weaving through English – an old friendship rekindled with the fire.

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III.
Hearth & Home

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There is something deeply satisfying in setting a fire; the scrunch of paper, the strategic placing of firelighters, kindling and coal. I watch with delight when the flames spring to life – then anxiously watch as they die back, threatening to extinguish.
I’m no expert. I tend to the fire like it’s a sick child, breathing life back in its dying form, providing it with oxygen. And when the flames finally lick over the coals and they start to glow, I’m as proud as the first fire-lighter.

Cluer Cottage is typical of the Highlands and Islands with its little windows set into the sloping roof and its simple lego-form, whitewashed over.
We reach the house by a long sheep-lined track of rough gravel that dips and rises with the moor until it drops sharply down to the sea where it comes to an abrupt full-stop – or exclamation-mark – just short of  the shoreline rocks that plunge down to Cluer Bay and the Minch beyond.
This place is isolated, surrounded by sea and bog and sheep. From the window-seat you might catch sight of a solitary seal in the bay, or a pod of porpoises. You can sit for hours watching the light play off ocean and sky; watching the eternal lap of Atlantic against the land. It’s a form of hypnosis and healing.

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IV.
Sunlight

Harris is many things.

It’s roaring wind. It’s silence. It’s biting cold. It’s gentle warmth. It’s beating sun. It’s the ocean bombing rocks. It’s sheep running off the hills and salmon jumping upstream. It’s young seals at play in bays. It’s the sea eagle’s wing bearing down on the cliff top. It’s the peregrine catching the curve of an air current.
It’s the stillness of 2.7 billion year-old hills.

It’s also monotone grey and an ever-changing canvas of colour. It’s the nuclear-mustard of lichen and the soft yellows and mauves of machair – clover, buttercup and vetch.
It’s the scrubbed blue-greens of ocean and sky, and the whitewash of beach and dune.
It’s gneiss-hard slab and watery bog. It’s rain and wind-dried strand.  It’s black cloud and powder skies.
It’s sunlight.

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V.
Beach

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We have become collectors. The windowsills of our cottage are filling up with objects from the machair and beaches: a rabbit scull; an assortment of crab pincers; razor-shells, limpets, cockles and scallops, and the fragments of sea urchin. And for the geologist in our house, chunks of gneiss.
I walk for miles across headlands, past standing stones, through bog and marsh and along beaches. I splash through shallows. The sky and beach merge in mirror symmetry: blue on blue; dry on wet; gloss on matt. I run – I never run, but the soft sand beneath my feet and the breeze at my back make it easy.
Describing the colours of the ocean is another matter – they are deep and bright and translucent and utterly beguiling.

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VI.
Arctic Tern

I’ve stumbled on an arctic tern’s nest on Scarista Beach – and its guardian is not happy. It circles my head from high above, then dives down, beak aiming for my scull. I flap my arms and it retreats for a moment before plunging down once more. I place my book on my head, but still the tern comes, squawking and clicking and angrily flapping its black-tipped wings. I raise my book and wave it at the bird – it’s my only weapon – and a useless one.
Still the tern comes, circling , then dropping down like a spirit-leveller – coming in close for the attack, blood-red beak ready to puncture my skin.
In a reversal of roles, Patrick, my son, runs at the tern: Clear off, you brute – leave my mother alone.
I turn and scramble for safety.

VII.
Seals

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Just down the road from Cluer Cottage at Flodabay, we find a colony of common seals resting on a rocky headland. Out of the water they are ungainly lumps of blubber – like giant slugs. They belly-flop to the water’s edge, each inch of movement painfully slow and cumbersome. But in the water they metamorphise into graceful, streamlined creatures, their bodies smooth as silk.
Three young frolic in the bay. They flop and flick and dive under the water to reemerge across the bay, noses sniffing the air.

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VIII.
Stone

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On Uist the weather closes in again, the mists gathering over the island like Dervish dancers. We had arrived here by ferry at Berneray, the ship twisting this way and that through the deeper waters of the sound. We find the Uists are more water than land – a scattering of blue veins that threaten to break up the landmass into ever-increasing islands. We cross causeway after causeway, skirting lochs and inlets. I have the feeling I am still on board, on a ship slipping through land.

On North Uist, we find a great mound of stones, a neolithic burial chamber. Patrick peers into the entrance at Barpa Langias, closed off because of a partial collapse, then disappears from sight. I worry he will join the bones that were once found here and am relieved when he emerges again.

Stones are used for the living and stones are used for the dead.  At the nearby stone circle of Piobull Fhinn, ceremonies and rituals marked the daily routines of life and work, the changing seasons and the circular nature of fertility, birth and death; the alignment of sun and the moon and the harvests that sustain life.

We travel southbound and forward in time; to the ruins of Howmore on South Uist. When the rain stops pelting down, we run along the grassy path to the ruins of a medieval church. The stones are abiding, but their placing is not. Most have collapsed and disappeared into the earth. There is nothing left but a gable here and a couple of walls there, strings of foundations and a scattering of Celtic crosses around the four ruined chapels.

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Nearby, a Victorian Church of Scotland (an island of Protestantism in Catholic South Uist) is grim in its austerity with its plain windows and hard benches for the long, narrow communion table that runs the length of the church. I place my hand on the peeling wall and it’s damp to the touch. There’s a simple pulpit and a laminated sheet with the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic and English.
But in all its bleakness, I like the story of this simple whitewashed church, looking out to the Atlantic, a guiding landmark for the fishermen.

Also sitting in this humpy landscape is a scattering of thatched black cottages, their roofs lashed down with stones on ropes. This is an inhospitable place. I try to imagine what it is like to be here when summer’s over, when winter storms roll in from the Atlantic and the light fades out by mid-afternoon. And I can’t. The people here on Uist are as tough as the stone that shelters them, and as solid as beached whales washed up on the island’s shoreline.

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While the islanders hunker down and brace themselves for the end of summer, we sail away from our Hebridean islands. We soft mainlanders would never survive the winter months. But we take a little bit of the islands home with us: a chunk of gneiss, a crab’s claw and a few fragments of sea urchin.

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India: Kerala Backwaters

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We took the public service boat and rode the backwaters for more than four hours.
All for 70 pence.
For two.
Return.


The boatman tipped us out in a quiet village a few miles of short of Kottayam – the name on our ticket. No one told us the reason. Why this empty settlement just short of town?
Later, I read the bridge had fallen into the canal beyond the village.

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We walked up Kanjiram jetty to the roundabout-shaped, jelly-coloured Hindu temple – Parenalpathil Divi. It would have looked at home in the fairground, not this backwater settlement. A lime-green bubble-car sat in front of it and the driver offered us a ride into town. We declined, and instead walked around the village, over the bridge, past shops, a church and mosque – returning to the boat after 20 minutes.
There was an hour to wait before its departure. We sat down to view the waterside activity with little expectation: the village was deserted in the build-up of afternoon heat.

But as the light dimmed a youth padded to the canal.
He washed his shirt;
scrubbed catering-sized pots;
removed his vest;
scrubbed it too.
He wrapped a cloth around his waist and slipped off his jeans;
and washed them from the steps.

As the light faded out
three more youths flip-flopped to the canal further downstream;
undressed and washed their clothes.

They lathered soap into their hair
and rubbed it in.
Then their bodies
until they were white with suds.
They scrubbed and scrubbed
then dived into the canal
to rinse off the foam,
and swam,
splashed,
dressed
and left.

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Women sashayed to the water to fill water containers.

A man fed his path-side fire with leaves and twigs,
the smell of smouldering vegetation filling the air with spices.

At last the boat sprang to life
and nosed along the canal
past trios of fishermen in canoes
and kids on over-sized bicycles.

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Night fell
The sun bled the Aryad
Sea eagles surfed on a thermal.
Egrets shone in the water-weed like plastic bags.

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The boat burped a foghorn
as it drunkenly weaved side to side across the lake.

Passengers waiting on landing stages flashed torch lights at the captain,
while houseboats shrank into the shadows of the shore.

Primary-colour lights leaked out across the water, along with a neon-green cross.
The thud of temple drum bounced off its surface.

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The public service boat slipped us back unnoticed into Alleppey,
giving us up to the noisy town.

And all for 70p…
A four hour showing
of a backwater soap
For two.
Twice over,
Matinee and evening.

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India: Kerala Fisherbirds

Egrets

The gangsters on the shore are the crows.
They fly low over our heads, almost scraping our scalps, then scatter the sandpipers. They threaten the egrets – but the egrets look down their elegant necks with disdain and refuse to shift from their twiggy legs. They are too cool for the bully boys.

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The sandpipers are the infants on this watery playground. They squeal in high-pitched voices when the crows move in.
And when the waves roll in, they pipe in fear, only to lift effortlessly into the air and fly out low over the sea – tipping sideways with clockwork wings. Or their legs, running double-speed like weaving machines, fly up the sandbank away from the spume.
The thrill of the tide.

The crows, the sandpipers and the egrets stand on the shoreline and wait for the sea to reveal – just for a few seconds – the wormholes.

Back at the beach bungalow, our very own Mr Twit (Mr Joseph in reality) takes his catapult and aims at the crows in his sand garden. They lift, and fly, and settle on a tree just outside the fence. They watch Mr Joseph with a beady eye.
When he’s gone, they’ll swoop down into the compound again – and drop a well-placed bomb right in the eye of an unsuspecting tourist enjoying the hammock.

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The crows cackle as if sharing a private joke; They may be ugly, but they’re not stupid.

Sri Lanka: Life on the Railway Track

The railway track in Sri Lanka not only forges a path for the trains, but for human feet as well. Amila planned walks for us along the line from Heeloya to Ella, with a detour up the steep hillside to Ella Rock, and from Idalgashinna to Haputale on the second day. For two days we lived the Railway Children life. They were gentle days that cradled us between the railway banks.

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We rise early, and slide down through the path between the vegetables, skidding on the red earth, our feet wet from the damp ground.
The light eases in with the dawn, washing the Hill Country a watery green. On the track, we find our own rhythm – like the train.
The sleepers dictate our stride. Sometimes, they are too close together, and we slow shuffle. Sometimes, they are further apart, and we stride in a purposeful march. The softened wood of the older sleepers allows us to bounce along, light-footed. The metal has little give, and no embrace. The concrete sleepers require us to balance delicately on its thin ledge like ballerinas in a music box. Arms automatically extend.

Amila’s feet hardly seem to touch the ground. He walks with a sure-footed lightness, wrists slightly turned out in a stride that is all at once graceful and masculine.
Supun, his sister, and I follow behind, our quiet early morning chitter-chatter disappearing into the damp air with the birds.

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Just outside Ella, Amila listens for the train. We hear it in the distance. We hear the metal sing and feel the vibrations beneath our feet. Amila takes a small stone and places it on the rail.
“Aren’t you afraid it might derail the train?” I ask.
Amila laughs.
“Too small.”

He’s as familiar with these tracks as the wheels of the Hill Country locomotives. This was his playground growing up. He and his friends had placed one rupee coins on the metal rail and watched the train’s wheels flatten them out to twice their size – like a rolling pin.
And so, we sit on the low wall as the train rocks past, and watch Amila’s pebble reduce to powder – just as he knew it would.

Life for those who grow up in the Hill Country is still in the outdoors – a childhood of scouting. On the path up to Ella Rock, Amila finds a stick to create a windmill, and the bark of the turpentine tree for the sails. He sets his homespun windmill in a crack on the flat stone of Ella Rock, and I watch  its sails spin with the land hundreds of feet beneath my feet.

Back on the track, Amila tells me he’d recently walked the railway line from Heeloya to Peradeniya near Kandy – a distance of almost 100 miles.

“You walked the railway line from Heeloya to Perqdeniya! How long did it take you?”
“Five days.”
And so Amila tells me his ten-in-a-bed story – or twenty-on-a-track tale.

He had started out with 20 friends, 20 students, on the line. At each passing station, one or more students fell away – too tired, too injured, too bored to continue, until at Peradeniya, only five students remained.
Amila took the equivalent of £10 with him – and spent just over two on his railway journey. He bought cheap and filling rotee (the flat, charred bread with its fluffy coconut and flour centre) and cooked noodles by the railway track.
One impish student told the local people a cock-and-bull story; that they were students assessing landslips – and so, impressed, they brought the ‘research students’ food to eat.
A couple of times, the young men slept on the station benches (promising the Station Master they’d be gone by the first train of the day) or stayed with friends and relatives along the way – until at last, bedraggled and footsore they walked into Peradeniya Junction – much diminished in size.
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On the second day, we take the train to the Idalgashinna and walk back down to Haputale. We’re on top of Sri Lanka. The tea plantations swirl around us; trees march across the skyline. But we have to watch our feet.
And so we observe, not the hills and the skyline and the vapour valleys, but the flora and fauna: the wildflowers that grow in the gravel; the out-sized bugs and the railway men with their out-sized spanners, tightening bolts – and the stray dogs that defecate on the line.


We dare not look at the world beyond as we must watch our feet on the sleepers, but we tune into the sounds: the honk of horn; the hum of traffic; the trill of folk music on a radio somewhere; the bark of dog; the disembodied voices.

There’s a rhythm to life in the Hill Country, and there’s a rhythm to our feet on the railway track. 

Sri Lanka Ice Caps

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For the lowlanders, the Hill Country is an uncomfortable place.
“Too cold,” Manuja’s brother says with a dismissive sweep of his hand. “I can’t stay there more than a week.”

Sarath, his wife and children, Amila and Supun, are comfortable in the winter of the Hill Country – as long as they have an ice cap.

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When we visit, stormy weather drives in from the Indian Ocean with short, sharp showers. The temperature drops even lower, and as Sarath drives us up through the tea plantations, I reach for my jumper.

Now at the end of the workday, the Tamil tea-pickers emerge from their two-room houses and tumble down the lane between the tea bushes. The boys walk with arms casually slung across each other’s shoulders; the girls arms linked in conspiracy, their heads bent close as they giggle in gossip. Grown-ups gather around roadside stalls. A three-wheeler bread van squeezes through, playing a jingoistic tune.

The faces are darker and coarser here; faces that spend long hours on the hillside in the unfiltered sunlight. These Tamils are the most recent influx of immigrants, brought in by colonial Britons, first to tend the coffee plantations, and when those failed, to work the tea bushes.

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Their houses sit in the sweep of low-lying tea bush on the hillsides, a rainbow of pastel colour in among the fresh green of leaf.

By the time we reach the top of the pass, the light is wrung from the sky, the world spun to grey-black. The cold air stings through the open window of the car and Sarath reaches for his hat.
Back at home, when the temperature drops, the Gamage family don their ice caps. If their heads are warm, the rest will follow. Only when it’s really cold, do they put on a fleece or jacket.
But here on the hillside, Amila and Supun shiver in the cool mountain air, having forgotten their own ice caps.
Sarath passes the woollen hat to Supun who eventually passes it to Amila. And so they share in turn.

It’s an apt metaphor for this close-knit family.

Tea in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

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Sarath and his family live above the railway line at Heeloya near Bandarawela, their road dug out of the red earth on the railway bank.
Driving up to the house takes skill. The first section is the hardest – especially after the rains – and Sarath sometimes has to make a couple of attempts. He finds his angle, then charges the lane like a bull. Further on, he nurses the car over the uneven ground. It tips and rolls gently before Sarath presses down hard on the accelerator again.

When I dream of Sri Lanka, I dream of Heeloya and the house with the wraparound balcony above the railway line. I still remember the first time I came here; when I’d looked out over the valley to the schoolgirls walking the train track in crisply-ironed white and green; behind them, the watery paddy fields reflecting the hills and the forest beyond.
Sarath’s son, Amila, on that first visit showed me their field of vegetables that drops down to the track, then we walked back up to the house with its veranda displaying a bas-relief in clay of deer and a bird feeding her young in the woodland – the work of Sarath’s wife, an artist.

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And I’d felt an affiliation with this place and with this Hill Country family.

Amila's mum

As with that first visit, Lakshmi takes us straight to the table on arrival – its surface spread with sweet cakes, savouries and fruit.

Feast at Heeloya

“Tea?” Lakshmi asks.
“Yes, please.”
“Milk?”
I remember the sweet condensed milk Sri Lankans tend to serve and say: “No milk.”
“No milk?” She looks at me with dark anxious eyes.
“No milk.”
She frowns, then straightens her back and smiles.
“Sugar?”
“No sugar.”
She looks at me doubtfully.
“No milk? No sugar?”
“No milk. No sugar. Just black tea, please.”

Lakshmi had brought us tea with milk anyway, probably thinking she had misunderstood me: How could anyone drink the bitter plant without sweetening it?
Sri Lankans add three, four, five, even six or seven spoonfuls to their brew.
And for the next few times thereafter, she continues to ask if we would like milk or sugar. It is as if the idea of unsweetened tea was inconceivable.

But she realises after a while that we’re set on the black bitter brew. She watches us pour the hot water from the tall china pot and dip the Lipton’s teabags quickly in and out of our cups and follows our lips as we drink the tea, smiling encouragingly – but I imagine she gives a small shudder inside.

Sarath and Lakshmi’s neighbour further down the earthen road shakes his head at the Sri Lankan’s penchant for sugar. The headmaster looks at us gloomily and says: “White poison.”
In Sri Lanka, diabetes is the biggest killer. We, in the West, have a different set of vices… and killers.

Amila's mum's artwork

Sinhala and Tamil New Year, Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan New Year

II. A New Year and a New Name

For days before New Year, fire crackers echo around Gelioya. In kitchens all over town, women cook up a flour-storm of sweet cakes. Temperatures rise with the coconut oil. The smell of honey cakes fill the air.
Rice is put on the heat, along with milk on the open hearth. Families gather round the pot to watch the milk boil over – it means prosperity for the year ahead.

On New Year’s Day, Dimuthu presented me with a gift laid out on a neat pile of betel leaves. She pressed her palms together and bowed her head, holding out her offering in respectful deference.
I read the tag and found a name I didn’t recognise: Duvidu. Duvidu!At last, Janaka and Dimuthu’s child was no longer just ‘baby’ – but anchored in name as well as place.
In Sinhalese culture, the baby’s name is closely linked to the stars, the sun, the moon and their position in the sky. Dimuthu and her family had a given set of letters linked to the astrological charts to work around – a Rubix cube of possibilities to be arranged and rearranged until the perfect name is found.
Janaka and his father-in-law had spent an evening earlier in the week discussing the possibilities, and having finally agreed on a name, they’d gone to Dimuthu triumphantly with their choice. But Dimuthu said no: ‘Too common’ and in the end, she’d chosen the name herself.

That night, we ate a New Year’s feast with Dimuthu’s many relatives. Lathika had hosted in the Sri Lankan tradition – not eating with the guests, but hovering in the background, serving and checking the guests had enough to eat – although the table was buckling under the multiple bowls of spicy dishes and sweet cakes.

At the end of the evening, Tom and I made our way home along the earthen lane. It was then we saw the lights, drifting across the tree trunks like weightless seed-heads. We switched off the torch and watched fireflies float through the undergrowth. They looked particularly fragile and ethereal in among the knotted roots and gnarled barks; elegantly silent among the bark of dog, the thud of music and the explosion of fire cracker.
Then, for a moment, the dogs stopped yapping, the fire crackers ceased and the pop song faded away – leaving just the faint hum of traffic in the town.
And there was just me and Tom and the fireflies in the forest. And the near silence.

Gelioya near Kandy, Sri Lanka

I. A New Baby

His foot fits snugly in the palm of my hand, a cashew nut in its shell. Long fine fingers curl  mine. He sinks his body into me, finds the contours and settles in.
It reminds him of the womb – a kind of enfolding – at least on one side. I spread my hand across his back, trying to recreate the enclosure of womb. He closes his eyes.
It feels like home.

Dimuthu and Janaka’s baby is one week old and still nameless – but he’s anchored by the bungalow wrapped in rain forest.

At dawn, he hears the cry of the cockerel and the call to prayer.
In the daytime, he turns his head to the call of the Asian koal, the myna bird, the parrot and the robin. He hears the dull thud of Jack fruit and king coconut as it falls to the ground. His black eyes turn to the sound.
Everything is new and everything is strange.

In the evening, he’s lulled by the hum of distant cars and the tuk-tuk of idling three-wheelers. The priests’ chants from the temple is a lullaby and the throb of the cicada beats in time with his own heartbeat.

All through the night, he hears the pitiful bark of stray dogs  in the streets below and the thud-thud-thud of a pop-song base somewhere beyond the jungle. He hears the New Year’s crackers and thinks it will always be so – like the constant parp of car horns.

One day, you will barely register the sounds of Gelioya anymore. But for now, everything is new and everything is strange – as it is for me. We are strangers in this land and full of wonder. But I will leave, and remember Gelioya as some exotic place – and for you, for you it will become a familiar one.
It will be home.