I had time for a quick dip in the pool and then I waited for Premadasa to arrive in the hotel lobby. He came in beaming and I got back on pillion style to ride with him to his house. We bought some drinks at the local store and then veered off the main road onto a dusty track. After about half a mile of bouncing through the scrub, we came to a clearing. As I dismounted a group of young men approached and I was introduced to Premadasa’s two brothers. His wife came out and said hello, but she was busy preparing the food. I gave them a small gift which was accepted without fuss and taken away, and I was invited to sit out on a bench with the men. We drank and chatted. I found the conversation difficult as apart from Premadasa, the others’ English was rather halting and I found it hard to follow their trains of thought. One of the brothers was rather effeminate and giggled at anything. The other was more sober but fairly taciturn.
Not knowing the protocol and not getting any lead from the family, I found it difficult to know what to do. I was starving, but up to nine o clock, I saw no food. I had to relieve myself and was led to the small outhouse in the back. I came back, the move had not given any thought to food. The others watched me more and more intently. Eventually I suggested we ate. They moved so fast and I realised I had missed the procedure completely. Whereas in Britain it was up to the host to start the meal, here, apparently, the guest could decide when to eat. If I had known that I would have got up an hour and half before.
On the way into the house, Premadasa proudly showed me his six-month old boy, fast asleep in a small cot. His house was simply but nicely furnished. In the small kitchen there was a table laid with a cloth and burdened with all sorts of dishes, rice, curries, meat and vegetables. Far less processed than the meals in restaurants I had experienced up to now, it nonetheless looked like a magnificent spread. Now came the oddest part of the whole evening. I was invited to sit at the table, which faced a wall, and stuff myself while the rest of the family sat or stood across the room staring at me. I was acutely embarrassed but had to do my best not to show it. The conversation almost completely stopped while I tried to eat as gracefully as I could muster. Unfortunately, due to my incomprehension of Sri Lankan etiquette, much of the food had congealed; it must have sat there for an hour before I went inside. I tried to resuscitate the chat, and in amongst the “Umms” and “Delicious” noises I felt obliged to make, I asked about how they cooked. I was being honoured tonight as they had turned on the Calor gas stove, normally they just burnt wood. This made me even more embarrassed. I also asked why they did not eat with me, another no-no. Premadasa just smiled at me and said they would eat when I was gone. Now I know why they were begging me to get started.
In the end I made a complete mess of the whole evening, but it was still a very humbling and enjoyable experience. Premadasa and I parted on good terms and we corresponded for a short while after. He left me at the hotel, his bike could be heard for a couple of minutes as it headed back into the village.
Next morning I had to turn for home, or Kandy at least. We did not have to rush so we stopped off at a few places on the way – the Kandalama Wewa, a beautifully shallow tank with several tree stumps poking above the surface. We passed back through Dambulla and headed up the main road towards Matale. We stopped off three times on the way.
The first stop was the weirdest thing I saw in Sri Lanka. My learning of Buddhas teachings had shown me that he was a peace loving, meditating and preferred to take the middle path towards righteousness. Until I got to the cave temples at Aluvihara, where I found that there was a sort of AntiBuddha as scary as any Christian devil.
Aluvihare itself is a small village along the main road into Matale, just where the hill country begins to close in on the valley. To the west of the village a line of steps lead up into a remarkable assemblage of boulders to a series of caves deep in the crevices. Weernsinghe and I walked up into this arena, and glanced around the temple. The same Buddhas in various positions were here, but additionally, there were murals and statues around which warned people of the consequences of not taking the middle path. The murals depicted massive potbellied trolls, with tusk-like teeth protruding out of their grotesque mouths, spiky black hair. They were grabbing the unworthy in all sorts of ways, dangling them from one hand while they used their free hand to cut them down the middle – crotch to brain. Another poor sinner was having his genitals cut off by one troll while another was gouging out his eye.
In a series of caves which went deep into the hillside, a series of statues depicting similar scenes could be found. In one, a woman was having her brains eaten with a spoon, limbs were being cut off all over the place and there was a healthy smattering of red paint all over the models. No details were spared to frighten the average Buddhist away from any evil act. I came out feeling that there was none of the pussy footing symbology that you get with Christianity – Buddhists could be as brutally honest about their dark side as they could about enlightenment.
The next stop was at a batik factory. Batik is a fairly modern industry in Sri Lanka, but I had never seen the manufacturing process. I was intrigued to see how the effect was made. I was shown the basic cloth which was dipped in wax. Then a pattern would be etched into the wax to reveal the cloth underneath. Then it would be dipped in dye and only the revealed segments would be stained. After the dye has dried, the cloth is washed in a hot solution to remove the wax and the final pattern emerges. If the cloth is to be multicoloured, the process is repeated with a new pattern and the new segments will be coloured. Accidentally, the wax cracks as it hardens and the dyes can seep into the cloth through those cracks. It is what gives the batik those curious lined flaws that make it so appealing. With much of the cloth, the makers purposefully bend the cloth to crack the wax which accentuates this effect. I bought one of those colourful shirts that are really only wearable at barbecues and we travelled on.
Our final stop was at a spice garden. Several of these line the main road into Matale, and Weernsinghe picked out his favourite with me. It was a quiet moment here, no other tourists were around, so the owner personally showed me around. He was interested in me being a scientist, and so he gave me all the inside information he kept away from the general touroid. I’m not sure why people tend to think that once you are a scientist, you are wanting every scientific fact about whatever you are looking at. I’m quite happy when I am on holiday to keep it at a general level. But it was interesting. It was the first time I saw a vanilla plant up close, and lemon grass, and everything you would see in a British kitchen’s spice rack. I was told what cures what, what is a relaxant, a stimulant, an aphrodisiac. In the centre of this beautiful shady garden ,with its scents and sights, was a low wooden building, roofed but open to all sides. A table sat there with an array of small bottles. The owner offered me a body massage or head massage. I decided to go the whole hog, and I was handed over to his assistant who asked me to take my shirt off. I knew I looked rather portly (no exercise in the heat and plenty of ruby murray’s), but I obliged him. I was then treated to the most magnificent massage ever. Every portion of my upper body was treated from the tips of my fingers to the temples, ears, neck, shoulders, chest, belly and all the way down the back, a couple of times further down than I would have liked, but oh, the feeling. The masseur poured all sorts of potions over me, and the owner, standing by grinning the whole way through would explain what it was that was being put on and what it would do to me. The aromas were wonderful and the feeling of deep heat on various aching muscles was incredible – if only he could have done my feet.
What spoilt it all was a bunch of German tourists (why are they always German), came in and were being shown around by one of the guides. Just in the midst of this incredible experience, they trouped by the parlour, and although not ashamed of my manly torso, it was still like some intimacy had been broken. Perhaps the owner knew this and was just using me as an advert. I saw that there were a whole bunch of chairs in this room, so they must give demonstrations to coach parties, so perhaps I had got off easy.