I am a true believer in the phrase ‘a blessing in disguise’. My passport was nearing expiry and I had to make a quick trip to Sri Lanka to get it renewed (the express service is only available in Sri Lanka). While I was complaining to my husband about the incompetencies of our bureaucratic system, in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘Four glorious days of tropical bliss, not bad…not bad at all!’. Any excuse to go back home.
It’s a gruelling four hour drive from the airport to my mom’s hometown, Matale, which is situated in the hilly Central province. But the beautiful scenery along the way more than makes up for it (as did the incessant chatter between me, my sister, my eleven year old niece and their adorable septuagenarian driver, Karunaratne).
It’s fascinating to watch the landscape change from groves of palm trees to misty blue mountains as you make the ascent to the hills.
Something magical happens when the sun sets in Sri Lanka. I have always observed this, even as a child. It’s one of those things that cannot be described in words. The mellow golden rays of the setting sun transforms everything it touches – from trees covered in frothy pink blossoms to paddy fields stretching out into the distance, from the way side tea shops with bunches of bananas hanging from their tin roofs to people walking back home with stray dogs barking at their heel. It’s so beautiful it makes your heart ache…
Colombo (the capital) was as always, a complete madhouse. Horns blaring, people rushing about everywhere including the middle of the roads, carbon fumes delicately perfuming the air, and the heat! it can even penetrate an air-conditioned car – utter bliss!
After getting the passport done – quite some drama there which I will talk about later, I was to meet one of my dear friends in front of the passport office (we were later supposed to go for a tamarind mojito). He did turn up – on the opposite side of the road – BIG mistake! He was saying something with his arms and legs and trying to make himself heard above the noise of the stream of traffic and people and dogs and whistle-blowing traffic cops flowing in between. A few minutes into this mime, a cop marches up to him and yells at him to get a ‘move-on’ as his taxi is blocking the road and the next thing I see he gets into the car and disappears into the madness. That’s all I saw of my friend and the elusive tamarind mojito he promised. He later told me it was like a scene from a movie – yeah, like a Woody Allen…
A quick stop at the Barefoot Café provided a much needed respite from the chaos of the city.
The Barefoot Gallery and Café is the brainchild of Barbara Sansoni, a celebrated Sri Lankan artist and textile designer. She started Barefoot 40 years ago as a rehabilitation programme for rural women where they were taught the art of weaving and creating handloom fabrics. Barefoot is famous for its beautifully designed, vibrantly coloured stuffed toys, bags, clothes, jewellery and home accessories, mostly made out of hand-woven, naturally dyed fabrics.
The café is built around an open courtyard and the gallery is in an extension of the building. Two monstrous wooden statues of Hindu Gods guard the entrance and there is a cool deep green pond at the far end of the courtyard – it was lovely to sit outside and sip on a long icy lime and mint while we waited for our food (nothing great to write about, unfortunately).
After a few bites of chewy, cold grilled pork wraps, we popped into the adjacent gallery. I completely lost track of time once inside – beautiful hand woven napkins in rainbow hues, hand-crocheted doilies and table runners; delicate and cobweb-like, quirky wooden candle stands shaped and painted like dolls in udarata (traditional Sinhalese) dress, forks and spoons made from Kitul wood, rolls and rolls of cloth in eye-popping colours and abstract geometrical patterns, patchwork wall-hangings – all made by hand. Sri Lankans have truly gifted hands, their workmanship is just exquisite.
I greedily bought everything that caught my eye, all the while wishing I had taken a bigger suitcase!
Back in Dubai and it’s the weekend. I made a special Sri Lankan lunch to nurse my homesick heart – yellow rice, chicken curry, pappodams and a lovely brinjal (eggplant) salad which is so simple to make but complements the rice and curry perfectly.
Oh, I almost forgot – the little drama at the passport office…
While waiting to submit my paperwork a guy in a blue and green striped t-shirt (for some strange reason his t-shirt stands out in my mind like a neon sign in the night) OK, so this guy in the t-shirt storms into the office, and goes behind the counter where the personnel are seated. He starts yelling at them saying they haven’t returned one of his original documents (you need to submit original birth certificates, marriage certificates etc. to get your passport done). The entire office stops what they are doing and listens to him with their mouths agape. Mr. Stripey Tee takes advantage of their undivided attention and raises his voice a notch or two higher and puts on a very animated performance, entertaining the poor folk who are now waiting for things to turn back to normal so they can get their work done and go home.
The man walks out, promising through gritted teeth he’ll be back, and we turn our attention back to the blokes behind the counter. But now they are all huddled together in a deep discussion trying to figure out what happened to the missing document. This debate lasts another 10 minutes or so before they disperse and reluctantly get back to work.
I was annoyed and amused at the same time – this can only happen in Sri Lanka, only back home; my imperfectly perfect country, how I adore you!
4 large brinjals (eggplant)
1 large red onion, cut into rings
2 green chillies, sliced finely
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 tbsp vinegar
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
oil for deep frying
Slice the brinjals into 1/2 cm thick slices. Sprinkle over the turmeric and 1/2 tsp of salt and toss well, coating the slices evenly. Heat the oil in a deep frying pan and fry the brinjal slices in batches, till golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper and set aside.
Put the mustard seeds and vinegar into a mortar and give it a good grind till it forms a grainy paste. Combine the sliced onions and green chillies in a serving dish and add the mustard paste and the remaining salt. Give it a good toss. Add the fried brinjal and toss gently.
Serve as an accompaniment to rice and curry.