On the beach in Galle (Helen Moat)
Blog Words : Freewheeling | 13 April

Travelling with locals: How do you repay the kindness?

Helen Moat ponders the hospitality and generosity shown by her hosts on a recent trip to Sri Lanka – and wonders how she'll ever repay it

I am packing presents and writing letters: presents for Dimuthu, her cousins and nieces, and letters to her parents, her aunts and uncles. These offerings will be dispersed among this extended Sri Lankan family who are scattered far and wide across the ‘teardrop’ island.

As I sit at my table wrapping and writing, I stop to look out my window. Here, the sky is grey; the trees still yellowish brown. In Sri Lanka, I know the sky will be deep blue; the vegetation lush green.

It all started this time last year when I flew out to Sri Lanka on a British Council funded trip to spend a week in a Kandy school. Later Dimuthu, my exchange teacher, would visit my school in return.

Once the funding was granted, I emailed Dimuthu my wish-list for a second week of sight-seeing in Sri Lanka, asking her if she thought my ten day agenda was achievable. Straight away, Dimuthu organised the whole trip for me: transportation, food and accommodation – all provided by her large extended family.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve got relatives and friends all over the island.” And so she did: from the capital of Colombo to coastal Galle; from Bandarawela in the hill-country to the plains of the Cultural Triangle at Polonnaruwa.

First up, I pack T-shirts, patterned with the Union flag for Manath and Vineth, Dimuthu’s nephews who live in Pinnawala, where the elephant orphanage is.

We had made our way up the slow road from Colombo, stopping off for a coconut drink. Just off the plane, I was accustoming to the heat and the colourful chaos of the road. At Pinnawala, the driver, a parent from Dimuthu’s school, slung down a long drive and stopped by a low bungalow on the edge of the jungle. Inside, the house was dark, the usual Sri Lankan red-painted concrete floor cool underfoot. Lathika, Dimuthu’s aunt, immediately served us lunch while her sons hovered shyly in the background. It was my first experience of eating with my right hand, an awkward task for a left-hander. Clumsily, I scooped up the dahl and rice.

After lunch, eight-year-old Vineth, growing in confidence, showed me the cards and letters he had received from the Royal Household along with the home-crafted cards he was preparing for various members of the Windsor family. Vineth, this young Sri Lankan boy, seemed an unlikely Royalist, but he knew more about our queen than I did.

Next, I pack a top for Supun, Dimuthu’s sweet, quietly-spoken cousin from the high country. I wrap up an animated DVD for Samila, her brother, knowing he loves cartoons and computer games. He still messages me regularly on Facebook to give me updates on his education, thrilled that he’d won a place at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy to study engineering. I add a newspaper cutting from the Australian Times, a competition I’d won, describing my ascent of Sri Pada, Adam’s Peak, with Samila and his family.

We’d just got back to Kandy from our trip in the Cultural Triangle. I woke up to find a burly man sleeping on the couch. I never knew who was going to turn up at Dimuthu’s house for my benefit. This time it was Sarath, Dimuthu’s uncle, who’d come to drive us to his place in Bandarawela.

I remember how we’d crawled through the tea country in his transit van, everyone and their three-wheeler overtaking us. Shanthi, his wife, had laughed at her husband’s cautious driving, claiming we could have walked faster to Bandarawela. We all giggled, nobody really minding.

We’d stopped at Nuwara Eliya for a picnic overlooking the lake, and shivered in this elevated faux-British town. For a moment, I thought I’d been transported home.

Eventually we arrived at Sarath’s home perched on the hillside overlooking a plain of paddy fields and the hills beyond. Amila gave me a tour of the extensive kitchen garden filled with sweet potato, carrots and other ripening vegetables. Then the family whisked me away at dusk to drive me through the hills surrounding Ella. It was stunningly beautiful.

The next morning, Shanthi, was up at 3am, preparing curry for the road, bobbing around the house in her nighty and woollen hat. For the first time since arriving in Sri Lanka, I’d needed a blanket for the bed. It was cold at night at this elevation.

That morning, the drive to Dalhousie at the base of Sri Pada was interminable, due to the crumbling tarmac and the continuous road-works. I flitted between sleep and wakefulness, catching glimpses of lakes and tall trees marching across the hilltops. We passed numerous tea plantations with oddly sounding Scottish names.

At last we reached Dalhousie. My Sri Lankan companions set out in flip-flops, swinging plastic bags of snacks, sauntering along as if strolling on Blackpool promenade. At the base of the mountain, a priest pressed the red tilak on our forehead – protection from Saman, a guardian god of the mountain, and tied bracelets around our right wrist containing good luck coins, blessing us on our journey. We were on our way.

Climbing the 7,000 odd steps, I felt each and every one of them. It was torturous. Teenage girls, taking pity on me, stopped to offer dried fruit as way of encouragement. Amila, and other family members, stayed with me every step of the way. It was a humbling experience. At last we reached the summit, where I rang the bell announcing my successful ascent. It was the most physically painful day I’d spent in my entire life – yet I was thrilled to have done the climb.

Now I pack gifts and a card for Kusum, Ranjith and their daughter Kiranthi who had accompanied us to the Cultural Triangle. I add in the July/August issue of Wanderlust, which includes a story about the trip, ‘The temple and the tractor’. Dimuthu’s family had organised an ascent of Sigiriya Rock and a visit to the ancient site of Anuradhapura, before Ranith had taken us to a small rural hamlet of three houses, owned by his brothers near the ancient site of Polonnaruwa. 

I remember how we’d driven past blood-red lakes carpeted with lily pads out of Anuradhapura. When I awoke, we were somewhere deep in rural Sri Lanka, bumping along a canal road, the riverbed dried out but for patches of muddy water now the sluice gates were closed. Still families bathed in the remaining stretches of water or thrashed laundered clothes on rocks. Once, a kingfisher flew across the canal before disappearing into the rainforest, while egrets stood like graceful ornaments on the water’s edge.

Eventually we’d reached the small hamlet of houses owned by Raja and his brothers: a farmer, a museum worker, and a teacher. I’d eaten oil cakes with tea, showered in the garden in a bathing cloth and brought out the whole neighbourhood, who came to gawk at the pale-faced westerner racing the lane on a child’s bike.

Raja, the farmer, showed me his new three-wheeler tractor, a purchase that had transformed his life, allowing him to harvest the ‘padi’ in a fraction of the time.

Come, Madam Helan. We go!” Raja’s children, nieces and nephews had cried, whilst one of the children swept out the trailer for me. We trundled off down the jungle-edged lane in the gathering dusk, arriving at the village square just as night fell. The school was in darkness but light radiated from the temple. We headed inside. As we climbed the trailer for home, one of the children ran across the dusty square to switch on the lights surrounding the Buddha shrine.Bulbs flashed on and off.

Back in the hamlet, we’d sat in the garden, singing songs in rhythm with the cicadas. Then in a sudden burst of frenzied activity, the Kandy family members took their leave, everyone crouching down at the feet of their elders.

And I remember thinking, how privileged I’d been to be part of all this.

There were others too: Thilangika, a distant cousin in Columbo who gave me my first meal off the plane. Back then, I wondered naively why she hadn’t joined us, not realising this was the Asian way.

Then there were the friends in Galle who took me to Yala National Park and showed me the sights of their Dutch colonial town, while putting me up in their home for two nights.

And yet another of Dimuthu’s aunts, Dhammi, had served us up dinner at Habarana on the way home from the Cultural Triangle, just for us to ‘eat and run’.

At the end of the trip, on a 6-hour round trip to the airport and back for the Gamage family,(Dimuthu’s mother accompanying her husband in order to keep him awake), Dimuthu’s father apologised for the ‘lack of western comforts’ and for ‘anything he’d got wrong, not knowing my culture.’ I felt humbled, knowing how many mistakes I’d made in his culture: sometimes forgetting to eat with my right hand; contaminating the flowers given to me for Lord Buddha by laying them on the grass.

And I tried to explain to Dimuthu’s father that four star hotels are the same the world over, but the experience his family had given me was beyond priceless. And so it was.

Have you ever been overwhelmed by the generosity show to you in your travels? How did you try to repay it? Tell us in the comments below.