INSIDE SRI LANKA A monthly insider’s report by Royston Ellis, July 2014.
Fruit with Attitude
This is the month for curious fruit in Sri Lanka, exotic delicacies found only in the tropics. It’s the season for durian, mangosteen and rambutan, a trio of odd looking fruit with attitude, apparently to deter people from eating them.
Durian is as famous for its off-putting pong as for its ambrosial custard-like taste. It’s to be found on sale by roadsides, especially on the road to Kandy, where a vendor skilled in durian dealing, will crack open the hard prickly green shell and prize out the flesh-coddled seeds for the brave to devour. Wash your hands afterwards to avoid the smell trailing you all the way home.
Mangosteen is favoured by many as the finest of all tropical fruits. Round, deep purple and crowned by a large green calyx, the fruit contains a nest of delicious, sweet-sour, fleshy, white segments, that are hard to prize out but seem to melt in the mouth with a flavour like strawberries or grapes.
Rambutan is the Conchita Wurst of the fruit world, the sensational star of the trio, with a hairy skin of gold, scarlet or maroon colour that disguises its sweet, voluptuous personality. To get at its centre, you need to prize open the roguish skin and then scoop or suck out the sole fruit within. The flesh is mouth-watering but firmly anchored to its stone so it’s a fight to the end. And then look for the next one. A dish of dozens I had at home disappeared in an afternoon.
Ella and seafood would hardly seem to go together. Ella is a hamlet in a beautiful, mountain view setting, some 204km east of Colombo. In recent years it has become popular as the hill country equivalent of the west coast town of Hikkaduwa, being a favourite stopping place for young backpackers exploring Sri Lanka independently. It’s a convenient transit halt on the way to Arugam Bay for surfing.
There are lots of fruit juice shops and rice and curry cafés there but now Ella also boasts an affordable restaurant for seafood. In June, I was honoured to be invited to open the Ella Mount Heaven Seafood Restaurant on the road to the famous Rawana Ella falls. I was garlanded on the approach to the restaurant and then, together with the owner, Mr Upali, and his son, walked to the restaurant in procession to the accompaniment of Kandyan drummers.
The restaurant seems to be perched in midair because it is on the rooftop of a hotel building created into the downside of a hill. There are breathtaking views from the restaurant where the show kitchen allows guests to watch cooking of their favourite fish, squid, crab and prawns under the watchful eye of the lavishly bearded owner. The seafood comes fresh daily from the east coast and chicken and duck are also served, but no pork or beef. It’s a welcome and an affordable addition to Ella’s attractions.
In a few weeks it will be time for The Gathering, the most spectacular elephant event in Sri Lanka or, indeed, anywhere in Asia. Over three hundred elephants are likely to gather in just a few square kilometres of the Minneriya National Park and its smaller neighbour, the Kaudulla National Park, in August and September.
The elephants assemble on the banks of the Minneriya Reservoir during the dry season and every evening, between 150 and 200 elephants arrive at the reservoir. Although it’s the dry season, the elephants are not in search of water so much as the fresh shoots of grass growing on the tank bed. The elephants turn to this much needed fodder at a time when foliage in other areas dries up.
Since the popular Yala National park in the south is closed from 1 September to mid-October every year, Minneriya is the place to head for then for elephant watching instead. The closest towns are Habarana (173km from Colombo and 25km to the Park) and Giritale (5km east of the Park, on the way to Polonnaruwa.
Tips on Tipping
The tipping culture is alive and kicking in Sri Lanka, but there’s no need to feel intimidated if your budget doesn’t allow it, as Sri Lankans are too courteous to comment. However, they do depend on cash tips to supplement meagre wages.
Hotels and restaurants add 10% service charge while the bill is bumped up by various taxes, so the price is about 27.5% more than quoted on a menu or rate sheet. To reward your waiter add half the calculated 10% amount and press it into his palm in cash, to make sure he gets it. If the bill price is “Nett,” that means service charge and tax has been included in the quoted price. In that case, add 5% of the total anyway, in cash as tip.
Three wheeler taxi (tuk tuk) drivers will add a tip before they quote the price, so if you’re happy, top it up with Rs20 or Rs50 depending on the length of the journey. When snacking in a pastry shop round up the bill to the nearest Rs50, for the server. For bellboys, supermarket lads who carry your shopping, and any individuals who have been especially helpful, I recommend a minimum of Rs200. For housekeeping staff (if you see them and they’ve been helpful) Rs100 per day per room guest should be OK.
It’s just been announced that tourists arriving in Sri Lanka at the Bandaranaike International Airport will, from August, be able to pick up a local driving licence (valid for three months) so they can drive light motor vehicles while in the country. Visitors need a valid driving licence from their country of residence. I have no information yet on what the licence would cost and what else is required (like photographs?) The Motor Traffic Commissioner says, perhaps optimistically: "The process would take around ten minutes."
(A British resident of Sri Lanka since 1980, Royston Ellis is an erstwhile beat poet and author of the Bradt Guide to Sri Lanka. His weekly blog about Sri Lanka is available free from www.roystonellis.com