Many a tear and blood has been shed over the tumultuous past of Sri Lanka. It’s of no wonder then that the isle of serendipity is in the shape of a tear. But this tale isn’t about the 25 year war or the tsunami. It’s about a quest for a decent cup of coffee in a land of tea bushes.
Despite holding countless culinary charms, Sri Lanka isn’t exactly prized for its cafes. I stopped asking for an espresso which was usually presented as a pot of brewed coffee, much like you serve tea, and instead asked a simpler question of, “Do you have an espresso machine?”
Many a waiter would mumble, “No, sorry Madame,” or those not wanting to admit this oversight would offer, “It’s broken, Madame.”
After an outing, our driver asked us where we would like to go next. “Coffee?” I suggested.
“I know a place. The best coffee in all of Sri Lanka!” We pulled up in front of a spice garden.
I asked once again, “Coffee?”
“Yes, yes, you go now for coffee!” the driver ordered.
The owner of the Spice Garden lurked in the carpark as we alighted the van. With betel-nut stained teeth, he launched into a spiel about the medicinal benefits of cardamon, cinnamon, and aloa vera. And as he filled my hand with coffee beans plucked from a tree I felt hopeful at the thought of a rich, dark espresso beneath its quivering crema. At last, we’re lead into a hut and I started to twitch at the thought of my fix.
We’re guided to a bench and I look around for the illusive espresso machine. All I could see was a line of jars and once again he launched into the plants’ miraculous powers. A man appeared with a tray of steaming cups and I discovered with much disappointment to find them filled with spiced tea. As I politely sipped the tea my head began to spin with spices, red teeth and the oppressive humidity.
Before we knew it, my husband was shirtless with “natural” hair removal cream smeared on his leg. As oil was dripped onto his head, hands appeared from behind kneading him with what smelt like cooking oil into his back. I narrowly missed the same fate of having oil poured onto my dark, shiny bob, which was already greasy with the humidity.
While saving my hair, I suddenly felt masculine hands tug on my bra-straps and then plunge into my back muscles. The smell of oil and chemically-burnt hair filled the thick air. Another hand appeared waving a tissue to wipe off the cream from my husband’s leg.
With our therapy finished, we’re catapulted into a shop and potions are thrown into a bag with abandon. No matter how many items we removed the bag remained full. It’s burgeoning contents was shoved towards us. Then we were handed the bill. The shop went quiet as our driver and the owners of all those hands and red teeth circled us with what I imagined to be menancing stares. I can only assume that the reason we agreed to pay over twice the amount of our hotel room had something to do with the contents of the tea or the massage oil.
We were almost home-free until the owner blocked our path and whispered, “Come with me.”
We blithely followed confident that he couldn’t rip us off any further as he presented us with a “special” plant. His cocaine plant. He sidled up to my husband and suggested he could benefit from the plant’s aphrodisiac qualities. Outraged, we stomped back to the van. The driver pulled away with a greedy twinkle in his eye while his passengers sat silent minus their dignity, money and most importantly a caffeine fix.
Later that night our potions are lined up on top of the TV. A programme called Jailed Abroad is being aired. An English man reccounts his eight year imprisonment in a Colombian jail after being drugged while 8 kilos of cocaine was placed in the lining of his backpack. There were conspiratory looks exchanged across the room.
The next morning at check-out the potions remained in the same position as the night before. Sailing past the TV with with our suitcases, neither of us looked back.
For more Sri Lankan adventures read Liquid gastronomy: Tea inspired cuisine and From Colombo to Galle: A Sri Lankan travel revival and Smiles from the teardrop isle: Family travel in Sri Lanka