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Tea`s Company: Drifting by the coastal city of Negombo

Slowing down to smell the tea leaves in Negombo, Sri Lanka

 Slowing down to smell the tea leaves in Negombo, Sri Lanka
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Supriya Sehgal :
Matching my step to the heavy-footed hour between sunset and complete darkness, I strolled along Portutota Road, keeping note of when Negombo’s skies were turning purple from the blush of pink. There was light enough to peek into the shops that flank this main tourist tarmac. Despite scores of them crammed with suspiciously shiny ‘antiques’ and aromatic tea from up country, the street felt beat with fatigue. Shopkeepers, faces drooped with boredom from the off-season month, looked out vacantly, in ever-waning hope that a tourist would walk in. Tuk-tuk drivers stood in clusters at every junction, sipping chai and turning sharply to see if a visitor - namely me - would help them make a quick buck in this lean period. When waved off or entirely ignored, they would get back to chatting animatedly with their group.
Negombo is, at best, a well-feted weekend getaway from Colombo (less than 40 km), with a pacy tenor of ‘dash in-drink at the beach-dash out’ destination. That too, in good weather. For me, it was neither the weekend, nor good weather. Just a trip to slow down to see a harbour town minus the usual plush resorts that dot Sri Lanka’s coastline.
Of course, the lavish resorts had addressed themselves firmly to the edge of the sea here as well. But the sprawl of the town behind this one road was delightfully unassuming. On my first evening in Negombo, I scanned all of 500m of a straight stretch of road, and settled in at Rodeo Pub to nurse a bottle of Lion beer for hours. The bartender, seemingly allergic to empty tables, invited himself to mine since I was the only one of the two people who had graced the pub in a week. This is one of the perks of slow and solo travel - the unsolicited company of a local bartender.
Malinga, as I found out seconds later, would have never found the time to ditch the bar and sit with a patron on normal days. I was honoured. The next two hours were filled with his booming voice and animated gestures, with the city backgrounding his adventures since he was born.
Like the time he almost drowned in the sea when a fishing boat he was on toppled over, the vagaries of midnight beach picnics with his cousins and finding purchase in balancing himself at the edge of the Muthurajawela marsh to spot monitor lizards. There was only a single wistful halt amidst the rush of stories, and then off he went again to a new tangent. My ‘thank you’ belied the gratitude I felt for him. I did try and repay by going back each evening for the next three days. Inadvertently, Malinga’s local wisdom steered my travels in the days to follow.
The mornings were reserved for the two main harbours of Negombo. I hopped aboard a tuk-tuk each day to watch the early morning action of hauling up fresh catch from the oruvas (outrigger canoes) to the large hall at the edge of the Negombo lagoon. The tireless activity of sifting, sorting and piling in different stacks was a precursor to the buzz of sale in the day. The wet harbour activity of slicing, chopping and packing was less sedate than that of the nearby dry harbour. Here, kilos of fish were carpeted on the beach, so the blazing sun could suck the moisture and give them a crispy texture. When the harbour activity slowed down, young boys and old men lined up at the side of a bridge with rudimentary rods to catch small fish for personal consumption. Fishing is inextricably woven into the history of Negombo - even centuries ago, it was a booming trading and fishing port.
The fish, and a hearty produce of superior cinnamon, enticed many foreign traders to its shores. In fact, Negombo, formerly Migamuwa, was christened as the current anglicised version by the Portuguese. The decline of their power gave way to that of the Dutch. One can still find the 17th century walls of a Dutch fort here, encircling the town’s prison.
So a voyage to the fort and Hamilton canal, St Mary’s church, the Angurukaramulla Temple, a Ganesha temple and a monastery featured in my next few days at Negombo. But it was the crammed wholesale tea-shop that I found myself riveted to, one evening. Wooden boxes, large tins and flimsy packets filled to the brim lined the cosy shop. The air was thick with rich flavours - sometimes nutty, at other times malty. Lost in the smells and the different shades of brown, I must have been in the shop for over an hour without making a selection. The shopkeeper's cough snapped me out of my reverie. I handed him a bundle of notes and picked a basic green tea packet.
To the shopkeeper, I must have looked like I had lost myself. But in reality, by slowing down, I had found myself. Until now, my years were filled with bolting through cities with an itinerary in hand. This was one of the few times that I had signed up for a trip that made me halt to smell the roses. Well, in this case, tea. n

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