We did indeed arrive in Colombo, Sri Lanka this morning and I opened the curtains to find this little tug doing pirouettes outside my window. It's a beautiful day and we're looking forward to going out for a cup of tea.
We always enjoy arriving in a port where there's a colourful welcome - and here, even the scary characters were kind of cute at the same time.
Anyway, we were glad to be on a small bus with just ten of us, heading off to a tea plantation today.
We set off promptly, enjoying looking out on the city with so many familiar names: York Street, Chatham Street, Kew Passage and so on.
We were amused by the countless auto-rickshaws with the little mottos above the driver's seat. Here's I heart with you above, but as every one was different, it was an endless source of amusement.
Don't underestimate the power of a common man though actually, most amusing of all was the large sign written on the back of a tightly packed bus. Lord Jesus Save Us!
Because, really, the traffic was ghastly. Yes, there was surely an order and there were lanes to follow, but motorscooters wove in and out, the auto rickshaws squeezed in where they could and it was basically, every man for himself. And as is often the case, just where one might be pleased of every square inch of windscreen to look through, our driver had all manner of religious bits and pieces blocking his view. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that a decent view of the road is more effective in keeping us all safe than Buddha, but thankfully, today we didn't need to test that theory.
We drove past several landmarks, including the Parliament buildings, set in a parkland with water.
Once out in the suburbs, we watched people going about their daily business, catching buses and doing their shopping. It's always interesting to see such different lives from our own and though the traffic was incredibly slow, we didn't mind. We were comfortable in our cool bus.
After a short run on the almost empty "expressway" we turned off into the countryside and the most glorious view of low level rainforest, where the tea, cinnamon and rubber plantations were to be found. At last!
As we get off the bus, rather scratty garlands of tea leaves are placed around our necks which are not the most comfortable or attractive accessories, but never mind. We smile and say thank you before going over to chat to the two ladies demonstrating how they pick the tea using a stick to keep the level of the bushes in the plantation. It's hot work. The sun is bearing down, there's no air and the humidity is high. Yet they smile, they patiently pose for photographs and then get on with their work again as we go over to the factory.
It's an old and shabby building, owned by a Hindu corporation but staffed mostly by Tamil workers. No "snapshots" are allowed inside and because of the "choc a bloc" situation inside (we love the quaint use of English in the sub-continent) we go and take a look at how the tea leaves begin their journey.
The tea pickers fill sacks with the leaves, which are hooked onto this rickety conveyor and lifted up into the factory through the opening in the wall up there. From there, they are emptied onto a large drying table with hot air blown through the leaves to remove excess moisture. I'll leave you to imagine how that room felt as we walked into it to see. After around four hours, it's removed from the tables and pushed down a chute (by hand) to the floor below where it lands on a rolling machine. It then goes through a few more processes of drying, sieving, stalk removal and sorting before finally, being graded and packed into sacks. Tea from this plantation is sold on the market to processors worldwide, large tea companies then blend the leaves with other types to create their distinctive blends which are appropriate to their market.
It was all very interesting but like several others of the group, I wondered how much of the tea we drink is actually processed manually like this. Surely, just around the corner(?!) there's a large factory with more mechanised processes on an industrial scale? Anyway, after a short look in the tea tasting room, we were taken across the plantation to the Scottish Bungalow.
Here we gathered under the shade of the old trees for a cup of tea and as we waited, Mahesh picked a flower and opened it right up.
It's called the Stupa flower because there's a little stupa-shaped centre to it. It smelled pretty nice too.
As we stood there, he also pointed out the fruit of the tree, which gives it's name: the Cannonball tree. We quickly moved out from underneath it and answered the siren call of the teapot.
There are few places in the world where tea tastes as good as it does at home, most of them being on the sub-continent. No disappointment here - it was a great cuppa!
Resisting the small shopping opportunity offered by the small kiosk on the lawn, we made our way through the cool, dark bungalow and back to our waiting bus.
The traffic was equally horrendous on the way back, because now it was end of school time. Still, it gave me chance to take a photograph of something we first noticed in India a few weeks ago. These billboards show the photographs of - we assume - their star students and their exam marks. I can't help but imagine how embarrassed I would be to find myself up there for all to see though I suppose, if it were my son or daughter, I could bask in the glow of parental pride.
When travelling about like this, I like to look out for and take a photo of the national flag, so I kept my eyes open and snapped the best one I could. No matter that it was flying the wrong way round...I'd sort that out in Photoshop later.
But now, the traffic had come almost to a standstill and we tried to work out why. There were groups of mostly young men and women gathering and I wondered if it was lunchtime at the local offices.
Once we got to the junction, we could see what was going on: there was a protest march (against the Prime Minister, we were told) and one road was completely blocked. Once we'd made it past that point, it was a smooth ride back to the port.
With one last cute auto-rickshaw motto, we were back to our sleek white ship.
There, flying at the port gate was the perfect flag shot, too. Right way round this time. Thank you, Sri Lanka, for another fascinating day!