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In Search of Rubies and Sprats

SRI LANKA | Thursday, 8 October 2015 | Views [887]

After our somewhat cloak-and-dagger glimpse into the tea world, it was time to leave Hill Country and head south, to where it’s truly hot. All that time in the mountains I’d thought it was scorching, but I was actually just lukewarm in comparison to what was coming. We travelled south to Ratnapura, a region famous for its gems. The landscape became a lighter green as we drove, dominated by coconut palms and quilt-like rice paddies.

When Asanga told me we’d be visiting a gem mine, my mind immediately jumped to past mining experiences, assuming there would similarities. Like when my family visited a nickel mine in Sudbury, Ontario, and we put on hard hats before descending hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface by elevator. With the exception of the sky remaining upward and my name still being Lindsay, this mining experience was different in EVERY POSSIBLE WAY.

The owner of the mine met us on the road, and we headed by foot to his operation. There were no trucks, no hard hats, and certainly no elevators. Instead, there was a small hut, several pits, and five men in the centre of a rice paddy.

Most mines in the region are located in fields; one year they’re growing Asia’s most popular staple, and the next they’re dug up with the hope that sapphires and rubies lie within them. Such an endeavour is a huge gamble, with thousands of rupees and hundreds of hours funneled into a literal pit, and absolutely no guarantee that any of it will pay off. These mines are optimism at its finest, and there’s no way I’d survive a single day of work at any of them.

Upon arrival, all I was required to do was stand, and in that kind of heat, I had a hard time accomplishing my task.

While I stood, the men were digging and hauling up weighty loads of mud, then sifting through basket after basket of rocks.

The work is excruciatingly hard, and to both fuel themselves and deal with the heat, the miners’ food is heavy with chilies and salt. When it comes to their midday meal, I must say this: Sri Lankan miners are so much more refined than most Canadians I know (including myself).

These guys don’t pack themselves a disappointing sandwich, apple, and granola bar for lunch. What they do is stop work, build a small fire, and prepare a fresh tomato and coconut curry to be eaten with rice, coconut sambal, fish, and salad.

With nothing but a piece of corrugated tin supported by tree trunks as their kitchen!

In an act of extreme generousity, they shared this beautiful lunch with us, including the dish called “sprat curry,” which I was crazy about. Sprats are a small, oily fish that are salted and dried, then mixed up with spices.

Though the fish themselves are bigger, their intense saltiness and flavour reminded me of the dried anchovy salads that always come as part of the Korean banchan.

The miners waited to eat until we’d enjoyed ours, all the while encouraging us to have seconds.

I obliged by scooping another half spoonful into my bowl, but felt too guilty to eat any more. I wasn’t involved in the hard labour – why do I deserve extra sprats??! They also made sure the coconut shell I’d been handed was always full of water, and even humoured me by agreeing to take a photo.

After we left the field, I was taken up to the mine owner’s house to meet his family, including his wife and very elderly mother. I asked if I could take her picture and she too obliged, then grabbed my hand and sat me down next to her.

She looked well into her 90’s, and I wished I could’ve heard her stories. So much has happened in Sri Lanka over her lifetime.

Their home – their mercifully cool home - was filled with Christmas lights, garden ornaments, and shrines.  If this is typical for Ratnapuran homes, I cannot tell you, but it sure was colourful.

Next, we’re onto Colombo for our final few days.....


Tags: culinary travel, food, gem mine, gems, hill country, mining, ratnapura, sri lanka, world nomads, world travel

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