Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Leap of Faith - Chapter One: Tears and Sandwiches

Dear readers,
I am writing a book. It's about a smart and strong American woman from North Carolina named Cindy Davis, and her dashing and funny Emirati husband, Mohammed Ali. They are real people, and I'm writing their story, in the form of a Reality Novel (I just made up that term.) I've been working on it for about a year and a half, interviewing and getting to know Cindy and Mohammed and their family, researching, and gathering information as I live in and learn about the UAE.

This past week, Cindy met a number of my non-Arab women friends here in the UAE. They are fascinated with her story. So now I'm ready to share some of what I've written, in the hopes that I can get some useful feedback, generate more interest in the book project, and finish it in the coming year. Please, join Cindy and me on this journey.

Chapter One: Tears and Sandwiches

Please, please, please, dear God, don’t let me cry. She just wanted to sit on the floor but no, they wouldn’t let her. Perched in a fancy upholstered chair, she sat with all these people looking at her. They were speaking in Arabic; she had no idea what they were saying. But she knew they were talking about her, whispering, and clucking like birds. Blackbirds. They looked like blackbirds. That made her kind of want to laugh, until she noticed Mohammed’s tiny mother, Zamzam, looking at her warily.

Whenever someone said something or there was a question, Mohammed’s brother Abdul Rahman, the only one who spoke some English, would translate. Mohammed … she could still hardly believe it. Mohammed Ali was her husband. I’m a wife! But I’m still Cindy Davis. And I want to sit on the floor just like them all.

“I don’t want to sit here; I want to sit on the floor,” she told Abdul Rahman. “Why’d I have to sit in this chair?”

“No, no, no,” Abdul insisted. “You are the guest of honor, you are American. You must sit in the chair.”

“American!” the ladies before her repeated it, only they made it sound like Am-er-eeekan. Mohammed had told them, hadn’t he? What had he, actually told them? For that matter, what had he told her? Not much that she could remember. She had vaguely known that women in the Middle East wore long dresses, but these people were dressed in huge black cloaks and head scarves, covering them from head to toe, and some of the older ones even had their faces covered!
Well, then, they surely didn’t know where North Carolina was, or anything about it, but she certainly wasn’t going to try to explain any of that to them. She was from America, half a world away. She was a rare white dove in this flock of blackbirds, a young American bride in blue jeans with white skin and auburn hair.

The trip had taken days. When Cindy’s parents Gladys and Roy drove them from Mocksville to the airport in Charlotte, Roy was silent, but Gladys had cried the whole way. Cindy and Mohammed flew to New York – it was Cindy’s first time on an airplane, first time out of North Carolina! They flew to London. From there, it was another long flight to Dubai. Finally, they drove through some mountains on a brand new road to tiny Khorfakkan, in Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates. She was in a place now that had only been a country for about ten years. Most likely none of these ladies had ever even seen an airplane. But they understood this place, and she would have to learn to get along here. They would have to learn to get along, she and them.

It grew dark. Tea and fruit arrived, brought in by a housemaid and set on a small table. The sweetened tea was poured into small glasses from a long-spouted Arabic tea pot. Cindy drank it, and was suddenly exhausted.
 “I want to sit on the floor,” she told Abdul again.

 “No, no,” he again insisted. “You are guest. You must sat in the chair. It is like in America.” He would not be persuaded; they would not be persuaded.

She just wanted to sit among them, start to be one of them. She wanted to be treated no different; so what if she was new? These women were Mohammed’s mother, sister, aunties, cousins, and neighbors. They were her new family.

She longed for Mohammed.

Cindy shook her head, trying to fight it, but she could feel tears coming. Suddenly, it was all too much. The engagement followed by months of separation, the long, uncertain month with not even one letter, and then Mohammed’s sudden return to the US, to get married. There had been a wedding just days ago after a month of hectic planning, the long trip here, and then, after only one day together in this new world, Mohammed had left her and gone off to work at the military base in Abu Dhabi, leaving her under the wing of his relatives. It was Saturday, and he wouldn’t be back until Thursday, and even then just for Friday, the one-day weekend.

Cindy hadn’t slept in two days. She was exhausted and frustrated, she just wanted to go home. And, on top of everything, here was the last thing she wanted. Tears. She was trying to squeeze them back, but they were slipping out from the corners of her eyes. The more Cindy fought them, the stronger they grew. Damn tears. Dear God, please make them stop.

“You are hungry!” Abdul said, seeing her distress. “I will get food.”

“No, no, I’m not hungry! I just want to go home.”

La la! No, no! Come, we go to the hotel. They have American food.”

“No, no, thank you. I don’t want to eat; I want to go home. Please, that’s all I want. Please, just let me go home.” Cindy wanted to go home to her own place, their room in Mohammed’s house. It was her only refuge of peace and privacy, away from the curious eyes, and the words she didn’t yet understand. A place to rest.

But Abdul Rahman would not hear of it. When an Arab decides that his guests must be fed, they shall be fed. So Cindy allowed herself to be driven along Khorfakkan Bay to the only western style hotel in the region. Food was ordered. Too tired to be hungry, jet lagged without even knowing what jet lag was, Cindy watched as a mountain of sandwiches was placed before her. It was enough for a dozen people.

“I don’t know what you like,” Abdul Rahman explained. “So I ordered one of each.”

 “Shukran.” Thank you. Cindy ate a few bites, and then finally, thankfully, it was time to go home.

Sri Lanka Tea Country–Madulkelle

At dawn, a blue mist hovers in the distant mountains. Waking birds begin their songs, as smoke rises from the village below. Suddenly the hills come alive with sound, blending Hindu bells, Buddhist chants, the Muslim call to prayer. Presently, figures appear on the road, moving among tea bushes to take up their places, their bent backs dotting the hillside.
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It was a good thing the predicted rain hadn’t materialized. As we wound uphill, you could cut the uncertainty with a knife. Both Mark and our driver Leslie seemed to think that the hotel we’d booked could not be this far, not on a road this rugged.  But as we passed village after village, easing around water tanks, lorries, and tuk-tuks, we kept seeing tiny signs with arrows: “Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge.”

Keep going, I insisted. Finally, we rounded a curve to see, like an apparition, a white, rounded building perched on a not too distant hillside. “There it is!” Mark was still doubtful but I recognized the tea plantation estate house I’d seen on the website. “There’s the pool! That’s it. I know it. Keep going. Trust me.”

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After the day-long drive from Colombo, it was a great relief to climb out of the car to the greetings of the hotel staff, who were rejoicing to see that we’d made it. They know how difficult the road is, and when guests arrive it’s a victory. They ushered us in, handed us welcome drinks, and in no time we were escorted to our lodging. Meanwhile, they directed Leslie to the driver’s quarters, where he would stay for the two nights we were there.

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From the moment we got to Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge (pronounced model-kelly) I was in absolute heaven. Each lodge – I think there are 18 of them, but we could only see a few, they blend in so well – is a stand-alone tent cabin built on a platform facing Sri Lanka’s distant Knuckles mountain range, which really does look exactly like the knuckles of my hand.

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The surrounding hills are contour planted with row after row of verdant green, uniformly pruned tea bushes. It seemed impossible that a land could look this perfectly manicured. It looked the California wine country in spring, with the fresh green growth, but different. Like it had just been given a haircut with electric clippers.

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The estate house, which is designed as a great room and has the feeling of a large and comfortable home, has a library alcove and a sitting area with a large fireplace where guests gather and chat over a cocktail or glass of wine before dinner, or just relax and read.

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The dining area and outdoor seating on the veranda have views of the gardens, infinity pool, and mountains beyond.

Sri Lanka  (732)The kitchen serves local Sri Lankan dishes made with fresh organic produce grown right next to the estate house. The French director, Philippe, was onsite while we were there, and spoke with me about the hotel’s mission, corporate farming, and GMO. Madulkelle is the first of its kind in Sri Lanka, and there are plans underway for another property, designed using permaculture priciples.

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Philippe said, almost apologetically, that the tea production of the property is small; they only have 10 hectares, or about 24 acres, and 10% of it is planted in tea. They just don’t have the land for more; the rest is taken up by the estate house, gardens, pool, paved pathways, and other infrastructure.

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The tent cabins are heavy-duty canvas, with all the amenities – electricity, full bathroom with hot shower, comfortable bed with mosquito netting, in-room coffee and tea. But no internet! And no TV! Only the spectacular views from the balcony, with the world of tea spread out below us. In the morning, we woke up to a view of the mountains, the music of the surrounding villages, and drank our tea and coffee outside. We used the wireless internet in the estate house at breakfast.

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The first morning, I sat on the porch with the binoculars and cameras, looking at the mists and the trees and watching the village directly below come alive. Tea workers live in one or two rooms that are built side by side in rows known as line houses, on land owned by the tea companies.

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A line of women, with white sacks on their backs, moved uphill along the road, and a group of workers, one man and the others women, formed a bucket brigade, passing water to the man who poured it on newly planted tea bushes.

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Then I noticed a movement in the bushes just below me. It was a Toque Macaque, a species of monkey that lives only in Sri Lanka. He seemed to be doing the same thing I was – watching the sunrise and the workers, and reflecting on the goodness of life. Then his fellow troop members arrived for a play session.

Sri Lanka  (559)Despite the small percentage of tea on the property, tea bushes line the pathways and surround the cabins. On our way back from breakfast, we found several tea pickers just outside of our Hornbill tent cabin. They continued picking without a pause, but smiled for my camera. Tea pickers, and tea sorters in the factories, are mostly women, usually several generations from the same family, and are very poor, making about 500 rupees ($4) per day.

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Tea pickers are Hindu Tamils, descendants of Indian Tamils who came to Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, during the period of British control in the early 1800’s to work as coffee pickers, until the coffee industry was wiped out by disease around 1870 and quickly replaced by tea.

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They pluck just the top two leaves and bud from the plant.

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Carrying their bags on their backs and picking with both hands, they reach over their heads to place the leaves in the sack. Each worker is paid by the kilo, with a daily target of 15 to 20 kg per day.

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Mark and I both fell in love with this place. So peaceful. A swim in the pool will make you feel like you are on the edge of a mountain. Which, actually you are, at 3,000 feet. The views were otherworldly, the food was beautiful, everything was perfect.

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The best thing of all for us both was that, unlike Africa, we could walk. Anywhere and everywhere. The tea country is riddled with paths, following the contours, cutting through the rows, connecting to each other and the roads. All you have to do is put your feet on the ground and start moving. You are exploring, and the opportunities are limitless

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That morning, we hiked directly uphill from our cabin. Near the road, we found ourselves at the Staff and Driver’s Quarters, and there was Leslie with a beatific smile on his face. “I slept very well! he said. He, like us, would enjoy a relaxing day with the other drivers.

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Up the road, we came to a village. What a colorful world. As we approached I asked, using gestures, if I may take photos, and received nods. At the preschool, one little girl appeared at the door, soon joined by several of her classmates, all saying “Hello! Goodbye! Hello! Goodbye!” That’s about all the English most villagers seemed to know.

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The hotel has a social responsibility program (the sign in this photo has something to do with it) and works with the villages, providing seed money and helping with fundraisers for education and the arts. Philippe admitted to me that the program was growing slowly; everything takes time, and the hotel has only been open for a year.

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The children were so cute in their little uniforms. All school children in Sri Lanka wear European-style uniforms to school except for the Muslim girls, who wear cloaks and head scarves. Overall, the literacy rate  is about 90%; most children in Sri Lanka go to school.

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I climbed the up the road to see the Hindu temple and view the village from above.

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Our afternoon walk took us downhill, where there was a village with a “pharmacy” that Mark wanted to go see. Mind you, this would be nothing like the pharmacy you might go to. Think of a dark, gritty, unorganized shop, in a row of hole-in-the-wall businesses, with a mishmash of mostly unidentifiable items of indiscernible age and provenance … I wondered what he was thinking. Also, he wanted to check out a place called “Madulkelle Club.” Whatever that was.

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Didn’t matter, we never got there. We got ourselves lost in this wonderland, found the waterfall, the laundry pool where a young couple was washing their clothes, got further downhill than we had meant to, completely missing the pharmacy village without realizing it but finding another village, which was named Madulkelle, where the children said, “Hello! Goodbye!” as we walked through.

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Finally, we decided to hail a tuk-tuk. Have I mentioned tuk-tuks yet?

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They are as ubiquitous as the palm trees, the tea bushes, and the stray dogs. Every village seems to have at least one. Every few minutes, even in this seemingly remote place, we could hear the familiar “tuk-tuk” sound as the little three-wheeled vehicle appeared around the bend, hauling schoolchildren or shoppers uphill to their villages.

We hailed one on his way back down. He didn’t quite understand where we wanted to go, mainly because we didn’t know ourselves; we didn’t realize that the village we thought we were going to was now back uphill.

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Didn’t matter. We ended up at the Hatale Tea Factory, where we were given an impromptu tour by the manager. We arrived at the late-afternoon changing of shifts, so the rolling, firing, and grading machines were still.

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Workers were hauling in the day’s pickings, refilling the troughs where the tea leaves are first “withered” removing moisture using the ambient temperature and large fans.

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There are several more steps, including rolling and twisting the leaves using an ingenious rolling machine to bring out the enzymes, then fermenting, firing in a high-tech wood-fueled oven to preserve flavor and color, and grading. The finished tea is packed into paper bags, checked for quality, and transported to the packaging facility.

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We were also introduced to the many types of tea, the main three being black, green, and white. White tea, or “silver tips,” is made using just the single bud of the tea plant, and is rolled by hand and dried in the sun.

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In addition to the factory, Hatale has a museum. Unfortunately it was getting late, and the sun was getting ready to set. We didn’t want to miss sundowners on our little balcony. Our tuk-tuk was waiting to take us uphill to the lodge.

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As darkness descended, we heard drums in the village below.  Oh, how I wished to see the drummers, how many were they? Was there dancing? Was it a special occasion? It was spellbinding.

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We’ve been to a lot of places in the past couple of years. Castles in Rhineland. Cafes in Paris. Palaces in India. The Taj Mahal! But, I have to say, Madulkelle had us … enchanted.

Next: A harrowing drive to Galle, the likes of which had never been done before.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sri Lanka–Colombo to the Hill Country

Next morning we met Leslie, our driver for the trip to the tea plantation in the hill country. I immediately realized that his temperament was opposite to the talkative Joe. Calm and quiet, Leslie would usually wait until asked before offering up information. This turned out to be his gift, because he never commented on the traffic unless we commented first, and he handled every situation with equanimity, passing on blind curves, braking for oncoming traffic, and passing within a few centimeters of motorized vehicles, pedestrians, bicycles, and dogs.


The road from Colombo to Kandy, the cultural heart of the country, climbs into the hills and through a series of towns, each of which has roadside vendors selling the local specialty of fruits, nuts, or crafts. We stopped for freshly sliced pineapples, spicy roasted cashews, and, on a whim, clay wind chimes.


Mark picked out one of the biggest pieces. I don’t know what we’re going to do with it, because if we hang it outdoors in Nevada, it will be blown to bits when the next wind comes roaring down the mountain. I guess we’ll have to hang it inside the house.


We stopped for a rice curry lunch at a local restaurant in one of the towns. “Local food” is a useful term I picked up from my friend Cindy Davis in the UAE. Not touristy, and not necessarily locally grown, local food is what locals eat every day. In the Middle East, it’s biryani for lunch and at night, a shawarma or two.

Sri-Lanka--292_thumbSri Lankan local restaurants serve lunch buffet-style, and the one we stopped at was using the traditional clay cooking pots. It’s hard to say exactly what we were eating, but it started with a pile of plain rice, upon which we ladled hunks of meat and vegetables in spicy gravy. Greens sautéed in garlic and oil are a common side dish with which I fell in love.

After eating our fill, we were served a platter of fresh fruit – banana, pineapple, and papaya with slivers of lime to squeeze over it. “If I had known this was coming,” Mark said, “I wouldn’t have eaten so much!”

About 40 km before we reached Kandy, Leslie asked us if we wanted to see the elephants. I know, we love elephants and everyone goes to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. But we really just wanted to see the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in Kandy and then get to the tea country. And the orphanage has been reported lately as mistreating or neglecting the animals. So elephants were off the table, and that admission is now out of the way. If you want to know about the elephants, click the link.


We did stop at Regent Spice and Herb Garden, which was more of an experience than I expected. After a tour of the garden during which we learned the rareness, value, and uses of each herb and spice, we were introduced to two students of Ayurveda who gave us a head, neck, shoulder, and arm massage.

Sri-Lanka--315_thumbI wish I had a picture of Mark, who is very ticklish never agrees to anything like this, having sandalwood oil rubbed into his scalp, face, ears, arms and hands, but I didn’t want to get oil on my camera and I couldn't bear to disrupt the soothing process, so we had to leave that image behind at the spice garden. We did take away several products including jasmine oil, a sandalwood cream, a depilatory, and cocoa. I am still kicking myself for not buying the sandalwood oil.

Sri Lanka - Road to Kandy
Sri Lanka - Road to Kandy


At the Temple of the Tooth, which is Sri Lanka’s most famous Buddhist site, we allowed ourselves to be immediately herded into a tour that was just getting underway. The temple houses what is believed to be a fragment of Buddha’s tooth.


Our guide was very knowledgeable, directing us around and telling us when to take pictures. But when he asked us for money at the end, and made Mark double his offer of payment, we became suspicious that he wasn’t an official tour guide. It had all happened too fast, but it didn’t matter, except that I later realized that we had paid him, for an hour’s tour, four times what a tea worker makes in a whole day, and there were four other paying people in our group.


And his name was … Mohammed. Which seemed a bit ironic, that we came all the way from the UAE to take a tour of a Buddhist temple with a Muslim guide. To be fair, Muslims make up a very small, but also very visible, portion of the population in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka - Kandy, Temple of the Tooth
Sri Lanka - Kandy, Temple of the Tooth


Leaving the chaos of Kandy, which is Sri Lanka’s second-largest city after Colombo, we continued northeast to Madulkelle (pronounced model-kelly) in the heart of Sri Lanka’s hill country.


Leslie had never been there, so he stopped in a couple of towns to ask if we were going the right way. We finally began to see Madulkelle signs, which were a great help.

The road went up, up, up, winding and winding, finally turning into a narrow one-lane dirt road, barely more than a trail, still with big trucks in our faces at several turns, forcing us to put over to the edge of the road, where it was a long way down if we slipped. All the way, we were passing through tiny villages that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.


But this wasn’t nowhere. This was Sri Lanka’s tea country which is, we came to realize, a very organized place. Finally, about an hour and a half after leaving Kandy, we arrived at the Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge. It was like stepping off of Earth and onto a sublimely green, perfectly manicured, and divinely peaceful little planet. One which deserves its own story. Which is coming soon.