Friday, December 25, 2015

The cinnamon landscape of Batapola

Batapola is about an hour and a half southeast of Colombo, about half an hour inland from the coastal town of Amblagoda. If someone was working in Colombo he'd say he lived in "Galle." If you'd never heard of Batapola you could be forgiven. It is far off the beaten path. But it's not isolated. It is in every fiber part of the fabric of Sri Lanka. 

I came here with my friend Karu Gamage, whose ancestral village this is. He came to dedicate a brass lamp on the centenary of his father's birth. That nighttime Poya event, and the events that led up to it during the day made a deep impression on me. They are a story of their own, one that was accidentally erased from my phone before I could post it. I spent hours writing that account and I felt nothing this morning when I discovered it was gone. Partly that's my growing Sri Lankan outlook. Partly it's because the story of the cinnamon landscape is actually rarer than the incredible religious event I witnessed and participated in. I think a foreigner could slip into a monastery on Poya day and experience what I did. But seeing the landscape of the cinnamon culture close up is more challenging. You have to be guided to experience it. 

Karu has lots of family here and they were our guides. We stayed with some of his relations, the Somadasa family, who run a cinnamon oil distillery adjacent to their house. Actually the factory and the house are one and the same, the kitchen in back blending into one of the work rooms. We meant to stay overnight. We ended up staying an extra day. 

Mr. Somadasa started his business 25 years ago, delivering cinnamon leaves on his bicycle. I don't know the story of how his business grew. Now he produces thousands of liters of high grade cinnamon oil every year. He and his family also produce other essential oils--nutmeg, black pepper, citronella, and sandalwood. Part of my "job" here was to take it all in and help them strategize how to tap into direct trade with the international market. Right now they sell to exporters who take most of the profit. Somadasa told Karu he's taken the business as far as he can. He wants his kids, especially his son Suraj, to grow the business internationally. Does it strike you as weird that a Fulbrighter studying human landscapes would be brought in to consult on this? Maybe. Or maybe it's just part of the landscape of serendipity that characterizes Sri Lanka. 

Here at the factory I saw and participated in cinnamon bark drying, grading, and raking. I saw the distilling process, the vats of steamed bark being emptied and refilled (the "used" bark is bagged and returned to the fields as mulch--you wouldn't believe the difference between Somadasa's cinnamon grove, which has been carefully groomed and taken care of--and his neighbor's). I tried to take a picture of it but it was too dark I think once we got there. Somadasa's field is on the right in this picture. 

Even more interesting I think than the distillery, with its boilers and filters and cooling tanks and a dozen or so workers, was what I saw in the neighboring landscape. Cinnamon peelers at work in their dark hut, the skill they used to separate the bark from the stems, the way they packed the large bark pieces with smaller bits and hung them in the rafters to dry. 

The neighbor who distills cinnamon leaf oil in his ancient vat. The heat of his work shack, his red betel-stained mouth with no teeth. 

The women in Somadasa's new cinnamon fields--just 18 months since planting (3000 trees to the acre!)--who emptied the bags of "used" bark from his truck in less than ten minutes while we took a stroll. The women who spread the bark and weed the fields and keep the horticultural part of the operation going and who support their father who's been paralyzed for twelve years. 

Somadasa's own kids, especially his son Suraj. Suraj takes a real interest in the business, respects the operation and the workers, and who showed me around enthusiastically. 

This active, busy family, rich by Sri Lankan standards but as simple as country folk. They speak country Sinhala and keep their doors and windows open. A bird is hatching her nest in their living room chandelier. Relatives and friends come and go. There is a steady diet of sweets and soda and ice cream and cake that come between large meals that Mrs. Somadasa creates. 

The huge drama of Poya with its processions and chanting and incense and crowds is a bold part of the human landscape here. Buddhist faith is an everyday thing--Mr. Somadasa lights a shrine every day and burns incense. But the Poya is monthly. The everyday work environment here, the small jobs people do among the lush back roads, the dew on the smoky early morning rice fields. These are the stories most worth telling. 

No comments:

Post a Comment