Gems, seafood, and the world’s best tea… Colombo is a real city and that is what makes it so appealing
Meet Sam. His charming mannerism and love for good conversation set him apart. He is the man who knows his sapphires (read stones) inside out. Your go-to-person for the gemstones Sri Lanka is so proud to show to her visitors from all over the world.
We discovered Sam by a stroke of good fortune. Good natured and welcoming, he makes your sapphire buying experience more than just that. I liked him the moment we entered his unassuming outlet at the World Trade Centre, opposite the Dutch Hospital, Colombo. Recommended by an acquaintance, he walked us through the qualities, shapes and varieties of sapphires. Budgets restricted us but we were blown away by the blues of the stones just like the greens of the isles. The temptation was too strong.
Shaped like a pear and green like an emerald. That is Sri Lanka for you. Called the Emerald Isles, she is this and much more. A haven of natural beauty boasting blue waters and lush tea gardens. Nature has been kind to Sri Lanka with its endowments. Often ignored as one of the best travel destinations by the discerning traveller, the country combines value and hospitality at a cost that can be well afforded by those looking for a vacation that is both economical and so very worth it.
Sri Lanka welcomes us Pakistanis. The visa process is a no hassle, easy matter which allows you to have a quick getaway without too much planning. There is something about a ‘girlie holiday’ that is so carefree, spontaneous and do as you please that just isn’t possible when you take a husband and kids along. We wanted to make our dollars or rupees, in this case, to fetch us 5-star hotels at really low rates. Sri Lanka guarantees that.
The Taj Samudra, Colombo, is a magnificent colonial-style building. Draped in thick green foliage from the outside, it is a grand and stately edifice. Spelling luxury from the moment you enter its rich lounges and suites, this hotel is not for the minimalist but for the indulgent. We wanted an ocean facing room and why would you not? The view is simply beautiful.
Colombo is a real city and that is what makes it so appealing. It is not pretentious and claiming to be someone else. The noise, clamour, dirt and the tuktuk rickshaws are reminiscent of Lahore or Delhi but the backdrop of the ocean and the evening breeze set it apart.
As evening wears on, the city becomes cooler, and people come out to stroll along the beach or hang out at many of the city’s bars and restaurants. A favourite of mine is the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, which was originally a hospital during the Dutch occupation of Sri Lanka. The open courtyards let you enjoy the fresh air while sipping coffee or cocktails.
It is also home to Odel’s brand ‘Luv SL’ consisting of airy, fresh cottons for the fashionistas, indigenous household and souvenir items for the collector. Odel is a celebration of Sri Lanka itself. The quality is second to none and the price very economical compared to western markets. A visual treat, Odel is an essential experience for those of us wanting to take Sri Lanka home with us.
For those of us who enjoy seafood (I don’t!) the place to go to is Ministry of Crabs. For the less adventurous ones, there are chicken dishes on the menu, such as Chicken Curry Rice and Chicken Teriyaki. This eatery has made waves among all those returning from Colombo. It is the place for good authentic Sri Lankan food. The prodigy of cricket icons Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, it is as Sri Lankan as it gets. The venue is again the Dutch Hospital offering its history and colonial charm to a restaurant which is so steeped in both.
Back to gems. Where there are women, or girls if you please, there will be gems. The best treat Sri Lanka offers is its gemstones. Sapphires so deep and dark that they cast the shadow of night on the finger wearing them. Ranging from cornflower blue to vivid and royal blue, Sri Lanka has one of the best qualities of sapphires in the world. Pink sapphires are also becoming popular the world over. Other gems found in Sri Lanka are rubies, alexandrite, amethyst, citrine, aquamarine, garnet, tourmaline, moonstone, topaz, peridot and spinel.
Getting that perfect sapphire is no mean feat in a country that has a gemstone dealer in every nook and corner. You are spoilt for choice and confused since there is so much to choose from. Colour is the most important factor but only when the stone has the proper measures of hue, tone and saturation.
Another treasure hiding in Sri Lanka is the queen of Bone China, Noritake. All upper class Pakistani wedding dower must have a Noritake. Funny but true. The search for that good dinner or tea set starts early and lasts till the perfect one is tracked down and bought by the bride’s mother.
The obsession with teacups is another legacy of the British, and we are slave to it among so many others! While I am happy sipping tea out of the good old mug, I am happier when it is Noritake. For all us tea lovers who like their tea in fancy cups, the Noritake manufacturing outlet is heaven. I mixed and matched, sifted and sorted, for something unusual. Since you have the freedom to buy any piece you want, I wanted to create my own perfect tea service rather than go with the run of the mill set.
How can we not talk of chai along with teacups? That too when the tea in question is one of the best in the world, and a major source of export revenue for the country.
The country’s climate, hills and altitude render it perfect for tea growing. Ceylon Tea is one of the most sought after teas in the world. The industry employs over a million people, the majority of whom are women. While the industry flourishes, the life of the plantation worker continues to suffer. Hands bruised and faces scorched by the strong Sri Lankan sun, the woman picking tea leaves from dawn till dusk is barely making 2-3 dollars a day. There is a wide discrepancy in the wages of the tea picker and the income of the industry as a whole and a cause of debate amongst those who are campaigning for the rights of the tea plantation workers.
The poor country with rich people. Same as Pakistan, the difference lies in the high literacy rate -- 92 per cent -- which is the highest literacy rate in South Asia. I saw this reflected in the services we experienced in our short but memorable trip. A sense of dignity in each job big or small. There is freedom in the air, a liberation of mind and soul which is so comforting after the moral policing we see back home.
We have a thing or two to learn from the Emerald Isles, and it is more than how to give a good massage.