A Venture Of A Different Nature

The relentless din of the countless machines drowned out all other sounds. Stepping through, our curious gazes shifted from one person to the other, all busy, scurrying here and there, their deft hands completing each task swiftly. As we stood watching all the bustle at EarthScape in Naththandiya, it is with wonder that we realised that the use of coir in agriculture knew no bounds and that we have just managed to scrape the surface…

EarthScape

Initiated nearly 15 years ago, EarthScape—an export oriented company—specialises in agricultural or horticultural products that utilize coir. Spread across a sprawling five-acre land, the products produced include coir blocks, coir fibre pith bale, coir briquettes, coir grow bags, husk chips, coir disks, coir geo textiles, weed control mat and mini coir cubes among a host of other innovative items that EarthScape adds on as they discover more novel ways to employ coir. As such we were at their coir plant in Naththandiya set on exploring how coir is used not only in Sri Lanka but all over the world…

 

At the plant

Trucks laden with bags of coir make their way through the gates and into the premises stopping at the weighing station, after which each was directed to the massive storehouse to be unloaded and stored. Workers ready at handunloaded the bags to the already stacked warehouse. “The warehouse stores about 2,000 metric tonnes,” explained Kaim Samahon, Chairman of EarthScape. “We mainly store so that we will be prepared for the monsoon season when it is hard to get the raw materials in order to operate continuously.”

The process of deriving the desired ‘coir-fibre pith’ that is used in the production of coir products in agriculture starts in small fibre mills of the coir suppliers, who first take the coconut husks and soak them in fresh water ponds. EarthScape employs some 400 such small fibre mills to procure their daily supplies of coir fibre pith. The soaked coconut husks are then passed through a special machine that separates the coir-fibre pith from the fibre. It is this fibre pith that is brought toEarthScape and used while theseparated fibers are utilized in the production of mattresses, yarn and much more by others. The coir-fibre pith brought thus are first examined to determine the salt and potassium content, moisture levels and sand content among other factors to verify the quality of the raw material. Low salt levels indicate a fibre pith that is of better quality. If need be, the fibre pith is directed to a separate space to be either ‘blended’—a special technique used at EarthScape—or washed to reduce the salt content. Otherwise the normal procedure includes sun drying the fibre pith on cemented drying floors, sifting and then finally grading it to match customer specifications before directing towards each production line at the plant.

“We have different varieties of coir pith such as red pith,black pith, fresh pith, high salt, low salt, fine dust, coarse and more. They are used for many different purposes and here at EarthScape we are getting better at ‘blends’,” remarked Samahon. “Our biggest competitor right now is India. However, I feel that they cannot compete withSri Lanka, because our pith has a better quality and further we are getting much better at value-added coir-fibre pith products as well.”

In the production lines, the fibre pith is compressed by different machines to produce blocks,briquettes, disks, grow bags and so on. However, this is just part of the items manufactured at the plant. For example there is a product produced specially for Japan to control soil erosion along highways. Named Coir Geo textiles, the product includesa tailor-made net purchased froma supplier down south that is sent to Japan along with uncompressed fibre pith. Another product called the dry pith is made by manoeuvring the raw material through U and N shaped conduits to rid unnecessary particles such as stones that may damage machines abroad. Yet another product named the loose pith is now becoming a hot commodity, especially in USA, for pet bedding.

Before stepping into the plant, we lingered a while outside where mountains of fibre pith surrounded the expanse. Pointing at the mountains and then at some that were laid out in mats, Samahon said that they are laid out thus tobe dried in the blazing sun. Inside the plant, all was a buzz with the sounds of countless machines mingling with the occasional shouts of the workers. Some women were shoveling fibre pith that are sorted at the grading point to carry tothe respective production lines.At each production line one person would measure the amount of fibre pith to be included in each product on a weighing scale before processing it in a machine. Machines for 5kg blocks, 650g briquettes, disks and so on stood at different points where items produced are then neatly stacked together before being loaded to the containers that are parked at the docking station. Not a single raw material was led to waste as even the products that were cast wrong were again recycled and each waste material is put to manufacture another product, ensuring the eco-friendly natureand the sustainability of coir, which in itself is considered to be a waste product of the coconut tree.

Not a single raw material was led to waste as even the products that were cast wrong were again recycled

Emerging from one building we crossed over a large empty space—an area layered with concrete dedicated for drying coir—to an open shed. Here about three workers were busy taking coconut husks and running them through a machine to make husk chips. Yet another machine with a net running around its length stood in a corner and a woman was shoveling in husk chips that was sieved through a contraption grading it to four grades as S, SS, SSS and SSSS—ranging from dust to large particles. Fine dust particles fell through the nets leaving bigger particles trapped within and the fine dust was gathered for production.

Working tirelessly the workers, divided into several groups, showed much unity and strength which showcased their sheer dedication to accomplish each task. As such an enchantment unlike any pervaded the area where the will of the hard working people and the fine dust particles that shimmered gold in the rays of the sun intermingled…Engrossed in this enchantment we remained for sometime, now wiser to an industry that is perhaps unique in more ways than one…

LITTLE BIT OF DUTCH IN KALPITIYA

Designed in 1666, the construction of the Dutch Fort in Kalpitiya was completed in 1676. As the entry point to the Puttalam lagoon, the Kalpitiya Fort was key in the trade of cinnamon reflecting the might of the Dutch East India Company.

Words Udeshi Amarasinghe Photographs Mahesh Bandara and Indika De Silva

This unique fort has only one entrance, which faces the lagoon. The pediment is in the shape of a pandol with the belfry at the top. The VOC emblem though preserved takes a while to actually see. The two elephants represent strength and the palm tree depicts the fertility of the region. Upon entering one would be met with a large wall, this was actually a security mechanism so that intruders would not be able to enter in one go. The yellow bricks that make the entrance arch is said to have been brought down especially from Holland.

The layout itself is very simple. The fort has four bastions with the two on the lagoon side being smaller than the two on the land side. The fort walls are massive, where the Dutch had used coral and limestone from the sea and sand and soil from the land. The guard posts atop the bastions are quite small. It is said that the Dutch had brought down soldiers from India who were quite small in size yet fierce to guard the fort.

The view of the sun rising in the East, above the remnants of the Fort with the lagoon far away can take you back in time

The buildings are at the periphery creating an empty space at the middle of the Fort. The gables of the buildings that remain are similar to a church, which again seem to have been a tactic by the Dutch to dissuade enemies. However, there are the remains of an actual church, which had been built by the Portuguese. Furthermore, the large hall adjacent to the church is thought to have been the dining hall for the inhabitants of the Fort.

A ramp with an incline takes you up to the rampart. Again, the use of slopes indicates a defence strategy, where pouring of hot water or a form of chemical could be used against the advance of an enemy. The fortification of the Fort shows that the Dutch were prepared to face any attack where canon fire would be used. Further, while there was only one visible access point into the fort, there were two tunnels that could be used in case of a withdrawal. One led to the sea, while the other to the Dutch Reform Church, which was about 400m away. Today, these tunnels are blocked and cannot be used.

The unique architecture of Dutch buildings is much evident with arches and massive doorways

Walking along the rampart, especially early in the morning is breathtaking. The view of the sun rising in the East, above the remnants of the Fort with the lagoon far away can take you back in time. Though the roofs of most of the buildings are not there, the unique architecture of Dutch buildings is much evident with arches and massive doorways. In some cases the door frame is still intact. It is assumed that buildings that initially had a certain function were later converted to storerooms where the windows had been sealed to provide good storage not only for ammunition but also for spices, pearls, cinnamon and much more. There are two wells in the premises, which are thought to have been there during colonial times to provide water to the residents of the Fort.

With the advent of the British, the Kalpitiya Fort was handed over to them. The British used this Fort mainly for trading along with the Fort in Mannar.

Today, the Kalpitiya Fort is conspicuous in the sense that it stands massive amidst the hustle and bustle of the village life. Undoubtedly this edifice will continue to weather the changes of time…

THROUGH STRAWBERRY FIELDS

Blue skies dappled with white clouds that drifted seamlessly to unknown destinations far away, terraced fields blanketed in greenery through the rolling landscape and small houses that seemed to peek here and there ushered us to Meepilimanna. Here we inched towards the Jagro Strawberry Farms to unravel the story of strawberry cultivation in Sri Lanka.

Shading our eyes against the glare of the sun, we slowly perused the land before us. Rows upon rows of strawberry plants deftly positioned next to each other filled the periphery and we peered around to catch a glimpse of the ripe red berries amongst the green leaves. Leaning close, we observed a mixture of red and green berri—ripe and unripe ones—as we set about through the strawberry fields bent on tracing the growth of these succulent and much favoured berries…

 

Strawberry CULTIVATION

Spread across 15-16 acres, the beginnings of the Jagro Strawberry Farms could be traced to the year 2003 in Radalla. However, as the farm grew in extent, it was shifted to Meepilimanna while turning Radalla into a nursery ground where they now specialise in growing two varieties of strawberries—Tamar and Festival. Though it is hard to tell apart the two varieties, it is said by many strawberry lovers that the Festival is more crunchier than the Tamar. As such the sorting, quality assessment and the grading of the plants are carried out in the nursery at Radalla. After which the plants are brought to the Meepilimanna Farm for planting.

The most arduous task in the cultivation of strawberries is said to be the preparation of the land and the soil beds where the plants are to be cultivated. These soil beds are put together either inside a ‘tunnel’ on an elevated berth or outside in the fields as raised planting beds.A special fertiliser mixture, which includes coir is used in the soil beds and are covered by mulch before planting the strawberry plants in holes made in these special berths. This is to ensure that the plant does not touch the fertilizer due to its extremely sensitive nature, if the soil is too hot or moist, it would have an adverse effect on the growth of the plant. Further tubes or drip tapes buried in each bed supplies the necessary nutrients for the growth of the plants.

Growing strawberries inside a specially built tunnel was adopted by Jagro to safeguard the plants from the volatile weather conditions of Nuwara Eliya and the Farm is currently in the process of covering, step by step, the whole extent with tunnels. However, the plants located outside of the tunnels are also arrayed as such that they could be covered if necessary. Further, the fields are visited by agronomists on a regular basis to determine the condition of the plants, water and nutrient requirements.

The farm is divided into 24 blocks where the planting and harvesting are all done by hand—thus making it a labour intensive task. After planting, it takes about a month for the plant to start bearing fruit and can yield berries up to six to eight months before reaching the end of its life cycle. Harvesting is done daily where ripened berries are hand plucked and graded as Grade 1, 2 and 3 depending on the size, colour and shape of the fruit.

 

Through the FIELDS

As we traversed through the fields, climbing over from one field to the next, we observed workers bent diligently and sifting through the numerous berries to find the ripened ones ready to be harvested. A bush plant, the leaves were a dark green and white flowers dotted these beds standing out amidst the darkened leaves—a tell tale sign that more berries are to be harvested in the near future.

Workers made their way through the strawberry plant beds eagerly searching for the ripened strawberries that bore an almost heart-like shape and took on a vibrant red hue. Once found they plucked the fruit and laid them carefully in plastic trays taking care not to damage or squish the delicate fruit. Then these trays were carried to the packing facility where they were sorted and packed into containers of 250g and 125g before transporting the produce to the final destination.

Further, even during transportation, Jagro takes care not to overlay the containers so as to secure the velvety skin and the scrumptiousness of the fruit.

 

From the FARM…

Jagro caters to both the national and international markets under the brands Strawberry Fields and Sungrown. Each of the berries are handpicked and packed and where its freshness and delectable taste will tempt any palate to savour its crunchable flavour.

Further, Jagro produces strawberry jams and toppings with these homegrown strawberries, which comes in 450grms, 300grms—jams, and 450grms and 250grms—toppings which allow strawberry lovers to enjoy the deliciousness of toppings, and jams made out of fresh strawberries.

Weaving our way yet again to the beginning of the fields, we watched the constant trickle of workers that flowed in and out of the packing house and those who went on about harvesting the strawberries without an inkling of the impact that they had on their curious visitors, who were earnestly surveying their every move. For them it might be a mundane task but for us it was an adventure into an unexplored realm.

( explore Sri lanka – April 2014 )

Milk Hoppers Creamy And Milky Goodness

A new day had dawned in Kilinochchi. Rays of sunlight were starting to gradually filter through the trees as we made our way to Naguleswaran Parameswari’s house. The dim light from her kitchen window and the smoke that came out of the kitchen chimney told us she had already welcomed the day. Upon seeing our arrival, she hurried to the door and greeted us with a friendly “kālai vanakam” (good morning).

Words Hansani Bandara and Bhavani Balasuntharam Photographs Indika De Silva and Dilshi Thathsarani

The sweet aroma of hoppers—the dish of the day—tantalised our senses as we entered Parameswari’s kitchen. Milk hoppers or Paalappam is a popular food in Sri Lanka and the southern part of neighbouring India. It is the Asian equivalent of pancakes and is greatly enjoyed and loved by many, be it old or young.

Parameswari’s kitchen, though small in size was kept neat. Thus, all the ingredients were neatly placed on a winnowing fan. It only takes two to three cups of flour, milk from one coconut, five tablespoons of sugar, a pinch of salt and yeast and gingelly oil to make milk hoppers. Of course, Parameswari by instinct knows just the amount of ingredients to add, to get that perfect texture and taste of the hoppers.

According to her, the most important step when preparing milk hoppers is getting the consistency, which has to take a thick creamy texture. She said if hoppers are to be made in the morning, the batter has to be prepared the previous night, as it has to be kept for ten hours to ferment. She stirred the batter and took a spoonful to show us; the white creamy mixture had arrived at just the right consistency and everything was set to begin the preparation of this delicious feast.

The rhythmic movements of Parameswari’s hands reminded us of a well-choreographed dance. She took a scoopful of batter, poured it into the wok and twirled it for the batter to spread. Then she poured a spoonful of coconut milk to the middle and placed it on the cooker. These set of steps were repeated twice over and at the conclusion three small woks sat on the cooker. After about two to three minutes, with a swift movement she lifted the lids of the three woks placed on the cooker to check if the hoppers were cooked.

Gradually, the sweet aroma of hoppers started to tingle our taste buds and made our mouths water as freshly made hoppers—one by one—were taken off the fire, placed on kenda leaves and then on a winnowing fan. What a delightful sight! We were all smiles since we knew what came next was the best part—the tasting! It was all worth the wait for it was delicious indeed.

Parameswari had to set off to begin her daily ride around the city in her scooter to sell freshly made milk hoppers, which was her source of earning. We bid adieu to Parameswari and took our leave, promising to try the recipe ourselves.

Ingredients
Two to three cups of flour (Made from grinded White Nadu,a type of raw rice)
Milk from one coconut
Five tablespoons of sugar
A pinch of salt and yeast
Gingelly oil

Method
The first step in the method of preparation is making the batter.
Mix the two cups of flour and one tablespoon of salt and sugar each and a pinch yeast with lukewarm water.
Keep the mixture for about ten hours for fermentation.
Add coconut milk to the batter and mix well.
Keep a small wok on the cooker, add gingelly oil and let it heat.
Pour a spoonful of batter and turn the wok slowly so that the batter spreads.
Add a spoonful of coconut milk at the center.
Leave it for two to three minutes and take off the wok.
Serve hot on a kenda (Mercaranga Peltata) leaf.

CHRISTMAS IN SRI LANKA

  Christmas in Sri Lanka

Season’s Greetings! Sri Lankans love to party and happily join in the celebrations of the feasts or holy days of all religions. December 25 is a public, bank and mercantile holiday throughout Sri Lanka. Even though it is a Christian festival, the government sometimes regards Christmas Day as equivalent to a (dry) Poya (Full Moon) Day and bans the sale of alcohol then, so visitors need to make advance arrangements if planning a traditional Christmas wassail.

 

Since Sri Lanka is within six degrees of the Equator, Christmas Day is usually sunny and hot, making an unusual experience for visitors from the West accustomed to cold and even snow. While all the mainstream Colombo and beach hotels put up decorations and lay on sumptuous buffets (yes, with turkey) on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, guesthouses leave tourists to their own devices.

WHALES AND DOLPHINS IN SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka is becoming a major spot for watching Whales and Dolphins. Dondra Point of down south in Sri Lanka is the main port of Whale Watching in Sri Lanka during December to April. Out of these months December, January and April are the peak months of sightings. During these months there is 95% chances of spotting Sperm Whales and great chances of spotting Blue Whales as their migration path is just off Dondra Point. We are able to arrange Whale Watching Trips off Dondra Point in a fully insured trawler boat which will last for 3 hours. Also there are good chances of spotting Spinner Dolphins also off Dondra. Ample of accommodation options are available as Dondra point can be reach easily from Hikkaduwa, Galle, Unawatuna, Weligama, Mirissa and Tangalle which are popular beach locations in Sri Lanka. Mirissa is the closest point to Dondra Point with good accommodation options.

We usually start at 6AM and the duration of sailing is 3 – 5 Hours at Sea. We provide Free Breakfast and Water, life Jackets and Life Guards are present in the Vessel as well. The boat has toilet facilities to cater to the long duration.

Kalpitiya is the best places if you are interested in seeing Dolphins. During November to March is the best season to go Dolphin Watching off Kalpitiya. At a time you can witness 1000-1500 Dolphins. We can arrange accommodation in basic holiday cottages to nice beach villas in Kalpitiya area.

Kalpitiya is 3 1/2 hours drive from Colombo and 2 1/2 hours drive from popular beach location Negombo.

Whale and Dolphin watching is also possible during June to September off the eastern shores such as Trincomalee.

Beautiful Kitulgala

If you are little bit adventurous and want to enjoy your holidays in calm and serene surroundings then do visit Kitulgala, a small town situated on the outskirts of Kelani River and rain forest in lower part. This area is one of the beautiful regions where you can experience white water rafting in picturesque Kelani River. The river and its surroundings will make you feel enchanted with a memorable experience. 

Migrant birds in Sri Lanka

If one is interested in migrant birds, the ideal time to look for them is during the last two months of the year, by mid-November, the majority of our wintering birds may have arrived in our shores. The migrant birds generally start arriving here late in August and early September. When the cold wind from the Bay of Bengal begin to blow over, heralding the onset of the North-East monsoon. But it will not be until October and November that the main influx takes place. During these two months large number of winter birds arrives from their breeding haunts in the dist and part of Asia and Europe.

There are nearly 427 species and sub-species of birds in Sri Lanka today and of them approximately 176 are migrants. And, except a few species of oceanic birds, all of them fall in to one category – winter visitors.

From which parts of world do these migrants birds come and how? What are there migratory routes? These are but a few of the questions posed by amateur bird watchers. Detailed studies carried out by ornithologists in this country an elsewhere have revealed that majority of migrant birds found in Sri Lanka come from countries situated within the temperature zone.

Almost all migratory waders seen here during the North-East monsoon have breeding grounds in the Steppes and Tundra, north of Asia and Europe. Such birds as the Turnstone, Marsh Sandpiper, Sanderline, Long-tailed Stint and Caspian Plover may Sri Lanka from breeding grounds in Northern and Southern Russia or from places within the Arctic Circle.

The Great brown-headed Gull and the Herring Gull; which occasionally visit our coastal lagoons, definitely come from large lakes in central Asia and from Russia, including Siberia, while their smaller relative, the Whiskered Tern comes here from inland lakes in Kashmir.

The Pintail, Garganey, Shoveller and Gadwall are some of the wild Ducks most of us will know may have seen some time or other. But how many of us actually know the great distance they fly to reach the warmth of our shores? The vast majority of them come from countries far North of Asia and Europe, and a few from Tibet and Mongolia. The commoner snipes – pintail and fantail-hail from places situated thousand miles apart. The first comes here from the East Siberian marshes and other from Northern European countries, Japan and northern China.

The migratory Warblers (as many as eleven are known) almost certainly come from breeding grounds in Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. While a couple of Warblers come from Afghanistan, Kashmir and the Himalayas, the Blue-Chat, Pied Ground Thrush, Northern Orange Headed Ground Thrush and Indian Blue Rock-Thrush come solely from Himalayan foothills.

So do some of the migratory flycatchers, i.e. Blue-throated Flycatchers, Brown Flycatchers and the Layard’s flycatcher. It is certainly that the Indian White Wagtail, Eastern Gray wagtail and the yellow-headed Wagtail too come from the Himalayan nesting grounds.

The Indian plaintive Cuckoo and the Asian Common Cuckoo certainly breed in the same localities as the flycatchers, and used the same routes along the west coast to reach Sri Lanka.

The Hawks and Eagles encountered in the island during winter period come from a variety of countries in Asia and Europe. The Siberian Honey Buzzard has its headquarters in Eastern Siberia, while the Desert Buzzard comes from Japan or perhaps from Burma.

The four species of Harriers occur in the island have been traced to breeding grounds in northern parts of Asia and Europe.

The Osprey and the short-eared Owl are birds of the Temperature Regions. The rarer Red-legged Falcon arrives from breeding places in the North East of Asia and the Kestrels fly in to Sri Lanka from Western European countries, Japan and Northern China. The Purple Wood Pigeon obviously comes from Bengal Indo-China and the two migratory Turtle Doves have their nesting haunts from the Himalayas and Central Asia.

Nesting

The Black-capped Kingfisher and the Tiger or Malay Bittern are considered rare migrants whose nesting grounds have been traced to Western Sumatra, Burma and Malaysia to China.

The bird watcher countrywide looks forward to the arrival of the Eastern Swallow than the other migrant birds. It is one of the first to appear in our shores, scattered flocks having been seen here as early as the third week of August.

The Eastern Gray Wagtail, perhaps the commonest and the most welcome visitor in the Central Hill Zone, may be another forerunner in the long train of winter visitors in our country immediately on arrival in the Island it be takes to the hill country and as a result its first arrival is hardly recorded in the low-lands.

The Sandpipers, Stints, Curlews, Golden Plover, too arrive in the late August or early September. Many of the smaller passerine birds start to arrive in the late September or October.

The Pintail Snipe comes in from September. The ducks, teal and other wild fowl are surely the last to start on their migratory journeys, which can be judged from the vast flocks that appear in Sri Lanka during November and December.

 

COLOMBO

Just don’t miss this capital city which happens to be the biggest cities of country as well. It is a melting pot of all the colors and cultures that make up this island nation and condense them into a colorful patchwork which is full of amazing attractions both humble as well as grand. It is the political, economic and cultural center of Sri Lanka which gets loud applause for its colonial heritage, fine dining, shopping and a dash of urban buzz. The city boasts several cultural and historical attractions and is undoubtedly the backbone of Sri Lankan economic structure. It houses several important buildings and is headquarters to some of nation’s largest companies. National Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka, National Museum of Colombo, Galle Face Green and Beira Lake etc. are some interesting hot spots of city that you must visit on a visit to Colombo

Sri Lanka a magnificent country of so much in so little!

Few places in the world can offer travellers so much diversity which is a remarkable combination of stunning landscapes, pristinely beautiful beaches, amazing wildlife sanctuaries, captivating cultural heritage, legendary temples, UNESCO world heritage sites etc. Undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s attributes are many. On a visit to this magnificent country one can say “So Much in so little”.

The country is blesses by graciousness of Mother Nature which offers a great escape to its visitors to enjoy tropical climate of coast and lowlands at its various beautiful hill stations which are lush , greenish and virally infectious with allure. Aromatic tea plantations and rain forested peaks beckon walkers and trekkers to come and enjoy the most beautiful holidays of their life. For beach lovers there are very few better options then Sri Lanka. The beaches are dazzling white and pathless. They ring the island in which ever direction you go, you’ll find yourself near to a sandy gem where you can surf, dive, swim or indulge in various beach site activities. The whole experience is so exhilarating that your few days will surely convert to weeks. To enjoy all this fun and much more, hurry, don’t wait and book low fare business class flights to Sri Lanka and enjoy a journey that will remain with you for long time.

It is not possible to cover all the gems of this beautiful island nation in just a single holiday trip. So lets us explore a bit of every beauty and visit the most alluring sites of this beautiful country that will surely compel you to soon plan your next visit.