JARVIS SMITH ON THE JEWEL IN SRI LANKA’S CROWN

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 11 March 2014

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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It was my birthday and it had to be eco tourism! Following many fun and inspiring conversations about ideas and places, an email dropped in from the love of my life. ‘How about this…?’ was the title. I was caught up in the middle of a day’s work, but decided to take a break and have a peek.

The Mudhouse. Funny name, I thought, but the images of the tribal, primitive huts spoke to my heart and ticked all the boxes for the kind of break we wanted. I wondered where it was; ah Sri Lanka – perfect choice darling, I thought. Somewhere new and exciting for us both – plus the Guardian had ranked the resort among the 50 most romantic places in the world.

Sri Lanka has been off the tourist list as a result of 27 years of civil war, which devastated the environment and its people. The Tamil Tigers were defeated in 2009 and the bloodshed had stopped (BA re-opened the flight path and scheduled three flights a week from March 2013), but had the dust settled?

I’d always heard good things about Sri Lanka, but wanted to do a little digging around for myself. All the feedback was good so I decided to contact The Mudhouse directly and see if our dates would work. One of the partners – an English guy, Tom – came back to me very quickly. No, they were full for the summer holidays but might have some space for us just after the kids were due back at school. Perfect.

Kumar, the owner, is the inspiration behind The Mudhouse; the visionary, the creator and the expert on sustainability and environmental management. I later found out he was also a hero to his people. He’d been coming to this area since he was a young child and felt a complete affinity with the land and its residents, his people. On an early morning birdwatch (more on that later), we passed some villagers who had been out on a morning forage. The eldest of the ladies among them was carrying a woodapple; she exchanged some words with Kumar, which seemed to be full of delight, praise and true connection, before tossing him the fruit, which he quickly told us would be prepared warm for us, as a sort of Sri Lankan afternoon tea. This guy was hugely respected in the community; he hired local staff, bought goods from his neighbours and protected the land. A kind of local, yet extremely humble, lord or king.

‘Come! Ha ha ha’, he said with joy, ‘Lets go!’ And, like children, we sort of skipped behind him.

Winding through a narrow path or two, we arrived at an open building – thatched with low, hip-height walls made from a deep red mud. Inside (though it was difficult to distinguish inside from out) were two hammocks and two mosquito net-covered lounging spaces. No hut, no room. What was this place? My poor mind couldn’t assimilate exactly what it was, so I ended up concluding that this was the reception. A courteous, smiling man greeted us with two fresh lime juices. Yes, this was the reception. I looked around and thought wow, what a lovely idea! So many hotel receptions are so full on, but this was different. Simple but exquisite, natural yet luxurious.

‘Welcome to your room sir, madam’. ‘Our room?!’, shouted my head – and then, more quietly, ‘Oh, this is our room.’ I started to look round again. Yes: a sink, beds, a fridge, a dining table – it started to fit into my limited mind shapes. It reminded me of seeing a Nicole Kidman film, where all the actors played out this full gangster moll feature with real sounds – doors opening and closing, cars pulling up and driving away – yet there was absolutely no set. Nothing. Just a stage and actors, lines and sounds. It blew my mind. With hindsight this was a ridiculous response, but the impact of what occurred was memorable and worth a mention.

Kumar lead us to the shower, along a beautiful little stepping stone path winding away from the main dwelling and into a raised stone open plan floor, with a little wall for soap dishes and a tap – but no shower. He turned on the tap and there, like magic, came a flow of warm water straight from the tree. ‘Ha ha ha!’, we all laughed together, like a huge symphony of joy!

‘One more thing to show you’, and off to the toilet we went. Set behind the main area (sorry, I’m still not sure what to call this place), the ‘toilet’ was again open plan with a roof and low walls to conceal you when sitting down to business. There is nothing like a wee or a poo in nature; it seems so, well, soooo natural.

Kumar then told us when and where dinner would be served and waved some general directions. He introduced us to our mode of transport for the week, two very cool bikes, and off he trotted. Within seconds he had disappeared into the bushes; we could hear his steps disappearing into the forest until, eventually, we were alone. We giggled and jumped into each other’s arms, discussing how overdressed we were (well, we had clothes on – that was overdressed here). We slipped into our birthday suits (it was my birthday, after all) and then scoped the place out. We explored each thing and then looked at each other full of joy, bursting once more into laughter. The hammocks, the beds, the large, low, windowless walls with great big cushions to laze on… It was perfect. We decided to go and test the utilities – my beloved the open shower and myself the royal throne.
We both showered and fell asleep, waking up to a dusky light, a sweet, woody smell and a deep and sensitive ‘Halloo…? Halloo…?’ Looking up, we saw a man’s silhouette and a small fire. ‘Come in’, we shouted. In? That was funny. It was hardly ‘in’, but into our private space all the same.

The man had come to light the oil lanterns, as there was no electricity in this space at all. We hadn’t even noticed before.

He lit about six lanterns and off he went; it was around 19.30 so we started to get ready for dinner. Should we walk or bike round? We had no idea how far it was but decided it may be a little too dark on our return, so walk we did. We knew we were heading in the right direction and, after a few minutes, we saw lights and kept walking. It was all so mystical and magical: our path was lined with oil lamps that illuminated an otherwise pitch black route. It certainly set the mood for dinner.

We booked in and landed at Colombo airport on my birthday. We flew with Sri Lankan Airways as that seemed to be the best option for us, all things taken into consideration. The airline has won numerous awards for sustainability programmes and we had to fly in what precious time we had.

We were picked up at the airport and transferred to The Mudhouse, which sits between the main airport and the ‘cultural triangle’ sites of Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Dambulla. The colourful stalls and dusty roads reminded me of India, but calmer; the people seemed happier and had such warm, infectious smiles. The sun was shining bright, as it always does in that part of the world. We couldn’t resist the fresh coconut water stall along the way and, proving generous with money as well as smiles, our driver wouldn’t let us pay for it.

I wondered what kind of experience this was going to be.

We finally arrived at a light, dusty road with a few beautiful rock hills. We were well off the beaten track and our driver was grinning: we’d arrived – but it didn’t look like it. All I could see was a thick mass of low trees with a very narrow path, and a smiley man pushing a bike towards us.

‘I’m Kumar – welcome! Ha ha ha’, he said, with a laugh so big we had to join in. I had no idea at this time how much I was going to learn from this guy.

When we arrived, there was a large group of English adults and children sitting in a completely open, unwalled restaurant; it was large and could easily seat 20. We, however, were ushered out onto the grass, where a private dining arrangement had been made (unbeknown to me, by my darling and scheming Katie with the help of our new friend, Kumar).

We sat down next to a large but gentle fire, which danced in the stillness of the surroundings. It was mainly dark all around, but the moon shone some light and the stars – oh my, it had been a very long time since I had seen this many. The starters came out within minutes and were followed by dish after dish. Each was eloquently explained and made from local, seasonal Sri Lankan produce. ‘Star fruit? Loooong beans?’, our waiter asked as he stared into my eyes with joy and sincerity. I grew to love the way this guy behaved over the week, because he served us with such pride and care; this was his part in the great dance of life, and the very essence of his role ensured every other part of creation would flow perfectly from this moment.

There is something magical about sleeping in nature, listening to all the rustles, the movement of the night and the unusual sounds of frogs and birds. Sometimes the odd but distant screech or roar filtered through, but we felt totally safe and secure in the comfort of a deep inner knowledge that everything was exactly as it was meant to be.

We were stirred by an almighty and high-pitched chirp which went on for a few minutes; it was a natural alarm calling us to get up and enjoy the day. We’d slept for 12 hours straight and this little squirrel was having none of it. ‘If you’re here, you will enjoy our company’, he seemed to be saying.

There is so much to do at The Mudhouse and in its surrounding environment; every day could have been filled with activities (and the staff were very eager with suggestions). However, we chose a morning or afternoon activity for each day and just chilled for the rest of the time.

The most beautiful lake stretched out towards our hut and Pani, a member of staff there, guided us to another just a 10-minute bike ride away. He brought along a few beers and some local chilly chaat snacks, which were gratefully knocked back as we sat by the lake before jumping in for a swim (kayaks are also available).

The fantastic chef welcomed us into his kitchen and taught us how to cook a few Sri Lankan dishes, which were proudly served up for dinner and shared with the handful of guests there. A first-time experience for me, but an early morning birdwatch is a must; Kumar’s knowledge of the birdlife and wildlife, the flora and fauna, made this an extraordinarily interesting and stimulating trip. I was spotting my own kingfishers, bulbuls, sea eagles and bee-eaters in no time.

The medicinal value of the local herbs, bushes and trees is awesome. Kumar pointed out an abundance of natural remedies growing at every step, which we picked, tore, rubbed and tasted.

The Mudhouse owns a farm, where most of the fruit and vegetables for meals are grown – all organic and cleverly cultivated with ancient local methods. No wonder the food tasted so good; the love and care put into the vegetation was nurtured like a newborn child by its mother.

We went offsite just a few times over the week; we visited the local monastery to share a prayer and climb the huge rock that overlooks The Mudhouse grounds, and gazed upon the ancient and sacred land. We visited a spiritual site where a huge prayer is carved into the stone in a Sanskrit-like font, just above the most beautiful, lily-filled lake. It was a truly magical place, and at that very moment we started to ask questions about buying land and having our own little mudhouse built nearby. Perhaps we could become part of this community forever!

Of course, practicalities rarely allow for such wild dreams — but an annual visit to an environment that revolves around the way I’d like to live seemed perfect. We have already made enquiries to return and have asked for our favourite room (yes, I’ve finally arrived at calling them ‘rooms’ — each of the five is beautifully unique with its very own space, look and feel). The Mudhouse caters for all – couples, families, the elderly and the young — all with one thing in common: they want to feel what it’s like to be truly at peace with human being-ness. If you struggle to reconnect with what’s natural, relax and let go with one deep breath — come here and you soon will.

We were told a safari was must while in Sri Lanka, but to go to Wilpattu – which only recently reopened to the public and is much more wild and free. We were reluctant to leave The Mudhouse even for a night, but Kumar assured us that he knew a good eco lodge, Palpatha, and that we should go. ‘Go see the leopards! Ha ha ha’, he said. A few hours on the road and we arrived at Palpatha, a lodge established from the heart of family togetherness. Palpatha is a family project put together by three school friends; they needed a place to escape to with family and friends, where they could enjoy each other’s company, have a laugh about the good old days and give their children space and time to enjoy nature at its best.

For more information on The Mudhouse, including activities and accommodation, have a look at www.themudhouse.lk. For information on Palpatha, visit www.palpatha.com/experience/.

A lovely foundation and a premise we soon found to be true. We shared our evening meal with the family of one of the owners; it was a huge, fun-filled family affair, and we tasted and shared their favourite foods (no cutlery allowed).

I’m still on the fence about safari parks, but protection of wild animals, roaming freely and protected, can’t be a bad thing, can it? The park was full of wild animal treats: elephants washing in the waterhole, eagles posing for photos and lots of birds, wild boar and leopards.

We didn’t see the leopards that day, and actually were very pleased that the leopards weren’t obliged to indulge us with a sighting (though we were sure they’d seen us). Our deep-seated respect for them, and our gratitude for being allowed onto their territory, was enough; the respect went both ways — or that was our story, anyway!

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