By Helen Moat
“Ice caps?” asks Dimuthu.
It’s 8pm at night and the pavements of Bandarawela are packed cheek-to-jowl with shoppers seeking out fire-crackers, clothes and last minute gifts for the Tamil-Sinhalese New Year. Dimuthu is on a different quest, however.
Bandarawela is a vibrant, thrown-together kind of town stuffed into a deep-sided valley. In the darkness beyond, hills of thick rainforest, tea plantations, waterfalls and flat valley floors of watery paddy fields stretch out for mile upon mile.
But here in town, festive lights drape from shop fronts and trees. Colourful tuk-tuks line the roadside like matchbox cars, decorated with home-spun stickers: ‘Life is nice with whife,’ ‘Only one sun shine for all’ and ‘Who flies not high, falls not low.’
Dimuthu weaves through the three-wheelers as I follow behind intrigued.
“Ice caps?” Dimuthu calls out above the high-pitched sound of horns and squealing brakes.
“Ice caps?” she inquires over the cries of hawkers selling string-hoppers, oil cakes and sweet sticky dohol from kiosks.
Puzzled by the odd request, I catch up with Dimuthu striding purposefully along the street, sweeping aside flowing saris, loitering teenagers, hawkers with crates on their shoulders and young women in sparkling t-shirts and jeans. We side-step stacks of empty cardboard boxes and pavement displays of fruit and veg.
“Ice-caps?” Dimuthu asks a street vender selling coconut. My curiosity deepens: we may be in a highland town decidedly cooler than hot and sultry Colombo, but hardly cold enough for ice caps, surely?
I try to guess what an ice-cap might be: An iced drink? A cooling lolly? I’d settle for either. I’m guessing Dimuthu isn’t after an ice mass covering a highland area? Not here. Not in Sri Lanka, a mere four hundred miles from the equator.
The hawker points us in the direction of one of the grey concrete blocks stacking the main street, Jenga-style. I follow Dimuthu inside the store. The walls are lined ceiling-to-floor with shelves of fabric displaying every colour, pattern and texture imaginable. There’s enough material to clothe the entire female Sri Lankan population in saris for the New Year – but not an ice cap in sight.
“It’s the wrong season,” Dimuthu sighs, but still she continues her search.
“Ice caps? Yes, Madam,” a shop assistant says several stores later, and from behind the counter he lifts out a stack of … balaclavas.
Dimuthu tries one on. Her dark brown eyes peer out doubtfully from the slit in the thick woollen hat. The hat looks incongruous in a store crammed with shoppers dressed in summer cotton. We may be in the uplands but it’s still 20 degrees. Dimuthu shakes her head. The balaclava is hardly a fashion statement.
In the next store, a bare-footed shop assistant leaps onto the glass-topped counter and reaches for an assortment of woollen caps from the highest shelf. Dimuthu picks out a navy beanie embroidered with New York and pulls it on her head. She gives a sideways head-wobble: it’ll do. Tomorrow she won’t freeze on the sacred mountain of Sri Pada, Adam’s Peak — Sri Lanka’s second highest mountain at 7362 feet.
If only we could have invested in a crystal ball instead. We’d have discovered that the 3 hour journey to Dalhousie from Bandarawela would take 5 hours over pot-holed roads; that we’d sweat our way up more than 5000 knee-wrecking steps under the heat of the midday sun – and that we’d curse the hats, jumpers and coats weighing down our bags, never once used.
Instead Dimuthu emerges happily from the shop, scanning the higgledy-piggledy buildings in front of her.
“Right,” she says. “Jumpers?”
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