|Sunday, 27 April 2003|
Off to the cool climes of N'Eliya. The date, Sunday the 13th, the last day of the old year. The streets of Colombo snooze in a late Sunday sleep, at nine fifteen in the morn, as I make my way to the Colombo Hilton, the collecting point of the big journey ahead.
A woman with short wavy hair greets me inside, while a bubbly looking man bustles around in the background. A thin, skeletonish looking man, with a hat in hand stands talking to an elderly British couple.
Their names turn out to be John and Renee. John, a retired CNN Travel Editor, and his wife Renee who is a teacher, together with six others from England, are here on invitation. To go for the big event of the season, up country - The SriLankan Airlines' Governor's Cup.
We board a huge tourist bus, lurching in the corner like a caterpillar. As the bus moves on, the multi storeyed aristocrats of the city give way to their inferiors. The rough, rugged rurals. Small "Kades" selling bunches of green bananas hanging from their roofs, little cottages with big gardens, lush green paddy fields. The old are at their doorsteps.
The children playing in the streets. The lovers in the shade. People walking. People cycling. People just standing by, having a chat, looking at us going past. A kingfisher is perched on top of a telephone wire, running across a paddy. A brown train rushes by on and off, sometimes far away, lost amidst the trees and shrubbery of the distance, sometimes so close you can hear its heart beat. Chug. Chug. Chug.
3.30 P.M. We are on the road again. As we trudge on upwards, it gets cooler. The road is windy and the bus weaves itself in and out and round about the rugged, shrubbery slopes. As soon as we pass the silky white, delicate fall of Devon we make a pit stop at St.Clare's for tea and biscuits. By the time we reach the busy town of N'Eliya it is about 5.00 p.m.
The climate is nice. Cool but not chilly. The streets however resemble the five thirty p.m. traffic of Colombo. Trudging our way on to St. Andrews amidst the jam, we see the cause of it. Portable "kades" have been stacked up on either side of the road. A strawberry sensation here. A barbecue feast there.
Vans are parked on the side of the streets, music blaring from its insides, people dancing haywire on the out. Loud speakers fixed up all over the city blare out various announcements and commercials, like a Colombo fair. The streets are packed with the whole of Colombo buying strawberries, butterfruits, carrots, cabbages, ice-creams and what not. A policeman too stands in the middle of the junction, to complete the picture. It is the N'Eliya Season.
Dropping some of the crowd at St. Andrews we make our way back through that street fair to N'Eliya's Grand Hotel. Luscious, colourful flowers of various colours of sunny orange, lipstick red, baby pink and purple bloom in full in its huge garden, decked up in English style with white chairs and tables with umbrellas sprucing it up. SriLankan banners greet us along to the doorstep.
We are within a few steps walking along the luxurious maroon carpet. I get my key. Room 167. Up a few steps, down a corridor and I'm in. The sound of the keys of a piano dancing can be heard jingling away.
At 7.30 P.M. We are all decked up for the evening's Gala dinner. Downstairs in the Supper Club, the place is in a flutter, filled with people from all over the world. England, Japan, India, Canada, Hongkong, Singapore and Malaysia. Most of these guys and gals as it turned out to be were from the media. A scrumptious dinner in candle light, followed by the music of Misty and Shakthi, with the voice of Corinne Almeida joining in later on, it was an evening of dance as well.
Monday morning. We are given a wake up call at seven in the morning (???). A morning change, breakfast, a stroll around the garden and we are ready for the day. It is a lovely sunny morning, just like in the story books. The sun is shining. The sky is blue. The grass is green. The ideal day for racing.
And to the race course we go. Climbing those steep steps of the grandstand on high heeled shoes is a nightmare.
Misty beats up a tune bringing on the moods of yesteryear. Everyone is dressed up gaga. Hats, elegant frocks with frills and shawls, coats and ties. It's like entering another era of time. It is not just Sri Lanka. It is EngLanka.
The names of the horses participating in the day's races, by the way are "Simply Inspiring". In the "Southern Choice" of our country there is a "Timeless Appeal" with a "Certain Smile" in the names of these "Turn to Gold" guys. There is a "Singing Melody" about it.
A "Fire Cracker". All "Decked up" there is "Mr Belvedere", with "His Excellency" the "Orange King", together with "Lady Regina", the "Lady of the Lake", and "Libo Queen", "Helen of Troy". "Hi- Gorgeous". Escorting them onto the battle field is "Ancient and Stormy Warrior", geared up by "Nuclear Power". The "Avenger" raises the "Battle Call" and the many races to the end begin.
The horses are straddled by multi coloured jockeys who seem to half leap off their backs as the horses gallop away, racing each other. They run breezing against the wind, their manes blowing about, their socked hooves thumping the ground. Dollop. Dollop. Dollop. It is over within a few seconds.
11.30 A.M. The horses are cast aside as an open air fashion show designed by Keerthi Sri Karunaratne and Lou Ching Wong, hair decked up by Ramzi Rahman steal the clock for a while. Sri Lankan evening attire of the fifties, together with many 'My Fair Ladies' pranced about the cat walk to the music of the street where you live, to make you dance all night. It was indeed a lost era brought back to life.
The Eliza Doolittles were fabulous. The frilled skirts, feathery hats, purses, shawls, and laced umbrellas. The Freddy Eynsford-Hills in grey top hats, tail coats and walking sticks. It was old England come to life, with every Duke and Earl too having their own special ballroom dance.
12.30 P.M. Everyone's eyes are strained back on the race course, where Crowning Star, Ancient Warrior, Mr.Belvedere, Emperado, Khaalis, Stormy Warrior, Turn to Gold, Pick Pocket, Savage, Intel, Court of Appeal and Libo Queen are lining up in front of us.
It is the event of the race. The Sri Lankan Airlines Governor's Cup 2003. Crowning Star and the lot seem as impatient and excited as their jockeys and everyone else, their feet on the move all the while, coming forward - going back, lining up once more.
The whistle blows. The race begins. The hooves of the horses thunder the ground and they are off to the distance, Pick Pocket in the lead. The commentator screams on as the horses race each other.
They disappear from view for a second and when they do show up there is a fierce battle ahead. Court of Appeal who was in the position of number three is moving up. He's neck to neck with Pick Pocket and a neck to neck finish it is to the end, with Anurath Abeyratne's horse beating his wife Maline's, Pick Pocket. Court of Appeal is the winner of the SriLankan Airlines' Governor's Cup 2003.
A totally unexpected turn of events Abeytratne says later, having got the glorious award from Peter Hill, CEO of SriLankan Airlines, "we were all expecting Pick Pocket to win". In the end however Court of Appeal ridden by V. Mahialingam, who says, the horse always had a spot of trouble in the starting point, showed everyone what he had got. Horse power!
By Farah Macan Markar
Produced by Lake House