Thorns in the green meadows | Sunday Observer

Thorns in the green meadows

For decades the hill station of Nuwara Eliya has been a sought after holiday destination for many Sri Lankans and foreigners. The salubrious lush green mountains and the mist enriched cool climate captivated the British planters and administrators. One of the British hobbies was horse riding. Horses were and still remain a part of British culture. Once the thoroughbred horses dominated these hills. Over the years cross breeding has produced half breeds and quarter horses. The ponies are another strain from the magnificent creatures of yesteryear. For the young boys and girls from the big cities going for a pony ride is a cool thing to do. It is a ride that children also enjoy.

Yet, within this aura of bliss and laughter there are silent tears. Unlike the beautiful mist which covers the peaks there are clouds of anxiety and battles for daily survival. This is the lifestyle of the 50 plus boys and some men who offer pony rides. Whilst brining smiles to others they really can’t smile. Their lives have not really changed, as they expected. While taking a walk down Gregory Lake I encountered two Tamil speaking youth, with their chestnut coloured pony. They offered me a ride. I took the opportunity to talk with them. The older of the two was Manoj, who said “Sir we depend on the income from these rides. We both purchased this pony. He is our only investment and asset in life. Our parents endured a hard life.

They had dreams and aspiration for us, but sadly, we are still stagnant. During the peak travel season in April we make 5000 rupees a day. This is only one month of the year. On other days we earn 1500 or 1000 rupees a day. We have to spend 500 rupees for the animal’s food every day. Some days it rains and the climate is too cold. Colombo people stay inside the bungalows and don’t come out to the park area, and on these days we don’t make an income. At times, we skip a meal to enable the pony to eat. This is our daily struggle for survival”.

The younger of the boys is shy and apprehensive. He then decided to air his comments. He said “We did not get a good education, although we like to study. We can’t speak English; although we manage to bargain with the foreigners using a few words. Life on the hills is not a rainbow. People who come for pony rides have fun.

That is ok and they can enjoy. Yet, nobody really cares about our welfare. This is a small group of poor youth. We demand for rights or form unions. We entertain others, but beyond that we are a forgotten clan of young people. Some of the older men you see today in the 30-35 age group also began giving pony rides like us when they were just 17 years. They too did not reach a good level in life. We are able to own this pony, yet there are a few who pay a daily rent for the pony and struggle to make an income. We also have dreams of getting married but how can we do so on this inconsistent income”

There are others like Manoj. These young men have endured a hard life in the cold mountains of Nuwara Eliya. For years they have depended on the small fees of 200 or 300 rupees from the short rides.

If their animals become sick they can’t afford any veterinarian treatment, which would result in the death of the pony bringing them to a state of debt and despair. I noticed some of them wearing slippers, unable to even buy a pair of boots or shoes to withstand the cold weather. To add insult to injury, some customers argue and talk rudely to these boys, when bargaining for rates. The young men have no alternate employment as they do not have any other job oriented skills. Some of them have never been to Colombo. On the flip side of the coin, people expect pony and horse rides in Nuwara Eliya and someone has to provide it.

The ponies and horses add to the colonial charm of these magnificent hills. The young men standing outside the race course with their animals are running their own race.

They are weary. These youth need upliftment, as youth of any other area in Sri Lanka, it is then that they can also truly enjoy the freedom and serenity of Nuwara Eliya.