A Day in the Hills with Our Christian Tea Planters

“Tomorrow morning, early we must go, before the very heavy rains come; the monsoon is ready to break within a few days,” said my husband as he stepped into the room from the front portico. “Remember how I was stalled in the upcountry floods, between two paddy fields, during the last monsoon?”

My husband had just come home from General Consistory meeting where he had been appointed to make family calls on our Burgher church members living in the hills outside of Colombo, Ceylon. Most of them were tea planters, superintendents or overseers on the tea plantations, or government workers in one of the small towns nestled in the hills.


I could smile now at the thought of the last monsoon. “Yes, how well I remember,” I answered my husband. “I was alone those several nights, with Beth. The thunderous roar of the waves on the beach and the crashing of windows in our neighbor’s house, the limbs tearing from the trees—oh, was I frightened! I prayed that the windows would not break. I was sure we would be washed right out of the house.”

I got up from my chair to pack: two jugs of water, two thermos’ of lemonade, sandwiches, plantains,* Belgium cologne to cool our foreheads, a pillow for Beth, some slabs of Swiss chocolate. I then pulled from the bookcase in the dining room eight Christian novels and a few Child’s Story Books. My husband had gone into the study but a few minutes later came into the room with tracts, Family Altars, Back To God pamphlets, some religious magazines, and half a dozen books of theology. Thankful we were for the book dealers and others who had made this wealth of reading material available for our members. Together we packed the carton and then made certain that nothing would be forgotten for the morrow.

The next morning after prayers, at five o’clock, we left in our little English car, tiny Beth settling herself in the back seat to finish her sleeping. It was still dark but already men were walking down the middle of the road to the train station. Turning onto the main road we saw that the day’s activities had begun. Shopkeepers sleepily stumbled out of their boutiques with mugs of water in their hands and towels thrown around their necks. Vigorously they began to brush their teeth with their right forefingers, spitting expertly into the gutter. The corner bakery was lighted and open for business. The owner was sitting in the open doorway, neat and clean, but stripped to the waist because of the heat.

Driving slowly, because of the produce-laden bullock carts rumbling into town from the country, we saw a sad sight. Everywhere down the street bundles of rags stirred, shook themselves, sat for a few minutes, and then dazedly got up from the doorsteps, stumbling on filaria legs and festered feet. They were the poorest beggars. Late the evening before my husband, on his way home from the meeting, had watched them pull their rags about them and curl up against the boarded doorways. Obsequiously, they would beg another day.

Turning slowly into a side lane to avoid the carts, we had to stop short for a pariah dog sleeping on the road, yesterday’s heat still held under his belly. He picked up his ears as our headlights beamed him awake and then he got up stiffly, and slowly moved to the gutter.

Fifteen minutes later we were on High Level Road. Even at this early hour the road was swarming with traffic and pedestrians. Bicycles, cars, trucks, rickshaws, bullock carts, and light buggies pulled by bullocks were clattering down the road. In the center of it all we could see a teak coffin raised high above the heads of a small group of mourners following the coffin. It was a Mohammedan child, for the coffin was small and the mourners were men.

We continued on the road built so many years ago by the English. A string of bullock carts approached us, the clack-clacking of bullocks’ hoofs mingled with the slow cab-lopping, cab-lopping of the cart wheels over the tar road. Bullock bells were clanging rhythmically and predominantly as the animals ankled forward. Pea green shafts of light gleamed from the stolid, resigned faces of the bullocks.

Beth woke up, demanded two plantains, gobbled them, and then sprawled face down upon the back seat of the car. A rose mist wafted behind the low mountains in the distance. The sun was lifting rapidly. Heavenly blue birds darted about. The sky, ceramic and bright with promise of a good day, canopied the activity below. A little farther along rubber trees lined the road; the trees exuded a flowerlike fragrance . A clearing of rice paddy fields appeared abruptly from b e h i n d the rubber trees. A gray-silver vaporish mist arose from the paddy. After passing the rice fields our car took a sharp turn to the right, on to a little dirt road that led steadily up the mountain to Lapelma Tea Estate, our first stop. Vibrantly green tea bushes lined both sides of the dirt road. We came to a stop under the portico of the Superintendent’s Bungalow and the young mistress of the home, a bride of seventeen years, greeted us with a smile. “Ainsley has already gone on inspection,” she said, “and he shall be sorry to miss you—but come in.” She led the way into her spacious living room. From French windows we could see green hills and valleys of tea, and purplish blue mountains in the distance. The chattering of servants and the monotonous cackling of hens could be heard faintly, coming from the back. Quietly, on bare feet, a white-clad servant boy appeared with a tray of cooling drinks. After refreshing ourselves we picked out some Christian reading material to be left in this home. My husband inquired after the spiritual welfare of the home. After having prayer together we left, as we had many calls to make that day.

We passed through the city of jewels: Ratnapura. Gem-bearing gravels lie in the valleys among the foothills of the range. They hold sapphires, rubies, cats’ eyes, and tourmaline. A mile outside of the city we passed a group of white-clad pilgrims making a pilgrimage on foot to worship at the shrine of Buddha on sacred Adam’s Peak.

Crowds are a noticeably voluble lot, but pilgrims are subdued and quiet on a pilgrimage. They become pious in thoughts and extremely gentle in speech on the day they set out on their journey, and remain so until several days after their pilgrimage. This is revealed by the expression on their faces. If a pilgrim treads on a thorn he does not curse but he smiles sweetly and turns to his neighbor and exclaims, “Mercy, I have trodden on some ill’y plantain leaves.” They use a whole set of substitute words on their journey. Each party is under the guidance of one who has made the trip before. This guide gives a shout of “Sadhu, Sadhu,” (Praise be) every few yards. This cry is taken up by the followers.

Adam’s Peak, to which these pilgrims were traveling, is honored and revered for the shallow depression, two yards long, which lies on the top of the Peak, and which is called a Footprint. The Mohammedan claims that Adam stood on this spot on one foot for one thousand years before he was dethroned by the monkeys. The Buddhists claim that this is the footprint of Lord Buddha and call the Peak “Sacred Footprint.” The Hindus name it “Siva,” for one of their gods, and many of the Eastern Christians believe the mark to have been imprinted by the foot of the Apostle Thomas, who is peculiarly the Apostle of India. The Peak is one of the most widely reverenced cathedrals of the human race. The shrine itself is only a little tile roof, raised upon four pillars and open on all sides to the wind and the rain. It is left untended for months. A small mud hut perches nearby. We passed these pilgrims at ten miles an hour, saddened by the fact that these souls were paying devotion to a false philosophy.

Coconut trees gave way to the huge jak-fruit trees, the heavy, large, knobby green fruit hanging melon-like from sturdy vines protruding from their thick massive trunks. Close to the roadside wandered the wild yam. Its enormous leaves were plucked by the villagers whenever a sudden rain would come, and were used by them as umbrellas. Everywhere the road was closed in by luxuriant vegetation. With the exception of the small clearings of rice paddy, we never encountered wide open spaces. It gave us a hemmed-in sensation. Only when we got to the higher mountains did we again get the feeling of freedom so long nurtured in America.

We were climbing again, upward and upward—past a tea factory, then a small house, and on top of the ridge we made a stop before the verandah of the Silver Palm Estate Bungalow. From the front garden we could see miles and miles of mountains dribbling away to a haze in the distance. Walking to the back we saw the bright green paddy fields thousands of feet below us. Langdon and Mavis greeted us warmly and proudly showed us their new baby. Langdon almost immediately began a discussion with my husband of a book which had been left at his home sometime before. Mavis ordered morning tea to be served on the front verandah. She also asked my advice about the feeding of the baby. A pleasant hour of talk and devotions was spent with this family, but on we had to go.

The rare pungent aroma of fresh tea leaves was soon left behind. Palmyra palm trees mingled with coconut trees and the strange appearing bamboos. Ferns sprung out of rocks everywhere. We then crossed the Whitehouse bridge. It had only been a few years before that an English planter was waylaid on this bridge and shot to death. He had been to Colombo with his wife and two daughters, and he was returning to his Estate with a tlu’ee thousand rupees payroll for his Estate workers. A gang of thugs had followed his car from Colombo. When they approached the bridge one car sped forward and blocked the roadway. The car behind stopped and one thug came to the car window, which was up. Foolishly, Mr. Whitehouse reached for his revolver in the cubbyhole of the car. When he did so the thug pulled the trigger, and the bullet went through Mr. Whitehouse’s throat and out of his temple, and then grazed his wife’s cheek. She was at the wheel. Another thug knocked Mrs. Whitehouse on the head. A daughter struck the gun out of the killer’s hand. The two thugs in the blocked car ahead got panicky when they heard the shots, for their leader, (who had remained in Colombo) had insisted on no shooting. They sped away. The blow on the head revived Mrs. Whitehouse so that she started up the car and spurted away from the two remaining thugs, who did not get the money. They sought refuge in the first Estate they came to but on arrival they found Mr. Whitehouse was dead. They had been in Ceylon only three months. The four thugs were hanged.

We were glad to leave the narrow bridge with its tragic tale. Village after village drifted past with their Moorish tinker shops, betelnut stands, strings of glass beads hanging under dust-laden awnings, and the inevitable coconuts and bananas. Then came roadside stands at which we stopped because they were laden with mammoth fresh pineapples and piles of unroasted cashew nuts. And who could resist the clay pots in various designs and shapes? or the piles of hand-woven baskets so temptingly displayed at the edge of the road?

We knew that Katara, a sizable town, was close by for people thronged the road, moving leisurely to the side only at the emphatic tooting of the horn, then doing so without a backward glance. My husband stopped the car abruptIy by a small path disappearing between a growth of wild yams. Beth scampered out and we followed with the reading material. The path was rugged and steep and Beth had to be helped. A hound howled at us and a large land lizard clumsily scurried away at our approach.

The occupants of the simple home in the jungle knew we had come and waited for us: the young wife, Noella, with her baby, her aged mother and father, and her younger sister. The young husband was in town at his desk in the Post Office.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Padre,” said the old woman. “You know, I have given those Singhalese Bibles and tracts to my Buddhist neighbors, but I find it difficult. Do you know what they tell me? They say they haven’t time to read them. Do you know what I think? Their Buddhist priests have instructed them not to read Christian literature.” She led us into the living room as she spoke.

Lime drinks were served in a twinkling, and the old grandmother would not let us talk until we had sipped the cooling liquid. The young mother sat shy and reserved against the whitewashed wall of the room. I lifted the baby from her lap and cuddled it. It loosened the tongue of the young mother and soon she spoke her fears for her baby’s future in a land where Nationalism was indifferent to minority groups, and where the education was rapidly changing from the English medium to the Singhalese medium. At times it exhausted us just to imagine ourselves in the shoes of these people. The struggle for a living and the hope for cognizance was a real and threatening thing for many of them.

An hour later we left, the young mother accompanying us down the steep path for courtesy’s sake. Into the car again, corkscrewing our way through the mountains. The valleys sang with waterfalls which lilted over the rocks between shining green tea bushes. Joyous estate workers were bathing in the streams below the Falls. The women wore a modest bathing costume—a long cloth draped above the breasts and held together by the support of the breasts and falling nearly to the ankles. They bathed by pouring potfuls of water on the head, and then, with a mysterious and dexterous movement, the women managed to clothe themselves in a dry saree and at the same time dropped their wet bathing costume into the water without exposing their bodies. We decided to eat our lunch, accompanied by the music of a waterfall. Carefully we watched for leeches which suck blood without the victim being aware of it. More than once we had found them between our toes.

Waterwell Tea Estate was not far off. We had gone a mile up the Estate road when we were blocked by large coconut trees lying across tile road. Tree-felling was going on. We watched the tremendous elephants high on the hillside effortlessly toppling over one tree after the other. What abundant strength and energy they had! We backed up a half mile on the narrow road and were able, after much sweat and toil, to get the car turned around on the proverbial dime. We then tried an unused road covered with grass. It was a hair-raising trip. More than once Beth and I got out of the car and let the Padre back up to the edge of the precipice in order to make the hairpin turns. We were happy to turn into the driveway of the De Loo family. Blue hydrangeas lined both sides of the path. The shallow garden pool in the front garden featured several lilies with pizza-shaped leaves. The low-lying bungalow sprawled on the hilltop, literally breathing, the wind soughing in and out.

De Loos were having coolie trouble. The Communists had come in to stir up trouble and to make the estate workers dissatisfied with their lot in life. Worrisome times had come and we could see, by the concern on the planter’s face, that the problem needled him day and night. Hospitable as all Eastern people are, they placed tea and sandwiches before us without delay. We stayed two hours as it was the hottest time of the day.

Close to the Waterwell Estate lived the Springles. When we drove into the portico their little girl screamed with delight at the sight of Beth. The Springles were occupying the bungalow of the Head Manager of the Estate. A few years before, the Manager’s dog had died and was buried in the garden, and a large tombstone was put at the head of the grave. “Leela” was the name inscribed thereon and a verse was put under the name in her honor. The manager had been so overcome with grief that he had taken a two-week vacation. Soon afterwards he married and three months after that his wife died an unnecessary death of pregnancy in the tube, in a hospital that could not cope with the situation. A life-size, full-length portrait of the wife hung in the hall. “Yes,” said Springle, “he was a wild one in his youth but now that all this has happened he will watch his living.” We had an early rice and curry supper in this bungalow and were on our way to Creary’s home.

Creary was a truck driver for a tea planter, and he lived in a tiny house next to the tea factory. After we did much knocking Mrs. Creary came to the door, sleep distorting her face, her eye in a squint and struggling for sight. Stepping into the living room behind her we watched her shoo the chickens off the chairs. We sat down gingerly knowing we would itch with chicken lice before long. Our visit was brief as we wanted to get out of the Estate road before it was too dark.

Tired but happy we pointed for home. About fifteen miles from Colombo we passed the small Viewcrest Estate, right on the main road. Noting a dim light in the home we decided to stop. Stepping into the open door we met a picture of woe and dejection.

A few days before a lightning bolt ripped a hole in the living room wall. It destroyed the radio, criss-crossed, and then it went out of the opposite wall. Fortunately, the father, mother, and daughter of the home had been in the kitchen when it happened. But it had been a fearful shock. The lightning had been drawn to a long bamboo pole on top of a jak-fruit tree, our host claimed. His wife was completely unnerved. After prayer we promised to visit them again within a week.

It had been a long day. Some of the flock wrestled with personal problems, others tussled with business worries, and still others had spiritual difficulties. Some had heavy heartaches to bear, but all, in their own way, had unburdened themselves to the Padre. God only knows what comfort the prayers and advice have been to these sheep scattered on his hills.