A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to my friend, Tim, that I was going to Sri Lanka. “Oh,” he exclaimed, “One of my favorite authors is from Sri Lanka. You should read about Michael Ondaatje’s trip back there.” That day, I ordered Running in the Family.
Ondaatje, the Booker Prize-winning author of The English Patient, grew up mainly in Canada, but he has roots in Sri Lanka. In 1978, he traveled to what was then known as Ceylon, to revisit his childhood and his ancestry. Running in the Family, about that trip, was published in 1982.
I began reading it on the flight over here, and I had it under my arm as Shawn Smucker and I walked from our hotel, across the street to the beach. I looked up to notice a man walking on ropes, high above us in the palm trees, pouring a liquid from pots into a pot that he lowered by rope to the ground.
Our very gracious hotelier, Tommy, saw us looking up and explained to us that the man was collecting the sap of the palm flower, which is subsequently fermented and made into a drink called the palm toddy and also further distilled into arrack. He told us that he’d serve us a toddy before lunch and some arrack after dinner.
After that little education, I planted myself on a chair on the beach, and opened Ondaatje’s book, wherein, after a few pages, I came across the poem, “High Flowers,” which reads, in part,
Her husband moves
in the air between trees.
The curved knife at his hip.
In high shadows
of coconut palms
he grasps a path of rope above his head
and another below him with his naked foot.
He drinks the first sweet mouthful
from the cut flower, then drains it
into a narrow-necked pot
and steps out onto the next tree.
Above the small roads of Wattala,
Kalutara, the toddy tapper walks
collecting the white liquid for tavern vats.
Down here the light
storms through branches
and boils the street.
Villagers stand in the shadow and drink
the fluid from a coned lead.
He works fast to reach his quota
before the maniac monsoon.
The shape of knife and pot
do not vary from the 18th Century museum prints.
Amazing, I thought. Moments after observing something, I read about it. These are the kinds of synergies that happens when one travels, and I am thankful for them.
As I completed this post, Tommy handed me a Coke bottle full of toddy harvested this morning. I’ve poured a glass — it smells very yeasty, and tastes sweet, with a bit of carbonation. Me likey! Thanks, Tommy.