The Meemure residents are almost completely self-sufficient. They have to be, because getting out of the village is difficult. The water they drink, bathe and cook with is supplied by a pipeline, straight from the surrounding Knuckles range. There are no electric motors – the water trickles gently into the large cement tanks used for water storage. This works well for seven or eight months, a resident says, but for the rest of the time there is little water and it is difficult to manage.
Nearby is a natural, flowing stream, but this too dries up at times. Now, it is flowing, and many of the village’s women gather to bathe there. As I watch, a young woman and her older companion gather rocks and leaves, creating a dam, and a natural rock pool.
This is part of a Meemure resident’s everyday life. Most of them have no electricity, except the lucky houses equipped with generators. They grow their own rice (farming being the main livelihood in these parts) evidenced by the sprawling paddy fields that are ringed by the looming Knuckles mountain range, and some vegetables too. A little village shop sells some essential items. It is also many residents’ only link to the outside world – the shop has a CDMA phone which is used by most of the villagers when they need to make a call to town. In addition to this, the shop is also a place to gather and socialize – there is a simple shelter made of wood, complete with benches and a carrom table. The woman who runs the shop (a small structure just in front of her own home) serves sweet plain tea to anyone who shows up on her doorstep.
It is a simple life, with little or no luxuries; there are no guesthouses or five star hotels. The rare visitors who choose to linger here can try asking for shelter at one of the two local temples. We slept in the smaller one, which lay right near the foot of the imposing Lakegala, part of the Knuckles mountain range. Thin mats served as beds, and the only light available was from a few candles and a fiercely burning paraffin lamp lent to us by the monks.
Hospitality In Hard Times
Although there were few facilities, there was little discomfort experienced. For what stands out the most about Meemure are the people and their easy sense of hospitality. An elderly couple willingly agreed to cook meals for a hungry group of eight strangers, (armed with supplies) without hesitation. The food they made was simple, but delicious – fish curry, pol sambol, all flavoured with kochchi, the small, fiery red chilli that is grown here as well. The couple’s children, it turns out, have moved far away from this village – one son is in Colombo, a school principal who occasionally writes for a newspaper. A daughter is in London. Yet the couple expresses no sadness, though the lines on their face are testament to the hard times they have faced. They do not complain about their difficulties. They are only curious about visitors and their stories.
This friendliness is evident everywhere in Meemure. At one point, taking a wrong turn, we ended up near an unfamiliar house, perched near the foot of Lakegala. This was the home of a solitary elderly lady, who lamented that she had nothing to offer me to eat, not even a biscuit. ‘You look so hungry,’ she told me, ignoring the fact that she herself was thin as a street waif. She helped me pluck leeches from my feet and scolded me like a good-natured aunt for coming the wrong way. I reminded her, she said, of her younger sister, who had died some years ago.
Naturally, the temple too plays its own part in community life. Every Saturday, the monks at the smaller temple hold a traditional dance class for young children of the village. One man plays the traditional drum and relays instructions, with the monk keeping a close watch on the young, playful children. On Sunday mornings, there is religion class.
The Perfect Escape
Apart from trekking, there is not much to do in Meemure. It is somewhere you go to escape. Getting back to civilisation, when you’re ready, though, is a task. There is a van that leaves, daily, at 5:30 a.m. People queue up to get in the van in the early hours, though, and it is soon full up. Otherwise, you can take the ‘cab’ a small covered truck. Our group took the latter. As we bounced along the bumpy road, people kept turning up on the sides of the road – entire families hoping to get to Hunnasgiriya, the nearest town. Several said they needed to go to hospital – but the truck was already far too full. Four or five determined women clambered in ignoring all protests – hauling in sacks of vegetables to sell at the town market. A man even clung on to the back, there being no space inside, while several of the women remained standing. And still the families kept clamouring for a space on the truck. Meanwhile, the vehicle struggled up the steep inclines of road, often rolling backwards so that half the passengers had to jump out and then run behind the vehicle. A journey that ordinarily takes two hours (in a van) took four hours in the cab. Yet the residents did not complain once. The women (several of whom looked to be at least 60 years) shared fruit with us, consoled a panicky baby (also in the back) and swapped stories about what they would sell at the market. To them, this was just another Sunday.
Apart from the stunning scenery, the best thing about Meemure is most definitely the people. I could not help but feel a twinge of guilt, though, as I watched a farmer haul a sack of vegetables to his field. To us, this was a holiday, but the people of Meemure live largely without electricity and access to public transport without complaint. As long as Meemure remains hidden away from the world, it will be not just a perfect getaway but also a living snapshot of a different age; a simpler age.