We arrived at our ‘colonial bungalow’ around 3:30 in the afternoon. It was raining, and we were greeted at the door by our umbrella toting host, Wolfgang. Wolfgang is the owner of the property. He and his family live in Colombo and normally have a house manager taking care of the guests. The house manager had to be away this week, and as it happened, much to our great delight we found Wolfgang pressed into duty. I started chatting with Wolgang in German, and his reply to my query about where he came from in Germany was ‘one hour east of Cologne.’ Ha! Small World Story coming on! I told him I had worked in the Rothaargebirge, and although I forgot the name of his village, it was in Kreis Olpe, the same county as my village, Heinsberg. The capper to this regional reminiscing was that we both favored Krombacher Pils. Here I am again at what feels like the edge of the world, and I find someone to reminisce with about an obscure corner of Germany. We would only spend 24 hours as Wolgang’s guest, but the whole group found him an excellent addition to our party.
In spite of the rain outside, and little knowledge of where we were exactly, Bernie wanted to stretch his legs after the day’s 7 hour journey, almost 5 of which was spent in the van. His goal was to find bottled water, but when I said I would join him, drinking a bottle of Lion Stout accompanied by Diablo cashews as recommended in the Lonely Planet book became our primary mission. We walked the 1.3 km into town on the paved road and found the 5 star Windsor Hotel right on our route. Now, Wolgang told us there were no proper pubs in Nuwara Eliya and that we would have to drink in a hotel, but here on the lower level of the building was a sign ‘Public Bar’. Bernie and I ventured in and found it to be populated with only locals, a few at the bar but most sitting at the tables lining the walls of the square room. There was a single tap with Lion Strong beer and an assortment of arack liquor bottles. Bernie really wanted the Lion Stout, and the bartender after consulting with a customer pointed to the ceiling and said we had to go upstairs. We went outside, around the corner and up a story to the entrance of the 5 star Windsor hotel. A different world just around the corner. They did in fact have Lion Stout, but the bar was closed. No problem, they opened it up just for us. Bernie and I had the room to ourselves with the bartender. We ordered up the diablo cashews and split a large bottle of Stout. After the first taste, we understood why the Lonely Planet put in special mention for this brew. We soon ordered a second and the cashews finally came, freshly sauteed with spices, curry leaves and garlic. Bernie is a very gregarious person and he soon had our bartender engaged in Q&A ‘Where do you live? How many children? Will you pick your son’s bride?’ This bar had all the western liquor bottles, a large bottle of sake, and even Paul Mason wines. ‘Bery, Bery good wine, from California,’ stated our host. Yes, burgundy, chablis and rosé in liter bottles with a pop cap. There were even a few bottles of french wine, one of them a 15 year old Saint Emilion. Now, that was a good wine if it had survived its long sojourn in the tropics. No matter how fine the wine, however, I was here to experience local brews, so down we went to the Public Bar to try Lion Strong on tap and arack, the local liquor brewed from coconuts.
The bartender greeted us with the same large smile as when we came in the first time. One of the cigarette smoking locals slid down the bar away from us as we took up positions, but soon Bernie was deep into his Q&A with the bartender, both of them smiling widely. We were not going to be wall flowers sipping our brews and keeping our distance from the locals. (As an aside, I must say it has been very nice being able to find so many English speakers, thanks to the British Empire.) The bartender introduced us to arack after we asked what the stuff was. People were ordering arack, then a plate of biscuits with butter to go with it. ‘Biscuits and arak!’ became something funny to laugh about. Soon, the real antics started, an experience I am sure the locals will be talking about for a long time.
Bernie ducked his long frame under the bar top and asked if he could start serving customers. He did thus for about 5 minutes, getting proper instruction on the filling of 50 cl and 100 cl glasses of arack. A local wandered in and everyone laughed at the shock on his face when Bernie demanded, ‘What are you drinking?’ After Bernie rejoined the rest of us customers, and old man with many teeth missing and a very dirty beanie perched on his head came in and stood next to us. He was not an english speaker. He got right into the mix and offered to buy us drinks. Then we bought him a drink. He counter offered, and when we tried to politely refuse, he pulled out a wad of cash, ostensibly to show us this was no problem for him. The other customers told us he was a goldsmith, and an important man. He sure did not look the part. He was not wearing any gold and his clothes were old and tired. I don’t know what this man was seeing in Bernie, his height or his big smile, or both and something else only he perceived, but he started blessing Bernie by running his fingers through Bernie’s hair and caressing his face, then holding both Bernie’s hands in his in a prayer position. Bernie reciprocated. I got in on the action. This all ended with us having to say goodbye and get back to the bungalow for a curry dinner. Back through the rain, and well, without the bottled water.
During dinner, Bernie and I were quite animated about our little adventure. I could see in my family’s mirthful eyes that they were enjoying seeing ‘daddy’ so silly. Wolfgang was attending to us during dinner, and seemed very interested in this bar experience. We said we would go back and show him. Wolfgang was a bit hesitant. but agreed as long as we let him play the part of a german tourist. They do have some sort of caste system here to which I am pretty ignorant, but it was obvious that whites were in a totally different class from the locals, and it seemed Wolfgang did not want to cross this divide. German tourist was acceptable, but local landowners drink upstairs. The three of us fit into the back of a tuck-tuck for the ride into town. It was still raining. The bar was much less crowded when we came back for round two, and we slipped right back in from where we left off. More rounds of beer, another round of arack, I took my turn tending bar. I got a lot more coaching than Bernie did. Apparently, I kept filling the beer glasses too high. ‘Good for the customer, bad for the company,’ the bartender advised. Even the customers we politely scolding my for being too generous. Funny, but you would not get that reaction in America. The bar closed at 11 PM and the three of us staggered home. We were getting to the point where the only way the night’s events could be reconstructed was if all 3 of us put our heads together to remember what was done and said. I paid dearly for this night the next morning when we got up a 5:30 AM to hike the 7 mile roundtrip to World’s End.