Walking on fire

What is it about fire walkers?  Obviously the appeal to the inner pyromaniac is nearly universal,  judging from the enduring fascination with ritual fire walking. The μgnome checked out a  particularly gritty fire walk display during a visit to Central Sri Lanka in January 2008. It  occurred to him that fire walking was a metaphor for the state of the nation: it looked and  smelled dangerous but continued to draw the tourists and wasn’t as harmful as some  made out. When people got hurt, there were no foreigners among the casualties.

I was in Sri Lanka on WHO business, supporting a clinical laboratory development project. The programme was a relatively simple matter of bringing in some laboratory equipment, running it to confirm the presence of an exotic tropical disease and helping out with a laboratory workshop. What added a small frisson of excitement was the unsteady state of civil affairs due to the resumption of hostilities between the main protagonists in a long running civil war. We made a few concessions to these uncertainties, including the hire of a minivan to avoid the supposed risks of travel up-country by train or bus. True, there were check points and heavily armed soldiers at key points along the winding road from the coastal strip up into the Central Highlands. But at no stage did we feel threatened or harassed. People were polite, charming and eager to please. Which made for a remarkably relaxed expedition.

As the road wound into the hills the landscape transforms from lowland rice fields and coconut plantations, to occasional pineapple, then rubber plantation and upland rice terraces. The humid coastal air starts to clear and steep ravines begin to cut into hillsides. The Kandy road is a slow and winding route all too often clogged by slow-moving trucks or buses, tailed by a string of frustrated small cars and the omnipresent tuktuks. This is a place to slow down and enjoy the view; so often one of outstanding beauty.

In Central Sri Lanka your average tourist is likely to visit the botanic gardens at Peradeniya, queue to see Budda’s tooth for a few seconds in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy and possibly visit the markets in the centre of town. But the μgnome had work to do and thus had to squeeze these activities into an already busy schedule including training local staff in molecular microbiology methods, tracking down the first rubber trees planted in the area, and collecting soil samples from established rubber plantations in the area. There was also a bit of conventional bacterial analysis to do at the medical school’s laboratories with staff from the University of Peradeniya. The scientific outcome of these activities has been written up elsewhere.

Sadly, the μgnome was so engrossed in microbiology that it proved impossible to visit the elephant orphanage at Pinnawala. This unique wildlife sanctuary had to wait over a year for a visit from the μgnome. But it was well worth the wait: elephants as far as the eye can see, and plenty of employment for the local community in wildlife and tourism occupations. A second visit provided an opportunity to go back and see the fire walkers, fire eaters and the Kandian dancers again. This proud and independent Central Sri Lankan culture seems, at least in its traditional dance, to stand above the difficulties of internal civil conflict. So maybe it takes a bit of heavy metal and mask- wearing, head-banging to shrug off the animosity of a protracted conflict.

The Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya lie alongside the Mahaweli River and contain some of the earliest plantings of rubber trees in Sri Lanka. The wide avenues of the arboretum and heavy with a strange smell around dusk, when lots of fruit bats gather on the upper branches. The air is moist with bat urine – the μgnome thought briefly about exposure to bat lyssavirus, then dismissed the idea on the grounds that the large numbers of young couples in conversation at the base of almost every tree were probably quite good evidence against a measurable risk of rabies-like disease from this particular source.

You can go uphill from Kandy if you travel to the true highland area where tea is grown around Nuwara Eliya. The former colonial power would probably call this a hill station. Vestiges of that era can be found in plantation names like ‘Inverness’. We saw manual tea picking in action in one of those plantations. Hard work of ever there was, and for meagre pay .  The women who do the picking get paid by the weight they pick, squeezed between tightly packed rows of Camellia bushes. They line up at the end of each shift with their load and might, if particularly successful, earn a bonus from the supervisor. At this altitude the air is cooler, and clouds often shroud the hillsides with misty tendrils. The slow road back downhill towards Colombo takes you through an incredible hillscape with deep river gorges. One of these was where they shot parts of the film Bridge over the River Kwai. There is a perfectly good suspension footbridge over the river at this point. Alec Guinness eat your heart out.



  1. Do you plan to keep this site updated? I sure hope so… its great!


  1. […] micrognauts who haven’t yet heard about the latest outcomes of the twinning project with Sri Lanka have an opportunity to get up to speed next week, when there will be a talk on Emerging Infectious […]

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