"Desmond?" we say in mild desperation. "Ah, that way, then up, past the house, right, right again" comes the reply from the old lady. Desmond, the secret password to getting back to where we came from. It turns out that the name of our lovely host at the Octagon Retreat is so well known that it works as a direction. Thank God, because we ain't in Google Maps world anymore.
We've ventured away from our comfortable world of tea gardens and veranda breakfasts to explore one of the many nearby jungle villages. And we've done it in the name of our four year old daughter.
Back in Delhi, what seems like a lifetime ago but in reality is only a couple of months, we were staying with our good friends Simone, Jennifer and their two sons. Shan and Diran have hearts of gold but aren't the quietest of kids, and they had the drum kit to prove it. Over the course of the week, they adopted Olivia as their honorary little sister and along with shouting, sofa acrobatics and wrestling, she fell in love with banging away at those drums.
Now, one thing we were guilty of at the beginning of this trip was not doing enough activities that played to her interests. But we've learned quickly that where she has a passion, there's usually something to see or do that relates to it. And so, here we are, with our little Ringo Starr, in Kurugala, the village community in the central Sri Lankan highlands that is entirely devoted to drum-making.
A ten minute walk turns out to be a little longer and sweatier than advertised, but soon we scramble down some rocks and tree roots into the village. There are no tourists here, no coaches parked up for a spot of sightseeing. Rather, we are the attractions, the funny Westerners interested in their everyday, supposedly menial jobs. By the time we're done looking around, we're being followed by a whole group of villagers, not pointing cameras but just plain pointing. This is the real Sri Lanka and we are our own tour guides.
Drums are a big deal in Sri Lanka, a poignant instrument used to mark every special occasion in a person's life, from their birth to their death. Kandy, the nearest city, is famous for the traditional wooden Geta Beraya drums that accompany the wild Kandyan dancing, and this is where they're made by one of the lowest castes in the country. The process doesn't take place in a factory, but in the open air, under makeshift shelters and in family homes. We wander through the production line, unaided.
Tree trunks, hacked roughly to size, pile up by the roadside. A man stretches an improbably long, flat strip of something taut from tree to tree. We get up close to see that it is animal skin, ready to zigzag the circumference of the drums. Olivia decides that it must have been a python, in a classic piece of kid logic. Under a shelter, a woman chisels away at the trunks, turning them gradually, painfully, into their characteristic shape and curve. At the entrance to the village, the finished, shining, painted instruments are lined up, hoping to become a souvenir in a suitcase or a stage star in the big city.
Back in the Octagon that night, River bangs the five litre water bottle that we nickname his 'drum', while his sister plays the real deal. On the surface, the scene is the same as it was that morning. But something has shifted. Now she knows how that instrument turned from a tree to a sound, how it came to life and who made it happen. That drum in the corner comes with a story. And that, surely, is what travelling is all about.