Of Crocodiles and more on Cinnamon Island:
Scarcely a metre long, the silvery green baby crocodile looks for all the world as if it could be a child’s toy made of rubber. Fierce beady eyes and a mouth full of razor sharp white teeth are just a warning for the future. For now, a miniature dog’s lead around his plump belly keeps this money-spinner from scurrying off into the wetlands. The growing line of visitors on the quay waits to be photographed with the reptile. A quick snap perhaps?
From the banks of the Madu Ganga, we have travelled downstream to the estuary in search of wildlife but spotted little other than a few birds and a water snake gliding through the murky mangrove swamps. Here, on Cinnamon Island, we have a chance to learn a little more about the spice that made Sri Lanka rich. And, to meet the crocodile. Perhaps he doesn’t catch much in his jaws yet, but he certainly traps the tourists.
Cinnamon is the stuff legends are made of. The Cynnamolgus was a large phoenix-like bird that collected cinnamon sticks to build nests. Herodotus claimed the bird lived in Arabia building its nest on sheer cliff fronts. Harvesting the spice involved tempting the bird to carry heavy chunks of meat back to the nest, weighing it down so that the nest fell to the ground. Aristotle preferred the idea that natives sent weighted arrows up into the tree tops where the nests were built, once again bringing the valuable spice down to earth. While the myths and legends were intended to protect the secrets of the spice traders, the result was a fiercely disputed territory until the 1830s, when cinnamon started to be grown elsewhere.
Now the smart money is in tourism. This tiny estuary island, one of sixty-four in the estuary, is devoted to cinnamon farming. Set foot on land and the unmistakable heady scent of cinnamon oil is all-pervasive. Every inch of the island is covered with dark green cinnamon shrubs.
Sitting cross-legged on the ground, a small knife in one hand and a long green stick in the other, the cinnamon farmer shaves away the outer bark. Next, he rolls the stick between his hands a few times before slicing down the stick and deftly unpeeling it. He rolls this papery layer tightly between his hands, piling it to the side ready to add to the coir hanging nets under the banana-leaf roof of the building. The cinnamon sticks dry out naturally in the shade and after a week are cut to size and ready to be sold.
There is plenty to buy. I’m tempted; a tiny packet of cinnamon tea scents my bag like spilt perfume. Travelling back to the mainland I peer into the riverside shacks. Washing hanging out on lines, children waving from the riverbank and even the occasional TV and fridge. Despite the calm, much of this part of the world was washed away ten years ago by the Tsunami and there’s plenty still to rebuild. Cinnamon is just one part of the rehabilitation programme.