Juliet Coombe discovers why Jetwing Tailor Made & Jetwing Travels lead the market with over four decades of incredible and very special travel experiences.
What seemed like a great idea the night before, whilst learning to mix Big J Cocktails at Jetwing J after an amazing day doing feasible experiences, looked up at the palm trees early morning looked distinctly unattractive at6am in the morning. I am on the palm fringed beach of Jetwing Beach Hotel, Negombo, looking at a terrifying prospect of climbing a 28 foot coconut tree and walking the line from one tree to another so I could really understand first hand the challenges of making treacle. There was only one way up to the world of the coconut tapper and it was via old looking coir ropes with long dead coconut shells tied into them as footholds, surrounded by Hitchcock like crows eager to make my acquaintance, though not necessarily for positive reasons, I felt. Furthermore, I could see a large group of hornets flying around Nimal, the seasoned tapper, going about his business and when I asked Hemantha, the hotel naturalist, about them, fully expecting a response along the lines of ‘don’t worry they are the non-stinging variety’ or ‘its okay if you ignore them they won’t sting you’, I instead got ‘yes, his brother had to go to hospital in a critical condition a few days ago when he tried to clear them away at night with a torch.’ At that point, I have no idea why, I decided to carry on and give it a go, and put my foot on the first shell.
I regretted my bravado immediately and wondered how I might escape the impending humiliation until I was told it would be easier without my sandals. Sure enough my feet turned out to be more monkey-like than I realised and I had real confidence in the grip they afforded me so struck out somewhat gingerly for the treetop. The rope was rough but the shells seemed strong enough so I persevered, occasionally hugging the tree for dear life as I went. By the time I reached the top, sweating profusely with a crow squawking almost on my shoulder but feeling triumphant, I then had to negotiate huge coconut fronds to get onto the rope joining the tree to another. I was reminded at this point of my youth where using all four limbs to climb a tree wasn’t so difficult and got my confidence back again until going along the tightrope it did that thing of increasing circular motion making me think it would soon upend me and have me falling on my neck. “Push the ropes wide apart,” my worried fellow tapper finally broke his silence. Sure enough this worked, too, and although rough on the feet I made my way across to the next tree where Nimal joined me. The hornets seemed to have lost interest at this stage but the crows were definitely not letting me get away with what they saw as their free drinks so squawked away to no avail. Nimal showed me how to remove, by twisting, the pots that were full of the raw liquid, at this stage smelling a tiny bit boozy, but not for making arak in this case but for making treacle for the hotel, as they had been filled with a small bit of the tree’s bark to prevent fermentation. He also took his Crocodile Dundee knife and hacked away a little at the stump to stimulate, further, the secreting of this soon to be delicious accompaniment to yogurt/curd or ice cream. Unusually, my descent, was much easier than the ascent and this was the end of the tapping – there was a large and a medium sized pot for the morning’s work. Indrani, Nimal able assistant for collecting the juices in the pots and the keeper of the fire for boiling the raw juice, told me that they get RS/500 per large pot, and that one gallon of raw juice gets boiled down to one bottle of treacle, worth RS/75.
A wonderful lifestyle
“I have been a tapper for 43 years since I was 12 years old,” Nimal claims, having learnt the skill from a Tamil from southern India, but his son has other ideas for his future, sadly, so Nimal is looking to recruit his apprentice from the likes of me if possible, so send in your CVs if you want an amazing job in an amazing place like Jetwing Beach and Blue, but be prepared to wait a few years as he has no intention of stepping down, or should I say stepping off, any time soon and seems very proud of his job. He is very happy that I had a go, saying “I feel you have added value to the experience.” I was then taken across the road, past the fine all-weather Jetwing Beach tennis court, through the amazing oasis that is the Jetwing organic vegetable garden where I tried fresh cucumbers, to where the treacle is made in vast woks that require five hours of boiling before the sticky dark brown nectar of the gods is produced. The same cinnamon wood fires are also used to burn clean the inside of the collecting pots, which takes about ten minutes. The boiling process also kills off any residual fermentation that may have occurred in the collected liquid. Indrani and Nimal were clearly very dedicated to their jobs and had a wonderful lifestyle so for any westerners or Sri Lankans brave enough to take on this challenge, who have not yet found themselves an exciting enough career this could be the opening you have been waiting for – who knows Nimal might need relief soon for further hornet attacks or if he gets fed up with the haranguing of the crows, or you may simply want to learn all about it first or play the long game. Which ever experience you decide on when booking a trip with Jetwing Travels, remember Jetwing Hotels have developed together with them a unique range of travel experiences in their stunning portfolio of 33 hotels, that will simply blow you away with the incredible team of characters that make every trip an unforgettable one.