Our mission to bring back the Chubby marches inland, deep into the heart of Sri Lanka’s hill country. Where names have been omitted, we are merely respecting the wishes of the people involved. For those who feel I have overstated our goal to “set up a new Idylwilde factory,” I will be very clear. We are not pouring concrete foundations. We are not building a new factory from the ground up. We are seeking to build a new relationship with an established fly manufacturer. One that will meet our standards, and allow Idylwilde to grow as the demand for our flies grows. It’s a risky proposition, fraught with pitfalls and blind corners. But great reward requires great risk. And so, we continue our journey…
After two days of rest, Zach and I were eager to get down to business. Our host picked us up early in the morning and drove us deep into the mountains. We climbed and swerved from village to village, making our way up the ancient, circuitous Kandy Road. The two-lane slalom was a bustle of pedestrians, bicycles, cars, motorcycles, Tuk-Tuks, busses, dogs, and roadside stands. I’d never seen anything like it. Villages swarmed with shoppers, merchants, taxi drivers, and the occasional cow-drawn cart. I decided that Sri Lankans must be the best drivers in the world. Somehow everyone expertly weaved and dodged through an impossible mess of speeding humanity. By the time we stopped for lunch, my eyes were bugged out and my nerves were shot. Zach and our host were un-phased. “Dude, first time in Asia?”
At our lunch stop we paused to admire the perfection of a blue lotus flower. They are a marvel anywhere you see them. But here, in the heart of this ancient Buddhist kingdom, the flower seemed to have special meaning. Zach and I were on a quest for rebirth, and here before us was the age-old symbol of rebirth and awakening. We took a moment to appreciate its beauty and significance before rejoining the race.
From Kandy we turned south and found ourselves ascending the Mahaweli River valley. Suddenly we were at home, craning our necks at every vista to get another view of the river below. Steep, forested hills towered above, glowing in a million shades of green. Showers fell and passed. Fog rose from the freshly watered jungle. The Mahawali Ganga (meaning big sandy river) was a tropical version of the lower Umpqua. Its pools were deep, roily, and mysterious. Its whitewater made my heart race. I knew that somewhere in that greenish-brown torrent lived the mystical mahseer–the fish of my dreams–along with umpteen other strange and beautiful aquatic wonders.
We reached the fly factory in early afternoon. It was an impressive, cheerful operation. The manager ran down the vital stats concerning tyers’ wages and benefits. He was preparing to raise wages by 20% in order to attract and retain quality tyers as we ramped up. We toured the modern, spotless canteen where breakfast and lunch were served daily. Finally, we walked the floor and spent time watching the tyers–and being watched by them. Americans were clearly a strange and exotic site to these women. Much as a Sri Lankan elephant would be to us.
Our host proved to be unfailingly honest and straightforward. In turn, Zach’s down-to-Earth style was well received. We met with the floor managers and lead tyers, discussing quality standards and best practices. We demonstrated special tying techniques unique to our patterns. Near the end of that day, the first Idylwilde patterns started flowing off the vises. The quality was excellent! It was becoming clear that we had found a suitable new home for Idylwilde.
The next day we got to work transferring our fly patterns into the new system. Then came more training. I had to become comfortable tying with a crowd of young women looking over my shoulder. Cool, and a bit weird. The pressure was intense. Many of these ladies were seasoned pros who could have tied circles around me. But they looked on with interest and picked up our techniques with ease.
Our first nights in the hill country were magical. We dined and slept at a lodge near the top of a high ridge. Fireflies blinked in an out of the forest canopy. Strange birds called back and forth to each other. Frogs and toads sang praises to the rain gods. We sat on a deck amidst this symphony, swigging Lion Lager and munching on fried cashews and curry leaves. Zach and our host debated Asian history and politics. I tried to soak it all in, hoping some of it would stick.
We were as far from Oregon as we could get on planet Earth. The air was sweet and strange. I felt like I had crossed into another dimension. Idylwilde’s future was growing stronger with each passing day, and I couldn’t wait to see what the morning would bring!