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Sri Lanka

14 August 2011 57,361 views No Comment

Festival
Trains & buses
Surf beach
In the hills
Tea

Cities

Colombo is the main gateway to Sri Lanka. The capital is just three and a half hours flight Bangkok, straight across the Bay of Bengal. The passengers comprised a broad range of nationalities making me wonder where everyone was coming from and going to; I hadn’t thought of Colombo as a transfer hub.
Like it or not, arrivals is your first impressions of a country or city so I giggled because in addition to the usual Duty Free items there was a full range of white goods available: washing machines, microwaves, the works. Then I sighed at just how long it took for baggage to make the last twenty metres of its journey to us across the tarmac. And then I smiled again, because also waiting in arrivals were the Australian cricket team also waiting for their gear. What an appropriate welcome.
Formally Ceylon, Sri Lanka is mostly known for tea, cricket and a horrible civil war that seemed interminably long. Since 2009 the country has been at peace but there are still pockets of conflict & danger in the north where there is a higher population of Tamils and governance is just less tight.
My airport driver helpfully informed me “there have been no bombs since two years”. Certainly the city that I saw seemed safe enough although there were armed guards around a lot of the roads, it was very very quiet after dark, and there were more tourist touts than street cats.

fit for a king

My uncertainty about the security and atmosphere in Sri Lanka was the reason I’d booked a decent hotel, and airport driver, for my arrival. Galle Face Hotel is 206 years old, one of the old colonial classics. It brought to mind the Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh and the Royal Livingstone in Zambia. I liked it straight away for its unpolished floor boards, the Victorian elevator, and the numerous in-room features that were basically crummy but I chose to find endearing: rattling aircon, wonky light fixtures, over fussy curtains.
In the morning the rooms on the other side of the corridor – the good side – were being cleaned so I had a bit of a look around. The suites were massive, massively luxurious and of course had the best views. Framed by luxurious furnishings I got my first view of the Indian Ocean.

when in Rome

The terraced restaurant and wide lawn overlooking the ocean also felt really colonial, as did the enormous buffet breakfast. There was tonnes of fresh fruit (finally I actually found out what guava is), shelves of pastries, lots of hot options, a man on full time egg duty, a man on full time coffee duty. I had egg hoppers with sambal and coconut pikku without really knowing what at least two of those things were. Hoppers are a light, coconut milk batter cooked in a small, deep wok to make thin, bowl-shaped Sri Lankapancakes. Different ingredients are added, so mine had an egg in the base, others might have sugar, coconut, pineapple, coconut, coconut. The batter was crisp, great to dip on the yolk or sambal. Pikku, roughly speaking, is finely grated coconut with flour steamed in a bamboo tube. It pops out like a sausage of coconut goodness and you slice a piece, drizzle with coconut milk and enjoy with curry or sauces; it’s an alternative to rice. I was trying these new dishes when I made myself a promise: this is the last time I travel somewhere new on my own. I decided I’ve had enough of experiencing new, cool things, even if it is just eggs in batter or a pretty lawn, and sharing them only with my book or my phone.

The lawn at sunset was lovely and really popular. The dusk covered up any worse-for-wear parts of the hotel, the ocean sounded nice, we had a breeze and the bar snacks were just spicy enough. I decided this was a good time to acquaint with the local beer so I tried one of each. Conclusions: the draft lager (no name) was genuinely awful, Three Coins was very malty, Lion was alright, Anchor was the best for a crisp lager taste. Good holiday intel.

by hook or by crook

My first outing in Colombo was not a raging success… I got text book touted, like so text book it’s on page 42 of the The Book. Nothing bad happened but it was unpleasant, unnerving and my pride was hurt – it had taken me too long to realise and react. So it was back to the hotel to regroup. And I promised myself again, but this time for a different reason, that this is the last time I travel somewhere new on my own.

My interest in the city had waned but a friendly hotel driver helped me out. He gave me some sound advice and I tried to take it graciously. Nothing else bad happened in Sri Lanka. For the duration of my trip I was hassled non stop and the haggling and bargaining with taxi drivers and touts was beyond ridiculous but that’s the way it (exhaustingly) goes, and it was nothing really threatening.

what you see is what you get

Pettah is the market district in Colombo, it’s described as ‘a bustling bazaar’. There are lots of household goods, snacky foods, clothing, toys, think an outdoor Asian style Woolworths. I nosed around a bit but didn’t linger.
The ocean front was the other area I was interested to see. The Indian Ocean is not beautiful here, it’s grey and foamy, breaking in short, messy waves on a narrow sand and rock beach. I liked how the waves gave a really inconsistent soundtrack, and I dunno, I just think grey water looks useful, like it’s meant for tankers and cargo, not the silly sparkly water that’s made for surf skis and body boards :) Galle Face Green is known as a Sunday hangout and just as The Book says there were numerous couples cuddled together under umbrellas for shade, youngsters flying kites and stalls selling snackfood – these odd looking open prawn toast things which do not look or smell delicious.

it’s not what you know…

The other major towns in Sri Lanka are Galle, down at seven o’clock on the coast, and Kandy in the hills. I came to Kandy towards the end of my trip.
I knew there was a festival on in Kandy but I hadn’t realised the full scale or implications until I got there. My bus into town was so crowded that heaps of us had to stand, there was a scramble for tuk tuks, it was, in short, chaos.
This was the first time I did a proper homestay which was something new for me. And also new to have the charming, generous mum cook dinner, and the friendly, inquisitive dad sit chatting, looking at me while I ate dinner. Still, it was some of the best food I had in Sri Lanka, beautifully delicious home cooking: rice, egg curry, gourd, taro, tomato & onion salad.
Aware that I didn’t know enough about this busy festival I tagged along with another couple walking from the homestay, hoping they would know where to go, what to do, everything really. Unfortunately they didn’t like me and ditched me as soon as possible. Oh.

best seat in the house

I was on a street which appeared to double as a dressing room for performers (awful lot of people wearing bells and heavy eye liner) and elephants (awful lot of elephants around). Clearly lost and stupid I kept walking until I saw the temple. What I mean is, I was stood by the temple walls and when I turned around and leaned back on the temple walls the festival crowd were, well, crowded behind the temple fences. Somehow I was on the inside, actually in the temple grounds. I felt terrible about those poor buggers who – seven or eight people deep in some places – had obviously been waiting for hours to get their good seats, and I’d just stumbled into the more-than-front row. So had Brendan & Scott, two Canadian guys I met also leaning against the temple walls. And that temple, really, you’d be keen for a front row seat to see that alone. Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) is smooth white all over, with a half moat, thousands, no millions, of fairy lights all over, and broad, sweeping steps up to the main entrance. Gorgeous. Thinking we’d get busted at any moment we were making the most of our time there, drinking in the atmosphere and taking photos, especially Brendan who, it turned out, was a professional photographer. And then we were toast as polices, guards and officials came from all around moving us along, but they were moving us to the press area, “press, this way” etc. So we were in prime position, inside the temple grounds, on the corner with direct views to where the festival started (the street I’d come from), and where it ended (the temple steps). In between the festival would weave for four hours or more around the city. This was something else. This took Party in the Park apart. If there’s one way to see Sri Lanka’s second city I highly recommend the press box on closing night of its biggest annual festival.

lightning never strikes twice

The first act were whip crackers expertly wrist flicking and creating much more noise than you expected from their skinny whips. Then fire twirlers, but I mean, like seriously good sh!t, not some boozed guy on a Thai beach, these kids were twirling fire with their heads (yes), on giant wheels around them, on batons as they strolled on stilts, throwing flame truncheons high high, still walking, and catching them. And they were all so close together, and the heat was incredible. My mouth was wide open. The only thing I could say to Scott was “SO much fire”.
So that was the thunder and lightening that let’s you know the rest of the storm, the procession, is on its way.
The storm comes in the form of clouds – elephants, followed by rain – dancers. Each storm danced to slightly different music and had different themes, decorations and colours. There were pompoms, hankerchiefs, sticks, plate spinners, maypoles, it was incredible, and all of the elephants were piled with lights powered by battery packs hanging from their necks.
I liked the guys who walked alongside the performers organising and managing the situation. Some carried torches of coconut shells on fire, some replenished the torches, some were scooping up elephant poo, some were collecting coins thrown by the crowd. The burning coconut shells smelled lovely, like chestnuts, and they kept washing warm waves over us as we stood there.
This festival was to celebrate the tooth relic of the Buddha that’s kept at the temple. At the very end of that procession the best temple elephants walked with the important people and an imitation of the tooth is paraded; the real tooth never leaves the temple. When the relic passed all of the crowd get up on their feet in respect. The relic used to be carried by the absolute Sri Lankabest temple elephant but at the moment they use different elephants because they haven’t got an official best one. The previous elephant that everyone loved was THE elephant of his time and when he died it was a genuine disaster. At the temple there’s a museum for him, and, I’m not sure about this part but he’s in there, stuffed.
After the relic went past, there were four more processions, similar to the first but slightly less grand. The boys and I abandoned the press enclosure to go for a wander around the streets (I was hoping to find beer). It was eerie around the town; either the streets were deserted, and in some cases shut off (we climbed over the fences), or the streets were jammed with people craning to see the show. No beer though – the town is dry for the festival.

not just a pretty face

I saw Kandy the following day by daylight. It was fun, & sometimes tricky, piecing places together without the traffic restrictions, firelight or elephants. The temple looked a bit sad, like a Christmas tree when you take its decorations off. But inside it was superb, one of the best I’ve ever seen – beautiful paintings, lovely woodwork, The Book describes it as ‘plain’ but I much preferred that style. The highlight of the temple is the relic room. It’s like the crown jewel room at the Tower of London; interest, tension & jostling heightened, necks craning, fingers twitching on shutters and railings. Here there was also a gorgeous heady scent because everyone brings roses and blossoms to through in, near or around the relic. It was hectic.

The atmosphere around Kandy was relaxed, more relaxed than Colombo, but I appreciate it was in festival mood, a dry town, and with a disproportionate number of visitors, it might be different when the festival isn’t on.

Coast

Most of my time in Sri Lanka was spent in land, in the hills. I got a taste of the ocean at my Colombo hotel, for a few days at Arugam Bay and I spent my last twelve hours on Negombo beach. That was amusing… I’d got the bus from Kandy, the bus had broken down so I grabbed a tuk tuk for the remaining journey, checked in, wandered around the ‘town’ (strip of shops), had awesome rice’n’curry and then planted myself on the beachfront with a beer, a book and my phone. Thank all the Sinhalese, Tamil and festival gods that I had my phone because my flight reminder popped up with three hours notice, not in fact the one day and three hours notice that I thought I had. So my exit from Sri Lanka was, well, mental, but I can say I enjoyed it up to the very last opportunity!

close for comfort

The coastal bits I saw were fun. I took the train Colombo – Matara, a four hour ride that takes you from nine to six o’clock around the coast of Sri Lanka, and it really was on the coast. On a map you can’t see the gap between the railway and the coast and we were right on the beach for a lot of the time, ocean air blowing through the sash windows. I wish people weren’t such fools because if they were less foolish there’d be more trains with sash windows and I think that would be a great improvement in the world.

Various people came through the carriage selling food, drinks, sort of scratch card/ lottery tickets. I wasn’t familiar with street food yet and I hadn’t decided what was/ wasn’t safe so I said “no” to everything. And when a guy came on selling oranges it was a definite “no”; I’d seen them washing blue mould off oranges in the Pettah market the day before. Ming.

may the best team win

At Galle a trio of Dutch dudes had joined my carriage and we’d got chatting, they were heading in the same direction so we joined forces, by which I mean I upped my bargaining power and they got someone to take photos for them. From Matara we were headed to Arugam Bay. Unfortunately public transport in Sri Lanka isn’t organised by time or timetable or map or, well anything really, you just rely on word-of-mouth from other travellers and the locals who are keen to con you into a private car. So that was how we spent the rest of that day; bouncing from placeSri Lanka to place on the coast being told that we would/ wouldn’t (wouldn’t, wouldn’t) get to Arugam Bay that night. We passed through Matara, to Tissamahara and on to Katamagara. The bus journeys had it all: bhangra music, overcrowded-ness, erratic braking, harsh accelerating, honk honk honking and the most stunning, pulsing sun set.

Katamagara is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous religious towns and it attracts a lot of people who want to come and worship at one of the three daily pujas. I’m sure there are some pleasant and interesting parts of the town but we were using it as a transition point so we just slalomed through the touts, grabbed a room for the night and headed for plates of rice before an early night.

And the sunrise from the bus was just as gorgeous as the sunset the night before had been: coming up over the lakes & trees & plains, the sky melting, this warm, glorious pink with washes of white fluffy cloud, like a sky of candyfloss.

sun, sea & sand

Pottuvil serves as the gateway to Arugam Bay, it’s an unexciting town but does its job. Since leaving the train we’d worked our way to four o’clock on the island and were now on the Bay of Bengal. Actually no more ‘we’, Lars, Niels and Evan went in search of their surf shack, and I went in search of mine. Surf, yes, that’s what Arugam Bay is known for. So…

It’s a working bay as well as a surfing destination so there are fishing boats – similar to the long tail boats of Thailand – parked around the beach and sunkissed scrawny types from all over the globe running around with boards. The beach is nice but not pristine, the sand is yellow, a bit dirty in places and the South tidal lagoon is quite crummy. But the water is temptingly blue and champagne sparkly. The surf doesn’t break cleanly along the whole beach, there are patches of different action. At Main Point the surf breaks perpendicular to the shore. It’s great for surfers because instead of paddling out through the break you can hop out and walk back up the beach to start again. And for spectators it offers a different perspective of the surf, you can see the surfer riding with the wave behind them, going past you rather than coming towards you. In the main bay is Baby Point. Here the waves also break perpendicular to the shore but inside the bay and so with less power, speed and height.
Arugam Bay has a reputation for being a small ‘crashed out’ village. There’s one main concrete road that runs parallel to the beach and then only dirt or sand tracks connecting everything else. Hotels, guesthouses and actual bamboo huts are clustered in the village separated by food stalls, shops and proper restaurants. The businesses all try to cater for everything – surf board hire, organised tours, cold drinks, accommodating, fresh roti, WiFi – sometimes it’s tricky to see where one place ends and another begins.

too cool for school

I didn’t mind Arugam Bay. It’s small and so you feel at home quite quickly, I liked the plastic seat places that play reggae in the day and Sri Lankan tunes in the evening with fried rice for 200 SLR all the time. But there were also overly trendy, posing places, a lot of designer beach ware and plenty of inflated prices.
Arugam Bay is known as a backpacker meccah so I was surprised to be mixing it with swish couples, eco-families and what looked like, well, package tour types. I couldn’t see any of them navigating the buses, tuk tuks and locals to get here. My gut instinct was correct. I spoke with a couple of people and they said there are groups coming in by bus direct from the airport. And Aussie Dan (friend from the beach) said that he’d had a private transfer (loaded boy) from Colombo to Arugam Bay both times he’s been to Sri Lanka, in fact he’d never seen anything other than the airport and Arugam Bay, ha.

movers and shakers

At the north end of the beach was Stardust Hotel, where they held yoga classes in a cool, clean studio, right on the beach with a gorgeous breeze and the sound of the ocean. Yoga Kevin from San Diego, with long hair and beard curled into buns, was in to his practice but also very in to surfing “that’s it guys, spill forwards”, “roll like an off shore wave”, “brothers and sisters let’s grab the rails and lower slowly”, “dance like the ocean”. All of his sessions were very free and flowing with asanas and variations that I wasn’t familiar with, I enjoyed them immensely.
The North end of the beach was also nice for a stroll, it was less busy, less intense, the sand was soft & fine and there were lots of tiny crabs blowing across the beach. And the closer you got to the main lagoon the better view you had across the lagoon, through the palm trees to the rosey sunsets.

blood is thicker than water

I was staying with Malcolm – my mate Gav’s uncle – and his wife Wacinde. After 25ish years in New South Wales they’re now pursuing their dream of living in Arugam Bay, where Wacinde is from and where Malcolm can disappear into the surf verrry frequently. I was “about three weeks early” to sample their new guesthouse but I liked the unfinished product very much. My hut was clean, comfy and cool.
Every night they would light a small fire in the clearing between the huts which is both pretty and helps keep the monkeys away and we’d have beers, or stronger, and natter away. Malcolm and Wacinde were gorgeous hosts and introduced me to every family member that came past, which was a lot of family and included a couple of surf instructing nephews (very keen for Western girlfriends), a tuk tuk driving cousin (very keen for business), and a shy brother (very keen for booze). Having a proper family in Arugam Bay meant I was chorused by “hello”s and “hi Lucy”s as I wandered around town.
I rented a bike while I was in Arugam Bay which was good for crashing around to yoga class, to get groceries, to peddle away from nephews and to get to beach snacks even quicker! And over the coming days I became obsessed with the varieties of vegetable roti that I got from the beach huts and chick pea snack cakes that Wacinde made.
Like every backpacker hub – even those being infested with flash types – there are beach parties throughout the week in Arugam Bay. And they’re like every backpacker beach party: bar stocked with low quality spirits, euro trash DJ, relaxed locals & nutty tourists. The Sri Lankan spirit of choice is Arrack. The old dudes drink it straight, we (foreigners) drink it with cola and lime. They say it’s like vodka but I’d say rum before anything else. It’s nice with those chick pea snack things.

Malcolm and Wacinde told me a bit about what it used to be like and what it’s like now being an Aussie-Sri Lankan couple, and it was interesting to hear about their experiences of different cultures. I asked them too about lifestyle, culture and interests here in Sri Lanka. A lot of it rang true with what I had learned in Thailand the previous year; the importance of land, the seasons, developing your property, focusing on the next ‘job’. Life here is good I thought; knowing you can surf every day and have a few beers on the porch with your family every evening. Ideal.

worse things happen at sea

Haven’t been in the surf yet have I..?! Aussie Dan and I agreed the surf only looked average, ha ha, so we had been reading & swapping books at Mambos, a decent restaurant, bar and hotel on the ‘corner’ of the Arugam Bay. It has the best position: close to the surf, looking across the bay and there’s lots of palm tree shade. I played a couple of games of Connect Four with a very smart Israeli girl under those trees. The food is also good, I had delicious rice’n’curry and good coffee.
When I did get in the surfing was easy fun. Lots of waves (although I can always pick a bad one), a friendly crowd, beautiful sparkling, crispy hot conditions, lots of salt-hair skinny surf types, nice.

One morning I got up fantastically early to see sunrise. It was absolutely worth it. The beach at Main Point faces East and the sun rose a big ball of throbbing orange as early bird surfers rode soft, long waves. I did some yoga there, on my sarong, including some of the asanas and techniques that I’d picked up in the class with Kevin a few days before. Such a beautiful way to welcome the day.

beat around the bush

Since I’d got myself nice & crispy on my surf board I decided to have a day away from the beach and went to look at Larambala National Park. I went with Jayratna, the tuk tuk cousin. We bobbed out of town, across the lagoon bridge, through Pottuvil and then to the Park. There was no clear definition of where the Park started, no gate or sign, but clearly Jayratna knew what he was doing as he threw the tuk tuk a sudden right onto a hard dirt track with a marshy watering hole on one side and monkey-filled trees on the other. Honestly the way he was handling this thing you’d think it was Subaru’s latest off-road model, not a tin can on wheels.
The watering hole is a favourite with elephants but much earlier in the day than we had arrived. It was a beautiful, peaceful spot with an entire field of big lilies.
We also toured around a few local temples and ruins. There were some really nice spots: dusty, crumbling but still impressive monuments, monkeys playing in trees, school-uniformed children and head-scarfed ladies milling around. Jay and I got cold drinks from a lady at the side of the road. She mixed spoons of this and pinches of that from all different size Tupperwares. I have no idea what was in there, and I was determined to ignore all the dirt, it tasted delicious – sweet, fruity & cool.

My departure from Arugam Bay was as smooth as the arrival (!): cancelled buses, taxi negotiations, tuk tuk offers, but I kept the faith and eventually got a string of different buses inland. I was heading to the hills.

Hills

The hills, the plantations, the valleys, this feels like the real Sri Lanka. I was glad I had a good chunk of time inland in these small towns and in this landscape; it was beautiful.

My journey into the hills established a pretty high standard of wow factor. I was on the public bus from Welawaya to Ella, the road weaving and carving its way up and around the mountains. The views down to the valley were amazing, and the driving was amazing – the gradient, the sharp turns, the speed and the overtaking!

mountain out of a molehill

Ella is a really small town, and the accommodation is clustered around the side of the hill so that as many windows, balconies and gardens can face Ella Rock as possible. And my first dusk on my balcony was absolutely captivating, everything shifting colour, every rock and every leaf on every tree passing through the green, blue, purple, pink, grey and black palettes slowly, so slowly. And at sunrise the next day everything reversed through the palettes, kissing the morning awake while I did yoga on the balcony. Ella was a dream.
Ella Rock is the big deal here and ascending it teaches you much about enjoying the journey as well as the destination… The Book had scant details and the details it had seemed, well, irresponsible: ‘walk along the train tracks’. Now, I know what happened to Bobbie in The Railway Children… but then I saw a man, then some more people, and a bunch of kids, also walking along the train tracks so I figured Bobbie had just been unlucky.
I walked along, sometimes on the wooden sleepers, sometimes on the crunching oversize gravel. When the scenery opened out it was superb, clear and direct over the valley, this was an awesome adventure. My path went down from the railway, underneath a bridge, little loop and back under again parallel to an aqueduct. The aqueduct led to some waterfalls. I couldn’t see the falls from the bridge but the view was great; instead of looking out to the valley past Ella Rock I could see more of the rich hills, there were rows of different shaped plants, patches like gardens and on the other side of the bridge a small cabbage farm.
My route took me through long, over-the-head grass and I was just getting myself into this ‘I can do anything’ mindset when a sweet guy, the cabbage farmer I think, came and pointed me in a different (correct) direction. Then, when I’d thanked him and walked off he came and found me 150 metres later to offer another redirection. Then, looked me up and down and just started to lead the way through the tall grass. He was very cool and kept pointing out different plants. He showed me my first ever tea bush, yay.
We left the long grass behind, passed briefly through a little tea plantation and now we were on the edge of a forest. Cabbage guy and I parted ways at the start of the climb – I think I was too slow for him. It was hot, and it was a full on climb but then the forest just flattened and the edge of the rock was in front of me.

The view into the valley was great, my favourite bit was seeing the road that I’d travelled along on the bus. I wandered around the forest at the summit. It was crispy and I liked the rows and rows, layers and layers of trees letting the sunlight through. There was another opening to see out to the valley in a more Easterly direction and in the distance I could see the Rawana Ella Falls, juuust about.
Coming down there were some scramble-y, loose stone & mud parts and at the tea plantation I took my time, it felt more like a rose garden to me it was so pretty. When I got to the waterfall, cabbage guy was there and this time he showed me the path to walk down to the falls, they’re just little and the water runs into the aqueduct that I’d seen earlier.
By the time I got back to Ella that day I was filthy and hungry. I enjoyed a nice shower and then some wonderful Sri Lankan food at a local place: a pile of fluffy rice (with an actual shovel), crispy poppadums, buttery green beans with fenugreek, good, thick dhal, curried taro, stir fried aubergine sweet & sticky, and a pile of coconut sambal.

every man for himself

The train ride in/ out of Ella is famous for its hill winding and valley-dropping views so when I arrived at the station for my departing train there was a mega scramble for the ‘good’ seats. I chucked my rucksack by a window in the buffet cart and saved myself the pushing. This train had sash windows as well, and sometimes we were so close to the bushes that twigs & leaves splintered off into the carriages.
As we rolled out of Ella the views were superb, and it was fun because these were the same tracks I’d walked along previously. The countryside was stunning: neat tea plantations, low and bushy looking like large versions of our English rock gardens, and lots of tall skinny trees with light coloured, swaying trunks and little fluttering leaves.
All the stations were cute and well kept, they had their names shaped into tea bushes, aw.
I jumped out at Heputale and doubled back, walking along the tracks – a short cut to the hotels I read about in The Book – the sleepers were still vibrating from my train which was fun.

it’s the taking part that counts

Heputale is a proper little town – a range of shops, people going about daily business, side cafes, heaps of tuk tuks, it was a metropolis compared to sleepy Ella. My accommodation was right on the edge of a hill, overlooking the valley and with big, open views along both ways of the train tracks. It was a stunning place for sunset, sunrise and yoga practice.
I hopped into a tuk tuk and bounced through tea plantations, munching vego rotis and drinking Elephant House Ginger Beer – an odd pop that tastes exactly like PlayDo smells. These particular tea plantations were something special; established by Sir Thomas Lipton in the late 1800s it’s one of the oldest plantations in Sri Lanka. We tuk tuk-ed a steady climb, s-bending up through the plantations to get to Lipton’s Seat, a cliff-edge spot with fabulous views… apparently. The cloud that sweeps across this lookout is as famous as the lookout itself, which to my mind means that you win either way. Today I got to see the famous cloud, not the view :) It was like looking into a really big bowl of dry ice, the cloud was swirling and washing around, and you couldn’t see a thing!

everything but the kitchen sink

I walked back down through the plantations, taking stone tracks and steps to zig zag right through the bushes. Tea bushes are very
compact, lots of shiny leaves crammed together, dark at the base, lighter green on top. Their rows and rows wound around all the natural obstacles: little streams, trees, medium and large rocks, and they look so neat and garden-y. The estates here really are estates, there are land and houses for the managers and deputy-managers (they have signs outside), and small villages which seem to be for the workers. I walked through one of the villages entirely by mistake but a mistake that was worth it.
Each house in the village has a little bit of land and they each use their land differently – chickens, cabbages, lettuce, flowers, washing lines, drying bricks. Children dodged along the paths to shout “hello”s and I appreciated their smiles and the smiles of the villagers because I really shouldn’t have been there.

storm in a teacup

The tea factory itself is a nice neat building to look at in fact it looks more like an office or apartment block from the outside. It was quiet and so I had a tour from the factory manager to myself. On the first floor the guys were piling up the bags of freshly picked leaves. The plantation has just over 1500 tea pickers at present and each person picks around eighteen kilos of tea per day so that’s twenty seven thousand kilos of tea leaves coming into the factory each day. Once they’re here the guys carry the bags through to the drying room and dump the raw leaves into long troughs with big fans circulating cool air up and through sieve-like, hole-y bottoms. We dug a hole through to the bottom of the trough and leaves flew upwards with the strength of the pumped air. After about 22 hours the leaves are poured down funnels to the ground floor where they’re crushed then put through a series of cutting & sorting machines to separate the small, big and tough bits. Next it’s another drying although it smelled more like roasting to me, and at 180+ degrees I’d say roasting is right. Post-roast the tea, which is really dark and powdery now, is divided into its different qualities – really fine, fine and coarse – and bagged ready for shipping, to packaging factories. It was quite remarkable to see these lush, juicy green leaves process through to a dry, dark powder.

don’t judge a book by its cover

From Heputale I trained and bussed it to Nuwara Eliya eating rotis dipped in Vegemite which is the greatest breakfast on earth.
Nuwara Eliya is a proper working town with a heap of shops & stalls, the biggest bus station I’d seen since Colombo and piles of taxis & tuk tuks. It wasn’t nice, but it worked well. The most appealing feature in the town is a tiny indoor food market that you find by prowling round a few stone arches and doorways to be met by pungent aroma and piles of colour. Nuwara Eliya is known as ‘Little England’, it’s the attractions outside of the town centre that earn it that title: some interesting looking botanical gardens (but you have to part with eleven bucks to go in), a nice park with little streams & plenty of paths and a large lake which is lit nicely at night. I stayed in nearby Hagkala at Humbugs a guest house that overlooked a wide river and grew strawberries on the riverbanks. I had a room full of chintz furnishings, a little patio to do big yoga, and they served me string hoppers with egg curry for breakfast, it was wonderful.

all in a day’s work

There are several tea factories a decent bus ride away from Nuwara Eliya, the one I liked best was Mackwoods Tea Factory. I took the local bus, this time eating rotis dipped in pineapple jam, second greatest breakfast on earth. It’s an impressive building, English-looking architecture, surrounded by jewel green plantations.
This is a full time working factory (Lipton’s had been at half-mast) so the tour here was brief and less detailed but it was interesting to see the cutters & sorters & driers in action this time. The Factory is set on the edge of a hill amid the plantations, there’s a fairly powerful stream running in the valley below which maybe yes, maybe no was used for hydraulic power. I walked around some of the plantations and down to the stream, still marvelling at the rock-garden neatness of the tea bushes. As I climbed the steps back to the factory cloud started to drift through the valley, sort of sweeping up against the river, I turned around and you could see nothing, the other bank was absolutely obscured by cloud and with a few more steps up I could no longer see the water at all, amazing.
Mackwoods was the first place I’d been offered the chance to taste their tea. They had a good set up – a tea room busy with waitresses and a gift shop with nicely packaged options. Outside of the estate there are tea bushes on both sides of the road and it was here that I best saw the tea pickers at work; ladies in bright saris and head scarves swiftly picking the top, new leaves on the bushes and tossing them over their shoulders into the sacks on their backs. They were swift, fluid actions as the ladies advanced through the rows and rows of bushes sometimes raising their heads to exchange a word or adjust their clothing. It was very relaxing to watch.

pretty as a picture

Keeping with the ‘England’ theme, the very colonial sounding Horton Plains are a few hours drive away from Nuwara Eliya. This is a large national park and it’s absolutely beautiful with lots of bracken, ferns and gorse, and then also rhododendrons and more tropical flowers. I was with a really nice Irish couple and as we started out, following the signs for a circular walk, it was misty & chilly which really suited the landscape. World’s End is the spectacular, cliff drop view that the park is most well known for, and it was brilliantly dramatic. The clouds cleared here and we had clear sight of the long drop and the distant horizon view. From World’s End the track took us through some lovely marshy areas, with little streams, past some gorgeous waterfalls and through some woods where we could hear monkeys but never quite managed to see them. It’s a terrific place, knocking on the doors of all your senses. As we were being driven out of the park we saw elk, an enormous, solitary creature that looked very serious, almost like he was guarding the park.

The hills in Sri Lanka were the unique, captivating parts of the country for me. I enjoyed journeying around and through them, the views and sights were stunning. I didn’t see any cricket, but it was ‘proper’ Sri Lanka I reckon :)

Sri Lanka

Two weeks felt like two months here, partly because I took in so much of the country with all the bus trips, long days of sunrise & sunsets, and high quantity of curry’n’rice. Sri Lanka was a bright country full of interesting things to see, do & taste, and the people – beyond the first haggle – were warm & generous. I snacked on peanuts with tuk tuk drivers, scrambled empty pop bottles with school children, shared bus seats with monks, high fived guys in the surf and enjoyed freebies with festival-goers. There were smiles everywhere and I took them home with me.

Gallery

blurred Aussie cricket team

Galle Face Hotel





train along the coast


bus along the coast

Arugam Bay


my Sri Lankan family x



dusk

elephant watering hole




temples


Ella





there’s a rock behind you



the walk up Ella Rock


















train through the hills










Lipton’s Seat

tea picking




tea factory










Heputale








market


around Mackwoods















Horton Plains


World’s End










green room :)



fire!








Sri Lanka




last bus journey

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