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dec 29, 2006 -> tea time

Compact, bottom-heavy Sri Lanka is often likened to a teardrop. Its proximity (and ancient isthmus linking it) to the sub-Continent encourages the more poetic to see old Ceylon as a ‘tear shed by India,' though, of course, India didn't exist at the time of the island's tearful goodbye. For a simple model of both Sri Lanka's contours and its topography, a halved avocado (stone in) works better. The highlands rise like a dome in the middle of the country's south – not as uniformly as the avocado's stone, but in the right position. This ‘upcountry,' as the Sri Lankans like to call it, rises to a respectable 2,524 meters at Mt. Pidurutalagala, or ‘Pedro' for short. Nights are cool, requiring weak tourists like my wife to buy cheap, knock-off John Deere stocking caps to keep their large craniums warm.

As in so many other places where the Queen's boats landed, it didn't take long for the British to discover the highlands' cool, salubrious climate. The next step was to figure out what grew well there. Coffee looked good until 1869, when a nasty fungus killed most of the plants and bankrupted the estate owners. Enter James Taylor, a Scotsman who knew a bit about tea cultivation from time spent in British India. His first teas, produced by hand, were deemed excellent. A factory and exports to London soon followed. In twenty years, tea production skyrocketed from 23 pounds to 23,000 tons. Today, Sri Lanka produces about 10% of the world's teas, though garment manufacturing has overtaken tea as the country's #1 export earner.

Our first stop in the highlands was Kandy, home of the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most famous places in the Buddhist world. Built around a man-made lake and surrounded by steep, forested hills, Kandy had all the necessary elements for an enjoyable retreat. Unfortunately, the principal highway traveled along the side of lake, which was thick with floating trash. As a result, the sound of roaring lorries carried far up the hillside to our empty hotel. That evening, Souri got us the best seats at the cultural dance show. After enduring several disappointing “traditional dances” in the past, I will admit to being a bit jaded to the whole thing, but this was an impressive and unique performance that included back-flips and fire-walking. In the morning we toured the temple, which houses the tooth of Lord Buddha in an amazing, almost Japanese pagoda. Thousands of worshippers filed into the temple to pray before the relic, leaving offerings of crimson, white and purple lotus flowers.

Nuwara Eliya, a large town in the shadow of Mt. Pedro, became the Sri Lankan equivalent of Darjeeling or Shimla in India. Old Victorian homes and hotels sat amongst Norfolk pines, juniper and eucalypts. The Hill Club still required men to wear a jacket and tie to dinner. The tatty golf course was “members only,” though one could easily buy a temporary membership and tromp about the brown-greens with a sari-clad caddie. It was delightfully incongruous, but the charm faded fast. Apart from its colonial vestiges, Nuwara Eliya was a dump. The dusty downtown had nothing to detain tourists and the straggling suburbs, seen from a distance, looked like trash heaps. There wasn't much to do except to sit at the tables in our hotel's little garden, ordering pot after pot of tea, reading our books and imagining how nice the town might have been a hundred years ago.


After an awful night of sleep – even our Xtreme Hearos earplugs couldn't block the sounds of dog fights, screeching brakes and the birthday party in the TV room – the alarm sounded at seven. We were advised to get up much earlier if we wanted to improve our chances of actually seeing anything at World's End, but we weren't terribly bothered. A long drive to the south passed through an area of dairy farms that looked straight out of New Zealand and ended with a dangerous climb up a one-lane road that was more switch-backs then straight-aways. Then, suddenly, we were atop a wide-open plateau of tussock grass bordered by forests of eucalyptus and rhododendrons. It was beautiful, and reminded me of the plains near Cradle Mountain, in Tasmania. At the edge of the forest, I spotted a big buck – it was about the size of a mule deer. I asked Souri what the Sri Lankans called it.

“We call it ‘bambi,'” he replied earnestly.

“Bambi? That can't be right. You mean like the Disney cartoon?” I shouldn't have laughed but it was pretty funny.

He had obviously seen the movie because he blushed.

“Oh yeah…”

The three of us spent a few hours trekking along the well-worn trails. As expected, World's End was socked-in with fog. Even so, it was clear that we were standing at the edge of a formidable cliff. Voices from the villages below sounded very distant. We sat and munched Tim-Tams while we waited for a break in the mist, but after a half hour gave up. No matter – the countryside was beautiful: clear streams, waterfalls, black-faced monkeys swinging through the rhododendrons and wild cocks running stupidly along the trail in front of us. On the drive back to Nuwara Eliya, Souri stopped and rummaged inside a plastic bag. Before I knew what was happening, the muzzle of an enormous bambi was inside the car, its tongue spraying drool all over us as it sought a biscuit. Bambi was a beggar. 

The next morning, Souri took us to the train station 15 minutes' drive from Nuwara Eliya.

“No money has been spent on this railroad since Independence,” he sighed, “although they are thinking about making an extension.”

Contrary to my jaded expectations, the train arrived on time. Reaffirming my expectations, however, it left one hour late. But we didn't really care. Souri had dashed onto the train and reserved good seats for us and the Aussies, who we had run into again at the ticketing booth. The seats in the otherwise bare carriage were made of vertical wooden slats and the floor was stained with red splatters from betel nut chewers. The glass panes of the big windows were long gone, which allowed a pleasant breeze to flow through the carriage once the train got moving.

With a reluctant screech, the steel wheels started slow revolutions. The nostalgic clickety-clack, the swaying carriage, and the cool, tea-scented air had us all grinning. Just a few kilometers from the station, the villages disappeared and the train cut across mountainsides cloaked in tea bushes. Waterfalls erupted from distant cliffs and we could just make out the sharp cone of Adam's Peak on the horizon. Children ran out of their homes and waved as we passed. As we rounded each corner, new valleys opened up before us. Later, the train climbed up through a forest of rhododendrons and gum trees that indicated we were somewhere near the Horton Plains. We passed through a series of short tunnels, and just before arriving at Bandarawela, we were treated to another beautiful panorama of tea plantations. Souri was waiting for us at the station. He had driven ahead. We said goodbye to the Aussies, fully expecting to see them again, and drove the last 30 km to Ella.

We liked Ella immediately. The little town sat at the southern edge of the highlands, overlooking a gun-sight valley that dropped to the coastal plains. To the west of town, Ella Rock did a good impression of Gibraltar, while a succession of tea-covered hills rippled to the east. Far below our hotel terrace, the railroad tracks emerged from between two hills, passing just above beautiful Rawana Falls before tracing a wide arc into Ella Station. Though much lower than Nuwara Eliya, the air was still cool and the nights frigid enough to request extra blankets. On the first day, we walked through tea plantations and blazed a new trail to the top of Little Adam's Peak. The next morning, we walked along the tracks to the falls and followed a trail to the top of Ella Rock, which we were amazed to find unoccupied except for a troop of black-faced langurs that scampered about the cliff edge. The views were exceptional. Unlike Nuwara Eliya, Ella had a decent selection of restaurants. Nori fell in love with the eggplant curry at Ella View, a tiny place whose owner showed us a guest book filled with rapturous descriptions of his rice and curry.

Every evening, we ordered a pot of tea and moved the chairs out onto the terrace. Bee-eaters and parakeets flitted between flowering trees and we could hear the tinkling music of the pastry truck (“It's a Small World”) and the bread man (a Christmas medley that included “Santa Claus is coming to Town”) as they made their rounds. The general sounds of Third World construction sank with the sun and the evening cool sent us scrambling for pants and mosquito repellent.