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Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Friday, 15 February 2019

Before I left Kandy I decided to send a text message to Sisira, the tuk-tuk driver who rescued me after I got off the train at Katugastota because the platform at Mawilmada was too short. He had given me his number in case I needed his services again.

I had my last breakfast at Traveller's Home and said goodbye to incredibly polite Manik - her equally well-mannered husband Mahesh was at work so I bade him farewell him the night before - and waited out the front for Sisira and his ultra-wide tuk-tuk to appear at half past nine.

My train was scheduled to depart Katugastota at 10:41 so there was plenty of time to accept his offer of a quick tour. First, he drove me to the Polgolla Dam, a wide but not very high concrete dam with ten sluices on the Mahaweli River in Kandy's northern suburbs. This dam is used for hydroelectricity, the impounded water is fed by gravity through mostly underground penstocks to another lower river basin to the north at Ukuwela where there is a hydro power station.

I then asked if we could check out the Katugastota railway bridge. I had crossed this bridge on the train on Wednesday. It's as long and as majestic as anything built by John Whitton, Australia's greatest railway engineer of the nineteenth century.

The Katugastota railway bridge on the Matale Line is a long lattice truss bridge with arched braces over the structural gauge connecting the lattice truss on either side at regular intervals, very similar to the old Meadowbank railway bridge or the old Como railway bridge in Sydney. It is a magnificent old bridge still in regular service. Like all railways in Sri Lanka, the bridge does double duty as a footpath and the bridge had many pedestrians on it.

I was standing at the north end of the bridge at the level crossing taking photographs looking down the bridge. I turned around and right behind me was a train sneaking up on me from behind. I got the fright of my life. The crossing gates hadn't descended and the bells hadn't rung and I was not expecting a locomotive silently coasting along towering above me.

I needn't have worried, the train was only going at walking pace, stopped, and then reversed back to Katugastota yard. It was a neat, very European-looking engine, a Class M5C diesel-electric locomotive, hauling several wagons of concrete sleepers, and it was just shunting onto the passing loop at Katugastota to make way for the next down passenger train at 10:41.

Sisira explained that his tuk-tuk wasn't a taxi, strictly speaking, it was actually a private tuk-tuk for personal use. The tuk-tuk served as his famiky car. But he said nothing was really stopping him from hiring his vehicle out. I got the feeling that he was out of work and looking for a second income. He kept asking me to take a longer tour for a bit of extra money. I looked nervously at my watch and said we didn't have time, but he kept pestering me.

I asked Sisira to just take me to Katugastota station, there was only half an hour until the train and the things he wanted to show me were quite far away. I paid him the agreed price of Rs. 1,500 - quite generous for forty-five minutes' tuk-tuk hire; a whole day typically costs five thousand - and then he pleaded for even more. I got the feeling he was a desperate man, and that the thousand rupees I had given him out of gratitude the other day had gotten his hopes up. I tipped him another couple of hundred but he didn't seem satisfied.

I paid my thirty rupee fare, waited at Katugastota, filmed some of the shunting manoeuvres of the train carrying sleepers, and waited for the 10:41 local train to Matale. There weren't many other passengers. I think we were outnumbered by the three station staff. The over-staffing you find in all government workplaces in Sri Lanka is just ridiculous. Three station staff for a very quiet suburban station that gets six trains a day in each direction is self-evidently absurd. Yesterday I went into the administrative office at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic to ask for directions to a particular pavilion. Inside were six public servants at their desks and every single one of them was just reading a newspaper. National park ranger's offices are the same. Maybe it's all a government make-work scheme to reduce the unemployment rate, or maybe strong unions force the government to never retrench staff in any circumstances. I am an active trade unionist and a socialist but I also love efficiency, productivity and the work ethic. When workers are productive, and compensated fairly for any productivity gains they make, and profits shared with workers in the form of increased pay and conditions, everyone benefits. I fail to see how featherbedding government workplaces like this is good for taxpayers, good for government finances, good for economic growth, good for effective service delivery or even good for the mental health of the workers themselves who do nothing but read newspapers all day. Such a job would drive me insane.

The 10:41 down Matale Line train arrived, an M7 hood-unit locomotive hauling four ancient red carriages. I boarded, the train was nearly empty. I said goodbye to Kandy. Yes, the city centre is an unmitigated dump, truly a hell on earth, and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and its museums were disappointing. But I did find some redeeming features - the Udawattekelle Forest Sanctuary, pleasant and prosperous outer suburbs, a beautiful old railway bridge, green hills surrounding the city and a really nice but hard-to-get-to guest house up high on a ridge with soothing breezes.

The train rattled through the outer suburbs of Kandy and then through scattered pieces of farmland and small villages. The train then climbed into hilly country covered with tall rainforest. It passed under two giant silver pipes, penstocks that carry water from the Polgolla Dam to the Ukuwela hydroelectric power station, and called at various tiny unstaffed halts and larger stations in small towns.

I arrived at the line's terminus at Matale at about 11:37. I looked at Google Maps, there was a bus station only a few hundred metres north. Excellent!

I exited the station and found myself in a congested, dreary town at the bottom of a long valley. The street the station was on was the usual Sri Lankan melange of racing tuk-tuks, honking buses, shelves full of merchandise extruded from shop doors onto the street, nonchalant street dogs and concrete drains. I later learned that Matale's claim to fame is that it is the geographic centre of Sri Lanka.

After about ten minutes I reached the bus station - or not. It was actually a construction site, it looked like the station was being rebuilt. There were a whole lot of buses parked on the street outside preparing to depart, so I asked the conductors and passers-by where buses to Dambulla leave from but I either got no answer - English is surprisingly poor in Sri Lanka considering the country's lengthy history in the British Commonwealth and its free universal education (on paper, at least) - or conflicting useless answers. The bus to Dambulla leaves from the other side of the street! From the railway station! From the next street west! Yes, yes, I know that the inability of many Sri Lankans to give a straight, accurate answer is a cultural difference and that I should try to be more tolerant and understanding yada yada yada. But that doesn't make it any less infuriating.

Eventually one old guy sitting out the front of a shop took pity on me and offered to show the way to the Dambulla bus. I thought he might be looking for payment but he refused to accept a tip, he did it out of altruistic love of humanity and hospitality towards foreigners. Sri Lanka is like this - just when the country sends me almost to the brink of despair, the universe will send someone who restores my faith in the country and its people.

The old man with his Muslim cap couldn't come all the way, but he walked with me for about fifteen minutes and showed me to the street and pointed to a radio tower and banyan tree where the bus stop was located. I thanked him profusely and walked another ten minutes to the stop at a major intersection.

It was still very confusing. Many buses left from inside the acute angle formed by two main roads, more buses left from a yard to the west, and some more left from a stop on the street. I tried asking people where the bus to Dambulla left from but got either blank stares - don't count on English being spoken in towns where tourists never go - or even more conflicting information. I should have just caught a bus all the way from Kandy to Dambulla like a normal person. But I am not a normal person.

Finally a helpful young man who looked like a betel nut-chewing thug but actually had a heart of gold showed me the stop I needed and even hailed a bus for me. Long may he prosper.

I got on the crowded bus. One of the few seats available up towards the front where I stored my backpack was on the left side on the second row. This meant that I got a full view of the road ahead while the bus swerved, honked, sped and overtook overloaded vegetable trucks with three millimetres to spare. I was too busy making the Sign Of The Cross repeatedly to take note of the scenery along the A9 highway. I am not religious at all. But you know what they say - there are no atheists in foxholes or on Sri Lankan buses.

After nearly an hour I hauled my luggage off the bus and stood on the dusty shoulder of a busy highway outside a gleaming golden stupa. It was a walk of about a kilometre to Vihangi Guesthouse on a back street on the south side of Dambulla. On every street I took there were dogs, quite aggressive ones. I find that dogs in large cities are quite harmless and indifferent but in small towns and rural areas they can be quite vicious. My guess is that dogs in rural areas are frightened by the presence of unfamiliar people.

I had to make a very lengthy detour to avoid all the dogs in the early afternoon heat to reach the guest house. I finally reached my accommodation, a large single-storey family home on a generous lot with a smaller building divided into three hotel rooms in the frontyard. Only a girl aged about twelve and her younger sister aged about nine were home, their parents were out of house. I introduced myself and said I had a room booked for the night but they knew very little English and just stared at me blankly.

I also needed a bathroom quite fiercely. I tried communicating this using mime to no avail. I tried Sinhala but had forgotten the word for "toilet". Was it "valikisi"? "Salaviki"? "Vakisili"?

Hopping around while my bladder was about to burst, I ransacked my daypack to find my Sinhala dictionary. I could find everything else except for that. I eventually found it buried under everything else, flicked through the section beginning with T, and found it - "vasikili".

"Vasikili! Vasikili! Vasikili - NOW!" I shouted.

"Ummm, wait. Wait for father. Father coming soon," the older girl said.

"I can't wait. Vasikili - now!" I saw that some of the doors to the accommodation rooms had keys in the door. "Come on, can't I just go into a room and use a toilet?"

"No. I don't know which room for you."

"For bloody hell's sake, I need to go now!" I defied the girl and went into room 1 - I reasoned that a room with a key in the door was not currently in use by a guest. I was right.

Suitably relieved, I waited outside the rooms for about twenty minutes until the owner and his wife had returned from errands. Kumar greeted me and showed me into my room, room 1. I went into the air-conditioned room, my first since Tissamaharama, and rested a while before I tackled my next UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Dambulla Temple Cave.

I took a tuk-tuk to the ticket entrance a couple of kilometres away on the other side of the highway and bought a ticket. There was a very steep rock staircase up to the top of a rock monolith. Dambulla lies in the intermediate zone between the Hill Country to the south and the pancake-flat plains of northern Sri Lanka, and the terrain around here is mostly flat country with rocky outcrops poking through the ground like a particularly severe outburst of acne on a teenager's face. Many of these stunning monoliths were used for religious and military and political purposes in Sri Lanka's early history.

After a very steep walk with a vertical gain of about one hundred and twenty metres, I emerged onto an expanse of barren rock near the top of the monolith. There is a little booth where you have to store your shoes for twenty-five rupees and after leaving my shoes there I showed my ticket at the gate and entered the temple complex.

The Dambulla Cave Temple consists of five separate caves, really just rock overhangs. The caves are walled off from the exterior by a long white colonnade; you access the caves through portals inside the colonnade.

If you feel like overdosing on Buddhas, come to Dambulla. The Buddhas were magnificent works of art, some up to two thousand years old, and there are magnificent murals on the ceilings of the caves too. Some Buddhas were standing, other Buddhas were sitting, and I think three very large Buddhas were reclining on their sides as if they were watching Masterchef on Channel 10 after a particularly tiring day at work.

Outside the caves there are great views of the surrounding district, flat green forests, farms and dams studded with soaring rocky outcrops. I descended by a different staircase and ended up at the Golden Temple where I had gotten off the bus from Matale on the A9 highway.

The Golden Temple is very new, I think it was built in 2000. The centrepiece is an enormous golden sitting Buddha statue sitting on top of a white two-storey temple building, the entrance of which is shaped like a dragon's mouth. It all felt very tacky, like a theme park. On the bottom floor was a Buddhist Publication Sales Centre, nearby were the studios of a Buddhist television station, there was a family of fibreglass elephants in a garden next to the temple, there was a walkway through a fake cave grotto lined with hundreds of fibreglass orange standing Buddhas, and out the front was a giant golden stupa to attract passing traffic. The hundreds of howling schoolchildren and a whole fleet of tour coaches in the car park added to the theme park feel. This wasn't a temple. This was Buddhaland. I tried to come up with a marketing slogan. "Come to Buddhaland - Nirvana in just one day!" All that is missing is a ferris wheel in the shape of a chakra and a whitewater rapid ride with vessels shaped like pink lotus blossoms.

After checking out Dambulla's very modest town centre choked with trucks headed for Sri Lanka's main wholesale fruit and vegetable market, I returned to Vihanti Guesthouse too exhausted to do anything except enjoy a yummy rice and curry dinner put on by the hosts.

Polgolla Dam

Polgolla Dam

Katugastota railway bridge

Katugastota railway bridge

The train that snuck up on me at Katugastota

The train that snuck up on me at Katugastota

Train at Matale station

Train at Matale station

Dambulla Cave Temple complex

Dambulla Cave Temple complex

Ceiling mural at Dambulla Cave Temple

Ceiling mural at Dambulla Cave Temple

Meditating Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Meditating Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Standing Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Standing Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Boddhisatvas in Dambulla Cave Temple

Boddhisatvas in Dambulla Cave Temple

Reclining Buddha at Dambulla Caves

Reclining Buddha at Dambulla Caves

Scenery from Dambulla Cave Temple

Scenery from Dambulla Cave Temple

Stupa at Dambulla Golden Temple

Stupa at Dambulla Golden Temple

Golden Temple at Dambulla

Golden Temple at Dambulla

Cave grotto walkway at Golden Temple

Cave grotto walkway at Golden Temple

Fibreglass elephants at Golden Temple in Dambulla

Fibreglass elephants at Golden Temple in Dambulla

Buddha statue at Golden Temple

Buddha statue at Golden Temple

Dambulla Clock Tower

Dambulla Clock Tower

Posted by urbanreverie 21:04 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains temples caves buses sri_lanka railways kandy dambulla matale Comments (0)

The sacred toothache

sunny 29 °C
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Kandy, Sri Lanka

Thursday, 14 February 2019

I started the day with another tiring, uncomfortable walk down the hill to Katugastota Bridge to catch a bus into town. The sub-arterial road the guest house is located on has some buses but they don't seem to be very frequent. I saw some coming in the opposite directions and committed their route numbers to memory so I would know which buses to catch back to my lodgings in the evening.

A fifteen-minute bus ride crowded with commuters along a busy dual carriageway with deafening traffic brought me to Kandy's city centre. On the eastern edge of the compact city centre was my next UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

This temple is one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism, one of the world's major religions and the majority religion in Sri Lanka. The temple is the home to one of Buddha's teeth, somebody told me it was one of his molars.

I walked up to the temple gates on the northern shore of Kandy Lake shortly before ten o'clock. I paid the entrance fee, went through a security screening station, and when I emerged some official-looking man in a uniform came up and greeted me and shook my hand.

"Welcome to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Here, you respect Buddhism," he admonished.

"Yes, yes, I know, I respect all religions," I answered.

"Good." I walked on and he followed me. "And this temple was built during the Kingdom of Kandy era and has been home to the Sacred Tooth since--"

"OK. So you are a guide?"

"Yes, I am."

"Very well then. How much do you charge?"

"We can talk about that later."

"No, I would rather settle the price first. So how much do you charge?"

"Three thousand rupees."

That was about twice the entry fee. "No, thanks."

He got desperate and wouldn't leave me alone. "Please, sir. Please. You need a guide. You can't enter without a guide. Please!" Eventually he gave up after he got the hint that my silence meant I didn't want his services.

There is another counter off to the side in front of the temple moat where all visitors are required to leave their shoes, visitors are given a card with three handwritten digits to claim their shoes back later.

I entered the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. There is a large open-air central hall surrounded by galleries and in the hall there is a timber two-storey shrine. Outside the closed door at the bottom of the shrine drummers and a piper were playing some traditional temple music. Everyone went upstairs to the top gallery where there was already a massive queue.

The queue kept growing longer, fatter, denser. The temple was hot and airless. The body heat from thousands of people pushed up against each other made the conditions even worse. It was so bad that even the normally dry and clean Sri Lankans were dripping with sweat.

I joined the queue at ten past ten. The Sacred Tooth Relic was open for viewing at half past ten. I watched the second hand on my watch tick down ever so slowly. If it went any slower it would have been going backwards.

Then on the dot at half past ten - the aperture in the shrine opened. There was a crush. It made the Boxing Day sales at Myer on Pitt Street in Sydney look like a paragon of order and decorum. Such was the devotion among the Buddhists in the crowd, their anxiety to prove their veneration to Buddha's sole bodily remains, that I and all other non-Buddhist visitors were kicked, pushed, tripped and shoved. Even eighty-year-old ladies showed no restraint as I was subjected to what in any other context would be called "aggravated assault" in a court of law.

The torrent of humanity carried me up to the shrine. For all of three seconds - lomg enough for me to throw forty rupees into the offering tray and clasp my hands together in a gesture of respect - I got to see Buddha's tooth.

Or rather, a container which held the tooth. Nobody ever gets to see the actual tooth. It is contained within a golden casket shaped like a Prussian spiked helmet, perhaps a metre tall, with gold threads hanging off it and embellished with gemstones. This casket contains another casket, which contains another casket, and so on, like Russian dolls, and it is only the smallest casket that contains the tooth.

It was underwhelmingly underwhelming. Have you ever heard from people who have visited Copenhagen about how underwhelming the Little Mermaid statue is? The Sacred Tooth was even more underwhelming by many orders of magnitude. I came to Kandy, giving up two nights in a place that I might actually like, for this?

There is, however, more to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic than the sacred tooth relic. At the back of the temple is a long hall, Alut Maligawa, with a large Buddha statue, and the hall is lined with dozens of smaller Buddha statues donated by Thai devotees. Behind that hall on the upper floors is a museum, the Sri Dalada Museum, full of dull yet worthy exhibits relating to the history of the Sacred Tooth.

In a separate building behind the temple, a nineteenth century law court building erected by the British, is the World Buddhism Museum. This museum contains all sorts of artifacts amd reproductions from around the Buddhist world, with each room dedicated to a particular country. All the exhibits were accompanied by dense explanatory notes full of Buddhist jargon that might have made sense to the devout, to the people who have studied for seven years to become a Buddhist monk. But my knowledge of Buddhism is rather introductory level, and consequently the museum bored me out of my wits.

The only thing I found interesting at the temple was a little pavilion off to the side containing the stuffed remains of Raja, a tusker elephant who was captured on the east coast in 1925, sold to the temple in tje 1930s and became a much-loved resident of the temple until he died in 1988. Raja was so popular that when he died the hat was passed around and enough money was raised to preserve him for the enjoyment of future generations.

I spent a long time on the temple grounds not because I enjoyed it, but because the museums and pavilions were quiet, cooler and a respite from the madness outside. It was well into the afternoon when I put my shoes back on and went back out.

I walked a little while along Kandy Lake, past the Queen's Bath, a bathing pavilion built on the lake shore for the personal use of the Queen of Kandy, and back into the city centre.

How could I possibly describe Kandy's city centre? "Lunatic asylum" doesn't even come close. It's a heaving, roaring, dusty, blazingly hot cacaphony of motor vehicles, blaring horns, touts, hawkers, people arguing on the pavements, exhaust fumes and grotty, ill-kempt buildings. Kandy's town centre is about as pleasant as a visit to a council rubbish tip. Being in a valley surrounded by hills, the air pollution here is the worst I have seen in Sri Lanka.

I had some lunch in a food court and I went looking for a bookshop. I wanted to buy an English-Sinhala dictionary. I am falling in love with the Sinhala language and wouldn't mind learning a little bit more of it before I leave. You can't find Sinhala dictionaries in Sydney for love or money.

I found a bookshop, on the top floor of a building down a narrow corridor and up a flight of stairs between a church and what looked to be some sort of service club. I entered a little tiny bit of paradise. With its dark, heavy timber shelves and soft, cool air and soothing paper smell, Expographic is the kind of bookshop they have in heaven.

I found some perfect pocket dictionaries that would fit easily in my backpack without adding much weight. I paid for my purchase and got an unusual coin in my change. I remarked upon it and the young woman behind the counter said she collected coins too. She opened the till and found more older coins that have been superseded by newer designs or alloys. She smiled and I was forever grateful.

I decided to go for a walk to check out the railway station. This is harder than it sounds. Kandy is impossible to walk around. The city council has installed pedestrian barricades along the kerbs of every street in the city centre. I suppose this prevents pedestrians from getting killed. It also prevents pedestrians from participating in simple activities like reaching their destination or getting into a tuk-tuk taxi.

I got lost. The shockingly poor cartography in my Lonely Planet guide conspired with all those stupid pedestrian barricades to send me well off course. I felt like I was a sheep in a shearing shed's pen, unable to go anywhere except where supposedly more intelligent beings determined I was allowed to go.

I ended up in this neighbourhood west of the railway station, lost in a labyrinth of blind alleys and Escher-like staircases that went nowhere. I was walking down one staircase when I saw about one metre in front of me a dangling wire. I looked at it, it was an electrical connection from a nearby power pole to a house on the other side of the staircase. It was at about forehead height. A live wire, strung across a public stairway at forehead height. Seriously, do they hire electrician's apprentices in Kandy from the graduate pool at schools for the intellectually challenged? I watched what others were doing, they all just ducked by instinct, they all long knew the wire was there. If I survive the remaining week of this holiday, I shall be doing well.

I emerged from the stairway into one of Kandy's three bus stations and the main one for longer-distance services, the Goods Shed bus station. I have never seen a bus station like it. It was a logjam of buses going left, going right, going forward, reversing, but with no bus able to move because too many other buses were in the way. The only way pedestrians could move through the station was to wriggle their way between the buses. This is what I was doing when a bus driver decided to chuck his gears into reverse and start moving back even though there was another bus a few inches behind him, with me between the two vehicles. I jumped out just in time.

I took some photographs of the station from the outside and then went to a nearby tourist information centre. I had two questions which I assume would be quite common queries from visitors:

(1) What bus routes go to where I am staying and where do they leave from?

(2) Where can I top up my mobile SIM card?

There were four employees in the tourist information centre. I had committed the bus route numbers I saw outside my guest house that morning to memory but I had forgotten them. It was that kind of hot, sultry, intense, tiring day where my brain starts short-cifcuiting. When I asked about the bus routes, I got four different answers. Try the 691 from the Goods Shed! The 538 from Senanayake Street! The 632 from the Clock Tower!

It was the same with my mobile phone recharge. My Sri Lankan mobile provider, Dialog, is one of the largest and most popular. Usually in most towns you can find a place that has a Dialog sign on every street corner, but I hadn't seen any in Kandy city centre. I thought the tourist information centre might help but I got the same useless, conflicting, inaccurate information. There's a Dialog kiosk opposite the Temple! No, there's a newsagent on Dalada Vidiya! There's one at the Clock Tower bus station! I decided to try the Clock Tower bus station right behind the information centre but I couldn't see anything. I propose that we rename that office the Kandy Tourist Disinformation Centre. Absolutely bloody useless.

I went back east trying to find a place that sold Dialog mobile phone recharges but all I could see was useless junk of the sort you find at weekend flea markets in suburban Sydney - beads, mobile phone covers, plastic booby pins and the like. Eventually the heat got to me and I had to go and sit down for a long time in a bakery with an ice cold bottle of water. The temperature in Kandy wasn't that hot, 29 °C, but combined with the humidity, the exhaust fumes, the unrelenting sun and the sheer mass of people on the streets, it was too much.

I eventually found a Dialog retailer, a watch repair joint. I went up to the counter. "Hello, I'd like to top up my Dialog SIM card, please."

"No, we do not sell SIM cards here, we only sell recharges."

"Yes, and I would like to recharge my SIM card, please."

"I am sorry, but we do not sell SIM cards here."

"No. I don't want to buy a SIM card! I just want to recharge my SIM card with more data."

"I said, we do not sell SIM cards here."

I snapped. "Listen! I. Do. Not. Want. To. Buy. A. SIM. Card! I. Only. Want. To. Buy. More. Data!"

"Very well. Ninety-nine rupees for two gigs."

I had turned into the very thing that I hate - the ignorant tourist who shouts condescendingly at the locals. But you would understand if you went through what I go through when communicating with some of the locals.

I headed even further east. About a kilometre east of the city centre is a forested hill, the Uduwattekelle Forest Sanctuary. I paid my admission of nearly seven hundred rupees and entered into the cool, moist rainforest. This is just what I needed. There was a large pond, the Royal Pond where the King of Kandy used to bathe, and a lookout over the city - from a distance Kandy is very pretty with its jewel of a lake and its temple complex and its situation in a bowl of jagged green hills fringing the urban area - as well as an extensive network of forest paths.

I stayed in there until closing time at half past five. My Lonely Planet warned me about muggers in the park but the only scary thing that happened was some monkey high up in a tree dropping something heavy that landed on the ground right behind me - I think it was a breadfruit.

I left the park and caught a bus back up the Katugastota Road. I got off before the bridge to have a burger dinner - I crave Western food every now and then - and buy some water, fruit and snacks at Cargills. I waited for a bus back to the guest house but every time a bus came the conductor would say it wasn't going there. I tried asking other waiting passengers which bus I needed but they couldn't help me.

In some respects public transport in Sri Lanka is far better than in Australia. During the day at least, buses are so frequent that wherever you are in the country you do not need to wait longer than ten minutes. But in most respects Sri Lankan public transport is far worse - antiquated, uncomfortable and unsafe buses; shocking driving standards; no disability access; and perhaps most importantly for the traveller, bugger-all public transport information.

No maps. No timetables. No lists of routes. No websites. No displays at bus stops showing which buses go where. Nothing. All one can do is ask other people at bus stations which buses go where and hope that they are telling the truth.

The only information I have been able to find is one website, routemaster.lk, which I presume is the personal project of a public transport enthusiast. It lists the major destinations of each route with a low-resolution Google Maps screenshot zoomed right out. But even it is missing many routes, the search function is sketchy at best, and it doesn't tell you which bus station or stand a route leaves from.

After waiting twenty minutes I gave up and waved down a tuk-tuk.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Drummers and a piper playing at entrance to Sacred Tooth shrine

Drummers and a piper playing at entrance to Sacred Tooth shrine

The shrine that contains the Sacred Tooth on the upper foor

The shrine that contains the Sacred Tooth on the upper foor

See that bright golden bell-shaped thing? The Sacred Tooth is in that.

See that bright golden bell-shaped thing? The Sacred Tooth is in that.

Buddha statue in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Buddha statue in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Raja the tusker elephant

Raja the tusker elephant

Queen’s Baths on Kandy Lake

Queen’s Baths on Kandy Lake

Kandy Lake

Kandy Lake

Kandy railway station

Kandy railway station

This is why pedestrians can’t have nice things

This is why pedestrians can’t have nice things

Royal Pond in Udawattakelle Forest

Royal Pond in Udawattakelle Forest

Udawattakelle Forest Sanctuary

Udawattakelle Forest Sanctuary

Kandy from Udawattakelle Forest Reserve

Kandy from Udawattakelle Forest Reserve

I don’t think that’s how “Colgate” is spelled

I don’t think that’s how “Colgate” is spelled

Posted by urbanreverie 21:50 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged temples rainforest buses sri_lanka kandy sacred_tooth Comments (0)

Kandy crush

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Kandy, Sri Lanka
Wednesday, 13 February 2019

It would be boring if the whole world was perfect. If every place was good, how would you determine if it was good? What would the yardstick be that you could use to measure the goodness of a certain location? If every town in the world had pleasant, brisk cold weather, pure mountain air, invigorating winds, moody skies, verdant parklands, beautiful pine trees and twee Merry Olde England architecture, why would you even bother going on holiday? You need to have unpleasant places in the world and you need to visit them. It's only after visiting cesspits that you are able to truly appreciate those places that are nice and quantify how nice they are.

Well, that's how I am rationalising my decision to visit Kandy, a truly horrible town whose main redeeming feature is that there are several trains a day that leave it.

I had heard horrible things about Kandy and only decided at the last minute that I would definitely visit. Nearly every traveller I had met was going there or had been there. Even the most independent of travellers succumbs to peer pressure and I am not immune. Besides, there is a UNESCO World Heritage Site there, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, and I doubt I could live with myself if I knowingly skipped the opportunity of ticking another World Heritage Site off my list.

First, I had to get to Kandy. I had my final breakfast at Sapu's Mountain Breeze guest house, said goodbye to the men who ran it - I appeared to be the only guest, which is a shame because it is affordable and has large rooms with comfortable beds and decent breakfasts and helpful staff and it is only one block from the main street - and got into the tuk-tuk the staff had arranged for five hundred rupees.

The tuk-tuk driver turned the engine off as we went down the hairpin bends of the A7 from Nuwara Eliya to Nanu Oya. Turning the engine off when descending a hill is quite common even for large vehicles like trucks, I guess drivers do it to save fuel. It might be good for fuel economy but it is terrifying when you are walking along a hilly road and a truck or car races past you and you are frightened out of your wits because you couldn't even hear it coming.

I arrived at Nanu Oya station at about ten to nine, about half an hour before the scheduled arrival of my train, the up Udarata Manike ("Hill Country Maiden") from Badulla to Colombo. I bought my reservedfirst-class ticket to Kandy for a thousand rupees and spent a pleasant half an hour photographing the station, the yard, signals, rolling stock and the gorgeous scenery of tea terraces and forested hills.

The Udarata Manike was another Class S12 push-pull diesel train. It consisted of various first, second and third class carriages. Only the first-class carriage was air-conditioned. There was no restaurant car like the one on the Super Secret Weekend Express but there was a loud and cheerful man who walked up and down the aisles selling tea from a large Thermos flask as well as various snacks from a large plastic tub.

The scenery was stunningly beautiful, as was my travelling companion in the seat next to me, Marta. Marta is from the Czech Republic and works in the film industry back home. She had a short break in between film jobs and took the opportunity to have a ten-day short break in Sri Lanka. She was travelling from Ella to Colombo to catch her flight back to Europe. We had a long and interesting conversation about life, the universe and everything. Do you remember what I wrote earlier about how independent travellers are either the most interesting and admirable of people or the most annoying and tiresome of people? Marta is definitely the former. It is very strange how I sometimes struggle to find like-minded people I can have an intelligent conversation with during my normal daily life in Australia but whenever I travel, they are everywhere.

Marta and I enjoyed the views while we were chatting. The railway line clung to the sides of ridges as it descended from the Hill Country plateau. Off to our left, a broad valley of tea plantations and vegetable gardens was framed by a blue-tinged jagged mountain range in the distance. There was one mountain that stuck out of the range like a tent where only one pole has been raised. This is Adam's Peak. This is the most famous mountain in Sri Lanka, and climbing it in the early hours of the morning to watch the sunrise is a popular pilgrimage for devout Buddhists and Western backpackers alike. I have heard that it isn't that great, nine times out of ten the mountain is shrouded in fog, and the five thousand steps are uneven and absolutely kill your knees when you are coming down. No thanks. Little Adam's Peak was enough for me.

We slowly descended and the weather got warmer. Though our carriage had air conditioning, enough warm air came in through the open doors that I had to take our jacket off.

After four hours the train arrived in Kandy a bit earlier than anticipated. I hurriedly said goodbye to Marta, put my jacket back on because I didn't have the time to stow it away, quickly sent her a Facebook friend request, and as I disembarked from the train I knocked on the window and we excitedly waved to each other. I do hope our paths cross again.

Kandy is one of the most important cities in Sri Lanka and has an important station to match. The long platform shelters featured elaborate cast-iron support structures and the station hall was a large and impressive Art Deco building.

When I visited the National Museum in Colombo, a group of tourism college students studying to become licenced tour guides asked me to do a quick survey about my visit to the museum. I told them my travel plans, said I was still undecided about whether I would go to Kandy, and one of the guys, Malinda, told me that his brother or father or uncle or whatever owned a guest house in suburban Kandy. I thought he said it was called Traveller's Home and he showed me where it was on the map, on the western side of town right near a bridge over the Mahaweli River.

So a couple of days ago I booked two nights at the Traveller's Home guest house. In any case, I was sort of getting sick of staying in noisy, bustling town centres and felt like enjoying some suburban peace and quiet for a change. So many people had also told me that Kandy city centre is a dump (spoiler alert: it is) and advised me to get a place just outside Kandy (pro tip: they were right).

At Kandy station I got out my phone so I could show where it was to a bus conductor or tuk-tuk driver. I had a closer look at the map and saw that there was a railway station not far away, Mawilmada.

Needless to say, I changed my plans. I went to the Matale Line ticket counter and bought a third-class ticket for ten rupees. The Matale Line is a short branch line that meets the Main Line services at Kandy. There are only about six services a day in each direction but there was one leaving soon at two o'clock.

I boarded the leading carriage of the four-car train consisting of battered old red carriages. The train was nearly empty when I got on but shortly before departure it filled up. The driver blasted the whistle of the tiny diesel-hydraulic locomotive and we pulled slowly out of Kandy station on the single-track branch.

The train stopped every kilometre or so at tiny, dusty little stations that didn't even appear in Google Maps or the Sri Lanka Railways timetable search webpage. After about ten or so minutes the train arrived at Mawilmada. I had already put my backpack on and was standing at the door thinking I was well prepared. But I saw the tiny platform sail right past me. The train came to a halt and beneath the door was nothing but long grass and a drainage ditch.

In ordinary circumstances I would have been capable of climbing down the ladder underneath the door to ground level. But I had a ten kilogram backpack on my back, a five kilogram daypack in my hands, and I was facing forwards out the door and the door and vestibule were too narrow for me to swing around and climb backwards down the ladder. The ground looked very rough and uneven so I didn't want to jump out. I also considered ripping my backpack off, throwing it down onto the ground, doing the same with my daypack and then climbing down the ladder underneath the door, but the train was on a very sharp curve and the guard wouldn't have been able to see me. I was terrified that the train would start moving with all my valuables lying on the ground behind some railway track used by hundreds of pedestrians as all railway lines in Sri Lanka are.

A schoolboy on the train told me to run back through the train and get off at the platform. I bolted down the train but it was so crowded I could barely squeeze through. It was too late, the train started moving.

I got off at the next station two kilometres away on the other side of the Mahaweli River, Katugastota. This was a proper station with a proper long platform and proper gardens and proper staff (three staff, for a station with only twelve trains a day). I explained what happened to the friendly staff, they said it was a fairly common problem at short platforms. The New South Wales railways have plenty of short platforms but they are clearly advertised as such in the published timetables and in any case, the guard announces on the PA system in the train well before arriving at the station which carriages alighting passengers need to be in. Sri Lanka's railways are still stuck in the nineteenth century so I don't think we will be seeing on-board PA systems any time soon.

It was a good thing that my ticket entitled me to travel as far as Katugastota. I left the station and found myself in a whisper-quiet middle-class neighbourhood of two-storey houses and new Nissans in driveways and neat gardens. There were no shops, no restaurants, no buses and no tuk-tuks.

Disheartened, I tightened the straps on my backpack and steeled myself for a lengthy walk in the lowland heat and humidity. Kandy claims that it is the capital of the Hill Country, and the city is indeed surrounded by hills, but it lies at the bottom of the Mahaweli valley only 528 metres above sea level. All other things being equal, temperature decreases by 5.5 °C for every one thousand metres of elevation. This would mean that Kandy is only 3 °C cooler than sea level. But Kandy is in the middle of the country well away from the cooling influence of the ocean so it is just as hot as Colombo or Galle, but perhaps slightly cooler at night and drier. In any case it was a shock to the system after spending nearly a week in the Hill Country above a thousand metres.

I had walked maybe four hundred metres when a tuk-tuk stopped. It was a larger tuk-tuk, the back seat was easily large enough for three people. There was a young adult female passenger in the back, presumably the driver's daughter. I explained to the driver what had happened and he told me to hop into the back seat, and he refused to discuss payment.

He dropped the young woman off at some shops without getting any payment. I then presumed that this might be a private tuk-tuk. Some people own tuk-tuks as their own private vehicles, not as taxis, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference. I have gotten into a waiting tuk-tuk once in Galle only to be told to get out, it's not a taxi.

After about ten minutes I reached Traveller's Home. The driver, Sirisa, didn't want any payment but I didn't think that was fair. The smallest note I had was one thousand rupees. He apologised and said he didn't have any change. I told him to keep it. He looked like he had just won Lotto.

I walked up the steep driveway and met the owner, Mahesh, and his friendly wife Manik. Traveller's Home is the upper story of an immaculate two-storey family home in a wealthy neighbourhood on a breezy ridge above the Mahaweli River. Mahesh and Manik are a successful middle-class family. Mahesh is a hotel office manager and Manik was a financier before she had children. The family had that very day bought a brand new Honda Fit and they went to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth to pray for the car to be blessed.

"Oh, by the way, Malinda said to say hello," I said to Mahesh.

"Malinda? Who is Malinda?"

"You don't know Malinda? Now lives in Colombo, he's studying tourism?"

"No, I don't know anyone studying tourism."


It turns out that Malinda had recommended a whole other guest house called Traveller's Lodge near the next bridge south on the Mahaweli River. My goodness, I feel so stupid. In any case, every cloud has a silver lining because this family is very helpful and friendly and my room is comfortable and immaculate.

I spent a few hours sitting on the upper balcony enjoying some water, leftover hiking chocolate and a punnet kf strawberries I bought from a hawker at Nanu Oya station. Being on top of a ridge over the river, this house does get a nice breeze for which I am grateful.

At five o'clock I decided to head into Kandy. More regular buses stop at a complicated intersection at the Katugastota Bridge about a kilometre away. I walked down there along the hilly, busy sub-arterial road.

Australia is not perfect when it comes to facilities for pedestrians. There are so many things road authorities and local governments can do to improve the pedestrian experience back home, chief of which would have to be changing the absurdly long time it takes for Australian traffic lights to change. Then you have those stupid pedestrian crossings, quite common in Queensland, where pedestrians are forced to wait on the median strip of a six-lane highway for another three minutes for the lights to change again. Seriously, who came up with that nonsense? The last thing I want to do is to be forced to spend another three minutes in the blazing Brisbane sun on a 33 °C day with 70% humidity with buses, trucks and cars roaring past me on either side. Heads must roll.

Anyway, as bad as things are for Australian pedestrians compared to, say, the Netherlands, Australia is a pedestrian paradise compared to Sri Lanka.

I don't think the horrible pedestrian experience in Sri Lanka is due to the failure to provide facilities. I think it is worse than that. I honestly think the Sri Lankan government actually wants pedestrians to be killed. There is no other explanation.

Footpaths rarely exist, forcing people to walk on the road. Where footpaths do exist, shopkeepers expand their shelves and goods onto them, so you still have to walk on the road. Where shopkeepers haven't invaded the footpath, cars, trucks and tuk-tuks park on them, so you still have to walk on the road. Where vehicles haven't parked on the footpath, groups of friends congregate on the footpath in one impenetrable mass while having conversations, so you still have to walk on the road.

It wouldn't be so bad if you could walk on the shoulder, which you usually can't. The shoulders here are places for people to light rubbish fires, dump builder's rubble or where road crews keep their piles of gravel for road repairs. Even when the shoulders don't have such obstructions, there are so many open drains, broken concrete driveways that crumble under your boots, and large expanses of uneven ground hidden under long grass just waiting to break someone's ankle, that you are better off walking on the road.

Walking on the road is tiring and dreary. You have to keep your wits about you at all times. Much of the time you will spend stationary in front of a parked tuk-tuk waiting for a large enough gap in oncoming traffic so you can safely go around the tuk-tuk. There might be just enough space between the edge of the bitumen and motor traffic for one person, but when two pedestrians come from opposite directions, there is a stand-off as one tries to get through first. Then there are the homicidal bus drivers who will not stop for anybody. The bodies of these buses will swing out around the bends. There is no alternative to jumping out of the way onto the shoulder and broken ankles be damned. There are also all the short bridges and the culverts where the road narrows. You have no choice but to wait for a gap in traffic to walk over these bridges.

A person who averages four or five kilometres an hour walking in an Australian city can count on achieving two or three kilometres an hour in Sri Lanka. Many Sri Lankans are too poor to own cars and their main mode of transport is on foot. Are they even aware that a better deal is possible, that there are many countries where you can walk in safety and efficiency on concrete footpaths separate from traffic on all major urban streets? I know Sri Lanka is poor, but if the government can afford to build a massive port in an isolated area that nobody needs, surely a program to build a network of footpaths piece by piece in, say, a ten-year or twenty-year planning timeframe isn't unrealistic? The savings made from the reduced number of deaths and disability should pay for it, surely.

It took me over tweny minutes to reach the Katugastota Bridge a kilometre away. I caught a bus into town and grabbed some dinner. Even though it was the evening, Kandy is the most intense and overpowering and comfronting city I have ever seen with the possible exception of Seoul. Intense traffic, intense noise, intense dust, intense litter, intense lights, intense faces, intense pollution, intense eyes, intense arguments. Colombo is many times larger than Kandy but it was nothing like this. Colombo is like a garden suburb in the English Home Counties compared to Kandy. Kandy reminds me of what I imagine a typical Indian city to be like.

One nice thing about Kandy is the lake. There is a large and ancient reservoir in the heart of town. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was brightly lit in yellow light, its reflection dancing on the little waves. Kandy Lake is just large enough that there was a sea breeze coming off it which was quite welcome.

Still, even around the lake, Kandy had a menacing air. The people here in the city centre seemed loud, argumentative, aggressive. Though many of the shops were shut the city centre streets were still a torrent of honking cars and buzzing tuk-tuks. The touts in Kandy are the most persistent I have experienced so far on this trip. While trying to find my way to the bus station I found myself on an unlit street with individuals loitering in the dim shadows. I got the hell out of there.

Buses in Sri Lanka are extremely frequent during the day but as soon as the clock strikes at seven in the evening they nearly all disappear. The Clock Tower bus station was desolate. It was with some relief that I hopped into a tuk-tuk. I couldn't have even been bothered bargaining his first quote of six hundred rupees down.

Tea pickers between Nuwara Eliya and Nanu Oya

Tea pickers between Nuwara Eliya and Nanu Oya

Nanu Oya station

Nanu Oya station

Tea seller on Udarata Manike train

Tea seller on Udarata Manike train

Adam’s Peak

Adam’s Peak

Don’t go to the toilet while a train is at a station in Sri Lanka!

Don’t go to the toilet while a train is at a station in Sri Lanka!

Udarata Manike train at Kandy station

Udarata Manike train at Kandy station

Matale Line train at Kandy station

Matale Line train at Kandy station

Katugastota station

Katugastota station

View from Traveller’s Home

View from Traveller’s Home

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Kandy Lake at night

Kandy Lake at night

Kandy Clock Tower

Kandy Clock Tower

Posted by urbanreverie 22:46 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains sri_lanka railways kandy nuwara_eliya Comments (0)

To the end of the world

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Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Tuesday, 12 February 2019

My driver arrived fifteen minutes early at a quarter to five in the morning while I was still getting dressed. This surprised me in a country not exactly renowned for its Swiss-style punctuality. The driver rattled the gate and knocked on it but as I was still in the middle of putting clothes on I couldn't respond.

The hotel manager woke up and showed the driver in and I raced out of my room to apologise. I greeted Raja, my trusty driver for the day, and we promptly took off to my next UNESCO World Heritage Site in the pre-dawn gloom.

We left Nuwara Eliya on pleasantly quiet and empty streets, went a short way on the A7 towards Nanu Oya and turned left. The A-roads in Sri Lanka, the country's principal highways, are rather good. They are narrow, they are congested, and they often lack shoulders and guard rails, but they are smoothly surfaced, crisply lined and clearly signed. In terms of road surface quality they are on average far superior to Australian highways.

When you turn off the A-roads onto the B-roads or the locally maintained roads, it's a different story. We turned onto the B512, a narrow, bumpy, insane little road barely wide enough for one car. Raja's car was an Indian-made Suzuki Alto. I am certain that Model T Fords had more advanced suspension and passenger comfort. The little hatchback bumped and jolted over every single bump, pothole, washaway and corrugation.

The little underpowered car soon started climbing up hairpin bends and steep inclines. As we increased our elevation, the car was enveloped in a thick milky fog. I couldn't see a thing in front of us but Raja negotiated every bend with expert aplomb. I am guessing that he has driven this road many times before and he was navigating by muscle memory.

We passed through the little town of Ambewela with its huge, brightly illuminated milk factory - this cold part of Sri Lanka is the only region suitable for the rearing of dairy cattle - and after one hour and thirty-one kilometres we reached the entrance to Horton Plains National Park.

There were plenty of other cars, tour buses and even tuk-tuks up there. The ticket office opens at six o'clock sharp. I waited in the long line with all the other prospective visitors. Next to me was an Englishman about my age called Adam. I had met him the night before while having a very ordinary dinner in a very ordinary restaurant in Nuwara Eliya. Like me, he was also a solo traveller. While we were in the restaurant he was constantly complaining about the cost of things in Sri Lanka and how everything was a rip-off and how he was trying to travel on a budget of eighty-seven pee a day. I told him to go to Iceland if he wanted to see what a real rip-off is. This is the thing I find about solo travellers - they are either the most interesting, most courageous, most independent, most ingenious, most admirable people you will ever meet; or they are the most tiresome, the most annoying, the most pedantic, the most judgmental, the most penny-pinching people you will ever meet. Adam was definitely the latter. Natalie was definitely the former. Please, please, pretty please tell me that I am the former.

Everyone in line shivered in the cold. I estimate that the temperature was about 5 °C. As Adam stood next to me, he lamented that he had taken a tuk-tuk from Nuwara Eliya to Horton Plains. I managed to suppress my Schadenfreude laughter. Adam complained that he was freezing in the tuk-tuk and that the road was so bumpy and that the tuk-tuk cabim filled with diesel fumes as it spluttered and stalled up the steep grades all the way to the national park entrance, but he chose a tuk-tuk rather than a car because he wanted to save money.

"Oh well, serves you right," I said. Actually I didn't say that. I only thought it.

The ticket window opened at six. I paid about Rs. 4,900 for entry for me and my driver. Foreigners pay around Rs. 4,800, locals only Rs. 60. A lot of travellers complain about this, some claim it is some sort of Soak Whitey tax, but I am cool with these inflated foreigner's fees you see at every park, museum and historic site. Sri Lankans pay for these cultural facilities through their taxes. Travellers do not pay local taxes. I think it is only fair that foreign visitors pay for the maintenance and improvement of facilities that they use without contributing taxes to their upkeep.

I encountered that lovely Sri Lankan bureaucracy again. It is not sufficient to just buy a ticket. Once you receive your ticket, you take it to a nearby office where another national park bureaucrat inspects the ticket, checks it off against a giant ledger, and then stamps your ticket. You and your driver then drive another five kilometres into the park where there is a very large car park at the trailhead. You then take your ticket to another office there to get another stamp. Only then are you free to enter the park. Oh well. I guess all this bureaucracy keeps the unemployment rate low, I guess.

(As a side note, the final bureaucratic step is a bag search. You place your backpacks on a counter and park rangers go through them with a fine tooth comb. They are searching for plastic. They are ruthless. They took my bags of chilli cashews and put them in a paper bag, they took my plastic punnet of strawberries and put them in a paper bag, they got rid of the supermarket plastic fruit bag my apple was in, they even cut the plastic labels and shrink-wrapped bottle cap seals from my bottles of water with a sharp paring knife. No airport security check is as thorough. Of course the strawberries got squashed, the paper bags got wet and burst open from the moist squashed strawberries, and that compartment of my daypack became a mushy mixture of strawberry jam and chilli cashews. Yummy.)

I said goodbye to Raja for a little while and eagerly skipped into Horton Plains National Park. The park is part of the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a unique place. The Horton Plains is a plateau, about two thousand metres above sea level, consisting mostly of gently undulating boggy soil. The plains are perched on the very southern edge of the Hill Country and comsequently get very high winds all year round. A combination of high altitude, poorly drained soil, ferocious winds and topographical isolation have all combined to produce a truly remarkable ecological community - an area of alpine grassland only seven degrees north of the Equator.

The tracks were packed with tourists as I began my nine kilometre hike at half past six. The sun rose over the boggy moors. We all found ourselves in a moody landscape of bogs, grasses, alpine streams with freezing, crystal clear water and the occasional stunted shrub. This was not Sri Lanka. This was Iceland or Scotland or Tasmania or New Zealand. But it couldn't possibly be Sri Lanka. The only hint that this was Sri Lanka was the Sinhala and Tamil script on all the park information signs.

The nine kilometre walk was on a loop track. I took the clockwise route and turned left at the first junction. Soon the undulating moors became more hilly terrain. The tops of the hills were covered in short forests while the lower elevations were open grasslands. This is the reverse of what you usually find in high altitude areas where trees only grow beneath the tree line. There is an explanation for this - the upper, steeper elevations are better drained and consequently trees can gain a more secure foothold than on marshy bogs.

The track headed through the forests as we approached the edge of the precipice. The southeastern edge of the Horton Plains drops away into a wide V-shaped gorge nearly a kilometre deep. There are two lookouts on the trail along this precipice - Mini World's End and World's End, separated by about a kilometre.

The views from both are fantastic. The elevation from the World's End lookout to the river at the bottom of the gorge is 870 metres. To the north the gorge narrows and gets higher and roiling, spiralling clouds were gathering in that corner. Across to the east was the jagged mountain range of Balathuduwa Peak silhouetted against the morning sun. To the south the gorge opened up revealing the coastal plains, a serpentine lake called Samanalawewa Reservoir, and in the far distance the broad estuary-like reservoir in Udu Walawe National Park. Along the western side of the gorge vertical cliffs, some several hundred metres high, dropped off the edge of the Horton Plains.

At World's End the track turns northwest and heads back onto the grassy moors. I loved these alpine peatlands. The weather was moody. One minute there was bright sunlight, fifteen seconds later it was raining, fifteen seconds later it was foggy, fifteen seconds later there was a howling gale and fifteen seconds later it was sunny again. I felt like I had been teleported to Iceland. It's the kind of weather that brings me joy.

The track crossed the moor then entered a stand of cloud forest. This is forest that derives its water from the ever-present cloud that clings to the high-altitude plateau. The ground had no grass cover, it was just slippery mud and a spider's web of tangled roots protruding from the ground. It was a very steep climb over the mud and the tangled roots. My asthmatic lungs were barely coping with the thin mountain air two kilometres above sea level. I have not been at such a high altitude since I climbed Mount Kosciuszko in 1995.

My efforts were handsomely rewarded by the sight of Baker's Falls in the forest. This is an unusual waterfall. It's not particularly tall or wide or powerful but it has an interesting beehive-like shape as the water fans out over the curved rockface. I stayed there for a while sitting on a concrete bench listening to the water and catching my breath.

It was a straightforward walk back to the park entrance. I soon left the forest and was once again in the grassland. Much of the grassland was studded with these tiny little trees with fans of broad dark leaves and wind-gnarled branches. They looked like nothing so much as dwarf frangipanis or bonsai magnolias. I would love to know what these plants are.

There was a little artificial weir and a broad shallow pond called Chimney Pool. After four hours and fifteen minutes I returned to the car park and got back into Raja's Suzuki Alto.

On the way back to my hotel I told Raja that I was interested in going to the top of Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka that towers over the town of Nuwara Eliya. Raja called his boss and was told, sure, for another Rs. 2,500. Deal.

I was not expecting to be let up there. At the top of Pidurutalagala is a military radar base of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces. My Lonely Planet was quite clear that the summit is off limits. Wikipedia said the same thing. But I have seen YouTube videos of foreign travellers visiting the peak, and I have seen other travel blogs saying that in true Sri Lankan fashion sometimes they let people in, sometimes they turn people away, and sometimes people are told to wait. I decided to give it a try.

We drove through suburban Nuwara Eliya and turned up a narrow mountain road. We passed the Police Inspectors' Holiday Resort. I guess that constables, sergeants, superintendents and commissioners can just go somewhere else.

A few hundred metres up the road there was a ticket booth. I paid Rs. 250 for a ticket and then a few hundred metres later we reached a military sentry gate. Stern-looking armed soldiers motioned for us to stop. My driver had to fill out his personal details on a slip of paper and I had to write my name and passport number. Raja handed the slip to the sentry guard and we were waved through.

The road became a wide, cracked yet sturdy concrete road, presumably built for heavy military equipment. The vegetation got sparser and more wind-gnarled. The weather was cloudy in Nuwara Eliya and soon enough we were driving through the clouds up the steep concrete road. Sri Lanka went through a desperate three-decade civil war that only ended in 2009 and heavy-handed security legislation is still in place. Raja told me it was not a good idea to take photographs. A pity because the vegetation was really interesting.

We got to the base at the top, a collection of austere military buildings and barbed wire fences and security gates. A soldier signalled us towards a car park. Raja parked the car and told me to go walk to the top while he stayed with the car.

To say that I was nervous would be quite accurate. Here I was, a foreigner walking utterly alone through a high-security military base, with no idea where to find the peak. I saw the highest post box in Sri Lanka, but nothing that pointed the way to the summit. I found a driveway that went up. I climbed the short but steep driveway - very hard work at over two and a half kilometres above sea level, the highest I have ever been - which led up to a padlocked gate topped with sharp spikes. Behind the gate was a high tower festooned with radar dishes. Signs were dotted around the place forbidding photography, forbidding this, forbidding that. The place was forbidding, full stop.

It didn't look like I was able to get past the gate and up to the highest point. Dejected, I started walking back down the driveway when five young air force officers were coming the other way laughing and gossiping with each other.

"Hello," I called out to them.

"Oh, hello!" one of them said in a friendly manner. They seemed quite rightfully surprised by my presence.

"Am I allowed to go to the highest point in Sri Lanka?"

"Oh, of course! Follow us." They led me up a narrow dirt path to the side that I did not see. The dirt path went past the radar tower and looped around it, following the fence surrounding the tower. The path went past a Buddhist dagoba, the highest place of worship in Sri Lanka, then looped around a bit more down a narrow path between high fences, and there it was - a small round stone table with a compass rose on the top. I did it! I reached the highest point of Sri Lanka at 2,524 metres above sea level. The sixth country whose highest point I had climbed after Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark.

Next to the stone compass rose was a small war memorial with a statue of a soldier, this was some sort of war memorial. Pidurutalagala was completely ensconced within cloud so I couldn't see a thing. After having my photo taken and after the officers had taken a few selfies with me, there was nothing else to do so the officers showed me the way out. They explained that they were medical officers in the Sri Lanka Air Force stationed at Pidurutalagala. They showed me where I wasn't allowed to go and showed me the way back to the car park. I shook hands with each of them, they truly were officers and gentlemen.

I got back into Raja's car and we drove back down the mountain into town. He dropped me off at my guest house and I spent a few hours resting in my room.

In the late afternoon I walked to the post office, a magnificent little mock-Tudor building with steeples and dormer windows and red tiles. I was intending to send souvenirs by post to Australia to save myself the hassle of lugging them around. I love visiting post offices when I go overseas. You can tell a lot about a country by looking at their post offices.

Australia, being an English-speaking country, is one of the countries where the disease of neoliberalism, started by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, has taken the worst hold. All government departments have either been privatised, corporatised or forced to act as if they were commercial businesses. Australia Post used to be the pride of the nation, a much-valued service connecting Australians with each other and the world, and many schoolchildren learned about the exploits of our postal workers delivering the weekly mail to remote rural communities by light aircraft or by boat. Those days are gone. Australia Post has been turned from a service serving citizens into a corporation serving stakeholders that is required to return a profit to the government. In a bid to increase profits, post offices have been moved from beautiful heritage buildings on high streets into soulless shopping centres on the edge of town. These cramped little shoeboxes have been stuffed chock-a-block with useless things nobody really wants from a post office. The ever-growing queues find themselves hemmed in by shelves selling Michael Bublé CDs, Smiggle stationery, iTunes gift cards and inkjet printers. I don't know about you but if I wanted to buy an inkjet printer, Australia Post would not be the first retailer to come to mind. Come to think of it - has anyone, anyone, ever seen a customer at Australia Post ever buying this useless junk? All the people in the queues I have seen are only there to pay their bills, apply for passports, buy stamps or pick up parcels.

Post offices in Singapore are gleaming white and clinically efficient. Post offices in Malaysia might look like the ones in Singapore, you can see that they so desperately want to be like Singapore, but the service is so slow and inefficient that I once had a German traveller give me money to buy a stamp for her postcard and asked me to post it because she was sick of waiting. Post offices in Iceland have what seems like grumpy service but when I had trouble with a SIM card I bought from them, they were incredibly helpful and even called the telephone company to fix my problem. Post offices in Belgium are grey and generic, apt considering it is the most generic European country, while the minimalist Dutch have inventively decided to get rid of post offices altogether so if you want to access postal services you have to go to a convenience store or a supermarket service counter.

I was curious as to what Sri Lankan post offices were like. It was quite late but it was still open. There were various counters - stamps, parcels, registered mail, et cetera - but only the stamps counter was attended. There was nobody in front of me in a queue. The lady behind the counter was busy doing paperwork, or maybe it was a crossword in the daily newspaper. I am not sure, the antique timber counter was quite high.

Finally she beckoned me to the counter. I explained that I wanted to send a parcel to Australia but I didn't have a box. She told me she couldn't help me, I was at the wrong counter, I would need to go to the parcels counter.

"But there's nobody at the counter," I said.

"I know. But you still need to go there."

I explained that I didn't have the goods I wanted to send with me, I just wanted to know if I could buy a box at the post office. She indifferently pointed at a shop in a side room that offered photocopying and scanning services and the like. "You can buy a box in there," she said as she returned to her paperwork. I decided that I was better off carrying my souvenirs around and posting them to relatives from Sydney. As appalling as Australia Post has become, I know that they will reach their destination within six months.

Posted by urbanreverie 21:46 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged national_park sri_lanka post_office nuwara_eliya horton_plains worlds_end pidurutalagala Comments (0)

Tea and sympathy

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Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Monday, 11 February 2019

When I was five years old my aunt gave me a battered old hardcover school atlas, presumably one that she had used at school circa 1970. It immediately became my most jealously treasured possession. I devoured the information in that atlas. I learned the names of all the world's capital cities, I taught myself how to draw every nation's flag from memory, I could recite by heart which languages were spoken in each country. I knew that one day I would see these places.

I grew up on a low-income public housing estate in southwestern Sydney. My family was better off than most of our neighbours - at least one of my parents was always in work, usually both of them had jobs - but money was always tight. Interstate travel was usually out of the question, let alone international travel. Holidays consisted of a week spent in a grotty caravan in Forster-Tuncurry or nothing. I am not complaining - those holidays form bright spots of light in what was sometimes a bleak childhood - but even as a child I knew that travel must consist of more than eating fish and chips from paper wrappers on picnic tables under scrawny Norfolk Island pines next to a fishing harbour while being mobbed by greedy seagulls.

It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I was prosperous enough to travel overseas. Australia is very far from the rest of the world, international air fares tend to be very expensive compared to other parts of the planet, it takes a long time in the air to get anywhere from Australia and even though air fares are becoming more affordable a very large proportion of Australians still don't have a passport and have never been overseas. I have many friends and relatives who have never been outside Australia or have only travelled overseas once.

I was thirty-two when I landed at Changi Airport in Singapore one morning after an excruciating red-eye flight from Brisbane via Brunei. I had gotten maybe half an hour's sleep and my mind was racing. I presented my passport to the silent poker-faced immigration officer, she scanned it, stamped it and handed it back to me. I was free to proceed. I spent the next two hours stumbling around Changi's impressive terminals in a confused daze. I was finally overseas! I finally did it! Wow! I'm overseas! I can't believe that I am actually overseas! Am I really overseas? Is this a dream? No! I am actually overseas!

Perhaps it is because I do not take international travel for granted, because I am grateful to have the opportunity to go overseas, because I am aware that there are so many people back home who have never had that opportunity, because I had yearned for so long to explore this world but couldn't, that I feel this urge, this irresistible duty, to share what I do, what I see, what I hear, what I taste and what I learn with people who read this blog. Perhaps it is narcissism. Perhaps it is altruism. Perhaps it is some combination of the two. In any case, I do hope it is entertaining and I thank the hundreds of people who have read this blog for coming along for the ride. I am honoured.

Speaking of rides, the day began leisurely until my vehicle for the day arrived in the late morning. My guest house had arranged my own personal tuk-tuk for the day for three thousand rupees. The little black tuk-tuk, obviously much better maintained and loved than your typical dusty taxi tuk-tuk, was driven by Susantha, a mild-mannered, softly-spoken middle-aged man who instantly made me feel at ease. This old cobber was no greasy little scam artist.

The tour took in two tea factories and three waterfalls strung out along the A5 highway from Nuwara Eliya in the direction of Kandy. Susantha wasn't like any other tuk-tuk driver I have seen. He drove safely, courteously and mostly obeyed the law. Until now I had assumed that it was a prerequisite to obtaining a Sri Lankan driver's licence that one must drive like a psychopathic methamphetamine addict.

About ten kilometres out of town along the twisty highway was our first destination, the Damro Tea Factory. This was a busy place nestled in a ravine surrounded by terraced tea plantations with a congested car park out the front full of tour coaches and tuk-tuks. Above it all was a big sign, "DAMRO TEA", in big white letters on the hillside like the Hollywood sign. I went on a quick twenty-minute group tour of the factory where a knowledgeable guide taught us how tea was made.

Tea production is not an especially complicated process. First, the freshly picked tea leaves are laid out on long wire racks and under the racks are high-powered fans that force air through the leaves to dry them. Twelve to eighteen hours later, the leaves are crushed and rolled in a large machine with a rotating blade to chop them into smaller, flatter pieces. Then the crushed leaves are spread out thinly on large stainless steel tables for three hours to ferment. "Fermentation" is strictly not the correct word, there is no yeast or bacterium involved. "Oxidisation" is the correct word; being exposed to air oxidises the compounds in the leaves, develops their flavour and turns the leaves black. (Green tea popular in East Asia does not go through this oxidisation process; the dried and crushed leaves are immediately sealed in air-tight containers.)

The tea leaves are then fired for twenty-one minutes at ninety degrees Celsius to stop the oxidisation process and to completely remove all moisture from the leaves. Next, the tea leaves are graded. The product from the ovens consists of a heterogeneous mix of different leaf types and particle sizes and fragments of stems which are worthless. The dried leaves are then sifted through a series of electrostatic rollers that attract the lighter, smaller particles. The larger whole leaves are of higher quality and attract a premium price on world markets. The smallest particles, called "fannings" or "dust", are the strongest, most bitter tea grade and are often used in cheaper tea bags.

After this tour we were shown the gift shop where we all bought souvenirs. For some reason there were a lot of visitors from Britain and the former British Dominions. I am shocked.

A short distance further down the highway was another tea facility, Blue Field Tea Factory. I went on another guided tour. I was the only visitor on that tour and I got to ask a lot of questions from the guide, Farhasan, about the details of the procedures that I wasn't able to ask on the more popular tour at Damro. While being led through the factory I saw me first tea plantation workers, two Tamil women in saris loading oxidised tea into the drying oven.

Tea production in Sri Lanka has an imteresting history. The Hill Country was originally virgin rainforest inhabited mostly by hunter-gatherer tribes called the Veddha. After the British conquered the interior in 1815, the colonists found that the cool highland climate was perfect for growing tea, that substance George Orwell called the Englishman's opium. So the British cleared thousands of acres of hilly rainforest to plant tea bushes.

There was only one problem - nobody wanted to work on them. The Sinhalese had their ancestral villages, their inherited plots of land, their fishing boats that allowed them to reap the infinite bounty of the sea. Why would they give that up just to work for British capitalist pigs on some remote tea farm for a pittance?

So the British did what they often did - import people from elsewhere in the British Empire. In this case, they brought in thousands of starving, landless Tamil peasants from the Indian mainland to do the dirty work.

The Tamils are still there picking tea. They are distinct from the Tamils who live in the north and east of Sri Lanka who have been on the island for many centuries. It is no exaggeration to say that the Plantation Tamils, as they are called, are among the most oppressed peoples in Asia. One of the first things newly independent Ceylon did in 1950 was to strip these poor souls of their Ceylonese citizenship. The government in Colombo claimed they were Indian. India didn't want them back or to grant them citizenship - why would they, generations of Plantation Tamils had lived in Sri Lanka for a century and now had few ties to India - effectively rendering the tea workers stateless.

Many NGOs and charities are working hard to improve the lot of these exploited tea workers. Still, the conditions of these workers are absurd. They live on the plantations in long, ramshackle, rusty shacks called "lines". The lines are divided into a series of segments, each segment being home to one family. The typical pay of a tea picker is eight hundreed rupees a day - about six Australian dollars. To put this in perspective, at Cargill's white rice is Rs. 79 a kilogram, bananas are Rs. 75 a kilogram, potatoes are Rs. 170 a kilogram, a small frozen chicken is Rs. 500, a twin pack of bar soap is Rs. 99, a 1.5 litre bottle of safe drinking water is Rs. 70 and apples are a whopping Rs. 500 a kilogram. The plantation workers might not have to pay for their on-site accommodation, but it is clear that eight hundred rupees does not go very far.

To earn this majestic amount of eight hundred rupees, the pickers have to pluck twenty kilograms of tea a day. I don't know if you've ever seen a fresh tea leaf but they are feather-light. Only the small, young, tender leaves are picked. It must take all day to reach that quota. It takes five kilograms of fresh leaves to make one kilogram of final product. I calculated in my head - twenty kilograms of fresh leaves make four kilograms of final product, eight hundred rupees divided by four is two hundred rupees per kilogram of final product - about A$1.60 per kilogram, a tiny fraction of what tea costs in Western supermarkets. Keep that in mind when you next make a nice cup of tea.

I had an excellent rice and curry buffet lunch at the Blue Field factory, bought some more tea souvenirs, and got back in the tuk-tuk with the ever-patient Susantha. The A5 highway descends from the Hill Country plateau to the central plains around Kandy, we had descended by about nine hundred metres from Nuwara Eliya before we arrived at the next stop, Puna Ella Falls. The Hill Country plateau is fringed with waterfalls on all sides of the plateau where streams plunge off the highlands onto the surrounding plains, and Puna Ella is one of the smaller waterfalls that can be seen from the highway at a distance.

A short distance down the hill was the next waterfall, Ramboda Falls. This is actually a complex of two waterfalls, Upper Ramboda Falls and Lower Ramboda Falls, one above the highway bridge and one below. The upper falls are magnificent enough but Susantha led me to the lower falls.

It was a bit of a hike. First you have to walk down from the highway along a very steep switchbacked driveway to the Ramboda Falls Hotel. You then have to walk down three storeys of stairs, then exit the hotel, and walk down the steepest, narrowest staircase I have ever seen.

It was worth it. In some respects, the Lower Ramboda Falls are more awe-inspiring than the Ravana Falls at Ella. The Ravana Falls are much higher but quite narrow. The Lower Ramboda Falls are wider and more powerful.

Then we had to climb back up. My goodness, those stairs! They were more like ladders. They were so narrow that whenever people came from opposite directions one person had to risk breaking their neck to let the other through. After an arduous climb, we got to the hotel. There is an elevator but it is for guests only. Everyone else has to buy a ticket. Susantha and I climbed the three stories but right outside the exit at the top of the hotel, there was a rude, loud, French-speaking woman smoking an extremely strong cigarette that smelled like burning tyres.

I had an asthma attack, the first of my trip. Susantha looked curious as I administered by Ventolin puffer to my aching lungs, I don't think he had seen an asthma puffer before. He promised me that we would take the driveway up to the highway where the tuk-tuk was parked nice and slow, he even offered to carry my daypack for me. What a legend.

The next feature of the tour was the Ramboda Tunnel, a piece of infrastructure that enabled the Hill Country to be connected to Kandy by a direct road. Sri Lankans are so proud of this tunnel that it appears on the front of the one thousand rupee note.

We stopped at a lookout perched above a souvenir shop a bit further on, from here all three waterfalls were visible, as well as a lovely prospect over the Kotmale Reservoir towards the mountains near Kandy.

It was time to return to Nuwara Eliya. Scattered in the hills through all the terraced tea bushes are small vegetable farms worked by impoverished smallholders. They stand on the side of the A5 holding their produce in their hands offering them to passing vehicles. I asked Susantha to stop at one and bought a punnet of strawberries from one old lady for three hundred rupees. They were the reddest, sweetest, juiciest strawberries I have ever eaten. What is it about Sri Lanka and its divinely inspired fruit and vegetables? This is how fresh produce should be everywhere.

Soon we were back in Nuwara Eliya and it was time to say goodbye to Susantha and his marvellously well-polished black tuk-tuk. Visiting Sri Lanka is a study in contradictions. One minute its people's inability to give accurate advice about anything, the feckless inefficiency, the chaotic lack of planning, the scamming tuk-tuk drivers and the fact that nothing quite works almost sends you into a nervous breakdown. The next minute, the genuine warmth of its people, the gentle soft-spokenness, the friendly smiles and the incredible politeness restore your faith in the country. Sri Lanka never ceases to surprise and to amaze and to challenge and to inspire.

Susantha dropped me off at Victoria Park. One of the good things about the British Empire is that wherever the British colonists went, they built magnificent parks modelled on those back in Britain. Of course this doesn't justify the theft of whole continents from innocent indigenous peoples, the exploitation of farm and mine and plantation workers for the benefit of British capitalist interests, the divide-and-conquer philosophy that to this day seems ethnic groups in former possessions of the Empire at each other's throats, or the countless bloody wars to maintain Britain's grip on one-quarter of the world's land area. But the parks the British built are at least something in their favour.

I paid the three hundred rupee admission fee to Victoria Park and was shocked. This was not Sri Lanka! If it wasn't for the ceaseless honking of horns from all the buses and tuk-tuks on the surrounding streets, I would have thought I was in Bowral or Orange back in New South Wales.

Rustic paths weaved across emerald green lawns, a rose garden was laid out in a series of geometrically perfect concentric circles, ducks danced on lily pads on green ponds, and mock-Tudor cottages and glasshouses dotted the landscape. There are parks just like this all over Australia, especially in highland towns with cooler climates in New South Wales. There was a large children's playground with a miniature railway just like some parks back home. What made it feel even more Australian were all the Australian trees - Norfolk Island pines, bunya pines, hoop pines, she-oaks and most importantly, eucalypts, the most common type of tree all over Australia.

There are so many eucalypts, which Australians colloquially call "gum trees", not just in Nuwara Eliya but all the surrounding countryside. I pointed them out to Susantha, huge stands of tall gums on the ridges above the tea plantation slopes. He never knew that those trees were Australian, he told me that they were grown to make paper and people called them "paper trees".

It was starting to get dark so I decided to explore a nearby neighboirhood full of nineteenth-century mock-Tudor hotels built by the British when Nuwara Eliya was the colonists' favourite place to get away from the horrible tropical climate of the lowlands. There are a series of these hotels, one larger than the next, until one reaches the famous Grand Hotel, an imposing peach-coloured edifice with half-timbered walls and bay windows.

I decided to see the inside and stop for a drink. I went up to the front portico and the doorman told me that yes, sir, there is a public lounge bar inside, if sir would be pleased to follow me? I'm a working-class boy. Being treated like some business tycoon doesn't sit well with me. Just speak to me like a normal human being.

We went through chambers full of timber panels and chandeliers, past a grand piano, past an expensife jewellery store, and the doorman showed me through to the public bar, a cosy little chamber of dark heavy timbers and soft, comfortable armchairs.

Most of the patrons in the bar, about eighty percent, were older, gammon-faced, bossy, upper-class English Home Counties twits of the sort who voted for Brexit and write indignant letters to the editor of the Daily Mail signed "Disgusted of Royal Tunbridge Wells". The other twenty percent were their equally arrogant and entitled Australian counterparts, the kind of people who I cross the street to avoid back home. Needless to say, I did not introduce myself to my fellow Australians.

I was astounded by just how rudely and contemptuously they treated the hotel staff. I guess they were under the mistaken impression that the British Empire still exist and the locals are still their lackeys. It was disgusting. I don't care what colour the hotel employees are, I don't care how wealthy you are, you say your pleases amd thank-yous like everybody else.

I ordered a drink, a mint gin, a bright green Incredible Hulk-like concotion of gin, lime juice, mint syrup and soda water. It was very nice. It was also very expensive, sixteen hundred rupees. As I sipped my drink and ate the complimentary soybean snacks I was overcome with self-disgust. Here I am, sitting in a posh hotel surrounded by bourgeois pigs, sipping a drink that would cost a tea picker two day's wages. How on earth is this fair? I'm a socialist, and a proud and active member of my trade union, for crying out loud!

I would like to think that I work moderately hard. I endure the well-paid sedentary drudgery of an often mind-numbingly soporific job in the Public Service. When I am not bogged down in trivial administrative minutiae, it is often a very stressful job. I am in a position with some responsibility, there are many competing demands on my attention, and I am required to train and supervise people who could most leniently be described as "bloody difficult".

But I don't have to work from dawn to dusk, my back bent over double, a hessian sack slowly getting heavier on my shoulder, performing the intellectually stimulating job of looking at a tea bush and trying to figure out which leaves will keep the foreman happy, picking, picking, picking until my fingernails bleed, just so posh twits in Britain and elsewhere can sip on their Earl Grey in centrally-heated conservatories in Berkshire and feel oh-so-sophisticated while I get paid a wage that is enough to buy a small frozen chicken, two kilograms of rice and two kilograms of bananas for my family. Stuff it. This world is not fair and it bloody well should be.

Posted by urbanreverie 17:19 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged waterfalls tea sri_lanka tuk-tuks nuwara_eliya tamils Comments (0)

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