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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."

"Oh."

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

overcast 14 °C
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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)

Desiderata

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Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Sunday, 10 February 2019

Normally when I am angry or frustrated, a good night's sleep will cure what ails me. Not this morning. I awoke at a quarter past eight after a deep seven and a half hours' sleep and I was just as ropable as I was last night. I could have still strangled those dreadful station employees with their obsequious smiles at Bandarawela with my bare hands.

I was anxious, shivering, had a stomach ache, was afraid to leave my room. I know the symptoms well - culture shock has finally hit. I have had it two times before but on those occasions I suffered these symptoms on the very evening I arrived in Seoul and Brussels. This time, culture shock has taken eleven days to cripple me. I must be getting more resilient.

I sat in my hotel room. Unknown to me, the street in central Nuwara Eliya on which Sapu's Mountain Breeze is located is used as a street market during daylight hours. It's like Colombo's Pettah in miniature. Various costermongers would yell what they were selling. There was someone out of my window who kept yelling something like "yadi-yadi-yadi-yadi-yadi-yadi-yellow!" It got rather annoying rather quickly and made my culture shock even worse.

At about ten I left my room and was served breakfast. The three men who appear to run this place seem like quite decent people though their English is rather poor. They are Tamils - the Hill Country is very ethnically mixed; within a few minutes' walk of my guest house is a mosque, a church and a Buddha statue. The people who run this place are Sri Lankan but they do have mannerisms that are different to the majority Sinhalese ethnic group. They have that Indian habit of wagging their head from side to side to indicate that they are listening to you, and they smile a lot just for the sake of it. They don't seem as serious and reserved as many of the Sri Lankans I have met so far.

I managed to find the courage to leave the hotel at lunchtime. I repeated to myself the lines from the famous Desiderata prayer:

Beyond a wholesome discipline
Be gentle with yourself

I promised myself that I would take things gently and that I would try to be gentle with others.

It was tough. I was instantly assailed by the crowds, the smells, the noises, the garish colours of the street market outside. Moving was very difficult. I found myself stuck in a crowd next to a malodorous fish stall that made me want to vomit. I needed to get away from that piscatorial stench but I literally could not move.

After I had extracted myself from that market, I found myself on the main street. There was a Cargill's supermarket. I needed to top up on toiletries. I was intending to do some hiking so I stocked up on drinks and snacks. I also needed ziplock sandwich bags. My passport was destroyed by getting wet in the rain when I visited South Korea five years ago and since then I diligently protect my passport by sealing it in a ziplock sandwich bag. But sandwich bags start to split apart after spending lengthy periods of times in clothes pockets and I had run out of sandwich bags I brought from Australia. I showed a Cargill's employee a photo of a ziplock bag on my phone and she said she had never seen anything like that. Another employee said that a shop across the road that was like a two-dollar shop might have some, but they didn't have them either.

I craved Western food. I guess this is part of culture shock. I saw a Pizza Hut in the distance. As I walked up there a white woman called out to me. She didn't know me but she had seen me climb Little Adam's Peak, she had even spoke to me to ask how high the mountain was and I showed her on my iPhone's compass app, and she had also seen me on other occasions walking around Ella. It is funny how all of us travellers have ended up on the same loop and how we keep running into each other as we travel around the loop. The vast majority of us have chosen to go anticlockwise from Colombo too. I didn't intend to follow the same ant trail as everyone else but it just so happens that the premier sights in Sri Lanka are conveniently located on a circle around the southern half of the island.

Natasha was a Latvian living in England and she seemed to be suffering a little bit of culture shock too. She said that she felt like an alien. She had fallen in with a Russian bloke also travelling on the ant trail, Oleg, and he soon joined us. People sometimes criticise travellers for just socialising with each other and not doing more to socialise with the locals. I respond to this by saying that of course people want to associate with people with whom they have things in common. I have things in common with Natalie, with Jason, with the Austrians in Yala, with Natasha. I have very little in common with most locals. The cultures are far too different, the levels of economic and social development are too different, there is too little common ground.

All three of us were starving so we went our separate ways to find something to eat. I went to Pizza Hut. As I was waiting for my order I looked at Twitter. I had posted a lengthy thread with photos and videos of yesterday's train trips earlier that morning; it was a condensed version of the blog entry previous to the one you are reading now. Like in the blog entry, I expressed my gratitude that I was from the West, and some leftie black-bloc moron from a German-speaking country accused me of being a patronising colonialist "like a real civilised Western person".

Blah. Without Western civilisation there would be no scientific method, no Enlightenment, no rationalism, no liberalism, no socialism, no trade unionism, no welfare state and none of the amazing intellectual advances of the past three centuries that have made it possible for such imbeciles to sit on their comfortable Western backsides and accuse some stranger on the Internet of being some sort of racist imperialist. P.J. O'Rourke was right when he wrote that we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to defend Western civilisation and that it is the only civilisation that has ever tried to obtain for every citizen life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is not a coincidence that the only countries where the common person has a secure, prosperous life either belong to Western civilisation or have adapted features of Western civilisation to their own. It is possible to have left-wing socialist convictions and still be grateful for all the things Western civilisation has given us while acknowledging the shameful aspects of the history of that civilisation. But I guess such nuance is well beyond the meagre mental abilities of black-bloc zealots and other extremists on both the left and the right.

I paid the Rs. 1,176 bill with a Rs. 1,000 and a Rs. 500 note, and was told that they would only be able to give me two hundred in change.

"No, 1,500 minus 1,176 is 324. You will give me 324 rupees in change. Or would you rather I pay by card?"

"No, we only take cash." I did get my full change from the waiter who obviously was not happy. I don't know how to get around this change problem. Maybe whenever I withdraw money at an ATM I need to go into the bank and break the larger denominations into Rs. 100 notes. My wallet will end up thicker than the Sydney White Pages.

There is a small national park on the edge of town, Galway's Land National Park. I decided to walk the three kilometres out there. I found myself in a rough neighbourhood where I saw my first poverty in Sri Lanka. I don't mean the poverty of the tuk-tuk touts or the skinny old labourers in Pettah but real poverty, grinding poverty, heartbreaking poverty, the poverty you see on the television ads for World Vision child sponsorships. There was a whole family living in a rusty unlit shack about the size of a shipping container with the whites of a little girl's pair of eyes peering brightly out of the darkness. A little further on a group of boys aged about nine saw me and starting running after me. "Hello! Stay and come, sir! Stay and come! Money! Hello, sir! Money!" Houses that looked half-finished stood cheek by jowl with expanses of shacks and hovels. How on earth people can jusitfy to themselves such an evil state of affairs is beyond me. And conservatives in the West want to abolish all foreign aid to underdeveloped countries. I suppose the people here ought to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps while those bootstraps are being snatched away from them.

I followed the Google Maps directions to Galway's Land and found myself on Old Railway Road in a wealthy neighbourhood of neat two-storey homes with driveways and high fences. It was a very steep road. Nuwara Eliya is a hilly town and is nineteen hundred metres above sea level, even higher than Charlotte Pass, the highest ski resort in Australia. Walking on such steep roads at such a high altitude is very tough work for someone who lives thirteen metres above sea level.

I rounded a hairpin bend only to be greeted by a closed gate across the road. Google Maps was telling porkies. A helpful resident in one of the large family homes came out of his house and pointed me in the right direction.

I walked through a neighbourhood with Australian and European trees; tall, stringy eucalypts, erect pines and drooping yews. It reminded me of a Bizarro version of the Blue Mountains. Imagine if Blackheath had swarms of tuk-tuks. I soon arrived at Galway's Land National Park. It was ten to five and the park closed at six. But it is tiny, only twenty-nine hectares.

I paid the Rs. 2,070 park entrance fee for foreigners. Sixteen Australian dollars seems very expensive for such a tiny park. I paid it anyway. I had to sign a cash receipt and a Permit To Enter And Remain Within A National Park, a large sheet of white paper, a bit bigger than A3, with closely typed bureaucratic regulations and conditions. The park ranger completed forms in triplicate with carbon paper and entered all my personal details on a giant ledger. All so one person can enter a national park. Australians who complain about red tape in our Public Service have seen nothing.

Galway's Land is a small knob of virgin montane rainforest almost completely surrounded by the Nuwara Eliya urban area. I had hoped that coming here would help with the culture shock. There are two signed walking routes inside the park, both loops, and I spent forty minutes in there. It was lovely to stroll through the mossy trunks and cool, moist air while listening to the frogs and birds. The weather in Nuwara Eliya is magnificent, like Sydney in winter. Days in the high teens, nights in the high single digits, with such clean air. It is such a refreshing change from the pestilential humidity of the lowlands. It was even nicer strolling through Galway's Land with its shade and pleasant rainforest smell and utter solitude.

I didn't want to leave. I gave serious consideration to staying in the park overnight. I had my rain jacket, I had my phone and power bank, I had plenty of snacks and fruit amd water, there were park benches for me to sleep on and I could use the spongy side of my daypack as a pillow. Anything to avoid going back into that madhouse out there. But my permit was only for the tenth of February. The park rangers, scarcely run off their feet with hordes of visitors, would notice that I had not left and would call search and rescue to find me. Perhaps I would be fined for exceeding the length of my permit. It was with reluctance that I left.

I caught a tuk-tuk back into town. Later on I went to fetch some dinner, "short eats", just fried or baked snacks like samosas and pakoras that cost fifty rupees each. On my way back I found that my street was crawling with street dogs. All the detritus from the now-gone market stalls had obviously attracted the mutts. Some were quite aggressive. A strange thing about street dogs in Nuwara Eliya - the cold high-altitude climate has created a breed of street dog with shaggy fur. The lowland street dogs have fur about as short as a bull terrier's.

So I walked back to the main street, told a tuk-tuk driver that he was about to earn the easiest one hundred rupees of his life, and he drove me one block back to my guest house and a thrilling night of watching the BBC World News channel.

St Xavier’s Church and Pidurutalagala

St Xavier’s Church and Pidurutalagala

Nuwara Eliya street market and Pidurutalagala

Nuwara Eliya street market and Pidurutalagala

Cargill’s supermarket

Cargill’s supermarket

Australian cheese in Sri Lanka

Australian cheese in Sri Lanka

Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya

Galway’s Land National Park

Galway’s Land National Park

Australian hoop pine in Galway’s Land National Park

Australian hoop pine in Galway’s Land National Park

Edward VII post box (1901-1910)

Edward VII post box (1901-1910)

Canned cheese - as disgusting as it sounds

Canned cheese - as disgusting as it sounds

Posted by urbanreverie 23:42 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged rainforest sri_lanka culture_shock nuwara_eliya Comments (0)

Only mad dogs and Englishmen


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Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Saturday, 9 February 2019

I take back all those kind words I said about Sri Lanka's street dogs yesterday. After I had finished chilling out and getting my blog up-to-date at the bar down the street from my guest house, I said good-bye to Jumpy. Jumpy is a cute little thing who looks like a Jack Russell terrier but with the Sri Lankan curled-up short tail. She is a bit smaller than most street dogs, has a shy sensitive temperament, and was adopted as one of several pet dogs by the Western female bar owner who rescues dogs off the street, feeds them, vaccinates them and turns them into doggies that customers love as they roam the premises. For some reason, Jumpy chose me as her companion for the two nights I went to that pub. She would jump up onto the wicker couch and curl up next to me as I gently patted her. The bar owner told me that Jumpy has trust issues and is wary of humans and that I should be proud that Jumpy took a liking to me.

The street dogs are a bit jealous of the dogs in that pub. Throughout the night, several would come in and raid the pets' dishes. One nasty dog picked on Jumpy and the other bar dogs would gang up on the intruder and scare it away. Several times fights broke out between the dish raiders and the bar dogs.

I left the pub and walked up the hill back to my room. First, one dog jumped into my path and snarled at me. I told it to get lost, then some resident came out and said that it was her pet. "Don't worry, it is not biting," she faintly assured me.

I walked a few metres further then another two street dogs assailed me. They circled me while barking and snarling and drawing ever nearer. "Oh, just go away, you mangy mongrels! What did I ever do to you? Just f#$@ off!" I just so happened to be carrying a small plastic bag full of rambutan seeds and skins; I was looking for a suitable bin in which to dispose them. There was a resident's rubbish bin a few metres away full to overflowing. I threw the bag onto the mound of rubbish to distract the dogs and it worked. They were curious about what I had just thrown and were eagerly digging at it, probably expecting juicy bones. I walked away briskly before their disappointment turned to anger.

I finally reached the entrance to my guest house when the Big Bad One confronted me, the one who had been harassing Jumpy and the other bar dogs earlier. The Big Bad One was a solid, angry, muscular mass of snarling rage and spring-loaded muscles just waiting to lunge at my neck and bite into my carotid artery. For Christ's sake. It was like a bad video game where you fight one enemy, then you have to go and slay an even stronger enemy, and then finally you have to defeat The Ultimate Enemy, after which you are the winner.

A stand-off ensued. The dog was standing between me and the staircase down to my room. As I edged closer to the stairs, he became even more alert and aggressive.

"Rack off! Get away from me, you stupid mutt! I'm no threat to you or any other dog on this street. You hear me? Now there's a good bo-- No! Don't you dare come any closer!"

By pure chance another backpacker was walking down the street from the station. The Big Bad One was momentarily distracted by his passage. I took the opportunity to run around the dog in a wide circle, into the sunken forecourt of the tourist information centre next door, and across to the steep stairs leading to my room. The dog just stood at the top of the stairs barking impotently. He was too bloody chicken to go down the stairs! Hahahahahaha! Who's the Big Bad One now, bitch?

I guess that all those dogs targeted me because they were jealous of how I gained Jumpy's affection. Haters gonna hate! Jumpy is such a good little girl and I won't have a bad word said about that doggie.

After that adrenaline rush I had great difficulty winding down and getting to sleep, but I still got up at five o'clock for my next railway adventure. I woke up feeling very sore. I switched on the bathroom light and saw this hideous thing staring back at me in the mirror. I had turned into the Facebook "angry" reaction icon. Every imch of bare skin above the neckline of my T-shirt was glowing bright red. The sooner I find a hat that is fit for purpose, the better.

The portion of the Main Line between Ella and Badulla is renowned as one of the world's most beautiful railways. I had planned to catch the down Night Mail that had travelled overnight from Colombo; that train was timetabled to arrive at 06:05. It was scheduled to arrive at the Main Line's terminus at Badulla at 07:10. The next train back to Ella, the up Podi Manike, was advertised as leaving Badulla at 08:30 and arriving at Ella at 09:23, leaving over half an hour for me to pack my bags and check out by ten o'clock.

I got to the station forecourt at half past five. The forecourt festures a statue of Buddha that is enclosed in a glass case; between sunset and sunrise the statue is illumimated with a discotheque of flashing coloured lights. It all seemed very tacky and unseemly, not at all in keeping with a country where tourists with Buddha tattoos are deported, and wouldn't have looked out of place in the poker machine room of a typical leagues club in Western Sydney.

Tickets for the Night Mail go on sale half an hour before arrival. I and a few other hardy souls stood in the morning mist waiting forever for the ticket office to open. The loudspeakers on the platform blared Buddhist prayer chants. Finally at six o'clock the ticket window opened. I bought my single ticket to Badulla - unfortunately it is not possible to buy returns in Sri Lanka, only singles - and also reserved a first-class seat on a train to my next destination in the afternoon. The ticket seller told me that the Night Mail was about an hour late.

I saw Jason and his wife and two young daughters on the platform waiting for the first westbound train of the day. We exchanged our farewells, he gave me his Instagram account name and I gave him this blog's web address. (Don't worry Jason, I do remember your name, I just change most people's names slightly on this blog to protect their privacy.)

The first westbound train of the day to Colombo left at about 06:39 leaving me nearly alone on an empty platform from which I enjoyed the misty sunrise. The down Night Mail, headed by a forty-year-old M6 locomotive and an ancient M2C locomotive named "Vancouver" donated to Ceylon by Canada in the 1950s under the Colombo Plan, finally arrived at 07:30. This made me nervous - would there be enough time for me to get the train back from Badulla?

The Night Mail was a long train of classic red carriages - sleepers, sitting cars, mail vans. The train headed off through the mist clinging to the sides of mountain ridges, terraced tea plantations fuzzily visible through the fog.

Soon we reached one of Ella's most popular attractions, the Nine Arch Bridge. This is a high, curved stone viaduct similar to those common on the New South Wales railway network - Bowenfels, Zig Zag, Stonequarry Creek, Stanwell Park - and was probably designed by the same engineering firm such was the resemblance. It was so photogenic that even at half past seven there was a crowd of tourists photographing our passage. Most of the tourists get to the bridge by walking along the tracks from Ella, a route that includes a tunnel. They're braver than I am.

The Night Mail progressed through stunning valleys. As the sun rose most of the mist burned off revealing a steep, twisting dale with a frothing rocky river far down below. We passed small little stations serving tiny mountain villages, the station master leaving his little hut to exchange section tokens with the driver. Small peasant cottages with lichen-covered roof tiles and lines of washing stretched beside the line crawled past my window at 25 km/h.

The train reached the provincial capital of Badulla at 08:20. That gave me ten minutes' leeway until my next train. I raced down the platform to the exit gate, handed my ticket to the collector at the gate, and raced up to the ticket counter. Thankfully there was no queue. The ticket back to Ella cost a hundred rupees. I opened my wallet - I had a couple of Rs. 5,000 notes, one Rs. 1,000 note, an Rs. 500 note and an Rs. 20 note.

I tendered the Rs. 500 note. "Do you have smaller change?" the ticket seller grumbled.

I showed him my open wallet. "Nope."

The railway employee sighed and dawdled off to a back room to obtain the correct change. It seemed like an eternity. Just what is it about Sri Lanka and everywhere having a shortage of change? Do cashiers in this country not understand the importance of maintaining an adequate float? Even a fifteen-year-old Australian working at McDonald's has a better understanding of the need to ensure there is enough change in the till. Because even though customers like me do our best to ensure we have enough smaller coins and notes in our wallets, there will always have to be someone who has to break a larger note after the smaller cash runs out. It's simple mathematics.

The ticket reseller finally returned with my Rs. 400 change. I presume he took so long because he had to fill out a Till Float Maintenance Authorisation Form signed in triplicate and approved by the station master, district inspector and chief railways commissioner.

I greedily grabbed my change and my ticket, showed it to the pedantic gate attendant who carefully examined it to make sure it was actually a valid railway ticket, then ran down the platform to the footbridge at the far end, over the bridge and down the stairs with three minutes to spare.

My train back to Ella was named the Mani Podike (Little Maiden). It was a modern Class S12 push-pull diesel multiple unit built in 2012. It was certainly far more comfortable than any Sri Lankan train I have been on so far but I was surprised that a train only seven years old would have so many torn vinyl seats and extremely worn floors.

I got the same view back up the hill, perhaps even better now that the fog had lifted. We ascended from Badulla up onto the plateau where Ella is situated. The train curved through the Demodara spiral. Spirals are fairly common on the world's railways, there are two in New South Wales, and they are a genius solution to the problem of railways ascending steep grades. However, the Demodara spiral is unique because there is a station at the point where the upper part of the spiral passes over the tunnel directly beneath the station. You can stand on the platform and see your train approach from beneath you.

I got back to Ella on time at 09:23, walked across the road to the Up Country guest house, quickly packed my things and checked out. I said goodbye to Sandu the owner and her sister who helped her run the hotel. I cannot praise my hosts highly enough. Friendly service, amazing food, and if you're going to Ella I order you to stay there. The fact that it is across the street from a delightfully cute railway station is just an added bonus.

I had four hours until my next train so I left my luggage and most of my valuables with Sandu and caught a bus down to Ravana Falls on the A23 road six kilometres to the south. I don't like swimming at surf beaches very much but I do love swimming at lakes and waterfalls. I put on some swimmers under my jeans, took a travel towel, a bottle of water, a small amount of cash for the bus or taxi fares and boarded the bus south.

Ravana Falls is a magnificent cascade coming down the side of the Ella plateau just south of Ella Rock. It is certainly one of the tallest waterfalls I have seen, though it isn't a single drop but a series of drops. I am a massive waterfall fan and I spent an hour just admiring the majesty of the place, listening to the loud but soothing white-noise roar of the rushing water. I didn't go for a swim though. I had seen plenty of photos of foreign travellers going for a refreshing dip in the large pool next to the highway bridge with towels draped over the smooth boulders on the banks. But there were plenty of signs at the waterfall warning people that this is not a good idea, thirty-six people had died, and consequently nobody was going for a swim. There was a small area off to the side where two pipes diverted some of the water onto a flat concrete area with the pipes issuing strong flowing water about two metres above the ground which locals were using as public showers. But that's not quite the same.

I caught the bus back into town, collected my luggage, said my final remorseful goodbye to Sandu and her sister, and waited for my next train to Nanu Oya, the Super Secret Weekend Express.

The Super Secret Weekend Express isn't the train's official name, it is just my name for it. As far as I know this train has no official name. It doesn't even appear in the timetable search function on the Sri Lanka Railways website or on Malinda Prasad's much more user-friendly timetable webpage. The Super Secret Weekend Express is a reserved first-class-only train with five air-conditoned passenger cars and a restaurant car that runs only on Saturdays and Sundays. It leaves Kandy in the morning and reaches Ella in the early afternoon, where it lays over for a little while before returning to Kandy arriving in the evening. I only found out about the Super Secret Weekend Express by looking at the timetable display next to the ticket window at Ella station.

The Super Secret Weekend Express is very expensive by Sri Lankan standards. The 64 kilometres from Ella to Nanu Oya cost me Rs. 1,200 (about A$9.60). A second class ticket would have cost me Rs. 150 (A$1.20). It is not surprising that every single passenger was a foreign visitor.

The Super Secret Weekend Express left Ella three minutes late at 14:18. Between Ella and Bandarawela the line goes mostly through deep cuttings and thick forests with few great scenes or photo opportunities. The train pulled into Bandarawela four minutes late at 14:45 and then the "fun" began.

A conductor walked down the aisles telling everyone that the section of single track ahead was blocked, a train coming from the other direction couldn't get through the blockage and clear the section, and that the Super Secret Weekend Express will be delayed by two hours. Oh well. Two hours isn't that bad. I've been through much worse delays on the New South Wales railways. The train was due to arrive at Nanu Oya at 16:56, Nuwara Eliya is a nine kilometre bus or taxi ride away, and this would mean that I would arrive at my guest hoise at half past seven. Not very late. I promised myself I would wait until 5pm before I would start looking for a bus.

I took the opportunity to get out of the train, get some fresh Hill Country air, stretch my legs and explore Bandarawela yard with its antique rolling stock that wouldn't have looked out of place in Thirlmere railway museum. I checked out the station itself. It was a typical Sri Lankan railway station of medium importance with a long, rustic, peach-painted stucco building, well-kept gardens, a ticket hall full of heavy old timbers, and yet another fish tank. I do not know why so many Sri Lankan stations have fish tanks. I guess it gives people something to look at while they are stuck for hours due to delays.

What followed can only be described as breathtaking staggering incompetence. At 16:45, two hours after the Super Secret Weekend Express pulled into Ella, the conductor came through the train and told us that it would only definitely be another hour and that whatever was blocking the train would be cleared very, very soon.

All the passengers were faced with a dilemma. Do we stay and wait it out, or do we seek alternative transport arrangements? About half the train chose the latter, leaving the station to go search for buses or taxis. I heard one passenger say that he had found a taxi that would go to Kandy for thirty thousand rupees and would anyone like to split the bill? Another person went down to the bus station some distance away only to report that he couldn't find a bus that went through to Kandy.

The conductor said the train would definitely be moving within an hour and I was stupid enough to be reassured by this. Buses in Sri Lanka are very frequent during the day but after 7pm most routes either stop or turn into short workings. In the end I decided to stay put for a little while longer. Hope springs eternal.

Tempers were starting to fray. The station master's office was a heaving mass of irate tourists. Some people had given up and were claiming refunds of their fares through some arcane bureaucratic procedure involving lots of forms and the showing of passports.

The delay wouldn't have been so frustrating if the station staff were able to give accurate information or honestly say they didn't know when the line would re-open. Instead all we got was useless conflicting information from station staff. The train would start moving in five minutes! Tomorrow! One hour! The line was blocked by a fallen tree! A landslide! A track failure! A train defect! It was obvious that the useless station staff were talking out of their hats.

By this time the sun had set and heavy rain was falling. The last thing I and others felt like doing was hauling our backpacks in the rain all the way to a bus station only to find there were no buses to our destination or to end up paying through the nose for one of the few car taxis in this area. I looked at Google Maps; the forty-five kilometres from Bandarawela to Nuwara Eliya would have taken a car ninety minutes. A bus would have taken at least two, maybe three, hours on a twisty Hill Country highway. And there was also the risk that as soon as we left the station, the train would depart. The die was cast, we were all staying on that damn train.

Soon some people lost their patience. Some started looking for accomodation in Bandarawela but there wasn't much. It's not the kind of place travellers visit. A Finnish couple walked into town to grab dinner and said the selection was slim and it was the most awful food they had in Sri Lanka. As for the rest of us, the only food was the restaurant car that was selling small plastic bags of stale samosas for three hundred rupees, tiny cups of tea for two hundred rupees (the going rate everywhere else was fifty), and bags of potato chips and popcorn. The kiosk on the station platform was only selling much the same thing. So I had stale samosas and tea for dinner. Bon appetit.

Even more passengers crowded into the stuffy station master's office. A small number were still claiming refunds and everyone else was trying to get information, any information, about what the hell was going on so they could make an informed decision about what to do. But trying to get a straight answer out of Sri Lankans is like trying to pull hen's teeth. If you ask ten Sri Lankans the same question, you will get ten different answers.

At 7pm I knew that I would reach the guest house in Nuwara Eliya very, very late. I called their number. An employee promptly answered.

"Hello, my name's Urban Reverie and I have a Booking.com reservation for four nights. I'm just calling to let you know that my train is delayed and I will be very late tonight."

"Oh. So you want to cancel?"

"No, I don't want to cancel. I am just letting you know I will be very late."

"So when will you be coming?"

"I don't know, the railway staff won't tell us when the train will move, my train is stuck in Bandarawela. It hasn't moved in four hours."

"So you want to cancel?"

"No, I do not want to cancel. I am just giving you the courtesy of informing you that I will be very late."

"So you will be coming at ten-thirty?"

"I don't know, it depends when this train will start moving again!"

"So you want to cancel?"

"No! I. Do. Not. Want. To. Cancel! I. Am. Just. Telling. You. That. I. Will. Arrive. Very. Late. Tonight!"

"So you are coming at ten-thirty?"

I almost threw my phone down the aisle. "Yes. Yes. I am coming at ten-thirty if that answer makes you happy. OK? Thank you. Good bye!" I hung up the phone and stormed out of the train fuming with rage.

I went back into the station master's office which was a seething hive of angry passengers and duplicitous, obsequious, prevaricating railway lackeys. I saw some ancient safeworking signalling equipment off to one side of the office and I decided to check it out. It was a pair of antique Tyer's Electric Tablet System signalling machines. These red boxes with brass dials and levers and bells date from the late nineteenth century. You only see these sorts of instruments in railway museums in Australia where they haven't been used for decades.

I looked at the instrument controlling the down section Bandarawela-Heeloya back towards Ella. The indicator on the front of this box said "LINE CLOSED" (that is, there was no train currently occupying that section of line). The indicator on the second instrument controlling the up section Bandarawela-Diyathalawa towards Colombo displayed "TRAIN APPROACHING" - that is, there was a train heading in the opposite direction to ours currently occupying that section. There was nothing to say that the train was moving or that it would arrive soon, the train was probably still obstructed, it just proved that there was one train in that section somewhere headed towards us.

I relayed this information to another passenger and then I was instantly surrounded by a crowd of people anxious to know what I could tell them. All I could say was that there was a train in the section of single track ahead of us but I couldn't say whether it was moving or not or when it would arrive at Bandarawela, thus clearing the track ahead for us.

Everyone thanked me even though I couldn't tell them much. They were grateful just to get a straight answer from somebody who sort of knew what he was talking about.

Meanwhile a conductor or a station employee would sometimes roam up the train or down the platform constantly shouting "fifteen minutes! This train is definitely moving in fifteen minutes!"

"But that's what you said fifteen minutes ago, and an hour before that, and an hour before that," people would say.

"Oh no, this time the train is definitely moving in fifteen minutes!" the simpering moronic railway employee would respond.

At 20:20 the train started suddenly moving back towards Ella without any announcement or word of warning. We went a short distance then shunted onto the passing loop away from the platform. I was on the train but plenty of passengers were on the platform. They had to jump off the platform onto the tracks and cross one track and climb the rungs of the ladders below the doors to get on board.

All of us passengers were stranded on the train away from the platform. The air conditioning was turned off and the train became very stifling. At least we had the camaraderie of mutual suffering to see us through. We told jokes, talked about our travels, laughed at our misfortune. It wasn't quite the esprit de corps of troops in the trenches on the Western Front but it was close.

I did notice something - everyone who decided to stay was from Northern Europe, the United Kingdom, the former British Dominions and Japan. Everyone else had left. Here's my theory, it's only a theory. Those countries are known for their orderliness, their law-abiding citizenry, their reasonably trustworthy government officials and their regimented efficiency. In those cultures, and this includes Australia, fifteen minutes means fifteen minutes. One hour means one hour. When someone asks a question, a direct, honest answer is expected. If a person does not know the answer to a question, they honestly say that they do not know. People in those countries generally tell people what they believe to be the truth and not what they think the other person wants to hear. When an authority figure like a station master tells us that there will only be a two-hour delay, we believe them.

I have never, ever been so grateful to have been born in the West. A Westerner simply cannot appreciate what good fortune we have, how trustworthy and honest and efficient and relatively well-governed our societies are, until you visit an underdeveloped country. We have won the lottery of birth, quite unfairly. The opportunities in life we have, the fact that the average citizen in the West and especially the countries I mentioned has a fair shot at building a decent, dignified life for themselves, should be available to every human being. I look forward to the day when Sri Lanka and other poorer countries get on their feet and something as simple as an obstructed railway line isn't dealt with in such an incompetent, inefficient manner by government functionaries who lie through their teeth to affected passengers. But I feel that is quite some time away.

Australian railways are not perfect, they are well below world's best practice. But if this happened on the New South Wales railways I could look at the official railway accounts on Twitter or listen to the announcements on the train or on the platform, see what was causing the delay, get reasonably accurate information about when it will be resolved, see what alternative arrangements such as buses were being made, and make an informed decision about what I should do. Here at Bandarawela the passengers were just mushrooms - kept in the dark and fed bullshit.

We waited and waited. We were now denied even the small mercy of getting fresh air on the platform. Finally at 21:15 the down train bound for Badulla finally arrived at Bandarawela! Hallelujah! The section ahead was finally clear! Four minutes later our train finally departed into the night after waiting six hours and thirty-four minutes.

The Super Secret Weekend Not-So-Express squealed through an unending succession of sharp curves; there didn't seem to be a single metre of straight track. Dimly lit villages and rainy level crossings passed the windows. Most of the people on the train were asleep. I was too agitated and anxious to do likewise. I was worried about transport from the railway station at Nanu Oya to my guest house in Nuwara Eliya. I knew the buses would certainly not be running that late but would there even be a taxi?

Sitting across the aisle from me were a young French couple, Stephan and Adrienne. They were also going to Nuwara Eliya. Throughout the long, long wait the passengers had by instinct searched out others going to the same place to discuss options and to share our sorrows. I spent much of my time with them. The train finally drew into Nanu Oya at 23:15, only six hours and nineteen minutes late.

Five people got out at the surprisingly modern station at Nanu Oya. There was one tuk-tuk taxi in the station car park. The driver explained that he was the only taxi in the district still in service so late in the night. He said it would take too long to take Stephan and Adrienne to their lodgings and then come back to fetch me and the other two Japanese girls. So he offered to take the three of us. He quoted a thousand rupees for me and fifteen hundred rupees to the French couple because they were going a bit further. Deal.

The three of us got into the back of the taxi. The back seats of tuk-tuks are wide enough only for two people so Adrienne sat on Stephan's lap. Our three backpacks were stuffed onto the narrow rear shelf behind our heads. We took off from Nanu Oya in the rainy mountain fog and we started climbing the steep mountain pass on the A7 highway. Nanu Oya is 1600 metres above sea level and Nuwara Eliya is three hundred metres higher. The tuk-tuk struggled up the steep grades with three people and three backpacks in the back. The tuk-tuk engine kept spluttering, it was obviously struggling for sufficient aspiration in the thin high-altitude atmosphere. On one steep corner the backpacks shifted load and pressed against my head, the only thing keeping the backpacks in place was my head pressing back against them.

At a quarter to midnight I reached Sapu's Mountain Breeze in central Nuwara Eliya, I was dropped off first. I said goodbye to the French people and tried opening the gate. It was locked. I rattled the gate and knocked on it. No response. I tried calling their phone number again. After about twelve rings the guest house employee finally answered. I told him I was outside.

He came out wiping the sleep from his eyes and he had a shot at me because I said I was going to arrive at ten-thirty. Somehow, I don't know how, I refrained from smashing his face in. I must have superhuman self-control.

Scenery between Badulla and Ella

Scenery between Badulla and Ella

River rapids between Badulla and Ella

River rapids between Badulla and Ella

Ravana Falls

Ravana Falls

Between Ella and Badulla

Between Ella and Badulla

Bandarawela Station

Bandarawela Station

Night Mail crossing the Demodara Iron Bridge

Night Mail crossing the Demodara Iron Bridge

Second class on Class S12 train from Badulla to Ella

Second class on Class S12 train from Badulla to Ella

Technicolor discotheque Buddha

Technicolor discotheque Buddha

Podi Manike train from Badulla to Ella

Podi Manike train from Badulla to Ella

Ravana Falls

Ravana Falls

Second class car on the Night Mail from Ella to Badulla

Second class car on the Night Mail from Ella to Badulla

Ravana Falls

Ravana Falls

1st class car on Super Secret Weekend Special from Ella to Nanu Oya

1st class car on Super Secret Weekend Special from Ella to Nanu Oya

Podi Manike crossing the Nine Arch Bridge

Podi Manike crossing the Nine Arch Bridge

Scenery between Ella and Badulla

Scenery between Ella and Badulla

Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet equipment at Bandarawela station

Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet equipment at Bandarawela station

S12 class train at Ella

S12 class train at Ella

Podi Manike crossing the Demodara Iron Bridge

Podi Manike crossing the Demodara Iron Bridge

Restaurant car on Super Secret Weekend Express

Restaurant car on Super Secret Weekend Express

Posted by urbanreverie 21:40 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged waterfalls trains sri_lanka railways ella nuwara_eliya badulla bandarawela nanu_oya Comments (0)

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