3 Weeks In Sri Lanka - Part 5 : The Solo Journey Begins. First Stop: Nuwara Eliya - The Heart Of Tea Country

Not again. No way was I going to miss my ride this time. It was pseudo-palatable to eat the 10 bucks for ticket I bought for the missed train ride they day before, but after not being able to secure another ticket for the next 3 days, if I was to stand any chance of making it to Nuwara Eliya in the highlands, I would be forced to hire a private driver to take me the 100 miles up the mountain. And that, let me tell you, cost a wee bit more than 10 dollars. So yup, this time, I would NOT miss my ride.

I met my driver outside the Airbnb rental at 7am, bid farewell to my host and Pradeepa, who I wouldn’t see again until her return to the states a few months later, and hopped into the Prius to begin my solo journey through as much of the country as I can comfortably see in 10 days. What was so striking was how quickly everything around me changed. The difference of topography and climate within such a short distance in this country is uncanny. Within just a few miles of being in warm, humid, flat coastal lowlands, I found myself entering a colder, more temperate mountainous climate that I’m more used to seeing in the midst of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the midst of Spring than what I expected on an island 50 miles from the mainland of India. The one thing that didn’t change at all was the constant rush of people everywhere! You figure that when you’re heading into ‘the highlands,’ that the route there would be sparse and barely populated, but, no. Not here. The entire drive up was jam-packed with people and villages methodically going about their business, albeit it in a gorgeous natural setting.

This made much more sense the more I thought about it. Tea is the country’s biggest export and industry, and these mountains were jam-packed with tea plantations. Everywhere. Look left, right, up, down, everywhere…tea. It was beautiful! And it was where the work was. And since this was really the only road to and from the capital and port city of Colombo, business up and down the mountain revolved around the tea industry. This tight two lane winding mountain road was essentially a major corridor in the trade route that sent tea from these mountains to the rest of the world. And this tight two lane winding mountain road, chalk full of blind curves, did NOT stop the drivers, including those of big trucks, from adopting the same practices they did in the city, swerving in and out of each other’s lanes, into oncoming traffic, on blind curves, dodging tuk-tuks and pedestrians, it didn’t matter. Yet, somehow, everyone seemed to make it out unscathed…

My first taste of this tea took place about 2 hours into the ride. We were getting deeper into the mountain and pulled off to take my first sip at a roadside tea stop in Walawala, Sri Lanka. (How great is that name? Walawala!) Anyhow, that first taste gave me my first ever experience with what fresh, real, unprocessed, untreated, direct-from-the-source tea was. The flavor popped out of the cup and danced around on the palate like no other cup I’ve ever had. Now I get it. Heck, the leaves used to brew this cup, as I’d soon learn, were picked less than a handful of days before they arrived in front of me.

We continued on up the road for a bit before I got a glimpse of my first of what would be many waterfalls in the country and the next 90 minutes or so gave me a proper showing of what many call the most beautiful part of Sri Lanka, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The landscapes were blanketed by green rolling hills reminiscent of California wine country, however, instead of grapevines, here it was all covered in lush fields of tea with cascading waterfalls and rivers snaking their way between. It was gorgeous. While, for the past 2 weeks, I often wondered why I even bothered to bring a long sleeve shirt and hoodie with me, this was the moment I was glad to dig them out from the bottom of my bag. The climate was like night and day, easily dropping 15 degrees during the day and 20 degrees at night from what I’ve grown used to.We arrived into Nuwara Eliya in the late afternoon. The driver dropped me off at my hotel, the quaint, hillside Richmond Inn, where, after putting me in a gorgeous room overlooking the entirety of the town, 5 minutes later, they pulled me out of there and threw me in the small dark dingy windowless manager’s break room down the hall. They literally had to remove piles of clothes and quickly make up the bed for me as I stood on the sidelines waiting, but they more than made up for it the next morning, when they moved me into a spacious and comfortable corner suite with french doors opening up to a balcony that overlooked the entirety of the Nuwara Eliya valley. Apparently they had a mixup with my reservation, so they fed me and didn’t charge me for that night. Works for me…

Over the next 60 hours or so I found myself walking, hiking, and tuk-tuk’ing through this picturesque valley and city. I got a chance to tour the Pedro Tea Factory, seeing exactly how the process is carried out from field to cup before enjoying a tea tasting on a wooden deck that overlooked their tea-covered hillside. One thing that you can’t help but notice is the level of poverty that also existed in this area. While it was quite evident all throughout the country so far, I didn’t expect that when I’d walk into the estate, one of the region’s premiere tea plantations and factories, that I’d find shanty towns and corrugated housing for the workers all the way up until I reached the entrance gate. This is when I really got to see what a society looks like when there’s an upper class, a lower class, and a seeming complete absence of a middle class. Despite this, they all seemed to be in good spirits and extremely courteous and generous and warm, as evidenced by my trek up to Lover’s Leap, a relaxing moderate hike up a moderate incline through tea fields that led to  small shrine and one of the region’s popular waterfalls. This is where I ran across a sweet family all working in the tea field. They curiously stopped me, we chatted (as well as we could), we took pictures, and they wouldn’t let me leave without a hug and a handshake.

The next day was spent walking around the town center, getting a feel for the local life. Nuwara Eliya is not a big city at all. The city itself is about 5 square miles with a population of about 25,000, while the total population of the entire region is about 50,000. But you could walk through the city itself in a day. The street scenes were vibrant and plentiful as it’s a bustling town with a never-ending turnover of visitors. The main market is located right next to the bus station and is the area I spent most of my time, soaking in the wares and fares. Everything from fresh tea to fresh fruits and vegetables to, well, fresh meat. Just hanging there. Meat.

During an afternoon stroll through the outskirts of town, I found a beautiful old church. I”m not much of a religious person but something drew me in. It was completely empty when I walked in, and just took a seat in the back pew. It wasn’t a particularly special church, but, admittedly, it was very soothing and relaxing to be sitting in such a quiet cavernous chunk of stone while random people sporadically came in to offer a quiet prayer, grant me a smile, and make their way out. As I was leaving about a half hour later, that’s when I was compelled to make the following image of this child, who had just got out of school and was holding onto the bars to the gate of the church. He just stood there, curiously looking at me, and as I snapped, he started to smile. It ended up being one of my favorite images of the trip.

One place that gave me the complete opposite feeling happened, perhaps not so ironically, right after leaving the church when I walked into The Grand Hotel just up the road. The structure was originally built in 1828 as a holiday home for Sir Edward Barnes, the fifth governor of Sri Lanka during the times of colonial rule, and I immediately felt the air change. It got SUPER stuffy. I mean, I understand history and all that, but, when you step outside the gates and see how tough life is for the indigenous inhabitants of this land, then step inside these gates and immediately run into the stiff upper lipped upper class…you know the type…polo shirts with sweaters tied around their necks, looking down at you from the bottom of their beady eyes as you can’t help but overhear their golf and tennis plans for the afternoon. This was all in an environment which also harkens back to the glory days of The Hill Club just up the road, now known for its daily high tea ritual, the grounds didn’t allow women or local native Sri Lankans on the property until 1967. Needless to say, I felt extremely uncomfortable and quickly made my way off the grounds back into the real Sri Lanka.

As I only had the afternoon left before embarking to Kandy, the ‘Cultural Capital of Sri Lanka," the following morning, I figured it was a good time to find a vantage point for my final Nuwara Eliyan sunset. I grabbed my gear, stopped for a strawberry & whipped cream pancake at the Adma Agro Strawberry Farm (which was quite baffling in that despite the insanely delicious and gluttonous offerings, the beautiful view of Gregory Lake, and the high recommendations of everyone from our friends in Colombo to the hotelier in Nuwara Eliya, was completely empty except for me), and started trudging my tubby tummy up the hill into the tea fields to find a spot to marinate as the sun began its descent. Unfortunately, I miscalculated my timing and how long it would take to get to the sunny side of the hills. However, as I looked before me, it was hard not to where I was, what I was doing, and how fortunate I was to be in this position. So I just stopped, watched, and enjoyed. It wasn’t the view I had in my head, but, well, it was still a view I couldn’t have imagined.

After marinating in those moments, and the final bits of twilight began to disappear, I gathered up my gear, and quietly hiked back down the hill as the chimney smoke began dotting the hillsides and the pleasant aroma of dinner time spices filled the valley. Today…was another good day.

In the next part of this series, Part 6 : The Solo Journey Continues. Next Stop: Kandy - The Cultural Capital Of Sri Lanka, I make my way from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy, “the cultural capital of Sri Lanka” which I’ll be posting in a few days.

If you missed the beginnings of this journey, be sure to start off with 3 Weeks In Sri Lanka – Part 1 : The Most Meaningful Work I’ve Ever Done.

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