Early start today after another night with lots of street noise, but we’re up for the next leg of the trip. Rohan drops us at the train station. He will drive up to the town of Nuwara Eliya, while we take the train. This train trip is on most travel itineraries as it takes you on a beautiful journey through the teafields, hills, … It’s actually supposed to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. It definitely puts expectations high.
We are happy Rohan doesn’t just drop us off at the station but makes sure we get on the right train. Our Singhalese just isn’t good enough yet to understand the announcements J Something extra compared to the train stations at home: I spot a sign with a quote “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.” Spot on! Must be the Buddhist influence, spreading some wise life quotes even in places like train stations.
One tip: don’t get tickets for first class. They put you in an airconditioned railcar in which you can’t open the windows. Second class is just fine and gives you an opportunity to hang out the window J There is ofcourse third class where you just mingle with the locals and have a good chance of not having any seats at all. We are in first class as the travel organization booked us in here. All seats are taken. A couple sits right across us. They are Sri Lankan but emigrated to New Zealand in their early twenties looking for adventure and a better future. Looks like they found it. Right now they live very happily somewhere down the Australian Gold Coast, they have grown up sons and once in a while they return to visit family, loaded with gifts. “We could never live here again,” they say. Despite the stability now, they feel future is still uncertain. Well, the gold coast doesn’t sound bad anyway. The man is originally from Ella, the place we will visit the next day, but he says that these days he hardly recognizes the place where he grew up due to tourism.
Besides talking to our neighbours we watch the scenery roll by. It is indeed beautiful. The weather can get misty here but we have clear blue skies. If you travel all the way to Ella, the trip will take 6 hours, but we are staying on until the smaller Nuwara Eliya which gives us 3 hours. We spot the first tea pickers, colourful spots in the green fields. Despite the photogenic aspect I have double feelings about the almost romantic depictions of people picking tea. It’s a damn hard life. Once you are born into this it seems you can’t get out. The big tea companies ‘give’ the tea pickers houses (not to say huts) and most of the people will stick to this certainty and make no attempt to get out. Education is probably key to changing anything but I guess the big tea companies rather keep their people uneducated so they don’t go away looking for a better job and life.
We make an attempt to walk to the third class section of the train, but only make it to the 2nd class. Their is no way through to 3d. So no mingling with the locals. We get off the train at the station of Nuwara Eliya. Many are traveling another 3 hours to Ella and the train is packed. Many people, also tourists, are standing up. We meet Rohan outside, he is happy we made it and got off at the right station :-)
Nuwara Eliya (pronounced something like Nyur-rel-iya) is Sri Lanka’s highest town, at the heart of the southern hill country. It was established by the British in the 19th century and is often referred to as “Little England” as it has a golf course, some cottage style developments, a boating lake, some old colonial hotels and oy yes… a bit of a rainy climate. Luckily the sky is still blue and we enjoy another curry for lunch by the beautiful lake. Then we’re off to Mackwoods Labookelie tea estate. It’s about a half an hour drive on winding roads. We see some fruit and vegetable stalls along the way. The fertile lands and the milder climate make this area ideal for growing crops. And for tea. We see a group of women returning from the field up to the main road where the content of their bag gets weighed. Apparantly they pick up to 20 kg during a shift. And it takes 5 kg of leafs for 1kg of tea. Rohan stops the car and they gladly pose for a photo in return for some money. The skin of these women tells the story of hard labour. Rohan confirms life is hard for them. There are many social problems, alcohol abuse, kids who don’t go to school, … They are all of the ethnic Tamil group. Rohan would stop at more places so we can take pictures from people in the fields but I don’t want to be disrespectful, like they are some theme park attraction.
We reach Mackwoods. There’s a large factory and a tea & souvenir shop. A lady shows us around to give us a quick insight into the production process. They employ about 1000 workers! We have a look around the estate and come across another tea picking lady. She carries wood on her head and gives us a beautiful and proud smile. So we let her pose and give her some money. It feels wrong in some sense, but we cannot change the system and at the same time this lady seems proud to show us what she is doing. Like it is an honor that we, coming from a faraway land, are taking her picture. At the teashop we try a cup of tea, but to be honest I’ll never be a real tea drinker. I’m hung on coffee :-) Many tourists seem eager to buy tea in the shop though.
New thing learned: there are gold and silver blends of tea, the finer the leaves, the better the blend (I’m an absolute tea beginner!). Driving back to Nuwara Eliya we have a stop in the town centre. Besides the Victorian post office it looks like a typical busy, rather chaotic Sri Lankan town. We stroll through the main streets, pass the shops and notice that many of the locals are wearing winter jackets at 19 – 20 C°! Yes, to them this feels like a cold day :-)
Our home for tonight is the Glenfield Reach hotel, away from the centre. The staff are also wearing fleece jackets. It does get a bit colder in the evening, around 12°C, which must be freezing to them. It’s a quiet night, with a buffet dinner at the hotel. Our next destination is Ella!