Ella is a lovely spot. I can’t help but wonder what the rolling hills of misty rainforest would have looked like before tourism, but the guesthouses and bars built on angles amongst them are impressive feats of construction in their own right. One place is open 24 hours. It’s called One Love Café and it plays incredibly loud trance over three storeys. Adam and I went in to discuss travel plans. The route between Kandy and Ella is supposedly one of the most scenic train journeys in the world, which is why the seven-hour transit is an attraction in itself and can get fully booked up to a month or more in advance. But Ella to Kandy, as opposed to vice versa, is much less popular, and that’s our path since we’re heading anti-clockwise around the well-trodden south west touristic route. So we had ourselves a juice and tried to think through the unnecessary pumping beats, then bought train tickets.
Yesterday morning, for the first time on the trip, I didn’t wake up in a pool of my own sweat. In fact, the temperature was quite cool and it was raining. Heavily. We were just outside of the village of Ella itself, which meant a bus ride in to the attractions. But bus rides here are a highlight of any day. If the high-revs driving style and double-overtakes around blind corners (made absolutely fine by the simple fact of beeping before performing the insane manoeuvres) aren’t enough, buses are also decorated in all sorts of colours and themes. Right from heroic prints of French footballer Laurent Koscielny, to Ashton Kutcher dressed as an Indian prince, anything goes. They also play movies and TV, often completely pointless since the TVs don’t have speakers and loud Indian pop music blurts out from all angles anyway. It’s lively and fun, but I’m starting to miss a quiet Stagecoach bus back home with just the sporadic mumble or cough and shuffle of a newspaper page … as well as any adherence to the Highway Code.
First stop was Nine Arches Bridge. It’s a pretty cool spot with nice views over verdant valleys and steep tea plantations. Despite a big sign warning that anyone stepping on the tracks will be fined Rs. 3,000, tourists walk up and down along them freely. A personal highlight was seeing three monks wearing sunglasses taking selfies on their smartphones. Then we went on a hike up Little Adam’s Peak for more views into the valley. It felt really great to run up a load of steps and get the blood pumping, and the views from the top into the valley and back over Ella were lovely. It started to rain again on our descent, and we took a wrong turn and ended up in a little community off the main village. We tiptoed through an alleyway between colourful bungalows onto a little road with mud dancing up in the rain and chickens sheltering under stationary tuk-tuks. A guy in a house across the street yelled over for us to come in. The three of us – we’d bumped into a French girl under a tree while putting on our coats – went across and the guy invited us in for tea. Surrounded by the plantations from which this stunning sugary brew was crafted, we sat and watched parts of The Meg, Jurassic World, and something with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in on the many channels which the Sri Lankan dude took great pride in showing us his satellite could pick up. It had seemed initially like a completely altruistic act – welcoming strangers in to get them out of the rain and revitalised with hot drinks – but perhaps that was a naïve stance from me. He showed us the little kitchen in which his mother spent her days making tea and food: little more than a mud-moulded hob, powered by a fire crafted with sticks, right beside her bed. It was smoky as hell in there. He then took us back through into the TV room (literally a TV, some chairs, and two huge speakers; I feel like playing the loudest music possible is just a thing in Sri Lanka) and asked if we could help. We assembled a roll of Rs. 300 and gave them to him before taking our leave. I suspect he welcomes in a lot of passers-by. A lot of people aren’t afraid to ask for money here. Still, it was a small price to pay for a slightly surreal experience, and in reality Rs. 100 each was nothing to us. I guess they maybe wouldn’t ask if they didn’t need it.
Since we’re on hot beverages, I might as well divulge two more recent instances. Now I’m approaching thirty, I need a hot drink every few minutes. After that cuppa to shelter from the rain, the charming side of Sri Lankan people immediately showed itself to us again. We passed a hotel with a coffee shop out front on the way back to the bus stop. I noticed the big shiny espresso machine. It had been a while since a good coffee. I quite like the traditional Sri Lankan stuff but it makes me feel light-headed and a little nauseous for the best part of an hour afterwards and I’m not sure the okay taste is worth that. I browsed the menu. The polite barista asked what I’d like. I ordered an americano to take out. He passed the message on to someone in the main reception that an americano had been ordered. The guy on reception typed something onto a computer. Another guy came out. This new guy spoke to the barista in Sinhalese. The only English word I picked up was ‘americano’. We were asked to sit down but I said again that it was for taking away. The new guy fed this information back to the barista, who looked surprised and then nodded. The new guy, the middleman, shouted something to the reception desk. I heard ‘americano’ and ‘takeaway’. The middleman went down to the barista. They discussed something. Then he came back and spoke to the dude on reception. The barista got to work. After minutes of back-and-forth, he made the drink in about ten seconds. The middleman asked if I could go to the reception to pay. I did. He was then waiting behind me after I’d paid the smiling receptionist. In what felt like an end of year school awards ceremony, the middleman presented a small cup of perfect coffee and kind of bowed as I took it. He called me sir. All the guys involved passed contented smiles around to one another as I tasted the coffee and nodded encouragingly. We left. The coffee was good and I couldn't help but leave with a huge smile on my face.
Next morning – this morning – we got up early for our train to Kandy; so early that we missed the hostel breakfast. Just before reaching the station fifteen minutes early, I ordered a coffee from a bar after an old dude guy outside told me he could do a takeaway coffee for a good price. I went for it. I followed him inside, passing shisha pipes and chill-out sofas on the way to the bar. Behind the counter I saw him heap instant coffee and sugar into, of all coffee-making essentials, a small bucket. He boiled the kettle. When it popped he poured the boiling water into the bucket, but the kettle lid fell off and knocked the bucket over. He swore as brown liquid patterned with dark sediment spilled out all over the counter. I felt really bad for the guy and wanted to help but knew he’d tell me not to. He picked the bucket up from off it’s side, stood it upright, and simply poured more hot water in. He then stirred the contents of the bucket and poured the piping-hot mixture into a slushie cup and handed it to me. Oh, after adding a splash of milk to smooth everything over. I took a peek on the way to the train station and it looked like I’d just been served a cup of limewater. I had a taste: I’d paid Rs. 200 for a cup of hot sugared water. Still, it put a smile on my face early doors. Oh, and he was absolutely fine, by the way. He didn't get burned. I'm not a complete monster.
Anyway the train journey was amazing. I won’t say too much about it except it’s well worth it. The thing which surprised me most was the variation in landscapes. As well as the angled tea plantations shrouded in mist and crawling with workers with sacks on their backs as they harvest tea leaves around Ella, the views take in many colourful and busy little towns, a bunch of waterfalls, rivers running over red rocks, some sizable mountains and hills, and even some big pine forests, which I didn’t expect in a country so close to the equator. Though I'm not sure why I didn’t expect that – I know nothing about biology and trees and shit. According to everyone I’ve spoken to who has been, apparently Kandy sucks a bit. But we’ll see. Sounds like a challenge to me.
But I might cheat anyway. We bumped into Marie, the French girl, again at Ella station. Having recently graduated in Hospitality Studies and now working as a hotel manager, she was staying at some pretty awesome spots during her trip; some secluded, some luxurious, some with pools and spas. And I must admit I started to lean that way. A bit of 'me time' sounded nice. A section of the trip a bit more like Eat Pray Love, which I watched with a reduced pasta bake and a small bottle of red wine alone right before booking those flights (Julia Roberts, you inspired me to be here). Maybe just for a few days, as respite from the sometimes crammed rooms in hostels and guesthouses I’ve been staying at so far. But it’s perhaps even greater respite for other backpackers – from my sometimes booming snoring.
Another reason is to give my feet a rest. Foot hygiene in Asia is sometimes difficult to take care of. What with constantly wearing flip flops, thus attracting dust and dirt on your bare feet, combined with the wet shower floors from those weird water hose bum cleaners some use, as well as the common rule of no shoes allowed indoors, feet get wet and filthy daily. Even right after a shower, they attract dirt and I take a little smattering of bits into my bed each night. Mostly I make myself feel better with another Asian specialty: Milo. The stuff is amazing. Those tiny cartons of chocolatey-milk are tiny cartons of heaven. But I only realised today it’s produced by Nestle, who I’m not sure on the ethics of after seeing a recent Netflix documentary (part of the Rotten series) about how Nestle have made false promises to villagers in some communities in Africa after taking over their land for bottled water production. I'm going to try to uphold my morals and ween myself off it … and I feel like I definitely deserve a four-star hotel for a couple of nights to make up for the lack of Milo in my life.
Tonight we have one night in a pretty nice hostel in Kandy. The walk from the train station was full of smells and sights. Buses everywhere, constant beeping from the roads, and pavements full of people trying to sell fake sunglasses or tuk-tuk rides. Views between buildings to jungle-carpeted hills interspersed with houses and hotels are charming enough, but the second-biggest city in Sri Lanka is already exhausting me. Yep; definitely ready for some quiet.