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Trains, Tea + Tamil Tucker

(Day twelve + thirteen)

I'm looking over the menu at a seafood restaurant where I've come to have lunch and write. The fans above are cooling the hot, humid air while four chefs do prep with a view to a big stretch of palm lined sandy beach. There's no one there aside from me, I'm early and they've just opened. I order a fresh lime juice and boot up my laptop. A family arrives soon after, they have a little girl around three. By now I've decided on the prawns and she walks by my table looking at them, getting more confidence with each lap. Her parents laugh as I try to talk to her and she runs off, she's back minutes later. It's become a game.

Today felt unusual, with the group having gone their separate ways my time was totally my own, as least for the next two hours, but tomorrow? Well that would be one of my biggest days yet, I'm five or so days behind in the writing department but I will get there!

Today we would take the train! But not from Kandy city where we were staying, from the Peradeniya station. The reason for this was to avoid traffic and also because there would be less people already on board to boot out of our reserved seats. Unbeknown to me at the time there was also another reason. Our guide wanted us to experience first hand what it was like to travel as a local, in third class unreserved. I hopped on board in Peradeniya not realising that it was this leg - Peradeniya back to Kandy which would be the ‘experience.’ I was caught off guard as we boarded with nowhere to stand and unable to move down the train to allow for the all the people still squeezing on, no wonder they leave the doors open!

I managed to get my day pack off and manoeuvre it to the floor between my feet. As the train lurched off in the direction of Kandy I realised there was nothing but the toilet door to hang on to. As I grabbed hold of it I hoped there was no one in there because they wouldn’t be able to get out until we stopped. It was hot, loud, cramped, sweaty and precisely what our guide had in mind, another local experience. As uncomfortable as I was it certainly put things in perspective and made me appreciate my reserved window seat all the more twenty minutes later.

A shrill whistle sounded as we departed Kandy station. To begin with I was seated across from a Mother and her baby boy, he was so tired his eyes kept glazing over. Until the train took off and he decided he wasn’t tired at all and kept me entertained as he laughed and smiled until they got off at the next stop.

There’s little wonder it’s considered one of the most scenic train journeys in the world, you’re easily mesmerised by the passing tea plantations, picturesque hilltop railway stations, enormous waterfalls cascading down the mountainside and the local villages. At each station along the route the train cabins fill with sellers hustling treats like samosas, chilli roasted peanuts and fruit. I tried it all, of course.

The temperature dropped further as we ascended, the sky transformed from sunny and blue to dark grey and rain began to fall - this added to the journey creating a misty backdrop as the train steamed along the track. I just had to shut the window from time to time to save getting drenched.

Kevin came over to sit on the other side of the train for a different view at one stage. We tried to talk but the sound of the train running along the tracks with the windows and doors open made it near impossible, yelling worked but wasn't sustainable. He glanced at my leftover half a banana that was sitting on the table and lobbed it out the window. Then asked if I was going to eat it. Good of Kevin to keep things tidy. Speaking of which, I actually can’t recall seeing a rubbish bin in all my time in Sri Lanka.

Our guide mentioned there was a big waterfall coming up so I inched my way out to the open door trying to keep my balance, hold my camera and grab hold of the railing with my free hand. I wedged one foot against the wall and the other against the door frame, hung on with one hand and shot some photos with the other. It should be no surprise they’re rather lopsided and won’t see the light of day.

We were told not to stick out heads out the train windows but it was much easier to get a photo of the train winding through the tea plantations if I did, I checked for tunnels and old telegraph poles first though, by sticking my head out.

It got a bit cold into the last hour of the six hour journey. Made sense given the higher altitude but as it really hadn’t gotten below 36 degrees since I’d arrived began to wonder if I’d bought a jumper. I mean I’d brought 24kg worth of gear, surely I’d thrown in a jumper, wouldn't you think? No.

As we were all talking amongst ourselves about the drop in temperature we realised it might help our cause if we did one or all of the following, a) shut the windows b) shut the doors c) turned the fans off. It actually warmed right up in no time. Go figure.

At the last station stop before ours an elderly Singhalese woman came across from her seat and leaned directly over (onto) me and put her head out the window. Her, let’s go with Grandson was standing alongside the train, she had something for him and also wanted to have a chat. I assumed timing was critical and that’s why she didn’t just hand it to him through the open door one metre to her right. My tolerance is much higher in Sri Lanka than back home.

Checking into The Orient Hotel in Bandarawela a couple of hours later I decided it might be time to do a wash since there was a bath. I opened the window while I was going through my bag then promptly raced back over to shut it just as the pigeons from the neighbouring roof arrived, they went next door to visit instead.

I emptied in all the shower gel and shampoo into the bath, filled it with water, threw in all my washing and went to call Mum. I hadn’t talked to Mum properly for a while so it was around 30 minutes later I went back in to deal with the washing only to see that the plug wasn’t the right fit and the water had probably not been in the bath longer than 2 minutes. I left it all there vowing to walk into town the next day, buy a plug, proper laundry powder and nail polish remover, I will elaborate on why the latter, later.

That evening we made eggplant moja and dahl curry with a local family which was served up with a potato curry, chicken curry , jack fruit curry, rice, papadums and mango chutney. We each had a beer and rolled out of there having met more wonderful people and devoured yet more curry. You would think we’d tire of it but no, the only tyre would be the one slowly starting to form around our waists.

Next morning I arrived at breakfast last and sat down just as the last of our group were finishing up. It wasn’t particularly busy in the restaurant this morning so they were serving you the buffet rather than you getting it yourself. So, picture this; the other group members are enjoying a post breakfast coffee, my coffee is being poured and while this is happening a plate of crepes arrives (there are six), a plate of french toast arrives (four slices), a plate of pineapple, watermelon and papaya lands alongside, buffalo curd and treacle comes in from the left and a basket of bread rolls and jam(s) from the right. There was enough food in front of me at this point to satisfy ten people. I looked down at the other end of the table where Rose and Fred were sat with amused expressions on their faces. The same had happened for them.

Mum never used to let me leave the table, or wherever I was sitting to eat at any given time until I’d cleared my plate. At precisely this moment, as I reach for my third crepe I decided this was not something I would replicate should I ever have children just in case they were to ever come to this hotel for breakfast. “No thank you, I do not need more crepes, there are still three left.”

I sank into my seat on the bus ready for the drive up to Dambatenne Tea Factory, at an elevation of 1566 metres I was in the clouds and it looked deceivingly freezing out the window. I had that wrong it was STEAMY, hotter than anywhere outside of Colombo. This popular tea factory was built in 1890 by Sir Thomas Lipton, one of the most famous figures in tea history. The tour through the works is an education on the processes involved in the fermentation, rolling, drying, cutting, sieving and grading of tea.

The pickers are required to pick around 20 kilograms of tips per day. These are then taken to the drying factory and first wilted, rolled, cut and dried. Last year the factory exported 1.2million kg of tea. This meant that they had to pick 4.8million kilograms of green leaves, thanks for the stats Fred! I was busy trying to sneak photos of the processing and trying not to slip down the ancient wooden staircase. People back then must have had tiny feet.

The tea plantations were something in particular I’d been looking forward to seeing so on the drive down I stuck my earphones in to shut out the world inside the bus. Local buses passed by so close you could see the smile lines on people’s faces, children ran alongside, I waved, they waved back. Men and women worked hard on steep slopes, water cascaded down rocks between the levels, colourful ramshackle shelters were dotted among the lush plantations and tuk tuks charged around the bends as tea pickers walked uphill to work and enterprising locals sold drinks and snacks by the road. This scene, to the music playing in my head was filed forever - without photos. Sometimes you just need to put that thing away, sit back, shut up and take it all in through your own eyes.

Further down in the midst of these emerald hills it was time for lunch with a local Tamil lady. We were lead down a pathway that turned into a narrow dirt track requiring us to walk single file and not trip over as we tried to take in the views and keep moving at the same time. Kids ran along between us before we arrived at a small house which can’t have had more than three or four rooms.

Shiva’s Mum (because I can’t recall her name and neither can anyone else) is a great cook. The meal we had there was super tasty, another sensational aubergine curry, dahl curry, idly (a savoury rice cake), dosa (a type of pancake) and chutney and I can actually say I was served up a dessert I liked. Some kind of sago pudding with cardamon and cloves, called Payappam I think. Kevin had seconds.

On the way back to the hotel we called into a roadside jam shop and a tea place. I had no room for either, in my stomach or my luggage.

The bus stopped in town a while later and three of us jumped out to explore, and by explore I mean find a working ATM that would actually dispense cash, get nail polish remover and locate a bag of washing powder all while navigating narrow broken pathways, wayward tuk tuks and trying to avoid knocking anyone over in the process. The trip was a success arriving back at the hotel with all three and a roll of spearmint mentos that caught my eye because I was fresh out of gum.

Back at the hotel it was time for round two with the washing. I got another plug from reception, refilled the bath and I was in business. There was just the small matter of it being highly unlikely that any of it would be dry by morning.

By dinner time it was strewn across every available rail, door frame, door knob and chair in the room. I stuck my head out the window and saw the group gathering three floors down so I quickly grabbed my bag and raced down the stairs, it was time to eat again. Anyone would think we were starving but it seems our stomachs were getting used to being fed and were rather put out if there was too long between meals. This definition of “too long” would be completely unreasonable under normal circumstances.

Tonight were were treated to street samosas. It was dark when we sidled up to a well lit trailer serving eight different varieties. We each placed our order somewhat dumbfounded by the fact there were three guys in the back making them at a rapid pace in a space no bigger than a toilet cubicle. Possibly not the best comparison when there’s food involved but you get the drift.

I’ve mentioned before about Sri Lanka’s warring past, the recent unrest and also their penchant for setting off firecrackers in times of celebration, or - just whenever they feel like it. As we walked up to the hotel entrance there was an almighty bang from down beside a vehicle parked no more than five metres from us. We all jumped at least half that distance vertically with fright. Useless really because if it had been a bomb running for cover would have made far more sense. As it was - it seemed the pigeons weren’t just annoying the clientele but the Manager too. He’d set off a rather large cracker to encourage them to move on. It worked for us. We all went immediately to the bar.

Tip: Don’t wear nail polish on your toes in super hot climates, my socks stuck to my toes after a short walk in my boots a couple of days earlier and with no remover everything else proceeded to stick to my nails in the proceeding days. My nails looked like they were covered in chunky pink sand paper and I was three days over looking at them when I finally found a shop attendant at a pharmacy who knew what I was asking for and handed over a bottle. One day more and I’d have been tempted to test the true spirit percentage of Arrack in a more unusual way.

Track: Confidence - Ocean Alley

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