Nuwara Eliya - Cold Nights and Hot Tea

Colombo has a number of pretty shops with local handicrafts, fabrics and clothes, all for rather little money, which I wanted to explore on my second full day in Colombo. Luckily I didn’t have to go by myself. Felicia, another Soneva Fushi friend, offered her wonderful company and saved me from a lot of confusion and rip-off. With Felicia’s help, the tuk-tuk drivers charged reasonable (local) prices without a lot of discussion and safely drove us from one shop to the next. Having a local companion also gave me a much better overview over Colombo; Felicia was the perfect tour guide and, as usual, made me laugh so many times. After our successful shopping trip, we treated ourselves to afternoon High Tea at the Galle Face Hotel, which included tea and cakes and short-eats without end and which left us with nothing else to wish for.

As expected, my new temporary passport was ready to be picked up on Wednesday (after only two working days and no bureaucratic hurdle, great!), so that I was able to leave the capital and travel towards the high country in the interior. Unfortunately, all trains going towards Kandy and Nuwara Eliya (my preferred mode of transport in Sri Lanka, as the countryside you get to see is just stunning) had already left in the morning, so that I was obliged to hop on a bus. I was assured that there are many air-conditioned busses available for only a little extra charge, but when the taxi driver dropped me off at one of the huge public bus stations, all I could find were rusty, smelly, crowded busses… My backpack and I had no choice but to squeeze into one of them and be stuck in it for about 6 hours all the way to Nuwara Eliya, my next destination. Even though there really was hardly any space, my neighbour would fall asleep on my shoulder several times and I could not understand, why salesmen would offer plastic drawing boards, torches or dusty handkerchiefs to the bus passengers (and actually get them sold!), I had a good and safe and cheap journey. Travelling as the locals do opens your eyes to the real life in a country, offers you a look behind the façade, sometimes even establishes great contacts and makes your day. After having passed numerous scruffy little villages and towns on the way to Kandy, the landscape now opened up a bit more and gave way to tea plantations and green hills before reaching Nuwara Eliya. I arrived in the city centre when it was already dark and was prepared to be immediately surrounded by touts. Luckily only one was quite pushy trying to convince me of the qualities of his own lodge but I stayed firm and asked him to get taken to a guesthouse I had chosen based on guidebook recommendations. When I arrived at the guesthouse, I made immediate contact with two other travellers and decided to join them for dinner at the Hill Club, a preserve built for the British colonial elite, which until 1970 was only open to men. The food was alright, the prices steep and the rooms grand but a bit shabby and very old-fashioned. I preferred my little cheap hotel and spent a cold night under a cosy thick blanket.

The following day was dedicated to my favourite drink, tea. Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, grows in both low and high altitude regions of Sri Lanka and has become one of the country’s main export products. The tea around Nuwara Eliya and Hatton in the cool, misty mountains grows slower than in the warm regions and is therefore said to be more aromatic. A short drive out of the city centre, Pedro Estate’s tea factory allows visitors in and provides them with valuable information about the journey of the tea leaf from tea bush to tea bag. I had visited this processing plant previously, in 2004 together with my brother Henrik, and was therefore surprised to find that the education facilities had improved so much – and that no photography inside the factory was allowed any longer. I was greeted with a steaming cup o’ tea and invited for a private show-around of the facilities. Here a quick overview of the tea processing stages: picking of the youngest tea leaves (the three top-most leaves) in the plantation, withering (air-drying) to remove water, rolling to oxidise the cells and release the tannins (“fermentation”), sifting to separate twigs from leaves, baking to completely dry the leaves, sifting again to grade the tea according to its quality, packaging, and quality control. When my tour was finished, I saw some German guests just starting their show-around and decided to join them once more; this time we were a bit naughty and took some photos of the factory.

In the afternoon, I joined a group of tea pluckers and followed them into the tea plantations, which was a wonderful opportunity to get in contact with the colourfully dressed ladies and take many photographs. Everybody was very friendly, tried to speak English, asked me about my family and job, described their daily routine and was happy to be included in photos. I left them a good tip, which was much appreciated considering that each woman only earns about USD 2 a day for 8 hours in the field. I was very happy about this relaxing day and returned to my lodge in the late afternoon in order to make arrangements for my next travels.

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