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Published: January 29th 2018
All Aboard the Cloud Train
Making our way around Sri Lanka on the coolest train on the planet
There is something really magical about hiking amongst the clouds in Sri Lanka.
As we make our way up to a guesthouse in the tea hills, a stony path of granite crunches underfoot. We switchback through trails of purple and yellow wildflowers, trying to avoid the blades of lemongrass that lash at our legs. The mist is pea soup thick, and although it hasn't quite started to rain yet, I react to the dew as it smacks into my face like an unexpected cobweb.
Most of our tour group have spread thinly along the trail. The absolute silence is deafening when you are up here in the clouds. Even my own frantic heartbeat can't drown out my hours of dreamy contemplation as I plod along. With all these temple visits, I start thinking about Buddhism and Hinduism and, although I'm not a religious person, I realize that I too by default try to live my life by being kind and behaving decently towards every other living creature while on this earth.
Working in a maximum security prison all these years I've come to know that, no matter what your life circumstances are, if you make the conscious decision
Life in the Clouds
Tea plantation housing set in some of the most spectacular hills in the world
to be a good person, you will find the ultimate key to happiness, because You Can’t Bribe the Door on your Way to the Sky.
But I've gotten way ahead of myself.
First, I need to tell you how I ended up in this remarkable place.
After spending a few days in the city of Kandy, my tour group boarded a train and are making our way to Bandarawela, our tour leader’s home town. This also will be our base camp as we go hiking around the Horton Plains area for the next couple days.
I declare that train travel should be mandatory for all foreigners traveling here. It is such a fabulously cheap & fun way to see this country.
We clackity-clack along in a basic carriage, the Canuck and I socialize with a mixture of locals and backpackers that get on and off all along the route. I pass out biscuits to the cute kids that shyly peek from the backs of their parent's seats. A nice couple from Ireland share our table for a time, and we take turns taking photos for prosperity while the younger crowd hang out the train doors,
Stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka
Was a tad disappointed to learn they don't really fish like this anymore, they just pose for tourist dollars now.
doing yoga poses and snapping Instas. The Australian cop I’ve dubbed "the Rookie" flitters in and out excitedly, the plethora of female millennial on their GAP year, irresistible.
Oh, and because the Rookie has been on a constant high alert trying to catch "the monkey" red-handed (see last blog), I’ve suspended my M&M game for the minute. He will let his guard down eventually
Outside the windows the lush jungle opens up into endless tea plantation terraces. We snake around the manicured hills, going higher and higher, witnessing the sheer beauty of ancient silky oaks as they stand guard over the sea of tea. Red rhododendrons periodically dot the green landscape with a refreshing spray of red. Wild flowers dance on either side of the tracks in golds and purples, the Mimosa trees are also in bloom, their pink pompoms sparkle in the sun.
Another one of my travel mates, "Captain Sarcastic" ends up being the most delightful and interesting man I’ve ever met on my travels. He, of course has that standoffish Aussie wit, but the Canuck and I break him down with sarcastic charm, so he now adores us. After 40 years of living
Stay Golden Pony Boy
Glorious sunshine on the beaches of Mirissa
abroad in 3rd world locales, alone, his behavior becomes him. I have to coax out tales of his glory days of headhunters in Papua New Guinea and his Khmer Rouge follies as the world whizzes by.
"Peppermint Patty" has decided she does not like me. I’m too likable
, I guess. But I’m not here for a popularity contest, so no big deal. Besides, she’ll come around. She may not realize it, but I’ve got her number. Invited to join us, she opts to sit off on her own with earbuds solidly planted, doing her best Fiona Apple.
The Canuck, whom I figured out on day one was in law enforcement despite telling the group she was a retired school teacher, naturally assists me as I interrogate our other tour mate, an unemployed Portuguese artist I call "the Guoose," to find out why he thinks he’s Rico Suave. Turns out his family made a fortune mining in Rhodesia, so for that, he is a man of leisure. He saunters off to schmooze a cute backpacker only to return five minutes later dejected. Defeated, he curls up and takes a deep nap, his snores so insanely loud they are scaring
Thank god for the electric fence or these ones would get squished on the highway. People stop and feed them
Our seven hour train journey goes by in a flash.
Bandarawela is a bustling little town flanked all sides by tea hills. We arrive at dinner time and Asanga promises us a home cooked meal at his Auntie’s house which hangs precariously off a cliff. It’s raining super hard and we trudge up the driveway-turned-river, laugh-struggling as we clamber indoors.
Peppermint Patty immediately starts to inquire about the spiciness level of the meal, Asanga shuts her down by saying he's arranged for the meal to be prepared in both mild and hot, to please everyone. She pouts anyways, I suspect she's a little put off she can't have a good British whinge.
As we sip on Lions, we are put to work chopping and peeling the vegetables, Grandma waddles in to oversee our progress. The Rookie and I are sized up and put on coconut scraping duties, to make pol sambol, I hope. Although I don't remember what Asanga called the other individual dishes, I should have written it down. I know they have mango, pumpkin, snake fruit, aubergine, potatoes, jack fruit and fresh curry leaves in them. We all took turns stirring and
School boys running past on their way to class stop to pose for a photo
pouring and burning ourselves on the wood fire stove.
I discover my beloved Poppadums come from a package, what?
These white lentil disks are fried up in coconut oil and puff up all crunchy and light. I'm going to have to find these at the ethnic store when I get home, or die.
Every time we stop shoveling food into our mouths, another Auntie would come by with a pot of something to top us up. It is always weird to eat while the family watches, but I’ve been enough places in this world to know this makes the hosts very proud. We make a fairly good dent. Our homemade Sri Lankan dinner was by far the best one I’d had yet, and now that I understand the boggling steps and the variety of spices and herbs used to make it, I love Sinhalese cuisine even more.
Asanga seems relaxed here in his family’s home, so we pry him open for his life story. It is one of triumph. He was a street salesman during the war and he relays the misery and misfortune his family experienced as he just tried to get by. These were awful
Up and Down the Tea Hills
Stunning views almost right to the coast from the tea terraces
times, and still pretty fresh. Then an opportunity to work with foreigners came along, and as he already knew English and was a natural fixer slash hustler, he switched. He proclaimed that his life goal is to be the best guide in Sri Lanka. I think he’s already won that title
…I tell him so. He beams.
Back down the hill in the downpour, we stop in at an 1899’s British hotel lounge for a nightcap and a touch of colonialism. As expected, the poorly taxidermized beasts displayed on the walls stirs up something primal in our Brit. I’ve been waiting for it. A couple G&T’s in and Peppermint Patty spews her over-privileged opinions on topics she knows nothing about and I let her have it. Everyone freezes. After some awkward banter, I excuse myself politely knowing it will be a new dawn tomorrow.
Sure enough, Peppermint Patty emerges from her room early and sits down right beside me at the breakfast table all chatty like. Best chums. Everyone’s eyes dart uncomfortably. They can’t figure out what happened. But I know.
And for the rest of the trip I can’t shake my new best friend. Operation school the mean
Starbucks has nothing on this girl
A Chaiwalla appears from nowhere on the trail to offer hot tea. Everyone's got a cell phone nowadays.
We are all very excited. Most of us came to Sri Lanka for hiking and our first over-night hike starts out strong. We board a commuter train to get to the jumping off point.
Day one is an easy 14 kilometers I’m told. The train leaves us behind at what looks to be an abandoned station with only a few stray dogs basking in the sun. We do a bush stop (wee) and then adjust our packs to head off into the forest. I'll admit, it's a lovely trek, all uphill through a thick grove of reforested pine, crossing over a few babbling creeks. I'm actually carefree about getting my socks wet. One of the puppies from the station follows the Rookie, not a surprise as I'd seen him sneak ginger-nut cookies to her when Asanga wasn't looking. She was christened Ginger. The poor thing was so full of mange and fleas but happily accompanying us. We used her to communicate with each other. "Ginger, ask Asanga how much further?" "Ginger. Share your formulations for the mechanics of quantum physics with the group." "Ginger, when we stop to snap a photo can we ring out our
Ginger marks the path
Good thinking Ginger. We should be able to find our way back.
At some point, Asanga phones in a tea order and this woman materializes out of nowhere and starts to pour delicious hot liquid into tea cups as we sit around admiring the stunning vistas that appear from behind the broken clouds. The rows upon rows of neatly trimmed shrubs before us seem to go on forever.
Tea pluckers look up from their task and smile so warmly at us as we go by them. A little wave here and there. It's going to rain, so they are frantically trying to pick the new growth before being forced to retreat. Within this Horton Plains national park, the trail alternates between foggy tea terraces and a ghostly gum forest. It's really beautiful. We've already been up over one mountain pass and are making our way down switchbacks as the clouds roll in. Rain feels eminent but only catches up to us as we ascend the next mountain. It rains hard.
We take shelter in an old decrepit tea factory along with some chickens, two cows, several dogs, and a Billy goat. No one says anything as the water pounds down. The hope is it will let up
Climb aboard for the adventure of a lifetime
and we can continue.
After about 30 minutes, it is raining even harder, if that is possible. The trails are all now thick rivers. We take a vote. Get to the guesthouse,
Okay, roger that. Sloshing through rainwater that is now ankle deep as it races downhill. Just one more kilometer. Just one more.
Finally, Asanga indicates our guesthouse, and I stand before the gate staring up at another gigantic staircase that leads to its front stoop. My legs are jelly. I don't think I can do another set of stairs, but I do. Ginger enthusiastically runs ahead.
Inside is a great room with stacks of sofas, I glace around in a panic. No fireplace. Gah!
Nothing will be dry by the morning. My pack sack has a cup of water in the bottom of it. I dump it out. I was smart enough to wrap everything inside with plastic, so I have dry stuff to change into, but the Canuck didn't. She is so miserable that I give her my socks and warm hoodie, and use my bed blanket for a wrap during the rest of our stay.
Other hikers join us
Yum! Probably some of the best dishes I ate in Sri Lanka, because I made them!
throughout the afternoon and it's a full house by dusk. The house manager gracefully feeds Ginger a cup of cooked rice which she wolfs down. We get pumpkin curry, lentils with beans, and a super spicy Chinese rice with chopped up roti in it. The boys drink beers and play what looks to be the Sri Lankan version of Crokinole while us girls sit around reading or perusing photos and drinking the unlimited hot tea with milk.
Later in the evening, I introduce the card game known as Bullshit, played in prison. It’s a hit. To keep warm, we drink Arrack with ginger beer while Asanga hits the bongos and sings traditional songs, the house manager is so pleased with this, she starts to dance about in her frock.
I retire to bed when the Rookie and the Guoose attempt to badly karaoke their rendition of 8 mile by Eminem, much to the delight of a couple teenage boys from the neighbourhood.
Oh, and the Rookie has let down his guard slightly. So earlier, I snuck into the boy’s dorm and hide a packet of M&Ms under his pillow. He might have spotted me, but says nothing.
A little boy gave me this flower as I walked by. He didn't know it was my favourite Lantana.
The next day during breakfast, the Rookie makes everyone dump the contents of their rut sacks out for his scrutiny. Asanga is bewildered. I had foreseen this spot search, so I stuffed the remaining packets of M&M’s down my backside and was begrudging compliant with his demands.
He explodes in frustration when he finds nothing on me, and I don’t flinch during his face in face interrogation. I will be increasing my M&M activities now as retribution.
Today’s trek is estimated to be 16 kilometers. Slightly harder hills but worthy I can tell. As the sun breaks through the overhead clouds, birds chirp on the lane. It is fresh and steamy and so very beautiful. Wearing our stinky damp clothing we all fan out, gathering only back together during the spontaneous tea stops that magically happen along the trail.
At some point we lose Captain Sarcastic, but Asanga phones a few villagers and they report back his current progress. Apparently, he got so fed up with the weather he hired a local to tuk tuk him to the next plantation.
Along the way school kids pass us, the state of the trail does not
We wanted fresh sashimi, so we got it. Delivered directly from the docks.
seem to faze them. One of the boys hands me a sprig of Lantana with this goofy shy smile. They all want their pictures taken and I comply.
Oh, the ol' glory days of these 1800’s British tea plantations. I can just picture how amazing it would have been. Now, all that is left are rusty factory warehouses and habitations that are severely decrepit. The old roadway has crumbled away in flash flooding, exposing the granite underneath that is super slippery and with every second step I take, my saturated shoe slides ahead, I can feel my own knees questioning what I'm doing. I dig out my walking sticks to set my own pace.
Eyes to the ground. I'm missing out on all the scenery, but I don’t want to fall or pop a knee. I stop at each switchback to take it all in. There are hawks circling overhead, owls sleeping in trees, and song birds of unimaginable colours flitting about. Weird looking bugs crawl on the ground and buzz by my head, the variety of flowering plants are a photographer's heaven with a backdrop of endless waterfalls.
At km 15, I take shelter in a
Walking amongst the clouds in the gum forest. So eerily beautiful.
luncheonette bodega with some locals, and wait for the group to catch up.
The Rookie comes in and collapses beside me as I am pulling off my hiker to expose a gigantic blister that has formed on my toe. I look up at him and see this leech, inchworm across his forehead. It's headed for his hairline.
For a brief second I debate on whether to tell him. Instead I ask, "You didn't hike in to that waterfall, did you?"
Asanga had specifically warned us not to. I knew why not, but apparently the Rookie didn't. With a mischievous smile he puts his finger to his lips like it's our secret, so I reach up and pluck the leech off. "What the fuck is that???"
If you ever wanted to see someone wig completely out, this would be it.
I give his performance a 5 stars out of a possible 5.
Arriving next, is the chain smoking Peppermint Patty, and apparently she too had waded through the tall grasses to get a picture of the forbidden waterfall. Both are now dancing around the bodega, picking leeches off each other and screaming for help.
Winter comes early in the Sri Lankan hills.
Asanga’s expression is once again, sheer bafflement. The Canuck is next, and I have to get her to hold still while I dispatch a leech that was tucked inside her sock happily feeding.
Captain Sarcastic and I knowingly glance at each other in amusement.
Although we are all wet and knackered, we are forced to hike yet another 5 kms to get to our van because a huge landslide of red mud blocked off the roadway just hours before. Can't really get mad about it, but I did curse Jesus out just a little. Sorry Jesus.
Our next three days were more of the same. Day hikes around the vicinity of Haputale and Ella, equally challenging in the blinding rain, but unbelievable scenery, so well worth it. I have to admit having a private van to board after a full day of hiking has been quite a luxury, especially with sore leg muscles and soaked gear.
Shanda, Asanga’s boy Friday, was always waiting for us at the end with snacks and smiles. He doesn’t speak English, but his pantomime is exceptionally good. I love him because of his attentiveness with the elderly Canuck, he'd grab
Hiking in the Horton Plains
After 26 kms of hiking, I was done.
her arm when crossing a manic road, or insist on carrying her backpack. During our long van journeys, Shanda was in charge of praying for our safety at the little roadside alters or for buying us all a treat, like these concoctions of sesame seeds with raw coconut sugar we gnawed on. I managed to glean that Shanda had two children and a wife, and was 22 years old. We bonded after he proudly showed photos via his cellphone. His constant happiness was infectious.
The next leg of our trip has us heading for the coast. I've heard the beaches are stunning in Sri Lanka. Before we arrive, we stop in at an elephant transit home in Udewalawa.
They schedule their feeding program so the public can watch, somewhat like the Sheldrick foundation in Kenya. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t as well orchestrated, and I found myself getting sad watching the wee elephants trampled by the older ones. The caretakers kicked and slapped the elephants as they jostled desperately to get some milk. Most looked emancipated and terrified. Just seeing so many orphaned babies indicates they have a horrific problem here in Sri Lanka, but at least they are
OMG there's a blue whale! Wait, there was a blue whale. Where did it go?
trying to do something about it.
We also stopped along the highway because wild elephants would gather behind the electric fences to beg passersby for handouts. This too seemed so sad, but Peppermint Patty and I deducted that the fences kept them from getting squished by a lorry.
The beachy surf town of Mirissa was our home base for the next couple of days.
Which was a relief from the week of hiking, I’d used muscles I hadn’t felt in years. The ocean was hot tub warm but rough, I spent most of the time watching the surfers hang ten out in the gloomy waves from the safety of the snack shacks, I enjoyed sipping some cold drinks while squishing the golden sand between my toes. Storms blew in and out, we’d only see the sun for a few minutes.
Asanga, superstar guide, arranged for us to do some whale watching. Apparently blue whales can be viewed just off the coast in the shipping lanes.
We went out on what I’d refer to as a rough day. I’m used to rolling seas, so I knew I’d be fine, but some of our group took medications,
So many locals wanted to pose for photos. I was very lucky.
probably wise, and the captain motored ahead for two hours until the first crew member screamed Right Whale! Right Whale! Right Whale! Then about 10 minutes later Blue Whale! Blue Whale! Blue Whale!
My pictures are mostly sea sky, sea sky, sky sea but I managed to get a shot of the gigantic tail before it dove for the deep and disappeared. It never surfaced anywhere near us again, but other things popped up. More right whales, some pods of dolphins.
It was a good day…and I even managed to get a packet of M&M’s into the Rookie’s rain parka hoodie without him noticing (difficulty level 8), but had to hold on for dear life as the vessel nearly rolled onto its side with every wave.
Everything was fine until this one lady wearing a hijab blew chunks, and that just started a chain reaction where all the rest of the tourists on the boat joined in on the puking. Like exorcist puking.
These two Russian mobsters on board were now demanding we turn back immediately because their children and wives were so ill. Captain says no. I found it amusing to watch these tattooed criminals,
Sri Lanka beaches
Golden sands with minimal trash could be found in Mirissa
who are used to popping a cap into anyone who says "nyet" to them, helpless. They were blazing mad and screamed Russian insults at the jumpy crew anytime one went by.
Thankfully, we made it back to shore safely, and the storms finally passed. We were blessed with a glorious final day in Mirissa enjoying fresh seafood, swimming, and frolicking on the beach.
Back on the road, we took the van up to Galle. On the way we saw those stilt fishermen. Unfortunately, this tradition isn’t practiced anymore, these entrepreneurs have made it into a tourist attraction where they charge $5 for a picture. Now the fake fishermen sit out all day with a dead fish on their line, gossiping and passing time, until a tourist happens by. So, fishing.
They were having a shift change when we arrived and they invited us to gather in their reed huts on the side of the road to explain the stilt fishing history to us while smoking and eating orange segments, Asanga translated.
The fortress of Galle was exactly how I pictured it would be. Super cool. Well actually super sweltering, but I loved how inside the walls was
So many babies orphaned. Lucky there are several conservation projects going on in Sri Lanka that are saving them.
a vibrant little community with trendy restaurants and cafés, art shops and galleries. Plus of course all the historical buildings and the wall itself. I highly recommend a stroll along the top of the fort at sunset.
Asanga gave us a couple days to explore, saying he’d meet us at the train station on Tuesday morning.
Unbeknownst to us, Poya or full moon in Sri Lanka means no gambling, drinking, fornicating, meat eating. The Canuck and I were sharing the penthouse at our B&B and invited everyone up for some drinks and a game of bullshit prior to dinner. Someone, the Guoose, flooded our bathroom and the landlady came up to investigate and found us all huddled around a table, drinking and playing cards and yelling bullshit. Terrible. We are.
Tuesday came quickly and we boarded the train from Galle up to Colombo. It was more like a packed commuter rail. Everyone scrambled around us and our gigantic backpacks, we had to struggle hard just to get on. The rail line runs right along the sea for some of the trip, too bad the windows had been blackened by soot or I’d have some great pictures. Still
Keep on Rocking in the Horton Plains
Dancing in the guesthouse to keep warm while the rains pounded down outside.
worth the journey, like I said, train travel should be mandatory. Plus we were able to beat the insane traffic and whiz right into the big city.
Colombo was a week of whirlwind activities. Big city stuff. Museums, last minute shopping, sightseeing. Although we all preferred to hang out together on the roof bar playing bullshit, each person had a list of things to do before departing. So we scattered, with Peppermint Patty insisting we have our last supper together at a restaurant called the Ministry of Crab.
Our gathering was also my opportunity to reveal to the Rookie who the M&M monkey was.
Being a prison guard for 25 years has taught me the art of the con. The Rookie just stared at me for an uncomfortably long time, until the shock wore off, while the group jeered and cheered around us. He really couldn’t believe I was capable of that level of deception. But I didn’t do it to be mean. As we hugged it out, I told him he’d become like a little brother to me on this trip and I didn’t want his millennial nativity to shorten his career as a police officer.
Lovely view from my balcony in Mirissa
Lesson? Don’t be fooled into trusting even the kindest of people, as they are usually the most dangerous.
When I got back to Canada, I did some stealth detective work and got in contact with the Rookie's mother. Who, as it turns out, is a prankster like me. She agreed to put a bag of M&M's I mailed to her address under the Xmas tree with a scribbled note that said, “Merry Christmas Rookie, love from the Monkey”
I’m pretty sure he’ll never forget me.
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