Sri Lankanisms

We’ve spent almost four weeks traveling in Sri Lanka, and have started to grow accustomed to the unique ways in which the country and people operate and live on a daily basis. It’s been interesting for us to think about the different lifestyle and culture that Sri Lanka offers, compared to that of our own, and note ‘special’ habits and customs that are so ingrained in this country and its people. We call these “Sri Lankanisms”, and there are quite a few we’ve discovered in just a small amount of time here. Here are a just a few of the things we’ve noted.

Snacks, baked goods and short eats are served in hand-made recycled paper bags, covered in children’s drawings or old school homework.

Men wear traditional sarongs, women wear beautiful coloured, sparkling saris.

No bus journey is complete without several vendors boarding the bus and selling their various goods. We’ve seen several different things being sold, from fried foods and cold drinks, magazines, lottery tickets, children’s picture books, hologram posters of various gods and deities, and even gold jewelry! (One vendor even went to the effort of hurling gold necklaces at random people in the moving bus, then asking those who were struck by the jewels to buy them!)

Hocking and spitting is common place.

Local men chew betel leaves, nuts and tobacco – then with practiced skill, spit large red chunks of gunk onto the pavement.

Conversations regularly go something like this:
Local: Hello! Where from!?
Us: Australia
Local: Ah!… Shane Warne/Ricky Ponting/ Adam Gilchrist/*insert something cricket-related here*!

Cricket is a whole new religion in its own right.

No shop, vendor, tuk tuk driver, or sales person seems to ever have change – not even small denominations such as coins (1, 2 and 5 rupees) or small notes (10, 20, 50, 100 rupees). It can be difficult to purchase anything without being given a “No have change” excuse or a very disapproving stare – especially after you get cash out of the ATM, which spits out 2,000 rupee notes.

The clanging and echoing sounds of kotthu roti being made are a familiar noise in Sri Lanka – you hear it being made before you see it.

Spontaneous buskers can be heard on the buses, singing whilst playing drums or tambourines.

Neon LED illuminated Buddhas and other deities decorate the front interior of most buses, flashing over and over to the rhythmic sounds of honking horns and loud Sinhalese music.

It’s perfectly acceptable to publicly pick your nose, pick your ears, pick your feet, pick your wedgie, adjust your testicles, hock and spit, cough on other people… you know; all that hygienic stuff.

There is no such thing as personal space. Especially on buses.

Furthermore, there is always room for more people on the bus. Always.

There seem to be four main shops: Pharmacies, Bakeries, Shoe Stores (Bata and DSI Brands are everywhere) and hole-in-the-wall eateries that double as general stores selling shampoo, razors and baby formula.

The roads are shared with buses, cars, vans, trucks, tuk tuks, tractors, pull-carts, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, dogs, cats, goats, chickens and more…

People of all ages and relationships hold hands – friends, adults, teenagers, the elderly…it’s endearing to see.

There is lots of hilarious advertising for strange things.

Like this awesome one...

Like this awesome one… “Winning the Plus Size style war”

and this one...

and this one…

Sri Lankans love a good, long hand-shake.

Random large speakers in obscure locations can sometimes be seen – more so, heard – at the strangest of times. In Ella – a sleepy little Hill Country town – a spontaneous produce market was in full swing, where locals in traditional dress were going about their business buying and selling. Opposite the market, random speakers were blaring “Me Love” by Sean Kingston. Strange.
We saw this type of thing again inside a Food City Supermarket, whilst people were just doing their grocery shopping.

Scary toilets.

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Sri Lankan Eats: Our top 10 picks for Sri Lankan Food

Sri Lankan food is very unique in many ways; street foods, self-serve rice and curry, lunch packs and hole-in-the-wall eateries are incredibly popular and almost everywhere. If you’re lucky, vendors riding bicycles will deliver your short eats and vadias to you, still hot, as they ride around the town.
Servings are massive, rice is a staple – so is roti – and it’s hard to go past a freshly cooked hopper.

1. Rice and Curry – the food that Sri Lankan’s eat every day. It’s sold everywhere – usually for lunch – and is really cheap and packed with spices and flavour (if you eat where the locals do). Sri Lankan curries are unique in the way that they are served like a small banquet; you order a curry and receive a mountain of rice, poppadoms, and usually 4 or 5 (sometimes more!) different types of curries in separate bowls, often with a chutney and dried chillis on the side. Curries are eaten with the right hand: by mixing the different curries all together with rice, it is supposed to enhance and change the flavours as well as let your body “feel” the food. It’s a constant joy to order the same thing over and over, because every time it’s so different1

Yep. We made that.

Yep. We made that.

Feast!

Feast!

2. Short Eats – sold everywhere, displayed in every bakery and every glass cabinet at hole-in-the-wall eateries, these are awesome snacks or lunch time options. They consist of a filling (vegetable, chicken, mutton or fish) wrapped in roti bread and grilled on a hot plate.

Shorts eats for sale

Shorts eats for sale

3. Hoppers – fermented rice flour fried in a small bowl-shaped pan, these are really unique and really delicious. For 10 rupees (about 0.7c), these awesome snacks are good plain, with chilli or onion sambol, and/or with a fried egg.

Hoppers!

Hoppers!

4. Kotthu Roti – said to be the national dish; not the traditional dish of Sri Lanka. Kotthu consists of finely diced roti bread, vegetables, meat like chicken or fish, and/or egg. It is fried on a hot plate with oil, chilli and a myriad of other spices, before the cooks begin to smash and mash their pastry scrapers at lightening speeds all over the mix. It is served with a vegetable or chicken gravy sauce, which stops it tasting too dry and heavy.  You hear kotthu being made before you see it, and it’s a sound all too familiar in Sri Lanka.

Kotthu Roti

Kotthu Roti

5. Pol roti (coconut roti) – This delicious roti is served up as a small, thick, circle-shaped cake – filled with onion, freshly shredded coconut, salt and pepper – fried on a hot plate and served with dahl or onion and/or chilli sambol.

6. Sambol – pol sambol (coconut sambol), onion sambol – sambol goes well with any Sri Lankan food, and indeed it’s served with most things. Every cook creates it differently, with different ingredients and ways of making it. Onion sambol with chilli and sugar goes incredibly well with roti, hoppers and rice, and pol sambol infuses with other curries to enhance the flavor of rice and curry dishes.

7. Kiri Bath – the traditional Sri Lankan dish is a cake-like piece of sticky, coconut milk rice cut into cute squares or diamonds. It’s eaten on really special occasions, such as at weddings or on the first day of a new job, but you can still find it around. It goes incredibly well – and is often eaten with onion sambol and a piece of juggary (palm sugar).

8. Buffalo Curd and Kittul (treacle) – An awesome sweet or treat; Buffalo curd is sold in big ceramic pots at most market corners in Sri Lanka, and is often served with kittul.

Curd and Kittul

Curd and Kittul

9. Wattalappam – a dessert/cake/pudding that is very important in Tamil festivals, and is more easily found in the North of Sri Lanka. Whilst it doesn’t look very appetizing, the combination of egg and coconut milk with kittul, sugar and lots of spices such as cinnamon and cardamom and cloves is wonderfully delicious and rich.

Wattalappam

Wattalappam

10. Tea! – technically not a food, but we often drank cup after cup in replace of food. The tea here is famous and exported world wide; it is of a high quality, is incredible tasting and is super cheap.

Delicious Deliciousness

Delicious Deliciousness

Welcome to Colombo: Our final Sri Lankan ‘Hurrah!’

Welcome to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s hustling and bustling, busy capital city – our final hurrah, and last new destination to explore in Sri Lanka.

Colombo city appears to be a mix of old and new, of poverty and riches; it’s filled with Dutch architecture, temples, shops selling anything and everything, traffic that never stops flowing, and people – everywhere. The bustling market places brim with bananas and colourful produce, the rhythmic honking of horns blast all day and late into the night, hindu temples are set peacefully amongst 5 star hotels and manic bus stations, traffic is hectic – at the best of times – and of course, the smiling sarong-wearing men and sari-clad women move like clockwork in organised chaos.

By now, we are well adjusted, and have grown accustomed to the lifestyle and unique ways of operating and existing here. We’re used to the hectic, unpredictable and often dangerous traffic, and jumping on to still-moving buses – holding on for precious life and smiling at the many pairs of eyes that stare back at us every time we board. We’re used to the food vendors screaming, the tuk tuk drivers touting, the scammers who attempt to trick us, and the spontaneous tambourine performances that happen on the most interesting of bus rides. We eat with our hands (after sanitizing and sterilizing them, of course), we know what foods are good, we know what prices should roughly be (not that they always are that) and I have become the batering queen.
We now know how to lose those persistent, clingy “guides” who try to “help us”, ensuring us that they “don’t want money” (and then later ask for money and pens…).
We comfortably cross the roads, walking out into traffic we wouldn’t dare confront back home, and we’ve accepted that people stare at us. A lot. Like, all the time.
We’re used to the pollution and dirt that sticks to our sun-screen smeared skin, the heat that bears down on us relentlessly, and the constant outstretched hands of those who ask for money…

Throughout our travels in Sri Lanka, we were frequently told “Colombo is not worth visiting; there’s nothing to see…” However, we disregarded the advice; we wanted to see for ourselves what this bustling metropolis was like – we couldn’t go to Sri Lanka and not go to it’s capital city!

We stayed out of the city in Mt. Lavinina, which meant we had a 30 – 40 minute bus ride into Colombo each day. Rather than being a burden, the trip was really enjoyable each time – passing through the different areas of the city, past markets and shops and people and the always hectic, hectic traffic. Night time was the best time for people watching: it’s fascinating to see how alive this city is at night; the sights and sounds and smells and colours are beautiful and messy, and the people seem to intertwine and enjoy their city together. Every sense is heightened as you try to take in the surroundings.

We spent most of our time in Colombo simply walking around, looking, taking it in and enjoying it.
We shared Kotthu Roti (Sri Lanka’s national dish) at a little hole-in-the wall eatery with a couch surfing host, explored the produce markets and bazaars, ate rice and curry with our hands, drank tea, and at last found a place to appease my shopping urges (although I was very suitably restrained!). We had planned to visit a few temples, but after one distressing visit to the highly regarded Gangaramaya Buddhist temple tourist trap, which was keeping an elephant in a most cruel manner, we left feeling despondent and didn’t bother again.
Our highlight was the small Sunday morning Arts Market, in which several local painters were selling their incredibly beautiful paintings at unbelievably low prices. Had we been travelling back to Australia sooner, we would’ve no doubt bought a piece of unique art work – if you get the opportunity to visit Colombo on a Sunday, a visit to the Arts Market is a fantastic experience.

Two nights might have been enough in Colombo, but there is so much to see there if you really look. As we boarded a bus headed for Negombo, and said goodbye to Colombo – we realized that tomorrow, we’ll be in India…

India.

Shit just got real.

How to make a cup of Sri Lankan Tea

Sri Lankan tea is considered some of the best in the world; there are hundreds of tea factories all over this little pearl of the Indian Ocean.Tea is sold every where, in shops,cafes, supermarkets, craft centres, factories, markets…

You’d assume that, seeing as tea is such a big deal in this country, there would be something special about the way Sri Lankans make and drink their tea…

And there is!

We’ve discovered the secret, and I’ve written a 5-step comprehensive guide for all to see:

1. Add tea bag to cup

2. Add hot water to cup

3. Add two – or three – teaspoons of sweetened condensed milk to cup

4. Add two – or three – HEAPED teaspoons of sugar to cup

5. Attempt to dissolve all that sugar in any remaining water.

Serve this to your guests, and you’ll be serving them tea the way Sri Lankans love to drink it.

Along with a high risk of diabetes.

Inside the Fort: Galle, Sri Lanka

Arriving in Galle after 5pm – exhausted, hot and sweaty, dirty and frustrated – having only minutes earlier been prayed upon by a sea of tuk tuk drivers ready and willing to rip us off, we arrived inside the Galle Dutch Fort.

Instantly, we were taken a back by the impressive forte walls and the beautiful UNESCO heritage streets and  lane ways, lined with quaint, old-fashioned Dutch homes with intricately carved window frames, peeling paint and charming little gardens. Handicraft shops, art galleries and cafe’s are all around, and I was very much looking forward to exploring

Early morning empty streets inside the fort

Early morning empty streets inside the fort

Surveying a small area of the fort, we hoped that local touts would be quick to identify us (how could they not, with our bulging packs and disheveled looks) and show us a room somewhere – and it didn’t take long. We got a good little room for a good price, above the family room of an elderly couple who, although spoke no English, were happy to smile at us every time they saw us.

It took four face washes before the white cloth would run clean on our skin, and two hair washes before the shampoo foam was no longer a grey colour. Never before had a cold shower felt better, and with the dirt, grime and pollution that the water washed away, so did any past frustrations and stress; with that, we were ready to spend our first evening in Galle exploring the fort.

Inside Galle Fort is beautiful and intricate, with quaint little shop fronts, tea houses, antique boutiques, homes, miniature gardens and cafes. A mix of old and new can be seen there; old in the architecture and buildings, lane ways, and of course the large fort walls, and new in flashy cafés, stylish shops and refurbishments. Tuk tuk drivers line the streets – as like everywhere else in Sri Lanka, but the vibe here is relaxed and laid-back, and the salty sea air and crashing waves beyond the light house and fort walls makes this place idyllic.

Galle Fort Light House

Galle Fort Light House

Quaint Dutch House Windows

Quaint Dutch House Windows

Heritage building inside the fort

Heritage building inside the fort

Street Art

Street Art

Heritage building inside the fort

Heritage building inside the fort

A section of Galle Fort

A section of Galle Fort

We settled in very quickly, thanks to our very generous couch surfing hosts, our beautiful surroundings and copious amounts of tea!

Our first day in Galle was spent simply walking around the Fort – we explored the little handicraft and chic shops, selling exquisite teas, beautiful gem stone jewelry and hand-made all sorts. We visited the lighthouse, and walked along the historic walls of the massive Dutch fort. We passed through the streets to the ocean, and found a perfect way to wind down after hours of exploration – lots of cups of tea.

King Coconuts for sale

King Coconuts for sale

The locals here are so friendly, with big smiles on their faces, and on our second day, when we moved guest houses, we were welcomed by an incredibly generous couple who looked after us well for our short stay.

Sun down in Galle Fort is a sight to be seen, and a really wonderful experience. People are just, suddenly, everywhere – locals and foreigners, young and old, school groups, families, couples, friends – they all come out to enjoy the evening; to walk along the fort walls overlooking the crashing waves of the ocean, to play cricket in the grassy area, to eat ice creams and street foods, to swim in the shallow water, and to socialize.

An evening in the fort

An evening in the fort

We passed so many people along the fort walls at sun down, and everyone seemed to be so simply happy. We passed a group of young men – one with a drum – who were singing and clapping and moving to the drum beat as they danced along the fort walls. We joined in with them – more by force than choice – and it was wonderful to share smiles and hand shakes with the locals.

Singing,  Dancing, Drumming and Smiles

Singing, Dancing, Drumming and Smiles

Sri Lankans seem to love hand-shakes; we’re forever putting our hands into the open, outstretched palms of smiling locals… but, then they never seem to want to let go: they hold on after the initial shake and continue to hold your hand until they’ve finished talking with you. People are so friendly with each other, with us, and it feels wonderful to be so welcomed.

We got caught up in the crowd of young singing and dancing boys who all wanted to talk to the foreigners – one was apologizing and claiming “I sorry, we are a little bit drink” – at which we all burst out laughing. It ended with the large group taking photo after photo after photo of us whilst they posed in every different way they could’ve thought of. After thanking us a hundred times over, I was able to put into practice the one Sinhalese saying I know – “pachnayak ne”  (no problem) – and the response was a group of boys all squealing with delight, and so, so many more hand shakes and smiles.

...Old Mate in the pink wants a piece.

…Old Mate in the pink wants a piece…can you guess which one is a little bit drink?

When we haven’t been exploring the fort, we’ve either been in the bustling, busy New Town area, taking small day trips to near-by coastal beach towns, or drinking cup after cup after cup of tea.

In new town, once you exit the walls of the fort, things are much more happening and lively; where you can easily get caught up in a whirl wind of people and traffic, beeping horns and touters, food vendors, lottery tickets and market stalls.
We found the old Dutch Markets where colourful vegetables are sold (and cheeky cows munch on stray egg plants), the fish mongers selling their massive tunas and other daily catches, and the fruit market area where we’ve been buying bunches of bananas and rambutans on a daily basis.

New Town bustle

New Town bustle

A cheeky cow sneaks an eggplant or six

A cheeky cow sneaks an eggplant or six

Back in the fort, we spend a happy couple of hours at the start, of end – or both – of each day drinking pots of tea at “our local haunt.” The owner of the café knows us already as his regulars; we sit down and he doesn’t even have to ask – he just says “I’ll get you a pot of tea” with a huge smile on his face. We can easily spend hours watching the passers by, and the frequent, but short lived, massive downpours of sudden rain.

Close to Galle city, easily reached by bus, we’ve been taking small half-day and day trips to beautiful beaches with wild, crashing waves. The places have been as equally fun to say, as they have been to actually visit. Hikkaduwa, Welligama, Koggala, Mirissa and Unawatuna; all little beach towns with palm trees hanging over the sand and waves and roti shops catering to western taste buds.

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Along the stretch of coast, on the road from Galle to Welligama, stilts jut out of the ocean with fishermen perched, somewhat precariously, on tiny seats. The ‘season’ for the fishermen is not so good at the moment we’re told – the oceans are rough and wild, the waves big and the rain heavy. We were lucky enough to see a handful of fishermen amongst many more empty stilts, and the sight of them alone is really fascinating. The stilts are passed on from generation to generation, and there is an absolute art to their trade – including making sure no foreigner captures a photograph of them without handing over a wad of cash.

Empty stilts

Empty stilts…

The weather in Galle has been on and off rain; enormous down pours that last just a little while, but dump massive amounts of water. Last night the rain was heavier than I’ve ever seen, and within minutes the water was flooding the roads and gushing down the streets.

Our mornings and evenings for the past three days have been spent with our couch surfing hosts (if you don’t yet know what Couch Surfing is, google.com it and get on it – it’s amazing!) who have been incredibly generous in making sure we are extremely well looked after, and just as well fed. On our last evening they requested pizza, and we were only too happy to cook for them. Finding the appropriate ingredients for western dishes, and furthermore, cooking in a foreign kitchen was a bit of a challenge – but we hope our pizza made them happy; it was a lot of fun to make! It’s been a fantastic experience to share the home of a local family, and we will miss our Sri Lankan family when we depart Galle tomorrow morning, with our sights set on Colombo.

We’ve been in Galle longer than the average tourist generally stays here; but then again, we don’t consider ourselves tourists – we’re travelers. Hours just spent watching and ‘being’, has meant that some of the locals have started to get to know us – they wave to us and come up to say hello. Being involved in Couch Surfing has meant we are not so much looked upon as tourists, but instead another friendly face in the fort.
It’s true – we could’ve left days ago, but we’ve been happy to mull about and explore a little longer, and Galle, and it’s people, have truly been a highlight destination during our in Sri Lanka.

Galle Fort Clock Tower

Galle Fort Clock Tower

Lions and tigers and… wait! Leopards and Elephants and Bears, Oh My!

On the morning we left Ella, we planned to head to Haputale, to base ourselves for the 9.5km round walk to Hortons Plains and World’s End. Sipping tea from “our balcony”, as had become our daily routine, we “rock, paper, scissored”, and let fate (and Jake’s cheating!) change our plans.

We’d asked Sujatha, the cook at ‘our’ restaurant, if she could prepare us some roti for breakfast – we’d bought ourselves an avocado from the markets and wanted to eat it with roti. Declining sugar for the avocado (as Sri Lankans seem to eat it only with sugar), Sujatha was shocked at what these two weird westerners were eating!… so shocked, that she’s quickly added it to her menu!

That’s right. We started a new trend in Ella – and possibly Sri Lanka. Fresh, hot roti with avocado, salt and pepper… Try it; it’s our new thing, and it’s bloody good.

After tea, and roti and avocado, we decided that since it’s our last day in Ella – home of the specialty food buffalo curd and kittul – we better get some curd “for the road”… In the curd shop, our plans changed again with the help of a local guy who explained the bus system and the complex “some buses is direct, some buses is not, all is not direct – must change the bus, most is direct, sometimes direct, sometimes not” time tabling.
Helpful yes, but of course at the same time, he tried to coax us into going via taxi, very cheap – of course, with his “brother driver friend” who was leaving Ella and heading back to Tissamaharama, the same route we were now planning on going.
3,000 rupees was too much for us to part with, and instead we took the 300 rupee direct bus which came with added bonuses; the threat of a cardiac arrest and through-the-roof stress levels.
At 1014 meters above sea level, Ella is situated in the hill country area – surrounded by mountains and valleys and big, big cliff edges – of which our bus driver seemed to thoroughly enjoy driving through at record breaking speeds. Sri Lankan buses don’t seem to be able to close the bus doors, and lucky enough for me, my seat was opposite the open door – revealing the cliff edge way too close for comfort. As the bus breaks squealed every time they were slammed into use at the last second, just before the bus nearly hurtled over the cliff face, I banned myself from looking anywhere but ahead at the flashing-light neon gods and overflowing flower garlands stuck to the front of the bus, above the driver’s head.

I may not be religious, but during that bus ride I prayed to every neon god that we would get through this journey – without hurtling over the edge to our deaths; in return for saving our lives, I promised the flashy neon gods, and myself, that we will never again compromise our safety for the sake of a few thousand rupees.

Once the nightmare journey was over and I was able to remove my white-knuckled grip from the seat handles and my backpack, we were no longer in the hill country, and instead, way down south in Tissamaharama. Try saying that name fast 5 times over.

Tissa, as it’s referred to by tongue-lazy travelers like ourselves, was to be our ‘base’ for a safari trip to Yala National Park – one of the big parks in Sri Lanka, and known for the highest density population of leopards in the world. Yep – stuff the lions and tigers and bears, oh my! – no, no, we were going so see some big, spotty cats… And actually, hopefully a shaggy sloth bear or two.

The hype for this park was massive, and the town of Tissa is brimming with rust bucket (and a few not so rusty) safari jeeps, all driving into town mid afternoon carrying hoards of daggy hat wearing, sun-burned and tired looking tourists. What an exciting prospect to think that we too, the following day, would be one of them (minus the daggy hats – we’re not that tragic just yet… give us time.)

Our guest house owner was a bit of a weirdo; very pushy for us to pay some ridiculously over-priced amount for his safari tour, in which we would get to ride in one of his glorious rust bucket jeeps. We turned him down and went for a highly regarded tour company, decked out with a new, luxury Mitsubishi jeep – for way less money. Mr. Guest House owner was not too happy, and basically kicked us out at 4:30am the following morning before our safari began – gloating that if we aren’t going with him, we’re obviously going to have a shitty time. Proudly, he promised us a glorious afternoon of fun-filled happy times on our return, where he would make us read about “how terrible independent jeep companies are” on his lap top.

As lovely as that sounded at 4:30am, that was not high on our list of priorities for the afternoon, and we had to politely decline.

A 4am start was the beginning of a very, very long day. Seeing as I don’t do early mornings well, and reserve these sorts of ungodly hour wake-up times for only the most important occasions – “we better see a leopard!”

Bleary-eyed, we climbed into our luxury jeep and drove off to Yala National Park, leaving behind Mr. Guest House owner who was trying to quickly repair his jeep before take-off.
The cold air rushing through the windowless jeep reminded me quickly of, firstly, what it felt like to be cold, but more so, that this was to be our first real safari experience…

In the park we spent around 6 hours bouncing around in the back of the jeep, and whilst we saw a lot of deer, water buffalo and peacocks, elephants, crocodiles, coloured birds and some fluffy mongoose-animal, we did not see a leopard or a bear. A little disappointed, we reminded ourselves that this is nature, not a zoo (although some of the jeep drivers drove around as though they were a bunch of crazed animals at times), and we were overall very happy with the fact that we got to see anything at all. The elephants we did see, including one very gorgeous baby, were the highlight of the tour.

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On exiting the park, we passed our guest house’s jeep, which proudly sported a large “INDEPENDENT JEEP COMPANY” sticker on it. What was that Mr. Guest House owner said about them all being terrible?

Driving back into town at 12pm, after having already been awake for 8 hours, we had become those sun burned, tired looking tourists. Eager to get out of Tissa (Mr. Guest House owner ruined the vibe of the place a bit) we got our bags, paid and marched slowly down the road towards the bus station in the heat, with our bulging packs on our front and back.

Exhausted, sun burned, dehydrated, head-achy and sore-bummed (after 7 hours of bouncing around in a jeep), we boarded a bus headed for Galle, our next destination. I hoped – oh, how I hoped – that this four hour journey would be a peaceful one…

It was not to be.

The next three hours – yes three hours – should’ve been four, but our driver drove at speeds I did not know buses could do, and wiped off an entire hour by breaking the speed limit the entire time. Within the first five minutes of the trip I’d lost count of the near misses, my neck was starting to ache from whiplash – caused by the slamming of breaks, my ear drums were about to burst from the combination of incessant horn beeping, break screeching, and incredibly loud Sinhala music that blared through several speakers, and I was struggling to breathe from all the pollution being blown into my face through the open window.
Jake found it to be a real life example of Einstein’s Relativity Theory – Relativistic Speeds really do appear to slow time down; three hours (although better than four) felt like an eternity.

Five minutes in, and I was reminding myself of the promise I’d made on that terrifying bus journey just one day earlier. Five minutes in, and we were planning at which stop we would just get off at, in order to save our lives.

But we didn’t get off, and we survived again to tell the tale – along with every other local passenger who slept their way through that entire ordeal.

We arrived into Galle, absolutely shattered with exhaustion, wrecked from the stress of the drive, covered in sweat, sun screen, dirt and pollution, and with really sore bums. Instantly hassled by a surge of quick thinking tuk tuk drivers, we were easily ripped off by a driver who would not agree to my excellent bartering deal, but were too tired to care.

Driving into the Galle Fort, it was an effort to keep our eyes open, but we did – we were here, we’d made it, and now, all we needed to do was find a budget room in one of the most expensive, touristic places to stay in, in Sri Lanka – without any prior reservations…

Tea, Curd and Smiley Faces: Ella’s Warm Welcome

The train from Kandy to Ella, in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country area, is renowned for being incredibly beautiful; the train winds through hills and mountains, tea plantations cover the hills like patchwork, and clouds roll in as the train climbs higher and higher.

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We spent 6 and a half hours looking out the train window, our mouths wide open in awe of the beauty of the scenery that we passed. The train wound through tiny villages with waving children and adults alike, people working in the fields, and little homes and buildings covered with brightly coloured clothing spread out to dry on the tin roofs.

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The mountains seemed to go on forever, until the clouds swallowed them whole, waterfalls gushed and the greenery is endless.
What a journey.

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Arriving into Ella, we were greeted by a quaint, sleepy little town full of friendly-faced locals. The one dusty main street is lined with guest houses, little shops and produce stalls, roti huts and restaurants, and of course the obligatory Sri Lankan tuk tuks and their touty drivers. Cafés are quite popular here – but so are tourists, it seems. This is a place you can immediately relax into: no rush, no bustle, not too many honking horns, cows grazing next to the bus stops, lots of good quality Sri Lankan tea, and surrounded by 360 degree views of the most incredible scenery.

Pimped Up Ride

Pimped Up Ride

Ella Junction

Ella Junction

The specialty food here, besides the obvious Sri Lankan rice and curry, is surprisingly Buffalo Curd – often served drizzled in ‘kittul’ or treacle (the local menus refer to it as “hunny”). It’s a strangely delicious any-time snack, and the several tiny market stalls sell it in ceramic bowls. Buffalo curd mixed with fresh diced avocado and a pinch of chilli is a real delicacy.

Curd and Kittul

Curd and Kittul

We spent our first evening in Ella enjoying rice and curry on the balcony of our guest house looking out towards incredible Ella Rock, before retiring under our mosquito net where we spent a happy few hours fighting off  possibly the world’s biggest cockroach and several mammoth mosquitos who were tricky enough to claw their way through the net. We won that round, but in the nights following, their army was to return…

Ella Rock

Ella Rock

Ella is home to two very popular climbs; Ella Rock is the big one, and Little Adam’s Peak is the smaller, more popular one. We decided to tackle Little Adam – an hour or so climb each way, and a guide not necessary. We meandered through the tea plantations and smiled at the Tamil tea pluckers who asked us for money with outstretched hands the moment they saw us.

Little Adam's Peak

Little Adam’s Peak

The very top of the peak was the steepest part of the climb, but the 360 degree views from the top were breath-taking; sitting on a little piece of rock at the top of Little Adam’s Peak, we felt as though we were on top of the world.

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Back in Ella, we explored the little shops and avoided the over crowded tourist cafes (the ones with free wi-fi, western food, sports on TV, overpriced beer – you know what I’m talking about). Instead we sat at the back of some tiny little ‘eatery’ (I would be more inclined to call it a shack with a tarp roof) that sold everything from roti and dahl to biscuits, sugar, lottery tickets, vanilla essence and baby formula.
These little places seem to have a little bit of everything; it’s entertaining to look at all the things shoved into every crevice of shelving and wall space.
On dodgy plastic chairs we ate 90 rupee coconut roti, chilli sambol and dahl whilst the locals chattered and stared at us relentlessly, something we have almost come to accept as normal.

Passing the local “beauty saloon” ( a wooden shack with a tarp roof), Jake was feeling a bit too beardy; for 200 rupees ($1.70 AUD) a well groomed Sri Lankan man worked with absolute pride and precision to ensure Jake’s beard was perfectly manicured.

So manicured

So manicured

The hill country and the areas and towns surrounding Ella are famous for tea – as is Sri Lanka in general. This is like heaven for Jake and I: I could quite easily lay in a pile of tea leaves, cover myself in hot water and milk and be happy forevermore. Unfortunately I can’t quite do that, but here in Ella we got the next best thing – a tea factory tour!

We spent our second full day taking a local bus out of Ella (whilst every passenger on the bus stared at us as if to say “shouldn’t you be in a tuk tuk?”) we clung on for dear life, laughing as the bus swung around corners and darted passed trucks – I think the driver was imagining he was on a race track.

From the bus stop we took a 2km walk up and up and up a winding hill, past rice fields and tomato farms, with a little Sri Lankan girl following us the whole way, requesting that we give her bubble gum and pens. We didn’t have anything to give her, but I made sure I bought a pack of pens to hand out when we got back into town – I can say no to money and candy, but I can not say no to pens for school.

Where milky cups of dreams begin...

Where milky cups of dreams begin…

Halpewatte Tea factory is the biggest tea factory in this province (Uva Province), and it was a pretty cool place to visit – even more so because they gave us these awesome forest green “lab-coaty costumes” which we strutted about in until they got too hot and started sticking to our skin. They were then no longer so awesome.

The tea making process is incredibly laborious and fascinating to learn about; the processes and stages that the leaves must go through, and the hard work people must do to ensure tons of tea are processed each day is very impressive. Tasting the different grades of tea at the end of the tour was deliciously interesting.

The evening was spent in the tiny kitchen of a local lady – Sujatha – who taught us how to cook Sri Lankan curries with love and precision – and lots of spices and deliciousness.

Yep. We made that.

Yep. We made that.

Today is our last full day in Ella, and has so far been spent in a similar fashion to the first two days: we found a routine quickly here and it works well for us. It involves a cold Milo (yes, Sri Lankans are Milo-fanatics here and I love them for it!), a fresh bunch of bananas from the smiley man at the tiny Ella Junction produce stall, a lot of cups of tea on the balcony of Sujatha’s little restaurant while we people watch, a bit of hot roti, and a good dose of vitamin C.  Dinner will involve some sort of Sri Lankan curry feast, and the rest of the day – who knows.

Locals mulling

Locals mulling

Ella has been a fabulous stop in our Sri Lankan travels, and so far a real highlight. The slow pace of the town, the big smiley people, men in their traditional skirts and women in their saris, excellent food, a spontaneous street-side market and spectacular scenery has been a winner for us, and we will no doubt miss it when we leave tomorrow on the train for Haputale.

Spontaneous Mid-Week Markets!

Spontaneous Mid-Week Markets!