Ancestral India – 05.08.2013

As we rolled into Ooty in the early, early hours of the morning, we saw scenery like we had never before seen. As the sun began to rise, it revealed to us thousands of tiny, colourful houses dotted and lined throughout the greenest hills at bewildering heights, and closer to the road, shop vendors and tea stall holders began to turn the lights on in their shop fronts. The air was freezing, and when we stepped out onto Ooty’s wet ground just after 5:30am, hawkers selling beanies and scarves surrounded us.

We’d booked accommodation ahead of time at an old, Brittish building complex-turned-guesthouse/hostel.

We walked there as the sun was rising, through the cold air and mist, feeling the refreshing rain drops on our sun burned skin.
On arrival, we were shown to our dormitory my worst nightmare; a tiny space that resembled a prison cell with four metal beds, sinking mattresses, dirty wet  blankets, a dirt floor and tin roof ceiling, gaping holes in the walls and ceiling, a bin that had not been emptied in what I can only assume has been months, a strong smell of damp rot and several mosquitoes – bigger than I have ever seen. As for the bathroom, all I can say is what bathroom? There wasn’t one.

Seeing as it was already raining, and the temperatures here get well down into the very cold range, we thought, amongst some other contributing factors (see above), we might have to decline this room cell, and so were offered another cheapie room, which when they opened the door to reveal another sinking mattress, the smell of paint fumes almost knocked us down. Needless to say, we never removed the packs from our back and decided that we would find somewhere “alternative.”

Marching up the road in the rain, exhausted from little sleep, I imagined we looked like two turtles with heavy shells plodding silently along. The scenery was beautiful and the walk was really lovely; it was so nice to feel cold for just a little while. In town, we hoped a tout would pounce and be able to show us to a room – which they did – but it was another shit-box complete with wet carpet, a swarm of flies and a 60’s porn-star look-a-like manager who was, to say the least, a little off putting. Again, it was time to find an alternative.

Standing at a chai stall more than an hour later after we’d arrived in Ooty, we downed cup after cup of tea alongside a group of tiny smiling school boys, before moving on to find some where suitable. Finally, we let a tuk tuk driver take us to a place that was half decent and reasonably priced, where I spent a shamless half hour sitting under the hot water – my first hot water shower in what feels like forever.

Not that I’m complaining at all though; this place is beautiful and we had all the time in the world to just be here, seeing as we’d arrived here as the sun was rising.

The reason we’d come to Ooty was not only because it’s an incredibly beautiful and quaint little city, unlike other places in India, but also a personal one: Jake’s grandmother grew up and studied at a prestigious school in a small town called Lovedale, just 10km from Ooty city, and it was important we took the opportunity to visit.

We took a tuk tuk out to Lovedale and spent an hour and a half or so at the school. The staff there were unbelievable, they bought out huge hand-written record books that dated back to the 1800’s, and spent their time scouring the names of past students, trying to find Jake’s grandmother.
They were successful in finding her name, and were able to give insight into her history here at the school. We were greeted by the head of the school, deans and head-staff, and given a personal tour of the massive school grounds.
It was very special, and an experience no doubt Jake will hold dear to him forever.

Beautiful Building - 155 years old

Beautiful Building – 155 years old

The student record book, dating back to the 1800s

The student record book, dating back to the 1800s

A very special record

A very special record

 

We spent the next few hours exploring the town, which is set amongst hills and mist, colour and a sprawling main strip. We had another dodgy looking late-lunch at a local joint that tasted pretty decent, before heading back late afternoon to our hotel. In the evening we made a futile attempt to get some chai, but the FREEZING weather saw us quickly retreating back to our room.

Needless to say, today has been amazing and exhausting, and we look forward to tomorrow where we can more-fully appreciate this town with a fresh perspective and a good nights sleep behind us.

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!