15 March - To Haputale

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13 March - To Kandy
14 March - Kandy
15 March - To Haputale
16 March - To Tissa
17 March - Yala NP
18 March - To Galle

0755 – driving through Kandy

Up, up, and away! Some of us got up happy and chipper this morning despite it being so early. Others stayed up until 4am on their computer and therefore weren’t quite as awake. The mention of eggs got him up, though.

Breakfast was rushed but good. Mom and I shared, which was perfect, and we identified more birds as well.

Then we packed, rapidly, and got in the van to drive a French couple to the train station. We will be continuing on in the van to Nuwara Eliya. They’re also going there, so maybe it’ll be a race! But hopefully we’ll see more along the way than we would on the train.

Kandy, in the morning, is wild and alive. Cars, tuk-tuks, and buses all block the streets. Motorbikes slip past and through the jams. Pedestrians cross the street at random intervals. The honking of horns is a common noise – both the squeaky beep beep of tuk-tuks or the authoritative HONK of the buses.

I guess we’re right by the bus station. That would account for all the buses. But the motorbikes certainly don’t help. I think this place is desperate for some road laws and enforcement. And maybe a stop sign or two.

Aha, we are past! And now that the road is open, everyone is (if it’s possible) even more impatient. Rush rush rush. Bad roads. Scary driving. Thailand and Bali times fifty. It sends tingles to my toes every time we rocket past another car.

Leaving Kandy, there’s a sign tacked to a tree: “Thank you for your visit. Drive safely!” Yes please!!!

0900 – en route to Nuwara Eliya

We made it to Nico and Stephanie’s train, just barely. Our driver then promised to drive much slower now that he wasn’t on such a time crunch. And he has been very good. Just as we got onto the main road he pointed out a heron in a tree. Yes, a heron.

We’ve passed through several bustling towns, with fields or rivers between. People hang laundry on lines by the rice fields.

We’re driving along a hill – it’s steep to our right and falls away sharply in a lush valley to the left. The driver’s phone rang just before we went up a hill. Dad tried to downshift for him and hit first instead of third. The dump truck behind us, whom we had just passed, was not overly pleased.

We dropped down into the valley and crossed a bridge. The village there lives very close to the forest – all the green is beautiful. We started going UP on the other side. “Now the mountain starts,” Nilam says.

Red-faced monkeys congregate at a turn in a village, and Nilam stops for a minute to talk to his nephew.

Tea-plant slopes, from a distance, look like brilliantly green lawns. Up close, the plants are all two to three feet high, neatly trimmed and cut by straight rows. Trees grow out of the middle of the fields, shading the plants.

We pass a Hindu temple and stop. Inside is a group of people, all dressed up with white and red paint on their foreheads. A bare-chested man passes different bowls around, and people add to the marks. On the floor, on a white cloth, is a happily burbling baby. Her ears are pierced with small gold studs, she has a red dot on her forehead and a white stripe, too. Her head is dusted with gold glitter. Very cute. The proud parents take pictures and smile when we do, too.

The baby was only a month or two old. I guess we saw a Hindu equivalent of a baptism. We nodded thanks to the group and re-entered the van.

Tea, tea, tea! The hills are covered with tea plants. We stopped at one to take pictures. Beautiful light. A couple women were in the fields, but not picking leaves. They just wanted money for the pictures we took. Bah.

We stopped at a viewpoint over a reservoir, then went up the hill to a temple and an even better view. It’s a new temple, probably not quite done yet. There’s also a nursery school. Cute little kids in their dark red smocks.

The reservoir looks low. Long, but low. We passed it up high, and continued around the hill. They’re building a tunnel, but for now we had to take a semi-paved road around to a nice resort by a waterfall.

1130

Warning: blasting area for road widening. Disconcerting sign. Disconcerting road, too. At least the road down to the waterfall was paved. If extremely steep. We had to get out of the van to get back up. But the waterfall was beautiful. I’d love to see it in the wet season.

1230 – leaving Blue Fields tea factory

After an early breakfast we were getting quite hungry, but a quick stop at the tea factory put that aside for a while. We got a wonderful cup of BOP tea and bought a piece of cake, too. This was after the tour, so we knew what BOP meant. It means bloody good tea, basically. A woman in a beautiful blue-and-silver sari walked us around the idle factory.

The factory has 700 acres of land. Every day women pluck leaves for four hours, earning 20 rupees a kilo – basically Rs 400/day. This brings in 10,000 kg of green leaves. Twenty-four hours later that will have been reduced to 2500kg of dried, auctionable tea leaves. The other 75% is moisture and stem.

First step: withering. The leaves, ideally two or three leaves with a small shoot on top, are put in large troughs and air-dried. They’re left there for twelve hours, and if it’s cool or raining they pipe hot air into the room to help. This removes 50% of the moisture.

Next step is the rollers. The semi-dried leaves are put into machines which crush them. Then they’re put into big sifters and sorted into big and little. The little leaves are the largest of the finished leaves – the larger ones are rolled and sorted twice more.

Then the crushed leaves are oxidized, or ‘fermented’ – left out to dry for two and a half hours. Next they’re roasted for 21 minutes. How they come to these exact times I don’t know. They use wood fires at this point, because it tastes better than electric. I guess the smoke adds flavor.

In the next step, the stems are removed from the leaves. In older times, this was done by hand – the stems are brown among the black leaves. But here they have two different machines. The more common, cheaper machine is electrostatic. Big rollers collect the fibrous stems while the leaves go past. The other method is by laser, apparently, but we didn’t see it working. That machine’s probably faster and more efficient, but it costs a lot of money.

In the end, the separated stems are used to fertilize the tea plants. The leaves are packaged in large bags, which are marked for auction in Colombo.

The woman who showed us around obviously knew the factory very well. Her English was perfect, if a little fast sometimes, and she was happy to answer questions

The reason all the tea plants are the same size is because they get cut back every five years. They only pick the top leaves, and I guess eventually they have to renew the entire plant. Though they must grow fast – every plant is picked (‘plucked’) every seven days. But the plant lives 40 to 60 years, which sounds quite impressive to me.

There are eight types of tea that come from this factory. Golden Tips and Silver Tips are the most expensive, consisting only of the new green shoots between the leaves, though we didn’t see the separation process. Like green tea, these are steamed rather than baked (roasted?) and make quite light teas. Then there are the Pekoe and Orange Pekoe teas. These are the English breakfast and afternoon teas, respectively. Broken Orange Pekoe and Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings (BOP and BOPF) are just traditional black tea. Sri Lankans like their tea strong and black, so they have ‘dust #1,’ which is very fine and I suppose makes strong black tea.

Whew. There’s a quick-and-dirty all-you-need-to-know-about-tea-in-a-lifetime lesson. I think it took less time to learn about it than to write about it. But the roads haven’t been very nice to my handwriting.

They haven’t been very nice to our van, either. We’re currently pulled off the road halfway between Nuwara Eliya and Nanu Oya, where the train station is. The front seats are tipped back and we’re trying to cool the engine down. We had a hose, but it just stopped and now they say the line is broken at the top of the hill. At least the radiator is no longer steaming. Mostly.

At least the road that was so problematic was very scenic, too. As soon as we left Blue Fields the road began to climb dramatically, and we left tea estates (somewhat) for large terraces, shanty-houses, and small crops. The people had pushed the forest back considerably, and used all available land for farming. If only we could buy fruits and veggies for the boat up here…

Well, the radiator’s filled and we’re back on our way to Nuwara Eliya. Time for lunch and then a bus-ride back to the train. Woohoo.

1505 – en route to Nanu Oya

Lunch was good but FAST at the Grand Indian House. Vegetable curry and a Faluda, an Indian-style milkshake with cassis, raisins, and cashews. Yum. But very quick. Too quick to properly appreciate the food. But we do have a train to catch.

So we’re hurtling down the road to Nanu Oya again. Except this time we’re really making tracks. It’s almost nice when we get stuck behind a slow truck – it means we slow down to a sane speed. But passing is not fun. The trick is to have a big wide truck two cars in front of you – it blocks all traffic so you can pass behind it. The problem then is, how do you pass said big truck? And how do you keep your stomach and wits in one place?

Train station. Ten minutes to spare, and we’re still alive. Huzzah!

1630 – en route to Haputale

An hour and ten minutes to spare, actually. All that rush, and the train was an hour late. So we sat at the station, steadily getting cooler as the clouds closed in. We walked around the station twice, then sat down to wait and watch the tea-covered hills. Funny how other crops need terraces but tea doesn’t.

Mom and I played location hangman to pass the time – places we’ve been in the last year. Nusa Tenggara, Kanchanaburi...

The train finally came, and the stationmaster and driver swapped odd wooden rings. Messages? Codes? Just a signal of some sort? Who knows.

We’re in second class, but have fairly nice seats as we look out over the tea estates. It’s more comfortable than the observation car… and a lot cheaper. On this leg, only 580 rupees to upgrade. When second class is 40? I don’t think so! I hang out the doorways, anyway.

1845 – Amarasinghe Guest House, Haputale

Soon after we left Nanu Oya, tea plantations and terraces gave way to wild forest. Tall, spindly trees towered over low shrubs and ferns.

I mostly stood at the doorway, because the view kept swapping sides. Every now and then we’d get a glimpse of a cute house or terrace, or even a small dammed river valley. But even the forest was beautiful. It grew on nearly sheer slopes. Sometimes it was pines, other times none other than eucalyptus. One area the ground cover had burned in the recent past, but the tree trunks were only scorched.

We’d thought we were dropping down too low for rhododendrons, but apparently not! At first they were only medium-sized bushes, their distinctive leaves their only marker. These ones were dark green, but without flowers. Were we out of season?

We started seeing bigger and bigger rhodies, until they were nearly trees. They were in among the forest, but could never blend in. We finally saw some flowers on them. Red. Red red, but small. If only we were in a car and could stop and get out and get good photos. As it is, I’ll be surprised if many of our shots from the train in general turn out. We had low clouds and haze, which meant almost the worst possible light. And, of course, the train moves fast and not just in a straight line. The jostling surely affected the shots as much as anything. We’ll have to see.

It’s fun to stand in the doorway of the train. It’s very cold – I would have been happy in jeans and a sweatshirt – but the views are excellent and unimpeded. It gets loud though, particularly during tunnels. Towards the end of our trip there was quite a spectacular set of tunnels and I retreated to my seat. Not only can’t you see anything, but all the kids scream into the dark and the echoes are horrendous.

The area around Haputale has more tea plantations. But the difference is that, here, there are rocks among the tea plants. Sometimes it seems more like the tea is growing on a boulder field. They’re very well-shaped around the giant rocks. The result, in my opinion, is quite stunning. Perhaps neat rows are just too orderly and plain for me.

Haputale is basically on a ridge. If the sky were clear, there would be an absolutely amazing view off both sides. But alas, that will have to wait for tomorrow – assuming it’s not still grey.

We were met at the train. Amarasinghe Guest House is very nice. The upstairs all has a great hardwood floor. The rooms are tidy. The eating area, where I am now, is simple but cozy.

Dinner’s ready – time to eat!

2120 – in bed

Dinner was a delicious set of curries – potato and bacon, pumpkin, and beets. Over brown rice, with papudams and a REAL SALAD. Not quite Indian but very welcome. A sweet fruit salad for dessert to take the burn away.

Other boarders were eating there too, but we didn’t interact much. Most are smokers. They seem to be of the raucous type of traveler.

Chris is on the computer. After throwing the circuit-breaker twice, he found an outlet down in the lounge. Mom and I played cards and then zonked.

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