Ceylon Dreams V: Suffused in Tea
One of my favourite slogans, aptly carved on a wooden sign outside a chai shack in Karachi, is: “Live Life, Love Tea” and the drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is perfect for living life and loving tea.
Bernard had very kindly arranged a driver and car for us to take us on the rest of our journey (he told us if we wanted to keep it cheap, trains and buses was the way to go but a car was more convenient) and we had another wholesome Sri Lankan breakfast before leaving the next morning. Our driver was pleasant, providing interesting facts about the animals or plants at an interval of 20 miles.
The clouds were still low, a beautiful blue-gray that made the green of the hills and plantations stand out even brighter. The color of tea-leaves is a special green, so vibrant it’s almost gold, a fresh young green that seems to be lit up from the inside.
Our driver had promised to take us to the more famous of the tea factories that lay scattered around the hills, some shabbier than others.
The one we went to was beautiful. Originally set up by the British, it had been transferred over to the Sri Lankans and was now charmingly called Mackwoods-Labookellie (can you spot the British part of the name?). The factory stood sturdy and gray, three or four floors, and across a clean, cobbled driveway was the little lodge that housed the café and shop. The lodge with its sloping green roof and grey stone walls, shiny polished wooden interior and cute little portraits seemed more European than Sri Lankan but I absolutely adored it. There was a large Christmas tree inside and a fake Santa with his fake sled and reindeer in the courtyard; beautifully manicured patches of lawn with bright pink red yellow flowers and an outdoor seating area as well with heavy wrought iron chairs and tables painted an elegant white. Everything was wet but it had stopped raining, which meant the air was cool but we could still walk outside without getting drenched. The weather gods were being kind!
We could walk to the edge of the hill which overlooked the plantations below. Little splotches of color moved amongst the brilliant green, mostly female workers picking the leaves. A large ‘Mackwoods’ sign splayed the hills across in white block letters (the Hollywood of tea!).
We were served cups of Ceylon tea, a lovely deep red-brown color, and we asked for a piece of chocolate cake too. When the bill came we realized the tea was free and like any self-respecting economical Pakistani, I was absolutely delighted.
Then we signed up for the quick 15-minute tour (also free!) where we learned the four main steps of making tea leaves. The only place that really cost money was the tea shop and since we didn’t buy anything, it turned out to be a very thrifty stop for us!
The drive through up and down the winding green hills to Nuwara Eliya was absolutely breathtaking. There was a viewpoint from where we saw three waterfalls at different spots gushing through dense trees, while the river snaked silver blue like a crooked smile on the earth’s brown face.
It was raining when we entered Nuwara Eliya, the tiny green town nicknamed ‘Little England’. We passed through what appeared to be a giant wasteland with sad swans parked on the muddy embankments. “Lake Gregory,” announced our driver. “It’s been emptied out for cleaning.”
It must have been an idyllic scene when the lake was actually a lake: the calm blue waters with happy sappy couples in the swan-boats that now perched empty and plasticky in the swampy land. Trickles of streams ran through the emptied out lake, whichwas wide enough to be on both sides of the road, cute bridges and paddle boat rentals silent and still as well.
Oh well, I thought.
A very muddy dirt road led to our first hotel, Villa Tea Fields, – it was more of a guesthouse with just four rooms in a wooden hut. There was a balcony that looked out on to a tea plantation and the keeper was nice enough to show me the room we didn’t get because it had already been booked out – the best part was its bathroom which had a pure white ceramic bathtub right by wide open French windows – everything was shiny white inside which made the bright green of the tea leaves outside stand out even more. What an amazing place for a hot bath!
Nuwara Eliya was a good ten, fifteen degrees cooler than Kandy and we quickly donned our sweaters.
We had lunch with our driver in a very busy Chinese restaurant and then we bade farewell to him for the day – we were going to walk around the city and find our way back to the inn. The next morning we were planning a pre-dawn start to Horton’s National Plains, a national park that led to the ‘edge of the world’ where clouds shrouded the spectacular view from the cliff if you went after 10 am!
I was very excited about it – a two hour trek to the viewpoint through grassy fields and smoky scented trees and exotic birds and streams and perhaps a waterfall or two, and then at the edge we would have our breakfast, with the whole valley laid out below in a patchwork of greens blues and browns!
And so, after lunch at Nuwara Eliya we told our driver to rest up. Who also gave us his umbrella, sweet man! We walked through the market which reminded me of Sunday Bazaar in Karachi or even Zainab Market in Saddar. There were plenty of secondhand winter clothes to go along, hanging woolenly outside shops, getting damper by the minute.
Nuwara Eliya was chock full of hotels and guesthouses, piled one behind the other in a cacophony of cement and color, but most of the construction was limited to a certain area. The rest of the town had beautiful gardens and well-maintained parks. We saw the cute little bright red post office and then took a tuk-tuk to Grand Hotel, a five-star beautiful hotel with wide lawns and animal-shaped hedges. It was very colonial with its sloping red roofs and brown stripes down the white walls and windows. The inside was grand as well and Fahad and I felt a wee bit conscious in our hoodies and sneakers (Fahad’s hoodie actually has a hole in it.) out from the tuk-tuk while grand ladies and gentlemen pulled up in their fancy cars with shiny umbrellas!
The inside was glamorous as well, high ceilings grand piano plush sofas a beautiful Christmas tree. As self-conscious as we felt,to their credit, everybody was super polite.We ended up having high tea right by the open door that looked out to the outdoor seating area and the gardens.
After macaroons, little sandwiches and creamy pastries, we walked down the grand driveway and took a tuk-tuk back to our cute little B’n’B.