“It is very much like England up here”, explained our guide.
“You haven’t been to England have you?” I asked.
“No”, he said.
Nuwara Eliya, known locally as ‘Little England’, is Sri Lanka’s mountain region and home to its thriving tea plantations. It is a little cooler than the rest of the island but the humidity still makes everything feel sticky. We'd had our first experience of this during the night. The bedsheets felt worryingly moist and I woke in the morning with hair like a mad woman's breakast. It didn't matter what I did with it - the air was so full of water that for my entire time on Sri Lanka, my hair took on the texture and quality of cooked vermicelli. The humidity even affected our money; the local banknotes always felt damp and grubby. We understood that the government was experimenting with plastic Rupees, but we never saw any.
On the subject of money, it did take us a few days to cope with it. Having dragged our spending money through two different currencies (Sterling and $US travellers' cheques), we ended up with thousands of Sri Lankan Rupees but had no idea how much they equated to. For the first two or three days, we were tipping people with medium-sized bills not realising that that we were giving people enough money to feed their family for a year and put the oldest child through university. Not that I would have minded that. It's a very poor country. We'd been told to take some 'luxury goods' with us for the children. By 'luxury goods', I mean pens and pencils. I took hundreds with me and Dawn and I dished them out to schoolkids whenever we saw them. They were so grateful, bless them. It's humbling to see someone so excited over a Biro.
Anyhow, after breakfast, we engaged the services of a local guide (much better than the ones the tour company provide) called Linton to take us to Little England. As a serious tea drinker I was keen to see where my favourite tipple came from. The road we travelled to get there was steep and narrow and wound around the mountains like a helter-skelter. Sri Lankans drive on the right, a left-over from the days of British Imperialism. But that was the only similarity to British roads or road usage. It was quite alarming to look out of the window and see how far we would fall if we veered off the half-made road. And that seemed a real possibility as there were no crash barriers and Linton insisted on overtaking slow-moving vehicles on every blind corner. Some mysterious and hitherto unknown physical principle allows Sri Lankan drivers to do whatever they like as long as they hold their hand on the horn. It didn’t matter that the road could only accommodate one emaciated gentleman on a bicycle – the Magical Horn would somehow allow us to pass safely by. At several times, I swear I felt the edge of the road crumbling beneath our wheels. My heart was in my mouth for most of the two hour journey. Thankfully, to take my mind off things, there was much worth seeing.
“It is good, no?” said the plantation owner.
However, my prayers were answered during our perilous trip back down the mountainside. Spotting a roadside shack ahead, Linton asked if we fancied some fresh fruit. We nodded enthusiastically and he pulled over to the edge of the road. And by edge, I mean edge. There was no grass verge, no hard shoulder, no lay-by. If I'd got out of the wrong side of the van I'd have plunged the sheer drop into the lush forest below. While he negotiated the price of a jackfruit and some bananas, I found myself staring at the fruit sellers' hut. There was something altogether odd about it. And then I realised what it was. This little Sri Lankan jerry-build was floating on air. Its frontage butted onto the edge of the road but around, behind and beneath it, there was only air. Yet the shack hung there, defying the laws of physics and looking like some impossible creation of M C Escher. Thinking perhaps that the heat (or a tannin overdose) was causing me to hallucinate, I walked a little closer to the abyss. The hut wasn’t floating on air at all. It was worse than that. It was standing upon five slender legs made of bamboo. They were oly as thick as a man’s leg and must have been at least 50-60 feet in length, each one made by lashing several long lengths together. The whole place was supported by sticks. It looked impossible. Even though I know that bamboo is as strong as steel (they use it as building scaffolding all over the far East), it still looked like a house standing on flamingo's legs.
Back at the hotel, a barbecue was in full swing. There was a huge fish on the coals with a mouthful of teeth to rival the entire Osmond family. There were steaks and burgers and some kind of chicken-based sausage (Aha! So that's what we'd had on the plane!). Most Sri Lankans are Buddhist and vegetarian. The remainder are Hindu and do not eat beef. Consequently, we never identified what the steaks were ... other than tough and undigestible. The burgers were better. We decided it was best not to ask what they were made from. But the fish! Absolutely wonderful as was all the seafood we tasted during our stay.
The sun eventually dipped below the horizon, painting the sky with broad strokes of orange, red and blue. Night fell very quickly and we headed back inside, surrounded by fireflies. Eschewing the curious pleasures of the world's worst disco ('Ultimate Power') - the DJ hadn't quite learned how to mix between two records and invariably chose ones with different time signatures ... and he also had to cope with the frequent power cuts that happen every night - we headed upstairs to hide from the mosquitoes and play 'Who's been drinking my water' with the geckos.