Colombo train

 

We have not planned this well. There are no tickets left for the 12 o’clock Saturday train from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo, and the station is full of people heading to Colombo for the weekend.  Despite the stationmaster’s assurances, there no seats left in the coveted first class observation carriage when the train eventually pulls in.

 

 

The typical pantomime ensues. While my friend holds the train, I jump the tracks and run to the back window of the stationmaster’s window, exchanging a handful of torn and grubby rupee notes through rusty bars for a pair of open, second-class tickets.  Winded, I jump the tracks again and make it on board just as the whistle blows.

 

We’re stuck in second class, in a carriage that smells of sweat and dirt and piss. There are no seats left, but the guards shuffle two elderly third class ticket holders to another part of the train, and we awkwardly and uncomfortably take their seats. My friend, who has been living in Sri Lanka for six months, is annoyed to be stuck in the cramped cabin for eight hours. Secretly, I’m thrilled.

 

As the train pulls out, men arrive from third class sneak in  to position hessian sacks and fraying bags in the empty rack space above us. Next to our Samsonite wheelie bags are netted sacks filled with cold climate vegetables: crisp cabbages the size of footballs, turnips bigger than my fists and carrots still caked with a little dirt: small, but thoughtful gifts for relatives who would otherwise pay four times the price for the same thing in Colombo.

 

Next to arrive are the men wielding thick baskets of food. The man next to me purchases a white plastic bag of green and yellow skinned fruit, casually tossing the bag under his seat. The mother sitting opposite us is more discerning: she checks through the entire box of the fruit; smelling, prodding and poking the skin of each piece before handing over the money.

 

The mouth watering aroma of fresh samosas then wafts through the carriage, followed by the sight of green mango covered in spicy red chilli, and a man carrying buckets of icy soft-drinks and water.

 

But the man who gets my money is selling peanuts. Filling an entire basket lined with newspaper, the fried nutty aroma is too good to resist. He plunges a metal scoop into the bucket, filling a tiny, paper pouch with peanuts fried with chilli and sprinkled with chunky salt. The packaging is recycled from a child’s math workbook: the child looks like they have a bright academic future. All the answers are correct.

 

Outside the window is a moving feast: saturated green tea plantations that slope down the hills, broken up by the groups of women in brightly covered clothing picking the leaves in the distance. Beehives the size of basketballs hang from trees, waterfalls appear and vanish as the train curves around the hills, and the occasional overturned and abandoned railway car rusts by the side of the tracks.

 

On the way up to hills we’d booked into the expensive tourist train carriage, with air-conditioning, wifi, and meal service, with a locked door that prevented anyone getting in. The windows hadn’t opened, and as I pressed my nose up against the window, I’d glimpsed other tourists hanging from the open doors of the train, their hair billowing in the wind. I’d been envious of their fun and felt like I was missing out.

 

With this in mind, I knew what I had to do. Dumping my jacket on my seat and my bag with my friend, I slipped out to the open doorway and leaned out of the side of the train, my whole bodyweight swung out the door. The wind stung my eyes and blew my hair back. It wasn’t exactly safe, but it was brilliant fun.

 

First class? It’s overrated.

 

The Rover RTW allow stopovers in Sri Lanka en route to Australia and New Zealand

The Navigator RTW also allows up to 11 stops and Sri Lanka can be one of them

Check out our Highlights of Sri Lanka tour

 

Tea

 

There’s nothing quite like a good cuppa. Or so the Chinese Emperors from the 5th and 6th century thought centuries ago. But not any old cup would do. Their virgin white tea was made of only the most tender, perfect buds, cut with gold scissors and untouched by human hands. Young virgin girls wearing gloves snipped away at the silver tips and harvested the tea into golden bowls, which was unsullied by the sweat and dirt of human hands and offered as a ‘tribute’ to the Emperor.

 

But forget having all the tea in China. Flash forward a few hundred years and tea is now a global phenomenon, with Kenya and Sri Lanka surpassing China as the world’s major exporters.

 

Swimming in your cup of PG Tips and Tetley’s is a blend of whatever tea fetched the best price at auction. And while most people are be happy with that, there are some people who take tea a little more seriously. For them, tea is as sacred and different as wine and whiskey.

 

And in Sri Lanka, Malinga ‘Herman’ Gunaratne is one of those men. A plantation manager with 45 years experience, he now grows virgin white tea on his Handunugoda Estate, located a short drive south from the town of Galle.

 

One of the first surprises about the tea plantation is that it is grown just a few kilometres inland from the coast- a low altitude tea. Handunugoda estate differs from other tea plantations as it focuses on cultivating boutique and speciality teas like Lapsang Souchon, Sapphire Oolong and of course, the only white tea in the world completely untouched by hand.

 

After reading about the Emperors, Herman decided to grow a select amount of tea that is untouched by human hands, the theory being that the tea buds and leaves take on the sweat and impurities of the human hand and can influence the flavour of the tea. By leaving the tea untouched by human hands, you taste only the most pure white tea in the world. Analysed by a lab in Switzerland, it was found to have the highest known anti-oxidant content of any tea in the world- a certificate proudly displayed for visitors

 

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s exactly to everyone’s taste. Sipping a teaspoon of it in the estate’s tasting centre, it has a strong and dominant flavour that isn’t to my liking. Instead, it’s the Suicide blend- tea laced with whiskey- that tickles my tastebuds.

 

The story behind the blend is based on Herman’s grandfather, a plantation owner with a penchant for gambling. His gambling group, called the Suicide Club, was made up of other tea plantation owners who would meet to drink tea laced with whiskey, and occasionally almost lose their plantations on the roll of a dice.

 

The plantation is open for tours each day, and it’s a pleasant tri-shaw drive along the coast and around ten kilometres inland to get to the property, which is also home to a cinnamon trees, herb gardens and hibiscus, all of which are harvested for tea. A smaller operation, it’s a more pleasant experience than the industrial and slightly depressing tea factories that dominate the hill country.

 

More than 30 types of tea are available to try (by the teaspoon) in the tea museum, with a number of single origin teas produced on the property (including their Virgin White Tea) available to purchase. It makes for a fantastic and lightweight souvenir and gift to take home.

 

But for me, the best part is at the end of the visit. Three women return to the factory at the end of the day, baskets strapped to their backs brimming with freshly picked leaves. One lady smiles and beckons me over, slowly peeling back the bad leaves and grasping the fresh leaves in her rough, worn palms so I can take a photo. After I’m done she plucks the leaf and without looking, tosses it over her shoulder, continuing on down the hill.

 

Her showmanship makes me smile.

 

The Rover RTW allow stopovers in Sri Lanka en route to Australia and New Zealand

The Navigator RTW also allows up to 11 stops and Sri Lanka can be one of them

Check out our Highlights of Sri Lanka tour