When all roads lead to Nuwara Eliya
Season's Greetings :
Tracing the footsteps of the British who walked our land in the 19th
century is probably nowhere more rewarding than in the cool climes of
the Pidurutalagala mountain range. The town once called Little England
is complete with manor houses, Parish churches and flower gardens that
were created as refuges from the blazing heat of the tropical sun in
Colombo and most other townships of the country.
The Nuwara Eliya Post Office
Undoubtedly, the memories of another age still linger, in the velvet
lawns of the Golf Club, the red and white post office on the main
street, the elegant fireplaces inside the British type manor houses and
the Victoria Park, where sunflowers, dahlias and roses vie with each
other for the attentions of the sun. But, if you are a 'nostalgia buff'
who yearns to gaze at a cypress tree and wonder if Samuel Baker leaned
against it on a day like today way back in the 19th Century, better stay
away during the April season.
On the first of April when the 'season' began with a procession of
school bands walking along the main street, Nuwara Eliya looked no
different to any other town in any other province of the country. The
sun shone fiercely as if he too wanted to gaze long and hard at the
colourful parades on the streets and enjoy the rather loud music over
the loudspeakers. The whistles of the many police officers especially
deployed to control the traffic pierced the air. Visitors jostled each
other. Cameras clicked. "Wear your jackets," mothers warned their
off-spring. "We must never come to Nuwara Eliya during the season
again," fathers grumbled looking for that ever elusive parking spot.
A line of soap bubbles blow my way. I turn my head to see two
municipal workers seated on a pile of cardboard blowing bubbles at the
passersby. Kamala gives me a betel juice stained red grin when she
catches my eye. "I found this in a garbage heap," she explains. "There
are still some soap left in it". She tucks the bottle into the folds of
her sari. The crowds walk the pavement non-stop. No work today? Kamala
shrugs her shoulders. "How can we sweep the pavement when we can hardly
see the ground? What a crowd!".
The toy train at the Victoria Park
Abdul Latheef's ice cream
Indrani's vegetable stall on the way to the
Nuwara Eliya town
Samath with his sunglasses
This year there are more visitors than before she observes. Wouldn't
she like to travel too? Visit some other town as a tourist? I ask her.
She shrugs her shoulders. "I went to Katharagama every year when I was a
girl, when my father was alive. But after I got married I haven't
stepped out of Blackpool, which is where I live except to go to a
funeral of one or the other of my relatives in Talawakelle". She says as
a daily paid worker she earns Rs. 600 a day. Not quite enough to make
ends meet but she is not the one to complain.
More soap bubbles blow my way. I follow the line of rainbow coloured
evanescent baubles past the main bus stand and come to the entrance of
the Victoria Park where the toy train chug-chugs carrying its happy
passengers on a five minute ride. This time the bubbles are blown by T M
R Samath who keeps the bottle of soap water down on the bench and wipes
his hands on his sarong, when he sees a potential customer in sight. But
I have little use for bottles of soap bubbles, plastic toys or
sunglasses - in gloomy, misty Nuwara Eliya.
"There are plenty of sunny days here too," reminds Samath. As if to
prove him right the sun begins to shine even more fiercely through the
cypress trees. "Visitors don't really buy the glasses to protect their
eyes from the sun," he explains. "They buy them more as souvenirs or
because it is fashionable to wear them".
Samath has been in this business for over forty years selling plastic
goods, (the sunglasses, though are a recent addition).
"I brought my three children up with whatever I earned selling goods
on the pavement.
"Of course the April season was when I made the most profit compared
to the rest of the year," Samath explains, not bothered that his
potential customer turns out otherwise.
By April 15, the sun too seems to have had enough of the revelry, of
the loud music from the stereos of vans and three wheelers filled with
young men in sleeveless t-shirts and sagging three quarter trousers, of
the elite of the land who seemed to be bumping into the same people they
had wanted to leave behind, when they left Colombo searching for a break
and of the eternal questions asked by the first timers "which way is
easiest to get back to Colombo? Do you know of a waterfall where we can
have a bath?"
The sun too decides to go on holiday leaving the rain gods to do as
they please. Driving along the Kandy-Nuwara Eliya road through the rain
and the mist as white and thick as the cream on a milkshake, provides an
experience at once exciting and, if you happen to look down at the
precipice below, deathly frightening. Ela is the word one young man uses
to describe how he felt as he came past Labookele on his way to Nuwara
It is only as the mist lifts rising slowly from the ground like the
steam in a hot cup of tea that you begin to see the roadside vegetable
stalls selling exotic English vegetables like rhubarb, cherry tomatoes,
broccoli and parsley as well as the mundane bundles of leeks, carrots,
beet and turnips. Lechchami and Kandasamy who have a vegetable stall a
few meters away from Inverness, the identification mark of the Nuwara
Eliya tea estate, say business would have been better if not for the
rains. On a good day they make a profit of around Rs. 2000 they admit
reluctantly. What happens to the vegetables they fail to sell? "We have
no choice but to throw them away" says Kandasamy. By April 20 when I too
packed my bags and headed home, the weather is bright one minute, gloomy
and rainy the next. I meet Abdul Latheef who is doing a brisk business
in the centre of the town selling ice cream.
During the season he says he spends most of his time in the town but
at other times of the year, travels to Hawaeliya, Boralanda and
Kandapola on his bicycle with the ice cream horn in his hands and the
ice box tied to the back of his bike. To my surprise he says the
ice-cream he sells is made by a reputed company in Colombo and that he
buys it as well as the cones from a supermarket. On an average day he
makes a profit of around Rs.1000 but when it rains too hard and even the
hardcore ice cream lovers ignore the lure of an ice cream he adopts an
alternative strategy. He starts selling Bombai Motai. He makes the motai
himself from margarine, sugar, coconut, milk powder and vinegar. But
during the season due to the candy floss stalls the business is not as
lucrative as on normal, rainy days. If you have not made it to Nuwara
Eliya yet there is time still to do so. From morning to late in the
night, the smells of frying and mouthwatering spices waft up from
hundreds of small wayside huts and all the sounds of the entire country
- vendors' cries begging you to get a tattoo on your arm, buy a bundle
of plastic flowers, or taste a "daiya, daiya", the roar of the seaplanes
taking off across the Gregory's Lake, the wail of the song "Why this
Kolaveri di," - punctuate the silence. Nuwara Eliya, once the creation
of the British, as every April season proves, has now settled into a
Warm (in spite of the cold weather), unpretentious and friendly, you
are bound to return come next April.