Saturday Magazine
City Life
Lovers leap and the young work hard in Nuwara Eliya

by city dweller

Before I left Colombo on Sunday morning before Wesak, I met a young couple who live and work in Nuwara Eliya. "If it’s going to be anything like April New Year, we’d rather be here than there, we’ll return after the holidaymakers have left", they said. Now I know why.

satcoup.jpg (11328 bytes)We took the Kitulgalle route and had breakfast overlooking the river which was part of the movie, " Bridge over the River Kwai", directed many years ago by David Lean and starred Alec Guiness, Jack Hawkins and William Holden? It also had a small and important part by Chris Greet. Hundreds of holidaymakers had already passed through early, we were told by the waiter, and it was only 9 am - the kitchen had run out of string hoppers.

En route we stopped and gazed enraptured at the magnificent Falls of St. Clairs and Devon, with Adam’s Peak in the distance clear and beautiful - the area Talawakelle. Nan Oya is delightful with it’s old railway line which must have seen many a person tumbling out of its train travel weary from Colombo heading towards Nuwara Eliya by bus or bike.

We reached Nuwara Eliya town by mid-day and most of the group tumbled into bed and slept but I wandered off and visited friends who live in a tiny house on the top of a hill on the land a past government had given out free in 5 perch blocks, many, many years ago. It’s called Hawa-eliya.

Nuwara Eliya town was full of local tourists. They were wandering around, searching for lunch, and shelter for the night. All hotels from The Tea Factory to the smallest of guest houses or even ‘b & bs’ were full. No accommodation available as far as Ella, Bandarawela or even Haputale.

We stayed at a friend’s small home, peaceful, quiet surrounded by beautiful flowers and massive trees within walking distance of Nuwara Eliya’s main centre road. We perambulated around town after dark wondering where to pick up something to eat ourselves, and came across a large hotel called ‘ The Windsor’. First time for all of us and that was exciting. At the door, pleasant staff greeted us and a magnificent painting of a Leopard seated back on it’s haunches, signed ‘Sanjiv 1985’ adorned the inner foyer. Another brilliant painting further along by ‘Laki Senanayake’. We advanced still further and sat in the well appointed dining room overlooking town. For the first time, I met the owners and Managers - a young couple. They must be the youngest couple in Hotel Management in Sri Lanka - Gehani and Stuart Mayo. Utterly charming, attractive and concerned.

They began managing the newly constructed ‘Windsor’ 13 years ago with their first born just 8 months old. Their children now aged 13 and 11 have always attended school in Nuwara Eliya. Ashley de Vos is the architect of the hotel. The impression one gets is that this is a very old hotel magnificently maintained and cherished. We left after a delicious bowl of cream of tomato soup and small, dainty, hot bread rolls. The hotel has 50 double rooms and one amazing super luxury suite. It’s Business facilities must be well patronised by visiting and resident expats who work in the numerous factories in and around town.

There is a Pastry Shop which is easily approached from the main road where one can have a quick snack and take-away refreshments. The strength of the hotel lies in its cleanliness, comfort, cuisine and charming helpful staff. Gehani and Steuart never stop moving around the hotel. Both slim and agile, they feel that is the best way to support their staff and see that the customer receives the very best service. It was interesting to hear that they seldom visit Colombo but have good friends in Kandy whom they visit whenever they need a quick break with the children.

Morning dawned, the soft twittering of birds could be heard through our open window. We rejoined our friends in Hawa-eliya for breakfast - rotis, boiled eggs in a creamy hodhi, Kiri Bath, Pol sambol, onion sambol, fruit galore (avocado, plantains, papaw) and plenty of hot tea. The community around dropped in at various times. The sun shone but the Nuwara Eliya breed of flies covered everything! Flies are a menace right now and settle like, well, flies!!

We went off to climb ‘Lovers Leap’. I had not done this since I was 9 years old. To get to the waterfall, one has to buy a ticket at the estate gate. SLRs: 50.00 for our van with 7 passengers. The van could only go up to a particular point, after that we walked, which was most pleasant. As one nears the waterfall walking became tricky. I had to watch my step and at times vertigo hit me as I crossed huge gaps and rock formation with mighty crevices. Scrambling over rocks was fun and the young crowd fairly leapt everywhere. Over these rocks some of which are more than 12 feet high and wide, water cascaded from the top of the mountain, the source, and poured down. We drank what we could catch in our hands thirstily. Crystal clear, icy water. Delicious! I stayed perched on a rock while the others walked down ‘the leap’ to the very bottom and back again to where I waited.

While I was pondering and contemplating the events in my life over the past five days, I saw a movement in the jungle across the ravine. High screed of jungle trees, bushes and exotic plants but there was movement. I tried to focus carefully and then it struck me to use the zoom on my camera and hey presto I looked straight into the eyes of a very beautiful young woman.

She wore a long skirt, shirt and over that a pullover. I put my camera down and she peeped at me and waved, and I waved back and smiled at her. She continued hanging on to branches like a graceful nanny-goat breaking, throwing branches of wood. She would throw them down, and as she did this she too moved stealthily downwards but her body always shielded by branches:. At some point I lost sight of her but what a natural, graceful, climber - no ropes, alone and hell bent on collecting firewood for her home, no doubt.

We had arranged to visit Gurutulawa and have lunch with a friend who’s lived in Sri Lanka since 1951. She was born in Sweden 72 years ago in a town close to Gothenburg. Here, in this delightful, quiet corner of the Uva Province, we also met Danny Fairweather, a young planter from Kahagalla Estate. Amazing young man who loves to talk about the art of growing tea. He explained to us in detail how and why the leaves of the bushes on ‘Lovers Leap’ estate are dark green, much darker than the usual tea bushes. It’s a system of clones - an important aspect of tea development. It was refreshing to talk with a young man who not only is proud of his career but seems to like encouraging his workers to have a life of their own and enjoy it.

Danny loves ‘planting’ and really enthuses the joy he gets working on estates with his colleagues who pluck the leaves, as well as those who work in the office and management. Danny has many natural leadership qualities and he organises shramadana days on his estate and works hands-on with every one involved in the project towards improving not only estate conditions but also conditions for those doing the job.

Returning to Nuwara Eliya, I couldn’t take the pain from two ulcers I had developed over the past few days. As we were about to turn into the gates of the house we were living in, I spotted a dental clinic and to and behold the door said OPEN. I quickly entered and joined those waiting in the queue. An amazing and delightful, young, married couple run the clinic: Dr. Witharana (sorry, if I have spelt this wrong) and Dr. Marasinghe. They studied at Peradeniya University Dental Faculty. Their clinic is airy, odourless and not in the least bit scary. Before long it was my turn and I got the female of the partnership, Dr. Marasinghe. Wearing protective gloves, she confirmed the reason for my agony and chiselled off a tiny obstruction and had me on my feet within 5 minutes. She couldn’t understand why I was protesting at her lack of interest in payment. She’s an incredibly attractive, happy, well-balanced doctor and I imagine she and her husband give every ‘patient’ the same warm welcome. I can only thank them through this article for their kindness.

As I packed my bag, to return to Colombo via Kandy, the 8th May, 2001, I tried to think whether I would return next year during the May holiday. Most probably not. The thousands, may be millions, I saw yesterday evening trying to make the most of ‘holiday’ time wasn’t exactly conducive to calm and serenity.

These were some of the disturbing elements: the hundreds of stalls selling garments of every description along the park length of Nuwara Eliya’s main road. They flanked one side and on the other hundreds of fruits and food stalls manned by weary, sad looking men and women. It was the faces of the vendors that made me look twice. The dirt all over the place, the need for business, the swashbuckling young executives everywhere with their cellular phones plastered to a side of their face, and the blaring noise from loudspeakers.

The men and women needed business badly. Plastic bags unwept for days, and a sudden shortage of water. Every fraction of space taken outside the racecourse by ‘cooked food’ stalls, from Chinese meals to pizzas and most of the tables and chairs under tarpaulin here, there and everywhere. People crying out for rooms - a bed - any accommodation. Vans packed with humanity - many of whom slept nights in the vans. What toilets were they provided with, were there any public showers for them, cooking facilities? Individual vans cruising the roads with doors ajar, blasting the latest ‘Rock’ songs and tunes with young DJ’s perched on boxes inside the vans working the microphones and loudspeakers. For instance, on one side heading towards the Golf Club I heard young Britney belting it out, and travelling down the other side later towards Hakgalla, Elton John singing the ‘Circle of Life’.

Hakgalla Garden’s, one of the most charming and well architectured Gardens we have in Sri Lanka was swamped with visitors. 3-mile long queues on the main road with parked vehicles. Fruit, vegetable and plant vendors had set up stalls both sides of the road, resulting in total chaos for anyone trying to pass through. Children, babies in arms screaming, crying and fussed up in woollies making them bod over as the glorious sun shone and warmed earth.

Another sad happening, no longer can you pick up milk packets. There’s imported Pasteurised Milk cartons, instead! Highland Milk kept their end up, however, with plenty of delicious yoghurt cartons into which was poured a little honey by the sales assistant.

Back at our temporary home, we snuggled down to sleep for our last night in Nuwara Eliya. Around 10 p.m. we were rudely woken by the deafening noise of men singing and beating drums. It felt as though the whole of Nuwara Eliya had suddenly sprung to life and were rocking down the roads. The noise must have been the thousands of tourists who hadn’t got accommodation except in their vans and decided to keep awake doing the baila and singing raucously. That was the end of sleep for us, so we got up and read till dawn.

By 9 we were ready to leave, and we took the Pusselawa Road, stopping for a few minutes to buy some flowering plants and many different species of herbs from Top Pass to replant in our garden at home in Colombo. As we wound our way downwards we felt very, sorry for a young boy clutching his huge bunch of orange flowers. He jumped from one hairpin bend to another until he wore us out and we bought the bunch which sits rather wilted and forlorn in a vase in front of me as I write this.

At Ambepussa Guest House we stopped for tea and sandwiches as we decided to skip lunch and head home. No sandwiches, they had run out of bread, but we had tea and watched the incredible flow of city dwellers heading for home in the same direction as ourselves.