Colombo to Haputale, Sri Lanka

December 2-10, 2009

Outrigger fishing canoes in the Indian Ocean, Negombo.


We arrive in Sri Lanka late at night after a long (frequent flier) flight from Fukuoka, stopping along the way in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. When we finally wake up and step outside our room, the sun is shining and we are enveloped in the warm humid air of the tropics. What a surprise to hear the crashing surf, screeching parrots, and find ourselves steps away from a beach on the Indian Ocean in the small town of Negombo.

Another culture and climate shock as we make the transition to the Indian subcontinent.


Sound Recording:

Negombo Fish Market (1:26)

Up early, we take a three wheeler to the Negombo fish market. At 6am the docks are busy with fishermen unloading their catch and haggling with buyers. I am immediately struck by how this is the exact opposite of the Tsukiji market in Tokyo. It's hot, gritty, and the fish are lying on the cement in the tropical sun without refrigeration. Buyers load up their styrofoam boxes strapped to the back of their motorbikes and zip away down the street. We are not tempted to eat sushi here!

It's a bit sad, seeing the piles of tuna, sharks, and manta rays that we have admired while diving in the tropics, and contemplating the depletion of the ocean's bounty that is taking place world wide. After all, this scene is repeated day after day...



The Swiss owner of our guesthouse recommends we take the train, saying, "It's like going back in time. They haven't invested a pound in the railway since the British left!" Hoping for a train ride up to the cool highlands of the interior (it feels very hot here after an autumn month in Japan), we innocently go to the Negombo train station ticket office. The station master calmly explains, "No, you buy a ticket here for Colombo. When you get there you buy a ticket for Haputale." Right, this is not Japan, no computers at work here.

Next day we catch a bus to Colombo, passing through several checkpoints along the way -- swarthy guys in green berets and camouflage uniforms shouldering automatic weapons. Everyone else has to get off the bus, stand in line, and present their ID. But seeing that we do not fit the terrorist profile, we are told to remain seated and are waved through with a friendly smile. The war is officially over here in Sri Lanka, but everyone is still nervous about the possibility of another bomb. In Colombo, we inadvertently book a hotel room near the world trade center, right in the middle of a "high security area". Yikes! More checkpoints and guns -- no photos allowed here!



We discover that all reserved seat tickets were snapped up when they went on sale ten days ago. But the train station travel agent says he'll see what he can do. After a few phone calls, he steps out for five minutes, and voila, we are handed two small cardboard tickets filled out in ball point pen: Reserved seats to Haputale on Monday's train.

In the morning, we lug our backpacks up the high steps and into the single 'first class' car at the back of the train. Wonderful! Solid wood construction, windows that open (with sliding wooden shutters), rotating fans on the ceiling, comfy seats, and large (cracked) glass windows at the very end of the car that look backwards towards the track curving away in the distance. The train whistle blows, our car shudders with a loud bang, and we are away, rumbling and swaying down the track, ker-chunk ker-chunk.

Soon we meet happy, friendly families sharing the car with us, on weekend getaways to the central highlands. By mid-day they are singing, offering us homemade treats, and we are learning a bit about life in Sri Lanka. Everyone we talk to is happy the war is over at last and that tourists are finally showing up again. Kids are hanging out the windows and doors as the train teeters along at a jogging pace past villages, rice fields, and eventually mountain vegetable farms, forests, and tea plantations. It gets cooler and cooler, and finally the vistas vanish as we slide into the clouds.

Standing in the open doorway, leaning out to take photographs as we rattle along, turns out to be one of my favorite experiences in Sri Lanka, and really is a trip back to an earlier time.


Yummy treats sold through the windows at the station stops.

Sound Recording: Rail Rhythm (1:59) X

Tea picker on the rattle-iest bus we have ever ridden!

Three-wheeler stand in Haputale.

Kids at the local short eats restaurant.

At 5000 feet, Haputale generally seems to be shrouded in cool mist and blowing rain. But occasionally the clouds give way and we see that we are on a narrow ridge with views out to the watery green plains far below.

We are surrounded by tea plantations. On the train ride up we passed through endless rolling green hills covered in carefully manicured tea bushes. Now we take a field trip from Haputale to the nearby Dambatenne Tea Factory, built in 1890 by Sir Thomas Lipton in what was then called Ceylon.

We are surprised, wandering through the tea plantation, that this is still very much a company town. An on-site village houses the workers and we see signs for the company hospital, nursery school, and dispensary.

And in contrast to the workers housing, the manager's residence looks pretty plush. We read that the tea pickers make about $3 for picking 20 kg of leaves in a day.

The British are long gone and the operation is run by Sri Lankans now, but on the surface it seems to be little changed from colonial days. And at the same time, all the tea pickers we meet are smiling and welcoming, and it appears to be a rather idyllic and healthy lifestyle working outdoors on the tea estates...

It's an hour's walk uphill through the tea plantation to Lipton's Seat. From this hilltop perch, Sir Thomas would survey his vast estate, stretching as far as the eye could see across the hills below. When we arrive, bracing against the cold wind and rain, the view is a total whiteout. Another place where imagination will have to suffice.

But, it's a perfect day to visit the tea factory! Inside, we are led on a fascinating tour to see tea making from start to finish. And it looks like not much has changed since its construction in 1890. Workers haul bags of crushed damp green leaves up to the massive top-floor drying racks. Here the leaves are spread out on screens while giant fans blow moist air across the leaves to partially dry them and start the fermentation process.

After a day and a half on the screens, the leaves are dropped through a hole in the floor, down the chute to the chopper, where the leaves are diced into little bitty pieces. From here a long series of conveyer belts move the leaves over many sets of sorting screens and through more chopping machines to produce the various tea grades.

The final fermentation process takes place in rectangular piles raked out on the cement floor. The last step is the roaster, where all moisture is removed and the tea takes on the familiar dark brown tone. In just three days, the leaves go from the bush to dried tea in bags ready to ship.


At last, time for tea tasting!



It's 5:30am, pitch dark, the wind is howling, and rain is pelting our rattle-trap jeep. Are we crazy? (Yes.) We are determined to hike at Horton Plains, a national park two hour's drive from Haputale. Our driver plies the narrow roads, avoiding chickens and cows, zigzagging around oncoming traffic, finally arriving at the ranger station...and it is still pouring rain. But we bundle up in warm jackets and rain coats, and head off for a 9.5km loop hike, one of our few chances to explore a natural, wild area during our five month journey.

Miraculously, the clouds lift as we walk across grassy plains on a gently undulating plateau, at 6,600 feet. We walk through the thick, dripping forest, listening to monkeys in the distance, birds chattering above us, and imagining the herds of elephants that used to roam here, before being slaughtered by British trophy hunters. After several hours, we peel off our coats and hike in short sleeves, sweating under the brilliant tropical sun. Finally, we arrive at Worlds End, an astonishing dropoff that plunges almost 3,000 feet to the valley below, revealing villages, lakes and ranges in the far distance, where clouds are piled up in billowy towers beneath a blue, blue sky! We are gazing in wonder when out of nowhere, clouds start boiling up the escarpment, and in moments we are engulfed in a white-out, our view obscured. What a magical wonderland!


As we roam the streets of Negombo, Colombo, and later, in every other town in Sri Lanka, we are bombarded by images of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In the wake of his May 2009 "victory" over the Liberation of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE or Tamil Tigers), he has scheduled an early election, to be held in mid-January. Everyone we meet voices strong opinions on the capture and killing of the last LTTE fighters, who waged war against the Sinhalese-centric government for more than thirty years. Without exception, the Sinhalese we meet (they represent about 75% of the populace) feel the President is a hero for stepping up military action, and are convinced he will win the upcoming election in a landslide. At our guesthouse, the Muslim owner describes Rajapaksa as a "murderer" who should be tried for war crimes, and emphatically states he has no chance of being re-elected; others we meet say the President is "corrupt" and his plans for a second airport and new shipping port are ill-conceived, designed to benefit his family members at the expense of the country as a whole.

At least one million land mines were laid during the hostilities, thousands of Tamil civilians were killed, and anger still simmers over the suicide bombings in Annuradhapura and Colombo. In response to an international outcry against the treatment of Tamil refugees in government run camps, hundreds of refugees were released and, just as we arrived, started heading back to their towns and villages in the north, perhaps to find their homes have been destroyed. There is peace in Sri Lanka now, but people seem war-weary and on edge, and it may be months or years before anyone is certain that peace will be long-lasting.

In an audacious campaign effort, President Rajapaksa ordered new 1000-ruppee notes be issued sporting his victorious image.