Sri Lanka 6: Nuraw Eliya Road

Window on the plantation
Window on the plantation

“I am a silly father,” he tells me from the blackness of the driver’s seat.  And then he whips the wheel around another loop of a hairpin curve.  It’s grave dark outside, and our headlights feebly crawl down the mountain passes from the heights of Nuraw Eliya.

The others are asleep, and he tells me again, “I am a silly father.”

I yawn.  It’s very late, we’ve driven many hours, and I don’t know what to respond.

Things look different at night.  Things like the road before you, like the mountains around you, like the kids who’ve moved thirteen thousand miles from home and the past you can’t keep quiet and all the rest of existence that suddenly seems as feeble as a dirty headlight in the foggy night.

It’s all changed when the sun sets.

By day the hill country of Nuraw Eliya boasts landscapes unparalleled: jagged jungle peaks tamed to tidy English rows and order—summits draped in the bright lime flush of tea, over-towered by boughs of stately shade trees, all interspersed with rugged wilderness next to terraced gardens cropping up a dozen shades of emerald and jade.  From these lofty parks, cliffs’ rugged stone splits down, down, and away, tumbling a half-dozen cascades of cold, clear water off the mountains into valleys rich and twisting away between the summits, gentle estates awash in cleansing rivers and deep, cold lakes.  Here, afternoon clouds sift over ridges and drift themselves down toward the paradise below.

Too much to take in
Too much to take in

Before today, I doubted ever such scenes were truly stamped onto the planet; I said they’d be seen only in wildest fantasies of the most delirious opium-tracking Romantic—you know, the real Wordsworth and Coleridge types.  Nuraw Eliya’s scenes make even such canvases seem tepid and bland. Yes, these are the ones I’ve always seen drawn and read be-poemed and always said were fiction, always said no single spot on earth contains so much of so many beauties.

And now I suspect Eden might well have sat here in the Sri Lanka highlands.

Nuraw Eliya is a half-day’s trip from Kandy, over roads whose serpent twists and caterpillar traffic leave you happy if you cover a dozen kilometers in an hour.  It climbs up and up toward the clouds, and the only thing between you and the vistas of rice-soaked valleys and tea-bursting ridges is the row of shacks and shops forever clinging to the shoulder.  If there’s ever a moment for a break in the stubble-shops, you pull over, stop, and stare in wonder.

As we climbed up from Kandy, we saw the climate morph before our very windshield.  I saw the palms and eucalyptus replaced by pines and tea.  I saw the people in shorts in flip-flops replaced by those in jackets and blankets.

At latitudes and altitudes such as these, the soil and the clime combine to optimize the oils trapped in the tender tea shoots, and swaths of mountains real estate kilometers wide have been shucked of the native vegetation and replaced by tea plantations.

Fluffy tea leaves
Fluffy tea leaves

If you’ve never seen a world-class tea estate, let me clue you in to something—they’re some of the finest eye-dining planet earth puts on the menu: acre past acre past acre of thousand-dollar shrubs clinging to the inclines so sharp you’d swear they can’t be trekked—until you see the wiry and barefoot grandmothers hefty loads as large as themselves up and down the slopes.  Acre past acre of produce trimmed so precisely, so princely, that you’d swear it was merely a tiny garden of an obsessive botanist.  Acre past acre of row on row of the brightest green you’ve ever seen outside of a kiwi.

Andy and I ooh-ed and aah-ed and Jaliya and Ganga smiled to themselves in pride of their homeland.  “And we aren’t even to Nuraw Eliya, yet,” I boasted for them.  “This is officially amazing.”

Family portrait at a plantation
Family portrait at a plantation

So we climbed on, through the cloud-spotted horizons drifting shade-clouds across the ranges, splashing the scene in a bath of mottled sun and shadow, and we rolled down the windows and snapped pics and video in vain grasps at catching the grandeur.

I chuckled and said to myself, “Just wait for Nuraw Eliya.  Just wait for the end of this road.  Just wait and see the treasure waiting when this little rainbow closes.”

I saw, as we rounded a switchbacks, something I might never forget: “Watch her,” Jaliya said, “she will try to sell us flowers.   Sure enough, a wiry girl of eight with uncombed hair stood along the shoulder; she held a drooping bouquet of pink-dotted stalks.

“Now watch,” Jaliya said, and that little princess dove into the uphill underbrush at a dead sprint.  Jaliya laughed, “I told you.”

We were already swinging through the next switchback’s 180 and beginning another climb, and there she was again—now screaming “Flooowweeers!” into our windows.  We waved and passed her, and she again crashed off into the forest.

As Jaliya braked and pulled the car around another stomach-reversing turn, downshifted for an even steeper climb, there she was, thrusting her drooping her flowers at the car, and screaming into our eyes as we passed, “Flooowweers!”

We didn’t buy, and she sprinted off yet again; and sure enough, as we spun through the next ribbon, she was yet again identical, still finding air in her lungs to shout her floral wares into our car.  This scene repeated itself five times up the side of a ridiculous incline with ridiculously symmetrical set of switchback curves.  We gained about a thousand vertical feel in the width of a quarter-mile stretch of the mountainside.

Some of the switchbacks
Some of the switchbacks

For some strange reason, I had an inkling to buy some flowers now, but we were already past the murderous set of switchbacks and chugging up to some greater plain.  The girl sat down to wait for descending car to hound through the turns.

“She was cool.  That was cool, “I smiled to Andy, “but just wait till we get to Nurwa Eliya, Just wait.”

So we settled back down and watched the scenery slip past our windows; we saw the tiny shacks hawking hoppers and murtabak and cigarettes by the stick give way to shopping-mall sized tea factories with tour buses lining the country-club driveways.  “Tea houses,” Jaliya told us.  “We’ll stop at a nice one up above.”  And he coaxed the tiny SUV around another mountain-hugging bend.  “They also have a tea factory there, and electricity from the water, and—”

But I was already drifting off to blissful dreams, a sweet sleep awash in the slumbering mountains of central Sri Lanka.  I woke to our car slowing slightly—we had arrived at the tea house.  And when I saw a slight slow, I mean it: parking lot speed is only slightly below that required to climb the tangled mountains amid motorcycles loaded down with carrots and potatoes, giant buses shoving all other traffic to the centimeter-wide stretch of shoulder, and the ever-present tuk-tuk grinding away at the hills.

But now we were parked at one of the most ancient and venerable establishments in the entire Nuraw Eliya highlands: Mackwoods Estate.

I bolted upright, awake in the moment.  “Mackwoods?”

Jaliya nodded.

The Mackwoods?”

He nodded again.

Jaliya and Ganga smiled at each other.  “Let’s taste some tea.”

The one and only Mackwoods
The one and only Mackwoods

Mackwoods nestles its tea house in a miniature ravine notched into a mountain peak.  Above it are thick clouds of Ceylon meteorology.  Below it, a waterfall of ridiculous height.  Beside it, the tumbling little river that’s sparked hydro-electric power for generations of tea-milling.

All around it—and I mean all around it—sit immaculate gardens of tea carefully planned, planted, plucked, and nursed by a crack team of hand-chosen professionals with obvious OCD organization issues.  Mackwoods makes golf courses look like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

We sipped tea and tasted cakes and brownies.  The tea was sweeter, by far.

You see, here’s the trick for a delicious sip of Ceylon’s famous milk tea.  You start with an overly potent cut of the tea leaf—after all, you export the smoothest, most naturally sip-able leaves overseas for maximum profit. Then, you take that unbridled flavor and domesticate it with a couple heaping spoons of sugar.  At this point, the bitter twinge should be blunted and the tea quite enjoyable.  But just to be sure it doesn’t get any strange ideas, pour in another few spoons of condensed milk, until the color shifts from chocolate brown to toffee tan, and then from toffee to pudding.  Now, have a sip and see if any brownie is going to be sweet after that.

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan.

Jaliya and Ganga--gracious hosts and wonderful friends
Jaliya and Ganga–gracious hosts and wonderful friends

We roamed the hills of the plantations, soaking in the crisp air and filling our lungs with the natural scent of mountain mists lolling over leaf after leaf of springy fresh tea.  We marveled, and we wished the clouds would part for a moment of sunshine sprinkling down on the mossy slopes.

I turned to Jaliya and could hardly hide my anticipation.  “Just wait till we get—”

“Yes, yes, Nuraw Eliya. But don’t you want to stay and enjo—”

But I was already off skipping through the hills like a baby Bighorn with too much sugar and caffeine in his bloodstream.

Plantation highway
Plantation highway

We didn’t leave until well after three, and the clouds were thick as ever.  But we had more to climb until we reached the fabled Nuraw Eliya, the city that sparked a thousand guidebook pages—the city renowned as the capital of the tea plantations, the seat and center of all the conglomerated wonder of the highlands, the quaint little berg with the colonists flocked to enjoy the pristine clime and genteel exclusivity, the wonderful, mysterious little pinnacle of all these mountains and estates.  It’s Nuraw Eliya.

We climbed now, in a hurry to reach it before the sun sank itself below the ring of peaks around us.  Jaliya, faithful driver and friend, sped past mopeds and tuk-tuks—his horn blazing and SUV dancing through the lanes.  Andy and I leaned forward in our seats, jaws dropping as we slid up through the clouds.  Sunlight split through the open shafts and bedazzled our eyes in the bight hues of gardens and veggies and tea, tea, tea.

“If you want, we can sto—”

“No time for stopping now,” I said.  “We’ve got to get to Nuraw Eliya.

So past the peaks we rose—up and over the lip of the mountain and finest landscapes yet seen—the hilltop plunging away beneath our feet, down in to the milling clouds.  Above, we were just another car in a string of vehicles gawking at the mist and the shafts of sun.

No stopping for pictures—we wanted the pinnacle of it all.  We wanted Nuraw Eliya before nightfall.

Up through the meteorology
Up through the meteorology

We crested the peak and started down the other side.  “We’re very close now,” Jaliya said in a solemn tone.  I fidgeted in my seat.  Andy checked the camera’s setting.  We followed the bend around, around, around a misting slate face of the mountain.

We were peering around the corners of a bulbous farm truck chugging in front of us.  Around the bend, slowly coming into view—

And there it was: Nuraw Eliya, city at the peak of tea country, city of princely lords of Europe ruling the vast sweeps of tea swaddling the mountain and stretching beneath us, city of—clouds, lots of clouds.  And fog—there was a lot of fog.

And here we are
And here we are

To be honest, we didn’t really see the city nestled in the valley.  We saw gray billows of fog, and it was so cold and so misty we didn’t really get the camera out much.

“This is it? This is Nuraw Eliya?” I asked Jaliya.

“This,” he beamed as we struggled to see around the farm truck and into the fog, “is Nuraw Eliya.”

Something wasn’t right.  I glanced behind me at the gorgeous sweeps of sunlit tea we’d just left behind.  I glanced at the shivering, shrouded city in front of me.  It was four o’clock and very cloudy.  Picture light should be at its peak now, but in the fog and the clouds, we didn’t have much time remaining.  We wanted the killer landscape shot.  We wanted the tea pluckers plying their trade.  We wanted to see the tea in all its symmetrical glory basking in the tropical glow of these emerald mountains.

What we found, as we entered the city, was cold and drizzle, and sniffling noses in what felt like all the dreariest days of November.  What we found was a city with a large park we could hardly see for the fog, a city with European abodes nestled together away from the plebeians, a city, that, to be honest, reeked of all the reasons I’ve never really cared to see Scotland: the cold, the fog, the wet air and wet hair you can never escape.

Nice, but is it really worth the drive?
Nice, but is it really worth the drive?

“No wonder the Scots settled here.  It’s just like home,” I muttered.  “By why does everyone else come up here?”

Jaliya shrugged.  “It’s Nuraw Eliya.  It’s a nice town.  Who’s hungry?”

Miniature ponies clip-clopped on poopy sidewalks circling the fog-topped lake.  Jaliya and Ganga stepped outside to grab a sandwich.  “We can picnic here,” they offered as they pulled on their heavy coats and rain ponchos.

Andy and I looked at each other—coats and ponchos and a picnic? She was shivering already.  “Maybe we’ll stay here a minute. You guys go ahead.”

Alone in the car, in the cold and the quickly darkening sky,we saw what had happened—we had driven five hours through twisted highways, had let some of the most gorgeous scenes our eyes had ever processed slip by, had rushed through our visit in tea estates dripping tradition and beauty, all to arrive at the hype of Nuraw Eliya—which turned out to be a city cloaked in fog and rain and clouds and oncoming colds.

We knew what we had to do; we just had to figure out how to say it.  Time clicked by.  We waited for our friends to return.

“We want to go back,” we told Jaliya.

I know what I would have said: “Seriously?”  Then maybe I would have added something about how I drove you all these hours on all these crazy roads to get here, and you kept blabbering about Nuraw Eliya the whole time, and now you don’t even want a sandwich?  You want to go back?  That would have been me,

But Jaliya was a good sport—he was a wonderful sport—about the whole thing.  He did take us back.  But the problem was that you can never go back.  Because even if you spin yourself around the mountains a hundred times on a thousand curvey nonsenses, you can’t turn back and re-see any of it—at least not in any light of the sun ab is still up and the clouds still low.

By the time we returned to the scenes that sucked our breath away just an hour ago, they were dulled by clouds and covered in oncoming night.  You can’t go back, man.

Yes, we ran out into the gathering dark in the plantation.  Yes, we scampered up the hillside with a tripod to catch the last glows of hope and pictures un-blurred by the fading sunlight.  Yes, we posed and smiled while kicking ourselves inside.

The last plantation on the way home
The last plantation on the way home

We let a hundred perfect shots slide by us that afternoon, always pushing on and up to reach Nuraw Eliya.  And in the end, all we were left with was a few dozen darkened frames in the fading day on an estate by no means the most impressive we’d seen.

We trudged back to Jaliya’s SUV—it was four hours back to Kandy, and it was already dark.

We wished we’d have done it differently

And then here we are, crawling slowly down the massive mountains in the dark and coming fog and ladies asleep in the backseat, when Jaliya tries to confess something.

“I am a silly father.”

And I stare because I don’t quite know what to say to this.

“I sent my children away to study in your country, and now they want to stay.”  His voice is steady and measured, the product of a day pondering behind the wheel while I gawked at landscapes.  He misses their voices and he misses his grandson and he says he was silly to send them away.  He was silly not to insist that at least one stay.  All his children have gone, and while he can go to them, he can never go back, never do anything different.

Overlook -- in the light
Overlook — in the light

It’s dark, and it’s late, and I stare straight ahead—the crooked path slowly unrolling itself before us.  Jaliya’s voice is such that tears or steel may be behind them, and I don’t know which it is tonight.

I still don’t know what to say.

Around us loom the wondrous mountains that sent us into a frenzy hours ago—they’re the same mountains, the same wonders, the same scenes.  But in this moment, this hour, we are blind to the beauty we are steeped in.  Jaliya laments his decisions; I regret where my pictures went wrong.  Half of me wants to insist that we wait for day, that we stop and we wait for the light to step back into this world so we don’t have to limp through the doubts—that we wait for the white-hot fingers of the sun to pry away the inky tugs of regret on our souls.

Another drive-by pic
Another drive-by pic

Let’s wait for morning, I want to say.  But I don’t.  We drive on through the blackened hills, our only light the feeble beams we make ourselves, the ones that leave us blind to all except what lies a few meters before us.

Were it not from having travelled through here in the day, I would have no idea the beauty that surrounds me.

Jaliya shakes his head—I barely hear its rustle—and I wonder if he hears what the road to and from Nuraw Eliya whispers.  I wonder whether I hear it well myself.

We still love tea
We still love tea
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