Sri Lanka, Terry Failing, New York

“Do you know the Backstreet Boys?”

“What?”

“Do you know the Backstreet Boys, the Backstreet Boys?”

“Ah, well, I, ah, know who they are”

“All right!”

View from the train
View from the train

About fifteen well-dressed young men were jostling each other to shake my hand. I was sitting on my knapsack with my feet hanging out the door of a passenger car on a decrepit narrow gauge train that had been, up until an hour before, puffing its way from Kandy, Sri Lanka toward the hill town of Nuwara Eliya. The train was packed with people and I was sharing the train entrance alcove with the fifteen young men.

They immediately began to sing every Backstreet Boy’s song they knew as well as a Sri Lankan song that appeared to be their school anthem. This was great for the first couple times they went through their repertoire, but after the twelfth time, I must have looked a little irritated.

One of the singers smiled and said, “You can get off the train and stretch if you want, we won’t be moving for awhile. A rail came off the track up ahead and workers are fixing it.”

I got off the train, bought a soda and explored the station. Everyone was taking the delay pretty well. I suspected it wasn’t all that unusual. An hour and a half later the train tooted once and slowly began to leave. Luckily, the train was moving so slowly that several people who were still outside the train were able to run and jump onboard as the train moved down the track.

The train then began climbing higher and higher into the hills. The temperature chilled markedly, and soon it began to rain. I was getting soaking wet sitting in the doorway, but I didn’t mind. The cool rain was washing off the clammy stickiness I had collected during the layover below. I was moving into another world both physically and emotionally.

When I arrived at the hill town of Nuwara Eliya I found it both charming and a little sad. It still contained many grand English Tudor style hotels, extensive gardens and large homes, but since the long standing civil war had drained the economy of most of the money that should have gone toward maintaining the town’s infrastructure, everything looked a little worn out. The town’s racecourse was particularly ramshackle. An old wooden grandstand reminiscent of more romantic times stood in a state of disrepair. A more modern grandstand looked in even worse shape, and the infield had been turned into a smouldering garbage dump. Since I live not far outside of Saratoga Springs, New York, and spend a good part of my summer at the Saratoga racecourse, I found the decay of the old Nuwara Eliya track a bit unsettling.

Several guidebooks mention that trout hatcheries exist on the shores of the lake that abuts the town. I don’t believe they exist any more. I circumnavigated the lake one afternoon and only found concrete dams that were filled in with silt. (Instead, I found a rather furtive army base and a well-guarded General’s house). Yet, the very sadness of the town, and its sense of decayed gentility, made my stay there a truly remarkable experience. I stayed at a small hotel which was a former Governor’s residence and operated by Ceybank. The rooms were big and stately with six foot high windows (and no heating that I could locate) that overlooked formal gardens.

There were not many guests however. The wood panelled bar was open only one evening while I was there, and I generally ate in the hotel dining room surrounded by empty tables. (I believe that the hotel restaurant sent out for the ingredients for each meal, but the food was delicious once it arrived).

I spent several days walking in the tea plantations that rose above the town. The air was cool and fresh, with clouds sometimes scudding across the tops of the hills. In my walks I would pass through small Tamil Villages with brilliantly painted temples that were located deep in the plantations themselves. I normally passed small groups or families pruning or picking tea, though one day I walked onto a large construction site where about forty people were constructing a terrace on a hillside. Everyone I met was friendly and most spoke to me or waved. I didn’t see a single other tourist while on my walks. One day as I was coming off a trail onto a dirt road, I stumbled onto a local transport bus parked in a cul-de-sac. The bus was at its turn around point and the driver and two passengers were playing badminton in the middle of the road (no net). They were killing time until the bus was to begin it scheduled trip back to town. I cheered them on, and considered how different my working conditions were back home. These were lucky guys.

The last day I was in Nuwara Eliya I walked the ten kilometres down to the Hakgala Botanical Gardens. On my way, I passed fertile fields where onions or large leeks were being harvested, a silent Buddhist stupa, and a multi-coloured Tamil temple situated above a large swimming hole filled with laughing and playing children. The botanical gardens themselves were well tended, but it did not appear that there had been any new plantings for several years.

As I was looking out over one of the garden’s cliffs to the valley below, I heard someone call my name. I looked up and it was the young men from the train. We sat down to talk. They informed me that their fathers were garment manufacturers or retailers in Colombo. The group seemed much more serious than they were on the train and asked me what I really thought of Sri Lanka. I said that it was a beautiful country but I was saddened by its lost opportunities and wasted potential. I told them that I had read that Sri Lanka had one of the best public education systems in Asia and, as a result, a very well educated population. Yet the economic growth that had occurred elsewhere in Asia had bypassed Sri Lanka due to its ongoing “troubles.” I told them that while Sri Lanka might not have become another Singapore, it could have developed high tech and other industries similar to those being developed in India and elsewhere in Asia. I told them that this was still a possibility, but only if peace could be established and money diverted from civil warfare to commerce, and infrastructure. If this occurred, life could get better for everyone, Tamil and Singhalese alike. I told them that this seemed like a good deal to me. These young men were probably too polite to contradict me, but they nodded and seemed to agree. I hope they did.

 

 

FACTBOX FACTBOX FACTBOX FACTBOX FACTBOX

Hotel: Ceybank Hotel – 1100 rupiah per night – about $15.00 US

Meals: hotel restaurant – 400 rupiah including a beer – about $5.00 US

Train fare – Not sure but it couldn’t have been more than a couple of dollars

Nurara Eliya also has a pretty nice golf course if you are into that, a movie theatre, if you are into Kung Fu movies, and a bank. For a very different (read elegant) kind of dining experience, the Hill Club offers a five course meal for about $30.00 US.

2 thoughts on “Sri Lanka, Terry Failing, New York

  1. I enjoyed your article on Sri Lanka.
    My wife and I spent 3 weeks there over 20 years ago. Did a 2 week coach trip around the Island, [mainly the bottom 2/3rds] the war was still being fought, only 10 of us on the coach, plus the guide. The people were pleased to see us as a lot of tourists had been put of due to the fighting.
    As you rightly say lovely place and friendly people.

  2. Just one comment, Terry. All the railways you would travel on in Sri Lanka are in fact broad gauge. Old the rolling stock may be, but the track gauge is five feet six inches – as is much of India and most of Spain.

    In comparison, the track gauge in New York is a “mere” four feet, eight and a half inches – standard gauge, as it is known.

    To travel on broad gauge in north America, try the BART in San Francisco – also five feet six inches track gauge.

    I was on the railways in Sri Lanka for most of February 2016 and loved it. On one occasion I was in the cab of the diesel loco and we had to stop between stations when trackmen were in the process of repacking track and rebolting fishplates – the short steel bars that hold the rails together.

    I was in San Francisco in 1979 and travelling on the BART, perhaps the first computer controlled railway in the world.

    Thankfully the civil war in Sri Lanka is now over, and the country back together. Also the effects of the tsunami have been largely overcome. I did meet people who had lost many family members and homes from it.

    The friendliness of the people – Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim; Tamil and Sinhala – is still there. I have put it down to the Buddhist majority and the teachings of Buddhism. The government is very strong on unity, and the book on the civil war is now closed. Perhaps living in the country would show a few cracks. But think of how Northern Ireland still festers, and the Israel/Palestine stupidities.

    And I plan to go back to Sri Lanka in August!

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