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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