Postcards from the Road: Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Sigriya Rock

From the beautifully restored Heritance Tea Factory, located deep in the heart of verdant Sri Lankan tea country and about 15km outside of Nuwara Eliya, a few thoughts from my first few days in the country:

+ When scaling the towering Sigiriya rock in central Sri Lanka in the midday heat, with the unforgiving sun beating down and making every laborious step feel like an unwanted chore, make sure you’re wearing a hat. And that you’re covered in sunscreen. And don’t forget to carry a few tall bottles of water.

Rest in the sporadic, shaded hideaways along the staircases that wind their way up the side of the mountain. Take your time. Don’t look down once you’ve passed the giant lion’s paws, carved into the rock, that mark the entrance to the summit.

Then, finally, you’ll make it to the top of the massive rock, sweat dripping from every pore in your body. You’ll stand in the same spot where, according to some theories, King Kasspa once lived in a luxurious palace around AD 480, or according to others was instead a place of worship for Buddhist monks as early as 3rd Century BC.

Stop, take a deep breath, feel the momentary relief of the (hot) midday breeze, and douse yourself in the few drops of water still left in your bottle. Make your way over to one of the shady trees located off to the side of the rock, take a seat, reap the rewards of your laborious climb: undulating 360-degree panoramic views of the lush Sri Lankan countryside that stretches as far as the eye can see.

And as you congratulate yourself for making it this far, make a mental note, too, to never attempt this climb during a tropical midday heat wave ever, ever again.

+ In most parts of the world, the head nod is a commonly used and understood conversational gesture. One nods up and down in agreement and side to side in disagreement, and the speed by which one nods in either direction often dictates how emphatically one agrees or disagrees with the topic of conversation.

In Sri Lanka (and I believe in India as well, though I don’t speak from firsthand experience), the head nod is replaced by the head wobble. Imagine flicking a bobblehead doll from the side, and you’ll get a pretty accurate picture of what the Sri Lankan head wobble looks like.

At first, it’s mystifying, but as I talk with more and more Sri Lankans, and as I see more and more subtleties of the head wobble based on the situation, the less foreign it becomes. I’m catching myself almost doing it too. Almost.

Playing Chicken, and Not a Drop to Drink

+ Sri Lankan motorists are an impatient bunch—they do not tolerate driving behind slower vehicles—and the car/bus/van/tuk-tuk/motorbike horn is an essential part of the country’s driving experience. Insistently and relentlessly passing plodding vehicles is the norm, even on the two-lane, one-way roads that stretch across the hill country; oncoming traffic is but a nuisance to be narrowly avoided. It’s like one never-ending game of chicken.

If there’s the slimmest of slim opportunities to pass, say, a tuk-tuk before the speeding bus coming head on causes a spectacular collision, the driver will likely take it—a beep of the horn essentially tells the passee “I’m passing you because I’m going a bit faster than you, but this bus is rearing down on me at a faster rate than expected, so you better slow down so I can get over, unless you want to be involved in a spectacular accident too.”

Repeated horn beeps rattled off as fast as the driver can honk means “I miscalculated how fast that bus is coming at me, but I’m still going to try and pass you anyway, so you better slow down right NOW.” Car horns also tell lazy dogs lying in the middle of busy streets, licking themselves and oblivious to the perilous location in which they sit, that they might want to take cover. They always do, but not until the last possible second. Horns tell pedestrians walking on the side of the road that they might want to take another step or two to the side; again, they invariably do but not until absolutely necessary. It’s all a bit… insane.

That said, after watching our van driver calmly, coolly, narrowly steer us through at least four or five especially nail-biting passes around blind turns that revealed oncoming cars around the bend, I’m convinced that maybe, just maybe, the car horn system actually does work here, and does bring some order to the chaos on these busy Sri Lankan streets.

+ Kandy is not a drinking city; bar-hopping is not a popular nighttime activity. If you’re looking to bring a few beers back to your hotel or guesthouse, doublecheck to make sure you have a mini-fridge because it’s damn near impossible to find a cold beer outside of the few bars and restaurants in the city central that sell them.

Though I’m sure a liquor store or two exists that we didn’t find, the only place we know of that sells alcohol is Cargill’s Food City, Kandy’s somewhat bizarro main grocery store. And it’s not even sold inside the store: we had to walk down the carpark alley next door, go around to the back of the store, and queue up with the other “salubrious” drinkers in town for the privilege of buying hot bottles of liquor, beer, and wine at a wildly marked-up price. (We ultimately passed.)

It looks and feels illegitimate, hush-hush, like somebody’s unloading the contents of a semi-truck heist as fast as possible before the cops find out. There are no laws against drinking in Kandy—in this religious city, it’s just not prevalent.

Sigiriya Photo Copyright Brian Spencer

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