Thursday morning we woke early in Kandy to get a start of what promised to be a long day’s drive. The room was cold, despite the extra blanket, and we both took a pass on the shower. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. We packed up and checked our mail in time to find Jon and Nic negotiating with a buyer for their house. It didn’t pan out, but they are clearly not going to be stampeded into giving their house away, and we applaud them for that. We said our goodbyes to Sirath, the very sweet guesthouse owner, and loaded our stuff into our driver’s car. Ominously it was a Proton Wira, a Malaysian product notorious for its poor quality.
The ride out of town was uneventful, and the traffic sparse. The talk about Sri Lanka’s poor and dangerous roads seemed hysterical and overwrought; a product of its proximity to the pampered West, rather than Asian realities. We wound our way ever higher into the hills, now dotted with tea plantations and cut by waterfalls. We stopped for pictures beside hills carpeted with manicured rows of emerald green tea, and did a brief tour of a tea factory, notable for its antique machines, still functioning rhythmically.
Our destination for lunch was Nuwara Elia, a British colonial town high in the hills. The road was now becoming quite steep, with multiple switchbacks and precipitous drops. It was as rugged or more so than Luzon, the northern island of the Philippines. Leveling off we came into town, some two kilometers above sea level and had the driver pull in at the Grand Hotel, a lovely old monument to the finer qualities of this country’s genteel British heritage. We bought some children’s books from a group of business students to give them an opportunity to practice their English, and then promptly gave them away to the first child we met. Despite its regal elegance, lunch would have been a mere 10 dollars for both of us, served on the finest china with heavy silver cutlery.
But I had promised the driver that he could chose us a place for lunch, knowing full well that by doing so he would get a kickback for bringing his clients. Sometimes this works, this time it did not. The place he took us to was shabby and deserted, the curry was mediocre, and we got hosed 20 bucks for a meal we had bought in town the previous night for $4. To add insult to injury the driver ignored my request to drive into town to have a look around and get some money out, and immediately got back on the road again, which was under construction for the next thirty miles, making it impossible to turn around. The fellow clearly had in mind to drop us at his earliest convenience; I was becoming more than a trifle miffed.
I insisted that he stop at the first possible opportunity, Bandarella, and got out to find an ATM. What we found was a nice German couple outside the ATM with whom we struck up a conversation. Finding they were also headed to Ella, we offered them a lift – there has to be some advantage of having a driver! – and ended up having a lovely conversation at a little café in Ella while the driver gave me sullen and angry looks at a nearby table. She was a researcher at an environmental institute in Berlin, studying the effects of global warming. He was waiting to hear if his application for doctoral thesis was going to be accepted. We exchanged travel tips and parted company.
The final leg to the hotel was not for the fainthearted. Skyview Hotel was in fact SkyGreen Hotel, and it took some finding. The fellow who booked it for us assured us that it had the best view in Ella, and he wasn’t kidding; but getting to the best view in town meant climbing a road fit for goats. We opted to walk the last 100 meters rather than trust our lives to our driver’s rickety Waja. But the climb was worth it as we arrived in our room and opened our window to a stunning view of the hills. Really, the pictures do not do it justice. We had a lovely supper with an unimaginative couple who had been going to the same resort for twenty years and thought this time they would try something new. They got awfully lucky with the second thing they tried!