Ella is Sri Lanka’s Hill Country theme park but the beer is cold

The Mount View Tourist Inn is one of dozens of guesthouses scattered around Ella. That's my room on the top floor.
The Mount View Tourist Inn is one of dozens of guesthouses scattered around Ella. That’s my room on the top floor.

ELLA, Sri Lanka — It’s pouring. Cool, wet, silvery, glorious rain is coming down on this small town high in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country.

I’m on my balcony atop the unfortunately named Mount View Tourist Inn trying to recover from another date with that vile swill called Arrack. Fortunately, it’s late morning. I’ve had time. My head no longer feels like a tuktuk driver is running figure eights inside it. My stomach has settled thanks to a huge breakfast of banana-chocolate roti, toast and jam and some surprisingly rich and delicious chocolate cookies I bought at a newsstand.

I’ve decided to take today and chill. Right now, I’m chilling in more ways than one. Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is like another world from the rest of Sri Lanka. While Colombo is a sweaty armpit and the coast has a climate more appropriate for African violets, the Hill Country serves as the country’s mountain retreat. I don’t think the temperatures have hit 80 yet. Humidity is low. Yesterday, I actually wore a light sweater to the train station and wore long pants when I walked around Ella. Right now, the rains have turned the skies gray but mist is settling over the bright green branches of the palm trees across the way and I am delightfully cool in cargo shorts and neoprene T-shirt. My headache has returned to the dark bowels of my brain from which it came.

I can tell Ella was once the idyllic Sri Lankan mountain town. Situated high in the hills surrounded by green mountains and terraced tea plantations, Ella (pop. 45,000) consists of just two narrow roads. Main Street (True. It’s called Main Street.) connects the cute-as-a-cat-calendar train station with the town center. Surely just a few years ago Main Street looked like Haputale, the idyllic Sri Lankan town I had just left, with little roti shops and small retail stores and markets filled with huge barrels of different-colored grains and spices. Today, Ella’s Main Street is lined with bars and restaurants, all with such “Sinhala” names as The Curd Shop, Chill and Garden View Restaurant.

I walked by and saw as many white people as Sri Lankans, all hunched over heaping plates of rice or tall brown bottles of Lion Lager. I’d hear a smattering of German, French, British English, some vague Eastern European tongues. It’s as if Ella was designated as “The Sri Lankan Hill Country Experience” and we all came to check it off our list.

The view from my balcony in the early morning mist.
The view from my balcony in the early morning mist.

Consequently, there are dozens of guesthouses scattered throughout Main Street and up into the forest. The Mount View requires a small hike to reach. The entrance is down some creaky steps next to the city bus stop and over what looks like an open sewer. However, I climbed two stories to find the main building where a diminutive Singhalese woman told me to walk to the top and see the room. It’s lovely. Clean. Spacious. A big queen-sized bed. Crisp sheets. It even had a nightstand. The deck where I’m writing this is gold and black tile with comfy rattan chairs overlooking palm trees and the mist below. For 3,000 rupees (about $25) it’s a steal.

The one good aspect about touristy villages is at least there are places to hang out at night. Haputale is dead. I saw one restaurant, no bars. My entertainment consisted of talking around the dinner table in the guesthouse. After a delicious dinner of deviled chicken (sweet and sour chicken with a rash of hot chiles), I settled in at Cafe Chill. As Lonely Planet put it, “It has the traveler-scene thing down to a tee.” Tall comfy barstools line a small bar where English-speaking Singhalese whip a variety of Western-style drinks. “TRY OUR FAMOUS MOJITO!” screams the menu.

I stuck to beer as I tried making sense of World Cup cricket highlights. Looking puzzled, a cute Englishwoman sitting at the table next to the bar, said, “Do you actually like cricket?”

“I don’t know. I know nothing about it. I’m confused. Do you understand it?”

“No. I can’t stand it. You should talk to my brother. He’s into every sport.”

Her name was Principia and is a worldly 37-year-old who’s fluent in Spanish after spending about 2 ½ years in Latin America, including extended stints in Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru, the latter two on account of Latino men. She was pretty even without makeup and her brown hair tied in a bun.

Her blonde friend, Kerry, was quieter but did manage to contribute to a romantic discussion of …

… the worst shitholes we’ve ever experienced overseas.

Principia tried winning the contest by talking about outhouses with feces surrounding the hole. Yeah, some people just don’t know how to aim. I won hands down for my story from 1978 when, racked with typhoid, I couldn’t find my way out of an outhouse in Northern Thailand. My dizziness made me totally disoriented. It also didn’t help my traction when rats came out of the shithole and started biting my ankles.

Principia is hardened. She’s seen every trick in the book as any pretty girl who travels in developing countries has. Being attractive is a handicap, like walking around slums with gold jewelry around your neck. She once found herself on the Costa Rican frontier trying to renew her Nicaraguan visa and had no way to get across the border. She hitched a ride with a truck driver whose truck broke down. He tried getting her to sleep in the “only” sleeping space in the truck — right behind the steering wheel.

“I slept sitting upright in the passenger seat,” she said.

She took no chances with me despite me showing no indication that I was anything more than evening conversation. I talked to her as if she was a middle-aged, paunchy German man. After spinning tales about Cuba, Latino machismo and travel writing, all washed down with repetitive shots of Arrack, we were chased out by the owner who closed the place down at midnight. As I followed her out 10 feet behind her, we hit the street. With barely a glance over her shoulder at me, she said, “Have a good night” never to see me again.