HAPUTALE, Sri Lanka — It’s nice to feel cool again. Last night was the first time I put on long pants for comfort rather than looks since I arrived in South Asia nine days ago. I sat outside my room here wearing pants and a lightweight white sweater with my Italian loafers and drank Arrack and beer with Jany and Kristina, two fun Czech women who arrived right after I did. Vassa brought the Arrack, Sri Lanka’s savage, 67-proof spirit. Jany is my friend.
We’re in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, a boring but accurate name for its central region which is another world from the beach paradise I left behind. At least, it’s another elevation. Hapatule is at 1,341 meters, a short hike under a mile high. I’m writing this in the midst of a tea plantation that stretches as far as the eye can see. Undulated green lines of small tea plants go on forever, like strands in a very large green sweater. It’s a nice landing spot to catch my breath, wipe away the sweat and ease a sunburn that makes sleeping on my back a new adventure in pain.
The road to Hapatule was one of the prettiest I’ve ever taken. It wasn’t the easiest, but it was one of the most beautiful, one that belonged on a video instead of a blog. I got on the bus at Tangalle but I forgot that the route started in Matara, about 20 miles to the west, meaning Tangalle was just a 60-second jump stop to drop passengers and pick up new ones, namely me. I got on and every seat was filled. I put my backpack between my legs — and the legs of numerous others — and stood. And stood. And stood. The roof of the bus stands exactly 6-feet-3 because the top of my head brushed against it as we rumbled north from the coast. I saw nothing but the tops of Sri Lankan skulls. I could see out the window if I bent over in a pose that would challenge half the yoga instructors in South Asia. The ride to the connection in Wellewaya was scheduled for 3 ½ hours. Oh, boy.
But as we passed each dusty little village, complete with the usual array of dodgy roti shops and cheap, tiny retail stores, villagers got off. Finally, a Muslim man in a skull cap got up and motioned me to sit down. I sincerely said, “Is-TOO-tee” (Thank you) as I took his seat. Curiously, he shook his head. I don’t
know if he knew I was an American or saw my look of disgust at my situation, but I will not make his Allah is Great greeting card list.
Once we changed buses in Wellewaya, the landscape exploded. From my front row window seat, I could feel the cooler air fly past my tanned left arm and face. Giant palm trees put entire villages in shadows. All that was missing was the beach and lanais chairs. Instead, I saw further evidence of a Third World country trying to recover from a bitter war: a horribly deformed old man with tiny, withered legs like a baby’s arms, curled up onto a wheelchair.
The bus began to climb and I looked down at the endless tea bushes. Lipton has its base here and I wondered how much it owns. All I could see was green, stretching down and going up, like a green blanket over a pillow. We zigzagged up the hill, slowly climbing at no more than 20 mph.
The people here changed, too. This is Tamil country. In the 19th century, Sri Lanka imported an estimated one million Tamils from South India to work the tea plantations and they’re still plying their trade. The people are lighter skinned. The women are prettier. The saris are brighter. I saw one street corner where four young, pretty women wore saris of purple, gold, orange and turquoise. I saw little boys all wearing ties on their way to school. One little boy no more than 5 held the hand of a little girl about his age.
Despite the great views, the homes weren’t any better. I passed long, single-level wooden shacks with no doors or windows. They offered sharp contrast to the wild flowers of red, orange, purple and yellow clinging to vines hanging down walls. We passed waterfalls cascading down 50 feet of rocks and under a bridge then babbling down another 100 feet.
We climbed steadily for a good 90 minutes. Even before we reached the top, the once green carpet of tea had been covered in mist. A Sri Lankan fog had enveloped the entire landscape. It only really broke when we pulled into Haputale, the more “genuine” Hill Country town compared to the spoiled Ella a little farther north. Haputale is real pleasant. It stretches along one main road that overlooks a large field where a kids’ pickup cricket game provided the perfect foreground to the surrounding tea fields.
The usual array of cheap retail shops lined the dusty street which had an air of a town from the Old West in the U.S. All that was missing were swinging wooden doors of saloons. But the temperature had dropped from the 80s into the 70s. The humidity dropped even lower. It gave Haputale a fresher appearance. I didn’t need a cold beer every two blocks. In fact, I ate a coconut roti covered in chicken curry, with a big piece of Sri Lankan fried chicken, in a roti shop that didn’t even have a fan.
Unfortunately, this guesthouse is a mess. The tuktuk driver drove me two kilometers west of the town center while trying to sell me on his place in the middle of town. Maybe I should’ve listened. He took me to the Leisure Mountain View Holiday Inn, an English name none of the local bus drivers knew. It’s under heavy construction. They’re building an entire new two-story wing. Currently, it’s a concrete shell. Only the lower floor is complete and they sell the one suite for 4,000 rupees (about $32). The two towels wrapped into kissing geese on the bed didn’t convince me to pay more than the 2,000 for the basic rooms in the main house. However, my view is of a small dirt lot. The lock in my door pulls out with the key, and the broken-down nightstand isn’t big enough to even hold my backpack.
It figures. Every Holiday Inn I stayed at on assignment in the U.S. seemed to be under construction. This isn’t remotely the same chain. Yet I find myself walking through dust to see paradise.
The Czechs salvaged the evening. Jany is a bouncy, pretty brunette with short hair and big eyes. She’s opinionated and speaks perfect English after spending three years in London escaping a broken heart. She hates Prague, hates Czech men and is in Sri Lanka for the second time in six months. She brought out her Arak that she had left over from her first trip.
Well, the sun is coming up and the birds are chirping. I’m going to see if the mist is still hanging over the tea fields. It’s time to explore Hill Country.