It never ceases to amaze me how much a place can change depending on the weather.
Take, for instance, Nuwara Eliya: I arrive under a glorious sunshine and an air so gleaming with light that you’d be excused for trying to bottle it. It’s such a pleasant morning that the tuk-tuk drive loses its air of precariousness – aren’t tuk-tuk rides always perched between success and catastrophe? – and assumes the tone of a triumph. Manicured lawns roll by the cab of the spluttering Piaggio, whilst from the windscreen, framed by a benevolent Buddha and a placid Ganesh, I can see a panorama of fluffy tea-bushes.
Later, in the guesthouse huddled on the slope of mount Pidurutalagala, a sunset like I’d never seen before sets the valley’s sky on fire with crimson, red and violet hues, whilst gigantic stratocumuli glow pink and blue on the opposite horizon, discharging torrential downpours on the lowlands, beyond the line of wind turbines. A Buddhist monastery, unseen behind a ridge, begins the evening prayers, millenary mantras culminating in a joyous clash of cymbals. At that precise moment I also remembered that can of Lion beer I’d stashed in my backpack the day before. Things don’t get any better than that, I thought.
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A day later everything changed. I return to town after a day spent through deserted tea plantations, under a sky that’d gone progressively worse, to find a Nuwara Eliya completely different from the village that greeted me only the day before.
The people I meet on the pavements are different from the Sinhalese of the tropical lowlands of the south. Gone are the smiling, soft lineaments that greeted me in Galle or in the countryside. Faces, here, are sharper. Cheekbones more pronounced. Features more angular. Gone are the colourful robes of the coast dwellers; men don’t wear sarongs and women have seemingly given up on flower-printed blouses. Hoodies, fleeces, hats and trousers have taken their place, undoubtedly by virtue of the chillier climate. In this gloomy day Nuwara Eliya seems an encampment of impoverished mountaineers, wearing cast-offs from wealthier shoppers – for I don’t believe that there is a thriving community of Wapakoneta Redskins fans, or that many had been holidaying in Jackson Hole and returned with a track-top to prove it.
Walking towards the market I bump in the first beggars since I left Colombo. Hindu women lie in abandonment on the sidewalk, their mutilations and wounds testaments of a hidden side of the tea industry that doesn’t go on display on the plantation tours.
I visit a liquor store for another Lion can. The clerk’s eyes widen at my request for a single tinny, but yet he obliges. I have barely the time to collect the cold aluminium cylinder, perspiring condense, that my place is hurriedly taken by another punter, a man trading an empty glass bottle of whiskey – some sort of Johnnie Walker imitation – for a fresh one. Behind us a queue has built up, everyone clutching empty scotch bottles. Elsewhere in town, small lines of men in dusty coats and flip-flops line up to do exactly the same. Up until that moment, in my daily beer purchase I’d either been the only customer or been in company of other fellow foreigners.
It takes a while to be aware of it, but at last I’m conscious of how indigent Nuwara Eliya appears. I’ve witnessed poverty before, in the island, but never before it’d struck me as much as it was doing there, insofar that half of the town, seemingly, had a hollow, thousand-mile-stare.
What happened to the city of yesterday? I found myself wondering. What happened to the lawns, the golf course, the horse-racing track that made it look like a tropical Ascot, the rose gardens, the cottages? They, obviously, hadn’t moved overnight (nor I had dreamt them). They still were where I’d left them, including the football ground where, often, matches were interrupted by peaceful invasions of grazing horses.
So what was it, then? It hung there on the tip of my mind’s tongue, like a difficult word. Then, as I was walking past the Catholic church, it struck me. A veil of sadness hung above the town like an impalpable mosquito net, weighting unseen on the cottages and bungalows. Was it the nostalgia for those long-gone times, the feeling that Charlton Heston must’ve felt upon discovering that the Planet of the Apes was indeed future Earth?
No, it wasn’t. It couldn’t be a longing for a distant past I reasoned, because everything here – cottages, post office, the damned hotel where they still insist on doing high tea, the monument to the glorious (white) dead – was an imposture or, to say it like an American, a fraud.
All these legacies of an Anglo-Saxon past, this flotsam of little England washed up in the Sinhalese highlands, shouldn’t be here. Nuwara Eliya didn’t exist prior to the arrival of one Samuel Baker who turned this valley in an amusement park built to cure the colonialists’ homesickness. To buoy the British’s spirits, sapped by the tropical heat of the plains, this whole valley was razed, buildings erected and whole communities moved from southern India, to work in the plantations and in the stately mansions of landowners. What remains now, after the colonialists’ departure, are hollow traditions, communities uprooted from their ancestral lands, a Euro Disney whose planeloads of daytrippers have ceased to arrive and where stray dogs sleep on the putting green.
Then the sky cleared in time for the setting sun to set the valley on fire again, as the Buddhist choirs resumed again. As if they were having the last laugh.