After the daytrippers have gone.

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.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
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.

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10 Responses to After the daytrippers have gone.

  1. J.D. Riso says:

    You peered into the bleak reality. Something most tourists have no desire to do. Your memories may be melancholy, but at least they are authentic.

    • awtytravels says:

      Yes, it made for some sad thoughts on the journey back to Colombo, which is a pity as I really wanted to see the Hill Country and I’d hoped it’d have been as nice as the rest of the country. But I suppose that every place has its Milton Keynes after all.

  2. lexklein says:

    As Julie said, travel sometimes gives us moments of bleakness and despair, a sadness born from the weight of history that we can’t quite shake off, even when we are trying to “enjoy the vacation.” This is an area I have wanted to visit myself; I wonder how I would see it? Or if the weather that day, or the presence of fellow tourists that day, or the mix of local residents seen that day would make a difference?

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Lexi! I didn’t have the same feeling about Nuwara Eliya for, say, Ella, despite it being clogged with tourists (at the end of the day I passed the time nodding at those who were as sunburnt as I was, it was a sort of a brotherhood). I think that the real ‘deal breaker’, to say it like Trump, was because Ella wasn’t a parody of an English parish village, as N.E. was.

  3. Brad Nixon says:

    An especially well-written piece. Colonizers around the world have left similar legacies, certainly here in the States, where we walk every day on land once freely ranged by a native population that’s been — essentially — exterminated. A core part of traveling is seeing faux versions of a preexisting culture commercialized in mundane and patronizing ways.

    • awtytravels says:

      Thanks Brad, it’s a very poignant comment. I was thinking about this sort of thing – how a civilization essentially overlaps/wipes out a preexisting one – earlier today whilst watching a TV series, “The man in the high castle”, where a Nazi New York and a Japanese San Francisco are portrayed, and look absolutely nothing like they do today. Quite a strange sight.
      Fabrizio

  4. So much of travel is seeing a place through its colonized layers or seeing a romanticized version of its indigenous culture. The authentic part of it remains up to us to establish when we make connections with the people and the topography. Beautiful post and I agree about tuk-tuk rides, they are “always perched between success and catastrophe.”

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