Trip Start Jan 16, 2012
59Trip End Jul 11, 2012
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"Where are you going!" shouted one.
“Sita’s Heaven!” I shouted back, saying the name of one place from The Book (a.k.a. the Lonely Planet Sri Lanka) that had sounded good to us—it was described as a quiet place a five-minute walk from the centre of town. We hadn’t booked a room, but would start our search there. The drivers repeated “Sita’s Heaven!” and arms pointed to a tall, solid-looking guy who stepped forward from the fray. In a moment we were seated in his tuk tuk with our backpacks behind our heads in the small luggage compartment. Our fellow traveller from Germany, with whom we’d just spent the past five hours squatting on our packs on the dining car floor, was similarly claimed and trundled away in his growling tuk tuk
As we made our way to Sita’s Heaven, our driver, Lanka, pointed out landmarks and the reputable Ayurvedic massage place; he also showed us the walking path to Sita’s, which he couldn’t take in his tuk tuk. The road he could take was precarious—narrow and so rough that we tipped past my comfort zone a couple of times. What I took at first to be dead porcupines on the road turned out to be giant brown jackfruits, flattened by their fall. Lanka was unfazed. Across the top of his windscreen was emblazoned Che Guevara’s image, and on his right wrist he had a red band with “Canada” written on it—a gift from other travellers.
Our hopes for Ella, a small hill town surrounded by tea plantations, were for a heavy dose of R&R. We wanted a clean guesthouse in good repair and in a good location, preferably with a view, so that we could read and write in style. We wanted to walk in the hills and eat what had been billed by The Book as the best Sri Lankan home cooking in the country. At the same time, we wanted to get off the Lonely Planet trail. We didn’t tell Lanka this, but he had us pegged. When Sita’s Heaven had only one night’s accommodation, we suggested our second choice from The Book, Hill Top, more in the centre of town
As he drove us down the switchbacking road to the turn off for Paddy Field View, he asked us to notice how far it would be back to town, and to decide if that would be acceptable to us. The turn off had no sign for a guest house, but it led down another narrow road to what we thought was the most idyllic spot, a two-room guest house with a balcony and a view of Ella Gap stretching south: a winding highway in a valley of mountains receding into the mist. Ella Rock and the waterfall loomed to the right, and to our left we could see the top of Little Adam’s Peak. Right below us, Lanka explained, was a rice paddy (hence the name), which was in this season a vegetable garden full of tomatoes. After doing a bit of translating between our new host and us to settle the particulars of our stay, Lanka left us with his card and rumbled away in his tuk tuk.
We thought we’d won the lottery
We spent the whole next morning having breakfast and a large pot of tea and reading and writing on the balcony. We could barely walk after the Adam’s Peak challenge, but we did make it to town in the afternoon and evening for extended meal and internet sessions. (Most restaurants on Ella’s one street offer free Wi-Fi as well as excellent Sri Lankan and Western food.) We were enjoying this rhythm so much that we decided to extend our stay from two nights to four. Unfortunately, we hadn’t conveyed this plan to our host. After a dinner in town with our German train compatriot at the Banana Leaf Restaurant, also not in The Book and also excellent, we returned “home” to learn that our host had a booking for the next two nights.
We were crestfallen—we had so looked forward to another couple of days with this place as our base for walks.
Re-enter Lanka. On our return from a sweaty morning hike up to the top of Ella Rock, we called him for a ride back to Sita’s Heaven, which we had called in advance this time. He was “hired,” he said, but “I’ll send someone.” That someone arrived about fifteen minutes later and delivered us back to Sita’s. But again, they only had one night available and then we’d have to shift rooms; his brother had an even quieter place, an even better place, the man said more than once, and a short walk down a footpath found us at Green Hill, two rooms off an airy verandah with views equally lovely to Paddy View
That afternoon I had a two-hour ayurvedic massage at the reputable place, which was just a five-minute walk away. I returned feeling very oiled up to find that Dan had enjoyed reading on the verandah and using the service button that summoned someone from the house to meet any need. And we found that one thing we had no need of was to return to town, as Green Hill even had Wi-Fi.
The next morning as we were having breakfast on the verandah, we heard two people approach down the track; here was Lanka again, delivering another guest! He said that Podi, Green Hill’s owner, is his brother. Sita’s Heaven’s owner was Podi’s brother too, although Lanka said he was his cousin—anyway, they were all related somehow. He briefed us on the bus timetables the next day, wrote down the name of the junction where we would have to get off the bus for Tissamaharama, and gave us the card of his brother or cousin who runs a reputable jeep safari tour in Yala National Park, where we’re going next
After breakfast we did the easy climb of Little Adam’s Peak, using the stairs to the top but ascending on footpaths through the tea plantations on the way back. From there we could see chalets being built on stilts, and following a sign advertising a café, found ourselves greeted and escorted the rest of the way by the Manager of those same chalets, who was dressed in office attire—collared long-sleeve shirt and tie, trousers and shoes. In the heat it seemed like over-dressing, but after our tea in the lovely open-air café with its beanbag chairs and 360-degree views, when he offered to show us the rooms, we realized that he was seriously at work. I think he had over-estimated us as clients, but it was fun to imagine that we might be the kind of people to be helicoptered in from Colombo to pay $180 USD a night for this lovely environment.
We were happy to get back to Green Hill, where we spent the rest of the afternoon reading in the warmth and shade of our verandah.
The next morning we were packing at a leisurely pace for our departure at 11:00 for the 11:30 bus when Lanka called. It was 9:40, and he was calling to tell us that the 11:30 bus had been cancelled that day—we would have to get the 10:00! We buckled up our packs and jogged down the path, making it to the road just as the bus appeared. We waved our arms and the ticket-taker hanging out the back door wobbled his head at us to say, yes, don’t worry, we’ll stop for you. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear Lanka had called to tell him we were coming.
Later that day, we arrived in Tissa and went to Ajith Safari Tours to check it out, as Lanka had recommended. Ajith was expecting us. “You are the Canadians,” he said with a smile, and referenced the joke we had about Lanka’s name and Dan’s family name, which sound similar. Before we knew it, we had booked a safari for the next morning and Ajith was making calls to find us a guesthouse. Our fixer had passed us on to another fixer, and we were well taken care of.