The slow train from Ella to Kandy

Railway tracks also double as a footpath for traffic savvy Ella locals

Railway tracks also double as a footpath for traffic savvy locals

When it comes to trainspotting, I’ve traditionally been more of the Irvine Welsh school of thought. Despite a year living in the UK when I was regularly told to mind the gap, I’ve had little interest in donning an anorak and seeking out obscure locomotives. As far as I was concerned, trains were just for transportation and, occasionally, long chats with anarchists who had day jobs making stained glass windows.

But in Sri Lanka, I’ve become an ardent trainspotter.

Partly, so one doesn’t crush me. Despite laws to the contrary, locals use the train tracks as an all-purpose footpath and cattle thoroughfare and we have followed in their footsteps. It therefore pays to have a lookout and a good working understanding of the train timetable, which any self-respecting local can rattle off for you at a moment’s notice.

“Ella to Kandy, Sir? It goes at 6. 40, 9.20. 12.30….”

But it’s more than that. It’s spectacular to stand by the side of the tracks and watch the trains pass, with locals hanging out the doorframes and waving from the windows. The train is a means to an end, but it’s also an end in itself for tourists who actively seek out vantage points from which to wield their telephoto lenses. We learn to exchange gems of trainspotting wisdom as readily as guesthouse numbers. An excitable Swedish couple tells us, “If you follow the track through the pine forest at around 7am, you’ll even see the train pass over the Nine Arch Bridge!”

All this enthusiasm, and not an anorak in sight.

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Part of it is that Sri Lankan Railways still has an air of ye olde colonial glamour that you definitely don’t find on the Train Link Xplorer from Sydney to Armidale.

And then there’s the renegade adventure of it all. Michael Ondaatje (he of The English Patient) hails from Sri Lanka and has written a fantastic memoir that includes some of his father’s exploits on Ceylon Rail back in the day. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Mervyn Ondaatje was known to get drunk on the train and wave his army pistol around. On his most infamous journey, “he managed to get the driver of the train drunk as well and was finishing a bottle of gin every hour walking up and down the carriages almost naked, but keeping his shoes on this time and hitting the state of inebriation during which he would start rattling off wonderful limericks—thus keeping the passengers amused.” And this with a war on.

Not surprisingly, Mervyn was banned from Ceylon Railways in 1943. Maybe it’s not so different to the Sydney-Armidale Xplorer after all.

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With all this in mind, Mr Tea and I wanted in and we decide to book train tickets from Ella to Kandy. In a country where people are almost unanimously friendly and courteous, the single guy manning the fort at Ella Station missed the customer service memo from Colombo. He’s busy chewing betel nut and watching an Indian soap opera and why we got to be so STUPID and ask HIM for a ticket when we clearly need to wait for the station master?

Betel nut chewer gets back to Bollywood and we sit around on the platform for a while.

Eventually the station master shows up, and Mr Tea asks for two first-class tickets; we’ve been warned about poultry and overflowing pit toilets. The Station Master is only marginally friendlier than his accomplice. He can offer us two third class tickets, that’s it, take it or leave it, suckers.

We are suckers, any tuktuk driver can tell you that, so we take the tickets and hand over our 800 rupee.

At 6.30am on the appointed day of departure, Mr Tea and I walk down the railway tracks to wait for the train. It’s only ten minutes late and we get on board. The seats even look like they recline; this isn’t so bad, I say.

But our fellow carriage mates wave us away – “This is second class! Not reserved!”

We head towards first class, but the ticket master sends us right back to where we belong – Third Class Reserved. Two young Sri Lankan women snigger behind their hands. “Third Class!” I hear them whisper, as we schlep our luggage down to the other end of the train.

Fortunately, Third Class has seats, a working toilet and no chickens in sight. The trip is six and a half hours at a brisk jogging pace, but it’s magic. The train rattles and clanks along to panorama after panorama: of mist floating off the top of mountains, tea plantations, waterfalls and rice paddies.

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We watch a wedding party alight, dressed in elaborate saris and holding drums and bags of food. At smaller stations, local children run after the train, squealing and waving. At the larger stations, entrepreneurial types stroll the platforms, selling “Wade-Wade-Wade-Wade”, a lentil cake deep fried in coconut oil, or strips of green mango to be dipped in chilli salt. In our carriage, several families munch away on these snacks or on home made lunches of rice and curry packaged up in old homework papers.

Half way through the trip I remember that Prasanna, our hotel manager, pressed a styrofoam box of train treats into my hands at stupid o’clock. Hungry mid morning, I open it up to find sesame balls, pistachio shortbread and deep fried biscuits laden with chilli salt and cumin.  It’s perfect road trip food for the perfect Sri Lankan road trip, and I get to thinking that maybe those railway enthusiasts back home are actually onto something.

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Helga’s Folly

Helga de Silva Blow Perera, replete with diamante sunglasses

Helga de Silva Blow Perera, replete with diamante sunglasses

“Helga’s chief folly was being on lithium when she decorated”—Luxe City Guides, Sri Lanka

Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second biggest city with 1.5 million people in the district, but Helga de Silva Blow Perera is hard to miss in the crowd.

Helga is the owner and creator of Helga’s Folly – a hotel right up in the hills of Kandy. I think the Luxe Guide is a little uncharitable, but then I’ve always been a fan of the more is more philosophy both in life and interior decorating. Fair call on the lithium though.

Helga’s Folly is a bit difficult to describe but I’ll do my best.

Just imagine that Frida Kahlo had a Sri Lankan love child with Paul Gauguin, and let it smoke opium for breakfast every day until it turned 12. And then gave it a paintbrush and said, knock yourself out, kid.

Yes. That’s what Helga’s Folly is like.

Stalactite candles, stag horns and unicorn murals

Stalactite candles, stag horns and unicorn murals

When you walk through the front entrance, there are plastic skeletons sitting on a chaise lounge and a Sri Lankan man called Lionel who will reluctantly take your drink order.

Around the corner, it just gets more fantastic: stalactites of candle wax dripping from candelabras and bright green and pink Indian silk cushions. In one cabinet sits the family’s collection of antique pistols. In another, oriental lamps and wooden carvings of Buddha and various Indian gods and goddesses. There are murals, Sri Lankan folk art, Dutch antiques, teak and lattice recliners and chandeliers. One room is pale blue and the walls are lined with blue china plates. Another is bright red, with a Sri Lankan elephant procession painted on one wall and gaudy Mexican characters drinking on the other. Above the doorways are stag horns, family photographs and paintings of unicorns. And because it was Christmas a week ago, they’d done some extra decorating: wreaths, baubles and glittering fairy lights.

Outside Helga’s Folly is a backyard made of jungle. There are monkeys swinging from the eaves and sitting on the window sills. Apparently one used to be nicknamed Captain; Captain liked to expose himself to guests at regular intervals.

Helga’s family story is something else. She hails from European-Sri Lankan stock, with a father and grandfather who were both politicians. Her grandmother fought for women’s rights, her mother was an artist and designed the original chalet and her aunt was the first Asian woman to become an architect. Helga herself is an artist, celebrity and local eccentric with three husbands under her belt. Her daughter is a fashion designer in London and her sons are similarly inclined.

Celebrities have flocked here over the years. Helga’s Folly has entertained Sir Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, Paula Yates and the Ghandis. Vivian Leigh had an affair with Peter Finch here. Kelly Jones from The Stereophonics stayed once and wrote a song in honour of Helga; the lyrics to ‘Madam Helga’ are up in the entrance.

The Dining Room, darling. Well, one of them.

The Dining Room, darling. Well, one of them.

I was desperate to meet Helga, but when we inquired the staff were suitably vague. I think she is still in London with her daughter, Madam, said one.  She has been very unwell.  Another murmured, I’m sorry but she is up country riding elephants, Madam.

I would have believed anything.

And then at around 7pm, Helga sashayed into the dining room.

I actually heard her before I saw her. Helga was behind the oriental screen and monkey statue when she introduced herself to a couple of guests and enquired after their wellbeing.

“I do hope your room is clean?”

Well may she ask. I wouldn’t describe Helga’s Folly as the most hygienic hotel in the country: the antiques and bohemia all come with a good layer of grime and spider webs. It’s just so hard to get good help around here.

Helga meeted and greeted for a while, and then finally she came our way, dressed in diamante studded sunglasses and a long black evening dress cinched in at the waist with a gold leaf belt.

She had a flimsy handshake and indeterminate accent.

It was like meeting an aged film star or obscure member of the Swedish Royal Family: you’re a bit dizzy with excitement but not quite sure why. Mr Tea isn’t easily impressed, but even he got a bit carried away. I turned to get something from my bag, and all of a sudden I look up and he’s showing her our Christmas photos from Galle.

We stayed with Henri and Koki at Kikili House, I tell Helga.

“Oh yes”, trills Helga. “Henri is a dear friend. I must write to her. We’re friends from London, same circles you know.”

I don’t know.

“It’s so nice to meet you”, she says. “We’re going to have Christmas dinner now, it’s my daughter’s last night. But I do hope you enjoy yourselves.”

She leaves us star struck, and after a three course meal by candelabra, Mr Tea and I return to our homestay waxing lyrical about Helga’s Folly.

But Patthi our host is less than enthused.

“That hotel!” he cries. “It is so dirty. I take guests there and one of them got an electric shock. And you pay $240!”

He shakes his head. “Much better you stay here.”

I know Patthi is right, but part of me still wants to take up residence in the gothic museum that is Helga’s Folly and write opium-laced poetry.

Mr Tea settles in for another G and T. How appropriate.

Mr Tea settles in for another G and T. How appropriate.

Sharon Stone, the Sri Lankan President and I

I’m not sure if it’s jetlag or the anti-malarials I’m taking, but since we’ve arrived in Sri Lanka, I wake up at 4am every day. Not only do I wake up at 4am, I’m at peak operational ability. It’s unprecedented. My mind is buzzing so fast I could broker peace in the Middle East, or at the very least solve a Sudoku puzzle.

Instead, I like to think about people I know, but mostly people I don’t. Sharon Stone for example. I’ve put in some serious energy worrying about Sharon. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her in a movie. Has she fallen prey to Hollywood’s renowned discrimination towards women of a certain age (notable exception Meryl Streep)? Is she in rehab? Just taking it easy with the (grand)kids? Did she have kids? Does she still think about Basic Instinct? Then I remember that Sharon Stone was in MENSA, which gives me some relief. At least she’s got that to fall back on.*

I wonder if Sharon thinks about me too? She probably means to. If she took anti-malarials, I'm sure she would.

I wonder if Sharon thinks about me too? She probably means to. If she took anti-malarials, I’m sure she would.

I’ve also spent some time thinking about Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. That makes more sense, since I’ve seen him on a billboard at least every ten kilometres since we got to Sri Lanka. He’s got a crack PR team, that man. Give the people what they want, they decided in a Colombo office after too many cups of Dilmah. Cancel the hospital funding, hold the poverty eradication program. We need to get some blanket bill boarding happening, stat.

El President has more poses than a Kmart Catalogue. He does Walking Purposefully, Holding Hands with Country Men and Waving to the People. Then there’s Proud and At Peace, Beaming Beatifically and my personal favourite, Look At This Great New Road, You Ingrates. I can’t speak for his politics but he’s got a terrific handlebar moustache.

This is Walking Purposefully.

This is Walking Purposefully.

I’m feeling even more in touch with The President since he’s been staying just around the corner from us in Tangalle on the south coast. He certainly travels in style: three navy frigates offshore to keep watch, and a legion of bodyguards every time his wife wants to go for a jog. He’s also got police check points every 200 metres; Preetha, our taxi driver, went through two just to pick us up yesterday.

I wondered about talking politics in Sri Lanka, but people have been quite forthcoming. Preetha had many political opinions. I think one of them was that having three navy patrol boats on hand while the President was on summer holiday was overkill. Still, a man with a moustache like that can’t be too careful.

As always, the most astute commentary comes from the tuktuk drivers.

“Politic is a mad dog it will bite you”…As always, the most astute commentary comes from the tuktuk drivers.

*Oh no! Wikipedia tells me Sharon finally admitted that she never was a member of MENSA. I might have to worry about her, after all.

Madam is very tall, like Glenn McGrath

“Coming to Sri Lanka, your first time?”

Slave Island

Lakjimi, our taxi driver looks like a Bollywood film star. His hair is slicked over to the side, and the English he has flows out in this beautiful sing-song rhythm, verbs first.

I’m a bit hazy off the plane, but Bandaranaike Airport in Colombo has thought carefully about what new arrivals want and they have nailed it.

Post immigration, we’re handed a local sim card and then greeted by a skinny Sri Lankan Santa Claus. The white beard clashes with his skin tone, but his gumboots are impeccable – shiny, black, patent. Then you have your choice of duty free white goods – fridges, driers, washing machines. Everything a traveller could want.

I change some money and Mr Tea activates our sim card at Sri Lankan Mobitel. The Champion Employee Board sits on the front counter. A guy called Dillum has it sewn up – he’s been employee of the month 11 times in the past year, with only one slip up, February. Maybe he was on holiday then. Dillum’s picture looms large – he has big brown eyes, a furrowed brow, coiffed hair.

But Dillum is not working today. I can tell immediately that the other guy behind the counter hates Dillum. When not-Dillum sees me looking at the Champion Employee Board, he moves it a little further away from the counter while he sings the praises of various phone and data plans.

The service might have been faster if Dillum worked weekends, but eventually we have a working phone, a bunch of rupee and our Bollywood star leads us to a limousine…more commonly recognised as a 1990s era Toyota.

The holiday is off to a great start: Sri Lanka FM is playing holiday tunes, including a jolly mash up of Jingle Bells and Pop Goes the Weasel. But it gets better when the DJ announces a “minor reggae flashback”.

We’re on the tollway into Colombo, an engineering masterpiece replete with many bridges and some outstanding uses of concrete, which pleases Mr Tea.  I’m pleased to see that our first hawker is selling colouring in books. He turns the different pages of animals and fairies, all in outline for the budding artist. His showcasing has the same finesse of Adriana Xenides in her Wheel of Fortune hey day. A tuktuk alongside runs out of fuel, so the driver gets out mid tollway and refills with a soda bottle of two stroke.

We tour the National Museum and walk along Galle Face Green, a patchy lawn filled with people flying kites, stands selling roti and prawn cakes and local couples snuggling on park benches. But my favourite part of Colombo is Slave Island. It has a darker colonial history, but today it’s a mish-mash of colourful and decrepit shop fronts, selling everything from “Poo Max” men’s briefs (I shit you not) and Sri Lankan cricket caps, to car tyres and shoe repairs.

Anyone for Poo Max briefs?  Slave Island shopfronts, Colombo.

Anyone for Poo Max briefs?
Slave Island shopfronts, Colombo.

I’m a novelty here, and fair enough. I’m twice the size of the average Sri Lankan, both vertically and horizontally. Mr Tea and I are inundated with well wishes and good mornings, occasionally punctuated with giggles and, I’m pretty sure, some commentary on my breasts.

Luckily for us, the Indonesian phone tapping scandal and our migration policies are not front of mind in Slave Island. Instead, we get thumbs up and “Very nice country!” for being from Australia.

One of our friendly well-wishers gets straight to the point.

“Australian cricket team! Very good, Sir.”

He pauses and smiles widely.

“Madam is very tall, like Glenn McGrath. And Sir, just like Michael Clarke!”

Mr Tea doesn’t even like cricket, but he knows a compliment when he hears one. His balding good looks have just been vindicated on the streets of Slave Island.

This kid thinks I look like Glenn McGrath too.

This kid thinks I look like Glenn McGrath too.