Ernie goes to Sri Lanka pt. 2 (Apr 2015)

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We woke up to grey skies and a light drizzle the next morning, the adjacent valleys hidden in curtains of fog. As we ate our breakfast on the veranda, listening for a break in the rain, we talked to the owner of Ravana Heights about hiking Little Adam’s Peak in the morning, and whether we could squeeze in a visit to a tea plantation before lunch as well. He recommended a green tea factory just down the road from the trailhead of Little Adam’s Peak, and after polishing off the last of our eggs and fruit, we headed out into the mists.

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From the main road, we took a tuk tuk to the Newburgh Estate Green Tea Factory, a tea plantation established over 130 years ago. Situated along the rolling foothills of the Namunukula Mountains, the Newburgh Estate processed and exported black tea from 1903 to 2009, before switching over to green tea production in the last decade. We paid a small fee to take a tour of the factory grounds, where a young woman showed us how the freshly harvested tea leaves were processed, dried, graded, sorted, and packaged. The whole operation was quite complex and I suppose there was a bit of secrecy as well, as they enforced a strict no photographs policy inside the factory. After wrapping up our tour with a cup of tea in the lobby area, we slipped out the door and down the long estate driveway, eager to get started on our morning hike.

Just a few minutes walk from the front gates of the Newburgh Estate, a small path branched off of the main road and into the cultivated hills on the left. It wasn’t immediately clear that this was the trail that would take us to Little Adam’s Peak, but we were soon joined by a smattering of other hikers. Little Adam’s Peak is named after Adam’s Peak, a sacred mountain to the west of Ella, where local Christians and Muslims believe the Biblical Adam first stepped foot after leaving Paradise, leaving a massive footprint in stone. The story goes that God had mercy on Adam after the fall and placed him in Sri Lanka, the closest thing to paradise on earth, and after witnessing the incredible beauty of the island throughout the previous day’s train ride, I’m inclined to take their word for it. In any case, Little Adam’s Peak is said to share a physical resemblance with the larger mountain, though with a much easier hike to the top.

At first, the trail was relatively straightforward, and most of it was paved in the lower elevations. It soon transitioned into a dirt path, however, and in the rain it got quite muddy and slippery at times. Finding our footing was made even more complicated by the constant temptation to look up and around at the stunning surroundings. The low mist draped and curled around the intensely green mountains, all along the emerald peaks of the Namunkula range, and, through the gaps in the hills, we could see the southern Sri Lankan lowlands running down towards the distant Indian Ocean shores.

The trail leveled out briefly on a grassy plateau, before dipping into a short ridge and continuing up to the true summit of Little Adam’s Peak. Once past the ridge, the path got considerably steeper and muddier, and there were moments when I resorted to all fours to navigate the rocky outcroppings on the slippery slope. The views from the top were worth the effort though, and we lingered for a while underneath the fluttering flags. The hike had taken us maybe 1.5 hours, and it was nearly lunchtime by the time we began our descent.

As we half-walked, half-slid down the hillsides, we could see the fog rising slowly from the surrounding countryside. Luxury villas overlooked the valley below, and tuk tuks zoomed back and forth on the slick mountain passes. The last section of the hike brought us back to the neat rows of tea plants off of the main road, and we passed by workers rapidly harvesting their crop in the late morning drizzle. We were the last of the morning hikers, the straggler and the lingerer, and we waved down a passing tuk tuk to take us back into town.

The Ella Spice Garden is a local, family-run business, offering educational tours of their garden and introducing the various herbs and spices used in Sri Lankan cuisine. Their reputation, however, is driven by their famous cooking classes, drawing international press coverage from the likes of the BBC and Hong Kong’s SCMP. The classes are run out of their home kitchen, and they do not take advance bookings. You must go in person on the day-of to secure your spot, and we were lucky enough to grab the last 2 spaces available for that evening.

The cooking class was led by the son of the family, Chanty, using recipes taught to him by his mother and younger sister. He’s a funny guy with a deadpan sense of humour, and he kept us entertained and on our toes throughout the duration of our 3-hour class. Besides Ashley and I, there were 6 other participants, all from Australia. The menu for the dinner included three curries, cooked from scratch – a potato curry, a dal curry, and a garlic curry. When I say scratch, I mean scratch though. There were no pre-packaged curry mixes or sauces to be found, only raw ingredients like pandan, cinnamon, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves, turmeric, chilies, coconut milk, red onions, and a half-a-dozen other colourful herbs and spices. As the curries simmered happily in pots around the kitchen, the small room was filled with a heavenly aroma, and our mouths watered with eager anticipation.

At long last, after 3 hours of meticulous preparation and self-control, the curries were ready for consumption. Chanty and his family set up their dining table and plated the curries, along with fresh coconut sambal and papadum, and our small class of 8 sat down to eat together. The meal was incredible, one of the best I’ve ever had in my life, no doubt enhanced and elevated by imagination and the long-suffering produced by 3 hours of watching food become food. As we dug into our hard-earned creations, though much of the work was actually done by Chanty, we got to know the other people around the table. Veteran travelers, honeymooners, and friends on an adventure, for one night united under the bold banner of Sri Lankan curry.

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