A train journey that I would like to do again is the one through Sri Lanka. I am enchanted by the land with the thousand and one landscapes, the Buddhist temples, the many special herbs and the tea.
Sri Lanka is as big as the Netherlands and Belgium combined, but as versatile as the world. Located off the east coast of India, the cuisine is similar, the smells are just as overwhelming, but the culture is a little less chaotic. And I notice that on the train too. Sri Lanka is the mild version of India. Less dirty, much less chaotic, milder meals but with the same delicious spices. And I see those herbs everywhere during this trip. From doctor to cook, from breakfast to dinner – herbs.
Sri Lanka: Island of Wisdom
Ten years ago I made my first trip to Sri Lanka. I came there for a report on natural medicine, but I fell in love immediately. What a great country! Green but also desert, Buddhist temples and elephants as tractors, old English country houses and simple huts on the beach: I was amazed. Sri Lanka has been making full use of the wisdom from its rich nature for 3000 years: Ayurveda. Western healthcare does exist, but it is the last solution in the line. Ayurveda is based on the power of nature and that of one’s own body. There is no distinction between body and mind – total balance, that’s what matters, and herbs play a major role.
During my journey I feel an all-encompassing peace. The wisdom from the many Buddhist monasteries is everywhere. And the monks in their orange robes too. Of course especially around Kandy, the city of Buddha, with a tooth in the temple that was saved from the ashes after his cremation. But at every station and along every road I see monks. And on every street corner in Sri Lanka I see small altars, large stupas (domes with relics) and prayer flags. As I pass the city of Kandy, the annual sacred procession with elephants just happens to be there. I fall with my nose in the butter. What an experience!
Sri Lanka: tea and herbs
Everywhere along the way I see spice gardens, with the characteristic pepper, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, cloves and turmeric. And I can smell the herbs everywhere: in the pharmacies that make their characteristic medicines and in the restaurants of course. The VOC once came here for these herbs; to the other side of the world. No wonder the pepper was, uh, expensive back then!
After the Portuguese, the Dutch and then the English came to Sri Lanka. First for the spices. But the English did even more: they developed the tea culture. The climate in the interior of Sri Lanka (ancient Ceylon) is perfect for it. The mountainous, central part is high and humid, and is ideal for growing tea. The train route from Nanuoya at Nuwara Eliya via Bandarawela and Ella to Badulla passes through this region. It is a beautiful route with great views.
Along the way I see many tea plantations, English country houses and children in neat blue school uniforms walking on ocher-colored dirt roads. The colonial past still drips from it. Anyone who is open to this will see a whole history book passing by. I notice, for example, that only the Hindu underprivileged part of Sri Lanka is active in the tea plantations: the English heritage. Women with heavy baskets on their backs pick all day for a starvation wage and live in the simplest shacks.
A visit to a tea factory near an English country house teaches me all about the quality of tea. I hear that ‘our’ tea bags really only contain waste: they are the most worthless remains of the tea plant that go to Pickwick. You can buy real tea loose, with white tea being the highest quality. But it goes to the Buddhist monasteries and to Japan – where the tea culture is famous.
Sri Lanka: slow travel
I hang out of the open door of the train to take a picture. It’s safe, everything is slow here. Two happy children’s faces stick out of the train window. On departure I could choose from first, second, third and tourist class. I chose the third class, and as a result I am now the only one among the local population. Magnificent! People quietly look outside, eat a curry or wriggle down the aisle in search of a water seller. There are fans hanging from the ceiling that don’t work. The windows are open and that is actually enough.
Sri Lanka breathes tranquility. Traveling by train may seem chaotic, but it actually brings peace. Waiting is part of it. But there is always something to see, even if it were the Buddhist monks who wait on the platform as a beacon of peace, resigned for what is to come. It’s safe here, people are helpful and there’s a taxi where the tracks don’t go any further. What a wonderful way to travel.