Sri Lanka’s colonial legacy of trains, tea and the Queen’s English

Travelling by train was something I particularly looked forward to in Sri Lanka. Quite a few friends had recommended hiring a driver to take us around the island but neither of us liked that idea based on past travel experiences. We would’ve felt hampered having someone constantly with us for almost two weeks. Some people organise to meet their driver on the other end of a train trip but I had a feeling we’d miss out on something important if we didn’t travel properly by train, at least for parts of the journey where it was possible.

In the lead up to our trip I sat down to work out which legs of the journey would be best undertaken by rail, eventually settling on Kandy to Bandarawela and Galle to Colombo. The latter was described by Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar:

The train from Galle winds along the coast north towards Colombo, so close to the shoreline that the spray flung by the heavy rollers from Africa reaches the broken windows of the battered wooden carriages.

Theroux visited in another era because we certainly weren’t in battered wooden carriages, but what was still true about his description was the proximity of the shoreline. On the way through Mount Lavinia I could clearly see the shimmering sun setting over the Indian Ocean.

Like in India, trains were introduced by the British during their reign in Sri Lanka to transport goods and people. This eventually included tea which the British also brought to the central highlands along with the trains. As a global commodity tea has become imbued with all manner of comforts so in the post-colonial era it’s easy to romanticise colonial rule because it’s wonderful to pass by rows upon rows of tea as you cross a country by train.

Queen Victoria statue in Colombo, which some locals believe brings bad luck

When we booked our train tickets on our first day in Colombo, we discovered, much to our dismay, that only third class was available for the train ride from Kandy to Bandarawela. All the first and second class tickets had already sold, even though we specified a date that was a week away.

“It’s reserved seating, it’s fine,” said the man behind the ticket counter impatiently, who clearly wanted us to hurry up because it was almost time for the ticket office to close for lunch.

I was happy to take our chances because the ride wasn’t too long. How bad could a 7 hour train be anyway…right? But Josh had travelled extensively across India by train and had many bad memories of uncomfortable, overcrowded carriages in creaky old trains where you have to constantly jostle for space and be wary of going to the toilet because it meant you lose your seat.

But we needn’t have worried and the man at the ticket office was right–we couldn’t have had better seats for the long meandering journey ahead than third-class seats on the blue train from Kandy. What I didn’t realise at the time of booking was that first-class would have actually taken away one of the best parts of the journey, because in the first-class observation carriage you can’t open the windows whereas in our humbler seats I could keep our window wide open. On the most elevated parts of the journey I wrapped my scarf around me as the air became thinner and cooler.

In first-class you also mostly share the carriage with other rich foreigners; in third-class you’ll share your ride with all kinds of people. We found ourselves next to a lively group of 13 Sri Lankan uni students. It was the university break and they were heading to Badulla for a girls’ getaway, staying together in a house they’d rented. I learnt this from asking the woman who sat opposite us, the mother of one of the girls who was getting off at an earlier stop. I thought the woman’s daughter was the most beautiful of them all — dressed modestly with a loose headscarf, she was also the only one with green-coloured eyes, the kind I’d found so arresting when I first came across them travelling in India.

trainUp until that train trip we’d spent almost a week in Sigiriya and Kandy with Jiva, our Sri Lankan-Australian friend, but our interactions with Sri Lankans were otherwise mostly limited to those we encountered in the course of being tourists. Being in that carriage for half a day I got to see up-close to the young women and observed how they socialised…and it wasn’t so different to anywhere else. But it was a novelty for me personally because I haven’t socialised all that much with lots of women my age so am always curious about those kinds of group dynamics. There was a girlish wholesomeness in the way they sang songs to pass the time.

sri_lankan_eatingThe 13 girls ate lunch communally from jumbo rice and curry packages, the common lunch for Sri Lankans. Some of them ate with their hands, which was something I found I loved doing while travelling over there because it brought me closer to what I was eating, which became more of an intimate act. Two of the girls had birthdays so two big cakes were cut up and they all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ before erupting into cheers and digging in. Their chatter and singing along with the rhythm of the train provided a pleasant soundtrack while I stared out the window, mesmerised by the changing landscape and the tea plantations.

The train from Kandy to Bandarawela was a true taste of colonial life and made me reflect on all the British touches I’d seen in Sri Lanka — the school uniforms, the fruit cake, the buildings in Kandy that were from another era. And then there was us on the train snacking on old-fashioned ginger biscuits and did crossword puzzles in the paper, which also had a faint air of Britishness. It all came to a head near the end of our journey, when an English guy in his 30s with a moustache came into our carriage. Some of the girls were sitting in seats reserved for him and his parents and after a little negotiation he said, “You can stay where you are. We’ll find seats in the next carriage.” I thought he seemed terribly nice — but then, just as he was leaving he said, “Very good English”, at which point Josh and I turned to look at each other with raised eyebrows.

His well-meaning but somewhat ignorant comment disturbed me. There’s no doubt that the colonial legacy in Sri Lanka requires time to get one’s head around, but as a traveller in this day and age, the least you should know is why your fellow passengers speak English as well as you do. The copy of an English language paper I’d bought for the journey had a letters section was populated with Sri Lankans with long surnames who wrote the Queen’s English and presumably spoke it too. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone from the UK that a group of young women in Sri Lanka could speak English “very good”! While travelling, I’ve certainly complimented people on their English skills before…but never in a country that had once been colonised by the British.

Hindu temple for the Tamil workers brought over by the British to work on the tea estates

The area we arrived in was, in a way, typical of the way the British found cooler parts of their colonies to escape from the heat — Blue Mountains west of Sydney and Cameron Highlands near Kuala Lumpur being two places I’ve spent time in — and it was lovely to be somewhere cooler and refreshing after a week of humidity and monsoon rain. In that way I completely understood why the British sought refuge. Their legacy was also evident in the Hindu temples of workers from Tamil Nadu, originally brought over to work on the tea estates by the British following on from the introduction of tea to India.

The view from our bedroom window at Morning Mist Guesthouse

The guesthouse we made our way to, Morning Mist, was one of the best I’ve ever stayed in. After our long train ride and an extended tuk-tuk ride from the station it was blissful to have a cold beer on the balcony overlooking the darkened valley. It was also where we had some of the most delicious meals during our two weeks in Sri Lanka, with the light and crispy hoppers being particularly memorable. We had a glorious hike up to nearby Ella Rock the next day, a trip highlight.

Morning Mist Guesthouse

Morning Mist is run by Pat, a French woman, whose ability to speak Singhalese was impressive. She’d actually started learning decades ago when she lived in London, where she met her Sri Lankan husband. Tragically he’d died relatively young so she ended up raising their daughter on her own in Paris. In his absence she had continued to maintain a connection to Sri Lanka and with her in-laws, and they eventually left her some property in Colombo. A few years ago she sold it to buy land to start building Morning Mist, which is still not quite finished. Although Pat formally retired as a nurse, she missed the work and in her new life in Sri Lanka uses her nursing skills in the community alongside running her establishment. “I’m very busy here with so much to do,” she said.

Her interactions with local staff and suppliers was inspiring, as was her self-sufficiency in terms of using the land to grow fruit, vegetables and spices. In this regard I was equally impressed by Morning Mist’s neighbours, Amba Estate, Sri Lanka’s only certified organic tea plantation, visible from our bedroom window.

Amba Estate, Bandarawela
Neethanjana leads the tour

During our visit to Amba Estate, we were guided by Neethanjana, one of the staff members. He gave entertaining and knowledgeable explanations of both the estate’s history and how it’s managed, as well as the story of tea itself. The estate is part-owned by four foreigners, with one of them having a direct family connection because one of his forebears had originally set it up. It was intriguing to witness how a distant colonial connection has borne fruit in the 21st century. Unable to compete with mega tea empires like Dilmah, Amba’s strategy is to opt for quality over quantity, going for boutique and upmarket and fostering close relationships with staff. Though it’s a small estate which doesn’t have the best soil, it’s a highly profitable venture.

As I looked through the logbooks in the tea drying rooms, I noticed ‘Beverly’ had signed many of the pages as the quality control. I discovered she was a Scottish woman with a background in international development and science who had helped the estate develop a unique hand-rolled technique for tea, which I saw carried out by a group of female workers. It was super interesting to learn about the production of tea from bushel to pot and hearing how the business was being run with such know-how and integrity. Given that Amba Estate was our last stop before leaving for Galle, we stocked up on their organic jams and teas; we didn’t buy their best stuff which is otherwise exported overseas and found in upmarket places like Fortnum & Mason and served at restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen. Although this kind of exporting reinforces status in the Western world, there’s not doubt it’s a good niche.

However, we did save one package of tea for ourselves, the Vangedi Pekoe. It’s the kind of tea estate workers of yore made at home by grinding the leaves in a stone “vangedi” (mortar) before fermenting and pan drying. It’s also known as “thieves” tea because workers used to be punished for stealing tea. I’m happy to report that nowadays the Sri Lankan staff at Amba not only enjoy drinking some of the tea they grow, they’re also entitled to a share of the profits. So every time I drink a cup of Vangedi Pekoe I think about how progress can be made in the postcolonial era — and what an excellent cup it is.

Tea drying on racks at Amba Estate

2 thoughts on “Sri Lanka’s colonial legacy of trains, tea and the Queen’s English

  1. Very evocative and it made me recall a couple of train journeys I took in Pakistan in which, as you describe, I came into close contact with the locals in a way that one doesn’t experience otherwise.

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing Hilary – train journeys are wonderful and I can imagine Pakistan would be great for this reason too. I just realised today I’d made some recordings of the girls talking and singing, which brought it all to life again

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