KANDY, SRI LANKA
I imagine that the Fort Railway Station hasn’t changed much since Nellie Bly climbed aboard the train to Kandy in December 1889. Even the railway carriage harkens back to the Victorian era except perhaps for the screaming blue velour reclining seats replete with comets and stars. Seat numbers are neatly stencilled above the windows in white paint.
Navigating through the teeming masses that define many Asian stations, I locate platform 2 where the Kandy train is waiting. Less crowded here – good thing because precisely at that moment the early morning monsoon broke through the Colombo skies at full force. Raindrops ricochet off the platform as sheets of rain sweep the station.
Nellie took the 7 am train out of Colombo and so did I. She opted for a day trip. I’m spending the night. But half the fun is getting to Kandy. I have been lucky enough to get a ticket in the observation car which offers the best views.
It is well worth the extra 200 rupees ($1.40) to travel first class in a spacious carriage with this much glass. Views of the hill country surpass expectations with explosions of palms, banana trees, vines and flowers carpeting the red earth, hillsides and cascades. A real jungle.
And it’s a real train trip too as we sway with the train to the thunder of the wheels traversing the tracks carved though rock in the 19th century.
Confusion with seat numbers brings the Stapels family into my life. This petty annoyance leads to an invitation for me to join Bernie, Redda and Julia and their guide on a day’s sightseeing trip in Kandy.
First stop is the Geragama tea plantation where we are treated to a lesson in the intricate steps required to process tea leaves into tea. It’s sad, but I don’t have enough room in my Nellie Bly case to squeeze in a box of this high quality Broken Orange Pekoe tea (BOP).
Next stop is the very same botanical garden that Nellie Bly visited on her day trip to Kandy. Opened in 1821, the Royal Botanic Gardens hosts over 4,000 species and features a lake in the shape of Sri Lanka, as well as fragrant spice gardens. In the ultra-lush orchid house, a worker balances a gigantic scorpion on his arm hoping for a tip from us.
Beauty spots throughout the garden are occupied by courting couples adding to the splendour of the scenery. I bet it was the same when Nellie came. “It repaid us well for the visit,” she wrote of the ‘great’ botanical garden.
I’m staying at the Queen’s Hotel not far from Kandy’s main attraction – the Temple of the Tooth. The hotel takes you right back to colonial times. Perhaps Nellie took luncheon at Queen’s. It just her kind of place.
The Temple of the Tooth was not. “In one old temple, surrounded by a moat, we saw several altars of little consequence, and a piece of ivory that they told us was the tooth of Buddha.” Tell that to the multitudes of visitors and devotees thronging the temple each year. I joined the legions at 6 p.m. and paid my $10 entry fee to visit the temple and file past the tooth relic encased in a silver vessel.
It’s one of those ‘hurry up and wait’ situations which involved passing through an inspection line where an attendant whipped a shawl out of my bag and turned it into a maxi-skirt so as not to offend the Buddha. All this to an ear-bashing beat of a drum and crushing crowds. Devotees came laden with exotic flowers and baskets of fruit as gifts for the Buddha. Not my scene – so I had no hesitation in recycling the souvenir DVD that came with the entry fee.
In complete contrast, the performance of Kandy’s famous dancing in the local Red Cross Hall exceeded expectations. This talented troupe thrilled us music, moves, grace and colour. In a mind over matter feat, two men walked bare-footed across burning coals. I could feel the heat from my seat. Nellie missed this, and I’m glad I didn’t. Indeed, I think she should’ve spent more time in Kandy.