Elephant Freedom Project (PM)

13th February 2017

***

The sun is beating down intensely as we follow Manika back to the Elephant Freedom Project. Once we arrive back in the enclosure, she is hosed down with cool, refreshing water. A layer of dust and grime, accumulated on the morning’s walk, steadily trickles off her body and onto the floor. We all take turns spraying Manika. The water sparkles on her grey skin, making it look as though diamonds are dancing on her back.

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After her shower, Manika retreats into her enclosure for an afternoon nap. The morning’s activities have left us feeling hungry, so while Manika is resting, we all eager to take part in a cooking demonstration. We are invited into the kitchen, and help to prepare the ingredients for fried rice and a potato curry. I take particular note of all the spices being used, so that I can recreate the dish at home. When lunch is served, about half an hour later, there are another five accompanying dishes. It’s a traditional Sri Lankan feast, and all the food is delicious.

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After lunch, we head down to the local river, where we spot Manika in the water. She is lying on her side and enjoying what looks to be a very relaxing bath. Her mahout is using a coconut husk to thoroughly scrub her body. We’re told this is usually done twice a day to prevent the accumulation of bacteria.

What follows next is the most amazing part of the day. We’re given our own coconut husk and are invited to help wash Manika in the river. It’s an incredibly humbling experience. Here is an animal of enormous power and size, and I’m standing right next to her, giving her a bath, as she lies in the water, placid and content. Manika is the very definition of a gentle giant.

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It’s strange to say this about such a massive creature, but she is lying so peacefully in the river that she almost seems vulnerable. I am in such close proximity that every detail of her features is observed as if in high definition. One is immediately drawn to her gentle, brown eyes, which shine like smooth, tiny gems amongst her crinkled exterior. Her skin is criss-crossed with deep-set wrinkles. Her rusty coloured trunk looks like a long concertina fold. Depigmentation has decorated her floppy, pink ears with polka dots. I stroke her leathery back, which is covered with coarse hairs that bristle at the touch, like a broom.

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Further down the river, we catch sight of another elephant. This one stands forlornly in the murky water, and there is a look of sadness about him. It’s such a stark contrast to the blissful water experience that Manika is having only a couple of hundred metres away. While Manika splashes around, this elephant is chained to a tree, and he stands silent and still, as if resolved to his fate. His mahout is crouched on the bank of the river, and our guide goes over to him to ask if we can approach his elephant. The mahout has no objections, so we make our way over to the lonely elephant and give him a scrub, too.

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When we return to Manika, her mahout is prodding at her to stand up so he can wash her other side. She is obviously feeling very relaxed, as she doesn’t want to budge. Eventually, she lifts the massive bulk of her body out of the water and heaves herself onto her feet, with a great effort. She turns around slowly, readjusting her position before plopping down, delighted to be back in the water. It’s fascinating to watch the relationship between Manika and her mahout. He’s a bit of a gruff man, and his tone of voice often sounds harsh, but he obviously cares deeply for Manika and is committed to looking after her. In return, Manika seems to trust him explicitly.

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When bath-time is finally finished, we walk back to the enclosure with Manika, and bid her farewell. It’s been an unforgettable day, and my heart is happy to know that after a tough life lived in the logging industry, Manika is now free, and will never have to live in chains again.

I leave the Elephant Freedom Project around 4pm, and since I am not pressed for time now, I decide to walk back to my hotel. This time, there’s no shortage of tuk-tuk drivers that stop to say hello and ask where I’m going. I keep insisting that I’m happy to walk, which seems to baffle them, as if no-one in their right mind would be happy to walk 4km. But I do, and I arrive back at my hotel in time for the golden hour of twilight. I sit out on the balcony and read my book until the horizon turns a russet colour. A noisy chorus of  birds erupts from the trees and I watch as the never-ending flock takes to the heavens and streams across the sky, reflecting on the day, and the beauty of creatures, great and small.

Elephant Freedom Project (AM)

13th February 2017

***

I wake up feeling excited. Today is the day I’ve been looking forward to more than any other during my stay in Sri Lanka. In fact, you could say the experience I’m about to have is what inspired my whole trip. As it goes, when I first became interested in visiting Sri Lanka, over a year ago, I didn’t really know much about the country, and what there was to see and do, except for one thing- elephant encounters.

Of course, there are many experiences available, but when it comes to animals, my main priority is to support companies who truly care about the welfare of the creatures they are looking after. I want to know they have an ethical approach to working with animals, as opposed to an exploitative one. When I came across the Elephant Freedom Project, I knew it would provide the perfect ‘up close and personal’ elephant encounter for me.

The Elephant Freedom Project has been operating since 2013, and was established in response to the many ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘orphanages’ which encourage elephant rides. There is a lot of mistreatment and suffering which elephants endure in order to perform these rides for tourists. The aim of the Project is to allow their elephants to ‘just be’. Human interaction revolves around participating in the daily routines of the elephants, such as walking, feeding and bathing.

It’s 8am when I set out from my hotel in Pinnawala bound for the Project’s headquarters in Kegalle. I walk up the road, thinking it will be easy to flag one of the many tuk-tuks passing by, but they all seem to be occupied by locals. Fifteen minutes tick by, and I’m aware that if I keep walking, I’ll end up being late, so I decide to head back to the hotel to see if they can arrange some transport for me. I’m almost back at the hotel when a local man asks if I’m lost. I tell him my situation, and he offers to drop me off at the Project on his motorbike. By now, it’s almost 8.30am, which is the designated meeting time, so I hop on. He gives me a helmet, but when I go to clip it under my chin, I realise there’s no buckle at the end of the straps, which makes wearing it seem somewhat redundant.

Thankfully, he weaves through the traffic without incident and drops me off about ten minutes later. I enter the house where you can stay if you are volunteering at the Project for longer than a day, and meet four other girls, all from Germany, who’ll be joining me for the day. Shortly afterwards, we all meet our guide, Kelum, who runs through the itinerary for the day.

First up: cleaning the elephant’s enclosure. It’s not every day that you start your morning by picking up huge balls of elephant poo with a group of strangers. Talk about an icebreaker! It’s all for a good cause, though, as the balls of dung are actually processed into paper at a nearby dung factory.

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After we’ve all emptied our buckets of elephant poo, we head out onto the street, where we come across the creature we’ve just been cleaning up after. Her name is Manika and she’s ambling down the road, past oncoming cars and tuk-tuks, who are completely unfazed by her presence in the traffic. I find it amazing that it’s completely natural to see an elephant as you drive to work in this neck of the woods.

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We continue climbing up a sandy pathway which slopes gently upwards through a valley of lush green fields. After a while, Manika stops and refuses to budge. We quickly discover the reason: Manika is hungry- and she requires a lot of food to satisfy her appetite.

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Once Manika finishes her meal, she breaks into a smile. She must’ve enjoyed her greens!

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Manika the Magician then decides to perform the ‘Disappearing Trunk’ trick for us.

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I think she needs a little bit more practice with ‘Hide and Seek’, though.

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Suspicious Dog and Curious Bird decide to pay a visit, highlighting the obvious difference in size between creatures great and small. Even in the face of Suspicious Dog’s barks, Manika stays calm. I think she’s the Miss Congeniality type, who is happy to be friends with anyone.

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Manika also proves to be a natural model, looking absolutely beautiful from any angle.

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Another reason Manika is a great model is because she’s not the slightest bit vain about her wrinkles or saggy skin- even when you take close-up shots.

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Neither does she care about eating again twenty minutes after her last meal. This model is not worried about diets! Instead of feasting on foliage, this time Manika feeds on some chopped pieces of cabbage and pumpkin. We are invited to feed her, and her trunk tickles my hand as she cheekily scoffs her vegies with a delighted snuffly sound.

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Now that we have got to know one another better, Manika obliges me with a photo.

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By now, the morning is almost over. Manika has been on her feet for a long time, and she’s getting tired. Slowly, she turns around to overlook the valley. Rows of palm trees stretch along the distant hills, and the horizon looks like an emerald wave, shining in the bright light of the sun. It makes me happy to know Manika is able to enjoy this view every day. But for now, it’s time to head back to the Elephant Freedom Project.

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12 L-o-n-g Hours

12th February 2017

***

6.00am
The hills of Ella are emerging from under the dusty rose sky of dawn when my friend and I slip quietly out of the Ella Paddy Field View Guest Inn. There is no sign of the tuk-tuk which the owner said would be waiting to take us to the train station, so we start walking. It’s strange to see the roads so devoid of traffic and noise, and to be unable to flag down a tuk-tuk.

7.00am
We’re on the train and bound for Kandy. My friend and I catch the 6.30am service in the hopes of securing a seat, as it’s the end of a poya (full moon) weekend and we’re well aware the trains are going to be packed. A good idea- except that all the other tourists in Ella have had the same idea. It doesn’t really matter in the end, as all the seats are already occupied by the time we board. It’s going to be a l-o-n-g six hours.

8.00am
I’ve managed to grab a spot to call my own! It’s the gap between the final row of seats and the wall of the compartment, and I’ve had to suck in my stomach to squeeze into the tiny space, which measures a luxurious 30cm in width. Still, I’m willing to compromise being able to breathe freely for the sake of not being pushed and shoved and trod on every two minutes. Maybe my stomach will even be flattened over the next four and a half hours, since it is so squashed into the back of the seat. Well, a girl can dream.

9.00am
I remember reading a guidebook which recommended that if there’s one train ride you take in Sri Lanka, make sure it’s the Ella to Kandy route. The author couldn’t stop raving about the breath-taking vistas, and reassured you that even if the train is busy, you’ll be too enchanted by the landscape to care. Right now, I would like to punch this author in the face. Travelling by train in Sri Lanka is great- if you can get a seat. Otherwise, you’ll find that the stunning views quickly lose their charm.

10.00am
I notice that the landscape looks like the chocolate hills of Bohol, in the Philippines. Or maybe it’s just my weary brain descending into a state of visual hallucinations. In any case, thinking about chocolate makes me realise I’m hungry, so I slide over to my bag to pull out a can of Pringles. It occurs to me that I’m so wedged into my spot that I may not be able to get out of it. With further testing, I find that I can still wriggle out to freedom, thankfully, and use the opportunity to access my stowed bag. I carefully manoeuvre out the can, open the lid, and bump! The train jerks, and a shower of broken chip crumbs fall into my bag. Great.

11.00am
I feel as though I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Every now and then, I shuffle my legs on the spot to keep them from going numb. My feet hurt, but there’s simply nowhere to move. More and more people are getting on the train, and yet each time we pull up at a station, no-one seems to be getting off. The air in the compartment is starting to become stifling. It’s too risky to appease my dry mouth with water, as I don’t want to run the risk of needing an impossible-to-reach toilet. Misery all round.

12.00pm
I believe I have mastered the art of sleeping on my feet. I just hope I haven’t drooled on the family I’m standing over.

1.00pm
What’s better than a six hour train ride stuck in a compartment that’s as crowded as a beehive? A seven hour train ride stuck in a compartment that’s as crowded as a beehive! I have spent the equivalent hours of a flight from Perth to Phuket standing in a space smaller than an airplane lavatory. Actually, let’s not think about toilets right now.

2.00pm
It’s over! It’s finally over! Getting off the train proves to be an absolute nightmare, as my friend and I have been trapped in the middle of the compartment, and the way out is crowded in both directions. After much pushing, we eventually make our escape, joyous to be free and out in the open air. The train continues on for Colombo, and we are glad to see it go. Our journey is not over quite yet, either. My friend still needs to get to Negombo, and my final destination is Kegalle. Our plan is to take a bus and luckily, we can both catch the same one. With a roti in hand, we head off to find Bus 101.

3.00pm
It takes 20 minutes of walking around the Kandy bus terminal to find our bus, and then another 20 minutes waiting around in the full glare of the hot tropical sun. The first bus is already full, but is in no hurry to drive off. When the second bus arrives, it is swamped by a rushing horde of locals. My friend and I don’t even bother to try and get on, but the driver beckons us forward, and it turns out there are still a few seats available. A friendly local at the front of the bus offers the seat next to him, but I move down the aisle and end up sitting next to my friend. The bus departs the chaos of Kandy and starts the three hour journey to Negombo, which coincidentally, is the reverse journey of the first day of our G Adventures tour.

4.00pm
Just when a girl thinks she’s done battling the crowds, wait, there’s more. It only takes about an hour to get into Kegalle, so I keep my eyes peeled for the name of the city on shop fronts and street signs. As soon as I see it appear, I say goodbye to my friend, and start making my way to the front of the bus. This ends up being a more difficult struggle than getting off the train, and I don’t even have my bag. It takes five minutes to move a couple of metres along the aisle, in which time I find myself deeply regretting I turned down the offer to sit at the front of the bus. I basically have to walk on people in my battle to get out. I’m pretty sure I elbow a couple of old ladies in the back, but it can’t be helped. The bus has ended up being ridiculously crammed. Once I finally make it to the front, I find my bag, at the bottom of the pile of luggage, of course, and I have to yell at the driver to wait for me to free it.

5.00pm
All that remains now is to get to Hotel Elephant Bay in Pinnawala. Thankfully, a tuk-tuk pulls over almost as soon as I step out of the bus, and I clamber into it straight away. The driver states his fare and I don’t give a damn about bargaining. I’m so exhausted, and feel like I’ve run a marathon. The first thing I do when I enter my room about half an hour later is fall onto the bed. It feels absolutely amazing to be able to stretch out my tired legs. I could honestly cry with happiness.

6.00pm
There’s a soft golden glow filtering through my curtains. I step out onto my balcony and am amazed to encounter a fringe of palm trees swaying gently in the balmy evening air upon an embankment of a rock-strewn river. The sun is setting, and as it sinks slowly behind a hill, the river seems to turn into flowing honey. And just like that, all the stresses of the day melt away. The icing on the cake, though, comes in the form of the two large, wooden chairs in the centre of the balcony. What a joy it is to enjoy this glorious, calming view- sitting down.

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A Perfect Day in Ella

11th February 2017

***

The most perfect day starts with a cockroach. It’s a giant one, light brown in colour, lying half-dead in the corner of the bathroom with its legs up in the air and its long antennae twitching wildly. I have a huge phobia of cockroaches, and it takes me a good five minutes to be able to approach it. My friend offers me a shoe and I thwack the critter over and over again. The bloody thing seems to be tougher than steel and refuses to be squished. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Eventually, there’s a crunch. I work up the courage to pick up the remains in a wad of tissues and quickly fling it into the toilet, before flushing it to a watery grave. And one more flush, for good measure.

Undertaking a cockroach extermination mission may not be the most ideal way to begin one’s morning, but the drama is quickly forgotten when I step outside and see this glorious view from the balcony of the Ella Paddy Field View Guest Inn.

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The day is warm, bright and beautiful, as my friend and I set off into town to have breakfast. We enter a cafe, and the waiter asks if I’m Sri Lankan as he leads us to a table. Not quite, buddy! We start the day with coconut roti, though this roti is nothing like the roti we had the day before. It’s still tasty and filling, though, which is just what we need to see us through a day of hiking through the hills of Ella.

The beautiful views begin as soon as we head out for Little Adam’s Peak, which is about a 2km walk from the town centre. We pass by several home stays and cafes, which are nestled between a colourful maze of tropical flowers, ferns and palms, before the path starts winding gently upwards through glossy tea plantations. Along the way, local women pose for photos while picking tea leaves, a snake charmer plays a pungi to a cobra in a wicker basket, and a young boy runs up to every tourist he sees, asking for lollies.

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Reaching the top of Little Adam’s Peak involves climbing some stairs, but it’s nowhere near as taxing as the climb up Adam’s Peak. This is a good thing, as my legs are still sore from Tuesday’s hike, so I take it easy. Besides, the views are absolutely spectacular, and deserve to be savoured. I have never seen such lusciously green country before in my life.

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When we get to the top, it’s not crowded, which makes it far easier to appreciate the view. We take some time to sit and simply enjoy the stunning landscape that stretches out before us, as far as the eye can see. Ella Rock lies directly in front of us, a striking formation which is softened by the vibrant vegetation that blankets it, as well as the rolling hills that surround it, rising like waves before fading away into misty horizons. I could easily stare at this view forever, and find myself rating this hike far more than Adam’s Peak. With Adam’s Peak, it felt like an experience I did to say that I’ve done it, but with Little Adam’s Peak, it’s an experience I’d come back to do again and again.

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With the midday sun starting to beat down upon us, my friend suggests visiting Cafe 98, which is located at 98 Acres Resort & Spa, a five star accommodation complex tucked away in the hills. The thatched roof bungalows which make up the property are visible from our vantage point on the top of the peak, and we make our way down towards them. Once we reach the cafe, we order a refreshing iced tea (since they’ve run out of the passionfruit juice we’re both craving), and dream about staying at the resort. How lucky are the guests, to be staying amongst such panoramic views.

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We decide to visit the Newburgh Tea Plantation after finishing our drinks, as it is only about 500m away from the resort. We don’t stay long, as the factory is closed, although we are still able to sample and buy some green tea.

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After consulting her guidebook, my friend realises that we are not too far from the famous Nine Arches Bridge, which is situated between two railway stations, at Ella and Demodara. The bridge, which is 24m high and spans a length of 91m, was built in the British Colonial period, and is considered somewhat of an engineering marvel, due to the fact it was constructed without any steel. Instead, the entire bridge is made up of rocks, bricks and cement.

We reach a lookout point and settle into some plastic chairs, as the next train is not due to pass for another 45 minutes. Conveniently, there is a juice store on site. The sun is now shining directly onto us and has reached its peak intensity, so the mango juice I order goes down a treat. While we wait, a small group of people starts to gather, and I have a chat with a Canadian lady whose husband has walked down to the tracks for an up close and personal experience. There are several people walking along the bridge, though they look like ants from where I’m seated. I’m content to observe the train from the lookout point, and fall into a drowsy reverie as we wait in the heat of the afternoon.

At 3.30pm, the train horn sounds, and shortly after, a rusty-coloured train chugs into view, its gleaming roof shining silver in the glare of the sun. It comes and goes in a flash, and with the main spectacle now over, the group of people on the bridge rapidly begins to disperse. The onlookers from the higher viewpoint also begin to leave. My friend and I follow suit, and we begin our leisurely stroll back into town.

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After a long day of walking, my friend and I stop by a street vendor and treat ourselves to a final dessert-style roti. Again, it’s completely different to the previous rotis I’ve eaten- more like a crepe- and I wash it down with a wood apple juice. Then, we buy some snacks and souvenirs from the local supermarket, before heading back to the guest inn. The perfect day ends with a delicious home-cooked Sri Lankan dinner in the evening. The view of the hills on the balcony is now cloaked by a curtain of darkness, but far off, under the pale glow of the moon, the tiny lights of a train can be seen. They twinkle like stars on the horizon, before disappearing into the shadows of the night.

The Third Class Train Ride

10th February 2017

***

For the first time since my arrival in Sri Lanka, I am able to have a lazy morning. It’s 9am by the time I hobble out of my room to have breakfast. Walking is more painful than ever after my recent hikes, and Nawanga is very amused at how slowly I make my way to the dining table. I’m sure even a snail could beat me in a race right now.

As usual, there’s a huge spread of food before me, much more than any one person could hope to eat, and I am filled up with a hearty meal of milk rice, yam and coconut. At 10.30am, I farewell my humble and hospitable hosts, and depart my home stay.

The train bound for Ella doesn’t leave Ohiya until 11am, but when I ask for a ticket in second class, I am informed there are only third class tickets available. No problem, I think- until I try to board the train. There are people hanging out of every compartment door, and no-one shows any indication of moving to allow me on. It’s the first sign that today’s train ride will be a rather different experience to my previous journeys, which have been a dream.

There’s nothing to be done except to push my way onto the train. I manage to squeeze through a horde of people, and quickly scan to see where there’s some free space for me to stand. Sitting down in a seat is absolutely out of the question, and the only area which is not fully packed with people is the middle section between compartments. I move into an empty space and drop my bag in front of me, relieved to have claimed a spot where I still have some breathing space.

As the train begins what is meant to be a two hour journey to Ella, I realise why the section where I’m standing was relatively empty. I’ve chosen the most rickety part of the train, and every time the direction of the track turns even slightly left or right, the two compartments on either side of me feel like they’re straining to pull away from each other. I have a vision of my bag falling out of the sizeable gap that is created by this jarring motion, and me following suit.

Apart from picturing myself tumbling out of the train, I also try to imagine the landscape that is passing by. The train ride to Ella often ranks as the top rail journey to experience in Sri Lanka, due to the spectacular scenery. Unfortunately for me, my view is limited to a wall of chipped paint and a dusty floor. What riveting surrounds. There’s an occasional slice of sunlight, or a flash of wire overhead. Sometimes, the green blur of a tree is visible through the gap. For the most part, though, I just watch a layer of dirt and dust begin to accumulate on my arms.

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It’s hot and stuffy in my enclosure, and as luck would have it, there’s a delay at one of the stations. During the wait, a considerate gentleman shoves into me and treats me to the sight and smell of his sweaty armpit. From underneath his arm, I observe a group of laughing German tourists, who are filming their process of entering the crowded compartment. Their sense of humour is quickly soured when they realise how nigh on impossible it is to lug huge, shiny suitcases onto a train that’s packed tighter than a tin of sardines. Watching their struggles makes me grateful for my small carry-on bag, not to mention glad that my tiny spot of personal space is out of the way of the cramped conditions they have found themselves in.

Time passes by, and everyone’s expressions are a reflection of discomfort and exasperation. But it is what it is, and eventually, a local who I had a brief conversation with at the start of the journey taps me on the shoulder to say the next station is Ella. I’m glad for the heads-up, especially considering there are no announcements on the trains to inform you where you’re stopping, and I sure as hell can’t see any station names from where I’m standing.

Although there’s a lot of people disembarking at Ella, like me, it’s still a nightmare getting off the train, as there’s a mass of people waiting outside who are clambering to get on the train, and they have absolutely no patience for the people trying to get off. Add to this, there’s a bit of a gap between the set of steps leading out of the compartment and the actual platform, and my exit off the train turns into a tumbling fall into the crowd.

With nothing harmed except my dignity, I make my way through the jumble of people and am glad to inhale some fresh air when I finally make it outside. Of course, there’s hardly any time to breathe, as the expectant tuk-tuk drivers who have been lingering by the road now descend upon all the exiting tourists. The local who I spoke to told me the fare shouldn’t be anymore than 150 rupee, so when one of the drivers refuses to budge from 350 rupee, I decide not to waste my time with bargaining, and opt to walk to my accommodation instead.

I’m staying at the Ella Paddy Field View Guest Inn and although the main street is easy enough to find, a lot of properties are situated off side streets and I can’t see it, despite Google Maps showing me I am pretty much there. Luckily, the local guy who helped me out on the train passes by in a tuk-tuk and his driver gives me a free lift to the guest inn. He also asks me out for lunch, which I decline, as I’m staying in Ella with a friend from my G Adventures tour, and she is due to arrive soon.

My friend gets to the guest inn shortly after I do, and her journey from Kandy to Ella turns out to have been an even more flustered experience than my own. She tells me that she also bought a third class ticket for the train, but it was so full that many people simply couldn’t get on, and she ended up taking a bus instead. After hearing her story, I feel that my train ride wasn’t so bad after all.

After dumping our bags in the room, we decide to head back into town for lunch, as we’re both feeling pretty hungry after our full-on journeys to get to Ella. We are both keen to eat no-frills, street-style food, and end up ordering some kottu roti, as well as a coconut and honey roti. While we’re waiting for our meals, I bump into Mark and Wendy, who I met in Ohiya. They have spent the day at Little Adam’s Peak, which my friend and I plan to do tomorrow.

When the food comes out, the serves are absolutely massive, and we soon realise we won’t need dinner. Both dishes are simple but tasty, and we leave feeling absolutely stuffed. We decide to walk around the town for a while to try and burn some calories. There’s not a lot to see in the town itself, and the main street consists mainly of cafes and shops. The true beauty of Ella lies in the lush green hills that encircle the town, but we are far too tired to explore them today. We head back to our guest inn, which overlooks Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock, and spend the evening relaxing on the balcony, drinking tea, and enjoying the amazing view.

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