Sometimes, even now, months after leaving Sri Lanka and a year after leaving Myanmar, two phrases ring through my mind and sometimes even slip out at unexpected moments during interpersonal exchanges (often when I’m slightly inebriated): ‘minga la ba’ and ‘istuti‘. ‘Hello!’ and ‘Thank you’, in Burmese and Sinhali, respectively. I’ll be buying a pack of cigarettes or hopping out of a taxi, and they will just roll off my tongue. Call me mad; I probably am a bit, but it’s just that I was so used to habitually showering these words on so many kind strangers who warranted them while I was in Asia.
I mean, all the time, constantly. Every other moment I was confronted with another small act of grace or kindness: a helping hand, a big welcoming smile, a lift when I needed one, an offer of food, or a point in the right direction, which demanded another thank you. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you so much.’
To exemplfy, I want to share a day I spent exploring Ella, an unforgettable little town in the cloud-forested peaks of southern Sri Lanka. Ella has become popular with tourists and backpackers due to its tea-picking trade, gorgeous walks, and the train journey from Colombo or Kandy which you take to get there: arguably one of the most beautiful in the world.
I arrived in Ella at sundown, two weeks into my journey through Sri Lanka, alone after that looooong, albeit breathtaking train journey. The town was shrouded in the shadows of the mountains that surrounded it on all sides. My friends who I had been travelling with up until that day wanted to visit a few places I’d already seen, so I hurried ahead alone, keen to put my feet up amongst the lush landscapes I’d read and heard so much about.
I’m usually pretty organised when it comes to booking transport and accomodation whilst travelling, but something about Sri Lanka made me so laid back I was horizontal… so I had nowhere to stay on this occasion. I knew I’d be able to troop around a few guesthouses easily, find the room with the best view and barter for a good price. I had this idealised vision in my head of the perfect balcony, overlooking all of Ella gap, where I could wile away my days sinking pot after pot of tea, writing and reading.
However, as soon as I walked out of the station, a lady in her thirties approached me and handed me her colourful card: ‘Nice View Guesthouse’. I was aware there were probably over a dozen ‘Nice View’ guesthouses, all with questionable levels of visibility from whatever windows or balconies they offered, but something in her smile (and in my exhausted state of mind) told me to just go with it, so I hopped in her friends tuktuk and we sped a mile uphill to her little pink house overlooking Ella Rock where I would end up spending the next five days tucking into her delicious daals and pumpkin curries and conversing with her two intelligent kids.
Her son looked no older than twelve but drove the family tuktuk and helped around the house!
Anyway, on my first day in Ella, a Danish couple filling the only other bedroom in the house and I set off to trek up Ella Rock, clutching a torn piece of scrap paper with three lines scribbled down as directions to our destination.
Within fifteen minutes, a shop owner beckoned us off the road and asked us where we were going, before pointing back down a pathway that sloped off into the woods behind his modest setup. Laughing and exposing a threadbare but non-the-less warm and genuine smile, he told us, ‘every day, I show people like you the correct way to Ella Rock! You will never find it with these directions. What are these!?’
He set off down the path and turned for us to follow. He soon assumed the position of our guide, through endless banks of tea plantations, over train tracks and left and right down a million densley overgrown pathways. He was right; we’d have never found the top of Ella Rock with the crude directions we’d been penned.
We soon learned the man’s name was Bryan. He was in his early sixties, and his children and grandchildren all lived in Kandy and Colombo. He’d spent the best part of his life working in the hotel industry, and had had the privelage of travelling around Australia with one of the companies he’d worked for, which explained why he spoke such impeccable English. Honestly, it was better than mine. He used words like ‘seldom’ and ‘biodegradable’.
After a while, I began to worry Bryan expected payment for his services, since he led us all the way up Ella Rock. His fitness level and quickness of foot suggested to me that it wasn’t the first time he’d scaled the hill. It’s not that I minded paying him, but the Danish couple had already voiced that they had no money on them, expecting the walk to only be a few hours round trip before they arrived back to the guest house for lunch, and I only had the equivalent of a few pounds on me.
Then again, maybe he just loved keeping fit and practising his already faultless English. He told us stories of a terrible fire that had all but ravaged the area three years previously. He told us how, because he was a Christian, he ordered and cooked turkey every Christmas for his family. He took us to more secluded viewpoints and pointed out waterfalls far below us.
On the way back down, we came to a fork in the path. Since my Danish companions had a train to catch that afternoon, Bryan beckoned towards the town, and the Nine Arch Bridge that crossed over the valley. As it turned out, it would be quicker for them to cross the bridge as a shortcut, and hail a tuktuk back to the guesthouse to collect their backpacks. We bid them goodbye and Bryan led me down a steep, scenic path into the valley.
I was already blown away by the beauty of Ella. But those houses Bryan led me through, built into the banks of Ella Rock, were a dream. Steep steps entwined around brightly painted houses. The most beautiful tropical gardens were shaded by the thick canopy above us. Flowers and palms burst out in every direction. Bryan knew pretty much every local we passed, so we stopped to talk frequently. I’d never wanted to live in any other place more, I’d never craved such a simple existence, surrounded by nature. I immediatly understood why he’d chosen to walk me back to town this way.
By the time we reached the road leading back to Ella, I was exhausted and starving. Whatsmore, the afternoon clouds were beginning to close in, meaning it was only a matter of minutes before the routine afternoon shower would soak us.
Since I was still unsure as to whether I’d stay in Nice View and invite my friends to crash there when they arrived too, or find somewhere else a little nicer, Bryan organised for a friend of his to drive us around a few guesthouses in central Ella which were highly rated on TripAdvisor to save me getting soaked. (As it turned out, we decided to stay put in our cheap and cosy family abode; it felt rude to leave!)
Then, accepting only enough money from me to buy himself a few beers at the local bottle shop, Bryan pointed me in the direction of a cafe called The Curd and Honey Shop, telling me I’d like the food there.
He told me that when I was finished, he’d meet me at the bus stop outside, so he could show me which number bus to get back up the hill directly to my guesthouse. This would save me having to get tuktuks alone. “Are you sure you don’t want to come and eat with me Bryan?” I said? “No no, liquid lunch for me, always.” He replied before pottering away, rolled up newspaper in hand.
The owner of The Curd and Honey shop, by chance, was holding his annual memorial service for his father that day, which meant that by Buddhist tradition, that he’d prepared a huge all-you-can-eat feast for anyone who stopped by… completely free of charge.
Locals sat and stuffed their faces, conversing enthusiastically, while confused travellers sat on makeshift stools, plates loaded high with Sri Lankan delicacies that had been forced into their hands, shrugging confusedly at eachother and mumbling things like, “I have no idea either. Best eat it all, I guess…”.
I couldn’t believe my luck.
Upon meeting back up with my new friend to jump on the bus, I found out Bryan had of course known about this all along, which is why he was keen to usher me there for lunch.
We talked like old friends all the way back up the hill until it was time for me to jump off the bus. My guesthouse owner and her friend threw her heads back in laughter when I told them I’d been lucky enough to spend my day with the lovely man named Bryan. “Aahhhh! English boy!”
As it turned out, Bryan was something of a local legend in Ella – renowned for his excellent command of English and his friendliness.
Sometimes in the modern, Western frame of living, we’re so busy and wrapped up in our committments that we barely have half an hour to spare even for our closest friends. So it gets me that someone like Bryan will happily give up their whole day to spend time with a complete stranger.
I guess one of the biggest lessons that travelling has taught me, is that for every bad experience (and yes, there are plenty), the universe has a way of balancing it out with an equal act of warmth and kindness. We just have to notice they’re happening; so often, we don’t.
Trust, embrace, even just a little more.