Fancy Goods and Ironmongery: At Home in Nuwara Eliya

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Besides being the highest settlement above sea level on the entire island of Sri Lanka, the sprawling hill-country hamlet of Nuwara Eliya (or “Nor-REL-iya”) is one of the most bizarre conglomerations of people, industry, religion, and culture I have ever seen. Though the town itself is not entirely enticing in an obvious livable or lovable manner, I am thankful for the two months we’ll have in which to experience, explore—and attempt to explain—such an utterly unique place.

A few surface impressions: lanky, loitering , variously mustachioed men wearing blue-checkered or batik sarongs below formal vests and collar shirts; a small but confusing tangle of streets, intersections, and sweet-smelling food stalls; tri-wheeler tuk-tuks spinning U-turns between heavily laden tea and vegetable trucks; vast valley walls rising up on all sides, carpeted with green and ending in the tall frontier of non-native pine, cedar, and eucalyptus trees which cap the ridge tops.

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There are many hotels in Nuwara Eliya—and signs for hotels. This is a premier destination for the well-off Colombo upper and middle-crust, especially in April during the Sinhalese and Tamil New Years, when the lowlands are smothered in heat and Nuwara Eliya becomes crazed with crowds and hiked prices during its peak season (Tay and I plan on fleeing to the beach during mid-April). Some of the hotels are new, soul-less boxes and others are old and empty with lots of tall glass windows; the grandest of Nuwara Eliya’s accommodations are century-old, grossly overpriced stone brick affairs, offering more faded British colonial, hunting trophy-adorned, tea-time stuffiness than, one imagines, Britain itself.

Driving into Nuwara Eliya from any direction, there is no doubt that tea is king, and indeed, that is the reason the place was founded; flat oceans of tea bushes entwine with the town’s 18-hole golf course (!) and encroach on the city limits and horse racing track. Vegetable production plays a close second, and walking the streets one is amazed how every square inch of available land is terraced, rowed, seeded, and sodden—meticulously tended patches of onions, cabbages, carrots, and other crops.

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As for our personal concerns, the most important spot in town is Cargill’s, an ages-old Nuwara Eliya institution whose imperious serif-scripted signs shout the availability of such items as GROCERIES, SMOKERS’ REQUISITES, AERATED WATERS, SPORTING GOODS, GRAMOPHONES, ELECTRO PLATE, LADIES DRAPERY, WATERPROOFS, CHEMISTS & DRUGGISTS, LAMPS & TOYS, WINES & SPIRITS, FANCY GOODS, and, of course, IRONMONGERY.

What more could we want?

Another mentionable aspect of Nuwara Eliya’s industry is the garment business; several mid-size assembly plants for north- and west-bound winter clothing make for some interesting items for sale. Thousands of factory seconds can be had in the shops—particularly at Bails’ Bizarre; 40 identical stalls surrounding a single parking lot, owned and operated by 40 identically capped, saronged, and bearded Muslim men, offering an identical array of barely imperfect Gore-Tex, Polar Fleece, and Windstopper gear: Columbia, Helly-Hansen, North Face, etc, etc. Quite different from the yaks’ wool wares we bought the last time we found ourselves in such a chilly clime (in the tea-dominated dominion of Darjeeling).

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But this latest, warm-fuzzy technology is welcome, as we buy vests, pullovers, and hats (we shipped our woolies home months ago), in order to enjoy the cool, starry nights and fresh-chill mornings of our new home (for the moment): The Garden City of Nuwara Eliya.

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