It had been a strenuous day of travel. From our early wake up at 6am to the lengthy but absolutely mind-blowing 8 hour train ride through Sri Lanka's beautiful countryside. Finally, we had arrived in the town of Ella, where we were to be staying for the next two nights.
Our minibus taxi pulled up outside a quaint Sri Lankan house backing onto an expanse of lush, swaying trees. As I peeped through the bushes, I could just spy the railway line which was running just behind the foliage surrounding the house. Wind-chimes sang delicately in the early-evening air as a beautiful young woman leaned out over the balcony of the house. Upon spying us, she at once moved into the house and a young lad came down the stone steps from the villa down to our taxi.
The villa was situated in an elevated position. The thin track we had been travelling on lay immediately below it, hugging the foundations of the building. Then beyond the track was a drop down to another house and beyond that, a drop down to the world far below, covered with swathes of tall trees.
The young lad greeted us before proceeding to haul our luggage out of the boot of the taxi, a very kind gesture. I was about to offer to take one but he disappeared up the steps quickly, as if the weight of the bags was nothing to him.
It was time for us to follow and greet our hosts.
As soon as we reached the top of the stairs - which itself was a laborious task as a result of our sleepy state - we were greeted by our host, the beautiful woman who I had seen earlier, named Kumuduni. After locating our reservation, Kumuduni offered us tea and biscuits, something which I could not refuse. It sounded like heaven, especially after only eating 1 small pancake for breakfast followed by 1 hopper on the train.
Kumuduni showed us our room which was a quaint bedroom which sat facing the balcony and with it the gorgeous view beyond of Ella Rock which stood proudly in the distance, stretching to the heavens. Ella Rock was laden with spindly trees, carved with and sharp precipices and embraced by soft carpets of cloud.
The balcony was calling me forwards. Lewis and I took a seat at a wooden table which sat facing out to the view. It was here that we were presented with our much welcomed Sri Lankan tea and delicious custard-cream biscuits. Still not quite used to drinking black tea, I added a splash of milk. It was in this state that I was really able to taste the beauty that was Sri Lankan tea. You've probably heard the expression 'hug in a mug' before. This tea is the definition of that phrase. I can honestly say, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was the best tea that I have ever had! The biscuits were a lovely treat on the side.
The gorgeous view from the villa was much more than Ella Rock. When I turned my head slightly to the right, I had a perfect view of 'Kithal Ella Falls', the cascading waterfall that we had past earlier on the train. Due to the heavy rainfall that day, the falls raged with murky brown water which tumbled into the forest below. Just beyond the falls was the railway line which would yield the perfect view of any passing trains.
Mountains were in sight in all directions, concealing Ella Town from the outside world. The town was nestled at one end of a gorgeous valley, perched part-way up the mountainside. From our homestay, we could see the valley stretching on past Ella Rock and on the other side of the gully stood 'Little Adam's Peak', a mountain that is popular to climb.
It felt wonderful to be able to properly slow down for the first time since arriving in Sri Lanka. We knew that tomorrow was a day where we didn't have to travel and that calming thought allowed us to sit back and relax. We felt even more comfortable when Kumuduni approached us and asked us if we'd like any dinner that night.
"That would be wonderful, thank you." I replied, unable to hide my enthusiasm.
"We only have curry and rice. Is this okay?" Was her response.
This was more than okay! I was starting to learn that 'curry and rice' referred to numerous Sri Lankan dishes. The curry was often a surprise but so far I hadn't been disappointed by the wonderful vibrant flavours and inclusion of a unique array of spices.
"Sometimes people want us to cook Western dishes." Kumuduni continued.
I was horrified by this revelation. To me, there is little point in travelling if you're not going to try the local cuisine. Trying new foods is one of my favourite parts of travelling!
"I'd love curry and rice." I replied. "We love spicy too."
Kumuduni responded with a huge grin. Mine and Lewis' love of spice was earning us brownie points here in Sri Lanka. Everyone so far had been very impressed with this and some of our hosts had even called us 'like true Sri Lankans' which made me feel proud. It turns out that spicy food is a huge part of Sri Lankan culture and they are brought up on spicy food. The people are always baffled at how most tourists can't handle spice.
"Thank you. Dinner is at 7pm." Kumuduni picked up our empty mugs and made her way towards the kitchen.
The hospitality of the Sri Lankan people so far had been spectacular. I can honestly say that I have never met such kind, generous people. I must admit that I was a little nervous about my trip to Sri Lanka as we were staying in many 'homestays' which is where you stay in people's houses. However, homestays actually turned out to be my favourite types of accommodation from this trip as the hosts are so welcoming and treat you like family. Their recommendations are always fantastic and they introduce you to parts of Sri Lankan culture. I mean, you can't exactly get more immersed in the local culture than this - staying within the houses of the local people. Finally, the food cooked by the home owners is some of the best food I have ever had! I truly envy their exceptional cooking skills.
Kumuduni really went above and beyond to ensure we enjoyed our stay at her home. She had four rooms which she rented out through either AirBnB or Booking.com and all 4 were booked up whilst we were there, each with fellow backpackers, like ourselves. 2 of the rooms were upstairs and 2 were downstairs, right next to the family part of the house. Each room was accessible via its own private door so we didn't have to disturb Kumuduni's family. It was a lovely balance between having your own space but at the same time only being a stone throw away if we required anything such as a recommendation or (as we asked for the following day) an umbrella.
As we learnt that evening, we were never truly alone. Kumuduni's homestay had an uninvited furry guest who we were soon to meet. There was a table to the right of ours which had a tablecloth on. I was intrigued to look over and see that the tablecloth had been yanked towards the balcony and was fraying. What could have happened there? In a few moments, my questions were answered as a small brown-furred body slid down a post from the ceiling, its bushy tail twitching behind it.
The cheeky chipmunk was no stranger to Kumuduni who let out an exasperated sigh as she picked up the crumpled heap of cloth on the floor and spread it out once more on the table. She told us that the chipmunk visited often and loved to cause trouble.
The chipmunk made a bee-line for the table cloth. Perched on the edge of the banister it grabbed the cloth in its mouth and began to aggressively tug it. The cloth was clearly quite weighty for the chipmunk and when it flew ungracefully to the floor, the chipmunk made a hasty retreat, clawing it way back up the post and seeking refuge amongst the beams above our heads.
The sky was swiftly changing colour and it wasn't long until night was upon us. As 7pm arrived, Lewis and I sat down at our table, listening to the distant barking of dogs and honking of car horns.
Kumuduni appeared from the kitchen with our food. When she had told us we were having 'curry and rice' I wasn't expecting anything grand. However, dishes upon dishes of food were laid out in front of us, each one tantalising and wafting unique flavours at us. There was an array of curries from chicken, dhal, potato, spinach and most unique of all was the jackfruit curry.
"I do the jackfruit just for you as you say you like spicy." Kumuduni announced as she set it on the table. "I don't know if you like it and I won't normally make it for guests. I eat it with my family tonight and because you say you like spicy I thought you may like to try."
We were overwhelmed with gratitude. It felt very humbling and special to be given part of the family's own meal. We felt like we were truly eating like the local Sri Lankans.
Everything was spectacular. It was our favourite meal that we'd had in Sri Lanka so far and I'd even say that the curry was the best I'd had in my life. The flavours were so complex and satisfying. The jackfruit also went down well. Lewis said it was his favourite curry from the selection and his favourite curry he'd had on the island.
I'd actually never heard of jackfruit before this night. Jackfruit is the flesh from a native Sri Lankan fruit which when ripe has a similar texture to meat. It is often used as a vegan substitute to meat. Some even say it has meaty flavours although I thought it tasted strongly of fruit but I'm a picky eater when it comes to fruit! Despite my disliking of fruit, I did enjoy the jackfruit curry. The spicy sauce it was in was amazing!
Of course, Kumuduni was over the moon to hear how much we enjoyed her cooking, especially the jackfruit. She confessed that she was very worried about whether or not we would like it and reiterated how she had never given any other guests anything like this to try before.
With our bellies comfortably full, we said goodnight to our hosts before retiring for the night. There was just one last little surprise before bed. As we started to get ready for bed, I opened up one of our backpacks to get some supplies out. Almost at once a cockroach slipped out of the open pocket and started scuttling along the floor. I was taken aback and immediately my mind flashed back to the train we took earlier where I had seen cockroaches scurrying across the floor near our bags. I didn't think they'd been open so I was surprised one got inside. I just hoped there were no more inside the bag!
After that little treat, it was now time to rest our heads and drift off to sleep.