Ella, Ella, Ay, Ay, Ay: 21 March 2024

Ella, Sri Lanka

It was a cold misty morning in the highlands of Sri Lanka. 

After an early breakfast complete with more than a few cups of strong, hot, BOP-grade Ceylon Tea to fortify them against the cold mountain wind, Kyle and Michael headed out to the carpark to fire up the tuk-tuk.

Today was the first day that Team Mama's Boys was going to be together again on our journey across Sri Lanka. While we were all super excited to be back in action, we were also a little worried. There had been one major question mark hanging over our heads from the moment we first signed up for the Rickshaw Run: what to do with all of our luggage.

Kyle and Michael had just - and only just - managed to fit both of their backpacks in the one-foot-deep space that passed for the tuk-tuk's storage area. With Kim joining the rally, it was necessary to do a little rearranging. Somehow, we were able to fit all of our gear in the tiny tuk-tuk, even if it meant that the passengers would have to sit with a couple of bags on the floor under their legs during the ride.

So far, we hadn't had any luck in getting anything on our little rickshaw's dashboard to work, but after a more than a bit of finagling with the electronics (never mind a few good whacks and a couple of prayers), Michael was finally able to turn on the (dim and mostly useless) headlights, the (slow and equally useless) windshield wiper, and finally at least the left indicator light (which we had been driving without for several days so far). The odometer still doesn't work (but who needs it?) nor does the speedometer (it would take a miracle for us to exceed the speed limit anyway).

Our tuk-tuk - whom we've nicknamed "Abigail" after the first two letters of her license plage - is a hilarious piece of machinery, and all of her quirks are what make our journey so much fun. Even if the electronics have been fidgety and temperamental at best, the clunky four-stroke engine keeps chugging away, and we feel really lucky that our reliable little rickshaw hasn't had any mechanical issues yet (knock on wood).

With our family team reunited, it was time to get back on the road and underway.

Up here in the altitude and on such a cold and rainy morning, Michael had to open up the choke and run the engine for a while before setting off. He still had to coast down the mountain roads in neutral for several minutes before he was finally able to get the engine in gear.

Every morning before we hit the road, we sit down to have a look at the map and identify a few good places to stop along the way. We're really trying to stick to the 45-minute rule (stop and rest the engine every 45 minutes or so) as much as possible - something that we're crediting with our good mechanical fortune so far.

After leaving Nuwara Eliya, we pulled in at our first stop, the Hakgala Botanic Gardens. Monkeys watched us curiously from the roof of the ticket office as we parked our tuk-tuk and made our way on foot into the gardens.

The Hakgala Botanical Garden is one of the five botanical gardens in Sri Lanka. It's the second largest in the country, and one of the top places that nearly everyone we've spoken to in Sri Lanka has suggested that we visit. 

The garden has a cool temperate climate because its altitude is 5,400 feet above sea level, and it is home to a huge number of plant species that we never expected to would see in tropical Sri Lanka! One of the most eye-opening things that we've discovered on our visit to this small country is how rich its biodiversity is.

With the garden's ferns, towering pines, and cold, misty climate, it felt far more like we had somehow found ourselves in the Pacific Northwest than on an equatorial island in the tropics!

Established in 1861 by English botanist George Henry Kendrick Thwaites, the botanic garden is now home to over 10,000 species of flora and is especially renowned for its cultivation of orchids and roses.

The area is also steeped in myth and legend and is even referenced in the Ramayana (circa 8th Century B.C.), a Sanskrit epic, one of the holy books of Hinduism, and a text that is as culturally influential in the East as the Iliad, Odyssey, and Bible are in the West.

According to the Ramayana, the Demon King Ravana of the ancient kingdom of Lanka abducted Sita, wife of the god Rama, setting off a great war. After abducting Sita, Ravana kept her hidden, and - in a move reminiscent of the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone - what is now Hakgala was offered to Sita as a pleasure garden.

Considering how hot and humid the rest of the country has been, it's not hard to see why the gift of Hakgala would be a tempting bribe.

One of our favorite parts of the garden was the massive glasshouse which featured a cavalcade of succulents, cacti, orchids, and other plants that wouldn't otherwise be able to thrive in the area's cool damp climate.

We ended up spending a little longer than we had intended exploring the gardens, but they were so beautiful and otherworldly that it seemed a shame to leave any quicker. We really could have spent a lot longer exploring the park's medicinal gardens, fernery, and herbarium. 

Later in the day, we pulled over at a small mountainside restaurant to rest the engine and have lunch.

This was an unplanned stop, but we were all getting hungry and it was time to give Abby a rest.

We sat down at the restaurant's small table and ordered three servings of rice and curry.

Rice and curry is Sri Lanka's national dish, celebrated for its incredible variety and depth of flavors. It is a vibrant representation of the island's rich culinary traditions.

Typically, the meal consists of a large serving of rice surrounded by various curries that include vegetables, fish, or meat, often enhanced with the distinctive flavors of coconut milk and spices such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, and chili peppers.

At this little roadside stop, we were each given a big scoop of white rice and free access to a buffet of various spicy curries. Today's lunch ended up being one of the spiciest meals we've had in Sri Lanka so far, so after finishing our plates, we ordered a few ice cream cones for dessert to quench the fires on our tongues.

A short while later we were back on the road on our final stretch towards Ella.

Our last stop of the day before pulling into town was Dowa Raja Maha Viharaya. The Dhowa Rock Temple, which dates back more than 2000 years, is a Buddhist temple and government-protected archaeological site.

The ancient 38-foot-tall carving of the Buddha looms out of the sheer cliffside offering blessings and protection across the valley. 

We sputtered into Ella in the late afternoon. Ella is a popular tourist resort town in Sri Lanka's Uva Province which is famous for its temperate climate and cloud forest.

We had quite a lot of trouble getting to our hotel, which is located at the top of a hill. Michael wasn't able to get the tuk-tuk up to the parking lot with Kim and Kyle in the backseat, so they had to disembark at the foot of the extremely steep gravel path and trudge up to the hotel whilst Michael desperately tried to gun Abby up the slope.

Eventually we were able to park our trusty little rickshaw on the only patch of flat ground in town... with the help of an employee from one of the hotels a little further down the hill.

As we pulled in, we were excited to see another beflagged tuk-tuk waiting for us.

The reason that we had navigated to Ella in the first place was because tonight was to be the Rickshaw Run's mid-point pit stop meetup.

All of the Rickshaw Run teams that have made it this far were invited to One Love, a funky little reggae bar in Ella, to share a few beers and swap advice and encouragement for the remainder of the run.

We hadn't seen another team since our first day on the road and it was really exciting to pull up alongside another tuk-tuk flying a Rickshaw Run flag.

After checking in, Michael and Kyle jogged down the steep hill to buy drinking water at the local shop.

Ella is not the type of town that we normally would stop in on our travels. It's a touristy spot, full of hostels, cheap bars, and way too many package tourists and grungy backpackers. Still, you have to give them a little grace - after all, we have ended up here as well! Anyway, it's not hard to see why people flock to Ella. It's a beautiful part of the country and a base for many of the most spectacular treks, hikes, and camping adventures in Sri Lanka.

Michael and Kyle were very excited to check out the hotel's rooftop pool, but as the mist rolled in and the temperature plummeted, the water became less and less inviting.

Nonetheless, the boys tried to get in the water... but they didn't even last five minutes.

The pool was icy cold.

Instead, they ordered a glass of arrack and tried to lounge on the cloud-shrouded deck.

That night we put on our team shirts and made our way to One Love.

Everyone was very excited to see Kim, and the other runners were thrilled that she was feeling better.

It was so nice to connect with some of the friends that we had made during test driving! As the evening went on and we shared the stories of our adventures on the road, our team grew increasingly appreciative of our little tuk-tuk. So far, it seems that we may be the only team who hasn't suffered any catastrophic mechanical issue of one sort or another.

"Our engine went out on day one", a Daniel, a Norwegian friend, told us.

"Our wheel bearings snapped off on the ride up here", said Team Grumpy Old Men, a pair of boisterous and jovial kilt-wearing Scots.

So far, we've gotten extraordinarily lucky - breakdowns are expected on the Rickshaw Run since tuk-tuks really aren't meant to be pushed as hard as we're pushing them. However, that's all part of the adventure!

Since there's no set route, it's been interesting to hear how the other teams have made their way across the country. No two teams have taken the same path.

Not every team made it to Ella. All in all, of the sixty or so tuk-tuk teams making our way across Sri Lanka, about twenty or so had made it to the pit stop meetup. The rest still have a few days to get to the finish line on the south coast.

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