1940s murder mysteries, misty tea plantations: the Bandarawela hotel

Sri Lanka is such a beautiful jewel of a country. I used to visit it fairly often on business, which always involved going into tea growing areas. Travelling to lush mountain ranges dotted with emerald coloured tea estates, breathtaking waterfalls, quaint colonial-era towns, and minuscule villages, I always marvelled at the hardy folk who had determinedly ventured into the mountainous jungles of Sri Lanka a couple of centuries ago to plant coffee, and then persevered to plant tea when disease wiped the coffee out. They left in their wake some quaint colonial-era homes on tea estates and cute hotels in neighbouring towns. I’ve had the pleasure of staying at many of these places in my time. Every time I went up it was for work, but despite the fact that work involved long days, short nights, arduous journeys on rickety roads, and having your brain ‘on’ all the time, I woke up refreshed each morning thanks to the places where I stayed.

One particularly memorable place was the Bandarawela hotel. I used to do semi-annual meetings with my team to make sure everyone was on track, that we were reflecting on the way forward, and that we were doing our absolute best. One year my team doubled in size and we ended up having well over a dozen people in it. So, it was even more important for all of us to get together and go through the team-building process again in addition to all the other work at hand.

When we arrived at the Bandarawela hotel for our meeting in November that year, the weather was crisp, with warmish days and cooler nights, weather one doesn’t generally associate with Sri Lanka. It was clearly off-season for the Bandarwela and with the exception of one or two other foreign guests who came in for a couple of nights, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Which was great because we certainly managed to make ourselves at home. The hotel lounge became our living room. Indeed, as we had our meeting, our breakout sessions, small group discussions, and downtime, we seemed to take over every inch of the property, from the inner-courtyard to the garden, from the dining room to, on the first night, even the kitchen. And every night we’d go back to our rooms, to find that the staff had tucked hot water bottles between the sheets to keep us warm (no central heating). Each of our rooms was unique and beautiful, with an attached bathroom that had a deep, enamelled cast-iron bathtub (which we never used because there was a water shortage in the area). The bathrooms even had back entrances for the days when staff used to bring in hot water for guests once upon a time. This was clearly a place time had forgotten, all the better for all of us. The town where the hotel is located is tiny and there’s really nothing else to do there, which was perfect for us. We had to intensively work the whole week in an environment without distractions but with a good atmosphere to let the creative and intellectual juices flow. There was a supermarket across the street for sundries and for the bottles of arrack (Sri Lankan coconut brandy) that our 72 year old teammate could consume in alarming quantities. So it suited us fine. We visited some nearby (just 15-20 minutes drive away) Fairtrade Certified tea producers as part of the learning and exchange for team members who were responsible for areas outside Sri Lanka and one evening late in the week, our heads too full to work anymore at 6 pm, we took a mini-excursion to nearby waterfalls, had steaming cups of tea at a roadside stall, and let nature and camaraderie rejuvenate us before dinner and the balance of the work week that stood ahead.

What I’ll never forget about the Bandarawela hotel is the absolute charm and hospitality of the staff. The first night we were there I had organized a murder mystery game as a sort of crazy, fun, team building exercise that would loosen everyone up without having them share 20 questions about their lives within the first hours of being together. I hadn’t told any of the field based team we were going to do this, and my headquarters based team knew it was going to happen, but didn’t know the details. As we were driving up to the Bandarawela hotel one of my HQ colleagues handed out invitations to the murder mystery dinner party, with instructions for each person to come to dinner in character of the role they were to enact. Now I’d expected that people would just come down in whatever they were wearing but ready to portray the persona of their character through dinner and the post-dinner game itself. Well, leave it to my awesome team. We got to the Bandarawela hotel with a couple of hours to spare before dinner. I thought that after a long journey up from the plains and a visit to Fairtrade tea plantations, people would be too exhausted to do anything but take a nap or a short walk before dinner. But no! As I sat in my room, very nerdily looking over the week’s workshop schedule and checking if I had everything we needed, I heard a knock on the door. My team members were hunting all over the hotel for costume props, begging, borrowing, improvising, what have you! I thought, oh s**t, I’m the boss, I’m making everyone do this, I can’t be the nerdy spoilsport with no real costume. So, I quickly dug something out that could pass as a costume, drew a moustache (I was a German general-the murder mystery was set during WWII), and went down. It turns out I was definitely the lamest of the lot. The others had managed to turn bits of the luggage content all of us had brought into the most elaborate, authentic, 1940s costumes befitting their characters. The nurse even managed a cap made out of toilet paper. The most amazing characters, however, were the cook, the American GI, and some sort of policeman. The GI somehow found dog tags and had convinced a female teammate to sacrifice her eyeliner for use as camouflage on his arms and chest. The policeman had borrowed part of the security guard’s uniform, and the cook had done the same with the chef’s outfit. We were completely in character during dinner and after, and the hotel staff played along all night. Our crazy murder mystery party must have been the highlight of their month because the staff kept reminiscing about it and giggling to us the whole week we were there.

In the end, all fun/games aside, we were there for some very complex work. And at the end of the week we emerged a stronger team, with a clear, aligned vision, strong values, reflection of the work we had done, lessons on the challenges we had faced, an amazing strategy for the work ahead, a drive to do more and better. Having the space to be able to work through all of that was priceless.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have occasion to use the Bandarawela hotel for the same purpose as I did the last time. But one thing is for sure: whenever I need to go to a place of peace, off the grid, to think, to write, or just to be, the Bandarawela is one of the places I will long for.

Here’s a link to the hotel’s website:

http://www.aitkenspencehotels.com/bandarawelahotel/

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