Thursday, 19 August 2010

Sri Lanka

 Sri Lanka is a small island with the most amazing variety of different landscapes imaginable. The flat, dry grasslands of the National parks provide a home to elephants, leopards, lizards and some 400 species of birds. They give way to the wetlands with its lush green vegetation and rainforest jungle from which rise mountains consisting of wonderful waterfalls and tea plantations. Wide rivers edged by all sorts of palms, hardwood and acacia trees open out into mangrove swamps and provide home to the fish eagle, cormorants and loads of other birds. Prawn farms are set up along the rivers with huts for the night guards who are there to protect the catch. Fishing lines, nets and fishermen in canoes can be seen all along the rivers with their catch for sale outside their homes just a few minutes later.

Tropical fruits, pineapples, papaya, mangoes, ramutan, jack and durian fruits grow on the lower lands with tea, carrots, turnips and potatoes on the higher land. King coconuts are a main crop, very important to the Sinhalese people, once harvested they are husked by poor people who get paid about 2 pence per coconut for this very hard work! The fibres in the husks are then used to make coir mats, ropes etc., the king coconut itself is what we get desiccated coconut from, the leaves are usually plaited for roofs and mats whilst the stems of the leaves are used to make brooms.

We visited the botanical gardens to see some amazing trees, there is a weeping fig which apparently can give shade to 1500 school children though we were not there when they counted!  Banyan trees with loads of trunks that leave spaces that enable other trees to grow up the middle of them are really interesting. The whole country seems to be decorated with beautiful orchids, lilies various colourful creepers and the national flowers, mahanel, are plucked from rivers and waterways to make necklaces for the women (I was so sad when the young man taking us on a river trip did one for me – would have preferred it to stay in the water :-( but it is considered an honour to present visitors with one!)

The country is recovering slowly from the war, some 16% of the people there are very poor, scraping a living from selling the coconuts or bananas that grow where they live, often with a wooden stall or on a mat in front of their wattle and daub homes. Once people have squatted in their home for twenty years and one day they can apply for ownership.

Towns and villages
We drove through busy village streets with shops jammed together in every space, some wooden constructions, some tin huts, some cobbled together from all sorts including bits of plastic sheeting and held down with bungies. The shops were the most unlikely mixture, a bridal shop next to a cement shop which was sharing cement dust with the ice cream shop next door. Used tyres, alloy wheels (second hand imported from Japan) used domestic machines, car spares (second hand) single bunches of king coconuts, clothes plastic toys such as swimming aids, bats and balls, Christmas type of reindeer and awful naked pink dolls were some of the offerings that these lovely people were hoping to sell. In the towns the shops tend to be gathered together by type. We went into a clothing arcade, fruit, fish and meat markets, down roads selling all hardware, all bags, luggage etc., or all jewellery.

Despite the fact that many people are quite poor most of the women dress beautifully and look really lovely all of the time. We talked to ladies selling saris in a silk factory who thought that the average Sinhalese lady would have about 30 saris.  Every village has its religious shrine or shrines, Buddah sits in beautifully painted splendor in every village, often there are Hindu shrines and Christian shrines nearby. These are bedecked in flowers and candles most of the time, even when the houses in the road are a series of tumble down shacks that have never seen a coat of paint.  The shrines and / or temples which are often far better than the homes that some of the villagers live in. People spend much of their free time at the temple, lighting candles, making offerings, in prayers, chatting to friends, they can be quite social gatherings. There are many historical temples and shrines that are quite wonderful to visit. We went to the cave temples at Dambulla and the ruins of the temples at Polonnaruwa.



Animals 
Dogs roam everywhere, they are totally street-wise animals who will move from the road after being hooted at and watch the traffic every bit as carefully as the pedestrians. At one time there was a programme whereby stray dogs were taken to the pound, the owners were contacted, strays not claimed after 30 days were offered to good homes after that they were put down. Buddhist clergy though did not approve so now the dogs are left to roam and scavenge every bit of food etc. they can.   Monkeys are everywhere on the island, to me are wonderful, mischievous, playful and very entertaining. I really enjoyed watching their antics but at the rainforest hotel some people were frightened of them and sending for staff members to move them on before they would come out of their chalets. We were told of times when monkeys modeled bikinis so we made sure our swimming kit was tied firmly to the rails, the most we saw was them playing in groups, youngsters chasing each other and gamboling down banks – occasionally tipping out the bins to scavenge left over food.  At another hotel breakfast buffet we watched a family gather rolls butter etc, then go back to fetch their main course, whilst they were gone the monkeys came down and cleared their plates. The family looked totally puzzled on their return, looking suspiciously at the waiters, who, of course, did not have a clue what had occurred! Crows did similar antics at another hotel but specialized in pinching the little bags of sugar put in a bowl on each table. Chipmunks provided endless amusement, watching their antics racing up and down trees, drinking out of glasses and taking food from one’s hand, they provided many a video or photograph opportunity.  As we drove round Habarana, the dry area more or less central, we saw a “Tusker” an elephant about 12 years old wandering freely, in fact he crossed the road in front of the bus. That was a quite wonderful moment; we were told it was a one in a million chance. The guide and bus driver were as enthralled as the holiday makers. We walked along a waterway following a water monitor lizard, apparently if they get cross with people on land one swish of their tails will cut the flesh off one’s leg, he obviously did not like us following him and sunk to hide below the water. We moved up to the other side of a bridge was looked back. After a few minutes he rose and carried on his journey, as he came under the bridge we were able to photograph him.   We had to stop the coach for a land monitor lizard that was blocking the path. Seeing these amazing animals in their natural habitat is great – an experience in itself! During the holiday we went on several very long river trips and ended up watching dozens of the water monitors.  On safari seeing elephants, crocodiles, huge lizards, mongooses, jackals, pelicans, storks, kingfishers and monkeys was lovely. The animals were obviously unmoved by the approach of the jeeps which visit them daily as they go down the drink in the late afternoon. It was fascinating to watch the female elephants hiding the baby in their midst. We only caught a glimpse of it being shuffled between the females.  Probably the only disappointment was the elephant orphanage at Pinnawela. At first I was entranced at seeing the elephants in the water, it soon became clear it was little but commercial exploitation of the poor animals that had suffered at the hands of man. Bullet wounds in the legs of some, a foot missing from one who stepped on a land mine – that these animals need looking after seems feasible until you go on safari and realize there are more of the same living freely in the wild. The “poo paper” factory – the completion of the visit to the orphanage where they sell paper products, Christmas cards, calendars etc made from elephant dung put the finishing touch to the day.

 Children  
I was fascinated by the school children – all wearing white, state provided uniforms, the ties worn by each child denoted the school that they were at and the girls had long hair worn uniformly in two long plaits and tied with matching ribbons at the bottom. To keep these uniforms clean would be hard enough in the UK but many of these children live in houses with no running water and their clothes are washed in the river – I was told the answer was “rubbing with blue” and one would have to be at least as old as me to understand that :-) School starts at 7am and finishes at 1pm but many pupils take extra classes in the afternoon and evening and we saw lots of them, still in uniform in almost every place we visited in the evening. The children visit all of the temples, shrines and cultural centers; I don’t think we visited any of them without seeing the white clad crocodiles.

The Hotels 
We arrived in Colombo very late in the evening after an 18 hour journey, had dinner, a swim and sat by the pool having a drink. A man carried a laptop over to another table and sat down clearly working. Being me – could not resist – went and asked him if wifi was available and how much it cost etc. He told me it was not available where he was but if I went and stood in a specific spot it was fine – and it was free to me! It turned out that I was talking to the manager and his office was close to where he told me to stand. I contacted home and told them we had arrived etc. So far so good!  We moved on to Kandy, visited the temple and took part in a festival – that was an interesting experience, not bad, but different and in a way quite exciting. We attended a cultural concert of Kandyan dancing – the costumes were amazing representing cobras and peacocks amongst others with brightly coloured face masks and all accompanied by intricate rhythmic drumming. We were in the equivalent of the Royal Albert Hall in the capital – the swallows nesting in the eves were making nearly as much noise as the drummers and dive bombing the audience all through the concert. As we exited the swallows were replaced by huge fruit bats by the hundred. From Kandy we visited Polonnaruwa where we investigated lots of ancient temple ruins.  Once again at the hotel I asked about wifi and was told yes they had it but it wasn’t working. In the next hotel my query was met with a huge guffaw and the following one, on the top of a mountain in a tea plantation they had heard of it, they thought they knew what it was…   In the final hotel where we spent the last six days I asked and was told, yes we have a business suite – 2 internet linked for about 400 rooms ;-).

I tried to explain that I wanted wifi access, yes I could buy it for an hour. Could I buy it for 10 hours to be used over several days like I had found in Colombo? Hmm – not sure can you come back tomorrow? So when I got back they said the right person was not working – come back tomorrow – on the third day the answer was no but they would give me a cable link in my room… no I want to link my phone… so that I can talk to my family…. Never mind I will buy hour long tickets as I need them!

Travel 
Travelling by road in Sri Lanka is not for the nervous. Tuk tuks, brightly patterned lorries, cars, bicycles and motorcycles drive alongside ox carts and share the roads with dogs, goat and cows. Overtaking, undertaking is all normal and if there is a space big enough for one’s vehicle then it is fine to put said vehicle in it. Overtaking on blind bends is good so long as you have give the little toot on the horn as a warning. Wide yellow zebra crossings are places where the pedestrian takes their lives in their hands if they really need to cross… traffic giving way is by no means guaranteed.  We took several tuk tuk rides and most of the young drivers were delightful. We had one though – when we gave him our destination address took us straight to a gem factory. We said no – we were not going in – he knew where we wanted to go. Next he took us to a family shop – no! He did himself out of his tip!

We had a mad impulse to see the country by train. Having flown into the airport near Colombo and spent just one night there we thought we had not seen enough of it. We decided a slow train journey would give us opportunities to see a different aspect of the country, take photos etc., we could spend the day in town and make our way back to the hotel for dinner. What a stupid thing to do! We boarded the slow train and had to stand, it was already quite full. Each station more and more people got on the train and squashed themselves in, there were soon three people deep hanging out of the doorways. That journey gave a whole new meaning to the word intimate! It was hot and hellish and those poor people do it every day to go shopping or get to work! At Mount Lavinia we had to swap to the main-line train. It was ancient, rusty, dirty, open,  packed beyond belief and fast. The journey back was even worse. Sinhalese people lined the platform both sides, as soon as the train came in they jumped down from the opposite side of the track so that they could leap on the train from both sides. I always had this romantic notion of crossing India by train – it has well and truly gone!

Historical Sites  
From Habarana we visited the 12th century Sinhalese capital of Polonnaruwa, it is a whole ancient temple complex, something like 316 recognised sites but with only about 60 that have been uncovered so far.  We visited Sigiriya rock with its fresco paintings. The cave temple at Dambulla and the temples at Polonnaruwa were all a huge surprise, I had not expected ancient temples for some reason. There is lots of Chinese influence in the temple buildings; many take the pagoda shape with 18 meters between floors. Most artifacts are at the Museum in Colombo so we saw lots of them there.

We took about 1500 photographs and several short video clips. I am sure I will remember loads more as I look through them and start to name them etc.  It was a longish journey – a 10.5 hour flight then an hour long stopover in the Male. Seeing the Maldives from the air is a quite extraordinary sight, it is like the biggest set of stepping stones imaginable, some submerged, some above the water, some surrounded with salt, some with surf. After the hour stop it was another hour out to Colombo. It seems a long way to visit an island about the same size as Ireland but it is so diverse I felt that we had covered lots of Asia in that one short visit. It was a really interesting holiday, good fun in part, sad to see the remaining Tsunami damage and the poor people struggling simply to survive but I am really glad that we went. Apparently the beaches are lovely – but where we stayed it was still winter and the end of the monsoon season, hot rain was a novelty though.  We could not swim in the sea it was far too dangerous. The pull was so strong to try to swim would have been foolhardy. Even those determined to try soon gave up. If we ever go back it will be to the undeveloped north coast.

There is a selection of about 100 photographs on Flickr which shows a variety of animals, vegetation, temples and lifestyles that one can experience on Sri Lanka. http://www.flickr.com/photos/24572238@N02/sets/72157624631186083/

6 comments:

Doug Woods said...

Carol,
It was absolutely fascinating to read this post about your journey to Sri Lanka. It brings back so many memories of my honeymoon there about 9 years ago ( my wife could tell you exactly when it was). Unlike you, we didn't tour around but we did visit many of the places you mention.
I was saddened to read of your experiences at the Elephant sanctuary. It was one of the highlights of our stay. At that time, the civil war was still on and there was serious fears for the safety and survival of the whole elephant population in the country; elephants were being killed not just in the crossfire but also for food. At that time, it seemed the sanctuary may be the only way to preserve the population even though they knew it would be difficult to return them to the wild owing to too much human contact. I can understand how you could feel the place had become too commercial but Im sure that is because they need the money and tourism is a vital source of income for them. I always felt they did a good job at a time of great uncertainty.
Nevertheless, it is great to read that you had a fantastic time in a country my wife and I have come to love.

Carolrb said...

We did really enjoy our time there - it is just a pity it is a bit of a long way away. Having to travel for a day each way means that you really need two weeks to make it worth going there.

We are quite tempted to do the north coast though - it is very undeveloped with apparently just one hotel. I guess we need to do it very soon if we decide to - otherwise it will be working its way to a conrete jungle. We were very aware of that hapening in Kandy and Colombo.

偉冠儒冠儒倫 said...

所有的資產,在不被諒解時,都成了負債.................................................................

骆雨康 said...

天生我材必有用,千金散盡還復來。.. ...............................................................

Clive said...

Hi Carol,
Good to read your article - you obviously enjoyed your time in Sri Lanka! I hope you don't mind me making a couple of points:

You mentioned the Sinahese but not the Tamils, Moors etc. Many of the poor you encountered will be amongst the 25% non-Sinhalese population (mostly Tamils), a tragic result of marginalisation policies of past governments.

In the south of Sri Lanka the school holidays are from 6th Aug to 6th Sept which, I guess, ties in with your holiday dates. During that time some children will have been attending examinations. The majority that you saw in their pristine white uniforms will be taking private tuition - available to those who can afford it and necessary to make up for some low quality public education. Since it's mostly the same teachers who teach in the public schools and privately, and teaching is poorly paid, the incentive to teach well in school is reduced by the attraction of more-lucrative private work.

If you enjoyed the wonderful colour and vibrancy of life in Sri Lanka perhaps you should try India next! Another amazing place!

Carolrb said...

Hello Clive
Thanks for your comments! I was clearly mislead by the guide who led us to believe the people in the country were now united and that ALL of the children had 3 uniforms issued freely each year and received a free education - I would like to think this was a language problem but can't be sure :-)Despite being maybe slightly ill-informed by the guides this year I did really enjoy being there and seeing the whole range of what Sri Lanka has to offer. It is a very pretty country with lovely, friendly people.

I would certainly love to visit India, and may get there in two or three years - we are working our way round slowly. I was only talking to someone this week about places that we must visit when we do get there, and about being given a guided tour. It is a slightly distant dream at the moment but hopefully soon...