Tuesday 23 September 2014

Day 157: Galle - The Dutch East Indies

Baby turtles!!! Put them back Susan.
To Galle.  Before the Brits got their hands on Sri Lanka, it was home to canals, bicycles and men in orange (because we're avoiding national stereotypes completely today) and the symbol of the Dutch East India company still remains on some of the buildings to tell the tale.  I love the idea that they put a cockerel on their emblem because they thought 'Galle' derived from the Latin for 'cockerel' rather than the Singhalese for 'cliff'.  (What?  The locals don't speak Latin?  The savages!)  If only the colonials always got the wrong end of the stick in such a harmless manner.

We wandered around the walls of the Dutch fortress then visited the Dutch church where flagstones record the entombment of a geliefde vrouw or geliefde zoon (beloved wife, beloved son), with apologies to Dutch speakers if Google Translate got that wrong.   Then we started heading north towards Colombo, the port of choice of the British colonials who replaced the Dutch.

Taprobane island (I hope you are reading this Uncle David?)
On the way, we stopped at a beach-side restaurant where you can choose yourself a fish and then have it cooked (a bit like The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, only at least the fish does not speak to you and recommend itself as a fillet when you are making your choice).  Guy picked himself a 630g beast and had it brought to the table in style.  It was so beautifully marinated that I quickly dropped my Hitchhikers' Guide analogies and decided to tuck in too.

After lunch, we stopped at a Sri Lankan mask workshop and museum where the masks that intrigued me the most were those depicting eighteen different types of illness.  The green man was clearly about to vomit and the bright red one was suffering a fever, but some others were hard to call.  The accompanying information told us that demons can inflict a range of illnesses, one of the worst being the black devil who brings erotic thoughts to young girls.  This, apparently, is one of the worst type of illness out there.  Cholera and tuberculosis are not such a dreadful fate after all, but erotic thoughts in a young girl?  May the gods have mercy!

English and Dutch influences at Galle
The next stop was a turtle hatchery, purporting to protect turtles by buying their eggs and rearing them for the first five years of their lives before releasing them into the wild.  That way, they don't end up as breakfast for a stray dog.  We were proudly shown the tank of baby turtles then the 'hospital tank', where those whose limbs have been severed by fishing nets live out their lives.  I wasn't convinced though.  Our 'guide' kept urging us to pick up the turtles, no matter what signs of distress they showed, and practically forced us to pose for pictures with the flailing creatures in our hands.  And this really doesn't hurt them?  What if I've just sprayed Deet to keep off the insects (which I have)?  What if I use steroids on my hands for my eczema (which I do)? Is this really about protecting turtles or running a business where the guide who gets the biggest tip is the one who takes a photo of their client kissing a turtle?  Unfortunately, I guess it must work.

From here it was next stop Colombo and the Great Orient Hotel, where the Englishmen in suits have largely been replaced by Chinese businessmen, and the view from the restaurant looks over a container port not a harbour for sail boats, but where time has otherwise stood still.  A man in a suit plays soothing music on a saxophone; the waiter pushes in your chair for you and unfolds your napkin; the cocktail menu doesn't explain what a Pinacolada or a Bloody Mary contains because the guests are experienced enough cocktail-drinkers to know.  It's been a strange couple of weeks staying in 'proper' hotels where there are clean white bedsheets and so much food that you leave some on your plate (because global food supply isn't tight at all, right?) and, sometimes, there's a swimming pool too, instead of backpacker shacks where you drink bad lager and swap cockroach-infestation stories.  It still feels a little surreal though.  Perhaps it's time to hit the road again.  Tomorrow, Delhi.  (I mean, tomorrow, chaos.)  Farewell Colombo!

The interior of the Dutch fort at Galle
Fresh pineapple?
The lighthouse at Galle
The Dutch church in Galle (with added asian flavour!)

Day 156: Mirissa - What's downtime?

First elephants, then crocodiles, now whales.  We were promised humpbacks, maybe even blue whales, on a boat trip from Mirissa.  But when our alarm went off at 5:30am, the rain was trying to break through our windows, the sea surged, and Guy was feeling nauseous.  It wasn't a whale-watching day after all.

Instead, we swam in the pool and ate the world's best rotti, read and wrote and programmed (ask Guy), drank beer in beach huts (it's official, Susan's life-long beer consumption now exceeds one pint), and watched storm after monsoon storm swamp the roads.  Clearly we'd made the right decision about the boat trip.

We aren't really used to days without official 'stuff to do' and it was a bit of a shock to the system.  We typed furiously, made ourselves busy, got tired out.  Still, we reflected, we could handle more days like that, if someone really twisted our arms, if we absolutely had to!

Day 155: Badula - A feathered fiesta

The Indian something bird.
Ok, I know this one: Peacock!
Twenty-nine elephants is not enough.  We demand more.  So we added another safari to the day's itinerary.

Unfortunately Sri Lanka's biggest National Park, Yala, is closed because of drought so we couldn't go leopard-spotting there as we'd hoped.  Instead, we made our way to Budula, a small reserve just south of Yala.

Budula is mostly famous for its feathered inhabitants, particularly wetland species.  Familiar names like lapwings lined up with the less-familiar bulbuls, myna birds, purple coots and rose-ringed parakeets.  We also saw little egrets and black-headed ibises.  Perhaps I have the makings of a twitcher yet?

But the elephants did not materialise.  The crocs did.  So did the jackals.  And the monkeys not only materialised but held a full scale fiesta in the park.  But the elephants slept through their antics.  We will have to stick at twenty-nine.

Worshippers at Kataragama
Leaving the national parks behind we returned to human wonders in the form of Kataragama temple, the most holy place on the island for Hindus.  Worshippers brought gifts of tropical fruit, half of which goes to the gods and half to the poor and hungry.  (Couldn't God also donate his share?)  Unlike some of the magnificent stupas and statues we have seen, this was a simple place and a harmonious one - Hindus and Buddhists share the same place of worship here and revere each other's gods.  The crowds became a little hectic though and I almost needed to grab an emergency pineapple slice to stand on and save my feet from the burning sand.  So in the end, we were glad to retreat to the air-conditioned car.

For the rest of the afternoon we drove towards the coastal resort of Mirissa.  Guy was feeling a bit unwell but he told the driver not to worry: "I have drugs with me," he said.  The driver's response was torn between amusement and concern; possession of drugs carries the death penalty in Sri Lanka.  "He means medicines," I tried to smooth things over.  It isn't always the right time for lessons in colloquial English!

Myna bird
A green bee eater
Troupe of grey monkeys block the road

Day 154: Uda Walawa National Park - Twenty-Nine Elephants

Male elephant approaches the jeep
Before saying farewell to the hills, we stopped at the Ravana waterfall, tumbling down from the cooler world above.  Then we drove to the rock statues of Buduruvagala - a cliff-high Buddha of unknown age, with bodhisattvas and goddesses in tow, hidden in a glade in the forest.  It was a serene spot, "but don't come here at night," our guide warned.  "People get killed by wild elephants."

We were very keen to see these beasts but not so keen on a trampling, so we headed to Uda Walawa National Park for an afternoon safari.  In three hours we saw twenty-nine elephants, two types of monkey, buffalo, a crocodile, fish eagles, crested hawk eagles, peacocks, green bee-eaters, painted storks, spoonbills, a pied kingfisher, and various other bird life.  Alas, I'm a few years late with the bird list, but Will Vittery you'd better be reading!
Another lone male in Uda Walawa. 4 months of drought hast left much tasty grass!
Crested hawk eagle at Uda Walawa
Spoonbill and unknown bird (Will Vittery plea identify) dance around one another.

Day 153: Ella - Chinese trains

Healthy and Safety not an issue on Sri Lankan Railways
Today's billing made it sound like we would spend the whole day on the railways admiring gorgeous landscapes, so we were a little surprised to find that the train didn't leave until 3:15pm.  To pass the time, we went for tea on the lawns of one of Ella's posher tourist hotels, ignoring the protests of our driver who considered the tea over-priced.  Admittedly we paid about 25p each more than the norm elsewhere but I would have put a higher price tag on the view.

When we finally made it to the station we splashed out another mighty 20p (Richard Branson, take note) on the hour-long train ride to Badulla.  Riding with the carriage doors open so we could take photos (I doubt Tufty Fluffytail and friends would approve), we crossed viaducts and wove between miles of lush forest thinly dotted with dwellings.  Meanwhile some of the other passengers developed a habit of taking photos not of the countryside but of me.

The view east from Ella in the morning light
I was saved by the terminus, although Badulla itself is not exactly a happening place to be.  We visited the temple where the Buddha dropped some sweat (which has presumably evaporated over the last couple of millennia?).  What is it with the body parts again?  Then we made the return rail journey on a considerably mustier train than the plush Chinese one that we had ridden to Badulla.

Our driver tells us that it is increasingly common to learn Chinese in Sri Lanka and that the numbers of Chinese tourists are ever-increasing, never mind the Chinese infrastructure.  China's president is currently on a state visit to Colombo and the newspapers are reporting multi-billion dollar investment in energy, land reclamation and other areas.  India, meanwhile, our driver described as "a very dirty country", in his most scorching tones, based on other travellers' complaints about food hygiene.

Sri Lanka so far seems very clean and easy to travel in (touch wood), even when journeying by second class rail (what, another 20p?!).  Admittedly, the engine had a little trouble after stopping at a red signal on an incline (I take it that squeaking noise is the brakes?  Oh, and now we're slipping backwards), but we made it back to Ella for our final night in the hills before returning to the heat and the lowlands and the sea.

Approaching Haliela station
The Night Mail (our return train) prepares to start its journey to Colombo

Day 152: Horton Plains - From the furnace to the hills

Boys selling paper flowers on
Little Adam's Peak, Ella
After a cold night (remind me why I scoffed at the idea of asking for extra blankets in a Sri Lankan hotel?) we made a 6am start in a race to beat the clouds to Horton Plain National Park.  We outpaced the cloud but not the Japanese, who joined us en masse at World's End, which was a little strange as we haven't seen Japanese tourists anywhere else on the island.

World's End is a viewpoint that we had read much about: the world drops away in front of you, stunning views reach across the plains to the east coast of the island, the forest comes to a sudden end and tumbles into the valley below, bla bla bla.  It was a nice enough spot for a picnic breakfast but essentially it was just a steep hillside with a view.  The trouble with doing so much trekking is that we have become picky about our beauty spots!

Horton Plains is an interesting place though, mostly by force of contrast.  There is a rapid transition from miles of hair pin bends and cloud forests and cold air streams (I nearly donned two fleeces when setting out to walk to World's End, but Guy veto-ed) to the coastal furnace down below.  You can imagine the British colonials retreating to Horton Plains and walking around the estate from the Scottish-style hunting lodge at the entrance, shooting all the elephants along the way (alas).  Another sterling example of our civilising influence around the world!

On the way back to the car we detoured via Baker Falls and the attractively-named Leg of Mutton Pool, then began the long windy descent by car to Ella.  Ella is another hill town, where we climbed to Little Adam's Peak for the view, then to our hotel for yet more views.  For fear of sounding like a record player got stuck, I won't detail the dinner.

The view from World's End,
Horton Plains
Baker's Falls
An elk keeps watch over the car park at Horton Plains.
Chinese-built traction
Not the Breacon Beacons but "Little Adam's Peak", Ella.

Day 151: Nuwara Eliya - A day for plant-life

Orchid at Peradeniya
It was a day for plant-life: yellow flowers and purple ones, red and white, tall palms and low-lying shrubs, organs of bamboo, water lilies and cactuses and orchids and tea plants - lots and lots and lots of tea plants.

We started by spending a couple of happy hours wandering around the Peradeniya botanical gardens, where the abundant foliage kindly sheltered us from a tropical shower or two but failed to spoil the landscaping.  Then we began winding up into the hills, where the road coiled, raindrops dappled the windscreen and mists strolled between the mountainsides.  Can you guess the name of the town we were approaching?  'Little England' (Nuwara Eliya).  Aptly named.

On the way we stopped at a tea plantation and factory which produces eight hundred kilos of tea a day to quench a very British type of thirst (apparently we gulp down a quarter of the world's supply).  It retains signs of the colonial era, such as a steam power generator from Lincoln drawing its pension in the factory grounds.

After a tour of the plantation we settled ourselves in the cafe for tea (from a real pot) and cake.  Very homey!  I even saw a red post box yesterday and got a bit more excited than a container with a slit in it really warrants.  Little England, eh?  The weather certainly thinks so.  After six days in t-shirts, it's time to get my fleece out of my bag and put it on.

Wenlock visiting the tea plantation
Palm grove

Called a cannonball tree... I wonder why?
Bats having a kip

Day 150: Kandy - Teeth of many sizes

Drummers at the temple of the tooth in Kandy
The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy perplexes me.  It's serenely-situated by a lake, contains a historic library of beautifully-bound palm-leaf books (a literature graduate can only approve) and it hums with the footsteps of devotees and visitors.  So far so good.  But why the tooth?

One of Anuradhapura's temples boasts a part of the Buddha's collar bone, so Kandy isn't alone in this fetish.  (Nor is Buddhism the only religion where such relics matter - how many churches are there with pieces of the cross?)  But if religion is generally about looking beyond the things of this world, can't we do without the body parts?  I'm confused.  But then I'm just an atheist.

Moving from Buddha's teeth to elephant teeth, we headed for the Millennium Elephant Foundation where we lifted a tooth that would need a much bigger casket than the one in Kandy's temple to house it.  The Foundation draws completely polarised reviews on TripAdvisor, from those who abhor its cruelty to those who are ecstatic about the chance to ride elephants.  I'd agree with the horrified brigade if elephants were being taken from the wild into captivity to give rides to tourists (or do anything else), but I'm less concerned if they were born into captivity, or rescued from the wild as orphans, and can't then be released.  In this situation, surely carrying my body weight (even after all the Sri Lankan curry) is hardly a cruel strain on an elephant?  What a day of religious perplexities and animal rights dilemmas!

Guy's ice-bucket challenge
Anyway, we enjoyed riding bare-back and then bathing the elephants, giving them a good scrub on their bristly hides.  Guy was then invited by the keepers to climb onto the elephant's back.  I assumed this was to ride her out of the water.  But no.  The elephant knew the drill and gave Guy one of the most thorough showers of his life by squirting him with her trunk.  The photos say it all.  (I politely declined the ducking.)

Back in Kandy, we spent an hour at the cultural show, combining local drumming, dancing and walking across flaming coals (talk about cruelty?!).   Then we finished the day to find that local banana fritters had replaced 'cheesecake' on the dinner menu.  We were very happy to get our teeth into them!

The container of "the tooth"
I felt bad for not wearing white
Musician in the temple of the tooth 
The juxtaposition of Buddhism
and Christianity in Kandy
Riding bare-backed
Drummer kicking off the dancing in Kandy
Dances get underway
Camp cobra
I know what you're thinking...
Sunset over the lake at Kandy