Friday, February 14, 2020

Sri Lanka Between the Cracks

At a Hindu temple overlooking Triconamalee on the East Coast
Not everything we experienced or observed in Sri Lanka fits into the narrative of our previous five blogs. Some topics need their own mini blog or at least a photo. Here are some answers to questions we were asked, plus a few things we found interesting during our three-week trip.  The most common one we got was from an unlikely source--an older American Airlines pilot on the hotel shuttle at the Portland airport.  "Where is Sri Lanka?" he asked. (It's off the SE tip of India, one-third the size of Oregon.).  I guess geography isn't part of the navigation curriculum in flight school.

I think it means we're in Ohiya,
1,774 meters above sea level
Most Sri Lankans speak at least two languages, often three.  Since most of the people are Sinhalese Buddhists, Sinhalese is often the main language, followed by Tamil, a South Indian language.  Both were unintelligible to us, and the long names of people and places are tongue twisters.  However, nearly everyone who made it through grade school speaks English, making it easy for tourists.  We had fascinating conversations with maids, waiters, tuk-tuk drivers, museum guards, shop owners, and our Rotarian friends. 

Minor traffic on a side street at lunch hour in Nuwara Eliya

What can we say?  The narrow roads, variety of vehicles at different speeds, and driving on the left side can be nerve wracking. But we soon learned to just relax. Except for bus drivers, Sri Lankans rarely honk their horns.  They are mostly mellow and cut one another some slack, often with just inches to spare.  For as many close calls as we experienced, we saw few—if any—dented or scratched vehicles.  To really get a feel for it, click on video link at the end of this post to see the “Standing on a Street Corner” video.

The employee parking lot near the 
defense ministry. Some of the tuk-tuk 
owners try to pick up extra business
on the way home.
On a supped up, heavy duty tuk-tuk in a fishing village
And speaking of traffic, the three-wheeled tuk-tuks and their often-crazy drivers are what makes the traffic so quintessentially Sri Lankan. With a population of 21 million, Sri Lanka has over 1.3 million tuk-tuk drivers.  The government recently banned imports from India, hoping that more young men would go into construction and manufacturing instead.  About halfway through our trip, we realized that some of the tuk-tuks we saw weren’t for hire.  Rather, they were just a cheap means of transportation compared to a car.  Our link of photos at the bottom has a few shots of them.  Also, check out our clip of a fun ride in one of them at the end of this post. 

Sri Lankans love dogs.  Most of them are mellow and look alike.  Dogs are also part of the traffic equation.  They think nothing of taking a nap on a busy road or jaywalking. We saw so many near misses.

Typical looking dogs that seemed to belong
to our jungle camp in Yalla.
"Temple dogs" at a Buddhist temple

I can't remember if this was breakfast, lunch, or dinner
at Gihan's home, but it was fantastic!
If you followed us on Facebook or Instagram, you no doubt saw some of our food porn photos.  The rice is flavored with lentil, fish, and green bean curries, hot but not that hot.  The curries were unique, but they resembled a combination of Thai, Malaysian, and South Indian dishes.  They are best enjoyed eating with your right hand fingers and thumb. We
loved it, and often had curry-rice morning, noon, and evening.  Sri Lanka is clean, and so are its kitchens and eateries.  Even eating in the cheap dives where only the locals went for lunch, we never got sick.  Bottled or filtered water was available everywhere and in every hotel room.  

But it beats the cold
rain and fog of Oregon
in January-February!
Unless you are in the tea country up in the hills, it is hot and humid.  Every place we stayed had air conditioning, but Sri Lankans are very judicious about its use because electricity is very expensive. It can be upwards of 30% of a large household’s budget.

Getting there and back
Coach airfare and economy-plus are relatively cheap. It just takes a long time to get across 13.5 time zones.  Our outbound trip, with layovers in LA, Tokyo, and Singapore took 44 hours.  Returning without the Tokyo layover took 30, but we had a 15-hour flight from Singapore to LA.  That said, Singapore Airlines is the best we have ever flown.  And no matter what, it was so worth the effort.

Our hotel near Badulla, complete
with a swimming pool.
Once you get there, Sri Lanka is a bargain.  Nice hotels cost less than a budget hotel near the Portland airport. And there are some very spectacular ones on pristine beaches or with stunning views in the tea country hills.  All provide breakfast. Eating like locals, we’d often spend less than $5 on a huge lunch, maybe $10-15 for a fresh seafood dinner including drinks.  Western style restaurants and fast food chains cost more.  You can rent a car and driver for $50 per day, but trains and busses cost much less.

We traveled over 800 miles by car.  Some of our drivers had a thumb drive of mellow Sri Lankan music which we enjoyed.  Others cranked up the radio.  But for the Sri Lankan English accents, it sounded just like the top hits, oldies, or I-Heart Radio stations here with the station breaks, promos, commercials, etc.  (Booming voice: “All the music you love right here on FM 98.5 Radio Columbo where the hits never stop!”  Music jingle: “98.5—top hits.”)  Then Kelly Clarkson.

Fellowship after the brief Rotary meeting
Our visit to Sri Lanka was because of Rotary.  We hosted the leader of a Sri Lankan Rotary Group Friendship (RFE), exchange in October.  They reciprocated big time, driving us from place to place, hosting meals, and sharing insights.  That said, it is very easy to experience Sri Lanka without the help we had from hospitable Rotarians. Sri Lanka and “nearby” Maldives have about 62 clubs. They usually meet over dinner and drinks.  The one we attended had only 12 attending, but it was fun and very social with some coconut whiskey and snacks afterward.  Because of Sri Lanka’s diversity and languages, English is the official language of the meetings.
The banner they presented us

Open for Business
The world’s memory of the Easter Day bombings of churches and hotels in 2019 has fallen through the cracks. Over 250 people were killed and many more were injured.  Nine months later, tourism is still way down, despite CNN and Lonely Planet naming Sri Lanka the best destination of the year. In a couple of cases, we were the only guests in small lodges or a jungle camp, and we were among just a few in larger places. For those Sri Lankans dependent on their 10% tips from tourists, or who own a tourist-related business, life is hard.  And the loss of Chinese tourists will hurt them more. We felt safer in Sri Lanka than we do at home.  Security is tight, the people are friendly, the country is clean, the scenery is spectacular, the culture is unique, and bargains abound.  We’d go back in a heartbeat.  The only downside?  The long flights to get there.

And for those of you we met in Sri Lanka reading this, thank you so much!  You made the trip so special.  Bohoma istouti (ඔයාට බොහෝම ස්තූතියි) and in Tamil, mikka nandri  (நன்றி மிகவும்). 

(Note:  In case you missed our previous five Sri Lanka blog posts, simply click on blog archive to the right.)

Photos and Videos
These carefully curated photos capture the essence of our trip and many are our best shots.  They should be viewed on something larger than a mobile phone.  Sit back with a cup of tea (preferably Ceylon with milk sugar, and cardamom) or a scotch or a coconut whiskey and enjoy!

Link to our best shots and the essence of our trip, click HERE

Link to six videos:  Inside a Buddhist cave, Monkey business, standing on a street corner, Hindu Puja ceremony, samar deer fighting for dominance, and a wild ride in a tuk-tuk.   click HERE
"What We Can, While We Can!"

Reclining Buddha., part of many sculptures in a cave; all
carved from solid rock, including the cave, near Dambulla, 
starting in the 1st Century BC.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Leopards, Beaches, and the Tsunami Zone

Relaxing at rebuilt Koggala Beach
Hotel, which was destroyed
in the 2004 tsunami.
Changes in elevation and climate can happen fast in Sri Lanka.  From over a mile high in tea country, we descended to the steamy sea level on the SE coast in a matter of just three hours by rail and winding roads.  Once again we were delightfully surprised upon arrival in the dark to a rustic jungle camp welcoming us with fragrant incense throughout the camp.  

On the edge Yala National Park,  we enjoyed two nights under under a mosquito net and  an expansive thatched roof.  Better still, it was some of the best food of the trip, perhaps because it was cooked on a wood stove by nearby locals.
Home sweet home for two nights

At home on their range
Dining hall.  We were the only guests all month

Bringing in the boats

Sashi, our local host took us to a nearby fishing village that was devastated by the 2004 Tsunami.  That whole area was wiped out, and really hasn’t recovered.  We helped them drag a boat into shore, and the headman gave us a couple of fish as thanks.  

These gifts sure tasted good coked on the campfire

Later we took a tuktuk for a one hour round trip to town for beer, and cash for the park entry fees—which are very steep for foreigners.  (You can see a fun video of that on Instagram @kelemenron.)

The park wasn’t a jungle as we think of one, but rather mostly shrubs and trees no higher than 30 feet tall.  However,  it was dense, making it hard to spot wildlife.  We saw a few elephants, wild boar, water buffalo, peacocks, sambar deer and  two leopards.  And perhaps over 50 other safari vehicles jockeying for position around leopard sightings.  Although the tsunami ravaged the low-lying areas of the park, few, if any a animals were killed.  They had some sixth sense and moved upland before the waves hit.

A leopard on, yes, Leopard Rock

A leopard jam

Many Sri Lankans weren’t so lucky.  Over 35,000 were killed, including 1,200 on a coastal train full off travelers for the holidays.  More than 900,000 were left homeless.  Unlike the gigantic surf waves that hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia 960 miles away, or Phuket Thailand, these 36-foot waves were more like a series of fast-moving tidal surges 180 feet wide.  Fifteen years later, much of the coastal towns, villages, and roads have been rebuilt, but there are still many reminders of this disaster, like the fishing village we visited.  We stopped at the tsunami museum,  marked by a 36-foot tall Buddha.  Its height drove home the magnitude of the surging waves.

Boxing Day tragedy. (Not my photo, of course)

Imagine a 36' wave as tall as this
coming at you at 400 MPH

We spent two relaxing days at Koggala Beach, where the photo at the top was taken. It's like Hawaii at a fraction of the cost. This place is famous for its stilt fishermen. The locations are highly prized and handed down generation to generation.
Stilt fisherman

Only two at that morning,
and they had caught nothing.

Gihan Panditaratne, the Rotarian who stayed us in October and who made many of our trip arrangements, picked us up at Kogggala Beach and drove us to Colombo, where we spent three fun days with him and his family.  We weren’t expecting much about Colombo (pop. 1 million), but it turned out to be a very nice city.  It’s huge, and so is its traffic.  But it’s clean and growing.  

One of many new high rises, with
more under construction

City hall under Buddha's watchful eye

Touring the Friend-In-Need Society which
partners with Rotary to provide artificial
limbs for citizens all over Sri Lanka.

The best part about Columbo was staying with the warmhearted and hospitable Panditaratnes.  They went out of their way to make sure we were well-fed with the best dishes Sri Lanka has to offer.  
Gihan and Arosha's home 

Rheya, Gihan and Arosha

It’s going to be hard saying goodbye to them tonight as we depart for home.  And for that matter, it's going to be hard to say goodbye to Sri Lanka and all of the wonderful people we met along the way.  What a trip!

"What We Can, While We Can!"

In a few days I'll have one more post entitled "Sri Lanka Between the Cracks." It will be odds and ends and photos that didn't fit our narrative, but better explain Sri Lanka.  It will also include a link to our best shots.

Stopping for a fish pedicure
on the way to Colombo
20 nights, about 750 miles, and
immeasurable good experiences

Exploring some mangroves with Gihan en-route
to Colombo

Friday, January 31, 2020

Tea Country and Hospitality, Sri Lanka Style

Tea is big business in Sri Lanka, branded as Ceylon tea, accounting for 17% of exports, and employing 5% of the population.    Textiles are the largest export at 52%--check your clothing labels. We spent three delightful days in tea country, not counting what we did in Polonnauruwa a few days ago.  Leaving Kandy, we climbed from 1,000 feet to the 3,000 feet to the city of Nuwara Eliya. (Don’t you just love these Sri Lankan names?) 
Tea factory.  Most of the upper stories are for
drying.  Then the large leaves are shredded and

It was a beautiful climb, but for the blight of huge billboards promoting things like Sri Lankan rebar (yes, rebar) and skin care products.  Much of the tea country reminded us of wine country in Oregon.  There are large tasting rooms, well-branded plantations, and beautiful vistas.  Unlike our wine country, there are many tourist busses and vans packed with Indians and face mask-wearing Chinese. 

Tea was introduced here in the mid 1800’s after a colossal failure of the coffee crop.  The British clear cut the jungle to make way for tea, and they planted massive groves of eucalyptus trees for railroad ties, called sleepers. By the 1890’s, Lipton alone was exporting 30,000 tons to London.
Tasting room of large estate

The tea pickers, for their back breaking labor, 
make about $5 US per day, often living in 
places like this.

Nuwara Eliya is also called “Little England.”  The British planters tried to recreate home with beautiful gardens, polo grounds, golf courses, Tudor-style homes, parks, and club houses for a post-dinner brandy, cigar, and billiards game.  We were unprepared for the cool weather, similar to Oregon in the late autumn.
Bicycling around Gregory Lake Park

A feast prepared by Nadeeka, Easter's wife.
He's Singalese, She is Tamil.  Easter was such
a gracious host in spite of his busy schedule.
Easter's guest house

We stayed with Rotarian Easter Kumar and his family in a small hotel he owns.  (He had dinner at our home last October.)  It was so fun having a home-cooked meal with his family eating, our best Sri Lankan meal yet.  Like so many other hotels in Sri Lanka, he has been hard hit by the 2018 Easter bombings.  Many new hotels under construction are brick and rebar-stalled reminders of what a handful of delusional individuals can do to ruin lives way beyond those killed and injured.

We got up early for a long trip to Howards Plain National Park, 5,000 feet above sea level  We hiked eight miles among beautiful views and got to see two bull Samar deer in a 20-minute fight for dominance.  You can see a short clip of it on Instagram @Kelemenron.

Near World's End View Point

Baker Falls

Macho Samar deer.  You can see a one minute
version of this 20-minute battle on Instagram

World's End viewpoint

On the way back to town, still inside the park

We were also privileged to attend Easter’s Rotary club meeting. Just a dozen of us around some clubhouse lounge chairs, followed by fellowship with savory Sri Lankan snacks and coconut whiskey called arak. 

Rotary banner exchange before the snacks and arak

Serendipitously the next day, as we stepped off a local bus from a local botanical garden, two of the club members recognized us and took us to see a building they are renovating for fundraising.  Of course, tea and snacks followed at the local golf course.

Later that day we took a 3 hour trip on the “tea train” high into tea country to 5,000 feet before descending to Ella, where we took a car to the coast late at night.  More about that in our next post. But we will always fondly remember the warm-hearted Rotarians who gave us insights we would never have had as ordinary tourists.  What a trip!

"What We Can, While We Can!"

The caboose of the tea train to Ella

Entry to botanical gardens outside Nuwara Eliya
The gardens were started in 1850 by
homesick British planters

One of many views from the botanical garden

Tea and snacks at the country club

I think it means we are in the Ohiya station,
elevation 1,774 meters

On the "choo-choo express"
View from tea train ride. It was very hazy
due to field and rubbish burning