Friday, February 25, 2011

Sri Lanka - Day One

As usual, I'm way late in writing about my trip to Sri Lanka. But here's installment one, written as I slave in the kitchen over clam chowder and fattoush salad. All right, scratch that. It's several hours later, and I finished making both dishes and manage to preview the movie 'Salt' for potential future use.

All right. Here we go. Installment one.

Err. Right. It's now 20 hours later. As usual. This has just been a trying week, and sleep took precedent this weekend. So here goes nothing.

I started my journey to Sri Lanka late a week ago Wednesday. My flight, which had been insanely cheap, started here in Jeddah and stopped in Riyadh before continuing to Colombo. I had a few friends getting on in Riyadh, though we had different trips planned. We all managed to get seated in the relatively empty upper deck of the plane and had entire rows to ourselves. So I got a reasonable amount of sleep while stretched out across three seats.

We landed in Colombo at just before 10am, which is 2.5 hours later than KSA time. I was in that strange 1/2 hour time zone for the first time! (Not to mention in South Asia for the first time.)

No problem with immigration, and, even though my bag was one of the last to come out, I still made it to the terminal not much later than 10am. My driver was waiting for me, and off we went!

I had booked a private tour wherein I told the company roughly what I was interested in seeing, and they provided a car/driver and booked the accommodation for me. Not bad.

Within five minutes of leaving the airport, I saw my first elephant! It was a working elephant in the process of being loaded onto a truck. The driver pulled over so I could take pictures. I mean, really, how often do you see an elephant get onto a truck?!

We drove straight towards Kandy, bypassing Colombo entirely. Immediately I fell in love with Sri Lanka. Lush greenery! Including my two favorite trees/plants - palm trees and banana trees! There were fresh fruit stands every few hundred meters, selling beautiful coconuts and bananas and papayas and myriad other wonderful tropical fruits.

I was immediately struck by the beauty of the country and the people - so many colors! Religious diversity! Gender segregation! Tuk tuks! Oh, how I'd missed tuk tuks.

After about an hour of driving, we reached the turn off for Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. I didn't have a lot of expectations, as I've been to some really well-run elephant orphanages elsewhere and had heard questionable things about Pinnawela. I paid my $20 foreign entrance, and my driver and I walked around. The first elephant we encountered was an older tusker, chained to a slab of cement under a canopy and being pimped out by his mahout for photo opportunities. See, this what I wasn't excited about. All around us, elephants wandered in relative freedom while their mahouts charged the tourists who wanted to take pictures with them. We met one of the resident success stories - a female who lost a leg to a land mine and has been well-cared for here since. And they do have one of the best captive breeding programs in the world. So, good with the bad.

I wandered down to the feeding hut and communed for a while with an elephant in a confining fenced-in box. This guy broke a leg in a fight and has been well-cared for over six months as he healed. Not being able to move much helps with this process. That's pretty cool. He hammed it up for the tourists, every once in a while taking the weight off his injured leg.

At feeding time, two baby elephants were led to the large hut, where they were bottle fed milk by tourists willing to fork out an additional few dollars. Of course I forked out the additional few dollars. It was cute, but still a little hokey.

After that, my driver and I beelined for the river. At Pinnawela, most of the elephants have free range around the park for most of the day. Twice a day they're led down to the river for a two-hour bath time. My driver settled me in at a colonial-style restaurant on the banks of the river with a ringside seat for bath time. I drank delicious fresh pineapple juice and had my first taste of Sri Lankan rice and curry while watching one of the coolest things ever. The elephants came walking down the road, lined with souvenir stalls, promptly at 2pm. One young guy ran ahead of the others to be first in the water. Almost everyone got in willingly. Even the three-legged elephant.

Once they were in the water, they seemed to do what they wanted. Some actually bathed. Some took off for the opposite bank for a meander. Some climbed out of the water and approached the tourists, hoping for a hand out. Some bellowed and looked for playmates. And one tried to climb the stairs to the restaurant! It was a pretty cute sight, and this experience made me feel more positive about the overall Pinnawela experience.

After an hour or so, my driver reappeared, and we set off. Along the path back to the parking lot we passed all the souvenir shops as before. And a snake charmer! A young boy had a cobra wrapped around his neck. I just laughed.

We drove a ways on and then stopped at a spice grove. A nice man who identified himself as an ayurvedic doctor took me on a tour, showing me things like jackfruit, chocolate trees, ginger plants, cinnamon trees, many different peppers, nutmeg, sandalwood, and a number of other spices and plants. In an open-air hut in the middle of it, an ayurvedic student demonstrated the efficacy of some of the products with a head, face, and upper back massage treatment. Absolutely blissful, and an effective sales pitch! I bought more than I intended.

We continued on to Kandy, arriving in time for an evening dance performance. We were rushed to drive around the lake to get to the auditorium, so I didn't get any good pictures of the town or the lake or the Temple of the Tooth. The dance performance was great. Every piece was a little more intense and involved, culminating in dancers walking across hot coals. I was amazed at the beauty of the costumes and the gorgeous dance routines.

After that, it was time to visit the Temple of the Tooth, which is the most sacred Buddhist site in Sri Lanka, housing what's believed to be one of the Buddha's teeth. To add to the majesty of this experience, I was there on a poya night. Every full moon in Sri Lanka is a poya, a public holiday. Many Buddhists make a point to visit the temples and make offerings. Tonight was no exception. Buddhist pilgrims made up the vast majority of the crowd, but it certainly made it a crowded experience. I made my way through the queue, guided by my driver the whole way, who narrated what we were seeing. I had read that each visitor was granted about 15 seconds to view the Tooth room, where the outermost of the seven caskets holding the tooth would be visible, 3 meters away. I think we each got about 1.5 seconds before we were herded away. The temple was gorgeous, as was the spectacle of thousands of white-clad pilgrims meditating and making offerings of flowers. But I didn't get to take in the temple as well as I would have liked. It was just too crowded. We finally emerged and reclaimed our shoes and took off for the guest house, nestled high in the hills above Kandy.

After fifteen harrowing minutes of driving on narrow, winding roads, we reached my guest house. They had a restaurant serving dinner, but I was too tired for food. And still stuffed from the feast at lunch. So I just got some drinks and took a shower and settled into bed. The room was simple but adequate. Really, as long as there was a bed, a fan, a mosquito net, and hot water, I was happy. I fell asleep reading my Sri Lanka guidebook and reveling in a blissful first day. I was so full of anticipation and adoration and excitement, and I fell asleep easily and quickly.

More to come on the following days... And a few pictures of day one!


Becky said...

What a cool experience.

Nomads By Nature said...

A great first day! Can't wait to hear more!