Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sri Lanka - Days 1-2

All right.  Queen Elizabeth’s favorite potatoes dauphinoise are in the oven (thanks for the awesome cookbook L!), so I have some time to sit and begin the process of relating all the wonderful adventures from last week in Sri Lanka.

The trip got off to a great start.  The plane was on time out of Jeddah, and for once there was seat-back entertainment.  I was sad that the plane filled up in Riyadh, but I managed to fall asleep and wake up with only about 45 minutes left.  No problem going through immigration, though my bag was one of the last ones onto the belt.  My driver was waiting, and off we went!

The first day was scheduled to be a slow day, allowing time for me to get some sleep and get over jet lag.  We did a driving tour of Colombo, which I greatly enjoyed.  Sadly, I didn’t take a single picture; my camera was in the trunk (stupid planning), and I was pretty out of it.  Colombo is a nice, quiet city (despite the traffic), and I would definitely bid there in the future.  We saw the U.S. Embassy - located right on the beach for all you eager bidders!  I asked to stop and do some craft shopping, so we went to one of the large government-sanctioned centers that showcase tons of handicrafts at set prices.  The prices are fairly reasonable, the quality is pretty good, and they do a great job getting everything documented and wrapped up.  I didn’t go terribly craft-crazy, having bought tons of gifts for family and friends the last time I was in SL.  I supplemented my collection of housewares and got a few small gift items.

I really enjoyed driving through the bustling market areas of Pettah in Colombo, but I just wasn’t up for being a part of the crowd or haggling or anything like that.  I get reaaaallly tired when I fly all night...

Afterward, we headed to the hotel.  I stayed at the very nice Hotel Renuka, which was clean, had a comfortable bed, A/C, and an attached restaurant - exactly what I needed!  I took a shower and a nap, had an awesome dinner of curries, sambols, hoppers, and wattalapan (my new favorite sweet).  After that, I read for entirely too long and eventually fell asleep.

The next morning, I had a spicy but filling breakfast before reconnecting with my driver and heading south!

We drove down the Galle Road towards Galle, passing lots of neat beach towns along the way.  There was some evidence of tsunami destruction in places, which, almost seven years on, is still very apparent.  We stopped in Kosgoda at one of the turtle hatcheries, one of my top priorities for the trip.

Five species of sea turtle lay eggs on the beaches in Sri Lanka, all of them threatened and/or endangered - green, hawksbill, olive ridley, leatherback, and loggerhead turtles.  The females come ashore at night and dig a nest in the sand for her eggs - up to 150 at a time.  After 61-62 days, the hatchlings emerge at night and make their perilous way to the water; the females will return to the same beach years later to lay their own eggs.  Unfortunately, this very natural process has lots of risks.  Poachers and animals dig up the eggs for food; the hatchlings are preyed upon by birds as they make their way to the  ocean; and sharks and large fish eat the tiny hatchlings once they make it into the water.  The turtle hatcheries try to eliminate the poaching by collecting eggs as soon as they are layed, depending on volunteers and fisherman who sell the eggs to the hatchery for more than they could get on the black market (about 10 rupees per egg, or approximately $0.10).  The hatcheries rebury the eggs in an enclosed sand pit and let them incubate.  The hatchlings are collected and kept for three days before they are released, giving them a bit of an extra bit of strength and swimming experience.  They are released on the evening of the third day, under cover of darkness, and they only have to crawl a short distance on the beach to the water - both allowing them to imprint the beach for future laying purposes and minimizing the potential of being picked off by seabirds.  Even with all this extra care, 80% of all hatchlings still don’t make it.

The hatchery also functions as a de facto turtle rehab center, taking in sick and injured animals brought to them by well-informed fisherman.  There are amputees from shark attacks, albino turtles, and all other manner of problems.  Most will be released upon healing, but the albino turtles stay - they’re just too threatened in open water.

I got to tour the very simple but well-run hatchery, holding the tiny hatchlings, observing the enclosed sand pit, and seeing the older turtle patients.  I was there during the day, which precluded releasing the three-day olds, but it was still a fun experience.  It’s one of several such operations in the Kosgoda area, and they seem to do very good work.

We continued on down the coast, stopping in Ambalangoda to visit a mask museum and workshop.  This town is the locus of ancient devil dancing and devil mask production.  Sons of one of the most famous mask-carvers run modern-day workshops and museums, and we stopped at one of them.  I bought a couple of very modern interpretations of the masks and am kicking myself for not buying more - they’re just so cool!  I really enjoyed seeing the craftsmen at work as well and wish I’d taken some pictures.

The next stop was Galle, a pleasant city with a European feel and storied history.  The main attraction there is Galle Fort, which was originally built by the Portuguese in 1588.  The Dutch made extensive fortifications to it from the seventeenth century, and much of it remains intact today.  Galle was hit very hard by the tsunami, but the Fort’s walls protected much of the old city.

I walked along parts of the walls, observed dozens of local families having picnics on a beautiful end-of-summer-vacation day, and ate a yummy lunch at a hotel overlooking the ocean.

We continued on to Unawatuna and an overnight stay at Unawatuna Beach Resort.  The Resort was very nice; I really enjoyed my stay there.  The rooms were comfortable and clean and sported A/C.  First order of the day was to visit the spa.  It was well placed - steps away from the beach, with fans augmenting the ocean breezes and beautiful aquariums built into the pebbled walls.  I opted for a foot massage and an Indian head massage.  They both started out extremely well, but each therapist was extremely overzealous in their use of deep-tissue techniques.  I was a bit bruised by the time I walked out.

I changed into beach clothes and headed for the beach.  The surf was quite rough, and the beach had a steep slope to the water, but there were people standing in the water, so I thought it couldn’t be too bad.  I headed down and was immediately knocked down by the first wave.  I got back up, and the second one did a number on my knee - my already fragile, oft-operated-on precious knee.  I spent a few more fruitless minutes trying to enjoy the water and float in the waves, but I soon gave up when I realized there was a strong undercurrent and limped back up the beach.  I stayed out and read for a while before heading inside to assess my injuries.  My knee was pretty sore, and going up and down stairs normally was out of the question.  It didn’t feel like anything was structurally wrong, but it was hard to tell.  I took a long shower to try and de-sand myself and then read until dinner.

Dinner was a nice international buffet in the thatched-palm restaurant overlooking the beach.  It would have been perfect had the neighboring hotel not built a bonfire on the beach.  The winds were not in our favor, and the acrid smoke blew directly into the restaurant.  Nobody could see well, people were coughing and wrapping scarves over their noses and mouths, and the whole thing was a bit painful.  Still, the food was delicious and varied, and I got to try some great new Sri Lankan dishes.

Another quiet night’s sleep, another slightly painful foot and chair massage, a nice breakfast on the beach, and I was off!

Day old hatchlings

Two-day old hatchlings

Two-day olds up close

Albino turtle

Amputee turtle

Galle Fort

Buddhist Dagoba from Galle Fort

Sri Lankan families enjoying an afternoon picnic at Galle Fort

Unawatuna Beach

Unawatuna Beach

View from the spa, Unawatuna

Turtle eggs in enclosed sand pit

Each next is labeled with the type of turtle and date of laying


Daniela Swider said...

Sounds like you had a nice vacation! Loved the pictures, especially of the turtles. Hope we'll be able to visit SL while we are in New Delhi.

Connie said...

What fun! It all looks so lovely, and I like to hear about what's being done for the turtles. My kids' school in Cairo (older grades) assisted with a rescue program for desert tortoises that I also thought inspiring... it's amazing how much people can do when they put their minds to it!

Becky said...

Beautiful pics! Loved the turtles too.