Friday, September 9, 2011

Sri Lanka - Days 3-4

Day 3 included an easy, ambling drive along the south coast to Tangalle.  We passed some of the worst examples of tsunami destruction, with entire villages wiped out and still not rebuilt.  Too many people died in some of them to even justify rebuilding.  Other towns showed fewer signs of damage.  There were memorials and graves all along the drive, and it was a very humbling sight.  Especially given my own extremely minor battles with rough surf the day before.  I can’t imagine the horror of having an otherwise beautiful day destroyed by the entirely unexpected wall of water, destroying everything in its path, people and buildings alike.

One of the sights along the way was seeing stilt fishermen - men perched on stilts placed in the ocean with fishing rods.  We didn’t stop to take pictures because it’s become a tourist trap - many of the ‘fishermen’ no longer fish and instead sit there waiting for tourists to come along and take their photo - for a fee of course.

We arrived at today’s stop, Palm Paradise Cabanas, in the early afternoon.  It was off the main road and quite secluded, which was nice.  The cabanas were well-spaced in a garden setting, with lots of swaying palm trees and tropical plants spaced around.  The secluded beach was again only steps away.  I checked out the beach first but didn’t even attempt to swim today - similarly rough seas.  Plus, it was high tide, and there was little beach space left for relaxing.  I had a yummy lunch of vegetable noodles and then indulged in a pleasant afternoon nap.  The cabana was rustic but pristine, with a large mosquito net over the bed and a small fan providing much-needed relief from the heat and humidity.  I kept all the windows open to take advantage of the sea breeze, but this ‘natural air-conditioning’ left a bit to be desired on a hot August day.

I woke up in the early evening to raindrops on the roof.  A quick, hard rain was followed by a bit of drizzling for a while, but none of it bothered me.  After a nice dinner of curries and noodles, I headed out for another turtle adventure.

Rekawa Beach, located a few kilometers from Tangalle, is one of the best places to see turtles laying their eggs in Sri Lanka.  During the high season, an average of 17 turtles come to the beach.  The Turtle Conservation Project welcomes visitors to come learn about their operations.  After a windy drive down a steep dirt track, we arrived at the main parking area and proceeded down to the beach, another steep dirt track.  About 100 meters before we reached the beach we extinguished all flashlights - no artificial light is allowed on the beach lest it disturb the turtles.  We arrived about 8:30, and by then all the volunteers were in place.  Every night these dedicated volunteers spread themselves out along several kilometers of beach to safely escort turtles who come to lay eggs.  They have successfully educated locals on turtle nesting habits and dissuaded potential poachers.  The evening’s team leader told me he’s headed to Costa Rica next year to present on Sri Lankan turtle preservation work.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Costa Rica is not actually in the United States, as he proudly claimed.

We sat down in the HQ - a thatched hut - and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Apparently rough seas were keeping the turtles from coming ashore.  Finally, about 10:30, the signal went out.  A turtle was making her way ashore.  Problem was, she was 2km away.  Which meant hiking through the woods in the dark for 2km to get to the adjoining beach, and then hiking the 2km back to the original beach.  And with my still-tender knee, I just couldn’t fathom it.  So we bid the team goodbye and waited some more.  But no more turtles came ashore.  We waited until midnight and then headed back to the cabanas.  I’m disappointed I didn’t get to see one, but I also know I would have been miserable and foolish to try and hike in the dark with a bum knee.

It was a relatively sleepless night, with mosquitoes continually penetrating my mosquito net fortress and cautionary layer of insect repellent and keeping me awake and itchy.  And, again, the ‘natural A/C’ just wasn’t cutting it.

We set out after breakfast and headed a bit inland, towards Yala National Park.  After about two hours of driving we reached Tissamaharama, a small town that is the main gateway to Yala.  Tissa is also close to Kataragama, site of a very important temple complex for Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims alike.  It’s an extremely popular pilgrimage destination for millions.

I stayed at a small but charming guesthouse, Elephant Camp, which is a beautiful little place with very generous and hospitable owners.  The room was large, comfortable, pristine, and complete with A/C - what more could you ask for?

After lunch I headed over to Kataragama for a walk through the temple complex.  It was very busy, even during the mid afternoon, so I just did a quick walk through.

The owner of the guesthouse took a few of us out on a birdwatching tour in the early evening.  We first passed by Tissa Wewa, a large man-made lake in the middle of town, which was very active with dozens of pilgrims bathing themselves before heading off to Kataragama.  Vendors were selling fish and fruit and cool drinks on the side of the road, and there was a lively and excited vibe.

We continued on a small track near the lake and came across an agricultural area filled with rice paddies ready for harvest.  Farmers were heading home for the day, along with their cows and buffaloes.  I don’t know what it is about it, but I absolutely love driving down roads with livestock.  It just seems exciting to me, and I’ve always been intrigued by this.

The first major sighting was a large tree with hundreds, if not thousands, of sleeping fruit bats.  So incredibly cool!  These large bats looked like oddly-shaped leaves at first until you could focus on what they actually were.  Some were waking up and flying, and they looked exactly like the typical ‘vampire bat’ silhouettes you see at Halloween.  So, so, so neat!

We continued on and watched weaver birds popping in and out of their distinctive nests, kingfishers and bee-eaters flitting about, green parrots roosting at the tops of trees, egrets and cormorants hanging out with the livestock in the rice paddies, various types of crows annoying the general population, and the Sri Lankan national bird - the jungle fowl - darting across the road.

We didn’t see any crocodiles, sadly, though not for lack of trying.  All-in-all, a perfectly lovely tour and a great benefit to staying at a small guesthouse with eager owners!  Dinner and an early bedtime - safari in the morning!!

(As much as I try to put photos in order, the Blogger interface prevents me from doing so.  Apologies for the following lack of organization.)

Rice Paddies

Green Parrot

Buffaloes in the road!!

Beach at Tangalle

Palm trees - my absolute favorite

Home sweet cabana

Banana trees!

View from the cabana's porch

Mosquito fortress

Weaver bird and nests

Kingfisher (l) and Bee-Eater (R)

Fruit bats!!

So, so cool!

Pilgrims bathing in Tissa Wewa

Time for a boat ride!

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