Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sri Lanka - Day Two

Day Two in Sri Lanka had its ups and downs. Literally and figuratively. After a lovely breakfast on the veranda at my guest house, kept company by the birds and monkeys frolicking in the trees nearby, my driver and I headed out. When I booked my trip, the manager had told me that the driving distances were long on the routes I proposed but that they were doable. I sort of brushed this comment aside, thinking to myself that 60km, 100km, even 150km were not formidable distances. Ah, yes. That would be true on the interstate. Much less true on narrow, winding, two-lane roads with significant car/bus/truck/tuk-tuk/and pedestrian traffic! With significant elevation changes as we climb higher and higher into the mountains...

Before leaving Kandy, we stopped in at an arts and crafts store so I could do some souvenir shopping. I could have spent many more hours and many, many more rupees here, wandering through the chaotic splendor of the store. Everything from antique masks to tourist kitsch to gorgeous silver platters was on offer. It was a literal treasure hunt. I am happy to say I rose to the challenge... as if anyone was worried! We also stopped at a batik factory, where I watched women hard at work on intricate patterns. Again, some nice souvenirs. We very briefly stopped at a gem emporium, but they had mostly high-end pieces imported to Sri Lanka. Not exactly what I was looking for.

Anyway, after quenching my retail thirst, we began our climb. We went from about 500m elevation to 1868m in only a few dozen kilometers. The 1868 is in Nuwara Eliya, with views of Sri Lanka's highest peak. Along the way, the landscape changed dramatically. We climbed out of the tropical jungle and entered a land of misty views of rolling hills, complete with dozens of waterfalls. In addition to the more temperate trees in this zone, the predominant greenery was tea plants. Hundreds, thousands of acres of tea plantations unfolded before us as we drove through the Hill Country of Sri Lanka. What an amazing sight! We stopped at Glenloch estate, where I learned about the process of picking, drying, sorting, and grading tea before sampling some of the delicious local product. After a quick sojourn in the estate's restaurant and a photo op with some of the lovely women picking tea along the fringes of the estate, we were off again. We drove most of the afternoon en route to Ella, where we'd stay the night. (I've conveniently repressed the 25 km and 3 hours of one-lane dirt roads for road work. What a horrible drive segment that was!)

It's here that the story diminishes a bit. Before leaving for the trip, I had looked into a number of ayurvedic spas along the way. I love indulging in relaxing spa treatments at home and while traveling, and Sri Lanka looked incredibly promising. I found a few online and in tour books/fora that looked decent. One, though, worried me. In Lonely Planet, it got glowing reviews. On TripAdvisor, however, it got horrendous, nightmarish reviews. My driver promised to bring me to a good one in Ella, and, since I'd read reviews of several, I figured there was a good chance it wasn't this one. Well, you know what they say about assumptions. I have well and truly learned my lesson. I can now say, without reservations, that Suwamadura Spa in Ella Sri Lanka is as bad, even worse, than the reviews say. It may be the worst spa in the history of spas. It even makes one of my massage experiences in Bangkok pale in comparison (to date my worst spa experience). And that's saying a lot. A whole lot.

It started off innocently enough. The reception area was clean, well-appointed, and the menu of treatments was well-presented. The office had multiple diplomas and certificates on the walls, certifying the education of the staff. I chose a head massage, facial, body massage, and shiro dhara. It was the latter I was most excited about - having hot oil dripped onto my forehead and massaged in. Reputed to treat and prevent headaches and migraines, among other ailments.

They led me to the back room and showed me a locker for my valuables. Then they pointed to a shower stall, without a curtain, handed me a towel, and told me to change. I looked around. The few other shell-shocked Westerners were all clad only in a towel. This, alone, is not such a big deal. But it gets worse. First, I made the mistake of looking up. Lonely Planet had said this place was spotless. I do not call the biggest spider I've ever seen in my life hiding in the corner of the ceiling spotlessly clean. I am terrified of spiders. Horribly, compulsively, terribly terrified. I start shaking at even the smallest one, even a daddy long legs. So, I changed, dutifully put on the towel, and never took my eyes off the offensive beast. I've seen some gigantic spiders in my life (all of which still give me nightmares), and this topped them all. The legs must have been four-five inches long. I'm still shaking as I write this. I was tempted to run screaming out of there then. I should have.

So, scared out of my mind and trembling, I sat down in the plastic chair the woman pointed to. Thus began my head massage. She poured on some oil and proceeded to give me the worst head massage in the history of head massages. When I wasn't being hit, pinched, poked, or shaken, my hair was being irreparably snarled. At not one point was there any hint of a therapeutic stroke. Now I lived in Thailand and willingly submitted for the painful but rewarding Thai massages on a regular basis. I don't think any school of massage therapy advocates the torture I experienced.

Finally, thankfully, it was over. But the nightmare was just beginning. Now it was time for the full body massage. Clutching my towel, I lay down on the uncomfortable slab that passed for a massage table. There were several cubicles in this area, enclosed only on three sides. No privacy at all. Let's just say the head massage was a walk in the park compared with the body massage. First of all, copious amounts of oil does not a good massage make. When I finally was allowed up from the table, there was a literal pool of oil under me. Ew. Second, this full-body massage included more of the body than any massage I've ever had before. Which spans dozens on five continents in countless countries. I know massage. This was not massage. So after this is over, I'm coated head to toe in oil, and I can feel the bruises forming.

Time for shiro dhara. When performed correctly, Wikipedia says it is this: "Shirodhara is a form of Ayurveda medicine that involves gently pouring liquids over the forehead (the 'third eye'). It was developed by vaidyas (practitionars of Ayurveda) in Kerala, India for use in sukhachikitsa (restorative therapy) and can be one of the steps involved in Panchakarma. The name comes from the Sanskrit words shiras 'head' and dhara 'flow'. The liquids used in shirodhara depend on what is being treated, but can include oil, milk, buttermilk, coconut water, or even plain water. Shirodhara has been used to treat a variety of conditions including eye diseases, sinusitis, allergic rhinitis, greying of hair, neurological disorders, memory loss, insomnia, hearing impairment, tinnitus, vertigo, Ménière's disease and certain types of skin diseases like psoriasis. It is also used non-medicinally at spas for its relaxing properties."

I lay face-up on a guillotine-like table, my head resting on a piece of wood sticking out slightly from the end of the table. My tormentor heated up the oil. I am thankful I couldn't actually see any of what happened, as she covered my eyes with tissue. The oil was placed above me and started dripping. At first it felt nice. Then the first batch started to run out and ran cold. That was less pleasant. She replaced it with the next batch. And I concentrated less on the sensation and more on the oil itself. Not only was she not massaging it into my forehead and temples as advertised, it was all dripping into a collection bucket via my hair. The longer I lay there, the more I worried about my hair. How on earth was I ever going to get it clean again. After a few repetitions of the oil change routine, she started wringing out my hair in between. There is nothing much more disgusting than having buckets of oil wrung out of your hair. When she finally stopped with the dripping of the oil, she spent several minutes wringing my hair. It was a lost cause. It would be days before my hair was back to something resembling normal. And this oil was, almost certainly, mass-produced and without any skin-nurturing properties.

And then it was time for my facial. The woman wiped the oil off my face and then wet a tissue and cleaned my face. That was the cleanser. She stuck me in a sauna for a few minutes, where I desperately tried to towel off some of the excess oil from the last few treatments. I couldn't imagine putting clothes on with this much disgusting oil coating my body. After a few minutes, she came in and rubbed some sort of scrub on my face. After a few more minutes, she collected me and directed me to a bathroom, where I was instructed to wash my face. Presumably with the water, because there was no soap or anything else. This is hard to do when you're coated with oil. I did the best I could. That concluded my facial. I could have done without it.

I was directed back to the spider-infested shower stall to change back into my clothes. I de-oiled as best I could and changed. I opened the locker and took my things and tried to hightail it out of there. Not quickly enough. My tormentor asked me how the experience was. And then suggested I 'make tip'. I knew this was coming but still resented it. I threw her 500 rupees (about $5) and just about ran out. My driver asked how it was. I smiled limply and asked if we were far from the guesthouse.

Luckily, we were only a few minutes away. But, wouldn't you know it, they were experiencing a power cut. So I had to sit on the edge of the bed and wait 20 minutes to shower. And even when the power came back on, the shower pressure wasn't enough to completely clean the oil off my body. And three shampoos only began to touch the oil slick that was my hair. I changed and went downstairs for dinner. Luckily, the guest house dinner improved my mood slightly. It was a delectable collection of foods served inside a steaming banana leaf - all the right flavors and spices to make me happy. And there was a friendly dachshund who spent time with each diner.

I showered - and shampooed twice - again before bed, to little effect. Oh well. The worst was over. And I learned my lesson - listen to TripAdvisor!! Stay away from Suwamadura!!

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!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sri Lanka in a Word

Sri Lanka is, in a word, phenomenal. I am already planning my next trip. I fell in love with the country, the culture, the people, the food, the landscape, everything. I am even saying this while nursing second degree sunburns on my neck and arms. (And before you say it, I was wearing sunscreen. SPF 85, as always. I just have very fair skin.) Luckily, I stocked up on aloe vera gel at one of the many spice and herb shops along my route.

I literally just got home and have to read up on the latest revolutionary movements in the Middle East so I'm prepared for work tomorrow. (Every time I leave the country for vacation, something regionally momentous happens. So updates are still to come. As are pictures. I'll probably write and update in installments throughout the week. Or maybe this weekend. Lots happening in this short week.