Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sri Lanka - Days Three/Four

Day Three in Sri Lanka started off a little slow. I didn't sleep well in Ella, mostly due to soreness from the massage-from-hell and the discomfort from residue oil in my hair, so I woke up a little cranky. I had a pleasant breakfast with a million dollar view, and a visit from the resident dachshund, before taking off. Our main destination today would be Udawalawe National Park before venturing on to Negombo.

It took about an hour and a half to get from Ella to the outskirts of the park, well known for its large number and high density of elephants. As soon as we left Ella and started driving out of Hill Country, the landscape started changing back to tropical/jungle, which soon gave way to flatter, savannah-like plains as we approached the park.

A note about safari. Safari may be my absolutely favorite hobby/activity/pasttime, whatever you want to call it. I love animals, I love watching animals, I love watching animals in their natural habitat, what's not to love?! When living in South Africa, I went on safari every chance I got, venturing to parks in RSA, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. I have yet to make it to East Africa, but I have lofty dreams. I've seen the Big Five, I've done night drives, safari walks, fenced camps, unfenced camps, tents, cabins, dry season, wet season, open vehicle, closed vehicle, self-drive vehicle, you name it. I never tire of watching animals and have amazing stories that I'll share another time. But the moral of the story is, I made sure that even a brief safari made it onto my Sri Lanka itinerary.

Udawalawe is considered the most similar Sri Lankan park to the stereotypical African savannah parks, though of course the variety of flora and fauna is different. I understand the comparison. We arrived mid-morning, probably the worst time to look for animals, but oh well. On the few kilometer drive to the park entrance, where we drove along the park fence, I counted 12 elephants standing at the fence at intervals hoping for handouts. Some tourists were obliging, with bananas and other treats. I rented my jeep and driver (overpriced for one person, but oh well), and we entered the park to hire the government-provided guide.

My half day safari was extremely pleasant and a nice change of pace. I proved once again that SPF85 sunscreen slathered on liberally at frequent intervals is only marginally helpful. I walked away with some nasty sunburns, which soon turned second-degree. Worth it. We saw dozens of elephants, including elephant bath time (unscripted this time!). I can't imagine that elephant bath time by the lake is too unusual, but both my guide and driver pulled out their cameras and started taking photos of the scene, the only time they did so. My favorite thing is to watch the interaction of different species with one another. One solitary male was alternately giving himself a mud bath and scratching against a shady tree, while two male peacocks strutted around him, full tail regalia on display. We watched for several minutes, including as one peacock flew into the tree and tickled the elephant's head with its drooping tail.

Elsewhere, langur monkeys played in a tree above a watering hole featuring submerged buffaloes. Hawk eagles were all over the place, and we spotted a serpent eagle overhead at one point. A few chameleons here and there, some spotted deer. No leopards, sadly, though I had had low expectations to begin with. And mongooses! That was fun! As I said, it was mid-day, so all the smart animals were resting deep in the shade. As we left the park and drove west, a number of elephants lined the fence again.

We stopped at a nearby hotel for lunch, a decent Chinese chicken dish, and then ventured on. The rest of the day would be a long drive to Negombo, back on the coast. Negombo is very close to the airport, so it was ideal for my morning flight the next day. And a long drive it was. Pleasant, but long. It rained for a couple of hours, quite hard, but no flooding where we were, so all was good.

Late in the afternoon we neared Ratnapura, a gem-centric town. As we neared town, we could see the trappings of gem mines dotting the landscape. Very cool! We stopped at a gem museum and showroom in Ratnapura, and, as it was later in the day, I was the only person there. The shop staff let me be unless I wanted to see something, which always endears me to them more than hoverers. I tried on a pair of earrings. But as I went to put the back on them, the earring (which I thought was frankly too large and unwieldy on further examination), fell out of my ear, bounced off of the glass counter, and fell down behind the counter. Argh. I felt awful. They were really nice about it and didn't make me feel worse, but they also weren't able to retrieve it before I left, either. I didn't leave empty-handed, finding a few nice sapphire pieces, pink and blue, for decent prices. I adore sapphires, and corundums are plentiful in Sri Lanka, so it seemed like a good buy.

Here's my sapphire story. Hattie, my beloved shih tzu, had her faults. Now that she's gone I tend to focus on the good, but she had her very annoying quirks. One of them was her affinity for shiny sharp things. Hattie spent her first few years spending a lot of time in an office, and we think she hunted office supplies for fun. Thumb tacks, paper clips, staples, and the occasional binder clip. We learned very quickly to pick things off the floor and clean broken glass immediately and thoroughly. Needles, nails, BB pellets, office supplies, pins, you name it, she ate it. Bless her heart, she never had any stomach or digestive ailments as a result. She had an iron stomach. But we still worried and took things away from her as soon as we noticed. She got very good at hiding clandestine shiny, sharp things in her paws and the fur around her face so we wouldn't find them. Unfortunately, her affinity also extended to jewelry. I cannot confirm it, but to this day I'm sure she ate a Tahitian black pearl pendant I had made in French Polynesia. (I didn't notice it missing at first, but I found its box under her bed months later.) But I know for a fact that she ate my favorite pink sapphire earrings. She would spend time knocking against my dresser in hope of knocking things off. Then she'd open the jewelry box (or whatever other treasure she found) and eat the contents. I actually caught her one morning chewing on the remains of the pink sapphire box. I won't go into too much detail, but I recovered one earring. Only one. And my search was illuminating. Undigested push pins and paper clips - amazing, really. So I've mourned the loss of that second earring (and my pearl pendant) for several years.

Anyway, we left Ratnapura and continued on to Negombo. Traffic got heavier as we moved towards the coast, and, as dark fell, I started getting more frightened of accidents. Driving is crazy during the day, let alone at night. I was especially petrified of hitting a pedestrian, as you usually only saw them on the road at the very last minute. As we finally approached Negombo, we passed a pretty horrible accident's aftermath. I've never actually seen that much blood on the ground, mixed in with broken glass from a windshield, the remains of a moped still lying nearby. I hope the people involved in that crash survived. Only bystanders remained when we passed.

Interestingly, it's only now as I write this that I remember that we actually did have a small accident earlier in the day. As we turned right, a tuk tuk plowed into the back door of our car. It was very low speed, and there was no damage, but it rattled me. So that's why I was especially rattled as we drove later that night.

I was excited about staying on the beach and hopefully getting up in the morning and going for a quick swim. Unfortunately, the guest house I was supposed to stay in according to my itinerary had been changed without my knowledge, and it was set more than a block back from the beach. On the plus side, the room had A/C. I had a decent meal at the guest house, though the resident mosquito population almost made me crazy. Although the English menu was a little problematic. Turns out hot buttered cuttlefish (which I imagined to be like a scampi) was actually spicy bAttered cuttlefish. Slightly different than my expectations... But once my tongue went numb, no problems!

Sleeping was a challenge thanks to my new sunburn on neck and arms. I woke up and went downstairs for breakfast, only to discover that despite confirming breakfast would be available, breakfast was not available. Since I had already paid for it, they did go out and buy the food to cook my breakfast, but the delay meant my chances of a swim (or even a view of the ocean!) were null.

On to the airport. I was hoping for an empty flight, but as soon as I saw the sea of pilgrims in the terminal that hope was dashed. I got through security and check-in quickly (and security at Colombo airport is tighter and more thorough than anywhere I've ever been before, including Ben Gurion and Heathrow!) and settled in to shop. I had about three before my flight. I spotted a massage place and decided here was my chance to change my luck. I had a really therapeutic and relaxing chair massage and then, hands down, the best foot massage/reflexology session I've ever had. Fully relaxed, I walked back in to the terminal corridor, two hours before the flight, to see my flight number and the flashing warning 'last call'. I panicked and pondered this as I made my way to the gate. I scooted through another couple rounds of security and had a seat. I still didn't understand why everyone was here an hour before boarding time! Last call?

It only made sense to me as I sat down and looked around. I counted about three Saudis and one man in Western business dress. The rest was a sea of white. Hundreds of terry-cloth clad male pilgrims and female pilgrims in white hijab. All headed to Jeddah and then Mecca for umraa (the lesser pilgrimage). And then when they called for boarding about five minutes later for umraa passengers only. All but those four people got up and started boarding. And it took well over an hour. So by the time I boarded, there were only 30 minutes until flight time. I can say with quite a bit of certainty that this was the first flight for the vast majority of my fellow passengers. Few people seemed to know the drill. My row was empty as I sat down and stayed that way for a while. I started to get a bit comfortable. And then a couple arrived with their ten-month old son, also wearing terry cloth umraa robes. Great. Not only is it a full row, but there's an infant. Granted he was adorable and well-behaved, but he still took up room.

I am pretty sure the flight attendants were glad to say goodbye to everyone in Jeddah. Suffice it to say it was a long flight. It gave me lots of time to think, though. I came away from this trip with a very valuable lesson, one especially important for me given my career/lifestyle. I am truly happiest in a place with abundant greenery, fresh produce, and, most importantly, animals. There are a lot of positive things about living in Saudi, not least of which every Western restaurant/brand/product known to man is readily available, but it doesn't have the same tropical feel that I crave.

I had hoped to write a wrap-up post with lots of great insight and reflections from my trip. But. Today has been one of those days, this week has been one of those weeks, and the next two days may just kill me. So, you'll need to suffice with these few (slightly uncoherent) snippets. Enjoy!