Sri Lanka 13: To Colombo and the End of the Adventure

Sri Lanka 13: 18 December 2014, To Colombo and the End of the Adventure

Hello Everyone,

Colombo was only a short drive from Hikkaduwa but we didn’t go straight there. This was the last day of the tour, with few activities planned. Shortly after leaving the hotel we pulled off the road for a stop I actually requested. During my planning for the trip I read about a Mask Museum, displaying, explaining, carving and selling traditional demon masks of Sri Lanka. I held off buying a mask earlier in the trip because I knew this museum would have the best selection. I planned to take a taxi there from the hotel at Hikkaduwa Beach but when I mentioned it to our guide; he told me he knew the place and we would drive by it on the way to Colombo so we would stop there if I wished.

We pulled off the highway, and parked in front of a small building with a big Museum sign. Inside there were literally hundreds of masks on the walls, stacked along the floor and laid out on long display tables. The gentleman who ran the place, son of the founder took us to the lower level which was the museum, past the parrot in its cage a room had mannequins and puppets along the walls and in a center display. There were different styles of masks, some exceptionally ornate. He explained the significant of each, what they represented and when they were worn; usually used in healing ceremonies. Once through the museum, I knew that I was interested in a Gurulu mask, it is the head of a bird with a cobra clutched in its beak. Gurulu is the Sri Lanka equivalent of the Indonesian Hindu god Garuda, the bird Vishnu rode and which preys on Cobras. It is believed to represent good luck and protection. I already had a Garuda mask from Bali and I wanted the Gurulu mask to show the variations in Hindu culture, it now hangs next to the Garuda mask on my “I Love Me” wall at home.

After our brief stop at the Mask Museum, we continued on towards Colombo on the old coastal highway. This area was devastated by the Indian Ocean Tsunami. When it struck, many people knew it was coming and were desperate to escape the low lying coastal strip. A commuter train was going by and stopped to get as many people onboard and to safety as possible. Unfortunately it was still stopped when the wave hit. They estimate there were over 1,700 people on the train and only a handful survived when it was washed off the tracks. Today a monument with a standing Buddha in a small lake is dedicated to those lost to the Tsunami. We stopped along the highway to get photos, but didn’t actually visit the memorial.

Our next stop was at the Sea Turtle Project in the town of Bentota. Five of the seven species of sea turtles nest on Sri Lanka and all are endangered. The turtles lay their eggs in the beach sand at night, and traditionally, Sri Lankans have collected the eggs for food. That is now illegal, but many people still collect the eggs when they can. The center in Bentota collects eggs from the beach and moves them to protected enclosures in the center. When the eggs hatch, all of the baby turtles are collected in salt water tanks and the next night are released from the beach into the ocean. We saw the enclosures with eggs buried in the sand, each clutch marked to show the species and date collected. There were also lots of baby turtles in one of the tanks and we were allowed to touch them which surprised me, they would be released that night and with luck a few will survive to adulthood and return in 20 years or so to the same beach.

From there we continued on into Colombo and were taken on a short bus tour of the city. We stopped to take pictures of a few of the more impressive buildings remaining from the days when it was the colonial capital of Ceylon. The bus let us off in the old down town area, near the water front and we took a walking tour from there. We stopped at a few shops for some souvenirs and I was able to pick up the few odds and ends I needed for gifts. The city is one of contrasts, fine old colonial buildings, old crumbling buildings, fine new office towers and five star hotels, crowded shopping streets, muddy, worn and pot holed streets, fine new shopping areas and malls with restaurants and promenades.

We then arrived at our last hotel in Sri Lanka; a newer hotel next to the coastal highway with a view of the Indian Ocean. We moved our luggage into the lobby and began one of the more difficult check-in processes we had on the entire trip. Every step of the process was done by two people, double checking each other’s work, then it has approved by a manager and only then was a room key given out. I don’t know what the problem was but it drove us all nuts. When Amardeep’s and my room was being assigned, I asked that we be given two keys so we could come and go without coordinating who would have the key, when we would be back, etc. They used magnetic key cards so it should have been very simple, just make two cards. That however, was not a process they understood. After all three at the front desk conferred it was decided they needed more time and I should come back later to get the second key.

Once in the room, which was very comfortable with a view of the ocean and huge bathroom, I went down to the restaurant for lunch. On my way back to the room, I stopped in the lobby for the second key, after several more minutes of talk between all three people at the front desk; they made a new key and gave it to me. I went to the room and lay down to relax. Pretty soon there was a knock on the door, it was Amardeep, and his key didn’t work. Later he went down and had his card reset for the room, when I went out and came back my key didn’t work. It was that way the entire time we were at the hotel; when they set one key for the room; it automatically made the other key inoperative. They never did figure out how to make two keys work for the same door at the same time.

The tour was over and after we were all checked in, we said good bye to the bus driver, helper, and guides. We were on our own and several people went out shopping or exploring the city. I was finally getting over my stomach problems and spent most of the afternoon resting and sorting my luggage; I would be the first of the group to leave since my plane left at 2:25 AM so I wouldn’t be spending all night in the hotel.

About 7 PM I met a couple of others from the group in the dining room for dinner and while we sat and talked, a few more from the group showed up and we moved to a larger table, then more showed up and by the end, everyone from our group was sitting around the tables the waiters were nice enough to push together. No one was hungry enough to eat the massive dinner buffet so we all ordered from the menu, causing a few problems for the staff that didn’t seem used to so many people ordering and having separate checks. I stayed as long as I could then sometime before 10 o’clock said good bye and hugged everyone. I had to catch my car to the airport which I shared with one of the ladies whose plane was scheduled shortly after mine.

At the airport all went smoothly and after checking out a few last minute souvenirs, I made sure to exchange the last of my Sri Lankan currency, not all exchanges outside the country even take and I didn’t want to end up with paper I can’t exchange; I got Thai Baht because that was my next stop. My plane was delayed for about an hour, but I didn’t really mind. I was headed to Thailand for a short recreational stop before heading home. I needed a break after the rigors of touring Sri Lanka. Actually I had a wonderful time, saw only a fraction of a fascinating country, understood a little more of their culture and had the good fortune of sharing the adventure with a great group of people. I highly recommend at trip to Sri Lanka for everyone.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

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Sri Lanka 12: Touring Galle Fort

Sri Lanka 12: 17 December 2014, Touring Galle Fort

Greetings My Friends,

Well rested and relaxed after a day without scheduled activities, we were ready for more touring. Hikkaduwa beach is near the old colonial city of Galle at the south end of the island; it was a short drive so we didn’t have to leave until after 9 o’clock. Driving along the coastal road, we passed through Galle before we stopped, just off the highway next to the shore. There was no beach but the water was shallow. Just off shore, poles were planted into the sand with a cross piece near the top; they were in water shallow enough for men to walk to at low tide. The fishermen waded to the poles, then climbed up to sit on the cross piece and would sit there all day fishing. The catch is pretty much small fish, and in the 15 or 20 minutes we watched I think I only saw 1 fish about 4 inches long caught. The Stilt Fishermen, as they are called, have become the iconic image of Galle, but in reality, they don’t do it to support or feed their families. They earn a better living by getting tips from the tourists who stop to take their photos. One of the fishermen was on shore and when we showed up he talked with our guide to negotiate a tip for him and his fellow fishermen. This pseudo cultural experience was interesting. Years and years ago, the stilt fishermen were really fishermen and fished that way for as long as anyone knew. But now as a photo opportunity for tourists, it’s little different from a cultural dance show you buy tickets for, except the fishermen try to sell themselves as actual fishermen where the dancers take pride in being entertainers.

It was a rainy day so we didn’t spend a lot of time walking around. We did a bus tour of Galle and the Old Dutch Fort which is the premier attraction. The entire eastern (Indian Ocean) coast of Sri Lanka was devastated by the Indian Ocean Tsunami, December 26, 2004. I remember it well, I was traveling across Japan with my Mother and we were in Hiroshima when it occurred and it was the major story on BBC World News and CNN International the rest of our trip. Japan, of course wasn’t affected, but over 235,000 people in 14 countries washed by the Indian Ocean died. Galle was hit particularly hard with the ocean washing ashore up to two miles inland and reaching up to the second floor of hotels; over 5,000 people died in and around Galle. The huge wave washed over everything in the city, except the Dutch fort where the high, massive stone and masonry walls protected the old city inside. Where outside the walls nearly the entire city is less than ten years old, rebuilt after the tsunami, inside the walls buildings from the 1600’s survive.

The road into the fort enters through the original gate, the crest of the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) still embedded above the gate giving the date of ANNO:MDCXIX (1619). The bus made a circuit of the inside of the walls, giving everyone a chance to get oriented. Back near the gate we stopped in a car park. I was feeling under the weather and the idea of walking around in the rain didn’t appeal to me. I did walk a couple of blocks to an ATM with the rest of my group, but when we finished there, I returned to the bus to wait for the rest to finish their walking tours. We had about 2 hours scheduled for the stop, but everyone was back earlier. It rained off and on the entire time, and was hot and humid; as the others returned they either stopped at a vendor for ice cream bars or at the man chopping the ends off coconuts for a refreshing drink.

We took lunch at a hotel inside the fort. It was busy and we had a long table for everyone in the second floor, open air restaurant. I couldn’t eat anything, just had a cool drink to try and settle my delicate stomach. But most of the others had a good meal with everything from Western style salads to Sri Lankan curries. From the second floor we had a view of the top of the fort’s wall and out to sea. It was still raining off and on, but now it came down harder when it did rain, the sound of rain on the corrugated metal roof was deafening.

I went back town stairs while most of the others were still eating and ended up sitting in the colonnaded entry to the hotel with the tour guides and drivers, including those from my group. As the torrential rains came down, the door man of the hotel moved a barrier to allow cars to drive under the portico to let out their passengers or ran out to cars trying to park with an umbrella to protect lady customers from the downpour. Those worst off were the passengers on the big tour busses which had to let passengers off on the street because the busses were too large to get into the car park. When we left, our driver moved the bus as close to the hotel as he could get but we still had to dash about 10 yards from the hotel to the bus.

Then it was back to the hotel for the afternoon, and we could prepare for our farewell dinner that night. We would still have one dinner in Colombo before the tour ended, but the driver, his helper and one of the guides would return home before that and not be able to join us. I had passed the envelopes around and everyone was very conscientious about passing them on from one to another, I had them all back in hand well before dinner.

For dinner the hotel set up a long table next to the sand, other than breakfasts this was the only meal we ate at the hotel. Everyone dressed up as much as possible and some of the young ladies donned Sri Lankan style dresses they had bought along the way; ladies from the hotel staff showed them how to wear them properly.

While everyone was still chatting, talking about what we saw and did on the trip, what was good and what needed improvement and getting pictures of everyone else, I passed the envelopes out to our guides, bus driver and his helper; I think they did a marvelous job and well deserved the gratuities.

That was about it for me for the night; we were leaving in the morning, on our way to our final destination of the tour, Colombo. I had to repack and reorganize everything I had; it would be my last opportunity before I flew out of Sri Lanka.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

P.S. I’m again short of good pictures of Galle, so I’ve included some from the Sacred Tooth Relic Temple in Kandy, enjoy.

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Sri Lanka 11: Hikkaduwa Beach

Sri Lanka 11: 16 December 2014, Hikkaduwa Beach

Greetings again,

The first morning in Hikkaduwa was very relaxed. Our guides rearranged the schedule so we had the day on our own with no scheduled activities. We took advantage of it with most sleeping in, a few though were up and out at 05:00 to go whale watching, an optional activity. Several years ago it was discovered that Blue Whales gather off the southern coast of Sri Lanka. They are the largest animals that ever lived, larger even than dinosaurs but also endangered and very rare and little is known about them. It isn’t known if their appearance off Sri Lanka is a new change of their migration routes or that they’ve come there forever and just not noticed before. Sri Lanka is one of very few places they can be observed.

I didn’t go whale watching because it was pretty expensive and also, I’ve gone whale watching before and always been disappointed, if the water is rough or the whales decide not to show up it can be a wasted boat ride. Instead, I got up about 6 o’clock and was ready for breakfast and coffee when the hotel staff started setting up the dining room. In the open air lobby/dining room, I could relax in the cool sea breeze and watch the beach come alive; joggers running in the sand, surfers out checking the waves and fishing boats coming back with their catches after being out all night.

Slowly the rest of the group who weren’t whale watching showed up and chatted, all of us enjoying the first full day without a schedule since the tour started. I went exploring later in the morning, walking about 1½ miles down the beach to find an ATM and recharged my wallet.

The highway running along the beach in front of our hotel was lined with hotels, restaurants, gift shops, jewelry stores and other business catering to tourists. The beaches around Hikkaduwa are a favorite destination for many visitors to Sri Lanka who are usually more interested in surfing and sunshine than the rich culture of the island. As I walked along I kept checking the window displays of the jewelry stores. Sri Lanka is famous for its gem stones, before European colonists came for the spices, it was known as the Gem Island. Ptolemy, the 2nd century Greek astronomer and Marco Polo the 13th century Venetian merchant traveler both mentioned the island’s gems in their writings.

I was particularly interested in moonstones, because they are somewhat unusual and much less expensive than diamonds or sapphires. As I was walking back to the hotel, I was checking out the displays of a small shop which I thought was closed when the door opened and a lady invited me in. The lady who owned the shop and her daughter were just setting up to open but were more than happy to open early and show me some stones. We sat down and I told them what I was interested in, and they brought out several trays of stones. There was a large variety of quality and size. I finally selected several small stones that were well matched with good color and fairly uniform in size. Other than a shoulder bag of water buffalo hide which I bought in Negombo, they were the only souvenirs I had bought up to that point, but I would have more opportunities to get the few things I needed.

For lunch I stopped into a little restaurant near my hotel named Kuku’s Nest; small, open air, freshly painted, tile floor, very neat and tidy, 4 small tables, table cloths, mismatched chairs, and a large menu. I was the only customer, and the little lady who I guessed was Kuku spoke no English and took my order by my pointing to what I wanted on the menu. Her little grandson, maybe 3 years old came out from the back room with his mother who set my table, but once he saw me turned around and wouldn’t come out again, crying very loudly when both his mother and grandmother tried to bring him over to say hello to me; unfortunately that’s not the first time I’ve had that effect on little kids. But even with that, I had a great meal of potatoes, vegetables and fish steaks, think it cost about 600 Rupiah with soda water to drink, about $5.

I was pretty lazy the rest of the day, but at sunset several of us gathered on the second floor overlooking the beach to watch the sun go down. It was a very nice evening with scattered clouds and calm water; unfortunately it was hazy on the horizon so I couldn’t see the green flash as the sun sank out of sight. About 7 PM I met up with everyone else in the group and together we went for dinner, finally agreeing on a small Italian restaurant. They were pretty full but able to arrange a couple tables in a back room to seat all 15 of us. It took nearly forever to get all the orders and even longer for all us to be served, I am sure that putting out so many orders at one time was more than the little kitchen was used to, but eventually we all got our food and we had a very nice evening with a lots of things to talk about from the trip and how we would handle the tips for Guides, Bus Driver and the Driver’s Helper. I always carry extra envelopes on tours just for the tips so I offered to prepare the envelopes and then pass them around to the group for each of us to put in whatever we felt appropriate.

Then as usual, after dinner some of us headed back to the hotel and others went out for a little longer. For me it was nearly my bed time so I headed back to my room.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

P.S. I ran short of photos of Hikkaduwa so I’ve attached a few from the Cave Temple in Dambulla and the Woodcarver in Kandy. Enjoy.

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Sri Lanka 10: Nature Walk and Travel Day to the Coast

Sri Lanka 10: 15 December 2014, Nature Walk and Travel Day to the Coast

Hello Everyone,

After a bad night, too many mosquitoes even with the liberal use of repellent, I was up early, before first light and went walking around the grounds. I was the only one up, including the staff who slept on the concrete floor of the thatch roofed and open sided room that served as the dining room, reception desk, lounge and everything at the eco-lodge. I wandered about and found a spot to watch sunrise from on the deck of the tree house room next to the river which wasn’t occupied; from it I could see the entire camp.

I did get in a few new bird identifications while waiting for breakfast, aided by the guides who were very proficient in bird spotting and more experience with the area. After eating breakfast, we headed out on a Nature walk but had to be back on time as we had a long drive ahead and needed to leave on schedule.

One of the staff of the lodge led the way and we fell in line behind him, following a narrow path through the forest and along the edge of a field, then down to the river and along it. We came to a ford and all of us waded across, it wasn’t fast enough current to be dangerous but the stone bottom wasn’t easy to walk on, especially for those with bare feet. My sport sandals were a real advantage since I didn’t have to take them off and gave me good footing so I was able to help several others across, at least offer an arm to hold onto for balance.

On the other bank we followed a trail that ran along the fence line between fields, being very careful to stay clear of the electric fence wire strung several feet off the ground surrounding most of the fields. The electric fences are to keep out wild elephants which come from the nearby wildlife preserve; it works as long as the power didn’t fail. We didn’t see any elephants but did come across indications, including foot prints in the mud. Officially the elephants are protected but the farmers can protect their property and crops. In some spots the farmers built small huts where they stayed next to their fields. If they weren’t too exhausted from working in the fields, they would stay up all night keeping watch for elephants and making sure the electric fences did their job. Some of the farmers built their little shelters up in trees to keep away from the elephants.

We followed the trail past the fields up to the preserve boundary and came across a herd of water buffalo cooling in a pond, near there the government was building an elephant fence to try and keep them out of the farm land. Evidently the fences do work, but are very expensive to build and progress in building them is slow.

Heading back to the lodge, we were careful about going along the edge of fields and were crossing under the electric wires back and forth following the best path that didn’t also trample crops. Even so not all the farmers were happy to have tourists trooping across their property. And the guide spoke with a couple of them who didn’t seem to happy with our being there, but just watched us closely.

Getting back to the river wasn’t hard, but finding a place to cross was. The water was too high to cross where the guide wanted, so we had to go upstream until we got to the same place we crossed the first time. Then it was an easy trek back to the lodge since we already knew the way. At camp we just had time to quickly clean up, pay our bills for the dinner the night before and get on the bus.

We were headed to Elephant Transit Home on the way to the coastal city of Hikkaduwa and couldn’t dawdle on the road because we wanted to be at the elephant center for feeding time at 12:00. We were on time, arriving about 15 minutes before the feeding began. We paid our 500 Rupiah entry fee and followed a good sized crowd to a raised and covered platform, about 100 feet from the elephant fence separating us the feeding station.

As we watched, a crowd of elephants gathered and a gate opened to allow them in to the feeding compound. The older and larger elephants came first, followed by the rest, pretty much in order of their size, with the littlest, which must have been only a few months old, coming in last.

The elephants were all young, and mostly orphans, brought to the elephant transit home to be raised and eventually returned to the wild. There are other Elephant Orphanages that are privately run and profit making operations which allow tourists to get closer contact with the elephants which are not released but kept to provide a better tourist attraction and probably could never live wild because they would be so used to human contact. The center we visited is run by the Government Wildlife Department and the entry fees pay the operating costs and considered a better operation by most conservation organizations, the only human contact is with the attendants at feeding time, the rest of the time they are in the forest.

The visitors crowded the rail to get the best views of the elephants as each would walk up to the feeding station in the center of the compound. There one of the attendants would put a hose into the elephant’s mouth and pour in the milk formula. The littlest ones were too small to compete with the others so they were hand fed separately. As each elephant finished it would move off to the side and another would take its place until all of them were fed except for a few that kept strangling in. The when elephants were finished and gathered into a group near the fence the crowd on the viewing platform began to melt away, working their way back out past the gates to the car park. It wasn’t a long stop, but very interesting and I was surprised at how young the littlest elephants were, I would have loved to know more of the stories of what brought each to the center.

Then we continued on toward the southwest coast and our next stop in the resort city of Hikkaduwa, near the old colonial city of Galle where we would stay for 3 nights. We arrived in Hikkaduwa mid afternoon and before getting to the hotel, we stopped at a grocery store for some of the group to load up on bottled water and snacks. Next to the grocery store was a liquor store, while waiting for those in the grocery store a couple of us went to the liquor store and each bought a bottle of the rum like Arrack. We’d shared some of the guide’s Arrack while at the eco-lodge and felt we should return the favor so they ended up with 2 or 3 extra bottles.

From there we continued to our next hotel, after checking in we had the rest of the day free. We were staying at the Royal Beach Hotel, right on the beach. For dinner several of the group walked down the road and had dinner at a very nice restaurant overlooking the beach. We were coming to the end of our trip and the group had grown close over the course of our travels across Sri Lanka. After dinner some of us returned to our hotel and others went looking for a little entertainment. When I was walked past the room of our guides and driver, they invited me to join them for a drink of the Arrack we’d given them earlier, which turned into several rounds and we were joined by a couple of others from the group. It was a grand time; they were interested in hearing about my travels and what I thought of the tour. It was a good chance to get to know them all much better; eventually I said my goodnights and turned in, leaving the rest to continue their celebration.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

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Sri Lanka 9: Travel Day to Uda Walla

Sri Lanka 9: 14 December 2014, Travel Day to Uda Walla

Greetings Friends,

The last morning in Nuwara Eliya was very relaxed since we didn’t check out of our rooms until 11AM; it was nice to kick back for most of the morning. After breakfast I took my coffee out onto the veranda to sit back and watch the fascinating street scenes as the town came alive for the day.

As I watched a pickup truck turned the busy corner in front of the hotel. In the middle of the turn, a single coconut fell from the back of the truck. After making the corner, the canvas enclosing the truck bed flipped up to reveal a load of husked coconuts. A skinny little man in an oversized winter coat and stocking cap hopped out of the back as the truck sped up and disappeared down the road. The man walked back to the corner where he dodged traffic to retrieve the coconut that was lying in the middle of the intersection. As he stooped down to pick up the coconut another man came running down another street towards the intersection. When he saw the first man pick up the coconut, he stopped, heaved a heavy sigh, turned and walked slowly back the way he came. The first man then took his coconut and walked down the same street the pickup truck had disappeared down. It seemed to me that that was an awful lot of activity for a single coconut in a land where they grow wild seemingly everywhere.

Since we would leave so late in the morning and not have a lunch stop, we all went down to the local market to pick up anything we might want for lunch. I bought a small bag of dates, a packet of crackers and a small prepared sandwich, that and water would be my lunch.

The reason for the late start was that we were taking the train and needed to bring our own lunches because there wouldn’t be any food on the train. We checked out of our rooms at 11 o’clock and were on the bus ready to leave by 11:30, it drove us to the train station on the outskirts of Nuwara Eliya. The Sri Lanka railroad system is a holdover from the days of the British Raj and an activity which many tourists to Sri Lanka want to experience. The train we wanted was headed to Colombo but we would only ride the first 2½ hours to Bandarawela station.

Our 12:45 train was delayed and while waiting for it I wandered about the platform. At the far end I met several men sitting in the shade smoking under a no smoking sign. I stopped to say hello and they pointed out the small, two story tower at the end of the platform, one of the men introduced himself as the station switch operator. He worked the rail switches from the control room at the top of the tower and invited me up to see it. From the control room I could see the entire rail yard; it wasn’t huge but did have several sidings besides the main line tracks. In the center of the room was a row of long heavy handles which were connected to all the signals and switches in the yard. The control system was still the original equipment built in 1900 but seemed well maintained and in good working order. I watched out the windows as he made several changes to the switches and signals then offered me the opportunity to move a switch. I could only hope that he made sure everything was back in the required positions when we were done. He made it clear without my knowing what he said that a small tip was expected for his showing me the control room so I gave him 100 Rupiah, a little less than a dollar. When I got back to my group still waiting on the platform I told our guide of my little excursion to the control room and he took the rest of our group to see it for themselves. They had to wait for their tour because the station master was in the control room and the operator would lost his job if it was discovered he gave private tours and let tourists change signals and switches. After the station master left, my group got their tour and were asked that they please not post any of the pictures on the internet where they might be seen by his bosses, the guide paid the tip from the group’s tip fund.

When the train arrived we had reserved seats in 3rd class and plenty of room. Most of the reserved seats were taken by back packers and other tourists. The locals usually ride in the cheaper, unreserved and overcrowded cars at the end of the train. The train was headed down to the coast from the mountains and we passed through many tunnels, over high embankments and bridges and skirted valleys, always on the downward grade. We sat back, enjoyed the scenery and ate our lunches; thoroughly enjoying the ride. After 2½ hours we pulled into the Bandarawela Station where our bus waited for us, having beaten us there by about 30 minutes, the excursion was just to experience the train ride and I think we all enjoyed it.

We continued by bus thru the mountains to the town of Ella. The town really didn’t seem like much, a few homes and shops crowded near the highway, all in need of paint and a little maintenance. We pulled off the road up a short, steep driveway to an unexpectedly lovely hotel where we stopped for afternoon tea. The hotel garden had a magnificent view overlooking a valley all the way to the distant hills many miles away.

After the break, we continued down the mountain road with a stop at a waterfall that cascaded over a cliff then under a highway bridge. At the end of bridge local entrepreneurs set up little plywood, bamboo and corrugated roofing huts to sell souvenirs and snacks. While talking to one vendor, he asked where we were from and when I said “America” his eyes brightened and he dashed inside his hut. When he came out he carried two ragged one dollar bills and a fist full of American coins. He had taken them in payment a couple of years earlier and was never able to use or exchange them. I looked them over and gave the man 400 Rupiah; I think he got a pretty good exchange rate from me.

A short drive farther down the mountains, we turned off the highway onto a dirt track that led through a farming village of scattered houses to an Eco-lodge built beside a stream. We would be there one night, staying in plywood, thatch roofed cabins; no air-conditioning and screen windows, but each with its own bathroom. Because we would be leaving the next day, we left our suitcases on the bus, taking only enough in our day bags to get us through the night.

It was still early enough to check in, settle into our cabins and do a little exploring before it became dark. Dinner was a barbeque set up outside next to the cabins; the eco-lodge staff moved all the tables and chairs down from the covered dining room, reception everything else building to make one long table where we could sit together. They cooked everything over a fire pit and we had very good chicken, salad and rice. While we sat around chatting both before and after eating, there were a couple rounds of beer and Arrack, the Sri Lankan drink of choice similar to rum made from coconuts. The guides and staff from the lodge did their best to entertain us with songs and dances in costume and we all joined in a few choruses of any song more than two people knew the words to. It was a wonderful evening, even if a few of my group were more than just a little nervous about staying in the little cabins, next to the river.

Multitudes of mosquitoes had a field day with us to snack on and even with mosquito netting over the beds I was very liberal in the use of insect repellent, having to reapply it in the middle of the night when the little critters woke me up. The next day we would continue our journey down to the coast.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

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Sri Lanka 8: Walk to Worlds End and High Tea

Sri Lanka 8: 13 December 2014, Walk to Worlds End and High Tea

Greetings,

This was the earliest morning of the entire trip; wakeup call at 04:30, Coffee at 04:45, and onboard our vans at 05:00 for the 1 hour drive to the National Park. We were schedule for a morning walk across Norton Plain which is a high plateau to the End of the World, an escarpment with a shear drop of 1000 feet. We were in two vans from a local tour agency since the drivers needed special permits to drive within the National Park. They drove like mad men, and while we sped along, we drank our juice or chocolate milk from the boxed breakfasts the hotel sent with us, disposable drinks were not allowed inside the park.

At the park headquarters we started out on a stone paved path to the entrance where our packs were inspected for contraband such as cigarette lighters, disposable drink containers, plastic wrappers, etc; the boxed lunches and our refillable water bottles were allowed.

From the entrance, the stone paved trail continued until out of sight of the headquarters buildings. There, the stone pavers ended and the trail varied from wide, compacted and graded trail to narrow, rough, washed out, and muddy. In some spots the single trail became a spider’s web of narrow muddy paths worn down by thousands of feet trying to find dry ground and easier ways through. The trail led through grassland, across streams, skirted the edges and through forests, over hills and across valleys. I hoped to make some good morning bird sightings but noise from of hikers ensured the birds were far away from where we were; I made only one new bird identification.

After about 2.5 kilometers we arrived at the first of the major sights along the trail, Baker Falls, a beautiful cascade down a wide rocky outcropping. Concrete steps led from the trail down a steep hill to a viewing platform built near the base of the falls; God I hate stone (concrete) steps. After time spent oohing and awing over the falls and far too many pictures, it was back up the steps to the trail. The trail continued on, in the same condition and through the same terrain for another 2 kilometers to our destination, “The End of the World”.

Finally arriving at the End of the World, along the edge of the shear, vertical, 1000 foot cliff were platforms to stand on and look over the edge with not one guard rail, safety rope or barrier between us and oblivion; only the warnings from our guide, “Don’t Fall off the Edge”. We sat on some older concrete platforms/foundations and ate the boxed breakfast of hard boiled eggs, bread and fruit. After more oohing and awing, and more pictures it was time to head back to the park headquarters and our vans. We took a different route back so made a long loop instead of just retracing our steps, this trail was 4.5 kilometers, and if possible, in worse condition than the first trail. Along the way we came to another viewing platform at what is called “Little End of the World”; less impressive cliffs only 500 feet high.

The washed out and muddy trail became downright treacherous in places, but we did pass a work crew leveling and putting in proper drainage where needed. They still had a lot of trail to work on but at least it was being addressed. The trail is well used, there must have been 20 or 30 people at the Worlds End when we were there and passed many more on our way back to the car park, including families with young children and seniors.

Finally as we neared the headquarters our trail merged with the original trail which was wide, compacted and well maintained then morphed again into the stone paved path and finally to the asphalt of the car park. The entire round trip was over 9 kilometers and my legs were like rubber.

It wasn’t yet noon when we got back to the hotel and we had the rest of the day free with no scheduled activities. Some of the girls talked about finding a spa for much needed massages, I just crashed in my room. About 3:30 in the afternoon we met in the lobby and went to the best hotel in town for High Tea; it was an optional activity but everyone came along.

The Grand Hotel was built as THE place to stay in colonial times, large rooms, each with a fireplace, doorman, fine dining and of course High Tea every afternoon. It is still the show place hotel: well maintained and upgraded to modern standards. The gardens were sculpted with Elephant shaped topiary and still had the liveried doorman.

The glass doors of the dining room stood wide open, with a view past the garden, over the tree tops of town and past the golf course. We were seated at a long table with linen napkins, and liveried waiters serving three tiered platters of finger sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres, refilling tea cups or offering premium teas from the Tea Menu; a very proper way to spend a balmy afternoon. The regular High Tea menu was just 800 Rupiah, about $6-$7.

While in the garden after tea, I made three new bird identifications; more than I had during the 3 hour walk that morning. We were all on our own for dinner and I chose to eat in the hotel dining room; fried fish and vegetable salad. I had gone well over my quota for carbohydrates for the day between the box breakfast and sandwiches at high tea; the fish and veggies got me back on track.

Then it was back to the room to repack, the next day would be another travel day.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

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Sri Lanka 7: Travel Day to Little England

Sri Lanka 7: 12 December 2014, Travel Day to Little England

Hello my friends,

This was another travel day, at 09:00 we were checked out of our rooms and on the bus headed out of Kandy. Along the way out of the city we stopped at a wood carving factory/showroom. They showed us wood carvers working in Balsa, Ebony, Teak and Mahogany woods, the Balsa mostly used for masks because the soft wood was easier to carve and lighter to hang than the heavier hard woods. They also demonstrated how they made the natural colors used to paint the masks. In the showroom they had everything from small carved spoons and coasters to large 4 foot tall elephants and everything in between. I was interested in a beautiful mahogany and brass box but $80 was far more than I wanted to pay; everything they sold was very dear and they only sold a few small items to our group.

Back on the bus and out of the city, the road climbed higher and higher into the mountains. One particularly steep stretch climbed a mountain in a series of switchback curves. At the first of these corners at the bottom of the hill, a boy, maybe 15 years old, stood at the side of the road, holding a bouquet of flowers in one hand and waving to the bus with the other. As we passed him he shouted loudly to make sure he had our attention then dashed across the road and scrambled up the steep bank, getting to the road just ahead of us as we rounded the switchback turn. He ran across the road just ahead of us, waved as we went by then scrambled up the bank to meet us again as we turned the next switchback. He did this 2 or 3 more times until the ladies on board all shouted for the us to stop. The driver pulled over as far off the road as possible and the young man came on board and nearly all the ladies bought a flower from him for 100 Rupiah each. I am sure he met every bus he could, probably working his way up and down the hill all day or until he ran out of flowers, a very lucrative enterprise but very tiring.

Farther on we stopped at the Glennloch Tea plantation for a tour of the tea factory and a chance to learn about the tea plantation. It was established in the 1840s by a Scotsman, hence the Scottish name. The tea is made from leaves plucked from row after row of low shrubs. It is tiring and tedious work, women spend all day picking the new growth leaves from the tops of the shrubs, filling large cotton bags they carry on their backs. A filled bag weighs about 5 kilograms and they must fill 4 bags a day to earn 800 Rupiah, less than 7 dollars; it takes a lot of little leaves to weigh 5 kilos. The picking is all done by women who are Plantation Tamils, descendants of Hindu workers brought from India to work because the local Sinhalese would not work on plantations because they felt it was too much like slave labor. There is still a marked separation of the Hindu Tamil and Buddhist Sinhalese, who dominate the island nation. The Tamil men do the other work on the plantation such as maintenance of fields and facilities etc. We took a tour of the tea factory where the leaves were dried, processed and bagged. Most of the leaves were shipped out to be sold at auction to large tea companies such as Lipton, Tetley and others, but some of the highest quality leaves were kept and packaged under their own Glennloch label. The tour ended in the gift shop where we had the opportunity to buy tea, what a surprise.

After a long break at the tea factory, we were back on the bus and continued on our way to Nuwara Eliya, the city known as Little England and our next hotel. It was nearing noon when we stopped at a roadside hotel built on the steep slopes of a hill, overlooking a beautiful valley, with barely enough space between the highway and hotel to park the bus. Walking in from the highway level we entered the lobby area with reception desk, gift shop, seating and an observation deck with had a magnificent view of the entire valley including a beautiful waterfall at one end. Because of the steep slope, there were 4 floors of rooms below the lobby level and the dining room was on the floor above the lobby where we had a very good buffet lunch.

After lunch it was a relatively short drive to Nuwara Eliya where we stopped at the Windsor Hotel, across from the police station at the major intersection in the downtown area. The town was established by an Englishman who discovered that the cool mountain weather allowed him to grow temperate climate vegetables which were in high demand by the British colonials. It became a cool weather haven for the British and the architecture retained its distinctive European flavor, giving it the nickname of Little England. After checking in we took a short walking tour of the town, seeing most of the landmarks and points of interest so we could find our own way around town. There was a distinct difference between the weather in Nuwara Eliya where we wore jackets because it was so cool and the coast where it was hot and humid every day.

The rest of the afternoon we were on our own, most of us took the opportunity to get cash at the nearby bank and shop for snacks at the nearby market; we would be out early in the morning for a long hike and stacks would come in handy to go along with the boxed breakfast the hotel would provide. While checking out the hotel bar, I could almost imagine myself in Sri Lanka under the British Raj when it was known as Ceylon; sitting in the club enjoying a Gin and Tonic in the continual battle against malaria and surrounded by the trappings of colonial excess. For dinner a few of us went to Milano’s, a very good restaurant across the square from the hotel that was recommended by our guide. Then it was an early night to prepare for an equally early wakeup call for the next day when we had a very strenuous day planned.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

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