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Sri Lanka December 2013

We had a few weeks around Christmas free, and living on the far side of the world, wanted to take a trip. Heidi said she wanted to go to some beaches and relax. I wanted to go to India. Finn wanted trains. Piper wanted some animals. Astro wanted her blankie.

After some research and debate, our friends Jamie & Michele in India said that we should not come there ("INDIA IS NOT RELAXING!!!"), but pointed out that Sri Lanka was nearby, small, manageable... and had both beaches and a great network of old trains crossing the country. Decision made!

Sri Lanka doesn't have nearly the number of tourists as India, Thailand, Indonesia, etc. A lot of that is from people staying away after the civil war with the Tamil Tigers, which slowed down in 2002 but didn't officially end until 2009. However, it is definitely over now, and it's a safe and friendly country. Most of the conflict was in the north (adjacent to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu), which is less developed than the south where we were. Perhaps as a result, foreign investment in Sri Lanka is very light: the country was nearly free of any foreign chains.

I took somewhere north of 9,000 pictures on the trip -- a record for me, although admittedly at three weeks this was also a record trip. This gallery here is edited down to about 3% of those.

Thanks also to my Sri Lankan friend at PSI, Nalin Samarasinha. He helped us out quite a bit in planning the trip, and corrected a lot of the errors I managed to work into the photo captions.

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Mirissa: Beach and whales

Map of Sri Lanka! The country is roughly 140 miles x 270 miles. So tiny and manageable compared to India (visible to the upper left). It was also not too long of a flight: maybe 12 hours flying time, plus a few hours wandering aimlessly through the Dubai airport in the middle of the night.

Once landing in Colombo and passing the amazing duty-free shops there (washing machines and air conditioners, compared with the gold and dates in Dubai), we met up with our guides, and drove the 3 hours to our first stop on the coast. We spent the next 18 days making a slow counter-clockwise loop around the bottom portion of the island.

We had arranged for a guide & driver to go with us the whole time. In many places (e.g., temples and safaris) we also had a local guide and driver who came along as well.

We spent three nights in Mirissa, a low-key beach area on the south coast. We were at a hotel, but this was not a big fancy resort zone.

We went down the street to meet up with Raja and his whale boat. Raja is an amateur Sri Lankan whale-ologist. He's been tracking them here for many years, and likes whales. This is his brand-new boat (about two months old) that he had built for him in Colombo. We went about 30 miles out to sea.

Finn and I had a great time hanging out on the top deck and watching whales. These are blue whales -- world's largest -- not the grey whales that we saw in Baja four years ago.
Raja is the captain.
Unbeknownst to us, Heidi and Piper spent a miserable four hours puking. "Dude, that was the single worst trip I think I have ever had in my entire life."

I admit, I took this picture, but soon afterwards they went down below deck, where I figured they must've been doing just fine.

Blue whale!! We saw maybe 8 different individuals. Raja was taking picture of their features to plot their migration patterns -- he's a co-author on work done at the University of Ruhuna in southern Sri Lanka.

I did some research afterwards and tracked down one of his papers about the effect of shipping traffic on whale distributions:

"These high densities of whales combined with one of the busiest shipping routes in the world suggest a severe risk of ship strikes. Previous data on blue whale distribution and coastal upwellings indicate consistent and predictable patterns of whale distribution, suggesting there is considerable potential for effective measures to keep ships and whales apart."

Interestingly, some guides in Sri Lanka will take you on tours to swim with the whales. I would love to do that. But Raja says it's not a good idea from the whales point-of-view, as they get harassed enough by boats as it is, and adding swimmers is not going to make it better.

Lots of fishing in Mirissa. These guys are catching something big.
More boats at the harbor. We were on a large boat with other tourists, but that was an anomaly -- nearly all of the other of the several-hundred boats here were small fishing boats.
Astro enjoys a bit of palm-scented water action.
As does Piper.

How did I take the couple of underwater shots here? Easy -- Emirates allows virtually unlimited checked baggage (600 lbs for 5 of us), so I was able to carry the big Ikelite case all around the country with us. And, we had a full-size van, so what's an extra 25 pounds?

Piper surfs Mirissa! Along with her surf instructor Kali.
Go Piper! This was not her first time surfing, although the first I'd seen it -- she was quite the surfer at summer camp (aka winter camp) in Durban last year.
Hmm, where are Heidi and Astro? Oh -- they're spending the whole day in taxis going to the hospital and the US Embassy in Colombo. They'll spend much of the next few days there too. In the end Astro was fine, but she did have a very high fever for the first few days we were there. Malaria is not common in Sri Lanka, but dengue fever is.

Meanwhile, here Piper, Finn, and I are racing hermit crabs. We drew circles on the sand and cheered them as they escaped. This one was the champion!!

NB: Piper has evolved since she did this in Honduras five years ago.

Finn: "Daddy, did you see that crazy car? It has three wheels, not four like it is supposed to!"

So, Piper, Finn and I have been taking crazy-car rides around town.

Go crazy cars!
And we wandered down to the docks again, where Piper made a lot of good friends.
Getting some custom-made shirts for Piper and Finn.

"I'm so sorry -- can you come back tomorrow? The power went out last night at my house and the sewing machine would not work!"

Meanwhile, she also asked if I had a Canon 5dMkII - she does wedding and clothing photography on the side.

NB: All children in Sri Lanka seem to be referred to as babies -- e.g., "How many babies do you have with you?" Piper (age 11) didn't get used to it, though.

Now Heidi is back, and we're wandering down the beach at night. There are a lot of low-key beachy restaurants here.
And crabs.
And frogs.

Yali National Park and safari

Now we've left Mirissa and are headed toward the Yala National Park. It's one of the larger & better known parks in the country. We've left the minivan behind and are in a 4x4 safari vehicle driving past some rice paddies.
Things do get a bit bumpy, but Astro is well-padded.
Looks like a bee-eater?
Hornbills! We have a lot of hornbills in South Africa, which are pretty cool. But these Malabar pied hornbills here have kind of a double-decker nose. It's one of the most spectacular things ever. It makes them look like a parasauralopholus. This one was jumping from one branch to another (and that's another hornbill tail hanging town from above).
The big attractions in the Sri Lankan national parks: peacocks, deer, monitor lizards, water buffalo, jungle fowl (the ancestor of the chicken), and elephants.

"Oh, that's George. The elephant. He's very aggressive... we need to stay back from him! Too many visitors here have fed him bananas, so he'll just come up and root through your packs if you're not careful."

Ibis (piper?)
Pelicans in a tree! And a cormorant too. Just below the tree are water buffalo... the real ones, not like the Cape Buffalo in South Africa, or the bison in the US.
During the safari trip, we have a short beach break.
Piper finds a crab.
Go crab!!
Astro had a big fever, but has largely recovered by now.
Our guides! They were with us for the whole trip. Dinesh (on the left) was our main guide and driver. He has a degree in textiles from a university in Colombo. Padma (right) was just starting guiding -- I think this was his first trip. Heidi arranged the trip through another contact in Sri Lanka -- Saman -- who organized things and set us on our way, but who we didn't see at all after we left the airport.

We spent about $100/day for the guides + vehicle + fuel + admissions -- Sri Lanka remains very cheap compared to other countries.

The safari was a bit different than a South African one. The parks are smaller, and the guides don't have quite the background that they do here. (All guides in South Africa go to a guiding school for several months and take a standardized test about animals, plants, geology, astronomy, etc.) But on the other hand this is because Sri Lanka is in general quite a bit less developed as a tourist destination than South Africa.

  • South Africa tourists per year: 8.3 million, in a country of 50 million.
  • Sri Lanka: 850,000, in a country of 20 million.
And certainly neither of them are like Europe:
  • Venice: 25 million tourists per year, in a city of 60,000.

High country: Trains and tea

We've now left the lowlands and taken the very steep windy road up into the mountains. We're here at the train station in Ella, where we're waiting now for the train.

Meanwhile, Piper finds a few cute puppies.

I find pineapples in a tuk-tuk!!
Heidi and Astro wait for the train. We're going from Ella to Nanu Oya, a very scenic four-hour route.
Finn is very excited to sit & spin.
TRAIN!!!!!!
Here comes our train! And what is that in his hand? Check it out -- it's a token ring! While now used as a term for network packet transfer, the term originally come from railroads. It's a simple but foolproof way of managing traffic through sections of track which are shared by multiple lines. Not very many countries still use physical tokens as part of their normal operation, but India and Sri Lanka still do. I'd always heard about these, but never seen one.

So, how do you avoid a head-on collision, where you have trains in both directions on the same track? In a modern system you'd use an electric signal. But here, they use a physical token to control the single-track portion. One train passes through while carrying the token, and then once out of the shared line, physically hands it off to the next train. If you don't have the token, you're not allowed to move. This completely avoids any risk of head-on collision.

And we're on!
We had very nice second-class cars.
Finn is a big train fan, and the trip was pretty awesome. He stayed awake and very into it nearly the full four hours.
There were some tourists at the train station where we got on, but we didn't see them again. Where did they go? Turns out that the train had a 1st-class section with fancy padded seats and carpets. Our was definitely the way to go for the open-air experience though.
This guy in our car brought us sweet tea to share. He's an English teacher in a local high school. Check out that awesome-looking trunk down the hall in the next car, too!
Heidi and Astro are real rail-riders.
This is the kid of the guy who gave us the tea. You can see the first-class cars up front too.
Now we're passing thru the tea plantations! Holy cow - this was cool. We've gained a lot of elevation, and are nearing 6000'.
Finn: "These are carrots! I'm going to tell my grandma I saw a whole field of carrots growing!!"
Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon) is still the world's #4 tea producer, after China, India, and Kenya (!). The tea plant is a very normal-looking bush up close -- in fact, it looks just like a ficus that you might have as an office plant. But when it covers the hillsides in dark green, it looks exceptionally beautiful.
The tea pickers make around $3 US/day. The tea gets plucked, leaf-by-leaf, into the blue bags they carry on their back. And even on hot days, they're covered in long pants, to avoid the leeches... more on that later.

We're just about to our destination at Nanu Oya, followed by a short drive up the hill to Nurawa Eliya, where we stay for three nights.

Pulling into Nanu Oya. This is a high train -- in fact, just a few minutes back we've passed through the highest point on the entire Sri Lanka railway system (Pattipola station, 6200'). This is also broad gauge track -- 5' 6" wide, as opposed to the standard 5' 8.5" in the US -- and thus we've just come over the highest elevation broad-gauge track in the world.

Interestingly, BART runs on these wide-gauge tracks -- the only major US operator today.

Our guides met us at the station -- turns out you can drive the 4-hour train route in about two hours.

We've made it to Nuwara Eliya ('New England'), which is a high-elevation town (8000') at the heart of the tea plantation world in Sri Lanka. It's also somewhat strangely English, like a little UK theme park. The hotel we were at ('Glenfall Reach Hotel') was much more into impressing us with their tea and biscuits and meatloaf than making any veggie curries. This is all probably due to the British owners of a lot of the tea estates during the Ceylon era.

Well, meanwhile, Finn does his best to behave in a park.

In South Africa after dark, the streets are dead: very few people are outside (black or white) because of fear of crime. It was so amazing to be able to walk outside at night past the fruit market and see dozens of people out there buying weird fruits!!

Finn: "Daddy, how come everything in Sri Lanka is so small? The oranges are small and the 'nanas are also so small... it's very strange."

Astro in the Hakgala botanic garden, outside of Nuwara Eliya. This garden -- at one point the king's personal garden -- was started as an experimental garden for making first cinchona (source of quinine, the active ingredient in tonic water), and then tea.
Go Astro go!
It was a very wet and active botanical garden.
I told Finn he was not allowed to touch the flowers. But then...
This is a Buddhist country (70%). But we were a few days before Christmas, and many people were wearing Santa hats, including this family.
Librarians and TSA agents take note: while waiting for Indian food in the adjacent restaurant, Finn and I have found the most amazing slide in the world. it's made out of those rolling wheels that are designed for sliding luggages and books, and are always so tempting to play with... and here you can!
Around the corner from the playground is a brand new hotel, which the Sri Lankan president is opening up today. Here's part of his security detail. I don't think any of them have weapons.
Security agents were actually posted all around the hotel, which is a few hundred meters from here. A lot of them stood on roofs of private homes; this one has taken over the balcony (just above the green tuk-tuk on the right).
Tuk-tuk!
Nice tuk-tuk, nice shoes!
And again!
The view over Nuwara Eliya from our hotel room. The fireworks are inaugurating the new hotel (white building), which the president is visiting. The president does come to town frequently... he has a summer retreat palace here already.

I believe that is a field of carrots between the hotel and ours. That makes me so happy.

Just outside of Nuwara Eliya proper we visit a few tea plantations. This is the Mackwoods Labookellie factory. They grow, pick, and dry the tea here. It's then driven in a truck to Colombo (50 miles line-of-sight, but a 5 hour drive) a few times a week, where it's packaged. Most of the tea from this company goes to Russia and the middle East.
Want to know where your tea comes from? This is the actual daily tea processing log at the Mackwoods factory.
Tuk-tuk and tea! Still at Mackwoods. This is all tea -- for many km around.
Those tea fields are so surreal and cool.

And they always have a sparse but non-zero planting of trees, too.

At the Blue Field tea factory, a few miles further down the road. This building in front of us (the main factory, which is in the middle of their fields) is where all of the drying / fermenting / grinding / sifting / grading / etc happens.
And what is that building full of? Rooms like this one, used for drying the tea.
More tea-processing equipment.
This is the wood-fired furnace that dries all the tea at the Blue Field factory. This man here cleans out the furnace once a week. It's fed with rubber wood. If you like tea, thank this guy.
Awesome tea machines.
Between South Africa and Sri Lanka, Finn has been enjoying a lot of tea. He does get it at school for snack breaks, too.
Tuk-tuk driver carrying around a lot of cut grasses. He really wanted me to take a picture of him chewing on the grasses. Not sure why. (I did do so, though, before he asked me for a few rupees.)
Commercial detour! This guy ran in front of our van as we were driving down the mountain switchbacks. He tried to sell us flowers and we declined. 90 seconds later, on the next switcback, he was there again, somehow ahead of us! He'd short-cutted and waited to chase us again. And then sure enough another two minutes down... I thought we'd lost him but there he was again on the next switchback. He was running fast in the mountains and kept in pursuit, and that was worth buying a few flowers.
"Yo Finn! Hey, everyone else is taking really beautiful pictures by the waterfall. Can you do something really beautiful for me?"
Astro and I hang out in the vehicle. The distances aren't far in Sri Lanka, but roads are very windy and dense with traffic... we spent many hours in the vehicle.

River rafting, caving, and a leech

We've left tea-world and descended to about 2000'. We're near the town of Kitulgala. This small hotel has a tea plantation below.
Piper picks some tea from the plantation.
Things are so peaceful. Until....

"DAAAADDDDDDYYYYYY!! DADDY! DADDY!!!! COME HERE NOW!!!! NOWWWWWW!!!! IT"S EATING ME!!!!!!! HELP!!!!!!!!!! HELPPPPP!!!!!!!"

This is Finn's reaction to finding a 1-inch leech gently, harmlessly caressing his ankle.

During the rest of the trip, Finn was terrified of leeches, and must've asked a dozen times a day if this river has any leeches, or this tree, or this hotel.

Piper: "Finn has three main fears now: the pool monster, the big orange cat, and leeches."

The big orange cat is a rumored animal which has fought with our cats outside from time to time, and which Finn perceives as being of comparable size to Clifford the Big Red Dog. The pool monster is on a long hose and sucks up algae from our pool, but probably can eat people as well.

Check out that tuk-tuk river-rafting shuttle! Piper gets ready down the road from our hotel at the tea plantation, in Kitulgala.
Finn and Astro are back at the lodge eating ice cream. Heidi has somehow done an amazing job of telling Finn that the rules are that he can't go river rafting... I know if I said that, he'd be incredibly upset.
Go Piper!
Here's our river guide. Oh -- and what is that just behind us? It's The Bridge Over the River Kwai!

Indeed, this is precisely where the Oscar-winning film from 1957 was filmed. This is a new bridge at the same location as the famous one which was blown up, which Finn has now watched the last 8 minutes of countless times on DVD in order to see the resulting train crash.

And no, it's not the River Kwai -- it's actually the Mahaweli River.

We took a side excursion for an hour or two to go on a little jungle walk (no leeches).
Piper slides down some slippery rocks into a pool!
Piper and I are back in the raft.
Hmm, how strange. Piper has fallen in the river. I wonder how such a terrible thing could have happened?
Oh no... it seems like Piper has been splashed. This is awful!
As we're paddling down the river, this guy was pushing his way up. We saw more Fitzcarraldo-esque moments later on in the afternoon. Despite us being on a commercial raft trip, this area (and much of the country as a whole) is still very undeveloped, with a lot of people living on subsistence agriculture. Up-river from here a woman was drying some large yellow fruits she picked from the forest; this was very common to see.
Done with the river, we've driven through a big rubber plantation and are on the path to a cave. Finn gets a nice ride...
... and so does Astro.

Heidi says this might be her favorite picture.

The cave was kind of a last-minute addition to our itinerary. As we were walking up, it seemed to me like we were definitely under-prepared for spelunking. Like, where's the harness, ropes, or even a headlamp? I figured out guides didn't know what they were getting into, and it'd be a bust and we'd have to come back the next day with proper equipment.

Well, here we are, and no headlamps needed.

This is the Beli-Lena cave. There was a plaque at the cave entrance describing some of the things found there:
  • 30,000 year old stone tools (among the oldest in the world).
  • Remains of animals eaten, including sambhur, pig, barking deer, monkeys, porcupines, and giant squirrels.
  • Salt (traded from the ocean) and breadfruit.
  • 16,000 year old skeletons, which are among the oldest in Sri Lanka.

This ornamental structure is quite a bit newer.

Finally, "Beli-Lena occupies a very special place in the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. It awaits further investigation by future generations of Sri Lanka archaeologists with progressively sharper analytical skills."

This is the excavation area, where it was dug in the late 1970's.
... next to a nice waterfall.
Somehow Finn is drier than I.
Piper found a nice iguana in the grass on the hike out.
People in the village.

The school here was a Tamil school, which is somewhat rare for this area of Sri Lanka, where it is mostly Sinhala. We saw very little obvious ongoing animosity.

Me: Dinesh... your father was killed in the war by the Tamils, right?

Our guide Dinesh: No, no. He was killed by terrorists. The terrorists were Tamil. But the Tamils, they are very nice people.

Moments after this, Finn freaked out when the local people told us we should not walk through the tall grasses so as to avoid the leeches.
Sri Lankan traffic jam.
More echoes of Fitzcarraldo. Steep hills, jungles, rubber plantations, rapids, locals in canoes and rafts... all we need is an opera.
Astro wants to check out the Ray-Bans. Any similarity?
Heidi won the bug-finding contest! This thing is about three inches long (plus another five for the antennae)... and perfectly camo'd as a leaf.
Our rainforest hotel here had the most amazing collection of tree frogs! OK, most of them were jumping around the building and not trees. But still great! After everyone else was in bed, I employed the services of our waiter Hashan to help me shoot some frogs pics... he held a big flash rig as I got close to them with the camera.

Kandy: Jewelry, temples, bats, and elephants

If there's one picture that we saw a lot of, it's this! Sri Lankan street life is dense and active and awesome. Lots of tuk-tuks and diesel fumes (of which we were of course an equal contributor).
We've now driven north to Kandy, which was the most touristy town we visited, although the great majority of visitors were Sri Lankans on holiday. This giant Buddha-on-a-hill has a staircase up his back and is visible from everywhere in town, yet oddly doesn't get a mention in Lonely Planet.
This is a Buddhist temple, so keep things under control!

My colleague Nalin translates this as "Loitering in the upstairs is entirely prohibited for the young men and women who are couples."

Christmas eve in Kandy!
Heidi is shopping with Astro, so Finn and Piper and I take a boat trip around the lake in the center of town. The inlet pipes around the lake are populated with 5' long monitor lizards (!).
And what do we see from the lake? A million fruit bats! They were the most amazing things ever... I mean, these are not your basic American bats which are the size of a sparrow. These are the prehistoric, megalithic pterodactylic Indian Fruit Bats. Which have a wing span of SIX FEET!
When sleeping in trees, they look about the size of a big housecat.
Most sleep upside down, but this one preferred not to.

Despite trying, I was unable to get any photos of the bats in flight. They take off around dusk to go in search of fruit. We saw a few loners flying during the day the day, but the majority were sleeping.

Just the right thing to put everyone in the holiday mood at our fancy hotel buffet dinner: a nice Christmas spider, made out of bread!
Astrid tries to steal presents from the hotel tree in Kandy. Although the population is 93% Buddhist/Hindu/Muslim, Christmas is still a national holiday and many stores are decorated up with trees and lights.
Xmas eve photo...
Santa has visited our hotel room during the middle of the night!!! This is really exciting.
"A NEW TOMAS TRAIN!!!! IT'S DIESEL'S SPIDER DELIVERY TRAIN!!!"
Astro loves her cheap plastic Chinese bird that made awful noises and then broke. But she still loved it just as much, sweetie that she is.
Egg hoppers! OK, these are really one of Sri Lanka's best culinary inventions. These are basically a crispy rice-flour pancake, made in a hemispherical pan, with a cooked egg and some sambal (like a salsa). My god they're good.
Walking around, everyone wanted to pose with Piper and Astro.

They wanted to pose with Finn too, but he was somewhat more vocal in his opposition ("NOOOOOOOOOOO! GET AWAY!!!!")

Nice cow in the Peradeniya botanic gardens outside of Kandy. Finn and I were walking closer to it, until I looked on my exposed legs and found three leeches. I quietly removed them and carried Finn out of there before he noticed anything, lest he start puking from the anxiety of it.
One of the things that Kandy is known for is jewelry. Apparently they dig up a lot of rocks from across Sri Lanka, and cut / grind / polish / set them in Kandy.

As one might expect, there were a healthy number of expensive and tourist-oriented shops on the downtown circuit that did this. We eventually ended up much less commercial place on the edge of town, run by a family, and spent at least an hour there watching them grid rocks, talking with their welders, and so forth. It was really cool... a process I've never seen outside of my 8th-grade Industrial Arts class at Highland View Middle School (*).

(*) In that class, Dan Tate, who was tall and mean, stole the rock I was working on. I told the teacher, and the teacher busted Dan. Five minutes later, Dan cornered me by the rock grinder and decked me in the face, leaving me with bloody cheeks from breaking my shop safety glasses. Then Dan got suspended.

Heating the silver in the fire. The white things that look like bricks to the side of the fire? Those are actually freeze-dried cuttlefish (for real!), which provide the workers an easily-carved surface to work their designs into. They feel like lightweight foam, or balsa wood.
Selling roadside corn. Same idea as Mexico and South Africa, though in Mexico they're usually fire-roasted, which is really good.
Fruit at the Kandy market! We couldn't talk this guy down in price and may have paid above market value for his bundle of short red bananas, but they did get nearly all eaten.
Muslim butchers at the Kandy market. Since this was Christmas, many of the other stores were closed.
More in the food stalls in the Kandy central market.
Kandy Central Market. Downstairs = food; upstairs = clothing. This was a great market, even if we missed much of the action by coming on Christmas day. That's the big Buddha on the hill.
Whoa! OK, anyone used to traveling through 2nd-world markets is used to seeing knock-off name-brand clothing. But wandering around a different market in Kandy, we found these stalls, selling legit merchandise. It really was real North Face, Columbia, etc... plus some Jack Wolfskin for the Germans.

What's the deal?

"Black market, my friend! You see, the factory is in our country, to the north. They make one million jackets, they have some extras. I buy them for a good price, and I give them to you for a good price."

Indeed, these were all made-in-Sri Lanka products, being sold for maybe 1/4 the US price. A few had the tags ripped out (like what you'd get at a factory outlet in the US), but most were new.

While there were a lot of booths like this, there were also plenty of regular knock-off Nikes, Louis Vuitton, etc, just like any good market.

Five of us can fit in the back of a tuk-tuk!
Perhaps Kandy's most well known historical object is a single tooth, alleged to be from the Buddha himself. The tooth is stored deep within a nested chamber within the appropriately named Temple of the Tooth...

Thousands of people were in line and excited to go through the temple -- mostly Sri Lankan tourists and families on year-end vacations. Finn was in line but it was a bit overwhelming for him, so we made our way out soon after this.

The lotus flowers are available for an offering of about $1 US. Every large temple has multiple vendors selling flowers and other objects. Piper gave hers to the priest.

Our guide for the temple tour, MG Nishantha, gives Piper a lotus flower.

There must be some massive lakes with commercial lotus-flower farms, although I never saw them.

Selling mangos outside the temple...
One more day in Kandy. This is at an elephant 'sanctuary' outside of Kandy in Pinnawala. Based on one awful experience with one of these so-called refuges in in South Africa, I had expectations that were not very high.

Sympathy is not Finn's strongest point, but even he clued in to something being wrong here.

"Why did that man put chains around that elephant? I think it wants to go walk around in the forest -- not be stuck in this building with all of the people."

Things admittedly did get better for the elephants as we moved up the hill, and found them free-ranging.

There are roughly 100 elephants here, and they are bred successfully in captivity, which much attest to some sort of happiness.

These are Asian elephants, which look a whole lot different than the African elephants which we see at home. The Asian ones are smaller, more hairy, and have tiny ears.
Also, African elephants don't have all the pink and brown spots.

The population of Asian elephants in Sri Lanka is I think around 3000. They're not really endangered, but they're not exactly living in their nativate habitat either. Most of them are for ceremonies, or rides, or for carrying things... not just hanging out in the forest.

Here, the elephants from the 'sanctuary' are being taken on their daily river swim. They walk down the road about a 1/2 km and then walk into the river.
Piper, the elephant, and the mahouts (elephant handlers) are all very interested in bananas. Finn, not so much.
Three mahouts with their elephants.
I do like this photo...
Piper and Finn go look for souvenir tuk-tuks after we're done with elephants.
Back in Kandy, firewalkers. This made Piper keep talking about Mythbusters:
"I know how they do it!! So, if you watch them carefully, they're not going to be running across, because this will push their feet in too hard. But if they instead walk quickly and gently, without disturbing the coals, they can do it."

Heading north...

We've left Kandy and are driving northward. We passed an amazing Hindu temple. (Hindus are a little over 10% of Sri Lanka's population.).

Not shown: the 'spice gardens' which were present in large numbers on this road. These seemed like touristy scams. They'd take you on a tour of their garden to see the cinnamon and coffee trees, and then talk you into extremely expensive extracts, hair oils, etc.

The shirtless guy is the priest. Apparently the ceremony he's doing is some sort of fertility thing.
Check out that tree! It's very old, and is growing in the middle of the temple. Though 'growing' is probably an exaggeration, as it is surrounded by heavy scaffolding in an attempt to keep it from falling over.
A woman brings an offering of bananas to the temple. That is the shoe-checking window on the left.
Now we're at Dambulla, where there is a set of gigantic buddhist cave temples. All of the temples have offering for flowers, fruit, etc. out front. It's a great place to be a monkey. This one (which we saw a lot of) is a toque macaque.
In the buddha caves at Dambulla. The caves have been painted for about 2100 years and look brand new.
Totally gorgeous, walking around on the mountain top next to the Buddha caves!
We went past (but did not go in) the somewhat gaudy visitor center to the 2100-year-old Buddhas.

The caves themselves are a UNESCO World Heritage site -- one of five UNESCO sites in Sri Lanka we visited: Polonnaruwa (ancient city), Kandy (large and active ancient city with the tooth relic), Sigiriya (rock in the sky), Anuradhapura (giant buddhist city), and Dambulla (these caves).

Driving onward from Dambulla, we get loaded into an oxcart for some sort of tour.
The oxcart took us to a boat dock, where we paddled across. Then we walked, and took a tuk-tuk back home. Of anything on the trip that seemed a bit cruise-boat touristy, this was probably it. It felt like being on an episode of The Amazing Race.
Between the boat ride and the tuk-tuk trip, we watched this woman as she made roti. Tourism aside, it was actually really cool. She started with raw rice, and pounded it into a flour. Add water and a bit of grated coconut, and it makes a dough for rotis (which she's holding here). Cook those over a fire. Make a sambal with coconut and hot peppers, which she ground up on rocks outside. And we had a tasty snack 15 minutes later.

The woman here gets paid to do this in her mud 'house' which we're in now. And although it seemed like a show, the reality is that her actual house is 200 m or so away, and looks very similar. Her husband died recently. The majority of people in this area (her family included) are basically living off of subsistence agriculture. They grow their own rice, build their own house out of grasses / mud bricks / scrap lumber, they raise chickens and other animals. Her son is a tuk-tuk driver and makes maybe $10/day in the village. On the off-season he farms onions. She was very sweet and honest.

Cooking the roti over the fire. Think of a thick tortilla.
Making sambal from coconut and peppers.
This house behind Astro is also hers. It has a table and chairs and a place to sleep upstairs.

Meanwhile, Astro is tempted to pick the bright orange objects. Hmm -- reminds of of Piper doing the same thing.

Piper drinking the coconut water. We had already scraped the inside of the coconut for use in the sambar.
She was very sweet. Also check out those nicely made roof panels, each one made out of coconut leaves -- she helped Piper make one in just a few minutes.

Monitor lizards and more elephants

Ride paddies and peacocks -- something we saw together many times.

Wild jungle chickens are also quite popular, especially on safari. They are gorgeous, and are the recent ancestors of the domesticated chicken.

Komodo dragon!!! This guy was just an amateur dragon handler. He hangs out at the bridge and lures out the dragons with meat every morning.
That's the Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaska at the far left (in the white robes on the sign). He's a very popular guy, and has been in power for nine years already. His big acccomplishment has been brokering and maintaining peace -- the end of the Tamil war. His picture is up all over the place -- perhaps more than healthy -- but he does seem to be very well-liked.
Buses in Sri Lanka were very colorful and beautifully decorated.
I had a lot of meals like this! Some rice, some sambar, some spinach, lentils, noodles, beets, and a few unidentified vegetables curried together. Washed down with a Lion Lager, which is the national beer (*), despite the fact that Sri Lanka has no lions (they have been extinct for at least 37,000 years).

(*) Arrack is a fermented coconut liquor which is also highly popular.

If you ask for milk to drink at a restaurant, that's a complicated! There are always two more questions that follow it:

  • Would you like that cold or warm?
  • Plain or with sugar?
Next field trip! We've added an excursion to our trip, which is another safari trip. This is to the Kaudulla National Park, which is known for its elephants.

The NHSTA is not very active in Sri Lanka...

We've picked up our safari guide Michael. He was a neat guy. He's one of the few Sri Lankans who has spent time in the US ("I worked at Dunkin-Donuts. Staten Island. I managed the place, found employees, hired, fired, cooked, cleaned up, everything.") Now he's working on building up eco-tourism in Sri Lanka, by starting a four-room lodge. His daughter is studying biology, and his son is in the Sri Lankan air force. And he knew a lot about animals and Sri Lankan history -- probably more than any other guide we talked with during our trip.
We find some elephants!
Open-top 4x4 Jeeps are the safari vehicle of choice here. I forget what they're looking at here.
We've seen a herd of elephants across the river, so head in that direction. But we are not the only ones...
It's a zoo! I mean, on our side, at least... holy cow. The deal is that in most South African reserves, there is some sort of limit to the number of cars that can approach an animal. A typical limit is 3, and the safari drivers (who can lose their job easily if they violate it) are pretty respectful of this...

But here we have on the order of 50 cars, all off-roading, all following the elephants.

We stayed for a few minutes and then left. Michael was pretty disgusted by it. "Here they have no limits at all! If 400 trucks want to come in, they let 400 trucks in!"
On the way back from the safari, Michael makes a stop at the train tracks to show Finn some train cars!
Finn optimistically waits for some action.

Climbing Sigiriya

Next day: we're set to climb up Sigiriya. That's the monolith right ahead of us -- almost 700' high, and jutting straight out of the otherwise flat plains. It's very dramatic.

It looks pretty impassable, but it turns out there have been stairs and ladders up the side for many hundreds of years. Sigiriya is just the centerpiece of a large kingdom which extends quite a distance. It was built in the 5th century, abandoned, and then reused as a monastery 900 years later.

This is not my photo. But if you were had a plane, this is what Sigiriya would look like. We walked up from the left, walked along the left face of the wall (you can see the red scaffolding), then up a staircase on the back, and finally to the top where the terraced swimming pools are. It's surreal.

My colleague Nalin points out that a slightly disguised Sigiriya is the location of Arthur C. Clarke's book The Fountains of Paradise, where a space elevator to reach geostationary orbit is built on a mountain-top run by Buddhist monks. Cool! Clarke lived in Sri Lanka most of his life -- he wrote 2001 while there.

I remember attending a public session at the 2001 DPS meeting in New Orleans. The point was to have Clarke call in and discuss the real 2001 vs. the science-fiction one, and they patched in a live call from Sri Lanka. However, any content of the discussion was overshadowed by the fact that in the real 2001, it was barely possible to have a phone conversation with someone on the other side of the Earth ("Arthur, Arthur? Can you hear us now? Wha? --?"). We weren't exactly finding monoliths on the moon.

Starting the climb up. I had concerns about Finn making it up the 800 stairs. But he does well!
Mid-way up: naked ladies. These were in a little sheltered cave, about halfway up the monolith; apparently the whole cliff might have been covered with similar frescoes in the past. According to our guide, they were painted on the wall hundreds of years ago for the king (pictures of his harem). Wikipedia claims they might have been there exclusively for religious purposes, although they were very naked.
Monkey! Also a tall Buddha.
Still walking up. We're at a platform about 3/4 of the way up. Just around the corner was what looked like a portable enclosed tennis court. What's that for?

"Oh, the bees. Sometimes they'll get angry, and if they get angry, then you must run to the shelter. Everybody up here must run to the shelter. And the last person who does not make it in -- the bees attack him to make up for everyone else."

Even if it wasn't true, I love this sign.
Toward the top...
Made it!
So now that we're on top, check it out. Behind us is a full Olympic-sized swimming pool... carved out of the rock and carefully built with bricks.

According to our guide Anil: "This was not a religious monument. This was the Las Vegas of the king's empire. It was all about pleasure. They would have had a disco up here if they could have."

Finn gets a bit of help on the way down.
This guy was selling carved animals at the base. He's holding one -- an elephant box -- which we ended up with.
Despite having 18 days to go a few hundred miles, we still spent many hours in the car. Finn never quite got the hang of cord management.
Heidi has found an elephant! The elephants weren't exactly wild, but I don't think they were mistreated. They seemed to be acting like work animals, sort of like an ox or horse.
The mahout is the elephant driver.
Finn gets to touch the elephant afterwards!.

Those are chains around the elephant. That seemed to be the standard way to harness them up. Although it looks bad, it didn't seem that chains by themselves put the animal in any pain.

Why are Astro and Heidi forking Finn in the butt?

Anaradhapura, Buddhist stupas, and monkeys

Now we're made it to Anuradhapura. This is part of a giagantic Buddhism complex... many square kilometers of temples, shrines, stupas, giant buddhas, and so forth. It is also one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, having been lived in for about 2500 years and counting... current population 60,000.
Piper gives an offering at the temple... she bought the flower from a vendor outside, as did most of the other offerers.
This is Astro, putting out her hand beneath the oldest planted tree in the world. It was planted in 288 BC, from a seedling from the original Bodhi tree in India, and has been continually cared for since then.
Oldest tree!
Walking down one of the streets in Anuradhapura, this procession started coming toward us.
I love that hair!
The procession continued. They were carrying a long orange thing, which some people there were calling 'the flag. It is huge... there must've been 200 people carrying it. Several hundred meters long at least.

To the front is a giant stupa. It's been sealed closed for 2300 years. Apparently no one at all is allowed to go inside of it. The procession went around it.

Astro/Heidi/Finner/Piper all watch.
Next thing I know they're carrying it themselves!
Walking around the stupa. The path is always clockwise, to keep your right hand toward the stupa.
... and back to the front. The fabric just goes on and on. Many of the people are carrying food, lotus flowers, or other offerings.
After the flag is rolled up, this second group started from the opposite direction. The people in front are sweeping the path.
I tried to figure out what was happening, but unfortunately our guides were not a lot of help. The local guide had left by this point, and our driver-guides didn't seem to know the whole story.

One thing about Annaradhapura though: it is one of the major centers of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Every year there is a big convention for new Buddhists (and those interested) in the area. Perhaps 50,000 people come and camp on the grass for a week while learning Buddhism, visiting the temples, and so forth.

Drums in the procession.
Now a lot of monks.
The monks are dressed in orange. We saw a lot of them throughour Sri Lanka... riding on mopeds, catching tuk-tuks, etc. One was tormeting a cat with his cell phone's ring tone (which he programmed to be a dog bark, and rang it over and over).
Thumbs up from the monk's helper.
Meanwhile, Finn and Astro are hanging out with the police.
These are some sort of offerings they're bringing in.
Lots of offerings of marigolds. Reminiscent by color of Mexico, and Dia de los Muertos?
This dagoba - Thuparama - allegedly contains the right collarbone of the Buddha. It is the oldest dagobe in Sri Lanka (2300 years), and was originally covered in an outer building which has since fallen down (leaving just the supports). This is the one featured on the cover of the Lonely Planet book which we used a lot.
This guy was selling buffalo-milk yogurt ('curd') and honey ('treacle') from his bicycle. I turned down his offer and immediately regretted it. We tried to track him down later but no luck.
We're now at the largest stupa at all of Anuradhapura, Jetavanarama... 100 meters tall originally, which put it at the third-tallest building in the world, after the pyramids. It is not white, but that's because the plaster has come off and hasn't been rebuilt like the rest. It happens also to be overrun with monkeys.
And these are violent monkeys!

It's a buddhist temple, guys! Chill out! What's with the aggressive behavior?

Aww... well, that's rare!

Outrigger canoes on the ocean

We've driven the four hours from Annaradhapura back to the outskirts of Colombo. One more day left. We're on the beach in Negombo (just north of the airport) and find monks on a boat!

Interestingly, these kids are really young... like I think the youngest one was 7. My understanding is that they go to religious school from this age (these all did), and that religion is a major part of their education, at the expense of breadth. From my short conversation with them, neither they nor the adult monk with them seemed very well educated. They reminded me -- more than I would have thought -- of young religious zealots-in-training in the US, e.g., the Christian fundamentalists at bible summer school in the Jesus Camp movie.

And our final afternoon... these guys were out on the beach with their catamaran parked. I'd seen these boats on our first day in Sri Lanka and had been pining to go out on one ever since. So it didn't take much of a push for Piper and I to talk them out and head out.
The boat is basically a long, thing fiberglass canoe, with a single wooden outrigger, and a large sail.
And that's Piper on the outrigger.
That's the outrigger crashing into a wave. This is our captain in the fancy pants.
And Piper standing between the boat and outrigger.
Check out that sail! The boat had a crew of three (plus the two of us)... one guy's job was to use a cut-off water scoop to splash salt water onto the cotton sails, presumably to make them more air-tight.
These guys don't own the boat themselves, but work for the owner (who we never saw). They tried to work a deal with me:

"But please sir -- I tell you, if you have $1500, you could buy a boat, and we would work for you every day. It would be much better than working for this man."

After Piper and I got back, Heidi was quick to jump on as well.
Heidi jumped ship and did some swimming.
And then... back to the airport. We're on the ground here in Dubai, about to do the 7-hour flight back to Johannesburg. We missed (by two hours) watching the world's largest fireworks exhibition over Dubai for New Years Eve.

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Henry Throop

Last modified Tue Aug 26 20:57:30 2014