Monday, 22 July 2013

So Sri Lankan: Epic times in God's country

Oh Sri Lanka!  Deb is an engineer whose dissertation/summer project involves a holistic analysis of water systems (and their economic, social, cultural implications) in Sri Lanka.  She was there before coming to Singapore, didn't have the best experience and had to go back for a week of data collection so we decided to join her for a fun weekend of sightseeing.  The three of us (Alissa, Dawn and I) who joined Deb didn't know much about the country when we agreed to go, partially none of us know anyone else who has been to Sri Lanka.  Fortunately, Deb's Sri Lankan childhood friend recommended a driver for us so all we really had to do was pile in a van and try not to worry too much that nothing makes sense in this country (with my time in India, I'm getting good at staying calm in the chaos!).
The trip was an adventure from the very beginning.  I sat next to a hilarious British guy about my age who was flying home after 8 months of olive farming in Australia.  He made me pinkie promise that I wouldn't do the same, a lesson he learned the hard way, even though he worked on his best mates' farm.  So valuable advice for all my readers: "Don't harvest olives in Australia".  
After arriving in the airport, we had to navigate through the most ricidulous duty free store I've ever seen, where they sold washer machines and lawn mowers (exactly what I need once I get off a plane!).  We were a little nervous about filling out the mandatory address on our arrival card, but lucky for us, "Namal's house in Kandy" is perfectly legitimate.  Namal (the driver) and Sean picked us up to explore Columbo for a couple hours until Deb got out of meeting.  They introduced us to drinking King Coconut (normal coconuts will never be the same!  They actually call Sri Lankan sugar daddies "King Coconuts" which cracks me up) and we walked around Galle Face beach.

Sean was a professional cricket player back in the day (supposedly people still recognize him as a national celebrity and he still coaches) and he spent about a decade in New Orleans so he was an entertaining and amazing guide and translator.  Namal personified preciousness and we loved him, especially his contagious laughter, expert avocado-picking abilities, photography advice when Sean was behind the lens and strategic wind-chime shaking routine to ensure Alissa picked the most melodious one.
We picked up Deb then headed to the hills!  Driving in Sri Lanka isn't quite as crazy as India (Sri Lanka was a little crazy but nowhere near as crazy as India) but its impossible to go anywhere fast on one lane roads, especially on a Poya weekend (Sri Lankans get a three day weekend every full moon... apparently they never do any work.  Especially because even when they are "working", they're usually just standing somewhere).  We enjoyed passing compartmentalized roadside stands: basket-land, car seats for sale, fruit stands followed by a stretch hundreds of inflatable toys and swimming pools.  Eventually we reached Kandy, where we had a delicious dinner.  Sri Lankan food looks similar to south Indian but with different flavors.  It's very spicy- tears were building in our eyes as we demolished roti, prata, hoppers (a crispy cracker-like bowl), fish and daal curries and kottu (mushed up meat, bread and assorted spices- surprisingly delicious).
Us with our offerings at the Tooth temple- mine was huge!
Saturday morning, we woke up in Kandy, a town in central Sri Lanka, a UNESCO site, partially because it holds Sri Dalada Maligawa "Temple of the Tooth", a worldwide Buddhist pilgrimmage site. Dawn and I actually visited the Singaporean version last month but this was an entirely different experience.  We all bought flower arrangements as offerings and joined the massive herd of worshippers (between the holiday weekend and people visiting for the 11 AM ceremony, the place was pretty packed).  We didn't see the tooth itself because that would require several more hours in line but we got to experience some traditional Sri Lankan musicians, beautiful British architecture and a VIP tour of the Buddhist museum on the upper floor.  We stopped at a jewelry store where we were spoiled with classy couches and tea as we learned about Sri Lankan gems.  One of the gems went on a little adventure, hiding in my handbag, which was somewhat terrifying, but after some standing and shaking, I recovered and returned the gem and could breathe a sigh of relief.
After some brief exploring (Kandy was pretty disappointing), we hopped back into the van and headed to a tea plantation, built back in the 1930s.  Sri Lanka produces the world-famous Ceylon tea and we were really looking forward to seeing how it was made.  Like many things in Sri Lanka, we didn't exactly get what we were hoping for but it was an experience, nevertheless.  The manager give us a personal tour of the small-ish factory, which smelled like we were inside a Lipton tea bag!  However, the conditions in which people were working were pretty dismal. Supposedly a recent strike increased their daily wage from $2 to $5 but the manager definitely ordered them around in a demeaning fashion.  Sri Lanka is probably the only place when people's faces light up in stunning smiles when they catch you staring at them.  But this was not the case here.  Back in undergraduate, I signed a petition boycotted Starbucks for almost a year in hopes that they'd support Fairtrade practices.  Seeing the way they treated the tea workers reminded me why.  I'm glad we saw it and I'm glad they took us to a place that was off the radar of most tourists- the next day we took a potty stop at a massive tourist trap tea plantation- it would have been interesting to how our tea experience differed if we went there instead.
Our "family" at a tea plantation: Namahl, Sean, Alissa, Deb, Dawn and Me
After sharing a pot of tea, we headed to a place of pilgrimage for our water girl- the dam where all the water in Sri Lanka starts.  The beauty and serenity of the site took me by complete surprise- but we weren't as suprised as the gaggle of native Sri Lankans whose company was touring the site and couldn't believe that four white girls visited the dam.  
Saturday night was interesting... we had a delicious dinner so filling that we were all unzipping our pants after eating avocado ice cream that pushed us to the edge of explosiveness.  After that, we expected to snooze off our food comas but the drive ended up being such a surreal experience, it was difficult to nap.  We drove in the dark through windy switchbacks with only twinkly house lights on distant mountains to light our way.  At one point we were jamming to Sri Lankan music, enjoying the catchy 6/8 beat and before we knew it, our van was stuck in a ditch.  In the dark, cold rain so people didn't want to stop and help.  And Sean and Namal didn't want our help so we just huddled in a dark corner, trying to be inconspicuous when we formed human hiney hiders so people could take turns to pee.  A couple hours later, a half dozen Sri Lankans jacked up the car out of the drainage channel, put the car back on the road and none of us picked up any leeches along the way.  Needless to say, making it to the hotel was a huge relief.  The 70 degree weather in the mountains felt refreshing during the day but it was really cold at night- the natives were prepared with ear muffs, scarves and hoodies but not us!
Our van in the ditch: Dawn calls this "type 2 fun: good story, not-so-good time"
This entry is getting long so I'll speed through Sunday.  The morning was spent winding through lush, green tea plantations in Newara Eliya, which truly felt like God's country.  When our car was weaving its way down the mountain with hairpin, random teenage boys would pop out of the bushes with bouquets of flowers, yelling after us.  They'd scramble through the bushes, jumping and leaping and meet up with us again on the road a few meters down.  It would have been nice to reward them for their impressive athleticism but our King Coconut, Sean, had bought us each a bouquet of flowers a few hours earlier.
Happy dogs with happy elephants (post-feeding)
We were looking forward to visiting a famous elephant orphanage but it wasn't really what we expected.  When we arrived, we saw them leading chained elephants across the road so we weren't sure if we wanted to stay.  We ended up doing an elephant ride into the river with an excellent view of elephants bath time.  We rewarded the elephants with bananas then we went on the accompanying "herbal and spice garden" tour.  Honestly, this tour may have been even stranger than Haw Paw Villa, which is saying a lot.  The "doctor" showed us his plants while raving about his magical balms and tonics, miming the symptoms with exaggerated and awkward gestures.  We ended in a weird hut where Dawn got a creepy face massage and he tried to convince us to buy things.
Weird massages with the medicine men
Our travel guide book was pretty skeptical about Sri Lanka (ie "Welcome to tea country!  But get ready to be disappointed because they send the good tea elsewhere") but I do agree that "for a country of such modest dimensions, Sri Lanka has a remarkable variety of breathtaking landscapes".  Some Sri Lankan people were amazingly happy and hospitable but it was frustrating because we were constantly being scammed, despite having Sean there to fight for us.  Breakfast bills that were added wrong and mysteriously tripled in price.  Someone took away Alissa's buffet plate then tried to charge her for two.  Elephant people who expected mandatory tips.  Random taxes and foreigner fees... Thankfully God, Sean and Namal tried to defend us against most of the ridiculousness- I can't imagine traveling this country without them.
Overall, it was an interesting and eye-opening few days but I think all of us were excited to return to rooms where we don't get locked inside (and have to throw keys out they window to escape), our exponentially increasing toilet paper towers (since it's nearly impossible to find in bathrooms there) and places you can pee in peace without rats walking up walls.  We'll treasure these remaining two weeks in Singapore with a renewed appreciation for civilization.  Here's a link to my full album even though my point-and-shoot camera didn't do this country justice.
Also, my friend Martin put together an amazing HD video from Nusa Lembongan in Bali- definitely check that out too!