Serendib, Island of Beauty

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January 19

Sri Lanka, the tear drop hanging on the tip of India. We landed here after the usual lengthy, cramped flight from Vancouver. It would have been a 35 hour journey including the wait in Hong Kong but we slept the night in the lovely airport Novotel where we were, for some unknown reason, upgraded to a suite the size of a Vancouver apartment with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the sea. All further hotel rooms will pale in comparison, a lovely start to our journey.

The airport in SL is midway between Colombo, the frantically busy capital, and Negombo a relatively quiet sea side resort, so we chose to begin our journey with a couple of quiet days there to adjust and rest up for the journey. The beach there is long and sweeping with fishing boats pulled up here and there, picking the night’s catch out of their nets. We visited the fish market, as we always do, the usual smelly, slimy under foot cacophony of fish hawkers and buyers. Women were sorting piles and piles of tiny little silver fish, slitting their bellies on razor sharp knives which they wedged between their feet in blocks of wood. They spread them to dry on the sand on top of coir mats, they must be a bit gritty to eat I would think.

An interesting feature of Negombo, for all you animal lovers, is the campaign to rescue the beach dogs. As is usual in tropical areas, the dogs are skinny and hairless, though so far SL dogs seem blessedly mild mannered. The guesthouses and restaurants in Negombo have a number of expat proprietors, and one of the restaurant owners, a rotund and eccentric Englishman has organized a society to raise money to vaccinate the dogs against the parasite which causes their mange, and rabies, which is a very good thing after visiting Sumba and Flores where rabies outbreaks kill many people every year, and they get overseas vets to volunteer to run spay and neuter clinics. He himself owns 29 dogs, each of which is profiled in the information packet he gives each patron. Our guesthouse, run by a Dutch/Sri Lankan couple owns 3 dogs and 14 cats, all rescued, and she told us that in their home they had 10 more, and more at each of their other guesthouses in different locations for a grand total of 25.

A funny (to me) sidebar to this story is an ad I saw in the English Sri Lankan newspaper I picked up there. Headed “Lost Dog” it read: Would the kind English gentleman who picked up our twelve year old black and white dog “Poopsie” in a tuk tuk by the Ice Bear Guesthouse, please return him. He is not a stray but a valued family pet. Reward offered. There are apparently 3 million stray dogs in SL so I guess the guy just got overly enthusiastic.

After a couple of days of relaxation, we took the bus to Kandy, the cultural centre of SL. The distance is only 110 km but as in all of Asia, the question is not “how far?” but “how long?” After 4 hours we reached the bus station in Kandy, the last 1/2 hour being spent in gridlock in Kandy itself. Fortunately we went to the bus station early so actually had seats, though as usual Doug could not fit his knees behind the back of the seat in front of him so the poor guy beside him was terribly cramped. After we got in, the bus filled up completely and we set off. At the first stop we were completely stormed, and after that the aisles were so packed it seemed impossible we could pick up any more people, but of course we could and did, all along the way.

Kandy is much higher than the coast, so pleasantly cool in the evenings. It is centred on a man made lake, dug by forced labour at the behest of the last Kandyan king. When the village head men objected to the coercion of their people, he had them all impaled on stakes at the bottom of the lake where they remain today. Kandy is famous for the Temple of the Tooth one of the foremost Buddhist shrines. Bits of poor Buddha litter the world and there is a whole legend about how the tooth arrived in Sri Lanka concealed in the hair of a princess. Attempts have been made to seize it, and even to destroy it, but since it has supernatural powers, the priests claim it has never left Kandy regardless of what others say. It is ensconced in a golden casket and displayed only at the yearly Perahera in July. However the casket is on view in the temple and viewing it is an act of devotion to Buddhists.

We visited the Temple on Sunday, which was also a special holiday so it was packed with people, whole families with grandparents down to tiny babies. It is especially propitious to bring babies to receive the blessing of the tooth. Everyone was dressed in white and filed in throngs past the viewing area of the tooth casket when the puja or worship time began. Drums were beaten by large burly men in white sarongs with a curious red corset like torso garment, with elaborate headgear of rolled white halo topped with a feather like topknot. Another man played the nasal high pitched horn that is typical here, quite an acquired taste in the music department, I’d say. Whole families had come for the ceremony and it is interesting (as I have noted before in Asia) to see the marked difference in height and girth between the grandparent, the parents and the grandchildren. Some of the young men are fairly tall, maybe 5’8″ and the little grandmothers that they were helping up the stairs and past the tooth were at most 4’5″ and very very thin and fragile. Quite the ad for good nutrition, we will be interested to see if the whole country is like this, or if Kandy, seemingly quite prosperous, is an anomaly.

We have had some great day trips here, out to an area of 3 temples by tuk tuk, lovely scenery, very reminiscent of the countryside in Bali. So far this is an amazingly clean country for Asia, they must pick up the litter early in the morning before we all get up, as the streets are immaculate. We also visited an elephant sanctuary about which we had mixed feelings, as it was so touristic, and a wonderful botanical garden.

A really interesting place near the Tooth Temple is the Garrison Cemetery where the early British settlers are buried. It was established in 1817 when the British seized control but closed later when the Tooth Temple priests objected to dead bodies being carried past the temple. However family members continued to be buried there through the 19th century. The young ages of the dead are very sobering, so many babies died before their first year, and so many young women, probably a great many in childbirth as often their infant died just a short time after they did. The deaths of some of the young men are quite spectacular. One decorated war hero who had fought in the Battle of Waterloo and had been knighted for action in further campaigns in Europe apparently then decided to come out to SL to join the British forces there. He died after making a bet that he could walk from Trincomalee on the east coast, to Colombo, after all, he said, how could it be that hard after all the battles and campaigns he had weathered? His officers tried to give him advice on how to go about this journey, but he spurned them. By the time he reached Kandy he had malaria and succumbed a day or so later. The amazing thing was that he was only 26. People started young in those days. The caretaker there was a wonderful font of information and was keeping the place in excellent condition, so we wondered why all the grass on one side was completely rooted up. Turned out they are over run with wild boars, and one came while we were there, a sinister looking creature if ever there was one. He was very frightened of it, but told us they can’t jump two feet so we decided we could just jump up on a tomb if it charged.

The walk around the lake is lovely and we circumambulate on our way somewhere or other a few times each day. We have bought a bird book and Doug will try to send a file of bird pictures for all the birders out there. There is an amazing variety of species just on this lake. One particular craggy branch poking out of the water seems to be a favourite resting spot and we have seen 2 kinds of egrets, cormorants, different kinds of herons, beautiful kingfishers, a pelican, and we haven’t even started to try to identify the ducks and diving birds. As we stood there the first time, Doug photographing and me looking at the birds, I became interested in what I took to be a large fungal growth on the branch — a very large fungal growth…(Andrew you would be so ashamed of me.) Suddenly I realized that it was in actual fact a very large water monitor, about 2 metres in length and perfectly (ahem) camouflaged by the trunk of the branch. Then I realized there were 4 more of them! Doug was shocked when I pointed them out as he was creeping down the bank to photograph the birds. I doubt they are dangerous, but they looked enough like small Komodo dragons to give us pause.

We have loved our stay here. Our guesthouse is very pleasant, bare and sparkling clean, famous for its nightly Sri Lankan dinners. What a great way to be introduced to Sri Lankan cooking in which a mound of rice is surrounded by a number of curried dishes which you scoop up as desired. You are supposed to eat with your fingers, but they give the foreigners forks. The guesthouse is run by a Sri Lankan/German pair, and they were incredibly brusque when we arrived, but are now as friendly as lousy cats as my mother would say. We have a number of theories to explain this strange transformation.

Tomorrow we are off north to Dambulla and Sigiriya, then on to Anaradhapura, the so called cultural triangle of very ancient remains. Wifi seems common here so we will try to keep you all posted. Love to all, Carol and Doug
Sent from my iPadent from my iPad

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