Category Archives: Sri Lanka

the land of five hundred concubines

After the excesses of the wedding a whole group of us crashed the beginning of Joe and Shahila’s honey moon and headed up north to Dambulla. Everyone was staying in the very beautiful Kandalama hotel, camouflaged into the banks of the Kandalama Tank with exquisite boutique rooms, restaurants and inifinity swimming pools. Shireen, Jack and myself stayed in a tiny but charming guest house called Little Dream across the other side of the Tank complete with the odd frog in the bathroom, intermittant water supply and a large monitor lizard (we named Henry) watching us lie around in the hammocks!

Sigiriya Rock Fortress

Sigiriya Rock Fortress
The following day we all went to visit the 3rd century rock fortress at Sigirya, built on top of a huge volcanic magma plug with stunning views of the surrounding forest. It was strange for me to suddenly be in the midst of a large tourist party, no chance of blending in and pretending to be local any more! You approach the fortress through the site of the original water gardens where apparently the king’s 500 concubines would bathe, and then walk up through bolder gardens, past the remaining foundations of the palace and between two huge lion paws carved into the rock. Originally these were part of a giant lion’s head and you approached the summit through mouth itself! From the top the jungle stretches out for miles in all directions, with views of distant tanks and mountains. The tanks were built by the Singalese kings centuries ago to collect the monsoon rains to irrigate the rice paddies. An extraordinary feet when you consider most of them are the size of large lakes!

We got back extremely hot and sweaty and spent the afternoon lounging by the Kandalama’s pools and walking down by the tank watching tourists going on elephant rides as the sunset. Shireen and I borrowed Rash and Lou’s shower which has a glass window that overlooks the lake, the balcony draped with the thick vines than cover the front of the hotel. Groups of grey-bodied, black-faced Hanuman monkeys scamper around the hotel and quite often decide to peek at the showering guests!

Polonnaruwa
The following afternoon, once the heat of midday had passed, a group of us set off for the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, occupied for three hundred years around 10th century AD. You really feel as if you are walking back in time, the site is covered in ancient ruins everywhere, monkeys run around the tree tops and across the paths, century old bathing pools, audience chambers, the stone columns remaining from 11 storey high palaces, buddha statues, the huge stone book (Gal Pota) and chambers that held the budda’s tooth before it was moved to Kandy. We saw the beautiful carved buddhas at Gal Vihara, standing 7 metres high and the reclining one which is 14 metres long, all carved from the same granite rock. As the sunset over the site we walked around the Kiri Vihara dagoba and the sky behind turned from blue to pink and finally a deep indigo as darkness fell.  

AnuradhapuraBudda, Polonnaruwa
Most of the group headed off south yesterday so I went with Joe and Shahila and their driver to visit the final of the ancient cities, Anuradhapura, which was the centre of the Singalese kingdom for over 1000 years and also the place that buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka. We stopped off en route at the temple of Aukana which was a beautiful rock buddha. According the legend a cocky student claimed that the time his master had estimated for the carving of this Buddha was far too long, and that he, the pupil, could complete it in less time. The king then found a second site, 11km away and sent the student there commanding both men to begin their work at the same time and make an owl call to announce the completion of their work. After some time the master made the call and the king came to inspect his impressive completed buddha. They then went to visit the student’s rock which was only half finished and so he conceded and never completed his work.

From here we reached the extensive ruins of Anuradhapura, in fact it seems impossible to walk or drive anywhere around the town without seeing the remains of ancient buildings or stone columns. We visited the first ever buddhist temple which also holds the first Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka. Over two thousand years ago a sappling of the tree, under which the buddha gained enlightenment, was brought to the country and planted here. Every buddhist temple in the country has a wide leafy bodhi tree which is usually adorned with brightly coloured prayer flags, jasmine and lotus flowers and burning pots of coconut oil, a smell I think I will forever asscoiate with Sri Lanka. It was so hot that walking barefoot around the temples required soles of leather and more than a few times we ended up almost running across courtyards to find a cooler patch of shade. We also saw the three huge dagobas, the white Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba which rises 55 metres into the sky and is surrounded by carvings of stone and plaster elephants and images of the four Buddhas that have been.

 Anuradhapura

The Thuparama Dagoba is the oldest in Sri Lanka and parts are still being excavated from the jungle that reclaimed it after the city was abadoned for Polonnaruwa. And finally the partially restored Jetavanarama Dagoba which reaches 70 metres although apparently it would have originally been over 1000 metres high. We saw groups of old women dressed in white sarees that visit the city on pilgrammages to meditate, although our driver says he thinks they spend most of the time gossiping about news from their villages. I saw my first female buddhist monks, dressed in long sleeved versions of the orange robes worn by the men but with indentical shaved heads. And there were monkeys everywhere, hanumans and macaques, combing each other for flees, eating the offered lotus flowers on the temples or just sprawled out asleep in the branches of cedar trees.

Monkey, Anuradhapura

I left Dambulla this morning after a huge breakfast with a German mother and daughter who were family of the guesthouse owners; bufalo curd, palm honey, cocnut rice and fresh fruit. I arrived in Kandy for my final night and back to the guesthouse I stayed in three weeks ago where I was greeted like long lost family member and have been showing everyone photos of the wedding. When I leave on Saturday I really am going to miss the warmth and kindness of the Sri Lankans, far from encountering any difficulties on public transport people have helped me with my bags, swapped seats with me so I can take photos, offered me lifts on tuk tuks to guesthouses and given me popcorn to eat. I have been given directions, advice, help and almost without exception people have been warm, friendly and genuinely interested in where I’ve been and what I think of Sri Lanka. It’s wonderful to spend time in a place where the art of chivalry and kindnes to strangers is alive and kicking!

twelve sarees, six wickets, two weddings and a hot tub

So much has happened in the past few days I feel like I hardly know where to begin. On top of which, due to a little over consumption of alcohol at the wedding reception last night, I am feeling a little fragile.

On Friday Shahila’s family had organised a cricket tournament for all of us to take part in and I think between friends and family members we had Bangladesh, England, Australia, Canada and Sri Lanka represented, so a fair bit of competitiveness going on. My team, I thought, put in a sterling performance but sadly didn’t win although I did do a superb catch, which didn’t count as someone thought to introduce the rule that nobody could get out on their first bat. Honestly! It was fun though; there was a band playing throughout and an absolutely enormous lunch for about 50 people in the pavilion afterwards. After a little digestion time Rash and I took his girlfriend Lou and Shireen shopping for sarees (obviously having brought one I am now an expert) and then to the tailors for measuring and taping, and then of course we needed to go in search of nail varnish and bling bollywood-style jewellery!

Joe and Shahila

Yesterday the day began for most of us at around 10am (but for Shahila at 5am!) at a Hindu temple in Pettah, under a white, yellow and red marquee opposite a highly platform decorated with cocnut palms, oil burners, flowers and two Hindu priests, bare-chested and already sweating in the morning heat. All of us were sitting down in front of the stage, or, more often than not, sneaking round the side to get photographs, of the ceremony. Joe was on stage for the first part, in a cream silk shirt and verti, turban, belt and looking very nervous. There were blessings and offerings all to the sound of drums and a curious oboe-like instrument being played by musicians to our right. Then Shahila entered with her family, looking stunning, in white and gold with jasmine flowers and gold jewelry embroidered into her hair. There were more blessings, a costume change for Shahila to put on the dark red saree presented to her by the groom, oils to be burnt, flowers to be passed, alters to be circled and a fight between the couple for a ring in a water dish. Now the fight was best of three and the overall winner apparently is the one who will wear the trousers throughout the marriage. Maybe not surprisingly it was Shahila who won! Afterwards, once Joe had placed the Thaali (gold necklace) over Shahila’s head, to a crescendo from the drummers, and the newlyweds had blessed the feet of both sets of parents (!) we all queued up to bless the wedded couple and their parents before yet another extremely large and extremely good Sri Lankan lunch. (I sneaked off with the Australians, a garland of flowers and two tubes of lipstick to decorate the wedding car!)

The Pink Ladies
Back at the Galle Face I had somehow landed myself with the job of coordinating the bridesmaids and the other girls going native to be dressed into our sarees. Shireen and my room was temporarily turned into a riot of multicolored fabrics, flowers, pins and clips. The saree blouses are incredibly tight and produce a very maddona style pointed pair of breasts once they are on! The dressers pulled the bands of our underskirts as tight as possible to ensure our sarees skirts would stay in place and then pineed, tucked, folded and draped the lengths of fabric into a fish tail arrangement at the front letting the detailed ends drape elegantly over our backs. The narrow underskirts meant we all had to take smaller-than-usual steps and kick our feet up to avoid tripping on the folds at the front. We did all look pretty fantastic though! The five of us bridesmaids in pink went down to have our photos taken with Shahila, now in dark turquoise and gold on the hotel terrace overlooking the ocean. The other girls had all brought sarees too, in emerald greens, blues and pinks and the boys had really gone to town in long embroidered jackets, scarves, pajama pants and glittering shoes. On the lawns of the Galle Face Hotel just after sunset we watched the ceremony with the official signing of the wedding certificates on the hotel lawns before retiring to the spectacular white colonial ballroom for the speeches and dinner. There was laughter, there were a few tears at the speeches and even I felt a lump in my throat as we stood to give the final toast to the bride and groom. After dinner a Sri Lankan band took to the stage and played until midnight and were superb. There were cheesy eighties classics, rock and roll, bossa nova and traditional folk songs. All the family and friends in a riot of colourful sarees, salwar kameezs, suits, tunics and glittering jewellery took to the floor and danced with the unashamed, joyful abandon that only ever seems to happen at weddings or with large amount of illegal substances! Joe and Shahila looked so happy and everyone just seemed to be grinning for the entire evening. It was just a fantastic day and all the more so for suddenly realising that two of my favourite people are now married and that we were all there to share it.

Oh and the hot tub? Well Ian and Katie had a suite in the hotel with one on the balcony, I mean where else were we all going to go to hang out after the reception…

the Sri Lankan extended family

Colombo is a bit of a mad house, but I kind of like it for its craziness. How the traffic managed to keep flowing without an unprecented loss of human life continues to flummox me, and yet even I’ve taken to bloody-minded strolling along the road side, ignoring tuk tuks and vans trying to squeeze past behind me, trying to releave me of my legs in the process. Somehow, it works…just!

Things are finally in pre-wedding accleration and throughout the course of two lunches and a dinner I’ve become aware just how many rePettahlatives my friend Shahila has. Her aunt Ruwuni and herself very kindly took me saree shopping on Monday afternoon, which was just as well because the process was a little more complicated than I realised. I thought I’d find the shop, browse through some materials, choose the one I liked, pick a blouse in a complimentary colour and job done. Not quite so simple. Firstly there are just so many colours, patterns and fabrics too choose from. Luckily, as it had to be pink, that actually narrowed the choice otherwise I could have been there all day. In the end I chose a relatively unfussy pale pink net saree (so hopefully I won’t look like a glorified mosquiot net on the night) with an elaborate gold brocade type design along the bottom and spread over the final corner. It’s pretty damn cool. But as it’s net there was then fabric for an underskirt and two layers of fabric for the blouse (there was a reason, I forget what) and then we were off to the tailors to measure every conceivable part of my sholuders, boobs, armpits and biceps for the top. Fingers crossed it will all be miraculously ready on Friday night. Sadly apparently googling “how to dress a saree” isn’t going to be sufficient for the wedding, so we also have a saree dresser coming to sort the eleven of us going native out on the night.

Yesterday was the Ponn Urukku or Gold Melting Ceremony where the two families gather, but not the bride, and the groom presents a gold coin to the family’s goldsmith which is then melted down and used to make the bridal pendant called the Thaali. Joe bless him did look a little nervous, pacing round the flat beforehand but all the melting went to plan although there does seem to be a bit of debate concerning the shape of the final piece of melted gold, as apparently a circle indiciates a boy and anything else a girl but nobody can agree on what they saw. Afterwards we had a huge lunch at the house of one of Shahila’s many aunts and uncles, with more relatives, and enough delicious vegetarian indian food to feed a small army.

I had been staying in a wonderfully cheap but gorgeous split level house in the very smart Cinnamon Gardens district of town and today lugged all my stuff down to Mount Lavinia at the very bottom of Colombo to meet my friend Shireen whose flight arrived at 9.30am. Well the flight arrived but sadly not with Shireen whose initial leg had to make an emergency landing in Bucharest so she’s currently resting in Dubai and arriving tomorrow morning instead. So finding myself suddenly task free, meal free and family free I hopped on a local bus up to Pettah.

Pettah is a rabbit warren of tiny streets crowded with stalls, shops, billboards, tuk tuks, rickshaws, small men carrying huge boxes, vans, motorbikes and temples. It’s hot, sweaty, crowded, noisy and therefore I found it hugely interesting. I managed to find the Dutch Fort Museum and walked around looking at the rather aged exhibits showing the Dutch period of occupatation of Sri Lanka, well it was more the East India Company on behalf of the Dutch monarchy…ah, see I did learn something. Several wanderings brought me to a huge red and white brick mosque, a Hindu temple and past countless streets selling everything from gold to guttering, sarees to samosas. 

Indian embassy plus Sri Lankan bureaucracy is too much for me

India, as a country has over one billion inhabitants and recieves in excess of four million foreign tourists every year spending over spending over US$ 15.4 billion. So the question I have to ask is why they make it so damn bloody difficult to get a visa? Having failed quite spectacularly at the Indian Embassy in London (see July 28th) I thought it would be worth trying to get things arranged in Sri Lanka rather than leaving it to my final stop in Nepal. Well I downloaded the form which had the added benefit of only asking for the father’s country of birth, so no chance of recriminations for my Mother’s Nigerian birthplace this time. I thought the queues and waiting were bad in London, nothing compared to here. I got there a little after 8am this morning, the embassy was due to open at 9am. There were already several hundred people waiting, some had arrived at 4am, and in the three hours I queued in the baking heat I moved about the space of 1 metre forward. Then at 11am they closed the shutters and said come back tomorrow, which of course doesn’t leave me with 5 working days to get anything processed so I guess it will be third time lucky in Nepal! Oh, and apparently India in the third adventure travel destination in the world, do they mean the country itself or just getting the visa?

the art of love beneath an umbrella

Galle Lighthouse

Okay I just love the slightly intriguing entry titles, just to intice you to actually read on in hope of some tittilating gossip, sadly there is none. In fact the heading refers to the multi-purpose Sri Lankan umbrella. All the women here carry them around, using them as parasols in the midday heat and as protection from the random, not infrequent rain showers. The Umbrellas of Love, GalleThey also have a third slightly more clandestine use. In every park, botanical gardens and along the walls of the Dutch fort this morning, you will see young couples sitting together on benches or steps, close together, their heads, presumably deep in conversation, shielded from prying eyes by the ever-useful umbrella. In a country which still views public displays of affection as a cultural no-no, the trusty umbrella shield is about the only privacy a couple can get! If Douglas Adams had spent anytime in Sri Lanka the umbrella may well have usurped the towel as the one item no interstellar hitchhiker should leave home without!

I am growing rather fond of Galle, the crazy old architecture, pot-holed streets, ancient walls and little shops and cafes. I found the wonderfully small and cosy Serendipity Arts Cafe on a recommendation from Jim in the jungle (!) and had my first pot of real coffee in ten days along with banana and honey Sri Lankan pancakes for breakfast. They also have a huge collection of travel magazines and a few photography books, what more could you need? I then walked to the bus station fending off the usual enquiries “Tuk-tuk Madam?” and got the local bus 10km down the road to the beachside village of Unawatuna.

Serendipity Cafe

Unawatuna BeachIt is quite incredible to think that nearly three years ago this bay was completely devastated by the Tsunami. I was talking to some of the locals and apparently, before the wave hit, the sea suddenly retreated out for 100s of yards, exposing all the fish and corals so everyone was rushing out to look at the spectacle when the enormous wave swept in. There are few traces of the devastation left in the bay now and it’s a laid back beach resort backed with palm trees, golden sands, turquoise water and a white peace pagoda dominating the sky line at the far end. I ran into two of the Dutch girls from my trip to the rainforest and spent the day with them; relaxing on sun loungers, swimming in the wonderfully warm waters of the bay then climbing up to the pagoda to see the waves crashing in on the rocks. As I’ve said before, this travelling is a hard life!

Friends in Unawatuna

searching for that most elusive of beasts, the air conditioned bus

Having spent the last six days sheltered from the tropical heat in the comparative cool of the hill country, the coastal climate has hit me like a large red hot steam train smashing into a small limp goldfish!

Beautiful Ella Soaring view from Ella Rock
I spent two days up in the beautiful little village of Ella, tucked into the hillside and looking over the immense views of Ella Gap that stretch all the way towards the sea. The guesthouse I stayed in, the Rawana Holiday Resort, was lovely, the couple running it were adorable and the garlic curry that I had for dinner was the most wonderful meal I’ve had yet in months! I did sweat out the garlic for the next 36 hours but no mosquitos came near me during that time so totally worth it! The second day I got up early to explore the route up to Ella Rock, a large area jutting out from the forest on the very edge of the valley. The most exciting thing had to be the first 2.5km which was walking along the train tracks, mainly because it’s precisely the kind of thing you’d never be allowed to do in England. The wooden planks were just shorter than my stride so I felt like I was doing a Geisha-walk as I tottered along them. I did run into one of the trains en route, but as there is a 15kph speed limit along most of the area, I had plenty of time to squeeze myself out of the way before it trundled slowly past! After the tracks the path wound its way up through tea plantations, past waterfalls and random buddist shrines until I popped out of the forest at the top next to a huge eucalyptus tree and simply gaped at the view. Ahead the layers of green hills slowly faded into greys and blues until they merged with the sky and behind me I could see all the greenly forested hills and tea plantations surrounding the village far below. Really stunning.

45 minutes of self-portrait taking and banana eating, I headed back down stopping to give knowledgable directions to the two of three tourist couples I passed on their way up. Turns out I was the only one sensible enough to ask their guesthouse for a detailed map before setting off (or maybe just because I know just how bad my sense of direction is!) I spent the afternoon chatting to a British couple on the terrace about their two years of working for VSO in Rwanda, some more food for thought for the post-travelling life crisis…

The hot and sweaty ride to Deniyaya and the kindness of strangers
There are air conditioned buses in Sri Lanka, and I haven’t managed to find a single one. So it was a very sticky and crowded local bus which took me three and a half hours from Ella to Pelmadulla (30 minutes of which I was standing until thankfully a few seats became free) and a further four hours from Pelmadulla south to Deniyaya, the distances are pretty small but the road is wigglier that a twisted worm and only about one and a half buses wide which produced some amusing stand offs with trucks and buses coming the other way. Couple that with a steep, certainly fatal, drop on one side of the road and you have all the ingredients for a thoroughly white-knuckle ride. Also from my seat I could appreciate just how often our driver leant all the way out of the window to spit a stream of red liquid from the tobacco he was chewing into the road, taking his eyes off the oncoming traffic for a good five seconds. I buried myself in my book and told myself it was bound to be okay. I wasn’t reassured by the amount of Buddist decoration around the driver either, in my experience the more religious the driver, the more reckless! We arrived in one piece however and Suresh, the guy next to me who I’d been chatting to for the last half hour very kindly dropped me at my guesthouse in his tuk-tuk before saying goodbye.

Three lizards, one cobra and leeches-a-plenty
Deniyaya is the nearest big village to the untouched Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a name which translates literally as the Lionking forest, there aren’t any lions of course but Sri Lankans are fairly obessed with naming everything, even the national beer, after the large maned cats. I set off with two dutch couples, a Englishman named Jim and our guide, Pali, who was lovely, entertaining, if a bit smelly due to eating garlic and onion sandwiches all day. He was, however, an expert on every bush, shrub, insect, bird and tree that we passed and it was one of the most enjoyable days I’ve had in the country so far. We stopped by a waterfall in the early afternoon to swim and have lunch and got chatting to a family from Negombo who were very entertaining. We saw golden orb spiders, which are pretty damn big and surprisingly the photographer in me is bigger than the aracnophobe in me and I managed to inch close enough for some good shots. Golden orb spiderThere were tiny kangaroo lizards, horn nosed lizards, fisher owls, black eagles, yellow headed bulbuls (small birds), huge millipeeds, giant red hornets, a spectacularly lazy cobra streched out on a tree log, spice plants and the lovely little leeches. Actually it was a dry day (despite the fact we were in the rainforest) and the leech count was pretty low. They are tiny thin black creatures that don’t do any harm but draw a little blood and I was rolling my eyes at our guide as the others squealed everytime they saw one…and then I looked down to see two of the wee blood suckers burying their way into my socks, I screamed like a litle girl and hopped around like a madwoman until I calmed down sufficiently to flick them off! Apart from the leech attack, a really good day, rounded off with dinner at Pali’s of chicken rice and curried aubergine, carrot and lotus plant stems with buffalo curd and palm honey for desert…mmmm!

Ants on the wild orchids

Onwards and southwards
So now I am back in the immense heat in the pretty dutch fort of Galle on the south coast, fighting off offers from tuk tuks drivers. I finally finished my book “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts which is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. It’s the true life autobiography of a heroin addict who escaped from an armed robbery jail sentence in Australia, fled to Bombay where he lived in a village, started a slum clinic, worked in Bollywood and for the Bombay mafia and fought during the Russia Afghanistan war. I actually finished it for the first time a few days ago and it’s the only book I’ve ever read where, upon turning over the final page, I closed the book, opened it again at the beginning and started reading it all over again. However the time has come to move on and since the Sri Lankan bookshops firmly favour the classics, I have brought Treasure Island to entertain me on the beach.

bathing elephants and bear monkeys

Well I’ve been in Sri Lanka for nearly a week now and I think I’m getting into the swing of things. I’ve excepted that there is a tourist price and a local price for everything and there is often very little relation between the two, got used to being called Madam by every man and his dog and just plain ignored the incessant staring I get for being a tourist (however much everyone tells me a look like a Sri Lanka lady) every time I walk around anywhere. Food is good, people are on the most part really lovely, scenery is beautiful and the culture is fascinating and very different from anywhere I’ve been before. I love watching the orange robed bald-headed monks walking around Kandy with their black city-style umbrellas causally looped over one arm!

Bathing elephants

Touring around in a Tuk Tuk

My second day in Kandy I hired my own tuk-tuk driver, Rami, to take me around for the day. He was a really nice guy and very chatty and I learnt a lot about Sri Lankan weddings, culture, taboos and family throughout the day. We started in the Perideniya Botanical Gardens surrounded on three sides by the river and full of palm tree lined walkways, orchid houses, huge Java fig trees and fir trees full of giant sleeping fruit bats! From here we visited a small tea factory where I got see how tea is actually made. Strange but one of those things you never really think about,. from the leaf to the tea bag, well now I know, and afterwards we sat sipping cups of tea from a ridiculously elaborate china tea set!

Just before lunch we went to visit Pinnewala elephant orphanage which looks after around 75 elephants, most of them rescued from the wild. It was somewhat of a touristy affair, there were about 100 people, mainly school children, there to watch two of the younger elephants being fed. Much more appealing was the view from my riverside restaurant an hour later. Rami had suggested it as the balcony overlooked the spot where at 2pm all 75 elephants and their handlers appeared for the daily bathe. So for a peaceful hour I got to eat lunch and watch the elephants, playing, fighting and washing below.

The afternoon was a mixture of interesting visits to a Gem factory and a spice garden and valiant and successful attempts on my part not to be railroaded into buying stuff. Unfortunately for the man in the spice garden and ayurvedic medicine shop, telling me I was “a little bit fat” and could do with buying the slimming potion was not going to win him a sale!

Train journey through the tea plantationsTrain to Nanu Oya
I left Kandy early the next morning for the train to Nanu Oya and Nuwara Eliya. Until that morning I had been blissfully unaware of any monkeys living in Kandy. So at 7am I was having breakfast on the terrace when I thought I caught a small furry face looking over the edge of the roof at me. Surprised I suddenly saw four toque macaques on the far terrace, they have funny parted tufts of brown hair on their heads, and another group scrambling along the electricity lines below the guesthouse. The inquisitive monkey above me on the roof gauging my attention was sufficiently occupied dropped right down next to me and attempted to make off with my toast. Now for me breakfast is by far the most important meal of the day and I was damned if a furry primate, however cute, was getting his hands on it so clapping loudly I shooed it off and ate the rest of my breakfast somewhat warily!

The train journey was comfortable and definitely the most relaxing way to travel in Sri Lanka. My fears of being molested, hassled, wanked over (seriously I read that it does happen sometimes) were mercifully unfounded and instead the man next to me even helped me put my rucksack on the luggage rail and swapped seats so I could take photos out of the window and even offered me his popcorn! The train travels very, very slowly which explains why everyone here walks along the train tracks, there is precious chance of any train taking you by surprise, they move at about the speed of a lolloping donkey. This does give you time to appreciate the stunning views as you wind up through tea plantations, hills forested with eucalyptus trees and wave at laughing school children in their suspiciously immaculate white uniforms. Some younger guys at the end of the carriage were singing very tunefully most of the way, drumming out rhythms on the walls of the carriage and guys selling savory doughnut style snacks wandered up and down the carriages from time to time.

An English Country Garden
Nuwara Eliya is a cute if bizarre place. Imagine giving a group of Sri Lankan architects a series of picture postcards of English country cottages and the beachfront hotels at Brighton and then tell them to get stuck in in recreating the effect in the forested hills of their home country. The result is a town that in the centre is the usual Asian bustle and jumble of stalls, shops and buses but the surrounding roads are lined with cute English style bungalows, vegetable gardens, rhododendron bushes and neat gardens.

Nuwara Eliya

My major reason for visiting Nuwara Eliya was to get up at 6am, and together with a young Dutch couple, Karina and Jorrs, take a car to Horton Plains, a vast national park whose rolling hills and streams look remarkably like Dartmoor in places although the twisted grey barked trees in the forest are definitely Sri Lankan. Half way around the 9km walk is World’s End where the ground drops straight down 1000m to reveal amazing views across the entire countryside. Or at least that what the guide book says. Unfortunately for us even though we arrived before 9am, it is the rainy season and when we arrived the place truly did live up to it’s name. We couldn’t see more than 10 metres into the white swirling mists and it truly looked like we reached the end of the world! Walking back we visited Baker’s falls, a pretty waterfall surrounded by purple bushes and despite getting rather wet and muddy on the journey, there was a sliver of blue sky and sunshine at the end and the walk was so peaceful it felt worth the early start. 

Bear Monkey En route out of the park our driver also spotted two local and relatively tame elks, bear monkeys in the trees with their colonel-style bushy white moustaches and a giant squirrel leaping through the branches! That evening the three of went to have drinks and dinner at the Hotel Glendower, a thoroughly old colonial British place complete with wooden bar, flower- covered sofas, a roaring fire place and incredibly attentive staff. There was a power cut (one of many) in town and luckily this place had its own generator so we had Lion beers and cuttlefish for dinner before walking back in the dark to our rather more modest Victoria Inn.

buddas and sri lankan boyfriends

I am definitely undergoing a rather rapid cultural shift from south america, back to England and then to here but I’m definitely enjoying the complete change of scenery, of food, religion, culture and experience.

NegomboBudda in Negombo, Angurukaramulla temple
My first afternoon in Negombo I was invited to have tea on the beachside with a Sri Lankan family, the father of which was keen, it seemed, to discuss the foreigner’s view of his country and in particular the Tamil tigers. It is certainly true that there are noticeably not huge numbers of tourists at the moment in Sri Lanka, clearly the tsunami and growing unrest and bus bombings by the LTTE have had an adverse effect on the country’s pull factor. After tea I was walking along the main road when I met a guy called Nishante who invited me to have some beers with his friends in a nearby bar, in the spirit of embracing my new destination I thought, why not! I seem to have found the only non drinking, non smoking Sri Lankan as, unlike all his friends who tease him constantly, Nishante doesn’t drink alcohol or smoke anything! He decided to appoint himself my official Sri Lankan boyfriend for two days but with the help of my fake engagement ring and fictional fiance (currently unable to make the trip due to medical exams in the UK, he’s studying to become a doctor, apparently) I managed to convince him that we were just going to be friends and this seems to have

 gone down okay! He took me to dinner both evenings in Negombo, to a really lovely beach side restaurant. The next day he turned up on a moped to take me into town, to visit the fruit markets, dutch fort, buddist temple with its painted 6m long reclining budda, the dutch canal with it’s colourful boats, and walking along the rugged coastline by the lagoon. The fishermen were still on strike so hundreds of wooden boats lay upturned on the banks with a noticeably strong odour of fish wafting upwind. We also visited the local evening market, tucked away from the main tourist strip with gaily decorated stalls selling very tasty ice cream, jewellery, candy floss and clothing. The catholic church was festoomed with brightly lit bulbs and draped with white banners inside and a blue illuminated cross over the impressive entrance reminded me very strongly of something from Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet! After dinner that evening we sat on the beach with his friends drinking beer while they sang me Singalese pop songs then, as his moped had disappeared with one of his many accquaintances, he rode me back to my guesthouse on a bicycle, with me trying to mimic the graceful side-saddle pose on the cross bar that I’d seen so many Sri Lankan women doing earlier in the day. It was harder than it looked!

KandyKandy lake
This morning I caught a slightly squashed and sweaty public bus 3 hours to Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, and contrary to some of my darker fears the bus was neither bombed by the Tamil Tigers and far from getting molested by any male passengers the worst I suffered was a few polite questions from the man sitting next next to me. Generally, apart from the general staring from Sri Lankan men most of them have been polite and very agreeable although being called Madam all the time is starting to make me feel rather middle aged!

The town of Kandy is situated around a beautiful man-made lake, tuk-tuks, vans and mopeds zoom around the roads and the main streets are a jumbled squash of shops, jewellers, cafes and temples. So far I have spotted a Tesco supermarket (not an actual one of course just the name), Asda and a Del Boy cafe.

Kandy
Having installed myself in the hillside Lakshmi guest house, I sauntered around the lake passing a few orange

Tuk Tuks and KFC!

clad buddist monks and school children in their all white uniforms (talk about impractical!) and went to visit one of Sri Lanka’s most important Buddist temples, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. In a series of 7 guilded boxes there, apparently, rests the sole remaining tooth of the last budda and considering there are apparently another 2,500 years or so until the next one shows up it is understandably or some considerable importance. The temple itself is beautiful, situated right on the lakeside with ornate wooden carved posts, painted ceilings and statues of the budda and a curious mythical animal; it has the mouth of a crocodile, eyes of the monkey, nose of the elephant, body of the fish, feet of the lion and feathers of the peacock. After my guided tour of the temple I wondered around some of Kandy’s devales (temples for worshipping hindu or buddist deities), filled up on some samosas in a cafe before heading to an hour of traditional Sri Lankan dancing, drumming and most exciting fire eating and walking across hot coals. The two guys performing this last feet were sweating so much going through the flames I was worried they might melt rather than burn, impressive but crazy! In fact the only downside of the whole day was spotting this KFC tucked behind a rather nice photo of three tuk-tuks! Global capitalism, gotta love it!

arrival on budda island

Feeling rather jet lagged and a little plane weary despite being favourably impressed by Qatar airlines, good food, soft blankets, impressive selection of recent and classic films not to mention laughing my way through episodes of Scrubs and Fraiser but 7 hours from London to Doha, four hours in the airport and then a further four, or was it five to Colombo is a fairly sizeable travel bite to take all in one go. I arrived in the airport at about 8.30am this morning and was surprised by the speed at which I passed through immigration and baggage although the man in the “nothing to declare” booth insisted on checking my passport. Having already been made rather “ethnic origin” paranoid by the Indian Embassy I decided not to read anything into this innocent request and decided he probably just wanted a laugh at my passport photo! I came out into a very civilised meeting area with all the familes on one side and all the taxi drivers with signs on the other. Found my name and I was off. No hassle, no crowds, so far so good!

Arriving into international airports is usually the most umimpressive and unenlightening way to get a first impression of a country. Although arriving here was a little like stepping into a 1960s photograph with all the guys walking around in crisp white shirts and dark trousers, bikes and three wheeler tuk-tuks zooming around the roads, a unhurried, relaxed atmosphere about everything, old school road and traffic signs in English, Tamil and Sinhala and a warm humidity hanging under a slightly overcast sky.

I am staying in Negombo north of Colombo which seemed like a more pleasant place to orientate myself than in the capital itself. It’s a small fishing and tourist town although currently all the fishermen are on strike today due to rising fuel prices. This explained why all the guys in the street were wearing sarongs, and I might add, doing a far better job of carrying it off with a manly applomb than David Beckham ever managed! I checked into my hotel which is pretty basic but I have a bathroom, hot water, towels, a fan and a mosquito net which is fairly luxurious in my book. I visited the beach briefly, a long plain stretch of sandy beach, strewn with driftwood, backed by palms and small guest houses and hotels and stretching around to the centre of town in the south. Interesting this place is known as “Little Rome” due to the Portuguese settlers who created a base of catholism here which persists on a predominantly buddist island. So I may have come here in search of temples and monks but the first religious icon to greet me has been the Virgin Mary. Oh, and disappointingly a Pizza Hut too.