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Sri Lanka January 15, 2006 Español

Posted by Belle in : Sri Lanka

We really liked Sri Lanka, but when the time came, we were also ready to leave. The harbor where you HAVE to stay, no anchoring out allowed in civil war Sri Lanka, is a strange place. Aside from the cement dispensary that shook dust onto our boat and into our lungs on a daily basis, they advised us, with a big smile, when we got there, that if we ran the wrong way when we exited the floating gang plank at night, we could be shot. LOVELY. Oh, and with my wonderful sense of direction, you might as well just shoot me now. Is that all, we asked, jokingly. Apparently not. And if there is an alarm that goes off, we are to run into our boats and stay there for an hour, inside. And no women allowed in the harbor after 6 30. Ooops. Well, who said I was a REAL woman. And the walk to the exit of the harbor, thus to the town of Galle, is a long way on a dusty road, with strange areas of rotting fish parts here and there. Oh, and did I mention the nightly depth charges they throw into the water to kill those nasty Tamill Tigers? If you’ve never heard one, they are sharp, loud explosions. Practically gave me a heart attack every night. Especially the one that missed the water and blew up in the air. Can you believe my boys slept through that! They are their father’s sons!

Our first day out on the town, Wences and I went out with a NYT article my parents sent about Sri Lanka. We took a tuk tuk taxi around to get a sense of the place. Galle is a bustling village. Streets are filled with women walking in gorgeous saris, men walking barefoot with handsome striped sarongs and a long sleeved button down shirt. Little old grannies, hair always up in a bun, wearing white lace crop tops under their saris, exposing their soft, leathery bellies. You don’t see skirts above the knee here, or short hair on women, or makeup, or sunglasses. The women are beautiful. And so are some of the men. In general they are thin, dark skinned, but their skin color ranges from black to light skinned. They all have thick black hair, high cheek bones, and big round eyes. They don’t look Indian to me, but I have never been to India so what the hell do I know. We never expected such beauty here. And they walk out of these shacks, sometimes without running water or electricity, and they are spotless and elegant. Made me realize I can no longer use that, I look like this cause I live on a boat, excuse. Oh dear.

Wences and I went to the fort, the old part of town, first. It also happens to be 60% Muslim and did not have any damage from the tsunami because it is surrounded by a rather tall, thick stone wall. We walked around the walls, actually on top of the walls, they are that thick, so thick that it’s like a mini park up there with grass and random plants, people selling all kinds of things, wooden elephants, which I have learned to say no to, since Dio now has over eight elephants of different materials and four elephant t shirts. There was a man who smacked a covered basket in front of him, opened the lid and out jumped a cobra. It’s supposed to be enticing, the snake thing, but it always sends me and Wence running for cover. There were men with “gems” or old coins, and one man with the sweetest white dress with a beautiful lace border that I bought it for Dio’s girlfriend, Luna. We took our driver, whose name happens to be DD, what Luna called Dio, to the Amangala for a drink. It was a beautiful place. Colonial feel, very welcoming service, beautiful rooms.

We loved Sri Lanka. Yes, it is very dirty, yes, we all got sick, yes, sometimes you do not want to eat the food for fear of how dirty the water they may have used to cook it was, but, we met some very kind people, we took a week away from that lovely aforementioned prison known as the Harbor, and drove to Kandy, Sigiria, Tea Country, and then Yala National Park.

We spent the first night in Colombo, where we completed paperwork for our visas to India. That night we stayed in a beautiful hotel by the water called the Galle Face Hotel. It was very elegant, high ceilings, a beautiful veranda overlooking the water where they served all the meals and high tea. We went swimming in their beautiful pool overlooking the ocean as it crashed into the wall of rocks below us. As we were swimming along merrily, Wence looked up and realized the hotel was surrounded by men with shotguns. All of the buildings nearby had men in their second and third floors sporting all kinds of military garb. Perhaps this was supposed to make us feel more secure, but I hate guns. And how could we know who the hell these guys were anyway. They seemed to all be laughing and watching Dio as he jumped off the side of the pool into whomever’s arms happened to be there. He was having a lot of fun. Later we went to high tea. We could not help noticing quite a lot of security everywhere as well as news cameras and mics set up in scenic sites, but we had no idea what was going on. Sri Lankans are into buffet. For high tea there were so many yummy looking treats, we could not stop eating. I think you’re supposed to daintily dine on a few finger sandwiches and maybe a tiny little cream puff or something. Not us. I caught one of the waiters watching Dio eat a plate full of snacks in sheer amazement. It really is something to watch Dio eat. Because there really is not much he won’t eat and for a kid his age, he can really put away an impressive quantity of food. He usually eats more than the rest of us on a daily basis.

The next day, as we sat eating another yummy buffet, reading the paper, we could not help overhearing a lively conversation next to us. A table filled with all kinds of Europeans sat drinking their coffee, totally focused on what sounded like a serious brain storming session on how to keep the peace in Sri Lanka. They were not even eating the food. That seemed so strange to me because these buffets, well, they’re pretty popular with the tourists and this table did not even appear to know there was a buffet. Suddenly Wence started laughing. He threw the paper down on the table, revealing the front page picture of our hotel, underneath a headline about PEACE TALKS in COLOMBO. Diplomats from all over the world had come to Colombo, and were staying at the same hotel. What a coincidence. But I prefer to stay away from Peace talks which can become juicy targets for restless rebels.

After left all our visa paperwork at the Consulate, e we left Colombo to start our tour. Our first stop was the elephant orphanage on the way to Kandy. I’m not sure if I will ever experience more beautiful elephant moments than we all did that day. As soon as we got into the orphanage we were given a humongous bottle of milk from which Dio and I fed a little baby elephantie who guzzled up that bottle in a matter of seconds. Hungry little guy. Then all of the elephants, and I think there were 75, went for a walk to the river for their daily bath. At a place where the river is very wide, they have a restaurant on a cliff overlooking the riverbed. We raced ahead of the elephanties and got good seats so we could eat and watch elephanties at the same time. Moments later they all came down to the river, big ones, baby ones, fast ones, lazy ones. We got to watch them swim, squirt water at each other, fight with each other, one even tried to slowly sneakily escape into some trees on the far side of the river. They made that deep bellowing call to each other, and for a while, it was all you could hear. We all loved it. I could watch elephants play like that for hours. It’s so interesting to see how they are with each other. Dio could not really do anything but watch the elephants. He was in awe of them all.

By early evening we arrived in Kandy, a nice bustling village in the mountains, surrounding a lake. The change in temperature was welcomed by all. The heat of the tropics gets a little boring after a while. Nice to have a blast of cool air every now and again. The night we arrived we went to go see some traditional dancing. I think Wence and I were kind of expecting not to like it. Ever since that amazing show we saw in Tahiti, we have been a bit disappointed in the dancing. In Indonesia, well, let’s just say hours of slow, subtle movement is lost on us. We were very pleasantly surprised in Kandy. First of all their costumes are gorgeous. Little squares of carved metal made into hats and body plates, reminiscent of armor, but much more beautiful. It’s hard to describe the dancing as it’s not like anything I’ve seen. Definitely athletic yet graceful. The Sri Lankans do that little head bobble that people from India do, that little head bobble that seems to mean so many things I cannot translate it. They also used that in the dancing. I found myself moving around in the audience, I guess trying to follow their movements a bit. It was nice. After the dancing, they walked on burning coals.

After breakfast we went to the Botanical Gardens where we saw many beautiful trees, flowers, hundreds of huge bats, and almost stepped on a cobra. When it reared its head and hissed at us, I realized just how fast all of us could move. Scarey how close we were. Apparently their spit travels 12 feet and if they get you, you have thirty minutes to get to a hospital and get some kind of injection or you will die. Lovely. And these are the snakes they have crammed into baskets at all the touristy spots where you pay them and they play a flute, smack the basket and you watch the cobra rear up for a bit and then pass out.
The next day we went to the ancient city, Sigiriya. According to legend, in 477 King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura was overthrown by his illegitimate son and buried alive in a palace wall. The legitimate son of Dhatusena, upset and probably terrified, ran off to India, swearing he would avenge his father’s death. So, the illegitimate son, Kasyapa got to work. He built a formidable fortress on top of a huge rock overlooking Sigiriya. It’s quite something, complete with a palace, pleasure gardens, pools, everything a dictator could want. Years later when his brother finally returned for revenge, Kasyapa proudly led his troops, upon the back of an elephant. Before the real fighting began, however, he managed to get lost and stuck in a swamp. His troops deserted him. Mortified, he committed suicide. What a difference a day makes. It’s quite a sight, and quite a climb. I carried Theodore in the Baby bjorn carrier as far as I could, getting all kinds of comments from tourists as they watched me struggle up that cliff. Some were kind, giving words of encouragement. Others said if I could do it, so could they. And others looked at me like I was nuts, putting my child in danger. If they only knew we lived on a boat…Liz carried and pushed Dio up a lot of the way, but he did pretty well. When I could not carry Theodore anymore, Wence took him the rest of the way. It was definitely a group effort.

The next day was spent mostly in the car. It must have been about eight hours of very uncomfortable driving. I wore Theo in the Baby Bjorn most of the way to keep him from flying around the van. Liz and David managed to keep Dio occupied. By the time we got to the Nuwara Eliya tea country, it was late and freezing. We stayed at a place called the Tea Factory that was cute, had quaint factoryesque details here and there. But the rooms had many windows and not very good heat. We were able to get someone from the hotel to look after the kids, as they slept, while wence treated me, Liz, and David to a five course meal in a private dining car from an old train. It was very fun and the food was very yummy. That night, however, we froze. I slept with the baby in my arms, a blanket pulled over our heads. I’m sure tea country is beautiful, maybe on a nice day, or even in the rain, but when your family is not prepared for the cold, you leave and go somewhere warm. Am I getting too used to the tropics?

The next night I had a nice talk with Tuta. He and Sana watched the kids while we ate dinner. Tuta has a way with kids. A father of two boys himself, he knows all the tricks. He’s very calm and gentle with Dio and Theo and they both love him. Theo can stay in his arms for an hour without any problem and Dio loves to talk to him. Anyway, that night I went up to relieve Sana and Tuta and I realized it was the first time I had just sat with them. We talked about kids, food, and then they told me about the tsunami. They both lost everything they owned, but nobody they loved. Tuta told me he had felt lucky because he had seen the water coming. They used to live on the beach, and in Galle living on the beach means ON the beach, practically in the surf. Tuta told me the tsunami was terrible. It changed everything. More than a year later, people had not recovered emotionally or otherwise. But, he said, the beautiful part about the tsunami was how all of these people came to help us. He told me about a couple from New Zealand that he had met before the tsunami. He had taken them on a tour just like the one we were on. When they found out that Tuta had lost his home, they sent him $1,000 US so he could buy a new plot of land. Other people helped him with his tuk tuk. It was a time when a lot of good came from people, he said. Just as he said this Wences, Liz and David came up the stairs. Tuta and Sana finished their beers and started to leave to go eat their dinner. Wences offered to pay them for watching the kids, but Tuta refused to take the money. It was important for him to show us that money was not all he wanted. He wanted our friendship too. And we gave it to him. What a nice man. We will remember so many wonderful people in Sri Lanka.

Our last stop on the trip was the Yala National Park. I really loved it there. I have never seen so many new birds in my life. I fell in love with the green bee eater. They are so cute, mostly green with a yellow cap and some blue here and there. They were in all of the trees. We had a nice afternoon at the pool and an early night, to rest up for the next day’s safari. The next day theo and I stayed behind with sore tummies, but Dio, Wence, Liz and David got to see wild boar, leopards, wild elephants with a four week old baby elephantie, and deer and water buffalo. Two families of wild boar roamed outside of our cabin for over and hour, with tiny little boar babies, so I felt lucky to at least have seen them from only a few yards away.

When we got back to Galle I went to the doctor twice and finally was able to settle my stomach. The doctor, who was very kind and thankfully gave me the right medicine the second time around, had the dirtiest office I have ever seen in my life. It was beyond dirty, actually. It was like an abandoned construction site. No shelves, just dozens of dirty boxes of medicine all of over her desk. No taking the temperature, or any vital signs. She looked at my tongue, asked me what my symptoms were and gave me some pills and a prescription for more pills. When I asked her what she thought it was, she said, “It doesn’t matter.” Such a different approach to medicine than in the US. The first day we went to find her, she had left the office already so Tuta took us to her house. Within minutes I was sitting in her home office, another disaster area, and five minutes later I paid her two dollars for the visit and the medicine. Now that is quite a different approach to medicine as well. And if she had not seen me at her home, I would have had to go to the hospital. Too bad doctors rarely do house calls in the states. It seems to make so much sense. So civilized. Why are you going to ask the sick person to come see you, the sick person who feels so badly that they don’t want to go to work, but then they have to go to the doctor anyway and spread their sick germs all over the subway, the taxi, the elevator, the doctor’s office. I wonder which country has the best medical system.

Liz and David offered to take care of the kids so Wence and I could have a night out on our own. Very nice offer on their part, and of course, we took them up on it. That night Wence and I stayed at the Lighthouse Hotel. A beautiful hotel with a fantastic view of the beach, it’s up on a cliff overlooking the surf. We had a very relaxed night and agreed that we could have stayed there for a week.

The next day we had a little Farewell party on the boat. We invited Tuta and his family, they had to get special passes to come into the harbor, since civilians are not allowed into the harbor without them, and special permission for the women in the harbor after 6, we thought we were just asking them over for a beer and some cocktail nuts, and it turned out to be a complicated, highly orchestrated event. But it was great. It was really nice to meet his entire family. He brought a friend who brought his kids too so Dio was in heaven, running around like a maniac. We also invited some other boaties who were very nice. And Wence invited a man he met on the train, who commutes three hours to Colombo, and three hours back every day. He brought his wife and kids. It was a nice way to say goodbye to Sri Lanka.