Team fish

Stilt fishermen — guys perched high on poles in the ocean to get a better view of their prey — are one of the most iconic images associated with Sri Lanka. The men look striking, but the only problem is no one actually fishes that way any more. The island’s remaining “stilt fishermen”only scramble up the poles for tourists, then browbeat them into paying for any images they take. “The stilt fishermen nowadays are actors,” one Sri Lankan told us.

But men on Sri Lanka’s southern coastline do continue to fish in an ancient way that’s photogenic. Steve and I stumbled upon them on our walk shortly after dawn yesterday morning. The beach in front of our resort stretched farther than we could see and looked empty….…but we spotted a few fishing boats on the water……and then some guys in the distance, pulling a rope.The channel was too deep for us to wade across, but we found more men pulling hard on another line when we walked back in the direction of our hotel.The work looked strenuous, but sociable.Nothing happened suddenly, but eventually the net attached to the rope emerged from the water.The men were careful in its management.Eventurally the distant boat that had been somehow positioning the net approached the shore.It’s occupants first rowed, then lugged it onto the beach…Then they began to pull on another line that had been staked to a pole in the sand.As the net drew closer and the surf increased, the work could be rough.But the two wings of the team edged ever closer to each other.In the final stages, a host of birds swirled ahead. I felt nervous. What if, after all this work, the net was empty?No worries. As the haul emerged, there was bounty in the strands.The air was filled with the frantic flipping of dying fish.One of the fishermen told us it wasn’t a fantastic catch, but much better than it had been for the past few days. This guy asked if we wanted to go on an evening tour of the lagoon, but we had to decline. We had other fish to fry (metaphorically). I’m posting this now from the misty highland tea country. It’s a little hard to believe we’re in the same country.

A turtle twist

In this, the final phase of our long South Asian adventure, Steve and I are trying to cram a comprehensive look at Sri Lanka into 11 days. The island is only about the size of Ireland. But it has several distinct aspects that made us to want to cover a lot of ground. Tuesday, our one full day in the capital (Colombo), we walked around enough to feel satisfied. Wednesday we took a train south down the coast to the ancient trading port and current World Heritage Site of Galle. We stayed exclusively within the walls of its 500-year-old fort, a compact area now filled with trendy guesthouses and chic shops and good restaurants. We enjoyed the strolling and the eating — but there’s not much more I can say about it that’s interesting.

Next we wanted to briefly experience Sri Lanka’s legendary tropical beaches, so we hired a driver to take us about 45 miles east along the island’s southern coast. Tonight we’re staying in an unpretentious little resort at the end of a dirt road, deep within a grove of coconut palms. Its crystalline infinity pool overlooks the sand and crashing waves of the Indian Ocean; we swam a bit this afternoon before a downpour drove us inside. We plan to walk along the beach tomorrow morning before checking out and moving on. The beach is beautiful, and we’re thrilled to experience it. But again, what more can I say?

Our single offbeat experience occurred about an hour outside Galle on the way here, when our driver unexpectedly pulled off the road. He asked if we wanted to visit a turtle sanctuary and breeding center that was working to help save the world’s sea turtles. How could we resist? We each paid the $2.80 admission fee plus I popped for an extra $5.80, which the guy in the admissions booth said would allow me to transport a newborn turtle to the surf.

Inside, a friendly local man who volunteers at the center led us around the premises. He explained that when local fishermen find an injured turtle, they bring it to the center and receive a little more money than the animal might fetch in a local seafood market. A veterinarian helps treat whatever can be treated. One animal, for example, had swallowed a plastic bag that made it sick enough that it had lost its shell. But the shell had regrown, and in a few months, the turtle would be returned to the sea, the guide explained.

He reached into one of the watery pens, pulled out a young green turtle, and let Steve and me and two young Australians hold it.The volunteer guide introduced us to three of the other four sea turtle species that come to this part of the world to breed.We inspected the hatchery, where the center staff buries turtle eggs that have been dug up by locals and brought to them for protection against predators such as dogs and mongooses.I felt thrilled to see these amazing animals up so close. Finally the guide placed a newborn, hatched that very morning, into my palm. Black in color, and vigorously paddling the air, it felt strong enough to escape from my hand.So Steve and I hastened down to the surf. I placed him on the sand and we both held our breath, watching wave after wave come close but fall just short of reaching him. Then the incoming seawater swirled close enough, and the newborn paddled frantically.A minute later, he was out of sight.

We felt exhilarated. What a brilliant free-market approach to saving this species! Pay local folks who might otherwise destroy them to bring them to a refuge dedicated to getting them back into the sea. We gave the guide a good tip, gladdened by the thought that our visit was making the world a little safer for sea turtles.

Back in the car, driving south again, I checked my Lonely Planet Sri Lanka guide for more turtle information. Sure enough, on page 99, I found a sidebar on “Hatching Turtles” which described the operation we had just seen and others on the coast around Bentota and Kosgoda. “But the reality is that the turtle hatcheries might be doing more harm than good,” the book went on. Putting the newborns in a tank “for even a very short time” deprives them of some of their eggs’ yolk that can give them for energy for their first hours in the sea. Moreover, female sea turtles like to return to the exact spot where they hatched to lay their own eggs. If they’re born in captivity, they won’t get a ‘magnetic memory’ of their beach of birth and thus are thought by some turtle experts to be unable to return to shore to propagate their species.

I felt deflated. The rescue/hatchery concept seemed to make so much sense. The turtles were so cute! It was irresistible to see and hold them. And here Lonely Planet was telling me Steve and I might have actually made the world a worse place for sea turtles by patronizing the place? That I might have condemned that valiant little baby to an unnecessary death?

It’s complicated being a well-intentioned tourist in the 21st Century. There are so many ways to get things wrong. It’s enough to make you want to go to an isolated beach and lie down on the warm sand and just not think — or write — about anything.

Culture shocked

Landing Monday afternoon at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I got the biggest dose of culture shock I have ever experienced. Emerging from the jetway into the terminal, my ears were filled with…. Christmas music! And there were plenty of Christmas decorations too.Like this.And this.

I’ve spent my adult life living in San Diego, where carolers dress in shorts and t-shirts, and folks string colored lights from their palm trees. So I’m used to celebrating the holiday in balmy weather. What was so strange Monday was suddenly being plunged into the Christmas Season after seeing not one hint of the approaching holiday anywhere in India (unless you count the Black Friday emails in my in-box.) This even though 19% of the population of Kerala (in India) is Christian. We stayed just a few blocks from the Cochin Fort’s Catholic basilica but saw not one wreath nor Christmas bulb there.

Sri Lanka has half the percentage of Christians Kerala has. Yet here we were, waiting for our suitcases while listening to The First Noel and Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem! This wasn’t just some show of airport internationalism. Once in the city, more signs of the holiday abounded:

When I expressed my surprise to one of the staffers at our Colombo hotel, he beamed and declared that Sri Lanka’s residents love to celebrate everyone’s holidays. Christians and Muslims put up Hindu garlands routinely, he said.

That was nice to hear. The savage 25-year-long war that ripped this country apart and killed 100,000 people had strong religious elements (Buddhist v. Hindu). It ended less than 10 years ago, with real reconciliation only dating back about three years. And even though Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) has been booming since then, political turmoil broke out just recently. In the past three days, we’ve seen a few signs of what’s playing out: demonstrators assembled Tuesday near the Parliament building in Colombo; some front-page headlines.

What we’ve seen more of, however, is orderly streets and serene landscapes. I’m already kind of used to the holiday decorations.But after India, I suspect we’ll continue to feel shocked by the peace and quiet right up to the minute we depart for home, eight days from now.I’m posting this from Galle, about two hours south of Colombo. We’re staying just a few blocks from this seascape. Clean water, clean air, uncrowded — that’s shocking!

The 2 blind San Diegans and the elephant

Throughout the seven weeks we traveled in India, I thought more than once about the parable of the blind men and the elephant. It recounts what happened when a group of blind men investigated the strange new creature they had heard about. Each man touched a different part of the beast, and each formed a clear idea of what it must look like. The guy who felt the trunk said the elephant was like a snake. The one who touched its side said that was nonsense; elephants instead resembled walls. The man who stroked its ear concluded they’re like fans, and so on. Each was so convinced the others were wrong they eventually came to blows.

Before we left San Diego, I knew India was big and complicated. But our hands-on experiences were humbling. I blogged about our hellish midnight arrival in Kolkata where the line for prepaid taxis moved so slowly it took us more than an hour to reach the head of it. I could have (blindly) concluded we should never take another Indian prepaid taxi. But we did — at least a half-dozen times over the weeks that followed, including another time in Kolkata. On all those subsequent occasions, the service was fast and safe and cheap.

After a month of traveling in India, I wrote about how we had not once found anything resembling a modern grocery store. But then we went south, and in Kerala we found plenty of them.

Our final destination, the state of Kerala hugs the far southwestern coast of the subcontinent. Traveling to Kerala from Kodagu (the relatively isolated mountain district where we had our elephantine adventures) wasn’t simple. Interminable buses make the trip, but no trains. In order to fly, we would have had to drive east for at least four hours back to Bangalore and then fly west again. Finally, the simplest solution was to hire a car and driver. The ride would cost $157 and take about 10 hours, we were warned. Frankly, I didn’t believe it. How could it take 10 hours to go less than 220 miles?

We learned. Potholed two-lane roads in the mountains made the going slow at first. The flow would improve for a stretch, and our hopes would rise. Maybe the worst was over? But as we approached the coastal road south, we moved even more slowly. Traffic wasn’t as bad as what we saw in so much of the north, but the streets were narrow, and the constant flow of buses, taxis, tuk-tuks, bicyclists, animals, and pedestrians through them forced our driver to jam on the brakes almost constantly or at best creep along. I hunkered down in a back seat, trying to lose myself in blogging, but the twisty roads drove Steve up to the front seat. There all he could do was observe hour upon hour of our slog forward. In the end, it didn’t take 10 hours to reach Cochin. It took almost 11.

We stumbled out of the taxi, cranky and fed up with India. It felt irredeemable — until the next morning, when Peter Panathara took us on his “silent tour” of the local backwaters. Much of the coast of Kerala is broken up into a complex network of waterways. One of the big tourist activities here is to cruise them. Some folks rent houseboats and spend one or more nights sleeping on them, but day trips also are popular. I only read about Peter’s tour a few days before we headed for Cochin. He had an opening, a stroke of immense good luck for us, because he turned out to be one of the best guides imaginable.

In the 7 hours we spent together, we learned that before starting his tour business, Peter had worked for more than 20 years as an investigative reporter for one of Cochin’s daily newspapers, primarily covering crime and corruption. His knowledge of the region felt encyclopedic; his pride in Kerala palpable. The state towers over the rest of India in countless way, including average lifespan (at least 10 years longer); literacy and access to modern plumbing (100%), population growth (declining, rather than continuing to skyrocket), religious tolerance, and environmental consciousness. Cochin’s spiffy new airport is powered by a huge field of solar panels, the first we saw anywhere on the subcontinent. The state has already largely recovered from the devastating monsoon flooding and landslides that struck in August, the worst in a century, with a valor and vigor that would make a great action film.

Once we reached our embarkation point (about an hour outside the city), the experience grew even more magical.One bad thing about Kerala is its heat and humidity, but in Peter’s big canoe, propelled by a local villager armed with a long pole, a light breeze cooled us. Crossing a broad channel, we sheltered under a big umbrella……then slipped under a low gate……into a series of narrow canals shaded by coconut palms, mahogany, and other huge tropical trees.For a long time, Peter stopped talking, and we glided through the passages hearing only the birdsong and the swish of the water moving over the hull.

We stopped a few times, first to gather coconuts from one of the trees……drink their water…and taste their custardy insides.We continued on to a tiny island and met the man who first settled it and now lives there with his relatives and a few other families.We ate a delicious lunch prepared by two of the women in the family……and learned how to spin twine out of coconut fiber.That’s Peter. By the time we got back to our hotel, he felt like an old friend.

For me, it was probably the best single day of the whole 7 weeks. The next day, our last in India, couldn’t top it, but we still had a pleasant time strolling past the fishermen working just a few blocks from our hotelThe heart of old Cochin is 500 years old, and you can sense that.

That night, we had the strangest theatrical experience of our lives. One of Kerala’s traditional art forms is kathakali, in which actors and musicians present dramatizations of passages from the great Hindu holy books. In their classical form, these performances can last from 6 to 10 hours. However, visitors sample a vastly shortened form. It starts with watching the actors apply their makeup.Here’s what the stage looked like when we walked in.The make-up application had just begun.It continued over the course of the next hour.Then we listened to a short lecture about the performance elements. Actors don’t speak but rather communicate meaning with highly stylized hand signs, facial expressions (like this one. I think it was revulsion)…and eye movements. Kathalkali actors must train their eyeballs like athletes. I’ve never seen such amazing control over that body organ.

After the lecture, we watched a 30-minute excerpt.

When we emerged onto the street, Steve said, “We’ll, I’m certainly glad I came with you. If you told me about it, I would have thought you took some really heavy drugs.” We agreed it made kabuki theater seem as banal as a network sitcom. I cannot explain it any further than that, except to suggest it felt like we had touched yet another very weird part of the elephant.