What Sri Lanka was like

A monumental rock formation rises almost straight up from the heart of Sri Lanka. It’s known as Lion Rock — Sigiriya. Archeologists think humans have been living on and around it for more than 10,000 years, and many believe that in the late 400s (AD), a king named Kasyapa built a garden and palace at the summit after overthrowing and murdering his father. No buildings remain, but the ruins and fortifications are mind-boggling, considering the height and verticality of the site.One small area on top of the formation. How DID the workers get all those bricks up the sheer walls?

Steve and I climbed Sigiriya toward the end of our stay in Sri Lanka, and we spent some time gazing out at the views in every direction. “What strikes me,” Steve commented, “is that the guy who built this had to have been one of the greatest assholes in history.”

I knew he wasn’t thinking of the patricide, but rather the staggering expense and unimaginable suffering it must have cost — all to satisfy this one paranoiac’s miserable thirst for glory and security. We stood there, despising Kasyapa for a moment. Then we went back to enjoying our time up so high.

Visiting Sigiriya was one of the best things we did in Sri Lanka (the island south of India formerly known as Ceylon). The climb up to the top — around 1200 steps — wasn’t as hard as I’d feared. All those stairs were fenced so well the ascent never felt too frightening.We entered the grounds shortly after 7:30 am, when the day was still cool, and the hordes of Chinese tourists had not yet arrived. About halfway up, we shook our heads in wonder at the frescoes painted in one long gallery in the sheer rock face. A parade of women with Barbie bodies — tiny waists and beautiful naked breasts — decorate the wall. (Scholars suppose them to be either heavenly nymphs or a depiction of Kasyapa’s concubines.) A little further on, we passed graffiti dating back to the 6th to 14th centuries. Awestruck visitors scratched the comments, mostly noting how hot the ladies were.Guards stopped us from taking any pictures of the frescoes, but the lion’s paws carved into a plateau near the top are a popular photo op.

Although climbing Sigiriya ranked among our favorite activities in Sri Lanka, it was one of several. I’ve already written about our time in Colombo and Galle Fort and the idyllic southern coast.One of the views from Galle Fort.

After our one-night stay on the beach, we traveled north and stopped along the way at one of the country’s national parks where, to our amazement, we had one of the best game drives of our lives. We counted more than 25 elephants during the two hours our Jeep bounced over the park’s dirt paths. Not just elephants, but crocodiles, wild buffalo and boar, monitor lizards, monkeys, snakes, other mammals, and a host of birds live in the park.Next we traveled to the cool, misty highlands; spent a morning hiking and loving the green-drenched vistas at every turn.Old trains that run over single tracks built by the British colonialists in the early 1800s are a part of the tea-country landscape.

We took a train from Ella through the emerald tea plantations……where Steve proved remarkably adept at picking tea leaves…

and we wound up in the city of Kandy. At a temple complex there, Buddhists revere a fragment of one of the Buddha’s teeth.It’s never shown to the public, but the ardor of the pilgrims is evident.

The final phase of our Sri Lankan journey took us to remnants of the ancient world, not just Sigiriya but also… …the Royal Rock Temple complex in Dambulla, filled with about 150 statues of the Buddha that followers began creating about 2000 years ago.Painted designs and images make it look like the cave ceilings are covered with exquisite Oriental rugs.

The vast spiritual complex at Anuradhapura was founded in the 4th century BC and contains three of the biggest monuments ever built in the ancient world, inferior only to the pyramids at Giza.This one was made from more than 90 million bricks and stood at the center of a monastery complex that once housed 3000 monks.

And nearby grows one of the oldest and most venerated trees in the world — a bodhi tree believed to have been grown from a cutting of the original one in Bodhgaya, India under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

We had some bad moments. A couple of dismal hotels depressed us. We inched and lurched through too many hours of awful traffic. We had a heartbreaking experience with the first of two driver/guides we hired. But I had to fight back tears when we said goodbye to the second of the two; our time together was so richly meaningful.

Besides sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of Sri Lanka with us, Omar also took us to the house where he was born and some of his extended family lives today. We stopped at his own home too; chatted with his wife and sister-in-law, met a son and daughter, admired his two-year-old grandson.For most of his life, Omar’s been a driver — of cars and trucks and tuk-tuks — but he also has worked for a number of NGOs, including a journalism team that did some fine reporting toward the end of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. Belying his sweet, even humble, demeanor, he seemed resourceful and astute to us. He didn’t hide his voracious appetite for breaking news. We talked a lot about the political uproar that’s been roiling Sri Lanka since late October, when the current president shocked everyone by firing the prime minister and replacing him with the strong man who ended the war (in 2009) but at the cost of abysmal human-rights abuses.

Since the war, Sri Lanka has become a superstar travel destination, but this turn of events was scary. It raised the specter of instability and even violence breaking out again. While Steve and I were tromping around India, tourist bookings all over Sri Lanka were evaporating. The Sri Lankan rupee fell even further than it did earlier in the year — good for us but bad for the Sri Lankans. We sensed gloom, even a touch of desperation, in the almost-empty hotels and restaurants.We saw this demonstration near the Parliament building in Colombo. Omar sounded optimistic; he said he thought the fracas would turn out to be just a rat’s nest of political scheming and ego, rather than a tinder pile that could explode into a conflict in which a lot of people would die. He knows a lot more about Sri Lanka than me; I hope he’s right. The country is packed with more beautiful and interesting areas than other places many times its size. But when thuggish narcissists play games, they can cause a lot of pain for the common folk.Newspapers still appear to be thriving, and people were scanning them anxiously.

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!