29.10.2007 - 02.11.2007 30 °C
Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean, just off the southeast tip of India; is about the size of Ireland (or West Virginia if that is a better reference). My sources in the CIA tell me:
“The Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C. probably from northern India. Buddhism was introduced beginning in about the mid-third century B.C., and a great civilization developed at the cities of Anuradhapura (kingdom from circa 200 B.C. to circa A.D. 1000) and Polonnaruwa (from about 1070 to 1200). In the 14th century, a south Indian dynasty seized power in the north and established a Tamil kingdom. Occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century and by the Dutch in the 17th century, the island was ceded to the British in 1796, became a crown colony in 1802, and was united under British rule by 1815. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948; its name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972. Tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists erupted into war in 1983. Tens of thousands have died in the ethnic conflict that continues to fester. After two decades of fighting, the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) formalized a cease-fire in February 2002 with Norway brokering peace negotiations. Violence between the LTTE and government forces intensified in 2006, but neither side has formally withdrawn from the cease-fire.”
Long check queue at Heathrow and Sri Lankan air staff said flight was full so I was expecting the worst. It was very full so I was very lucky to get two seats (one window/one aisle) to myself and could relax a bit on the 10 hour flight to the Maldives. (chain of islands an hour’s flight from Sri Lanka) Weird looking place .. flat featureless islands in amazing coral sea. Sea loves lovely but not a tree in sight. Glad I am not getting off there!
Wednesday 31 October
I walked a long way into town and’ fell in with' a young man who showed me around the market .. including his sister's spice stall. (with hindsight, they were not related at all) They were grinding spices in industrial quantities but also selling small amounts. Fresh cardaman irresistible .. 50 pence for 100 grams .. should last an age. We went to his house for coffee .. then it turns out he drives a tuk tuk and wants to take me to the fish market, etc. Unusually for me, I just gave in and we toured around for an hour before he dropped me back near the guest house (I never say exactly where I am staying so this characters won't hover around the place). It was interesting .. this is a huge centre for fishing .
Walked in the direction away from town and met a fisherman who did prawn fishing in a catamaran .. it looks small and fragile and appears very dangerous in such rough water. He said he was the last in the line .. his brother had given it up and his children were in school and did not want to fish for a living. he and his family live right at the beach and their house was hit with 5 feet of water during the tsunami but no one in Negombo killed. He took me to his house, met his sister who was grinding fresh mustard ; the stone and pestle she was using looked like something out of a Mayan painting. We had tea and chatted...nice friendly people and I felt a bit bad about being so suspicious.
En route to Kandy
It is a little over 100 kms (70 miles) from Negombo to Kandy. I hired a car to take me since going into Colombo to catch a train seemed like too much hassle (I have more luggage than normal because it might be cold in Kandy and will certainly be cold in the Hill country south of Colombo). Rather wild ride .. dodging bicycles, 3 wheelers, buses and competing with other taxis for space. The driving was hectic but not really dangerous. We stopped at an old tea factory which had been converted to a café. I loved the names , Thirst Aid Station, (tea and soft drinks only .. didn't quench my thirst).
When the driver said 'Spice Garden" I thought of a garden would make a nice break and was interested. There was a small garden but mostly this is a con .. they are selling herbal remedies of their Ayurveda Medicine and massage business. The guide had the bearing of a military man and after about 20 minutes of him giving me orders to pay attention and an unwanted head massage by a young Sri Lankan guy, I said Enough. I went quickly through the shop (thinking I would buy something just as a souvenir) but when he said a bottle of sandalwood was over $50 I called a halt to proceedings. Amasing that other people were buying things like they were going out of style.
Medicine Man meets Cynic .. Cynic wins.
Kandy’s Hotel Suisse a very grand old place with large public areas, a swimming pool and some nice gardens. It was Lord Mountbatten’s headquarters during World War II. Dinner very boring .. no Sri Lankan food .. strictly European and rather .. well, Swiss. I did enjoy it when a large Sri Lankan group stayed there because local food was featured in the buffet. Normally I would have gone out to find a restaurant but the monsoon rains which started around 4pm went on for hours and I was trapped.
Touts are a real problem here. A 10 minute walk from the hotel into the city centre meant fending off at least 10 people trying to sell something (or beg or hustle) ; the problem is that they approach you in a friendly manner enquiring where you are from, and try to engage in conversation to soften you up for the pitch. 10 of such approaches can take up an hour and become tedious. By the end of the holiday I simply told them NO at first approach. I hope I did not offend a Sri Lankan who was genuinely trying to be friendly. When I did meet locals who were genuine, there was usually a situation or event which sparked the conversation (on the train, for example), so I hope I got it right.
One tout sidled up and said he was a cook in my hotel, wanted to practise his English .. he was going to the market to buy spices for tomorrow's meal .. did I want to come along. By this time I was getting tired of him and suspicious .. so the following conversation
me: Which hotel do you work in?
he: Your hotel.
me: But I was in two hotels today .. which one do you work in?
At that point he vanished. I'd caught him out. It really is wearing but I have a new response. I put my fingers to my ears like the Hear No Evil monkey and that seems to work.
Peradeniya Botanical Gardens are about 6 miles outside Kandy. A large site (60 hectares / 47 acres) built in loop of a large river, the gardens were designed by the British on a site which was once a royal palace and garden.
This is one of the best gardens I have seen .. the layout is superb ; open spaces are interspersed with dense gardens such as the Fern Garden .. a few plant houses including an orchid house, bamboo groves .. much to see and enjoy. The highlight has to be the Java Fig Tree in the Great Lawn. It is a huge spreading tree (2500 square feet) which is over 100 years old and seems to be in excellent health. Up close, the leaves are small .. much like the ficus we have as a house plant .. but the scale and beauty of this tree is astounding.
It is good to see so many flowers and flowering trees which we normally have in a hothouse, growing in natural conditions. And of course with at least 2 hours of rain per day and temperatures of 86 degrees, this is a hothouse climate.
I have to have my rant :
• The Water Garden .. covered in a old fashioned steel cage which you often saw in old style zoos .. pathetic.
• The Japanese Garden.. the directors of this botanical garden should be sued for using the name. This is a mess and doesn't even hold its own as a garden, let alone this moniker.
Kandy’s main attraction is the Temple of the Tooth. It houses a Buddha relic which ended up here after being in several temples in the country. This is a large complex right in the city centre ; security is tight and there are lots of devotees in the temple and its associated grounds. I ignored several guides near the ticket booth and security point but the one near the actual entrance to the temple had a badge and appeared official. Just as well that I linked up with him ; this is a large complex and he took me to areas that I might not have noticed on my own (in some cases it was not obvious that they were open to the public). The monks in the place seem to be bored by the whole thing .. the devotees seem genuine enough but I didn't think the place had much of a holy vibe to it.