Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 22, 2009 - Ella, Sri Lanka

Over the next 5 days we'll be traveling around Sri Lanka, an island roughly the size of Tasmania or Ireland. We are confining our travels to the central and southern part of the country in order to stay clear of the conflict zone up north where the Tamil Tigers are making their last stand against the predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan military.

The alarm this morning went off at 4:30am. After locking up the boat and setting the fridge and freezer to keep running for the next five days (hope our batteries are up to the challenge!), we met Leel, our guide, and Sampath, our driver, at the gate at 5:30. From the moment we met, it was clear that Sampath enjoyed a good joke and would make our trip more fun. As the sun rose, we drove east along the south coast of the island.

Leel told us that first site on our tour would be the "stick fishermen." We had no idea what that could be, but thought it might be fishermen surf casting along the coast with long bamboo rods, like we saw in Lombok. The "stick fishermen" turned out to be "stilt fishermen." The fishermen were perched on stilts, embedded in the seafloor, close to shore. We learned that the stilt positions were highly coveted and passed down from one generation to the next.

After driving east for another hour or so, we stopped for a breakfast of string hoppers (tangled nests of rice flour noodles used to scoop up curry), rice and curry. We've now had spicy rice and curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And frankly, each time it has tasted pretty much the same - the only variation is the degree of heat.

The food here is one dimensional. Unlike Thai, Indonesian or Mexican, where the heat balances other flavors or adds a depth of flavor to the food, in Sri Lanka the food is just hot for the sake of being hot. There are no aromatic, sweet or savory notes to offset the heat. It is just blazingly hot. Based on the early returns, I'm going to venture that Sri Lankan is not one of the world's great cuisines - which is a problem for us. Between all the exercise we got freediving in the Andamans and the rough passage here, Sten is skinnier than he's ever been in the 14 years that I've known him. Never a heavy guy, he is looking downright gaunt. I need to fatten him up before we head back out to sea, and unfortunately, rice and curry that we can barely eat is not going to do the trick.
After breakfast we stopped at the Dondra lighthouse, which graces the southernmost point of this island nation. The lighthouse is 120 years old. We were amazed to learn from the lighthouse keeper that the stone block structure and everything else (including the spiral staircase, glass panels, brass fittings, and curved cabinetry and doors) to build it were brought from Switzerland (a landlocked country very far from here). We climbed up to the top to take in the view. Along the way we marveled at the construction. They just don't build things like that anymore. Upon our return to ground level we were greeted by the lighthouse keeper's friendly dogs, the healthiest canines we've seen since leaving Singapore.

From the lighthouse we continued along the south coast, which is fringed with lush tropical rainforest. As we headed east, windfarms rose above the rice patties and the land became more arid.
During the 2004 tsunami, 47,000 people died in Sri Lanka. The infrastructure along the coast was severely damaged. Everywhere we went today we passed houses and even whole communities built by international relief organizations. Signs along the sides of new roads gave credit to the international donors funding the work.

Mid-morning we stopped at a roadside stand for water buffalo curd, which is like yogurt, but richer and thicker. The curd was so thick that it didn't move when the woman who made it turned the handmade clay pot containing the curd upside down. She scooped some curd out into a bowl for each of us and drizzled treacle over it. It was delicious. Now this is some Sri Lankan cuisine that I could get into. Sten and I both went back for seconds.

After eating our fill, we climbed back in the van and continue east to a town on the edge of Yala National Park, where we would transfer to a Land Rover for a three hour safari through the park. Yala is in a region that was controlled by the Tamil Tigers before the present government's military campaign drove the Tigers into the northern part of the country. There are rumored to be Tigers hiding out in remote reaches of Yala, but the portion of the park open to tourists is deemed safe.

The hours that we spent in Yala were amazing. We saw a big tusker elephant, several other bull elephants, a few mongoose, dozens of deer, water buffaloes, long-tailed grey langur monkeys, wild boars and about a zillion endemic and migrating birds, many of them brilliantly colored. We were hoping to see the elusive leopard, but weren't that lucky. We initially thought that three hours wouldn't be long enough, but by the time we were back at the gates, we were both ready to be done. It's easy to have a romantic idea of what riding through a beautiful, remote area in the back of a Land Cruiser might be like (we certainly did) but between the dust, wind, heat, and rock hard bench seats trying to toss you into the air and smacking you in the rear as you come back down, it is easy to understand why one might not want to do this for a full day. But three hours was just about the right amount of time. All in all, it was a terrific experience and now we're both really excited about doing a more extensive safari in South Africa in November.

After the safari we transferred back to Sampath's van. In lieu of another round of the dreaded rice and curry, we picked up some "short eats" - sweet and savory stuffed buns - to tide us over until dinner. As with seemingly all the other food in this country, the savory buns were excessively spicy (to our palates), but the bread was fresh and delicious and reminded Sten of Portuguese sweetbread.

As we headed north, we became more and more horrified by the Sri Lankan driving habits. Our safari vehicle, along with a bus and a tuktuk, had been involved in forcing two men on a bike off the road. The bikers had the option of winding up in a ditch or getting hit by a bus. They chose the ditch. Later in the day, our van was involved in a squeeze play with a truck and a bus that resulted in a dog being hit. We were shocked and horrified, but everyone kept driving as the dog limped away on three legs.

Each time we pass a Buddhist temple (and there are a lot of temples) Leel and Sampath both bow in prayer. With the local driving habits, I can understand why they pray, but I also wish our driver would keep both hands on the wheel!

From the plains north of Yala we climbed 1100 meters to Ella, where we would spend the night. The road wound through a landscape straight out of Middle Earth. Raw, ragged hills surrounded us. A few kilometers before we reached the hotel, we stopped to take in the Rawana Ella Falls, a spectacular waterfall. For the first time in months, the air around us was cool, and I shrugged on a sweater.

Upon reaching the hotel after a very full day, we stepped out on our balcony to take in the view. Through the gap in the steep hills surrounding us, we could see all the way down to the coastal plains 1100 meters below. In the deepening twilight, the hills looked like they were wrapped in and inky purple blanket. As the sound of an imam calling the faithful to evening prayers at the local mosque floated up to us from the valley below we talked about how glad we were that we had taken a break from the boat and made the effort to see some of this beautiful country.

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