Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 24, 2009 - Kandy, Sri Lanka

Our day in Kandy began with a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens, lovely formal gardens with brilliant displays of tropical plants. We found the orchid house in full bloom, which was a nice change for us as we usually manage to time our visits to botanical gardens in the host country's winter. One plant house contained more specimens of begonias than we knew existed. But the highlight of the garden was the specimen trees planted by visiting potentates, including princes, presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, leading members of China's communist party, and even a czar. We made a game out of trying to find the oldest tree and the most famous planter.

While we were looking at a tree one of the grounds workers looked around surreptitiously and then leaned in and asked if we'd seen the bats or if we had ever seen a scorpion. We said that we hadn't, then he gestured for us to follow him. He lead us back into the trees, where he scared the giant bats hanging in the branches into flight so that Sten could take a picture. Then he pulled out a large orange leaf with a big black scorpion on it. We tried to tip him $0.50 for the experience, but he rejected our puny compensation and demanded a dollar. In a country where $10 a day is a living wage, we thought his price was a bit steep, but we admired his entrepreneurial spirit, so we anted up.

We could have easily spent the whole day in the garden, but Leel had other plans for us. The next stop on Leel's itinerary was a woodworking factory. We did the tour and enjoyed learning about the local hardwoods and how natural dyes are made from one of the woods; but, we weren't interested in buying anything, and quickly moved on.

The next stop was Leel's surprise of the day: a traditional Sri Lankan massage based on Ayurvedic principles. Ayervedic medicine is a holistic therapy that utilizes diet, herbs, oils, yoga and meditation to treat the root causes of illnesses. After having very oily massages, we were each placed in a long, coffin-like box and left to steam. The steamer looked like a medieval torture device and at the end I felt like a slab of poached salmon. After showering, we met with the doctor. Over plates of wonderful local fruit, including the best pineapples, mangoes and mangosteens we've ever tasted, the doctor taught us about heaty and cooling foods, a concept we'd first encountered in Singapore. He also imparted some local wisdom about hangover cures to us. Apparently, alcohol is heaty, so it is important to cool your body down afterwards. Something with a lot of fat will nullify the heaty effects of alcohol. Or, if you have too much to drink the night before and fail to balance it out with a cooling food, a nice bowl of curd the next morning will set you right. Like lunch at the Tea Factory the day before, this stop was a terrific surprise addition to our trip.

We were both completely relaxed after the massage, and would have been happy to head back to the hotel for a swim in the pool and a nap, but there were a few more stops on Leel's itinerary. He took us to a fabric store where they had some demonstration looms in the basement (on which they claim to be making fabric, but the looms and threads looked awfully dusty) and really wanted to dress me up in a sari. I declined, figuring that it would be much easier to avoid the sari sales pitch when I'm not standing around in one. After making a polite show of browsing through the wares while Leel, Sampath and Sten enjoyed a cold soda, I was ready to move on.

Next up was the gem store. As our third commercial stop of the day, we were both tempted to give it a quick run through and get on to lunch; but it actually turned out to be pretty educational. We were taken up to conference room where we watched a DVD about on how gems are mined. The miners dig a pit, the walls of which are shored up with rubber trees and lined with ferns to soak up the water leaching in through the mud. Water is constantly pumped out of the pit to keep it from filling like a well. The workers spend their days standing, squatting and digging in a muddy pool of water. Communication between the workers and the topside of the mine is achieved by speaking through a rubber hose. Buckets full of stones and mud are hoisted to the surface, where they are washed to see what stones might be present. Mining is a cooperative effort that employs many people in this mineral rich island. After the movie we were showed around the gem museum, which had samples of gems from all over the world. Then we were led through a life size model of a mine (minus the mud and water) on our way to the main event - the store. While the stones were beautiful, I thought that most of the settings seemed rather roughly done. For the third time in one day we left behind visibly disappointed shopkeepers as we walked out empty handed.

For lunch, we stopped at a bakery, where Sten and I loaded up on short eats, flaky pastries and buns filled with spicy mixtures of vegetables, fish, chicken or beef that are traditionally eaten as snacks, which we prefer to the ubiquitous rice and curry. The next stop was not on Leel's itinerary, but we can't pass up a good looking grocery store without seeing was essentials it might offer for our ship's stores. We loaded up on Sri Lankan coffee and capers before heading back to the hotel where we rested up before the evening's activities: seeing traditional dancing and visiting the Temple of the Tooth, which houses one of the Buddha's teeth.

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