Cedar Mesa and the Valley of the Gods

Louisa and Greg camped and hiked in this area in the southeast corner of Utah on our way home from the Mountain Film in Telluride as described in the previous post. We just put together a photo book of Greg’s photos of this part of the trip.

Mainly posting this to see how Shutterfly presents the book. The full screen option is good. Edit: the option to view is now only via the link below.

Click here to view this photo book larger

Colorado and Utah Road Trip

We began our trip with the Telluride Mountain Film Festival. Mountain Film is held over Memorial Day weekend and celebrates adventure in the outdoors, nature, the cultures that live closer to nature, the environment and saving it for the future. This year the theme was Awareness Into Action. Also setting the background for discussions was a tribute to Richard Holbrooke—Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. We were delighted to be the guests of locals, Nancy and Alfredo, along with Patrick, Janet, Judy and Paul. Thank you for your kind hospitality Nancy and Alfredo.

We then stopped by Janet and Patrick’s place near Telluride to see the progress on their property.

We all then headed to Fruita, a Colorado a mountain biking mecca. We all camped, some in motor homes, some in vans, and some in tents. Judy and Paul’s friend Wayne, a BLM ranger, had a couple of days off and showed us around. Paul H., another friend of Judy and Paul’s also joined us. When we arrived Wayne took us for a quick evening ride near Loma. The next day we did the Western Rim Trail, a great trail in both Utah and Colorado along the Colorado River canyon rim. Fun riding and incomparable scenery. The next two days with Janet and Patrick joining us, we explored Book Cliffs a few miles north of Fruita. Fun riding. Fast swooping trails, ups and downs, and attention grabbing trails along ridges, such as Zippety Do Da. We weren’t disappointed in Fruita.

Everyone headed off in their own directions and we went nearby to Colorado National Monument with steep red canyons. Camped two nights there and did a hike on the Monument Canyon Trail to Independence Monument.

Headed south via Moab to Cedar Mesa in southern Utah which includes Natural Bridges National Monument. Arrived late and the campground was filled up so we went just outside the monument into BLM land where you can camp anywhere, although they prefer you use existing sites. A mile or so off the main road we found a nice site along a wash. Better than the campground. Very quiet. We saw about one car per day while in our campsite. Plenty of things to see and do, the monument as well as endless Anasazi dwellings and pictographs in the many canyons.

Photos from our trip are posted in the our photo gallery. You may want to use the slideshow option: click on the appropriate icon in the upper right, and after the slideshow comes up you may want to click on the icon in the lower right  to view full screen (Flash needed). Or you can use keyboard arrow keys to go from one slide to the next.

Mysore India

We are now in Mysore, Karnataka. Today we re-arranged our train tickets so we can make it to Hyderabad for Padma’s cousin’s engagement party on March 6 which will be attended by many of the relatives Louisa met in 1997. It will be a great occasion and nice finale to our trip!

Unlike many breakfasts of vadai, paper dosa or idli and tea, this morning’s (western) breakfast was omelet, milk coffee,” butter toast jam” on the rooftop overlooking Gandhi Square. We chatted up a fun young German couple at university studying poli-sci and education. We have hardly met any Americans during the trip.

Wandering thru town after breakfast, we found the most stunningly beautiful Devaraja market with gorgeous produce stacked and displayed in eye catching arrays, hugh piles of flower pedals, jasmine, marigolds being strung and dazzling garlands wrapped with silver thread for weddings as their vendors called out to customers competing for their rupees.

Already our thoughts were turning to food again which is not hard find here. Evenings carts materialize on sidewalks and street corners whipping up delightful dosas (pancakes) plopped in a leaf bowl (biodegradable!) hit with a big dollop of coconut chutney and topped with a vadai (chickpea flour doughnut) or you could have Gobichanchoori as a snack, cauliflower in a dough mixture fried and served with a spicy sauce and sliced cabbage, chillies, onion. Great chased by a cold Kingfisher beer.
We walked on to Mysore Palace, home to the current maharaja, who supposedly still lives somewhere in the back of the palace. Hard to dream up something as opulent as this architectural mash up of Buckingham Palace meets King Tut’s interior decorator. Picture this—peacock blue, pink and gold fluted coumns with floral bases and caps rising up three stories to a stained glass ceiling of peacock feather patterns in the octagonal wedding hall surrounded by a scalloped arch colonnade with 36 murals of the maharaja’s birthday parade incuding marching bands, mounted regiments, caprisonned elephants with golden howdahs, white bullocks drawing silver coaches and a few thousand of his closest friends.

Just to show you how India has changed, we climbed the 1000 steps of Chamundi Hill to the Chamundeswari temple passing the 5 meter high Nandi bull statue on the way. A couple of real cows followed us up the steps looking for a hand out. Being pressed for time on the return, we took a new comfortable city bus with A/C down the hill!

The British influence in Mysore is readily evident with its wide neat boulevards and symetrical street layout. They actually have stoplights and drivers for the most part actually obey them! Unlike Madurai which was built with streets for bullock carts, foot traffic, and bicycles, now has to accommodate SUVs, buses hurtling down the streets, motos weaving in and out, autorickshaws dodging, and bicycles careening and bullock carts plodding along, itinerant cows wandering, dogs laying in the road PLUS pedestrians AND there is no sidewalk. Crossing a major busy street is a death defying adventure. What space would be sidewalk is being used by sidewalk vendors selling sugar cane juice or chat snacks or coconuts. Another notable factor is the unrelenting ear splitting use of car horns, bells, claxons, whining two cycle and roaring truck engines. It is non stop 24-7 off the end of decibel charts. Add to that blasting Tamil movie songs emminating from pirated CD shops.

Fifteen minutes from the Mysore, we found tranquil rice patties being plowed by oxen, sugar cane fields and big shady trees on quiet country lanes yesterday on a day trip to Tipu Sultan’s fortress and summer palace at Srirangapatnam. We rode rental bikes to a 9th C Vishnu temple and were enthralled by the beautiful elegant columns and colonnaded court. Chatted with one of the Brahmin priests to find out he has a colleague at the Indian temple in Malibu!

Leaving tomorrow for Coorg and the mountains! Namaste! Louisa

Peace and quiet at Honey Valley Estates

From Mysore we took buses and a jeep up to a small “resort” named Honey Valley Estate, a working coffee plantation (and former collection of bee hives). We arrived on Saturday to a collection of westerners, but more Indians, particularly from nearby (6 hours) Bangalore. Cool nights and eighties during the day. Today Sunday, we took a half day hike up to a nearby ridge to survey the area.

Good vegetarian food and good hosts.

Today a group of about 20 college students arrived from Seattle. They’re traveling for a week before settling in near Pondicherry to study sustainability, community, and spirituality—an interesting combination.

Mannarsala Nagaraja Temple

Haripad, Kerala, India

A change from Sri Lanka. India is dirtier, noisier, and the streets and sidewalks (when they exist) are in much worse shape; but seems more alive. Maybe because Colombo was more modern and therefore less interesting. But unlike previous experiences getting a train reservation and boarding the train was straightforward. Took maybe 10 minutes to book three train reservations. And the station although busy wasn’t hectic. Had to ask to find our car, but a train employee led us to our car. Even had some air conditioning in the station and cooled down to a decent temperature shortly after we got moving (on time).

We got up before 4 a.m. to catch our flight from Colombo to Trivanduram. Bought our train tickets and unsuccessfully tried to get a SIM card (anti-terrorism security!). Hung out in Anita and Bob’s room waiting for our 5 p.m. train and avoided the heat.

Arrived in Haripad to visit the Manarsalla Nagaraja Temple. Arrived at the Mandaram Guest House expecting a cold water dingy hotel, but found a tiled spacious hotel with hot water. But still basic, simple food, bucket showers, and tiny towels. Up in the morning to visit the temple. A bustling place. Walk in through a 2-inch deep moat to clean your feet. Music and ceremonies going on everywhere. One selects from a list of maybe 15 ceremonies and pays at the ticket office, gets a printed receipt and a temple “priest” performs the ceremony. One ceremony involved putting an infant on one side of a large balance scale while the other side is loaded if and equal weight offering—bananas, rice or other items. Music is played and words spoken. Hundreds of people and many ceremonies being performed. Photography and video recording was not generally allowed, so Louisa asked permission and was told the musicians would be available after the noon time closing. We ended up meeting them in a small room one of them occupied in front of the temple. A short iPhone recording attached.

Food is much cheaper here than Sri Lanka. Last nights basic dinner and two liter bottles of water was 100Rs or about $2.20. A thali plate in Trivanduram was about $1 each.

Yesterday was hot and humid, but it rained last night and today was overcast and cooler.

Kochi and Munnar, Kerala, India

Today is our last day and we’re leaving on a good note. Shopping at Barefoot. A delicious lunch at the Galle Face hotel—in continuous operation since 1864. Situated right on the water and next to a large green and boardwalk.

We then met with Tissa, the head of the Fulbright Program in Sri Lanka. Anita worked for the Fuibright in the nineties and Bob and Anita volunteer for some activities. Tissa and Anita met professionally. Tissa has worked for the program for 22 years and has a great perspective on the program and Sri Lankan and US politics.

Yesterday visited the National Museum which has many of the antiquities from the sites we’ve visited and a recently undated displays. The museum put some of what we’d seen in perspective.

We did some shopping yesterday too and saw the Sri Lankan middle class. Many people at a Macy’s like store busy buying stuff.

We’ve enjoyed our trip. Many interesting things to see, clean, and friendly helpful people.

Anita and Bob did a fantastic job of organizing the trip and have been great to travel with.

Now we’re off on our own for a month in South India.

Tuk-Tuk—Story No. 2 from Sri Lanka (Bob Caplan, guest blogger)

We’re happy to republish another fun email by Bon Caplan.

29 January 2011
Hi Family and Friends,

Thanks for all the swell notes and news. Since last writing you, Greg and I climbed the 11,000 round-trip stair steps of Adam’s Peak to see the sunrise. Louisa and Anita bagged about 5,500 of them, deciding that 2500 descending steps should be their limit in order to pursue greater glories in the future. It would be great for Anita and me to sit at water’s edge here, enjoying with all of you a plate of papaya, mango, and fresh curd or perhaps a beer. Together we would watch the pond herons and great white herons take flight against the darkening skyline of mountains and silhouetted trees. What follows is probably some of what we would probably tell you about our day. And no doubt, were you here, you would have accounts of your own.


“Majestic Hotel, two-fifty (250 Rupees).” The driver nods. No argument here. We have offered more than local customers, but hopefully not outrageously so. Two dollars and fifty cents for 15 minutes and 5 kilometers. A pair will do, two tuk-tuks.

Greg and Louisa take the green tuk-tuk, Anita and I the red one. Louisa turns on her wide-screen camcorder, flicks on the sound. Ready for action.

We have just finished a tasty dinner at The Muslim Hotel in Kandy. Hotel means restaurant in much of South Asia. The Muslim Hotel’s three-walled open front edges the sidewalk and reaches back toward the alley. A fourth wall is not needed in this mild and humid mountainous reach. This place speaks of the ages. The cream-colored, sooted walls look as if they were last painted in 1912 or maybe ’15. The floors have an opaque grime covering that hides the source material. All this sets off the marble-top tables, wiped clean after each party and supported with black cast iron uprights of lacy design that may have arrived in the 1920s by English steamer, and might have been poured at British foundries. Or perhaps they have another story.

We enter the restaurant passing glass displays that face the street, displays with sweet and salty fried snacks. On our left is a glass partition behind which stands a man and bank of fist-sized wads of glistening dough. He reaches for one, tosses it as if he is making pizza, spins it on a hot metal surface, adds some spicy vegetables, folds it, and sends it into an over to become tri-cornered roti.

Our guidebook indicates that women are usually seated in back in a “family” section. A waiter points us towards a corner table hidden behind the baker. Louisa points to an up-front table and takes it. “It is better here,” says the waiter, pointing to the original table. Too late. I throw up my hands. “As usual,” I say, “the women control us. What can I do? I am ONLY a man.” I laugh, and he joins me. My comment is, of course, hyperbole, but less so for my culture than for his. So we both, I suppose, laugh for different reasons.

The Muslim Hotel is reputed to serve up superb samosas and naan. We order a variety of dishes including samosas, add in some ginger tea, and finish with a sampling of deserts weighed out and charged by the kg or fraction thereof. Rupees 560 for four, about $1.30 each and superior to $8 a person buffet we had at a tourist trap earlier today. As a popular advertisement for credit cards goes, food excellent, ambience priceless.

Sri Lanka’s tuk-tuks are 3-wheeled putt-putt taxis made in India. If you have never ridden in one, I can assure you, it is exhilarating, even accelerating. The engine is mid-ship assuring that the driver and passengers equally share the soothing massage of the two to four stroke engine. Appointments and controls include a fuel gauge, axe handle length starter lever, padded passenger bench behind the driver (seats two comfortably, three if the third is a child reasonably, and three to four painfully), accelerator and brakes on the handle bars (like a motor scooter), and black tonneau cover to shelter the occupants from sun and rain. Depending on the owner’s taste’s there may be various chrome accents and hand-stencilled sayings such as “Colombo Express” or some paramour’s name. Performance dept.: Torque is impressive. From a dead start, there is a head-jerking instant, off-the-line burst of speed reminiscent of a pumped up golf cart. Acceleration? 0-60 mph in…uh…let’s see…we, actually, these beasts top out at about 20-25 mph. So we’ll just say 0-60 in an infinite number of seconds.

Turning radius: I knew you’d ask. A Bajaj can probably do an about face in the circumference of a 1964 Cadillac Le Baron’s engine compartment. (Those of you who are from the Post-Detroit-Iron Age may wish to imagine an engine compartment large enough for a queen-sized bed, hopefully with its occupants well-warned and standing on the side lines along with the on-looking crowd and press corps.)

Safety equipment: Beeping horn. That’s about it, but hey, do you want a tuk-tuk ride or what?!
Ok. Ready? Here’s the scene. You have filled up on goodies from The Muslim Hotel, set on a price, and climbed in. The two drivers pull back on their axe handles, uh, starters, say something to each other (I’m just guessing, but here’s a wild and likely way-off speculation: “My ride is paying me a fortune, 250 rupees. How about you, Siri?” “250? Ha-ha. I milked mine for 300.” “Ok, ok, but I bet you 10 rupees that I beat you to the Majestic.” “Oh yeh?” “Yeh.” “You’ve got yourself a bet, sucker.”) And—whoa!! We rocket out into the night’s traffic. There goes the torque. I glance at Anita. Reassuringly, I see that she didn’t get ejected. Zoooom! Wow, right between two trucks and a bus. The way these guys are driving they could thread their way between Newtonian and quantum physics without even making Shroeder’s cat wink.

There’s Louisa with her camcorder. “You’ll never get me on your lousy video,” I shout, feeling the competition of the moment. “Think again, buster,” Louisa screams back over the whine of our chariots, “I’ve got image stabilization.” “Image-smimage,” I yell back. “With these roads you’re gonna’ need earthquake stabilization.” Her and Greg’s tuk-tuk takes the lead. Hey Greg, no fair offering the driver an extra 10% if he wins. Zap, zap, zap, zip. A haa! Now OUR driver has the lead, using a tricky manoeuvre (English spell check here, folks) in which he’s straightened a rather ragged line of Buddhist monks heading for home while bringing a screaming ambulance (which Sri Lankans prefer to ignore, especially in heavy traffic like this) to a full stop.

Say, what’s that white thing ahead of me in the dark? In the blinding oncoming light of a few more tuk-tuks, an Indian-made Maruti sedan, two Mitsubishi jeeps, and a Tata truck I discover that the white thing is my hand. My hand? Gads, I’m holding the handrail too tight. I must have squeezed the blood from my hand. I wonder where it goes when you do that?

My body sways right, then recovers. We’ve just curved around a stopped bus (right hand drive, folks; add two points for further disorientation regarding whether you are about to be killed or not). My free hand brushes against my leg. Feels wet. What’s that? I am wearing my headlamp so I can read the currency when we get off at the end of the trip (optimist, Bob? Don’t you mean IF you get off?). I flick on the light. My right pant leg is spattered just below the knee, some kind of red glop, looks like strawberry jam. Let’s see. Of course! It all makes sense. Three hours ago we were finishing a visit to the National Botanical Gardens just outside Kandy. Giant bamboo, a ficus that spread 2500 square meters, splendid palms, orchids. Magnificent. Some bird must have bombed me. A sway to the left. What’s that? We’ve narrowly avoided something enveloped in a cloud of diesel. I look to the left. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth is lit and reflects in the still waters of Kandy’s central lake. The tooth is Sri Lanka’s most precious relic, and no wonder, for it is believed that all of The Buddha’s words passed by that tooth.

We brake hard, then the driver throttles it. I am slammed back into the seat. I look at my pant leg and wonder if the mess will come out. If not, I’ll have to toss the pants. No matter. Sri Lanka is a major clothes manufacturer for many companies abroad. My pants may have been made here. Anyway, I’ll just pull up the pant leg and see if my leg is full of slop. Another jerk to the right, then a return to the left. Look at that! The stuff has dribbled down my leg. It even feels a little crusty. What a mess. I look at my fingers. Red. The stuff smears easily, shines. Hmmm. No notable odor. That’s odd. There is a throttling sound on the tonneau. We turn off the main road, climb steeply up an unlit lane, and disappear into a downpour. In its midst, the following comes to mind and takes this form:

“Say, Anita.”

“Yes, Bob?”

“Question for you.”

“Yes, Bob?”

“Do you think tuk-tuk drivers charge extra for small animals?”

“How small?”

“Oh, really small.”

“How really small, Bob?”

“Oh…I’d say about the size of a leech.”
—- —
Bob Caplan, Ella, Sri Lanka, 29 January 2011.

Kataragama Puja

Kataragama pujaQuite the scene even on an off day. Three times daily pujas. And outside young men dancing widely for hours to a few drums. And apparently without any special fuels such as alcohol. Kataragama is one of the two top pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka, the other being Adam’s Peak. In a big park like setting houses of worship for all religions and sometimes hard to tell if a facility is Buddhist or Hindu.

People are bringing offerings to a Buddhist temple and receiving a tika and other blessings. We’re now in Colombo and we were in Kataragama about a week ago.

First Report From Sri Lanka—Bob Caplan, Guest Blogger

The following is an email our fellow traveler, Bob Caplan, sent on Jan. 21. He has given permission for us to publish it here. We will be able to post more of his stories soon.

Below are some of our first adventures. We have had the fortune of being in areas free of the flood, in jungle, mountains, and high tea plantations. None of our itinerary takes us into areas struck by severe and unusual flooding. At home we usually find time for email. Here, however, our days have been filled with hiking and travel, sometimes starting as early as 4:30 AM to reach a special spot in a national park. Tonight we will arise at 2 AM to climb Adams Peak. If our legs and knees hold out, we’ll summit among pilgrims climbing 5500 stairs and witness sunrise. Now…for some adventure stories.
Bob…and Anita, our trip planner and chief birder, says, “Hi,” too.

Real Rovers Don’t….
If the road becomes any rougher, we might need pitons instead of tires. This British racing green vintage 1964 Land Rover, however, uh, how should I say it…kicks ass. Its four-wheel drive crawls us up a rock strewn track that some on foot might find disconcerting. To the sides is a mountainous jungle landscape of palms, arika (the tree that provides betel nut), and tropical ground cover. Tropical. We are in the Tropics, 6 degrees north of the equator.
I like this Rover. Its rivets and body shine with fresh paint, hardly a scratch, but there’s real mud along the fenders, should anyone doubt the vehicle’s authenticity. Scratches will come soon enough for it’s owner, Mr. Martin, a Sri Lanken who has fought to establish this area as a national biodiversity reserve and who operates Martin’s Simple Lodge. If you don’t have a Rover, a REAL one, don’t think of getting to his truly simple, rough-hewn lodge.
I like the Rover. I like the even clatter of its diesel engine, the barebones interior, long stripped down to a smooth, paint-free base metal. (The glove compartment is a hold in the metal that looks like it was the victim of a hand grenade.)
This is not the Rover that soccer moms and dads use to shuttle their kids to dance and music lessons, sport activities, and the mall between stops at the corporate office and the gourmet take-home deli section of an upscale grocery any more than Abercrombie and Fitch sweatshirts are from the Abercrombie and Fitch that once sold safari gear to explorers who thought that the best place for a cape buffalo was either in the bush or sticking out of an oak-paneled wall of their library. Face it; REAL Land Rovers do not drive to malls any more than REAL hiking boots can be bought at shops with names such as “Urban Outfitters.” Face it, REAL Land Rovers look their best spattered with mud rather than gleaming at the finish line of a car wash. Face it, their bumpers gain enviable patina from sliding into the trunks of mahogany trees, something that cannot be acquired in fender benders on the freeway.
Well, snob, snob, snob, snob, snob, snob. All that aside, I am thankful for this vehicle’s toughness and the skill of its driver, especially with the terrific view out the left, a 2000 foot drop off through the land of green viper snakes. (It’s not that bad, but they know I’m here, and I know they are there, and maybe it is better that we both keep our distance.)
I’ll just close this effusive homage to a seemingly inanimate object by patting its fenders as Anita and I head for our simple room at Martin’s by observing that it is no surprise that REAL Land Rovers do not need video players in the back seat for the kids to watch adventure videos. If it’s adventure you yearn, REAL Land Rovers will give it to you without any DVDs and screens at the interface. Just look out the window. Hold on. Hold on!
Bob, Singharaja Biodiversity Reserve, Sri Lanka, January 2011

For the second day, we have set out on foot from Martins Simple Lodge with our guide and driver, “U.L.” and a tracker. Both are experts in bird identification. Sri Lanka leads the world in the variety of species and, for an island, has more than 30 endemic ones and perhaps 200 others. We are in Sinharaja National Park, a mountainous rain forest to the south, so botanically and biologically unique that UNESCO has designated it a World Biosphere Heritage Site. The isolated mountain range is like an island that permits a larger number of endemic bird and plant species to form than are found in most other places (in the last two days, we’ve identified 40 different species of bird). As an amateur ornithologist visiting here observed to us, “Sri Lanka is like a small Australia,” referring to its geographic isolation. To illustrate, yesterday while walking back from a Buddhist monastery in the forest, we thought we saw a large black snake on the road. It was the diameter of your thumb and about a yard long. Nope. No eyes. A millipede? We rolled it over with a stick. No feet. A giant earthworm. Then there are the mixed flocks, the largest in the world, bird cooperative groups, the top layer serving as sentries against falcons and eagles, the middle two layers identifying food for the group at their respective layers of operation.

[There are a few other visitors at the Lodge, only one other who is American (and, purely by coincidence and unfortunately loud of mouth and lacking of judgment. I’ve tried to encourage him to change from bird watching to close-up snake photography, but he’s too busy talking about himself to listen to my sound advice). ]

For two days we have been searching for one of Sri Lanka’s rarest birds, the Serendip owl. It is small, about as tall as the length of your foot, colored like the leaves and bark, largely keeps quiet during the day, and is not common. No surprise that it was first identified just a few years ago. What are the odds that we will see one? Our guide and tracker have seen the Serendip only a couple of times. The bird guide for the country has only a poor photograph in bad light. The odds are close to zero. We’re going to give it a try, but with little expectation of success.
It’s getting late in the afternoon. Anita and I have been climbing with Greg and Louisa, our friends and fellow travelers. Despite the shade of the rain forest, it is hot and humid. My shirt is soaked. We’re descending through a path fortified with a helpful tangle of earth-barraging roots. We stop by a stream. I’m hot. We’re almost out of water. I fill my canteen. The air’s moisture immediately condenses on the cool walls of the flask. Wow, good, clean, sweet tasting, no additives, no need to take anything out. The original water of the Adams and Eves of the world. The guide takes out a small portable phone and starts playing a call. We sit, silent, listening, myself more just contemplating the peace of the spot, the silence, the trickle of the stream, the do-nothing moments that remind me of the ones I spent as a child daydreaming under a tree. Twenty minutes of quiet, peace, drops of sweat rolling down by chest. Whooo. Our heads turn as one. I’ve seen a whole herd of deer do that to the snap of a branch. Whooo. It’s faint. There are other kinds of owls, others almost as rare. Whooo. The tracker climbs up through vines, over the small fall of a stream across black rocks. Our guide follows, motion for us to stay still.
We wait 5, 10, 15 minutes. The tracker and guide are gone. I flick a leech off my shoe. The socks are working (Anita and Greg will later discover that two of these critters hitched a ride all the way back to Martins. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s just yucky, not dangerous). Silence. The whine of cicadas, they sound like dentist drills. A call of a bird, not an owl. “Mr. Robert. Come. Everyone.” It’s the guide’s voice. We follow their track, unsure where they turned up through the tall trees, the tangle, the slick rocks, the water, looking occasionally at our feet. The guide and tracker see us. They motion for silence. We follow for another five minutes. The slope is steep, the ground covered with leaves. Leeches love leaves as much as they love seeking the heat of their meals. The tracker points. None of us sees anything.
“There, 10 feet, 2 o’clock from the trunk, the branch.”
“I see it! Wow!”
“Where? Wait…yes, fantastic!”
The tracker and the guide are very excited. Cameras start recording. Louisa sets up a tripod and starts video filming. We look at playback screens on our gear. The quality is stunning. The bird does not move. We work our way around 90 degrees. It’s body stays still. The head rotates to face us. Someone pulls out an iPhone, snaps a picture. We can send it to Wayaratne. We want him to verify that this is the same as the animal in his guide. None of us move closer. Perhaps we can, but then what if it associates us with fear? Perhaps no one will ever get close to it again, eye level, eye level! Not twenty feet above you and fifteen yards away. Eye level a body and a half length away. The tracker and guide have never been that close. Only they would have the chance to see one, to recognize that what for us was simply tangles, branches, leaves, trunks, the jigsaw puzzle of the rainforest was more than that…that in that pattern, something exquisitely camouflaged suddenly became signal against noise, figure against ground. Only the tracker’s superb sound localization could have lead him to a spot where its eyes saw him but he did not see it. At some instant, as he stood looking at a collection of thousands of small dark patterns and objects, tens of thousands, something popped out, a single object that did not conform to what is leaf, what is tree, what is a jungle. Looking for it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Here was the needle, a Serendip Owl.
Bob, Singaraya National Reserve, Sri Lanka, January 2011, with Anita Caplan, Greg Scarich, and Louisa Bonnie…and two incredible naturalist/birders, U.L. and Soma. Logistics provided through Jetwings Tours, planning, Anita Caplan.