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.

Best,
Bob/Dad

Tuk-tuk
“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.
Best,
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

Serendip
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.”
“Where?”
“There.”
“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.

Ella, Sri Lanka

The day before yesterday we arrived by train in Ella which is at about 3000 ft. elevation. Considered hill country which where the English escaped the heat of the low lands. At this time of year the hill country is supposed to be cool and dry. However like every where else in the world, the weather isn’t following its script., and the two days we were there it rained hard in the late afternoon, and lightly at other times. Temperatures in the 70s and a bit cool at night. Tea plantations are a feature of much of the hill country. They make for interesting planting patterns and also a way of life. Pickers, mostly women, working rapidly to pick their 20kg per day. (We had met a family a few days earlier in botanical garden, and the mother was a tea picker and her handshake would put most men to shame.)

We went for a short hike up to Little Adam’s Peak. If the weather had been better we could have seen down to the ocean. As it was we had views of nearby mountains and Ella. On our way back down the mountain through the tea plantations we met a women posing for photos while picking tea. One has to earn money where you can. We stayed long enough with Louisa taking video that a couple of kids wandered up from a cluster of tea plantation housing. A 14-year old boy and his 18-year old sister. They invited us to their home and offered us tea. Eventually most of their family gathered—mother, father. middle sister. The plantation supplied housing looked to be two rooms of maybe 300 sq. ft. The kids English was quite good. We (Anita and Greg) showed photos from home and other adventures from their iPhones. The parents couldn’t follow well because of their lack of English, but the kids enjoyed it. Was odd to show photos of may Nepal trek because much of the culture is similar—tea pickers are Hindu (Tamil) as is the low lands of Nepal. And both have a heavy dose of Buddhism. But Sri Lanka is much better off than Nepal—GDP is two to three times higher. And they loved Anita’s photo of herself in a Sari. The 18-year old girl was in her final year of school and wanted to continue her education in social work or teaching, but it sounded as if her family couldn’t afford it. We didn’t ask what was likely to happen, but doubtful not anything using her obvious intelligence. As always we were charmed and pleased by the amazing hospitality of third world countries. Unfortunately all we had to offer in return were a few token pieces of fruit.

We enjoyed our two nights at the Hill Top Hotel—some of the best food we’ve had in Sri Lanka and a great owner/manager. One of the things we particularly enjoy is roti for breakfast, because the alternative is plain white bread. Here roti is a thick pancake made from unloved flour and coconut milk. We ate them like toast, but they eat it with curry. (Usual breakfast in our budget hotels is omelet, the aforementioned white bread, margarine and lousy jelly, and equally lousy tea or coffee.)

The next day (now yesterday), we made the 100km drive down to the southern coast, just outside Yala National Park. Not hot and humid, but not excessively so. Partly cloudy, but no rain so far. After many days in budget hotels we’re staying for two nights in a luxury resort. Pool (but with the occasional boar wandering through), but large buffets, house boys, etc. Our reason to be here is to take a safari in the national park. Not quite East Africa, but a wide variety of wild life none the less. Elephants, boar, deer, monitor lizards, crocodiles. water buffalo, mongoose, all kinds of birds, and the star, leopards. We got up at 5 a.m. to start and we we saw all but a leopard. Back for late breakfast, a quick swim, lunch, and off again at 2:30 for the late afternoon safari.

Greg and Louisa on yesterday’s late afternoon walk along the shore.

Other than Bob and Anita, we didn’t see any other resort guests on the beach. Worth it to see rocks along the shore, fishing village (only occupied part of the year and it had been wiped out by the tsanami about six years ago. Our resort suffered little damage, but one in the park a few km away was wiped out and 45 people died.)

Cultural Triangle and Dambulla Caves

We now in the middle northern area of Sri Lanka in an area named the Cultural Triangle because many ancient capitals of Sri Lankan empires are located. And also many ancient monasteries and other religious sites.

Louisa is writing about Sigiriya which will be posted soon. (Soon is relative as we currently don’t have an internet connection and are writing on our iPhones). Now a week later and I see that this hasn’t been posted, so here goes.

Sri Lanka has a mixed religious and ethnic heritage. There are still a few pre historic tribal people called the Veddahs who may date from the time when there was a land bridge to India. Two groups of Hindu Tamils from South India—the first came to northern Sri Lanka in over two thousand years ago and modern Tamils brought over by the Enlish to work the tea plantations. The predominate Buddhist Sinhalese who came from Northern India in the sixth century BC. And some Muslims traders who came about 1000 years ago. Many of the temples mix Buddhist and Hindu icons and practices. And both schools of Buddhism are followed, although Theravada is more widely followed than Mahayana. Almost forgot the European invaders—first the Portuguese, then the Dutch followed by the English which brought Christianity. Sri Lankans with European blood are called Burghers and they held power from Independence in 1948 until the late fifties when the Sinhalese took over which lead to discrimination against the Tamils. Which resulted in the Tamil Tigers revolutionary group which caused major havoc until a couple of years ago.

We haven’t been affected by the flooding, which is in the predominately Tamil areas. A major challenge for aid givers and the leaders of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a third world country but shows signs of improvement. Some very good roads, many minor roads paved, lots of buses and tuk-tuk for public transportation. Many private motos, but not many private cars. Electricity most everywhere as far as we can tell. Some thatched roofs on out building, but otherwise tile or corrugated metal or some kind of composite.

OK enough social studies. After spending most of the day at Sigiriya we went to the Royal Rock Temple Caves in Dambulla. Five caves about six hundred feet above the generally flat plains. The caves have had significance for Buddhists for 2000 years, but most of what is here is generally 200 years old. Two of the caves have large reclining Buddhas and many smaller standing and sitting Buddhas. Most outstanding though is the wall and ceiling murals which are in good condition. The murals include scenes from Buddhas life and geometric patterns as well as dozens of Buddhas.

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

We have been on the go and at last have a decent internet connection here in Nuwara Eliya. We at 6000 ft. elevation high in tea plantation area at the atmospheric St Andrew’s hotel a former club for home sick British tea barons. Some things have not changed since 1900—rooms have old coal fires places, elegant arch doorways, the floors are slightly off kilter, creaky stairways, billards room, terraced garden with wrought iron chairs and tables for sipping afternoon tea. Across the street barefoot sarong clad Tamil ladies with burlap bags on their backs hanging by a tump line over their foreheads pick tea leaves on the hillsides. Their grimy concrete hovels, gaily painted fushia, lime green and lavender, surround stately Queen Anne style architectural ghosts of the colonial past.
We went to a Hindu temple near by for the evening puja or blessing. This area is primarily Hindu because of all the Tamil tea pickers. The temple is supposed to be the legendary site where Rama’s wife Sita was held captive by the demon Ravana who kidnapped her from India. The heroic monkey god Hanuman flew to Sriilanka and rescued her. The puja was a lively affair with boys playing drums, cymbals and singing while a handsome young Brahman priest performed the rituals and prayers before colorful statues flanking the small room which held Hanuman swathed in ritual fabrics. Each devotee was blessed with a tikka mark before a flaming vessel and the priest placed Hanuman’s hat on their head briefly. Then the little band led a procession around the temple dancing and clapping with joyous exuberance. After we went on to a Buddhist temple for their puja which was rather a dull affair by comparison but interesting nonetheless.
We were feeling hungry after all this and were dropped off by UL, our Sri Lankan guide, in search of the best hopper and roti maker in town. Hoppers are a Sri Lankan crepe batter that is ladled into a five inch diameter “wok” and cooked on a stove. When it is golden around the edges the hopper chef pops it out and starts making a stack. You can eat these with a little chili salsa or have an egg hopper with a egg cooked on top of it. The roti maker put on a great show for my video camera showboating with all his best moves, whirling the dough around, spinning it, flipping and stretching it in time to Bhangra music blaring from a radio in this little hole in the wall eatery.
Tomorrow we are off to Dalhousie in preparation for our 7 km climb with Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims for sunrise on top of Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada.

Namaste! Aayu-bowan!

Louisa

Serendip

Saturday. After spending yesterday bird watching which means a bit of walking and lots of standing and looking, we opted to try for more of a hike today. We went peak bagging! Took a short hike to a peak. Was nice to get above the canopy and see the countryside.
It seems like the jungle is held together with roots. Hanging roots and so many tree roots that they make nice steps. The peak was 760m (2500 ft.). Mt. Mulawella.

On the way down our guides stopped us for a while and with an MP3 player, played bird songs. After about half an hour they found a small rare owl, named serendip (photo below).

Our local forest guide charged about $10 per day. Not much by our standards. From the little we’ve seen Sri Lanka doesn’t look that poor, but with wages like that it is. Seems to be a good bus system. Many busses even in the country side.

Women wear both western clothes (jeans and blouses), shirts and blouses, and dresses. Not the same styles as California, but maybe would not look out of place in the Applachians. Eomen also wear saris. Men wear western clothes and many wear sarongs, more so in the country side. The mens sarongs are colorful—woven large plaids, solid colors with wide borders. The lengths vary from knee to floor. Short more for work and long for dress. Good because they’re cool.

Found out that the low temperatures we had a couple of days ago were the lowest for the day in 61 years, about 20*F lower than normal. Getting warmer now.

Driving through the countryside, it’s surprising how many people there are, frequent villages, tuk-tuk running back and forth, seemingly buses every few minutes. And in one area dense with tea plantations, many private cars—mostly compacts.

I’ll have to sort out the two Buddhist groups. Anyway, the Sri Lanka form is the same as Thailand—no prayer wheels and not many flags.

The long running war with the Tamil Tigers was ended a couple of years ago. But the taxes have gone up since the war. The taxes increase the prices by as much as three fold according to our guide, but by observation not true for everything. Some of it goes to infrastructure and supporting the environment, but also apparently to lining the politicians pockets.

Still writing this a couple of days later. We’ve seen several electrification projects. One gets the impression that most of the country is electrified. Our lodge at Sinharaja had a water small turbine generator, but power lines were being put up nearby. Cell phone coverage wide spread as elsewhere in the emerging world.

Last two nights stayed in a hotel used in the Bridge Over the River Kwai. And yesterday visited the site of the bridge used in the movie. The bridge is gone (it was really blown up for the movie), but the abutments are still there. And it really is jungle. Thick vegetation. Hot and humid even in winter. Misty mornings. Not much rain here now. Although we’ve heard about the major flooding in the northern part of the country—forty days of rain. We don’t think it will affect our planned trip, although we still have to recheck our northern most destination.

Birds and Forest Reseves

Off the grid today and tomorrow for sure. Alreeady Friday afternoon and we left Monday morning. We apparently arrived in Colombo Wednesday mornining, Jan. 12. For the first week we’re traveling with Jewings Tour which is well regarded for their birding tours. Louisa and I aren’t particularly birders but we enjour tromping around in the woods and seeing birds. Anita who arranged the trip is a budding birder and this is her first birding centric tour.

We spend the first night at Villa Talangama on a lake of the same name on the edge of Colombo. Beautiful house built as a private house, but now the original owners are B&Bing. Wonderful hoults. Both are retired, he was a construction project engineer and she a psychiatrist, both in England. Built their dream house on the lake. Excellent food. The Caplans, our driver-guide, UL and us did a little birding on arrival. The lake is more like a swamp with water buffalo and therefore cattle egrets, purple heron, and many other birds as well as mongoose and water mionitor (lizards). The weather started unseasonably cool, dropping to below 70°F at night.

Thursday we got going at 7 to go to the Bodinaagala Forest Preserve which surrounds a Buddhist monastery. About 12 monks reside here. The monks take care of the grounds and meditate. They do have electricity and talk (many monks takes vows of silence). They do receive food and alms from their devotees. Instead of walking around a town or village, they come to building at the edge of the monaatery were people bring them a 10 a.m. morning meal. On the day we were their a family consisting of maybe three women, a couple of children, and a man had come to prepare a meal for the monks. They used a provided kitchen to prepare the meal. At 10 a.m. about 7 seven monks came down to the building with their begins bowls. They sat down in a line and received their food. All but one of the monks then left after some prayers (or whatever they are). The remaing monk conducted a service for the food providers and any visitors. Before it was over we went out to vied watch and tour the monastery which had building spread over tens of acres. We met one monk who we found out had been their for 18 years, and then talked to another monk (with our guide translating). The second monk was younger. He goes home once a year to visit his family. After some conversation he offered to perform a blessing and tied blessed strings on our wrists. We then returned back by the kitchen building and were offered lunch by the devotees. They had probably eaten after the monks left and were kind enough to give us lunch. And it was very good. Teh usual dahl and rice, but several good vegetable dishes and chicken. Their generosity and friendlyness proved what we’d heard about the Sri Lankans beign friendly and genreous. We then drove a couple of hours to the Sinharaja Rainforest, going by four wheel drive for the last few kilometers to Martins Lodge on the edge of the forest. Martin, a sixty of seventy something owner/host was one of the key players in improving the protection of the area which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was started in the 1870s, but has also been logged and used for other purposes, but logging has been stopped. Today we went our out on a birding walk with UT and another required guide. Between the two of them we saw at least 20 bird species as well as many flowers including orchids.

After our deluxe first night we now in more pedestrian digs. But we do have power and hot showers, and we’re in a beautiful rain forest.