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Friday, January 20, 2006
FAST FORWARD 3 DECADES AND INSTEAD OF CEYLON, IT'S SRI LANKA
I know for sure that in my mind and in my tales, I had painted a picture of Ceylon as an earthly paradise. I certainly remembered it that way from the month I spent there in 1970. So for some of my friends, it also became a place of their dreams, especially for my adventurous friends, in this case, good old Roland and a new character (new to this blog, anyway), Steve, both of whom decided to join me for a trip there in 1997.
Actually, Roland and I flew there and Steve met up with us-- almost randomly, in Kandy, after a couple weeks. First off, Sri Lanka is about as far away as you can go and still be on earth. I remember the plane trip there in terms of days instead of hours. We flew on Cathay Pacific, one of my over-all favorite airlines-- like just below B.A.-- but no matter how good the airline, even in first class, a plane trip this long is a nightmare.
When we got to Colombo I was a physical mess from the flight. Scorning the corporate modernity of the Intercontinental, I opted for the (faded) grandeur and glory of the dowager of Colombo hotels, the Galle Face, which was built during the Civil War-- the American Civil War! I remembered back to 1970 when I used to park my van nearby and sneak in to use its luxurious facilities, and dream that someday I might be able to stay in such an august and venerable establishment. I usually tend to opt for that kind of hotel over a newer flashier one. (Like everyone I know who goes to Milan prefers the incredible dynamite newish Four Seasons Milan Hotel to the traditionally best hotel in town, the Principe di Savoia-- except me; I almost always like the traditions and Old World charms of this kind of establishment.) Unfortunately, Colombo didn't quite fit into that box.
Now, I notice on their website that the Galle Face underwent a much-needed facelift in 2005. When we arrived late one night in 1999, bedraggled and exhausted from the planes, we dragged ourselves up to the room and barely noticed the antiquity (not antiques, oldness). It wasn't just a little (understandable) mustiness either. Everything was too small, like built for little people in the 1800s. There was a sink in the room and when I woke up the next morning I had to bend down so low to brush my teeth that I totally pulled my back out! Since basically no improvements have been made to the country's infrastructure (read: roads) since (their) civil war started, I knew bumping along pot-holed roads with a screwed up back would be no fun.
Fortunately, the hotel directed me to "the blind masseur," who was reputed to have magical abilities. I figured he must be good because he was the masseur who was used by the mother/daughter team who were the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka at the time: Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. I also figured he must go to them once I was in his establishment which had the distinct vibe of a house of ill-repute. He gave me a great massage and I later found out-- from Roland, of course, who was "waiting"-- that it was indeed a house of ill repute!
To be honest, Sri Lanka's many much-ballyhooed charms aren't in Colombo and we were soon bouncing along the roads, which were noticeably worse than they were in 1970; wars'll do that to a country. We headed south in a rental car. And south from Colombo means one thing: beautiful tropical beaches without compare. I think the first one we came to that I recalled from my 1970 trip was Hikkaduwa. It was nicer in my youthful memories but it was still ok-- just a gorgeous beach, maybe a little too touristy for my tastes. We stayed in a charmless motel-type hotel right on the beach so that was cool. All the charm was the proximity to the ocean, the palm trees, the blue, blue skies... We met a monk who was very friendly and showed us his hut.
The only really unpleasant thing about Hikkaduwa that I recall was when we hired a boat to show us the coral reefs. The guy was a real doofus who seemed to actually take delight in smashing off pieces of coral. Roland and I both freaked out and told him to take us back to the beach. But the freak beached the boat on a huge coral reef. I mean it had taken thousands of years for this to grow and he was smashing it to bits in minutes. He told me to get out of the boat and give it a push. The coral is razor sharp and my feet immediately started bleeding. Right then the coral reef protection police saw him and started screaming into a megaphone. He actually took off and left me bleeding on the coral reef. Roland was still in the boat. I had my snorkel mask on. I painfully made it to the edge of the coral and jumped in the water and decided to swim back to shore through the labyrinth of the most gorgeous living coral environment I had ever experienced. It blew my mind. Unfortunately, as I navigated through the schools of incredibly beautiful fish and the colorful coral corridors, every now and then I'd see a real big fish, big enough to be a shark. And then I would remember about my bleeding tootsies and how bleeding tootsies attract sharks. I'm more afraid of sharks and crocodiles than anything else in the world. I managed to hold down the panic and eventually get back to the beach. I filed a formal police complaint against the boat operator.
After a couple of very relaxed days we headed further down the coast. We stopped for an hour in the historic old colonial town of Galle; nice. Then we went to a relatively secluded beach town, more up my alley: Tangalla. I think we were pretty much the only tourists in town. It's a real paradise, very tropical and peaceful with an undisturbed beach. We stayed in some weird bizarro hotel shaped like a boat. We went swimming in a secluded bay-- just us and some Lankan kids in a big truck tire-- and found a big cow bone. I seem to recall that we didn't eat in restaurants per se but in people's homes who prepare fresh food for passersby. The food was the best. I would have been happy staying there for the whole time but after a few days we headed further down the coast to Hambantota.
It's not as lush and green as you head east along to coast, although I remember passing a swamp filled with the biggest array of birds I'd ever seen just before we got to Hambantota. Hambantota is a little misty in the ole mind except for a few very vivid memories. I think the hotel we stayed in-- a dump-- was called the Suisse Hotel. An entire wing of it seemed to have been abandoned to a huge colony of bats which would come flying through the hallways-- much to the delight of everyone (all locals)-- around dusk everyday. There were a couple of Germans, a couple of Frenchmen and me and Roland staying there. They didn't need the other wing. The hotel was right near the huge expansive beach which was so pure and beautiful and-- as we soon found out-- thoroughly treacherous. We had heard the best diving in Sri Lanka was just east of Hambantota. The "just" was something we should have paid more attention to. You're going to think I'm exaggerating when I tell you that the undertow was so powerful that before I was in the ocean barely above my ankles I was being swept out to sea. I never experienced such an awesome force of nature before (other than once when I was in an empty field in Afghanistan and there was an earthquake).
Anyway, that pretty much put an end to our swimming adventures on the south coast of Sri Lanka. We decided to spend the day at the Bundala National Park instead. We hired two guys and a jeep for our own little safari and we were really happy with how pristine the scrubby jungle was-- tons of birds and monkeys and little deer. We were lovin' it. Then one guide told us to come with him down a path on foot while the driver waited in the jeep. He brought us to what looked like the original Garden of Eden, a lake that appeared to have never been in contact with humanity. The birds were singin', the monkeys were chattering; there were elephants on the other end of the lake spraying water on eachother. Can you imagine how beautiful it looked and sounded? And then a tiny spotted deer approached the lake. He was as big as a large dog and maybe 5 or 6 feet from me, a little tentative at first, watching us but when he saw we made no aggressive moves towards him he stuck his face in the lake for a drink. What happened next took one second-- considerably quicker than my description. The whole forest exploded in sound like a nuclear bomb blast. The monkeys went ape-shit; the birds were yellin' their heads off and flying around like madmen and the imperturbably happy-go-lucky elephants started trumpeting excitedly. Roland and I lost our breath. A gigantic crocodile came flying out of the lake and in one movement grabbed the deer, sank back into the lake, rolled over once and disappeared.
The guide noticed our discomfiture and started kicking the water to attract more crocodiles. We scurried up the bank and blindly started running out of the jungle, forgetting that Sri Lanka is the snake bite capital of the world. When we were al back safely in the (open) jeep the guide told the driver to drive along the non-jungle side of the lake and scare the sunning crocs by getting real close to their tails. I wasn't happy about the jaunty angle the jeep was at and was completely terrified. I was delighted to get back to our own car and head up into the highlands. As we headed away from Hambantota we passed a snake bigger than me slithering down the road. Half a kilometer on we saw two little barefoot girls in school uniforms walking down the road in his direction. I'll get into part 2 of my Sri Lanka adventure in a day or two.