Back to Colombo

A bit of a lie in this morning, as our train wasn’t until 11:05. Breakfast was superb again, and we made use of the best shower in South Asia before finishing out packing and walking to the station.

However. We got there to find that the times we’d been given we spurious to say the least. The next express train wouldn’t be until 11:55 and would likely be late arriving anyway. This would make us about an hour late getting to Colombo.

Option 2 – haggling with a tuk-tuk driver to take us all the way up the coast road. We bargained him down to 1500 Rupees (later, Mala was quite impressed with the low price) and off we set. Now, one advantage of these three-wheeled gizmos is the natural air conditioning – there are no side windows so there’s a great breeze. The downside to this is that you also get all the fumes, diesel and dust flowing into your lungs. By the time we got to Colombo I had a thin black sheen to my skin that I had to wipe off.

Still, we got there in good time. We swapped to a local tuk-tuk for the shorter journey to Indy’s parents’ and arrived pretty much as we’d said we would – an hour earlier than we would have done by train.

We had time for a quick lunch before we were herded back out of the door and into the city again to visit one of the Buddhist temples. Today happened to be a special day on the calendar, as a young monk would be paraded in the evening and – if I have my facts right – ordained.

I’ve heard of similar ceremonies in Thailand, and we were pretty lucky to catch this one. The temple was heaving with locals and we squished through with the crowd to see the 1000+ year-old interior. Despite the usual gold and decor, this was one of the less austentatious temples I’ve seen. The ones in Thailand always seem to be over the top, in my opinion.

Afterwards, we walked down to see some friends of Mala and Gilbert – in fact people they’d been bridesmaid and best man for many years previous. Coke and Indian sweets were provided (the sweets were like candy floss, except coconutty and provided in a “lump” – weird, but nice) and then a lift given to where we’d left the car – with other family friends.

We grabbed a good position in the street and then we waited. For about an hour or so. The sun set, the moon rose, some impressive bats started to fly about and then the parade began.

This year’s parade was a cut-down version of the usual one due to worries about the Tamil attacks of recent months. Rather than the 100+ elephants, only half a dozen or so were being used and the parade shortened in length.

Regardless, it took an hour for the whole thing to pass us and it had apparently set off four hours earlier from its starting place. There was a huge variety of things in it – girls dressed as men, girls in bright peacock outfits, boys with drums, people on stilts, a huge wicker person, beautifully “clothed” elephants, fire jugglers… and of course the new monk. A boy of around eight years of age who’d had to memorise an enormous passage of the holy books which he would recite that evening.

I took a lot of snaps, and they’ll be on Fotopic as and when I can get the laptop online again. Don’t hold your collective breaths…

Dinner was provided by our kind hosts, including that old Sri Lankan favourite strawberry jelly! Then back to Mala and Gilbert’s for a moderately early night. Tomorrow we drive to the elephant orphanage and then to Kandy. A long day, and an early rise.

Underwater again

We were up at 7:30 to make sure we reached the dive centre in time, and enjoyed a rather delicious breakfast. Tea, toast, scrambled eggs and fresh fruit. A good start to the morning, and all for 300RP… or so we thought. It turns out the German Lanka had booked us in under a B&;amp;B scheme so the food was already paid for. Bonus!

The ferry picked us up at 8:00 and dropped us at the other side of the river where we met the rest of the small dive group. In all, there were three Russians, two Ukrainians, Hans and myself. I have now met a total of three Russian women and all three are gorgeous. I feel the red tape surrounding the visa application may have to be tackled soon.

It was only a 20-minute boat ride to the dive site, and this boat was much smaller than the ones I’d been on in Australia. The ride was OK, though the sea was a little choppy. Once we got there, however, my stomach rebelled… At least I hadn’t paid for the breakfast after all. The fish got more benefit from it than I did. Next time I take the TravaCalm pills.

The anchor rope snapped, so we had to move off to another dive site as well. What little food I had left was upchucked when we got to that area. I couldn’t wait to get into the water.

Much as I was tempted, I didn’t take my new camera down with me. Instead I just prepped the underwater housing and dived with that empty to test it. Better to find out I have a leaky housing without losing a camera into the bargain.

The dive was enjoyable. Nice, warm water and great visibility. There was little or no reef – mainly rock. This made things vastly different in appearance to what I’d seen off Cairns. There were plenty of fish to see, as well as a lot of starfish. Our guide even managed to spot a lionfish hiding under a rock.

Apparently the area was even better before the tsunami, but given the abundant life under there already I’m sure it’ll be back to near-as-new within another couple of years. I’m not sure how long the dive lasted, but I logged it as 30 minutes in my book – I’m sure it was longer. As it stands, I spent 8 1/2 hours of 2006 underwater!

Looking at the coastline and chatting to the Russkies, it seems that the resorts on the other side of the river from us are the ones with people in them. Our hotel emptied of its one other occupant on the night we arrived. Ah, well.

Once safely back on dry land, we sat and read then Hans had another of his frequent naps. One major thing that Sri Lanka has going for it is that it gets proper Cadbury’s chocolate, not the rubbish they dish out in Oz and NZ. How this fits with the Oz stuff apparently tasting bad because of the ingredients being used to top it melting is beyond me – Sri Lanka is generally hotter for longer than most of Australia!

After a few more chapters of Airport, I went online at the Anushka River Inn (another 450 Rupees – oops) and tried to ring certain parents who were on the phone when I called.

We stayed there for dinner again, but there was no steak on the menu! A crying shame, but the chicken-in-a-basket wasn’t half bad as a substitute. While we were waiting for our order, I got to see part of an Animal Planet documentary on the Tiger Temple I worked at back in April. It was fairly recent, as the Abbot was in a wheelchair following his heart attack and they showed two brand new tiger cubs! It’s good to see that work is progressing nicely on the sanctuary, too.

A quick stop at the guest house to drop our books off and then we went for a walk to try and find a party. Our first stop, though, was a hairdressers for Hans to get a trim. It seems my hair clippers just aren’t good enough. Pah. I’d not have minded, but there was nothing to read but German editions of women’s magazines while I waited!

Eventually, we found a path which led through the private resorts on to the beach and walked on the sand. And walked some more. And some more. Until we ran out of beach. The resorts all had private parties, and in all honesty they all looked crap. Huge bunches of middle-aged people who’d likely wait up till midnight, shake hands and go to bed.

We decided to cut our losses and got a tuk-tuk back. When trying to describe where we were going, Hans used the police station as a reference point. The locals got a little agitated, wondering what was wrong that we needed the police so urgently until we pointed out that our guest house was near there and not to worry! I think they were actually concerned about us, which is nice enough.

There was a small party going on at the German Lanka when we got back – about a dozen Germans, all friends of the owners, just having a dinner party. We didn’t bother joining in and I spent the midnight hour in a blissful state of earplug-aided sleep. Until Hans started snoring at 3am. Grr. In fairness, he’s not as bad as someone I went on holiday with once. His snoring was like someone reducing a factory full of combine harvesters to fine metal chaff using nothing but a battery of food mixers.

To Aluthgama

We had a good sleep at Mala and Gilbert’s before being stuffed with far too much food. They also have a dog who’s about as timid as timid can be. About a year old, and he won’t come near us unless we have food. Instead he’s content to poke his head into the bedorom and run away again as soon as we move towards him.

Nigel drove us to the train station and we paid a whopping 120 Rupees for each ticket (around 60p). Not bad for a 90-minute journey although the train was packed so we had to stand.

A Polish couple were squished into the same carriage as us and we had a natter with them. They were heading further down the line for their week’s break before they headed back to Mumbai where they work for Jet Airlines!

As the train went down the line, people walked up and down the carriages selling various things from magazines to fruit. A lot of them were singing as they walked: “Shawaddywaddywaddy Waddy waddy!” So I guess that popular funk band of the 70s has a name rooted in Sinhalese. Something to look into. As an aside, the Sinhalese writing is apparently curved rather than straight lines as the leaves used to write on when the language was developed were brittle and would crumble when angles were drawn on them. So now you know.

We were collared by a tuk-tuk driver as soon as we left the station and he charged us 50Rp to get to the guest house we’d picked out – the Sunil Lanka. As it turns out, we could have walked it in a little over five minutes but what the heck. And it was full. The owners have a second place just down the road – the German Lanka – and it was available so we walked down and checked in.

Very pleasant it was, too. Run by two German ladies and a handful of Sri Lankan staff, the hotel was clean, tidy and in a lovely location. Our back door opened onto a dining area which ran right down to the riverside. The sun set directly in front of our room. Smashing stuff. And only 2500Rp per night – about £12.50.

As an added bonus, they had two playful dogs. One older, curly haired thing and a young Jack Russel-alike puppy. Both were great fun to play with.

Boats and jetskis whizzed up and down the river, the former tugging waterskiiers, screaming kids in inflatable tyres and blow-up “bananas” at silly speeds. We occasionally heard a sea-plane taking off and landing at a wharf almost opposite. Pretty noisy!

An Austrian guy in the room next to us was checking out, but said he’d had a great time for the two weeks he’d been in Aluthgama and recommended a few places to go. We took him up on one of them and caught a tuk-tuk to the Kesgoda Turtle Hatchery on the other side of Bentota. There are many of these hatcheries, most washed away in the tsunami two years ago, but they’ve all been restored and begun their work all over again.

This one is rated as being the best, and possibly the first. Their work essentially involves collecting turtle eggs (in cases buying them from “poachers” at higher than the black market rate), burying them in protected hatcheries and then nursing the resultant offspring for two days (the time it takes for their “belly buttons” to grow over and make them bird-proof) after they pop out before releasing them into the sea. The upshot of this work is that 90% of the eggs result in healthy turtles which reach the sea rather than the 10% that nature usually allows. OK, so this is messing with nature – but we screwed it over in the opposite direction for long enough when we were stealing the eggs for turtle soup. And then there are the turtles killed for their meat and shells. And those maimed in fishing nets.

There are five species of turtle found in the waters around Sri Lanka – leatherback, hawksbill, green, olive ridley and loggerhead. The centre doesn’t pick and choose, dealing in all the species. The only one the didn’t have an example of when we visited were the loggerheads.

The hatchery gets no government aid – it didn’t even get any when it needed rebuilding – so they rely heavily on the tourist Rupee to fund themselves. The 45-minute tour around the hatchery is only 200Rp and you get to see and hold 1-day and 2-day old hatchlings and some larger and older creatures. As well as the eggs, the hatchery takes in injured and sick turtles. Some of these are treated, some used to test new treatments for future generations, some for education and some would simply die if released back into the wild so are kept in captivity essentially as pets.

I picked up a t-shirt from the shop for my little cousin as the merchandise seemed pretty good value. The kid’s shirt was only 400Rp, while adults’ were 600Rp. Good quality, too.

Back in Aluthgama, we picked up some snacks from Food Town and got a boat to the other side of the river to the dive shop. Jetskiing was too expensive for me (18 Euro for 15 mins is twice what I paid in Thailand for 30 mins!) so we opted just to do a dive the next morning (around £22 including kit hire).

We chilled for a while – when I realised I’d left the book I was reading in Colombo. Not to worry, as I always carry spares. We took a quick walk to the train station where we got times for our return to Colombo on the 1st.

On the way I noticed that the kids nearby had done something utterly inexplicable. They were playing on a half-decent football pitch – goals and everything – but instead of kicking a ball around they’d scraped all the grass off a section in the middle and were instead hurling a small ball at each other and hitting it with a stick! Weird bloody country.

There is one cybercafe on the main street that we could find, but after queuing twice we gave up. The Anushka River Inn down the road from our hotel had internet so we popped in there. 300Rp an hour is pretty expensive – especially for dialup – but it was the only option. We ended up having dinner there as well, and it was superb. Up there with some of the best steaks I’ve ever had.

Then it was a matter of scrawling out some postcards, reading a bit and then falling asleep. Lazy days.

Sri Lanka… at last

Well, all our trips and flights are now booked up until early February. Everything is now paid for with the exception of the Bhutan trip and that’s going through as I type this.

After a day spent sorting all this out, we returned to the hotel, gathered our bags and taxi’d to the airport. Our thanks to the staff of the Hotel Pearl who were very helpful during our short stay in Mumbai.

The airport was chaos. As seems typical in Asia, the airport queues began outside as passports and ticket bookings were checked. Once inside we were faced with three queues for the first x-ray machines. Soon we realised that we had three queues for two x-ray machines as one of them was reserved for rich British Airways passengers.

Of course, we were in one of the two queues that became a single one at the end. Then, as we neared the machine – finally – it broke down. So now we had three queues going into one machine. Argh,

Eventually, we pushed our hold baggage through the machine and they didn’t spot the kilotons of terrorist weaponry I had stuffed inside my Don’t Panic towel. A small sticker was put on the zipper of my rucksack (which promptly fell off – I had to put it on myself to seal the luggage properly) and we stood in the Sri Lankan Air queue to et our boarding passes.

Another member of staff threw a fit as our bags didn’t have security strapping wrapped round them and was insisting we go back through the x-ray section. No …ing way. We pointed to the stickers and remained stubborn. After checking with a security guard he shrugged and walked off.

Armed with our passes, we went through immigration and I got my passport stamped with yet another “exit” smudge. We then had to go round the back of the baggage drop and identify our bags before they were finally shunted off for loading onto the plane.

And that wasn’t the end of it. Our carry-on baggage was gone through by hand as we boarded the plane. Blimey. I’m not one to complain about security – and I’m sure there must have been a reason for the increase – but this is by far the most I have ever seen before a flight. Still, the staff were friendly and almost apologetic. Job well done.

Neither of us managed any sleep on the plane. “Dinner” was served at around 4:30am which really messed with our body clocks. Decent food but just entirely the wrong time of day to be eating it, unless we’d been out on the beer. Which we hadn’t.

On schedule, we landed in Sri Lanka at around 6am, filed through immigration, got another new smudge each and waited for Indy’s parents to appear. Mala and Gilbert surfaced just before 7:00 having made a stupidly early start to meet us, and drove us to their home via the supermarket. Hey, who knew there were so many types of rice? There’s more to see in new countries than just the people and buildings! Shops are always worth a gawp.

When we arrived at their rather nice pad, I was somewhat rude and collapsed. In fairness, I’d not slept in almost 24 hours apart from a brief snooze in the car.

At around 3pm I awoke to see that Hans had also zonked out in the other bed and we shook off the cobwebs and re-introduced ourselves to our kind hosts. They in turn introduced us to Nigel, a friend of theirs who drives a tuk-tuk and who would be happy to take us pretty much anywhere while we’re in immediate the area.

We’ve settled on some plans for the next few days, so Nigel helped us action them – checking out train times, making some phone calls, trawling the internet for places to stay and taking us to *cough* KFC. Hey, my record still stands at having had at least one in every country I’ve visited on the trip!

Our rough plans, then, are as follows:

Tomorrow we set off for the coast where we’re dive, swim, muck about and see in the new year. On the 1st, we’ll head back up to Colombo where we’ll meet Mala and Gilbert (and possibly some other people Hans knows) for the new year elephant parade. On the 2nd, our hosts will drive us to the highlands via an elephant orphanage (Mala has adopted one of the infants) and we’ll stay there one night, before moving on further inland for another day and once again returning to Colombo. On our last full day or day-and-a-half (dependent on when we return), Nigel will take us around the sights – temples, the zoo, museum and so on.

And then the airport and a mid-evening flight to Trevandrum.

It wasn’t until we got here that we realised that seven days probably wasn’t actually enough. But with halk of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal to fit in before the end of February we really are on a tight schedule!

We had a rather delicious home-cooked supper before I tried to fix Mala’s broadband (I think the problem’s at the company’s end) and realising that the grit I had in my eyes was imaginary. I was just so flipping tired.