Sunday, November 6, 2016

Sri Lanka - Part 2

This is part two of our trip to Sri Lanka. For part one, go here.

We stayed in Kandy only one night so the next day, it was up somewhat early to continue our journey towards the south of Sri Lanka where we'd do a safari and go to some beaches. Our goal for the day was to end up in the small town of Nuwara Eliya where we'd catch a train the day after. On the way, we had some stops planned including a couple of hours at the Royal Botanical Gardens.

I really love plants and flowers and, while living in San Diego, I grew a lot including many different orchids. Between the local San Diego Botanic Gardens and frequent visits to Hawaii, I got to see a huge variety of plants. So it's fairly unusual for me to come across a plant that's so unique that I've never seen anything like it. The so-called Cannonball tree is something completely new for me. The effect of the irregularly placed balls reminded me of if a giant toddler had decorated a dead Christmas tree.

The 'cannonballs' were about six or eight inches across and the tree's flowers, which I've pasted in to corner of the photo above, were especially lovely. The park had a ton of other things to see including a nice orchid building. But, probably the biggest surprise (other than cannonballs) were the thousands of large bats hanging out in the tops of the trees. Crazy!

After the gardens, we continued our drive up, up, and up into the Sri Lankan central hill country (mountain country?) stopping on the way to check out million-dollar views and  the occasional waterfall:

At one of our stops I thought Diana was going to buy another King coconut but, no, she spied a guy selling corn on the cob. Like rain in London or fog in San Francisco, there's one thing you can always count on and that's Diana's love of corn on the cob! (Think I'm kidding? Here she is around the world eating it in Germany, in Colombia, in Switzerland, in Amsterdam, and even in Mexico.)

By the way, you can't see it in these photos but this particular waterfall was silly with monkeys. They're everywhere and they aren't afraid of people. Anyway, so while Diana was checking out local delicacies, Mr. Schmidt climbed over to one of the falls where, next thing we knew, he was hanging out with some locals who gave him a shot from a bottle they were sharing. I was very impressed by Mr. Schmidt's ability to integrate!

Our last destination for the day before arriving into Nuwara Eliya was to visit a tea plantation and factory, which was something I was really looking forward to. But, not too far from our destination, we noticed a bunch of trees had been sliced. Not understanding what was going on, our driver stopped and let us out so that we could get closer. Turns out that this is what natural rubber harvesting looks like. Long, angled, successive strips are taken from the bark and a half coconut full of almost-butter-colored liquid was at the bottom of the newest slice.

It was during this stop that we began to notice the temperature change from when we started the day. Between the fog and the altitude, it was easily ten to 15 degrees (F) cooler but, not really loving the heat and humidity, it was a nice break for me!

We arrived at what ended up being almost the top of the mountain at the Mackwoods Tea Plantation and Factory. Every direction you looked, the hills were filled with tea plants and, in this case, a small stream ran through the valley. Much like where coffee grows, I could very easily see myself living in a place like this. Perfect temperature and views, what's not to enjoy!

Mackwoods' has a working tea-processing and packing factory of their own. We took a tour where they walked us through some of the production areas and also explained how tea is grown, processed, and packed. As always, I love me a factory tour! Here's another tea factory I visited when I was in Colorado a few years ago. Oh, and now I know the difference between Orange Pekoe and Broken Orange Pekoe...

After our tour, we ordered a pot of tea and some cakes at Mackwoods' combo tasting room and cafe. And then we ordered another pot, it was that good. If you go to Sri Lanka one day, I highly, highly recommend visiting a tea plantation and, if it appeals to you, the factory tour.

We spent the next night in Nuwara Eliya, which is a small town partly in the clouds where the locals wear parkas and ski caps. My guess is that it was in the high 50s when we arrived in the late afternoon so it was definitely a bit chilly.

It was here that we had one of the two most-local food experiences of the whole trip. We followed our driver to a place he was going to eat and ordered what he was having. The waiter brought over smallish metal pails (sort of a small bucket) filled with stewed-style meats and vegetables. With no cutlery in sight, we did as the locals do and dug in with our fingers using small pieces of flatbread and just kinda' scooped it up. The locals laughed at us and we laughed at ourselves. It was a great and memorable experience.

After our early dinner, we went shopping! I was keeping my eye out for linen button-down shirts and I wanted to find a nicer sarong to use at our frequent temple stops plus I knew one'd be useful when we got to the beach.

We walked down 'main street' ducking into and out of shops. At one, Diana found the same container of aloe she had bought at the spice garden for maybe 20% of the cost. D'oh! A couple of shops over, I spied this poster for 'lungies', which is what they apparently call sarongs over in India. Score! Based on this poster alone, I knew this was what I was looking for! Maybe even get a six pack while I was at it?

I ended up paying about six dollars for a dark blue, almost-Hawaiian-style sarong. We left the shop, me happy with my purchase, and continued walking around town. About an hour later, I was starting to get cold so I stopped, took the sarong out of the bag, and attempted to wear it so that it might help keep me warm (note, I highly recommend spending time in the hill/mountain area of Sri Lanka but definitely bring a sweat shirt and long pants with you).

I fumbled with the sarong figuring I could wear it like those I had used in Hawaii. During what seemed like hours but was more like three or four minutes of struggle, a local guy who was giggling along with his family stopped to lend me a hand. In about thirty seconds he showed me two different ways to tie it suggesting (in gestures - no English) the best local way. Much like our elephant interaction a couple of days previously, this was one of the best experiences of the trip. How often does a random local take the time and effort to tell a tourist how things are done (without yelling)?

Now, properly dressed, we stopped at a supermarket to buy some groceries and then to a bakery where I saw what looked like different flavors of pound cake in the window. What I saw next was almost...unseeable. The guy attending to the customers was taking orders, pulling cakes out of the display, cutting them to size, and weighing then packing them faster than I've ever seen any human move. It was like he was some sort of friendly Terminator cyborg from the future had chosen bakery work over that of an assassin. In other words, we, as a species, are very lucky. Oh, and the cake was fantabulous!

Our home stay in Nuwara Eliya was in what was basically a "log-cabin" on a local family's property. They lived in a very 'basic' structure, did some simple farming, and we had a flat-screen. It was eye-opening to say the least and why I recommend staying with locals whenever possible.

The next morning we woke fairly early so we could get over to the train station in time to buy tickets. Taking the train between Nuwara Eliya and Ella (or in the reverse direction) is basically one of the top five things to do in Sri Lanka. If you're like us, you show up early and hope to get first or second class tickets, which is impossible being that there are very few and they're probably gone months in advance. We did manage to buy tickets in third class, which I was afraid might be as bad as it sounds but, whatever, I was sure it'd be an adventure either way.

Our train was due to depart about 10 a.m. but, by about 11.30 or so, it hadn't yet arrived. We were getting impatient especially because it was rainy and fairly cool waiting on the platform. We talked with our driver who, uncharacteristically, firmly recommended we wait and take the train. Okay, then.

Finally, just before noon and only 30 minutes or so until the next one was due to depart, the three-car, three-class train lumbered into the station.

The train was so full and had gotten even fuller with folks who were waiting for both the earlier and later trains that we decided to bail on the whole thing. We went back over to our faithful driver who was waiting for us to board the train and asked him to just drive us to the next destination. Again, with an energy I hadn't seen previously, and much like that time my friend told me to go see Ecce Homo (!!!), he said we had to wait and take the train. Seriously, almost like we had no choice. So, we hard-balled it and before long a much bigger and newer train pulled in and we climbed aboard...for what ended up being my favorite part of the entire trip!

Being that third class was particularly full, we ended up only getting in as far as the entry area. On an incredibly positive note, they leave the doors open the whole time and, if you're lucky enough to have super-cool locals who give you their places) you can hang on (or out?) the door enjoying the wind in your hair... the train winds its way along the top of the fog-shrouded mountains filled with tea plantations and amazing views!

The train passes lots of farms and plantations like the one below and through many small towns each with their own stop. We took turns in the doorway during the two-hour-or-so ride. As the train went, it got emptier and emptier to the point where we could sit in the open doorway with our feet hanging out. It was like something from a movie but in real life.

Mr. Schmidt checking out some locals with a local:

The funniest thing happened about 90 minutes into our trip. The train slowed down like it was going to stop in another random town. I laughed as we then slowly passed the first (older/smaller/slower) train we had chosen not to board in Nuwara Eliya earlier that morning!

Our driver was right, we had to do the train ride! I must have thanked him a dozen times or more. If you go to Sri Lanka, you absolutely must do it too. I say this on the same order of magnitude that I'd tell you to visit the Sagrada Familia when you're in Barcelona. And, don't pay for first or second class where you'll only be surrounded by folks from Europe and maybe one or two from China and/or Japan. Nope! You need to pony up the $0.80 U.S. (yes, less than a dollar) or whatever it cost for third class and you're going to love it.

Our driver met us in Ella, which is the other end of the train ride. We drove down to Kataragama where, the next morning, we'd be going on, what is another of the Sri Lankan must-dos, a safari at the nearby Yala National Park. Yala is a large reserve on the southeastern corner of the island and is home to elephants, big cats, a ton of birds, and more.

The day we went to the park wasn't the best as it was a national holiday (second of our trip) so it was full of people in jeeps like ours. Even though there are lots of animals to see, parts of the park were closed for the season, which, combined with the full-moon holiday, resulted in way too many people in way too many jeeps to really get to see as much as we would have liked.

But, having said that, it wasn't like we saw nothing. On the contrary! We got to see deer, water buffalo, an elephant or two, alligators, more birds than you can shake a stick at including some cool toucans, and even the briefest glimpse of a leopard. But, the day's best was on our way home when we came across this elephant standing in the middle of the road.

Diana answering that age-old question of why did the elephant cross the road (and, yes, that's a soft-ball-sized watermelon in her hand):

I mentioned how it was the full-moon holiday that day. Turns out that Sri Lanka has a public holiday every full moon and lots of folks take advantage and head to a local temple. Kataragama just happens to have one of the most important temple complexes in Sri Lanka so we headed over to check out the festivities.

The Kataragama complex is unique as several different religious groups worship there including the indigenous Vedda. There was a ton going on and even more than a ton of people. Just getting into the complex was a bit of an adventure as the entrances were so full that we had to literally squeeze through. Once inside we saw a variety of different rituals, none of which I understood, including the one below where people following a group of musicians and members carrying offerings unrolled and and carried fabric up to and around one of the temple structures.

We only got to spend an hour or so at the temple as it was getting late and we had dinner plans. Lena and Toni told us that the Kataragama temple during the day was one of their favorite memories. We had planned to go but our changed plans made it impossible. So, definitely on our next trip.

The four of us took a couple of Tuktuks back to our homestay. Tuktuks are used as taxis and are everywhere in Sri Lanka. The reality, though, is I just wanted to use this cool photo somewhere.

The next morning we left Kataragama for the beach! We stopped off at the Hummanaya blowhole, which is the largest blowhole in all of Sri Lanka. Definitely cool but what I really enjoyed was the place where we parked (someone's side yard), walking through the little town, looking at all the family businesses that had developed to serve the never-ending parade of visitors, standing in line with the locals to buy tickets, and then seeing all of us enjoying the scene together.

By the way, trying to take photos of a blowhole in action is almost as easy as taking photos of pink dolphins in the jungles of Colombia!

When we first decided on Sri Lanka, Diana had only two requirements for the entire trip. She wanted to have some beach time and she wanted to go whale watching. Mr. Schmidt and I ended up (very happily) doing almost all the trip planning but we knew, for sure, that we'd have to spend a day or two in Marissa, which is known as the place for whale watching in all of Sri Lanka. It's a small beach and harbor town almost at the very bottom of the island.

The biggest issue for me is that I just don't like boats. Too many times getting sea sick has put me off them for the rest of my life. But, Diana, who grew up in Bogota, far from the ocean, loves them and forces asks me to go with her almost every time there's a boat ride or tour.

So it was at like o-dark-thirty in the morning, we headed to the harbor and got on the two-level boat with maybe 60 or 70 fish fans. The crew handed out small boxed lunches and bottles of water to everyone but it was way too early for me to even think of eating. Plus, why would I want to fill my stomach before going out to sea?

Right after the food distribution, another crew member walked around and offered sea-sickness pills to those who wanted them. Hello red flag! Not only were they passing them out, the crew were TAKING the pills. WTF? When was the last time you saw a crew member take a sea-sickness pill? It'd be like being on a plane just about to take off and you spy a crew member extra-tightening their seat belt with one hand and blessing themselves with the other. 'Oh crap!' is all I could think as the boat got underway.

My instincts were right as, just as we rounded the point that protects the harbor, the white caps started to throw the boat like a cork pushed into a wine bottle when you don't have an opener (and when that cool shoe trick doesn't work - and in German for the Schmidts). Yep, for the next almost three hours we bounced around as I focused on the horizon while the crew looked for whale breath.

As luck would have it, it only took about an hour from the time we left the harbor until we spotted the first whale of maybe seven, which apparently is a very good day. I spent the next 60 minutes trying to simultaneously watch for whales, take photos, and not revisit last night's excellent dinner. Of the maybe four or five not-horrible photos, the one below is the least bad.

Fortunately for me, the tour guarantees seeing a whale and we saw one almost immediately, which means that the crew (only) spent maybe 30 minutes more seeking Moby Dick before they "had" to turn the boat around "before the weather got bad". Oh, darn!

On the way in, someone spotted two sea turtles caught in a fishing net. They were still alive but I imagine for not much longer as they were swimming in opposite directions trying to get untangled much like when you watch folks in a marriage that should have never happened.

The crew circled the boat until they were finally able to pull the turtles on board. Cheers went out as they pushed the recently-divorced couple to enjoy their newfound freedom. After the divorce, the boat ride seemed to end fairly quickly. Yeah!

The rest of the day was spent napping, wandering around town, and eating dinner on the beach (literally on the beach - the tables were just above the wet sand). Mr. Schmidt had read about a rain-forest tour that sounded interesting so the next morning we got in the van for the almost four-hour drive to what seemed like the middle of nowhere. The Sinharaja rain forest is a fairly small bio reserve that was spared from the logging trade because of its difficult-to-get-to setting, which makes it now a nice place for a nature walk. Watch out for those leeches, though!

We spent a little less than three hours walking into and back out with a guide. He pointed out some plants, monkeys, fish, and even chameleons as we went.

We enjoyed the setting but it ended up being too much driving for such a short walk. I think it'd be better, if you wanted to do this, to stay at least one night nearby rather than spend six hours round trip in the car.

From the rain forest, we drove back out to the coast and stopped briefly in the walled, colonial town of Galle. The city walls, architecture, and setting reminded me of Cartagena and St. Augustine.

Our last two nights were in our driver's hometown of Hikkaduwa. It's another small beach town that has the feel of Baja California or even Hawaii. Actually, it's got the feel of pretty much every surf town I've ever been to, which, is to say, definitely a nice place.

Growing up in Philadelphia, we had a few different mobile businesses that'd go by our house. I was too late for the milkman era but we had 'hucksters' who'd sell fruit and vegetables from the back of their trucks. There were, and still are, ice cream trucks that roam the streets playing their tell-tale music. In Sri Lanka, it's Tuktuk mini-bakeries! They all seemed to be painted red and they all definitely played music.

Buying some morning glory at Hikkaduwa beach:

Normally, when we travel, we like to use airbnb so we can stay with and among locals. In Sri Lanka, we found that airbnb wasn't the best choice because the places listed were way more expensive than what we found on other sites (like where you could specify homestays. In Sri Lanka, you can find plenty of very nice places with air conditioning and really good breakfast for under $25 U.S. a night total for two. Airbnb was always two to three times more expensive and didn't seem to offer any benefit.

We were super lucky to stay at some amazing places during the trip including a couple of cool homestays but the last place ended up being one of our favorites and, coincidentally, our only airbnb. It was a fairly simple 'building' with two bedrooms, two outdoor (and amazing) bathrooms, and an open-air but covered living room that looked out over a very large garden, pool, and lake beyond. It came with a live-in caretaker who not only made us feel incredibly at home but also prepared shockingly good breakfasts all for relatively little money. Oh, and they had a boat you could row around the lake!

Mr. Schmidt and Diana out searching for Sri Lankan C.I.A. agents while Mrs. Schmidt and I lazily drank coffee safely back on shore:

Diana about to drive away in the available-for-use Tuktuk:

One of the final things we did on the island was also one of the most emotional. Remember the day-after-Christmas tsunami caused by the 2004 Japanese earthquake that wiped out Bada Aceh, Indonesia, among other places? Well, that same tsunami killed almost 35,000 people in Sri Lanka including in and around Hikkaduwa. One local woman's set up a museum across the street from the beach where her home was before the tsunami.

It's a simple museum that packs a big punch. Inside, she has photos, videos, and memorabilia, including part of the tent she lived in while the town rebuilt. Some of the exhibits are kinda' raw and hard to look at but, between the items in the museum and her personal-story telling, I learned a lot.

They're building an official museum not too far away, which I'm sure will be good too, but, if you're ever in the area, do yourself a favor and stop by and see this woman.

What can I say? This was an amazing trip on so many levels. It's an amazing country with some pretty amazing people. Two amazing thumbs up for sure.

Thanks to the Schmidts for helping to make the trip a lot of fun and memorable. And an even bigger thanks to our driver for being patient with our indecisiveness and last-minutiveness. We had a great time! Oh, and thanks again for making us take the train!

Parting shot at Hikkaduwa beach, Sri Lanka:

By the way, if you're thinking of going to Sri Lanka, we highly recommend our driver. He's a great guy, very patient, speaks good English, and, most importantly, is a very safe and relaxed driver. Send me an email and I'll put you in touch.