NOVEMBER 12TH 2003 - THE VANCOUVER COURIER
A SOJOURN IN SRI LANKA
Hoping to arrange a car and driver, I entered the Government Tourist Office in Kandy. She waved me to a chair without looking up and continued typing. The long carriage flashed back and forth at lightening speed. Finally, she yanked her letter from the roller with a loud series of clacks. After a cursory glance at the mirror to check the angle of her wig and the paper clip securing an arm of her bifocals, she turned. “Yes?”
Shaped like a teardrop or a ham, Sri Lanka sits 20 miles below the Southern-most Indian State of Tamil-Nadu. Marco Polo described it as the perfect island. About the size of Tasmania or Ireland it was colonised by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and finally the British who handed it back at the time of Indian independence in 1948. Norway has just brokered a shaky end to the 20-year civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers in the North. Both sides are exhausted I was told.
Kandy is a lush highland city in the centre of the island. Elephants, with their mahouts, often cause traffic jams by pausing to snack on overhanging foliage. The island’s most venerated temple at the edge of Kandy Lake houses a piece of Lord Buddha’s tooth. For 10 days in July/August elaborately decorated elephants and thousands of Kandyan dancers provide the finest parade in the country.
I find myself with a half-hour to spare and am quietly tucking-in to a very passable Salade-Nicoise upstairs at “The Pub” when I feel a hand on my shoulder. “You must be Andrew?” Around 45, Malek is blessed with handsome European features and jet-black skin. The son of a Muslim cleric with lineage to Arab traders, he has learned Western ways from an English wife and a French girlfriend. After settling for around C$40 a day for his services - all our food and separate accommodations included - he seems eager to swap a complex home life for an early start as my chauffeur!
It is not that one cannot survive without a driver, and I’m not prone to sniffy asides: “Without my man Malek I simply couldn’t have done it.” But - for a small country, the must-see places seem spread out and usually away from decent accommodation. And – and - and – OK, it’s very nice to have a knowledgeable companion to do the thinking; to choose the accommodation; to spot that photogenic Hindu wedding; to agree that it is far too hot to climb Adams peak – all at a third of the price that my friends are paying for a condo in Honolulu – Oh joy - I just can’t wait to tell them!
We head North to what is collectively known as “The ancient cities.” We pass tiny rice paddies in idyllic valleys where oxen strain at the head of wooden ploughs urged on by scrawny masters. Giggling, uniformed schoolgirls with flowers woven into their shiny, black, braided hair, wander home, arm-in-arm. They carry colourful parasols to avoid the dark skin of a labourer. Paired earthenware bowls of liquid sugar and yogurt are sold at specialty roadside stalls; eaten together they resemble a rich and delicious crème caramel.
Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced through much of South East Asia, began in Sri Lanka in the 4th century BC. Today, 70% of the population of 19 million are Buddhists. There are great temple ruins at Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura where pilgrims come to pray and leave offerings at the sacred Bodhi tree transplanted from India 2000 years ago. The long climb to the marvellous Buddah-filled cave temples at Dambulla or the rock fortress of Sigira is best attempted away from the midday sun
.“Do elephants still roam wild?” I ask Malek as the afternoon monsoon finally breaks the intense humidity. We round a corner. There is much commotion. A herd of twenty-two angry beasts led by a particularly vociferous bull are standing impatiently at the roadside. Their desire to cross is being thwarted by a busload of Leica wielding German tourists. I make a move to get out of the car for a better shot – Wow, Disneyland! I am soundly rebuked and reminded of the number of people trampled by elephants each year. Besides, I haven’t paid yet!
The British developed a “cookie-cutter” concept for creating hill stations in their tropical colonies. Whether in Darjeeling, India, or The Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, these mountain retreats were designed to give colonial masters weekend relief from the lowland heat and coincidentally to grow tea. Many are reached by rail requiring specially designed steam-locomotives to do the job. The ancient train, with some seats still signed “for clergy only,” is still an option.
The Southern road to Nuwara Eliya zigzags up through perfectly stepped tea-plantations interspersed with cascading waterfalls and insistent flower-sellers. Colourful Tamil ladies, brought in as pickers by the British, fill their baskets with tea-leaves which are then processed on 100 year old machinery manufactured in Glasgow. A plantation tour and a cup of tea are mandatory.
The polo grounds and racecourses in Nuwara Eliya are overgrown – relics from a colonial past; but the Hill Club, a Tudor building designed to remind planters and their families of home, is still very much alive. “Why do you have a suit hanging in the back of the car Malek?” “We are dining at the Hill Club tonight” he answered matter-of-factly.
After becoming temporary members, (A full membership allows you club privileges at such venerable institutions as Whites in London so they don’t let in the riff-raff!), I was taken to the gentlemen’s cloakroom and dressed from an odd assortment of ties and jackets more suited to a church bazaar. Impeccable white-gloved waiters served the 3-course dinner on crested china and crisp linen tablecloths.
I said goodbye to Malek and silently blessed the blunt lady from the tourist office for her connection. He had become my good friend. The back of the car was now filled with bananas purchased along the way for the family fruit stall in Kandy and he was keen to get back before the skins turned black.
Before leaving, he spoke to the bus driver and offered a few rupees to free up the only seat with legroom. In two hours I would be dipping my toes in the Indian Ocean at a comfortable beach resort on the South coast for the princely sum of C$23 a day all found. Whereas in Honolulu? Oh joy – I just can’t wait to tell my friends!
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Singapore Airlines flies via Singapore (free one night layover) to Colombo.VISAS: Not required for Canadian citizens.
ON ARRIVAL: Downtown Colombo, which doesn’t offer much to the vacationer, is 40 minutes from the airport. An airport tout arranged a room in Negombo, a pleasant fishing village 10 minutes away, for half the advertised rate of Can$30.
USEFUL GUIDES: Lonely Planet. Rough Guide.USEFUL WEBSITE: www.lanka.net/ctb/
WHEN TO VISIT: There are two climate zones, which is odd for a small island. I went in November and hit late afternoon monsoons in the North and dry weather in the South. Jan-May should be OK. Christmas is particularly busy with Australian, European and Indian tourists.
SAFETY AND IN GENERAL: At the time of writing the peace has still held and the whole island is safe to visit. Compared to India the place is generally more expensive but cleaner, and the people much more laid back. It is often possible to negotiate room rates.
GETTING AROUND: The rate for a car and driver includes his accommodation and food. He will get a kickback for bringing you but you will usually save on the posted rate.There is a good train infrastructure though the carriages are ancient. Buses come in all types from comfortable aircon to hell-on-wheels!
FOOD: Traditional Sri Lankan food of chicken curry and rice is not a gourmet’s dream. However, I found an Italian restaurant in Negombo and Chinese food in Kandy as well as fresh seafood on the coast.