My sister arrived at the Colombo airport around 8:30 am, and my mom, Sangeeth our driver, and I drove from Kandy to Colombo to meet her. I waited for her in the arrivals area of the Colombo airport where I was the only white woman, and the only person waiting alone. This meant I got some serious stares. There is no taboo about staring, and Sri Lankans have no problem looking long and hard at someone who stands out, something I will probably never get used to.
After Steph arrived we hopped in the car and started back up to Kandy, with a stop on the way at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. It was drizzling when we arrived so we weren’t able to see the elephants have their bath in the river. Because of the rain there weren’t many people there, and we got to see the new baby elephant, Dinuda, without too much of a crowd. Dinuda was born a week before our visit, on the morning after the end of the war in Sri Lanka. Her name means “New Dawn.” She is very cute.
Dinuda and her mom
The rain couldn’t keep all the tourists away and we saw one unfortunate man wearing fluorescent short shorts and jelly shoes. He was less cute. I’ve cropped out his face to protect him from further embarrassment.
After the visit to Pinnewala, we came back to my house so Steph could shower and relax after her long trip from the US and then from Colombo to Kandy.
The next morning we hopped in the car and drove north to the Kandalama Hotel near Dambulla in the cultural triangle. Sri Lanka is a small island, about the size of Ireland or West Virginia, but is very different from one region to the next. Kandy is in the hilly part of the wet zone, but just north, over the Knuckles Range, is the dry zone, where it rains about two months out of the year. This is the area where the Sinhalese originally settled thousands of years ago and set up a complex irrigation system involving huge man-made lakes, referred to as tanks. The Kandalama is in the middle of a forest preserve, and sits on a hill next to one of these tanks. It was designed by Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa, to meld with the natural setting. Our trip there was one of the highlights of my stay so far in Sri Lanka.
Everything about the hotel was relaxing and beautiful. The shower had full pressure and nice hot water, and had a view out onto the tank. There were three pools, which the hotel book labeled the most admired pool, the most spacious pool, and the most romantic pool. I swam in two of these, the most spacious and most admired. During our family swim in the most spacious pool a troop of langur monkeys came to join us, sitting by the pool, and even drinking a little of the pool water. The langurs are much bigger than the red-faced macaques we have in Kandy, and are generally much better behaved and less ugly. Eventually the pool attendant had to shoo them away because the langurs were about ready to take over our lounge chairs.
The second day of our stay at the Kandalama we took a jeep safari to see the elephants gathering at the Minneriya Tank, about an hour away from the hotel. During June-September wild elephants come from around the country to find water. We saw a group of about forty elephants, including a few babies. What surprised me was how quiet the elephants were as they grazed.
Elephants at the Minneriya Tank
On our drive out of the park we saw many peacocks, kingfishers, and the Sri Lankan national bird, the jungle fowl, which looks exactly like a rooster. By this time it was too dark to take pictures, so you will have to use your creativity to imagine the jungle fowl in all its glory.
During our stay at the Kandalama my mother, sister, and I greatly enjoyed our meals. The restaurant in the hotel had delicious food, a mix of east and west, and very courteous but curious staff. The waiters and waitresses were impressed by my baby-talk version of Sinhala. I don’t think most of the foreign tourists can speak any Sinhala at all, so the staff at the restaurant treated me as a real object of interest, and showed me off to their other friends working at the hotel.
The last day at the Kandalama we had a big breakfast, and then Steph and I said goodbye to our lovely mother who was heading to the Colombo airport, and back to the US later that day. Steph and I went in the opposite direction, to the east coast, first stopping at Sigiriya Rock, and then to Nilaveli, a beach town north of Trincomalee.
After leaving the Kandalama, my sister and I went to Sigiriya, a rock fortress built in the 5th century CE, by the King Kassapa, who killed his father, and stole the Sinhalese kingdom from his brother, Mogallana. Kassapa built the palaces and gardens at Sigiriya so he would protected when Mogallana came back from India to reclaim the kingdom. Eventually Mogallana did come back, defeated Kassapa, who died, either in battle, by poison, or by suicide, the history is somewhat unclear. After his death Sigiriya was used by monks, and later by the Kandyan kingdom.
The gardens around Sigiriya are impressive, and include a water garden, and a boulder garden. The plumbing at these ancient gardens still functions.
View of gardens from the top of Sigiriya Rock
The walk up the rock involves thousands of steps, but about halfway up, painted on the rockface is a series of beautiful women, now called the Sigiriya Damsels. There is some debate who they were, but even though the paintings are 1500 years old the images seem modern. What surprised me was that the women are topless and quite curvaceous. In modern day Sri Lanka the standards of modesty are rather strict.
After many stairs, Steph and I made it to the top of the rock and we were the only people there. We walked around the foundations of the palace and the royal buildings. It was very windy on top of the rock, but the views were amazing, and the breeze helped me recover from the climb.
We explored the rock for a while before heading back down all those stairs, and hopping in the car for the drive to Nilaveli, a fishing and beach town north of Trincomalee. The roads to Trinco from Sigiriya were in pretty good shape, but many of them were undergoing construction that slowed our drive. We passed through a few checkpoints as we got closer to the coast. The north and east have been isolated from the rest of the country because of the civil war, and security was more prevalent than anywhere else I’ve been in the country.
As we drove on the landscape changed from hilly and somewhat green to flat and dry, with almost no vegetation. Once we passed through Trinco and started north to Nilaveli the road deteriorated quickly. Instead of asphalt there was red dirt, and very uneven. The road had been worked on first by a Chinese company, but now a Korean company had taken over. The last 15 km took over an hour. We saw a few UN vehicles speed by, but most local travelers were on bicycles or on foot.
We were happy to arrive at the Nilaveli Beach Hotel and to see the Indian Ocean. Many Sri Lankans have told me that the east coast beaches are the most beautiful in the country, and after seeing Nilaveli, I agree. The sand was blazingly white, and the ocean aqua blue and clear to the bottom. The east coast of Sri Lanka was hit hard by the tsunami, and tourism in the north and east suffered because of the civil war. Our hotel was very quiet our first night there. The second night a large family, probably thirty people, arrived adding a lively atmosphere.
Bringing in the fishing net, Nilaveli
The hotel was nice, and we had a peaceful few days there, aside from a slight snorkeling misadventure that involved one malfunctioning mask and snorkel, and a long swim back to a boat against the wind and waves.
We left the Nilaveli Beach Hotel and went back down the treacherous road to Trincomalee, where we visited Fort Frederick and the Koneswaram Temple. The fort is on a peninsula, and was built by Portuguese and also used by the Dutch and the British. At the end of the peninsula, up on high cliffs, is the Hindu temple. Nowadays, the fort seems to be have been taken over by the Sri Lankan Army. There was a checkpoint at the entrance and we had to hand over our cellphones and cameras before entering.
The buildings in the fort are classic British colonial, and were beautiful, but had not been well taken care of. The Koneswaram Temple is the first Hindu temple I’ve been inside, and it was very cool. Even better were the views from the cliffs looking out over Trincomalee and the ocean. The city looked small and peaceful.
Sisters in Trincomalee, just outside Fort Frederick
The drive back to Kandy was long, about six hours, and we were stopped at several checkpoints. At one the police officer opened the hood to try and find the engine number and compare it to the number on the chassis. He wasn’t able to find either, and he let us go after half an hour. I was glad to have a driver, especially one who spoke Sinhala and was able to talk to the police when we were stopped.
Once back in Kandy we went to the Temple of the Tooth for an evening visit. Apparently my skirt was just barely modest enough, and as we went through the security at the temple, the female guard gave it a good tug down so that it would more fully cover my knees. She also asked why I wasn’t wearing a slip.
The next morning, Steph’s last day in Sri Lanka, we went to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Because it was a Sunday the gardens were busy with families and couples. We wandered around the gardens for an hour, had a rice and curry lunch and then Steph had to go to Colombo for her long trip back to America.
Last days in Lanka
I’ve been back in the US for one month, adjusting to a different, less hectic but more busy, pace of life, and now finally have the time to write about my last week in Sri Lanka.
After my trip with my dad and stepmother I had five days to pack up and say goodbye to my friends and the people who’d helped me with my research. Sunday afternoon I had lunch with my friends Abeera and Tharshiya, the two women who’d worked for me doing Tamil translation during my research. We had a fun lunch at the Royal Mall Restaurant, which was very busy. We talked about the tentative results of my research, work they were doing at the university, and more everyday stuff like our boyfriends and families.
Tuesday I went to say goodbye to my advisor at the University of Peradeniya, and to the staff at the Kadugannawa MOH who’d helped me so much. I wanted to bring a present to say thank you, and my friend/ driver Sangeeth suggested I bring a fruit basket from the Kandy Market. Well, what a basket. Each basket weighed about twenty pounds and was filled to the brim with fruit.
Traveling down the road in a three wheeler with two large fruit baskets was a challenge; I had to keep my hand on both baskets to keep them from tipping and spilling, but my advisor and the MOH doctor were both impressed by the gigantic fruit basket, and it seemed like the perfect gift.
My last day in Kandy was one of the best of my whole stay. I spent the morning packing, and in the afternoon went to Child Action Lanka, https://www.childactionlanka.org/ where I’d been volunteering a few hours a week teaching English to street kids. Debs, the director, and the children threw me a small party that included cake, and a present of a very nice necklace. Since it was my last afternoon, I decided to skip the English tutoring and play some of the kids’ favorite games, including hide and go seek, and red light, green light, which the children had renamed ‘red and green.’ I also took pictures of the kids, and they took some good ones of me.
Kids and me at Child Action Lanka
Achini, Harshani, Dinushka, and Lasantha
That evening Sangeeth had me over for dinner with his family, and I got to meet his kids for the first time. His sons were three and seven, and were lively and funny. Sangeeth and his wife had prepared me a meal of rice and ten curries.
Rice and ten curries
I did my best to be a good guest and eat as much as possible, but the amount of food was overwhelming. As a thank you present I gave Sangeeth a set of photos of places we’d visited with my family. His sons were very impressed with the pictures of him with elephants. They also liked my camera, and wanted to see every picture I took of them right after it was taken, including this one of them pretending to sleep.
Sangeeth's kids, pretending to sleep
After dinner, Sangeeth and his older son drove me home down his hill, and up mine, and I stayed up into the night to finish my packing.
In the morning I took a van to Colombo to visit my friends there before my flight Friday morning. I had lunch with Ramya, one of the staff from the Fulbright office, and then spent the afternoon doing some last minute bargain hunting at House of Fashions, basically a four story clearance for Sri Lankan made garments. My last night in Sri Lanka I went out to dinner at the Mango Tree, an excellent Indian Restaurant, with the other Fulbrighters who were still in the country.
Next morning I took a cab to the airport, went through a Sri Lankan military checkpoint one last time, and got on my flight home to America.