Me, My Girl, and a Frost Free February #8: Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka
Colombo, Kandy, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwna, Dalhouse, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Tangalle, Mirissa, Hikkaduwa
Nov. 19 – Dec. 18 2002

According to my guidebook, bargaining is a necessary part of traveling in the Indian sub-continent. I’ve learned a couple of things on this trip. One is that bargaining too much can be a mistake. The other is not to trust my guidebook.

My guidebook informed me that the “helpful tourist desk” at the airport in Sri Lanka would arrange a reasonably priced taxi ride into Colombo. Unfortunately, the four women working at the tourist desk weren’t even helpful enough to get up out of their chairs, let alone to arrange a taxi. They stared at me, bemused, as I made my enquiries. Finally one said, “Taxis outside,” and the four of them went back to their conversations.

The taxi driver (naturally) quoted a rate roughly double what my guidebook claimed was fair. Despite my best efforts I could only bargain him down a fraction. “Fine,” I said, playing my final card, “We’ll take the bus.” I walked away, waiting for him to come after me. He didn’t.

After a few confusing minutes wandering inside and out of the unmarked terminal � where we paused to look longingly at the hoards of package tour groups being led onto their A/C buses, Helene and I eventually stumbled on the bus stop. Like bus stops in India it was recognizable only by the fact that other people were standing there; in this case a German couple whom two taxi drivers were haranguing. “Poya day,” one driver was saying, “no buses today.”

Helene and I exchanged knowing glances. Sure it was Poya day. We knew better. Our trusty guidebook told us that the full moon holiday wasn’t for three days yet. Unfortunately though, the bus refused to appear, and I eventually went to hunt for a rickshaw. I found one and negotiated a price, though negotiations went in his favour, because rains were threatening to break. For an hour and a half we drove through a monsoon in a vehicle which, to paraphrase John Irving, is like two lawn chairs being towed behind a scooter. Helene and I finally arrived in Colombo, where the entire city seemed to be shut down. “Poya Day,” said our guesthouse owner, when we enquired. We retired to our room and blew our noses to get rid of the black slime of exhaust. I stated the obvious: we should have taken the taxi.

We quickly got used to bargaining less and paying more in Sri Lanka. As Helene pointed out while I bitched about the entry fee to Kandy’s gorgeous botanical gardens (double the price quoted in my guidebook) we could either spend a little more and enjoy ourselves, or sit on our asses in the hotel room all day. Put like that, things seemed much clearer.

Having decided to raise our daily funds a notch we set out happily to the Pinnawela elephant orphanage, near Kegalle. After enquiring at the bus depot as to which was the correct bus – and then double-checking with the driver and ticket collector – we roared off in a cloud of carbon monoxide fumes. Helene and I were thrilled to have seats on the bus and even happier when we realized that Sri Lankan drivers use their horns only every five seconds, as opposed to the usual two seconds we’d grown used to in India. Before long we had elbows, umbrellas and bags poking into us from the dozens of people unlucky enough not to have seats, but still, we were happy. We bought our tickets, amazed at how the ticket collector seemed to walk right through people – much the way atoms continue to move in a mass that looks solid.

When we arrived at the junction where we were to change buses for the last short hop to our final destination, the ticket collector helpfully pointed at our next bus. But this particular specimen was so full that people were literally climbing on the sides of it. Two people, obviously tourists, looked out a window at us. “Are you going to the elephant orphanage?” I called. “No. The waterfalls.” they answered as the bus rumbled away. Confused, I consulted the map in my guidebook, but there seemed to be no waterfalls anywhere near the Pinnawella Elephant Orphanage.

“Elephant orphanage – Kegalle?” Helene and I asked, wandering around the gravel area as people stared at us curiously. “Elephant orphanage,” waving my arm in front of my face in the manner of a trunk. No one spoke any English but everyone was happy to point at buses. We boarded and then disembarked from three before we finally found someone who spoke enough English to tell us that we were nowhere near the Pinnawella Elephant Orphanage, that in fact we had traveled in the opposite direction. After much swearing and kicking of gravel we faced up to the fact that it was too late in the day to attempt to find the elephants. Instead we opted for a series of Buddhist rock temples that were closer by, and managed to find the right bus.

The majority of the population of Sri Lanka is Buddhist, a philosophy I’ve always associated with openness, peace, and of course, Richard Gere. A kind young monk greeted us at the temples, the picture of tranquility in his saffron robes. He led us up the stairs to the first rock temple, this one adorned with paintings of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, as well as a large sculpture of a sleeping Buddha. The second temple was similar, but at the third cave the monk said, “Go ahead,” and let us enter alone. Inside, an artist of little talent but much imagination had painted a series of graphic works on the walls. Among them were a pack of demons devouring babies, and several women impaled on stakes through their vaginas. Helene and I goggled at the paintings, and each other. “Very…interesting,” I said when we exited. The monk smiled benignly and handed us off to an old man waiting outside another cave. The old guy seemed thrilled to see us and bobbed his head happily as he led us through the next display.

“Drawn and quartered,” he said, pointing at a life-size sculpture of a screaming man, tied upside down to a couple of trees. The unfortunate fellow was already tearing at the crotch.

“Flayed,” said the old man, indicating another equally bloody work, and then: “Prostitute,” to describe a woman being drowned in a well. There were perhaps half a dozen of these life-sized dioramas, and he seemed quite pleased with them all. Once we were out in the daylight he held out a box for donations.

“Thank you,” I said brightly, dropping some coins and flicking my eyes over the prayer flags fluttering in the sunshine.

The elephant orphanage, when we finally found it, was almost anticlimactic.

From Kandy we headed to the ancient fortress of Sigiriya. Here the entry fee of US $15 each (about half our daily budget) noted in my guidebook was correct. But the book neglected to mention that unlike India, this fee could not be paid in US dollars. Here we backslid a little as Helene hassled the employees of the site for a while, asking why the fee was posted in US money but payable only in the rupee equivalent. They gamely pretended not to understand a word she said. While Helene worked herself into a froth I tried to figure out how I could pass for a Sri Lankan (nationals get in for less than US $1). Eventually we both gave up and forked over the money. The site, set high on a rocky mountain, was spectacular. A series of lovely frescoes and a wall covered with ancient graffiti were smaller but equally inviting attractions. We watched the sun go down perched on top of a boulder in the rock garden, and agreed the entry fee was worth it.

That night Helene and I were woken in our guesthouse by what sounded like a gunshot. Sitting upright, and perhaps still effected by the Buddhist torture chambers, I was suddenly terrified that a maniac was on the loose, or that Sri Lanka’s civil war had broken out again. I heard another shot, and then another. Helene flicked on the lights. “What are you doing, you idiot,” I hissed, “He’ll find us and kill us.” She gasped, and shut off the lights. “I just wanted to look at my mosquito bites,” she explained. There were a few more shots, but they seemed to be moving further and further away. Comforted, I went back to sleep. Unfortunately, I’d scared Helene so badly that she was up half the night waiting for my murderer to turn up. The next morning at breakfast our guesthouse owner said, “I think you hear bang last night. Wild elephant in farmer field. Boom. Firecracker to scare him away. Dangerous, wild elephant.” But not as dangerous as the evil looks Helene was shooting me across the breakfast table.

After visiting the ancient city of Polonaruwna (another US $15 and well worth it) we headed south into the hill country. Tea plantations and rolling hills made the train ride spectacular. At Dalhouse we climbed for 8km up Adam’s Peak, where the footprint of Adam, Buddha or Krishna (take your pick according to your beliefs) is found. We were accompanied by a newlywed couple from the Czech Republic and a pack of limping stray dogs who make the climb every day, hoping for handouts from the tourists. Reaching the top before sunrise we were treated to the unfamiliar sensation of cold and then a spectacular sunrise. As the sun moved higher the mountain threw a sharp shadow on the mist below. The famous footprint, however, looked a lot like a rock to me. But then it’s been a while since I’ve been to church.

After stops in Nuwara Eliya and Ella we headed to the beach once again. The beaches in India had been nice, but here my guidebook promised me crystal clear waters and calm seas. The waves looked a little big from the beach, but I figured I’d be OK. I was OK for a bit, but then a wave of gigantic proportions arrived, tossing me ass over tea kettle and driving sand so deep into my nose, ears and other more private orifices that several days later I’m still picking it out.

Two bits of advice: First, if you come to Sri Lanka, smile and fork out the money to visit the ancient cities. And second, never trust your guidebook.