After visiting the National Museum, I had a dream in which a mass murderer walked into a supermarket with an arsenal of antique Sri Lankan weapons. This is not surprising because the museum has a large display of guns and knives in the last room we visited. Also, the daggers are of a shape and design that leaves no doubt as to their eviscerating function. With swords and cutlasses and the like you can always pretend you are just looking at oversized kitchenware. With the wiggly-bladed kriss or the thing with one sharpened horn facing one way, another horn facing the other, or a dagger with a skeleton on its hilt, there is no room for doubt. Even the ceremonial swords are a bit terrifying, with their grimacing red-eyed lions on the hilts.
But most of the museum is not about murder but about god/s and the pursuit of pleasure, peace and painlessness-in-oblivion.
The museum is a huge two-storied white building sitting on a huge manicured lawn, with a couple of banyan trees off to the side. The first thing you see as you walk in the entrance is this granite Buddha from Anurādhapura (800 AD), in Samadhi pose–Samadhi is a word indicating single-pointedness of mind. This statue, called the Toluvila Buddha after the name of the village where a team led by the British archeologist Harry Charles Purvis Bell uncovered it during a 1900 dig, is one of the island’s best-preserved ancient statues.
Today about 70% of Sri Lanka’s population are Theravada Buddhists. The religion was introduced to Sri Lanka around the third century BCE, and Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any country on earth. Anurādhapura, one of the island’s ancient capitals and a city that has been continuously inhabited since the 10th century BCE, was the center of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries and is a rich source of beautiful objects partly because royals and nobles commissioned fine sculptures and works of art in order to adorn the temples and monasteries. The museum had several rooms devoted to statues depicting the Buddha in various poses, as well as Bodhisattvas (embodiments of compassion). My favorite Buddha pose was the reclining one, since it seemed to lend a kind of spiritual aspect to my love of naps.
Next came the Hindu gods—about 12.6% of the population is Hindu, almost all of them Tamil – an ethnic group native to Sri Lanka and genetically closely related to the Sinhalese. Hinduism was the first religion to be practiced here. Today, most Hindus on the island are Shaivist, which means they worship Shiva, the god who danced the world into being, as their primary creator. The island’s greatest period of Hindu activity was between 985 and 1014 CE under the Chola Dynasty, when wealthy Tamil nobles built their own temples and statues. My favorite Hindu statues were of Ganesh, the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is known as the Remover of Obstacles, and as the god of domestic harmony and success. In the form of Ganesh Gajanana he has as his ‘vehicle’ a mouse named Krauncha.
Beyond relics and treasures of the island’s two major religions, there are reminders of other influences that have visited the island for centuries: Arabic inscriptions, Chinese pottery, Roman coins, Portuguese drawings, Dutch pipes and British photographs.
Upstairs is the most amazing thing in the whole museum: reproductions of gorgeous frescos from the giant rock fortress of Sigiriya, ‘Lion rock.’ The story of Sigiriya is blood-chilling. According to the Cūḷavaṃsa, a chronicle that covers the 4th to the 19th century (that is partly available in English here), Kashyapa I was not in line for the throne but acquired it through the expedient of staging a coup and having his father Dhatusena imprisoned. The real heir fled because he believed, probably with good reason, that he would be assassinated. Meanwhile, newly ascended to the throne, Kashyapa believed his dad had hidden some treasure and let him out of prison to show him where he put it. Dhatusena led him to a large irrigation tank, saying it was the only treasure he had. Enraged, Kashyapa walled his father up and left him to die. This behavior turned the public against him. They called him Pithru Ghathaka Kashyapa, ‘Kashyapa the Patricide’. Afraid they would help the rightful heir to attack him, Kashyapa moved here:
He made it even more defensible with a moat and ramparts. Not only that, he planted a huge garden around the rock, including fountains and pools, supplied with water by a complex irrigation system. The entrance to the Sky Palace was via a staircase built into the rock, which was carved around it to look like a crouching lion—the entrance was through the lion’s chest.
The frescos, painted during his rule, show beautiful maidens with flowers. According to Dr. Edwin Ariyadasa, the maidens are a kind of divine welcome committee in the form of Apsara, cloud goddesses dancing and scattering flowers as a welcome to (non-hostile) visitors to the palace.
Another memorable room was the one reserved for Kolam masks. A kolam is a comic folk play in which masked actors tell a story through dance, mime and dialogue. There was one playing on a TV in a little movie theater. A couple of unmasked drummers sat off to the side and would strike up a conversation with the grotesque masked caricatures that appeared on stage. The conversation was all in Sinhalese (I think), but you could get a sense of the characters through their voices and posture—one, for example, seemed to be an unhealthy old lady who whined a lot. Another seemed to be a very angry man. After a bit of banter between the masked character and the drummer, music started up and the character would dance in a frenzy.
There was a lot more to the museum than I have described here: textiles, explanations of agricultural practices, musical instruments and jewelry to name just a tiny fraction of objects. In fact there’s a whole other museum next door–the National Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, though, we have limited museum endurance and hurried through whole rooms near the end, desperate for a sit-down and cold drink. That wasn’t the museum’s fault, though. If you are ever in Colombo I would recommend a visit.
Kandy sits on a hill in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, ensconced in dense jungle and a curve of the island’s great river the Mahaweli. The town of Kandy used to be so inaccessible that no one—not the Portuguese nor the Dutch nor the English could take it by military means. Getting there is still a hassle (though you’re less likely to be brained by a keteriya) and involves either driving along a winding and congested road or getting on a crowded and very slow train. Our taxi ride from Hikkaduwa took seven hours, the last two devoted exclusively to the final 16 kilometers. Our driver was so exhausted by the end of it that he caused two small fender-benders and kept misunderstanding Siri’s directions.
New Year’s Eve
When we finally arrived, there were still two hours left in the tired old year of 2019. Having signed up for the Gala Dinner at our hotel, we hauled our jangled carcasses along to the dining room looking for some booze and burbling to steady our nerves. After all, if there is one day of the year when heedless revelry is generally permitted, it is New Year’s Eve.
Alas, the mood was not conducive to a bacchanalia. The vast dining room was sparsely peopled by tense and tidy monadic groups. A table of twelve women dressed in white emitted a distinctly religious odor; a wholesome German family of four looked about ready for bed; a young couple from some indeterminate European country were clearly just there for the food. The only likely looking ally was a large British family, the father of which was wearing one of the party hats provided and drinking a glass of red wine.
Then the music started. The Hummingbirds, a calypso band of four playing well-known Reggae hits and a few Sri Lankan numbers. Despite the profusion of Bob Marley, the music was doing nothing to loosen the room. We ate our chicken à l’orange and prawn cocktails in a state of exhaustion wondering when the waiter would bring the bubbles.
When all the guests were still in this painfully self-conscious state, the band started zero in on one table per song, inviting the table to name a song and then, when it was over, to fork over cash for their CD. When they came to our table, we requested a Sri Lankan tune. I tried to avoid eye contact by looking up at a corner of the room and softly tapped my fingers on the table as a feeble gesture of goodwill. When the band finished they shoved their CD in front of us and I realized that I didn’t bring cash downstairs but told them I would go and get it and give it to them later.
The dinner wore on. No booze was forthcoming. John went to the waiter and asked about it. The waiter replied rather stiffly that alcoholic beverages were not included in the menu and would need to be ordered separately. However, he duly brought a bottle over and that was a blessing.
The band went outside to the pool, following the shyest diners, who had thought to avoid them. John wanted to sing with them so we followed them all out there and found the band serenading a couple of blushing Swedes with ABBA’s “The Winner Takes All”.
As the band retreated without making a sale, John pounced.
“Do you know ‘Cough Syrup’ by The Butthole Surfers?” he asked.
“What kind of song is it sir?”
“Country?” The lead singer asked.
“Sure!” John said and launched into a full-throated rendition of late-twentieth-century lyricism.
Sportingly, the band followed along with lugubrious twanging and sweet harmonies that made it a fairly idiosyncratic arrangement, to say the least.
The only thing I really knew about Kandy was that it had a Temple of the Tooth on the edge of an artificial lake. Sri Dalida Maligawa is the temple built to house the canine tooth of Gautama Buddha, which is said to have been retrieved from his ashes by a disciple and smuggled to the island later on. The temple is part of the royal palace complex, reflecting the tradition that whoever holds the tooth holds the divine right to rule.
On the first day of the New Year I woke up early and decided to go see the temple and lake before it got too hot. At seven o’clock, the streets were just whirring into action. A skinny old man in the faded sarong was laying out the components of his shoe-polishing kit on a rag on the sidewalk. The newspaper vendor next door had received bundles from the printer and was busy cutting the blue plastic strips tying them together. A woman was sweeping the street with a twig broom. The old hat-seller was laboriously unpacking his big black sack of hats and pinning them up on a plastic frame. Short-haired, long-eared stray dogs lay curled against walls in corners. Tuk-tuk drivers were picking out strategic parking spots.
When I got to the fence around the temple grounds, I saw that there was already a big line at the entrance gate. The line was moving slowly because each entrant was being checked thoroughly by security guards. The temple has been bombed twice, in 1988 and 1998, so no more chances are being taken.
There were a lot of women in white and vendors around the grounds were selling flowers and snacks. I’ve since learned that Wednesday is the day of the week when the tooth is bathed in floral water. New Year’s Day was a Wednesday this year, so perhaps that was why it was so busy. I was particularly enthralled with the lotus-blossom stands, which attracted dozens of large black bees.
Instead of going to the temple, I followed the lake shore. The lake itself is full of fish, which are sacred so it is forbidden to catch them. This explains the very large number of cormorants who frequent the overhanging trees, and the cats who laze on its bank. I even saw a monkey eating one, though I don’t know if it caught it itself or borrowed it from someone else.
It took about half an hour to walk right round the lake. The calm lake, greenery and birds create a scene of peacefulness that is unusual in the middle of towns in this island. Even so, though, the road ran right beside the lake, which meant that even early in the morning there was a steady stream of traffic.
The Best Tuk-Tuk Driver in the World
Specifically, there were a lot of tuk-tuk drivers. Usually they just said “Taxi?,” checked for a reaction, then zoomed on. All drivers were men and they drove exactly the same model motorized tuk-tuk: red or blue with a black canopy fastened with white bolts designed to look (appropriately enough) like winged skulls. An oilskin curtain was invariably tied neatly up at the back window ready for the eventuality of rain; a gas-filled whiskey or vodka bottle sat next to the driver’s foot. The back of the canopy tended to be personalized with some kind of slogan or logo, for example a drawing of Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean or a witty phrase like ‘Available All Times But Busy Times Sorry’ or a seemingly random corporate logo such as Gucci or Apple.
“Hello Madam! Tuk-tuk!”
I turned around to see a slim, mustachio’d tuk-tuk driver waving his long arms.
“Hello,” I said. “No tuk-tuk thank you, I’m walking,” I said, pointing along my path.
“Where you going?” he asked.
“I’m just walking. No tuk-tuk.”
“Madam! It’s OK, I just want you to read my book.”
I hesitated. Book? He was an author? Somehow, he must have known that I, too, nursed literary dreams. Perhaps he was the nation’s next big prize-winning novelist, detailing the touching and funny daily trials and tribulations of a tuk-tuk driver in Kandy, satirizing the brutality of the global forces that kept him putting in endless loop de loops around the sacred city. I certainly couldn’t snub him now. It was my duty as a fellow author to nurture this against-the-odds talent. I stepped resolutely towards him.
“Where you from?” he asked.
“New Zealand,” I said, wondering about the relevance of the question to his literary career.
“Ah!” His eyes lit up, the light of inspiration that probably beamed out of them onto the pages of his diary in the wee hours of the morning, the only time he had the peace and quiet to hone his craft.
“I know someone from Australia. Two days ago, here!” He grabbed a tattered exercise book from the seat next to him, riffled through its pages and showed me an entry, hand-written in blue pen:
Ravi is the best tuk-tuk driver in the world. He took me to all the places and was very good. He was very friendly and I would 100% recommend his service to anyone.
“Ah, great!” I nodded, handing the book back, nodding and smiling.
“I take you to see the monument.”
I didn’t know which monument he meant but decided not to ask because that meant getting side-tracked.
“No thank you, I’m walking. I don’t have any money,” I patted the place where my pockets would have been if I had any.
“No, no, not now!” He laughed. “Later, I give you my card.”
“But I don’t have a phone,” I said.
He fished around in his pockets and produced a business card.
“I don’t have a phone so I can’t call you,” I explained, concerned that he wasn’t understanding.
“Here, here,” he said and thrust the card into my hand.
“OK, bye,” I said, and walked off, deaf to further entreaties.
For the rest of the walk I considered how this sort of hard sell was probably an effective approach if every single other man in your city was employed in the same occupation and there was a limited pool of available customers.
They started gathering at about five-thirty, when the light changed, finding the highest spots—the ridges of roofs, the tops of poles and posts and the topmost branches of the tallest trees. These are slim jungle crows with big ravenesque beaks. At mid-day their feathers shine with an oily green iridescence but now, in the dimming day, they were turning into silouettes.
To the west, a valley receded into misty, green haze. The piled-up clouds that signal humidity were turning an orangey-pink and occasional flashes indicated a lightning storm somewhere in the distance. On the hill a huge white statue of the Buddha presided over the town. From the main street below you could hear the usual honks and engine noise, along with shouts and laughter and snatches of music booming from a passing car.
A flock of white heron passed by at our eye-level. There were about a dozen of them, long legs stretched out behind. They flew gracefully and quickly in a straight line, from A to B, with B being somewhere beyond the lake. Then there was a synchronous flash of white—the quick flap of a flock of minas, whose butterfly-like wings were taking them somewhere safe, a tree on the street, maybe.
Meanwhile, the number of silent crows was gathering. At five to six, the view from the bar was like a scene from The Birds. Now and then a single crow ruffled its neck feathers, bowed its head and let out a belligerent squawk, but the majority stood silent and waiting.
Then, when the sun had almost disappeared, this majority lifts off. There must be hundreds of them whirling around and squawking. From the porch, we are astounded by the noise. We can’t hear each other speak, I can’t even hear myself. The air is filled with a multi-throated raucous gloating. The crows are not travelling; they were dancing or fighting or singing or threatening or something. It’s such an exciting spectacle, we make sure we don’t miss it again. The bar tender says it happens every night, “So many birds” he waves his hand at the window, smiling.
The Hot Museum
Misreading Google Maps, I thought the museum was inside the walled-off temple complex, whereas it is actually just outside it. This mistake was significant because it meant we spent a good forty minutes lining up outside the temple complex, going through a gender-segregated security check and trudging across an immaculate lawn only to find that we didn’t have to. It’s one of those little things that spouses tuck away in their memory to tax the offending partner with at a later date.
We might have cut our losses and gone to see the Temple of the Sacred Tooth but in the end we didn’t want to because (1) we’re not believers and would feel as if we were intruding and (2) it would involve walking around with no shoes on and (3) we knew the limits of our museum-temple endurance, especially on a hot day in SE Asia.
By the time we made it to the museum, we were floppy with the heat and not in a mood to be impressed by anything. Considering this, the museum must have been interesting enough because there were several objects that made us linger grumpily around the glass cabinet for a second or two.
The nobles of Kandy wore fine clothes and jewelry and were carted around on palanquins. They used pretty objects including hand-carved-coconut ladles liked to watch dances. The men were good at sword fighting and they produced manuscripts written on ola leaf. Their metalsmiths were competent.
The coolest thing in the museum was probably the flag of the rebel Monarawila Keppetipola Disawa, who resisted British rule in the nineteenth century. It features a pop-eyed, red-lipped roaring cartoon lion that I, for one, wouldn’t like to meet in a dark alley.
Getting out of Kandy is not easy.
The train station is open to the elements, which means it is hot. We arrived early and the train was an hour late. This gave us plenty of time to watch the locals. Crows had made the place their home, even the indoor parts of it. A couple of healthy stray dogs trotted here and there, getting hand outs from staff and making parkour leaps onto platforms from the tracks. At the end of the platforms was an aquarium containing a bunch of confused looking fish.
An elderly woman with no teeth patiently led a blind woman—her daughter?—from person to person asking for a small offering.
I got bored waiting and finished the chocolate-covered peanuts we’d brought for the journey. I went to the loo, which had no lock or toilet paper. I photographed things around the station then went for a short walk. Every second person asked, “Where are you from madam and where do you want to go?” so I returned to the station after five minutes.
Just before our train arrived, an announcement in Sinhalese caused everyone on our platform to move to platform 2. We followed in a mad scramble and only just made it in time to shove all our luggage aboard and claim our seats.
The relief we felt when the train started moving was immense, but short-lived. That’s because the train stopped moving after about five kilometres and stayed still for 20 minutes. We don’t know why. At one point a British girl piped up, perhaps speaking for everyone else, “I’m hungry. I’m tired. And I’m sick of being on this stupid train.”
The journey continued for several hours at a maddeningly slow speed, stopping at every station on the way. When the ticket-collector came, John patted his pockets with consternation.
“I don’t have the tickets.”
“Are you sure? Did you check your bag?” I asked.
He checked his bag.
“Wait a minute, didn’t I give them to you?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’ll check.” I riffled through my pockets and purse. Nothing.
“Oh well,” I shrugged. “Just tell him we lost them.”
“He’s—they’re going to kick us off the train!” John hissed. “This is a disaster! I’m having chest pains.”
“Tickets please sir?” The man said.
“They’re back there, in our luggage,” John said bravely.
The man nodded and moved on.
“There, see?” I patted John on the arm and drifted off to sleep.
When we arrived at Colombo Fort station several hours later I noticed something was folded up in the bottom of my jeans pocket and fished it out. When I realized what it was I hastened to shove it back in my purse, but not before John saw it.
“Are those the tickets by any chance?” he asked between clenched teeth.
“Ah well, ‘All is well’ as Trump would say, eh?” I smiled sheepishly. “No harm after all?”
“Chest pains,” he muttered, shaking his head, as we rolled our bags to a taxi.
We couldn’t stay in Kandy without visiting the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, which is a shame because they’re a good six kilometers from the city center, which means a noisy, perilous and gasoline-flavored tuk-tuk ride through heavy traffic. Once you step through the gates into a spectrum of greens, though, and you take a gulp of the velvety, spice-scented air and hear bell-like birdsong from the spiky crowns of towering palm trees, you realize that it’s definitely worth the trip.
Sitting on a hill in the crook of a bend of Mahaweli River (the longest in Sri Lanka), this 146-acre tropical Eden has been a pleasure garden since the fourteenth century, when King Wickramabahu III kept his court there and his queen frolicked about in flowery arbors. In later centuries a temple was added. Thanks to the encircling river, it only captures cool breezes but is also, according to John (ever the War Nerd), ‘eminently defensible’. However, along with the rest of the Kandy Kingdom, the grounds fell to the British in the first half of the nineteenth century.
At that time, the area was mainly planted with coffee and cinnamon. There was one Buddhist monk living on the grounds, despite the fact that the British had removed the temple. The first superintendent, Alexander Moon, identified the area as a likely spot for a Botanical Garden and cleared it of riff-raff, plant and human.
At first, the garden was a kind of botanical laboratory, where Moon and co. tested out economically viable crops. One of the things Sri Lanka is most famous for now is tea, but the very first tea plant that grew on the island was grown in Peradeniya in 1824. For several decades after that, the preferred cash crop was actually coffee—the British deforested hill after hill of the Central Highlands to plant them with the stuff. It was only after 1869, when the fungus Hemileia vastratrix aka ‘coffee rust’ destroyed 80% of plantations, that the hills were replaced by Ceylon tea. In his spare time, Alexander Moon explored the countryside collecting and cataloguing plant specimens, publishing his Catalogue of Ceylon Plants (viewable here) in 1824, a year before he died.
Moon’s large shoes were inadequately filled until 1843, when George Gardner was appointed superintendent of the gardens, formally established as the Royal Botanical Gardens in that same year. Gardner was a renowned Scottish botanist and author of Travels in the Interior of Brazil (1846) (see here ) and an enormous Catalogue of Brazilian Plants(see it here). After his untimely death in 1849, George H.K. Thwaites took charge and worked hard to put the gardens on the map. He was the one responsible for bringing the Brazilian rubber tree here and cultivating it–even now a big cash crop for the island. Although Thwaites had started out as an accountant, he made his name as a botanist after discovering that diatoms were not animals but algae. Now he has a lizard and a butterfly named after him—how many former accountants can say that? After Thwaites’s death in 1880, Henry Trimen came along and he pushed things along. He also published Flora of Ceylon, some of whose colored plates you can view in a slideshow here.
Starting from the late nineteenth-century, boatloads of European potentates started coming over and bunging trees in the ground. In 1875, King Edward VII planted a Bo tree (Ficus religiosa). In 1891 both the Crown Prince Nikolai of Russia and the King of Greece George I did a bit of ceremonial planting, little imagining their future assassinations. In 1893 it was the turn of the Emperor of Austria Franz Josef, who planted an Asoka tree (Saraca indica) and subsequently lost several family members to assassination and suicide–anyone would think that planting a tree in Kandy was bad luck! But in 1898 Prince Henry of Prussia planted an Amherstia nobilis and got along all right. Most impressively of all, in 1901 the Prince of Wales (later George V) planted a cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis) that still produces huge fruit resembling those oversized grapes in size and shape. Although John could take or leave the majority of plants, he was irresistibly drawn to this specimen.
The garden has dozens of specialized collections and sections but we couldn’t see them all because walking around in the middle of the day is like wearing a suit made of steam. The Plant House seemed to be a collection of the world’s most popular house plants. I recognized a lot of them from my grandmother’s house and parents’ living room. Seen altogether like this, I realized that their main appeal lay in the beautiful patterns on the leaves, some of which looked like paint spatters, others like the exoskeletons of some primitive insect. It soon got so steamy with all the photosynthesis going on that it was difficult to breathe, so we left the Plant House and admired the outdoor scenery for a bit.
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Next stop was the Orchid House. Here I learned that there are 188 orchid species in Sri Lanka, 110 of which grow here in Kandy district. The flowers varied a lot—some of them big and fleshy, others small and delicate like Japanese paper cut-outs, others hyacinth-like flower bunches. What they all had in common was that they looked like gaudy alien sex organs.
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The main attraction of the gardens, though, is definitely arboreal. We wandered with our noses in the air looking up at the amazing variety of odd trees. Paths were lined with rows of palms. A sealing-wax palm caught my eye with its bright-red stalk.
A Sloanea javanica looked like a Dali tree with its sharp, jutting surreal roots. A Queensland Kauri tree (Agathis Robusta) might have been a massive stone pillar holding up the sky. It reminded me of the current inferno in Australia and how my friend Becky said that eucalyptus trees, being full of oily sap, explode in the heat of fire. Although it is indigenous to the Americas, frangipani (Plumeria rubra) seems to do well in this climate and I saw several examples of the tree with pretty, fragrant flowers. In many parts of South-East Asia it’s regarded as sacred and here I’ve seen signs calling it a ‘Temple Tree’.
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A large number of trees had parasite plants or epiphytes. Some of the vines were as thick as a human arm and alarmingly determined about where they wanted to go. A few looked like step ladders, with geometrically precise spaces between the leaves.
But apart from trees, there were other visual treats. For example, a row of yellow shrubs lured me over to read the name ‘Song of India’ (Dracaena reflexa ‘Variegata’). The fernery offered a shady reprieve from the bright paths. Massive bamboo plants created a natural screen in one section near the river, and a spice garden showed me what I’d always wondered–what do pepper plants and cinnamon and nutmeg trees look like?
There was human interest, too. For one thing, this place was Lover Central. Almost every park bench, pagoda, grassy knoll or decorative boulder was occupied by a courting couple sitting as close together as possible and whispering sweet nothings in each others ears.
In the midst of some smooth-trunked trees I saw a couple of big white cows and took a photo of them and the man tending them wandered over to meet me. At first I thought he was going to tell me photography was forbidden or something, but he just wanted to know where we were from. When I said New Zealand, he smiled and replied with the two words that seem to be commonly associated with my country for a lot of Sri Lankans: Richard Hadlee.
Hadlee (for those of you who are neither New Zealanders nor Sri Lankans) was our national hero of 1980s cricket. His fast-bowling exploits were reported on radios playing in the garden over a decade of summers. With the utterance of those two words, this cow farmer, who was about my age, instantly evoked those days. Strange to think that someone so far away grew up with a similar experience, that we lived on opposite sides of a sort of mirror world.
Well, it was nice to see one of the world’s great botanical gardens but one can’t wander about in gardens forever and soon it was time to replenish fluids and to get another tuk-tuk, this time back to the hotel.
“See the electric fence?” Our guide Ruwan pointed to the serious barrier stretching around the park perimeter. “This is to stop elephants going out from the park. Before, they went into the farms and villages and even broke some houses. They especially like sugar cane—they squeeze the stalk with their trunks and drink the juice. But now, even with the fence, they still go out. They go to the farms and eat the sugar, then in the morning they are back.”
We were in Udawalawe, Sri Lanka’s sixth-largest national park. Established in 1972, it consists of 30,871 hectares of grassy, bushy, pondy place where elephants roam wild. In all there are about 2,000-3,000 wild elephants on Sri Lanka (compared to 20,000 at the beginning of the nineteenth century) and a lot of them can be found here. Of course, no elephant is an island though; the park includes lots of other wildlife, including crocodiles, lizards, water buffalo, leopards and myriad birds.
We’d decided to see the park as a day trip from Hikkaduwa, a three-hour drive away. The drive to Udawalawe was interesting in itself, presenting vistas of green South Asian countryside with vibrant rice paddies full of egrets, king coconut palms, misty forests and wide brown rivers. Every now and then we passed through a village, where people were busy going on with their lives. I gazed with interest at the variety of bodies and faces. Women with long skirts and sun umbrellas sashayed to market, old men wrapped in sarongs sat wearily outside their houses, young men and women in jeans and shirts waited at bus stops looking at their smart phones, grandmothers carried grandchildren, men worked on cars or on building houses. Cows wandered freely, dragging the ropes tied around their necks and followed by one or two egrets, determined to catch any frog or lizard flushed by the cow’s hooves. There were plenty of stray dogs, too, the sharp-eared, short-haired local variety. Painfully, a lot of them seemed to be suffering from mange.
Our driver, Mr. Alvo, told us that the whole country had suffered after the Easter bombings, where suicide bombers had carried out coordinated bombings targeted at Christians and Westerners, killing 259 people and injuring at least 500.
“Not only did they kill so many people, but they also destroyed the economy, they hurt the country. And for what? For religion. After the bombings, for seven, eight months, no tourists came. Tourism is important to Sri Lanka. So people who work in tourism, they were suffering. Some people were starving! I had problems too: for this vehicle I could no longer make the payments. I had to extend to the loan, and the bank charged so much interest. Now I will not be able to pay it all for more years. Now, the tourists are coming back. At Udawalawe, the safari companies took the wheels off their jeeps and put them on blocks, so that the banks wouldn’t tow them away. And the bombers—they were millionaires! They had so much money. Why didn’t they enjoy it? If they wanted to blow themselves up, very good—but why hurt the whole country?” He shook his head. “Now, it’s better. The tourists are coming again.”
At Udawalawe, on the edge of the park, we met Ruwan at the company HQ. He was a young, soft-spoken guy who clearly liked his job. He helped us climb into the jeep and handed us a pair of binoculars.
The road to the park was lined with safari-themed hotels and vendors selling plastic bags of cut-fruit or hats or bottles of water. We sailed past them, blinking in the wind of the jeep’s motion and eager for our first wildlife encounter. To our left was a big lake and we could see little mangrove islands and big white herons. In the far distance was a wall of jungly hills that formed a romantic hazy horizon.
At the official entrance to the park, the jeep slowed down and we turned onto a bumpy dirt road that led past a small Buddhist shrine decorated with elephant heads. The jeep crawled along this road until it reached a little office, were the driver had to get out and sign a log book. A sign opposite the office announced a government program to rid the park of the invasive species lampada camara, which looked familiar to me from many suburban gardens.
And so the safari really began. It was a beautiful day—sunny but not too hot and the park lay spread out before us, grassy and bushy with the occasional tall tree. The air was fragrant with a flowery scent and filled with the sounds of birds and insects.
Almost immediately, we saw unmistakable signs of elephantine activity. Ruwan pointed out some pits of soft clay. The elephants, he said, were in the habit of churning the earth up with their feet and then eating the loosened clay, which contained minerals and nutrients that kept them healthy. Close to this quarry were large deposits of dung, which had created little side-businesses of their own: a white mushroom particularly liked feeding on elephant poo, as did various insects, which in turn attracted bee eaters and lizards.
Ruwan tapped the window of the jeep and the driver stopped beside a pair of lapwings, which were standing their ground and pretending not to look at us.
“We call them the “Didjadooit” bird because their cry sounds like “Did you do it? Did you do it?” They lay their eggs on islands in the lake with an ability to know when the rains will come. For this reason, farmers watch them closely. They are an important bird.”
He tapped on the window as a signal to the driver and we moved on, stopping shortly afterwards behind two other jeeps. Soon, we saw why: there was a Sri Lankan elephant—elephas maximus maximus— grazing right beside the road.
“A herd of elephants,” Ruwan said. We looked again and soon saw that he was right—there were about four others nearby, though we hadn’t seen them at first because they were partially hidden by shrubs and long grass.
“These are females. The herds are matriarchal—the oldest female is the leader. And there–” he pointed to the other side of the road, “Is a male.”
I looked where he was pointed and saw a very large elephant quite close and looking at us intently.
“You can tell he is not happy because his ears are not moving. Maybe he wants to come to the other side of the road but the jeeps are stopping him. Which jeep will he charge, that is the question!” Ruwan chuckled. Personally, I thought this joke was in bad taste. I had seen a Youtube video in which a bull elephant had overturned a safari jeep and it looked like the sort of experience I wouldn’t enjoy.
Luckily, the male’s ears started flapping again (a cooling system and a fly-deterrent) and he transferred his attention to lunch. First he wrapped his truck around a bouquet of grass and tore it up out of the ground. I noticed he seemed like a picky eater because he kept playing with his food—waving the grass like a cheerleader’s pom-pom, then whacking it on the ground, touching it with his stubby tongue and then shaking it again.
“They do this, the shaking to remove things like stones and hard dirt, which can wear down the teeth. An elephant eats 20 hours out of 24, and they can live for 80 years, so that is a lot of chewing. They need to take care of their teeth.”
We looked back at the females. I remarked how skinny the biggest one looked.
“Yes, the females lose a lot of weight when they are nursing. They have to eat so much anyway, but when the baby is born they need more because they lose a lot of calories with the milk.”
Seen close-up, the anatomy of the Indian elephant seemed even weirder than I’d anticipated. I suppose I’m more familiar with African elephants and cartoon versions. It had a high bony forehead with deep hollows for the eye sockets and bulging cheeks—probably because of the strong chewing muscles—that made it look like they were smiling. The lower lip was remarkably loose, pendulous and whiskery. And then there is the trunk, which has about 40,000 muscles in it (compare 600 muscles for the whole human body) and is so sensitive it can select a single blade of grass. When the ears flapped forward, you could see the pinkish, speckled skin underneath.
“The elephants’ real color is different. They look like they do because they use mud to cover themselves and to cool off, and they also rub against teak trees, which gives them that reddish color. Actually, they also eat the teak, which is why you don’t see so many big teak trees here.”
As he spoke, a younger female was stubbornly working away at uprooting a small tree. Finally, she succeeded, with a triumphant little tail-whisk.
Moving on, we saw a large male standing with his head against a big tree.
“This is how elephants sleep. Either this way, or with their trunk resting on the ground.”
The sound of the jeeps must have woken him up, because he drew away from the tree and looked in our direction, with a confused air. Then he curled up his trunk and put it in his mouth, which made him look like a little kid sucking its thumb.
“He is shy,” Ruwan smiled.
Moving on, we saw a large lake, at the edge of which stood water buffalos and another herd of elephants. They were rather far away so I couldn’t get a very good look, but suddenly we were surprised by a flock of fast little birds, about the size of sparrows but with black heads and flashes of white and red–the black-headed munia. They are one of the most commonly found birds in the park, along with spotted doves, crested hawk eagles, brahiminy kites and, my favorite, bee-eaters. In the watery areas there were kingfishers, herons, cormorants and we even saw a painted stork getting splashed by an irritable baby elephant.
It was particularly nice to see a couple of adults and their babies having a mud bath together. The four of them got so close it was like a group hug. They would shower themselves with mud—the trunk directing the spray with admirable precision–and then get close to each other to rub together, which presumable formed the function of scratching, exfoliating, ridding biting insects and strengthening the social bond. I could only see three of them but Ruwan said there was a baby in the mix, standing between their legs. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes we saw it emerge, nicely slathered in mud. When the adults flapped their wet ears, John said it sounded like someone flapping a big leather carpet.
Insects also made the park their home–here and there we’d see a large termite mound. Ruhan’s eyes were so sharp that he also spotted the nests of weaver ants. They select a couple of large leaves, stitch them together and plot insurgencies in this aerial bower. You could see their silhouettes behind the sunlit leaves. In areas where weeding had taken place, the ground was marked by distressingly large spiderwebs. I don’t know what made them and I’m not sure I want to.
Nor was there any shortage of reptilian life. The first lizard Ruwan pointed out turned out to be a mating pair. Then there was a spiny-backed thing that looked vaguely like an iguana eyeballing us from a tree trunk, and a monitor lizard crossing the road in front of us. In the watering hole, we even saw a crocodile intermittently snapping at what I suppose was a fish. My favorite, though, was this cute guy who was sunning himself on a stick when we interrupted him.
After a couple of hours of environmental enthrallment, we started to get tired and made our way back to the entrance, where there was an extremely long queue of jeeps waiting to get in. After we met Mr. Alvo again, he told us that just three months ago, there had been no jeeps at all. He also mentioned the havoc the elephants used to make before the electric fences were up.
“But what can you do? This is their territory,” he shrugged. “They need a very wide area to get food, they walk a long way. No one can hurt the elephants here. If you do, you are in a lot of trouble.”
There are about 4,000 Sri Lankan elephants left, and they are listed as an endangered species. The main risk to the elephant population is human, particularly when their interest in tasty crops causes poor families economic ruin. In the last decade this interspecies war has claimed the lives of more than a thousand elephants and more than 500 people. The Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) has recently committed to changes such as providing elephants with greater territory and building transit corridors, and they’re working on providing humans with economic incentives to protect the animals (eg by planting non-tasty fruit like orange trees or by capitalizing from elephant-related tourism), so things seem to be improving.
Last week we spent a couple of sweltering days in Galle Fort, a pretty, touristy spot enclosed in a huge old fort on a promontory attached to the city of Galle. Originally Portuguese, the fortress was expanded and consolidated by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. It features a lighthouse, several old churches, a mosque and lots of souvenir shops, many of which are jewelry stores. In fact, the hotel where we were staying was directly above a gem-vending store and run by the same people.
As the check-in process was underway, I amused myself by gazing at the merchandise . The two featured gems were ones for which Sri Lanka is famous: sapphires and moonstones. Surprisingly, I discovered, sapphires are not always blue. There is a particularly pretty kind, the padparadscha, that ranges from pink to orange. My favorite, though, was the moonstone, partly because I’ve always wondered what it looked like since reading the Wilkie Collins novel. As it happens, there’s a lot of variety; some are transparent, others the color of a glass of water with a splash of milk in it. And if you hold it up to the light it shoots out iridescent glances.
After stowing our luggage in the stylish room, I went for a wander through the fort admiring the big old trees, colorful merchandise, old architecture and little glimpses of local life. I tried to keep to the side of the road as tuk-tuks careened along the narrow streets and sunburned Europeans dawdled along looking for air-conditioned drinking holes. In one corner of the fortress I followed a stream of people through a narrow exit and saw a little beach where locals were enjoying some respite from the heat. At the foot of the walls, vendors in tiny carts crouched in the shade waiting for people to come buy soda, balloons or fresh fruit.
In the evening, we had curry at a little family restaurant called Spoons, where a very small child with large eyes and a serious, abstracted expression wandered in from the adjacent room, which seemed to be where the family lived, into the restaurant, and then on into the busy kitchen. On one occasion he had taken his shorts off. On another he was laughing quietly to himself about something. After eating, we walked up onto the fort walls, where the air was slightly cooler, and looked at the sunset, .
The next morning, we headed to the jewelry store for breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sri Lanka style. I ordered the SL breakfast, a delectable feast that included dahl, fish curry, roti, an egg hopper, string hoppers and a sweet coconut pancake.
Next stop was the maritime archeology museum. After a ten-minute walk we were both a little delirious from the heat and not necessarily absorbing all the information on display. However, I gathered that the area was famous for stilt fishermen, shipwrecks, turtles and an ancient sea-trading tradition.
After an iced coffee, we decided to check out early and return to Hikkaduwa, where it wasn’t so hot. A tuk-tuk driver offered to take us the whole 20km so we hopped aboard and saw the sights. Just outside the fort walls a group of boys in beautiful costumes were practicing drumming and dancing. The Galle bus station was bustling with people and the whole trip was bristling with interesting sights. These were a little hard to appreciate properly, however, because our tuk-tuk driver seemed to think that there was a shield of invincibility around his little vehicle and he wove amongst trucks, buses and cars with terrifying insouciance.