I travel frequently and mostly alone. Also I travel at worst time. This brings a lot of savings.
Last year, I went to Sri Lanka in Monsoon season and at the height of an internal war. This was my sixth visit. First in 1974, which incidentally was my first ever venture to a foreign land.
Since childhood, I was curious to go there because of the legend of Raven. He abducted Hindu goddess Sita from India and carted her off to Lanka. Sri Lanka means “blessed island”. Indeed, it is all lush green. Terraced paddy fields curve away to distant jungles. Thousands of lakes flash like jewel in the sun. Ebony, teak and silkwood are in abundance. There are plenty of elephants, leopards, monkeys, cobras and crocodiles. In winter, migrating birds like flamingoes flock its lagoons. This, unfortunately, is the same island, which has been traumatized by an ethnic war. A minority group is behind it. They are Tamil by caste, Hindu by religion and Indian by decent(sic). The call themselves tigers. Initially they kept low profile but played havoc when their tales were twisted.
In fact, trouble was brewing since 1982 when I went for the second time. There were telltales of skirmishes: burnt shops and torn-down gates. Once I went into a Hindu temple. A lady made a red mark on my forehead known as tilak. This was a ritual. With a tall stature and a tilak, I was taken as a Tamil. Unknowingly, I had turned myself into a walking target. Two young men followed me and, at a rather deserted place, asked me if I was a Tamil. “Hell, no I am a Muslim”, and a stab in the back was averted.
In July 1999, I arrived at Katunayake Airport, just north of its capital Colombo. Once, it used to be quite busy but no more. Immigration and custom checks were cursory; I was out in about 15 minutes. I got a little slam from touts and cabbies. Being a frequent visitor, I knew all ropes. I walked past them with grace and got into a waiting coach. For only one dollar, it dropped me at YMCA Hotel.
The staff greeting by saying “Ayubowan, Ayubowan”, with hands folded and raised. They gave me a nice room with a view. Next morning, I went for a quick round of Colombo. The city was hemming with activities. It honked with cars, taxis and rickshaws, the three wheelers. Vendors on the sidewalks were selling fruit cocktails and coconut water. I walked along the Galle Face Green. A tall statue of assassinated Prime Minister Bandaranike stood like a lone sentinel. Ancient cannons along the Marine Drive still stood as a mute reminder of the past. Young men were playing cricket and lovers had hidden their faces behind colorful umbrellas. The city centre was full of shops and stalls overflowing with cassette, radios, masks, saris and batiks. If I was looking for a sign of war, I did not find any. The war seemed distant.
After staying for three days in Colombo, I headed for Yala National Park. It was quite far, about 340 km away. The coach travel was comfortable. The road was good contouring the seashore. Palm-fringed beaches, some with white breakers, kept my interest alive. To my next, sat a gentleman of about 30, with long black hair. As I looked towards him, he asked me straight, “Do you find any difference between me and others?” When I said no, he muttered, “Well, our government does not think so.” He introduced himself as Ramesh, a teacher and, above all, a Tamil. I squeezed myself away from him. He laughed aloud and said, “So you also think that all of us are guerrillas with vials of cyanide around our necks. “No, my dear, no.” I felt at ease. I learnt that Sri Lanka had high suicide rates. Why should one be surprised that a Tiger would commit suicide for his cause, when a wife would do so because her husband didn’t like the dinner?”
The coach got me upto Tissamaharama, about 28 km short of Yala National Park. I decided to spend the night there in a guest house. It had a large Hindu Temple, a dogoba with dome-like roof and a vast Tissa Tank. I saw many amazing feats of self-mortification like fire-walking near the temple. Next day, I got a lift to Yala to join an early morning mini-bus tour for day-trippers. The guide took us to area where animals were most likely to be seen. This involved some walk. I was wearing a bright safari suit to give impression of an adventurer. The guide whispered something about danger of wearing orange, red and pink colors. This went above my head. When the walk proceeded, I found myself flanked by two guards. We passed through a dense jungle, which was filled with deer, leopards. monkeys, elephants, hawks and eagles. Later I realized that I had provocative attire and was asking for trouble. While moving by minibus, I spotted crocodiles, wild boars and buffalo.
In the afternoon, I went to Yala Safari Beach hotel where jungle hugged the ocean. I only had a cup of tea. I could not afford to stay there or even dine. What a pleasure it would have been to stay there, far from the maddening crowd, amidst a wild life sanctuary, surrounded by a lagoon and deep blue sea.
I returned from Yala in the evening and again stayed in Tissamaharama. I gathered information for touching next point, Nuwara Eliya. As advised, I proceeded to a small town, Wellyawaya for change of the bus. Just as I was changing, a tout ran into me. He told me in a long rambling tone of jungle shrines, gorgeous pageants, dancers & drummers. I was impressed by his narratives and followed him. To start with, he took me to a monastery at a hilltop. He introduced me to a young monk, hardly 16, shaven-head, yellow-robs, brown skinned and oblivious to world around. He was sitting on the edge of wall. He could speak very fluent English and was happy to be of any help. I sat nearby, eyeballs to eyeballs. I started telling him of a young & beautiful girl I met in Paris and her intention to cover the life of a young Buddhist, his aspirations, his longings and his dreams. All that time, I was watching pupils of his eyes, which could expand to six times its normal size under excitement or stimulation. I saw no such reaction. Later, I realized they were trained not to respond to any worldly allurement. They achieved it though toil, devotion and mediation.
At night, I stayed in the Town with a family. I was pampered with good food specially hoppers. Those were unique Sri Lankan snacks, similar to pancakes, served with eggs, honey and yogurt. There was excellent and delicious tuna, plenty of tropical fruits like papayas, pineapples, rambutan and cashew. Usual local food was rice and curry with small side dishes of vegetables, meat and fish. Coconut formed the based of most curries. The food was served onto my plate in small quantities simultaneously. The small portions of curries were to be mixed together with rice and eaten with right hand.
The road to Nuwara Eliya was a climb from heat to crisp mountain air. The ascend was scenic with beautiful landscape, cascading waterfalls and acres and acres of tea plantation.Nuwara Eliya,a mountain resort, was nestled serenely among the surrounding peaks. It was 1,889 metres above sea level. It had tea gardens all around looking like green velvet. While sitting in balcony of my backpacker, I could see women picking the tea. Dressed in shimmering saris, wrists jangling with silver as if they were on their way to some celebration. In the afternoon, I went to Hakagala Botanical Gardens, some 10-km way. I saw a magnificent display of roses, ferns, wildflowers, and shrubs including the national flowers, lotus and frangipani. I wished I could have stayed longer but I needed to leave Nuwara Eliya so that I would reach Kandy in time for its world famed Perahera.
The Perahera was a spine tingling, glittering and gleaming elephant extravaganza. At dusk, an old canon boomed. The replica of a Sacred Casket was paraded though the narrow, torch-lit streets of the town in a procession. Compared to Nuwara Eliya, Kandy was much lower at 488 meters. It was a beautiful town and home to the sacred tooth of the Buddha, Sri Lanka’s holiest relic protected in the Sacred Casket. The casket rested in a gilded temple by a tree-lined lake. Traditional drumming in courtyard of the temple called faithful to pooja or prayer in the afternoon. Afterward, many proceeded to Mahawali, the island’s longest river, to see elephants when they were brought for a bath.
From the hill country, I descended to hot plain in my quest to step into the past. I went to Sigiria and got a room in a lodge. The place which was nearly deserted. Only an English girl, Clare was there. She too was looking for a reason to leave. The lodge owner, Neelan, advised us to go on a daylong tour to the ancient cities. He arranged for us two motor bikes to cover Sigiria Ruins and Anuradhapura, only 14 km apart. First, we went to Lion Rock. True to its name, it loomed over the surrounding plains like a mushroom. Its north face resembled a seated line but all that remained were its paws. A modern brick stairway and a spiral staircase led us to the top. There were world famous frescoes of beautiful, richly coloured ladies and their attendants. In Anuradhapura, there was a sacred Bo tree, the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world. Golden railings protected it. Besides, there were two dagobas, slightly smaller than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. These were 70 meters high and with a dome diameter of around 100 meters. We return by the evening. Riding side by side was thrilling. The daylong ride had its toll, legs cramped; neck stiffened and ear shattered with noise spurted by a broker silencer. But I remained well composed, maintaining my poise and dignity to impress the English Damsel.
Next day, I went alone to Polonnaruwa. Clare decided to stay to compile some notes. She had her laptop with her which, combined with mobile phone, was keeping her in touch with London. She looked like a character from James Bond Movies and I hurriedly took leave of her.
To my next destination, another ancient town. Polonnaruwa turned to be a small archaeological site. But it was better preserved. The highlight was a portrait of a bearded man carved out of a rock. About twice the life size, the figure was holding an ole-leaf book in his hand.
To get home I started early for Trincomalee by bus. It passed by many villages full of life. Sometime, I felt as if the bus was ramming into a crowded bazaar. It scattered, bicycles, coconut-water vendors, cattles, and monks carrying black umbrellas against the wilting sun.
Trincomalee was a port city. There was a Vishnu Temple, a giant Banyan tree and Admiralty House with its gardens sweeping down to the harbour. The city was popular for its under-water attractions. There were beautiful coral reefs and gardens to explore and also sunken ships and temples. I was tired by journey and stayed in a modest guesthouse. Ms Radhika, a lady with a toothy smile, managed it. In the evening, she asked all guests to join for dinner. A young German lady, travelling alone for the past three months, told her ordeal. As a solo traveller, she was prepared to be hassled all the time. When she was most desperate (from being hassled), she happened to meet the best people. One moment she loved it the next hated it and so on.
I returned by train to Colombo. The train-ride across Sri Lanka was a life time experience. From the window, I enjoyed a sort of motion picture with farmers out in the fields, small villages, ponds, lone-huts and un-ending terraces. I stayed there for about 18 days and explored every inch of the country.
I enjoyed my stay. It was the friendliness and happy look on the faces of Sinhalese that struck me most. Buddhists were in majority spreading the Lord’s message: “birth is suffering, life is suffering, death is suffering. To find inner peace, conquer your mind.” With this backdrop, it looked strange that they were indulging in bloodshed in some areas. Maybe a good sense prevails bringing back old glory of Sri Lanka, of being a jewel in the ocean, a taste of paradise and a land of pageantry.