The following story is an authentic and precise description of our adventures in Sri Lanka in January and February 1991. It is a direct translation of my Danish text, and the prices mentioned are with currency rates from February 1991 - that is 1US$=6.15DKR, 1US$=1.54DM, 100rs=2.50US$, 1US$=40rs. I have used US currency, since most of my readers (in English) are from 'over there'.
I, my brother (Kurt) and a friend (Niels), traveled in Asia for 2 months of which 13 days were in Sri Lanka. I study Computer Science (fourth year) in Aarhus; I'm 23. Kurt is 20 and has just started studying to mechanical engineer in Aarhus. Niels is a former school-pal and wanted to see the world as well. Sri Lanka has the shape of a drop of water and is 4/3 the size of Denmark. The island has high mountains in the middle (2-3000m - 6500-9500ft); Colombo is the capital; 15 million people; 70% are Sinhalese and Buddhists; 20% are Tamils (live on Jaffna in the north and on the north-east coast - they are Hindu.
Day 1: 29 January 1991
After spending 2 days in Karachi in Pakistan, we looked forward to Sri Lanka. The only thing one could buy in Pakistan was posters of Saddam Hussein on his white horse and the boys had yelled 'Bush, Bush, Bush' at us. Arrival at 8pm - local time. When we get off the plane, we are greeted by warm and moist air. It feels rather strange compared to the rain and cold of the Danish winter. No problems in the Immigration and the customs. Immediately afterwards, we are dragged into an office by a man who wants to help us, he says. The help turns out to be some very nice hotels by the beach at 400rs (rupees), and after a bit of talking, that the cheapest is 250rs!! (we could see for our selves in his picture catalogue! Nothing cheaper at all!). I said 'No Thanks', and we left. Our 'guide' (Sri Lanka - A travel survival kit - hereafter TSK) wrote that 30-70rs/person was more normal for budget-travellers - furthermore it seemed expensive to us, since our bank had changed our money at 24rs per US$. It later turned out that the rate here was 40. We called YMCA in Colombo (the airport is 25km (15miles) north of Colombo). It was hard to hear what was said on the phone, so we decided to go there. A Dane we had met in Karachi came to us and offered that we could come with him to Colombo. At this time of the day, not many busses came, so we had to take a taxi - we had to pay 600rs (15$)!! We thought it was rather expensive and a rather bad start. We'll hear more about the Dane later; we never found out his name, but we called him Larsen [a very typical Danish name - like Smith in England]. Larsen was a rather small man with thick glasses. He had lived in the mountains of Sri Lanka for 10 years. He had a chicken farm there.
It was a rather special trip to Colombo. It was full moon and for the Sri Lankan people, it is a special night. A very special atmosphere. Everybody were out walking along the road (it seemed) - the young people hand in hand; cicadas singing; contour of the palm trees; the vendors; 25 degrees (77F).
We got off at the YMCA. They confirmed that they were all full. Larsen took us to the bus station - he knew a place south of town where he sometimes stayed overnight. Now, a bus stop in Sri Lanka is not by a sign which says where the different busses departs to and when. No, you are standing in a crowd and when a bus comes, the ticket collector shouts out of the door, where to the bus drives - and then some jumps on. The bus hardly stops. After waiting for 10 minutes, some auto-rickshaws (three-wheeled mopeds with a sofa behind the driver) wanted us to drive with them.
After a little longer of waiting in vain, we accepted the offer. They would drives us to Moratuwa in two auto-rickshaws for 300rs (7.50$) - Larsen wanted to pay for us. Kurt and I in one of them; Niels and Larsen in the other. The air felt very warm and it was 20km (13miles) through the suburbs of Colombo. The drivers were very lively and overtook each other often - they even exchanged a cigarette while driving 50km/ph (31m/ph). 'Our' driver told us about the different buildings we passed. The place we came to, was very close to the Indian Ocean. It had a very big gate and we tried to wake the porter several times (the time was 10:45pm), a big, black person looked out - he was stripped to the waist and wore only a sarong - he only needed a scimitar then he could have come from 1001 night. The owner came too and when he recognized Larsen, he let us in. The luggage was carried out. The 3 of us only had a backpack each. Larsen had 3 suitcases and a attachicase. Larsen could not find the last mentioned and started to look for it. He only looked in one of the rickshaws - he did not hear me telling him that it wasn't the one he came in. The drivers got their money and drove away. Larsen thought it was carried inside. We went inside to get a room. Larsen now found out that his case was completely gone; that the drivers had stolen it. He was furious - Mein God in Hell! He tells us that he had 60.000rs in it, all his documents, travel-checks, the present for his son, etc. He speaks a funny mix of Danish and English to us. "My God, hvad skal I do ?" We tell him that he should call the police. Kurt might remember the licence number - he had noticed it in case we should become separated. Larsen gets the porter to call the police but can't get through. We have had two rooms and we go there. The 3 of us takes one of them. We sit and talk for a while with Larsen. The owner comes back and tells us that the police will call back later. We are probably aware that nothing is going to happen this way. We all have a low spirit and in a way feel guilty in not being able to do more. Of course we offer to help with different things the next day.
Our fan quickly helped us fall asleep in spite of the heat. We kind of felt that it was much better at home and we were wasting a lot of money; and that everybody outside Denmark were not of the best kind. I am always an optimist so perhaps it was mostly Kurt and Niels who felt like that.
Day 2: 30 January
We get up (hmmm ?) and get ready to leave the hotel (Blue Horizon). We talk about what to do and decide to stay a day here and then go to Colombo and settle important matters. Then we could hear what Larsen had found out during the day. We were allowed to go with the hotel's car into town - the owner had some errands to do. We spoke quite a bit with the driver while the owner is in the bank. We buy 6 bananas for 11rs (25c) - our first conversation with someone who don't speak English. We get about 1/4 of the way to the center. The driver gets us on a bus and we squeeze in. Our first bus ride in a third world country was something special. You stand packed like sardines [the Danish expression: like salmon in a barrel] but people have no problem getting in and out, they just squeeze a little more and there is ALWAYS room for just one more... Bus fare: 3rs (7c for 25km (16miles)). Gradually we all got to sit down. A man (or a boy) is standing in the doorway yelling whereto the bus is driving and people then jump on. He gets his rupees and the people squeeze in.
We get off at the Central Railway Station and look for a place to withdraw money. An old man accosts us and wants to change rupees for 45rs per US$ (official rate was 40). We say no, but talk about it afterwards and decide that we could change a few dollars at rate 50. Along the road, we meet the old man again and when he asks us again, we say that we want to change 40US$ for 2000rs. We thought is pretty normal, like in East-Europe, to do it this way. OK, all we have to do is follow him a few blocks from here. Wait here - he is going to fetch his money box. 10 minutes later he is back with another man who wants to know what size the bills are. 10$ bills, we say. We are to go forth and back so not to arouse suspicion (how can one do that when you are the only white people ???). Kurt and Niels are to stay at the main street. The man gives me an envelope - I put the money in it. He shakes his head and is obviously very nervous. I'm doing it wrong - and I shall be more careful - people are looking! He takes the envelope and closes it and fumbles with it. He gives me back the envelope and show me that the money still are there. I am to go back to the others. Then he'll come with the 2000rs and we switch envelopes. I get there and we decide that we are doing something very wrong and decides to leave. A young man talks to me and says that we should look in the envelope - he knows the guys we were dealing with and he says that they were people one shouldn't mess around with. PAPER! The man shows us which way they went - gone, of course.... A very nice trick - and we were taught a lesson for life. Afterwards we were rather sour at our selves and we didn't want to be cheated anymore!
After that, we withdraw money - there is only one bank in Colombo where you can withdraw from your credit card (and only Visa and MasterCard). Hongkong - Shanghai Bank. We buy stamps and reserves a room at the YMCA for the last night before departure to Bangkok. They are not happy to do that for us; it takes quite some time of persuading and insurance that we would pay in advance. YMCA also has a cheap cafeteria - 25rs (62c) for a meal and drinks - the food was a bit dirty though, and the foodcontrol would probably complain about the kitchen.
We go back to the hotel by train (8rs - 20c) and it is very beautiful along the coast line - beautiful palm beaches and rivers ending out in small lagoons.
Larsen is at the hotel when we get back. He is very happy but looks a bit tired. He tells us his story:
He had not been able to sleep and had left for town at 4am. First he went to the place where we were picked up. No luck there. He finds the police station of this district. The time is now about 7am and the chief of the police listens to Larsen's story. He also tells the taxi number which Kurt remembered. Then Larsen waits for 2 hours. The police come back with the two drivers. 'That's him!!!', Larsen says, and points out his driver. He is then told that the two guys had not turned up for 'work' this morning. All taxis have regular places and that was the reason why it was pretty easy to find out who it was. The police had then gone to his cottage and dragged him to the station. He refused all knowledge of what had happened. They questioned him for a while. The chief got quite angry with the man and pulled out a big iron pipe. First he was hit on his toes then on his knees, legs, back, arms and not until he had taken several hits in his head, had he admitted his guilt. 'Oh, My God, det var terrible! - jeg har never set anysing like it!', Larsen said with his special accent and shook his head. Then the guy was told the following: You now have 1 1/2 hour to get the briefcase - and everything that was in it! If you don't come back, then you can use the opportunity to say goodbye to your wife and children for you will not see them again for the next 7 years! Larsen had spend the waiting time making a list of everything in the briefcase. The guy came back alone after 2 hours. Larsen could instantly see that the lock on the briefcase was broken. It was obvious that it had been emptied and searched since the things weren't at their right places. Almost everything was there; the thieves had not had time to spend more then a couple hundred rupees since they were caught so early in the morning. Larsen had been lucky. Larsen told this to the chief and the guy was beaten again - Larsen tells us, that this time, it was much worse than the first time and a horrible description followed. Then the chief had asked if it was enough. It was. The chief asked the guy to give him his taxi permit. Then he started to cry. Confiscated for 15 years. That was the worst thing that could happen to him. Then Larsen had asked for his address and told the chief to translate to the guy that he should leave his house within a fortnight and after that period, Larsen would kill him if he still was there. The chief of police had added that if that happened, he would not do a thing to prevent it. I never understood why Larsen did this. The guy was punished for life anyway.
The 3 of us go to the Indian Ocean and sit down for a while. The temperature of the water is 27-28 degrees (81-83F). When we looked around, we saw a lot of young couples having a good time there. Very romantic. They stay there until sunset - so do we. The commuters from Colombo are also on their way home now - in crammed trains. We take some nice pictures.
We had arranged with Larsen to go out and have dinner. He knows a good local place - a very cheap one. We get Biter Apu (a kind of thin, bowl-shaped pancake with fried egg), coke and tea afterwards. Dinner for 26rs (65c). We found out that Larsen had a chicken farm in the mountain region. He had lived here for 10 years and it was only the second time he had been back 'home' in Denmark. He was from Elborg, but had seemingly not much family left. We asked him if he had experienced the troubles with the Tamils. 'Oh, my God! - What a mess det var!' 'When they started the troubles, we did not feel it, but suddenly we started hearing shooting in the night. The next morning we knew we would find corpses around on the estate - and it happened several times. It was terrible. What a mess! Especially 4-5 years ago. During the last years there has not been anything. The Tamils are isolated on Jaffna and on the East-coast and they don't come this far into the country anymore. But it has been terrible!
Later we went back to write and we also found time for an evening walk to the beach.
Day 3: 31 January
Get up at 7:30 and on our way to the railway station, we buy breakfast: cola and bananas. We had decided to go south along the coast to Hikkaduwa - Kurt and Niels want to go to a place with other tourists - they are a bit frightened. It also has a nice coral reef. We buy second class tickets but the train only has third class. Strange. When we get a couple of stations to the south, to Panadura, a friendly man enters the train, who wants fire for his cigarette. He works at this station and asks about different things and where we are heading. When we tell him, he looks around upset and says that the train we are in, is only a local train! The one we were supposed to be in, is the one leaving from the opposite track right now. The next train leaves in 4 hours. The man (Silver) had a day off today, so he was happy to show us around. We left our backpacks by the station master. Silver wanted to practice his English (which was very nice, by the way). He leads us to his cottage which is pretty close to the beach. It is very characteristic; thatched roof and in the shadows of the coco palms. He has a wife and two children; a very cute 3 year old girl and a 7 year old boy. We are served tea and talk about everything. They are Buddhists, so helping people means 'good luck' to them. He tells us about a good friend from France, Joel, who comes here twice a year. He have been here 7 times and they go to different places on the island - they have been in the mountains several times and even in the Tamil areas on the east-coast - and they got back alive. Silver, Joel and a couple of friends are going to rent a van a couple of days from today and then drive along the south coast to Yala National Park (an animal reservation). It happened to be what we had planned to do, so we were immediately interested. If we were 6 people, this 3 day trip could be done for 1300rs (32.50$) per person - he would be our free guide so we should only pay for rental of the van. We are later going to ask Joel if it is OK with him. Then we look at pictures from several weddings. I ask Silver if we should give the station master money for taking care of our backpacks. No, it would bring discredit on Silver - Silver says a pen would be the right thing. The master is actually quite happy for our 5c pen. We are accommodated with a friend who runs a guesthouse. We are to say that we are long time friends of Silver and that we are students. We got the room for 150rs (3.75$). Sonny, our host, turned out to be a very nice person - and a baker too. They only had 2 rooms in the house but they had a fan and we could use Sonny's TV - and the wife was a very good cook. We went to town and ate lunch (noodles & beef for 30rs - 75c).
We take the train to Mt.Lavinia (14km (9miles) south of Colombo). Joel stayed at a nice hotel - Silver told us that he wanted to stay a place with a swimming pool and that was the reason why he had stopped staying with Sonny. He is not at the hotel, so while Silver is looking for him, we go to the beach. A great sand beach and great water. Silver could not find Joel (he turned out to be in Colombo) so we go back to Panadura. The fishing boats were coming back from the sea with today's catch. Special wooden boats with canvas sails.
Silver follows us to the beach and we start talking to some of the children of the village - everybody is very friendly and warm hearted. The sea is just great. Big waves and sand everywhere. It doesn't seem dangerous in any way - just great. Afterwards we get tea at his house. Mrs. Silver plus some family and friends come to see pictures from Denmark. We gave a few small gifts to Silver's children: a couple of pens, small flags and a picture from Tivoli in Copenhagen - they were wild with joy; it is amazing how little it takes. Furthermore, Mrs. Silver had fetched a couple of young girls who liked Danish boys very much - they said. While Kurt and Niels fetched more pictures from Sonny's house, one of them, a young slim girl, declared her love to me - after knowing me for 10 minutes. We could probably have gotten married quickly, but she was satisfied just getting my address (I haven't heard from her since - but then again, she could not speak much English). A lot of pictures were taken of the family, the children and us in front of a wonderful sunset between the palms.
Silver wanted to take us on a little trip. First we went to a Buddhist temple where the whole story of the life of Buddha is pictured on the walls and roof. Silver also tells us the story. We take a auto-rickshaw to another temple which has a lot of Buddha statues - pretty neat, by the way. We move on to a batik factory. The gates were closed but it don't take long until the whole shop is opened for us. They make handwoven scarfs, shirts, dresses etc. with nice patterns. Well, we do find some nice things there. Then home for dinner. Silver thought that we ought to have a little drink before dinner, so on our way, we buy a small bottle of arrack (coconut snaps). At Sonny's place, dinner is ready: rice, fried tuna fish, salad, beans, bananas and much more. You could not do anything but eat and eat. Silver came by again and tells us that Joel is glad that we are coming. The time is about 9pm and we decide that a night-swim would be the right thing to do. It should be mentioned that there are no bright summer evenings here; no, when the sun has set, it is pitch-dark in a few minutes. Strange. We take along our flashlights and find the ocean. In the beginning the water feels a bit cold but soon it is great.
Day 4: 1 February
By now, we have experienced so much that we could go home now and tell about it. Ate breakfast at 9. We had decided that I should go to Colombo by train and withdraw enough money to the rest of the period. They would go to the beach meanwhile.
In the train, I meet a friendly, old man. He was 53 but looked like a 70 year old. He was a former bank employee. First we talk about how cattle is killed in Denmark. The reason for this subject, I discover, is that he is a Buddhist, and they are not allowed to eat meat from killed animals; an exception is if they are not killed, to their knowledge. If you kill an animal, it should cause defects in and/or on the body! He could see that I definitely hadn't killed any animals - or humans. In Sri Lanka, cattle is killed by draining the blood from them. He thought that our way was much better - but also that I still should keep away from meat. We also talked about how Credit Cards and bank cards worked. Next time we were in the country, we were very welcome to stay with him.
On my way to the bank in Colombo, I find the first postcards from the country. I withdraw 6000rs in the bank and mail our letters and a silk scarf to our mother (for her birthday). I get our plane tickets for Bangkok with Thai Airways reconfirmed. Buy the Daily News - the Sri Lankan newspaper in English. At the beach at 1.30pm - Niels and Kurt is taking pictures of a man climbing a coco palm, fetching coconuts for them. He also gets one for me. The ocean and the sun did good to me. Niels and Kurt had been to a show in Panadura. They had tried having a real cobra snake crawling around their necks and a monkey looking for fleas in their hair. They said that the snake felt like a dry eel! Since then, they had been at the beach and were quite scorched. Kurt had ordered a pair of hand made shoes, genuine leather college shoes which would take a couple of days to make: 700rs (17.50$). We fetched them and I continued around the market streets. The village had hundreds of small shops and vendors and you could buy everything - except the thermometer I needed. I could sense the very exotic atmosphere and all the people seemed happy and smiled to me. I go back to Niels and Kurt at the Guesthouse and we find out that we need some mineral water (the water is not good here). On our way back to the market, Silver comes running to us and says: "I have trouble!". We thought that the Yala trip had been canceled but then he shows us his forefinger: a piece of barbered wire has pierced it. We hurry back to his house where his wife is waiting nervously. Kurt don't feel so well with blood so he steps back a bit. We cannot understand why Silver hadn't hurried to the doctor. He tells us that a auto-rickshaw is on its way. It arrives soon and we (Silver, his wife, Kurt, Niels, I, the driver and a co-driver) all tries to get in to the 3-persons vehicle. Kurt gets off and the rest of us hurry on. I think that the reason why Silver came looking for us instead of getting to the doctor immediately is, that he thinks 'we give him good luck'. Afterwards he tells us about how happy he was that we came along.
We reach the doctor and there seem to be quite a lot of patients waiting. They are quickly led to the doctor who then tells the nurses what to do and then he rings a bell and the next patient is led in. During the whole "operation", we stand close by, so Silver can talk to us. The doctor is very interested in talking to Niels and I while a local anaesthetic is applied on Silver. Then we gets his testimony: "If this hurts, can you imagine the suffering of Christ on the cross ?". Shortly, the 'sinner' is cut out and the bandage is put on. We pay the taxi and the medication (30+110rs - 3.50$). We walk back and talk about different things. Silver and his wife have to show the finger to friends we pass and give them a summary of the accident, so it takes some time to get back. The accident happened because Silver and Sonny had been drinking some arrack and after a small nap, he had been a bit dizzy and had grabbed the barbered wire behind his house because he had lost his balance. I think he considered the accident as a punishment for drinking - the Buddhist religion teaches punishment for doing wrong things. On our way, we meet the owner of the van we are going to ride the next day and we take a quick look at it. We are a bit late for dinner but it seems to be OK. We have almost drunk all there Coca-Colas (the drink you can get everywhere in the world), so we have to do with some Lemon-sodas. Afterwards, Sonny is dying to show us his bakery. It is a real old fashioned oven, using wood a fuel, he is using. The apprentices are kneading a very large dough. Sonny's biggest problem is the price of wood - it has gone up 100% in a year.
Day 5: 2 February
Wake up early, get breakfast (including fresh bread!) and say goodbye to Sonny and the family. The bill for 2 nights, 2 times breakfast, 2 times dinner and colas: 400rs/person (10$) - and the thing that cost the most was the colas. Silver picks us up at the station at 8:45am and we meet Joel and Levien. Joel is very humorous, a bit chubby Frenchman. He is all the time ironic in a funny way - e.g: at a cheap guesthouse, he says: Well, and I suppose the swimmingpool is on the other side of the house ? Leviene is a real Frenchman. He tapes everything with his video camera (and his normal camera). Furthermore, there is a nice driver and Joel has brought a boy (about 17 years) who is a kind of adopted son he has on Sri Lanka (we think).
We drive south. Our first stop is near a temple where Silver and the driver go out and put a couple of coins into a shrine. So Buddha will protect us from road accidents, they say. The road along the ocean is really fantastic and beautiful and when you hear Boney M's "Ocean of Fantasy" on the stereo, it is just perfect and you never want to go back again! 'You'll see the magic oceans, where all the rivers end; a never never land of emotions, come down and follow me....'.
The next stop is at a turtle hatchery. You pay 35rs (88c) and the tickets say that the money will save 100 eggs. The people collect the eggs on the beach and then they are hatched under nets where the predators can't get to them. About a thousand small turtles are swimming in a pond and we are allowed to take one each to the beach and let it out. We arrange a small race but it was hard to tell who won.
The next stop is in Weligama to take a couple of pictures of the stilt fishers. It is fishermen, sitting on a stilt, fishing - a bit off the shore. The spot is passed on from father to son. We continue to Matara on the south coast. We get lunch at a resthouse. In Matara you'll find some old Dutch forts from the 18th century. Unfortunately we don't have time to see them, we have to get on towards the park.
All the nice looking guest-hotels are all full - in a couple of days, it is Independence day (the 4th), so a lot of people are having a prolonged weekend. After a bit of driving around, we find a (not so nice looking) guesthouse in Tissamaharama. The rooms are fairly cheap (175rs/room for 3 (4.38$)) but we have to order something to eat there. I'm a bit sulk about it - outrageous prices! 150rs/person (3.75$) - and it was our turn to pay for the guides. We also make arrangements for a jeep for the next day and we'll be picked up at 5:00am, then we'll be able to be at the park when it opens. Silver suggests that we go to Kataragama before dinner. Kataragama is the holy town of the Buddhists on the island. Silver thinks that 80% of the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, pilgrimage to the nearby temples at least once a year. At sunset at 6:30pm, there is to be a procession and we hurry to the place. The temples are placed on hills outside the town and you have to walk about 1 km to get to the first Dagoba - a 50m tall cone shaped temple/pagoda. The base of the Dagoba is formed after the body of Buddha; the dome after his head and the spire is his wisdom. Then another 1/2 km to the holy place. You can buy food, fruit and incense outside to sacrifice. Within the temple area there were thousands of people. It had a very strange atmosphere. The bells were ringing, drums were drumming, people praying and sometimes paths were cleared and some holy men came running (with something we could not see what was) into one of the temples. People were standing in a long line for this temple (when the holy men weren't running into it) to sacrifice their food. After it had been sacrificed, it seemed that one could take it back and then some people stood outside eating it. We also saw some smaller temples - we saw a temple for the Hindu god, Ganesh the elephant god. Kataragama is even more holy to the Hindus since the Hindu war-god, Skanda ("Kataragama" - 2.son of Shiva), lived here - Buddha only visited the place.
Joels adopted son brought us some cracked coconuts which we could eat. He showed us where he got them. The Buddhist people could test a wish by igniting a coconut and then smash it on some stones - then they could find out if it was a good or a bad wish (depending on how the nut cracked), but not if their wish would come true. If the nut cracked in two equal halves, it was a very good wish. Furthermore it depended on which sides faced up and down. Kind of scary to think that they form their lives on this. We exited through another gate. It was probably the main entrance, we had to cross a long, narrow bridge. The Buddhists bathed in the river and done clean clothes before entering the holy place. There were a lot of people in the river when we crossed it.
Day 6: 3 February
We have to get up at 4:30am and we are picked up at 5:30 in a jeep. It is open all the way around but has a roof - park regulations. After a long and bumpy ride on unpaved roads we reach the entrance of the Yala park. We have to wait for the office to open. A couple of other jeeps have also arrived early. The reason why you have to come early is that when the clock strikes 10, it is so hot that all the animals are hidden far away in the thicket.
The trip goes all the way eastwards to the east coast of the island. We see a lot of peacocks (Indian peafowl) in the trees (several are white); large wild buffalo herds are seen near the water holes; flocks of antilopes; birds with rich colouring. On the way back we catch sight of a herd of wild elephants in the jungle. We turn off the engine imediately and then wait about 15 minutes for the herd to approach us. The elephants walk in herds and they just travel along their path, so you better not be where they are going to step. Our herd doesn't come much closer though but we are able to see between the bushes that there also were 2 baby-elephants. The elephants continue on slowly. The time is now 9:30 and all the animals seems to be hidden by now. We meet some other jeeps and we are told that a leopard has been spottet near a waterhole - it is the animal people hope to see. It is gone though, when we arrive. We drive towards the exit. Pretty many jeeps are arriving now - I wonder if they are going to see anything ?!? Also busses with school children are arriving; active biology teaching! Everything have cost us 200rs/person (5$) - for the jeep, the guide and the entrance ticket. It had been a very special experience to drive around in the nature where we could find nothing that reminded us of civilisation within 100 kilometers (or miles).
We admit to Joel that we aren't going back with them; we are going into the mountains. It is OK with them. They drive us to a 'mainroad' towards the mountains. We say goodbuy to our friends and Silver gets some young people to help us stop a bus (it is easy to stop a bus - the problem is to stop the right one!). The bus we are taking is a real CTB-bus - the red public busses. It is almost full but we manage to squeeze in with our backpacks. The trip from Wirawila to Wellawaya (at the foot of the mountains) is of course rediculous cheap - 25c. In the bus, people could pull a string (hanging near the cealing) when they wanted to get off - and a Buddha was illuminated! It was hanging near the driver. It also lighted up with a lot of other lamps when the driver braked - don't say that they ain't got humor! Wellawaya was a small sleapy village where people changed busses. The mountains rose from the flat plains and put us in a special mood - very panoramic too. We had not eaten for 18 hours and we just had to get something. Our salvation was a packet of bisquits, 4 bananas each and a fanta. Great. The bus going up in the mountains drove shortly after we returned to the station - it is very easy to get around; you don't get to ask for directions because the people ask you where you are going before you can ask them. Soon you are on the right bus - the people are great. This time we did the scoop of the year: Bus to Bandarawela, through Ella Falls (a pretty area in the mountains) - 11.25rs (28c). The most beautiful bus ride in the world! Many kilometers/miles up in the mountains through winding roads with sudden drops; waterfalls; the most beautiful valleys and slopes one can imagine... Sigh! Once you have seen it, you can forget all about Switzerland, Austria and the Rocky Mountains - they are nothing compared with this!
Bandarawela is placed beautifully in the mountains (1230m - 4000ft) and is a fairly large town. A friendly man from the bus tells us where we can find a room. We get a room with hot water - then we can do our laundry too (in the sink). We go down to the center of the town and find a joint where we try to get something to eat. Immediately 10 people show up who try to find out what we want to eat. That is a rather boring story, but we make friends with one of them - the only one who speaks English. He invites us to his bungalow the next day.
The climate is great in the mountains - less humid and the temperatures are a bit lower.
Day 7: 4 February (Independence Day)
We wake at 9:30am by a lot of noise and music. Below the 'hotel' there is a soccer field where all the school children from the town were gathered on the occasion of the Independence Day. They did not seem to be doing anything in special: all the children - in uniforms - just played around and enjoyed it. We cannot find the bus to our friend from yesterday so instead we check the train schedule (only 2 trains in each direction a day) and decide to relax in the mountains. After watching a girl volleyball match, we buy bananas and mangos and then wander up in the mountains - you can see lots of miles from here; the air is very clear and clean.
In the evening we watch a soccer match. We find out that it is just two school teams playing, but there are several hundreds who watched the match. Niels orders the dinner. Before we eat, he tells us that they asked him something stupid - how we wanted our Rice & Curry (with chicken): Normal, hot or very hot. Niels had ordered it very hot - he did not want us to have tepid food. I could tell Niels that it was not the temperature he had been asked about but how spicy we wanted it! The food turned out to be uneatable spicy - so we had to ask for extra rice and boiled water...
Day 8: 5 February
While Kurt and Niels finished packing, I went into town with my sandals, which were broken several places. I had seen some old men repairing shoes yesterday. All I had to do was give the man my sandals and then he started. A boy got his tennis shoes repaired for 5rs (13c) so I gave him 20rs (50c) after he had repaired them 3 places. It seemed acceptable to him. We take the train west through the mountains to a town called Hatton. We buy 2.class tickets for 40rs (1$). The trip takes about 3 hours and is fantastic. Perhaps even better than the bus trip into the mountains. The tracks wind through the mountains in an altitude of 1 to 2 kilometers (3226-6452ft). We also see a lot of waterfalls here and now we also see tea plantations and the traditional female tea pickers.
On 2.class there is lots of space, but when you look out the window, you can see that the 3.class are stuffed with people. Also the train service is irreproachable! All the time, people come through selling candy, fruit, sodas and several other home cooked things - and without being obtrusive. The price is also normal - not like DSB (AMTRAK, British Rail, etc.) who puts 400% on the retail price. The wagons are also very good - like the Danish 2.class - really! Even the toilets! One thing you won't find, is something called a garbage can - but what do you do with your garbage ? Out through the window!
Now to our fellow passengers: Niels walks around in the train and takes panorama pictures of the mountains and pictures of the train tunnels. He meets a printer (from a newspaper) who tells him when waterfalls and tea plantations turn up - so he can have his camera ready. Kurt and I were talking to a family sitting opposite of us. At first we thought that the father was a ticket collector - fortunately we didn't give him our tickets! The family consisted further of his wife, a daughter and a son. The son was 10 and the daughter 16 - a rather nice looking girl who looked older that she was ;-) They had been visiting another daughter who were studying at a university. They were another proof of the kindness of the Sri Lankan people - they gave both bananas and candy to us.
We get off in Hatton and buy lunch: (guess what ?) Yes, bananas, biscuits and Fanta. On the station, we meet white people for the first time, since we left the French guys. Susan (New Zealand) and Sarah (Canada). Nice to speak with somebody who speaks decent English - your English is ruined here because you have to speak the same (bad) way as the people here do, to be understood. They had been traveling in the northern part - in the ancient cities from the 4th century, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. I wanted very much to go there as well, but Kurt and Niels were much against it, they thought it to be near the Tamil people. It might have been in the border area. Well, they are, like us, going to climb Adam's Peak (Sri Pada). The following quote is from 'The Worlds Great Religions' - where I read about Sri Pada the first time and made me look forward to it. TSK has a chapter about it as well. Buddhist pilgrims climbs the 2245m (7242ft) high mountain to honor the legendary footprint of Buddha. Approx. 300.000 pilgrims visit this place a year. Sri Pada means "holy footprint". To the Hindus the mountain is holy for another reason: they call it "Shivas Peak". Christians from the old Indian Church think that the apostle Thomas have lived there during his mission in India, and the Muslims call it "Adam's Peak" and interpret the footprints as those of the first man. In the history of religions, Sri Pada is a holy mountain of classic importance. We were previously told that we should go to a village called 'Nallathania'. TSK says that the village is called Dalhousie. The village is on the northern side of the mountain. The bus leaves to Nallathania leaves right outside the station. We all get a seat in the empty bus. Slowly more and more people enter. And more and more. And more and more. Then the bus is completely full and we move on.....but only to stop in the middle of Hatton. 40 more are waiting here! 10 minutes later they have, by a miracle, been crammed, more or less, into the bus. 5 of them are hanging out of the doorway! A pretty ride, but we sit a bit uncomfortably so it is a bit difficult to enjoy. We count how many that gets on and off during the ride and the result is that at the worst time, we have been 105 passengers in a 32-persons bus!!!! I think that is an entry for Guinnes Book of Records. No wonder why it is so cheap to ride busses here.
There is a small joint which has rooms for rent (TSK had warned us about it), and we have to pay 175rs (4.37$) for a very disgusting room. The room with bath turns out to be a room where the 'bed' takes up the whole room and the bath is a barrel with cold water. We try to sleep at 7pm but it is so hot that we cannot fall asleep until 3-4 hours later. Most people climb the mountain at night to see the sunrise. The path is illuminated all the way up by lamp posts.
Day 9: 6 February
We get up at 0:30am to the big trip. We have decided to take the much longer and steeper trip down the south side, so we have to bring our backpacks. At 1:15am we are on our way up the lightened path. There is tea shops every 300m (968ft), so it is very festive - one should notice that the sodas cost 10rs (25c) at the foot, but 50 (1.25$) near the top. There are steps all the way - 7km (4.3miles). The season for pilgrims is from December through April, so there is quite some people on their way up tonight. But it should be really bad in the weekends and at full moon. It is mostly old and young people we meet tonight. Our backpacks make a big impression to people we meet, going down. All of them stops and looks amazed at us and some shake their head. Besides that, everybody greet us kindly with a "hello". Some groups of people sing songs - one of them leads the singing and then the rest of them repeat the song. A rather nice ascent. We sweat a lot, but are quickly cold when we rest - the temperature is close to zero (32F).
We reach the top in a new record time (that is backpack climbing record) - 2 = hours!! The normal ascending time is 3-4 hours. We had hurried the last stretch; we could not see the top and was afraid we would not make it before sunrise. We meet Sarah and Susan on the top. They had left about 1am too, but had not slept. A small castle is build at the top and in it, a small temple with the footprint. I go in to see it and talk with a young Buddhist. He explains that the print I see is only a cast and that the real print is underneath. The real print was a bit worn off by the many pilgrims. We mail a couple of letters - they have a nice postmark here, so be sure to mail one home.
Sunrise is at 6am. We see the first light beams from east and everybody is were expectant. But then clouds starts coming. We are quickly surrounded in grey and wet clouds and the expectation is relieved by disappointment. On the west side we should have been able to see a beautiful shadow of the cone shaped mountain if the clouds hadn't come. We are very sorry for the many children who have walked the long way up and waited (freezing) for a long time. People are busy getting down again and at 6:20 we are almost alone.
We start the descent of the southern side to the town of gems - Ratnapura. We had read in TSK that the trip would be much more strenuous (14km (8.75miles) of steps), but we thought we were tough guys. Furthermore it would gain us much more merits :-) - according to the Buddhists. Ascending Sri Pada gains you many merits - like helping people.
No problems on the first part though we can feel the extra weight of 15 kilos (33lbs) from our backpack, when we step down. After an hour (the vertical stretch), we enters jungle vegetation. Very vigorously though we still are in pretty high altitude. One hour more passes by and we are now rather sore several places and tired. Niels' neck hurts; just like on our way up, the temperature is changing when we rest. The rest of the descent is unfortunately rather bad. I had very sore legs and had to step down with stretched legs - so it was rather slowly. We had to admit that Niels had caught a neck infection and he his back hurts much too. Kurt's legs hurt as well, but it was him who kept us going. 3/4 the way down we were in real tropical rainforest - including all the natural jungle sounds.
Unfortunately, it was hard for us to enjoy it all... Next time, we will take this trip without the backpacks, but I promise we will do it again; the jungle was very beautiful and it is a great trip. There is also lamp posts all the way along the southern route, so it is definitely this one we would recommend people - if they/you are able to do with 14 km of steps. There is also small shops on this route. Suddenly a quick tropical rain shower hits us and we sit down in a open shed. Some workers come and try to talk to us. They don't speak English, so the communication is done by sign language and laughing. They cut some palm leaves for us to use as umbrellas. The rain stops rather quickly though. Almost down, near a village (we never discovered the name of this village), I'm almost fainting. We have only had bananas, biscuits and sodas for 20 hours. Finally; 8 hours after we had started the descend, we see a road. Niels is a bit behind, and I quickly walks through the village to find a bus or somebody who can drive Niels to a doctor. I ask a van driver how far there is to the bus stop. He asks some of the local people and tells me that there is still a long way. I tell him about Niels, and he accepts to drive us to Ratnapura (16km (10miles)). He is a salesman from a candy company. He has two people helping him. We drive quickly to the doctor and as white men, we come first in a long line. We cannot remember what neck infection is called in English, but we say it is like pneumonia - just that it is in the neck. Neck infection, he confirms and gives Niels a lot of pills and vitamins. The bill: 75rs (1.88$) - including penicillin and instructions only to drink hot drinks (equals tea) for 3 days.
Our saviour has his home base in a village between Colombo and Ratnapura (Kurunegala), and we chooses to go with them there. So unfortunately we don't get to see the gems in Ratnapura this time. He (J.B.Bavmewewa) finds a guesthouse to us. After 36 hours with only 2 hours of sleep, we quickly fall asleep - after a big and good dinner.
Day 10: 7 February
After 12 hours of sleep, we wake up refreshed, but with sore legs. Our friends come and say goodbye - they are on their way out with more candy. We give them a little money for helping us. The guesthouse has a lot of funny animals. They have a porcupine in a cage, a tame monkey on a branch and rabbits. The owner has now arrived and offers to drive us around in the area - for free. We make sure a couple of times that it is completely free - we are getting to know the Sri Lankan people. First we pick up some king-coconuts, and then drives to the so-called 'gem-pits'. Our friend has his own hole in the ground. The hole is about 6 square meters (62 square feet). He digs blue sapphires here and has found one which he sold for 60.000rs. He has spend 80.000rs on 3 workers and the mining permit from the State Gem Co-op. Everybody in this area has gems on his mind. Everybody dreams about finding the big one.
He drives us to the bus-station. While we are waiting for the mini-bus to be filled up, a small boy enters and sings a couple of songs. He has a very beautiful voice. He has a small box with coins which he uses as a tambourine. So, if anybody needs a good boy voice, there is a beggar in Kurunegala waiting. The trip to Colombo happens in a good atmosphere and people in the bus seems very happy.
In Colombo we go to the bank. Even though the time only is 2:30pm, the bank is closed and we discuss what to do. A tall, distinguished gentleman comes to us and asks us if we need help. We explain. He is an AirLanka pilot and he takes us to a bureau de change (state controlled!), and we change some of our dollars. No problem. Then he wants us to have a cup of tea with him and he takes us to a cozy place. It is a place where only certain people can come, he explains. He tells us about his job at AirLanka (the state air company), and he has a lot of cards from other pilots. Some from Scandinavia as well. His parents live in the mountains, in Kandy where they have a big tea plantation. He gets a lot of tea from there himself and if we want, he can mail us 5 kilo each for free. We only have to pay the mailing cost of 5$ per box. We say we only need one box; we live in the same town. We order lunch and it is actually not too expensive (he says we got a cheaper menu than other of the costumers). It is real western food and very good. And the water has chloride in it, so we can drink it. The pilot has eaten, but takes a portion of roast-beef. He tells us about which things to buy here. The right thing is gems. You cannot avoid getting 4-5 times your money back when you sell them again - at least twice your money. As a pilot, he has bought a lot and then sold them again in USA, Europe and Thailand when he passed through. Scandinavia is supposed to be the best place. The first couple of times, you should only invest 50$ or so. If we did that and made money on it, we should write and thank him for the tip. After eating, we could go to a gem-museum and see some, if we wanted to. If you bought some, you could get a certificate which guaranteed that the stone was genuine. He wore a gold ring with a jewel which he had bought in South Africa for 20$. It was 10 times as much worth today. Another good thing to buy was spices. I asked him if we could find saffron here. Sure, they also grew that at his parents plantation. We could have a package with saffron, cinnamon etc., if we would pay the 20$ for the production costs. Again, we only needed one package. I was a bit suspicious - we had been cheated before, so I ask for his card, but he has not any left. He writes down his address - when we come to the country the next time. The road is not on my map of Kandy, though. It is a small road close to the tooth-temple, he explains.
He tells us that there is a lot of 'bad people' in this country. He points at a white couple, sitting at another table. They are here illegally to get a newborn baby. He knows the persons who are with them.
He passes the bill to us and doesn't make sign to want to pay his part. We go to the gem-museum which turns out to be a gemshop instead. We ask to see some blue sapphires, now we have seen where they are being dug out. They cost 50$ and more. The salesman wants us to buy now, because (as he says), we could spend our money during the last couple of days without knowing it! We don't buy any and we say goodbye to our friend (Mr. L. Wejeratne) and looks forward to our tea and spices. We talk a bit about waving goodbye to our money or we have found a friend. To anticipate the course of events, we meet Joel again and when we tell him the story, he finishes it for us; he has heard the same story from other guests from his hotel (at another visit). The AirLanka pilot is very famous, a gentleman thief. After that, we decide never to be cheated again (and our experiences help us several times later on our Asia-trip).
We take one of the crammed pendants trains and stand very close, but it costs only 3.5rs (9c) to Mt.Lavinia. We have decided to spend the last couple of days relaxing and want to stay at Palm Beach Hotel. We saw it when we were in Mt.Lavinia to visit Joel. At our arrival, our only way to get out of the train is through the window. We get a little help from our fellow passengers - our backpacks took up space for several persons. We walk to Palm Beach Hotel. They say that all is full, but we look a bit despairing and press a bit. Whey they find out that we are not going to have a room each, but just one, they find one for us. It is a very modern hotel but still it is very cheap - also compared to other hotels of the same standard. The reason is that it is connected to a hotel-school, so it is the students who work here. But what does that matter, if you only have to pay 350rs (8.75$) for 3 persons ? (450rs if you want A/C) One of the servants asked if we were going to the Carnival. We had heard music from somewhere, but could not locate it and had not thought anything special about it, but what meets us ?!! Amazing. It is a big college which has it's annually Thomian Fair - the college is named St.Thomas. All the trees is decorated with colored lights 100 bulbs in 200 trees makes a lot of light! What is going on is a mix of market, school party, exhibition, amusement-park, charity, carnival, concerts and much more. There is thousands of people (and police). The amusements are very funny. E.g. the gymnasium is turned into a House of Horror - now, it is not the usual stuff with plastic monsters and mechanical screams. No, all the monsters are real people - we find out when a zombie grabs us around our legs. You hurry on so you don't end up as a victim of vampires (one gets up from a solarium), mummies, werewolves and much more. All very thorough.
During dinner, we had met Joel again. He told us that Silver's daughter, Tjutee, has birthday the next day, so we could come with him, if we wanted to. We find a beautiful silver chain with a moon-stone and two blue sapphires to her. It would have cost us a fortune at home. We paid 400rs (10$) for it, second hand. A concert with one of Sri Lanka's most popular bands is also arranged. The Kings. They are actually rather good, and we enjoy it much. Besides that, one sees a lot of things here; you can get pirate-tapes for 100rs (2.50$) - published with original covers. There is a lot of small shops, e.g. I get my first coffee for a week (you only drink tea here) in a coffee shop; nice people by the way - they tell us that it is real Sri Lankan coffee. We also taste their ice-coffee.
It is recommendable to plan your travel so you can experience the Thomian Fair - first weekend in February. We are told later that the college gets almost all running costs for a year covered by the profit from these 3 days!
Day 11: 8 February
We had thought this to be our last day, but on our way to Panadura (Tjutee's birthday), with Joel and Levien, we cannot find our flight in the newspaper. We check our tickets and discover the it is actually a day later than we thought! A pleasant surprise.
Tjutee becomes 4 and she is a very beautiful girl. She already has a long lists of suitors - Joel says he is first; he has known her for 3 years. We add ourselves to the list too. Our first course is a king-coconut. There is two kinds of coconuts here. The king-coconuts are red and has the most vitamins; the other kind, the green 'normal' ones, tastes better, but the milk has less vitamins. The brown coconuts we know, is the green type, without the outer layer.
Tjutee is very happy for her gift, and we get a kiss in return. We are served a delicious Rice & Curry with fruit salad. It must have cost them quite a bit. Joel has invited the whole family to a movie, so both grandmother and sisters has arrived. Someway he has been accepted in their family. The rest of us go back to Mt.Lavinia.
In the evening, we go to the Thomian Fair again and looks at an exhibition from the Open University - it is some pretty old books they have. Furthermore Yamaha has both laser-disks and a 'selfplaying' piano which attract much attention.
Later at Palm Beach, we talk to a Belgian couple who have just been promised a baby; i.e. they have come here to adopt a newborn baby - they have waited here for 14 days yet. A Finnish couple join our conversation; they have just become parents 3 hours ago. It seems rather easy to get children here. I think it is legal what they have done, but we did not talk about it.
Day 12: 9 February
In the afternoon, Silver comes to say goodbye (a real friend!), and we have a quiet drink and a good talk. In the evening, we take him to the Fair. It has a railway exhibition and he can tell us a lot about both old and new trains - he is, as mentioned, working with Sri Lankan Railways. Even though we think it is rather cheap in here, he says that it is not the low income people who come here; he would not be able to afford to take his family here, but he thinks it is very nice here. They have something similar in Panadura once a year, where it is much cheaper and the poor people come too. We thank him a lot and say goodbye - we won't forget him easily. When we get his address, we find out that his name isn't Silver at all, but Atulle Silva. We spend the rest of the evening walking around tasting all the different dishes: hot dogs, lobsters, drinking chocolate, burgers, pizza, cake, candyfloss and so on. 20c here and 20c there. All you could buy was very atypical for this island, but people here want things that they can associate with western countries. The band tonight played music from the 50'es and 60'es. People like music much, but they don't show it like we do e.g. they don't clap much after the songs.
Day 13: 10 February
Took the train to Colombo and after directions from Joel, we easily find the bus to the Airport. For Sri Lanka travellers: from the bus-station, walk 50m (161ft) east; on the north side, you will se a small pond. 15m (48ft) north east of it, is where the bus waits. You'll easily hear a man yelling 'Aerpot, Aerpot' -very fast. Departs every 15 minutes and costs 10rs (25c) - much cheaper than a taxi! A smooth departure - on schedule. We sniff a goodbye to Sri Lanka and thank each other for a great trip!
Important things to bring: most important is toilet paper; small things for children you meet (pens (lots!!)), pictures etc. - a fashion t-shirt is worth gold); a plug for a sink; padlock; mosquito repellent; flashlight/torch; American Dollars and sun-screen.