Hands up who out there has heard about Palestine or even considered travel to Palestine. In the past I had heard Palestine mentioned in the mainstream media, fleetingly, and usually with a connotation that the Palestinians were an evil bunch of angry, pillaging, Jew-haters. (Something similar to what we are currently seeing in Melbourne, Australia, due to being the longest locked down city in the world, and the people are starting to revolt under what appears to be a communist regime / dictatorship.)
Palestine beautifully confirmed to me that one should never trust mainstream media.
This blog about my solo travel to Palestine has taken me quite some time to edit and publish (about 2 years). Why is that, Al? Well, I have been incredibly torn about how to portray this wonderful State of Palestine. Do I talk about the political unrest and ethnic cleansing? (sounds familiar to Melbournians, yes?) Do I talk more about how fantastic a place this is to travel as a tourist? Do I do both?
Here’s what I came up with…
I’ve rarely been interested in reading or watching news, however, I was only slightly aware of what was going on in Palestine/Israel prior to my visit. This didn’t instil any type of fear about travelling to Palestine to catch up with my happy Yogini friends, Noora and Mohammed (whom I met in India) – yet, my Mum was VERY nervous about my pending travel plans. My response to Ma “My friend Noora wouldn’t put me in a life threatening situation, so don’t worry.” (There was no need to mention that Noora told me that she almost called to advise me not to come.)
Due to being under the extremely watchful eye of the Israeli government (also sounding familiar to Melbournites, right?) I had typed, then had to rewrite all these notes by hand, then re-type once I was in the safety of another country. I was advised to hide my notes in places where they couldn’t be found. Thoughts of a mule enter my mind.
I’ll admit to not being politically minded, nor am I news watcher so my preconceived ideas about Palestine were only what were given to me by others that haven’t experienced this part of the world.
Leaving Amsterdam I anticipated to be the easy part – mainly because I’m not a threatening looking blondie and I didn’t pack any Space Cookies as snacks… but I was interrogated, then escorted by two staff and another two army officers with machine guns into a room to have everything in my bags removed, checked, weighed and scrutinised. Thanks for the authentic experience El Al Air. Luckily I was warned about what NOT to say about my visit – imagine if I had mentioned my plan to visit Palestine?! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEKK!
Finding a way to meet my pre-organised driver in Yaffa is not an easy task on Shabbatz. More on that in the part 2 of this blog.
My ever thoughtful friend keeps in contact with me and my driver to ensure my safety and, I’m sure, keeping me calm.
About half an hour into the drive I start to notice the difference in road quality, run-down housing and see an influx of dilapidated, dumped car shells as we near the Palestinian border control. Admittedly it was dark, but the difference between Palestine and Israel must be drastically different if I’m able to notice it at night, right?!
I was originally given instructions on how to deal with Border Control prior to the drive in. I could feel my heart rate increase substantially as we drove closer to the border.. All these thoughts about what I am allowed to say and what I’m not allowed to say, so that I am not detained by BC, are running through my head so fast I can’t recall which is right and wrong. My heart rate continues to climb… Everything from here on in is completely out of my control. (Why didn’t I wear an adult diaper?)
Thankfully Border Control was unmanned and we quietly drove straight through. Nobody around, no one stopping us, no people wondering what this gal was doing a long way from home.
We drive through winding and heavily speed bumped streets for about 10 minutes until we stop beside a little maroon Hyundai with the best, wide, white toothy grin… Ahhh, Noora, that smile is the best reminder as to why I am doing this part of my trip.
A big squeezy hug and looks of “I can’t believe you’re here” makes me feel at home instantly.
Our conversations are immediately comfortable – just like the conversations in Lisboa with Simone; Mallorca with Prab; and Bali with Nick – we were trying to cover EVERYTHING in our first few hours. The conversations with all 4 of these inspirational humans are some of the most educational I’ve ever had and wish I could do more of it.
Noora fills me in on the tumultuous history of Palestine and I’m left permanently gobsmacked. Ethnic Cleansing is still very real and terribly disheartening – considering what the Jewish Community endured with Hitler I’m dumbfounded that they’re doing exactly the same thing to a minority – being powerless Palestinians.
Due to my memory being fogged in, I’m going to direct you to another website for the reasons as to why Israel keep bullying Palestine. Link here.
After a brief visit to meet Noora’s work colleagues the next day – with a surprise appearance by Mohammed (also a fellow yogini at Vinyasa Yoga School) – I meander the city streets of Ramallah. Again I’m receiving loads of attention and all of it incredibly positive – lots of “Hello’s” and gorgeous smiles as I tried to blend in. Even when I went to the supermarket the kind man that served me my fresh BBQ mixed nuts gave me a little gift in the form of the most deliciously creamy pistachio nougat.
I wandered through the old city of Ramallah as well, just because it’s super close to Noora’s place.
I arrive back the apartment around 5pm and within 15 minutes all the receptors in my body entered a high alert phase, then all hell broke loose outside. I was out watching the world pass by on Noora’s balcony, when all of a sudden there appeared to be tension in the air, a feeling I will not forget. I witnessed a group of young men running fast up the street – seemingly aggravated and causing trouble with cars trying to drive the road they were on. I watched as the man in his liquor store across the road pulled down his roller shutter… It is about this time that I figured something serious was afoot.
A few minutes after going back inside I heard many large and loud bangs and yelling very nearby. I just turned the lights off, shut the windows and sat in my room working at my laptop. After a while I receive a call from Noora – whom is still at work until 9:30pm this night – asking whether I heard anything going on. Yup, I sure did. Turns out the Israeli army were raiding the CCTV cameras from a government building a small block away – where I had been happily meandering solo not long before dark.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENS
What I witnessed first hand; The Israeli Army comes into Palestine/Ramallah to assert their authority by kicking up an absolute shitstorm. Tear gas, machine guns, rubber bullets and the overtly loud, threatening bangs caused by bombs.
After a few hours I can’t help but sneak back out to the balcony when the turmoil seemed much closer. Below the balcony are loads of people and cars in Noora’s usually quiet street. The bombs are more frequent and I can even see the bright orange flashes of tear gas bombs reflecting off the local apartment blocks. Sirens and horns tooting fill the thick, gas filled air. Prior to this uproar I was able to see the stars in the sky – now, through the gas tears is a chemical fog and no stars. This tear gas is a new chemical trial apparently, and boy is it violent.
How do these kind Palestinians protect themselves against such blatant bullying by the teenage, armed forces of Israel? Stones. Throwing stones is all they have because they’re not allowed to bare arms to protect the land that’s rightfully theirs. Everything that could be turned into weaponry has been confiscated by the Israeli’s.
HOW IS THIS ALLOWED????????
At this stage I’m more dumbfounded than fearful.
9pm I walk back out onto the balcony and immediately my nostrils, eyes and throat start to burn. I’m not in the centre of the action, but the air is thick with tear gas. The bombs have subsided a little – but so far that’s a solid 4 hours.
(I wasn’t aware of these bombs being purely noise to scare Palestinian people at the time).
Restricted breathing, inability to see through tears.. Noora bursts through her front door, unable to breathe because she’s had to drive a very long way home, avoiding the Israeli Army, listening for the location of the turmoil with her head out the window of her car, driving through the chemical haze.
I receive a text from Ma asking how I was. There’s NO FKN WAY I’m telling her about the extent of this chaos until I’m on safe turf. I mentioned that there was some unrest and Mum’s initial response was “Are they rioting?”.Mum’s query proves that news only offers a biased opinion and it seems to favour the Israelis –of course I mean absolutely no disrespect to Ma, but it’s proof of what we are being fed via our news channels. Although the Palestinians have every right to defend their land and selves, it’s actually the Israeli Army that causes all the chaos. All the stuff the news doesn’t report on, I just witnessed on only my second night.
And everything you DO see on the heavily censored news… the firetrucks, the gunfire, the bombs, the chemical gas – that’s all the Israeli Army. When do you ever see the Palestinians protecting themselves with any of the above? NEVER. But MSM portray Palestine as the bad guys.
(Does any of this sound familiar to you during our current pandemic?)
Guest blog written by my very talented friend, Nigel.
I’m posting this Sri Lanka blog before my Euro trip because our wonderful guides have had nearly all of their tourism bookings cancelled due to the recent turmoil in their wonderful country.
You’ll find their contact details at the bottom of this blog. I cannot recommend these beautifully kind gentlemen and Sri Lanka enough. Don’t let the media dictate that it’s not safe, do your own research and go book with these sensational humans that will give you the best travel experience you could have ever hoped for.
And yes, you will need a guide if you want a stress-free version of Sri Lanka travel. Their transport system is pretty average, although, not impossible. I just imagine that most of us over 40’s travellers prefer a little more comfort than non-airconditioned, overcrowded buses. (The train ride between Ella and Nuwara Eliya, as you’ll see below, is absolutely sublime though.)
Turns out the Colombo airport is really in Negombo – or so it seemed in hindsight. After a few turns out of the bouganvillia-lined airport access road, the environment is a strikingly low-rise, well-kempt residential one dotted with markets, temples, and churches and cut through with surface railroad tracks. This tidy, pleasant everyday neighborhood gives way quickly to sandy sidewalks, hotels, espresso bars and views through alleys to the sparkling Indian ocean. Less than $100/night is plenty for a beach-front 3.5-star with generous sea-view balcony, nicely-maintained pool with manicured lawn and coconut palms and complete with a Pirate Bar, serving the “standard” plus-size Lion beers with their golden hues and mellow vibes. If you want to have smoke with your beer in Sri Lanka, be prepared to buck the system or have to go to great lengths to purchase a pack. None are allowed to be brought through customs. None. But rumor has it that a few packs strategically stowed away in luggage are extremely likely to get through undisturbed.
A seventh-floor rooftop bar dwarfs its surroundings and beckons with opening-night-style searchlights. The music is as conservatively house-pop as can be but gets some head bobs from the well-heeled local crowd as they surmise the lavish dessert bar. On to Rodeo bar where there might be a band. It’s Friday night. No dancing here. No metal. No live music. No ping pong show. Just Soft-spoken local highschoolers drinking beer and munching on club sandwiches while watching the cricket. Better to stake out a balcony chaise and watch the moon play on the surf.
Sigiriya / Dambulla
Rolling out of Negombo, the sandy beach-town grid gives way to shady 2-lane (oh, sorry, 3-lane for those vehicles game enough to create their own path) roads that carve through agricultural land spread out in front of the inviting hills of the North Western Province and the first big town, Kurunegala, that sits squarely at the intersection of flat and hilly. Here a snack of roadside Rambutan fuels a scorching midday stagger around a blindingly white 100’-tall buddha that sits high above the town looking placidly out over it and whose sarong and repair scaffolding provide shade for a family of feisty macaques (evil monkeys) and a few lazy young lovers taking in the view.
The local small scenic lake and surrounding park are another welcome oasis from the punishing sun and here more white-school-uni-clad teenagers jostle gently around holding ice cream pins flashing brilliant toothy grins at each other and giving the occasional love punch to keep it casual.
The cultural religious stop of the day is the Dambulla Cave Temple. A white-washed vaguely Western arcaded façade a few hundred meters walk up from the car-park covers the seam between cliffs above and a human-enhanced, terraced plateau. Step through the arcade and into the dimly-lit cave rooms beyond and you’re met with a massive, full-reclined Buddha lit ethereally by beams of daylight sifting through the doorway. Flanking the reclining Buddha are a host of smaller seated ones, some serene, some seemingly perturbed. They get along though, and the white, orange and purple flowers left for them seem an essential relief from the otherwise eternal and somber scene. There are other rooms, some larger, some smaller, all hosting buddhas and all with intricately painted natural stone (cliff underbelly) ceilings. It’s as if the ceilings have been hung with taut, beautiful woven fabrics.
Next stop, a couple of more hour’s drive up into the North Central Province, arriving as the shadows lengthen, is the vendor’s grass-roofed roadside hut to sign-up for our first Sri Lankan Safari at Ritigala Nature Reserve. With a beefy, black, 8-seater, plush-seated, roofless, roll-barred off-roader to ourselves with windscreen down, we tear off at high speed in pursuit of sun bears, leopards and ellies.
Once in the park, the red-dirt roads are well rutted and the African safari massage starts. Our guide/driver knows what he’s up to and with efficient precision in stopping for and pointing out some colorful fowl, he subtly passes leading Jeeps and gets us beautifully teed up at a stream where a family of magnificent elephants is sauntering out of the shady woods, scraping their tough hides on the tree trunks and prancing slow-motion into the golden late-afternoon sunlight. They take turns munching the tender grasses and cooling their toes in the water. And then a couple of the elephants, a Mom and daughter I’m guessing, think it’d be cool to come check us out up close. Breath-held, camera noises turned off, we can hear their teeth grinding on grass, see their spotted lips and irises, and smell their sun-warmed skin.
For me, a safari newbie, this is magic and pure bliss. Looks like my safari-vet buddy is a bit impressed too. After more than half an hour of this beautiful encounter it’s time to back up and move out. A quick stop at Lion Rock (do all nature preserves have one?) where it’s easy to picture Simba and the gang lounging about, it’s a tear back to the hut and a hour-plus drive in darkness to the hotel in Dambulla (Thilanka Resort), a gorgeous, low-key, soft spoken eco-lodge resort with a fantastic campus of breezy, well-planned new buildings that nod to the vernacular, all set in a mango grove with a pool that stretches out into the rice paddies in the direction of the sunset.
Next morning, we’re up and out on the early side to beat the heat and crowds to climb Sigiriya rock to the Lion Fortress upon it. This is a big tourist draw for locals and foreigners alike. If you’ve not seen a helicopter shot of this one, imagine a rock shaped like an upside-down iron the size of 6 cruise ships (2-wide, 3-high) sticking prominently out of a dense jungle and supporting a sun-deck of fortress ruins. It even seems to have a bow and a stern and the iconic shots are from just off the bow.
We didn’t make it up.
The density of the sweaty, curry-tooting, out-of-shape, hopelessly over-ambitious climbers and the patter of geriatric medical conversations, paired with the narrow steepness of the stairs and resulting tortoise-on-morphine pace of the climb was enough, after about 40 minutes and a quarter of the ascent, for us to look at each other, shrug, smile and reverse course, weaving our way, very gingerly but persistently back down through the crowd to smiles and comments of “had enough, eh?”. A fainted woman being tended to with ticket-stub fans and label-less water bottles (check your single-use labels at the gate, please), was a pretty good convincer that we had chosen wisely. Base camp is beautiful – a shady compound of vendor huts surrounding a makeshift, tree-filled tourist-village green. We hung out here, admiring a resident tree sloth and chatting on a bench until pink moist huffers emerged from the exit trail and our trusty, very soft-spoken guide, Taronga, greeted us with his heart-warming genuine hospitality smile. Perfect morning in my book. “Uhhhh, no.” is a complete sentence apparently.
And an even more perfect balance of the day.
A quick pretty drive back toward Dambulla is a small village where we were treated to a cursory village tour by ox-drawn cart and then a leisurely private shaded, pontoon-boat ride across a small lake the waters of which were teeming with fish and dragonflies as well as lotus flowers that were pulled up and fashioned into necklaces for us to wear and a bouquet for us to hold while posing serious-faced like 19th-century newlyweds. The ultimate destination for this little side-journey, which featured a tramp through what seemed like a family-sized subsistence farm and past a micro fish market, was a traditional open-air, thatch-roofed Sri Lankan farmhouse for lunch. We watched and took part in the grating of coconut and pounding then grinding of millet (?) for flour. After some non-participatory grinding of herbs and super-heating of coconut oil and furious wood-fired stove-top stirring, our lunch was served in clay pots and tasted phenomenal.
We spent the rest of the afternoon poolside at the hotel, befriending a puppy and her Mom, sipping the house-special mojito-esque cocktail and Lion beers and soaking up the fading rays of sun while sharing stories of past glories and defeats. A predictable buffet dinner was made lighter and more fun with a visit to the pasta bar and a bottle of South African red. Then a cricket watching lesson, invisible tennis class, Bruce Willis dive roll practice and balcony climbing.
Next a final Dambulla-based day is spent exploring the ancient Hindu city of Polonnowaru. This vast complex, warmed up nicely before we hauled our beleaguered butts out of the Honda Fit, is characterized by nested layered compounds of ruined temples and stupas. The requirement that we de-shoe before entering the sanctum of each of these sites, at spots commonly demarcated by three steps up from a round lotus-flower medallion paver, leaves tender soles scrambling for the scant shady spots to avoid 2nd degree burns and the need for immediate back-seat amateur skin grafts. The sites are in turn majestic, sublime, humble, ruined, nicely restored, crowded and deserted. Skip the lotus pond. It’s a smallish ancient tiered hot tub shaped like a lotus and sunk in the ground. Maybe more impressive if not led up to with a 3 km drive down a dusty track into an otherwise vacant wooded area. The common denominator at Polonnarawu is hot and sun-scorched. If you could catch this place really early or late in the day, or on one that offers a preponderance of cloud-cover, then by all means, do it. Duran Duran filmed the video to their 1982 single Save a Prayer amongst the ruins here. Woo hoo!
Avurvedic Massage – oiled, seasoned, basted and steamed…. reeelaaaxed.
Next morning it’s time to say bye for now to our stylish Dambulla eco-lodge. Now its off to Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka nestled in its geographic center of gravity. On the way we stop at a spice garden, tour the grounds, learn some interesting facts about the ayurvedic medicinal characteristics of plants I thought just tasted nice and are treated to an express version of the same massage noted above minus the steaming. First impression of Kandy is traffic jam. It takes us over an hour, once we make the city line, to creep to the other end of town (walkable in 30 mins) to a 4th floor tourist buffet lunch and another hour to return the same distance and park in a downtown shopping mall parking garage to visit the famous Buddha Tooth relic museum and adjacent Museum of World Buddhism. These sites suffered a terrorist bombing in the early 2000’s as part of the civil war and unfortunately that tragedy has left a low-energy pall over the otherwise quite stately and beautiful grounds adjacent to Fake Lake. To complete the buzz-kill we’re scolded for PDA by an olive-suited police officer who judges our casual hug to be on the far side of the tact/taste line in Kandy.
We’re the only guests at our hillside hotel (Cassendra Hotel) opposite side of the lake from the sites visited that afternoon. The perks of this fact are a few, including having clearly the highest corner room with nicest balcony and fantastic view of the lake and city below and mountains all around. I get my groove finally in the card game 500 that I’ve been taught only a day or two earlier. Sorting and keeping track of a hand of 13 cards is a big tax on my frontal lobe, nevermind having any idea what to do with them or how. A 2-hour blackout puts the valley in near darkness but for the lights powered by diesel generators that kick on and add a droning baseline to our side game of Spotify playlist limbo.
Next morning’s gem factory tour leaves me with the impression, backed up with further casual study, that Sri Lankans, Kandyans anyway, like to keep their water for sipping/hydrating through the day in top-shelf Western booze and wine bottles. It was a little disconcerting at first glance to see the gem shapers and polishers reaching for and slugging back Grey Goose and chardonnay. This is also a trend/fashion with tuk-tuk drivers who keep their liquid comfort right by their knee in view of passing traffic. Wondering if this is a hiding in plain sight move for some? Hmmmm. After gems we have a meander through the Kandy Botanical Garden. Its big, really nicely planted, clearly been around for a long time, and very well maintained. Beautiful stands of massive bamboo and peeks through to the river outside the garden are highlights, as are the feelings of calm and contentment that this place evokes with a wink.
After battling traffic again back into Kandy, we plead our gentle Tharanga for an impromptu drop-off shy of our destination. It’s really nice to be out on foot and after we stumble through a fetid house of horrors wet market hung with carcasses large and small, we’re out into the bright hot bustle of weekday lunch-hour Kandy. We grab some lunch items from a storefront cart – fried veggie roti, savory donuts and a mandarin, score a sim card, make some turns dictated by coin toss, buy some $3 Ray-Dan sunglasses and duck into an unairconditioned but really hip and tasty little tea shop.
The crescendo of the day is the traditional Sri Lankan dance show at a pavilion by the lake. Our great seats (thanks Tharanga!) offer an up-close view not just of the smiling acrobatic dancers spinning, back-flipping and sliding gracefully across the stage in colorful costumes accompanied by on-stage drummers, but also of the sudden and catastrophic structural failure of the rigid plastic injection-moulded chair of the spectator directly in front of us who ends up between my legs in a spray of shattered plastic and errant popcorn kernels. The performers are amused by this and by their own occassional flubs at pulling off some of the more challenging stunts they’re trying. Their smiles and joy are definitely catchy and their humility very endearing. No apparent injuries on-stage or off.
They open the hotel kitchen again for an encore version of their signature succulent bbq chicken and healthy stack of crispy shoestring potatoes – this time just for one, not two, and delivered to the room. It’s another evening of smiles and balcony beauty and a reasonably early-morning version of stuff the backpack.
Ramboda Falls / Nuwara Eliya
Next heading south and east, takes us deep into the deepest blue of the Bunsen burner flame of the Sri Lanka map. Luckily for us, and tip of the hat to uncle Nigel (thanks, Nige!) we have an old-school fold-out paper map to trace our route, circle stops and appreciate this graphic flame often and at our leisure. So that deepest blue means altitude! And we spend the morning gaining some of it pretty quickly. It’s about 2.5 hours of up into the mountains before we have to ditch the car at a turn off and are shuttled down an immensely steep switchback drive to the lobby of the Ramboda Falls hotel.
The casual hostel scruffiness here gives way quickly and magnificently to the surroundings – a south facing overlook on a wooded ravine flanked by a powerful nearby double waterfall on the left, a taller, slender, silent one straight ahead in the distance and a crinkle of mountain range spanning out to the right. It’s hard to describe the excitement when the guy helping with our packs and showing us our way to the room leaves the main dormitory style building and leads us out to the furthest-most cottage perched right at the steepest and most nicely shaded spot where the view is nothing but Sri Lanka’s finest.
An afternoon of waterfall and sun bathing, dog-befriending and balcony music happy hour sunset give way to an evening of buffet, wine, table-side Sri Lankan happy-birthday guitar and tambourine quartet (not even close to my birthday, but very nicely played, Ali!), a few hours of 8-ball billiards in the hotel bar with self-soundsystem and finally, a flat-on-our-backs-in-the-grass star-gazing cosmos ponder that fills us with a knowledge about us that’s newer, deeper and incredibly exciting and soothing at once.
Next day, awakened by a small platoon of caffeinated monkeys on the tin roof of the cottage, it’s off through the tea plantations, into a tea plantation (where our guide reinforces my hunch that most commercially available black tea bags are filled with the dust swept off the factory floor) to the nearby town of Nuwara Eliya. This place is too cute. Much cooler temperature-wise given its altitude than anywhere else we’ve been, NE is full of storybook brick and stone Tudor architecture inspired by the English countryside.
Apparently, the British colonialists found this to be one of the best spots to set up a home away from home complete with a golf-course, plush resort hotel and downtown with banks and a post-office just like back in merry ‘ole. Taking a walk a few blocks north of downtown though and the bus terminal, fruit markets, roti cafes and shops selling SIM cards, milo, hardware, bridal hairstyling, stiff-billed Stussy caps and elephant pants – say, nah, this isn’t the Cotswolds – you’re in SL still, its just a little less hot. But then a walk by the adjacent recreational lake feels again like somewhere else altogether – maybe Sweden? Who knows. It’s nice though, and our guide there, a smiley yellow dog that trots up and puts his paws in Ali’s seated lap, stands tall to signal his approval of her, makes sure we leave town with a profound appreciation for its welcoming and carefree spirit.
Another light-agenda day is just right, and after a breezy windows-down drive back through the tea plantation switch-backs, we spend the rest of the day near the hotel luxuriating by a natural pool in glittering dappled sunlight, bouldering and building Zen rock piles. The evening is about a village walk, another riverside waterfall scamper to get the bpm’s up and then a fantastic night of watching Makila, a local dude with big plans, and his buddies laugh uproariously and tweak each other gently about not *quite* getting the cue ball up table, around a coin and back to home in three shots, no cushion or coin to be touched – a game that Ali knew somehow would be all it takes to start a party like this. ☺
This morning we’re met by our second driver/guide, Nisha. He’s a lithe, handsome guy who looks quite a bit younger than a 43-year old dad of two teenagers. He’s got an easy smile, gentle demeanor and the same confident flow behind the wheel as Tharanga. I’ve learned from Ali that Nisha is the engineer and artist behind our itinerary and he’s got the presence you might expect from a mastermind. We make a stop back in Nuwara Eliya for a little breakfast and coffee before heading over to the train station to catch the 12:15 to Ella.
The train is only half an hour behind schedule and when it does pull in it’s interesting to note that it takes about five minute of Nisha and his colleagues trailing other guides and their disembarked clients before they return hurriedly holding tickets for us to board. First impression, after lots of hype is “Oh. OK. Cramped commuter train through the countryside with other underwhelmed, snacking Eurameristralians” Ali even picked up a dark vibe in her foursome across the aisle from me – which, thankfully, made us move to a better location in the carriage.
But then. End of Car. Open doors. Full-face lean-outs over seated leg hangers.
This was the dialog between the steel wheels, the carriage, the tracks, the sleepers and the earth as we coasted past a grove of silvery gum trees bathed in dappled sunshine that punctuated a view of green mountains through them and blue ones beyond. It was only another bend before the train was enveloped in a passing cloud, bringing a cool misty ghostliness to the emerald grasses and fiery flowered bushes that brushed our outstretched toes.
Here and there a face would drift by, one with a whistle, softly but firmly blown to signal something like “I’m here”, another squinting through a sunbeam to gather a glimpse of the far paler faces aboard looking back through open windows and sunglasses. There was nothing loud or abrupt or forced or splashy about this afternoon train ride, billed as the most beautiful in Sri Lanka, between the quaint Britishy-feeling tea and scones resort town of Nuwara Elia surrounded by some of the country’s most prolific tea-producing plantations and the not-so-nearby ayurvedic backpackers’ beer/tea/shisha/massage basecamp called Ella nestled in the crook of Adams Peak and the 9-arches bridge.
About an hour in, after a station stop in a sunny siding, an opening for a side-by-side seated leg-hang of our own, albeit on the less scenic, less sunny side.
But then, almost instantly, a big right-hand bend and the valley of the gods opens up to us through ghostly gum trees and we’re there, floating, clicking, clacking, grinning and breathing involuntarily deep breaths. Next through a cloud, then whipped at the toes by sun-warmed grasses, then past small farms and houses bathed in late afternoon golden glow. Please don’t let it stop. And it doesn’t. Seeming hours (and it was) of fragrant sun-dappled woods, 200-km views to distant mountains, wooshing tunnels and smiling faces at stations and between. THIS is the Sri Lanka I brought with me when I left. Mountains, colors, tea, train, mellow sunny fragranced fields, patient tuk-tuk travelers stopped at crossings and gentle breezes.
At our destination, Ella, high in the central province mountains, all pile out and it’s apparent that more than half of the passengers are 20-30-something crunchy back-packers, tatted, dreadlocked, tanned, ankleted, pony-tailed and equipped for trekking. The town itself is small and caters to this contingent – hostels, bars, shisha joints and lots of little mom-and-pop ayurvedic massage emporiums. After a pot of street-front, people-watching tea, we book into a massage place. Relatively early to bed at another deserted hotel after some amazing homemade pumpkin soup.
The following morning we make quick work of Mini Adams Peak – a brisk vertical endeavor that rewards with an incredible panoramic view of surrounding mountains cast in stark atmospheric relief by the brilliance of the mid-morning sun and offers a nice glimpse in the direction of the next chapter of our tour, south toward the ocean. A family of mountain dogs and their pups show us around the summit and are treated to Haiwaiin cookies care of Nisha, much to the delight of a pair of Aussie ladies who Ali pegs as being from Brisbane.
Yala National Park
We spend a good part of the rest of the day making our way back into the flatlands and toward the east coast to Yala. Along the way, we stop at Buduruwagala where we make our way through an alley of mature gnarled trees to a field in front of a magnificent trifecta of Buddhas carved into the side of a small cliff. This place has a real feeling of place, sacred place, and we learn from Nisha that the buddhas represented here include one that will return in or around the year 7500 wearing a lotus blossom on each shoulder. YES.
Shortly after and almost to Yala we stop at a roadside Sri Lankan curry place for their lunch buffet. This is officially the buffet that puts us both over the edge and I don’t think we went to one thererafter – too much food, meagerly heated, always the same.
At Yala we get a peek at of our safari-style hotel before being whisked off in another 4-wheel off-road machine, this one with a roof, into the vast oceanside nature reserve there, where again we’re on the lookout for sun bears, elephants and leopards. A couple of hours revving past other tours, spying many peacocks, a gaggle of water buffalo and a couple of alligators, and after not quite making it in time to see a leopard that’s been spotted by other groups, we finally do glimpse one lazing in a tree. Ali and I surmise that it was probably just some dude in a leopard suit.
I cant remember the details of the dinner menu, but it was an extensive, fixed, 5-course type of deal and after being regaled by our very friendly nurse maître-de and some more dog and cat shenanigans – including sending one with a mad case of fleas back into his pack stinking of peppermint oil (much to the howling consternation of his fellows) – we take a swim in the pool under the stars, all the while smiling into the cctv camera and expecting the hotel overnight guy or local militia to show up in force at any minute.
Mirissa / Weligama / Galle
Down at the broad, rounded base of the Sri Lankan bunsen burner flame is the surf coast. It’s also where you’ll still see fishing boats fitted with tree-branch-supported pontoon outriggers and guys standing on wooden poles in the sea by the shore, fishing. According to Nisha, this is now done only as a photo op for tourists and the fishermen are after Instagrammer tips rather than a bait nibble.
Our place at Weligama is a casual beachfront hotel with palm trees growing up through it that frame perfect views of the sunset from the mosquito-netted canopy bed outfitted in white, turquoise and navy. The balcony is huge and comfy chaises are just the thing for after-dinner lounging. And what a dinner. The darty (day-party) starts early at lunch with grilled crabs, Lion beer and plenty of French fries with mayo. The darty continues at the pool with a game of sink the beachball and on the beach with pineapple cocktails, pesky bugs, body-surfing and a pretty spectacular sunset. The darty becomes a narty and involves another visit to the neighboring crab place, though this time for club sandwiches and fries and mayo and a discussion of folk/rock/blues/country taxonomy and a near brawl over same and finally a howl at the moon over the surf.
Our last full day in Sri Lanka (or mine anyway) consists of barely making it out of bed for a whale watch, barely making it onto the whale watch boat, barely seeing whales and almost not making it to the pod of minute, frolicking speeding spinner dolphins that bring us nearly to tears with their spastic ‘look at me’ spin dives with belly flop landings. They’re smaller, darker and goofier than I expected.
We spend the afternoon in Galle with a meander around the Dutch fort there, but for me, all I’m seeing is the fast-approaching end of this incredible journey. The end-of-trip sadness is real and achy. Nisha knows the trick and hosts a seafood feast for us at the same crab place next door where it turns out he is buddies with the owner. We hear about his experience falling out of his family’s graces for marrying a Christian girl and compare notes on the vagaries of careers and travels in AU, US and Sri Lanka.
Final words on Sri Lanka
There was nothing loud or abrupt or forced or splashy about Sri Lanka as far as I could see. From the virtually deserted miles-long stretch of sunset beach at Negombo (an easy 20-minute ride from Colombo airport) to the solemnly majestic and massive charcoal-colored stupas at Polonnawaru, the calm and quiet are tempered by heat, breezes, monkey chatter and lots of coconuts — King coconuts macheted open to drink through a straw from a road-side vendor, fluffy finely-grated coconut called sambol which is infused with ground chilies, lime, and onion and must translate to “perfect accompaniment to everything Sri Lankan served at breakfast lunch and dinner’’, deep-fried sugar-dusted coconut fritters, and most importantly, the base ingredient along with the 100+ others in the oil that’s drizzled rhythmically on your forehead and applied body-wide as a basting before you’re set to steam-cook in an Ayurvedic coffin/dumpling basket designed specifically for serving thoroughly relaxed humans.
To say Sri Lanka is low-key and humble is like saying mid-town Manhattan can get busy around the holidays. But it’s not deadly quiet. And it’s not boring. The unmarked, unofficial middle lane traffic, ruled by careening, phantasmagorically-painted busses tooting their ring-tone truck horns and the fire-walking, balletic-spinning acrobatic dancers provide the staccato accompaniment.
Goodnight, Sri Lanka – I love you and your gentle soft-spoken warmth.
Nisha (organised the WHOLE trip for us):
WhatsApp; +94 77 626 4733
Tharanga (did most of the driving & educating):
WhatsApp; +94 70 363 6046
For discounts on accomodation through Booking.com, click HERE.
Have you been to Sri Lanka since the recent turmoil? I’m interested in your thoughts on this stunning, warm and loving country, so please leave your comments or queries below.