Monday, April 24, 2006

All Is Well In Sri Lanka (updates as of 10 April, 2006)

Seriously, my cup runneth over. Life is good. I am sitting in Uwanatuna, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Outside my window, I can see crystal blue waves breaking in a lagoon. Near the shore it is white coral sand. Further out is the reef, with coral and sea turtles. There is at least one, maybe more, turtle who comes in to the sheltered bay and swim with the people on the flat coral sand of the beach. I was swimming yesterday when one stuck its head out of the water not two meters from me. Of course, by the time I got there, it was off, and I did not have snorkeling gear on me, but still.

In addition to this beautifulness, I just found out I have received the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, a wonderfully prestigious fellowship that means I will be paid $30,000 a year to go to school. And this is above and beyond the Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship I have already received, which also covers my education costs and gives me a $15,000 a year stipend. And, and! I have just heard from the man who will be my graduate advisor at U Michigan who is doing work in northern India and who is setting me up with one of his projects for June and July. And so, little can be asked for to make life in Sri Lanka better.

I got to Sri Lanka ten days ago. Leaving Malaysia and the Southeast Asia I now feel eminently comfortable in, I took the only three hour flight across the Indian Ocean to Colombo. The flight was so short for something that felt like it was truly switching historical and social backdrops. Of course, I wasn’t. But more on that later. We reached the island around 10 in the morning. It is so small. Colombo is on the west coast, and when we reached the east coast we started our descent. Since we were going down, and since the center of Sri Lanka is the hill country, I got a wonderful view of the island. I could see the bright green tea plantations and the little lakes. And as we got towards the coast, the white breakers and the beaches.

The first stop was in Negombo, a small town to the north of the capital city of Colombo, which had been a major resort town maybe some 20 years ago, but had now been more or less abandoned for the brighter blue beaches of the south. It is much closer to the airport than the capital city, and had the benefit of being a lovely beach to hang out on while I decompressed from the overwhelming last couple of days in Malaysia.

As Negombo was my first real stop in Sri Lanka, it was where I got all those first impressions that last so well. After Malaysia, Sri Lanka looked and felt like Indonesia. It is at about the same level of economic development, which means that the shops on the side of the road, the clutter and craziness of the downtowns, the bus stations, the train stations all felt the same. The heat, on the coast, was the same, if not hotter. But at the same time, the women walking down the streets were beautiful in their saris, and the children on the beach were, of all things, playing cricket. The school kid’s uniforms are all white, top and bottom, and the girls uniformly wear their hair—almost always waist-length—in two braids down their back, tied with ribbons. Those women who did not wear saris were wearing long dresses, the kind that you no longer see in America, like the housewives of the 1950s. The food stalls looked the same, but were filled with food that I had never heard of, including string hoppers, small eats, kotthu rotty, and many other things I just pointed at and ate—some of which were so pepper spicy they left me just gasping for air. English is spoken by some, but not uniformly—Singhala and Tamil are spoken languages, and all the signs are written in both languages. Occasionally in English.

My first two days in Sri Lanka were spent hanging out by the beach in Negombo and biking along its cocoanut grove back roads. On the beach were some of the most beautiful and interesting fishing boats I have seen. There is a main boat which is extremely thin, just wide enough for someone to sit on—not in. There is one outrigger, with a small woven seat between the main boat and the outrigger. The sail is a huge square, often of bright colored cloth. There is also a triangular jib, which flies behind the mainsail. And there are hundreds of these boats clumped together over what must be good fishing spots, with their brightly colored hulls and sails. And the back roads were green to the blue of the ocean. Off the main road with its killer buses, painted all sorts of beautiful colors, were little dirt roads through cocoanut groves. Cows, goats, dogs, cats, monkeys, giant squirrels, all roamed around the streets. As there was a local election in a couple of days, any vertical surfaces near the roads were plastered in signs for local politicians—even a few women. There were also blue, white, and green streamers everywhere, left over, I would guess, from some small neighborhood political rally.

I also explored Negombo town, which was so much like Indonesia that it felt quite homey. It was small, but with a chaotic main market, with the sellers taking up half the road with their wares. Because of the election, again, tuk-tuks had been equipped with speakers on their roofs, and they were driving around with someone inside loudly extolling the virtues of some particular candidate. This noise fought with the sound of speakers that were set up in the market, blasting what I assume was a local radio station, because there was talking intermingled with music. Chaotic, but easily navigable on the bicycle I had rented.

After two days exploring the area and convincing myself that I really was in Sri Lanka, I decided to head south to the beach town of Hikkaduwa, where my mom had lived when she was young, and where I figured I could further decompress from my tired sleeplessness of Malaysia and Kinabalu. Hikkaduwa turned out to be a lovely stretch of beach along the major highway between Colombo and Galle, the largest city of the south. Anyone who has been to a tourist beach in the tropics knows what Hikkaduwa was like, much like a smaller Kuta, a larger Sihaoukville. It was a good place to stare out at the waves for two days. The only odd part was the lack of people. I figured Negombo didn’t have a lot of tourists because it is not really a major hot spot. Hikkaduwa was a major stop, but still, the long stretch of beach seemed almost abandoned. I was to find that this was not all that uncommon.

I moved on the next day, intensely curious about Galle, a major town about thirty kilometers down the train tracks. God, the train is the most lovely way to get around. It is old and rickety, and runs at maximum around 50 kilometers an hour, more often around 20. From Colombo south, it is perhaps 3 meters from the breaking waves and the beaches that line the entire coast. Where it does not run along the coast, it cuts inland into people’s backyards. The people who are walking the tracks stand aside as the train goes through, waving to the people on board. People also dry their clothes by the train tracks, using stones to hold down clothes as the trains go by. I am not sure why they do not set up clothes lines, but drying clothes by laying them out on the ground seems very common. Everyone rides the train, which is immensely cheap, even for people here. The second class gets you a comfy seat, with big windows. When it is full, or when you want to, you can stand or sit in the doors. When the scenery is particularly beautiful, you can hang out of the doors. It feels like flying. Love the trains.

Anyhow, took the train to Galle. In the Lonely Planet, it says that Galle “may be the Tarshish of biblical times—where King Solomon obtained gems, spices, and peacocks”. How could that be anything less than wonderfully exotic? In 1663 the Dutch came in—the same VOC that began the conquering of Indonesia—and built a large fort on a large peninsula. It is now beginning to crumble, but the inside of the fort is still a bustling town. It looks like an old European town, with tiny little Dutch-style houses tightly packed together. At the end of the peninsula is an amazing old lighthouse, white and majestic.

So, yes, I took the train to Galle. I found my way to a little guest house in a back alley, a few meters away from the rampart walls. I explored. The town in wonderfully beautiful, but the real life of the town is actually outside of the rampart walls, in the new city of Galle. It is a normal, bustling city, much like the bustling unplanned cities of Indonesia. Exploring outside the walls of the fort to find food, and inside the walls for history. For the two nights I was there I sat on the ramparts for sunset. The crystal clear waves crash up against the rocks and the fort walls. Also a treasure was a little free museum tucked away in one of the back alleys. It was one of those museums where nothing is marked and nothing has any descriptions. It is full of little bits and pieces that were found when people were excavating houses and the fort walls itself. There are old glasses and gramophones and plates and jewelry, all tucked into the corners of an old Dutch house.

My second day in Galle I rented a bicycle— an amazing falling apart piece of metal—and biked around the city. I have said this before, many times, but riding a bicycle is by far the best way to get to know a city, a town, an anywhere. It makes it easy to zoom past and ignore the louts on the side of the street, and to search out interesting nooks and crannies of cities. So, anyhow. I rented a bicycle and explored the old fort of Galle. Then I headed out to the busy main road and made the five kilometer ride to Unawatuna, a beautiful little beach a little east of town.

On the way to the beach I was confronted with more evidence of the tsunami than I had seen before. There had been little touches of it on the way south from Colombo, a few washed out houses, but nothing like east of Galle. Here the tsunami had hit much more directly. As I biked along the road, there are still signs for refuge camps, and still houses that had been washed out. There was nothing like the washed-out zone of Banda Aceh, though. Even next to the coast there houses which had withstood the wave. Even more visible than actual signs of tsunami damage were the aid workers. The UNICEF office with its absurd UN white cars which make the most normal village look like a war zone. The brand new brightly painted fishing boats with the names of the organizations that provided the funding painted large on the sides. The shoe repair men in Galle whose tiny wooden boxes were spray painted with “CONCERN International Livelihoods Program”. Even Save the Children was there, supposedly sponsoring a refuge camp. Not totally sure what they meant by that, but there they were. Everyone was there, it seemed from the logos flying.

Honestly, it left me with a weird taste in my mouth. The logos were just so large and prominent, and it made me remember all the problems there were in Aceh—the self-importance of the organizations vs. the role they play to help people. It was also strange to see so little destruction. Only 30,000 some people died in the tsunami in Sri Lanka. Only, right? But compared to Aceh it was so few… I guess it just brought me back to what Aceh was like, and all the problems. In addition, through some random acquaintances, ending at a dinner with aid workers from UNICEF, the FAO, Action Contre La Faim, and some other strange little Italian NGO. And the complaints and the attitude was the same… “nothing is getting done, it is absurd, isn’t it?”, a sort of nonchalance about what people were there to do—aid work as a difficult job, not as something inspired by helping people. Ah well, I don’t really know what is going on there, and so I cannot complain… but it was interesting, after all that time, so long ago, in Aceh.

So, I biked to Unawatuna. Not surprisingly, the bike got a flat tire on the way out there. I got pointed to a small little store where a guy brought out a little box of repair tools. When he took out the tube there were at least, at least, ten patches on the tire. And so he put on two more. When he was done and I paid him the fifty SL rupees, he took the necklace off his neck and handed to me. He very clearly gestured for me to have it, and I biked off. It was lovely. And the bike tired didn’t start leaking again until I had been to Unawatuna and had almost reached my guest house back in Galle again.

Unlike in Hikkaduwa, the beach at Unawatuna was perfect. Clean white sand, bright blue water, beautiful beautiful. The guest houses are along a back road, so there is no loud sound of traffic. I found a little place to stay, and the next day in the afternoon, tuk-tuked it out with all my gear. And there I stayed for the next few days, soaking up the sun, eating good food, and drinking Mango lassis. In the lagoon where I was swimming there was at least one sea turtle that swam with me, appearing and disappearing while I swam.

And sitting there in Uwanatuna is where I started this blog. It is now two weeks after I started the blog, and I am in Ella. How I got here:

After my nights in Uwanatuna, I skedaddled up the coast to meet Bruce, who I had met for 6 hours in Kota Kinabalu and had convinced to change his plans and ditch Borneo for the wilds Sri Lanka and travel with me. I met up with him in the same hotel that I had first stayed at in Negombo, the Silver Sands. And so began phase two of the Sri Lanka trip.

The next day, early, Bruce and I braved the wilds of Colombo to get me to the Indian embassy to get my Indian visa. One of the saddest things about modern development is how it makes modern cities in developing countries all look exactly the same. Of course, some of the historical buildings, the British hotels, the Portuguese churches, these survive, but in 100 years the buildings that will be left will all be the same concrete monstrosities. Colombo, which only has about a million people, is a bit like a small version of Jakarta, a glorified Balikpapan. The Dutch and the British rule left some beautiful buildings, and the city is right on the sea front, which is lovely, but otherwise it is a tangled mass of new concrete, traffic, and craziness. The Indian embassy is anything but an exception to the chaos of the city. After getting caught in the traffic on the way to the embassy, Bruce and I jumped out of the stationary bus in god-knows-where Colombo and caught a tuk-tuk to the embassy. We got there with only half-an-hour-ish to spare and I abandoned Bruce on the side of the hot dirty road with all our belongings while I sprinted into the embassy. Three hours, 4 queues, and $60 later, I found out that I would need to come back to Colombo to get my visa in five days (or longer). Blarg!

Sick and tired of Colombo, we caught the fast train to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second largest city, it in beginning of the hills in the middle of the island. The train ride, as with most train rides, was wonderful. Climbing out of that heat and into the hills, looking out over amazing blue green vistas, was such a relief after the dirty bustle of the city.

Kandy is a nice, busy, cool, town. And it is named Kandy, which makes me smile. We found our way to a guesthouse high up on a well-shaded hill, where we were surrounded by birds and creatures of all sorts (including a great orange cat with a remarkable squinchy face) while eating breakfast on the balcony. Exhausted from the craziness of Colombo and the speed of past travel, we relaxed and spent three nights in Kandy. We explored the city, which was bustling— we were informed it was particularly full because people had come to the city to buy new clothes and supplies for Sri Lankan New Years, which falls on the 14th of April. We saw the (dare I say, rather uninspiring) Temple of the Tooth, which supposedly contains one of Buddha’s teeth. I don’t understand how Buddhism gets away with relic worship and million dollar temples (as in Thailand, not in Sri Lanka, generally). I suppose I don’t know much about Buddhism, but what I know seems to contradict that sort of Buddha-idolatry and ostentation. Hmm. We also saw a whirlwind performance of Kandyan Dance, which really was splendid. They took no breaks between any of the dances, so it was a constant rush of acrobats, dancers, drum-spinners, and fire-eaters.

Sidenote: I have no love, or really any interest, in watching people fire –eat, -walk, whatever. According to a friend of mine who works in the circus, that stuff really hurt. No tricks about it. And, yes, eating fire tastes like kerosene. Why would l get enjoyment out of watching that? Of course, watching fire-walking as part of a real religious trance, that is something. But to glorify in someone’s pain? Ugh.

Okay, back to Kandy. Asides from city-exploring, tooth-seeing, and dance watching, we went to the Botanical Gardens and watched thousands upon thousands of school children learn wander about and play. Here is a wonderful fact: In the beginning on every school year, for the first four months, Sri Lankan school children are taken on educational field trips to the historical, particularly memorable, wonderful sites of their country. Admission is free for them, and I am sure transportation is either free or very cheap, and by the time they leave school they have seen their country’s treasures. What a splendiferous idea! It also means that our first couple days in the hills, we were surrounded by school kids where ever we went. Everywhere, there were hundreds of kids in their all while school uniforms, the girls with the hair tied back into two waist-length braids. Loud, running around, distracting, but cool non-the-less.

After resting and exploring in Kandy for those days, we got on a bus to Dambulla and Sigiriya. Dambulla is a cave temple, built many hundreds upon hundreds of years ago under a large rock overhang. It is white, as are most Buddhist monuments in Sri Lanka, but the inside is frescoed with hundreds of pictures of Buddhas in red and gold and other bright colors. There are also hundreds of statutes of Buddha. Unlike in Thailand, where the Buddha statues come in many different shapes and materials, most of these were made out of some simple material—plaster?—and painted yellow. Some larger ones were reclining some not. It’s a small place, but quiet and lovely. Outside I got my first close up view of the Sri Lankan Macaque, which has to be far and away the ugliest monkey I have ever seen. The one I got a close look at had black ears, black-lined eyes, and horrible black lips. The hair on its head was long and flat, like a plate. So ugly. But by far and away, the ugliest thing at Dambulla was the humungous “Golden Buddha” at the bottom of the hill leading up to the cave temple. This thing looks like something out of a horror movie. It has to be about 10 stories high, bright gold, sitting over a giant dragon mouth which is actually the entrance to a temple/ gift shop/ who knows what else. It is unbelievably grotesque—nothing in common with the tranquil temple above.

And then it was once again finding a bus and throwing our gear into it and heading off, this time to Sigiriya. The great rock of Sigiriya, which we climbed the nest day, is the most dramatic of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities. I think I must have read that in a guide book somewhere. Any how, it is perched on top of a huge flat-topped rock, seemingly totally out of place with the surround flat fields and gently rolling hills. As I no longer have my guide book, I cannot remember who made it or when they made it, but it was made. It was a fortress, and a wonderful one, I would imagine. The bottom was a landscaped garden, which was probably phenomenal when they first built it, with pools and flowing water. Then further up is a bolder garden, with huge rocks. Then the many steps to the top. A bit over half the way up is what seems to be Sri Lanka’s favorite tourist attraction/ bit of pornography. The ancient paintings of the multi-ethnic, topless Sigiriya Damsels grace the covers of tourist magazine, coffee table books, etc, across Sri Lanka. They are rather wonderful—the colors are still amazingly preserved—but the artist clearly had no idea what breasts actually looked like.

The final stair case to the top of Sigiriya used to start inside a huge stone lion’s mouth. If I was a ruler in an ancient kingdom, the entrance to my realm would also be a giant lion’s mouth. How wonderful. But now, only the two paws remain. Still, they are incredible. As with most ancient cities, the top requires some imagination to make the foundations appear as real buildings that once housed a king. But still, the foundations are there, and the views were amazing. Also wonderful was that if you waited long enough, the package tours came and went, leaving only a few people on the top of the rock.

We climbed the rock early in the morning, and spent the rest of the day wandering the town and resting. We tried to ride bikes, but the bikes the owner of our hotel found us were ludicrously bad. My bike was tiny and pink pink pink with a basket. Cycling brought my knees to my ears. The kids we biked past loved it. We also wandered through the town in the evening, which was lovely. It is great how even in the most over-touristed place, when you get even 100 meters off the beaten track, how wonderful and friendly people are. I even saw a Sri Lankan grey hornbill, which was more exciting for Bruce than me, cause he knows infinitely more about birds than I do, but which I hear is pretty special.

Also nice is how healthy the animals look on the road in Sri Lanka. The dogs are generally furry and look decently fed (unlike in Indonesia where they are mangy scrawn-monsters), and they (the Sri Lankan dogs) are actually happy to see you. They come up to strangers wagging their tails. Same goes for cats. And goats.

Scheduling being what it is, we spent the next day getting to Kandy and spent the night there. Next morning we caught the train to Hatton and to Adam’s Peak. Have I mentioned how much I love the train? Because I do. And this ride was lovely, up up up, into the tea plantations where the views got long and the air cool. The Sri Lankan trains don’t seem to do so well with climbing hills, so we went incredibly slowly, which gave good time for sitting in the doorway (there were no seats) and watching the world go by.

[I climbed Adam’s peak about April 10, and this blog is as far as I have gotten today, April 24… I promise to get the rest up soon!!]


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