Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sri Lanka - A little bit of culture

If you haven’t given up on me by now, I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you a little about the fun side of my trip to Sri Lanka. First of all as a brief overview (I promise, no politics or health care), Sri Lanka is a truly tropical island, with lush greenery, extensive rice paddies, plants with humongous leaves, and giant insects all through the south and coastal areas. The north is more of a desert, with craggy rock formations, and then there is the “hill country,” where the famous Ceylon tea comes from. There are plenty of birds and monkeys, iguanas and geckos, multiple species of sea turtles and whales, plus a few cows wandering the streets. The Sri Lankan people are extremely friendly and welcoming, though it’s an interesting dynamic, as the country is significantly more developed than its large neighbor India, but yet in many ways still developing – this translates to some people still being quite friendly and open, but more people being a bit more cautious. However, when people do open up and decide to care about you, you are shown no end of generosity. Actually one of the things that most impressed me about Sri Lankans is the family structure and how they are so close and look out for each other. Almost never did I see a patient in the hospital without a family member by his side 24 hours a day, sleeping in a chair next to the bed, feeding him and changing his dressings. And of course in my own personal experience I was hosted by the parents of a friend, and although they had absolutely no obligation and had only met me once before, they treated me like their own daughter, and I felt incredibly welcome. In fact, many people I’ve met here – once they have had a chance to get to know me a little – have been overwhelmingly caring and warm.

But back to the sightseeing… the north of the country is still off limits to foreigners, but as far north as you can go you find the Cultural Triangle, a series of ancient cities that were former capitals of Sri Lanka and have more Buddha statues than you can shake a stick at. Probably the crown jewel is Sigiriya, a huge rock (which interestingly is actually the lava core of an ancient volcano, but the volcano part eroded away, leaving this giant rock in the middle of the plain) that you climb and climb to reach ancient cave paintings that are quite well preserved and an ancient meditation center with great views. Nearby Anuradhapura is a whole complex of temples and statues and palaces – this is where the annual Poson festival took place, when thousands of white-clad Buddhist pilgrims flocked from all over the country with lotus flowers in hand. Dambulla completes the part of the Triangle that I saw. This one is a bunch of caves with giant carved Buddha statues, much like some of the caves I saw in China, although these ones mostly have painted statues. All in all, they were pretty impressive sites and worth the steep entrance fees.

The other place that absolutely everyone hypes up is Kandy, Sri Lanka’s “second city.” Well, I must say that for me it didn’t live up to the hype. To my eye it was a rather congested, smoggy city with a fair number of tourists (relatively speaking) and a fair amount of hassle. There is a nice lake, and the claim to fame is the Temple of the Tooth – which supposedly houses, inside a very large series of golden boxes, the canine of the Buddha himself, salvaged from the funeral pyre. You can’t see it, but you take it on faith that it’s there. Plus Kandy is famous for its dancers, whose costumes are lovely but the dancing itself either isn’t very special or they don’t make much of an effort for tourists.

Around Kandy there is a “Temple Loop” of three temples built in the surrounding hills. The temples themselves aren’t much to write home about, but it’s a pleasant enough walk, and I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely local family who took me back to their nearby home for tea. Their house was a plywood shack with a tin roof, no electricity and the kind of kitchen that we were warned is a major worldwide cause of COPD (due to the smoke it fills the house with). As I sat there in their only chair I noticed a big bunch of red bananas on a tree nearby, and I mentioned that we don’t have those in America – only yellow bananas. To which my host said “you want banana?” which I took to mean she would take one off the bunch and give it to me to eat, so I said ok. Next thing I know, her brother has come with a machete and chopped the whole tree down, and they start piling this bunch of bananas – there must have been 50 of them – into a bag, and she says to me “you take banana to America” with a big smile. I can’t tell you how touched I was by this gesture, and it almost broke my heart to have to tell her that first of all, I can’t bring bananas into America, and second, I can’t carry 50 bananas around for the next week in my backpack. I don’t think she quite understood, but I took about 10 of them, and I’m sure they made good use of the rest.

From Kandy I made my way to Ella via a very long and significantly delayed train ride that had stunning views of the miles and miles of tea plantations in the hills. The train reaches 2000 meters in altitude, which is pretty high, especially when you consider you are essentially starting from sea level. Ella is a super-relaxed, backpacker hangout, but due to my short vacation time and the delay of my train, I wasn’t able to do any of the walks in the surrounding hills that I had wanted to do. Instead I treated myself to a full Ayurvedic treatment in the spa there, of which the most surprisingly wonderful part was a steam bath in which you lie down completely naked in what looks like a medieval torture device/casket, with only your head sticking out the end. When they closed the lid on me, I just about had a panic attack, and I am not a claustrophobic person. They then proceed to steam you like a brussels sprout for half an hour until you beg for mercy. In fairness, the first 15 minutes or so were pure bliss – it felt like my body disappeared and just my head was left, and I thought I could stay there forever. And then I started to really sweat, and I started thinking about how I was becoming hypovolemic and vasodilated and was going to pass out when I got up (ah, the joys of studying medicine), and eventually I got overheated and asked to be let out, at which point I got dizzy and was offered a glass of tap water, which I luckily asked about the source of before drinking. The evening concluded with shiro dhara, the pouring of hot oil on your forehead, which also sounds like a method of torture and is also amazingly blissful and highly recommended. It sounds weird, and you smell like a coconut for about three days afterwards, but is well worth it.

So much for Ella, as the next morning I set off for the southern coast, where I stopped at the beach town of Mirissa for a few days. Mirissa is quite underdeveloped, with a few guesthouses and about two little restaurants on the beach, and it is so quiet and peaceful and gorgeous and wonderful… not a single tout wandering the beach trying to sell you anything or bother you. So you sit on the sand, swim in the ocean, and generally enjoy the atmosphere of relaxation. I would recommend it if you are looking for something a little less commercial than a standard package beach holiday.

From there I went to Unawatuna, just to see what all the fuss is about, and what I found was exactly what Mirissa is not – a totally built up beach with so many guesthouses and restaurants and touts and taxi drivers that there is not a moment of peace. But it’s great if you want to just hang out in a resort with tons of other tourists. Unawatuna is right next to Galle, where the claim to fame is an old Portuguese fort with the walls still intact and winding little alleyways inside the fort. I found it to be much less charming than expected, and ended up spending most of the afternoon chatting with a British medical student I happened to meet there. Not that Galle isn’t worth a visit, but I wouldn’t have spent a lot of time there.

Lastly I stopped by Kosgoda to visit the turtle hatcheries. Six different species of sea turtles live in the waters off Sri Lanka’s coast, and they have largely become endangered due to both animal and human predators, who take the eggs off the beach to eat them. Due to joint efforts of foreign and Sri Lankan volunteers, several hatcheries have sprung up where they collect the eggs off the beach, very carefully incubate them in sand piles, and then keep the babies for three days (until their shells close up entirely – turtles have a fontanelle!!) and then release them into the ocean. This vastly increases their chances of survival, and any that are blind or have deformities are kept at the center so they wont die in the wild. They let you hold the little babies, and oh my, are the ever CUTE! And very strong – I was amazed by how strong their little fins were, pushing against my hands.

And thus ended my time in Sri Lanka. I wouldn’t call it my favorite country I’ve ever visited, as one well-traveled backpacker called it when I met her years ago, but it was well worth a visit and has some beautiful and unique places to visit, great food and wonderful people. If you have been to India, you absolutely cannot consider it is just more of the same, and now that the war is over and the country is generally peaceful, it’s a great time to go before the masses arrive once again.

Some practicalities:

Language: Sri Lanka’s primary language is Sinhala, with a decent-sized Tamil minority. They all learn English in school, but I found that in general most people don’t speak it much if at all. Try the well-dressed ones who look like professionals if you are really in need of an English-speaker. Sinhala is hell to pronounce, and I can’t say I made a lot of inroads into the language during my stay there. I was ok with English, but it definitely added an extra layer of challenge since a lot of signs are not written in English, particularly destinations on buses, though I think this is slowly changing.

Costs: Traveling in Sri Lanka is quite expensive by regional standards. I found in general – in the off season – that I couldn’t find a room for less than $5/night, and in Colombo it was as much as $15. Colombo is well worth giving a pass, though. A meal generally costs around $2-3 for a fair amount of food, and train and bus travel is pretty decent value, though again more expensive than, say, India. Where they really get you is the entrance fees for the must-see sights, where they totally take advantage of foreigners who’ve come so far they aren’t going to turn away now. The big ones like Sigiriya and Anuradhapura are a whopping US$25 each (a veritable fortune in Sri Lanka – the entrance is free for locals), and many others are $5 or $10. This can hit the backpacker budget quite hard.

Food: Restaurants haven’t really caught on in Sri Lanka, so most people just eat in their guesthouses. You tell them in the afternoon if you want dinner, and they provide you with the standard dinner – a giant pile of rice with several bowls of curries. Sri Lankans eat with their hands, but they usually have forks on hand for tourists. Breakfast in guesthouses is generally white bread toast with butter and eggs, which I generally skipped because I don’t want to eat any of those things. A real Sri Lankan breakfast is either rice and curry or what they call “hoppers,” which are kind of like French crepes, also served with curry. The food is very spicy, though they will often make it bland as soon as they see your face. I found it quite difficult as a vegetarian. Guesthouses would accommodate me, but restaurants, such as they were, had few vegetarian options. I must say, though, if you can get yourself invited to someone’s house, eat there. Even in the guesthouses where they were just a family making food for me, I never in my entire stay had food as good as what I got at the home of my hosts, who ruined me for the rest of the country. And do take advantage of the amazing tropical fruits, which are mostly in season in the summer time, including super sweet-pineapples, about 18 varieties of bananas, piles of rambutans, and the infamous durian (I recommend you avoid this one).

Visas: US citizens get a free 30 day entry visa on arrival. Most flights leave Colombo somewhere around 3am, so I found many people wondering if leaving the country after midnight on the 31st day would get them in trouble – from my experience, no. I did it, and no one said a word.

Bus and Train travel: So… public transport is not Sri Lanka’s strong point. The train network is not very extensive, and the delays are measured in quarters and halves of days. However, you can sit down, and it is certainly more comfortable than the buses. On the other hand, the buses are often faster and cheaper, and if you can handle hanging on for dear life while pressed into a crowd of Sri Lankans, I’d opt for the bus every time. The major other problem with the buses is that most of them are not labeled in English letters, so you have to either rely on the generosity of a local to help you find the right one or stop every one that goes by and shout your destination at them until one of them doesn’t look at you like you are crazy.

Women: I heard a lot of mixed reports before I went, such that I was a little worried about traveling alone there. Sri Lankan women don’t generally go anywhere alone, and I was met with the usual “but can you manage?” However, while I didn’t have the same sense of safety being put with other women that I did in India, I found that if I dressed conservatively (covered upper arms and down to below the knees, no tight clothing), looked confident and rudely, if necessary, rejected any advances, I was fine. I did not have any incidents while I was there, but in fairness I must report that a woman I met was not so lucky, as she had a man do something very nasty to her on a bus and received no help on attempting to report the event to the police. But for the most part, using some common sense and being a bit on the defensive, and perhaps avoiding night-time travel, I would say it’s fine to travel around as a lone woman.

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Adventure map for 2009...