Friday, April 03, 2009

Final Day in Colombo

Chris laid on another stupendous breakfast for us this morning.  Fruit salad, yoghurt, muffins, scrambled egg with smoked salmon, coffee and juices; all very tasty and set us up for the day.  The plan was just to go shopping today.  Chris was busy, so couldn’t accompany us, and Mark had meetings throughout the day but Chris jotted down a list of places we might want to visit and organised us a taxi.  Taxis are cheap it seems; we had the taxi for about five hours and it only cost us a tenner.  There’s nothing like having your own private chauffeur when you are out shopping around town!

We visited five different shops and liked them all.  In the end Brett and I picked up a selection of linen shirts, four statuettes of the major Buddhist and Hindu figures, some organic Veda honey for my parents.  One of the places we visited was a jewellers.  Sri Lanka is noted for its precious stones and Qudsi is a jeweller in the old fashioned sense; the room lined with cabinets containing both pre-fashioned jewellery and display-boxes of loose, cut gems that you can have put in the setting of your choice.

While we’d originally gone in looking for some amber jewellery for my sister, we came away with a turquoise necklace for Brett’s mum and an order for a pair of cufflinks to be made up for me using a couple of aquamarines.  Apparently aquamarine is my ‘birthstone’ and I rather like the icy blue colour.  We later went back for some fossilised coral too.  There were some truly beautiful gems in there though. If I’d had the money I could easily have come away with many more shiny things, but alas proper ostentation is beyond my means at the moment, even with the substantial discount we were given for having a friend at the High Commission.

The other place we visited twice was Paradise Road, a store owned by the chap who also owns Tintagel.  We actually ran into him at one of the stores and he and Ping spent a while talking art.  Paradise Road has quite a varied stock, but it’s mostly homeware in various forms and we found lots of lovely stuff – including the statuettes we came back to buy.  I have a fondness for sculpture…

In the evening we had dinner at the Gallery CafĂ© (attached to one of the stores).  We got there just as the afternoon rain was letting up and had a cocktail before dinner.  The menu had some dishes in common with Tintagel, but also quite a few more.  I dined on the delicious butter chicken that Mark & Chris recommended.

Unfortunately Ping was feeling increasingly unwell as we sat down to dinner; he didn’t eat anything and spent a while away from the table trying to clear his head.  In the end though he decided to leave early – and almost collapsed on his way to the door.  Chris accompanied him home in a tuk-tuk and Brett, Mark and I f0llowed as soon as we’d settled up.

Back at the house, Ping was feeling somewhat recovered – and somewhat sheepish.  He’d been having problems with his stomach adjusting to some of the Sri Lankan food and so had skipped lunch.  He doesn’t normally take a lot of alcohol, so the vodka cocktail he’d had to start had hit his empty stomach hard and he suffered for it.

It was good to see him recovering though and we got a final farewell picture of the five of us, plus Theo the labrador, before heading up for a bit of packing and an early night.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Pinnawala and Colombo

So, after one final sunrise from the comfort of my bed, it was farewell to Kandalama this morning.

On our way back to Colombo we took a detour via the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.  After seeing the hotel’s elephant yesterday and then reading in the Lonely Planet guide last night that there had been complaints about the way the mahouts handle the elephants at Pinnawala, I was really in two minds whether I wanted to pay them money to watch.  I went though and all was well with what I saw.  We arrived in time to watch the herd being bathed.

I didn’t count but there must have been forty or fifty of them mucking about in the river.  The river was quite shallow, running over rock terraces mostly, with some deeper pools.  There were a couple of males having a scrub and clearly enjoying it.  Once they were out of the way, the females and the youngsters were herded into the deeper water.  There was one group in particular that found the deepest pool and seemed to have an underwater love-in; mostly submerged and rubbing against each other with little to be seen of most of them apart from an occasional trunk curling up and spraying water.  I got plenty of cute photographs.

One of the herd only has three feet, having lost the fourth to a landmine (according to Wikipedia) and I was impressed both by how careful and yet how agile she was over the uncertain terrain of a rocky river bed.  Another reminder that elephants are not mindless lumbering beasts, but have minds up there alongside primates and cetaceans.

Once we’d seen all there was to see, we were back in the van for Colombo.  After a detour via the JetWing office to pay up for Maliq’s services we arrived back at Mark & Chris’ place.

I’d been in touch with Chris by SMS throughout the journey, so when we arrived lunch was waiting for us on the table and we all had massages booked for later that afternoon.  After scoffing the scrummy grub with lashings of ginger beer, Chris drove Brett and I down to their local spa for my first ever Ayurveda massage; a lovely experience and, for all that there was a cute guy rubbing oil all over my naked body, a surprisingly relaxing one!

As we were finishing up, Chris & Ping were just arriving for their massage.  Brett and I headed back to the house to chill and surf.  A strong wind picked up not long after we sat down and then the heavy rain arrived.  There was a lot of noise, but it wasn’t until Chris and Ping got home with Mark that we realised either lightning or wind had brought down two trees, one at either end of the road.  We were completely oblivious.

We got changed and relaxed with Mark and Chris to catch them up on the rest of our trip over drinks and then headed out for dinner at a nearby restaurant called Tintagel; home of the first president of Sri Lanka, now converted into a really gorgeous boutique hotel and restaurant.  Dinner was lovely – almost like a private restaurant for us.

Later on Mark was telling us a little of what’s happening with the civilians in the north and it is truly awful.  It sounds like 150,000 civilians are caught in a tiny area between two opposing forces but with nowhere to go and not much sympathy on either side.  All sobering stuff; kind of puts the quality of the Kandalama’s coffee into perspective.  Human beings are often strange, selfish and vicious animals.  Our social herding instincts combined with our often irrational belief/trust in causes and leaders gives us great potential to be self-destructive as a species.  It’s quite out of step with the people we’ve met on our trip; you wouldn’t think the easygoing, friendly folk elsewhere on the island are capable of doing the sorts of things that are going on up there.

We put aside the heavy thoughts after a while though and enjoyed the luxuries that we are fortunate enough to enjoy, one of which was a tuk-tuk ride back to the house.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Sigiriya and Rest

Sigiriya this morning.  We had the hotel phone ahead and they were more informative today; we could go to the top if we were accompanied by an official guide (the cynic in me imagines that requirement is because the official guides won’t have been earning while the site was closed…)

It is an impressive sight and rather put me in mind of Lord of the Rings; an oval platform of rock, just thrusting up pretty much vertically from the plain.  One of the kings had fortified it and built his palace there.  Around the base were the remains of gardens with formal flower beds, fountains and pools; the whole nine yards!  Then you began to climb.

We acquired a couple of ‘official helpers’ at this point; uniformed guys whose job is to carry your bag and essentially to help you up the stairs.  While I was glad to be free of my gear, I wasn’t so keen on him grabbing my arm every time the step was uneven.  His hand resting between my shoulder blades would likely not have been sufficient to stop me tumbling down the steep stairs had I lost my footing; more likely I would have knocked him down with me as I was probably twice his weight!  He eventually got the message and left off the handling.

About halfway up is a gallery of sorts; barely a ledge beneath an overhang in an otherwise vertical wall.  Here they have found quite well preserved wall paintings of ladies relaxing.  Given the gallery’s unlikely position no-one knows why the paintings are there.  For me it brought to mind a variation on an old cartoon strip I had once seen; a king is supervising the building of his new fortress and concludes instructing his architect thus; “…and when you’ve done all that, dangle some artists off that cliff and have them paint some fancy erotic stuff halfway up.  It’ll confuse the hell out of archaeologists in a thousand years time!”

Having seen the gallery and paid my hundred rupees to the guy to get the advanced tour, which includes a woman with “eyes like the Mona Lisa,” (yeah, right!) I was none the wiser either, so we descended the spiral staircase again and continued with the main ascent.

We paused at the Lion’s Paws; an enormous pair of feet either side of the final staircase.  Originally the entire front half of the lion existed and you entered the palace through the lion’s mouth, but that is now all decayed to brick rubble and stone.  Hanging above this staircase today though are several hornets nests which had been attacking visitors climbing the stairs over recent days.

Of the seven or so other parties we had seen coming up to the paws, I only saw one other party go on past them.  I think the guides were spooking people to be honest – and there were few enough people coming anyway.  We went on up though and were untroubled.  The ancient buildings on the top of the rock had clearly been extensive, but there is little there to see today and the most stunning thing is the view from the top; literally miles of unobstructed panorama in every direction.

The trip down was uneventful and much easier and we returned to the hotel in time for lunch.

After some rest and relaxation, Ping and I went out for a walk.  We were told we shouldn’t walk in the jungle but could walk along the lake shore.  We didn’t even get down the drive before we had an encounter with the monkeys, who were feasting off the shrubs along the side of the road.  As we got down to the lake the elephant they use for giving people rides was out being bathed by his keeper.  Call me a soft-hearted liberal, but the beast did not seem happy and his keeper sounded bullying.  How do I know?  I don’t know, but that was a clear impression I got from watching them interact.  Not the happy social animals we had seen in Udawalawe.

Leaving them behind, we wandered along a track into the jungle a little, following another couple who had been accompanied by a hotel guide, but we didn’t come across anything much and turned around before it began to get dark.  Back at the hotel, Brett and I headed up to the top floor, where they have a natural water pool  and some loungers, to read and then watch the sun set for the last time here.

We were joined for sunset by Ping and then by Colin and Felicity (a lovely young Scottish couple who had arrived that day.  Colin is rather toned and had spent the afternoon wandering round in just his board shorts, so we were happy for the company…)

Quite apart from the eye candy though, it was a lovely half hour; the sun set behind partial cloud cover so there were many colours and patterns.  I took a first and final dip in the infinity pool and listened to the flautist for a while before heading in for a shower and dinner.