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Sri Lanka pt 2 March 2012.

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continued from Part 1
     When we left Ratnapura I looked at the map and checked in the guide book to see how far it was to our next destination. Well it looked like 5 hrs.  our driver took a wrong turn (I showed him on the map) he insisted that this way was the short way, needless to say it took us an additional 3 hrs on a bad road to reach Sinharaja Forest Reserve on the south side.  Lucky for cell phones we alerted our hotel of our late arrival.  Most of the way the road was a 1 lane affair(the gov is supposed to widen it soon) with drop offs of 1000 ft or more and no guard rails.  A hair raising ride.
     The owner of the hotel insisted that we could leave at 8am with the other guests and see birds that late in the morning.  Of course he was wrong (I tried to tell him this fact) the guide didn’t know why he had told us that. Nevertheless we did see lots of reptiles and other jungle animals no birds though.  We hiked to a wonderful waterfall for lunch and did NOT see any snakes.  We then hired our guide for the next morning at 6am and had a great birding morning.  One of the interesting sightings was a  Western Giant Squirrel (pictures on Smugmug I will send the link soon).  This area  is at 5000 ft and was part of British crown land since 1840, it receives 3500mm of rain annually.  Normally there are lots of leeches here but because it had been dry lately there were very few around.  We put salt in our socks and shoes so just a few bit each of us. What luck!   Lots of endemic trees, plants, animals and birds here. One of our favorites were the lizards, the purple faced langurs and the chameleons. Our guide had grown up in the forest looking for animals, what an eye he had, it was lots of fun being in the jungle with him.
     After this foray into the forest we were ready for more wildlife.  A 8 hr crowded bus ride put us at Yala National Park.  Yala is a tropical thorn forest, so animals are easier to spot. Again we headed out at 5am to get to the entrance by 6am, way too many vehicles in this park, it could be much better managed.  We really wanted to see leopards, but as you may know this is difficult and one has to be lucky.  We did hear of one and if we had VERY strong binos we would have spotted it.  But alas we did see the tree it was in.  Elephants,crocs, sambars, buffalo, jackels, spotted deer, mongoose, and lots of birds were our eye candy.  We stopped at a spot where the tsunami hit and wiped out a village on the SE coast of the park.  
     We did hear several stories as we traveled on the road in the far South next to the beach.  This area was hard hit by the wave and 35,000 people died in various areas.  Lots of NGO’s came in and helped rebuild and buy boats for fisherman.  Of course now lots of people are better off than they were because of all the aid.  This said 22%of Sri Lankan’s live below the poverty line.  One tuk tuk driver told us that his parents were in the market in Galle(a walled town that didn’t have much damage) except for the market which wasn’t within the walls( Dutch built), they died and of course not many bodies were identified.  A Dutch tourist gave him and his brother money to buy a tuk tuk and they built the 1 tuk tuk into a small fleet.  He was so grateful and cheerful about this turn of affairs for them.  Its hard to get ahead here no one has much money.  Most money in Sri Lanka comes from 1-working over seas and sending money back(sometime for years away from here) 2 Tourism, 3 NGO’s. 4 Tea exports.  
     After the fun with game spotting in Yala we stayed in area at a great GH by the ocean and took another early morning into Bundala N.P. This is primarily a water park with a little land in between water courses.  Great bird watching over 150 species and 62 sq km. Unfortunately there were no flamingos(I just love flamingos)  they haven’t returned since the tsunami and all the fertilizer that flushes down from the rice fields.  Lots of fun here and get croc sightings, with only 1 other vehicle.  
     We shared a car with other folks to Marissa a beach town where in the last 6 years they discovered that blue whales pass by.  Again an early morning 5am start to go out about 30 minutes by boat to spot Blue Whales, the largest in the world.  We did see lots of whales and dolphins so nice to know that somewhere they thrive in great numbers.  The beach here was primarily for surfing but we did see some of the fisherman on the poles in the surf zone fishing for butter fish.  Not too many this time of year though. Our guest house, “Amarasinghe” was the best yet, so friendly and helpful.
     Our last stop was in Galle, the walled fortress city built by the Dutch in the 1600’s. The Portuguese settled Galle in 1505 before the Dutch won it in 1640  It was THe harbor in SL for over 200 years.  Nowdays Columbo the capital is the main port. The shopping is very good here and lots of expats own houses and businesses here. We discovered that all over SL buffalo curd is made and sold by the road, just loved this curd, and it was cheap.  
    An interesting fact the divorce rate is the lowest in the world, the USA is 30% higher.  The Sri Lankan’s have a dance called the “Devil Dance” to free a person from evil spirits.  I talked to several people who had been through this ritual.  Hard to find without staying around awhile.  Maybe next time. There are also lots of holidays here, the main one Poya(full moon) occurs every month.  I think we need something like this every month too.  This was a fast 3 weeks and would have liked 2 months here.  Island countries have a remote feel to them because one must fly to reach them.  Unfortunately the population is on the rise and there isn’t alot of land left to cultivate. Who knows what the future brings here. The government says there is a tsunami warning system in place but others say no.  The 2 books I recommend are “Road to Elephant Pass and “Not Quite Paradise”.
     

Janet Niichel

Sri Lanka Pt 1 2012.

Hello, I know its been awhile since I sent out the India report, and believe me time has flown.  We arrived in Sri Lanka February 22.  
     Lots of people think SL is just a part of India but it isn’t like India at all, yes it did have British rule until 1947, and the Dutch and English helped shape this island.  Fisherfolk from S India settled here in 3rd century BC as well as arab traders from Islam around the 7th century.  Formerly known as Ceylon  the Europeans settled in 1796.  
     Unlike India there is very very little trash littering the road side and villages.  Everyone is out cleaning all the time.  The roads are well built and the traffic is very orderly (unlike India).  People are super nice and friendly.  This is predominantly a Buddhist country( 75%), Islam 10%, and Tamils (Hindus) 18%.  
    ” Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy and moral code espoused by Buddha”.  The Sri Lankans take this philosophy to heart and it seems to make a great deal of difference in their day to day lives. Since the Tamil Tigers were defeated (July 2008) northern Sri Lanka has calmed down, and people can visit the north, we didn’t go up there this trip.  
     We started in Negombo(near the airport) and hired a car and driver for a week.  I realized that we didn’t have alot of time so we needed to shortcut the transit part.   The driver Dinish was a window into the culture, we asked him many things and he spoke pretty good english and answered alot of questions.  He also directed us to some sights and cafes for some unique experiences.  We purchased a phone card in the airport with 3 G so we could get email while on the move.  This was a great way to go.  We stayed at the cheapest places we could find and most didn’t have internet.  So 3G came in handy and it was cheap ($20/3weeks).  
     Our first stop after a night on the beach in Negombo was birding at the Muthurajawela Marsh, very professional guides when we finally found the place, no help from any sign. Lots of typical birds(see the photo gallery link in next email or just look on Smugmug/kayakjanetpat).  On to Pinneusala Elephant Orphanage, a great project for unwanted elephants.  Lots of fun watching them bath in the river(sort of like Africa)  The elephant is revered in SL, lots of wild elephants still here too and in several National parks.  I saw Raja a stuffed royal elephant in his own museum in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy(the only stuffed elephant in the world).  
     Up again super early to climb up to the top of Sigiriya, hardened magna plug of an extinct volcano.  Sigiriya was sculpted as a Buddhist monastery and is use by 3rd c BC. A major monastery  by the 10th century it was abandoned by 1300’s.  It took 2 hours to reach the top via lots of carved stairs, the staircases took us through water gardens, frescos, carved chairs, platforms, water features, and statues.  The frescos still have paint on them and are apsaras (celestial nymphs), situated in some over hanging caves accessed by steep spiral staircases.  A real trip to climb up.  The top is about 2 acres and has pools and steps carved all around.  The view was great of the countryside and of a Buddha statue above the trees about 1 mi away.  Carved Leopard  claws formed the upper staircase entrance. Surprisingly there were a great number of Sri Lankans visiting as well.  
     Next on our agenda was a visit to Kandy and Temple of the Tooth, Buddha’s tooth is inshrined here and it is a must do for all buddhists.  I found it peaceful and inspiring to see so many people visiting too. Beautiful grounds and trees in bloom set against the large lake that makes up the center of Kandy, a lovely early morning pilgrimage. The Perademiya Botanic Garden was a real treat (again see the photos) very well layed out my favorite flower on the cannonball tree. This garden is 60 hectacres and was built before the british arrived.  Off to see the tea plantations in the country surrounding Nuwara Eliya(6000 ft)nice and cool here, just the climate to grow tea in.  We drove for at least 7 hrs through tea plantations on both sides of the road.  
     Every since I attended Gemology school in 84 I wanted to visit Sri Lanka to see where they mined sapphires, rubies, zircon, and other stones.  SO a stop at Ratnapura (city of gems in Sanskrit) was a must do.  We stayed at a small hotel where the proprietor gives stone cutting and gemology classes. Lots of fun talking to these folks.  I also met a ayuvedic doctor who uses leeches to cure people of certain diseases. The mining of these stones is still done on the most primitive level, all manual labor with simple hand tools.  Most miners work in cooperatives and share in the wealth(?) hopefully.  Stones are cut in Ratnapura as well so on the street everyone has gems to sell you of course at “cheap price for you”.  To be continued
     
Janet Niichel

Hello,   I hope you have all had a good winter!   I’ve had trouble with mac.com address so until I get to LA it will not be in use.  And I have neglected to write a trip report, not for lack of wanting to, its just hard to find the time.  I know you all think well they have lots of time on their hands, but its just not so.  

     After arriving in Bangkok we spent some days getting shots and eating Thai food.  I did take 2 cooking classes and really cemented the style and how to use some of the ingredients.  Pat meanwhile found a thai blues club in Banglapu area.  He went to listen lots of the nights we were in Bangkok.  I got a case of shingles and was really down for the count for about 2 weeks.  It took me a week to realize what it was.  The pain wasn’t bad it was just hard to lay down on my back so I didn’t sleep well, and it was hot (85 degrees) too.  

     After a great overnight train to Chaing Mai we wandered around CM for 6 days, I received daily treatment from a acupuncturist  which really helped.  Pat took a day mtn bike trip out in the country. He really enjoyed the ride a lot it was downhill and fast.  Back in Bangkok the weather was rainy and windy out in the Andaman sea so we just flew to Goa instead of going to a Thai island park.  

     We were in Goa 3 years ago and had a great time so when we decided to come again we were wondering if things had changed much.  Well Arembol beach community was mostly the same, alittle more development on the far side on the beach,  more people doing yoga on the beach, and many many more russian tourists.  Lots of locals are learning Russian too.  Last year 87,000 russians visited Goa and the next group the Brits came in at 57,000.  Interesting to speak with some of these folks,  some speak english, all have iphones, and ipods, and ipads.  Its easy to pick them out their skin is dead white and or burnt to a crisp.  But it sure has influenced the music scene in Arembol, lots of russians playing music at bars.  Also some of the best performers ie belly dancers, silk aerialists, and other forms of Indian dance, jugglers and fire artists are russians.  

     Pat and found our old poi instructor Sunny from India and took 1 lesson a day ($6 hr for both of us) with an additional practice session on the beach at sunset.  We both did end up playing fire at a night show too.  Pat bought a full size guitar in Thailand and played at 2 open mic nights/wk.  He also got a lot of practice time in.  We did end up at the hotel we stayed at last time on the beach.  But it did go up in price to $15/night.  Not too bad considering the view and ocean breeze.  Some of the people from years ago were in town also, so I took hula hoop lessons from a friend, and also some bellydance too.  A fun time was had by all.  We really hated to leave but I had a bug to see some more of the “real” india.

     Off we went to Hampi by sleeper night bus,(this was great to get somewhere rested)  Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site as well it should be.  The ruins were spaced out in the country side and accessible by bicycle, set in a scenery like Joshua tree NP among giant boulders with a river running through it.  Hampi also has a temple right in town where local hindu’s come to worship Shiva, and that weekend was a big celebration, lots of folks washing in the river and of course the temple elephant has her bath every morning at 8:30, what fun to hangout and watch.  The food was good and cheap(pilgrims have to eat too)  We did get taken by a travel agent on our on ward ticket, so we went and asked for our money back and did get it.  Then bought a new better ticket on another great sleeper bus to Bangalore.  Did stop in B just caught another bus to Mysore.  Loved Mysore, the palace is a must see rebuilt in 1897 its a wonder of art and architecture.  We had a great morning birding at a local lake, and bought some silk scarves.  The market is fun to just wander around here and the streets aren’t crowded.  

     A private car was hired to take us to an elephant camp and on to Madikeri a hill town in the state of Coorg.  The elevation was about 6000ft, nice and cool, a good place to hike around and see the sights and visit a coffee plantation with a local.  The air was the clearest yet in India.  Mostly the air in India is very gray with pollution.  They burn trash everywhere and there are so many people just reached 1.2 Billion(as of the last census.  

     We then traveled by car and train to Ft Cochin situated on an island in Kerala.  Ft Cochin is a lovely town easy to walk around and not crowded.  We came see Kathakali a story dance that is performed in this area.  The costumes and makeup are elaborate.  We went to 3 performances of different stories.  It was great to see this I had always wanted to.  Each gesture and eye movement mean different things, no speaking at all.  The theater in FT Cochin was built especially for Kathakali, and it seats 200 everynight.  The show for the foreigners is 1 hr and if we were to see it in a village it could be all night.  Next time I’m in India I will seek it out in a native setting.  Of course the chinese nets are a wonderful sight on the coast as well as the old fortress walls build by the Dutch. On to Sri Lanka.

Janet Niichel

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