Sri Lanka: Jungle by the sea

To celebrate my daughter’s significant birthday with a 0 in it, I suggested she choose a place in the world she had always dreamed of visiting. After certain criteria were established — a wildlife jungle safari, a beach for snorkelling, trekking in a rain forest, significant historical sites, a unique culture — we decided Sri Lanka was an ideal destination.

But after the tsunami disaster last December and the aftermath of shock and grief the world shared for this ravaged part of the world, we wondered if our trip scheduled for March would have to be cancelled.

The pleasures of anticipation
Walkers Tours assured us that the ambitious 10-day excursion, which had been customized after we outlined our wish list, was still happening, so I settled down with Shyam Selvadurai’s books, Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens, as well as Michael Ondaatje’s book Running in the Family. The influences of Arab, Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and British settlers, not to mention the influence of an early Buddhist civilization, had obviously created a fascinating nation. It promised to be an intriguing adventure.

Our guide – and frienby the end of our 10 days together — Sunil Caldera (a Sinhalese Christian of Portuguese descent) picked us up at the Colombo airport, and we headed to the north central region of this island hanging like a teardrop from the chin of India. Here was the Cultural Triangle, bordered by Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the cradle of Sri Lankan civilization for almost 2,000 years. As the ruling kings moved their seats of power from one city to the next, the deserted cities fell into ruins. By the 13th century, the jungles had reclaimed this dry scrubby plain and the ruins of the religious monuments of the golden age of Sinhalese culture. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the British pushed back the vegetation and uncovered the forgotten civilizations.

There wasn’t time to visit both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, so we opted for the smaller but better-preserved ruins of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Besides, it was easier to pronounce. Most impressive is Gal Vihara, the incredible rock carving of four serene and magnificent Buddha statues carved from one massive slab of granite.

The best way to see everything– and the area is peppered with fascinating ancient monuments– is to buy Cultural Triangle tickets. They cost about $40 US, are valid for 14 days and cover six sites, including the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, the holiest temple in Sri Lanka, which houses an actual tooth of the Buddha.

Ancient ruins can be found in almost every country in the world, but this region is in unique proximity to an arid jungle where wild elephants and spotted deer roam.

Riding elephants
We stayed at the Lodge at Habarana in the heart of the triangle, where we could indulge in an herbal steam massage at the end of the day and be entertained by monkeys scampering over the red tile rooftops and lizards slithering down the walls in the early evening dusk, wonderful spicy food (my first string hoppers, steamed mats of thin rice noodles with plantain curry, spicy dal and garlic) and an easy stroll to the village of Habarana where we walked through boisterous markets and crept close to elephants chained to trees on the estates of a few wealthy residents. (No one can buy an elephant anymore. They’re protected. Besides, they’re expensive to feed and must be insured.) Before we left Habarana, Krista rode an elephant, first in a carriage on the back of the grande dame, then daringly bareback on her neck, reaching down to offer her a cluster of bananas, which she snatched with her trunk.

We’re glad our driver, Sunil, knows the rules and courtesies of the road on our drive to Kandy, where we will file through the Temple of the Tooth, the holiest temple in Sri Lanka, which houses an actual tooth of the Buddha. Life in this country, just a bit smaller than Ireland, is a riot of colour and movement. We pass through herbal villages, teak and coconut plantations and along side rice fields. We watch a woman grinding hot chilies and coconut to make coconut sambal, stop to drink milk from a king coconut and buy a bag of chilies. We visit an open-air workroom where pieces of teak and ebony are lovingly carved and buffed with the scent of sandalwood fragrant in the air.

Sunil must skirt around cows grazing lazily along the side of the road and the ubiquitous tuk tuks (three-wheeled taxis) as well as lorries lumbering like giant hay wagons with coconut leaves. Cars and trucks rely on horns to say “I’m coming past” solid line or not. Typically, Sri Lankans also beep to say thanks when they’re past. No road rage here.

Next page: Elephant orphanages and tea country

We arrive at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage early in the morning to see the baby elephants suck back four or five bottles of milk while the adult elephants haul coconut logs into the feeding stable with their trunks. About 65 elephants that have been orphaned, abandoned or damaged, as is the case with Sama who has had a leg severed by a land mine, call Pinnewala home. It’s the world’s largest collection of elephants. After the feeding, the great beasts line up for a ceremonial procession to the Ma Oya River for a bath.

Food and spice
Sri Lanka appears to be a completely self-sufficient nation with its natural resources, the teak forests, the rubber plantations as well as a sea teaming with fish and seafood. There is a variety and seeming abundance of food grown, most famously tea as well as rice, coffee and coconuts and an endless variety of both common and exotic fruits such as mangosteen, durian, several kinds of bananas, mango, papaya, jackfruit, avocado, pineapple wood apple. Vegetables both familiar and unfamiliar, such as snake gourds, spill out over roadside stands

Sri Lankans are a resourceful people who respect their bounty. They use every part of the sturdy coconut palm: leaves for roofs, shells for spoons, husks to make fibre, flowers to make sweet honey and, of course, their national drink, arrak. The coconut palm was a stalwart survivor of the tsunami when other trees were uprooted and tossed.

Besides food basics, there is a bewildering variety of spices. We stop at a spice garden where pepper grows like a parasite vine, along with coffee bean plants, nutmeg, saffron, vanilla, cloves, cinnamon, aloe vera and wild pineapple. To convince us of the healing powers of herbal medicine, our guide, Uma, favours us with neck massages that make us blubbery believers. Here we are sitting in a spice garden having a neck massage. Imagine!

Agriculture combines with natural beauty
Four days into our itinerary and we begin the winding ascent into tea country. And now I know why it’s said Sri Lanka is the most beautiful place in the world. Vistas of azalea-like tea plants march up and down the hills in neat rows, and once in a while a colourful swatch of colour pokes through the vast emerald green as tea pickers in bright saris move through the plantations. The roads are narrow switchback ribbons winding round mountain cliffs. The drive makes the ones along the California coast and Italy’s Amalfi Coast look tame.

I am spellbound by the beauty.

There is a kaleidoscope of landscapes in this country, and the vistas change dramatically with the region. The hill country in central Sri Lanka, where high tea (the best quality) is grown, is green and lush and blindingly beautiful. Just below tea country is the ecological treasure, the Sinharaja Forest. Not only is it home to 830 of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of flora and fauna but also 21 of the country’s species of birds. In fact, Sri Lanka is a birder’s paradise with 233 resident species. My favourites are the little green bee-eater and the painted stork.

As we trek through the rain forest serenaded by a concert of at least a million cicadas, I have time to reflect on how blessed I am to be here. Although Sri Lanka is considered the most civilized country in south Asia, there is such peaceful reclusiveness, such simplicity  in this remote pocket of the country. Our accommodation at the end of a sandy rutted road bordering the forest, a rest house called the Magpie Inn, has only basic amenities; even electricity is conserved for use between 6 and 10 p.m. They have realized what we in North America have yet to learn: a respect for nature, a commitment to preservation, to leaving things alone.

It’s the people that add heart
While the landscape is ever changing, the people are not. The 18.5 million Sri Lankans are mainly Buddhist Sinhalese (68 per cent, followed by 18 per cent Tamil Hindus, eight per cent Muslim and two per cent Burghers), and live amicably together in most communities. They are consistently gracious, smiling, serene, overtly curious about us, forthright in sharing their pride in their country and enormously kind. My daughter asks a woman in Bentota how they get their gorgeous smiles. She answers, “It’s because we smile from the heart.”

Children wave happily as we pass on the road, and when we hang onto tree branches to cross a creek in Sinharaja where workers are building a dam, we find a hanky thoughtfully tied around a tree on our way back to give us a better grip.

We head to the southeast coast and Yala Village, a delightful resort set in Yala National Park, a jungle spilling out into the sea. As we check in, we are cautioned to ask for an escort from our bungalow to dinner at night because wild elephant roam the resort. The sea roars a few metres away from our front porch, and a wild boar ambles by, checking out the vegetation. From the resort’s observation deck by the light of the moon, we watch water buffalo come to the pool to drink. In the early morning, we can see dolphins and whales kibitzing in the sunlit sea.

Our safari begins at 6 a.m. and while we don’t see the leopards the park is famous for, we enjoy the early morning rituals of peacocks, cormorants, land monitors, purple- faced leaf monkeys, spotted deer, breasted hawk eagles, Indian peafowl, mongoose and, of course, the elephants, water buffalo and wild boar who have already come by the resort to say hello.

Our guides stop the jeep on the beach and we are silent with grief as they show us the aftermath of the tsunami. While for us, the beach looks wide and clean with sand as fine as icing sugar, they explain that before the tsunami, the jungle covered this entire area. Many of the jungle’s watering holes for the animals are now full of salt water — that’s why the water buffalo are sharing our pool water.

We are overwhelmed with compassion for these handsome lanky young men who were here when the 15-foot waves engulfed the circuit bungalows that are now merely concrete foundation pads. Later, along the south coast, we see a sign that says “God, where are you now? Please help us.” But the Sri Lankans are resilient and resourceful and view tragedy as part of life; these young men are the same. Later, they invite Krista to play volleyball on the beach. Life goes on and they embrace each day, learning how to be prepared next time.

I am humbled by their spirit.

Our last stop is the Bentota Beach Hotel, designed by the famed architect Geoffrey Bawa. The pool follows the outline of a large rock mass, and the fragrance of jasmine follows us to our room where our view is an uninterrupted vista of an endless beach.

We had asked to experience as much of Sri Lankan life and culture as possible in 10 days.

Goal: accomplished.  Grade: A+