Ceylon – it’s more than a great cup of tea – December 2014

I started a new job three weeks ago, so it was probably time to take a few weeks’ holiday.

The airport was terribly busy with everyone wanting to escape for Christmas. We thought we had a stroke of luck when tired Owen’s crying got the attention of the immigration workers and we were brought to the front of the queue. The joy was short-lived when he spotted my family were on cancelled visas, and downed his tools. In Dubai when you change jobs your former employer cancels the visa, then the new employer will sponsor you with a new working visa. Due to timing I only had myself sponsored, and would get my family processed on our return.  Being Australian citizens we’re entitled to Visa on Arrival.  But there was a problem with this plan. Last time we came back from holiday, immigration incorrectly stamped our passports with a Visit Visa – despite us being residents.  This stamp combined with cancelled residence visas caused all the confusion.  It took a lot of Arabic debate between the officers back in the office to get to the bottom of it.  We arrived at the airport extremely early, which was extremely fortunate because when sanity eventually prevailed, we only just scraped though to the boarding games in time.

It was a relief to land in Sri Lanka.  We pre-arranged a local driver to take us around for all 10 days.  First we’d travel from the airport in Columbo to Kandy to visit the elephant ophanage.

Elephants are lovely, big creatures.  It was my closest encounter. Although they’re clearly quite beautiful, I couldn’t help but screw up my face as I smelt the terrible odour.  Then it was a slight relief to learn the stench wasn’t the elephants at all, it was the smell of the rolled cigarette which the elephant handler was smoking.

All the boys, all five children and the two Dads went into the water to wash the elephants with a well-used shard from a coconut shell. We imagined the elephants were enjoying it, tho I sensed the big beasts let out a sigh of relief when we left them.
While we were on the way there the boys were all keen to ride the elephants. Once it was time to line up though, they all got too scared. After seeing Owen the baby bravely joining Elle and I, eventually the other kids warmed up. The boys all began holding the accompanying parents incredibly tightly. Then before long, we usually had to check they were still there and ask them to hang onto us.

The rain had started by this time. The temperatures were fine though. It was a lovely change for people living in Dubai.

We stayed in the hills above Kandy, and we had our second encounter with animals, seeing large troops of monkeys in trees all around the hotel. The boys all got a kick out of seeing them jump around. Tho the sign on our window indicated they’re not just cute, and that we must keep the doors and windows locked.

We went into town for a cultural show and dinner. Our waiter became our friend when he learned we’re from Australia. He mentioned how the Australian cricket team won their test against India, adding “Good, we hate India”.

Once home we had a couple more drinks in the bar then retired to the rooms. I know at least I was extremely tired. As I was going to sleep there was a bit of noise from downstairs. I remember saying to myself, I hope they don’t ……then… Zzzz.

The next morning we went to the Sri Dalada Maligawa – or (Buddhist) Temple of the Tooth. We had to be respectful and wear long shorts. Though this was slightly contradicted when they asked me to remove my shoes.
The ancient relics there were very impressive. And we all enjoyed the journey through the temple, which coincided with their day of worship. It was disappointing to hear that as little as twenty years ago the place was under threat and getting attacked by the Tamil Tigers.
Everything inside there seems peaceful now. I saw a boy maybe in his teens in traditional orange monk sarong. He looked quite stoic in the same attire as his fellow monks from hundreds of generations gone by. Then the boy pulled out his smart phone and took a picture of the proceedings.

As we walked back to the van I asked Lewis what’s been the highlight of trip so far. It wasn’t the flight, elephants, monkeys, cultural show & fire walking, Buddhist temple, or sightseeing. It was the hotel.
The next day we ventured further North to visit a historic tea factory, established 1840. When you first arrive in Sri Lanka it’s quite special to first see a hill of tea trees.  By day three you realise it’s noteworthy to spot a hill with no tea growing.
The tea factory tour was quite interesting. I’ve been to many brewery and distillery tours in my time. I’d never have imagined there was a similar story and complexity and craft to the humble cup of tea.

Dogs are a lot more trusting of Sri Lankan drivers than I was. Everywhere we drove you’d see dogs laying 1/3rd on the edge of the road, without a worry from dog or driver. Tho perhaps that explains why after driving for long periods you’ll see so many of them limping around.

All the roads we drove on (which was mostly the same one road) had three lanes of traffic driving, tho they only had two painted. It sort of seems like every road we were on is One Way, they just happen to be one way in both directions.

For some variety we caught a local train meeting our driver a few stations away. On the train there was a sign “No Tobacco No Liqour“. I can only imagine it’s some very posh kind of alcohol.

Singalese script picstitchI loved seeing the Singalese script on signs everywhere. With all the near symmetric curly squiggles it’s perfection decoration. It may even communicate some kind of language.

Another item on the To Do list from Bentota where we were staying was to visit the Brief Garden.  This was a memorial to the architect and notable figure of the area Bevis Bawa, who happened to share uncommon first name with Elle’s father.  The gardens were lovely, and well kept. Inside was very artful and interesting.  But the more we saw, the more concerned we were. Mr Bawa was clearly an art buff, though it seemed his art and statue collections had one thing in common, most featured very naked men. The statues in particular were eyebrow raising to say the least.  Our sons were thankfully not teenagers yet, so they didn’t spend the time giggling (like us parents did).  Instead we got quite a few innocent questions about why all the pictures and statues had large things exposed.  The place was difficult to find, though it was certainly quite quick to escape from.

On another day we visited Galle to do some more sightseeing. Immediately as we parked we had people descend upon us to offer saris and other knickknacks. We kept moving to see the fort and other things, all the while trying to make as little eye contact as possible.
One particular guy I certainly didn’t want to make eye contact had a few bags next to him as he urinated on the wall. The others had passed by him to take in the ocean. I had Owen on my shoulders and now that he had finished his business we were sadly in his path. As he spotted us, he said in a husky voice “Cooooo-bra. Cooooo-bra.” As I slowly registered what this word meant he threw out two baskets in front of me, and the basket lids magically popped off and out jumped and hissed TWO “BEEPING” COBRAS! The others reported that I swore loudly and simultaneously jumped in the air and sideways away from these snakes. For people that don’t know, I HATE snakes. Particularly when they’re venomous and thrown at me, while I’m holding a 21 month old baby. It took me some time to walk back around this guy to continue our sightseeing. And maybe it took a few days to get the thought of this horrible scene from my thoughts.

With all our adventures it was easy to forget that it was Christmas Eve. That evening Santa visited. He stole the tinsel we bought in a Sri Lankan store and made a Christmas tree and left a few gifts – despite us being away from home. I thought it quite interesting how santa managed to place the problematic baubles in the dark – perhaps while getting eaten alive by mosquitoes cause he was putting all this up while wearing just his underpants. In fact at one point, resort security doing a sweep of the garden area with their torches, but fortunately for all concerned they didn’t spot him in this awkward position outside the suite.

Early on Christmas morning I saw the figure of someone walking outside towards the makeshift Christmas tree. My family was still asleep so I opened the curtain to check if it was one of the other kids. Instead it was the Sri Lankan guy who cleans the leaves from the resort grounds. He was paused in front of the tree, looking curiously up at all the tinsel and scratching his head. I then saw him pick up one of the gifts from the ground and read the name card. Seeming satisfied it’s nothing he needed to worry about he turned around and spotted me looking out at him, he gave a big smile and a thumbs up. It was a great start to Christmas.

It wasn’t until later in the morning when the kids took their presents that I noticed a big dried snake skin resting in the shrub next to our Christmas tree. It made the night’s tree-decorating activities in the dark a lot more extreme, especially with the freaking Cobras still fresh in my mind.

Something different you see on roads of Sri Lanka is the position of the cemeteries. We saw no elaborate areas for graves. To an outsider they seem placed almost randomly by the roadside. Sometimes they spread across on each side of the road. From the two grave stones I read, the deceased lived til they were both 93. Not a bad innings when the average life expectancy in Sri Lanka is 74. Although I suspect in the Southern reaches a lot of the headstones were marking the graves of much younger people due to the tragic tsunami that hit the area in 2004.  It was devastating to still see the after effects of this, with many houses never rebuilt.

On the way home we bought some traditional Sri Lankan masks, after clearing up some confusion with our driver that we didn’t want to go to (Church) Mass.
And it was around this time that we hit another Sri Lankan holiday milestone and finished the bottle of local rocket fuel called Arak. Perhaps a good indication of its quality, we couldn’t work out if it’s a whisky or a rum. Another indicator of its quality could be when we asked the guy at bottle shop if we drink it with coke, he was insistent you drink it with almost anything. Perhaps a sign of drinking too much of it, we were incorrectly calling it Akra almost all the time

Early one morning I thought I heard the standard sound of an ice cream truck, perhaps playing Green Sleeves. But don’t be fooled, the truck that’s doing its rounds isn’t filled with sweeties, ice creams or ice lollies. It’s the sound of the curry samosa and savoury snacks truck.  Mmmm.

The day before we left we had quite an unexpected encounter, like something from the X-Files. Well, not quite. Actress Gillian Anderson happened to be staying at the same small resort as us, with her sons. On my walk to breakfast she asked how old our boys were. Her sons were roughly the same age. All the boys played well together and had lots of fun. To us it seemed nothing different from just another lovely mum and kids spending time together, apart from the fact that the older boys secretly referred to her as “Pegasus” (from her film Johnny English).

Our last day of sightseeing we went to Hikkaduwa. It’s a popular beach area with backpackers. We went out in a glass-bottom boat and saw the variety of sea life, including a large turtle our boat captain nearly decapitated a snorkeller to show us. Again, if you asked my boys what was the highlight of that day it wouldn’t be the boat trip, or even patting a turtle further down the beach. They enjoyed making mines in the sand with anything they could find, like empty rum bottles, and boxes for rum bottles.

On our last day I woke up to the sound of heavy rain. There had been quite a few days with some rain, but this was now bucketing down. So naturally I just had to get out and run in it. The streets in heavy rain are quiet. When I eventually found people under the roofs of shops for cover they looked at me quite baffled. To be fair, only slightly more baffled than when it wasn’t raining.

Our return flight was departing from Columbo.  This allowed us the opportunity to meet up with our dear old Sri Lankan maid Dilika, who left Dubai to live in the outskirts with her large family. It was so lovely to see her again, though her family went to way too much trouble with lunch for us.  We always liked Dilika and kept in touch.  We had heard when she got back to Sri Lanka she had a little girl around the same time as we had Owen. What we didn’t know til we met was the daughter’s name happened to be Owenya!  What a lovely coincidence.
After our sad goodbyes, with time running out in Columbo before our flight we managed just a little bit of sight-seeing from the van.

It was fun to be driven around Columbo hearing where all the national team cricketers used to play. Our driver’s son is the captain of the Columbo University cricket team, so he had A LOT of cricket knowledge – or perhaps he had the amazing cricket knowledge of an average Sri Lankan.

While they are united in their love of cricket, I found there’s no consensus on who is the most famous Sri Lankan cricket player. To the average Australian it would most probably be Muralidaran – the controversial spinner/chucker extraordinairre. Some of our Sri Lankan friends suggested Sangakarra. He could certainly be the most famous based on the number of signs bearing his image. Other suggestions ranged from Malinga, who is certainly very recognisable; and surprisingly Arjuna Ranatunga.

The final memorable landmark we were shown was the new-ish Sri Lankan parliament building. It’s an interesting design, looking quite grand and important, but with still enough local Asian charm. Our tour guide informed us the building’s architect was none other than Mr Bevis Bawa. The same character whose house we visited at the Brief Garden. We were a little impressed to see the handy work of the guy whose house we visited. But we were also a little curious he didn’t incorporate any impressive phalluses into the construction.

We got to the airport with lots of time to spare.  Just as well cause we hit another hurdle. At checkin they shared the Immigration rules are we must have either a valid visa, or if you’re able to get a visa on arrival (like us) you must have flight tickets for an onward journey.  We already knew we couldn’t move our visa situation forward any faster, so we had to buy some tickets.  Fortunately the airport is equipped, and very experienced, with this. So, by a stroke of luck we finished our holiday with some new flight tickets back to Sri Lanka so we can do this whole holiday again. 😀

Or most probably, we’ll just seek a refund.

“Istuti” Sri Lanka, and thanks to our friends travelling with us, and our wonderful driver Naranjin.

We’ll not forget this holiday, well the boys won’t forget the hotel and the mine they built on the beach.