I’m on the bus to Kandy. I’ve just left the Spice Garden and the bus is now winding its way along the Kandy-Jaffna Highway. I’m full from another cooking lesson and leaning with my belt on against my laptop bag which is wedged between my back and the window. I’m choosing to ignore the wave of nausea caused by the combination of curry and corners. The days are jam-packed but in a good way. It just means there’s not much time to write with so many wonderful experiences to enjoy but I’m adamant I will make some time now, on the bus. My legs are stretched out across two seats, my laptop slides across them with each turn and I delete whichever word I was attempting to type. Every so often I glance out the window. It’s a beautiful, chaotic scene that I wish I could share and capture far better and in more ways than I am. There is no doubt I am completely in love with the culture, the people and the food - even the transport.
I have a huge respect for the people of Sri Lanka, their way of life, their manners, traditions and the pride they have for their country. Travelling as part of a group, but alone is a sure fire way to fast-track the formation of my own opinions regarding how I want to experience the country. I’m here to sink my teeth into another culture, get a feel for another way of life. The Sri Lankan people I’ve met have left me with the view they are a proud and kind-hearted race, one so eager to please. My time here will be what it will be, I don’t have any pre-set expectations, it will unfold as it’s meant to. I’m leaning in to every bend in the road and going with the flow.
My alarm went off at 5am but I felt as if I’d been awake all night. I packed everything and headed downstairs because we were off to the Negombo fish markets! Negombo is home to the island’s second largest fish market, as locals call it – Lellama. Given it was the New Year for Sri Lankans the crowds at the market were much less but this was fine with me, it meant I could get closer for photos. The fish auctions and sales at the fresh fish market are a slippery and smelly affair so I was glad I’d ditched my flip flops for boots at the last minute. The catch is not all from the open sea; Negombo is at the northern end of a lagoon that is renowned for its lobsters, crabs and prawns so there’s a big variety in one location with fishermen competing with each other to sell off what’s left from their daily catches, cutting fresh raw fish into pieces and asking you to buy.
From the fresh fish market to the dried fish market; even less happening here but again great for photos and certainly not difficult to imagine what it would be like on a usual day. Both men and women were working hard, long coconut fibre mats lined the beach. The fish on these mats is dried using an ancient method of open air drying. The dry wind and sun remove all the water from the fish and it gives the catch a longer expiration date for storage. After the fresh catch, they lay out the fish on the beach and come by to flip them over after a few hours.
It was a short bus ride back to the hotel for breakfast after which our bags were collected from our rooms. I felt bad for the short, slim Sri Lankan man with his hand all bandaged who insisted on carrying my pack down two flights of stairs.
The first stop was to buy water and use an ATM before heading further down the road to a local coconut plantation. I got lost in thought staring out the window; I’d wanted to see Sri Lanka for a couple of years now so it was surreal to be here given the closest I’d come before now was hunting down a Dilmah tea bag for Mum when she last visited.
Next I knew the bus had stopped and an hour had passed. We’d arrived at the coconut plantation, there to learn how all parts of the tree play an important part in daily life as we watched a ‘toddy tapper’ at work. Nimal was the amazing toddy tapper; he manually extracted the toddy from coconut trees by deftly climbing with uncanny agility and walking tight ropes with no harnesses, tree to tree. Coconut sap is obtained by tapping the unopened coconut flower for its nectar. Nimal, once back on the ground, passed this through a sieve (which got rid of all the wasps) and poured it into coconut shells for us to try. It had a vinegary, nutty, coconut taste that grew on you after the first sip but didn’t grow on me, nor anyone else enough to warrant a second cup.
Still in awe of what I’d just witnessed I walked with the others back out through the plantation to Nelum’s house where we would take part in our first Sri Lankan cooking class. We were welcomed into her home with a betel leaf (betel leaves are a symbol of welcome and respect, of friendship and goodwill). Held between her palms in a prayer-like manner and her head bowed she presented us each with our own betel lead and said “ayubowan” - a typical Sri Lankan salutation wishing us a long life.
We made fresh coconut roti and a prawn curry under her guidance. And with a top-up of Bushman 40% deet repellant to ward off the mosquitos we sat down outside to; coconut roti with chilli paste, beetroot curry, pineapple curry, pumpkin curry, dahl curry, fish curry, prawn curry, potato curry, carrot sambol, green pea and cashew curry and papadums and rice all of which, roti and prawns aside, she had prepared for us earlier in the day. A squirrel ran along the powerline alongside the house, birds sang in the trees and fire crackers launched and exploded in the distance. Firecrackers aren’t banned in Sri Lanka, they can be set off whenever the mood strikes and at that time the mood was New Year and the locals were having a blast!
By evening time we had arrived in Dambulla, the six of us enjoyed a local Lion lager and still full from lunch, dragged ourselves down to the restaurant for dinner. We all ate like we’d not seen food that day - which would become theme for the coming days - best intentions aside. The food is quite simply, just too good.
Sleep eluded me. I was sharing a room and when sleep is missing, consideration for someone I don’t know just adds to the restlessness. I wanted to get up, charge devices, write, use the bathroom - anything to break from lying under my mosquito net wide awake - but the beds were so close together no one would be able to sneeze without disturbing their roommate. This frustration only served to wake me up more and by 4.45am, an hour before I actually needed to get up I gave up, went to the bathroom, showered and got ready for the day - albeit slowly because going back to bed would have been pointless. By this stage I had vowed to sort my own room for the remainder of the trip. I would be a better person during the day for having space and quiet time at the end of each day.
After breakfast I flagged my request with our wonderful guide Suneth. It was short notice and a busy time of year so I was under no illusion this would be feasible but he made it happen. I would pay my additional share at each hotel as we proceeded, more than if I had paid the single supplement prior to my departure but so be it. Fine by me, this was after all a holiday and I needed some sleep, even to holiday.
We set off after breakfast to drive to Sigiriya but not before learning that one of our fellow passengers had lost his Mother to a longstanding illness during the night. Devastating news for him and his wife. They would be staying on but it wouldn’t go unnoticed by me as the day progressed how hard this must have been for them having just found out. Still, knowing that his Mother had wanted them to have this experience they pushed through and while introspective, they were still able to enjoy the day.
Sigiriya, a rock fortress with near-vertical walls soar to a flat-topped summit that contains the ruins of an ancient civilisation, thought to be once the epicentre of the short-lived kingdom of Kassapa. There are spellbinding views across mist-wrapped forests in the early morning. Views that is for those who climb it, I am hopeless with heights. Not gradual heights like climbing mountains, I just can’t cope being on the edge of anything high. So this wasn’t going to work for me because you have to climb a series of vertiginous staircases attached to sheer walls to reach the top. I reached the bolder garden and turned back with the tour’s helper Nalaka, Suneth went on with the others to the summit. It’s worth the visit, climbing or not just for the surrounding landscape – lily-pad-covered moats, water gardens and cave shrines only add to Sigiriya's rock-star appeal. Maybe Google image it - my photos don’t do it justice.
Now what, transfer to a jeep that’s what, yay! Six of us squeezed into the back, me back right where the seatbelt was so firmly fastened I had to channel my inner contortionist to get around and under it so I was buckled in. We barrelled along the road with tuc tucs and motorbikes weaving around us before turning off on to a narrow dirt farm road lined by banana trees, a branch from which smacked me in the face as we bumped along the track, my fault for sticking my head out to get a photo. Soon were were driving through the field itself, we pulled up in the most beautiful setting, a paddy field in the chena cultivation area where the principal crops are tropical vegetables, cereals, grains yams and corn.
Here we met Nishanka and Kalum. These guys can cook! But first thing’s first. They cut us each a coconut, from which we drank the fresh juice while we listened to what we’d be cooking. Juice downed and shells tossed to a growing pile we rolled up our sleeves, keen to get stuck in. I chopped chilies for the coconut sambol and snake gourd salad, others ground coconut, made coconut milk and got all spiced up making the pumpkin curry which Nishanka cooked in a pot over an open fire surrounded by vibrant green Kabuk trees.
The meal was sensational and would remain a longstanding trip favourite for me - the setting, the food and the cooks. The cook was also our jeep driver. He would be our jeep driver again later that afternoon too. We were to meet him in the Kaudulla National Park for an elephant safari. I was doing some research on this National Park for the purposes of writing this and I read one review that referred to “large gatherings of elephants frolicking.” How is your mental imagery off the back of that description? I closed down that page and only read the ones that knew how to use describing words appropriately. Bottom line is, Kaudulla National Park is part of the elephant corridor between Minneriya and Wasgomuwa National Parks.
We met Nishanka once more having driven as far as we could by bus. This time the roof was off the jeep and we were able to stand up as we bumped our way along the dirt track in a convoy of jeeps on the way into the park. We spotted at least 100 elephants over the two hours. Large lone male elephants, families with tiny infants and big herds.
It was mesmerising to see so many in just a few hours, but let’s be honest, I was packing it. Elephants are wild animals, I’m a human in a jeep with a camera: Elephant 1 - Bridget 0. Elephants weigh more than the jeep and the eight people in it. Elephant 2 - Bridget 0. Elephants have tusks, I didn’t even have a tooth pick. Elephant 3 - Bridget 0. Elephants are fiercely protective of their babies but I’ll stop the tally there and tell you a short story, one I will preface with this; our guide and driver were exceptional. They knew what to do, they kept us safe at all times, their judgement was beyond sound. Unfortunately it’s those that do the wrong thing that have the potential to ruin what by my standards was a respectful interaction with a wild animal (x100).
The amount of jeeps allowed into the park is not capped, they just kept coming. We held back observing from slightly higher ground while other jeeps barrelled through bottlenecking in the path of a large herd. As more arrived a protective Mother charged at the nearest jeep causing it to shift swiftly into reverse and get to safe ground. There is no doubt, they did the wrong thing, but as the jeep reversed I took a closer look as one of the passengers. There was a Father holding his child, a child who could not have been more than one year old. As they reversed at speed he held her tightly but once they were stationary just moments later he continued to take photos until his daughter screamed out with fear and cried so loudly we could hear her. He finally put the camera down to console her.
Personally this scene made me feel ill. While we were doing all the right things I was appalled, by their driver’s ignorance, by the Father’s choices, oh and I was a bit frightened myself. Ultimately were were in their territory and I didn’t want to see an elephant THAT close up!
While that influenced my experience, remove it and I can say it really was utterly amazing. Sri Lanka has done a wonderful job of protecting its wildlife while also making it accessible to visitors in its natural habitat with guides like ours who do things the right way. The safari also incorporates a bit of 4WD action; plenty of bumps and dips in the road to see you tossed about in your seat. One of my fellow tour members was firmly belted in but each time I looked his seat seemed to be edging across the tray, dislodged. As were were leaving the park having witnessed our third elephant herd the black clouds began rolling in. We jumped from the jeep and high-tailed it to the bus as the drops got bigger.
It poured on our way back to the hotel but no so heavily that we couldn’t see the elephants alongside the road we were travelling on. And they say Australia has a lot of wildlife!
Once back I checked into a new room on the opposite side of the hotel, had a shower and met the group in the bar for a beer before dinner. The fire cracker contingent were out in force that evening! What with countries war history, recent unrest and a week of scheduled evening thunderstorms it wasn’t the most comforting of sounds! Nothing a calming curry and Lion lager, didn’t fix. I rolled into bed around midnight after sitting up to write for a while and drifted off to sleep to fire crackers and car horns.
Tip: Portion control as a consideration in Sri Lanka? No. Don't even try. Something happens when you eat Sri Lankan food, it becomes more about how many dishes you can try in one meal and how many portions of the ones’ you love most you can go back for. Embrace it, and bring elasticised pants.