Ahungalla to Colombo

The sixth and final day of my group tour started off with a guided meditation session at a local Buddhist temple. As I’d enjoyed a few drinks with a couple of the girls into the wee hours of the morning (and by a few drinks, I mean we finished off a bottle of wine and then a bottle of vodka with various mixers from the minibar), I could very well have stayed in bed when my alarm went off after four hours of sleep. In my sleep deprived state, I feared I would nod off during the session, and interrupt everyone’s focused breathing with undignified snores and possibly a puddle of drool.

That said, I didn’t feel hungover, and I didn’t want to miss out on the meditation session, optional as it was, so I got ready and went down to the breakfast hall. Everyone else who was attending had already finished eating, so I had about two minutes to scoff a couple of pastries and down a glass of juice, before running to the bus with a croissant in hand. I made it just in the nick of time!

It only took a few minutes to reach the temple, and as it turned out, one of the girls had been left behind, so while the bus went back to retrieve her, we were given a personal viewing of the different rooms inside the temple. It did not seem like the sort of temple that was usually open to tourists, which made for a more intimate and insightful experience than some of the crowded temples we’d visited in preceding days. I really enjoyed how quiet and peaceful the surrounds were, and though the temple was small, it was very beautiful.

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Eventually, we were led into a room with several cushions laid out for us on the floor. I settled into my spot up the front, and was fascinated by the translation process between our tour guide and the Buddhist monk, who explained to us in great detail what the process of meditation was all about, before instructing us how to breathe and chant.

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Unfortunately, I can’t say I mastered the meditation process- not that I was expecting to, after one session. It didn’t take long for me to be distracted by the noises in the environment- chirping birds, pounding hammers, vibrating mobiles, barking dogs, whirring fans. Instead of letting go of my thoughts, a running commentary relating to these sounds started up inside my head. It actually reminded me of times in the classroom, where I’d tell my students they were to work silently for a period of time. For the first few minutes, they would indeed be quieter than mice, but then someone would drop a pencil, or move their chair, or whisper to their partner, and gradually, noise would fill the air once more. At one point, I even felt like a little kid myself when I opened my eyes to survey the room, before quickly closing them again in case the monk were to catch me out.

Although I doubt I’ll ever reach a stage of enlightenment myself, I admire those who are able to dedicate themselves to the meditation process, and practice it daily in this busy, hyped-up world we live in. The Buddhist monk mentioned that meditation should bring us closer to nature, which made me think about hiking. This is how I like to get in touch with the natural world, how I disconnect from the complexities of everyday life, how I live in the moment and appreciate simplicity. I realised that perhaps meditation can come in different guises, and for me, hiking is it.

If one can’t find peace, happiness and bliss through meditation, then it can surely be experienced by patting a playful puppy, which is what we did after we descended back into the courtyard once our session had concluded and found this adorable furbaby bounding around. The pup brought a smile to everyone’s face and was the perfect end to our visit.

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Back at our beachside hotel, we had an hour and a half until checkout, and then another two and a half hours before the bus would leave for Colombo. Only six of us (out of 15) were planning to take the final bus ride, including me. Some of the group wanted to spend the whole afternoon in Ahungalla and decided to catch a minivan back to Colombo at night, while others were going to spend additional nights at the hotel, or surrounding beach hotels. It meant that when 2.30pm rolled around, it was time to say goodbye to all the people we’d created memories with over the last week. There was a final group photo before the bus, looking far emptier than usual, departed on the three hour journey to Sri Lanka’s capital city.

For the most part, the road followed the coastline, and we were treated to a sparkling view of the Indian Ocean, with the afternoon sunlight striking the water to create an illusion of a thousand glittering jewels dancing on the surface of the sea. There was no denying we were headed into a big city, as the traffic steadily began to increase, and for the first time, I noticed speed limit signs and traffic lights. Not that road rules seemed to count for much. The bus came to a sudden jarring stop many times, and not for the first time in my travels around Asia, I wondered about the wear and tear of brake pads. Surely, they need to be replaced far more frequently.

As we neared the CBD, buildings and billboards seemed to spring up all around us. The message on one billboard made me smile- if you never chase your dreams, you’ll never catch them. I typed the quote into the memo list on my phone. Another billboard made me turn my head so sharply that I almost gave myself whiplash. At first, I wondered if I was seeing things but no, there was a billboard advertising ECU, the university I’d attended in Perth. There were many other adverts which caught my eye- a brand of fruit juices labelled SMAK, which is coincidentally the Polish word for taste; a stage play called Bogan, which made me wonder if any Aussies were part of the cast; and illustrated signs for ‘super fresh chikan’. The misspelling of ‘chicken’ made me doubt, somewhat, just how ‘super fresh’ the poultry would be.

On some streets, there were temples, mosques, and churches all within a stone’s throw of each other, and everyone seemed to be peacefully co-existing with one another. I observed as one man stood in the middle of a footpath with his head bowed before a large, domed statue of the Virgin Mary, and wondered what he may be praying about. We passed a row of high-rise beach hotels that would not have looked out of place on the Gold Coast, before leaving the ocean behind for the inner city CBD. Here, the skyline denoted a level of wealth that seemed at odds with the infrastructure I’d seen elsewhere in the country. Another turn led us down a street of old, colonial style buildings, where I noticed a tourist standing on a corner trying to take photos and fend off a tuk-tuk driver at the same time. There were police officers directing traffic now, with some signalling from horses in order to be seen.

Our bus ride ended with a bang- literally- when, only two minutes from our hotel, a small, red car crashed into our bus. It was not a serious accident, in fact, our bus driver was not immediately aware of the incident, but although we’d barely felt the impact, there was an ugly red mark along the left side of the bus, as well as some small dents. The red car had fared much worse- its front bumper was pretty much hanging off. Once the driver became aware of what had happened, he slowed the bus, which led to us being subjected to many furious prolonged beeps, as we were in the middle of a busy bus lane and it was no easy task to find a space to pull over. The driver was understandably upset, and we all felt mighty sorry for him, as he had done such an excellent job of driving us safely around for the past week, only for this to happen in the final moments of the tour. Our tour guide explained that despite the minor damage, the bus would have to be taken in for repairs and it would cost a lot of money. We hoped it wouldn’t reflect badly on our driver. As he exchanged details with the driver of the red car, who had been at fault, our tour guide decided we might as well walk to our hotel, and led us through the crowded street to the Zmax Fairway, our hotel for the night.

One minute, we were in the throng of peak hour and the next, we had walked down an alley which could’ve belonged to a Harry Potter movie because, as if by some magic spell, it seemed to have hidden away all the hustle and bustle of the city. One could be forgiven for thinking they’d suddenly stepped into Europe, but overall it felt odd, because you were acutely aware that only a hundred metres away, the chaos of Colombo ruled supreme.

With the unfortunate ending to our bus ride, I never got the chance to thank our driver, and, after recommending a restaurant for dinner in the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, I never saw my tour guide again, and didn’t get a chance to properly thank him for all his hard work either. And so my Sri Lanka Express tour ended, in a rather disjointed way. The threads of fate which had brought us all together were now unwinding in order to set us all back on our separate paths once more. The group part of my trip was now over. The solo chapter of my adventures around Sri Lanka was about to begin.

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Kataragama and Yala

Day 4 of my tour began with a two hour drive to Kataragama, which is a holy town sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and the indigenous Vedda people of Sri Lanka, as well as being one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the country. We spent an hour and a half walking around the temple complex and observing the religious traditions of the many devotees at both the Hindu and Buddhist areas of the site. It was very busy, possibly because it was also Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, and we were the only tourists in the area, which made for a really authentic cultural experience.

Kataragama is considered to be a very powerful deity in Sri Lanka, and our guide explained that many people come to the site to ask for success with professional enterprises, or to seek help for personal problems. There was a very long queue extending around the perimeter of the Hindu section, with people holding fruit baskets as an offering. We also observed some people throwing coconuts. Our guide later told us that this ritual is performed in the hope of removing personal difficulties from one’s life. If the coconut breaks, you should be able to let go of your struggles.

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At the Buddhist section, there was another procession of religious followers. Here, they held colourful lotus flowers instead, which were placed around the central stupa. The air was laced with a combination of incense and the sweet scent of flowers, and for a very brief moment, I was actually reminded of Poland for some strange reason. It was as if I was remembering that I’d smelled this perfume before, only in a time and place far removed from here. The feeling of this forgotten memory was borne away on the breeze as suddenly as it arrived.

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After lunch, we drove out to Yala National Park for our second safari. Yala is the second largest national park in Sri Lanka, covering an area of almost 1000 square kilometres. It is also the most visited national park, due to its variety of wild animals, and perhaps most renown for its leopards. It was certainly high on the list of ‘want to see’ animals for many people in the group, but even though Yala has one of the highest concentrations of leopards in the world, I was not optimistic about seeing one when the tracker mentioned that this ‘high concentration’ equates to 35-40 leopards.

Yala had a very different feel to it than Udawalawe, which we visited yesterday. While Udawalawe consisted largely of open grasslands with sweeping views of the plains, Yala gave off a more confined feeling, with tangled trees and dense scrubs and bushes. We saw a number of warthogs (or Pumbaas looking for Timon, as we called them) and a couple of mongooses before we’d even officially entered the park, and although there were sightings of crocodiles, water buffaloes, monkeys, deer, and various birds, what we all really wanted to see was undoubtedly a leopard.

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About an hour into the safari, it looked as though we might not be seeing much else at all, as one of the three jeeps in our group broke down in a huge mud puddle. When it became apparent that it wouldn’t be possible to get it out anytime soon, the five people in the bogged jeep divided amongst the two remaining jeeps. Half an hour of confusion followed about what to do next, but it was eventually decided that a replacement jeep would be sent out. However, as it would take an hour to arrive, we would just continue on with two packed jeeps for the time being. Number of bogged vehicles seen- one. Number of leopards seen- zero.

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The day before, we’d seen heaps of elephants at Udawalawe, and we’d all joked that we now had enough elephant pictures to last a lifetime. As there had not been many sightings of big animals this time, we were actually all rather excited to come across a lone elephant towards the end of the safari, especially as this one had a tusk, and we hadn’t seen a tusked elephant the day before. The only problem was that it was standing right in the middle of the road, and seemed to have no intention of moving. As dusk was falling, the drivers were keen to get us out of the park, so the jeep in front revved its engine several times, which prompted the elephant to move off into the bushes.

The jeep in front had had several minutes to take photos so they drove off, while the jeep that I was in now rolled up to have a closer look. At first, we were disappointed that we no longer had a good view of the elephant for our own Kodak moment, but suddenly, the elephant turned, his ivory tusk pointed squarely at our vehicle, and started to move towards us. When your tracker starts looking fearful and shouts for the driver to put the pedal to the metal (or so I assume that’s what he said in Sinhalese), you begin to suspect that perhaps a new episode for ‘When Animals Attack’ might be imminent. I was trying to remember whether an elephant with its trunk down, like this one, is bluffing or serious about charging. (It’s bluffing, apparently.) In any case, it’s not the sort of situation where it’s particularly wise to wait and find out. We drove away to see the elephant emerge back out of the bushes, but it no longer seemed as though it was a threat, and proceeded to resume standing in the middle of the road.

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We’d all experienced a surge of adrenaline, and we were in for one final heart-stopping moment. We’d caught up to the first jeep and their faces expressed an excitement that could only mean a leopard was in the vicinity. One of the girls in my jeep thought she saw some movement in the bushes on my side of the vehicle, and we all went silent and craned our necks, hoping to finally catch a glimpse of the animal that had been eluding us all day. We strained our eyes for several minutes, and although we could hear some rustling, we had to concede defeat. The elusive leopard had eluded us once more.

When we arrived at the entrance to the national park, the members of the first jeep were exhilirated and confirmed they had seen a leopard run across the road in front of them. It had been too quick to capture on camera, but they had definitely seen a leopard. While those of us who had been in the second jeep were happy for our friends, we couldn’t help being disappointed that we had not had the same luck, especially since the rustling we’d heard had almost certainly been the same leopard they’d seen. It had just been too well hidden by the time we’d got there. But that’s the nature- and thrill- of going on safari- it’s just the luck of the draw as to whether you’ll be in the right place at the right time. It wasn’t to be for me this time around- but I’ll be adding ‘see a leopard on safari’ to my bucket list now, for sure.

Negombo to Kandy

Today was the first full day of my Sri Lanka Express tour with G Adventures. There are 15 of us in the group, coming from countries such as England, Ireland, America, Denmark, Germany, and Norway. In fact, I’m the only Aussie- quite a surprise, as previous tours I’ve been on have predominantly been made up of Australians. We departed Negombo just before 8am and had a jam-packed day en route to the city of Kandy, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings, whose reign ended 200 years ago.

First up was a visit to a spice plantation. We had a brief tour of a small corner of the plantation, where we saw a range of plants and trees producing the likes of vanilla, cacao (the beans of which are visible in the photo below), nutmeg, cinnamon, and the cutest wild pineapples. The guide explained how spices are often made into products such as creams, tonics and oils to act as natural remedies for a wide variety of health issues. For example, a concoction of avocado, aloe vera, papaya, sandalwood, and turmeric is used as a natural face cream, while another mixture of spices is used as a hair remover, which apparently absolves ladies from having to wax for two years! Although I remain skeptical that any cream or oil would permanently get rid of my psoriasis, or my mum’s varicose veins, I enjoyed seeing the origins of some of my favourite spices, as well as some exotic flowers in the tropical surrounds.

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Next, we visited the tea factory at the Geragama Estate. The luscious smell of tea leaves permeated the air as soon as we entered the estate, and we learnt that Sri Lanka is the second largest producer of tea in the world, after India. 97 per cent of its tea is exported, with Russia, the Middle East, and the UK being the primary consumers. We toured a number of rooms designed for different stages of the tea production process, such as fermenting and drying. It was too noisy for me to hear the details of what happens during each stage, though I did catch that Sri Lankan women can hand-pick up to 30kgs of tea leaves a day, and that most types of teas come from the same plant (Camellia Sinensis), but undergo different manufacturing processes. For example, black tea is fermented, while green tea is not. At the end of the tour, we were treated to a refreshing cup of Orange Pekoe tea.

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After lunch, we toured the Temple of the Tooth, which is said to contain Buddha’s left canine tooth. The tooth itself is not visible, as it is encased in seven golden caskets, but it was interesting to view the architecture of the surrounds, with many beautiful carvings and wall paintings adorning the walls of the temple.

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Finally, we watched an hour long series of twelve cultural dances at the Kandy Lake Club. It was probably the most engaging of the cultural dances I’ve seen in South-East Asia, and I particularly enjoyed the performance featuring four men playing the hand rabana drum. The rabana is a flat type of drum, almost resembling a Frisbee, and the dancers displayed remarkable skills in throwing and catching the drum while spinning it on the tip of their index finger, balancing their spinning drums on a bamboo pole and then balancing the pole on their faces, and then balancing a display of multiple spinning drums. Watching their dexterity left me simultaneously dizzy and jealous of their impressive coordination, as I have absolutely no skill whatsoever in anything kinaesthetic. The show ended with a display of fire walking.

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Perhaps the most memorable part of the day, however, was during the two and a half hour drive to the spice plantation, when our bus had to cross over some railway tracks and briefly became grounded. We started to joke how it would be funny, in a terrifying sort of way, if we were to suddenly see an oncoming train. Well, no sooner had the driver managed to get us off the track than the warning sounded for the approach of a train. If the bus had become stuck only thirty seconds later, we may not have progressed to Day 3. Needless to say, the tiredness I’d been feeling beforehand disappeared, and I remained wide awake for the rest of our journey!