Sri Lankan Angels

19 01 2017

cambodiaAlong our journey, we met some truly amazing people! Some of them were fellow travelers, some were locals. I mentioned in a previous post how much the people of Sri Lanka ended up transforming my opinion of their country for the better. Now I’d like to elaborate with a few short tales from our trip, exemplifying the goodness of humanity. After all, they’re the reason why I love to travel.

 

A Local Lifesaver

While I was immersed in the International Conference for Sustainable Built environment (ICSBE) one day, Bethany was working on lining up logistics for our post-conference travels. She spent a frustratingly long time standing at a ticket counter at the train station, trying to arrange a train to get us back to Colombo at the end of our trip, after realizing how impossible it is to buy a last minute train ticket the week of Christmas. The ticket person was growing annoyed by translating everything into English for her, and answered her questions with curt & confusing responses that only lead to more questions. She finally managed to understand that she could buy a ticket from the end of the line all the way back to Colombo, which would allow us to have a reserved seat, but get on at any stop along the way. Since we didn’t yet know which beach town we were going to end up in, this was a wonderful option. She managed to get the two tickets booked, and took her printout and her growing appetite to a nearby cafe for a long overdue lunch of rice and dhal.

 

jaffna-express-train-ticketAt the cafe, Bethany chatted up the man who smiled and seated her for her meal. He was the owner, and proudly shared that he had actually been to the U.S., to study at university! His English was unusually good, and he proceeded to chat with her while she waited for her order to be cooked up, then left her to enjoy her meal. As her blood sugar resumed its happy-go-lucky levels, Bethany started packing up to head back to the hotel, and pulled out her ticket for one last look before departing the Old Town of Kandy. In a moment of sheer horror, she saw that the printed ticket, which she had paid full price for, had the WRONG CITY as the destination. As printed, it would not get us back to Colombo, where we needed to fly out from. She was immediately embarrassed, knowing that there had been a sign at the ticket counter clearly stating that purchasers are responsible to check their ticket BEFORE they leave. Her emotions fluttered between bursting out in tears and screaming in frustration, in a manner that surely was visible to any onlooker.

 

citrus-cafeThe owner of the Citrus Cafe walked over with her change of rupees in hand, and could see her look of despair. He kindly asked what was wrong, and she dumped her terrible story out onto the table. With one felled swoop, he reassured her that he would help her to get the problem resolved. He spoke quickly to his staff in Sinhali, grabbed his keys, and told her that he would drive her back down to the train station and talk to the ticket person.  Within just a few minutes, he had managed to get them to correct their mistake, and she walked out a second time with a train ticket to Colombo.

 

That evening, we booked our next 2 nights at the guest house above the Citrus Cafe, and ate dinner there two nights in a row. (I’ll share that it was not a very nice guest house, with mold on the walls, but it was cheap, and we were grateful enough to endure it for 2 nights).

 

Sri Pada Selfies?

Traveling as a light-skinned person in Sri Lanka, it’s pretty hard to blend in. Add to that my braided blue hair, and it was impossible. Many people smiled and told me, “Nice hair!” when they did a double take to watch us walk past, but no place was I so popular as in Delhousie. I imagine that they get a fair number of young, adventurous tourists from
across the globe, and have probably seen their share of unusual kelly-hairstyles. In our travels, however, I had seen nobody else with a head full of braids (or dreads), and nobody else with such colorful ‘do. Many times along our trek, we would be taking photos and either offer to take photos of someone else (a couple or solo traveler), or ask someone to take our photo together. In almost every case, when I offered to take the photo of a Sri Lankan person, they would smile, and reach out their arm with their camera. I would, in turn, extend my hand to take their camera for them, and they would say, “No, no!”  Then they would turn the camera around, scootch up next to me, and take a selfie. One guy even looked at me and said, “Sunglasses!” insisting that I put on my stylish shades for the photo. Each time it made me laugh, because all they wanted was a photo with the strange foreigner, and then they would scurry off, in some cases to show their friends. I wonder how many photos of me are floating on the internet from that one adventure…

 

I wish that I had thought to turn around and take my own selfie each time mine was taken by a stranger. But I did manage to take some of my own, hopefully with a little more respect for the person I was asking.

 

15622296_10211763388310400_6221069219264689183_nMy favorite is ‘Brenda.’ The night before our bike hike to Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak), we wanted to scope out the start of the trail, so we wouldn’t get lost in the darkness of the night. Bethany and I walked down the dirt road, past a gauntlet of makeshift booths selling a mix of sweets, warm clothing, and plastic junk. The road kept winding, until it came to a bridge. Across the bridge, we could either go left or right. We looked at the light poles for a clue, and turned left, where we ran into another couple of foreigners who were being given advice from a local guide for their own trek. We listened in as he told them, “… there will be a fork, make sure you go left.” We got a little worried that the trail would not be as clearly marked as we anticipated. The only guidance we had was that the trail was lit, and that we saw the Buddhist flags threaded above the path periodically.

 

Without ever finding a clear “Trail starts here” sign, we gave up and turned around to go back to our guest house and get some rest for our journey. “I’m sure that it will be clear when we see a stream of pilgrims making their way to the trail head in the dark,” I hoped.

 

As we were walking back up the dirt road, I saw an elderly woman with dark skin and white hair. She looked me straight in the eyes and smiled, so I smiled back, assuming our languages would not allow us to exchange pleasantries. As we kept walking in the same direction, I sensed that she was still focusing on us, and slowed down to take a photo of something along the way. As she caught up to us again, I turned towards her, feeling that she wanted to say something to us. To my surprise, she spoke to us in English, and proceeded to walk along beside us as we slowed our pace. We strolled leisurely, as she asked us if we were planning to do the hike, and whether we had a guide. We said that we did not, and Bethany added, “we will let our hearts be our guide.” I suspected that the woman was trying to sell us something, but instead she paused, looked at us both, and replied, “you- no need guide.”

 

She went on to explain that she IS a local guide for the hike, which amazed me that a woman her age would be capable of such a strenuous journey, let alone multiple times a week. She clearly saw something in us, and wanted to impart her knowledge. She shared advice on some of the things we would see, and warned us not to give money to the monks along the way. “The journey is free,” she said, “but those monks, they…” she motioned with her hand to mouth like drinking from a jug, then shook her head disapprovingly. “OH!” we responded in unison, surprised to even fathom that a monk would drink alcohol. “No pay them,” she reiterated, “only donation at top, if you want.” 15590096_1397670863648867_1701599906302630025_n

 

When we got to our guest house, we asked the woman what her name is. “Brenda,” she told us. We introduced ourselves at the end of our lovely conversation, hugged the woman, and said goodbye. “Oh, wait!” I exclaimed, with my sudden epiphany. “Picture? Okay?” She smiled, and I took my selfie with Brenda, who I will fondly remember for years to come. She might not still be there next time I return to Sri Lanka, but she will definitely live on in my heart.

 

 

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Travel in Sri Lanka: Tuk-Tuks, Buses & Trains, Oh MY!

1 01 2017

 

Life is about cherishing the good times and overcoming the bad. Every bad experience leaves us with perspective, and perhaps new knowledge or insights related to ourselves or those around us. Without fail, my experiences have shown that HOW you get somewhere is often equally memorable as where you are heading.

 

thailandOn my first trip to Asia, I learned to embrace the art of unplanned travel. While it was uncomfortable at first, it was my gift to myself, to liberate my need to know every next step, in order to embrace the unknown paths that would undoubtedly find me. So, after researching everything about Sri Lanka, I again chose to only book the bare minimum, leaving the rest up to destiny. As it turns out, that might not have been the best idea.

 

mirissa-xmasDespite being a predominantly Buddhist country, the week of Christmas is a huge holiday for Sri Lankans. Although they celebrate Christmas in a strictly secular sense, many richer Sri Lankans in the big city work for international companies, who give employees this week off to be with family. So, the families head to the central mountains and the southern beaches to enjoy the winter break. This means that all the train seats available to reserve in advance are sold out… which means we were left in Kandy with no clue how we were going to get to our next destination.

 

The Train to Hatton

While my conference was wrapping up, my wife had a day to research our options. She figured out how to take the local bus into town to the train station, where they confirmed that there were no tickets left for purchase. The only choice we had left was to simply show up the morning of, and hope to get lucky, or to pay exorbitantly more money to hire a private driver to take us one way into the mountains. So, we loaded our packs onto our backs, hitched a tuk-tuk to the train station an hour early, and crossed our fingers.

 

15589830_10211698209520971_3362054281497370108_nAmazingly, we got the last two tickets remaining in 3rd Class! We were ecstatic, though we didn’t exactly know what to expect. Our train ride to Kandy 4 days earlier had been booked in advance, which means first class, reserved seats, A/C, & wifi! They even served us snacks and hot tea. (Try drinking tea on a Sri Lankan train… it’s like sipping coffee while horseback riding).

 

img_2808We braced ourselves for the worst case scenario, we planned our locations strategically so that at least one of us could rush onto the closest rail car and attempt to secure a seat. If we failed to do so, we could at least sit atop our backpacks on the floor for the duration, right? The train pulled up, and people began to cluster for the doorways. We couldn’t figure out how to tell which cars were 3rd class, and had to thrust our piece of paper towards an official in order to get a finger point in the right direction. We climbed on board, and it wasn’t too bad… people were sitting calmly in seats, there were even a few open here and there. We started to ask if they were free, when someone asked us what our seat numbers were on our ticket. Seat numbers?? Bethany looked more closely at the faded monotone print, and, sure enough, it said, “9 & 10.” As it turns out, what we had purchased IS 3rd class, but it’s 3rd class RESERVE, which means that we had guaranteed seats!! We were thrilled to enjoy a comfortable ride, making friends with strangers, and listening to the drumming and singing flowing from passengers packed into the unreserved car directly behind us.

 

Hatton to Dalhousie

15541932_1393960027353284_5754440423933363127_nFrom Hatton, we had to take a bus or hire a driver to finish the journey through the mountains to the tea village of Dalhousie (pronounced ‘Del-house’). This is where the steep pilgrimage climb to Adam’s Peak begins. It looked fairly close on paper, just about 40 km or so, and we knew that a bus would be much cheaper, so we set off from the train station to figure out where to catch the bus. We crossed the tracks to what looked like a main road lined with shops, and walked into the town, assuming the bus station wouldn’t be far. Hatton is a small city, bustling with people and traffic, with mostly Sinhali signage. We originally thought we would stop someplace for lunch, but only saw ‘short eats’, or street food vendors. While we enjoy the fried samosas, dosas, and rotis greatly, we were really hoping for an actual restaurant to set our packs down and get our bearings. After a few blocks, we grew flustered, and I tried to ask someone for directions. Most small town Sri Lankans can understand some English, but cannot speak it, so my question was answered with a simple gesture- an outreached arm with a finger pointing in the direction we were heading. I looked at Bethany, we shrugged our shoulders, and kept going. A few more blocks down, I asked someone else. I got the same response. Finally, at the opposite end of town, the neverending facade of open air shops peeled back to reveal an enclave of tired buses, churning and groaning as they maneuvered around each other like coy in an overpopulated pond.

 


15665546_10211763329908940_9146162320501730702_nBethany found a ticket booth and asked which bus to Dalhousie. The man replied, “No, no one bus to Delhousie!” We tried asking a different way. “No bus! Maskeliya bus!” Finally, we understood that we must take TWO buses to get to Dalhousie, first to Maskeliya, then transfer to Dalhousie. Phew! Another man walked up, listening to our conversation, and tried to guide us to the right bus. This interim town was not at all on our radar, so we had no clue what name we were looking for. We boarded the empty bus, picked seats close to the driver, and waited. We still had no tickets, but this appeared to be okay. More people got on, including several people carrying baskets of baked goods and sweets to sell to weary travelers. After not too long, the driver started up the bus, and the conductor guided him out of his narrow slot, through the bus yard, without hitting any other moving targets. Once we were on the road, the conductor came by to collect our fares… a whopping 150 rupees, or about $1 total!

 

Trick or Tuk-Tuk?

img_2840The path may have looked short, but the mountain roads are anything but straight. The practically single lane roads wind along the edges of lakes and tea plantations, pausing frequently to let trucks and cars squeeze by on hairpin turns. It was a beautiful ride through the countryside, and the topography was simply stunning. It took what felt like an hour to travel 19 km to Maskeliyae waiting to get to the next bus station so we could figure out our transfer, when all the sudden a man boarded the bus and started yelling for us, “Tuk-tuk?” We were thoroughly confused and told him no, but then the conductor appeared, waving at us to get off the bus.Nobody else was getting off here, and I was nervous that something weird was happening. Our big packs had been stored in the back of the bus, so Bethany followed the conductor to go retrieve them, while I waited with one foot on the bus, scared that it would take off with our packs still in the boot! Once I saw that she had them safely on the ground, I disembarked to join her. The next bus was supposed to be just up the road, but this tuk-tuk driver was very adamant about giving us a ride. “Much faster!” he persuaded us with his smile. b-thailandWe asked how much, and, although it was many times more expensive than the bus, it was still only $5, and we were already running much later than we had planned. We negotiated the price a little lower, and gladly accepted his ride the remainder of the way. He promised to stop for photos along the way, and even pulled over to lead me down a hidden path, which revealed a beautiful waterfall known by locals!

 

‘Bad Trees’ en route to Nuwara Eliya

img_2951The Tuk-Tuk driver also gave us a price to drive us back the next day (after we were to climb SriPada overnight- more on that in a future post), though it seemed a bit high. In our exhausted, aching state after hiking from 2am-10am, we opted to skip the unknown of missing a train back in Hatton, and hired a car to drive us all the way to Nuwara Eliya. It was money well spent! For 6,000 rupees (about $40 for both of us), we had a comfortable ride the entire 3 hours, saving at least 2 hours of total travel time with all the transfers required to go by bus. Our driver, Sameer, was very friendly, and although he could not answer many of our questions, he was proud to stop and show us things along the way. At one point, still making our way around the beautiful lakes, he stopped and pointed, “That tree!” Huh? I stared, not understanding and shrugging it off. “Bad Tree!” he insisted. I furrowed my brow and squinted at the trees, trying hard to understand. “BAT Tree!” I looked one last time… OH!!! My gosh! The trees were filled with hanging bats! It was so weird to see bats in daylight, I asked him to wait for me to change to my telephoto lens so I could see them better. There were hundreds of them! It was incredible! Proud that he managed to finally get us to understand, we continued our journey, with a deeper friendship.img_2952

 

Searching for South

img_2853The rest of the central mountains are known for relaxing holidays, beautiful waterfalls, and some milder hiking destinations. Originally, I wanted to hike Horton Plains to a place enticingly called World’s End. But by the time we arrived in Nuwara Eliya, my aching calves had morphed into full rigor mortis. I was still hopeful that a good walk would benefit our muscles the next day, but we still had to figure out how to get from Nuwara Eliye down south, to our next destination. Despite everything we read, we were still hoping to find a magical train that would slice through the center of Sri Lanka to get us quickly and comfortably to some  much needed relaxation along the beaches. Unfortunately, this invisible train does not exist, so our only options were to take the bus, or hire a driver. This part of the journey is much farther, and a driver can cost upwards of 20,000 rupees ($90-130), which was not in our budget. Luckily, there’s a government bus! Our AirBnB host in Nuwara Eliye kindly helped us to figure out the current bus schedule, which changes frequently, but calling his friend to get the latest details. We could catch one bus the entire way to Mirissa, but it leaves at 8am. That means, no time to explore anything else in this area, unless we want to stay another day. We debated, but our exhaustion kicked in, and we opted for the beach instead of another night in the crisp fall weather of the mountains.

 

The Wheels on the Bus…

The next morning, our host offered to drop us off at the local bus station, just 5 minutes from his house. He previously said he was busy, but- totally unrelated to the fact that his dog had bitten my foot the night before, I’m sure– he suddenly had time to help us out! He not only drove us to the bus station, but dropped us off in front of our bus, then promised to go park his car and come back to make sure we were all set. The conductor helped us load our packs into the boot, and we climbed on board the bus, about 45 minutes early. It was completely full. The few seats that looked open were being saved for family members with bags and coats. I looked at Bethany with horror, as I realized what this could mean. This bus ride is scheduled to take 7 hours. SEVEN. With no seats available, this means that we have no choice but to stand in the aisle, gripping the overhead bars through the winding mountain roads. We started to have a conversation about whether or not we were willing to do this. Is there a later bus? Not a direct one. Should we wait another day? The thought alone exhausted me. Just then, our host popped on board the bus, aware of the situation. “Don’t worry, I’ve spoken with the conductor, and he says that when you get to Elle, there will be two seats for you.” Elle is about 1 ½ hours into the bus ride. Okay, that’s doable, I thought. We thanked our host for his help, as we were literally the only foreigners on the bus, standing out like candles in a chocolate cake.

 

An hour into the ride, we slowed down more than usual, and I leaned over the seat backs to my left to try to catch a glimpse. While normally this vantage point would have me peering into a canyon, since the drive on the left there, I saw a car between us and the edge of the road. There were several, which we were inching past on the right, where oncoming traffic had stopped. Then, I saw the cause of the delay. There was another bus, just like the one we were one, sitting on its side, hanging just barely over the edge of the road. I saw no people standing around, so it had either just happened, or been there a while. It put the fear right back in me, and- I hoped- in our driver too, as we continued past the wreckage, through yet another hairpin turn.

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Six hours later, we were approaching the coastline… still standing. By then, we were quite friendly with our neighbors, with no personal space left to speak of. With each stop, the conductor squeezed through the aisle, pressing us against the seated passengers nearby while we sucked in everything that we could. Every 10-15 minutes, I would switch arms, feeling my biceps burning with each unexpected swing or heave of the bus. I shifted wait frequently from left leg to right, stretching upward onto my toes to give my calves some momentary relief. Just one stop before Mirissa, someone stood up to get off, and we slipped into the empty seats. The immediate relief sent out an audible sigh.
Memorable? Yes. And, believe me, when I got to our next guest house, that bed could not have felt any more well deserved than it did that day. Since we saved so much money riding the bus, we proceeded to spend those hard-earned rupees on drinks ocean-side.








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