As we flew into Sri Lanka, we could see the extent of the recent floods. In some places they have had nearly 35cm of rain in a day. We saw destroyed roads, flooded houses, rivers that had burst their banks. Several people have been killed.
Immigration was efficient, then we collected our luggage and walked out through the Duty Free shop. In England (and every other country I have visited) this shop is full of chocolate and alcohol and cigarettes. In Sri Lanka, it’s full of washing machines. And fridges. Obviously holidays abroad stimulate the local population into a frenzy of kitchen appliances desire.
As we drove to the hotel, we saw streets of shops selling spare parts for tuk tuks, cars with whole shrines on their dashboards, lots of flooding. We passed Hindu temples, golden Buddhas on roundabouts, giant statues of Mary. There were people hanging clothes to dry on wire fences, trees, anywhere they could really. Many of the houses were very simple, made of corrugated iron and bits of wood. Some had cows in their tiny garden area.
Hotel is lovely. Galle Face Hotel, Colombo. It’s an old colonial building, full of dark wood, carved elephants and ceiling fans. Our room has a balcony, right next to the Indian Ocean (you would love it.) I feel a little like I have walked into a film set. At 5pm every day they play the bagpipes and lower the flag (a tradition from the 1800s when the British were ruling here.)
This evening we walked along the sea front – a bombardment of the senses. Crashing waves and a babble of languages mingle with fried seafood and spun sugar. Children playing, kites flying, an ancient snake charmer, joined by his friend with a monkey, as the sun dipped behind the brick built pier, silhouetting groups of men and families.
I’ve never seen a snake charmer before. He took the lid off his basket and played his pipe and a snake – think it was a cobra – rose up. Then the snake got bored and started to slide towards us, so we left – he was bit of a naughty snake!
We ate dinner in the hotel buffet. Very nice, though the Sri Lankan idea of ‘very mild’ for a curry is somewhat different to mine! We watched a man frying hoppers – they’re bowl shaped pancakes, made with flour, egg, coconut milk and yeast. Delicious. You fill them with something savoury and roll them up to eat with your right hand (using your left hand – the toilet hand – is a bad mistake to make.)
Thursday and Friday
Husband went into office, I worked in hotel room, putting through the changes my editor had suggested for my book, Hidden Faces. When I needed a break, I stood on the balcony and absorbed the sea and palm trees. Not bad at all.
Went for a fast walk along sea front. Lots of families, groups of boys in white tunics walking home from their Madras, street vendors, stray dogs sleeping in the sunshine. There’s a big Buddhist festival over the next three days and they’re decorating the streets with giant lotus flowers and lights and flags.
The weather goes from bright sunshine to complete deluge in a flash, you can watch the storms coming in across the sea. There are signs up warning people not to swim because of dangerous currents and poisonous fish.
We were both ill. Food poisoning. Ghastly. Cancelled trip to see elephants. But at least we both had it at the same time, so only lost one day of holiday. Annoying because I have been very careful, drinking only bottled water and eating only hot cooked foods. Makes you thankful for toilets.
Walked past the green and the harbour to fort region. Area more official, lots of armed gates, groups of military. Saw the old customs house, onion shaped roofs, faded Victorian mansions. It is similar to Mumbai, but less intense – fewer smells and colour, less noise, less people.
If we stood still, even for a second, a man would emerge from nowhere, always wearing an open necked shirt, and asked where we were from and would we like a tuktuk, a tour or a cup of tea.
We passed several booths decorated with lanterns and sculptures – I think for the festival, it looked like it might be a competition. Saw a tiny old lady sweeping. Husband raised his thumb at her, told her the booth was “very good.” She smiled at him, no teeth, scant hair, ragged clothes, but a beautiful smile. Her whole face lit up. Precious moment.
Looked round the old Dutch hospital – now a complex of gift shops and cafes.
Got a tuktuk back to the hotel. Agreed price beforehand (very important) but when we arrived, he said he had no change and gleefully showed us his empty wallet. Husband said it wasn’t a problem and he could wait while husband went into the hotel and got some change.
Had a drink in the bar, under ceiling fans. Watched crows stealing food from the buffet. Listened to them screech while the sea bashed against the beach and the wind stirred the palm trees. Worth coming.
Got a tuktuk to Pettah region. Here they have a station and streets of market stalls. A rabbit warren. It was one of those experiences that feels scary but actually, as long as you kept your wits about you, it was just interesting. The people wanted to sell us stuff (at inflated prices) not murder us.
Hunted for a cushion cover. Not easy with no local language. Tried miming and got shown lots of bedding and pyjamas. In the end I bought some fabric, very ethnic, will make cushion cover when I get home. Then we went to a leather goods stall – lots of shoes and bags and poofs. Husband rather keen on a poof made from buffalo skin with elephant design. Assured me it would make a good (if rather large) cushion. He bargained with the seller and bought it. Lots of smiles all round.
Walked back to hotel along sea front. Loads of people again, all very happy. We are the only white people. I like it here.
A Day at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage
We hired a driver from the hotel and spent the day driving to the orphanage. It was really worth the time and money, as saw so much. We paid about £25 entry and local people paid about 50p each. They are quite open about this, they charge lots more for tourists.
We saw the elephants in the main area, then crossed the road and went to the river. There are lots of shops for tourists. Then we heard the elephants start to approach.
“Move out the way!” shouted the man as the elephants approached the river.
I thought this was bit of an over reaction, there was plenty of room for him to pass, but I did move slightly more to the side.
Then I realised more elephants were coming behind him. And more….
Great lumbering beasts, so big, so intent on getting to the river. A bit like a crowd of nine year old boys rushing to play, very likely to knock someone with their shoulder by mistake. But these shoulders were huge, I would be toppled and crushed within seconds. I moved further back, up some steps leading to a cafe. The elephants lumbered by.
I cannot explain how exciting it was. The thrill of a brass band that vibrates deep inside your being, the thrall of something wonderful and scary all at the same time. Best sight ever. They trooped down to the river and then behaved a lot like my family would. One stood away from the others and just enjoyed being in the river. One submerged completely and just lifted a foot from time to time. One squirted himself and anyone near. One was very task focussed and had a good wash. One tried to organise all the others. I won’t name them…
We saw them at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. I was slightly worried about how ethical it was – there were some chains and men with sharp sticks and quite a lot of shouting. But bull elephants are randy in the spring and need to be controlled, and I don’t know anything about rearing elephants (clipping a duck’s wings probably looks cruel to someone who doesn’t understand) so I will reserve judgement. Certainly they looked happy as they went to the river. And there were lots of warning signs – they hadn’t been tamed, they were still wild animals (which I like.)
We saw babies being bottle fed and adults stripping leaves from trees. But nothing compared to the bath in the river.
The whole day was good – a chance to see more of Sri Lanka. We saw birds as vibrant blue as a slush puppy, paddy fields being planted with rice, pineapples growing on a bush, a woman leading three porcupines on a lead and stood in rain drops that felt like whole cups of warm water being thrown at us. But really, I just wanted to tell you about the elephants.
I like Sri Lanka. It has an unspoiltness about it. It is the only place I have been that doesn’t have a MacDonald’s and Costa Coffee as every second shop – perhaps because it’s only a few years since the civil war ended, so tourism is just beginning to develop here. If you are planning to visit, come soon, before it changes.
If you enjoyed this, why not sign up to follow my blog?