Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sri Lanka: The Pearl of the Indian Ocean

The purple lotus is the national flower of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is a former British colony, then called Ceylon.  Before the British came, Ceylon had been conquered and held for a century and a half each by first the Portuguese and then the Dutch.  This island practically a stone’s throw from India’s southeast coast is really not on the road to anywhere, unless you happen to be sailing along the maritime Silk Route.  And then, you would have found a veritable gem:  a lush tropical island with cool misty mountains, precious jewels, and plentiful fresh water.  No wonder those Europeans, and for centuries before them, Indian kings and princes, wanted it for their very own.

Flowers bloom profusely in the cool tea-growing mountains.

During the centuries of struggles with India, Sri Lanka was blessed with a few wise and great kings.  Some 2,500 years ago they built huge fortress cities, and left a legacy of water reservoirs (admittedly dug by slave labor) that are in use today.  A week’s trip through Sri Lanka was hardly enough to scratch the surface of sites and sights.  Next time, we’ll have to plan two weeks, to see what we haven’t seen, and enjoy again what we have.  Sri Lanka surprised us: we hadn’t expected quite such a likable, charming country as we found.

Columbo, the capital, is on the southwest coast of the island.  We spent little time there, concentrating instead on a drive into the interior to visit archeological sites and the tea-growing mountains.  We visited Polonnaruwa, where Sri Lanka’s kings held court from the 11th through the 13th centuries.

The Dambulla cave is really an enclosed cleft in the rock.

Reclining Buddha in one of the somewhat spooky Dambulla cave temples.

Not far away we visited Dambulla, a 500 foot high rock with a 1st century temple and caves where a temporarily exiled king took shelter for 14 years.  The cave interiors have been painted (and unfortunately re-painted) with images of Buddhist deities and filled with sacred statues.  

Pools abound in the ruined palace grounds below Sigirya Rock Fortress.

The lovely naked ladies of the court entice visitors to climb the steep rock fortress steps.

Another rock fortress we visited was Sigiriya, another 500-footer.  In the fifth century, the rock sheltered an extensive palace and gardens.  Sigiriya is renowned for its secular (code word for erotic) frescoes of lovely life-sized women. 
A typical nice house in Negombo.
Teakwood window frames and doors accent the brightly painted plaster houses.
Some simple homes in the misty central mountains.

Sri Lanka’s natural beauty is enhanced by the care taken by the people to keep their streets and roads litter-free.  Domestic architecture is notable too:  brightly painted homes made of brick and cement plaster, often with windows and doors of dark teakwood.  It struck us as somewhere where we could imagine living, as did Arthur C. Clarke.  The famous sci-fi writer spent his last 50+ years living there, finding it both a tropical paradise and a comfortable perch.

Enjoying bathing time at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage.
I had the joy of helping give a bottle of milk to one of these fuzzy darlings.
Young elephants especially enjoy some rough-housing in the river.

A largely Buddhist nation, Sri Lanka mostly treats the local animals with respect.  Dogs roam freely, knowing what time to visit kindly monks in the temples for a meal.  Elephants, either orphaned or injured, are cared for in an “orphanage”; some animal–rights activists rightly point out that some of these animals are trained with a hard hand, and may never be able to adapt to a life back in the wild, but at least they are kept alive and in humane conditions. 

Adjutant stork and egrets on the shore of the ancient reservoir in Minneriya Park.
A small family group of elephants came out to drink during our jeep safari.

His tail wasn't displayed but the rest of his lovely feathers were.

We also toured Minneriya National Park by jeep, in the company of an eagle-eyed ranger.  Although the leopards were still asleep, and the buffaloes were hiding, we did see a small herd of elephants, some spotted deer, wild boar and several types of monkeys.  Bird life was plentiful:  peacocks and a dozen types of water birds including storks, plus one or two of Sri Lanka’s national bird, which looked to me exactly like a barnyard rooster.  It was pure pleasure to stand in the jeep for a couple of hours, inhaling fresh air, and feasting our eyes on the lovely woods, fluttering with countless types of butterflies, and the water of the ancient reservoir.

Sri Lanka's mountains are fully cultivated for tea.

Ceylon became well known for high-quality tea, established as an industry by the British.  Tea plants cover every inch of land on the steep slopes of Sri Lanka’s mountains.  The higher the better:  tea grown in the highest regions brings the highest prices.  Tea is all hand-picked by women.  As Sri Lanka’s population becomes more educated and wealthy, fewer have proved willing to do this job, and labor is increasingly imported from Sri Lanka’s huge, poor neighbor, India.  Factories produce tea almost exactly as it was done a century ago, with the result that high quality has been maintained.

A British-built "cottage" in Nuwara Eliya.

Familiar British flowers thrive in the cool spring-like mountain air.

The cozy bar in the Jetwing St. Andrews Hotel, formerly the Scot's Club, had a cozy fire against the chill.

High in the mountains, the British established a town where they could take a holiday from the heat and humidity in the lowlands.  Nuwara Eliya almost looks like an English town, with “half-timbered” homes set in cottage gardens, abundant with roses and tender annual flowers.  The British even dug a lake so they could enjoy water sports on holiday.  Sri Lankans now flock to Nuwara Eliya for their holidays, but must wear warm jackets against the mild temperatures.

Bright lanterns celebrate Vesak Day.

We arrived in Columbo on the most important day of Sri Lankan Buddhists’ calendar:  Vesak.  This is the full-moon day in May on which the Buddha was born, and on which he attained Buddha-hood, and on which he later died.  It’s a two-day holiday in Sri Lanka, and the streets and houses are festooned with bright, colorful lanterns of crepe-paper with long streamers.  In the cooler evenings, townspeople walked the streets in groups to admire the lights and celebrate together.  That’s how I’ll remember Sri Lanka:  friendly, sociable people; nights alive with pretty lights; on their pearl of an island set in the deep wavy ocean.

Rough surf at sunset on Negombo Beach.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

New Zealand Interlude

People travel to New Zealand for many reasons nowadays.  In the distant past, people went to New Zealand for land and opportunity.  Extreme sports have been a big draw for a few decades now.  Then came Lord of the Rings, and now everyone wants to visit Middle Earth. Me, I go to New Zealand whenever I can, to visit my family there.

A tui singing above my nephew's backyard

The amazing thing about New Zealand to me is not that there are beautiful places to explore, but that there are beautiful places everywhere you turn.  As one of my sisters said, when we visit New Zealand we don’t have to go out of our way to see beautiful sites.  There are beautiful sites in our family’s back yards.

A few of the thousands of sailboats around Auckland

New Zealand's restaurants are stellar; this fabulous fish was served at DiVino Bistro in Auckland.

A geologist's delight!
Approaching Auckland from the water

I met one of my nephews for lunch in downtown Auckland, and got my first glimpse this visit (this is my third trip to New Zealand) of the reason it’s called the City of Sails.  Probably every other adult in Auckland owns a sailboat.  And with the most ragged coastline I’ve ever seen, there are loads of spots to anchor your sailboat.

Waiheke Beach
River's Edge

Strange and Wonderful Rocks

On my first trip to this tiny country, I was amazed at how strange the trees looked.  This country had the aura of being someplace on Planet Earth, but it didn’t look like anyplace I’d been before.  The otherworldliness is partly caused by the unusual plants that grow in this isolated habitat.  It might also be caused by the almost violent upthrust of the land out of the sea, and the lack of centuries being smoothed by the glaciers that groomed my familiar New England landscape.  Juxtaposed with the raw geology and the unknown flora is a sweetly familiar fauna: sheep, and cows, dot the rough green hills, so you know it must be Earth. 

My eldest sister has lived in New Zealand for most of the over 45 years she’s been married to a New Zealander.  Recently she came back to Massachusetts for a high school reunion where she found herself repeatedly asked to explain why she’d moved to New Zealand.  Such a conscientious person, she tried to explain the long sequence of events, the incremental steps taken toward making this her home!  My explanation for why she moved here is simple:  because she could.  For most of us, impossibility is the main reason we have not moved to this idyllic island country.

The pace of life here is slower, sometimes annoyingly so to the young, who’d like a brisker pace.  When I come here, I am able to breathe, to sleep deeply, to just absorb my surroundings and enjoy each moment.  It’s partly that I don’t make plans beyond hanging out with my family when I’m here.  It’s also partly because New Zealand is so very far away from other lands, even Australia, that it’s not infected by the bustle of countries more attuned to the world’s commercial heart.  I felt about ten years younger after my ten days there.  Good, because then I’ll live long enough to visit New Zealand about ten more times.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Backpacker Paradise Anniversary

Snorkeling on live coral reefs has become a rare experience in the past few decades.  Before coral bleaching began, coral reefs were accessible in warm waters off the coasts of many countries.  Coral reefs are mostly surviving in deeper waters now, so only scuba divers are able to enjoy the beauty of the gardens under the seas.  One of the last seas with really great coral reefs in shallow waters is the Andaman Sea, off the west coast of Thailand.  Day trips from coastal areas are possible, or from established islands like Phuket (which no longer has good snorkeling reefs itself).  The backpacker’s island of Koh Lipe, a few hours south of Phuket by speedboat, is much closer to the living corals in the Thai Tarutao National Park.  And so it was that a couple of grandparents, teetering near the edge of their seventh decades, found themselves roughing it in the company of people about the ages of their children.

This is why it's called Sunset Beach

Just about 33 years ago, my Dear Husband and I were married in Cambridge, and flew to Key West for our honeymoon.  And a perfect time for our visit it turned out to be!  The Mariel Boatlift was underway from Cuba, and Key West was occupied by US Navy personnel and briefly by Cuban refugees.  It was a great time to honeymoon there, because we had the place to ourselves and of course, that’s the way we preferred it.

I was a Yankee clergyman’s daughter, and he was the son of teachers from the desert Southwest.  We had had no experience of the warm Gulf waters, and were very curious about life under the sea.   We bought our first snorkels and masks at a dime store (a thing of the past now) and dunked our faces in the water right off the beach by the Southernmost Point of the United States.  Wow!  We had no idea how magical it was under the water’s surface!  And so, two snorkeling addicts came into being.

In the past decades, we have snorkeled, together or apart, wherever we could.  Together, we’ve been to Florida (again), Mexico, and Malaysia.  My Dear Husband, the inveterate business traveler (while I stayed home with the kids), has also experienced snorkeling in the Philippines, the Red Sea, and off the east coast of Thailand.  Nothing has ever measured up, for either of us, for our first view of the coral reefs, then vibrantly alive, off the coast of Key West.  Living in Southeast Asia gave us a rare opportunity to snorkel as we did on our honeymoon.

We were making this plan at pretty much the last minute, having chosen a period around a weekend during which my Dear Husband could remember no pressing appointments.  We ransacked booking sites until we came across a “resort” on the northern, or “sunset”, coast that promised a thatched bamboo hut in a quiet, romantic setting.  The island was said to have good snorkeling right off the beaches, funky bars, and great Thai seafood.  Since the pricier hotels close to the main beaches of Koh Lipe were full, we booked into the sunset beach resort.

The resort's restaurant

The way in is by ferry, and we chose to fly to the ferry terminal on the larger island of Langkawi, Malaysia.  Of course we were imagining as easy a trip as to Nantucket.   So we just packed our bags, and took off.

Langkawi Harbor

Our first shocker was when we arrived at the Telaga Ferry Terminal in Langkawi.  Seems that boating from Malaysia to a small Thai island with no Immigration office is not simple.  The ferry personnel hold your passport from the moment you check in for your ferry until after you have landed in Thailand, during which period of several hours you simply must trust them not to abuse this possession of your most powerful document.  We freaked out, to put it mildly.  Then it appeared that we really had no alternative, if we were not to give up on the whole trip, except to let these authorities take and hold our passports.  So we did that, and gritted our teeth throughout a rough and rainy ride to Koh Lipe, until, after jumping off the ferry into the Thai surf, we were reunited with our precious documents.

Our fellow travelers have just jumped off the back of the "ferry" into the water on the beach.

After wading through the water up onto the beach and retrieving our passports and bags, we set off down the beach to secure a “longtail” taxi.  We shared one with a friendly young (everyone here was young) couple from Kuala Lumpur.  Their eyes grew wider as the longtail slowly approached a deserted little beach.  Greeted by a friendly dog as we jumped into the surf, we began the steep hike uphill to what was clearly not yet a resort.

Island Taxi Parking Lot

Straggly gardens, partially washed out dirt steps, an open-air restaurant with four tables, no reception desk, a staff of five (including the dog) only one of whom spoke English, no swimming pool, and a half hour walk down the steep hill to reach the busy commercial part of the island.  

The back view of our bamboo and thatch hut reveals its concrete underpinnings.

The brand-new air conditioner in our bamboo hut was a nice surprise, but the hut had a gap between the walls and the roof so we still had to use the mosquito net over our bed. The door to our bathroom was a curtain of seashells.  But it was quiet, and the view from our little balcony lovely, the resident dog was awesome, and inertia has a lot of power over us as we age.  So, we stayed, never completely comfortable but okay, for five nights and four days.
During the almost-daily heavy tropical rains, the bathroom ceiling leaked!  Also, the outlets shown were all there was.

The "resort" dog offered a complete package: welcoming services, guarding, companionship, and good humor.

On two of those days we signed up for snorkeling tours of the reefs off the nearby islands.  We shared a longtail on each tour with 4-5 other people, huddling on wooden planks under a tarp roof for shelter from the merciless sunshine.  Each day we visited between three and five reefs, and snorkeled at each one as long as our captain would permit.  The varieties and the psychedelic colors of the corals and the lovely fish are beyond my description.  If you have been to a good aquarium with tanks of living corals and tropical fish, imagine swimming in warm water marveling at such beauty around you.  We saw velvety purple-edged giant clams, huge blue starfish, and even a sly moray eel, waving innocuously on the sea floor.

Cheat Alert:  I took this photo at an aquarium!  Don't have an underwater camera!  Am no Jaques Cousteau!  But this is to give you an idea of the beauty of the tropical coral reef we saw in the Andaman Sea.
One of our snorkel tour boats
Island Lagoon Picnic Area

 Each seven-hour trip featured at least an hour’s ride to the reef area each way, and lunch on a nice island.  There were also stops for us to admire odd islands, like one made entirely of smooth stones where we were expected to stack as many as possible.  We also visited a Monkey island where it was clearly not safe to eat your lunch, or even swig from your water bottle (monkeys are daring thieves). 

Monkey with Plunder

Amazing Balanced Boulders in the Tarutao National Park
Unlike the 20-somethings with us, the exertion tired us.  After the last few 45-minute swims, it became an increasing challenge for us to heave ourselves, suddenly no longer weightless, up onto the boat by means of a barnacled and rusty ladder made of steel pipes.  I was grateful I’d at least been faithfully doing 30 minutes of yoga daily and taking long walks. After the last swim, I nearly landed myself on the floor of the boat (and a few laps) after finally hauling myself on board.  Hard as that was, I was proud that I could still manage it, could still reach outside my comfort zone, and experience wonder.

Scrumptious Thai Barbequed Giant Prawns
Funky Island Bar

Most of the other island visitors were from Thailand and Malaysia, with a smattering of Westerners speaking a variety of languages.  With few exceptions, we were twice as old, and out of shape, as everybody else.  On our last night, strolling Koh Lipe’s “walking street” after dinner, I heard American voices behind us and turned to say hello.  The three had just graduated from college, and were glad to talk to other Americans for a few minutes.  After swapping stories of our Koh Lipe experiences, we modestly mentioned that this place was kind of hard for a couple of grandparents and the girl from Pennsylvania said, “I know, right?  You have huge cred!”  We needed that pat on the back!

But a gentle pat, because on our last snorkeling trip, I had somehow missed a few square inches on the backs of my legs with the 110 SPF sunblock which protected all the rest of my absurdly fair skin.  Now I have a little memento of our trip, a deep but quite small tan (after the peeling ended), and memories to last through our next 33 years together.