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.