Leaving Sri Lanka, final episode

Leaving Sri Lanka, final episode

Since I don’t have photos for some of this blog, I will just put in photos taken throughout the trip.

Tethering water buffalo

Tethering water buffalo

We are in no hurry on our last morning in Sri Lanka. Although the airport drive will take several hours, our flight leaves at one a.m. in the morning! We eat a leisurely breakfast on the veranda enjoying a delicious omelet. We visit with the English family, and laugh at Walter who is chugging down cocoa without coming up for air.

Paul and I decide to walk to the reservoir after breakfast. Akima directs us to follow the Mas Villas path until we get to the neighbors fence. We must crawl through the fence, walk through the field, make a left turn when we get to the trees and this will take us to the water’s edge. Akima tells us the tame water buffalo are tethered but occasionally there are wild water buffalo too. He cautions us that wild buffalo will charge without warning and are very dangerous. Well, that would make for an exciting finish to our holiday! Personally, I don’t trust the so-called tame water buffalo either, as they too seem to be skittish and short-tempered.

We wander down the Mas Villas lane and get through the fence just fine. There are several tethered buffalo in the field but one of them is just dragging its rope. All of the water buffalo raise their heads to peer suspiciously at us, but the free one begins to walk towards us. Just as we are thinking we will have to call off this excursion, a man comes running across the field and shoos the curious animal away.

water buffalo taking a good look at us

water buffalo taking a good look at us

Once we reach the trees, we find another water buffalo thrashing around in some dense bushes. Paul and I look through our binoculars to make sure this animal has a rope around its neck. We stride on by after determining the animal is secured. As we approach the reservoir, we stop short of the shore when we see a pack of dogs running along the edge of the lake. No sense taking a chance that they might be unfriendly.   We hear a woodpecker hammering on a tree, which is one species of bird I haven’t seen on this trip. Paul and I begin searching for the bird and discover a lesser goldenback woodpecker, as he rat-tat’s on a tree branch. This is a great way to end our final walk in Sri Lanka.

Akima and owner of Mas Villas red VW

Akima and owner of Mas Villas red VW

We leave Mas Villas at eleven o’clock. Paul and I say our thanks and goodbyes to the staff, with special thanks and a generous tip for Akima. The manager asks Paul to consider writing some kind words about Mas Villas on trip advisor. Hmm, this is the third manager that has asked for “some kind words” from us on trip advisor. Trip advisor, for those of you who may not know, is a website where travelers seek out advice from other travelers. People inquire about hotels, guides, restaurants, hikes, etc. from people who have already traveled to places they want to go. Paul is a huge fan of trip advisor and researches our upcoming travels extensively on this site. Paul also writes reviews of hotels, guides, etc. that we have experienced on our vacations. In fact Paul has written so many reviews that Trip Advisor sent him a green luggage tag prior to our Sri Lanka trip, with the familiar owl logo featured on the tag. Paul attached the bright tag to his backpack before we left for Sri Lanka.

Paul and I began to have suspicions early in the trip that maybe we were receiving extra attention because of this Trip advisor luggage tag. For example, a nice room upgrade and laundry done at no charge. Who knows for sure if the owl tag gained us these favors, but we intend to keep the tag hanging on Paul’s backpack just in case!

It is a good thing we are in no hurry today, because not only is it Saturday but the Poya holiday is in full swing. This means the traffic is heavy as we make our way towards Kandy. There are plenty of photo ops along the way, including what looks like a band of gypsies unloading their race horses along the roadside. Raj stops to ask what they are doing and the men say that they are going to the local race track to participate in the races tonight. Well, that would be fun to attend but we will be sitting in the airport by then.

Race horses

Race horses

I have to write about Raj playing cds for us when we are traveling in the car. He asked us on our first day we were with him if having the radio on was o.k., and we said no. However, I observed that he was fidgety and reached for the radio knob a few times so I told Paul maybe it was better to put up with music if it helped him relax. So when Raj asked if we wanted music the next day, we told him it was alright. The problem was, Raj would put a cd in and let it play over and over unless we politely asked him to change it. He obviously didn’t listen to the music but evidently needed the songs as background noise to relax him.

On days we were on the road, we listened to Sri Lankan and English music, some we enjoyed, some not so much. Raj put in one cd that brought back childhood memories for both Paul and me. I didn’t recall the singer’s name which was Jim Reeves, but Paul did. We obviously played this record at home as I remembered the songs which included, From a Jack to a King, Whispering sands, and one where a little boy answers each verse sung by Reeves, singing “but you love me daddy”. After listening to that cd for what seemed like hours, that one line refrain nearly drove me crazy! That child’s voice singing those five words kept playing through my head for days and now that I have written about this, I have that simplistic chorus stuck in my head again.

Typical scene of cattle laying near or in the road

Typical scene of cattle laying near or in the road

We are near Negombo by midafternoon, which is much too early to arrive at the airport so Raj suggests we visit his cousin. We say sure and assume that his cousin lives nearby. Instead we leave the main highway and drive on narrow, bumpy roads. We pass through several small villages before arriving at his cousins’ house. Raj grabs the rope hooked to an old brass bell and rings it to alert his relatives of our arrival. A diminutive woman comes to the door and greets us with a smile. Her husband arrives shortly, riding a bicycle and carrying a sack of food. Raj introduces us to his cousin, whom I will refer to as PJ since his name is very lengthy. PJ takes us into the house to show off his collection of antique radios, recorders, and phonographs, including a gramophone. It seems that his antique electronics work but since the electricity is off, he can’t play any of them for us. Actually, the gramophone doesn’t need electricity so I think we listened to this prior to the electricity coming on.

Gramophone

Gramophone

Being without electricity doesn’t stop our hosts from serving us tea along with bananas and fresh, salted pineapple. I’ve never eaten pineapple sprinkled with salt but it was quite good. Yep, we are the only ones eating:).

Raj asks if it would be o.k. to leave us here for a while so he can go to the funeral house to pay his respects to a friend that has died. Of course we agree to his request. PJ takes us on a tour of a hotel that is being built on the lot next to their house. We watch a water monitor swimming in the moat that is in front of the partially erected hotel. Next we admire his Morris Minor car, followed by looking at various unique and clever things he incorporated into the house when he built it. His wife, who doesn’t speak English, keeps gesturing for us to come back into the house but it is so hot that at least we can catch a little breeze outside. Besides, we will be sitting down for hours once we board our plane. Eventually we have run out of things to see and visit about, so we stand around feeling awkward.

water moniter

water moniter

Raj finally returns and just then the electricity comes on. His cousin insists we return to the house so we can see/hear his collection in action. Once inside, PJ cranks up the old gramophone, puts on a disc and the music thunders out of the fluted, brass megaphone. The loud volume nearly blasts us out of the house, but the scratchy singing voice also lets me imagine I am back in the colonial times of Sri Lanka. Despite the fact that we may have permanent ear damage, this whole experience is very cool. PJ then turns on every radio he has one after the other. Next we are entertained by a 45 record player spilling old Sri Lanka music into the room. PJ turns on a projector and we watch an old World War II news clip containing images of Japanese soldiers. I wonder what the historic value of that is. By now I have sweat dripping down my neck and my hair is damp with perspiration, but how many people can say they sat in a living room in Sri Lanka and listened to music played on a gramophone?

The sun is beginning to set and we have imposed ourselves on Raj’s cousins long enough. PJ wants a photo of the four of us, so Raj willingly takes our picture. We thank them for entertaining us and leave this couple and their private museum behind.

Paul and I with Raj's cousins

Paul and I with Raj’s cousins

Raj informs us that we are not far from the airport. We continue driving on back roads through more small villages. In one village the people are lined up along the street and we soon find out why. As we drive down the street there is a parade coming towards us in celebration of Poya. A man wearing a plastic zebra body around his waist swoops in front of our car and dances away, pirouetting down the street to the delight of bystanders. Stilt walkers peer down on us from their lofty height, costumed children dance joyfully, a float lit up with colorful strings of lights carries a shrine for Buddha. Men playing drums and an elephant dressed in bright silken blankets pass by the car in the dusky twilight. We would have loved to stop and watched the parade with the natives, but there is no place to park so we continue to the airport. Who knew our drive to the airport would be such a day to remember!

poor photo of elephant in parade

poor photo of elephant in parade

We arrive at the airport and Raj pulls into the unloading zone. Paul and I gather our luggage and thank Raj for chauffeuring us around. It was rather amusing today how many times Raj mentioned that we had been with him for eleven days. We hand over the envelope with Raj’s bonus money accounting for eleven days, wave goodbye and turn to face the monotony of airports and airplane rides.

On the sidewalk, there are people lined up waiting to buy tickets from women working in teller like booths. We stand in line for a while but wonder if we need to do this since we have our computer tickets. I show a guard our etickets and he tells us we can enter the building. We are frisked and our luggage scanned before we can go to the passenger waiting room. We are still not sure if we need different tickets so Paul goes to the information booth and asks. The man says yes, we must go back outside and get new tickets. Good grief. Fortunately a woman ticket agent is not busy, so we give her our etickets. She informs us that we don’t need new tickets and when we tell her that the information booth worker said we did, she snorts and says “don’t listen to them, they don’t know anything”! Back we go to be frisked (no wands here) and return to sit with other people waiting until the flight board proclaims that passengers on flight so and so can proceed through final security and obtain their boarding passes.

Our flight number shows up on the board around nine o’clock and we join the queue to have luggage scanned and walk through the security box. We get our boarding tickets and check through our luggage in short order. Now all we have to do is try to stay awake for 3 hours until we board the plane. Paul and I browse some of the shops and even buy something for three kids in Kansas! We find to our chagrin that the tea in the airport is about 1/5th of what we paid at the tea factory. Time passes quicker than you would think and soon we are boarding the plane. We are so tired that we sleep a good percent of the eleven hour flight to Frankfort.

Sri Lankans love color

Sri Lankans love color

It is a good thing we have plenty of time between arriving in Germany and leaving for Dallas. When we are going through security, an airport security man walks up to us as we are waiting for our bags to get through the x-ray machine. He tells Paul that he has been randomly selected for a more thorough check. Oh lucky Paul. Just after learning about this unwanted attention, a no-nonsense woman brings Paul’s backpack over and asks if there is a knife in it. Oh crap, we look at each other and Paul says he doesn’t think there is a knife, as I blurt out “I wonder if we forgot to put your knife into the checked luggage”? The woman keeps pulling things out but doesn’t find a knife, so she sends it back through the scanning machine. She returns, telling us there is a knife in this bag somewhere. Eventually she finds the Swiss army knife stuffed in one of the many little pockets a backpack has. Paul and I lament the fact that we will lose this knife that has traveled on every trip we have taken the past few decades. Instead of confiscating the knife, the woman measures it against a card. The tip protrudes slightly over the edge but she gives it back anyway.

Another woman has emptied the big end of my backpack too, so now we must stuff everything back into them that had been carefully packed a day ago. Paul accompanies the smiling blonde fellow who has been patiently waiting while we have gone through this rather embarrassing incident. I wait, while Paul is led to an area which allows everyone who cares to, witness the second shake down. Again all his stuff is emptied from his backpack. The security man runs a wand over Paul and makes him take his shoes off so he can inspect them. Paul passes the test, so he packs everything and we are able to move on to the boarding area. While waiting for Paul, I noticed that the security people were unpacking lots of people’s carry-on luggage so we weren’t being picked on.

Harvesting carrots

Harvesting carrots

Eleven hours later we land in Dallas. Once we snag our luggage off of the carousel, we transfer the knife to our check through bags before going through customs. We have a few hours to kill in this airport so we go find a burger joint and enjoy a hamburger which is our tradition when we come home from an international trip. Boy did it taste good. After the airline changes the gate our flight leaves from five times, (seriously), we hop on the tiny plane that will take us to Manhattan. In less than two hours we arrive in the middle of the night to cold and snow. Oh boy, reality literally smacks us in the face letting us know we are back in Kansas. We drive home, fall into bed and put another wonderful adventure behind us.

 

THE END

common kingfisher

common kingfisher


Abandoned building

Abandoned building

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Mas Villas and Nuwaru Eliya, part 10

Mas Villas and Nuwaru Eliya, part 10

After we complete the tradition of lighting a candle, the manager puts us in the capable hands of Akima, who will look after us during our stay here. Where do they find these delightful young men? Akima is a gracious, smiling fellow, that Paul and I both feel comfortable with right away. Have you noticed that all of the people who work at the resorts are men? We never encountered a woman working in the resorts or the restaurants.

Mas Villa Courtyar

Mas Villa Courtyar

Akima leads us through the courtyard of this 250-year-old manor house. There are cement fish tanks in the grassy area with plants sprouting out of the middle of them.  Between the entrance and our room is a lounge area, an inviting place furnished with couches and overstuffed chairs. Our room is long and narrow but comfortable. The view from our two windows looks out over a rice paddy, and the resort pool. The resident chipmunks use the pool for their personal drinking glass, so this view turns out to be rather fun. The dining veranda is at the far end of the house and affords a stunning view of the reservoir and mountains. Not bad at all!

Gorgeous view from the veranda

Gorgeous view from the veranda

After a good night’s sleep, we eat breakfast on the veranda and enjoy the refreshing morning air. We exchange pleasantries with the English family that is also staying at Mas Villas. After breakfast, Paul and I explore the grounds around the manor house which is landscaped with beautiful plants and flowers. There is a black eagle flying above the mountains, which pleases me as it is the largest Eagle in Sri Lanka and another check off my bird list.

Paul exploring Mas Villas

Paul exploring Mas Villas

This morning Akima and another staff member that lives in the village (I’m going to call him Fred), are taking us for a walk through the hamlet of Mas Villas and up to the big tea plantation that sets higher on the mountain. As we meander through the village, people come out of their houses to look at us. Often the kids laugh when we wave and say hello, but the very young children are shy or even scared of us. It seems the villagers mostly see tourists in cars as they are driving by on their way to Nuwara Eliya, so our walking in their village is a novelty.

Shy boy in village

Shy boy in village

Akima is not only a nice young man but a very smart fellow. He does an excellent job of giving us information on everything we ask about from trees, crops, village life, etc., and does it all in decent English. Somewhere in our conversation, Akima asks us how many servants we have. When we tell him we don’t have servants, he looks puzzled and asks “who does your cooking”. Paul tells him that I am the cook. I swear his reaction is vaudevillian. Akima stops in his tracks, his eyes widen, his mouth gapes open, and he points at me saying in an incredulous voice, “you do”. I am so taken aback by his disbelief that I prepare our meals, I mumble in an apologetic tone, “Yes I do, but I’m not a very good cook”. I’m not sure he ever really believed us.

Akima our guide

Akima our guide

When we reach the tea plantation, Akima and Fred, find a large flat rock for us where we are to eat our picnic lunch. They even spread a checkered cloth over the rock surface, now that is a finishing touch! As usual there is too much food, but by now we are used to the excess. We eat our cheese and chicken sandwiches and fruit, surrounded by acres of tea bushes atop our lofty perch, while enjoying the pleasant atmosphere of the plantation.

Preparing our picnic area

Preparing our picnic area

We begin the journey back to Mas Villas after lunch and find we are still the most interesting thing happening in the village, as curious people still come out of their houses to stare at the foreign visitors. When we reach Fred’s house, he invites us in for refreshments. His wife and mother are there and they are so shy it is endearing. Paul and I are asked into the house where we are seated on a plastic covered couch. Our host then serves us cream soda and store-bought chocolate cookies. I am sure these treats are an extravagance for them to buy and I feel a mixture of honor and guilt for their offering. Akima is also served the refreshments, but as the villagers in St. Johns, the family members stand on one side of the room, watching us as we enjoy the food. I get some comfort in the fact that they will be able to tell their friends that the tourists were guests in their home!

Our hosts in the village

Our hosts in the village

We exit the village by a different route which takes us by the local store, which has a little bit of everything to offer. Food items, brooms, personal care items and simple farming tools. We also have the occasion to watch three men go through the complicated ritual of preparing the betel leaf for chewing. Chewing betel, is in my opinion, a nasty habit that many of the natives participate in, and is akin to chewing tobacco. You can tell a betel user by their brown stained teeth and often in older people the lack of or the rotting of their teeth. We also wander by a woman and two young boys sacking up rice that was threshed early this morning. Too bad we missed the threshing as they used water buffalo to complete this task.

village store

village store

sacking rice

sacking rice

Paul's flowers

Paul’s flowers

We return to Mas Villas at midafternoon, hot and tired. Paul jumps in the pool, I opt for a shower. Paul and Raj decide to go visit a temple at four p.m. but I am not up to accompanying them, so stay in the room and take a nap. When Paul returns from their junket and walks into the room, he is holding a bouquet of flowers and some fried sweet bread. I am thinking, wow, Valentines offerings a day early. Not!! It seems that Raj gave a woman a ride to her house and because of this kindness, Paul and he were invited in for a visit. Paul was served tea while everyone else stood around and watched him of course. Then the brother of the woman, who they took home, gave Paul flowers and the sweet treats. This experience was much more memorable for Paul than the stupa they visited which was undergoing renovation.
Paul enjoying pool

Paul enjoying pool

Paul and I dine on what has become our staple supper in Sri Lanka of beer, cheese, bread and pringles. After watching a movie selected from the collection the resort offers, (though I can’t remember what we watched), we retire for the night.

Raj has the car waiting for us at 8:30 this morning, ready to transport us to Nuwara Eliya. We drive the most crooked roads we have been on yet and it includes some back to back hairpin curves. We are traveling through what is referred to as the hill country and we drive through mile after mile of manicured tea fields. No one is picking tea today as the country is celebrating the Poya (a Buddhist) holiday. In fact, most people are enjoying a day off from work. This means that the traffic is heavy as the natives are also heading to Nuwara Eliya and cooler weather.

Roadside vegetable market

Roadside vegetable market

In addition to the lush tea fields, this is also vegetable growing country, and the people cultivate every available piece of dirt they can find. As we near the city of Nuwara Eliya we begin to see farmers that have their fresh grown vegetables on display along the edge of the busy highway. We find their choice of where to set up shop amazing considering the narrow, curvy, and busy road. Raj pulls over on the very narrow shoulder so Paul and I can take some photos. Paul and I tread carefully as we walk along the highways edge snapping photos here and there of the artistic display of vegetables. I love the way the vendors arrange their wares in neat stacks with complimentary colors sitting next to one another. This curbside vegetable market was worth the drive in itself!

We pull into Nuwara Eliya, and join the bustling traffic. Raj thinks we need to see the Grand Hotel so this is where we go first. The Hotel is pretty grand and its landscaping with sculptured bushes is first-rate. We scout the interior of the famous hotel, to have a look at where the ultra-wealthy spend their nights on vacation. Nice but too stuffy for us.

Grand hotel

Grand hotel

DSCF1584We return to the car and ask Raj to drive us to the main part of town. Raj finds a parking place a few blocks from downtown so we walk the crowded sidewalks to reach the business district. I’m not sure what we were expecting of Nuwara Eliya but there isn’t much to see. We wander around doing some window shopping and people watching. We are surprised to see the headline of a paper being sold at a newspaper stand, upset about the US meddling in Sri Lankan affairs. Well, we must buy this newspaper so we can read the article tonight! We go to the supermarket and buy some Happy Cow cheese for supper. Yep, we buy this at home too.

Pony express mail?

Pony express mail?

We walk back to the car and are ready to return to Mas Villas. There are children along the highway, offering bouquets of flowers for sale to motorists for the Poya holiday. The little rascals scare me to death as they will step into the road, extending the flowers they hold at arm’s length, towards oncoming cars. One ragamuffin girl does this exact thing to us as we approach a hairpin curve. Am I seeing double, because when we make it around the curve she is standing along the road waiting for us. I exclaim to Raj, “is that the same little girl” and he replies “Yes, and she will meet us around the next curve too”. Sure enough, as we come around the corner here is the flower girl slipping and sliding down the side of the berm. I still feel so guilty that we didn’t stop and buy that determined girl’s wilting, bouquet of flowers after she put so much effort in trying to run us down. Darn it!

Determined flower seller

Determined flower seller

Raj takes us to another tea factory for lunch but they are not serving food yet. So that is why he told us we were to early when we returned to the car! Raj says we can tour the tea factory while we are waiting for the restaurant to open. We tell Raj that we don’t need to do another tea factory tour. When we come back from using the restroom, Raj is standing with a woman, and he informs us she will take us on the tea factory tour. O.K., I really am not feeling that well today and this frankly ticks me off. I sit down at a table and tell Raj I am not going on the tour. Paul doesn’t want to go either so the young woman leaves probably not understanding what the heck is going on.

After lunch, Paul has spaghetti and I have tomato soup, we proceed back to Mas Villas. After raiding our supply of medicine we brought for a product to help my ailment, (Paul quips that we could set up our own drug store along the road), I fall into bed for an afternoon nap. When I wake, I am feeling much better, so we walk up to the village just for the exercise. The shops are all closed, and there are very few people around, so they must all be celebrating the Poya holiday.

Village girls who wanted us to take their photos

Village girls who wanted us to take their photos

We visit with the English family, which I have dubbed the Von Trapp family. There is Mom, Dad, three boys the oldest is probably 11, the youngest, Walter, is two, Cecil is 6, while the girl might be 9 or 10. There is also a nanny and a young woman who is the kids’ home school teacher.

The daughter seems to spend a good deal of time searching for her shoes. Walter spends much of his time running around the perimeter of the courtyard racing against one of his older siblings. At breakfast this morning, I plucked a sock from the back of my chair and gave it to the waiter. He shakes his head, lamenting that the children leave stuff laying everywhere. Despite the trail of discarded clothing and shoes the whole family is delightful, polite and happy. They are here for five weeks and the adults immerse the children into the culture and history of Sri Lanka by touring and taking part in events. Tomorrow they will travel to Kandy, donned in the traditional white costumes of the natives, to take part in the celebration of Poya. Wow, what a cool way to learn!

View from our window

View from our window

This evening we eat our Happy Cow cheese and crackers with our Lion Lager beer and then pack what we don’t need in our luggage. Tomorrow we will leave this lovely place as it is time to return home. Where did the time go??

Next installment, our last day in Sri Lanka

no wasted space here, vegetable plots

no wasted space here, vegetable plots

chipmunk drinking from pool

chipmunk drinking from pool

Flower shop

Flower shop

Village Tour and Mas Villas, part 9

Village tour and Mas Villas part 9

Sunrise at St. Johns Bungalow

Sunrise at St. Johns Bungalow

What a great way to start the day here at St. Johns Bungalow by enjoying a beautiful sunrise. We enjoy the pretty sunrise by opening our room door and watching the sky become streaked in an array of color. Later, we walk a few steps out of our room, where we are seated at a table on the terrace. As our waiter serves us the standard breakfast fare, the neighborhood bulls begin to arrive to graze the short lawn grass. A variety of bird songs complete the atmosphere of this serene morning.

The neighbors bulls arriving at St. Johns

The neighbors bulls arriving at St. Johns

The young man who is guiding us around the local village today is waiting with Raj when we walk to where the car is parked. Raj drives the three of us into the village and lets us out at the road that our guide directs him to. There isn’t going to be a lot of conversation with our guide, as he speaks very little English. Oh well, the main idea is to wander through the rural village and the farm land to see things up close and personal.

Our leader is wearing sandals, but that doesn’t stop him from setting a brisk pace. We do stop on occasion to look at a bird, or take a photo. We stride over a bridge where the river is rushing over large rocks beneath us. Looking downstream we can see the water cascading over the edge of the rocks resulting in a lovely waterfall.

Rice paddies

Rice paddies

We arrive at the village that sits part way up the mountain, with the rice paddies forming geometric patterns below us. As we walk through the village, people smile and acknowledge us, although many are out working in the rice fields. When we come to a yellow house near the edge of the village, our guide indicates that he lives here. His father, wife, toddler son, a neighbor and another woman who may be his grandmother are there to greet us. Our hosts bring out two chairs into the yard for us to sit on, along with a small table covered with a cloth. Moments later we are being served tea in this family’s yard.

DSCF1212It is so kind of our hosts to honor us, but the odd thing about the tea party is that we are the only ones drinking tea. The family just stands around watching us drink tea and that is very uncomfortable, at least for me. So Paul and I sip our tea, smile, and make happy faces at the very cute boy, that this extended family dotes on. I might add that a water buffalo and her calf are tethered a few feet away, and they too are staring at us with curiosity.

Our guides father and the families water buffalo

Our guides father and the families water buffalo

When we have finished our tea, we ask the family if we can take a photo of them. The oldest woman takes some cajoling from us to join the group but finally agrees to be part of the photo. After the photo shoot, we again have to convince the elderly woman to look at their family photo on our camera screens. Once she gets her courage up to look at the snapshot, she laughs and must look again. Paul and I got a big kick out of her reaction!

Our guides family and friends

Our guides family and friends

Now that our tea break is over, it is time to climb the mountain that stands behind this cluster of houses. We initially are climbing up stone steps, and we notice that there are a lot of cow patties on the steps. As we are making our way up one flight of steps there is a cow standing at the top of the stairs looking down at us. It appears that the cattle have adapted to using the steps too.

Cattle use the steps too

Cattle use the steps too

The sun is really heating things up and my legs are starting to protest against the steady climb. I ask the young man leading us how much farther we have to go, using words and gestures. He points and replies “right there”, and so I assume the hike will end in the small clearing up ahead. We arrive at the clearing and keep walking. After another twenty minutes, I ask again if we are near the ending point. I receive the same vague pointing and “right there” answer. Trudging on we finally emerge from the trees and are standing (to close for comfort) on the edge of the mountain. Well now, the view is spectacular plus there are some gorgeous purple wildflowers sprinkled across the ridge, so I am glad we managed to keep walking.

Wait a minute! Our young leader indicates we are to continue hiking until we reach the top of the small peak that stands behind us. No way, I have had it and so has Paul. Our guide appeals to Paul using his limited English, “Sir, just a few meters more”. Next he outlines the route with his hand, drawing a straight line in the air, than an abrupt incline, and another straight line, ending with the phrase “right there”. We laugh and insist we are going no farther, especially since we began hearing that phrase “right there” an hour or so ago. It occurs to me that the “right there” phrase is as vague as the phrase “just now” that is used in Africa when you are trying to pin down an exact time!

Our stopping point

Our stopping point

The young man sees that we are not going to change our mind, so turns and leads us back down the trail. We have a nice surprise on our return trip, as we take a shortcut through the rice paddies, walking the paths atop the narrow terraces that separate the fields. This turns out to be our favorite part of the tour, and Paul states, “this is how I envisioned Southeast Asia in my mind”.

Carrying a sack of fertilizer

Carrying a sack of fertilizer

There are farmers (and I include women in that word) carrying sacks of fertilizer on their heads as they walk the dikes of the rice fields. We stop and watch one man spreading fertilizer by hand as he wades through the water flooded rice paddies. Far across the valley, we watch men driving a team of water buffalo plowing the rice fields on a mountain side. There are people holding rice plants which I assume will be planted as soon as the plowing is finished.

Plowing rice paddy with water buffalo

Plowing rice paddy with water buffalo

Four hours later, we are delighted to see Raj and the blue car. I admit I am really tired, hungry and thirsty (we ran out of water). Paul and I thank the young man for his time, and hand him the fee for the tour, also giving him extra rupees for a job well done. We climb into the car ready to return to St. Johns. There is an old woman walking down the road after we leave the main village, and Raj asks if it would be alright if we give her a ride. Raj visited with her earlier, and it seems she walks several kilometers, twice a day, to check on her cows. We agree, and the woman gladly accepts Rajs’ offer of a ride. We let the woman off a half mile up the road, where she now must cut through the countryside to reach her cows.

Jungle fowl

Jungle fowl

For lunch we have…Chicken curry! I’m not complaining as I have grown to like this meal, esp. after Anura taught us the correct way to consume curry. In fact I am so hungry that I continue to eat, long after Paul has finished. To end our midafternoon lunch our waiter brings out a scrumptious chocolate dessert. I am never to full to eat chocolate!

This afternoon, Paul and I lounge on the porch where we watch mongoose, birds, including a sunlit jungle fowl that runs across the yard, and we enjoy the scenic landscape. We are entertained by the playful interaction among a bull and one of the dogs (flea infested of course) that hang around St. Johns. The dog barks and jumps at the bull, which makes a half-hearted butt at his harasser. The black and white dog continues to bark and lunge at the old bull, until finally he has had enough. The bull charges the dog, who easily evades the attacking bull. When the bull ends his charge, he kicks up his heels proving that he wasn’t really serious about getting the dog anyway. The mock battle between bovine and canine make us laugh. I guess we are easily entertained.

Lunch time entertainment

Lunch time entertainment

Paul and I are treated to another beautiful sunrise this morning. It will be the last sunrise we watch at St. Johns since we are leaving this peaceful place after breakfast. We load our luggage and ourselves into the car, and thank the manager and the staff of one, for making our stay at St. Johns a pleasant one. Raj turns the car in the direction of Kandy and we drive up the steep mountain road. Once we make it to the top and start down the mountain, we suddenly find ourselves in tea country.

The women picking tea leaves here, have big cloth sacks hanging down their backs. The sacks are affixed to the women by a headband and they must reach over their shoulders to place the tea leaves into the long sacks. We stop to take photos at one field where many women are spread through the field plucking tea leaves. Although the women agree to let us take their pictures, one of them asks for money after we snap our photos. Paul hands over a 20 rupee note to her, and she seems to be satisfied with the few cents it is worth. Since we have taken lots of photos of Sri Lankans already and this is the first person to ask for money, I guess we can’t complain.

Plucking tea

Plucking tea

DSCF1398When we approach the city of Kandy, Raj thinks we should take a tour of a tea factory. We agree and he finds a tea factory along the highway. A sharp-looking fellow agrees to take us through the factory and our tour begins. Before we enter the working factory, we must remove our shoes, why I don’t know. Anyway, the man explains the many steps of processing tea, from drying to rolling to separating stem from leaves to sacking the leaves. It is an intensive process and certainly gives one more respect for all the manual and technical work that goes into producing a cup of tea.

Our guide through the tea factory

Our guide through the tea factory

After exiting the factory, we are ushered to the showroom, where a woman pours us a cup of tea. Raj is already seated at a table, reading a newspaper and drinking tea. The shop staff then asks if we care to purchase some tea, but since we don’t see anything but actual tea leaves, we say no thanks. As we are leaving, Raj asks why we didn’t buy tea. We explain that we only use tea bags and they don’t sell them. Raj insists they do and suggests we go back to purchase some. Hmm, well we agree, but about choke when we see the price affixed to a small box of teabags. The shop owner has single boxes and double boxes which he has laid out for us to look over. When I pick up one of the double boxes I see that it is the same price as the single box. We immediately hand it over to the salesman. He writes the ticket up and hands it to the woman who served us tea. Paul hands her the amount of rupees we owe but she keeps asking for more money. When Paul questions her as to why she needs more money, she glances at the ticket and gets a funny look on her face. The woman tells us that it is o.k. and we leave. Looks like someone messed up and put the wrong sticker on the double tea boxes! Tourist trap!!

We go through this same ritual at a spice garden. The tour of the garden was quite interesting as we learn from our guide about a variety of plant life such as vanilla, cloves and jasmine. At the end of the tour, our guide tries to get us to mark the items that are listed on an order sheet, which we would like to purchase. I point out that there are no prices listed next to the products. By the way, the products are all miracle cures for every malady you can imagine. He continues to encourage us to x our selections but we refuse to do so without knowing the prices. The man finally leads us into the store where the physical products are on display. The bottles are priced in the thousands of rupees. The cheapest product I looked at was 6,000 rupees which is around 50 bucks. We’re out of here. Tourist trap!!

Paul pays attention on the spice garden tour

Paul pays attention on the spice garden tour

Raj drives us through Kandy and finds a place to park near the Temple of the Tooth. Kandy is clogged with traffic, human and vehicles, plus it is smoggy. It just so happens that Raj has parked near a barbershop, and Paul has been talking about the need of a haircut. Raj goes in to inquire about the cost and comes out shaking his head. It seems that they want the unseemly sum of 600 rupees for doing a haircut! That is less than 5 dollars but Raj is appalled at the cost. He insists we will find a better price in a village on our way to Mas Villas.

Paul and I manage to cross two busy streets to the Temple of the Tooth.  We are not going inside the temple since this is a religious holiday and the place is packed with people. We are happy to walk the perimeter of the site and admire the grandeur of this famous temple from here. The temple houses a tooth from Buddha, so people go there to worship this sacred relic of Buddha. There is also a beautiful lake next to the temple that we stroll along for a while. We make it back to Raj and the car, ready to get out of the big city.

Temple of the Tooth

Temple of the Tooth

DSCF1417True to his word, Raj finds a barbershop in one of the many villages we pass through on our way to Mas Villas. Raj goes in to ask the cost of a haircut and returns with the news that a haircut is 200 rupees. We all walk into the salon, where the barber is ready to go to work on Paul. I am here to document Paul’s haircut with photos and it seems Raj is there to give the young barber directions on how to cut Paul’s hair. It really is hilarious and I’m sure the barber is glad to see us exit his shop. Paul throws in a 100 rupee tip which means the haircut cost $2.40! It’s a pretty good haircut too.

Pauls' "expensive" haircut

Pauls’ “expensive” haircut

As we pull into Mas Villas, there are three staff members waiting to greet us. There is always someone waiting for us on the steps of these resorts. How do they know when we are arriving? Anyway we get the usual heartfelt welcome, but here Paul and I are asked to participate in a tradition of each lighting a candle before we enter the building. Wow, this place is really beautiful and the landscape around it is gorgeous.

Mas Villas

Mas Villas

Next installment, Mas Villas and Nuwara Eliya

Dried fish anyone?

Dried fish anyone?

Vegetables for sale

Vegetables for sale

The congestion of Kandy. Couldn't leave quick enough!

The congestion of Kandy. Couldn’t leave quick enough!

 

 

 

 

Sigiriya and St. Johns Bungalow-part 8

Sigiriya and St. John’s Bungalow, part 8

Sigiriya or Lions Rock

Sigiriya or Lions Rock

This morning we get to sleep in as our alarm doesn’t ring until 5:45 a.m.:). Paul and I are out the door by 6:15, and when we arrive at the main building a few minutes later, Raj is waiting for us with the car. The management hands over two paper bags containing our breakfast, which we will eat at Sigiriya.

We arrive at Sigiriya before the gates open, which gives us time to eat breakfast. I’m not hungry so I just eat a banana. I step out of the car while Paul finishes eating, but immediately two flea-bitten dogs appear at my feet, so I get back into the vehicle. Raj has gone to buy our tickets and on his return, he hands the slips of paper to us. Raj gives us instructions that when we leave the site, we must find the exit that leads to the car park, where he will be waiting for us.

There are a few tourists here at this hour, but if what Paul has researched on Trip Advisor is true; the tour buses will arrive at 9 a.m. and begin disgorging loads of people. We intend to be off Lion Rock (another name for Sigiriya) by then! We climb the first of many steps we will encounter this morning, and arrive at the water gardens. Looking over the sprawling ruins of these gardens, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how spectacular they would have been in their day.

Part of the ancient water gardens

Part of the ancient water gardens

We climb more steps to reach the boulder gardens. It’s not hard to see where this name comes from as there are big boulders laying over this part of the park. It is in the boulder garden where we take the steps that begin our climb to the top of Sigiriya. Huffing and puffing, we come to an enclosed, metal, spiral staircase that leads to a small cave. On the walls of this cave are the paintings of twenty- one, voluptuous, bare-breasted, women. The paintings were created in the 5th century so the fact that the art is so well-preserved is amazing. Most experts of ancient art have concluded that these women depict celestial goddesses. Or it could be an ancient version of Playboy:).

Sigiriya Damsels

Sigiriya Damsels

As we are starting to go back down the spiral stairs, a Sri Lankan man tries to hand me a bunch of keys, and says something I don’t understand. I shake my head and walk on, but then he hands the keys to Paul and points to a man standing at the bottom of the spiral staircase. Oh, the light goes on, he wants us to deliver the keys to his buddy. Paul takes them and when we reach the bottom of the stairs, Paul hands the keys to the worker, who thanks Paul. Paul holds his hand out to the man and says “tip please”, which makes the fellow erupt in laughter (as do I). As we walk away we can still hear the guy chuckling at Paul’s joke.

Here is a quick version of the two theories about Sigiriya. One story revolves around a power struggle for the kingdom. The King hands his throne to one of two sons. The rejected son kills his father, and overthrows his brother. The traitorous son builds a fortress on top of this mountain because he knows his brother will come to try to take his rightful place on the throne. His brother comes back to regain his inheritance, and when it appears that the bad son’s forces are losing the war, he commits suicide. So the rightful heir wins in the end. The other theory is that this place has been a Buddhist monastery since the 3rd century and was always a peaceful, serene place. I like the second theory better!

The Lions' feet

The Lions’ feet

A walkway with a gradual incline, winds along the cliff face and leads us to the carved Lions feet, which is where the name Lion Mountain or Rock came from. Here the staircases are bolted to the rock, which is actually a volcanic magna plug. These stairs lead to the top of Sigiriya. Paul and I take a few photos before we begin the ascent to the flat-topped mountain. Basically, we are just walking on the side of this volcanic rock, but since there are sides and rails to hang on to, it doesn’t bother me. Paul, who is afraid of heights, seems to be doing fine too. Paul and I both take advantage of the small rest platforms that are placed randomly along the way, so we can catch our breath. Whew, it is steep, but what a view!

Paul on the steep steps that lead to the top of Sigiriya

Paul on the steep steps that lead to the top of Sigiriya

When we reach the top of Sigiriya, Paul and I are surprised to see that the surface area is smaller than we imagined. Still, the view up here is stunning, plus the audacity of people building on the top of this volcanic rock sure have my respect! There is hardly anything left of the palace that was constructed atop the high point of Sigiriya. Below the palace area is a beautiful bathing pool still full of water. I halfway expect to see the ancient dwellers of this enchanting place to appear and wade into the greenish water. There are other terraced areas that I assume were used to grow food along the perimeter of Sigiriya.

The beautiful bathing pool

The beautiful bathing pool

Far below us, Paul and I can see the main path of the water garden, and it is becoming clogged with humans. When we walked that path two hours ago there might have been a dozen tourists. It is time to make our way back down this mountain! It takes us a while to figure out that we must go back down on the same stairs we came up. There is a short stretch where there is an up and a down stairway, but soon climbers and descenders are using the same stairs. I manage to get down to the Lions Feet without meeting too many people thank goodness, as there really isn’t room for double occupancy. Paul must wait on one of the rest platforms for one large, slow group to get by him. Still, it could have been worse as the crowd on the grounds below is growing larger. Another smart move in arriving early is that it is barely mid-morning, and the temperature is rising rapidly, making us sweat profusely.

A view from the top of Sigiriya

A view from the top of Sigiriya

Again, Paul and I are at a loss on how we exit the plateau where the lion’s feet are. There is a guide with two clients who are heading down, so we just follow them. It is a good thing we did, as there was no sign pointing out the path back to the boulder gardens. When we get to the boulder garden, we see a sign that says “to car park”, but the arrow seems to be ambivalent as to where the path is. We ask the guide we have been shadowing for directions, and he advises us to follow his group again. The path makes several twists and turns before we finally see the parking lot we are seeking. Paul tries to give the kindly guide a tip for leading us out of Sigiriya but he refuses to take it, insisting that it was his pleasure to help us. How nice was that!

Another interesting thing we saw in leaving Sigiriya, were the young girls raking leaves and debris that had accumulated overnight. These lovely girls are wearing dresses, for crying out loud, while they rake debris off the ground but they also are raking up anything that is laying on the numerous rocks and ledges. The cute girl who posed for my photo has bad luck minutes later, when a darned macaque monkey rips open her lunch sack and steals part of her food. Rotten monkeys.

Young girl whose lunch was pilfered by a monkey

Young girl whose lunch was pilfered by a monkey

The parking lot is packed but we find Raj without wandering around too long. On our way back to Wild Grass resort, Raj stops at a woman’s house and she gives us a demonstration on pounding rice, making rice milk, and grating coconut. We tour the very modest home and I am appalled when we tour the kitchen. It is dark, crowded and primitive; I can’t imagine having to cook in a room like this. The good news is that this family is in the process of building a new home. I wonder if the tip money we and other tourists give the woman for her home tours are helping to build this new home.

Making rice milk

Making rice milk

Paul and I return to our chalet, where Paul writes reviews on trip advisor and I wash out our sweat soaked shirts. We have a late lunch at Wild Grass of chicken curry, which is delicious. Later we visit the pool, where Paul swims a few laps and I dangle my feet into the cool water.

After we return to the room, we decide to explore the grounds of Wild Grass. As we are exiting our driveway, we meet a young Frenchmen, who asks if we are going on the bird watching tour. We reply that we didn’t know there was one. He informs us that after the bird walk, the guide will take us up on the rock behind Wild Grass to watch the sunset. This sounds great, so we decide to see if we can join in on the fun. The guide from Wild Grass agrees to take us along, and the four of us start off down the road.

Boys stop working to pose for Paul

Boys stop working to pose for Paul

Our first stop, at what appears to be an abandoned homestead, shows great promise when the guide points out Sri Lankan green pigeons, rose-ringed parakeets, and a Sri Lankan Grey Hornbill! As we are trying to get a closer look at the Hornbill, a series of what sounds like gunshots, ricochet through the air. My hands fly involuntarily to my chest, and I step behind our guide, like that would do any good. As the birds fly away in a panic, our guide mutters, “This is very bad”. He tells us someone is trying to scare monkeys out of their crops by shooting off firecrackers and this is very bad for bird watching. No kidding, it’s also bad for my heart which is racing.

The rest of our long walk is calm and serene. I am able to add several new birds to my bird list. Our guide will walk into people’s yards to scout for birds and the owners seem to have no problem with our intrusion into their private property. We also wander through gardens, where he shows us different crops people are growing. The tomatoes in particular intrigue me as the plants are growing so close together and the plants are loaded with clusters of tomatoes.

We reach the volcanic rock that we are climbing to watch the sunset. Yikes, the way up is steep and the surface to smooth for my taste. Our guide advises that we should walk sideways instead of straight up this black rock. When we come to one particularly sheer part in our climb, the guide offers me his arm and I gladly take it. The idea of a misstep that could result in a fall down this big boulder doesn’t hold much appeal for me.

Sigiriya in a distance seen from the top of the rock we climbed

Sigiriya in a distance seen from the top of the rock we climbed

When we reach the summit, the 360 degree view proves to be worth the climb. Sigiriya is in the distance, and lakes and mountains can be seen in other directions. After soaking up the scenery, I announce to Paul that I am going back down before the sunset. There is no way I am walking down this black rock in the dark with only a flashlight to guide me. Paul agrees and we start back down, telling the guide and the Frenchman, we will wait for them at the bottom. I must say, short stepping back down that giant boulder was much scarier than going up. Paul seemed to get along fine but there were a couple of times I nearly lost my nerve. In one place I was on all fours, and walked crab-like down a particularly steep area. Sigiriya was a piece of cake compared to this place!

It is steeper than it looks!

It is steeper than it looks!

We have to leave Wild Grass Resort this morning and I must say I am sad to go. I really loved this place. After the typical breakfast of eggs, fruit, and toast, we wave goodbye to the staff and Raj prepares to drive us to St. John’s Bungalow.

Our journey to St. Johns takes four hours, but we have some distractions along the way. I notice a native couple that have stopped their motorcycle along the road, and are gazing at the river. When I check the area where they are looking, there is a huge crocodile sunning itself on a sand bar.

This croc looks well fed

This croc looks well fed

We stop in a small village where Paul and Raj buy beer at the liquor store. Paul and I walk to a little cubby hole of a place and buy bread. The woman wraps our purchases in newspaper and places them in a plastic sack. I’m fairly sure with the stares we get that the owners aren’t used to tourists buying food at their store. The fresh-baked bread costs just a few cents and I don’t see how anyone can make a living charging such low prices.

Paul buying bread for our supper

Paul buying bread for our supper

Raj has never been to St. Johns Bungalow and there are no signs pointing the way, so Raj will drive up to a house and honk his horn. If someone is home they will come out and he will ask directions to St. Johns. I find honking outside a stranger’s home, who then seems happy to help you out, quite amazing.

Stopping to ask directions

Stopping to ask directions

The last part of our drive involves a rough, narrow, and curvy road as we enter the mountain country. I never get motion sickness but today I feel a bit queasy, as we twist and turn on the mountain road. We finally arrive at the old tea plantation house which must have been a show place in its day. The house is nestled near a huge bluff which overlooks a valley. There is a range of mountains in the distance. When we step out of our room, this lovely landscape is our reward.

St. Johns Bungalow

St. Johns Bungalow

After we settle into our room, we explore the grounds around the old plantation house. Raj then drives us up the highway a few miles to a country road. We need to walk after that long drive, and we want to explore a bit. When we return to St. Johns we are served high tea on the terrace. There are two black bulls on the lawn that provide us some entertainment while we are sipping tea and eating some excellent cake.

Walking a country road

Walking a country road

Another couple from Great Britain arrives and joins us for tea. They are quite the travelers and we are entertained with stories about some of their adventures. When we return to our room, there is a big spider on the wall by my suitcase. I call Paul who dispatches the unwelcome guest. As I am taking my shower, I see another spider lurking on the shower wall. Paul comes to my rescue again. I really hate spiders in my rooms so I hope that is the last of the creepy, crawly things.

Next Installment, village tour and Mas Villas

women often used umbrellas while walking to shield themselves from the sun

women often used umbrellas while walking to shield themselves from the sun

People had such warm smiles

People had such warm smiles

Doing laundry in the river

Doing laundry in the river

 

Minneriya and Polonnaruwa, part 7

That darn alarm clock goes off at 4:30 this morning, and I  wonder if we shouldn’t have listened to Raj when he advised us it would be better to take the afternoon safari in Minneriya. Naw, getting places early means you will beat the throngs of tourists who laze around in bed, and come to the sites at a sensible hour. I’d rather stumble around before dawn, putting my shirt on inside out, than compete with dozens of vehicles full of tourists. Seriously, I am all for getting to sites as soon as they are open for business.

Raj drives us to the company headquarters, that will be guiding us on our safari this morning. Raj must honk the horn a few times outside the wooden gate, before a young man runs out to unlock and open the gate, allowing us to drive onto the property. Paul and I jump into the back of the open top jeep where I manage to crack my head on the iron frame that holds the canvas roof in place. Ouch, at least I’m awake now.

Sunrise in Minneriya, photo by Paul

Sunrise in Minneriya, photo by Paul

When we reach the headquarters of Minneriya National Park, we note with satisfaction there is no other safari vehicle in the parking lot. There also are no lights on in the main building. Our young driver disappears and eventually returns with our tracker, a very small man who doesn’t speak a word of English. The dawn is just beginning to break when we drive into Minneriya.

As in Wilpattu, we are driving dirt roads with thick forest on either side. We haven’t gone far when the jeep comes to a halt. Our driver points out two huge elephants among the trees, browsing on the vegetation. He tells us that we are lucky to see elephants as normally they only see the beasts on their afternoon game drives! Here I thought Raj just didn’t want to get up this early. As we watch the elephants in the dim light the trumpet of an elephant rings through the air. Our two guides seem to be quite excited on hearing this elephant announcement, so off we go in search of the trumpeter. We hear the elephant give a loud blast of sound one more time, which sends us off in another direction, but we never find the noisy pachyderm.

I soon forget the elephants, when we approach the enormous lake in the park. There are an insane number of water birds. We drive by a small pool of water where the painted storks, spoonbills, and egrets all vie for a spot in the water. The Malayan Night Herons are roosting for the day, landing in leafy bushes that grow from the bank of the creek. I quit counting at fifty birds. Holy Smokes! As we near the edge of the lake, the sun is coming up giving us a beautiful sunrise to watch. In the distance is a large herd of water buffalo, which our driver points out to us, but he has no intention of driving near the herd. He tells us that water buffalo are very mean and will charge a vehicle without warning. No problem I can see them through the binoculars.

Painted Storks, Spoonbills and Egrets

Painted Storks, Spoonbills and Egrets

Later in the morning we reach the area where tourists can disembark from the vehicles, and we are ready to eat our breakfast. Our driver hands us two parcels of food, and when we open the boxes, Paul and I just shake our heads. The boiled eggs, sandwiches, fruits, etc. in one box is enough food for both of us. I stand up, call out to our guides who are walking away, and offer them the second plate of food. Our driver shakes his head no, but the tracker has no qualms about accepting the breakfast plate.  I’m fairly sure that the food was divvied up with some guides whose tourists are eating here too. The only problem with the parks “walk around zone” is there are no restrooms. Paul stands guard as I visit the “designated bathroom” area in the middle of a clump of trees. Oh well, it’s not like I haven’t been in these conditions numerous times on other trips.

After breakfast we walk along the edge of the lake where we watch a langur monkey sitting in a tree, who stares at us just as curiously. These monkeys are much more appealing, in my opinion, than the macaque monkeys. First of all, the langurs aren’t aggressive, and secondly their features are more interesting. We observe some colorful sunbirds sipping nectar among the wildflowers too.

Hanuman Langur, She obviously has a baby somewhere

Hanuman Langur, She obviously has a baby somewhere

Once we are back in the jeep, we continue driving around the lake. We see a Brahminy Kite sitting in a dead tree, a big fish gripped in his talons. The kite hoists itself into the air as we draw near, and somehow manages to fly, while carrying that large fish. Our driver spots a chameleon on the trunk of a tree. We watch the dull-witted appearing creature, occasionally eat an ant that is crawling under its nose. A mongoose, with a baby that presses tight to mom’s side, is walking in the road. The mother mongoose occasionally stands on her hind legs scouting for danger. For some reason the sight of the vulnerable baby mongoose really touches me, esp. considering all the raptors we have seen this morning. Good luck little guy!

Mongoose and baby

Mongoose and baby

A cantankerous water buffalo is coming to drink at the lake, and although our driver stops the vehicle, he never turns the motor off. The bull stops every few steps, paws the ground, and throws his head from side to side. The ill-tempered buffalo looks our direction several times, but finally continues to the lake, and wades into the water. The silhouette of the water buffalo, lake, and the mountains which are shrouded in a haze, makes for a beautiful sight.

Beautiful image of Minniriya

Beautiful image of Minniriya

As we start back through the jungle, our tracker, using the small stone he carries in his hand, raps on the metal frame of the truck bed roof. This sound carries up to the driver who quickly comes to a halt. Just an aside to this story, the tracker would often bang the rock on the metal even though our driver had seen the animal/bird and had already stopped the truck. Paul and I found this hilarious. Anyway, this time our guide has spotted some purple-faced monkeys, rare and tough to see, in the treetops. I barely caught a glimpse of the secretive primates before they disappeared into the jungle, so I can’t claim I really saw the monkey’s clearly.

It is time to head back to the headquarters but on our way we come across a group of elephants feeding in the thick understory. The herd consists of six elephants which includes two youngsters. We hear  but don’t see, more elephants feeding all around in the jungle. The crack of the limbs or small trees they are breaking down sound like rifle shots. We sit and watch the small group of elephants for some time in hopes they will cross the road in front of us, but they never do. We do catch a glimpse of one of the youngsters as he steps into the gap between two trees to take a look at us.

Baby elephant taking a look at us

Baby elephant taking a look at us

It seems the morning is gone already so we must leave Minneriya and all its beauty. I must comment on the enthusiasm of our driver whose name I can’t recall. I usually am the one to ooh and ahh over a colorful bird or about any wild thing as far as that goes. On our safari today, this young man often beat me to voicing these admiring sound as we observe wildlife. He would be oohing over bee eaters or kingfisher’s right along with me, so we made quite a duo. I hope he continues to be awed every day by the wonderful wildlife he gets to experience in his work.

We find a bored Raj waiting for us when we return to the safari tour headquarters. Raj now will transport us to Polonnaruwa, a 10th century ruin, which is also a Unesco Word Heritage Site. These ruins sprawl over a large area so Raj must drive us from place to place. Raj accompanies us at our first stop, but after that he opts to stay with the car. The ruins are magnificent, and as always, I am at a loss to imagine how the people built such structures in these ancient times.

Walls of the Royal Palace

Walls of the Royal Palace

Paul inspecting the remnants of a building in Polonnaruwa

Paul inspecting the remnants of a building in Polonnaruwa

Old man and some ruins in Polonnaruwa

Old man and some ruins in Polonnaruwa

I won’t even try to describe the ruins we saw including palaces, temples, stupas, a hospital, and countless other structures. Many are being restored, some only have walls or pillars left standing, but they were still inspiring to see. Paul and I just wander among the ancient ruins soaking it all in.

My favorite site in Polonnaruwa was Gal Vihara, where larger than life statues of Buddha are carved out of stone. The Buddha’s are all carved out of one rock ledge which makes the site even more spectacular. The natural hues in the rock add to the beauty of the sculptures. To put the statues in perspective the sitting Buddha is 15 feet high, the standing Buddha is 23 feet tall, and the reclining Buddha is 43 foot long. There is also a cave carved into the rock, where a Buddha sits on a throne. Standing there, gazing at these works of art made me feel quite humble.

Larger than life, sitting Buddha. Notice the veins of color. Pauls' photo

Larger than life, sitting Buddha. Notice the veins of color. Pauls’ photo

It is midafternoon, very hot and we haven’t eaten lunch yet. We make our way back to Raj and the car, ready to leave the ancient city behind. Raj pointed out the restaurant we are going to dine at this morning while we were driving to the ruins. The highway has plenty of traffic and I try not to watch as the two land road often becomes a three lane road. Drivers who want to pass a slower vehicle,  just go ahead and do so, regardless if another car is approaching. The two legal cars move over , while the passing vehicle continues down the middle of the road, until they can move back into their real lane. Geez Louise! I am better at handling this than I was a few days ago but still a gasp will escape my lips now and then.

Raj begins to slow the car down and I see the ox cart that sets in front of the restaurant we are dining at. I lean over to gather my camera and purse, as Raj begins to turn the car into the entrance. Suddenly, Raj slams on his brakes and I hear a soft thud. When I look up, I see two men leaning against the front of the car. The older man is wearing a gray hat with ear flaps that is now slightly askew on his head. The driver has a scarf wrapped, turban style around his head, and he is glaring at us through the windshield. It suddenly dawns on me that they are astride a motorcycle , and we have run into them.

Raj gets out of the car, and we are wondering what to do. We were turning across traffic, so our car is blocking the oncoming lane of traffic, while the rear end of the car is protruding part way into the other lane. I want the heck out of the car, but am nervous about stepping onto the highway. Pedestrians don’t get much respect in Sri Lanka.

A group of people soon assemble and help the two riders off the cycle, then roll the ancient machine away from our car. This allows Raj to drive into the restaurant lot and park. I assume that Raj will go back and talk with the motorcycle men, who appear to be fine, but he doesn’t. Raj inspects the area on the front bumper where we collided with the cycle, which is now scraped free of paint. There seems to be no other damage to his car which is good, but his disregard for the two men bothers me.

An excited Raj tells Paul that he had his turn signal on, and asks Paul if he noticed that he had used his blinker. Paul answers in the affirmative, figuring this is not the time to point out to Raj, that he turned across traffic in front of those poor fellows. No policemen are called, so Paul and I assume neither party involved in the accident, wants to deal with the authorities. As we walk to the restaurant, I glance back to see the two men climb on the cycle, and drive off. I think my heart continued to pound all through lunch after this little incident!

Quiet scene from Minneriya to end this story

Quiet scene from Minneriya to end this story

Returning to Wild Grass was just what the doctor ordered. We relax on our patio and consume our supper of bread, cheese, Pringle’s, and beer. Even now, I can clearly see that little old man, in his rearranged hat, peering with bewilderment at us.

Next installment Sigiriya and St. John’s Bungalow.

This Lesser Adjutant is runner up to the Marabou stork for the ugliest bird I have ever seen

This Lesser Adjutant is runner up to the Marabou stork for the ugliest bird I have ever seen

Huge stupa in Polonnaruwa

Huge stupa in Polonnaruwa

I think this Macaque monkey needs sunblock

I think this Macaque monkey needs sunblock

WilPattu and Dambulla Cave Temples

Wilpattu, Dambulla caves and Wild grass resort, part 6

    

Preparing string hoppers

Preparing string hoppers

When we return from our all day safari, tired but happy, we are informed that tonight we will have hoppers prepared at our table, which we will eat with a variety of traditional foods. We are given a short time to clean up, (at least our shower is luke warm tonight), and before our dinner show begins. Anura the manager will dine with us to show us how to eat the food properly.

    The array of food is overwhelming but the cooking of the hoppers is fascinating. There is also a bonfire flaming in the fire pit below the kitchen, which adds to the atmosphere. Anura takes a helping from each dish of food and places it on his plate.  Anura tears off a piece of a  hopper and uses the thin crepe to pick up a small portion of everything on his plate. This blends the sweet, spicy and in-between foods, so a bite of one food alone doesn’t overwhelm your taste buds. I find that this is a great way to minimize the fiery spice of the curry and I like it!  Paul and I opt to use utensils, though Anura eats his food with his left hand. It was a delicious, fun meal, but boy were we ready to fall into bed as soon as our guests left.

     This morning begins like yesterday morning. Our alarm rings at 4:30, at five a.m. the bugler at the army base, which is on the edge of the village, plays reveille, and we drink tea while the Buddhist monks chant fills the air. We take our luggage with us this morning, as Raj will pick us up at the small village, when our safari ends.

    As we drive to Wilpattu, we see school children dressed in white uniforms, lined up along the road at 6:15! Evidently, the nearest school is quite a distance away, thus the early pickup for school.

     We enter the park at dawn and like yesterday, we are the only vehicle here at this hour. I have no expectations for this morning’s safari after our stellar sightings yesterday. We still see plenty of wildlife, including a jackal, spotted deer, a barking deer, more turtles, tortoise and terrapins. There are the usual bird sightings but this morning we are entertained by a female painted stork. The large stork raises her wings and does a bird’s version of a model walking the runway, stalking back and forth in front of her mate. The male stork pays absolutely no attention to his flirtatious mate. This doesn’t seem to bother the strutting female, because she continues her feather dance as we drive away.

Painted stork preparing to strut her stuff

Painted stork preparing to strut her stuff

   We also see two “wild boar sows” with approximately 20 half-grown piglets accompanying them. The porkers ran for the trees as soon as we drew near, except for one youngster. I think to myself, if this pig doesn’t wise up soon, he will become a tasty meal for a leopard.

    As we make our way back to the gate we meet a half dozen safari trucks filled with school boys decked out in their white uniforms. They act like typical preteen boys do; waving, chattering and some even take photos of Paul and me. We return their waves and take our own photos, which makes the boys act even sillier.

School boys on safari

School boys on safari

     When we reach the village, we see Raj standing next to his parked car, so Lahiru parks the truck beside him.  As we prepare to leave, we give Lahiru and Saran a nice tip for their terrific guiding and for taking such good care of us. They certainly earned these rupees! Saran tells Paul and me that he is so glad he met us, because the two of us really enjoy the wildlife, and we show it with our smiles. He pantomimes to us how some of his clients don’t even react when they see a leopard. Saran makes his face go blank and his lips are unsmiling, showing us a face of someone who is bored. Well, that is sad! We say goodbye to these awesome young men and turn to wave exuberantly to them as we drive away 

     Today, the opposition political party is demonstrating against the ruling party of Sri Lanka. Strikers have shut down the main road to Dambulla to show their disapproval with the leaders of this island.  While Raj is not happy with the detour he must drive, we are delighted with this “inconvenience”. The alternate route is a lovely, tree-shaded road almost devoid of traffic. There is a variety of vegetable crops being cultivated along the road, including sweet corn, tomatoes, varieties of squash, and so on. 

Man selling fish along our alternate route

Man selling fish along our alternate route

    We do pass small trucks, packed with sacks of harvested vegetables, along with a few humans crowded in among the load. When we reach the city of Dambulla, we pass by the huge vegetable warehouse that is the farmer’s destination. The grounds are full of a variety of vehicles from tractors pulling wagons to various sizes of trucks all overloaded with bags of produce. The farmers are selling their crops here, and the goods are then loaded onto semis to be transported elsewhere.

Dambulla Vegetable market

Dambulla Vegetable market

    When we arrive at Dambulla Cave Temple, the sun is beating down and it is hot. Raj hands us our tickets and we make our way to the entrance. We have been so spoiled up to this point with the absence of vendors trying to sell souvenirs to tourists, that we forgot how annoying it can be. Thankfully, the Sri Lankan people aren’t very aggressive, and when we shake our head no at maps, postcards, carvings, and other odds and ends, they leave us alone.

Façade of Dambulla Cave Temples

Façade of Dambulla Cave Temples

     After an uphill walk to reach the famous caves, we must leave our shoes outside with a man who places them on a shelf, in order to enter this holy place dedicated to the Lord Buddha. This shoe check is done on the honor system, with the owners just identifying their foot wear when they leave the temple. I am so thankful I have thick hiking socks on as the pavement is hot! I can feel the heat seeping through my socks, and I don’t know how some of the tourists are managing in bare feet. There are macaque monkeys everywhere, and since they have lost their fear of humans, we keep an eye on the aggressive primates.

    The Dambulla Cave Temple consists of five caves dedicated to Lord Buddha, created over a timeline starting in the first century B.C., by a King with a really long name! Over the centuries there have been additions to and restoration done in the caves. Paul and I wander through the caves and see reclining Buddha’s, the longest one is 43 feet, seated Buddhas, standing Buddhas, along with murals that completely cover the walls and roofs of the caves. It really is mind-boggling esp. when you realize all but the Buddhas in cave five, are carved out of granite rock! The Dambulla Cave Temple is a world heritage site, and also a part of what is referred to as the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka.

Standing Bhudda's. Notice the painted ceiling of the cave

Standing Bhudda’s. Notice the painted ceiling of the cave

    Many people buy lotus flowers to place next to which ever Buddhist statue strikes their fancy, though most folks seem to offer them to the 43 foot reclining Buddha. Often, the flowers have hardly been laid down, when the Macaque monkeys, nicknamed temple monkeys, rush in and begin to devour the flowers on the spot. Sometimes we must wait until a group of monkeys vacate the entrances into the caves before we can enter. The pesky beggars were always snarling at one another and at one time a fight broke out as two monkeys grabbed the same flower. I wouldn’t have wanted to be near that melee, as the monkeys have some nasty canines.

      I didn’t know whether to laugh or cheer as a caretaker tried to evict a monkey from one of the caves. The man is chasing the thieving monkey, holding a stick with both hands. He has his crude weapon raised over his head, and there is an angry expression on his face. The staff member doesn’t have a chance at catching the monkey, but I give him credit for trying. There is some irony in this scenario happening in a place dedicated to Buddha, who believed in not harming any life.

Reclining Bhudda

Reclining Bhudda

     Hot footing it out of the temple area, we retrieve our shoes; make our way back through the vendors. and out the gate. Three beggars follow us to the car which is parked just yards away from the entrance gate. We ignore them, which is hard to do, (though we do give to some beggars throughout the trip), but you can’t give to every beggar you encounter. Raj tells us at one point that some of the beggars are fakes, but it is obvious, most are either physically impaired and/or destitute.

     Raj points the car in the direction of Wild Grass Resort which is on the outskirts of the city. We turn onto a rough, narrow, dirt road, and arrive a few minutes later at our destination. There are three staff members waiting on the steps of the headquarters, as Raj brings the car to a stop. A young man loads our luggage into a wheelbarrow for transport to our room. We are handed hot towels, which we gladly use, after our sweaty visit to Dambulla caves. Paul and I are given a drink that I think is coffee mixed into cold milk. It tastes great but I don’t drink much of it, as I know it will keep me from sleeping tonight. The manager than asks us if it is o.k. if he upgrades us from our reservation, which was the modest chalet with twin beds, to a chalet that normally houses a family. Sure, we say, that sounds great.

    DSCF1009 Paul and I traipse after Anil, who is pushing the wheelbarrow of luggage. We pass by a beautiful pool, and the cut off paths that lead to other chalets. When we walk down the lane that leads to our chalet, I blurt out, “my gosh, it’s a house”!

What a gorgeous place this is, surrounded by trees, tall decorative grass, and a view of a lake that is only a short walk away. Anil tells us we can choose to stay on the ground floor or on the second floor.

     We walk through the door and the living room walls are glass from floor to ceiling. We take a tour of the downstairs bedroom and bathroom with its outside shower. I say this will do. Paul thinks we should look at the upstairs first.

     We walk up the stairs and enter the bedroom which is the same floor to ceiling glass walls, there is a nice balcony adjoining the bedroom. The dressing room is huge, with a sink and vanity, wardrobe and plenty of benches to set your luggage on. The shower is roofless which seems to be the in thing at these resorts. This is great! We tell Anil, we will stay up here, which means he has to carry that heavy duffel up the steps, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

View from our bedroom at Wild Grass Resort

View from our bedroom at Wild Grass Resort

    Later, on that evening, I begin to worry that maybe this isn’t a free upgrade. I mull over the way the manager worded the question about changing rooms, basically getting us to agree to the upgrade. I tell Paul I hope we aren’t paying for the difference in the price of the rooms. Paul isn’t worried but I insist that we find out tomorrow. Paul goes on the internet to see what the price difference in the rooms is and the cost is nearly double. Yikes! In the end my worries were unwarranted as it was indeed a perk in our favor.

   We end this day doing laundry by hand, and hanging it out to dry on a back balcony, that is connected to the dressing room. After finishing this chore, we enjoy a beer, bread, cheese, and Pringle’s that we bought at a small super market in Dambulla. We eat our supper on the balcony enjoying the sound of the chanting of Buddhist monks.

    They have laid out Wild Grass Resort so you have the sense that you are the only people on the property. Our neighbors that we have seen so far are myna birds, egrets and herons flying over the lake, and a gecko that is residing in the rafters of our ceiling. I think we are going to like it here!

    Next episode, Minneriya safari and ruins. Nancy

Paul being silly

Paul being silly

No missing places that sell ice cream.  I found the contrast of the giant cone and the beautiful model interesting.

No missing places that sell ice cream. I found the contrast of the giant cone and the beautiful model interesting.

Can you find the barking deer. You can see how tough it is to spot animals in this understory

Can you find the barking deer. You can see how tough it is to spot animals in this understory

   

   

 

    

    

    

 

   

   

    

Wilpattu, all day safari, 5

Wilpattu day safari, part 5

      Our alarm dutifully rings at 4:30 a.m., and I scramble out of the warm bed into the chilly morning air. I flip on a couple of solar/battery-powered lights, and hustle into the clothes I laid out last night. I pull a fleece jacket on and then wash my face with cold water. Yikes, that will wake you up in a hurry. Paul is dressed in short order too, and we wait for Indika to arrive with tea. He is fifteen

Beautiful light in Wipattu National Park

Beautiful light in Wipattu National Park

minutes late so we hurriedly slurp our tea,  to the chant of Buddhist monks broadcast over a loudspeaker, from the village below Palpatha.

     Paul and I follow Indika, who uses a lantern to illuminate our path, as we walk to headquarters. Saran and Lahiru are waiting by the truck to greet us. We climb aboard and Saran drops a piece of heavy plastic down between the cab and the bed of the truck. Thank goodness for that, as I wasn’t looking forward to a windswept ride on this cool morning. We arrive at the park just as a hint of light is showing in the east. Once again the proverbial paper work must e filled out. The good news is that there are no other safari vehicles in sight. There also is no one manning the gate, so Saran must run back to the office to get the key. Saran returns with the key, along with a smile on his pleasant face. He pulls the gate open as the sun throws a red cast along the horizon.

     We are trundling down the same road as yesterday, and the area is in deep gloom as the sunlight has yet to penetrate the forest. I’m not even looking into the undergrowth because it is just so dark in there. Lahiru stops and says something to Saran. Saran, in turn, tells us that there is an Oriental Scops Owl perched in a tree. With pointing and explaining, we finally make out the dim outline of the owl. Good grief, how the heck did our driver see that bird, in the dark, while driving?

    Shafts of light begin to penetrate the forest, turning the landscape into a subject for a Kinkaid painting. To make it even more magical, there is no one around but us. We drive over the dam of a tank (pond) and see very fresh elephant poo, but no elephants. They must have heard us coming and took cover in the forest. We continue on our wildlife quest, and are rewarded minutes later when we see a robust, jackal standing in a grassy patch near the road. As the healthy canine pauses to take a look at us, the early morning sun makes his thick fur glow, adding to the surreal feel of the morning.DSCF0650

   The word Wilpattu means the land of lakes, and we arrive at one of these natural lakes at the edge of the forest. This lake, like the lake we visited yesterday, and all the other lakes we will see, is teeming with birds. This morning, besides watching the myriad of water birds, we are entertained by three Green Bee-Eaters. The trio is having a quarrel over something, a female or territory, I suppose. The winged jewels, fly about chasing and fussing at one another, and then come sit on the ground next to our truck. Once they are rested, they square off again, but eventually two persevere.  When the loser vacates the premises, the winning pair poses for a victory photo.

Victorious Green Beeeaters

Victorious Green Beeeaters

     We drive along the lake, until we reach the designated area where people are allowed to step out of their vehicles. There is also a restroom, thank goodness, and I don’t even care that it is a long drop! There are two other safari groups having breakfast, as we will soon be doing too. Saran and Lahiru, find a wooden bench to use as a table and bring a couple of containers of food from the truck. There is fruit and some type of grain cake (I can’t even find anything to compare it with), which is wrapped in huge leaves instead of plastic. The mealy cake is tasty but as usual there is way more food than Paul and I can eat. We tell our guides to help themselves, but they will not eat until we are finished.

     We also have other creatures eyeing our breakfast. A troop of Toque Macaque monkeys are scrambling around in the trees above us and the other diners. Paul and I put the lids back on the containers and make sure we are not standing directly under any branches where the uninvited guests are hanging out. All the guides keep an eye on the monkeys, and occasionally a yell or a well aimed stick, thwarts a would-be thief that makes a dash towards someone’s food.

Macaque Monkey with checks stuffed full of food.

Macaque Monkey with checks stuffed full of food.

    We walk down to the lake when we finish breakfast. We can’t go far but it sure feels good to stretch our legs. Saran points out a pair of soaring, white-bellied sea eagles, and identifies a Sri Lanka grey hornbill by its goat-like call. I would love to actually see that bird. We climb back in our safari truck and drive down the sandy road to see what we can see.

    We have been up and down various roads, stopped at more lakes, until I am so turned around that for all I know we may be going in circles. We see plenty of spotted deer, birds galore, and some wild boar tilling up the ground. As we approach the noon hour we are driving down a shady road in the forest. Paul and I are peering into the scrub when Saran calls out “leopard”. Sure enough, a short distance ahead of us is a large leopard walking in the road. I am so impressed when Lahiru doesn’t gun the motor and try to catch up with the big cat. We follow along, keeping a respectful distance until the leopard has had enough of us, and leisurely walks into the forest.

Gorgeous Leopardess

Gorgeous Leopardess

    Once the animal leaves the road, Lahiru speeds up until we reach the approximate spot where the leopard left the road. He continues driving down the road several yards, then he kills the engine, and we sit in complete silence. After a few minutes, Saran leans forward, cupping his ears. He sits like this for a while, then whispers, I hear her. Is he serious or pulling our leg? We sit as Saran concentrates, and then he says, she is coming (they determined it was a leopardess somehow). Saran is now staring into the jungle, as are we. Pretty soon, he hisses, “there she is”. Sure enough we watch as the leopardess glides into view for a brief moment before she disappears into thicker cover. Holy Moly and I was feeling smug for spotting a wild boar. How do you “hear” a cat walking in a forest! To say we were blown away is putting it mildly. Did I mention that there are big smiles on all our faces after encountering the leopard?

     It is time to eat lunch, so we drive back to the lake where we ate breakfast. There are five or six vehicles here, and the few places set up for dining are full. Saran pulls two chairs out of the truck for us, and Lahiru sets our lunch on the vehicles tailgate. Hey, we are tailgating in Sri Lanka! I don’t know how many dishes of food were lined up on the tailgate, but it is enough food to feed six people.  There is chicken, potato curry, a variety of vegetables, and watermelon for desert. When we finish, there is enough food left that Saran and Lahiru, share it with some of the other drivers.

Paul being silly

Paul being silly

    The day that started out so cool is now quite hot, and Saran says we will stay by the lake for another hour, as most animals will not be active at this time. I wander down by the lake to watch the birds and snap some photos. Paul has pulled his mesh topped hat down over his face and is sleeping. At least I thought he was until I took this photo of him. He says his hat is great for watching people who think you are sleeping. The rascal.

    I have just settled down in the chair next to Paul, when Saran strides up to report that an elephant is coming to drink, on the far side of the lake. Evidently, this is unusual behavior for an elephant in the heat of the day. We and one other vehicle are all that remain here, so it is a small group that walks down to the lakes edge to observe the bull elephant. The big fellow wades into the lake, and begins to pull up some of the grass that is growing along the edge of the lake. We watch as he gathers the grass with his trunk, knocks the grass against his foot, swishes the grass back and forth in the air, and then puts it in his mouth. Occasionally the elephant will pull the wad of grass out of his mouth, and shake it off again. When I ask Saran why he pulls it back out of his mouth , he explains that it probably still has dirt on it, so he needs to shake it some more. Well duh, I should have figured that out on my own.

     We notice the other 5 tourists don’t have binoculars, so we offer the use of ours. A woman and her daughter (I assume) gladly accept them, and the older woman actually gives a gasp when she sees how the binoculars pull everything up close and personal! What I take to be the older woman’s husband declines our offer. There is another young couple who refuse to use our binoculars. I noticed when I acknowledged and smiled at them when we joined the group, they did not return that courtesy. When the two use Saran’s binoculars shortly after rejecting ours, it is rather obvious that they are snubbing us. Hmm. In all our travels, Paul and I can’t recall this happening before, and yes, Paul noticed their attitude towards us too. Since we have had no contact with them, we can only conclude that it is because we are U.S. citizens. We don’t know what nationality they are, but they are Europeans. It was interesting to say the least.

Our after dinner entertainment, the elephant

Our after dinner entertainment, the elephant

     We leave the elephant and lake behind, and Paul announces to Saran that to make this day complete, we need to find a sloth bear. Saran knows by now that we are well aware when on safari you take what you get, and he just laughs.  Saran had told us while we were watching the elephant, that in Wilpattu, you had a 20% chance of seeing a leopard, a 10% chance of seeing a sloth bear and a 5% chance of seeing an elephant. With those odds we have already been darned lucky.

Saran preparing a King coconut for us to drink

Saran preparing a King coconut for us to drink

We are happy to return to the shady forest to get relief from the sun and heat. I swear we have not been driving more than 20 minutes, when Lahiru slams on his brakes and speaks a word in Sinhalese to Saran. Saran turns to us and says sloth bear”! I am so astounded that I rest my forehead against the back of the seat for a brief moment. O.K. I admit an “I’ll be damned” slips out of my mouth, in disbelief of our luck. The really astounding thing is how Lahiru saw this sow and her cubs. We only see bits of the black bears, which are deep in the woods, and we know where they are! The bears are on the move and we catch glimpses of one large shape, and two half-grown shapes, here and there, among the trees. At one time I see the head of the mother clearly enough that her grey muzzle is apparent. In another instance, I see the paw of a cub with its long claws, swipe at something on the ground. There is no chance at a photo unfortunately.  This is a sighting that will have to be committed to our memories.

    The trio of sloth bears disappears from sight, but our guides think they may be heading towards a small tank to get a drink. We drive down a road that isn’t traveled much as tree limbs are hanging over the road. The encroaching limbs slap and scratch at the vehicle, but we make it to the watering hole. There is nothing here. Lahiru turns the vehicle around, and we wait for a few minutes. I’m not sure why Saran concludes they aren’t coming but we head back towards the main road.

     Lahiru drives back to where we saw the sloth bears and I see the guides looking down at the road. The guides often check the sandy roads, because animals that are traveling the road will leave clear imprints in the sand. Suddenly, Saran groans, slaps his forehead and tells us that a leopard has been here since we left. His action is so dramatic, yet sincere; I have to stifle my urge to laugh. Saran points out the big cats paw prints that are superimposed over the tracks of our tires. To make it a little more painful, there are two places where the leopard has laid down in the road. He obviously was in no hurry to get where he was going.

     We follow the tracks, oh yes we are in reverse, until they leave the road and go into the bush. Since we have only been gone 15 or 20 minutes, we continue traveling backwards for a 1/4 mile and then we sit. The hope is that the leopard is still traveling in this direction and we might catch a glimpse of him. Saran, Lahiru and I are intently staring into the trees, but Paul has decided to watch the road behind us. After a few minutes we hear “Guys, I think I see something moving”, “I think it’s a leopard”. I whirl around so I am looking over the back of the seat and bring my binoculars to my eyes. Sure enough, way down the road is a leopard moving away from us. The leopardess we saw this morning was good-sized, but this leopard is really big. It’s a good thing Paul was staking out the road or we would never have seen this cat.

     The problem is we are headed the wrong way, and because the road is so narrow, there is no room to turn around. Lahiru sends our vehicle speeding down the road until he finds a place to make a three-point turn which actually turns out to be a five or six point turn! We rush back in hopes the leopard is still trekking down the road but no such luck. The guides find the leopards tracks, and follow them to a point in the road where the feline has made a U-turn and is walking back the way it came. After a short stretch, the leopard’s tracks leave the road for the jungle. We all search the area, Saran listens, but we see and hear nothing of the elusive leopard.

    Our safari ends with the search for an injured leopard, that another guide told Saran about, when they stopped to exchange information along the road. The guides are excited about seeing a third leopard in one day, but Paul and I aren’t really disappointed when our search for the disabled cat turns up empty. The injury they described probably means the leopard won’t survive and that would be a depressing way to end the day.

     We are back at the lake where we ate our meals, and we have a close encounter with the lone elephant we enjoyed watching earlier. At our approach, the huge male turns and fans his ears in a warning, but when he sees it is just a vehicle full of humans, turns away and minds his own business. We enjoy watching the pachyderm for a while as he continues to browse.

Elephant close up

Elephant close up

     The sun is beginning to arc towards the horizon, so we must turn towards the exit gates. We have one more interesting encounter before our day is over with a sambar, the largest deer in this park. The doe is standing like a statue by the side of the road, head high, ears pointed and eyes focused on a spot of thick undergrowth. Lahiru stops the vehicle next to the beautiful sambar. She doesn’t look at us or even flinch. As we watch, the doe curls her leg up toward her body in slow motion, and then slams her leg to the ground, sending a sharp sound reverberating into the air. Our white tail deer do the exact same thing when they feel threatened, by the way. The sambar repeats this leg thumping ritual over and over, as we use our binoculars to try to find the creature that is upsetting her. Saran is fairly certain it is a leopard. After several minutes, the vexed sambar lets out two sharp barks, (the best description I can think of) and then turns and walks away. Huh. Was it a false alarm, was she pulling our leg, or did the perceived threat melt away into the forest? We will never know but her exhibition was worth seeing regardless.

Sambar but not the one that was calling the alarm

Sambar but not the one that was calling the alarm

     We must be on our way and we make it through the gate as the sun is slipping out of sight. What an excellent day we have experienced! Tomorrow we will spend the morning in Wilpattu and then it is time to move on to our next destination.

A group of bucks

A group of bucks

     Next installment, morning safari in Wilpattu, Dambulla caves and Wild Grass resort.

Wild Boar

Wild Boar

I swear this turtle is smiling

I swear this turtle is smiling

Common Kingfisher eating a fish

Common Kingfisher eating a fish