Unawatuna. Because it's fun to say.

You just said it aloud, admit it. 

After the dusty safari, I was ready for the southern beaches. My driver, a cute young guy too shy to say much of anything to me, was polite and careful. Every quick stop or sudden turn resulted in "I am sorry, madam." He was sweet. What was most definitely not sweet? The dozens of itchy, teeny tiny ant bites I discovered on my backside and legs after arrival.

Seriously, how can one small country have so many ants?!

Unawatuna Beach is a tourist haven, a beautiful crescent-shaped beach dotted lines with beach bars and tiny hotels. The waters are Caribbean blue and the palms high. Beach lounges and dining sets run all of the way down the beach and are full morning and night. A small street runs behind the beach with lots of shops and restaurants. It's really a lovely place, though as different from my first weeks in Sri Lanka as one could imagine.

The view from my room. Not bad for $40 per night. 

The view from my room. Not bad for $40 per night. 

At 9:27am on December 26, 2004, this place, along with parts of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, was decimated by a tsunami. In total, approximately 35,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka. It's hard to sit here and not imagine it exactly how it was on that beautiful, ordinary morning before the sea rolled in.

My hotel manager told me that he was able to get all of his guests to safety, on the top floor of what was then the hotel building. Afterward, it had to be torn down. Most were able to run to higher ground - and safety - after the first wave and before the second. But little of the beach remains the same. Most have rebuilt, but here and there, ruined buildings can be seen, somewhat swallowed by the jungle. What amazes me is that most hotels look fairly shoddily constructed and are built right on the sand. It appears that not many have learned.

But it's gorgeous all the same. Yesterday morning, I took a tuk tuk into the nearby town of Galle to shop in Galle Fort. The Fort has quite a history. Galle itself can be traced back to the time of Ptolemy and appeared on one of his maps as a trading port around 125 CE. The fort was first built by the Portuguese in 1588, captured by the Dutch in 1650, and taken over and reinforced by the British in 1798. Sri Lanka was a British colony until independence in 1948. (Sorry, I'm a history nerd.) Now, the fort's a tourist hub, full of shops and small inns, but still integral to the people of Galle, containing the district courthouse, schools, a temple, Dutch church, and a mosque.

As soon as I hopped out of the tuk tuk at the fort gate, excited to meander and simply get lost, another driver was quick and tenacious to offer me a ride and a tour. As many times as I politely said no, he wouldn't let me be, nor would he move out of the way to allow me to leave.

So I had to be a bit of a bitch. A loud one. And that got the attention of some Australian tourists who quickly came over to make sure all was well. I was fine, but I appreciated them! As wonderful as so many Sri Lankans have been, the attitude of some toward solo women is a bit draining.

I walked along the walls and watched a man with a monkey at his side charm a king cobra - but I kept my distance. He put the cobra back in its basket and got out another snake. My face must've given me away, as two Australian guys nearby made a comment about my obvious affection for snakes. Then one of them, looking at the giant second snake said, "Ah. It's only a python. Let's go."

A few hours later, I was hot and tired. It's so reminded me of the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar. I'd recalled passing a spot earlier that called itself a Taphouse.

Thinking that a beer sounded fan-freaking-tastic, I headed that way.

image.jpg

The place was full of more Australians, including the guys who'd made fun of my snake face earlier. Their tables were littered with empty bottles of Tiger and Carlsberg. Sri Lankan beer, Lion, much like the Yala leopard, has eluded me. Rumor has it that the brewery was damaged or destroyed in the epic floods that they had last spring.

Fruit in the Fort

Fruit in the Fort

I tried though. I ordered a Lion, as the Taphouse had exactly one tap. And it was a no. A Taphouse. With no taps. Go figure.

So I tried for some Tiger in a bottle. Nope.

I worked my way down the list of six beers, striking out each time, until I finally sighed and ordered a ridiculously overpriced Corona. In Sri Lanka.

Which brings me to my next point.

In no time at all, all of the Aussies (in town for a major international cricket event) and myself were laughing about the beauty of Sri Lankan culture and the general swings and missed attempts at western culture.

We laughed for a few hours and it was time for me to head back to Unawatuna. I hugged the guys goodbye and hopped in what would be my last - and most memorable tuk tuk trip.

As we raced through the bustle of traffic, I closed my eyes and felt the night air on my face, soaking in all I could. Soon, my only interaction with traffic will be behind the wheel of my air-conditioned Honda amongst people much committed to the confines of a lane and for whom the use of a horn is only an insult instead of the nuanced method of communication it is here. My driver Amal told me he'd seen me eating in the restaurant. Said I looked like a butterfly. Said he wished he could change his skin with mine, because his was brown. My heart broke. I told him that his skin was beautiful. He was silent for a bit. Then:

"You want to drive tuk tuk?"

He turned down the dark lane to my hotel and stopped.

I slid in the front beside him.

Down a bumpy and rutted alley, stopping and starting and stalling, the only sound above the whine of the engine was the unabashed squeal of a nearly 40 lady who'd forgotten, for a moment, of anything in the world except pure joy.

A pedicure, a snake, and an almost-leopard

After my sentimental morning on the waterfall, I decided to treat myself to a much-needed (okay, desperately needed) pedicure. I wandered the streets (there are really only two) of downtown Ella, passing many Ayurvedic massage shops. I needed far more intense intervention than a foot massage.

Finally, I came upon a place that advertised pedicures and manicures. An older man in sarong ushered me into a small office, where I discussed my desire for a manicure and pedicure with another man in sarong. We agreed on a price and I was handed over to a young man. I passed through a lovely room with lounge chairs and spa music...into a dark and dirty makeshift beauty salon type room and an old office chair.

When he didn't know how to take off my old nail polish, I should've known. But, being me, I helped him figure it out. As he'd finished with each tuft of cotton, he'd toss it on the floor behind him. I sighed and figured it might be a lost cause, but at least I'd get a good foot massage out of the deal.

But when he came at me with clippers that appeared about as sharp as a spoon and hadn't seen disinfectant in, well, ever, that was it. I jumped out of the chair, attempted to get across to him that I had somewhere to be, threw down some rupees and got the hell out of there!

It's been a few days and I've no sign of gangrene, so I'm hoping I'm in the clear.

That afternoon, I spent relaxing on the balcony of my guest house and chatting with the owner and Ewi and J Ari, a lovely German couple. Then, once the afternoon train came in I met up with a friend from the elephant project, Kerri. We had a wonderful time.

I marvel at the amazing connections and friendships I've made on this trip. So many incredible people. Somehow, our hearts are more open to people when we're in a strange place. I find this both wonderful and sad at the same time.

The next morning, it was time to move on. I hired a driver to take me to Tissaharama, aka Tissa, a small town near Yala National Park. He was a kind gentleman, probably in his 60s. Didn't speak much English, and so the drive was relatively quiet. The windy mountain roads flattened and the forest plants became more scrub like.

We had to slow a few times, as iguanas or monitors were crossing the road. My driver perked up when he saw my reaction.

When he swerved quickly to avoid a log in the road however, and I realized that it wasn't a log but a giant snake, the fun really began. I apparently felt that the snake could actually pose a threat and picked up my feet and squealed.

He thought that was hil-arious! For the final hour of the trip, he had a giant grin on his face and kept looking at me. I'm pretty sure he was hoping I'd do it again.

Ah yes, acting a fool always gets a laugh, regardless of language barriers.

My home stay in Tissa was clean and basic, though I didn't much enjoy the town. Being a solo Caucasian female attracted a bit too much attention. After about three "I love you's" screamed from passers by and a marriage proposal, I hopped into a tuk tuk and arranged a makeshift tour.

Gihan drove me around the lakes, pointing out fruit bats, crocodiles, and monkeys. We stopped at an ancient stupa, built in 400BCE. We also stopped at a few others. Stupas are mound-like structures built to honor the Buddha.

And they're everywhere. No really. 

Also everywhere? Buddha. Big ones, little ones, standing ones, reclining ones. And they're beautiful. What I don't understand are the newer, brightly colored plastic-y looking Buddhas, generally with multi-colored LED flashing lights. It's like Buddha is in a disco. And these are located in the center of roundabout intersections or simply alongside the road.

Anyway, LED lights are also a popular option for personalizing one's tuk tuk. Lots of them have some sort of image of Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. He seems to rank up there with Bob Marley in terms of tuk tuk representation. So, it's sort of fantastic to be whisked around, hair swirling in the breeze, with music (generally Justin Bieber) blaring, disco lights flashing with Captain Jack by your side.

Anyway...in Tissa I met Greg and Lynn, an Australian couple. Lynn wasn't feeling well and was in her room most of the time, so Greg and I quickly bonded.

He's truly the Aussie version of my father. Quick to laugh, an easy smile, and generally pleasant to be around.

He and Lynn are retired teachers. And he used to own a vineyard. So we had plenty to talk about.

Early the next morning, Greg and I awoke at 5am for a safari in Yala National Park. The safari vehicle, essentially a jeep with a truck bed and three rows of seats in the back, was a tad breezy as the driver raced like a bat out of hell, passing other similar vehicles in the pre-dawn dark.

Early morning safari start.  

Early morning safari start.  

Eventually we pulled over at the entrance to the park, along with roughly fifty other similar vehicles. Our driver ran to the end of a line to get the daily pass. As drivers received their passes, they'd race off in a squeal of tires.

The early driver gets the leopard. And the leopard gets the tips.

It was a bit like being a fairly vulnerable observer in a safari version of The Gambler. Being lifted in the back of a vehicle magnifies each and every movement. And racing on rutted dirt roads is a tad bouncy.

And we saw crocodiles and mongoose-es...mongeese? Many of the mongoose...

Whatever.

You know you've been in Sri Lanka too long when you see elephants and think, "meh." 

You know you've been in Sri Lanka too long when you see elephants and think, "meh." 

We also saw a leopard. Well, we saw other people see a leopard. In a safari vehicle traffic jam worthy of Times Square, we saw others see a leopard. By the time we drove by the spot, there was no leopard. But I saw a crocodile eat a giant pelican-type bird. So that was a bit incredible. Though, having been on safari on Tanzania, I'm ruined for life.

Regardless, six hours of dusty bouncing and seeing few animals had me ready to move on.

Greg and I said our farewells, I grabbed my bags, and was off to the south coast town of Unawatuna. My time in Sri Lanka is waning.

A promise fulfilled

image.jpg

I'm not sure if it was the noise of critters crawling on the roof or the wondering what said critters were...regardless, I was up most of the night. The good news: the gorgeous sunrise helped my sour mood slightly.  I sat on the guest house balcony and had breakfast overlooking Ella Gap. To the east, Little Adam's Peak that I hiked yesterday. To the west, Little Rawana Falls with Ella Rock rising behind. That, and the guest house pup nipping at my toes...all helped a bit.

I know that it's perfectly acceptable to be a bit lonely and homesick when one is literally half a world away. Solo travel is exhausting. Exhilarating, but exhausting. Every decision is mine. Every response to every question. Warding off every question by locals as to my relationship status and age and nationality and if I like Trump (that would be no). And if I mess up, it's all on me.

But that's why I've done this in the first place: to prove to myself that I can be trusted.

It was a rainy Sunday morning last March that a tsunami of grief caught me unaware. I'd passed the third anniversary of my mother's death without much difficulty and had decided that I'd work to focus on celebrating moreso the day of her birth than that of her death - to focus on her life - her light, rather than those dark days when she left. It was time to stop being defined by the loss. But, as is the law of grief, occasionally I get clobbered with a sneaker wave. I felt breathless and desperate. I needed to shake things up. To move forward. And I remembered saying goodbye to her. I remembered promising her I'd see the world. So I picked up my phone and started searching for the seeds that would eventually bring me here.

Sometimes the tsunami moves us to better things.

A few months before she died, my mom told me what she wanted me to do with her ashes. I was taken aback, as I wasn't aware that her health had deteriorated quite so much. Alas, I obliged and with rolling eyes, promised her I'd take her to Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast, a spot we'd stayed when she had last visited me.

But after she died, and in the true spirit of a daughter, I didn't follow her wishes. I will, someday, but I've got other plans first. 

I've missed her immensely, surprisingly, on this trip. I know that she'd have been reading and rereading my blog, likely printing off copies and handing them out to anyone who would stop to listen. And, most likely working on an arranged marriage in the process. She drove me crazy. She was very far from perfect, but I knew more than anything that she believed me to be invincible. So taking this trip without my biggest fan has felt a bit like that first time off the high-five sans water wings.

The hole she left somehow feels more raw. Wider. Deeper. And yet, she feels closer.

I saw a shooting star the other night.

image.jpg

So this morning, I walked down and down and down the irregular concrete steps and took a right on the tracks - away from town. I followed them around the bend, stepping off while a train rumbled by, children waving and locals and tourists hanging from the doors. I walked over a bridge, down a steep dirt path, past a man who told me about his tomatoes and pulled one off of the vine for me and watched while I ate it. Then he left me and I scrambled down a narrow path until I was at the top of Rawana Falls.

Dumidu, the owner of my guest house, has told me that the falls sometimes roar. But now, it's more of a graceful trickle due to little recent rain. Sort of like life, and joy, and grief, I guess.

I set down my pack and pulled out the tiny jar I'd brought halfway around the world. Looking out over the falls toward the valley below, I kissed the lid and opened it into the water, watching it swirl and dip and fall.

I took a few photos, wiped a few tears, and worked my way back toward town.

On letting the adventure happen

Train station brown dog.  

Train station brown dog.  

I tend to get anxious about stupid things. This is one of the reasons I need to occasionally throw myself off of the proverbial high-dive and fly halfway around the world: to prove to my over-analyzing self that sometimes it's okay to just let go and be open to what goes down.

I get stressed that I won't get a decent seat at happy hour. One can likely imagine my anxiety at boarding a 6.5 hour train ride without a reserved seat. In a foreign country.

But I did it. Burdened with what I'd like to call "the travelers' turtle" (big backpack on my back and smaller one on my front), I left my hotel in Kandy early this morning. The hotel manager was a kind older man who had made sure that I got a decent meal after my arrival last night. He made sure to tell me that he looked after solo female travelers and then, much to my chagrin, was sure to tell me a horror story or two. So when my tuk tuk driver this morning mentioned that there was bad traffic and he'd take a shortcut, then told me he was going to take me to a "viewpoint", I was pretty much sure I was about to disappear.

But I didn't. I'm guessing you've figured that out.

And when the clunky blue train rolled into the station and about a hundred similarly-clad tourists with a few locals smattering in pushed to board and find a seat, I quickly realized that a seat wasn't to be had...and that wasn't the worst thing that could happen.

An older Sri Lankan gentleman and his wife were seated near where I stood. With his wife's urging, he helped me load my bags to the overhead racks. She was plating and passing some delicious smelling something to others in rows all around. Directly behind the couple sat two teenage girls, grinning at me.

Soon after, as the conductor's whistle sounded and the rhythmic clickety-clack of the wheels and the pronounced sway of the train began, I'd been befriended by the whole lot. The girls had scooted over and invited me to share their seat. Crackers and tea had been passed. Selfies were taken and social media usernames shared. And I was reminded in the most glorious way that sometimes, discovering the goodness of people by accident is far better than a reserved seat.

The train made its slow climb out of Kandy and into the hill country, men carrying baskets of fruits or "short eats" made their way through the swaying car. Various treats were shared. One foreign berry was passed my way. I took a bite; it was bitter. They all laughed. From my right, one girl's father handed me another berry - after he'd rolled it around in his hands, squishing it a bit. Then everyone watched while I tried again, and smiled. This fruit was tricky.

One relative was especially funny - an older skinny man with a crooked smile and a white t-shirt that proudly proclaimed in giant hot pink letters, one syllable topping the next, that he was a "PARTY GIRL". But he began to sleep, and when the rain came down, one girl would stick her hand out of the window, let  it cool, then press it against my face whilst grinning from ear to ear.

Because I was one cheek in the aisle, I wasn't able to get photos of the incredible, misty vistas. One of the girls took my camera and snapped a few shots, and occasionally I'd simply stick it out the window, press the shutter and hope for the best. One such time I captured a lovely young girl, dressed in her starched whites for school, umbrella overhead. I was breathless when I pulled the camera back in the train and saw what I'd captured.

image.jpg

After many mist-shrouded tea plantations, stops with the now-familiar sound of the conductor's whistle, and villages had been passed, it was time for the girls and their family to disembark. One had moved forward to nap with her mother, and so it was the other girl who hugged me, kissing me on each cheek, and wishing me a safe journey. I leaned out of the train and waved farewell, faith renewed.

So, to my dearest friend Jennie back home, with whom I was messaging this morning, thank you for reminding me to let the adventure happen.

It did.

image.jpg

Hot feet

An orchid at the Royal Botanical Gardens

An orchid at the Royal Botanical Gardens

My day started as it often does in Portland - with an epic traffic jam - and ended with some much-needed quiet. Due to a student protest of some sort, traffic in and out of Kandy was atrocious. Luckily, we were in an air-conditioned van. The usual one hour drive took easily twice as long. 

image.jpg

Our first stop was the Royal Botanical Gardens. The gardens are stunning and made even moreso by the sari-clad women wandering through under umbrellas. I was also amazed and the size and sheer numbers of fruit bats hanging in trees, stinking the place up and wafting their wings to keep cool in the hot sun. 

Those dark things? Those would be bats.  

Those dark things? Those would be bats.  

We then fought through more traffic to see the Temple of the Tooth. No, really. It holds the left upper eye tooth of the Buddha. While the relic itself is enshrined in six golden tombs and only shown a few times per day, the area around it was stunningly gorgeous. Followers prayed in front of the shrine and Rosiee gave us each some jasmine flowers that had been blessed during the puja - a Buddhist daily ritual of faith - and will protect us during our travels. 

Some schoolchildren praying to Buddha. As they left and walked by us, the girls reached out to touch is, smiling and saying "Hi auntie!"

Some schoolchildren praying to Buddha. As they left and walked by us, the girls reached out to touch is, smiling and saying "Hi auntie!"

A shrine at the Temple of the Tooth

A shrine at the Temple of the Tooth

We walked through the temple complex and walked more quickly during the portions in the hot sun - our bare feet were a tad spicy during those moments. The temple was bombed in 1998 - a casualty of the civil war that raged on and off here for thirty years and only ended in 2010. It's been beautifully reconstructed, but it's sad to think that such antiquity was lost.  

A cultural show was our next destination and we were entertained by traditional dancers, music, and fire dancing. The evening capped off with some brave young men walking over burning coals. And I thought that the temple stone made my feet hot. 

Rosiee and the others were kind enough to drop me at the train station. My hope was to secure a reserved seat for tomorrow's journey to Ella. No such luck. All reserved first and second class seats are booked. The good news? Other second and third class cars never sell out.  

That's right.  

They just keep cramming folks in until it's time to go. And that'll be my situation tomorrow. With a giant backpack and a small one. By myself. For six hours. 

But, what can you do? It'll be an adventure, that's for sure. And maybe I'll luck out and get a seat.  

After the train station, it was time to part ways. The sun was setting and the call to prayer of a nearby mosque muffled our goodbyes. 

In the blueing light, I loaded my things on my back, hailed a tuk tuk and pushed into the bustle of night. It's all me from here on out.

image.jpg

Moving on

As volunteers, we have the opportunity to ride the elephants. Today, which has turned out to be my last day at the project, I chose not to take my turn. Let me tell you why.

Sri Lanka has many characteristics that remind me of Tanzania. Corruption is simply soaked into the fibers of the tourism industry. Everything has a catch; every referral has a kickback; and nothing is simple. It's part of what makes it exhilarating, and perhaps what many tourists turn a blind eye to, but also makes it exhausting.

I was told that my work was to be part of an "elephant rehabilitation camp" and that I'd be helping with day to day care of elephants. That much is true. Though, interpretation of the term "rehabilitation" appears to be a bit subjective.

Elephants are simply part of the culture in many Asian countries and Sri Lanka is no different. For centuries, they've been revered creatures, part of religious festivals and ever-present in art and story. They've also been beasts of burden. Used for logging and building, similar to an ox or horse, elephants have immense value. Elephants were captured from the wild, "broken" and domesticated.

Today, it is illegal to take elephants from the wild. Only those born in captivity are able to be trained and utilized for religious reasons or profit. And elephant safari (riding) is big business.

image.jpg

I've become a bit disillusioned to see that the camp where I've been working isn't so much a rehabilitation center as it is a successful part of the elephant economy. Granted, because of our presence, the elephants get far more attention and cleaner surroundings than they would if we weren't here. It's difficult and frustrating though, to watch multiple white vans full of tourists roll in for rides. Going down the road, I've passed many places advertising elephant rides, some in places with little to no shade and one sad elephant with four or five or six sunburned tourists on her back. Comparatively, where I've been is far better. The elephants have night beds that we clean daily, after they've been moved to their day beds. And at the end of the day, we bathe them in the river. They are given lots of fresh palm and greens, banana wood and coconut, and seem happy to see us. Waving at Queenie, Manica, or Loku Raja or even Gaul from his musth bed results in ears waving back at us and a raised trunk. They seem to be in good spirits. It's bittersweet, really.

But it's still hard to watch them used as a means of income. Though, I struggle with how (or if) this differs from pony rides or something similar with an animal deemed less exotic to my western self.

After a hard day's work on Monday, yesterday (Tuesday) a few of us went to one of Sri Lanka's biggest tourist attractions, the Pinnewalla Elephant Orphanage. And, while truly a tourist magnet, parts of it are quite cool. Many elephants are chain-free and spend their days with time in a large range or the river. Others who haven't been there long enough or have proven aggressive still have chains and ever-present mahouts with them. Again, my heart was torn. Spending a bit of time interacting with two youngsters with curious trunks made me laugh.

My solo travel plans will take me to Kandy, a small-ish city to the east. From there, I'll take the train to the mountainous tea country town of Ella. The six hour trek between Kandy and Ella on old, British-era trains is often written about as one of the most picturesque in the world. I'm excited to spend a few quiet days in the mountains.

And so...since Rosiee was planning on taking some volunteers to Kandy tomorrow, it just made sense for me to tag along for the free ride and simply stay there. I hadn't planned on leaving the volunteer stay so soon. Alas, being flexible and open to change is a cardinal rule of travel in the developing world...as is a large supply of tissues, hand sanitizer, and wet wipes.

So I didn't ride Queenie today. Instead, I fed her some bananas and gave her as much love as I could. Working around the elephants and their mahouts with the other volunteers has been amazing.

Alas, it's time to move on.

The home stay and those I've met have been colorful parts of the journey. While I'm looking forward to real mattresses, hot water, and a restroom without a queue, I'll miss the constant chatter of languages and accents. I'll miss the faint sounds of a nearby Buddhist temple or the call to prayer of a mosque, wavering in and out dependent on the wind, or the sounds of rain on the roof. It's time for me to operate again on my own schedule. I've got a loose plan for my final week in Sri Lanka, though I'm armed with the expectation that things will change. 

That, and plenty of tissues, sanitizer, and wipes.

Farewell, Queenie! 

Farewell, Queenie! 

A tuk tuk odyssey...

‪Friday morning‬, Amanda and I took off for Dambulla.

The ride to the small city in the north-central part of the island wound through the mountains and villages, past open-air schools full of children with heads bent over their desks. We drove through a canopy of mara trees and the light grew dim. On either side of the road, small huts surrounded by fires and tables and chairs lined up. Our driver wound his way around a cow that had decided to lay in the middle of the road and pulled over with just one word: "breakfast".

Amanda, who'd been sleeping in the back, joined me as an old woman led us to a seating area away from the men. She asked me in words that I didn't understand but could only surmise if I wanted something to eat. I shook my head no. She again asked, this time pointing to a large covered pot, sitting directly on the fire. Figuring that she wasn't going to take no for an answer, I agreed. Imagine my relief when the pot revealed something that I recognized - an ear of corn.

As our journey continued, we came upon a narrow bridge, the thin strip of red soil on either side littered with dogs on their sides, motionless. My heart sunk, but as we sped by, their heads all lifted. They were just finding a cool spot to take a nap! The strays are plentiful, but they're surprisingly street smart. Many have obviously learned the hard way as evidenced by limps or bent tails, but most saunter in and out of traffic without care. I've added the Sri Lankan Brown Dog to my list of favorite breeds.

I've noticed that the language barrier here is a bit more of an issue than what I have experienced elsewhere. Generally, I'm able to get by on a series of nods and smiles. When asking something of my driver, however, he kept saying to me "Oh!" and shaking his head. Frustrated and questioning whether he was confused or just saying "no", I waved him away. After a moment, however, it became clear that he had understood what I'd said and had been agreeing with me.

I'd forgotten; the Sinhalese word for yes is "oh-ooh", which comes out sounding like an emphatic "Oh!" and is generally accompanied by what I've dubbed "the Sri Lankan nod", which more closely resembles a cross between a shake and a wobble.

So that makes communicating fun. I simply think that they're surprised and have something in their ear when they're thinking that I'm an idiot who simply can't understand a basic "yes".

By mid-morning, we had arrived in Dambulla. We located our guest house and agreed to terms with wobbles and "oh-oohs", dropped our bags and made our way to the Golden Temple and its 30 meter tall Buddha towering above the stupa and the trees below. A winding path of steps and stone ramps led up to a series of caves dating back to the first century CE. Each cave is a combination of Buddha statues and various characters of legend or Sri Lankan kings. The ceilings are covered in intricate and stunning murals, the cool air of the caves peaceful. I was, quite simply, stunned into silence. The beauty is beyond any man-made wonder I've seen in my time.

Some Buddhas and ceiling murals at the cave temples.  

Some Buddhas and ceiling murals at the cave temples.  

As we stepped back into the bright sun, we heard the noise of someone shooing monkeys away from a nearby tree. Suddenly, roughly a hundred monkeys were racing around and by our feet up onto the rock beyond. We froze in a combination of fright and amazement and waited for them to pass before returning to the spot where we'd left our shoes, paid the shoe-sitter 25 rupees (17 cents) for his diligence, and started back down the steps, laughing about the monkey stampede we'd just survived.

A few shots from Dambulla.  

A few shots from Dambulla.  

‪Friday night‬ consisted of dinner and a visit to a grocery store with the intent of buying a few beers to enjoy back at our guest house. Upon noting that we were the only women in that portion of the store and were receiving quite a few curious stares, we thought better of it.

But.

I found PEANUT BUTTER!!!

(And that is really freaking exciting. And expensive. It cost about $6 US, and is the quality of generic brand at home. But hey. Beggars can't be choosers.)

After a good night's sleep and some head-wobble-induced misunderstandings about breakfast, we were off again. This time, via tuk tuk to the town of Sigirya, about 20 kilometers away.

At first, we were very excited about the deep and wide seat of our tuk tuk. We soon realized though, that we were on the slowest. Tuk tuk. Ever.

Eventually we arrived in town and, having originally planned on staying in Dambulla for two nights, were in need of a guest house and lunch. Eventually we found both, got settled, and were off to Sigirya's main attraction, a giant rock protruding 200 meters out of the earth that was home to Buddhist monks as early as the 3rd century BCE and a palace fortress of a usurper to the throne in the early 1st century CE.

The rock is massive. And the steps to get to the top? Most definitely NOT up to code. Some were original steps, carved unevenly out of rock. Others were narrow spiral steps, and yet others were steel steps stuck to the rock face, with a view straight down if one were to look. This place is a liability insurance nightmare.

The climb was divided a bit. One section led through the remains of terraced gardens and pools, and the next led up through winding narrow spiral stairs to a section of beautiful frescoes in the side of the rock. These busty beauties are said to have been the king's harem and were most definitely not PG rated.

Once on the platform before the final climb, we chuckled a bit at the cartoonish signs warning of wasp attack and took photos of the giant lion feet - the only remnants of what was once the final ascent to the king's palace at the top of the rock and a giant statue of a lion. When a uniformed man started frantically waving people away from the stairs and toward a small net-sided hut that I quickly surmised was there in case of the aforementioned wasp attack, I noticed giant, and I mean GIANT wasp nests hanging from the rock. On the metal staircase above, people who'd been on their way down were told to sit in silence while men in head-to-toe green plastic suits stood in between and waited. After about fifteen minutes, during which time I noticed no difference in the amount of wasps in the air nor the general condition of the nests, we were given the all-clear and simply told to walk silently. The wind was strong but refreshing and we white-knuckled it to the top.

Sigirya Rock  

Sigirya Rock  

From there, we could see forever. Lush Sri Lanka, all around. To imagine that a palace once stood amongst the foundations that remain is mind-blowing. What's even more incredible is that the place exists at all, and what would be nearly impossible even today is said to have been built in seven years.

We made our way down and back to our guest house for the evening. As precious wifi was available only in the open-air lobby, we made ourselves comfortable and reflected on our physical prowess at ascending such a fortress. The owner of the guest house, after sweeping a giant scorpion out of the area (and talking me down from the chair), offered us beers. We were ecstatic.

Until we tasted the beer.

Yes, living in a town famous for good beer has ruined me. But even if I'd never tasted the perfection that is a Pacific Northwest-brewed IPA, I'd have known that this beer was bad. Real bad.

But I drank it anyway. Don't judge. `

After a few beers and sitting in the garden with the owner until late, getting up and moving the next morning was a bit of a challenge. A few cups of tea and a greeting by Budo - the resident dog (Breed: Sri Lankan brown dog) - and again we were off in a Dambulla-bound tuk tuk to catch the bus.

Well, that was the plan.

A smooth-talking tuk tuk driver convinced us that he could get us to Kandy (our original bus-transfer stop) in two hours. At the time, fresh country air seemed far more appealing than a maybe-you-get-to-sit bus, so we went for it.

Yeah...two and a half hours in a tuk tuk isn't the greatest. But maybe it was about the same as the bus would've been. Insane traffic and constantly inhaling petrol fumes isn't for the faint of heart.

In Kandy, a tourist hub, we found an extremely touristy cafe. And ice cream. And a piece of chicken. Like a whole piece of boneless chicken, not the I'm-not-sure-what-part-of-the-bird-this-is bony hunks that have occasionally been in my rice and curry packets at lunch. It was expensive for Sri Lankan standards, but delicious.

And then we caved. We took advantage of the bizarre Sri Lanka referral system for anything from jewelry to lodging, along with a "very nice price...not tourist price" and asked a complete stranger if he knew a driver to take us to Kegalle (where the elephant project is located). His first question, "In a tuk tuk?"

And he did. Well, he knew a guy who knew a guy.

Before we knew it, another guy approached us and waved us into a TINY, and I mean tiny red car that was essentially a modern tuk tuk with sides. Make: Tata. Model: Nano. Never heard of it? Yeah, me neither. Basically a modern version of the Le Car. The driver still kept the plastic on all of the upholstery and cardboard on the floor. But it had something I hadn't seen since my arrival: seat belts.

So, again we wove through the mountains as rain began to fall, mist settling in valleys at one bend, and a street market with a ridiculous number of brightly-colored inflatable plastic toys and pools for sale at the next. Hut after hut sold all sorts of fruits and vegetables, but many people sat solo at small tables piled high with bright pink rambutan fruit (a lot like lychee) or jackfruit or stinky durian. We passed a faded sign stuck to a tree advertising a car wash with a busty blonde in short shorts pictured bent over a car. Next to it, a wide rectangular spot on the side of the road had been cleared, at either end were hoses pointed skyward so that the water arced over the dirt. Creative interpretation, I'd say.

Finally back in Kegalle and to the home stay, we discovered that ten new volunteers for another project at a nearby orphanage had arrived from China.

Two rudimentary bathrooms and 16 people. Throw in a language barrier and cultural differences and you have what I'll be referring to in the coming days as a "practice in patience".

At least a weekend away allowed the stink of elephant to wear off. ‪Until Monday‬.

A resident of Sigirya.  

A resident of Sigirya.  

Try, try again

A short post. I'm finishing up a wonderful weekend wherein I visited some incredible sights, had a Sri Lankan beer, learned that SL has GIANT scorpions, and climbed a 600 meter rock. Stay tuned.

Wifi is proving to be inconsistent,so I'll get a post ready and up when I can!  

 

Days Two and Three: I stink.

Day two was hard.

As part of the work of the project, volunteers spend a bit of time at the local special needs home once a week. In doing so yesterday, my heart broke. While the facility was clean and many of the "inmates" as they're called seemed happy and well cared-for, there were some sights that will not be easily forgotten. Residents were old and young, some able to walk around freely and others confined to rooms with windows or adult-sized cribs. Some appeared to have suffered only physical deformities or permanent injuries and were otherwise capable of anything, though because they'd likely been denied an education or abandoned by their parents, this was home. Others were more severely impacted and treated in ways similar to how they'd have been treated in the 19th century in the US. My eyes filled with tears at some sights that I'd prefer to forget but know that I won't and shouldn't. So much potential lost. These are the people that we see in the hallways in nearly every American school today. Who, with special programs, are able to lead lives of substance. Rosiee explained that the Sri Lankan government pays 50 rupees per day per "inmate". That's roughly 30 cents.

As an educator though, it's so important to remember that "our" way isn't perfect and isn't possible everywhere. I try to see that the ultimate impact of such a short volunteer stint isn't about me giving of myself to better another place. Instead, it's about going with an open heart and mind, willing to see the difficult things and also find the beauty in the things that are different. The change doesn't happen because of us, but to us.

After lunch (more rice and curry), Rosiee took a few of us to a jewelry shop. I had read of Sri Lanka's famed gems and simply needed to see for myself. Well...I may or may not have blown my budget when I fell in love with a gorgeous moonstone and sapphire ring. Oops.

Feeling a bit rejuvenated, we spent the afternoon at a local girls' orphanage. Walking in, the energy was contagious. We sat at tables amongst the girls as the more quiet wrote notes in small notebooks that we passed back and forth to allow them to practice English. Others wandered about, confidently asking on sing-song Sinhala-laced English, "And you-ah name?" "And where ah you from?" 

Once again, as in Tanzania, my name proves difficult to pronounce.

Ahmma?

Ehrmmbuh?

Ahrmbah?

But, the laughter and joy in the girls as they chattered in Sinahala and giggled when we couldn't understand a question or request made my heart full. We all laughed. Without warning, I felt hands in my hair. All of the volunteers with long hair were quickly given braids and adorned with clips (mine has some sort of Strawberry Shortcake character). A small bracelet was fastened around my wrist by a shy girl with bright eyes. A tiny sprite of maybe four or five in a red and black plaid dress with a broken back zipper placed a bit of blue clay in my palm. I molded it into a tiny cat. She laughed and ran around, showing others until her excitement squished it and she was back for repairs. We wrote and said the alphabet and she adjusted the clip in my hair a few times, skipping from side to side.

I'm fairly certain that I'd like to bring her home.

When time came for us to depart, all of the girls grabbed hands and followed us outside, standing and waving, yelling "Goot byeeee!" As we walked down the hill followed by a semi-stray dog who apparently spotted me as a sucker a mile away.

Queenie was more interested in seeing if the camera tasted like bananas than in posing with me.  

Queenie was more interested in seeing if the camera tasted like bananas than in posing with me.  

It didn't cool down much last night, and my sleep suffered. So, today's cleaning of elephant beds, especially now that the novelty has worn off, was really stinky. Which brings me to my next plight: how to get the stink of elephant dung off of your hands.

It's kind of impossible.

I wore gloves. I washed with just water (generally the only option). I washed with Wet Ones. Twice. I washed with hand sanitizer. No dice.

So, I had a tuk tuk take me to Food City. Now this was interesting. Imagine having twenty people watch you grocery shop in a place where you can read nothing and are suddenly immensely grateful for the great American branding machine (and free trade). I really wanted peanut butter. Or anything with protein in it, really. I ended up with some sort of yogurt, a Twix bar, some bottle water, what I hope is laundry detergent, and a small container of hand soap (attempt #4 at getting my hands to smell a tad less like elephant shit).

It worked. Well, it worked in the sense that for a few minutes my hands smelled like "Sea Scent" elephant shit. Then it just faded back to elephant shit. On the bright side, it made me less focused on peanut butter.

‪Tomorrow‬'s Friday. I'm planning on leaving early with a hired driver to take me four hours north to Dambulla, where I'll tour ancient Buddhist temple caves. I may be joined by another volunteer, which would be nice. Then, I'll head to Sigirya, an ancient fortress built on top of a giant rock outcrop. On Sunday, I'll have my first adventure on the public bus system. This is where smelling like elephant poo may come in handy.

Just your everyday water fight while bathing an elephant. Like you do.  

Just your everyday water fight while bathing an elephant. Like you do.  

Afternoon means elephant bath time. Podi Raja was a tad feisty on Tuesday when we bathed him and the mahouts have separated him, thinking that he's nearing musth. So, we gave Loku Raja and Queenie a good scrubbing. It's important when bathing an elephant to ensure that one splashes said elephant with lots of water frequently. And as is inevitable on a hot day when bathing an elephant, a water fight with a mahout on one side, three volunteers on the other, and a giant tusker elephant in the middle ensued.

Check that one off the bucket list.