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.
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.
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.
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.
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.