Worlds away from being an accidental tourist, far from being an intentional tourist, and not even close to being an average tourist — I like to think of myself as an experiential traveler. Miriam Beard said, “travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” This was the essence of my most recent journey through Sri Lanka, as each of the nine days experienced there felt like an indelible, self-cultivating, life-expanding embrace from another place. The experiences, so vivid and rich, are almost ineffable. Yet, I am compelled to share some of the profound and everlasting events, ideas and impressions that I experienced during my ’9 days at 7 degrees North’
All aboard! This was our call to the highest broad gauge railway in the world, and the one that is closest to the equator. As for trains today, it stands as one of the most scenic journeys to be done on rail in the world! Within 24 hours of our arrival on this teardrop island, we boarded the intercity train from Colombo to Badulla, a trip totaling 10 hours (which is the same amount of time it took us to get from Osaka to Colombo the day before)! However, with reserved seats in the open-air, 2nd class carriage, we made an incredible journey on the sidelines of surreal suburbs of Colombo and Kandy, through a ton of manmade tunnels, with glimpses of grey stone cliffs and rivers, and intermittent waterfalls cascading down the mountainside, and the rolling hills covered with tea plantation after tea plantation. The pace, the perspective and the progress on this locomotive was truly like being aboard ‘The Little Engine That Could’. So, if you think you want, think you can!
Sri Lanka’s SpecialTEA As a self-proclaimed tea aficionado, this land was made for me! With more than 1900 square kilometers of tea plantations, my cup runneth over! From Ella to Haputale, the endless fields of tea plantations rolled out their emerald-green carpets, welcomed us to wander through the ‘wide wale cords’ of plants, and served up perfect pots and spots of tea! Our designated teatime was to include a tour and tasting at Mackwoods Estate in Nuwara Eliya. However, we arrived shortly before they opened, so we planted ourselves under a towering tree complete with an enormous honeybee hive (just the way I like my tea — with a bit of honey), and proceeded with a petit dejeuner of fruit and bread. Once at the estate, we were given a free, private tour of the tea-making process, from picking the correct leaves, to rolling, drying and sifting them. The tour was steeped with interesting facts, and the factory itself was filled with one of my favorite fragrances — camellia sinensis! The most surprising information was that the tea bushes could be cultivated every five days, and that the entire process takes only a matter of hours, and is ready for shipment in less than one day! Our tour was done in about fifteen minutes, giving us plenty of time to enjoy a complimentary pot of the freshest crop at the Estate Cafe before stocking up on this “Ceylon sensation” in the adjoining gift shop.
The Lure of Natural Cures More than a massage or a standard spa treatment, Ayurveda in Sri Lanka is an ancient system of medicine using herbs, oils and animal products to heal and rejuvenate. While the idea of hot herbal saunas, sensuous steam baths and the “Third Eye of the Lord Shiva” treatment were appealing, their prices were appalling. Instead, we opted for a visit to an Ayurvedic Garden and Village, and learned how to be our own Ayurvedic Medic at home. From aloe to vanilla, this lengthy, but free tour taught us how to blend our own chai, get rid of gingivitis, fend off mosquitoes, soothe sunburn, make varicose veins vanish, stop smoking, slim down, increase our (sexual) energy and fitness, and so much more! We were even given a lesson in how to make the Sri Lankan spice curry powder, as well as a chance to practice pounding rice into flour for cooking and baking. The resourcefulness of these people with their plants, the thoroughly therapeutic ways in which they treated us, and the gregarious generosity of the garden guides all seemed to drug us into a natural high, and render us into relieving ourselves of hundreds of dollars worth of healing products! Maybe the one-time treatment would have been a great experience with a nice memory, but this way, we can apply and avoid, brew and banish, rub and rid, and drink and do away with, all that ails us everyday (until it all runs out). The lure of natural cures was definitely enough to ‘catch’ us…root, vine, and ginkgo.
Sacred and Spiritual Sri Lanka In the past, religion has been the cause of much division in Sri Lanka, but it seemed to us that the many religions mixed openly. From Buddhists to Hindus to Muslims to Christians, they all may pay a visit, or make a pilgrimage to any of the various temples, mosques or churches. Without declaring any particular leanings, we were able to make the rounds, with our first being a pilgrimage up Adam’s Peak to stand in the footprints of the Buddha, breathe the air where Adam first set foot on earth, and see the place where butterflies go to die. Thinking nothing could compare, we ventured into Dambulla’s Royal Rock Temple Complex, with its 5 caves of worship that date back to the 1st century BC. As we descended into each dark enclave, we were greeted with the opposite enlightenment from Adam’s Peak. Here were about 150 Buddha images, with one amazing 15m-long reclining Buddha lounging in front of you, another covered in gold leaf towering above you, and still several other smaller reclining Buddhas, as well as numerous, staunchly seated disciples and even some Hindu deities were represented. After, with a need to see the light of day and perhaps a bit of an uplift, we moved on to the jaw-dropping Sigiriya — a 370m rock etched with art and surmounted by ruins. This enormous outcropping that erupts out of the landscape is better known as Lion Rock, for at the base are 2 lion’s paws carved into the stone. While it is not considered a holy site, the climb to the top was definitely a religious experience! We managed to make the round trip within one hour — from the main entrance (where I had to pray for a free trip to the loo), to the ascension stairway (which was not your typical 12-step program, but the 1200 step procession), onto the summit (where enlightenment comes in the form of feeling and realizing that you are “on top of the world”)!
Putting the WILD in Wildlife Across a swath of the country’s midland is plenty of scrub and light forest to provide shelter for its toque macaques (a sweet-looking, reddish brown monkey endemic to Sri Lanka), gray langurs (a fierce-looking, black-faced monkey that inhabits the Indian subcontinent), water buffaloes, leopards, all manner of birds, and the almighty elephants! This slice of Sri Lanka served up only in the hot, dry summer months satiated our desire to see the WILD side of life! Our private safari tour took us through the 89 sq. km of the ancient Minneriya Park, and exposed us to the natural wonders of busy monkeys, grouchy water buffaloes, elegant egrets and perfectly painted storks. While most of the 3rd century reservoir water had evaporated, uncovering grasses and shoots upon which the animals could graze, we were elated to be able to lay our eyes upon a host of water birds, water buffalo, drunken monkeys, and an entire family of elephants who had come to feed and bathe in one of the only available ponds. This witnessing of true wildlife extended well beyond the park’s boundaries, as we spotted and stopped for several other creatures (such as the Indian Star tortoise, peacocks, reptiles and jungle fowl) freely roaming the roadside along our route over to the east coast. For Sri Lankans, this is only natural. For us, it was SUPER natural, as in the greatest wildlife spectacle in our lives so far!
Life’s a Beach This dainty little island is completely encircled with stunning stretches of sand, many of which are almost empty. Depending on the time of year and how you envision ‘going coastal’, you can delve into a number of activities from simply sunning to riding the waves to watching the whales. However, for a couple of sun-worshipers with limited time in Sri Lanka during low season, we headed to the northeast coast to Uppuveli to while away our last days on the island on the cozy white sand beach dotted with a few bungalows and cottages, and the one best resort in which we stayed (Chaaya Blu). Far from the mayhem of the monsoon season on the southwest coast, we awoke to spectacular sunrises, seized the sights of the first catch of day, snorkeled among the Sri Lankan sealife, sunbathed by blue pools of fresh water, and strolled side by side at sunset. It was the perfect place to unwind in an undeveloped area that we wished could have been an unending stay!
Cultural Rhythm and Moves With elaborate costumes, gyrating dance moves and show-stopping fire-breathing, walking and dancing stunts, a Kandyan dance performance is one of the most defining experiences of Sri Lanka. We had the good fortune of our driver, Tilak, having been a child prodigy Fire Dancer from age 8 performing around the island to great acclaim. In Kandy, he became an accomplished “Kandy Dancer” and has led dance troupes throughout Europe and Asia. Still dancing and fire walking, he is a natural performer, and with us he shared his knowledge of the culture and history of his island home, AND booked us front row seats for The Kandy Lake Club Dance Ensemble, as well as invited us back to his home for an evening of Kandyan camaraderie and cuisine. This local flavor is my favorite part of existing and integrating into any environs in which I find myself. There is nothing more affectionate and affirming than to be invited into a native’s home to see, sense and share the experience of their daily life! This kind of contact and connection is the essence that makes travel a true experience, not just a temporary excursion.
While the world is a great big place, and because I have limited time in which to (try to) see it all, I am of the mindset that I should never return to the same travel destination. However, Sri Lanka is a place whose appeal and pleasures are myriad, from fun trains to endless beaches, timeless ruins, oodles of elephants, welcoming people, cheap prices, famous tea, flavorful food — should I go on (back)? Absolutely! Sri Lanka changed me…and my mind!