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Ah Sri Lanka!

16 May

After reaching record levels of frustration in India over our visa issues and the soul destroying paperwork demands of the Bangalore Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office, Alicia and I headed nervously to Bangalore airport with the hope of seeking refuge in Sri Lanka.

Best. Decision. Ever.

If you have not been to Sri Lanka or have never thought about going to Sri Lanka do yourself a massive favour and book a trip immediately. Or at least google it. And then book a trip immediately. It is probably… Big call here… My favourite country in the world (after Australia of course). I enjoyed, loved and found peace in every second I spent on this gorgeous island and I already can not wait to go back. For all it’s positives and pleasant suprises, it came at the perfect time. Feeling battered by the Foreigner’s experience of beauracratic India, it was just the time out needed before I returned for India Round Two. Sri Lanka soothed my stressed out soul, recharged my sucked-dry enthusiasm, and restored good will to my normally optimistic nature. Dramatic. But true.

Tuesday 26 April 2011
Actually getting to Sri Lanka was a ridiculous comedy of errors. It was a bloody miracle we even managed to get there at all what with visa issues and so on. My ego would rather gloss over the ‘so on’ but as I’d like this blog to be a fairly clear representation of my experience, I do admit, even with all the excessive stress associated with visa dramas, I did manage to complicate matters further by turning up at Bangalore airport a day late for my flight. Yes. I know. Embarassing. Not like me at all, and in my defense I was having an extremely STRESSFULL week when I booked that ticket. Yes I blame India, or rather the Bangalore FRRO. So after turning up bright and early Tuesday morning I was not allowed into the airport (in India you can only gain entry to the airport with a valid flight ticket, and even then only within a certain time limit of departure). Alicia, with enough stress to deal with for the time being, had already gone ahead of me, and turned around to find us seperated on either side of the glass, her inside and me outside with a trolley and BOTH our backpacks! Maximum stress overload!! I was already not feeling so great that morning and now felt like hell as I ran up and down the counters outside trying to find a way to get on Tuesday’s flight even though I’d unintentionally been a no show for Monday’s (I still feel really bad for that!) Finally, between me talking to someone outside and Alicia talking to someone inside, I managed to get myself on the flight and only had to pay a $30 no show fee. Still mentally thanking everyone in the universe who helped me out there!

Now back to the stress at hand; in the end my visa attracted a good inspection but I had no problems leaving. Kind of expected, I was more worried about getting back in than leaving (I’ll just emphasise again here that the problem is not my visa. I am on the right visa and I’m doing everything by the book, it’s just that in my experience in India there seems to be many interpretations of that book depending on the official you are dealing with at any given time and this can make things PAINFUL and me somewhat PARANOID!) Alicia did attract some scrutiny on hers and I nearly had a heart attack as she was lead away to talk to an official somewhere else! I had to keep going through security but it was with massive relief I saw her by the departure gate ten minutes later! And so that is how, after stress galore, Alicia and I departed India together and gratefully collapsed into the warm, soothing embrace of Sri Lanka.

To top it off we were lucky to be travelling with Sri Lankan Airlines and were immediately greeted onboard with a friendly smiley welcome. Same on touchdown. Same at immigration where we recieved a passport stamp and a grin in one easy motion.

Operation Sri Lanka was a last minute replacement of the cancelled Andaman Islands trip which we had booked months prior in anticipation of needing a little luxury following our internship which had followed twelve months of hard work saving for our trips. This is how we justified a stay at the swanky Galle Face Hotel right by the sea in Colombo. In a gorgeous, yell-across-the-room massive, creaky floorboarded room with an ocean view. After settling in I ventured for a walk by the hotel and along the seaside promenade, burning off the nervous energy of the morning. We investigated the Galle Face’s impressive building which is the longest serving hotel in Sri Lanka, having opened in 1848. It is a popular spot for weddings and we were only there an hour before we’d sorta, kinda, unashamedly gatecrashed a traditional Sri Lankan wedding dance ceremony in the grand foyer which preceded an exquisitely dressed bridal party. As you do.

The hotel was old world charm top to bottom; from cheeky signs next to the antiquated cage elevators requesting guests to ‘walk down the stairs, it’s only two flights and it’s good for you’ and in the hallways asking ‘please don’t smoke in bed, the ashes we find might be yours’ down to the creaky wooden floors, the hidden service corridors, the impeccable politeness and courtesy shown by the hotel staff and the ghost that kept turning our room light on after I KNOW I turned it off when leaving the room.

The dining options were first class, our first night we heartily indulged at the 1848 fine dining restaurant, and said thanks again and again for finding a lil bit of paradise. It was sweet dreams for us finally!

Wednesday 27 April 2011
We were up blissfully late and wandered downstairs to the seafront buffet brekkie. Afterwards we went for a walk through town, did a little shopping then back to the hotel where I curled up in an armchair reading The Alchemist over a room service cheese platter and a glass of white. Honestly, I languished there all afternoon while rain pattered on the windows and I drank endless cups of peppermint tea. I could feel my body physically unwind and relax. Heaven.

I realise it all sounds so lackadaisical but after an intense 18 months, it was utter bliss! No apologies!

Thursday 28 April
Again we greeted the morning at our own pace and were back to the buffet brekkie again (oh banana pancakes, why do I not eat you more often at home?) Although I only had five days to enjoy Sri Lanka (I know, a pathetically insufficient amount of time to spend on this fabulous island) I knew I wanted to spend a couple of days seeing something outside my indulgent Colombo experience, so we packed up and checked out, and got a tuk tuk to the bus station. Within 60 seconds we were whisked onto a local bus heading south to the historical town of Galle. Time to experience another Sri Lankan gem, a rattley old bus, sticky hot inside unless it’s moving and the sea breeze flows through, pumping with Sri Lankan groovy island tunes. What a mood setter! We took off along the coastline and drove alongside it the whole three hour trip to Galle; such an enjoyable ride! And for 160 Sri Lankan rupees (that’s $1.40 to you Aussies).

We arrived at the Galle bus stand and were greeted by the usual cluster of eager tuk tuk drivers. We challenged one of them “if you can fit us in that (… point to tiny little tuk tuk …) you can take us!” We both carried a stuffed 15kg backpack with other assorted bits and pieces hanging off us. To his credit he did fit us in and the grin on his face was worth the squishy ride! We turned up at a guesthouse listed in the Lonely Planet without a reservation but as we’re travelling at the very tail end of the travel season we don’t need one. All our hosts everywhere have told us the numbers had dropped off weeks ago and they only had the occasional guests come through now. It’s actually a wonderful time to travel as the staff everywhere are winding down after the busy season and have the time to chat and extend information and generousity to their few guests. We stay in a charming little place, it’s architecture reminiscent of the previous Portuguese settlement.

Galle is a unique city, founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, and boasting a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a large Fort surrounding the old part of Galle built in the 17th century by the Dutch.

We spent the late afternoon dusk hours walking around the top of the fort walls which extend all the way around the old part of town and take about an hour at a leisurely stroll. Much of the walk follows the coastline; the sea breeze is strong and revitalising, with much to watch and explore as you go along. The black birds that populate the coastline in place of seagulls were playing about in the breeze, flying up and floating in the gale amongst the cliffs. We watched a faded sun setting behind the clouded sky and then hunted for a place for dinner. The groovy Serendipity cafe was a great place to unwind, listening to Norah Jones, studying the abstract art on the grungy graffiti covered walls and browsing the wall length bookshelves.

Friday 29 April 2011

We loved Galle but it was time to find one of those gorgeous beaches Sri Lanka is famous for. We headed back to the bus stand and again, within 60 seconds we were pulled onto a moving bus and on our way back up the coast. We travelled about an hour north and tumbled out at the beachside town of Bentota. A side note about the awesomeness of Sri Lankans – they are so happy and so friendly! Their curiousity of us foreigners rivals that of the Indians but in a different manner. Where I notice an Indian will watch me in a sort of studied way, fairly detached, as though I may do or say something interesting, a Sri Lankan watches me with a big smile on their face, visibly acknowledging that Im different, but in a ‘isn’t it great you’re here in my country’ kind of way. Case in point, getting on and off local buses, with a 15kg backpack (which we found out later most tourists don’t do, they generally get the train). The bus usually slows down to about 20km as it aproaches a bus stand and the conductor sticks his head out and yells out the destination names without pausing for breath until we’re well past the stand. In that time a Sri Lankan or two or five or ten may have jumped off the bus, or jumped on the bus. In the case of foreigners, they see us by the side of the road and they’ll actually pause the bus! The conductor (with a big smile on his face) will grab the top of your bag or an elbow and help haul you onto the bus, which will take off again as soon as both your feet are in the vehicle, and as you stumble to a seat with a 15kg bag strapped to your back and attempt to get it off without knocking anyone unconcious and get your butt on the seat and your bag anywhere, you notice all the smiley Sri Lankan faces pointed at you, nodding hello and absolutely chuffed that you’re on the bus, and amused it had to stop (well, pause) for you. And you smile and nod and they smile nod and it’s SO friendly! And again you feel the warm soft hug of Sri Lanka.

Getting off the bus takes longer as we fumble around trying to pull our bags from where they are wedged and drag them from the bus. I can’t help but giggle as the seconds clock by, aware that every second is one more longer than the bus has ever had to stop for a local. My bag gets snagged on a chair and I can’t move it quick enough, Alicia’s thong has broken again and she’s hopping around trying to pull it off her flapping foot, we’re giggling and falling out of the bus, and as it roars off, the bus load of faces are smiling and laughing out the window and the conductor is waving out the door. Oh I love you Sri Lanka!

Our arrival in Bentota heralds the start of my favourite day on my trip so far. We get in a tuk tuk and head to another Lonely Planet recommendation, it’s more expensive than we like but the room is beautiful, with a balcony and a tv – we’re aware it’s the day of the royal wedding and we have both admitted to wanting to watch Wills and Kate get hitched so we splurge. We were drawn to this area because we wanted to visit a turtle conservation project and we are lucky to be staying at a place that actually runs one. Turtle egg poaching is a big problem in Sri Lanka, and the conservation projects like the one here exist to ensure eggs hatch (instead of being sold and eaten at the market) and the babies make it into the sea (instead of being eaten by birds on their way). The project buys the eggs from the poachers at a higher rate than that offered at the market. It’s a conflicting strategy as it endorses poachers to continue taking the eggs, but it’s realistic about the problem, poachers will steal eggs and will sell to the marketplace anyway. The project steps in between that process. They also go to the markets early and buy the eggs being sold there. Then they are buried in the sand in an enclosure on the beach and periodically checked for hatchlings. We were lucky enough to be there on a day where we assisted a lovely Sri Lankan guy, aka the Turtle Papa, who has been looking after the turtle babies for six years. We went with him to the enclosure where he dug into the sand at unmarked places (he must have a great memory) and pulled out handfuls of little teeny tiny wriggling, flapping turtles. SO cute! He checked the belly of each one and put some in the bucket and some back in the ground. He explained he was checking their belly buttons to determine how newly hatched they were. The baby turtles need to stay buried under the sand for four days after hatching so he puts them back in til they’re ready. We helped put the four day old turtle babies in the bucket and carried them to the pools they keep them in until they’re ready to go to the ocean. At the pools we also see a 30yr old Albino turtle, he’s pretty big but still young by turtle standards (they can live to over 150years). There is also a baby three week old albino turtle born with no eyes, aw! Albino turtles are rare, only one born in a million, and most are born with a handicap. Another handicapped turtle shares the pool, a few years old with a shell that has curled up the wrong way, his little back legs not really working. Both these turtles are kept and looked after by the project, which runs on donations made by the guests of the resort. The experience of getting to be hands on with the turtles is priceless!

Later in the night, after an afternoon boogie boarding at the beach and after a dinner complete with a Sri Lankan band playing cruisy island tunes, we have the amazing opportunity to help the caretaker pick out the turtle babies from the pool which are ready to make their big break for the sea. The markings on the shells reveal which turtle babies are ready for their first sea voyage so we pick them out and put them in the bucket. I carried the bucket to the beach (earning the title ‘Turtle Mama’). On the beach, Turtle Papa drew a line in the sand and told us to start the race. Alicia and I plucked the little babies out of the bucket and lined ’em up! Some took off immediately for the sea, some turned around and headed in the wrong direction, some took their time. It was a wonderful feeling to be on the beach in the pitch darkness with only a torch light zeroing in on the babies as they scurried around. We watched the first ones hit the sea water, waves gently washing onto shore, carrying them a little bit and leaving them to try again. Eventually all the little turtles were in the water and off they went! It was so dark we couldn’t see them, and I was standing knee deep in the water feeling the occasional one brush past me. I was filled with wonder and also paranoia about moving my feet in case I squished one! Turtle Papa scanned the beach with his torch and spotted a little lone ranger near the bucket, who hadn’t quite found the ocean. I picked him up and walked him down to the sea and put him on the sand. A wave came and he disappeared into the dark; such a magnificant moment, so peaceful in the quiet except for the energy and roar of the ocean. We slowly walked back up the beach, an amazing memory to keep forever.

Saturday 30 April 2011
We woke up and enjoyed brekkie on the balcony overlooking the beach and then went for a walk along the golden sand. I couldn’t stop thinking of all my turtles babies that I helped into the sea the night before and wondering where they were now after a long night, thinking that they grow up so fast, such a proud turtle mama I am!

It’s my last day in Sri Lanka and a walk on a gorgeous, almost deserted beach is the perfect time to reflect and feel gratitude for the wonderful experiences I have had here and in South India, and feeling blessed with still six weeks ahead of me to continue enjoying the privileges of freedom and discovery that travel brings.

There’s something amazing about Sri Lanka and without having left the country yet I’m already eager to return again one day and travel it properly!

We soon pack up and head to the bus stand, again in less than 60 seconds we’re trundling back up the coast on a bus. We get to Colombo by midday and are cheerfully dropped off at the Galle Face Hotel even though it’s not a bus stop, again with the smiles and waves goodbye as the bus leaves us on the side of the road.

For our last night we are back at the Galle Face Hotel, a final night of luxury before I head back to India for Round Two: North India, a la backpacker style.

Before settling into idle relaxation at the hotel we get a tuk tuk to the Gallery Cafe which I’d read good reviews about online. It is a stylishly chic place to eat, a gallery inside with a trendy outside cafe. The food is devine including the decadant desserts, totally recommended to while away a couple of rainy lunchtime hours in Colombo.

That night was not only my last night in Sri Lanka but also my last night with Alicia. I was flying to Delhi in the morning and Alicia was being joined by her dad the next day and staying in Sri Lanka for one more week. After an awesome 11 weeks sharing not only our apartment in Bangalore but also our internship experience, the highs and curveballs of life in India and travelling around South India and all the way to Sri Lanka together, it was sad to part ways. However I’m aware how lucky I was to make such a wonderful friend so far from home who so positively impacted my time away. Although we now embark on new paths we have certainly forged a friendship beyond India.

Sunday 1 May 2011
So it is goodbye Alicia, goodbye Sri Lanka. And hello again India… If she’ll let me back in… To be continued…

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As I’m on the road and away from my laptop I’m sorry to have to post this without any photos at this stage. I will add them in later when I am more technologically connected. Prepare to melt at the cuteness of baby turtles!
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