Monday, January 2, 2012

Five Star Luxury in Sri Lanka

Unbelievable...sitting on our porch...looking through the palm trees to the restless ocean, crashing ceaselessly upon the huge boulders submerged along the coastline. The sun setting brilliantly through the darkening clouds scattered across the sky. The view! The ambiance! The stunning beauty!

Jeff has posted a slide show of pictures from our travels - check them out by clicking here

View of the Jetwing Hotel

The trip here was a bit of a rush. We ran out of school exactly at 3:00 so that we could be home and ready for our driver at 4:00. We gave ourselves 30 extra minutes because traffic is horrendous in the afternoon and especially when everyone is leaving town. Well, of course, the traffic was non-existent and we made it to the airport in 30 minutes (heck, we can take that long to get home...and that's across the street!). Of course it meant we had a longer stay but since we have a nice lounge we can go into and they have snacks and tea and comfy chairs, it was fine to sit and read while we waited - much better than sweating it out in the car.

We landed here at 3:00 am...bleary eyed and exhausted. We were totally amazed to be greeted with Christmas lights and wreaths hanging throughout the airport and Christmas music playing everywhere (at 3am). I thought it was a Buddhist country (it is) with Hindu also (it is) but apparently with so many European conquerors, the Christians didn't want to be left out. Our driver was waiting for us and we headed out in the dark of night to our first destination – Galle.

North from our hotel
The hotel here is fantastic, unbelievable, add your own adjectives – 5 star luxury at 3 star prices. We have a fabulous room with a view that doesn’t stop. We can see the coastline, view the sunsets while we sip cold drinks, watch the fishermen, without ever leaving the comfort of our deck. The service…impeccable.  Dilan, our hotel young man, brought us tea and coffee to the room. He makes sure everything is perfect, the room, extra water, our meals at the hotel. We've never had someone whose job it is to look out for us like this. This could be easy to get used to. 
Fishermen on the rocks

What do you eat if you don't eat meat? omg - let me tell you. We went to one of the nice restaurants here - this is a very posh place and the food is fabulous – and not just for carnivores. They have an unbelievable number of vegetarian dishes. Tonight I had cumin baked pumpkin with beans and pistachios wrapped in a buckwheat crepe with a lite sauce made of buffalo mozarella. It was absolutely wonderful. The salad was fennel fronds (don't remember what they called it) with mushrooms, peppers, other veggies and a basalmic vinegar sauce that was wonderful. Breakfast includes many different and unusual foods - red rice with various curries, spicy pickled veggies, grain breads, cumin spiced gouda cheese (delicious) and chili spiced gouda - though that one could have used more chili. This is going to be a hard place to be on a diet.

Whale Watching

Bleary eyed we arose at 5:00 this morning - yes, I realize it is our vacation but...we decided to go whale watching today, and what a gorgeous day for doing it. We met our guide and another couple and jumped into a van, heading south. The whales travel just past the continental shelf, sadly in the area of the shipping lanes - we left from the point in Sri Lanka that is closest to this spot
Turns out the couple we were with are actually scientist who were doing a feasibility study to look at the impact of shipping lanes as well as hundreds of whale watchers on the migration patterns of the whales. Our guide has been working on studying the whales for the last few years and was working with the British couple to see what could be done in the future since his own grant was running out. We picked up two more men who wanted to record whales sounds to study – we learned a lot about whales just by listening to them.

Trio of dolphins
Spinner Dolphin

What a trip! The men in charge of the boat were nothing short of remarkable with their ability to spot dolphins - they have such a low profile that it seemed impossible to see them before we got right on top of them. There was some help with a fisherman who came by, signing jumping animals and pointing but still...they were all but invisible to me until we were right on top of them. The pod had a number of calves in with the others - probably all feeding - and moving away from the boats.
Blue whale surfacing

Blue whale fluke

 After many more hours (though really, it was probably only 30 minutes or so) one of the guys spotted our first whale - although all you could see was the blow as it came up. We quickly powered our way through the waves so that we could get close enough to really see the whale - it was a Blue whale - absolutely huge! Ginormous! It seemed to take minutes to finish surfacing - the front was under water before it we even through. Sadly, it seemed to only stay up for 4 or 5 breaths and then it dove and disappeared. We found 2 or 3 other whales and again, the same thing happened.
The large boat chasing whales

 It is true that there are lots of boats out, whale watching. It has become an important source of income for the people here, meaning there are a lot of boats chasing whales down. On the plus side, they are trying to regulate it, looking at what can be done, how to spread out the boats, to protect the whales (hence that study they're hoping to do). By the late morning, there were 5 small boats and one huge one out plying the water back and forth, searching for signs of whales. I actually think the whales were staying up for less time and diving sooner just to escape us - hope the study goes through and some changes occur. On one of the dives, I got a great picture of the whale's fluke - not the classic back shot but nevertheless, a true shot of the fluke - Jeff thought it was just a fluke that I got it - and I've made him promise to stop with the fluke jokes.

Fort Galle

Because we might get bored if we stay at this delightful hotel with all the amenities you could ever want (and I have my kindle loaded with about 20 unread books), we took off to Fort Galle to eat lunch and check out the community that still lives within its walls.

Small row of tuk tuks
Crazy traffic

I have to start out with driving here in Sri Lanka….it seems like I should get over it…just ignore seems to just be a reoccurring theme…and you might miss it if I skipped it. Not only that, it will make you appreciate how good we have it in the states when the local idiot does something stupid on the road. Remember the tuktuks we rode in long ago in Thailand? They have been upgraded and improved here and they can be found absolutely everywhere – most are for hire but since they’re cheap, (relatively speaking) sometimes a family buys them for personal use. They are ubiquitous. Now they usually do stick to driving down the left side (yes, we're back to drive to the left), in a somewhat slower lane, except for when they don’t. Motorcycles and bike fit in that same category, hugging the left except when they’re passing, driving down the road, dodging a dog, kid, bike or tourist.  They pass when they like, the cars pass when they want, the buses and trucks pass and get passed by each other and all of the above. They pass on straight stretches, curves, partial curves, around corners and into oncoming traffic.  If someone is coming towards you well...they’ll honk their horn, you’ll honk your horn,  they might stop, or perhaps slow swing back in, the tuktuk backs off. It looks chaotic and most foreigners have decided that the best way to deal with it is… to not look. They do have a booming business of drivers for hire…

The wall - high enough to stop the tsunami
The Lighthouse

Fort Galle history in a nutshell: The fort was started by the Portuguese to protect them from the natives. For some strange reason the native people objected to the Portuguese taking their lands, essentially making them work for not much money, and then punishing them when they objected – they built a jail there to house the Sinhalese people who tried to fight them. There was some good from the development of trade – spices were a hot commodity -  but still.... The walls of the fort were built up on the east side, the land, protection from the natives. Well...they weren't expecting the Dutch, from the sea so in yet another gory battle, the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and proceeded to take over the land and trade. The Dutch built up the seaward wall and added lots of bastions and other improvements so that they had a protective ring around the entire community at Galle Fort. At various times, over the years, proposals were made to change or remove structures but they always maintained the integrity of the fort...and nothing has ever breached its walls since, including the 2004 tsunami that hit the area. While the tsunami took out communities to the north and south, the force of the waves did not breach the fort.
Al Meera Mosque

Buddhist temple

The lighthouse is one of the main structures that is visited there. It is still in use today because the coastline here is filled with hundreds of rocks. There are also a large number of monuments left in the fort including the Dutch Reformed Church, the Dutch government museum, the Clock Tower, the Meera Mosque, a Buddhist Temple, a Roman Catholic church and the Al Saints Anglican Church. Quite a mix of religions within this small site. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Kottowa Rainforest

Jungle stream

Resident critter

Headed up to the Kottowa rainforest preserve. It's a small preserve that's being held as a protected area. We hired a driver and headed up - about 20k from Galle. Upon arrival we discovered that it is closed on Sundays...a fact that the hotel either didn't know or failed to mention. Notwithstanding the locked gate, several enterprising young men were standing at the entrance, willing to take us through reserve for a fee - less than the normal entry price. We were able to walk around the gate and head off into the jungle. I was a little dubious but I will admit it was nice to have them along. They were excellent observers and obviously knew the jungle, showing us various dens for different animals, the lair of a trap-door spider and a tiny little lizard that, for all the world, looked almost like a walking stick insect at first. The only thing that I was worried about were the leaches...apparently they were everywhere...and we, being used to manicured reserves, were in Tevas (sandals). Sadly, I had had boots on when Jeff convinced me that sandals would be fine...they weren't. Serendipitously, I have discovered that while mosquitos think I am the source of all meals, leaches like Jeff. He had any number of them crawl on him - the guide was fast to notice them - but a number of them latched on and had to be informed that they needed to get off, now. Turns out mosquito repellant convinces them quite quickly that they want to leave. He did come home and soak his foot, putting on antibiotic ointment immediately.

We also got a chance to see rubber trees with the bark scored for collection. Down the way we could see the workers pouring the collected sap into their larger jugs. There were also pineapple plants – somehow I always pictured them on more tree like plants rather than shrubs…don’t know why…

Notes from Galle

Sunset from the balcony
The weather report has been mentioning rain at various times during our stay but we have enjoyed fabulously blue skies with some overcast in the evenings. Even this morning was gorgeous as we wandered through the forest ( least it was gorgeous at the beach. Once you get in the jungle, the blue sky was hard to see.). This afternoon, however, there was a noticeable increase in wind, the ocean choppier, a smell of rain on the wind until was absolutely pouring rain. The lightning and thunder coming together! I've only heard it that close together a few times and it is LOUD. Thankfully it seems to be moving away. It's still very warm and we have a wonderful balcony, protected from the rain, looking out on the clouded, restless sea, drinking tea (or scotch).
My lightning strike - the one and only

We actually spent the better part of the afternoon trying to take pictures of the lightning. There was quite a show of sheet lightning with periodic bolts of lightning breaking up the sky. After many hundreds of shots, I finally got one shot and Jeff got two great ones - one is absolutely gorgeous. It is really tough to get a good shot - heck, to get any shot at all! Satisfying to get the one.

We always learn so much on these trips. Now I realize that the hotels in these places make a lot of their money off their restaurants. I know that the prices you pay helps support the place, the community, pays the workers. However...the charges can get out of hand, especially when you're vegetarian and have no interest in eating the heavy meat meals. We took off tonight for the fort again and ate at Indian Hut - a restaurant complete with the same logo as pizza hut in the states. Their sign out front shows their total support for the community they are in..."No Pork, No Beef, No Alcohol". Seafood, chicken, mutton, and LOTS of vegetable dishes were all on the menu. Great food, nice and spicy and 1/10th of the price at the hotel. Yum!

Started out on a walk down the beach the next morning. Immediately found the obligatory self-appointed tour guide, ready and willing to walk us down the beach, telling us all about every rock, every fishing spot, every grain of sand. Since we were not staying more than one more day he finally decided we weren't going to latch onto the boat trip or dive trip he had planned so he moved on...and so did we. The beaches here are full of rocks, jutting through the sand and into the ocean, making it very picturesque. Sadly, our beach hike ended at the river - had to make our way around the boats and tethered calf up to the bridge...and more waiting and available guides. We were finally saved when the downpour came and we took refuge in a passing tuktuk.

Barking bird

The last couple of days, whenever we were sitting on the balcony in the evenings, we could hear the barking of a seal or two, but every time we searched for it, we absolutely could not find it anywhere. We finally solved the mystery. I spied a blue and red bird perched up in the branches of a tree. In the process of trying to get some pictures, I noticed that the bird was puffing up his breast and woofing - our mysterious seal! We were amazed that such a loud sound came from such a tiny animal. The picture has lousy color - it was the same rainy afternoon and lightening it didn't do much to improve the coloring.

Heading to Kandy

Guest house painting
Decisions, decisions...we can get to Colombo in 3.5, maybe 4 hours or we can get there in 1 hour...and 400 rupees (roughly $4.00). Hmmmm...big decisions here. The new freeway is something most Sri Lankans are quite proud of....and don't use a lot because of the fee. (to be fair, it has only been open for 2 days.) We had a road just about to ourselves, all the way up to the end of the road. One day, within 2 years our driver said, the road will go all the way to the airport. What a benefit that will be! An hour later we were leaving Colombo, heading for Kandy - the center of Sri Lanka and home of any number of places to visit.,

We have avoided most of the mandatory visits to ceramic shops, silk shops, fabric shops, tea shops, but we did stop at an Ayervedic herb garden. We had a chance to see many of the spices we take for granted (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg) as well as some that I had never heard of before - and will have to look up to remember what they are. Did have a knowledgable student, studying to be an Ayervedic doctor, give us a tour, talk about the plants, different medicines they get from them, and how some are used. It really was interesting. Jeff got a back massage - he really enjoyed it. At least if we're going to be in one of those places, this was a good one to check out. Think I'd like a tea plantation also, although I won't mention in - they would undoubtedly find 10 or more to take us to...

Getting to Kandy was no problem; the driver has a sister living here so he's been many times. He did stop at his family's favorite sweet shop - and shared the story of his family stopping here every trip out. There were the normal road issues and it took 4 hours from that nice shortcut we had earlier but it was still pretty straightforward. That's where it ended. We needed to find "Nature Walk Guesthouse" somewhere in Kandy.  Seemed like it should have been easy to find to us but...the first tuktuk driver had no idea, pointed us in a vague direction. Next tuktuk driver wasn't much better, but we did get to the lake. To be fair, the road around the lake used to be two ways and our map seemed to be straightforward...but the road was no longer open. The next driver and the next got us progressively closer but still, no one really had any idea. Finally, using the map and the rough ideas, we got up on a road, near the Kandy Lake Club where, when we asked the final tuktuk driver he said yes, just up there, around the corner. We no longer mention our place, we just mention the club and everyone knows where to go. The things you learn on these trips....

The guesthouse is...interesting. It is very outdoors and low key. Has lots of outside seating areas - wonderful in tropical climates because the rooms are hot, lousy in a tropical climate because the bugs are out, wonderful here because the rooms are tiny. Unless you sit on the bed, you have to sit on the floor. Fortunately, we stayed in that room only one night. We moved up to a slightly larger room – though we still enjoyed the outside seating areas and the company of the interesting people who stayed at the guesthouse.

He never dropped them!
Fire Dancers

Kandy has a number of groups that put on a nightly performance of traditional dances. Luckily, one of the performances was right next door to our guest house so the people walked us over to the area. It was interesting to see the different costumes, learn a bit of the stories behind the various dances, and hear the music, primarily drums, a flute, and a curved horn instrument. Both men and women danced, though the men definitely had the most energetic dances. Many of the dances were part of a story, primarily that of Ramayama as he searched for his wife, Sita. One of the most interesting was the one with the men holding spinning plates – 5, 6 or more at a time! There was also a fire dance as well as the men who walked across burning coals.


Sigiriya seen from the gardens
View from the top

Today was our first tour of the Kandy area. Kapila, our driver for the next week or so, came to pick us up this morning to take us to Sigiriya, the Lion’s Rock, a huge stone rising up through the jungle, dominating the skyline. According to the guide book, Sigiriya was largely forgotten by the locals until it was discovered by the Euoropeans in the 1800...forgotten?? How in the world do you forget something that large?? To be fair, it was not protected or explored for historical value but then again, the country has been in almost continuous warfare for a mighty long time...could be that archeological expeditions were not a high priority (kinda like the whales).  

Anyway...they are making up for lost time with some extensive digs and restorations. It is now a World Heritage site as well as the 8th Wonder of the World. They have found some gorgeous paintings of celestial beings, wives of the king, or concubines - take your pick. Surrounding this forgotten rock are huge water gardens, with water features that quickly started working again once plugged waterways were opened up. The museum has some interesting pictures showing the archeology and restoration that has been done in the area. The wooden structures, sadly, have all deteriorated in this hot, humid climate, but the brick structures and foundations give you an idea of what was built into this solid rock.

Fresco of the ladies

The palace was built by King Kashyap on the very top of the rock to better protect the aforementioned damsels (whichever interpretation you have chosen). Apparently he had stolen the throne from his brother,Mogallana, so he had good reason to want a really secure castle. There were literally 1000 or more steps to get up to the top. At any point, people, troops, warriors, trying to scale the rock could be hit, scalded, or pushed off the winding stairways.
Lion's claws, surrounding final staircase

The entrance to the final stairs we surrounded by a stone lion – there to intimidate anyone who came to see the king. Now, said king probably would have lived out his life richly had he stayed on top of the lion throne, protected as it was, and not gone down to show off to his brother what a good general he was. Turns out he lost control of his elephant as well as the kingdom. After he died, it was used as a Buddhist Monastery.

The world's largest...

We are back to the world of the "world's largest..." This time it's yet another Buddha statue. This one is the world's largest Buddha with hands in Dharma Chakra position - check out the picture to see what that means. Despite my is huge and towers over the area. This particular one was built with a Japanese grant and is over 30 meters tall. While in and of itself it is a gorgeous statues and dominates the landscape, it is actually just the tip of the Dambulla cave system. 

Cave Temple

The most outstanding artifacts in this particular complex are the extensive Cave Temple that can be found above and behind the Buddha in the hill. Climbing up more steps (yes, just like in Japan, all temples and shrines must be at the top of the hill, reached by 1000 steps.) we reached the entrance. 
Details from on cave ceiling
The caves themselves were really an overhanging rock, but many enterprising souls began painting tapestries onto the rock long, long ago - pictures of Buddha, elephants, people, primarily things that were significant in the life of Buddha. It is amazing how well preserved they are - both the integrity of the paintings and the colors - we did discover how they came up with their colors...check out the entry below about our wood carvers. It is considered to be one of the most extensive and best preserved cave systems in Asia. The five caves are filled with hundreds of statues of Buddha - seated, standing or reclining, created out of rock, marble, or wood. There are also stupas included as well as statues of different kings. 
Small stupa inside one of the caves
The Sri Lankan people embrace any number of religions, and mostly it's a harmonious melody. It's good because just down the road is the world's largest Hindu temple in Sri Lanka. There is also the famous Mt. Adam, where there is a preserved footprint in the rocks...if you're Buddhist it is Buddha's but if you happen to be Muslim, it is Mohammed's, Christian it's Christ's and Jewish is is David's. Take your choice...

Hunas Falls

Roeland and Jeff

Roeland, a friend of ours from Doha, was also traveling and our paths happened to cross here in Kandy. We met him for dinner and took off for yet another day of touring - I know, it's a rough life but somebody has to do it. We traveled this particular day with Roeland's driver - a very interesting and loquacious young man...with a very heavy foot.  Given the traffic here, the way people pass, the number of dogs, cars, bikes and buses...I'm glad we will be with our driver most of the time!
While our trip was set out in terms of the hotel we would be staying in, the rest of our time was completely open to do as we wanted. Roeland was on a "tour" so he knew where he would be going each day. We ended up joining his tour for the day...hence our trip to the falls. 

Hunas Falls
Hunas Falls from below
We headed off first thing in the morning for Hunas Falls, located in the middle of a tea plantation. We had thought they were closer to town but it turns out it's about an hour away. The area has been beautifully landscaped with ponds, trails, and even a golf course (bring lots of balls - the jungle is encroaching). An older hotel was perched on the hill, overlooking the falls and a pond. There are a number of hiking trails in the area so we explored a few, checking out the falls and streams. We enjoyed lunch on the terrace - and a nice view of the grounds. We were surprised on the way back down the hill to see yet another set of falls coming from the man-made lake above. Guess there's a good reason for all the rain here - to keep the falls well supplied with water. While I'm glad we didn't get a lot of rain...I can just imagine what the falls would be like during the monsoon season!

The Cannon Ball tree
I am really amazed at the number of preserves, sanctuaries, World Heritage sites and other preserved areas in Sri Lanka. Despite the long civil war and numerous problems, they have done much to preserve the environment and to set aside large areas of land. Once we made it back to town, we spent the later afternoon at the Botanical Gardens in the middle of Kandy - a sea of tranquility in the midst of chaos.

The Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens are a walker's paradise. The British built the gardens and it is a popular place for tourists and school children to come visit. It is also a model for conservation in the area and is doing a lot towards preserving the native species and helping to educate people on the importance of preserving what they have. 

There are over 4000 different species of plants in the garden - primarily tropical plants that would be naturally found in the area, including lots of vines, creepers, trees, and exotic flowers. They have spice and herb gardens, natural herbs used for medicinal purposes, palm trees of all kinds as well as cannon balls.
One of the many gorgeous orchids

Each of the large leaves...are sleeping bats
The gardens had a wonderful stretch of land along the river – home for many bats! The trees along the walk were just filled with bats – sleeping the day away. With the number of bugs that found me in the area, I’m thankful they were there – I could only imagine how many more there would be without the bats. They also had a hot house filled with orchids of all types – absolutely stunning. 

Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage

Our run-away

Today we headed out for the Elephant Orphanage about an hour outside Kandy. The road, of course, wound through numerous villages, motorcycles, get the picture. We noticed that this area was full of pottery - every shop was selling various vases, plates, chimes, and other kinds of pottery. Sadly, every shop looked like the one before it. We started reflecting that we've also seen all fabric shops together, or all picture shops. Apparently, that's pretty standard here. Sometimes it's because things like the clay is readily available in a region, thus many people are involved in making clay products. Other times it's because there's a distribution shop nearby. Wood workers seem to work in a similar manner, sharing the resource and then all selling at the same spot. Fortunately, some do work to ship things overseas, selling wholesale - hopefully they're successful on other levels besides waiting for sellers to stop by.

We arrived at the Pinnewala elephant orphanage just in time to see the elephants playing in the river - they were wonderful to watch. There were 8 babies in the group - they spent lots of time rolling in the water, spraying, nursing, playing with each other, stretching, and generally cavorting around. The teenagers were the rebellious lot. One of them decided to head across the river. She found the grass growing up the slope and started feeding, rolling in the grass, pulling out tufts, and generally playing around. When the keeper neared to get her back into the river, she ran off down the river...with the keeper in pursuit. She finally relented and splashed back into the water, making a big show of moving towards the rest.

Ahhh...feels good
Trying to scratch

There was one particular rock that was quite popular among the elephants, especially the older ones. The would come up and scratch their rumps on it, moving back and forth for quite a period of time - one BIG itch, that's for sure. A few of the small ones tried but it really wasn't at a good height for them...they'll grow into it, I'm sure.

The orphanage was started to take care of 4 elephants that were found orphaned in the wild. A couple were just young but apparently one had been blinded and another had argued with a land mine. The orphanage worked to care for the numerous elephants that could no longer live in the wild, and, over time, they have grown into a herd of 86 different animals. They bring them in various groups down to the river a couple of times of day - hence the great show we got to visit. 

Heading from the river, through the town

To get there, there parade through the village - a great tourist treat...and way to get the tourists into the shops that line the street! The local hotels have placed their balconies for perfect viewing, even turning chairs so you can sit and watch...and it's not their fault that they just happen to serve tea, or coffee, or whatever else people want while they watch cavorting elephants. The one we went to had a great sense of humor...the entrance to the restaurant was under an elephant....with a posterior view of said elephant as you leave.

The day included yet another surprise...Jeff called our next hotel, per request, to confirm our reservation. They responded that yes, they did have one for use...but it was for the day AFTER we thought we were arriving. We suddenly had a hole in our schedule...and we were leaving Kandy in the morning. Fortunately, between our traveler's guide and our driver, we found a place. With it being the big travel season for Sri Lanka, guest houses were quite full!

Temple of the Tooth

Smuggling the tooth to Sri Lanka
Lower shrine for the tooth
We headed back through the various tuktuks to town, now for the Temple of the Tooth. As the story goes, the tooth is an incisor from the Buddha's funeral pyre and has been preserved, fought over, hidden, stolen, and threatened throughout the ages. As the story goes, it was smuggled to Sri Lanka at one point in time by a princess and her husband  and since then has been housed in numerous temples under many different kings. It is considered to be a very important relic and many come to visit the shrine. Sadly the fight over the tooth has not ended - there was even a modern day attempt at destroying it - a suicide bomber drove a truck up in the area and detonated it, destroying quite a bit of the entrance and temple but fortunately not the shrine that holds the tooth.

Current home of the tooth
Procession with the tooth
There is a fabulous museum nearby that has been created with contributions from Buddhist communities around the world. While all of them share a common heritage, and common holidays, the temples, the celebrations, and rituals all differ from each other. It was also somewhat amazing to realize that we had been to many of the temples...and how many more are left to explore.
One issue with food on these trips are the huge buffets they usually like to take you to. They are expensive and they have far more food than what I am interested in eating - plus 3/4 is meat so it's a bit limiting anyway. The buffets usually run anywhere from $10 to $30 and the food plate food, what can I say. On the other side, buying at smaller places, curry and rice can be had for $4, or less, and it's delicious. We found our favorite restaurant here...The White House. It has marvelous food - and most of it is between $4 and $5. We have been exploring different Indian curries here - now I just hope we can find some of them at home! Either that or we're going to have to learn how to make them ourselves. Sri Lanka serves curry very differently from what we usually get in Indian restaurants. At home, you get the one dish you ordered, with rice or naan (or both). Here, they serve you your main curry along with 4 or 5 small vegetable curries that go along with it. It’s an amazing amount of food because even though they’re small portions…there’s a lot of them. We always had enough food for 4 people, at least!

Tea Plantations

It's Christmas Eve! We headed off bright and early for Nuwara Eliya - a famous tea growing region of Sri Lanka. Notice the word "bright"? We have had absolutely gorgeous weather today - blue skies, sunshine, wispy clouds. Such a great day for a drive. Stopped at a wood working shop - oh my gosh they have fabulous workmanship! We got to see the men working on the carvings - the details are just outstanding. My favorite was a family of elephants, playing in the water and feeding on the trees along the edge. The carving was ornate and delicate. You could see the water splashing as the elephants sprayed each other. Just phenomenal. 
The colors that can be found on many of the wood carvings - as well as various cave and temple walls, were made from a tree called the Rainbow Tree. The man demonstrated how it shave off bits from the wood and mix it in water, giving you a nice red color. If you add various things, citrus juice, salt, you get different colors! He demonstrated how to get purple, blue, green and yellow. Most of the paintings we saw throughout Sri Lanka were colored this way. 

Looking down on the Temple of the Tooth

From there we headed up the hill to a great spot that over looks the Temple of the Tooth. The lake that is central to the town of Kandy was made by one of the kings in the 1800's. It is said that the island of the kings (in the center of the lake) was used by the kings for bathing and had a secret tunnel connected to the castle...who knows. While it is quite pretty and scenic, not everyone was happy with the king who built it. The view from the hill was not without its downside - the scenic pull out was well known and so many enterprising souls set up shops - or carry their wares in their arms -  all trying to get you to buy the t-shirt, key chain or necklace they're selling. It's amazing, at times obnoxious, and non-stop.
Tea Plantation

Finally left Kandy behind and headed up into tea country. We have spent a good part of the last few days sitting in towns with all of humanity pouring around us so it has been delightful to be out on the road, heading up the hills, with few people tagging along. 

Tea picker at the plantation
The scenery is outstanding - the pictures hardly do it justice. The British, being quite British, decided that since coffee wasn't making it (apparently there was a huge crop failure – in the 1860’s), they would plant tea and tea they planted. The hills are absolutely covered with tea plantations. I can't believe the steep hills that have tea growing on them...meaning the ladies are climbing up there, mostly barefooted, to pick the tea. The bags they carry hold about 10 kilo or so of tea so they carry a lot of weight up and down the hills. The bags are balanced on their heads with straps, much the same as the way people carried things in Nepal. The women are the ones who do the picking, apparently it’s too repetitive for the men. Many places provide some kind of housing but not much in the way of pay. While the two main groups who live on the island are the Sinhalese and the Tamil’s, it’s the Tamils who are primarily involved in picking tea and doing the main labor required maintaining the fields.
Spreading out the tea to dry

Tea production is much more involved that I ever realized. The factory we went through actually makes black tea (probably you've had some because Lipton is one of the buyers). The tea is dried in long trays, ground up, and then a multi-step process separates the tea leaves from the branches. The tea goes through a fermentation process before it is finally dried and goes through a final rolling process. Ceylon tea is quite famous and I have to admit, I've enjoyed the tea we've had here in Sri Lanka. Have learned…you want real tea, not the bagged stuff. Apparently they bag the “inferior” grade tea and sell the better stuff bulk. 

We have been playing tag with Roeland across Sri Lanka, it seems. While initially we weren't planning on going to Nuwara Eliya, a change in our reservation in Ella meant we needed someplace to be for a night. Jeff checked out the guide book as well as talked to Kapila and we found ourselves not just in the same village as Roeland, but actually just down the street from his place! We ended up spending Christmas Eve together, enjoying a drink at his hotel, heading downtown to Milano for dinner - curries, of course - and then stopping by our place for a nightcap. Nice to be able to spend the evening with friends!