Evening entertainment isn’t a strong suit for Sri Lankan hotels. At least, it wasn’t at our hotel. And, if I’m honest, ineptitude wasn’t just restricted to evenings. Various amateurish, though wholly endearing and enthusiastic, performers were inflicted on us morning, noon and night.
At lunchtime we were serenaded by a Sri Lankan Mariachi band called the Bentota Bees (or something like that). Imagine the scene … three old men in enormous sombreros singing to you in Spanish when all they speak is their native Sinhalese and their guitars are cheap and a bit soggy. They were out of tune and desperately out of talent. That’s what we faced over our cuttlefish stew or ‘chicken parts’. Yup, chicken parts was one the intriguing menu choices one lunch time. And you couldn’t fault the honesty; that’s what it was. With no attempt at finesse, butchery or filleting, several chickens had been smashed up – apparently with machetes or lump hammers – and chucked into a salty, spicy curry. It tasted great but it looked like roadkill (as an aside, I did once see something called ‘Beast of Chicken’ advertised on a menu in London’s Soho … but I digress).
The Bentota Bees were a curiosity, but the magician they foisted on us one evening was unforgivable. Accompanied by a cassette tape that played nothing but TV show theme tunes – I distinctly remember the theme from The Waltons - he performed a succession of tricks, most of which we’d all seen before. His music, and the lights, cut out regularly due to the evening power outs. To make matters worse, his technique was so poor that we could all see clearly (when the lights were on) how he did things. None of his card tricks worked at all, a problem compounded by his confusion between Clubs and Spades, but, to his credit, he just carried on oblivious of our laughter and growing sense of unreality.
Another night we had a snake charmer. He had a large and lethargic python that he let everyone hold (for a rupee or two) and five cobras in baskets. Clearly, all had been de-fanged and were very old and they sleepily swayed around to the fakir’s commands. All through the performance, a small and annoyingly yappy dog growled and pranced around the baskets. The beast belonged to an obnoxious Polish woman with a smile like a slapped halibut whose lower body was three dresses larger than her top. It was as if Kylie Minogue had been spliced at the waist to Hattie Jaques. She was a very odd shape. Maybe that was the source of her constant scowl and snippy manners? She’d apparently come on holiday with three fit and attractive young men her age. So maybe she was just tired?
We couldn’t quite figure out how she’d brought the dog with her. How had it got through quarantine? Its name, apparently, was Gonad.
Our guide Linton had worked out an itinerary for us for a two day expedition. Firstly, we were going to Pinnawela to visit the Elephant Orphanage. Then, we were going on to Kandy, the older and first capital city of Sri Lanka for an overnight stay.
The love that Sri Lankans have for their elephants is abundantly evident at the Elephant Orphanage. It was created in 1975 by the Government Wildlife Department to cope with the ever-increasing number of elephant calves whose parents had been killed for their ivory. The ivory trade has all but been eradicated but deaths do still occur – often because of land mines. The far north of the island is still gripped by civil war between Sri Lankans and Tamils. When we visited the orphanage, it had some 65 elephants, some of which had been born there.
The conditions at Pinnawela are as close to the animals’ natural surroundings as they can make them. The elephants roam free and have formed into natural herds. However, there is little wild food for them so they are fed daily. The calves take several gallons of milk and Dawn got the opportunity to feed one of the youngest. They are also walked, twice a day, down to the Maha Oya river to bathe. We were in time to watch this extraordinary event.
We took our leave and headed on towards Kandy. The roads were little more than dirt tracks and wound through a landscape mostly made up of rice fields. It had recently been the monsoon season and the fields were lush and green. Water buffalo are still used for ploughing in these rural districts and, in-between jobs, they lolled around in deep puddles and pools, mynah birds picking the parasites from their backs. At Paduka we were shown a working rubber plantation and got to see the white sticky latex being collected from the scarred trunks. Then, at Pugoda, we stopped at a brick factory to buy fresh passion fruit and guava. The factory consisted of a few families from nearby ‘Brick village’ gathering wet, sloppy terracotta mud and pressing it by hand into moulds made from wood or old tins. Then the bricks are left to dry in the fierce sun. It is a combination of these bricks, bamboo, any old salvaged pieces of wood and palm leaves that are used to make houses locally.
At Maligawila we got to see one of the biggest Buddhas you’ll ever see. It was carved out of the local limestone and dates back to the 7th century. More recent and much more massive was the concrete Buddha at Dambegoda. It’s absolutely huge (about 35 feet high) and is called – if I’ve spelled it right – the Avalokitheswara Bodhisattva. I may not have got the right place name either - my notebook is unusually soggy at this point and all of the writing has blurred into a blue haze.
Mr Buddha was very much on our minds as we finally arrived at Kandy. Apart from the enormous white statue of him that was watching us from the top of a hill overlooking the city, the whole place is dedicated to the great prophet. At the centre of town lies a huge temple and deep inside, hidden inside rooms and chests and reliquaries decorated with gold and ivory lies Sri Lanka’s most sacred object.
We’d see it in the morning.