Friday, June 13, 2008

My Sri Lankan Diary: Part 5

Welcome to the final part of my Sri Lankan travel diary.
Part Five: Pure Soap

You've doubtless heard the expression 'the bottom dropped out of my world'? Well, for three days it had felt like the world had dropped out of my bottom. I'd never felt so poorly and every possible exit point from my body ached with over-use.

But now I was feeling, if not entirely better, well enough to travel and I was anxious not to waste the last few days of our trip sitting around in bathrooms. First off, because it was fairly close by, we decided to visit the Mask Museum at Ambalangoda.

Masks are an important part of Sri Lankan tradition. Some are used in medicine, many are used in dances that tell the ancient stories of their island nation. The extraordinary affair above is a medicine mask and the sixteen smaller faces carved and painted beside the main face represent different illnesses. We also, while were in the area, visited a batik factory, a lace makers and a silk farm. All were very fascinating and we walked away with several presents for friends, family and ourselves. Even as I type this, two Sri Lankan masks are glowering at me from the wall to my right.

The next day, we were once again woken by being scared half to death by devil birds and the odd CHINK CHINK noise of palm squirrels. They're cute and cheeky little buggers - something like chipmunks - who'll steal your food and drink in an instant. When alarmed, they flick their tails like semaphore flags and make noise like glass bottles being knocked together and then fed through Ozzy Osborne's PA system. They're very loud.

We once again hired the redoubtable Linton de Silva as our guide and asked that we be taken to Yala National Park via a river safari. He obliged us and we travelled to our first port of call; the Maadu Ganga River. We arrived at the bridge where the safaris start and found that we were the only people there. Tourist people that is. There was a small gang of locals and the minute our feet hit the road, they began imploring us to use their boat services. We picked the boat that looked the least likely to fall to pieces. It was not as easy a choice as you'd think.
The river was broad and dotted with islands. Sometimes the islands were so large, I mistook them for the riverbank. It was only when I glimpsed open water and the white domes of Dagobah temples beyond in the distance that I realised how broad the river was. I hadn’t expected to find so much fresh water on an island the size of Sri Lanka.

Every so often we would see gloriously coloured kingfishers, green herons, little egrets, wild peacocks and other birds I couldn't identify. Large river monitor lizards lay sunning themselves on the banks and islands and, upon seeing us, would slip silently into the water and swim along side in anticipation of food. Sure enough, the boat boys threw them scraps of fruit and bread and the monitors gobbled it all up with lizardly glee.

We landed on one island and met a family of cinnamon farmers. The whole island smelled of Mom's apple pie and Dad was happy to sell us a big rolled piece of bark for just a few rupees. The same amount of spice at home would have cost me over £100 I reckon. We also met a pineapple farmer and he, again, was happy to oblige us by picking the sweetest juiciest pineapple I've ever tasted - straight from the plant - for just a few pennies.

I'd noticed that almost everywhere we'd been on the island, there were handpainted advertisements for products - one of the most common being 'Sunlight - Pure Soap'. We'd seen it everywhere. Linton explained that this particular product is cheap and easily available so everyone uses it to wash themselves, their clothes, their hair and their elephants. The reason that the adverts were painted was that paper posters would just fall to pieces in the humidity. Whoever paints these things is quite the artist. Every one we saw was identical - same colours, same font. Not all adverts were quite so clear however. There has been a peculiar Sri Lankan mangling of the English language in the past 100 years or so and we would often see signs and adverts for things like Short Eats, Fish Today and the delightfully obscure Rotty Stop or Wasp Xing. I still have absolutely no idea what they were promoting.

After our river safari, Linton took us along the South Coast towards Yala. We stopped at various little stalls and farms that Linton knew and ate fresh cashews, papaya, passion fruit and guavas. We drank coconut milk and lots and lots of tea. And we saw many kinds of lizards - mostly skinks and anoles. At last we arrived at Yala but it was already getting dark so Linton arranged a hotel for us and told us that we'd need to get up early to take the Land Rover safari into the national park.
An exceptionally long power cut meant that we ate in pitch darkness in the restaurant that evening, lit only by starlight and candles. It was very romantic but also a little scary. This part of Sri Lanka is remote and pretty inaccessible. There was no other building for miles and no form of street lighting or transport links. We felt like we were at the very ends of the Earth.

Morning came quickly enough and after a fine breakfast, we jumped into the back of a Land Rover driven by a man with several guns and we were whizzed around Yala. It was the most amazing experience but, sadly, I have very little to show for it except a shot of two crocodiles as my digital camera had run completely out of battery power and, stupidly, I'd not brought my charger along. I cursed and ranted and railed as we drove past electric blue bee-eaters, wild elephants, boars, mongooses, several types of monkey, painted cranes, jungle fowl, hornbills, Chital deer and peacocks. We weren't lucky enough to see a leopard but if we had, I wouldn't be able to share it with you. The best I can do is direct you here to David Behrens' site where he is better able to show off all the things we saw. Sigh.

On our way back to Beruwela, we stopped to watch a Sri Lankan wedding where the bride was promenaded through the village on a cart that was apparently on fire. It was a very happy occasion and we were delighted to be asked to join in with the hand-clapping and shouting. We then sampled something called buffalo curd - a kind of natural yoghurt - flavoured with dangerous honey; dangerous because we saw a chap shin up a tree and lop the bottom off a large paper bees' nest to get it, despite the huge crowd of angry insects that swarmed moodily around him.

At the end of a long and, thankfully toilet-trauma free day, we got back to the hotel to enjoy one final sunset on Beruwela Beach. And what a corker it was.

It was then that I realised that the plasterers who were working on the hotel's exterior were the DJ with the world's worst disco, the Waltons-loving crap magician and the snake charmer. It just goes to show that in a poor country, nothing is ever wasted. Everything is recycled - even the people.

Goodbye Sri Lanka. For two weeks it had felt like living in a different world. A world of extraordinary wildlife, magnificent temples, unimaginably beautiful scenery and the all-pervading smell of soap.
Sunlight - pure soap.


willow said...

Very entertaining account of your travels! I can't exactly say that it's on my top travel wish list, but loved hearing about your experiences.

Pat said...

Very interesting travel post about a fascinating place. I enjoyed all your photos.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks Pat

It was a fantastic experience (except the dysentery). I'm in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands as I write this ... expect more travel stories soon! Thanks for popping by.