Tuesday, June 10, 2008

My Sri Lankan Diary: Part 4

Part 4: Turtles and Toilets

You can tell where the British have been by the toilets.

When the Roman Empire was finally dismantled, they left behind temples and amphitheatres and forts and mosaic-floored houses. When the British Empire began to shrink, we pulled out of various countries leaving behind a love of bureaucracy and some excellent lavatories and sewer systems. We Brits do like a good loo.

Like India, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) had once been part of that empire and, consequently, going to the loo there is just like ‘going at home’. I’ve been to many places in Europe and the Mediterranean - First World countries close to home – where you still can’t flush any paper down the loo and it all has to be placed in bags. It’s all quite ghastly. Sri Lanka may have shanty towns and poverty on a level we just can’t imagine but, when it comes to toilets, they put some of their First World neighbours to shame.

I mention this because the white porcelain became a very good friend to me for several days when I contracted dysentery. I have no idea how or where the bug got inside me but I suspect that it was on our return trip from Kandy and Galle. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s return to the beautiful city of Kandy.

Having enjoyed a mosquito-free, air-conditioned night in a nice hotel, our guide Linton promised to take us to the Temple of the Tooth and the Royal Botanical Gardens.

The temple – the Dalada Maligava - is absolutely huge and sprawls over much of the centre of the city along with a wonderful square lake. At the temple's heart, in a small reliquary, lies a shard of one of the Buddha’s teeth, left behind after his cremation.

It is Sri Lankas’s most sacred relic and the temple is patrolled by guards with big swords. And probably a good idea too - the temple is full of gold and ivory and precious stones. The tooth is also serenaded morning and evening by drummers who shake the vast building to its foundations. Drums and cymbals seem to be the staples of Sri Lankan music and, later that day, we were to see a display of Kandyan dance where the music is accompanied by frenzied whirling and stylised warfare, all performed while wearing the most extraordinary masks.

These masks are a big part of the culture of the island and, in the final part of this feature, I’ll be taking you to the mask museum. But first, we were going to have a look at the Royal Botanical Gardens.

The Brits are good at toilets. And they’re good at gardens; you only have to visit a few English stately homes to see that for yourself. The Botanical Gardens at Kandy are wonderful, beautifully laid out and full of exotic flowers. There was a whole section just for orchids – surely the most glorious of all flowers – and some real oddities like the so-called drunken pines that lean at mad angles over the pathway and strange, spiky plants with tall necks that looked a lot like I imagine a triffid would look.

But the crowning glory of the gardens is its fig tree. Claimed by some to be the largest tree in the world, it covers an area in excess of a square kilometre and it has been known for hundreds of people to have huge picnics under its vast canopy.

It was here that I was fleeced of a few rupees by a park keeper who thrust a huge scorpion at me on the end of a broom and said that he’d let me take a photo of it for a small donation. He then hung around until I paid a few rupees more for him to take it away. I can now say that I’ve been mugged by a scorpion. Looking back at the photo, I suspect that its sting had been docked, but I didn’t notice that at the time.

We left Kandy and headed South towards Galle. Linton took us via the scenic West coast route past Mount Lavinia and our hotel at Beruwela. At Ahungala we saw signs for a turtle hatchery and Linton promised to take us there on the way back.

The West coast is stunning with white sandy beaches and swaying palms. Whenever we stopped, men would offer to get us a fresh coconut and, as quick as you like, they’d be up the tree without a safety net and to Hell with health and safety legislation. They did taste good though. The coconuts, not the men.

They use coconut palms for everything on Sri Lanka. They use the flesh and milk for cooking, the shells for bowls and the husk for matting. They even make a local spirit from it called arrack which is like Irish poteen – you could clean paintbrushes with it. It tastes something like whisky and something like rum. Apparently the name comes from the Arabic for ‘sweat’. Local fishermen use coconut palm wood to build houses with and to make a particular kind of canoe with an outrigger float called an oruva and these were often brightly coloured making them easy to spot against the deep blue of the sea.

No boats were needed for the stilt fishermen of Galle though. This curious form of fishing was used traditionally for thousands of years to catch the fish that strayed close to the shore. These days, they have progressed to oruvas and do it just for the tourists, apparently.

I’ve mentioned the British influence in the Far East several times in this piece and nowhere is it in evidence more than Galle. Pronounced to sound like ‘Gaul’, this is a fortified town composed of a Dutch fort and British battlements with a dash of East India Company chic.

The rambling narrow streets are crammed with gem dealers (Sri Lanka is home to many gemstone mines including sapphires, moonstones and opals – we visited a moonstone mine and it was all very low-tech and almost as scary to watch as the guys climbing the palm trees). Just outside the fort is the cricket ground where the excellent Sri Lankan team play host to visitors from England, Australia, New Zealand, India and the West Indies. It’s a busy, bustling town and we did a good deal of our holiday gift shopping here - We had gone to Alutgama on a previous day but most of it had been shut as, apparently, the shops close on Sundays and during the full Moon. It’s also here that I suspect I picked up my tummy bug. The supposedly clean water did taste funny. All I know is that, by the time we were on the road home, my tummy was making some ghastly noises.

We did stop at the turtle hatchery and, despite feeling quite poorly by now, I’m glad we did. Sri Lanka is a favourite nesting spot for many of the world’s rarest turtles and so, to increase numbers, the eggs are gathered in once laid and incubated in a safe environment away from gulls, sea eagles, monitor lizards, devil birds and – most damaging of all – humans. The eggs are guarded until they hatch. These are one day old (below).

The young hatchlings are looked after until they are of a size where they can take care of themselves. Then they are released into the sea. This one (below) was almost ready to go and was a week old. Even so, it felt so small and delicate in my hand.

The hatchery also acts as a hospital taking in injured turtles and also those that Nature has disadvantaged, such as the albino turtle they have there. It looked like a ghost, all pale white and yellow. The locals had named it Michael Jackson.

My face was slowly turning a similar colour so Linton got us home as soon as he could. I spent the following three days touring our bathroom.
I didn't need a guide. I needed some corks.

In the final part … Yala National Park, the mask museum and a river safari to die for ...

Post-script: Galle was one of the towns worst hit by the tsunami and I watched the TV coverage with some horror as I could remember walking in certain streets where I was now seeing deep floodwater thundering past carrying vehicles, debris and - most awful of all - people, alive and dead. It made this terrible natural catastrophe all the more real to me as I'd been there so recently before it happened. Just ask YouTube for 'Tsunami Sri Lanka' and you'll see what I mean.


willow said...

I love turtles. And that fig tree is magnificent. The scorpion is, too, but gave me the shivers.

Stevyn Colgan said...

I love turtles too ... but I couldn't eat a whole one.

Well, maybe a little one. In a burger bun.

JenIsFamous said...

I did some blogging about the toilets of the Middle East when I went there last summer to entertain the troops. In sum: hoses sound like a pretty good idea, actually, but you really can't trust people in public airport bathrooms to point the hoses properly. Don't wear open-toed shoes.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Jen! So great to hear from you! Do you realise that you're mentioned twice elsewhere on my blog? You're even mentioned in the first ever post!