We had originally planned to stay in Kandy for three nights and make it our base for exploring what in Sri Lanka is called the Golden Triangle, a roughly triangular area of cultural and historical sites that lie north of here. However the haul from Colombo to Kandy was enough to convince us that the one day we had allowed ourselves to travel the 300 kilometers to Tissa was not going to be enough. So our first priority in the morning was to check the train and bus routes south. It was worse than we feared. The buses made the transportation in Cambodia look advanced – no mean feat! – and the train would simply issue as many tickets as people showed up; and continue to do so for the fourteen stops it was going to make on the next six hours to Ella. Even then we would only be halfway to our destination. We loved the train ride from Colombo, but clearly it was not going to work on the next leg.

So we bit the bullet and hired a driver. The standard rate here is $70 bucks a day, which includes his gas and accommodation. We had to cover two days worth, as Ella is in the middle of nowhere, and we got accommodation for ourselves in the package at a place called Skyview Hotel. On a lot of this stuff you have to rely on your gut instinct regarding the guy who is selling you the package. Be friendly, try not to look or act too gullible, and always break it down one piece at a time. We try to book as much of this stuff online in advance, but sometimes you have to adapt on the fly. It always costs more to correct your mistakes, and we should have researched the roads more thoroughly.

That settled we set off to explore Kandy. We started in the Queen’s Hotel, the doughty old lady of a bygone era, with its gleaming wooden patina of floorboards and staircases. Then we moved on to the flower market beside the temple, awash in its vibrant lotus and lily colours and jasmine scents. We strolled the grounds of the temple dedicated to one of Buddha’s teeth – a highly venerated shrine in this predominantly Buddhist country, but opted not to part with the twenty bucks they wanted from us to explore inside. A short walk further down the lake brought us to the cultural centre where we bought tickets to the traditional dance show for the evening.

Seeing no advantage in going further around the lake, we caught a three-wheeler back into town to tour the local markets. It was pretty grungy stuff, but fascinating all the same. Handicrafts were a rarity, but fabrics were beautiful, abundant and cheap. As in Bangladesh you could get your clothing made from the fabric on the spot by a willing tailor on a foot-pedal Singer. Once again we encountered the welcoming smiles and approving nods at being some of the few white faces in these markets for quite some time. We stopped for a late lunch at a local curry house where we both ate our fill for five bucks. Then it was off to a tea shop to work on some documents for Pam’s workshop in Phnom Penh next month, and then took a leisurely stroll back to the cultural center.

The place was dark, and needed paint, some handrails on the staircase and decent chairs, but it was serviceable and our seats afforded an excellent view. The dance steps were complex and creative, but clearly this was an artform in recovery. The dancers were often unsure of their movements and rudimentary in skill compared to their counterparts in Laos, Malaysia or Bali. But the hall was packed and the audience receptive, and certainly with time stronger dancers and teachers will emerge to develop what has had to be set aside for almost an entire generation. The finale was a fire dance, culminating in walking on a bed of coals. I have seen this on travelogues as often as you have, but I had never witnessed it in person. These guys didn’t walk, they ambled, they strolled, they showed no evidence of pain or even discomfort. And these coals were not only hot; they were constantly fanned to flame!

Not yet ready to call it a night, and not willing to endure the crowds massing back at the Tooth Temple for the evening display, we caught a Tuk to the Swiss Hotel to sit in the lounge with a quiet drink. Seeing a single woman beginning to play solitaire at a nearby table, Pam invited her to join us. It turns out she wasn’t single, but waiting for her husband, Dave, who turned out to be a most interesting character. A graphic artist by training, he had led a t-shirt campaign to save a tract of virgin forest from being logged near Nelson, B.C. and had not only succeeded, but had managed to get it designated as provincial parkland. Although relatively small in size, the new park cut off the only access to logging for a huge tract of land further inland, which was then sold back to the province by the German consortium that owned it. The guy had ended up saving a massive amount of old growth forest in the heart of British Columbia.

Our little guest house was only a few steps from the hotel, but the roads were dark and wet, and without sidewalks we would be putting ourselves in unnecessary danger. The first three-wheeler stopped for us rather uncertainly – it was pitch dark after all – and he didn’t seem to have a clue about where we wanted to go. We were just going to give up and walk but he insisted on taking us if we showed him the way. We got in and I gave him some directions, mumbling under my breath about tuk-tuk drivers that didn’t know their way around town. Then Pam noticed, and commented, on the bags of goods he was carrying. “Yes, yes,” he explained, “I am a business man, a graduate of a local college and I am just returning home from work. I saw you walking in dangerous part of town and just wanted to help you out of trouble.” Chagrined and deeply humbled by my ungracious attitude in the face of such kindness, I offered him more than the ride was worth, but he wouldn’t accept it, taking only a dollar for his troubles, and giving me a beatific smile. Sometimes I am just such an ass I can’t stand it.

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