January 2011

We are sitting here this morning in our jammies watching the sun come up, and praising God for the beauty of His creation. Sights such as the view out our window are part of the treasure of a lifetime of travel. This particular view is right up there with the Cape Breton coastline and the view from the balcony at Palau Redang. We feel fortunate to be here, even if we had to get up at 5:45 to see the sun rise on Adam’s Peak. That’s it over there on the right. You can’t see up to the top in this view, but if you listen closely perhaps you can hear the spectacular waterfall cascading down its slopes.

When the kitchen opened we ordered coffee, showered and warmed up in the window overlooking the valley. After a passable breakfast we hit the road, stopping as little as possible as we wanted to hit Tissa before noon. We overshot our mark and got there by 11, paid and tipped the driver and checked into to a very nice little guesthouse on the side of Tissa Lake. Not knowing quite how to set about exploring the town, we settled on the guest bicycles, and started down the dirt track that wound around the lake. Along the way we saw all kinds of waterfowl .

About half-way around the lake we were hailed by a friendly fellow who insisted we check out the view from his place. We acceded (sometimes it pays to be gracious, as you will shortly see) and allowed him to pick some papaya and blend it into a juice for us. While we sat sipping and watching the waterfowl, a Safari Jeep pulled into the compound to drop of a load of smiling tourists. Now we knew that Yala National Park was nearby, and had in fact chosen Tissa as a destination for that reason. We knew too that Yala was very highly rated, both for its diversity of wildlife and the management of its plants and animals. We also knew, because we had checked before we left Malaysia, that it was prohibitively expensive to do a safari there. But since the Jeep was right there, and the guy was right there, we had to ask. To our delight it was only going to be 5500 rupees, about $50 Canadian, for both of us and wouldn’t you know it the next five hour safari started in about twenty minutes! We were in!

We quickly scooted back to the guesthouse and loaded up on water and bug repellant, made arrangements for supper and packed our cameras and the binoculars. I always travel with binoculars, but today I would be wishing I had two pair, for it was hard to share when the sights were so engrossing. Right on time the driver showed up, and we drove through some very pleasant scenery for about an hour to get to the park entrance. The park wanted another $50 bucks and our passports, so if you are going – and if you come to Sri Lanka you should – then be prepared. We haven’t seen any room safes on this trip, so we have carried our passports in a waist pouch since we landed. Lucky for us, as no one had told us they would be needed. We also took on a ‘tracker’, who turned out to be worth his weight in gold.

Pam spotted our first sight within minutes, a large bull elephant grazing on some trees right beside the road. Our tracker figured him to be about 40; he had no tusks, unlike his African counterparts. His appearance seemed to set the tone for the next three hours; one sighting after another in rapid succession. The highlight was undoubtedly the large Sri Lankan leopard, a huge male with golden fur and white spots resplendent on his rock outcropping. After that we saw sambar, which are elk-sized deer, spotted deer, golden jackal, wild pig, all manner of water buffalo, three more elephants, a black-napped hare, black-faced hanuman languor with their grey fur blending perfectly into the grey bark of the tree, and a lone crocodile patiently tracking its prey through the water lilies.

With over two hundred species, the birds in the park were almost too numerous to catalogue. There were snipes and shrikes, egrets and spoonbills, stilts, stints, crakes and cranes. We saw jacanas and hoopoes, bee-eaters and flycatchers, both very lovely birds by the way, peacocks and pelicans, whistling teals and night herons. We saw an Indian roller, a beautiful bird with blue feathers a green back and an orange breast, and an Indian darter, much like a cormorant, but more colourful. We saw the national bird of Sri Lanka, the Ceylon spurfowl, a shy rooster-like bird and lots of white ibis, with their black curved bills. We saw a magnificent crested hawk-eagle, and the flamingo-like painted stork. My personal favourite was the totally inappropriately named common kingfisher. He was a gorgeous fellow with his electric blue back and wings and pumpkin orange breast. I don’t think I named them all, but you surely get the picture; it was a banquet for the eyes!

Our last view of the park was the massive back of the Sri Lankan leopard as we drove reluctantly away to make the 6 o’clock closure time. The guidebook will tell you that this is Asia’s premier wildlife preserve. What it won’t tell you is what kind of effect that has on you. After dropping and profusely thanking our trekker whose eagle eyes has spotted so much wildlife, we drove the hour back to the guesthouse in semi-stunned silence. We had another lovely meal and went to bed exhausted not from the effort, but from processing so much sensory information in such a short period of time. It was just fourteen hours from the dizzying heights of Adams Peak to the almost spiritual experience of Yala National Park. Our guest house neighbours summed it up by saying Sri Lanka is like a shrink-wrapped India. Everything you can find on the mainland is here, it is just condensed. It can be a little overwhelming.

Thursday morning we woke early in Kandy to get a start of what promised to be a long day’s drive. The room was cold, despite the extra blanket, and we both took a pass on the shower. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. We packed up and checked our mail in time to find Jon and Nic negotiating with a buyer for their house. It didn’t pan out, but they are clearly not going to be stampeded into giving their house away, and we applaud them for that. We said our goodbyes to Sirath, the very sweet guesthouse owner, and loaded our stuff into our driver’s car. Ominously it was a Proton Wira, a Malaysian product notorious for its poor quality.

The ride out of town was uneventful, and the traffic sparse. The talk about Sri Lanka’s poor and dangerous roads seemed hysterical and overwrought; a product of its proximity to the pampered West, rather than Asian realities. We wound our way ever higher into the hills, now dotted with tea plantations and cut by waterfalls. We stopped for pictures beside hills carpeted with manicured rows of emerald green tea, and did a brief tour of a tea factory, notable for its antique machines, still functioning rhythmically.

Our destination for lunch was Nuwara Elia, a British colonial town high in the hills. The road was now becoming quite steep, with multiple switchbacks and precipitous drops. It was as rugged or more so than Luzon, the northern island of the Philippines. Leveling off we came into town, some two kilometers above sea level and had the driver pull in at the Grand Hotel, a lovely old monument to the finer qualities of this country’s genteel British heritage. We bought some children’s books from a group of business students to give them an opportunity to practice their English, and then promptly gave them away to the first child we met. Despite its regal elegance, lunch would have been a mere 10 dollars for both of us, served on the finest china with heavy silver cutlery.

But I had promised the driver that he could chose us a place for lunch, knowing full well that by doing so he would get a kickback for bringing his clients. Sometimes this works, this time it did not. The place he took us to was shabby and deserted, the curry was mediocre, and we got hosed 20 bucks for a meal we had bought in town the previous night for $4. To add insult to injury the driver ignored my request to drive into town to have a look around and get some money out, and immediately got back on the road again, which was under construction for the next thirty miles, making it impossible to turn around. The fellow clearly had in mind to drop us at his earliest convenience; I was becoming more than a trifle miffed.

I insisted that he stop at the first possible opportunity, Bandarella, and got out to find an ATM. What we found was a nice German couple outside the ATM with whom we struck up a conversation. Finding they were also headed to Ella, we offered them a lift – there has to be some advantage of having a driver! – and ended up having a lovely conversation at a little café in Ella while the driver gave me sullen and angry looks at a nearby table. She was a researcher at an environmental institute in Berlin, studying the effects of global warming. He was waiting to hear if his application for doctoral thesis was going to be accepted. We exchanged travel tips and parted company.

The final leg to the hotel was not for the fainthearted. Skyview Hotel was in fact SkyGreen Hotel, and it took some finding. The fellow who booked it for us assured us that it had the best view in Ella, and he wasn’t kidding; but getting to the best view in town meant climbing a road fit for goats. We opted to walk the last 100 meters rather than trust our lives to our driver’s rickety Waja. But the climb was worth it as we arrived in our room and opened our window to a stunning view of the hills. Really, the pictures do not do it justice. We had a lovely supper with an unimaginative couple who had been going to the same resort for twenty years and thought this time they would try something new. They got awfully lucky with the second thing they tried!

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.

This morning we planned to sleep in, but I was up at 6:45 anyway and snuck out to have a cup of tea and watch the waves roll in from the balcony overlooking the sea. I’ve slept in plenty in my life. I haven’t sipped a morning cup of tea reading the Sri Lankan Daily News with the Indian Ocean at my feet that often. Pam joined me for breakfast, and what with the view and the near endless buffet, it was nearly 10:30 before we felt inclined to move on.

First on the list was the National History Museum, a sprawling colonial structure that once housed the British governor. Now it is stocked with the relics of Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial past, a civilization that spans fifteen centuries and is filled with the peaceful development of trade and agriculture. Much emphasis was given to religion, with a particular fondness for female deities that seemed to be unusually well and firmly endowed. Apparently gravity has no effect on celestial physique.

After a good look around we went for a stroll in the neighbouring park that featured numerous couples sporting with their consorts. Apparently the attraction for the female form endures to the present. Both the park and the museum show evidence of the war in the shabby deterioration of façade and grounds. But renovations are underway to restore what obviously was once quite pleasant and attractive. Our presence as tourists was noted and welcomed.

We went on to Pettah Market, a veritable warren of narrow, dank alleys crammed with vegetables and spices. Here we were greeted as curiosities, many simply wanting to say hello and ask where we were from. Clearly tourism is still a novelty in some parts of the city. We progressed to the craft and trinket part of the market where we bought a much needed electrical adaptor for the computer. They use the same three prong arrangement familiar in South-East Asia, but in this part of the world the prongs are all round, unlike the rectangular ones we are used to.

With the rain threatening to turn the dirt pavement into mud, we caught a Baby Taxi back to the hotel where we had parked our luggage. A final goodbye to the ancient hotel greeter, something of an iconic figure in Colombo, and we were on our way to the train station. We had read much about the fabled rail passage to Kandy, and were not disappointed. The train was old and decrepit, but we never doubted its reliability. It pulled its way steadily up the ascending hills, rocking gently past rice paddies of emerald green and hills wreathed in smoky clouds. The views were stunning, terraced slopes and swooping valleys around every corner.

We pulled into Kandy at dusk, and were met by the owner of the lodge where we will stay for the next three days. He and his wife run Freedom Lodge, just on the edge of town. We were too late for dinner at the lodge, but a short Tuk-Tuk ride took us into town for a lovely meal overlooking the main street. We are looking forward to exploring the city in the morning.

After a shaky 3 a.m. start that involved a breakdown on a freeway in the middle of nowhere, we did make it to the airport in plenty of time to catch our flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is a beautiful island in the Indian Ocean just off the southern tip of India. The people are a very lovely blend of Singhalese and Tamil who love their bright colours and spicy foods. Although the locals complain of the traffic and the congestion, it is relatively serene compared the bustle of Kuala Lumpur or the congestion of Bali.

We took ten thousand rupees out of the ATM – sounds excessive unless you know that this is only 100 dollars – and caught a taxi into town, stopping to buy a SIM card for our travel phone on the way. SIMs are relatively expensive here, nine dollars, as the economy has yet to fully recover from 26 years of civil war. The driver was sweet, with excellent English and wonderful credentials, judging from his guest book, but we opted against keeping a driver for the duration. The fifty dollars a day was pretty reasonable, but paying for his accommodation was added expense and hassle. We decided to go ahead with Plan A, which was to take the train to Kandy.

The driver dropped us off at Galle Face Hotel, a building that predates Canadian Confederation by three years (snap quiz!) and was the choice of authors such as Anton Chekov in 1890. It owns a gorgeous piece of real estate overlooking the Indian Ocean, and with its sprawling colonnades and spacious winding staircases is a testimony to the faded elegance of the British Raj in its heyday. Our room is cavernous, with what must be twelve foot ceilings, and the wide wooden plank floor large enough for ballroom dancing.

A quick phone call put us in touch with cousin Ros’ friend Becky who lives just outside of town. She and her daughter Annalee were good enough to meet us at the hotel and take us for a bit of a tour of the city, ending up at a restaurant/craft centre called Barefoot. I was disappointed that the Chicken Tikka Masala was only moderately spicy, as I had read that Sri Lankan curry was famous for its heat. Becky thought the recipe had been tamed for tourists. The fabrics and the art at Barefoot were fabulous, but I rarely buy the crafts and settled for a book on the Buddha to help me to clarify some lessons I am writing for an upcoming workshop. A short hop brought us back to the hotel for a wee kip.

In the late afternoon we ambled along the waterfront outside the hotel. This area features a large tract of undeveloped land, first cleared by the Dutch in order to provide an unimpeded line of sight for their cannons in the adjacent fort that once defended the city. These days the land serves as a parade ground for the Sri Lankan military, although I read in this morning’s paper that the area has just been sold for 125 million U.S. to Shangri La, a Japanese hotelier, who plans on putting a seven star resort on the site. The locals will miss it, as the land is a popular spot for kite-flying and picnic suppers. We finished our stroll back to the hotel where we watched the sun gently subside into the ocean from a waterside table. It was a nearly perfect first day.

New Year celebrations are not what they used to be when we were younger. These days they tend to be more reflective than celebratory, a function not only of the physical limitations of age, but a recognition that there is still a whole pile of things left to do, and an increasingly limited amount of time to do them in.

This coming year is no exception. I won’t bore you with our To Do list for the year, but when we talked it through on New Year’s Eve, as is our custom, it looked pretty daunting. It also looked pretty fun, at least most of it did. There is a wedding coming up and the birth of a new grandkid; some ministry endeavors in Cambodia and some interesting travel opportunities. It all looks pretty good; we are just going to need to stay strong and healthy to get through it all.

Both of us continue to be amazed that the Lord finds so much for us to do at our age. Pam met with two members of her TWR team in Singapore, and came away with further increased responsibilities and opportunities as a result. My own responsibilities at school continue to grow as I have now become the veteran on staff after just three years and a leader in the recruitment of students for our program, a position that may involve some travel in the near future. We have long ago given up the idea that this part if our life would lead us to a gentle semi-retirement. Instead we seem to be busier than ever.

However, none of this would be possible without our kids, and that is the purpose of this post. We are here and able to stay here because are kids are doing such a fantastic job of looking after themselves back in Canada. Now you might say that because they have all reached or are approaching 30 that this goes without saying. Okay, perhaps. But how many 30-somethings do you know that are not still relying on their parents for some level of emotional or financial support. Not many in our experience. How many are conducting their lives in a way that does not provoke some level of parental anxiety or concern. Even fewer.

Our kids are not perfect. That ended when they became teenagers! But they are all doing extremely well, and we thank God for that. They are meeting their challenges, they are making responsible decisions and they are mastering the consequences for those decisions. Of course we miss them, particularly at this time of year. But we are able to get on with our lives because they are getting on with theirs. They enable our ministry just by the way they conduct themselves. This gives us great comfort and even motivation in what we are doing on this side of the world. Our kids are a blessing and an inspiration to us; we wish them a very happy and successful new year.

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