Between conducting research, attending events, and teaching an online class, my schedule in Sri Lanka has been pretty packed. But I knew that if I wanted to see the country and not just the inside of coffee shops in Colombo I would have to get out and leave my laptop behind. Given that my time here was drawing to a close, I decided to embark on a trip around what is commonly referred to as Sri Lanka's cultural triangle, an interior portion of the country with great historical significance, ancient ruins of political and religious import, and quintessentially Sri Lankan excursions. The plan I hatched would take me in clockwise fashion from Colombo to Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa to Sigiriya and Dambulla to Kandy to Ella and back to Colombo.
The first leg of my journey ran from Colombo to Anuradhapura by train (450 Rs for 2nd-class reserved). I arrived in the late afternoon and traveled by tuk tuk to Hotel White House. The next morning I ventured by trishaw to the Sacred City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of Ceylon featuring numerous Buddhist monasteries and royal palaces. As I was exploring on the Sunday following the Esala Full Moon Poya Day, the atmosphere was particularly festive, with Sri Lankans dressed in white descending upon the religious sites and small vendors seizing upon the commercial opportunities presented by the large crowds. Tickets for foreigners cost a whopping 3850 Rs (roughly $25 USD). The ruins were quite scattered across a large area, so I would recommend renting a bicycle (600 Rs) in order to cover the extensive grounds.
Later that day I set out for Polonnaruwa via the bus from Anuradhapura to Kaduruwela (160 Rs). As soon as I had arrived at my next accommodations, Thisal Guest House, I was asked by the manager if I wanted to join the party already geared up in the jeep for an afternoon elephant safari at Kaudulla National Park (6500 Rs). I'm glad I did. Our group got to see dozens of elephants grazing, walking in herds, and communicating across the marshy scrub lands. Our guide took us to Kaudulla and not the more popular Minneriya National Park because of the rampant elephant abuse that occurs in the latter, where animals are routinely surrounded by vehicles, occasionally causing them to charge at safari-goers out of fear and frustration.
The next day, having learned from my logistical blunder in Anuradhapura, I opted to rent a bicycle (300 Rs) to canvas the many Buddhist and Hindu temples of Sri Lanka's second ancient capital, Polonnaruwa. Again, tickets for foreigners were 3850 Rs. In my opinion, the historical sites here were far better in quality than those I visited in A'pura. The Archaeological Museum, located on the lake side of the road opposite the ruins, offered a comprehensive overview of how religion influenced the architecture of the monuments. Admission was included in the price of the ticket.
The following morning I took a tuk to the bus station, where I hopped aboard a bus headed to Inamaluwa (90 Rs), a city just outside my next destination- Sigiriya. After some convincing I agreed to take a tuk to Hotel Sigiriya, my resting place for the next two days. I awoke the next day at 6am in order to beat the crowd that had come to ascend the famous Lion Rock, an ancient rock fortress notable for its palatial ruins and magnificent views from the top of the formation. The price of a ticket for entry to this cultural site was a stunning 4620 Rs (about $30 USD) for foreigners. I began the climb at 7:30am and reached the top just before 8am. It was more arduous than I was expecting, even at that time of day, but the views made it all worth while. For those planning on making the trek to the top of Lion Rock, start out as early as possible and bring plenty of water.
After walking back to the hotel and resting for a bit, I arranged for a tuk driver to pick me up and bring me to nearby Dambulla to explore the Rock Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. After paying the admission price of 1500 Rs and storing my shoes at a small depository (25 Rs for the service), I entered the series of conjoined sanctuaries carved into the side of a large sloping hill. The temples were remarkable for the sheer quantity and size of religious statues, of which there are over 150. This temple-cave complex is unlike anything else in Sri Lanka, so it's a must-see for anyone who has already visited other Buddhist sites throughout the country.
The next stage of my journey involved an early morning tuk ride to the bus station in Dambulla, where I caught bus 45 to Kandy (100 Rs), the last of the great Sinhalese kingdoms and a UNESCO World Heritage City. Shortly upon checking into Hotel Suisse, a colonial-style property with a history dating back to the 17th century, I embarked to Helga's Folly, the most eclectic, artsy hotel-restaurant-gallery this side of the Indian Ocean. There I had lunch with Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka Robert Hilton, several Sri Lankan and U.S. Fulbright alum, and Embassy staff. We talked about our experiences in Sri Lanka, the various illnesses we've contracted, and, of course, politics. If you happen to make it to Helga's Folly, come for the food, but stay for the schizophrenic interior.
Later after resting back at the hotel I secured a tuk and followed the contour of Kandy Lake to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (known in Sinhala as Sri Dalada Maligawa). Fortunately, I arrived about 30 minutes before one of the three daily services was scheduled to take place (5:30am, 9:30am, and 6:30pm). I passed effortlessly through security, left my shoes with the depository (30 Rs upon pickup), and purchased a ticket to the temple and the adjacent World Buddhist Museum (1500 Rs). The interior of the temple featured a grand display of spectacularly ornate ancient architecture and golden decorations, religious iconography, and historical information. According to Sri Lankan lore, after the Buddha was cremated a lone tooth of his was saved. The tooth was brought from India to Sri Lanka, where it now resides. Once a year the tooth is paraded in its casket around the city during the festival of Esala Perahera, which occurs in July/August.
On my second day in Kandy as a tourist I ordered a tuk using PickMe (Sri Lanka's version of Uber or Lyft) and made my way to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya. I bought a ticket at the front entrance (1500 Rs) and proceeded to traverse the grounds, which span 147 acres. My favorite attractions were the Orchid House, palm avenues, and Great Lawn, home to a massive Java Fig Tree. I spent about 1.5 hours at the gardens, a total that includes time devoted to helping Sri Lankan students on a field trip practice their English language skills. Following this floral jaunt I took the bus (17 Rs) to the Central Market, where I surveyed the fruits and fish of local merchants on the ground floor of the building and purchased wooden and cloth souvenirs from vendors on the second floor. Everything from spices to leather goods to batiks to carved elephant figurines can be found here at reasonable prices.
Early the next morning I grabbed breakfast at the hotel, settled my bill, and arranged a PickMe tuk for transport to the Kandy Railway Station. For this portion of my trip, the journey was the attraction. The train ride between Kandy and Ella is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The ride normally takes about 7 hours, but due to some railroad maintenance we had to alight at Hatton, take a bus to Kotagala, and continue on a different train to our final destination. Despite the detour, the train ride was every bit as scenic and majestic as I had imagined. Cool air whipped in our faces as we sped through lush tea plantations, miles of symmetrically grown manicured rows delineating the rolling landscape. Photographs and videos were shot. Breath was taken.
I arrived in Ella after dark. This was not ideal, as my phone was dying and I didn't know exactly where my hotel was located. Nevertheless, my stroll down Wellawaya-Ella-Kumbalwela Highway was illuminating in its own right. Ella is a unique place. It feels like a Bohemian jungle ski bum town with gregarious restaurant hosts, tattoo parlors, tea shops, and outdoor adventure companies. It's tidier than Kathmandu, Nepal but rougher around the edges than Queenstown, New Zealand. The town exudes a funky spirit unlike any place else I have encountered in Sri Lanka. Luckily I obtained the assistance of an employee at a nearby hotel who called Leisure Dream Inn, where I was staying for the night, and arranged for the hotel manager to meet me on the highway. Once I walked up the hidden hill to the hotel, I dropped my things off and got a tuk into town, where I ate a high brow take on fish and chips at the woodsy and raucous Cafe Chill.
The last morning of my trip around the cultural triangle began with fresh coffee and a glorious sunrise emerging from behind Little Adam's Peak. The hotel manager also packed me a take-away breakfast consisting of rolled up yellow pancakes and scrambled egg sandwiches made by his mother. One free hotel-provided tuk ride later, I was back at Ella Railway Station in advance of my 6:49am train back to Colombo. The railroad issue still unresolved, I had to get off at Kotagala, take a tuk to Hatton, and board another train to continue on my way. However, the 12-hour return trip was supremely enjoyable, as I got to retrace my path from the previous day, at an earlier time. Eventually I got off when our train arrived at the Maradana station (the one right before Colombo Fort), and used PickMe to catch a tuk back to my Airbnb in Colombo 5. Thus concluded my 9-day whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka's cultural triangle.
Day 4: A Walk to Remember
Today marked the beginning of the interview phase of my field work in Sri Lanka. First, I met with Mario Gomez, Executive Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, at the ICES office in Colombo 08. Due to unforeseen circumstances, our interview was cut short. However, in the brief time in which we met, I felt that I obtained some very important insight about environmental rights in Sri Lanka, which is the focus of my research here. Mainly, I learned that Sri Lanka has already had extensive environmental regulations on the books since the early 20th century, especially where wildlife and land conservation are concerned. Although admittedly enforcement of said regulations is far from adequate, a substantial framework is in place to maintain and safeguard environmental quality, which is ultimately the modus operandi for adopting solidarity environmental rights (i.e. "Everyone has the right to a healthy environment," as stipulated in Nepal's 2006 Interim Constitution). In addition, Mr. Gomez extended me the courtesy of agreeing to meet again or follow up by phone should I need additional information. I left ICES and decided to walk back to my hotel (about 2 miles away) in 90F (felt like 98F, according to the Weather Channel) heat and 74% humidity. This decision, though perhaps idiotic from the standpoint of comfort, also yielded a wonderfully unusual (in Western standards) bonus.
I headed west toward the coast. Along the way, I came across Viharamahadevi Park, one of Sri Lanka's many municipal parks. It was a vast expanse of shady trees punctuated by a central lake bifurcated by a crumbling bridge. Given the unrelenting heat, I decided to seek temporary refuge among the park's promising verdant environs (at least this much I have learned as a result of studying the urban heat island portion of the LEED Green Associate exam). Unsurprisingly, I was approached by a man in a baseball cap alleging to be the park's gardener. "Have you seen the elephant?" the man inquired with feigned innocence. "Here, I can show you. I'm the gardener," I was assured. But before our interaction devolved into a redux of my first encounter with a Sri Lankan snake oil salesman I trotted away, firmly implying my resolve to avoid interaction. As casually as he had arrived, the man slowly retreated back into the urban forest. Perhaps he had spied a more unwitting prey. Yet, having only seen an elephant once so far on my trip, for a couple moments at a Buddhist temple, I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing a pachyderm again. Thus, I crept along the outer rung of the park following a semi-circular course until the constant gardener was far afield. Then, I turned about face and dove back into the park until I hit a concrete path which roughly traced the natural contours of the lake. After permitting the walkway to serve as my unofficial (and certainly more trustworthy) guide, I stepped out onto the cool grass in search of wildlife of the mega herbivore variety. Although I enjoyed the visual assistance of my prescription sunglasses, the interior of the park was rather dark, as the shade of long trees cast shadows that overlapped, obscuring the unfamiliar landscape. Yet, among the broad brown limbs scattered about the habitat I could perceive some kind of repetitive undulation occurring several feet above the ground about 200 feet away. To be sure, this was no national flag playing a patriotic song to the gentle park wind; the quietly rippling fabric was circular and gray. As I drew closer, I could make out that this steel-colored sail was affixed not to a metal pole, but a large mass which appeared to be moving, albeit with great deliberation. To my shock, I had found the elephant of which the gardener spoke. Given my childhood experiences visiting zoos, combined with the fact that I passed by a self-contained aquarium near the entrance to the park, I had imagined that any elephant I might see would be encased behind glass, or fenced off from onlookers at least. However, here stood a mighty elephant, poised as gracefully among trees as a humpback whale swims beneath rough seas, standing prominently, if slightly hidden, in the open space of a public park, with no discernible fence or glass barrier in place. Instead, this battleship gray behemoth was tethered by puny chains, objectionably reminiscent of slave bindings, to two nearby trees. My childlike curiosity and fondness for animals of overwhelming stature took hold, and I proceeded to get as close as I could to the elephant in order to take a photograph of uncommon proximity. No matter how close I came, the elephant stirred little. Sleepily the elephant chewed on what appeared to be palm fronds, its only remarkable movement the occasional lifting of its front right foot. Either this animal was no stranger to the presence of humans (even increasingly encroaching ones, such as myself), or else the fronds had a soporific effect on the elephant, lulling it into a state of relaxed serenity. After capturing the moment to the best of my ability while still being cautious enough not to rile the creature in case its more instinctual inclinations suddenly took hold, I exited the same way I came in, only this time I walked through the park with a cherished memory in tow. (As a brief side note, it was really charming to see the park populated by so many young, loving couples. Midday in Viharamahadevi Park seemed to be Sri Lanka's answer to the lookout point of American romantic lore. This contrasts greatly with Nepal, where public displays of affection are culturally shunned.)
My appetite for elephant viewing sated, I walked onto the suffocating streets of steam and sun. By the time I had returned to the hotel, I must have been at least a couple pounds lighter. I felt that the best course of action would be to hydrate, eat, and cool off before my next interview at 4pm. Internally I surmised that while two interviews per day would be technically feasible, it would be incredibly exhausting to attempt any more and expect to be fully functional.
I left the hotel at 3pm to meet with Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala, a seasoned diplomat and former UN Under Secretary General who had been suggested by Prof. Lakshman Guruswamy at the University of Colorado-Boulder, at his residence in Nugegoda, which is just outside of Colombo. As my taxi came upon the entrance to the home, thunder sounded convincingly in the near distance. As a native son of Florida, lightning capital of the world, I spent my formative years in an area where thunder and lightning were as commonplace as sunburns and Spanish. Yet, living in California for the past five years, I have been robbed of these elemental features which I came to associate with rain (i.e. water droplets which fall from the sky, for those of you in Southern California who are unfamiliar with this form of weather). Slightly pleased that I might encounter thunder, lightning, and rain reunited in beautiful concert once again, I greeted Dr. Dhanapala and we settled into his den, a wall-to-wall celebration of an impressive career in diplomacy, to commence with the interview. I was graciously welcomed into the statesman's home and fixed a spot of tea, as is customary in this part of the world. While we covered the issue of environmental rights to the extent it was possible given my respondent's background in diplomacy and not environmental policy, I was interested to learn that Prof. Guruswamy had been Dr. Dhanapala's best man at his wedding years ago. After the interview was complete, Dr. Dhanapala introduced his daughter, Dr. Kiran Dhanapala, a trained economist who works on environmental issues, specifically energy, throughout South Asia. In the middle of our conversation the lights shut off unexpectedly thanks to the lightning and troubled electrical system, and we relocated our ad hoc seminar to the porch. Our discussion touched upon a panoply of topics, from green buildings to American politics to student debt, and as a result of the storm, which was beginning to produce precipitation with monsoon alacrity, we retreated indoors to the living room. Our roundtable concluded around 30 minutes later, and a cab was ordered for me so that I could venture back to my HQ.
My day ended with a hearty Italian meal at Echo, a restaurant adjoining the Cinnamon Grand Colombo, and I made my way back to my hotel room to catch up on emails and prepare for the next day.