It was Christmas! My Christmas Morning in Sri Lanka and I had decided to treat myself to a day in the wild. My cab driver was to come and pick me up at 5 am so I had decided to stay up all night with the girls, pub hopping. So Belinda, Eva, Inma and I partied the night away.
My cabbie was a man named Tissa, who was referred to me by Deepak. Deepak and I used to study together in college and when I had updated my status on FB asking for advice on Sri Lanka, he had connected me to this very tech savvy driver. Tissa was contactable on mail and helpful and resourceful enough to not only help me plan my trip but also get me the required discounts and get me through long queues.
Tissa arrived on-time and soon we were on our way. It was supposed to be a 3 hour long drive to Yala
National Park. I slept almost instantly in the back seat. When I woke up it was past 10 am and we were still en-route. Tissa updated me that since it had been raining cats and dogs and dragons we were wayyy behind schedule. But he had planned and co-ordinated with the safari guy at the Park to manage accordingly. We reached Yala at about 11 and after a quick coffee and sandwich we were ready to go explore the WILD!
Yala is known for Leopards and boy was I excited. But nature had completely different plans laid out for me. In my travels; I ensure I hit every and any preserves or zoos I can. I had been very lucky with spottings of the wild beasts everywhere and ofcourse was hoping for the same. I had imagined and hoped I'd get to see a leopard on a tree branch like they show on Discovery.
My ranger arrived soon and the great news was that I was the only passenger in his truck! Anyone who has been on a safari would understand... this is the best thing to happen! This meant I could ask him to stop anywhere for as long as I'd like without feeling guilty for the rest of the passengers. I was elated! It looked like a promising day. In my previous travels, I had seen almost all the wild cats except leopards and just couldn't wait. However, in all my excitement I was oblivious to the fact that it had been raining... Raining! Raining since morning!!
We drove around for hours, with zero visibility and incessant rain and windows rolled up and wet and cold and a driving path with only muddy waters and slush. Hours! Wasted! My ranger did show me pigs... and I said I'm from India
dude. Then he showed me some buffaloes and I again said I'm from India dude. Same for a drenched peacock. I think I was so bored that I recall being excited about seeing one.. just one... only one elephant! But soon again; looked at my still determined ranger and said.. I'm from India dude!
I was cold, I was wet, I was hungry by the time we got back to the base. I promptly jumped into Tissa's car and requested to take me to a small shack for some freshly prepared hot and spicy food! It's a very Indian thing to eat something hot and spicy and unhealthy when it rains. I had to feel satiated somehow!
Tissa took me to just the place! A small shabby family run shack! I requested for the best local meal. The food and service that followed... was overwhelming to say the least! I had the grandfather, father and a couple of aunts I believe stand in attention; watching everything I was doing and aching for my approving reactions. The simple fish-curry-rice request came with over nine options. I looked at them awkwardly while I ensured I was trying to make them feel as special too. But what a heart warming experience for a cold cold day!
Everyone at home had had an equally dull day being in house arrest due to rains. Belinda, Jose, Sergio, Inma, Eva and I went for dinner gloomily and ate at an Italian restaurant with decent food but grumpy owner!
Christmas was over and Jose, Sergio and my darling and affectionate Inma were leaving the next day.
The next day. The 26th of December. I was in Hikkaduwa
on the 10th anniversary of the Tsunami. There is a local tradition in Hikkaduwa; where the surfers would swim deep into the sea and form a circle to offer prayers to all the departed.
All of us got up got ready and headed for the beach at sharp 9 am. There was complete silence on the beach. A sea of people; mostly expats; just staring at the sea. Silently. Some of them in tears, some of them lost in thought, leaning over someone and some just sitting still on the beach. It was amazing how the same beach where all of us had partied all night the previous night could look so different today. We all stood still too.. I held on to Belinda's hand. Not a sound except the gushing of the unforgiving waves.
None of us knew a word like Tsunami till that day 10 years ago. And after having seen the photo museum and hear the stories and yet be facing the same waters; I think I felt myself change. The people we lost to the Tsunami, were not my friends; they were not my family; but I cared. And I was mourning them. One of my traveller friend had once explained that it is one thing to know a place by reading about it or surfing the net about it. You can only make one of your senses enjoy that place. But when you are there... when you travel.. you allow all your senses to indulge in that space and experience it by the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the touch. But here I stood with my heart and mind drowned in sorrow like never before. I had seen the news when it happened and ofcourse felt bad, but this was different. I felt different.
I saw some people crying while I tried to fight my own tears and strangers would come and hold them for a bit. Not a word exchanged. No stories asked. Just support and being there and hugging them close. This was the most unreal thing.. experience.. emotion I had ever felt! Unity in tragedy by just being human! No money, no words, no plans could or would have comforted like just a hug! While I sit and write about that day; today; I wish we all hug more! Hugs are therapeutic to the wounded souls! And there is no better feeling to be hugged purely!
We bid an emotional bye to Jose, Sergio and Inma. And Belinda then dropped me off to the beach where I could snorkel and swim with the turtles. A good way to get over the heaviness in my head and heart. I rented the gear and dashed into the cool waters. The reef was instantly bursting with colors and life. Now I have a fear! I can swim and snorkel easily but ummm.. only as long as I know how deep the waters are. And oh as long as no water enters my mouth. Ya.. ya.. judge me all you want.. I have some hang ups man!! So after I had seen some spectacular fish and no turtles, I realised I'd have to go deeper. So I went back to the guy I rented the equipment from and asked him to swim with me just for support if I got uneasy.
So here's what happened... we went in deep and began to see the turtles.. oh what a feeling it was to be so close to these magnificent and only cute reptiles. I was holding the arm of my equipment guy till he then suggested and requested if he could hold me around the back instead cause I was restricting his swim. Sounded reasonable so I sheepishly agreed.. ummm.. only to realise that moments later while I experienced complete excitement to almost touching the turtles; our man here had decided to support and manoeuvre me by gripping my ass!! I shrugged him off immediately assuming it was a slip and continued giving my complete attention to the turtles. Shortly our man tried it again. So here I was in the midst of multiple extreme emotions. Seeing and swimming with turtles, in unknown depths of an ocean that had a history of being violent, controlling and hearing my breathing through the snorkel mask while I'm scared and a man trying to make the best of this vulnerable condition!! Men! Stupid stupid beach boys! I first asked him to take me back to shallow waters cause I could not have screamed or hit him being in the ocean so deep. Gave him a mouthful moment I had my feet on the ground and mask off. And that's all I could do!
Seriously! I don't know what some men are thinking.. or rather why they are not thinking 90% of their time!!
Walked off the beach without a shower. Belinda was picking me up to take me for a boxing day lunch tradition she had with a lady called Joy. We picked a bottle of wine and en-route Belinda told me that it was Joy who had initially looped her into the Tsunami Relief program years ago. That Joy was in fact her version of Mother Teresa.
Joy's home was bright and warm and simple. And Joy herself; oh my god! So warm. So loving. So giving. It was so easy to see the purity in her soul. She sat with me asking about me and said things to me that I will remember forever. It was like she could see my soul as easily as I saw hers. Many people came for the lunch and the food was beautiful. Some travel stories exchanged and Belinda and I headed back to the beach for another swim.
Once we got there and started talking that we forgot about the waters and spoke for hours. We spoke about every facet of our lives and even though we had just met and she was merely my airbnb
host, we had become friends. And spoke like long lost girlfriends who had met after years. We both got dressed later in the evening and went clubbing to celebrate my last night in Hikkaduwa.
I had a flight back the next night and had asked Tissa to plan my day and take me around Kandy
area. And Boy; is he a planner!? We drove for a few hours and reached Pinnawala, Elephant Orphanage. You can get a 50% off on tickets with your Indian Passport. Tissa did his magic and helped me avoid the long queue. And soon I was inside the elephant haven. The whole family standing together and being friendly to all visitors. You can feed the baby elephants with milk too if you will.
But, while I went close to the baby elephant and the care takers offered to click my pictures; I think I stood next to the naughtiest of em all! The baby started with playing with my stole, and that was cute and I was thinking this will make a great picture. Then.. he started nudging on my shorts.. and I pretended to be playful and try push him away... but soon he had gotten a complete grip of my shorts in his trunk and was pulling hard. You read me? He was pulling hard with his trunk on my shorts.. embarrassment came wayyyy later. And while I struggled with thoughts of being killed my a baby elephant and hollering for help, the crowd and the helpers stood laughing and taking pictures and making videos. Yes, it sounds and may have seemed funny for everyone, but you ask me?? It wasn't funny being the object of desire to an elephant I promise you!
The place has free tours of how elephant dung is converted to paper which you could check out. Next stop was a tea factory where they show you the processing of tea leaves to various types of teas. One can and must purchase the exquisite teas from these factories.
Sri Lanka is also known for its spices so we made a quick stop at a Spice Garden where they take you on a tour to educate you on various plants and some of the stuff is pretty incredible. They also have absolutely natural oils and potions for various ailments.
My last stop was going to be at Kandy, at the Temple of the Tooth. It holds a tooth of Gautam Buddha. The temple is spread out and has a glorious ceremony in the evenings and the walls are full of paintings depicting the entire history of the tooth and the temple. The temple is very important politically and historically and is amazingly peaceful inspite of the large number of visitors. And unlike Colombo
, this temple was full of monks ready to help and guide.
Sri Lanka had been full of surprises for me. I made friends I'll cherish forever, I saw people working for improving a place even though this wasn't their own country, I met people who inspired me, I partied hard, touched nature, swam with the turtles, cried for people I never knew and came home with memories of a lifetime!