Friday, December 16, 2016

Racing With The Mad-Hatter of Sri Lanka

Map picture

Racing With The

Mad-Hatter of Sri Lanka

Finally the time had come to end our two day visit to Sri Lanka. We all trundled out to our waiting vehicles which were nothing more elaborate than small pick-up trucks which had seats welded onto rails that were then welded to the floor of the vehicle. A high canopy was placed on top, and a door which closed the occupants in from the rear once loaded completed the assembly. With limited space to park the approximately 28 vehicles were a jumbled mess across the narrow space, and we were told just to pick the first open vehicle and get in, and not to try and find the one we had ridden in to the luncheon and meeting.

And so Lisa and I boarded the first open truck which in and of itself was very difficult because it was so high off the ground with a tiny little step that was too small for a single foot. No sooner had we climbed in and been pushed up into the little flatbed, I quickly realized that all of the little trucks were not alike. Our trip out had been very comfortable, while this cabin was so small that quite literally neither Lisa nor I could sit in our seats because there was no leg room. Before I could climb out the metal door behind me slammed shut with a loud bang, and the driver quickly climbed into his cab which was completely separated from our compartment. In fact steel bars had been welded between us and the cab, so that we could not even bang on his rear window, and off we went.

At this point, Lisa managed to somehow get jammed into her seat, but not without hurting her knees. Since sitting forward was impossible for me, I had to sit sidewise with my legs dangling off the floor and hanging free in the aisle. You see, each row, of which there were three, was welded in such a way that the second row was higher than the first, and the last row, where I was perched, sat even higher still, so high in fact that it was like sitting in a high chair with my legs unable to touch the floor.

As we pulled out onto the pot holed dirt road, I quickly learned that this little truck had lost its shocks a long time ago. Each bounce or jerk was transmitted directly to my body as I sat over the rear tires, and I had no good way to hold on. At times I winced and let out a yelp in pain if the bump was bad enough. I was rapidly becoming a little panicked when we turned on to a good paved two lane road, and I thought to myself that surely I could hang on long enough to reach the ship. Little did I realize that was going to be almost an hour away.

At first, the ride was just unpleasant; soon both of my legs started to go numb until I reached the point that my right leg had become useless. At this point, I found a way to stand in the aisle holding on for dear life just praying that this ride would soon be over. Our vehicle was making decent time when all of a sudden, one of the other trucks from our ship blew by us as if we were standing still. It was as if someone had waved a red flag in front of our driver who immediately accelerated in a race to see who could be the craziest. It appears that the driver of the truck who had gone by us was really quite good. By comparison our driver was downright dangerous, and there was no way that he could keep up, even though he made a valiant effort to try. The next thing we knew we were careening down the road in a metal cage completely unable to impact the outcome as we were trying to dodge the incredible mixture of traffic on this little road. There were not only the occasional cars and trucks, there were also busses and motor scooters and something that they call on the island a tuk-tuk. At times our driver was going 60 miles an hour, weaving in and out of traffic like a racecar driver which he clearly was not. Just to add to the mix, we had to avoid cows which roam freely in this country, and don’t forget the dogs who enjoyed sleeping in the middle of the road for no apparent reason. Then of course there were the occasional chickens usually accompanied by a small herd of wild boar. Oh, and I am not finished, at times there were entire flocks of peacocks, large land lizards, an occasional mongoose, and of course people crisscrossed the road with complete abandon to the oncoming traffic. There were times we were dodging left and right so hard and so fast that I thought our little truck would turn over. I actually started to pray that this ride would be over because it is one of the few times I have been truly afraid of the possible outcome. As we were careening down the road, and image came to my mind for no apparent reason of The Mad-Hatter from “Alice in Wonderland,” and I could just imagine him being at the wheel gleefully singing and holding aloft his tea cup. We finally reached our little zodiacs waiting to take us back to the safety of the ship. As we exited our cage, Lisa almost reached over and slapped our grinning driver, and thus ended our visit to Sri Lanka.

You may well be asking, “What went on during your two day visit?” Actually, that too is an interesting story. I must tell you that this visit to Sri Lanka was our first time to see this wonderful country, and after three days in a washing machine sea, it was good to be on solid ground. Our ship docked at the large city of Galle which is situated in the southwestern tip of this large island nation. If you look at India on a world map, you will notice a rather large island just off the southern tip of the country; that is Sri Lanka. I never knew much about this country, and for some reason, I always thought that it had at one time been a part of India which is not true. It was “discovered” by the Portuguese early in the 16th century, and here in the city of Galle, they actually began construction on the Fort that is today a UNESCO world heritage site. After about 150 years of their rule, the Dutch decided that they wanted to control the island which they did for about another hundred and 50 years. During their control, they added to the Fort substantially. Then the British arrived and once again they held the territory for about 150 years during which time they also extended the Fort. Under British control, the name of this island was changed to Ceylon. When the country obtained its independence following British rule, the name was once again changed back to Sri Lanka. Independence was not a process that went flawlessly, and there was a period of turmoil between the North and the South which was eventually resolved about ten years ago. There is one interesting note about the Fort which I think bears mentioning. This city was hit with a devastating tsunami in 2004, which resulted in the death of over 40,000 people. The city of Galle was virtually destroyed. When the giant wave rolled into the harbor it never breached the walls of the fortress itself even though the water entered the bay on one side and exited around the Fort on the opposite side.

Our first stop on leaving the ship was to visit a tea plantation and factory. This visit involved a one hour drive into the countryside, a drive which was very revealing. Before us was a lush and vibrant landscape home to large rice and tea plantations as well as many other crops that I did not recognize. I was surprised at how well maintained the roads were, and even more shocked when we got on to what we would call an interstate for much of our trip.

I, for one, had never visited a tea plantation, nor did I really understand the intricacies that were involved in producing this crop which through history has been so extremely important to the economy of so many nations. On our tour, we were able to walk the fields and see the workers harvesting the leaves, and after which we were able to see the factory where they are processed and turned it into a completed product. At the end of our morning visit, we returned to our ship for lunch.

In the afternoon, we were given a walking tour of the historic Galle Fort. I was very pleased when the expedition team recognized that many people on board have mobility issues, and they provided a special tour which allowed us to be driven rather than having to walk for 3 hours. Lisa was not feeling at all well that afternoon from her asthma, and she elected to stay on the ship. I felt a little sheepish about going on the special tour, but I was not alone and was joined by perhaps as many as 10 other gentlemen, none of whom could have made the three hour walk either. The first stop made by our bus was at the nearby city market where we spent some time simply walking around gaining feel for this community. While it is true that Sri Lanka is a developing nation, it is also true that it is one which is rich in resources and that appears to have a very viable infrastructure. I was impressed with the friendliness of the people and also with the obvious fact that multiple ethnic minorities appeared to be living together with no difficulty. After leaving the market, we were driven into and completely around the extremely large Fort. It reminded me in many respects of old town San Juan Puerto Rico. The Fort is so large that within its walls there are shops, hotels, churches and museums. Walking among its narrow streets is an exciting immersion into this multi-linguistic country. On our tour, our bus stopped so that we could visit the Maritime Museum – it wasn’t much. Then I got a photograph of the large Catholic Cathedral, and was able to tour the Dutch Reformed Church. Once back on our bus, we were shuffled to the The Rampart Hotel where High Tea would be served, followed then by a short little roundtrip ride in a Tuk-Tuk. A tuk-tuk is nothing more than a small motor bike pulling along a small cabin in which two people can ride. Being a little concerned about Lisa, and not being at all interested in the tea or bike ride, I asked, and the staff was kind enough to arrange for a car to take me back to the ship.

During the night our ship moved back along the coast to the fishing town of Kiranda. We were there to visit the second largest National Park in Sri Lanka, Yala National Park. Having no docking facilities for ship of our size, we had to anchor off shore, and then be taken by our small zodiacs to a local fishing pier where we were met by a small fleet of modified pickup trucks. We had left our ship at 6 AM in an effort to arrive at the park at a time when the animals were still most active. Once ashore, we set off for the Park in a long caravan. After about 15 miles of driving on good paved surface, we pulled off into the Park and on to a maze of well-maintained dirt roads. Passing through the park entrance, a park naturalist boarded each of our vehicles. We drove like that for almost 3 hours having a truly wonderful experience. While the park is home to the Sri Lankan elephant and also the Sri Lankan leopard, we saw none of these larger animals. For the most part, we saw birds, beautiful and marvelous birds. There were, of course, the wild boars, the mongoose, lizards of all sizes, and monkeys.

Our drive to the park started out as a wondrous experience. Our guide and driver would stop whenever wildlife was discovered taking time to allow photographs, and to explain what it is we were seeing. As the morning went on, their willingness to stop and allow photographs slowly diminished, until we reached the point that we were driving through the park at a good rate of speed with our naturalist simply mentioning “there goes another Bee Eater.” I don’t know what was driving them on, but it was very frustrating to go by so many interesting photographs without being given an opportunity to stop. A member of our expedition team, who is an ornithologist, appeared to have much better luck with her driver, since during her recap, she was able to present multiple pictures of “bee eaters,” all of which may have looked similar from a distance, but which were quite different in reality.

We finally arrived at a very elegant brunch presented in a wooded area just outside the park itself. Afterwards, perhaps the most noted ornithologist in Sri Lanka gave a 30 minute presentation on the many unique features of this wondrous land. At the end it was time to head for our vehicles and return to the ship. But then I already told you of our ride with the Mad-Hatter.

We departed Sri Lanka yesterday afternoon, and have been cruising in almost perfect conditions on our way towards the Maldives. When we arrive tomorrow, this will likewise be an inaugural visit for us to the small island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

I gather everyone at home is suffering with the cold weather, but I can assure you at least some place on this planet is warm and sunny.


PS I will let you know when I post more pictures

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