Thursday pre departure
On Wednesday evening, I wandered over about 7:30pm to Sera’s family’s living room to post my blog and catch up on emails, when I suddenly remembered I should have been having a conversation class with V&S half an hour earlier. My apologies were graciously accepted and we got down to conversing. I’d asked both kids to prepare a little talk of some sort and S had chosen to retell a traditional children’s tale. V’s talk was about a period of SL history when a king had built “tanks”, artificial irrigation lakes. They had both put in a fair amount of effort.
We then moved on to a general chat: 5 years ago the family had visited India to see Buddha’s birthplace. Did they enjoy it? Yes. Would they like to go back? No. Why not? India is dirty with rubbish everywhere. This lead to a discussion about how they deal with rubbish here and, inevitably, questions about how we do it in “England”: they don’t really get the Scotland / England / UK distinctions and I can’t blame them. Next came agriculture: food stuffs, farm animals etc. I ran through the main Scottish farm animals, including deer in the mountains. V referred to our mountain habitat as “jungle”: I had some photos to help clarify that. Did we have dangerous animals? No. S specifically asked about lions.
They are keen to learn to use MS Office, along with Photoshop etc.: S attends a class on these. I promised to help and pointed them in the direction of freely downloadable alternatives, such as OpenOffice and PhotoPos.
Lesson over, I started to post the blog, check email etc. Purmina – their mum – appeared with two homemade rotti and a fish stew. To the untutored palate, rotti is similar to naan bread in texture and P. had laced them with onion and chilli. The fish stew was also excellent, particularly the sauce, though the fish was a bit dry and bony to my taste. I enjoyed it all, but by the time I’d been in their non a/c house for nigh on two hours, and eaten my unexpected supper, I was absolutely pouring with sweat running in rivulets down my face, chest and back. The family are really very good to me: I rarely go in for an Internet session without P. providing a soft drink, fruit smoothie or some titbit to eat. The kids are always pleasant and helpful, smiling and waving when they see me. Sera is a nice guy, too: he is obviously quite entrepreneurial with his apartments – currently just ground floor, though a first is planned – and both adults spend time in the garden, watering newly planted trees, creating a “home garden” (vegetable plot) etc. There is a large area in front of the apartments which they are steadily filling with soil and hardcore to make a parking area. Sera has asked my advice (!) on advertising his rooms: I suggested AirBnB and TripAdvisor as well as the local tourist info place.
On my way back to base – just a few yards across the night-time garden – P. was keen to show me something: all I wanted to do was collect some washing off the line and get under the shower. However, I was glad she insisted as a tractor with hardcore had been in the garden earlier and its wheel had cracked the concrete cover to the cesspit / septic tank and she was worried I would end up knee deep in you-know-what.
I’m soon going to start my Tangalle trip, so when I continue this it’ll probably be Monday evening. I’m just warning you that this blog may run to several pages as it’ll end up covering 5 days and I’m not always good at cutting to the chase, as they say.
The Tangalle Trip
The bus journey was uneventful: 60km, 3 hours, involving 1 change in Matara, for 60p. The last couple of km from downtown Tangalle to my guest house was by tuk-tuk and added another £1 to the total: you can see why I like the bus! I thought I was going to end up with a tuk-tuk driver who didn’t know the area, but it was my fault. Once we settled on “eebee” as the correct pronunciation for “Ibis”, all problems melted away and he efficiently clattered and shook me along a quiet beach-side track lined with mostly low-key hotels, restaurants and so on nestling under swaying palms.
The Ibis was undoubtedly the most attractive of all those I passed. It had been my first choice as the Rough Guide gave it a star recommendation and because the German / SL couple who run it also run a local children’s home and at least some of the income generated helps to support that charitable venture. The location and design are superb with the term “guest house” misleadingly suggesting – to me at least – a dingy Blackpool house with Les Dawson as landlady. In fact, there are two main buildings, one with bar and dining area on the ground floor and rooms above, the other with rooms on the ground and first but also housing Anjelika and Ranjith’s own family quarters. Scattered under the swaying palm, there are also about half-a-dozen bungalows. The buildings are linked by little raised paths and the whole place is right on the beach, with hammocks, large beds, deck-chairs etc. available. Over all, it seems a happy blend of German efficiency and SL hospitality.
My room was plainly but adequately furnished and supplied with hot water to the shower. I had opted for air conditioning, though this was probably a waste of money as there was an efficient floor mounted fan and a near-constant breeze off the sea. Although there were such “quantities of sand … that seven maids with seven brooms” would have taken much more than half a year to remove it all, it was not a beach ideally suited to swimming: the waves, which last saw land in Antarctica – but had warmed up meantime – were quite lively and the sandy bottom was littered with large rocks. Not a good combination if you want to avoid concussion!
The food was good: a mix of SL and Western. I tended towards calamari etc. but had fish (white mullet, complete with eyes, scales and bones) and chips one night. I tried Matara curd with coconut honey and / or fruit for my pudding.
There was one significant, hopefully short-term, disadvantage. The Internet / wifi was not working. I asked for the password soon after I first arrived and was told it should be operational “tomorrow”. As todays turned into yesterdays, tomorrow never came. I don’t know what the problem was, but there didn’t seem to be much determination to get it fixed, even though I heard other guests asking about it. Patini Bungalows next door seemed still to have a good signal, but without a password I was stumped…
On Friday morning, I went to Mulkirigala. This is a tiny village with a large (the Guide says over 200m high) rock nearby. The rock is home to several cave temples which were restored in the 18thC. The Guide book goes on to describe it as a blend of Dambulla and Sigiriya: not much help if you’ve not been to either, however. It’s certainly not as impressively huge as the latter, but quite steep enough for me and the various rock temples were colourful and definitely worth a visit. I spent the afternoon on the beach.
One of the attractions near Tangalle is the turtle conservation project at Rekawa beach. Each night, particularly at this time of year, mummy-to-be turtles struggle out of their natural environment and painstakingly drag themselves up the beach in order to dig a hole and lay eggs which they then laboriously cover up, taking a well-earned breather before making the return journey to the sea. The local conservation group then dig up the eggs and sell them to Chinese traditional doctors.
Well, OK, the last bit’s not true but the conservationists do dig them up and incubate them safely away from predators before releasing them back into the wild.
The project takes groups of people to watch this feat of endurance and I joined them on Friday night. It was a bit disappointing, if I’m to be honest. It wasn’t the turtle’s fault, but there were too many of us. And too many of us were unwilling to follow the guide’s instructions. To avoid upsetting the turtle, we were told – quite reasonably – not to use flash photography. This was a bit of a restriction, but some visitors ignored this instruction. There must have been nigh on forty of us, all told, and we were supposed to approach, when called up, in groups of no more than ten, with the remainder of us standing at least twenty metres away. Most of the visitors seemed unable to count to ten and clearly had no idea of how far 20 metres is. The result was a bit of a rammy, with the guide constantly trying to assert some sort of order. He was informative and equipped with a red-light torch: if you have a good imagination, you may be able to discern a turtle in the shot I hope to post.
I had been warned that “turtle night” would be a late one and had thus planned for a quiet Saturday, but in fact I was back at the Ibis by about 11pm and sat chatting to a couple of the lads from the kitchen staff and knocking back an arrack. If you’ve never tried arrack, I can only describe it as cheap cooking brandy mixed with vanilla essence: I’ve never actually had that mixture myself, you understand, but that’s how it seemed to me. No wonder these lads thought Johnnie Walker’s Black Label was the bee’s knees. I tried to explain about blends and single malts, but gave up.
Saturday was a very lazy day, though I did track down a spot with a lower rock / sand ratio and had a bit of a dip.
On Sunday, I went to Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary. This involved walking into town and catching a bus to a village a few miles along the road, then a tuk-tuk to the sanctuary. As soon as I got off the bus, I was approached and offered a lift in a tuk-tuk, but it turned out I’d happened upon another clueless driver. We headed off in the wrong direction, him chatting on his phone. It turned out he was trying to get directions to the bird place and we did a u-turn. He kept suggesting I could go to the beach instead and I kept replying “No” and doing bird imitations, arms flapping like wings etc. After masses of this sort of farce and now several kilometres from the main road, I made him stop. We were, as luck would have it, right beside a sign saying in Sinhala and English “To the Bird Sanctuary”, accompanied by an arrow. I paid off my driver and walked, just glad to let me blood pressure drop, though my temperature climbed! A friendly passing tuk-tuk driver, who didn’t appear to be trying to charm me into taking a lift for the last kilometre or so, said I should climb the “big rock” for a good view of the birds.
I have always found it a reliable rule of thumb that birds are smaller than elephants. This has its good points, not least in the size of bird droppings, but there are down sides: in a few acres of open territory, elephants are generally relatively easily spotted and observable from a distance. Birds are not. I had deliberately not taken my DSLR camera on the Tangalle trip as I wanted to travel light and already had a rucksack and umbrella. Unfortunately, I had omitted to pack my binoculars. However, it was very pleasant wandering round the sanctuary: I spent a couple of hours and saw not a single soul – a record for me in SL! I did climb the rock and there was a good view, which would have been even better with binoculars. The sun beat down, there was a slight breeze, birds sang tantalisingly out of sight or shot in a blur of bright colours from one bush to another. I enjoyed my time there.
Of course, I’d sacked my tuk-tuk driver and was now several kilometres from the main road. I wasn’t worried as I knew the way back and could manage to walk it if I had to, but it was going to be a bit of a hike… I spotted a little shack cum shop with a guy sitting there. Did he have a cool drink? No. Did he have any “uncool” drinks? No. He seemed to be selling brooms and watering cans. It may be that he’s famed for the quality of his brooms and stocks the best watering cans this side of Anuradhapura, but I think he should develop a sideline in cool drinks. He must have realised that trade was a bit slow and as I waved goodbye and walked off he called after me offering a lift to the main road. He had his own personal private tuk-tuk – so there must still be a demand for watering cans and brooms in the area – and would charge me less than my previous driver, so we struck a deal and drove away from the shop, leaving it open and unmanned. They’re a trustworthy bunch, the Kalametiyans. Either that or everyone who might have been in the market for a broom or watering can has already got one. My new best friend was as good as his word and dropped me off at the road junction. I needed change to pay him, so bought each of us a cool drink from a nearby shop, partly to let him see what he’s missing out on. However the shopkeeper couldn’t give me five hundreds for a 500 note, so the guy eventually got an extra 100 and his cold drink. I must have doubled his week’s takings.
I may not have got any worthwhile photos of turtles, or close-ups of exotic birds, but I’m glad to say that eventually I got a decent shot of a chipmunk. As I said before, they’re 10 a penny out here (or 5 a rupee in local currency), but this is the first time Alvin has agreed to sit for me.
Today was return-to-base-day. My stay at the Ibis was 45000 rupees: that’s about £225 and covers everything: accommodation, food, drink, lounging in hammocks etc. for four days, so I think it was pretty good value. Even without Internet access.