Travels with John Smith
Chapter 42 year 6 (2016-2017)
Yoda and Sri Lankan Elephants
-dressing like Yoda
-Leonard Cohen ‘leaves the table’
-trains and tuk tuks
-The Penthouse by the sea
-water monitor in the floating market
-drinking lime and ginger on a hot day
-dizzy for Sigiriya
Travels with John Smith
Chapter 42 year 6 (2016-2017)
Yoda and Sri Lankan elephants
I am walking down the hallway, bent over a cane that is holding my weight. I am dressed in loose clothing with a green light sabre tucked into a worn leather belt. I am wearing a makeshift martial arts outfit in neutral colours with a beige cape on my shoulders that almost touches the floor. A trickle of sweat is dripping down the side of my face. On my hands are green rubber washing up gloves with 3 extra long fingernails made from gaffer or hockey tape glued to the ends. On my head is a green rubber mask with large pointed ears, large round half closed eyes and on my feet, large green slippers with claws.
The holes I am meant to see out of in my mask are cut too close together so I need to turn my head to the side to see from one eye. The air holes that should be where my nostrils are, are up somewhere close to my eyes so I have to keep pulling it down to be able to breathe. When people try to guess who I am, I answer with backwards grammar and a voice that is probably a mixture of Marge Simpson and Golem. “Most happy to see you, I am”.
Despite what I think is a good imitation of Yoda, a few people think I am Golem as the quality of my costume makes me look less than friendly. I bought my mask on Tao Bao. I keep smiling at people as I pass them in the hallway, forgetting the look on my face doesn’t change. People either look at me wide eyed frightened and back away or giggle with excitement when I approach. Despite being quite uncomfortable (except for my feet), I am having loads of fun.
John is walking beside me with a black helmet covering his entire face, dressed entirely in black with a black cape and a red light sabre. He found the mask at a garage sale in Canada a couple of summers ago. At the time, my sister Wendy drove us around Saskatoon with John in the backseat with the Darth Vader helmet on. When we saw a kid walking down the road, she’d slow down and John would just turn and look at them out the window. Last summer he bought a suitcase big enough to fit the mask in, so he could bring it to China and wear it on Halloween.
Today, we have been visiting classrooms together, having battles with our lightsabers and we even ran into a Luke Skywalker who joined me in the fight against evil.
A girl is sitting at a table in the corner of the library crying. I go over to ask her if she is ok. She tells me Lennard Cohen has died. I am amazed she knows who he is. “I wanted to marry him”, she sobs, “but my parents didn’t want me to.” I commiserate with her as I am also upset about his death having heard about it only a couple hours ago but mention how old he was. She says boys her age aren’t as deep as Cohen was, nor do they have the character he did. I agree with her but assure her that she will find someone who is closer to her age that also has character because of who she is. She says, “I know you like him too-I heard you sing ‘Dance me to the end of love’ at the last Teahouse.
We have a long conversation about Cohen and I give her some covers of Cohen songs I have on my computer, as I find out she not only knows her stuff when it comes to his life but she has much more of his music than I do, but only with him singing. I point out that his latest album sounds like a man making amends and saying goodbye to the world so maybe he felt ready to go. Soon it’s lunch time and I have seen her smile a couple of times in the last hour. She says, “2016 has been a terrible year” and I agree.
We only get 3 days off for Christmas but decide to take the 3 1/2 hour flight to be in 30 degree Celsius sunny weather, instead of 0 degrees Celsius and grey in Wuhan. It is the 25th of December and I am swimming in the pool on the rooftop of the hotel we always stay in here in Bangkok, The Adelphi Suites. The sky is blue and clear and soon we will go downstairs and eat some Christmas turkey, prepared by the chef of the very good restaurant attached to the hotel.
We will pack in our favourite things to do while we are here, go back to Wuhan to work for a few days and then go to watch the fireworks and bring in 2017 in Hong Kong. After that we will have a couple weeks of work and then it’s the Chinese New Year. I know. We are very lucky.
We are surrounded by beautiful statues and orange robed monks in a Buddhist temple in the middle of Colombo, Sri Lanka,. There are drums being played by men with turbans on their heads and a bride and groom under an arch, giving each other their vows while a small audience of friends and family look on. The tourists, who are curious (like us), stand a little farther back, happy to witness something that reflects the culture of this country and this religion. There is a large banyan tree in the middle of the courtyard and on the shelf in front of it; there is incense, bowls with flowers floating in water and bowls of fruit and rice meant as offerings.
I notice a movement among the fruit and see a rat nibbling away. He sees me and dives into an opening in the tree, his long tail following him. I stay with my camera trained on the opening and he comes back out in a minute or so, poking his pointy face and big brown eyes out to see if the coast is clear. It looks like he has it sorted. Fresh food and water, a cool place to live and entertainment. The people praying in front of the tree don’t seem to notice him. Many of them are too busy looking at their phones… Even here.
Earlier today, we were in a Hindu temple. The sculptures inside and out were gorgeous; colourful and detailed. They were as busy and inviting as the city itself. Inside, there were men with no shirts and bright yellow and orange cloth around the lower halves of their bodies. They were lighting incense and conducting what looked like ceremonies. They were very friendly, and after a short conversation, were happy to pose for pictures.
There are many Buddhist and Hindu temples, as well as Mosques and churches in Sri Lanka, as it is a diverse and multi-cultural country. We could spend a month visiting all of them and still not see all of the ones just in this one city.
We bought a couple books written by locals and we are enjoying seeing some of the places they mention in the stories. and learning about Sri Lanka’s culture and history.
Sri Lanka is old. It’s written history is approximately 3,000 years old, and they have found proof of pre-historic settlements at least 125,000 years old. We know that there was a civil war here that went on from about 1983 until 2009. It was between the Sinhalese and Tamil people. In fact, when we booked the holiday, John read that the biggest industry was war and only told me this, as we were landing. We haven’t seen any signs of it yet though.
We arrived a couple days ago and we have been exploring the city using Columbo’s very cheap train systems (2 rupees -approx. 14 cents to go into town from where we are). We are staying in a hotel that is right above a train station in a an area that is famous for the beach. We were warned not to take the train during rush hour and we observed from the balcony of our room that people are literally hanging out of the doors as it speeds into the centre.
We have also taken tuk tuks (3 wheelers as the locals call them; a scooter engine with a seat for 2 in the backseat, covered by a roof, open where the windows would be). They are the easiest form of transportation to find as they are everywhere and a tourist is an easy target for a higher fare than the locals would pay.
The downtown area of Columbo has many European buildings from the days when countries like Portugal, Holland and England took over. There is a chic and expensive shopping and dining area in what used to be the old Dutch hospital but also markets that sell cheap products and the sellers are aggressive in their selling tactics, following you for 20 minutes at a time trying to get you to buy something you merely glanced at.
There are some lovely colonial hotels along the beach areas but there are also poor fisherman living in ramshackle buildings with corrugated roofs along the beach as well.
The rail line stretches from Columbo (and probably farther North)and down South along the coast to Galle (Famous port city) and as it runs beside the sea, there is a path alongside it and people cross the tracks and walk dangerously close to the trains that speed alongside them.
The hotel we are in is called ‘The Penthouse by the sea’ and it is really an apartment building but beautifully run by a clever, cosmopolitan Sri Lankan couple who lived in Australia and moved back to Sri Lanka when the civil war was over. It is spotless and beautifully decorated. They don’t accept children under 10 because there are many sculptures and art scattered around the large living rooms that serve as the lobby on both floors. There is a long dining room table where we eat our breakfast of papaya smoothies, chicken curry, dhal, coconut roti, buffalo curd and treacle (a kind of honey) and fresh fruit.
We order eggs cooked any way we like and the combination of the beautiful white smiles and delicious home cooking from the 6 friendly women who work here, makes this place a notch above staying in an impersonal hotel. The rooms are like a 4 star hotel inside, with wonderfully comfortable king sized beds and all the trimmings including private balconies with views of all of Columbo. It’s like being in someone’s home or an upmarket Guesthouse. There is a pool on the rooftop where the view expands to the seaside and beach on one side and all of Columbo on the other. Just gorgeous.
We are walking along the bank of the floating market. Unlike the floating market in Bangkok, there are only a few boats here, each one accessible by land. John points down to the water directly below where we are walking and there is a long (almost 2 metre) creature swimming right next to us. We both grab our cameras and I take a quick picture and switch to video. I am so excited as I have a clear shot of him swimming about a foot away from the Quay we are walking on. After about 3 to 4 minutes, I stop filming and go to look at the video. Noooo! It’s on now and wasn’t on while I thought it was filming. Luckily John has taken some beautiful shots with the ‘real camera’ but alas, no video.
We are so excited to see such an amazing reptile in the middle of the city! He looks like a Komodo dragon because of his size(a couple metres), but when we show a picture to the tuk tuk driver who brought us here, he says no it was a crocodile. We are sure it isn’t, due to the short snout and forked tongue flicking in and out. After more investigation, we find out it is a water monitor.
Our tuk tuk driver tries to convince us we should come to his house, where he insists there is a lot of wildlife; like more crocodiles, snakes and monkeys but we say no thanks (even though we are sure it would be interesting). We visit a couple other famous places with him and decide to take his tux tuk back to our hotel, instead of going all the way back to the train station.
It is very hot and he stops on the way to buy a drink from a truck that has set up on the side of the busy road that runs alongside the ocean. I get out and have one too. They make it in front of me and the various tough looking drivers who are all enjoying their drinks are friendly, laughing at my attempt to speak the language. I say “Esh Tudie’ and slurp the deliciously cold, freshly squeezed lime and ginger drink, the vendor has just made for me.
It is a few days later and we are standing below Sigiriya or otherwise known as the"Fortress in the Sky”. The locals call it the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. It’s a large rock or small mountain, is about 370 metres above sea level and is a plateau with a palace on top of it. It stands in the middle of a fairly flat plain so looks like it is out of place. The steps look incredibly steep, made more challenging due to the fact that I was awake all night with food poisoning. I will spare you the details but I didn’t feel great before we went to bed and it got worse. John slept through the entire thing which was good as I didn’t need the guilt of keeping him awake, added to how I am feeling today.
The hotel we are staying in is a disappointment for many reasons but I was mostly uncomfortable because the floors were very damp when we arrived and I started thinking about what might be living there in the humidity. That disappeared when I was too sick to care. We had already booked the guide who is showing us this World Heritage site and I was really looking forward to seeing it so I felt we should go.
There are caves on the way up the rock with many beautiful 1,600-year-old frescoes on the walls. The Sigiriya rock fortress sits on the top and was built by a prince with incredible irrigation systems, considering it was all around 500 AD. They had swimming pools and fresh water, even on the very top of the rock. This place is an engineering and urban planning marvel.
We’ve seen quite a few monkeys and land monitors today. The monitors are smaller and lighter in colour than the water monitor we saw, but still at least a metre long crawling through the grass or along the walls.
We are now edging up the side of the rock and the steps are perilously small, steep and slippery. There is a thin little guy helping me (without me asking)and on one hand I am sure he will ask me for money when we get up there but today I am very grateful for the help.
I start to feel very ill and am aware that with at least another hour of climbing up, there is no washroom until we get back down (that is what we’ve been told). I’ve stopped listening to the guide, who is telling us every detail of every nook and cranny of the place and the heat, nausea and dizziness is taking over. We are about half way up when I give up. I suggest John keeps going, and takes lots of pictures. My helper gently holds my hand while he helps me down a path and I feel a huge relief that he is there, treating me like his granny.
I find Amila, our driver on his trip around Sri Lanka in the parking lot. He is very professional, trustworthy and kind. He looks worried when he sees my face and turns on the air conditioning. I fall sleep on the backseat, waiting for John to climb to the top and come back.
John is back and says it was a beautiful view from the top, but that he pretended to listen to the guide the rest of the way so didn’t have much else to tell me. He said there was a part of the walk that was invaded/infested with the large Asian wasps and there were signs saying not to make noise as it made them angry and likely to sting people but the huge numbers of people were being loud and obnoxious. Now I am happy that I am not feeling well today.
We are standing in an open top jeep hanging on to the roll bar at the top, ducking every time we pass a large tree and trying to keep our balance, as the road is full of potholes. We turn corner after corner, looking both ways, spotting evidence that they have been there but we do not see them. After about 30 minutes of looking, we come to a clearing in the jungle and in the distance, we see them.
A herd of about 60 to 80 wild elephants spread over one area grazing in the plains. There are already a couple of jeeps stopped about 200 feet away from them, tourists snapping pictures. We stop too and enjoy the quiet while we get our fill of videos and pictures.
They say Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia but since 1986 they have been listed as endangered as the population has dwindled by half over 3 generations. Unlike their African counterparts, female Asian elephants don’t have tusks and guide informs us that there are no bulls (males) in the large group we are looking at but am not sure what he means, as there are a few elephants with tusks here.
The elephants are ripping up huge clumps of grass with their trunk and shaking it, then stuffing it into their mouths. The guide says they don’t like dirty grass so they shake it to remove the dirt and the grubs. There are many white birds sitting at their feet, scavengers catching the grubs as they fall from the dirt. The sun is low and warm and there is a light breeze blowing.
The elephants seem oblivious to us and little groups move across to another parts of the plain where there is water. Babies follow. We feel so lucky to be here. To see them in the wild, in their natural habitat.
We are driving back to the hotel, away from grasslands of the National Park, through the villages on the bumpy dirt road lined with tropical vegetation and we see them. Wild elephants on the side of the road eating grass. We stop to take pictures of them and we are much closer than we were in the park! We watch them for a while and say goodbye, so happy we got had a full day of elephant watching.