Monday 21 May 2018

Sri Lanka: A living technicolour dream

 

Tea plantation in the valley in the area of town of Nuwara Ellia, Sri Lanka
Tea plantation in the valley in the area of town of Nuwara Ellia, Sri Lanka
John Masterson visits an elephant orphanage in Pinnawala

John Masterson

I had a Bono/Christy Moore week. I climbed some mountains and saw lots of lakes that could be jumped into.

 I swam in the longest pool in Sri Lanka in the luxurious Club Hotel Dolphin in Negombo. And yes, in Sri Lanka, I did find what I was looking for. A land that is still different in a world becoming more uniform. A technicolour country that brings into sharp focus the pluses and minuses of progress. A satisfying and enriching week.

From the word go, you are welcomed. I exited the plane to a chorus of 'Ayubowan', which means 'may you live long'. Then you feel the beautiful 30-degree heat in November. Yes.

Love stories abound. Arthur C Clarke, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame, fell in love with Sri Lanka, lived in Colombo and founded a scuba school. At Mount Lavinia in 1805, the British Governor, nicknamed King Tom, fell in love with Lavinia, a local dancer whom he could not marry. He built a tunnel from his house, now the Mount Lavinia Hotel, where they met in secret. Today honeymooning couples share dinner in the same lovenest. I ate outside, looking at city lights and the sea.

Not far away, I visited Nuwara Eliya where I took an early morning hike up a mountain to one of the many fabulous waterfalls, Lovers' Leap, at 6,637ft. Here, a local royal fell in love with a girl below his class. Unable to marry, they ended it all here. From that height, I think of it as "No Woman Is Worth That Leap".

Part of Nuwara Eliya is known as Little England. I stayed in the St Andrew's Hotel, home to one of the few golf courses in Sri Lanka. And at over 6,000ft, I can hit a ball as far as Tiger. Tiger with a bad back and a seven iron, that is. At this altitude, it is considerably cooler and the ideal site for the first tea plantations which remain important to Sri Lanka's economy. I visited the 2,000-acre Pedro plantation, home of the famous Lovers' Leap tea. Much is just as it always has been, with women plucking tea and throwing it over their shoulder into bags that are held on by a head strap. I tried it. The very tolerant ladies merely asked that I send them the photos. They pick 18kg of leaves a day and earn 450 Rupees for an eight-hour day, less than €3. All employees have housing, education and health care.

John Masterson visits an elephant orphanage in Pinnawala
John Masterson visits an elephant orphanage in Pinnawala

The long, slow, twisty journey from sea level up to over 6,000ft was a treat. It began with rice paddies and white herons in the fields. As we climbed higher, crawling around hairpin bends, the views improved and the vegetation changed. In the distance, you could see waterfalls. Up close, you find children washing vegetables in streams and adults running a car wash. You become aware that village life is still very simple. Women wash clothes in streams and dry them on corrugated iron roofs. Everywhere you see children in smart white school uniforms.

At over 3,000ft, the guide pointed out to me 'English' vegetables... carrots, potatoes, radishes, tomatoes and strawberries being grown.

Tea plantations stretch as far as the eye can see. I strolled around the town of Nuwara Eliya and was welcomed warmly in shops. It seemed crazy not to buy a pair of sandals for about €3.

I feel comfortably warm in a T-shirt at this altitude. Some of the locals are wearing jackets and hats. Ear warmers are for sale!

Lovers' Leap was only one of the many heights I scaled on this magical sub-tropical island, once called Ceylon, off the south-east tip of India. Sri Lanka is smaller than Ireland but is home to some 20-million people, 70pc of whom are Buddhist.

The Sigiriya Rock Fortress was built in the fifth century by a prince who had killed his father and thought it was a good place to hide out. It is a Unesco Heritage site and well worth the two-hour climb both for the views and to see the remnants of the amazing structure, complete with frescoes of buxom ladies. You ascend 1,200 steps, many bolted into the cliff. I never looked down.

Honeymoon inspiration: Go beyond the beach with a cycling trip through Sri Lanka
Honeymoon inspiration: Go beyond the beach with a cycling trip through Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is living the peace dividend. The civil war cost some $400bn. Everywhere you see construction. Driving from A to B can take time because there are massive roadworks everywhere. New hotels are springing up and old ones being refurbished and extended. In little more than 10 years since it ended, the civil war seems all but forgotten. There is huge Chinese investment in the country. And lest we ever forget, Sri Lanka was worst hit in the 2004 tsunami, with more than 30,000 fatalities.

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, where it is believed a tooth from the Buddha's funeral pyre is preserved, was the scene of one of the many atrocities in the civil war. Our guide shows me the spot and tells me the exact date three Tamil Tiger suicide bombers exploded their truck in a blast that killed 20 people. The attack was designed to provoke retaliation and destabilise the country ahead of Sri Lanka's 50th anniversary of independence. It didn't. Prince Charles visited the temple to mark the occasion a few weeks later. It is well worth a visit today.

Elephants feature strongly in Sri Lanka and currently on my shirt. I am a martyr to good taste. I visited an elephant orphanage in Pinnawala which saves animals and raises them on a large plain. While there are elements of a zoo about it, there are also elements of conservation and education. The animals are not tame and run free. It was a memorable sight to see six elephants come down the street and wade into the Madu river where they enjoyed being hosed down. There is a spin-off industry in making paper from elephant poo which comes in elephantine proportions.

I travelled in an open-top four-wheel drive along the worst roads of the trip, and that is saying a lot, to Kaudulla National Park where we saw lots of water buffalo and at least 100 elephants. At one stage, a group of about 15 of these enormous creatures decided to walk across the river, coming quite close to another group of tourists. One suspects human poo might have entered the equation.

Sri Lanka is a hikers' paradise. I enjoyed another trek on Pitawala with a great view of the Knuckles mountain range. Near the top, we met a couple on their pre-wedding photo shoot. This was followed by a visit to our guide's simple house where his wife had prepared a delicious dhal curry and red rice.

Over the week I ate and drank fabulously - squid, seer fish, pineapple, watermelon juice, red banana, fruit salad ice cream, water lily root curry, jaffna prawns curry, smoked marlin, mango everything, and manioc crisps in the car. We were served a ginger and tamarind drink on arrival in the comfortable Zinc Journey Hotel in Sigiriya where the chef then taught me how to make a village-style fish pepper stew.

There are sights that stay with me. A motorbike where the woman on the back had two crutches in her left hand and an umbrella held up with her right, stands out. As do cheeky monkeys, a large monitor lizard at the side of the road, a mongoose, a kingfisher, mouse deer, sea eagles and pelicans. The stunningly beautiful trees, including the flowering African Tulip. There are the crickets at night and the birds singing on the mountain. The dogs are referred to as the 'traffic policemen'. They just sit on the road so you have to slow down.

I didn't see any Porsches, Beamers, or thousand-euro handbags. I did see a lot of young adults glued to their phones but the infection had yet to reach schoolchildren. I am not doing the poor but happy nonsense. This is a country on the move and bettering itself by the day. Today it is a country of villages, small shops, busy people leading daily lives in their community. Yes there is a rural-urban divide, but they still have a rural. Children go to school and play cricket and swim. School is important.

In Ireland, we chose fast money over quality education and look at us now.

We often say we will go back to a place and usually don't. This time I will. A week doesn't even scratch the surface. There is 1,342km of coastline and I spent five minutes on the beach.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

High and mighty

The stunning Lotus Tower in Colombo is almost complete. At 1,150ft, it will be the tallest structure in South Asia, symbolising Sri Lanka’s flourishing development and, I think, well worth the $100m.

Peacock protection

There are Sri Lankan Cobra masks for Protection, Fire masks to subdue your enemies, and Peacock masks for Peace, Harmony, and Protection. I saw plenty of peacocks. And no cobras ! So Peacock for me.

Getting there

* John travelled to Sri Lanka under the Visiting Journalist Program (VJP) conducted by the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau. The programme is designed to invite international travel journalists, media houses and travel bloggers to explore the beautiful island.

* John flew with Sri Lankan Airlines. Direct flights from Heathrow-Colombo take about 12 hours. Return flights from €625. See srilankan.com

* The island is filled with diverse hotels and resorts with great hospitality, John was welcomed by the Movenpick Hotel, Colombo, Mount Lavinia Hotel, Colombo, Club Dolphin Hotel, Negombo, Zinc Journey, Sigiriya, Mahaweli Reach Hotel, Kandy, St Andrew's, Nuwara Eliya.

* For further information, visit the Sri Lanka Tourism's website: www.srilanka.travel/

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