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 Post subject: Simply Serendip
 Post Posted: Sun May 27, 2007 2:23 am 
Simply Serendip
Sri Lanka may be a war zone, but that hasn’t stopped the partying…

If historical ruins leave you cold, then check out the elephants. They are all over Sri Lanka — in the wild, in captivity or cutely carved and displayed at any curio shop worth its salt.

Copyright © 2007, The Hindu
Sunday, May 27, 2007


Image

THE first time a woman threw a bucket of water, I ducked, nearly missing the wiry youth who ran past our van to gratefully accept the shower.

All along the roads in sleepy Habarana in north-central Sri Lanka, women waited with water to keep up the spirit of their men folk who celebrated the Sinhalese New Year by running marathons under the scorching sun.

Even the menacing military guys at check posts smiled indulgently at the runners, who were followed by batches of youngsters on bikes.

That stopped me in my frantic lookout for shops selling pre-paid mobile phone SIM cards. I grudgingly started acknowledging the carefree smiles, the colourful festoons and the unhurried pace with which the entire countryside was celebrating New Year well past May 15.

“Forget family, enjoy Sri Lanka,” exhorted one enthusiastic fellow traveller. Couldn’t have agreed more, except that I still needed to call home and say: “No bombs. I am fine.”

Watch that step

Buoyed by the new-found peace (I did make that call) and greenery, the next day I ventured with determined steps to climb the 200-metre high rock fortress — Sigiriya — the unofficial eighth wonder of the world. I breezed past the pretty moat and water gardens, eager to start the ascent.

I paused only to take photographs while climbing the winding stone stairway from the base. Then came the spiral staircase leading to a host of murals — the strikingly stunning Sigiriya maidens. A torrent of agitated French greeted me before I could reach the maidens. “People and their phobias,” I muttered while making way for people abandoning the spiral climb midway. Soon my turn came as I stood panting in front of the Lion Staircase with two massive forepaws. “Only 100 more steps,” said a local helpfully as I stood wondering how on earth I was going to see King Kashyapa’s staggering 5th century palace on sky.

Cursing my fancy footwear and aching feet, I dragged myself to the summit. The friendly chap kept cheering till I reached the summit, a plateau consisting of the king’s palace, a lotus pond and a dance hall. “Good job,” I patted myself, looked around, clicked more pictures to hurry back to the air-conditioned comfort of the van. But the descent proved trickier.

“Give me only Rs. 500,” said the friendly neighbourhood local who by now had metamorphosed to his glib guide avatar. “You can pay me in Indian rupees,” he persisted. I limped back with a light heart and an even lighter wallet.

Elephant run

If historical ruins leave you cold, then check out the elephants. They are all over Sri Lanka — in the wild, in captivity or cutely carved and displayed at any curio shop worth its salt.

The wild: This one gave a fright on an otherwise tame safari through the Minneriya National Park in Habarana. Having sighted an elephant early on, our group happily parked right in front of him. He posed for pictures, crossed the road and retreated to give us the shy-bride looks from behind the greenery.

“How sweet,” we cooed till he started charging at the safari jeep as soon as we passed his hideout. We easily outpaced him but soon collapsed into fits of laughter, half in mirth and the rest in relief after surviving the excitement of the “attack”.

The captive orphans: At the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, Pandu and Tgiri patiently stood in the mid-day heat, munching the greens and unmindful of the cameras. These baby orphan elephants, survivors of attacks in the wild, just wanted their daily ration of milk. Soon the trainers, Sunil and his colleague, brought out huge bottles of milk and fed the by-now impatient duo in turns. Couldn’t figure out who was happier — the animals or the eager onlookers.

Strange and familiar

The food: Think Kerala. Then you won’t be too surprised to find the local cuisine peppered with coconut, rice, fish curry and string hoppers.

The culture: Bollywood rules. The poised front office manager Rajika’s nervous giggles were accompanied by the “I love Shah Rukh Khan” declaration. “That’s nice,” I smiled politely.

The younger crowd is sure to engage you in the film industry’s latest gossip once they figure out you are Indian.

“You Indian? Your Aishwarya Rai got married,” lamented a curio shop owner in Kandy while I was busy trying to strike a bargain for my elephants and garuda masks. “So what?” I grumbled. “We are all sad.& #8221; I looked up to see the emotionally charged faces of the shopkeeper and his friends and managed to mumble something suitable before making a quick exit. Similar conversations happened in five star hotels where gloomy restaurant managers tried to convey their grief while I was concentrating on getting that yummy fish on to my plate.

But some things remain Sri Lankan: the benign Buddha statues in gold, marble and cement rising over the green slopes of Kandy and en route to the bustling Colombo; the two-wheeler riders whizzing past wearing helmets whether it is rain or shine; the nondescript spice gardens of Matale offering essential oils and other “natural” products; And of course, the military bunkers all over the country giving you the once-over every now and then.

Very reassuring, very relaxing.


SANDHYA SOMAN


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