Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Buffer Zone and Back

Well, I'm back from the buffer zone. I'm slightly lightheaded from the loss of blood (leeches) and sore from the climbing, but otherwise good.

So let's start with this leech problem. These Sri Lankan leeches are heads over tails. Literally, they eat from both ends. That is right, you get the end that is attached off and it just sits it's butt (second face, who really knows) down and starts sucking from that end. It is crazy. And, unlike Indonesian leeches, these guys are willing to travel. Right up one's leg -- I won't get graphic, but let's just say I had blood streaming from the entire length of my leg (meaning my pants are now stained red from upper thigh to ankle). I've learned an important lesson -- no where is safe, just keep your pants tucked into your socks even it makes you look like a total freak. Because not explain in a minute) more efficient than the leeches in Indonesia. First, they are smarter. In Indonesia we only saw them in Camp Leakey where there were nice wide paths and you could actually see the leeches on the ground and thus avoid them. In Sri Lanka they are everywhere within the wet zone and they are smaller and quicker. Plus, and this is the kicker, they can suck only are they smarter than Indonesia leeches, but they hurt more. Where they got me now itches like crazy.

That was the only bad point -- otherwise the Sinharaja Buffer Zone is beautiful. Tea appears to be the palm oil of Sri Lanka, but it isn't as bad as palm oil in Indonesia (so I won't be avoiding tea). Around every bend is another patch of tea bushes, it is really insane. People insist on expanding their plots, but the tea market is really bad right now. Apparently a great deal of "lowland" tea from Sri Lanka is sold in the Middle East and with the current unrest there, the market has fallen. They can grow so many other things that would bring in more money, you'd think they would be interested. But they know tea, they feel safe with tea. Plus, the other products maybe more work.

I saw how cinnamon trees become sticks of cinnamon (now, there is a crop you can make money -- plus it is a tree that grows naturally here and you only harvest branches, so very sustainable). I saw how they climb kithul trees to tap for jaggery and treacle (jaggery is a sugar and treacle is like honey -- I'm totally addicted to jaggery now, they eat it while drinking tea and it is not as sweet as sugar, so it is quite nice to eat straight). I watched tea being plucked and learned the process. Tea bushes are planted and it takes two years from them to mature. Then you only get about three years of harvests before you have to start all over again. They can pluck between one to two bags a day equaling around 10-20 kilos of tea. The trucks come around everyday at three to collect the tea, pay the pickers, and take it to the factory where it is dried and packaged as Ceylon Tea. They also harvest rattan here, just like in Borneo, but it isn't as rampant as in Borneo and they stay within the Buffer, never entering the park. What a thankless job, as rattan is a thorny vine and must be awful to harvest.

I stayed with a lovely family in a small village in the Buffer. Sunil and his family truly made me feel welcome, even though they fed me way too much. It is so hard to express that although larger than they are, I just cannot eat that much rice. Really, it is amazing how much rice they can eat. Even the children eat more than me. It is amazing.

The other thing I'll have to get over if I'm going to work here is my fear of riding on motorcycles (thanks mom!). That is how people get around and in some places, like the buffer zone, it is the only way to get around. Once I got used to it this trip, it was time to go. I think I will request a helmet from Sewalanka. It is the law that the driver have one, but nothing about the passenger on the back of the motorcycle. This seems crazy, you are both in the same amount of danger. Luckily, the roads are so bad in the buffer zone that you can't go too fast, so I wasn't really worried.

I did forget my glasses on this trip (again, getting up at five is not good for me), so even though I took more than 300 photos, maybe 75 are in focus. Hopefully they will be up on Flickr tonight.

So this trip wasn't a pleasure trip, we do actually have projects in the Buffer Zone. We are trying to provide the villages with things to do that are sustainable and don't negatively affect Sinharaja. Sinharaja is a primary rain forest and home to an abundance of biodiversity (it is a hotspot, for those of you who know what that means). This means, growing stuff with the tea to replenish the soil (so they don't have to cultivate more land), finding a market for treacle and jaggery and making sure they continue using traditional tapping methods, producing higher quality handicrafts for the tourist market, etc. Also, we are doing a lot with energy -- we've provided solar panel and hydroplants to several villages. All the electricity in the villages immediately next to the park is produced through renewable resources. We have also organized the villages into community groups so they can band together and demand better prices for their tea, cinnamon, etc. Tea prices are a lost cause right now, but cinnamon brings in $80 a kilo.

Finally, we are working with the villages to make sure they understand the importance of Sinharaja. This seems to have really worked. Everyone asked how I like it, if I'd seen this bird or that animal, etc. They all know it is a World Heritage Site and seem to understand what this distinction means. Tourism was really picking up before the fighting started again and the villagers know this will improve once the fighting ends. Sewalanka actually started the homestays in the village and they have taken people from Colombo (Sri Lankans who work for HSBC) to them to explore another aspect of their own culture. It is really interesting and if anyone visits me we will also stay in a homestay.

My only complaint (besides the leeches) is I didn't have time to actually go into the park. Well, maybe there was time, but since I still don't have my resident visa, it would have been very expensive. So next time I'll definitely go in.

I did get to see a purple faced leaf monkey, but only fleetingly as he was running away when we caught sight. Oh well.

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