Saturday, July 5, 2008

To Hell and Back

Just a warning: I've had three cups of very strong coffee and almost an entire quart of caffeinated iced tea today, so this may not be completely coherent.

O.k. so instead of doing my work for my free Tibet tour (I swear I'll finish it tomorrow!), I edited photos today. So now I'm ready to write about my crazy weekend with Kristine and Joe.

I was able to fit in an amazing amount of travel into Kristine and Joe's measly five days here. I'm very happy they came to visit, but it just wasn't long enough. They probably had the craziest off-the-beaten track trip ever planned though. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.I picked them up at the airport and we drove directly to Uda Walawe. You have to hire a jeep when you get there, which is a bit irritating when you are already paying for a car and driver. I was really upset by this, but once we were in and saw the roads, well, o.k. it was a necessary hire. We went out for a three-hour tour (which was only 2.5 hours, this usually happens in Sri Lanka). The highlight: a two-month old baby elephant. So cute, though the herd refused to allow him out in the sun so I could get a good photo. Elephants are really not very helpful in regards to allowing you to take photos of their babies. I did finally get a presentable photo of painted storks and a peacock.The next day it was off toward Tangalle to see the various funky temples in the south. See the south doesn't ancient temples like in the north, so instead they have embraced kitsch in hopes of attracting tourists. First we went to the Rock Temple otherwise known as Mulkirigala temple-monastery. This is the oldest temple in the South (dates to the 3rd century B.C.), so not so kitschy. There is a parinirvana Buddha here -- a dead Buddha. You climb 700 steps to the top, but really you only need to climb to the caves. The last bit of stairs (I don't know, maybe the last 100) just takes you up to a dagoba, which isn't really worth seeing. The view is good though.
Since it was Sunday, Buddhist Sunday School was in session. The kids were very excited to see us and even more excited to see our cameras. I swear I feared a death by trampling -- these kids were serious about having their photo taken. Actually, I feared I might be trampled as they kept moving forward trying to be in front for the photo (at one point practically stepping on my feet until I explained they had to stand back to be in the photo).
Then we headed over to the much anticipated "Hell Temple." Wewurukannala is home to the largest Buddha statue on the island (I think this really is the largest) -- he is 50 meters high, or 8-stories (as evident by the eight-story building behind him). Inside the building behind the Buddha is a comic rendition of the lives and times of Buddha. Apparently he was reincarnated 500 times before finding enlightenment and becoming Buddha. There is another building with a 3-d version of these lives. In his last life he left his wife and child to become Buddha. I think there is a movie possibility there. Kristine, Joe and I were all amazed that one can reach enlightenment after abandoning one's family.Anyway, underneath the giant Buddha is a "cave" where one can learn all the things you can do to be sent to Buddhist hell. First, I had no idea Buddhists believed in hell. Second, I had no idea hell could be so gruesome. With more comic book paintings and 3-d plaster statues, really it is something to see. Most important lesson? Overcharging is a hell offense. That is right -- I'll be reminding trishaw drivers of this in the future.Then we headed over to the Comic Book Temple, known as Weherehena Temple. At this point we were a little templed-out, so we didn't actually go see the cartoon paintings. I did get some nice photos of small headless Buddha statues placed around the bodhi tree.
I decided we should sleep in Galle Fort that night since I missed my opportunity when Rachel was here. We went to one guesthouse, but considering he had no guests I wasn't satisfied with the price he was giving. And good thing, because at Joe's urging I called Galle Fort Hotel. This is one of the nicest hotels in Fort -- one of Sri Lanka's famous boutique hotels. Of course, my phone died as I was just about ready to seriously bargain. So we walked over. The owner offered us space for $100 a night since they are painting, "and I'll give you two rooms." This implies we would get both rooms for the $100 price, but the next day's bill had $200. Clearly we were had, but my very diplomatic sponsors (Joe and Kristine kindly paid for this entire trip!) did not want to argue since we had such a lovely stay. So I'm using the blogosphere to send out this warning -- make sure you get in writing what deal you finagle with Galle Fort Hotel.And Joe was right, it was a lovely stay. Galle Fort Hotel is breathtaking. The pool was lovely (went for an evening and morning swim); the showers incredible (took three -- yes this environmentally unfriendly, but I don't have hot water at home, so I felt the excess permit-able); the food delicious.The next morning we wandered around the fort (after a lovely breakfast and a leisurely swim!).
Then we took our time making our way up the coast. We stopped to see the train wreckage created by the December 2004 tsunami. We stopped to see the big Buddha donated by the Japanese in remembrance of those who lost their lives to the tsunami.As we were driving away from this Buddha we saw several ambulances and fire trucks and our driver immediately said it must have been a bomb. Since we were in the south I didn't believe him (bombs don't happen in the south as much as they do in Colombo and regions north), but then we came to the scene and the train did indeed look as if it had been bombed with one car totally blackened out. According to the news it was merely a train derailment.
Still thinking we saw a bomb scene (because we weren't told of the news until we got to Colombo), we stopped in Kosgoda to see a turtle hatchery. Here they pay fishermen seven rupees per egg for turtle eggs and clearly it works. They had hundreds of one-, two- and three-day old babies. They release the babies in the night of their third day. They do the releases at night to avoid predators. When the fishermen bring the eggs they bury them in a netted enclosure and put a little sign that says the date, type of turtle (most of the eggs are from green turtles, but every so often they find one from another type of the five turtles that nest on the shores of Sri Lanka) and how many. The hatchery also had a few injured adult turtles. One was blind and one had no front flippers -- these two will not be released. The others were being nursed until healthy and then they will be put back into the ocean. One was ready to be sent out with the three-day olds that evening.Once back in town, Tharushi had reserved a table at Mt. Lavinia Hotel for their Sri Lankan buffet. It was a good way for Kristine and Joe to try all of the various Sri Lankan dishes in one meal. Mt. Lavinia also had a little tourist dance and drum show -- so Kristine and Joe also got to hear some Kandy drumming.The next day they slept -- I clearly had worn them out. Luckily they woke up in time for high tea at Galle Face Hotel and a little shopping. Just to continue our bought of gluttony, we had dessert at Gallery Cafe.

What a lovely weekend. Unfortunately, they flew to Indonesia on Wednesday.

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