From one island to another, I visited Sri Lanka recently and felt right at home being back on an island, after my experience of living in Crete. But the moment I got out of the airport the humidity hit me full blast and I was brutally reminded of being back in Asia. But despite my body adjusting from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, I absolutely loved every minute of being in Sri Lanka!
A tear drop in the ocean, Sri Lanka is known for many things like its tea and amazing biodiversity. But for us South East Asians, it is also known for its cricket. So with all tis background information my expectations were fairly high but I was not expecting the amazing diversity of its people. The mix of ethnicities and different types of faces I encountered, spoke of a country that was colonised by the Portuguese, the Dutch (aka the Burghers or people that look like Jackeline Fernandez!), the British, people from neighbouring South India, the Memons from Sindh in Pakistan and of course the Moors, who had travelled from Morocco/Spain.
I arrived in Colombo and one of my first local meals was at a birthday party for a friend’s 1 year old. I had my very first string hopper and realised this dish was possibly what rice is to Bangladeshis and bread is to the Greek!
I have only ever heard from Sri Lankan friends of the revered string hopper, made from rice flour, and their starry eyes always left me craving to try it. The taste was similar to a vermicelli but this ubiquitous dish was yet to surprise me! The food was spicy and coconutty… just as I had heard of so I silently wiped away the tears and just stuffed my face!
I soon travelled out of Colombo to experience a bit of the archaeological heritage of this tiny island with its vast Buddhist history. I chose Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and was armed with information from guide books and obviously, wikipedia! The two cities are under the Cultural Triangle of Dumbulla, Polonnaruwa and Annuradhapura. Polonnaruwa was the second most important city of ancient Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s old, pre-colonised name) while Annuradhapura was the first capital. My uber driver left me at the Colombo Fort train station at 5:30am to catch the train to Kattunayake, from where I was supposed to catch a bus to Dumbulla. It was raining profusely but I sat under the station shed and waited for the train standing on the platform to turn the inner lights on so I could realise the train I am waiting for was already there! Sri Lankan railways have changed little from the times of the British colonial era and the basic interiors were the perfect setting to enjoy the supremely lush exteriors we whizzed past. I joined two other Germans who were equally lost for a ride to Dumbulla. We could not have found the bus were it not for the help of a local guy who went out of his way to help us find the bus. Did I mention how friendly Sri Lankans are…?
I reached Dumbulla by 11am and caught a trishaw or tuk tuk to my youth hostel, but we drove past it and stopped outside a cute little house… turns out I had booked the wrong hostel! This was a new affair, The Bed Station Hostel, which was a separate room as an annex to the main part of the house and my host was more than happy to help me around on his motor bike. I did not stop to rest but took a bus straight to Polonnaruwa and reached after about an hour, outside the museum trying to buy a SAARC ticket which costs less than the average foreign ticket price! The tour guides syndicate that everyone must diligently avoid at such sites quickly surrounded me, trying to jostle me into hiring a trishaw from their service or take me around at an exorbitant price but I bought a tiny guide book and hailed my own trishaw. The skies looked threatening and without the trishaw I would have covered very little!
I wondered around holding my shoes (the sacred temple spaces do not allow shoes) as the stone floors burned my soles but the body eventually got used to the heat and I felt more like a pilgrim that has forgotten their physical discomfort in the midst of a strong spiritual presence. The tourists continued to throng with their cameras and some even forgot to not stand with their back to the Buddha while taking pictures. But I blocked them all out…
I returned back to Dumbulla that evening, exhausted but at complete peace with myself and was served an amazing home cooked meal by my hosts
The next morning I woke up at 4am and after a 45 mins motorbike ride that left me teary eyed and nursing a cold, we had to climb the most wet, high and dark set of stairs built for people twice my size, that I have ever had the misfortune of climbing! My chest was about to burst with all the exhaustion but the summit revealed a recumbent Buddha and a view of the valley below. Pindurangala Royal Cave built by Kashyapa in 5C CE, was home to a view and a Buddha statue.
We climbed back down much slower and I headed off to one of the most famous landmarks of Sri Lanka, the Sigiriya lion fortress. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this 1400 year old fortress with a moat and a palace that had the head of a lion at the top of its rocky summit, has steep stairs that are definitely not recommended for people with vertigo!
The site was once a palace with gardens and the rock, a part of the natural environment, was simply carved to resemble a lion’s head (which has since been missing) and gigantic paws or claws. The winding stairs up were also a tourist site as far back as 7 CE.
By the time I reached the top I was about to jump into an icy pool! The exhaustion was getting to me so I gingerly picked my way back down the steep stairs and was careful to not upset the monkeys…! The site has a wall which was made using materials like honey and calcium-carbonate, so it shone brightly, offering a reflection of the king as he walked past it. Today, although it does not reflect anymore, it still carries graffiti from visitors of 7CE – tourists have not changed over the centuries…! The other spectacular feature of the site is a section with frescoes of Apsaras or celestial maidens, on the rocky surface, an area where taking pictures is prohibited. The archaeological department officials asked me to spot the mistakes in the frescoes which had been corrected by the ancient artists but as the paint dries quickly, we could still spot them!
I returned to Dumbulla on my host’s motorbike and instantly packed up to catch my bus back to Colombo.
While I waited for the Sigiriya site to open I snacked on an egg samosa (a dough patty filled with boiled egg and some salt and pepper) and vada (made with lentils) from the site’s canteen, where the chef had just churned out a freshly fried bunch. I am not very fond of fried foods but after that torturous climb to the rock at 4am, this food was like manna from heaven!
At Colombo, I was to be greeted with more food and travel but that will all be in the next post
Until then: “the journey of discovery does not mean looking for new places but having new eyes” – Marcel Proust