Saturday, June 25, 2011

Trincomalee and Pollanaruwu

Konneshwaram Temple in the morning!
The last two weeks passed really quickly and I am really going to miss MEF a lot( not the dung cleaning part though). I headed east last night on a train from Polgahawela to Trincomalee. Trincomalee is the largest port in the country and has two natural harbors. The city has been developed on the peninsula that divides these two harbors. My train reached early in the morning at around six. Deciding to immediately go and cover the Konneshwaram temple during the morning pooja I hired an auto. After a lengthy exercise in translation I managed to get him to understand where exactly I wanted to go but he still dropped me only at the base of the hill. I did manage to hike up(I haven't done any climbing whatsoever since the Guadalupe escape!)  I hadn't really done my research on the temple so I was pleasantly surprised to find the temple on top of a hill which gives a panoramic view of both the harbors in Trincomalee. What I found quite interesting was one of the bays is known as Chinabay, simply because of the Chinese trade taking place here since the time of the Dutch. Though it had been destroyed several times by different colonialists, the temple always had been rebuilt by the generous donations of the Tamil population in Trincomalee. The Dutch fort is actually what surrounds the hill which the Konneshwaram is built on. So after the morning rituals I walked down the hill and took in as much of the scenery as I could. The Frederick Fort( or the Dutch Fort)  is probably the only colonial fort in Sri Lanka that is still operational. The Sri Lankan Army occupies most of the insides of the fort and life inside the fort seemed like a throw back to the British occupation of Ceylon.
After finishing the fort in a couple of hours I walked endlessly along the beach which was calm and serene compared to the water at the Unawatuna beach in Galle. Quite hungry I stopped by a seaside bakery and grabbed my favorite Sri Lankan quick snack, Eluwalu roti. I walked some more till the bus station and enquired about a bus to Polonnaruwa. It was a quite a pain to get the information from most people here and it is not that people aren't helpful. And this is why I  wish the Government of Sri Lanka would provide Tourist information centers in all their big tourist spots.
Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara
The bus to Pollonarruwu left around 11:30 and there ended my short and sweet visit to Trincomalee. We reached Pollonarruwu around 2:00 and I decided to hurry before all the tourist places shut down. Polannaruwa is undoubtedly one of the cleanest Sri Lankan cities I've seen. This relics have been declared a World Heritage site for its magnificent sculptures of Buddha( at Gal Vihara). The ruins of the ancient city lie of the eastern shore of the Topa Wewa lake, which is an artificial lake so large you cannot see the other side. Built in the 12th Century by King Parakramabahu, the lake, according to a simple guidesheet I found outside, still serves as an excellent water system for the entire province and beyond. Gal Vihara Rock Temple, unparalleled among such ancient monastic edifices, takes the form of a group of colossal Buddha statues carved out of a granite boulder. Most prominent is the standing image which is over seven meter tall.
Next to it is an enormous fourteen meter wide reclining Buddha. The head rest on the right palm, while the left hand is stretched along the left side of the body. The dent on the pillow caused by the weight of the head and the slightly drawn in left leg add life to the superb rock carved work of poise and balance.

I finished this leg of my trip and headed to the Polonnaruwa railway station to find some dinner before taking the last train to Polgahawela. The day has been nothing short of tiring and I am just waiting to get back into a proper bed!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ceylonian Cuisine!!

Triangular Delicacy: Eluwalu Roti
So I've been thinking about posting a little about the gastronomical wonders of Sri Lanka. I've been here close to three weeks now and have tried all kinds of food( provided they are vegetarian of course). Honestly there is very little difference between Sri Lankan and Indian food. But stuff here is just that much more spicier than back home. One of the best fast foods I have tried over the years has to be Eluwalu Roti. This triangular piece of stuffed bread is sold in every corner shop in Sri Lanka. Providing almost instant energy they are quite the treat when one is craving for some home food.
The other Sri Lankan food that is quite popular and available almost everywhere is hoppers. They come in two varieties. One is the normal hoppers and most Indians would immediately recognize it as the Kerala dish Aappam. The second variety is String hoppers which are very similar to Kerala speciality idiyappams. Hoppers is generally served with hot curry or Lunu miris( mix of red onions and spices).

For lunch and dinner, Mrs Kumari would often make coconut or mango sambol( a curry made with ground coconut/mango and red chillies) and serve it with rice.
I am not a tea drinker generally, but unable to refuse the requests of the host family I have quite readily had a lot of delicious Sri Lankan tea.
Quite often the host family in Kegalle has made these dishes mentioned above and its been an absolute delight to try the different varieties of food in Sri Lanka.
Tonight I am taking the night train to Trincomalee to go and visit some of the temples there. More when I come back on Sunday!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


As I had mentioned before, I had been assigned an elephant on my first day at MEF. Poojah, a 25 yr old female elephant is probably the naughtiest elephant here. And I use naughty in the nice way here, meaning mischievous or even bordering on playful.Over the past week I have worked closely with Poojah and found out several interesting facts about her. She has a crooked tail( which she inherited from her father) and was the first elephant born in captivity in Sri Lanka. Her mother, Lakshmi also works at MEF is one of the favorite elephants to ride for the tourists. Poojah, though well trained loves to have fun with the volunteers here by splashing water on them. I experienced this first hand and walked around drenched for the next 2 hours. She also loves bobbing her head, almost as if she is listening to music. Apparently, elephants do this to release excess energy( that could be a new great fitness mantra?)
Her mahout Ratna is a nice man. I got irritated with him quite a few times because just as I would scrub one part of Poojah, he would come and scrub again as if my effort was useless(may be it was) but I found out later that he does this with all the volunteers. At the end of the volunteer program, each volunteer gets an elephant ride and shower for free. I really cant wait for my ride and elephant shower(though I've already experienced my elephant shower unofficially!)
By the end of this week I would have to move on from Pinnawala and start the last leg of my trip in Trincomalee where I will spend three days before heading back to Colombo. I do wish to go to Anuradhapura( the ancient capital of Sri Lanka) but it remains to be seen on how things go in Trincomalee.
Keep following my blog to catch the rest of this Sri Lankan sojourn!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Colombo in 4 hrs.....

Bronte was planning to leave for Colombo from where she would be heading to Hong Kong. So I joined her as I would get a free ride to Colombo. Not having planned anything in particular to do in Colombo as I would only have about 4 hours( since we reached the city only around 3pm) I went and asked the concierge at the Hilton Colombo what I could accomplish in those hours. He gave me a list of options and all of them were places of interest that would shut down at 5:30pm.

Colombo National Museum
Making a quick decision to visit the Colombo National Museum, I left the hotel and took a tuk-tuk to the museum. Now I haven't seen a lot of museums around the world but I have to say that it was whitest museum around. Everything in and around the museum was painted in white(continuing some archaic colonial tradition) and the main building, almost arrogantly proclaimed itself as 'MUSEUM'( as if this was the only one ever built in Sri Lanka). I could have got in for Rs. 25( the fee for locals) had I not been wearing my Deccan Chargers jersey. The guy behind the ticket counter was about to give me a normal ticket before he looked at me and moved his hand away towards the tickets for foreigners. I had to pay Rs 500 to the man!
The Buddha sculpture
The Museum is quite a delight from the inside, recording the history of Sri Lanka from around 16 B.C. The most interesting aspect for me was the period of change from the Portuguese and Dutch colonization of the island to the period of British control. The coins and paintings from that era are quite remarkable. The museum also kept a permanent show of the Buddhist heritage in Sri Lanka. The Buddha sculpture at the entrance is magnificent to look at.

I could have easily spent another two hours but the museum manager literally followed me out of the museum gate. I tuktuked( that's a new verb from Sri Lanka!) to the Colombo Fort station to get a ticket for the evening train. The next train to Rambukanna was in an hour so I walked back on to Main Street to take in the sights. Honestly, as much as Galle was pretty even in the center of the town, Colombo was quite the opposite. Taking in the sights and the smells was quite terrible and I returned quickly to a waiting room in the station. The train ride was better than the last one(read less crowded) and I managed to get myself a seat for the entire journey.
 I reached Kumari's house around 9:30pm and after a quick dinner I slept at her house for the first time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kandy - and the ride back!

Yesterday, Bronte( a volunteer from California) and I decided to make a short visit to Kandy, the second largest city in Sri Lanka. The city boasts of one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the world, the Temple of the Tooth Relic(which honestly sounds more like the title of film) which houses the ancient relic that apparently gives the possessor the control of Sri Lanka.Quite amazingly the Sri Lankan government charges all foreigners Rs.1000 to enter the temple.

 We then moved on to the YMBA hall by the central lake of the city, which was hosting a cultural dance program. Lasting just about an hour the performance was enthralling, to say the least. The acrobatics and rhythmic pieces were the highlight and delighted an audience primarily consisting of foreigners.The last piece of the show was taken outside the hall where the performers played with fire and then walked on fire and embers.
Heading back from Kandy is the toughest thing I have done in my life. The bus was jam packed and more often than not I was standing only on one foot, with my hands either on the hand railing above or on someone's shoulder. I guess it would have been fine had it been a morning bus, since most people shower up then. But it being the last bus of the night, the stench was quite the nightmare I'd rather not face again. During the midst of this ride I was quite frustrated but looking back at it makes me feel happy; at least every bus ride from now on would be better than this and if not than I would be better prepared for the next one. An uncomfortable( it is a mild word I use) ride for over an hour left me so stiff the entire night and it took a good 8 hours for my body to loosen up.
Poojah( my elephant) has been quite cheerful and playful. Yesterday it showered water on me quite unexpectedly. The mahout Rathna let me feed Poojah and allowed me to take pictures with it. I will post them quite soon.
I may be leaving Kegalle this weekend to go back to Colombo(as MEF is closed on weekends). More after I come back!!!....Do follow me on twitter if you want to!!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kegalle, Pinnawala and MEF

Colombo Fort Station
So the highlight of my trip has started. I was finally dropped at the elephant orphanage by Michael and Darrell after a hectic train ride. The train from Galle left at 6:45 and was quite comfortable. The express train was a gift from the Indian Railways to Sri Lanka, However due to some signal failure between two stations there was quite a bit of delay and we reached the Colombo Fort station a little past 9 o' clock. Much to our dismay, the train from Colombo Fort to Rambukanna(the closest train station to Kegalle) was delayed by an hour. After a while an announcement was made that the express train to Rambukanna was leaving from Maradana and not from Colombo Fort. So we got into the first local train to Maradana. The interesting thing about Sri Lankan trains is that you will not get a reserved seat in any class on the train. which means that there is a stampede to get seats as soon as they arrive on the platform. By the time our local train arrived at Maradana the express train to Rambukanna had already filled up leaving us with no choice but to stand in the buffet car which happened to be jam packed. I have traveled like this a couple of times in India but for Darrell, my friend from Canada, this was to be an experience of a lifetime.
After reaching Rambukanna, I was a little disappointed with some things. Firstly I was told I would have to stay at a nearby hotel until a place opens up at the usual homestay. I really enjoyed my stay at Michael's place and would have loved to stay with another family..
Secondly, the volunteers along with me didn't actually work at the government run Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala but at a smaller private sanctuary called Millenium Elephant Foundation(MEF). It was a pity because I was really looking towards working with very young elephants. However Michael informed me that MEF was a much better place because they offered a lot more activity and play time with the elephants than the elephant orphanage.
My first meeting with the elephant I was assigned to was quite exciting. Poojah, a 25yr old female elephant is one of the six female elephants at the MEF.My first assignment was to clean the dung from Pooja's enclosure. It did stink a lot but I knew what I was getting myself into and managed to get the job done within fifteen minutes. I hadn't even finished and the mahout was barking orders in Sinhalese.
My Poojah!!
I managed to figure out that we had to take the elephant for a bath. Getting very excited about the prospect of bathing an elephant, I literally ran down to the stream. It was quite amazing how intelligent these beings are. One word instructions were enough for Pooja to understand what the mahout( whose name I found out later to be Ratna) was asking it to do.

Bathing an elephant is not an easy task. To get the mud out, the mahout and I used our full arm strength to scrub the sides and the legs. The mahout did the face and trunk as these areas are more sensitive and the mahout did not want to take the risk by letting me do it. The elephant was then taken to a day time resting area where it would rest and chew on the grass endlessly. I was then asked to do some gardening at the ecofarm where they grew the bananas and spinach and grass for the elephants. We brought the elephant compost and planted pineapples as well.This was to be my daily routine for the two weeks I am staying here. The volunteers here are very friendly and fun to talk to. Most of them are from England and the US. We were done with all the work around 12:30 and all of us left for Mrs Kumari's house( the homestay place). Deciding to watch movies in the afternoon I left for my hotel and after a sumptuous lunch I returned back with my laptop. The afternoon was amazing watching Postgrad(not a great movie, but fun regardless) and Inside Man.
And so ended my first day of volunteering with elephants
The pictures will be posted soon I promise. Especially the ones with the elephants!!

Friday, June 10, 2011

More of Galle and Unawatuna

The last few days have been quite amazing as I have gotten to know more of the students. I have hardly taught them much, only basic grammar but the connection we formed through cricket has been quite fantastic. Once we were on the playing field, the language barrier dropped and it was quite fascinating how we bonded. The students even taught me a bit of Sinhala which is very much like an Indian language.
We spent most of our afternoons at the Unawatuna beach, just soaking up the sun and enjoying the sea breeze.
That is an Olive Ridley in my hand!!
I tried exploring the local restaurants at Unawatuna but was disappointed with the ones I tried. Jina's Vegetarian and Vegan restaurant raised my hopes and appetite but the food was not up to the mark and left me quite annoyed.
One of the afternoons, I made my way to a turtle hatchery. It was amazing work a family was doing. They had about five of the seven species of turtles in the world and they raised and released hundreds of them every week. They kept a few for educational and research purposes and some of them were quite beautiful. Holding one of the Olive Ridleys was quite an experience
The Peace Pagoda on the Rumasalla hill
Last evening I went to Dagaba Buduge, a Buddhist temple with a pagoda on the hill. The view of the Indian ocean was simply mesmerizing as was panoramic view of the beach. It was quiet and a perfect place to watch the sunset.
Sunday morning I am required to take a train to Kegalle to start my second leg of my trip. The Elephant orphanage at Pinnawala will be my next stop in Sri Lanka!!
Good news! most of the pictures I have taken have been posted on the blog. Please feel free to go through them at your leisure.More after I reach Kegalle!!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Volunteering Day 2

I realize there is not going to be something interesting everyday to write about and I will try making this post short and sweet. I went to rocky shore again today and contemplated some more. School started at the same time but we reached  a little earlier, so Jenny decided to show me the state run orphanage that is right across from the school where a lot of other volunteers work. Watching around 30 toddlers being taken care of by very willing and dedicated volunteers was very heartening. We reached the school and taught the students more about interviewing in English. Today they invited me to play cricket with them. My enthusiasm for cricket is well known so I jumped at the chance to bowl for a little while.
Time for lunch at Mr. Ferreira's house!!
We returned back to the house a little early since we were absolutely famished. Gobbling down some rice and dal with spicy salad was quite fulfilling. I tried getting a nap in the afternoon but was unsuccessful and ended up playing cellphone games. Jenny and I were required to meet the principal of the school in the evening as he wanted to improve his English by explaining and discussing Sinhalese stories with us in English. The stories were quite entertaining and we got to learn a lot from the old man.
Galle Fort in the backdrop of the Galle International Stadium
While coming back I decided to get off at the Galle International Cricket Stadium. Quite open and with a terrific view of the Galle fort, the stadium is quite beautiful and pleasing to the eye. I watched on as some youngsters were practicing in the nets when one of the coaches asked me to join. Wearing only rubber chappals I bowled an over to a batsman. Quite happy to learn that I was from India, some of the kids went on to discuss the Indian Premier League with me.
I walked back from the stadium to Mahmodara(where Mr. Ferreira's house is located), finally catching an expansive view of the horizon at twilight.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Galle and volunteering day 1

It's a natural tendency of mine to automatically compare every country I visit to India and it was this reason that I was very much impressed with Sri Lanka. Being a tourism dominated economy, they tend to show their best face at all times. This includes roads, rail links and the simple amalgamation of man made structures and nature. On the entire highway from Colombo to Galle, there is hardly any stretch that is not covered with houses or shops and yet it looks so natural and almost in the wilderness. The highway meanders along the seashore the entire route from Colombo to Galle. Along with me another volunteer, Bronte from the United States was participating in this volunteer trip
I reached Galle around 2:30 in the afternoon and was greeted by the in-country coordinator of the volunteer organization, Mr.Michael Ferreira.He and his family were my hosts for this leg of my stay in Sri Lanka. Their house isn't big but it is directly facing the Indian Ocean. I met the other volunteers who were living with me in the house. My roommate for the week is Daryl, a fifty year old social worker from Canada who is in Galle for three weeks to teach at the Buddhist monastery school. After a hearty lunch prepared by Mrs Pushpa Ferreira we sat down to have long discussion about the volunteer trip. By evening some of the other volunteers returned from the beach. Three of them had just finished their trip and were heading back to the US.Soon I was introduced to my 'mentor' for the week, Jennifer Birch. She has been working at the rural school in Galle for the past four months and at an orphanage near Chennai,India for six months previously. We discussed what we wanted to teach the 12th graders tomorrow. The long discussion and chit chat was followed by a sumptuous Sri Lankan dinner. The food that Mrs. Ferreira makes is quite delicious and sort of similar to Indian food.

The next morning, I was woken up around 5:30am by the loud sounds of the mosque close by. Unable to sleep again I took my music player and walked to the ocean front. It wasn't a beach just a rocky shoreline, so I just found myself a nice rock, sat down and listened to music. Within ten minutes the entire scene reminded me a lot of Asthachal( for those of you who are not familiar with this term, it is the silent/quiet time we were asked to spend watching the sunset at my high school). I couldn't watch the sunrise(it was right in the opposite direction) but the watching the ocean itself was very calming and I enjoyed myself in the cool breeze for an hour. We had a continental breakfast at the house and left for the school.

The children at this school are from poor families yet there was quite a cheerful atmosphere at the school. We first met the principal of the school who is very nice and thanked both Jenny and I for our help. We went to the class and almost in unison all of them got up and greeted us. I introduced myself and got to know them a little better. Almost all of them were around 17 years old.Quite interestingly the boys sat on the left side of the class and the girls on the right.I made a mental note to discuss this with Jenny. Monday's lesson included job applications, writing CVs and interviewing in English. It was quite hard to explain and having no teaching experience didn't help either. Around halfway into the class I talked to one of the guys and they asked me to join them in a game of cricket. Finally finding some common ground I got to know more of the class much better. We left the school finally at around 1:00 to have lunch at home.

We had the afternoon off so I decided to tag along with Jenny and some of the other volunteers to the Unawatuna beach. Known as one of the top ten snorkelling reefs, this beach is a very popular tourist destination. The beach was dotted by a number of restaurants and hotels which quite marred the natural beauty of the place. We had hardly spent about an hour at the beach when it started raining cats and dogs and we had to take refuge at one of the restaurants which was oddly named Happy Banana.

We waited till the rain slowed down to a drizzle and then took the express bus till the Galle Railway station from where we had to grab a tuk-tuk to Mr Ferreira's house. The food was ready and a quick dinner ended my first full day in Galle. Extremely sorry for not being able to post all the pictures. It will happen soon I promise. Just not been able to find the time to upload the pictures.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

First View, First Impression!

It would have been amazing if I could have posted a picture of my first sights of Sri Lanka but alas that was not possible due to the elderly couple sitting next to me in my flight from Chennai to Colombo. When the aircraft landed I was sure I would be able to see something of this pristine land. Hardly a glimpse I managed to catch before the high humidity outside caused the windows to mist up as if telling me to wait for the proper time. I walked down the aisle and onto an aerobridge of the Bandranaike International airport and yet I could not see anything outside. Finally after getting through with customs I went down the escalator and was greeted with a expansive view of the city ahead, Sri Jayawardenapura, the new capital of Sri Lanka. My ride from the airport to the Clarion Hotel took about 45 minutes and took me through Negombo,Welisara and Colombo to reach the outskirts of the Colombo city to an area called Kiribathgoda. This bustling suburb of Colombo holds the distinction of having one of the oldest Pizza Huts in the subcontinent, according to my taxi driver(I did not bother researching this aspect, so please dont quote me anywhere on this matter!!).
The weather has been merciful as it had rained the entire night yesterday. Humidity is the only downside. In fact everytime I walked out of a store, it would become more sultry. By evening it was wonderful which is when I decided to explore further. I walked about a mile and for some reason Kiribathgoda has a lot of shops selling footwear. In any case, I bought myself a pair of rubber slippers.

Lunch at the Tulips Restaurant in the hotel itself was standard fare and I was longing to leave the hotel as soon as possible and roam a little bit into the bustling Kiribathgoda town to find something more authentic. I wasn't disappointed as a vegetarian as there was a pure vegetarian restaurant just a short walk from the hotel. Oddly, this restaurant only provided soy products. A small mom and pop store, it provided me the best food I had the entire day for a fraction of the price of my other meals.
Handling Sri Lankan rupees was quite tedious. Since the Sri Lankan currency shares its name with the Indian currency as well, I was quite worried by the prices that most people were quoting for everything. Eventually I realized that each Indian rupee is twice as much as an LKR(lankan rupee). Made me feel wealthier for a little while.
Tomorrow, I will be driven down to Galle where I will commence my volunteer work at a rural school teaching kids various subjects including English. More updates and photos of the sights tomorrow!!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Itinerary and First Post!

Thanks to generosity of the family of Timothy M Smith and the efforts of the Honors Program at the University of Tampa, the Inspiration through Exploration Award will allow me to travel to Sri Lanka and volunteer in service organizations while learning about the culture first hand. My trip starts on 2nd June, when I will be taking a train from Hyderabad(my hometown) to Chennai, India. On 4th June I will be flying to Colombo, the former capital and the largest city in Sri Lanka. The volunteer experience starts almost immediately, as I will head to Galle, a picturesque town that was ravaged by the Asian tsunami of 2004. I will be teaching English in a rural school around 25 miles away from Galle. After one week of this teaching experience I will be heading north to Kegalle in central Sri Lanka where I will be working with orphaned elephants. Some of the work I will be entrusted includes feeding and bathing the elephants, cleaning out their enclosures and working with the vets. I will spend around two weeks at the elephant orphanage before making my way to Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka. Depending on the security situation, I will spend two to three days in Jaffna researching the socio-economic conditions before heading south to Colombo from where I will fly back to India.
To better document my experiences and share them with all, I have decided to maintain this blog. Hopefully I can keep it as updated as possible and post some of the interesting pictures I will be taking during my brief Sri Lankan sojourn!!