Friday, December 13, 2013

Sri Lankan Serendipity

Hikkadua, Sri Lanka

When you stumble upon something wonderful, that's serendipity. And it just so happens that "serendipity" comes from "Serendip"--an old Arabic name for Sri Lanka. And guess what? Serendipity was the name of the game for us on our Sri Lankan journey.

Dave and I had plans to travel to Chennai, India when he noted that nearby lies the island nation of Sri Lanka.

"Hey, we should go there!" he said.

"Okay," I said. Sometimes I play hard to get.

A few of my California friends expressed concern: Wasn't there a civil war raging there? I asked Dave if that was a small detail he overlooked.

"No, the war ended in 2009," said Mr. Encyclopedia.

Okay, I was in!

It's just an hour flight from south India to Sri Lanka, but nevertheless the flight attendants (dressed in gorgeous peacock print saris) serve drinks and a spicy Sri Lankan meal. Before take-off and at landing, a catchy little tune plays over the loudspeaker with the refrain: "Sri Lankan paradise."  

Paradise is a personal thing. It's also a well-worn travel cliche meant to entice (and bilk) tourists with notions of perfection. And yet, after ten days in Sri Lanka, it's hard to argue with the airline song.

For us, Sri Lanka was truly a serendipitous experience. We knew it would be cool, but it was an unexpected windfall of amazement. Here are the main reasons we loved loved Sri Lanka:

1. The Animals.



I'd thought that our experience watching kangaroos box and run right toward us on on the beach in Australia was the ultimate wild animal encounter. But that was until our "spotting" of a magnificent leopard in Yala National Park. We understand that it's rare to be able to see one of these big cats as up close as we did--and for as long (at least 30 minutes). But don't underestimate the power of Dave's (aka Dr. Doolittle's) intentions.

It was unnerving and electrifying to be in a car--windows rolled down--with this guy walking along close by, clearly aware of our presence. His graceful feline movements were all muscle and power. We are still in awe.


We also saw many other animals and are grateful that they are protected in the national parks. Here are some pictures Dave took:

water buffalo
jackal

She's on national park land behind an electric fence, which was why I was able to get this close.

croc

red-faced macaque

monitor

Lots of peacocks...and we were happy to finally see a full display!

spotted deer
mongoose (mongeese?)

grey langur
At the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project, we learned there are five types of sea turtles in Sri Lanka. This project buys turtle eggs and turtles from fishermen who might otherwise eat them. They hatch the eggs and set the babies free. They rehabilitate injured turtles. Those that can live in the wild are released. Others are cared for the rest of their lives--which can be up to 100 years.

rare albino turtle

getting ready to hatch


2.  Our driver, our friend

Talk about serendipity: the only part of our trip we hadn't lined up was a driver. We happened to mention this to a woman in India who promptly picked up her phone to email a driver who had just taken her around Sri Lanka! This turned out to be Krish--a remarkable person.

Krish is fun, professional, knowledgeable...and we have become friends. To introduce us to local foods, he took us to small restaurants where we wouldn't have ventured on our own. He was able to navigate the roads in ways we never could have. He helped us find some great lodging. He filled us in on Sri Lankan history and current lifestyles.

We laughed a lot together and talked about spiritual things. Despite being from different sides of the planet, we connected on a deep level.


A highlight of our trip was meeting Krish's family and enjoying a delicious dinner cooked by his wife, Shali. Outside of Colombo, the capital, he lives in a rural area where he grew up. It's a family residence comprised of his wife, daughter, parents, sister, brother-in-law (who is also a driver) and their baby son. It was an honor to be invited into their home.

Krish with his daughter Sunishma, age 6.
heartwarming hospitality
Grandson in the arms of Krish's father.

3. Colorful surroundings

We especially loved the colorful fishing boats...



..and streets...









...and stores and stalls...





4. The food!

We'd never heard of king coconut--but they are for sale everywhere for less than a buck. They are HUGE, and the water and meat are incredible. We had one every day.

the king of coconut
All the tropical fruits are delicious. We ate a lot of papaya, mango, pineapple and small creamy bananas but also tried some new ones.
typical breakfast
Fresh seafood is abundant. On the beach in Mirissa, where we stayed several days, we enjoyed feet-in-the-sand meals. Restaurants line the beach, displaying their catches of the day.

Surfer checks out chef on the beach.

Mullet fish...so good.
The curries are very good. You get a big plate of rice and five or more bowls of different meat and vegetable dishes in a variety of sauces. Locals mix it all up and eat artfully with the fingers on their right hand. We stuck to forks and spoons.

We also tried kottu rotti--a true comfort food. Most tourist restaurants don't sell it. Krish took us to a locals place where a chef chops it up ("kottu" means chopped) on a grill out front.

Krish also introduced us to hoppers, a crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-in-the-middle treat eaten with hot sauce. My favorite hoppers had an egg cooked inside.

hoppers

5. Beach massage...need I say more?




6. No crowds and good prices.

For a tropical place with a lot of warm-water beach and a good tourist infrastructure, it's quite uncrowded and inexpensive. As Americans, we were a rarity. Most of the tourists were speaking French, German, Russian, and British-accented English.

Dave enjoying some solitude in the warm surf.


Inexpensive hotels and "guest houses" (B&Bs) abound.

7. The history and ritual

Many of the historical sites date back as far as the 3rd century BC. History is kept alive through the ongoing use of ancient Buddhist temples, some of which are embedded in ancient caves or carved out of rocks.

Huge reclining Buddha in a rock cave.

Ancient cave paintings at Mulkirigala Raja Mahavihara.


Being blessed by a Buddhist nun in Kataragama.

Ancient city of Situlapahuwa (ca. 2nd century BC) with an active Buddhist monistary.

Given the beauty of Sri Lanka, and the ease of being a tourist there, it's hard to believe a recently-ended civil war raged for almost 30 years--and that the island was hard hit by a tsunami in 2004. Clearly, this place is resilient. If out of difficult times such beauty emerges, that's serendipity to the core.

tsunami memorial

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