Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Safari Sayonari.

After Adam’s Peak and the tea country we made our way down to Yala National Park.  We woke up at 5:00 a.m. and hopped in our private Jeep for a safari through perhaps Sri Lanka’s best and most famous national park.  One thing I liked about Sri Lanka is that at times I felt I was back in Southeast Asia, at times, Central America or Hawaii, at times India, and in Yala, it felt like what I imagined Africa to be jeeping through a savannah on a safari.  The terrain was much different there from the rest of the country we had seen.  It was flat with brushes and trees, muddy wetland and grassy fields, and huge dome rocks and boulders scattered about.  We drove over the bumpy and sandy dirt roads and spent hours watching the array of animals.  We were even fortunate enough to see the pride of the park, the spotted leopards.  We rounded a corner and amid a clump of trees was a giant boulder flattened on top where two spotted leopards sat lazily on the warm surface of stone, their black spots in full view canvassed across their tan fur.  They looked out to us as curiously as we looked up to them and then they slowly rose, turned about with their tails curled and walked calmly to the back side of the rock, hidden behind stone and trees.  We drove off looking backward at where the leopards had been, knowing I would remember the elegant cats sunbathing on a cool dawn in Sri Lanka’s prairie land. 
  We drove all around the park, with birds arrayed in rainbows of colors flying above or perching on hanging branches all around us.  I am not a bird watcher, but still am awed by their bright colored feathers and elegance, and enjoy their chirping songs and whistling tunes.  Crocodiles swam in the waters of mud holes, ponds, and shallow lakes, or basked in the warm mud perfectly motionless, statues of coarse green nobs with cold mechanical stares and eyes that never blinked.  I have never seen an animal lie so perfectly still as can a crocodile, and have often wondered and second guessed if the predators I have seen were ceramic or clay, seeming so un-life like in their stillness and silence. 
  We saw large wild elephants foraging trees and slowly stomping through dry forests.  They nuzzled trunk to trunk in a tender touch of animal affection.  They must have been long-time lovers, cuddling foreheads with the rub of rough skin.  Perhaps it is how elephants kiss, or whisper sweet words in secret.  We saw peacocks spreading tail feathers or perching proudly.  We saw mongoose and iguanas, dear and wild boar, water buffalo, foxes and more.  They rested.  They perched.  They sung and chirped.  They cuddled and kissed, hunted and fished. They basked and they bathed. They stalked and they stomped. This was better than any zoo, any orphanage or shelter.  This was no guarantee, no petting or touching, no feeding or riding, but only hope, and uncertainty, and excitement.  This was real and wild. 

After Yala, we drove down to the beach at the southern tip of the island as a fervent rain storm barreled down.  I threw off my shirt and flip flops and ran out to the street and to the puddles where I belonged.  It was my moment, and I lived it.  We ran and jumped in to the ocean, the warm water washing over us as the rain beat and slapped and the waves lapped and crashed.  We swam and talked with the groups of locals also enjoying the rain and watched their play and their dances to mamba drums.  A group of local guys invited us over to chat and snack with them and they played drums and sang traditional Sri Lankan songs.  They were wild and friendly and loud.  I wrestled with one in the sand and down in to the water.  It was a fun day, right up until one who had too much to drink became obnoxious and demanding and kept insisting I meet him later for sex.  That is when it was time to go. 
  At night, we went out for a cheap dinner with a few others at a food stall and then grabbed a decadent desert on the porch of a nice restaurant with the waves of the ocean crashing against the wooden beams where we sat, entertained by the sound and the smell of salt and ocean.  The next morning we drove out to another beach to try surfing.  I didn’t do much, but I did surf and hit a few waves.  I have surfed California, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Australia, Indonesia, and now Sri Lanka.  That isn’t a bad list for someone who isn’t really even a surfer, despite deceptive hair and frame.  Some aspects of my life are blessed.  I have made them so.  It is what I can control, what I can give myself.  We continued to drive up all along the coast to Colombo.  We stopped for walks along the coast and hopping lighthouse walls, sitting at the edge of cliffs and peering down to the ocean and rocks below.  We watched Sri Lankan boys swim and wrestle in the calm waters, and spied a cricket match, the sound of cheers and the sound of waves a blended tune.  We arrived in Colombo in time for a few hours of sleep before hopping on a plane back to the U.A.E.  I stood out on the balcony in the dark of early a.m. saying my last goodbyes to Sri Lanka, to beautiful drives through tea plantations, sacred mountains and tropical beaches, and my last farewell, to this country called paradise, was a safari sayonara.   Anyway, I tire, and am anxious to get caught up to the present date, so let us say fond farewells to Sri Lanka and get ready for the next adventure. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Forty Miles From Paradise.

“On top of the mountain, God sits on Adam's peak
Throwing his heavenly blessings to our nation
Blessed our country known to the
world as the Garden of Eden.”
 “I Love My Country, Sri Lanka.” -Ravi Sathasivam.

“Right now I am writing from the balcony of a guest house.  It is dark except for the light above me and the lights from the four other homes or guest houses hidden in the trees planted in the rich soil of the steep sloping mountains.  The sound of the river directly below rushing down from tall peaks, swooshing over rocks and low hanging branches chimes in amongst the whistling song of chirping crickets like some iambic poem, all stanzas in nature’s own ode to herself.  I am at the base of a sacred mountain in Sri Lanka, called Adam’s Peak.  In a few hours I will begin the holy pilgrimage to the top.  It is a holy mountain for billions of people.  It is believed that it is where the Prophet Adam first stepped after being cast down from paradise, and also believed to be where the Buddha stood on his visit to the Island before transcending in to Nirvana, with a large footprint on the mountain bearing his mark.  To the Hindus though, the foot print comes from Lord Shiva, where he stepped as he created the world.  Thousands on thousands of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims all make the sacred trek in a pilgrimage to the top, and tonight, I join the journey, to pray on holy mountains and watch the sun rise and slowly light and warm the mountainous jungles of this tear drop island.”
- Excerpt from my journal.

After the drive over the storming mountain we arrived at our guest house, nestled amongst the mountains, sitting above a rushing rivers and overlooking that sacred mountain, Adam’s Peak.  Here too we had a private balcony, looking directly to the scenery of mountain gardens and tall peaks.  The air was that perfect mountain air after a hard rain, a cool and calm breeze, the smell of damp earth and trees, rustling of leaves, clouds, and the gushing of a river descending down a holy mountain, carving through an island onward to the ocean. We met two other teachers living in the UAE, and two German gals out traveling Asia.  We stayed up and talked and it all reminded me of some of why I love to travel.  I love meeting and talking with people the world over.  I am a very shy person in my own personal life, and make few acquaintances, and fewer friends.  It is difficult for me to meet people, despite any wish for it, but out traveling, out alone in foreign places, I meet so many, and I love it.  I got only a couple short hours of sleep and woke at half past two to being the journey up the mountain.  The two teachers living in the U.A.E. and the two German gals climbed with me, and the five us headed up the dark mountain.  We went up steep and muddy hills through brush and trees and mud in search of the path.  It seemed we were lost and traipsing through the brush of a wet mountain jungle brought us presents of small leeches sucking the blood from under our pant legs and letting the blood trickle down our legs.  We did make it to the trail and we all began the climb up in the dark of the night guided by the dim flashlight on my cell phone. 
  It was a hard hike up, thousands of steps reaching up the steep mountain and even in the cold of darkness, the hard journey and humidity brought a labored sweat.  The hike was fun though, with great conversations the whole way up.  One of the German galls seemed to think her friend and I paired up well and jokingly said I could have her friend for ten camels.  That’s a hefty price, as camels are very expensive and prized animals.  Throughout the night she kept dropping the number of camels and at the end of the hike she offered her friend for only two camels.  I never bartered at all, as her friend was worth the price of ten camels, but she said we seemed too much alike and it was fate, so she couldn’t stand in the way.  They were awesome girls.
  Adam’s Peak is also called “Butterfly Mountain” because of the numerous butterflies fluttering about the island that come to die upon the sacred mountain.  We did make it to the top, no longer protected from the winds that swooped coldly across the high mountain, everyone bundling in jackets and wind breakers and watching the sun rise up above the clouds.  It was amazing to see.  Adam’s Peak rose so much higher than the mountains around that it cast a large triangle shadow out across the clouds, and oh, those clouds!  They lay in thick white carpets that made it seem the vastness of mountains peering through them were but countless islands rising tall from white waters of a foggy sea.  I wondered to myself that if this were the place Adam was cast down to as punishment for his transgression, then what must Paradise have looked like?  There was a saying that from Ceylon, or Sri Lanka, it was only 40 miles from  Paradise, and Adam had been cast to this place as punishment so as not to be too overwhelmed.  This place was the place closest to and most like paradise. It is strange to think that a place so fittingly called serendipity, and a mountain peak with such amazing views could be considered punishment for any person.  What glories must lied ahead for us then.  I loved it all.
  We stayed at top gazing out to the 360 degree views with the sun climbing higher and the mountains and jungle below us.  It was fascinating, and the cold wind blew hard in a whistling slither across our faces.  We waited and waited up top, continuing to look outward, not ready or wanting to descend the many steps, tired from the climb up, and far too restful, far too amazed at the views, the wind, the smell of crisp air, to want to leave, but we did, and made the descent down the mountain through jungle green mountains.  Back at the guest house, we all ate breakfast together, and Ruth woke up and joined us.  Soon, I said farewell to new friends and set off with Ruth for another destination. 
  Most of that day we spent driving, though, in a place like Sri Lanka, a drive makes its own memorable holiday.  We drove through Sri Lanka’s famed tea plantations, spread out over mountains that swooned with pictures lakes.  Each sight was a paradise.  Crafted rows of green bushes rolled up and down and across in curved lines of amazing artistry.  What craftsman created such garden wonders?  It was a symmetry of lines, perfectly filtering the hillsides of dark green, rich brown soil, and blue and clear air, and clean, wonderful waters. 
  We drove through miles, hours of such spectacular scenery, oohing and aweing at every bend.  Women old and young tied large cloth bags to their heads and picked tea leaves from the plantations hills, smiling widely and wildly as we drove past or stopped for views.  Were they as happy as their smiles to us presented?  I wondered at their thoughts, they who live in paradise, but perhaps numbed of the constant beauty and tired of long and monotonous labor. 
  We walked around a plantation, through the rows of Ceylon tea bushes, baskets on our heads as we walked the aisles.  We toured the factory and tasted the tea with a lovely young guide who explained she was happy she spoke English because that meant she did not have to pick leaves in the fields but got to work as a guide, and that all the women there worked the plantations as an only option, an inheritance and birthright passed down to each little girl.  Although near the entire day was spent in a car, it was a fantastic day.  We stopped when we wished for quick snapshots or a breath of that wonderful air.  We were invited in to a small Christian church made of stone that stood atop a hill with a lake below.  We were invited in to walk the small chapel, the old hand carved wooden pews and podium, the colorful stain glassed windows that leaked in light, and outside a small cemetery in the shade of trees.  Yes, sometimes a drive is all you need, and writing this, remembering this, calls to memory the many Sunday drives with my mother up over the mountain pass back home to the green valley surrounded by manly mountains, or family vacations where we would use a day simply to drive about the country surrounding us.  Sometimes, a drive is exactly what you need.

“In vain. Let doubts assail the weak;
Unmoved and calm as ‘Adam's Peak,’”
   “Outward Bound” –Austin Dobson.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tear Drop Island.

I think the next couple posts will be more pictures than words, but I’ll still say a few things.  I’m still in Asia, but at least I have moved a bit more westward, and this next country was an incredible place.  I took a trip down to Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, means serendipity, an amazing blend of paradises.  It is called Tear Drop Island, looking on a map like a tear fallen down from India landing softly on the waters of the Indian Ocean. My friend Ruth joined me on this trip, and although I do prefer to travel alone and keep to my own entirely unplanned and happenstance agenda, the trip was fine with the two of us.  She is quite the opposite type of traveler, wanting plans and reservations and all of that, but we made a happy compromise and we both got we wanted out of the trip, and she did make for pleasant company.  See, I can compromise when I need to.  I just prefer not needing to. 
  We flew in to Colombo, but headed out immediately.  We found a bus to the bus station.  At the bus station we found another bus to the train station, and at the train station we grabbed a train heading down toward Kandy.  We spent a good part of the day in transit, rolling out past the impoverished slums and green farms, the shacks and fields.  The train was crowded, dark, and dusty, with half the passengers standing for the 4 hour journey. 
  We got off before Kandy and met a driver who he hired for the duration of the trip.  He proved to be rather convenient.  We first visited the main elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka.  It was one of the things Ruth most wanted to do in Sri Lanka, so I joined her for the visit.  I love animals, but I find it hard to be excited at animals in captivity and places like orphanages, shelters, and zoos.  There were a LOT of elephants at this particular orphanage, and played down in the river gulping the water in before tromping up through the streets of the town to a green pasture with shrubs and trees to graze on.  While I was not all too impressed with the orphanage, the setting was spectacularly beautiful.  The river ran thick and wide below an open field of grass and trees with mountains looming in the back drop.  It was an ideal setting, and I gazed and gazed at the place and thought I would almost not mind so much to be an elephant, to have such a place to stare upon each day.  Nature is my lover, each of her schizophrenic personalities.
  At night we saw some traditional Sri Lankan dancers, beating on drums, singing and chanting, dancing, breathing and swallowing fire, and walking on hot coals.  It had been a long day with a an airplane flight, two bus rides, a train, and a long trip in a van, so after the show, we went to a guesthouse in Kandy high on the top of a hill peering down on the ancient city of culture.  At night, I sat out on the balcony alone, half hanging over the balcony that steeped down the hill with soft pellets of rain and lights from the temples and Buddha statues and the total sound of pleasantry.  It was a fantastic feeling, the solitude of the air, the darkness broken through with the glow of temple lights, the outline of mountains in the dark, and the city below us.  I love such moments, and the more of them I have, the more I crave them, the more I love and need them. 
  In morning I woke and stared from on high to the city, dark replaced by sun, and the soft sounds of night traded in for honking cars and busy streets.  We drove and walked around the city, visiting statues and shops and then began our van journey with our driver, Laal, through the countryside, first stopping at the beautiful Botanical Gardens where Sri Lankan couples walked hand in hand and hid out in the shade of drooping trees stealing kisses in some secret space.  We walked around through corridors of tall trees and open fields of green grass and hallways of ivy with fragrant flowers hanging from trellises and vines.  It was a park of romance, like many I have seen and wandered, and though I was not alone, the potential of the park was kept from me, like some subtle fragrance.  I did not walk hand in hand, or fight the urge to steel a kiss.  I had my moments there, and I had great moments with a friend, but a such a place is a place for lovers, or a place for solitude and meditation.  It covered acres and acres of trees and fields with gardens of all kinds and flowers from across continents that bloomed in bright colors with the buzz of bees.  How I do love flowers, and the memories of them, memories of planting flowers with my mother, deadheading roses and daisies, and bouquets of fresh cut flowers from my backyard garden as a gift to my girlfriend.  All of those things are fantastic memories to me, and I will never look at a flower with the remembrance of such things. 
  After hours peacefully strolling the gardens, we continued onward through such green and glorious countryside.  We climbed tall mountains and winded down steep dirt roads with an island storm of heavy rain with waterfalls and streams and rivers crashing down muddy hillsides.  As we carved our way down sharp curves winding through trees and cliffs with pouring rain, pounding on the roof as the van splashed through brown and dirty puddles of scenic mountains.  It was such a fantastic storm, violent and maddening, the smashing of heavy drops battling the mountainside, torrents of rivers dragging the dirt and the soil and tearing steeply down with deep puddles that we splashed through on bumpy, winding roads that dropped down deep to canyons far below.   We swerved quickly around sharp corners splashing through water and mud, dodging cars and trucks that poked out from behind the blind corners of a spectacular mountain road.  It was a great drive, all the rain, the water, the pounding on the roof, the puddles and water splashing up against the windows, the fear and thought of sliding off the mountain side.  Sometimes I think I am excited about the possibility of the worst thing happening, a part of me my mother wishes I would grow out of, but seem instead to grow further in to. 
I had only been in the country a couple days and already it seemed I had traveled through and seen so much of it, but the best of the memories were still to come, as is my recounting of them.

“Sri Lanka.” – Jack Jersey.
you are my Shangri-La
Hidden in the sun
Recalling the land of my roots
When my life began.

you are my Shangri-La
From this moment on
Take me away in dreams to the
Place I've been born
Recall all my memories
That nearly have been gone

I say hey
This place I wanna stay
Me and my baby
I'm sure I don't mean maybe today.
I say oh

Wish all my old friens would know
I'm almost in heaven
Sri-Lanka so don't let me go
oh no.

Sri-Lanka you are my Shangri-La
A golden memory.
regained in the sun
Where I've found my key
Sri-Lanka I'll spek your sinala
From this moment on and let me keep
Pretending you're the isle where I've been born
Secret paradise
For dreamers like me on the run.