Monday, 11 September 2017

Savouring Sri Lanka: Mountains are Calling

[This post was drafted a month ago, and abandoned in between when other distractions took over. I have no honest clue what my conclusions had to be on this trip... but I now conclude with some easy pointers at the end.]

Lush tropical scenery, healthy but delicious food, gorgeous beaches... effortlessly we found our comfort zones in Sri Lanka. Trying to teach our trained traveller's head to stop connecting the dots to everything you find in Lanka to India was a tough job. So we engaged in a mindful meditation to disconnect what we already know and reconnect with new eyes. My partner did that more authentically. He felt the urge to tonsure his head and wear local garments. He was mistaken as a buddhist monk - that he took as a compliment. While he perched on perfect postures to invoke the bliss, I meditated with watercolours on my travel painting pad. Here is a peep at the amazing time spent in this Island last month.
I made this painting while in Nuwara Eliya. It is featured in Emboss Art Magazine's current issue.

We landed in Colombo, just the day after monsoons officially ran havoc with heavy winds and rain. Accuweather reported 38 degrees celsius, but my phone marked 28! No complaints! Colder the better, especially when we were escaping the UAE heat. It was pleasant and rains swept us off our feet - literally pasting a smile on our faces - we had not seen rains for so long! Last was in Scotland - winter showers in January. That is not the same when yesterday you were in the middle of the dessert, parched; and today you are drenched in cold showers. It is amazing!

If you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka, read up on its various seasons. Example, March to May is best suitable for central regions - the mountains - as the beaches are either rough as well as humid and not ideal for relaxing. The southern coasts, believed to be the most beautiful, is best to be visited between October to February. June to September, best to visit northern part of the island (now open to tourist as Tamil rebel movement is reported to have been wiped off or contained effectively).

Our hotel in Colombo was sea-facing and we could listen to roaring waves all day and night. It was a first to watch the sea from the bathtub while soaking in the perfect holiday. Too lazy to go down for breakfast, we ordered room service. In my partner's words the fish curry that came with the string hoppers were the best he had ever tasted. I googled Sri Lankan staple fish curries and found out that they use different spices than coastal Indian flavours that it has close resemblance to. Turns out it is the pandan leaf and gorakka powder (garcinia cambogia) that gave the Sri Lankan twist, tanginess and deep colour. I picked a packet of these from the spice counter at Keels' - a supermarket chain you find everywhere in Lanka.

Train to Kandy

Next, we took a train to Kandy. It was a 3 hour trip and offered beautiful country sights. The landscape was dotted by white Buddhas all through. Interrupted by snack vendors at regular intervals, we munched on local treats and reached Kandy hungry for more. We visited the Center for Arts that displays Kandyan Dance and bought an artwork from an artist who was selling his paintings there. Later, went to the Tooth Relic temple.

Remember if you are visiting any temple, it is important to wear clothes that cover your arms and you should also be covering your knees. Because we were not aware of this, I was stopped at the gate for my shirt dress and turned away... soon to be rescued by a Sarong-lender who charged 200 rupees for one time wear. We took lotus flower offering for the wise one to whom the shrine is dedicated. Inside the temple it was a chaos. Just like the one you will see in any popular Hindu temple in India - crowded and with VIP lines! "But seeing so many people in a temple means people still have faith or hope, and that is a good thing," tells my partner.

The following day we went to Sigriya - the lion mountain. People say many dissuading and persuading stories of their visit to this 'must see' place in the island. For archeological reasons alone, one must visit this rock - climb all the way till its top, fighting the winds. It is a physical challenge that puts your stamina to test. The mirror walls must not reflect anymore... the paintings are not as magnificent... but they are all telling a story you will never know fully. All you can do is soak in the experience and wonder how and why they must have built a palace here, why it was given to monks to run a monastery... and what were those reasons that forced them to abandon this place. While walking back to your vehicle wonder how King Kasyapa's men must have used the laws of physics to spurt out water fountains without electricity? Wonder if today we are truly advanced or we lost it all somewhere in the past. The remains of man-made wonders rekindles the fire of imagination to a world that would have been so many centuries ago.

Old Dutch Hospital that retains the colonial campus, now an upmarket shopping and dining area. We went there to dine at the popular cricketing heroes-run Ministry of Crab. They were fully booked until months ahead! So we dined at Black Pepper that served amazing food. Their menu showed the map of Sri Lanka and the dishes that belonged to its various provinces. We took a full tour! :p [That is Ashvin with his new look... that lasted not more than a month. Obviously!]
On our way back to Kandy we stopped at Dimbulla cave temple and roadside clay pot shops. I am slowly moving from non-stick to clay in the kitchen, as an attempt to stay closer to nature. It was a long tiring day, and I had bouts of motion sickness interruptions all along.

Upwards to Nuwara Eliya

Climbing uphill via train to Nanu Oya on the misty mountains of Nuwara Eliya... some where here Sita was held captive in the Ramayana epic. We spotted a deer too.
The highest point in Sri Lanka, flanked by tea gardens, one may be reminded of Ooty, in Southern India. But this was not Ooty, it was another high range with tea and floating mist-laden clouds. It was the place Sita from Ramayana epic was held captive. Ravana was thoughtful to have kept her here for anyone can be easily wooed here. The nature is at its splendid best. I made three paintings in the following few days spent here, before we returned to Colombo.

See Sri Lanka's flora and fauna here

Things you must do in Lanka:
1. Eat:
a). Slabs of roast paan - A village-style white bread used to mop up dhal or curries, eaten with a spicy coconut sambol or spread with sweet jams. Paan came to Lanka with the Dutch and stayed back for good.
b). Kitul - An ancient sweetener. The syrup is often used as a sweetener in traditional desserts, like kiri peni, a creamy buffalo milk yogurt with palm syrup drizzled on top. Kitul is extracted from fishtail palm trees.
c). Pork and Seafood in Sri Lankan spices. Pork prepared in Northern Island spice traditions is simply out of the world. One could say that for the crab curries with the southern twist too.
2. Shop:
- tea
- earthern ware (from roadside, non-touristy areas).
- go colour blind at Barefoot Colombo and pick everything for self and gifting.
- local spices/spice medicines for your kitchen.
- blue sapphire from authorised dealers.
- Celon arrack - a national brand (or coconut arrack) - gift for whisky connoisseurs.
- Seeds from botanical gardens (the green channel allows carrying them).
4. Watch:
- Kandyan dance (not just because it is ancient and beautiful but your ticket will save this art form from dying out).
- Misty mountains
- Sun rise and set at the majestic Indian Ocean.
- Leaves and fruits at botanical gardens

Things you can skip:
1. Visiting its nature/animal reserves. This will help curb/shut down commercial/untamed human excitement to deplete nature and exploit animals for tourism - like safaris or elephant rides.
2. Buddhist temples. Though beautiful they are chaotic/crowded and not-so-tourist or peace friendly. Skip it especially if you are not much into spiritual curiosity, or from Japan (keen to visit all Buddhist destinations).
3. Ayurvedic gardens. They are a scam like in India and targeted at the western customers. Go to India, if you want some serious ayurveda or yoga learning and keep your research outside the internet, because they are all google-points rigged.
4. Malls. For obvious reasons.

Sri Lanka is a good place to go back for your (5-star spending) money's worth - peaceful, healthy and lot of water - roaring in its oceans and falling from its clouds to drench its mountains. Don't listen to me. Go. See!

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