Today is our second day in Sri Lanka and we are going south to Galle by bus. A new toll road has been completed in the last year that significantly shortens the trip. (Toll road time 1 hour, 11 minutes; getting to the toll road 45 minutes). While Colombo is the commercial capital of the country, the political capital is 14 km outside in a suburb that has grown so much since the capital was installed here in 1985 that you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. As it developed, they did allow for 4 lanes of traffic, rather than the usual one each way. There are lane markers, but they are totally ignored.
The maximum speed on the toll way is 110 km. If you are caught speeding, you are not chased down, but the policeman calls the tollbooth. When you exit the toll way you must pay the ticket. We saw several policemen with speed guns and giving tickets. Motorists also flashed their lights at oncoming motorists to let them know there was a speed check ahead. (My daddy taught me this and when I was younger it was quite common for Texas motorists to flash their lights when a highway patrol car was up ahead.)
We had a terrific guide who used the trip out to provide some interesting information about Sri Lanka. I’ll share the highlights. The National Sport is volleyball, but cricket is the most popular. The blue water lily is the national flower. Smoking in public is totally outlawed and you will be given if seen; no ads for cigarettes are permitted; and the cigarette package must display a picture of a cancer patient. Children receive a free education from ages 5-14; the country’s literacy rate is 92%. From age 5, children are taught either Sinhalese or Tamil and English. In the 6th grade, you begin learning the 3rd language-Sinhalese or Tamil.
On the drive to Galle we saw all the major cash crops growing near the highway-tea, rubber, oil palm, rice, cinnamon, bananas, and coconuts. Water buffalos are still used in cultivation, but the industry is becoming more mechanized. We saw many water buffalos along the highway, mostly grazing, and one in town pulling a trash cart. There are 10,000 man-made lakes in Sri Lanka to supply water for rice cultivation. Rice and curry are the food staples. There are no canned or frozen fruits or vegetables; all are fresh. There are no enough cows to keep up with the demand for milk in Sri Lanka; powdered milk is imported from New Zealand, Australia, and Denmark.
The government has promoted population control and the number of children couples are having has been reduced from 6-12 to 1-3 in a single generation. While the cities are crowded, the country homes we saw were relatively large, widely spaced, and quite colorful. The average age for marriage is 28 for men and 26 for women. The divorce rate is 10-15 % and 50% of marriages are arranged. Dowries are no longer common and the caste system is no longer part of Sri Lankan life (except in the Tamil communities). The use of all white uniforms in school was instituted to remove caste distinctions. An astrologer is consulted for the timing of all major life events. When a child is born the date and time of birth dictates the child’s name (as determined by the astrologer).
Just before reaching Galle, we stopped in Koggala Sri Lanka at the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum of Folk Culture. Having written 95 books (7 or those in English), Martin is considered the “Shakespeare of Sri Lanka”. He was completely self-taught. The museum is found in the village where he grew up and his birth home is open for touring. In separate buildings, the interior exhibits included artifacts used by a Sri Lankan family in everyday life. My favorites were the entertainment pieces like the masks; some were the “supernatural figures” used for rituals. Others were the “natural” ones, like the red-faced man that the guide told us represented a sunburned European. There is also a wonderful puppet collection.
Our next stop was to see the stilt fisherman along the beach. This is the only place in the world they can be seen. Usually they have finished by this point in the day, but they stayed for us (and probably a significant donation from the cruise line). It was very unique. They would proudly show their catch, probably made several hours before our arrival. I noted that most of what they showed us was very small and looked like aquarium fish or the ones I see while scuba diving on a coral reef.
After the fisherman, we continued our drive along the beautiful beaches along the Indian Ocean where there is (what our guide described as) unplanned tourism. We saw lots of surfers out and people enjoying a holiday by the beach. The southeast portion of Sri Lanka is where the tsunami hit in 2004 and we saw evidence of some places were reconstruction has not taken place. In one hour, 50,000 people were killed. There is now an alarm system in the Indian Ocean to provide warnings. Formerly schools were placed near the beaches to catch the cool breeze. Luckily the tsunami hit on Boxing Day (December 26), a holiday and the children were not in school. The school buildings are now all at inland locations. Ironically, the fishermen out that day were not hurt; they rode the wave.
We passed the Dutch Fort and went to the Lighthouse Hotel designed by Jeffery Bower for our fabulous buffet lunch. The stir-fried (and freshly caught) seafood was my favorite. I also tried several different curries. The hotel has a lovely setting right on the beach with the waves crashing up against the rocks. We had a wonderful seat by the window. One of the design highlights was the intricate metalwork staircase railing that caught your eye the moment you walked into the hotel. It is part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World collection. After I finished, I had time to wander around to take photographs and talk to one of the friendly tok-tok drivers in the car park.
After lunch we toured the Dutch Fort (actually visible from the hotel), beginning with the Old Dutch Church with the original pulpit and organ from the 1755. The ramparts and many of the buildings survived the 2004 tsunami. The stones in the graveyard the tall mature trees were evidence that the ramparts had provided protection. From the church we walked around to see the ancient Dutch Warehouse and the city gate with a British coat of arms on one side and a Dutch coat of arms on the other. We saw the section of the fort walls originally built by the Portuguese in 1510. The Dutch added the rest of the coral and granite ramparts.
We walked down past more beautiful trees and the district court to where the rampart access opened up again. As it is a holiday, there were many families picnicking along the walls. It was not until I climbed up to the lighthouse and looked down that I saw the many Sri Lankan families on the beach enjoying the holiday. It was hot and I would have loved to join them. I continued walking down the fort walls to a lookout point just above the rocks. Below, boys on holiday had made their way out to the rocks and were enjoying the attention and their triumph. The ethnic and religious mix of the people was obvious from their dress, but all seemed to enjoy the day in harmony.
The bus took us to the final stop in the Dutch fort with a view of the clock tower and other sections of the ramparts. At the bottom a gypsy played his horn for a cobra in a basket. If that was not to your taste, he also had a python he would wrap around your neck for a picture or a small, dressed monkey that was happy to climb up on you for a photo. His partner passed around the basket. I reminded me of our trip to Marrakesh, Morocco of just a year ago this month.
From this vantage point, we could see the newly constructed International Cricket Field and look out of the rooftops of the centuries-old buildings inside the fort walls. We could also see the storm that was coming in and boarded our bus for the return ride back to the ship just before the rains came. Boris wasn’t up to climbing this section of the rampart after a full day of walking, but it wasn’t like he didn’t see anything. Two gypsies were arrested and the third came up to the bus to get on and sell her palm-reading services.
We had a nice ride back with only one stop at the newly constructed rest area with a food court, tea shop, and souvenirs. The clean, western-style restrooms were appreciated. Everyone was back on the bus on time except for one person we waited 15 minutes for who was shopping-Boris. He hates people being late, so this was most unlike him. I was on the bus so I got to hear what everyone had to say about it.
We caught up with our friends from Birmingham, the Barnes, who had been to the elephant orphanage and rode out on one of the old British-style trains. They had a good day. They enjoyed tea on the train and got to see the elephants’ bath. We met them at the bar and joined them for dinner. Then we all went back to our rooms to watch the ship leave the harbor as we departed Sri Lanka. (Like us they have a fantail room on the back of the ship. They are one floor up, just above us.) Just as the pilot left the boat, it started to drizzle. For the second time today, we just beat the rain. Another country to add to my list; I think that is 94.