Sunday, February 4, 2018

Rolling on the Rails of Sri Lanka

4 February 2018

Today is National Day in Sri Lanka, the day that 70 years ago the country was once again free from British rule.  This is a big celebration as people fly the Sri Lankan flag and watch military parades.

We're not so into the military part, but we did see lines of Navy ships on the coast sailing up to the downtown harbor area of Colombo.  And then Air Force squadrons flew overhead.  Definitely a show of military strength.

But we enjoyed the tuktuks and businesses and homes all flying the flag, and I think everyone can appreciate independence and national pride.  (Though we were hoping for fireworks, but that isn't part of the celebration.)

So, last week on Monday we left Kandy, heading back to Colombo.  Our original plan was to arrive in Colombo and take a taxi to Kelaniya, a town maybe 7 km (4 to 5 miles) away.  But Richard was uncomfortable after all of our time in cars on bumpy roads or tuktuks on slightly less bumpy roads, so we decided to be adults about it and skip Kelaniya.  (I'll explain more about that later.)  And we agreed that we'd arrive in Colombo, call our hotel to see if they had room for us, and we'd try to see the recommended neurologist as soon as possible.

So we settled down to enjoy the train ride.

We had purchased first class tickets, which had the cushiest seats as well as a little more room and air conditioning.  It was fairly comfortable, especially once we were able to turn the seats around so we were facing forward.  (I don't do well riding backwards.)

The actual train route is drawn in purple on the maps at the end of this blog.  And there are three maps because the first had the actual train tracks marked.  The last one shows the topography.  So you can see that the train took us out of the hills and highlands of central Sri Lanka, down through the foothills, and then on to the coastal plains.

The trip was beautiful, and we were able to each get a window seat.  (Seats were assigned, but two people decided they didn't like the AC so they moved back to second class.  So we spread out a bit.)

The scenery was dramatic, with hills and table mountains and tranquil valleys inbetween.  We rode through numerous rocky tunnels coming down from the highlands, when the most direct route was for the rail builders to just blast through the hills.  At other times, we were in what seemed like a green tunnel, almost a ditch cut into the hillside with trees and plants growing on the sides and towering overhead.

We went past small towns, stopping at a few of the larger ones.  Past banana trees, palm trees, occasional temples or statues of Buddha keeping us safe on our journey.

As we approached the flatter land, there were more and more rice farms, since rice paddies need to be flat so that the water can stay level while the rice grows.  So there were terraces paddies, and then eventually huge fields of rice.  Some were newly planted and muddy.  Others were growing well and bright green.  And other rice had been harvested, with the plants shorn and drying in the sun, ready to be burned and the cycle to start again.

I'm always interested in the kinds of houses people have in the countries we visit, and how they might be similar to or different than what we usually see around the US.  So I took photos of houses, not so easy from a moving train.

Basically, houses are built of cinder block or brick, and covered with cement.  Most seem to be painted either white or bright colors.  Houses tend to show the income level of the owner - small houses for people with lower incomes, huge mega-houses for the richer people.

Roofs were slanted, since this is an island nation that gets monsoon rains part of the year.  Some roofs are trimmed in scalloped woodwork, others in scallop or egg-and-dart cement work.  Most houses are covered in cement, but a few have areas of exposed brick.

But all have the most interesting windows!  All seem to have gorgeous wood-framed windows, usually opening from the center out, like shutters.  Often, there is a decorative panel above the side-by-side windows.  The most basic windows have criss-crossing dowels, almost like cross-hatched bars.  Fancier windows have intricately carved wood panels above the windows.  And others have a half-moon divided into sections, like half an orange rendered in glass and wood.  I loved the windows, and tried to capture a variety of styles.

Many of the medium to large homes also have brick and cement walls surrounding the property, with ornamental blocks set in the wall.  And if there's a wall, there's almost always a huge ornate gate, in all kinds of fancy filigreed metalwork.  Gorgeous gates!

And almost every single house had laundry drying outside.  In a land of just about daily sun, it makes sense to hang the laundry.  It also adds a colorful pop to the photos!

Various regions of Sri Lanka have upcoming elections for local offices.  The election is scheduled for 10 February.  Different political parties have different colors to represent them, so there were flags and banners and pennants in either solid red, bright green, or deep blue to indicate that this is the candidate for that party.  We went past a variety of political headquarters, but one place had their flags on lines heading up to telephone poles, so it really looked festive, like a carnival.

On the train, there didn't seem to be a dining car.  Different people came through with snacks or drinks, my favorite being the guy selling hot tea in a small plastic cup (served Sri Lankan style, already mixed with sugar and milk).  So if you take the train in Sri Lanka, either eat before you leave the station, or pack food with you.  We both had something at the Kandy train station, and brought water aboard with us.

We arrived two hours earlier than expected, but I think there must have been a typo on the schedule.  It said we arrived at 5:45, but we arrived at 3:45 PM - which would be 15:45 in 24-hour time.  Anyway, the people at the train station were very nice and sent us to the station master's office to have them call our hotel.  We don't have mobile phones, and wifi wasn't available.  So we relied on the kindness of strangers, and Sri Lankans are very helpful.  The station master called the number, and yes, our hotel had one room left for the two nights we needed to stay prior to our actual reservation.  We found a tuktuk, piled in our luggage, and off we went.

All of that was Monday.  Tuesday, we called the hospital and while it took a while, we got a call to come in before 11:45 AM and the doctor could squeeze us in.  Basically, Richard pulled a muscle in his back, it has become quite irritated and inflamed, and just needs anti-inflammatory meds and some ice and some stretching.  Physical therapy would help.  We have a plan in place, and his at-home medical person (me) is making him follow the plan.

And we're okay for continuing our travels, which was a major concern.

Now, for Kelaniya.  We never did make it there, due to our concerns about Richard's back.  But the reasons we wanted to go - there was a huge religious procession and festival called the Duruthu Perahera.  Duruthu is Singhalese for the month of January, and Perahera is the actual procession itself.  The Kelaniya Perahera occurs yearly at the big Buddhist temple in town, the night before the full moon.  (Yes, there were two full moons this January.  But the Buddhist calendar is a lunar calendar, so this was the full moon for the month of Duruthu.)  

The site of the temple in Kelaniya is where Buddha himself is said to have stood on his third visit to Sri Lanka some 2,500 years ago.  (Some sources say 2,005 years ago.)  At any rate, this particular temple, the Raja Maha Viharaya is an extremely important temple in Sri Lanka, and has maintained its significance despite the periods of time the country was held by invading forces.  

The Kelaniya Duruthu Perahera reconsecrates the temple as well as renews the dedication of the people.  The procession is full of musicians, dancers, drummers, fire dancers, and elephants dressed up in opulent blankets and head coverings.

This all takes place at night, from about 8 PM until midnight.  The temple is covered with strings of small lights, the streets are lit up, even some of the elephants have small lights sewn onto their apparel.

Exciting, and thrilling, and a cultural extravaganza.

Except, of course, for the poor elephants.  I always have mixed feelings about things like this.  Elephants have been part of Sri Lankan and Asian culture since humans stood upright.  We humans learned to tame animals and use them to our advantage, helping us move heavy loads, or dig, or build.  And we use them for entertainment.  So it seems perfectly normal for elephants to be dressed in finery to walk in the Perahera, and carry sacred relics on their backs.

But this is 2018, and we're aware of animal rights and eco-systems and global warming and species of animals that have become extinct.  And I visited elephants in their natural environment, wild and free and happy.  I also visited orphaned baby elephants, and watched my sad little friend grieving for his dead mama elephant and adjusting to life in the elephant orphanage.

Yeah, mixed feelings.

But Richard's need to see this one doctor meant we didn't stay in Kelaniya.  And then it rained.  So, we took that as a sign that we weren't supposed to go to the Perahera.  Where I of course would be thrilled and excited and taking tons of photos, all while feeling terrible for these poor captive elephants who couldn't run in the national parks, wild and free.

Yeah, I was saved all of that mental anguish and conflict.

Part of our need to get in to see the doctor is that 31 January was a national holiday.  Every day of the full moon is a holiday on the Buddhist calendar, and this is a predominantly Buddhist country so that means the full moon is a national holiday.  Schools, banks, the government all close.  The holiday is called Poya, often with the name of the month attached.  This would have been Duruthu Poya Day.  Anyway, our time was limited because of this month's Poya day.  And Sunday (today) is National Day.  And we're scheduled to leave on Tuesday (if things settle down in the Maldives) - so our time was limited.

Anyway, in Kandy I bought three small batiks that show what the elephants look like in the Perahera.  You can see that they're all dressed up in beautifully decorated headpieces and blankets, carrying a little pagoda-like structure on their back.  Since these are batik elephants, of course they are all happy, and never chained nor beaten.  So they will be my imaginary Perahera, and will remain forever wild and free.

As I said, we are scheduled to leave Sri Lanka on Tuesday.  But word is that there is some political unrest in the Maldives, where the courts ordered the current president to free some jailed opposition leaders as well as a dozen politicians.  Not only is the current president refusing to do so, he also has fired two police chiefs because they were going to carry out the court order.  Yeah, civil unrest.  We're trying to check out if this is perhaps a situation we should avoid.  We have until tomorrow to make that decision.

Life on the road, right?

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