Beyond the Beach

by Ant Stone on February 22, 2008

in Sri Lanka

Peace and quiet. Mr Peace and Mrs Quiet. Shhhh. Mmmmm. Shhhh-ri Lank-arrrr, their natural home. You’ll find them almost everywhere. On the beaches of Hikkaduwa their whispers sound like gently crashing waves resting on the twinkling beach. I looked for them on the bus as I wrestled my backpack into hidden space, I clasped my hands around the handrail and they gifted me a set of white knuckles to hold my attention away from the bully driver beating up the road. They stood with me atop the gaudy Buddha in Dickwella and once again at the edge of Tissa’s dagoba (stupa), one night they left the shores and shared with me a cigarette, beneath the rustling of palm trees while listening all the while to the trill of the local birdlife. Mr Peace, do you take Mrs Quiet to be your lawful wedded wife, in sickness and in health? I do. And you? I do.

Regular readers usually join me for one or two stops before we take a rest and soak up the passed week or so over some spicy cuisine and a warm cola, but having whiled a month away in Hikkaduwa, the energy levels were suitably restored and I shot out into the morning mist with a vague plan and soon discovered that where I thought I’d had Sri Lanka pegged, I was a few brews short of a teapot. Dickwella was my (say, our for Reb and John the Swede were also there) first shot of life beyond the lazy haven of Hikk’. Beneath a quite kitsch sitting Buddha (still over 50m high) I found myself, in Hell. Buddhist Hell. The chamber walls were painted with graphic details of punsishments of sin – we had not guide nor guidebook to aid our understanding but the fibreglass statue of a mere mortal, being sawn in half from the groin by two demonic creatures had me questioning why so many good Buddhist folk have tried their luck against me. Do they not know their potential fate? The view from by the Lord Buddha’s sagging left earlobe showed a faraway horizon, a line that I realised I still, after 8 months on the road, find constantly alluring. Following the next day’s breakfast I found myself uncomfortably thrust into the arena of a local wedding taking place at the hotel, I grinned foolishly and snapped amateurishly away at the elaborately decorated Kandyan dancers – two of them later found me by the beach for a few more snaps, away from the prying wedding party. Yes, beach, it was still luring me but I (say we, for there were in fairness still us three) retreated to Tissamaharama, or to us kool enuf kidz, Tissa.

A dagoba dappled town where squiggling snakes are found in and around lush rice paddies and swaying palms, though being in ‘if-you-go-you-may-get-blown-up-by-a-tiger’ (that is, LTTE Tamil Tiger) territory it was devoid of tourists, other than my silent side kicks, Mr Peace and Mrs Quiet. A local bus dropped us off in Kataragama, one of the holiest sites in Sri Lanka where we dodged langar monkeys while exploring the mosque, shrines, various temples and a mammoth (say, elephant as it seems more appropriate) white dagoba. Such is the way of this island, we soon found ourselves following an elderly lady monk (the debate rages whether she should be referred to as a nun, nay say I) to her monastary (say, tiny bungalow with a sapling tree covered in prayer flags and the beginnings of a well.) A few handfuls of sweet pineapple and sour pommegranite seeds later and we returned to Tissa. The gateway to Sri Lanka’s famed Yala National Park, home to one of the world’s highest concentrated populations of leopard. We found ourselves in the jeep used by the Ozzy legend, Steve Irwin – we carried an image of him wrestling a feisty croc on the door as we explored the park – which, like Tissa, is currently starved of tourists due to Yala’s current position on the ‘if-you-go-you-may-get-blown-up-by-a-tiger’ list lovingly compiled by the British Foreign Office (FCO). The safari was amazing, though my ‘we’ll see leopards‘ statement denied us (for there were now five, as the man named John Hatt had reappeared with an Irishman, named Gav) the reality of the pleasure, we still marvelled at a fantastic amount of wildlife – from dancing peacock to wild boar, scuttering mongoose to herds of wild elephant, divine spotted deer to glorious green bee-eater birds and proudly painted storks to the sneaky jackal. The FCO’s judgement was backed up by our drivers explanation that we couldn’t enter the park before 06:30 due to the army’s task of checking the roads for bombs, which ‘yes, they sometimes find.’

Next stop on the ‘then we did this, then we did that’ journey was Ella. A tiny village in the deservedly labelled Hill Country. A 10km circuit drew buckets of sweat from my body (my love of trekking is, lets say, at a prepubescent stage), the views of the valley from Ella Rock were predictably worthwhile and the spritely local who led us up there was as worthy of his rupee reward as we were a good feed; the fish’n'chips here rivalled my home country and showcased the best western food I’ve had since leaving it. From Ella the rickety train dropped me (say, we, for once more there were three) in Haputale, a dingy crumbled town poking out of the hills and gifted panoramic views of a carpet of tea plantations. Another 10km circuit filled my camera with memories of Sri Lanka’s third highest waterfall, Diyaluma Falls (171m) where we swam in the cool water pools directly overlooking yet more of Sri Lanka’s finest views.

To bring you right up to speed, I should tell you of another trek, my (say, our, for my parent folk have temporarily reappeared) 7km downhill saunter from a misty viewpoint known as Lipton’s Seat through the picturesque tea plantations of the famed tea company, Lipton Tea. The magnificent green of the 370 hectare estate, speared by Acacia trees and interupted by clumps of enormous Eucalyptus trees and bare grey boulders. The gangs of Tamil female pickers earn 300 LKR (£1.50) a day, though benefit from a communal lifestyle whereby everything they need from healthcare to housing, food to education is provided for by the Company. The finale of this trek (say stroll) was a tour of the Dambatenne Tea Factory (built by Sir Thomas Lipton in 1890). A factory filled with as much smile and warmth as the tea leaves themselves (not, I hasten to add the cockney rhyming slang variety). If you believe your teabags to be filled with hygienically produced tea, think again – some poor soul will be supping the trekking debris of the above paragraphs from the sole of my crumpled Dunlops, as we tiptoed to avoid the numerous piles of tea on the factory’s cold concrete floor. Ahhh. Pass the sugar, love.

I’ve been fortunate to find Mr Peace and his beloved Mrs Quiet on the island, there’s an alternate story for some areas that finds them cowering for months on end. They don’t speak of the horrors that drove them away, and into my company, but others do. It’s a familiar story, north vs south, aboriginals vs settlers. As a tourist, you won’t see it unless you really look. I speak to locals of my desire to see Jaffna (a northern city) and I am constantly encouraged not to. But I am in the middle, having left the south, surely their views are biased. But if I went, and left Mr & Mrs Peace and Quiet behind, would I in some small selfish act, jeopardise their chance to revisit the northern territories of their land, would The List that tells me ‘if-you-go-you-may-get-blown-up-by-a-tiger’ come true, and my (potential) death bring darker days? Or from my forays in the north, would a story emerge of falsely persecuted folk, a people open to Mr & Mrs Peace and Quiets presence, though wary of their current southern accent. I’ll mull it over with them and a whispy cigarette, under a rustling palm and figure whether the next post should be a ‘then I did this, then I did that’ or a ‘should I have done this, should I…‘, I take a drag ‘…have done that?‘.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

john March 3, 2008 at 6:51 pm

another great read mate..
sum’s up the mood precisely, bang on the nose!
may the path’s cross once more.. jH

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simon p March 9, 2008 at 6:56 pm

Hi mate. Been a while, no?! so what have you learnt since we last spoke? And what are your plans? Get me up ro speed brethren!
Take care. S

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