Desert Explorers in Sri Lanka
By Marian Johns
First of all, I want to say that this was a memorable trip that I am glad I took. I have no real regrets despite a multitude of problems, problems that hounded us from the first to the very last day of our tour. Fifteen of us (seven were people I already knew from our Desert Explorers organization) were traveling with OAT – Overseas Adventure Travel. Our initial problems started because our Air India flight from NYC to Delhi, India was five hours late. This started a domino effect - consequently we missed our connecting “in transit” flight to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka; there wasn’t another for 24 hours. Air India put us up in the Centaur Hotel for the night, but by doing so, we officially entered India. And India just happens to have a very inconvenient restriction – not more than one entry in less than two months. Oops! So, if we go to Sri Lanka first as for our scheduled week there – per our itinerary, how will we reenter India for the rest of our tour?
The domino effect continued and we spent the first day in Sri Lanka chasing around with our guide trying to work out - with the Indian High Commissioner (embassy), how we could circumvent the reentry rule. Thus, we missed the first day’s tour highlights and were late arriving at the elephant orphanage which had just closed. When we left Colombo, we also left our passports with the High Commissioner and crossed our fingers – hoping that when we returned to Colombo at the week’s end we would have the proper documents and stamps in our passports making an exception to the “only one entry in two months” rule that would allow us to reenter India.
Sri Lanka, called Ceylon before 1972, is an exceptionally beautiful country. Even though it rained the first few days, I enjoyed traveling through the lush, tropical countryside, stopping a local markets and seeing wild elephants and water buffalo. Our tour took us up into the mountains where the hillsides are covered with tea plantations, and little streams, rivers and beautiful waterfalls abound.
For me, the highlights of Sri Lanka were the waterfalls and Sigiriya Rock. Sigiriya Rock, now a World Heritage Site, is a 600 ft. high monolith – the remains of an ancient volcanic plug. To reach the top, a strenuous climb up a rather scary stairway clinging to the vertical walls is required.. The climb is worth the effort because of the spectacular views and because here are the remains of a 5th century palace which once graced the summit. About half way up, it is possible to take a breather and inspect frescoes, also from the 5th century, which were painted in protected alcoves
Next month: India!
MARIAN, GEORGE AND ME at SAI BABA’S PLACE IN SRI LANKA by Anne Stoll
Our Fearless Co-leader Marian Johns shared a most enjoyable recount of our January trip to Sri Lanka in the last DE newsletter. Yesterday’s news of the death of Hindu spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba has inspired me to add on to her tale with mention of her visit to Sai Baba’s ashram on our last day in Colombo. We had been careening by bus for days through the lush Sri Lankan countryside when I learned from our guide, Asanka, that the people of northeastern Sri Lanka (the area where the recently subdued Tamils live) were suffering from the aftermath of horrific flooding. Their fields were wiped out, animals drowned, and houses destroyed. I asked him if there was anything I could do, some way to donate to the relief effort, and he said he thought there might be an opportunity when we returned to the capital, Colombo. I thought this might be a way to see something a little different from the normal tourist fare and passed the word but only Adventuress Marian Johns wanted to join us. So early on our last day in Sri Lanka, we three left with Asanka in tuk-tuks (also called auto-rickshaws) for our first white-knuckle ride through the narrow streets of Colombo. By my request our first stop was St. Anthony’s, the strangest Catholic church I’ve ever been in, an odd mixture of Hindu worship and Christian belief -- very interesting but we were on a mission. We hopped back in the tuk-tuks and headed for an upscale part of town where we were dropped off at the modest compound of Sai Baba’s Colombo ashram. While waiting for the head man to receive us, we took off our shoes and entered what looked like a high school gymnasium, no furniture but a nicely polished wood floor and on the walls, paintings of the world’s great holy men (I recognized Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha) as revered by all faiths. On the stage was a large framed photo of Sathya Sai Baba with piercing eyes and a very wild Afro hairdo; below were offerings of fruit and flowers. Above him hung a lotus symbol with his tenets written on the petals: peace, love, right conduct, truth and non-violence. That was it – no worshippers present at that time, only mosquitoes who quickly found me, prompting me to want to move along. We looked around, saw notices about their hospitals, schools and missions in various parts of the country and that they were stockpiling rice and canned goods. Marian and I signed a book, made our donation, got a receipt and left. After another high-speed tuk-tuk ride we rejoined our group. A nice way, I thought, to say goodbye to the beautiful country of Sri Lanka.
By Marian Johns
We spent the first week of our trip in Sri Lanka, a beautiful country whose people are mostly Buddhists. Tourism, up until recently, has been hampered by Tamil Tiger terrorists, a disgruntled Hindu minority, who felt they had no voice in the government. That has changed and terrorists are currently not a problem; I didn’t feel at all threatened.
When we returned to Colombo, the capital, for our transfer back to India, we received welcome news – our passports now contained a special stamp that would allow us to reenter India. Remember? There is a pesky regulation requiring a two month waiting period between each entry, and we had first entered India only nine days before.
Our flight back took us to the city of Chennai (formerly Madras). Here, we met Arun, who turned out to be one of the best guides I’ve had for my recent travels. This was not only because of his vast knowledge about India, but because his forthright, candid talks concerning his country and the problems it faces as the world’s second most (over) populated country; by 2030 India is expected to surpass China. By the way, India is promoting a one-child-per-couple concept - on a voluntary basis. India’s problems include, but are not limited to: the caste system which is alive and well, the dowry tradition, poverty, female infanticide, nepotism, corruption, bribery, bureaucracy…. and trash – we saw trash everywhere. People ask me, "Did the poverty depress you?" Yes, widespread poverty – poverty by our standards - bothered me a little, but the trash bothered me even more. Thankfully, I saw no "starving children" type of poverty. I wonder if poverty and trash go hand in hand: it seems so in our country. Yet, perhaps it is more a cultural thing – a mind-set of indifference. Even at the poverty level, Indians and their homes are exceptionally clean. However, everywhere else that’s not in the immediate sphere of their homes, is fair game for trash dumping.
We visited an orphanage partially supported by our tour company. Upon our arrival, the children put on an entertaining talent show, and then tried out their school-learned English with "Hello." "How are you?" "What’s your name?" They appeared to be happy, well-fed and clothed. They were exceptionally friendly and we all had a delightful time.
We also visited an untouchable village which I found was not much different from non-untouchable villages we saw. Untouchables - those who are members of the lowest caste, are even becoming involved in politics and Indians are wondering if it might actually be possible for an untouchable to become prime minister – much like here in this country where, not so long ago, we wondered if a black man could ever become president.
When we asked Arun about the British rule of India which ended in 1947, he made mostly positive comments – saying that the British established administrative, transportation (railway), communication, judicial and educational systems, plus they transformed India’s multiple regional states into a unified country. The introduction of English has also helped unite India. Hundreds of languages and dialects still exist, and although Hindi is the official language of India, English is an "official" language too and is now being taught in all levels of school. The British also rid India of the barbaric custom of "sati" – where a widow threw herself – or was pushed onto her husband’s funeral pyre; the murderous secret cult of Kali was also abolished. Arun believed that when the British promoted literacy and established schools, they unwittingly produced an educated class of Indian people who could not tolerate their colonial status and who, consequently, demanded and eventually won their independence.
About midway through our tour of southern India, poor Arun caught a cold and lost his voice, so it became necessary for him to arrange for a new guide. Taking over was Charles, but unlike middle-aged, Arun, Charles was only 24 years old. Yet he was every bit as good as Arun, especially when it came to meeting problems head-on.
Arun and Charles, to my surprise, were both Christians. And, although Christians represent only about three percent of India’s population, we saw a great number of churches. I learned that Christianity was introduced as early as the 1st century AD and was further spread much later by the arrival of Europeans in the late 1400’s.
Several of our group, including me, caught Arun’s cold, and everyone, except me, suffered with bouts of Montezuma’s Revenge. I have no idea how I dodged that bullet. Indian food tends to be too spicy for me. I used to like curry; maybe I will again, but not real soon.
I must say that I have met my quota, and then some, of visits to Hindu temples, and we toured sufficient churches, palaces and museums too. We saw multitudes of people - people everywhere – people working – doing just about every kind of job under the sun, often using primitive methods. Busy, busy, busy. We wandered through lively outdoor markets, watched fishermen bringing in their catch; visited a rubber plantation and a spice farm; stopped to see small brick-making and tile-making operations; had dinner in private homes three different times; spent one night in a substandard hotel due to a mix-up, and two nights at an ultra-luxurious resort with the biggest swimming pool I have ever seen, a monstrosity that must have been nearly two or three blocks long.
I should mention India’s traffic; it’s a boundless free-for-all. Cars, trucks and crowded buses everywhere - and always in a hurry. On buses, ladies sit in front – gentlemen in back. If a lady boards and there are no seats, a man is obliged to give her his. And, hanging out the doors if there isn’t room inside is no longer allowed. I was truly amazed by the awesome number of little three-wheeled taxis called Tuk-Tuks. There must be millions and millions of these two-
passenger, one-driver, glorified motorcycles zooming around India.
Animals: There were, of course, the revered cows wandering or lying, undisturbed, in the city streets; lots of free-
roaming dogs too– surprisingly, most seem well fed; didn’t see many cats. I went on an elephant ride – just 15 minutes, but that was long enough.
The day before we headed to Bangalore for our flight to Delhi and on home, we were once again faced with our entry-exit visa dilemma. For some reason we now needed a special document saying we could legally leave India! So we spent a portion of that day hustling around the city of Mysore trying to obtain last minute requirements - like three more passport photos. Charles, wading his way through Indian bureaucracy, was a marvel – even when he had to provide a $300 "gift" for the official who had to endure the hardship of this extra work. Then, after all of that, we were never even asked to show this "absolutely necessary" paper.
When I compare the people of southern India to those of Sri Lanka it seems that they are quite similar, despite their religious differences. Therefore, if I could only visit one of these two places, I would lean toward to Sri Lanka because of its lush tropical beauty – the tea plantations covering the mountainside, the little streams and rivers and so many lovely waterfalls. But then I’d miss that fabulous, ultra-luxurious resort in India.