14,000 KM TO MY GARDEN OF EDEN
By DR VICKI BISMILLA
Like others around the world, I was deeply saddened to learn of the bomb attacks on innocent people in Sri Lanka over the Easter weekend. The return to violence after ten years of peace was particularly shocking as just a few short months ago, my husband and I visited the island paradise and found it beautiful, serene and welcoming.
There is a mountain in central Sri Lanka called Adam’s Peak with an ancient footprint near the summit (Sri Pada) which Buddhists believe is the Buddha’s, Hindus believe is Shiva’s and Christians and Muslims believe is Adam’s.
Legend has it that when Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden he was exiled to this mountain. If that is true, then Sri Lanka is the original Garden of Eden and I can certainly see why. The country is filled with the bounties of nature not seen anywhere else. The island has dozens of pristine lakes, rivers and waterfalls literally everywhere. The lush, green fauna just does not let up – in the countryside as well as in cities.
Sri Lanka had been on our bucket list for a while. Having been to India a few times both on business and for pleasure, my husband Yusuf and I wanted to continue on to Sri Lanka some day. Also, when I was a young university student, barely twenty-one, nearly fifty years ago, my late parents had me accompany them on a tour of their beloved India to trace the roots of their late parents who had been brought from northern India to South Africa in cruel conditions by the British Raj. We could not find information on their parents because records from the early 1800s would have been kept in post offices which had undergone changes, fires and other compromises over the century.
They continued their tour covering almost all of India, Nepal and Kashmir with me as their helper. One of our interests, as Hindus, was to see as many historic temples as possible and we also visited Bodh Gaya with the sacred Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. We were awed at being there. After praying at sacred temples across India and being profoundly impacted by such temples as Mahabalipuram and Kanya Kumari, my parents and I proceeded on to Sri Lanka to see where the Ramayana had evolved. That memory for me was another reason I wanted to go back to Sri Lanka.
Though we as Indians may look like Sri Lankans, we found that Sri Lanka is different from India in so many ways. In addition to Buddhism being the religion practised by most people, Sri Lankans are completely different in culture, languages, histories, traditions, attractions, people, environments and sites. Being Indian South Africans, we use a travel agency in Durban, South Africa, called Serendipity Tours Musgrave. Our most recent India holiday was planned so well by them that we called upon them again and they did not disappoint. In partnership with Aitken Spence Travels in Sri Lanka they provided an excellent driver, comfortable van and booked us into really lovely hotels. We agreed to be transported city to city by the company but chose to make our own arrangements about what sites to see. The entrance fees to sites were our responsibility and they range from $10 to $40 (Canadian), the Sigiriya Rock being most expensive at $40.
Our tour started in Colombo and what struck us right away was how clean it is. The streets are swept every day; even on construction sites sand is swept into piles and bricks and other building essentials are stored neatly on the grounds. Except for Chilaw, we saw no litter on any streets in all the major cities we toured. Our tour of central Sri Lanka took us to Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Sigiriya, Chilaw and Negombo. We were fortunate to stay in highly starred hotels where the rooms, surroundings, service and food were all stellar.
South central Sri Lanka has many Buddhist temples and stupas, Buddhism having been established there since the third century BC. On our very first day in Colombo we visited a beautiful, serene Buddhist temple where I learned that women should not cover our heads but must cover our shoulders, arms and the rest of our bodies. The other Buddhist temple we went to was in Kandy known as the Temple of the Tooth which, it is believed, houses Buddha’s tooth. It was packed with worshippers but quite organized. Churches, too, are found throughout Sri Lanka and most appear to be concentrated in western Sri Lanka where Portuguese, Dutch and Irish missionaries spread Christianity from as early as the fifth century AD. Hindu temples are few in central Sri Lanka but I believe more prolific in northern Sri Lanka and mosques are also few in number.
Gastronomically, Sri Lanka offers a great many local delicacies. I remember when I went there with my South African Indian parents fifty years ago, they could not get used to the food because they were not used to eating dishes cooked with coconut oil and coconut milk. Today, however, in addition to the staple coconut dishes which are enjoyed worldwide, there is a wide variety to meet the palate needs of everyone. As a vegetarian, I found excellent cuisine wherever we went – even at the famed Ministry of Crab restaurant in Colombo! My husband Yusuf and I travelled with our friend Abby and her son Shaam and I learned from them that the expensive crab, lobster and fish dishes at this restaurant seemed over-priced compared with some of the other restaurants we went to later in the trip.
We visited some beautiful tea plantations, lush and verdant on gently rolling hills as far as the eye can see. These plantations process their tea leaves using simple machinery to separate different kinds of leaves, the tips being especially coveted. They use natural breezes to do the first drying and then heat emanating from simple rustic kilns to dry the leaves further. Their large sieves are manually operated and care is taken to separate the different levels of dried leaves from the more whole, down to the bits that are pulverized in the process. Tea plantations cannot sell their products to the public. They must bag their tea into heavy paper sacks and sell them at auction. The companies that buy at auction are the large tea companies that we have grown to know over the years from colonized times. These companies will sell various grades of tea, the most expensive being the top gold and platinum standards that they buy pure from the plantations. Then they blend top quality with lower standards to sell to consumers and the lower the price the more their product is blended with the different stages of sieved tea from the plantation processes. It does not mean that the cheaper teas are bad since they are all parts of the leaves processed at the plantation. These are just less than the gold-standard. The plantations do offer tea tasting – small quantities of their best quality leaves and some to which they add fruit flavours, cardamom and other spices. The masala teas are my favourite!
In Kandy we had the absolute heart-touching pleasure of visiting an elephant orphan sanctuary. The orphaned baby elephants are left destitute in the forests by poachers who kill their parents or by other forest mishaps. At the sanctuary they are lovingly reared by gentle mahouts who feed the babies, train them in elephant habits the way their mothers would have and the most exhilarating sight was watching the mahouts bathe the elephants in a nearby river. Touching the elephants was a spiritual-like experience. The entrance fee was only $20 Canadian and we were annoyed that in the visitor book a Canadian had written, not in polite epithets, that the fee was too high! We were ashamed to read that. The modest fee pays for the care, medical expenses, housing and feeding of these beautiful, gentle creatures. Kandy also has a famed botanical garden with very knowledgeable botanist guides.
On the way from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya we saw exquisite natural beauty in the countryside. There were waterfalls literally everywhere! The mountain ranges were all around our 360-degree views from any place we stood. The more I looked at the mountains, lakes, rivers and dense forests the more my mind wandered to the Ramayana.
The most important part of this trip for me was connecting my reading of the Ramayana with its setting in Lanka. Hanumanji had crossed what today is the Gulf of Mannar in search of Sita who had been kidnapped by Ravana. He crossed the ocean and many of these mountains, lakes and rivers and eventually found Sita in the woods where she was held captive. There on the banks of a river where she took her daily bath now stands a temple built on the embankment. I cannot explain how serene I felt praying at that temple in Nuwara Eliya. A few miles away is a temple honouring Hanumanji and the view from that hill temple is of a peaceful, quiet lake. It is fascinating that the undersea bridge from South India to Sri Lanka built by Rama’s army of monkeys and bears in the Ramayana and known as Rama’s Bridge or Rama Setu, is visible today by satellite. Oceanography suggests that the bridge is seven thousand years old and the architect is said to have been Nala. That part of the strait remains shallower than other parts of the gulf and it is believed that it was walkable until the 15th century. We did not travel north so I was not able to discuss this phenomenon with local people there.
We took a train ride from Nuwara Eliya to Ella, returning to Nuwara Eliya the same evening. This was another highlight of our trip. The views from the train are truly breathtaking, the mountains, rivers, waterfalls and the lush vegetation are incomparable. A light jacket is needed as brisk mountain breezes coming in the open windows can be cold. Young Shaam sat in the open doorway of the train and captured the best pictures of us all. We had originally gone to the station booth to buy first class tickets but they were all sold out, only third class remained. That was serendipitously the best snag! In the third class compartment we met a group of wonderful young backpackers – Sarah, Elyssa, Tash, Tyler, Tamara and Sam(antha) – whose prime object is to travel and see as much of the world as they can, to mix with local people and experience life in unique and traditional ways.
Sarah and Elyssa are expat Canadians teaching full time in Australia. They travel during school breaks. Tash and Tamara work part-time in Australia and travel as much as they can between contracts. Tyler and Sam work six months in the hospitality industry in central Canada and travel the other six. They taught me how to air-drop pics from our cameras to share. Gosh, I live in the ice age compared to our techno-smart young people!
These young people and their travel stories opened our eyes to the potential for true democracy, goodwill and connections that can be formed when people have pure hearts and will. They used their data to play music on the train, dance and sing with local people in the compartment. What fun! Our world is in good hands if young people like these are in it.
During our twelve-day stay we each took three sets of Ayurvedic massages at well-run Ayurvedic massage clinics. We all agreed that these were the best massages we had ever taken. The therapists are well trained and knowledgeable about muscles, knots and strains and the clinics are pristine. The Jasmine Ayurvedic Resort in Negombo offers seven-day retreats with daily treatments. On the way from Nuwara Eliya to Sigiriya we visited Isiwara Ayurvedic Village, an organic plantation, guided by a young, apprentice practitioner. There is so much truth and sense in the plants, roots, seeds and fruits that our ancestors used in Indian cooking and healing. These ancient arts are still used today in Ayurvedic healing. However, we did not have time to research this place before being taken there by our driver. Subsequently, we found that the TripAd-visor reviews are appalling and the products we were coaxed to buy there were expensive. We did find excellent Ayurvedic balms at half the price at local pharmacies. So, do enjoy the Ayurvedic garden but be cautious about what you buy. Perhaps a government-run Ayurvedic store may have been better if we had had the time to research. But there are no guarantees.
Case in point: two years ago on a trip to India we bought silk tops from a government-run silk garment factory in Delhi. A week later we found the exact same tops in a hotel gift shop in Jaipur for half the price. So, these are tourist lessons we learn as we go.
Enroute to Sigiriya is the ancient Dambulla Buddhist temple, a magnificent set of caves naturally formed at the very top of a rocky mountain, a world heritage site. My young friend Shaam and I climbed the gruelling, rocky, uneven, high steps to get to the top. But what an achievement! What a sight! We engaged a guide at the top and, out of breath, I naively asked the guide, “How many thousand steps did we climb?” and he politely chuckled, “Three hundred and sixty-four steps, madam”. It sure felt like thousands. But we were able to laugh out loud. The five caves are filled with over a hundred Buddha statues both reclining and upright and they also nod to Hinduism in the inclusion of Vishnu and Ganesha. There is a quiet serenity and dignity in the hush of these sacred caves.
In Sigiriya came our biggest physical challenge in the form of another World Heritage Site, the Sigiriya Rock, the site of an ancient palace from the fourth century BC built on the top, though the palace is now gone, only the garden setting remains. This climb has twelve hundred steps, well-spaced, well-modulated stairs with resting places interspersed. But, only young Shaam raced to the top. The three of us older folk tired out half way up and we now regret not having the stamina or perseverance to continue. We might have but an old guide seeing us weaklings offered to show us a “shortcut”. Intrigued we followed him but what he meant was a short cut down! So please if you go, keep climbing – apparently the view from the top is celestial. Sigiriya also offered us a wonderful glimpse into village life.
We crossed a river by small boat and were welcomed into a village setting recreated for tourists where we watched thatch being made from coconut fronds and rice being husked by hand.
We “helped” to thresh the rice kernels using a large stone mortar and pestle and then using a wicker tray, much like my mom used to separate stones from rice, we saw rice emerging the way we see the end product in our stores. We were then offered a modest Sri Lankan village lunch. Curry and rice is the traditional meal and all sorts of vegetables including banana flowers are cooked into delicious curries. Fish is another staple.
From Sigiriya we proceeded to Chilaw to a beach resort.
Though the beach was spectacular we were disappointed to see debris beside the roads leading to the resort – the only litter we saw in our whole trip.
From Chilaw we proceeded to Negombo where most tourists to Sri Lanka either start or finish their stays because of Negombo’s proximity to the international airport in Colombo. Negombo is a quiet, sedate town where local life can be appreciated in the busy streets and lanes. We walked many backstreets and felt safe and welcomed by residents.
Our holiday ended here and we agreed that this was one of the best holidays we have taken.