Monday, January 31, 2011

Cinnamon Island 2011 - Of spirits and surf

Day 1 to 3, Friday through Sunday…

Day One

Male > Colombo

Those butterflies that hum around in your tummy on the first morning of a trip are not things that you leave behind in childhood, believe me. So that when up with the sparrows one Friday in December, hot coffee and chutney sarmies freshly laid out in front of the early morning news, I knew from instinct that this was going to be one of those tours. The ones that you’re slightly nervous of because you’re not sure what to expect; the ones you wish would never end; the ones that leave you reeling at the stark remoteness and unprecedented friendliness of the place and its people. Sri Lanka had it all.

By 11am we’d landed at Bandaranaike International, where an old mate from the Maldives met us with a characteristic Sri Lankan smile and “Hello Machang!” With his surfboard strapped safely to the roof of his Toyota sedan and ours stowed between the seats, we set off into the madness of Colombo. The hustle and bustle is mesmerizing. The roads are packed bumper-to-bumper, while cows and people of every shape and size cram the pavements. And as with many other Asian capitals, everything just clicks.

By midday we’d reached the city centre and the spot where Shiran had to dump us and move off to deal with more pressing business. But not before a provisional surf sesh was penciled in for a few days hence. We were duly loaded into a van and taken on to our home for the night, Casa Colombo. It had been an outside bet due to it being part of a package trip, but turned out to be this ridiculously larny old mansion, recently restored. Double king-sized beds, thick carpets, fluffy white gowns, spiral staircases, the works. Needless to say the night was restful and by morning we were ready to hunt surf and spirituality.

Day Two

Colombo > Rambukkana > Kandy

Smashed up a magnificent breakfast of string hoppers and prawn curry in our suite, before hopping into a tuk tuk for the ride down to Old Fort Station. Pampering over, we were back in the madness alright; short of seats and surrounded by manky dogs, rancid smells and those beaming Sri Lankan smiles.

Within the hour we were off the train at Rambukkana and onto a tuk tuk bound for Pinnewala Elephant sanctuary. Despite having just about grown-up amongst the elephants of the Eastern Cape, the sight of these incredible animals, even in a semi-wild state, always makes one feel miniscule. The age, strength and understanding of an elephant is mesmerizing and for hours we sat quietly watching them bathe in the waters of the (Pinnewala); wise, old eyes alert as they splashed and sprayed water over themselves and the rest of the herd.

By mid-afternoon it had started to drizzle, prompting us into action as far as buses and the next leg of our trip were concerned. Once more we were back amongst the madness of a sub-continent afternoon as we stood clutching our backpacks as our bus bobbed and weaved past vehicles both in our lane and on-coming. We were just about still alive when two-and-a-half hours later we arrived in Kandy, last capital of the old kingdom. Off to the tried and tested Ye Olde Empire Inn we went, holding out for a hot shower and a place to watching the Boks play rugby against Wales later on in the evening – neither of which happened unfortunately.

Day Three

Kandy > Nuwara Eliya

Up early doors once more for a spiritual stroll around the sacred ‘Temple of the Tooth’, built alongside Kandy Lake. We offer bushes of Jasmine and lit candles to the Buddha as vervet monkeys prance along ancient fig tree branches chattering incessantly at the first rays of sun as they sneak across the bowl of mountains protecting the city. Again, there is something timeless about this part of the world; the quiet solitude of a temple garden and the low hum of monks at prayer. Suddenly the crazy rush for material wealth that dominates present day societies globally seems a long, long way away.

Revitalized and ready to take on the new day, we head for a little bakery called, funnily enough, ‘The Bake House’ for fresh croissant and top-notch cappucinos. From there it’s on to the chaos of the main bus stop (our first of the trip) to see if we can flag down anything headed in the direction of the mountains of Nuwara Eliya. Dubbed ‘Little England’ for its rolling, green hills and chilly temperatures, the sleepy hollow is a good place to catch a tea tasting and to generally just unwind in fresh mountain air. The bus trip is idyllic and comfortable and within no time we’re docked in Little England and furiously hunting down the King Fern Guest House. Eventually we round a bend and there she lies, nestled away among a forest of ferns (believe it or not) on the hillside. It’s bloody chilly out, something we didn’t really expect despite everybody saying as much, and we hit a long, hot shower and wrap up in longs and a jersey before we’re ready to do anything again. The afternoon session kicked off with lunch in the village followed by a very short walk around the fabled Nuwara Eliya market and off up the rise to St Andrews Hotel for a few quick rounds of S#*THEAD. Soaking up Britain’s imperial majesty of old and a few G&T’s as the sun dipped beyond the tea plantations was lekker. Not quite a heavy right-hander on Sri Lanka’s tropical south coast, but a very close second.