Monthly Archives: February 2012

Up Close and Personal With Blue Whales in Sri Lanka

I never thought I would see a blue whale outside of the Smithsonian museum. In fact, I thought they were almost extinct. On January 23, 2012 I saw four pairs of them. Blue Whales were not even on my bucket list. When we started doing research on Sri Lanka we found out that about ten years ago, fisherman,and people living on a cliff overlooking the southern tip of Sri Lanka started reporting seeing amazingly large “fish”. Soon, scientists showed up and the “‘fish” turned out to be actually mamals. The world’s largest animals, the Blue Whale.

Saying they are big is like saying celestial mechanics is slightly difficult.

Our travel agent, (www.srilanka.com ask for Johann) set this excursion up for us. We were supposed to go out in a big trimaran that held maybe thirty people. When we got to the dock early in the morning, there were only 7 people. Truthfully or not we were told that the big trimaran had mechanical problems and we were put in a little panga with a 40hp engine. I did not care, I just wanted to see the Blue Whales.

We headed due south, into the Indian Ocean for over an hour.

Search for blue whales, whale watching sri lanka

We were way out of sight of land. There was only us and two other boats (both bigger) out searching the elusive mammoth Leviathan. I was worried that we might get skunked.

But then we saw one of the big boats change direction and stoke the coals. Our capatin wasted no time. Our little panga was much more maneuverable and faster than the big boats, which it turns out is desirable when you are hunting the Blue Whales!

These giants stay submerged for 30 to 40 minutes. When they come up for air, they do it rather dramatically. They first exhaust water through their blow holes.

blue whales, sri lanka

This picture does the act no justice. The sprays they put up look like the fountains at the Bellagio hotel. They must shoot 50 feet into the air. The problem is you cannot be ready to take the photo,because you never know where they will appear. They swim about 30 miles an hour, so they could pop up anywhere. I was lucky to get this shot of the end of a blow.

So when they do appear, the boats out hunting for them start moving towards them. But they do not stay up very long at all, maybe three minutes. Our little boat served us well, and we were able to get close enough for a couple of decent photos.

Blue whales, indian ocean sri lanka

After they blow they sort of roll at the surface before they dive again. It may not look it here, but this whale was over 100 feet long.

Scientists have somehow determined that a Blue Whale can put half of its brain asleep at a time (hmmm) so that it can continue to move and remember to surface for air as it needs to. Interesting facts for my readers!

Blue whale, whale tail

After they have been up long enough to fill their lungs, they dive again, and the last thing you see is the tail.

blue whale

Straight out of a Melville novel, eh? Tale of a whale? The flap of the tail on the water can be heard 100 yards off. I cannot describe the sound, with a more intelligent word than awesome.

Sri Lanka should be on any world travelers destination list. For many reasons. I saved this post for last because seeing Blue Whales up close and personal is pretty amazing, and something I know I will never forget.

Thanks for reading. Share this with others please. Now go ready Moby Dick.

An Albino Turtle in Sri Lanka!

Have you ever seen an albino turtle? Betcha haven’t. We saw two today in totally different and amazing Sri Lanka.

But before I treat you to that vision I’ll fill you in our total day. It was a long fun filled one, so this post will be a bit longer than my last few.

In the morning we visited a mask museum/factory/store. Made from balsa wood and painted with natural colors these traditional masks are still used today to warrant off the spirits of poor health or bring good luck. I bought a couple for future use.

This young man carves the masks. He is a third generation artisan. He really liked my ball cap, but I could not work out a trade with him.

I am unsure what spirit this mask wards off or attracts, I just like it.

I found this outside the store.This is probably for a charity to buy sacred cows before they get sold to McDonalds. I just loved the wording, so I gave them a few Rupee.

From here we went on a “river safari”. I am going to cheat here and give you some pictures from two different “river safaris” we went on. Sri Lanka has many large rivers, and they all cut through dense jungle, so a visitor gets to see many birds and creatures.

A water monitor in Sri Lanka

This is a critter I had never heard of before . It is called a Water Monitor. He was about 6 feet long and resembled a giant lizard.

A watermonitor in a tree

On our second river safari we saw a half dozen of these Water Monitors. This one, in a tree, was keeping a close eye on me while I invaded his space with my Nikon.

We went a ways up river from the ocean into a very large lake. A boy and his monkey came out to greet us and pick up a dollar for getting his picture taken.

He was not happy when I gave him 100 rupee, which is roughly a dollar. I am not sure what the going rate is, but a dollar is a dollar kid. Go feed the monkey.

We went to a buddhist temple in the midle of the lake and actually saw a Bohdi tree.

Bohdi Tree

Buddha received enlightenment while sitting under a Bohdi tree. That exact Bohdi tree is in India. Cuttings from that tree have been replanted at many Buddhist temples. This is one. The tree casts a lot of shade and would make a perfect place to meditate. For a better understanding of Bohdi trees please go http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhi_Tree

Budhas hands

The monk who guided us around this temple pointed out the the Buddha does not have lines on his hand like you and I, his lines depict lotus flowers. Betcha did not know that! Here is proof!

Another spot in this lake is called Cinnamon Island, for obvious reasons. I read somewhere that Sri Lanka produces something like 90% of the world’s cinnamon.

Making cinnamon in Sri Lanka

There are certainly more modern ways to produce cinnamon, but this inhabitant of cinnamon island does it the old way. To make cinnamon sticks, he strips the inner layers of bark from a branch of the tree, then rolls them together. He also made cinnamon powder and cinnamon oil.

To cut to the chase, we now have a life time supply of cinnamon in our kitchen.

We moved on and found a guy in a Sri Lankan cayuco who rowed up to us. I thought he had something to sell, but he just wanted to share his piece of nature with us…

My wife happens to be someone who will cuddle a baby anything. Here she is on River Safari 2 cuddling a month old alligator. The teeth on this little guy were razor sharp. This purveyor of nature got 5 bucks for his efforts!

OK OK already, the albino turtle is coming up!

The only reason seeing an albino turtle was not on my bucket list is because I did not know they existed! Our guide stopped at the Kosgoda Turtle Center to show us the operation there. This is one of four such projects in Sri Lanka. Because they are all located at the beach, they were all wiped out in the tsunami, but have come back, mostly with volunteer labor. If your thing is turtles, you can volunteer there for as long as you like.

Turtle eggs, here and worldwide, are poached by the locals to eat. This practice is the main reason for the drop in turtle population in the world. Turtles have always had to deal with predators, but human overpopulation has made the situation even worse. These projects purchase turtle eggs from the locals for more than they can sell them to restaurants. Then they incubate them.

This is beach sand inside the turtle center where the eggs are incubated until they hatch. The signs denote the type of turtles (there are four in Sri Lanka) and the expected hatch date.

When they hatch they are transferred to a holding pond. They are held for three days. They were so cute that even I cuddled one. At the end of three days they are released back into the ocean at night to deter the bird population from snaring them. The center claims a 50% survival rate for it's turtles, which is considerably higher than the 1% in the wild.

And now for the great finale!

An Albino turtle in Sri Lanka

Here he is! He was captured in a fisherman's net and if he had not been an albino would have been eaten. But he was brought to the folks at Kosgoda for us all to enjoy. He lives in his own holding pond. He has been there for many years. When the tsunami hit, the dirctor ran out to the pond, grabbed him, and ran to safety. Aint he cute? There are two of them at Kosgoda.

That’s all for today dear readers. Thanks for being here, tell a friend, make a comment, or go to Sri Lanka to work with turtles!

My next post…up close and personal with BLUE WHALES!

Boxing Day Tsunami Photo Museum, Sri Lanka

On boxing Day in 2004, I think we all remember the incredible destruction caused by a tsunami all over SE Asia. Sri Lanka certainly did not escape the carnage.

The country has come back from the destruction. When you remember they have also had a civil war in the last decade, it is very impressive to see the recovery. Not to say a casual ride along the coast is bare of  examples of destroyed buildings. You can still see shells of concrete buildings, but they are the exception.

We were in transit when I saw this sign.

I gave out a shout to our driver, Farzan. This was NOT on any itinerary. However that is one big advantage to having a private tour, you can damn well stop where and when you want. This "museum" was just an old house that was probably pretty well destroyed on 12/26/2004.

The museum was started by a Danish expat and survives on contributions.  It is very moving and impressive. You walk around in this old house in a very somber mood.

This is a photo of a local train that along with the rails was completely destroyed. It was caught in the second wave, which I believe is always bigger than the first. Many many people died in this train because after the first wave they ran into the train thinking it would survive the wave.

This was not merely a photo museum. Half the space was dedicated to drawings by children survivors who were encouraged to draw what they experienced as therapy. This drawing of the train wreck especially caught my attention.

This painting seems to express the terror quite well.

We were told that not a single Buddha statue was destroyed. This one survived.

Some child summed it all up. Not only for the tsunami victims but for civilization.

We walked out of this museum, after making a decent donation, in quite a somber mood. I think that was the intent.

Thanks for reading. Share this with a friend. Next time you see a natural disaster on TV, be glad it wasn’t in your neck of the woods and try to contribute a few bucks to the recovery, please.

Next post, ALBINO AND BABY TURTLES!

The Coolest Hawkers I Have Ever Met, Sri Lanka

Everyone who travels around this coconut runs into hawkers. They try to sell you everything from bongs to plastic models of the Taj Mahal. Many just will not leave a person alone. They follow you down the street putting tubes of tiger balm or fake Rolex watches in your hand. They all know two words in English “good price”. Some know how to say “me poor, need money for family.” 99% of the time they are selling some POS I have no desire to own. I try to say “no” nicely. The second  time I say it a bit louder. The third time I usually stop, look them in the eye and kindly but firmly say “I do want that POS.”  I do not use the acronym when I do. In the Themal , the tourist district of Kathmandu, I walk down the street with my head down mumbling “no,no,no,no, no, no, no” even during the short periods of time I am not being offered anything. In my youth (when I wish I had visited Kathmandu) I might have been interested in one of the hundreds of offers for hash, but since then I have seen the movie Midnight Express. Enough  said. However,  in Sri Lanka my wife and I found the coolest “hawkers” EVER.

We were leaving the “hill country” of Sri Lanka, the tea growing region.  They were typical third world mountain roads. The normal way of driving in Sri Lanka would land a person in jail in the USA. There are 2, 3, and 4 wheeled vehicles here besides the trucks. The only convention that keeps traffic flowing is that that the two wheelers (motorcycles) and the three wheelers either stay to the right (oops, make that left, this Is a former British colony) or quickly move to the left when honked at so we in the sedans can pass them. But the roads are so narrow that you must pass in the oncoming lane and hope there is nothing bigger than a two or three wheeler coming the other way around the next bend. Those stay to the left leaving the center of the road for oncoming traffic. What I have not mentioned are the busses. I am not even sure I can discuss them and keep this a family accessible blog. I will leave that alone.

About half way down the mountain we stopped at a beautiful waterfall called Ella Ravana. Ella means waterfall and Ravana is the Hindu word for the monkey god. AT least tis is what our driver told me. Wikipedia says different, but like his story better. The waterfall area is run over with monkeys, tourists and hawkers.

Along side the road out of Kandy. Sri Lanka has many beautiful waterfalls. The Ella Ravana falls were very special.

Many monkeys hang around hoping for a handout. They should learn to say "Monkey poor, need a peanut".

The hawkers here sell coins and rocks. Say what? Yup coins and rocks. First the rocks.

The mountains here are full of many different types of stones in a rainbow of colors. From clear crystals  to Dodger blue crystals.
While I picked some stones, another hawker tried to sell my wife a bag with one hundred US quarters. She protested that she did not live in the USA and we and no need for quarters. He asked where we lived. She told him the UAE and he promptly returned with a bag with a hundred one Dirham coins. Of course to say we were perplexed is a bit of an understatement.  She asked what was up. He told her that banks here do not accept coins, only paper money. (Sri Lanka has no coins) So she laughed and gave him a 100 Dirham note in exchange. That is about US$27.

All this time I was choosing a handful of pretty rocks. I got asked by a few hawkers “my little girl collects coins, do you have any coins from your country you can give me for her?”

We finally figured it out. Visitors from other countries gladly give a few quarters, Dirhams, Drachmas or Pesos to the hawker  ” for his little girl” and when they get a hundred they exchange them for paper money and head for the currency exchange. What a cool way to make a few bucks!

After another hour of the combination roller coaster ride and narrow misses we finally reached the flat lands.

I asked our driver,  Farzan, “in your language how do yo say lunch?
He told me that “cavall” meant food and that “dama” meant mid day and you say the two together to say mid day meal.

When he did not take the hint right away, I asked how do you say “now”. The word is ding. So I turned to him and. Said “cavall dama ding.”  I remembered that for the rest of the trip.

He suggested we stop here for lunch but I was not THAT hungry. I DID wonder what a "short eat" was.

So we moved on.

We went past this neat lttle temple, and found a roadside dive attacheed to a house and had the most authentic meal of the entire trip. Really spicy, and I got introduced to ginger beer. Hmm MM

My next few posts will be from Sri Lanka’s fabulous beaches. One post will be about the “Boxing day Tsunami” that devastated the area. another about seeing albino turtles and the last from Sri Lanka will be about getting up close and personal with BLUE WHALES from a panga. So keep reading! Thanks for coming along to the Ella Ravana falls with us, and consider yourself lucky you did not have to be in the car!

Tea Country in Old Ceylon, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka used to be called called Ceylon, which is synonymous with Tea.  I have actually grown to like tea in the onset of my elder years so I was looking forward to our visit to Nuwara Eliya, which means “city of light”.

This city still shows many signs of the colonial influence of England and Scotland. In fact we stayed at the St. Andrews Hotel, which, guess what, was on the edge of the 18 hole par 71 golf links.

The St. Andrews hotel..Flat out one of the best hotels I have ever stayed in, See my review on TripAdvisor for details.

This is a painting in Ye Olde golf links clubhouse.

B

Obviously this is a very old course, with well developed trees right where my drives would end up. It was well tended. A lifetime membership was about US$1000. I really liked this city, and if I lived there I would definitely join and take up that most aggravating of sports again.

But the area did not get settled just because of the great climate of the  1800 mtr altitude, or for the spectacular mountains and waterfalls in the area. It started getting settled because it was a perfect place to grow “English vegetables” and strawberries. There was an active coffee industry here until it got wiped out by a disease. Then, the growers switched to tea, and it is today one of the premier tea growing regions in the world.

Tea pickers at work on one of the largest planataions. Only women pick the tea. They have a quota of something like 20 kilos a day, and they get paid abou US$3 a day. Remember that next time you sit down to a cup.

I guess I could show you photos of the tea factory we visited, but a lot of machinery and hard working people just bums me out. We learned a lot about how it is processed and classed, and learned also about “white tip” tea, which is the really premium part of the tea plant.

If you visit Sri Lanka the tea country is an absolute visit. It is educational and comfortable and extremely beautiful.

Thanks for reading, share this with a friend, and have a cup of tea!

Temple of Tooth. Kandy, Sri Lanka,

The real name for this is the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic. However our itinerary simply said Temple of Tooth, so I’m going with that.

This a beautiful temple.

The temple is the main attraction in Kandy, especially in July/August when a procession led by thousands of Kandyan dancers lead over a hundred highly decorated Elephants through the town. This draws tens of thousands of devotees and goes on for 10 days.

The temple was attacked by the Tamil Tigers  during the civil war, but the damage was  minimal and has been repaired.

Of course you must remove your shoes before you enter the temple. At the door is what is called a moon stone. This is a traditional and significant item to stand on for a quick pause before you enter the temple.

The tooth is a tooth of Buddha.  I was expecting a little glass box with a tooth inside of it. Sort of like the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, only smaller,people would wander past and take a glance.

Boy was I wrong.  Three times a day a service happens with drummers and dancers.

Loud, raucous and colorful!

The history of this tooth goes all the way back to the funeral pyre of Buddha where the tooth was snatched from the fire, then years later smuggled into Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess. Possession of the tooth was tantamount to ruling power. So, when the Portuguese came to Sri Lanka they stole it away. But wait! They only stole a replica say the devotees. Some say that the tooth here is only a replica and the real tooth is hidden away in a secure and secret location.

However, judging from the number of devotees that show up, wait in line and make offerings, I think that the people of Kandy believe this is the true incisor. Sri Lankan Buddhists believe they must make at least on pilgrimage to this temple in their lives.

But here is where I was disappointed.  Three times a day a heavily guarded room is open for what they call pujas, which consist of offerings (mostly flowers) and prayers. Then the long line of devotees slowly pass by a doorway to the room where the tooth is.

This is what they come to see and worship. This is not my photo. I did not get close enough and the lighting was weird, and there were a lotof people jousting for position. This is about 6 feet tall.

So where is the tooth? you ask. As it turns out there are six more of these Stupa shaped solid gold, jewel encrusted containers, each smaller than the other inside this one. Only once a year are they removed so you can actually see the tooth. It must be a madhouse.

That is it for Temple of Tooth. Next post will be a visit to a wonderful waterfall,with the very best hawkers I have  ever run across!

Thanks for reading and share this with friends.

Royal Botanic Garden, Sri Lanka

The Royal Botanic garden, located in Paradeniya, just outside of Kandy is a magnificent garden and  must see if you find yourself in this part of Sri Lanka.

The entrance to the garden. Altogether this is 147 acres of spectacular plants and trees. There is also a huge orchid greenhouse.

The history of this garden goes back to 1371 when a king with a name too long to type kept court here in Peradeniya. In 1780 it was officially made the royal garden. The kings had residences called vihares and dagobas. When the Brits came here, they destroyed them. But the gardens survived, and over time British administrators,  probably with garden club type wives, started developing the garden. They brought plants and trees from other tropical regions, and they have all survived and prospered here.

Many of the garden managers wrote books about the flora of Sri Lanka, others wrote handbooks on tropical planting and others helped contribute to the knowledge of medicinal plants. So, this has been a work station for botanists for years, and today is a terrific place to take a long walk,so we did.

In the center of the garden there is what is called the Great Lawn. In the middle of this lawn is a giant Java Willow or java Fig. This beautiful tree shades 2,500 sq.m of land and is a popular place for pick-nicking and wooing.

The great lawn is surrounded by many great trees. This is a type of pine. The garden club name might be "twisty-spinney tree". I'm sorry I do not know the real name.

My wife standing in front of an avenue of Royal Palms. That is what they are really called.

My wife standing in front of a "gumball" tree. Whatever the latinized name is, I read that they are from another island, and that they grow this shape naturally.

Some of the trees planted here many many years ago have grown quite large. This one is called "the biggy wiggy tree". Notice the full size human standing in front of it.

I will end with this shot because this is truly "The other side of the coconut" tree. It is quite rare. AND it is androgynous. The coconuts have a weird shape and are quite big.

We actually made one other stop this day. We went to a spice and healing herb shop. We were shepherded around by a guide trained in ayurvedic medicine (google it). He pointed out all sorts of things that could help a couple of old white folk. He also pointed out a cream that removes hair from where you do not want it. He was so convincing that we ended up spending over US$400. On WHAT? you ask. Well,  everything from vanilla extract to a carved out piece of wood that when left full of water overnight and drank in the morning lowers your blood sugar. No change in diet or exercise needed. I’LL TAKE TWO!

Mary Ann dropping US$400 in the medicinal herbs and spices store!

That’s it for today. My next post I will take you to, THE TEMPLE OF TOOTH!

Thanks for reading, tell a friend, share me on the cyber coconut.

Kandy, Sri Lanka. Elephant Orphanage

Admit it. It is tough to visualize an elephant orphanage.  Visions of elephants in shorts like Oliver Twist asking “please sir may I have another” were short lived in my great expectations, however they were not replaced with anything very clear.

Originally set up by the government to care for abandoned or orphaned elephants it has now turned into a major tourist attraction and seems to be the economic cornerstone of a small village outside of Kandy named Pinnewala.

It has its critics. The critics are concerned that it has turned into a breeding ground as much as an orphanage, something Oliver Twist never had to concern himself with I am sure. For me, the more pachyderms the merrier. The mahouts(elephant handlers) take really good care of them and they are fed all they can eat without having to ask for another. Other than that they seem to roam free on a large sanctuary.

Twice a day the “orphans” and their parents (whatever) are lead through town to the local river to bath, something elephants love to do.

One elephant they care for is this old guy who survived being shot by a poacher. He still has a bullet in his hide, he still has his tusks, but he is blind. he was very mellow and seemed to enjoy being petted while I aplogized for the cruelty of mankind.

Twice a day the elephants march down main street to the river to bathe. They know they own the place, and they just mosey along.

There are a lot of very young elephants in the herd. They tend to stay together like kids everywhere.

An ancillary industry has grown in Pinnewalla.

Turning elephant poop into paper is actaully an easy process because of the high fiber content of the poop. The elephants eat a lot of bamboo. We were impressed enough to purchase next years Christmas cards. So if you want a Christmas card made of elephant poop, leave me a comment!

And of course you can have lunch while watching the elephants play in the river! By the way, the Lion brand beer is pretty damn good and does not taste like elephant piss.

So thats it for the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. In keeping with my pledge to do more and shorter posts. I will wait a day to tell yu about the Royal Botanical Gardens, and then the top attraction in Kandy…THE TEMPLE OF TOOTH!

Please pass this along. Make a comment and you get an elephant poop Christmas card! Thank you for reading.

Kandy, Sri Lanka. As Sweet as it Sounds.

We always enjoy a good walk through a nice botanical garden. The one in Kandy was stunningly beautiful. I thought this picture would be a nice way to start this post even though, as usual, I am ahead of myself.

Our trip  to Kandy, pronounced KhanDEE started at dawn at the Colombo Fort Station. Among the many things the British left behind as their empire collapsed (besides driving n the wrong side of the road and roundabouts) is rail systems. They built them to move goods to market of course. Now days, they do that, they move the locals into the towns to work, and they move travelers and tourists about the country. Personally, I love trains. At a nice slow but quick pace you get to see the countryside away from the cars and trucks on the highways.

The Kandy express was just what the travel doctor ordered. In a few hours we climbed from sea level to Kandy, which is the start of the hill country of Sri Lanka. It sits a mere 500m above sea level, but the difference in climate and flora is very extreme.  Kandy sits at 6.8 degrees north latitude (or so says the GPS app on my IPAD) so  we are definitely in the tropics and it showed.

The communities we passed by are mostly concrete block buildings with corrugated tin roofs, and banana trees in the yard. I think I have seen this before…hmmm.

Because it was an early morning express we made only one stop. The rest of the small stations we whizzed past had people staring at us. The trains going the other direction, into Colombo, were full of people heading to town to work. I do not know if it was because they were full, or because it was cooler,or if it is just cool, but every car on every train had men hanging on, half in, half out of the car. I found myself wondering how many people fall off on any given year. I got up to have a smoke and decided I would try standing in the doorway. I did, for a coupe of seconds, hopped back in and had a second smoke to calm my nerves.

Decor on the outside of our train car.

They had a server who sold some really excellent curries and wonderful tea.

I began to notice something different  from our train trip in India. In India, all along the track, there was litter, disgusting amounts of litter. Not so in Sri Lanka. This cleanliness was apparent for our entire trip.

I also began to see another interesting Sri Lanka custom. When the people erect a Buddha in their town, almost always they encase him in a glass box.  I never figured out why. Probably because they have two monsoon seasons each year. I do not know if they air condition the box, but pity poor Buddha if they dont.

We pulled into Kandy right on time and were met by our driver Farzan from www.srilanka.com who had gotten up even earlier than we did to drive there and meet us.

He took us to our hotel where we prepared for a wonderful day in Kandyland.  I mistakenly crashed a wedding reception, but things got straightened out.

We were in Kandy on an auspicious day for weddings (according to the astrologers) so we saw a few.

The bride at the wedding I crashed. "But there is sooo much food here, can

"Sure mister have some food"

The rest of our stay in Kandy was really nice, and I will cover it in my next post. Teaser: we went to an elephant orphanage, a healing herb garden, and The Royal Botanical Garden.

I have been told by many people to keep my posts short, and try to post something every day. Well, I can do the first thing easy enough. So, thanks for reading, share this around the cyber coconut, and don’t be afraid to tell me what you think with a comment.

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