Friday, February 22, 2013

Sri Lanka, Days 8-10

After one of the memorable weddings, and days, of my life, the rest of the Sri Lankan adventures seem a touch anti-climatic by comparison. And they were. Not to say that fun wasn't had; I enjoyed myself quite a bit. But this was more standard vacation fun than what had happened during the first week.

By agreement we'd all decided after the wedding to head down south towards Unawatuna. The south coast of the country is the beach area and the most touristy. When planeloads of Europeans arrive in Sri Lanka most of them are not heading north to the national parks or Buddhist temples. They're heading south for a beach and some sun. Considering how hectic the last week had been, especially for the new bride and groom, a few days on a beach before heading back to frozen Canada (more frozen for some rather than others) worked.

So after the usual chaos we managed to get on the road. By consensus, we decided to hire back our drivers rather than trying to use trains or buses. We also decided to take the slow coastal road down to Unawatuna rather than the slick new highway connecting Colombo and Galle (which is just a few minutes north of Unawatuna). The drivers seemed quite disappointed. I think they were anxious to show-off the new highway. After so many days of marginal roads and lunacy on the highways, they wanted to show off something shiny and not crazy.

Still, I've been on highways. It's a nice drive down the coast as the road was frequently only a few metres away from the ocean. It's hard to tell when you've left Colombo because there's always signs of a city of some sort. But the pace and craziness does easy up. And there's also one other sign that you've left the capital. The signs of destruction.

The 2004 tsunami devastated southeast Asia, particularly Thailand. But Sri Lanka didn't escaped unscathed. Parts of the east coast and the south coast were badly hit. Cities were destroyed and thousands of people lost their lives. More than eight years later you could easily spot the traces of flatted buildings that have never been rebuilt. The level of recovery is frankly amazing, but the ghost of the tsunami are always lingering. We passed by two memorials marking where at least 1,700 people were killed with the wave slammed into an over-stuffed train. It's the worst train-related disaster in history.

The one put together by the Sri Lankan government is a bit grim and on the shambly side. One donated by the Japanese government is much more serene and beautiful.

Eventually we made it to Unawatuna, where we stayed at a hotel run by a British ex-pat. Which would be a theme with Unawatuna. I think it's as close as I came to being disappointed with a place in Sri Lanka. It has a very "generic beach town" feel to it. Really, it could have been in The Dominican Republic. Or Cuba. Or Costa Rica. It could have been anywhere in the world that has a beach. There was little distinctly Sri Lankan about the place.

I guess asking for beach and culture is asking for a bit much. Still, Unawatuna proved to be a bit disappointing on both fronts. Lack of culture aside, there's also the matter that it's beach was practically wiped out after the tsunami. It looks like there's attempts at trying to rebuild the sandy aspect of the beach, but it won't be back anytime soon. In the meantime, in the typical chaotic Sri Lankan manner, new businesses are building right on top of the beach. In some cases it's only a matter of feet separating the front of a hotel and restaurant and high tide.

It would never be allowed in most places. In a few years, they might even fix it. But right now, the beach at Unawatuna, other than being wet, was a bit of a disappointment.

Fortunately, Unawatuna made up for the lacklustre beach in other ways. While we had lost two of our travelling companions just before the jaunt down south (Eddie and Tushar had to fly out that day), the rest of the crowd were all staying at the same hotel. While some people like Janius and Laura and her family are relative strangers to me, it was honestly awesome to be able to squeeze in as much hanging out time as possible with Dups and Jenna (they were in Honeymoon mode, so we didn't crash their space, obviously), or Niall and Rebecca. Hell, even Lori and I were not ready to kill each other yet even after spending nearly two weeks together.

These people mean a lot to me and I never see them often enough. So even if it's walking down a beach, eating at awful vegetarian restaurant (the food was fine; it just took 90 minutes to get it and the owner was a passive-aggressive ex-pat Brit prick), or just hanging out at the hotel, it was all good.

Even wandering around Galle one day, and visiting the Dutch fort was fine. It felt a little weird, seeing this very obvious European intrusion into Sri Lanka after days of temples and Sri Lanka culture. But it was nice to walk around the walls and get some photos. It was also nice to get some last minute shopping done in Galle. I'd promised Cathy "all the gifts" when I went and she couldn't go. So I grabbed a couple of more items (two silk saris. Nothing like grabbing about 14 feet of intricately decorated silk for less than $75) and declared myself done. Except, you know, the few things I got at the airport.

But now, alas, people had to start to leave. After day one, Dups, Jenna and Nuala had to leave. Then we had to say good-bye to Mike and Kelly, who were staying for a few extra days and moving on to their next location. So then it was Niall, Rebecca, Janius, Jan, Lori and I heading to the airport. And then we lost the first three as they had to wait until 4 am for their flight to leave, and ours left at 1 am. We lost Jan in Frankfurt, where she was catching a flight to Vancouver. Then, finally, I said good-bye to Lori. She was the first one I met up with on my travels and the last I said good-bye to.

We didn't kill each other, which surprises me a little. We can both be stubborn and have a bit of a temper. But she was great to travel with.

It was a great trip, honestly. I was probably guilty of trying to peg Sri Lanka into other countries I've visited before. At different points I thought it reminded me of Costa Rica, South Korea and the Dominican Republic. But it is one of the most distinctive countries I've ever visited. Certainly it has the best food I've ever eaten. Yeah, better than Italy, New York and San Francisco.

It's a country in transition, and that can always be a fascinating thing to watch. It's coming out of the shadows of a decades long civil war and trying to become normal again. From talking with my friends who had been there only five years ago, they spoke of how much more relaxed the country is, how much happier the people are, and how much more prosperity there is.

I'd like to go back there again one day. I think Cathy would like to as well, so perhaps in five years time or so, we'll find a way to get back. It'll be interesting to see how much more it will have changed by then. Change is always messy, so I'm sure there will be somethings it does right, and somethings it does wrong. I hope it keeps the food, the parks and wilderness, the temples and the friendliness and curiosity of the people. I hope the driving gets a little better. I hope it doesn't get overwhelmed by European beach goers and turned into another beach resort country.

I look forward to returning and seeing what they got right...

Assorted Bits
1. One way the country is changing is the military is trying to find things to do. Mike found a page on their air force website offering to fly paying passengers via helicopter to Jaffna, which is in the northern part of the country and deep in Tamil control during the Civil War. It also suffered heavy damage in the final days of the war. Alas, they didn't get back to him in time. But I think it was something like $100 return, per person, which is just silly.
2. I thought I was playing things very loose on this trip compared to how rigidly planned Cathy and I normally do things, but that's nothing compared to Mike and Kelly. The day we were checking out of the hotel in Unawatuna, they didn't know where they were going to stay that night, or what they were going to do for the next five days. Then again, they had fun and the world didn't end, so there's something to be said for it.
3. A decided western complaint, but hot water is a hit or miss venture in Sri Lanka. Solar showers are as common. Which is lovely when the sun is shinning, but a lot of days there it wasn't. An unintended consequence of this is I came home with a beard.
4. We ended up taking the toll highway when dashing to the airport. They really are proud of it, the first of several around the country. And it did cut down the travel time from Galle to Colombo significantly. Plus, the drivers behaved normally.
5. We had a small adventure flying back to Canada. When we hit Frankfurt at 7:30 am we learned that our flight at 1:30 pm to Montreal was being delayed by at least six hours, maybe more. Mechanical problems. After a mad dash, we managed to get on a flight leaving for Toronto that actually got us into Canada about 4 hours earlier. And our luggage arrived on time. So, as hard as it is for me to say this, kudos to Air Canada. They transferred us over to the new flight with no grief, got us good seats and my bags arrived. Can't ask much more than that.
6. The jetlag off of a 10.5 hour time zone change is vicious. It was bad when we arrived in Sri Lanka, but much, much worse coming back. It took me about six days to shake it off. Not helping was picking up a cold.


John, Perth AU said...

I warned you about the jet lag back in November. I'm surprised you were able to function in Sri Lanka at all. (You climbed what?) Six days to recover sounds good. It usually takes me 8-9 days between Perth and the eastern US. I'm usually adjusted by the time I fly back, then it's all over again.

Anonymous said...

very awesome to have read your entire journey! thks

towniebastard said...

I still don't know why it took me about a day or so to shake it off once I got to Sri Lanka, but flying back took the better part of a week. Weirdness. I thought I had it whipped when I came back to Canada, but the day I flew back to Nunavut, it just came back and kicked my ass.

Perth to the eastern US. Jesus. Yeah, that'll be some vicious jetlag, right there...