Animal Safari

Trip Start Feb 23, 2009
Trip End Mar 18, 2009

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Saturday, March 7, 2009

    This was a day with a lot of driving, but some great animal adventures too.

    We left Unawatuna early, because Hasantha had some things he wanted to show us. First we stopped at a turtle hatchery along the coast, close to Galle. An original hatchery had been wiped out by the 2004 tsunami, but volunteers from England and Australia had remade the concrete pools which held the baby turtles or the few giant adults. There was also a sand pit area where eggs were buried with the species names (loggerhead, green, and something else) and expected hatching dates, and when the workers disturbed the sand pile with our date, they revealed baby turtles that had just come out of their shells (or a very good special effect). Another pool had a rare albino loggerhead as big as a manhole cover, although they're not generally used as manhole covers.

    The owner told us a story in his broken English about how when the first small wave from the tsunami hit his hatchery, he grabbed the valuable albino adult, and ran into the jungle far enough so that they were safe when the huge wave wiped out the hatchery. Later I asked Hasantha about this and he agreed the story was unlikely to be true. "I was in Colombo when the tsunami hit Galle," said Hasantha, "and I was talking on my mobile to a friend who was telling me about the big wave that washed in. But people just thought it was a freak wave. They had no idea that the bigger wave was coming later. In fact, my friend was just chatting to me about other things, like when I was going to drive down there. Nobody was scared. The only way you might know is if you might see the water start to pull away from the shore."

    We were headed inland to the elephant sanctuary, but on the way we stopped a few times to buy fresh cashews and tea. Miles wanted to take the tea to his teachers and co-workers at the coffee shop where he works, so we stopped at a tea palace where they gave us a full tea service and then we picked what we wanted to buy. In Sri Lanka, these are hot teas of course...if you want to buy iced tea you have to go to a country where they grow it in an icy climate.

    It was after lunchtime when we reached Pinewalla, the government-run elephant sanctuary. It was started years ago when the government had 8 sick elephants that it wanted to take care of, and the group has grown to more than 80. Some of them are orphans, some of them are injured, and at least one is injured from stepping on a landmine from the ongoing civil war with the Tamil Tigers. When we got there, they were down bathing in the river, and we had lunch at a restaurant that overlooked the river so we felt like we were lunching with them. According to Hasantha, we were close to the river areas where the film "Bridge Over The River Kwai" was filmed. I don't think the local restaurants need to show "BOTRK" every night at 7pm, but it would be great for tourism if there was a place along the riverbank where you could pay to fall on a plunger, which would ignite a ton of dynamite, and blowup a nearby train crossing just as the train reaches it!

    For weeks I'd been talking about riding elephants; it was one of the main incentives to get my son on the trip. Pinewalla doesn't do elephant rides, so we went to a private enterprise nearby called the Millennium Elephant Foundation, which promised a 15 minute ride for 2000 rupees ($40/person). Yes, we got on top of elephants, but it was far from what I wanted.

    I paid for the family at a kiosk outside, but while I was pocketing the receipt and looking around, Miles had been ushered inside. When Jae and I got inside, I was annoyed that Miles had already been placed on an elephant, and was being led out of the compound. "Wait a minute," I said to the man who seemed to be in charge. "I wanted to take some pictures." "Oh, sorry," he said. "You and your wife get on the other elephant and we'll catch up to him. Give me your camera." There was no safety lecture, no description of what the plan was, and apparently we were riding the elephant bareback. (I had at least a saddle when I had ridden elephants before." All there was to hold on to was a rope around the elephant's neck.

    Our elephant was a 42-year old named Lakshmi, and according to our leader, she had "acted" in more than 30 films. I've been around a lot of actors, so that didn't make me any less nervous. Jae was sitting behind me, but I had to lean so far forward to hold the rope that was around Lakshmi's neck that I felt like I was going to lose my balance anytime. It was okay when we went uphill, but when we went downhill I really felt I was going to fall off. Our leader ran ahead to videotape Miles, leaving us alone with Laksmi's mahout, who spoke no English. When I tried to get the mahout to understand the problem, he just laughed, with orange saliva coming out of his mouth (from chewing on the beetlenut, which is a mild narcotic). Then he led us up onto the busy road. I now had an unpleasant choice about which way to fall off the elephant, to the left where there were cars passing, or to the right where we were walking along a barbed wire fence.

    Finally I got the attention of the leader, who had been videotaping my son up ahead, and told him we needed to go back. "It was about time to go back anyway," he said. "Smile and wave!" When we dismounted, they wanted to give us a presentation about the important work they're doing for elephants, and in spite of a clear pitch for a donation (or a tip), I just wanted to get out of there. Later, when I checked their website, I was also unhappy to see they were still requesting donations in the name of the tsunami 4 years earlier, without being specific about what they were going to do with the money. (Their location is nowhere near the tsunami damage.)

    And by the way, both Jae and Miles LOVED the elephant ride. I suppose if "Dad" had fallen into traffic or onto barbed wire, that just would've given them a better story!
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