The first celebration to arrive during our travels was to be Paul's birthday on 23rd Dec. We didn't want to be in Tangalle on the tsunami anniversary on 26th Dec so decided to go "up country" for Paul's birthday and Christmas returning on 27th. A number of local people had invited us to attend "alms giving" ceremonies, which are held on the anniversary of the death of any family member. It is believed that the more generous you are in this life the nearer to Nirvana/Enlightenment you will get in death, by giving in memory of the dead person it also helps that person in death. As you can imagine there were to be many such ceremonies along Medilla and Medaketiya beaches where we were staying, we decided that being away would be easier than having to choose which to attend. We ended up starting our break at a beautiful little mountain town called Ella. The next day, Paul's birthday, we did some sightseeing including a tour around a tea factory (where we bought enough tea to almost last us to the end of our stay in Sri Lanka) and ended the day having dinner and an early night at a hotel at the foot of Adam's Peak, a sacred mountain for many religions and pilgrimage site
. We had decided to climb the peak during the night ready to see the sun rise the following morning. We were assured that the whole way was illuminated so torches weren't necessary. Anyone who has walked or climbed with Paul will know that he can't carry a rucsac without filling it with things like torches, waterproofs, change of clothes, etc so the assurance was of course ignored. Other advise on the likely duration of the ascent and time of sunrise were taken more seriously, as reaching the top 5 minutes after sunrise would have been particularly disappointing. So we planned to rise at 1.30am leave the hotel by 2am and reach the summit before sunrise at 6am. Plan sounded good so off to sleep we went. Alarm woke us at 1.30am as planned and by 1.31am the revised plan was underway, which now involved Paul climbing the peak and Chris keeping the bed warm. No surprise there for those of you who know Chris! Undeterred Paul set off at just after 2am and soon met up with a young couple who had the same original plan and seemed more able to stick to it. The route is illuminated for most of the way but not completely so the torch was used - be prepared eh! Just about the whole of the 7.5km route comprises irregular steps, in excess of five thousand apparently, although the number wasn't checked. The young couple Paul accompanied were pretty fit but seemed happy to have the occasional breather and not always at Paul's request. There are small stalls/shops at intervals along the route providing food, drink, refreshments, souvenirs, etc for the pilgrims and the other strange folk who ascend for 'pleasure'. The pace up was relentless and as hard-going as you would expect 5000+ steps would be. A large stall called the last hotel was passed just after 4am and Paul thought how bad it was to give people the impression that the top would follow shortly. Much to his surprise though the summit did soon appear and by 4.15am he had reached the top, rang the ceremonial bell and was sheltering behind a wall from the wind that was blowing quite strongly
. The part of the plan that said 4 hours to ascent hadn't been too accurate but better that way then miss the sunrise at 6am. 'Dyb, dyb, dyb', 'be prepared' Westwood was glad he had a change of shirt, fleece and windproof in his sac and only wished he had a change of trousers too as his sweaty pair were quite chilling in the cold and wind. His companions were pleased to share his spare gloves as well. Of course the part of the plan that said sunrise would happen at 6am wasn't correct either, the sun eventually peering over the horizon about 45 minutes later than expected. It was, as you would expect, a brilliant feeling to have scaled the peak, met some nice people, endured the cold, witnessed the sunrise and felt its heat melt away the chill from your body. All that was left to do was to descend all those steps and trudge back to the hotel. Actually his return journey was helped to pass quite quickly and painlessly by a constant stream of young Sri lankan men happy to chat about all sorts of topics once you had passed their inevitable questions of "what's your name?" and "where are you from?" Paul's reply of "England, home of cricket" seemed to stimulate further discussion. Cricket is extremely popular in Sri Lanka and most young men have an opinion to express on the subject. The bottom of the steps came and went and after a short time lost in the village (It all looked so different in the daylight) the quarter mile trudge back to the hotel was commenced. How pleased Paul was to see a smiling familiar face coming to greet him along the road
. Yes of course it was Vimale their van driver. Who else? Eventually back at the hotel Chris was happy to hear Paul say that she had made the right decision not to go, it had certainly been a hard climb even for him. Paul consumed plenty of tea and breakfast and the long winding journey back through the mountains to Ella was started. Tea plantation after tea plantation with names like Macintosh and St.Claire came and went and by early afternoon we were back at Tea Garden Holiday Inn, our guest house in Ella. On our way through Ella we spotted Loucka, a guy from Czech republic we seemed to bump into at lots of different and unexpected places. We met him first in the Visa office in Colombo, then again in Tangalle, this is something, which seems to happen, so many co-incidences we could write a blog on it. Near to the entrance to our guesthouse was a small roadside establishment advertising massage, it was too much to resist so we just had to book in for a full body massage to soothe away our aches and pains (not that Chris had any). By this time Paul's calf muscles were quite sore but not half as bad as they would eventually become, not really sure if the massaged helped or hindered. Anyway the massage was quite entertaining as we lay side by side on adjacent tables (wooden not padded). Jen if you are reading this Chris had the same experience as last time she had a massage in Sri Lanka!! and will no doubt recount to anyone who's interested what having a full upper body massage entails.
It was, we had to keep reminding ourselves, Christmas Eve, 30 degrees even in the mountains and we had no idea what to do on Christmas day. The hotel next to ours looked a bit posher and Chris had visited there on a previous trip so we decided to have Christmas lunch there. Christmas Eve was spent celebrating Paul's birthday a day late, cake and wine arranged for secretly provided by the guesthouse
. Candles were on the table, great food, interesting red wine (the bottle said sparkling Italian wine with a screw top but it wasn't sparkling, wasn't Italian and had a new plastic cork in - it tasted good though), birthday cake and a rendition of happy birthday by all in the dining room who could speak English, shortly followed by a similar rendition from a table of gay guys in Dutch! Surely a birthday celebration Paul will never forget.
Christmas day was great, we had our Christmas tree, brought with us all the way from England, purchased in New York, look carefully at the photograph. We spent the morning chatting to an American couple, Jodie and Mike who had been doing aid work on the east coast....very brave in our estimation. A somewhat unconventional Christmas lunch of cheese and tomato toasted sandwiches, omelette, chips and coleslaw and an afternoon drinking coffee in the garden in the sun, over looking Ella Gap.
Jodie and Mike joined us for dinner, when we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the idea of roast beef. For the unsuspecting it should really carry a health/dental warning as it was chewy enough for Dunlop to be interested. The wine however was much better and was quaffed with ease and in quantity whilst being entertained by a band of wandering minstrels playing Sri Lankan classics like 'Mary's boy child' and 'El condor passa'. A memorable Christmas day for sure.
Boxing day started with a few minutes silence at 9.20 to remember the victims of the tsunami. A relaxed day saw us climb the local 'Little Adam's Peak', do some internet/email stuff, protracted lunch break of pineapple pancakes and yet more great food at our guesthouse for dinner
Vimale drove us back to Tangalle the following day, which included a minor diversion due to one of our frequent 'lost in translation' moments. What Chris thought she had asked was to stop somewhere so we could buy a plant. What Vimale understood was that we wanted to buy some bananas or plantains as they are sometimes called. An understandable mix up and we enjoyed the visit to the green grocers. Later that evening we went to the opening of Sudath's (Blue Horizon owner) new guesthouse "Sanka" named after his son who died in the tsunami. Loucka, our friend from Czech Republic, popped up in Tangalle the next day and we spent a pleasant evening together at Kingfisher guesthouse putting the world to rights.
Christine's birthday celebrations at the end of Jan actually started a few days early when we visited Galle, partway between Tangalle and Colombo, to see watch elephant polo. There we were walking down the street when who should we bump into yet again but Loucka, such a small world. Geoffrey Dobbs, who founded Adopt Sri Lanka, is team captain of Taprabane Tuskers, one of the teams taking part in the event. Teams from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Hong Kong, England and Scotland took part in tournament. Takes a bit of time to get into the rules, etc, but once there it's all quite straight forward, except when then rules seem to be changed to suit whoever is flavour of the day
! Anyway we had two nice days, met up with some ASL volunteers who we had worked with and had just returned to Sri Lanka stayed at a decent hotel called Lady Hill before heading back through Tangalle to Yala Safari Park. Eventually Vimale's van turned off the road and waited at the barrier to enter Yala Safari Village. The gate man came out to greet us with cool wet face flannels, which was just what the doctor ordered. A few minutes later, after a rough track ride, we arrived at the village proper. A magical place set in the jungle that runs right down to the sea. We booked in and were escorted to our cabana (luxury wooden chalet) and advised not to venture out after dark without first checking that there were no dangerous animals prowling about. They certainly get your attention when they say something like that. A bit different to "breakfast will be between this and that and don't be late or else!" We decided that we should make the most of our time at Yala, so a safari was booked for the following day at 6.30am. Of course the big attraction for Chris was to see elephant and they were very obliging, as you will see from the photographs. The next day, Chris' birthday saw us going off on a nature walk. Now if some one suggested a "nature walk" what would you expect? Well, Chris thought it would be an amble around the grounds of the hotel, looking at bird life. Oh no, this was a walk out into the wilds, scrambling up over rocks, jumping crevasses (we're not joking, even if they were only 12' deep, they were too wide to step across), negotiating crevasses by edging across tree roots on the look out for elephant and sloath bear! Great fun and we are happy to report we survived. A second safari followed, offering further adventure when our land rover crashed into the back of another one, minor bruising for us but the land rover was going nowhere, so we hitched a lift with another couple. More elephants rounded off the day, followed by birthday cake at dinner and a good choice of wine
. Going back to our room that night Chris thought it was a great joke and part of her birthday surprise that we had to be escorted back to our cabana that was until she heard the elephant!
What a fab location Yala Safari Village is, eco friendly luxury, hot showers, air-conditioning, good food, swimming pool, TV and wildlife on your doorstep. We'd thoroughly recommend it and it's inexpensive by European standards.
Our trusty van driver, Vimale had left us at Yala and we were to be picked up by Albert Badage our friendly builder from Matara, on route from one of his building sites just up the road at Kirinda. Albert and the family had invited us for a final bit of Sri Lankan hospitality on route to the airport; you can read more in our final blog from Sri Lanka, following shortly.