Land Cruising in Sri Lanka

The happy crew of TGS Tehani-li are now “seasoned” Sri Lankan travelers. We have spent two weeks in this very interesting country and have just returned from a whiz-bang four day tour of the hinterland where we explored tea plantations, climbed castles in the sky and watched baby elephants bathe in the nude. We hired a van and driver, “Sarath,” with Dave and Ann of Ferric Star.

They brought a friend along and for the princely sum of $6.60 each per day, we could go wherever we liked. Sarath spoke English after a fashion but more importantly he was one of the safest drivers I have come across. This is a big deal in a country with narrow, twisted one lane roads that carry four lanes of speeding traffic. Slowing down is not a recognized driving feature but the use of the old Egyptian brake pedal (the horn) is the norm.

Before we get into the trip adventure, I must relate the good news about our mattress. I know many of you have had trouble sleeping wondering if we could find somebody to help us get it cleaned as mentioned in our last update. Our savior appeared before us in the form of “Mike.” Sailors who have been to Sri Lanka before have mentioned Mike as one of the few reliable people you can trust here (true).

He owns a grocery store which caters to foreign yachties and carries hard to find items like Philly Cream Cheese (gotta have it for carrot cake). And it was through him that we were able to wash/dry/fix the mattress ($6.00), machine an aluminum exhaust elbow flange ($18.00), fix a leaking raw water pump ($3.00) and arrange our inland trip.

Mike’s brother, Lal, drives a tuk-tuk (three-wheeled taxi), speaks English as well and is entirely trustworthy. This is a RARE commodity here as there are MANY crooks and thugs that prey on travelers. Most of these unsavory types are part of the mafia.

The mafia here controls the tuk-tuk business. If you take a tuk-tuk into town to go to a store the driver will accompany you to the store and glaring at the proprietor demand a HUGE tip. This results in anything you buy at the store being double or triple the original price! Even if you just take the tuk-tuk to town and wander on your own your driver will follow you and pop into any store at which you happen to stop! We were lucky and used Lal almost exclusively and had no problems.

In fact, he was able to accompany us to the local veggie/fruit market and through his efforts we were able to purchase stuff at local, not tourist, prices. I have onne last story for the doubtful. Just before we arrived a German yacht ordered a refrigeration part from the capital, Colombo, through one of the thugs that hang out at Don Windsor company. The part cost $55. The thug/agent fee was $500!!!! Mike and Lal never screwed us and were always up front about all costs. We heartily recommend them to others.

Now onto the land cruising. Sri Lanka, as you must know if your eyes ever wander from the sports pages, is emerging from a 20 year long civil war between the minority Tamil Tigers (14%) and the majority Sinhalese (76%). Most of this has been fought in the north of the country, we are in the south. As of now it looks as if the conflict is winding down with a ceasefire having held one full year. However, most people we have talked to, all Sinhalese, don’t believe it is really over.

They point out that the Tamil Tigers, representing 14% of the population want 50% of the country. It doesn’t sound like a good deal. However, we hope they are wrong as SL is a beautiful country with some amazing sights. The tea plantations are justifiably world famous and we spent a day there roaming around and visiting a “tea factory.” We saw how it takes 24 hours to go from “plucking to tasting.

” The factory we visited was over 100 years old and was set up by the Scots. I bought a couple of kilos of their best stuff. By the way, never order coffee in Sri Lanka! One of our party kept doing that and it was awful – no surprise, this is TEA country! When in Rome do as the Romanians, I always say. The tea is wonderful. And the beer is pretty good too. We enjoyed enjoyed the taste of “Three Coins Lager” and especially their slogan on the bottle: “An Excellent Lubricant for Social Intercourse.” (!!)

Another day found us up north visiting one of the eight wonders of the world – Sigirya. This is one of the most magnificent places you have never heard of, sort of like Tikal in Guatemala. It is way up in the countryside and is an old palace constructed on top of the biggest rock you have ever seen. We really enjoyed Sigirya but were turned off by the entry fee: US$15 for foreigners and only 20 CENTS for locals. That is a difference of 72 times. I always hate it when developing countries think this is a good way to make money as the implications are distasteful.

I just hope that when the next Sri Lankan government official visits the US we can charge him $400 for a Big Mac. Anyway, back to our story, or rather, the story of the castle of Sigirya which was built 15 centuries ago by King Kassapa, and was world-renowned for very sophisticated hanging gardens and fountains. This Kassapa guy was one bad dude and likely the direct ancestor of the thugs mentioned above.

He was not in line for the throne so he killed his father, the king, and all his brothers, except one who fled but vowed to return one day with a big-assed army. Sounds like something of a fairy tale but it is apparently historical fact.

Kassapa, justifiably paranoid, had his castle in the sky built in seven years and it was completely impregnable. From there he ruled his kingdom in safety but after about 15 years his brother returned from India with his promised army. His ego having grown bigger than his rock castle, Kassapa decided to fight his brother on the plains below.

We were using a borrowed “Insight Guide to Sri Lanka” which informed us: “At the moment of battle King Kassapa’s elephant shied at an unseen swamp. His army fearing he was retreating fled leaving the hapless king surrounded by his enemies.” So far so good but the book goes on to state authoritatively, “Rather than be captured by his enemies King Kassapa beheaded himself with his sword.” He must have had one hell of a grip to do that. Well, I guess that’s where crappy editing gets you.

The last day of our tour took us to an elephant orphanage where they raise orphaned elephants, train them to work in the jungle and then sell them off. Good idea, really. We saw all the elephants during their morning bath in the river. Like most groups, the littlest ones were having the most fun lying on their backs in the water with their big round feet sticking up in the air. The older ones would stand to the side, a little more dignified and carefully watch the activity. Fine, cute, gotta go.

We made it back to the boat that night and everything was OK. We are busy now getting ready for the next leg of the trip: 600 miles to the Maldives. Our plan is to go straight from here to Addu Atoll, the southernmost island of the group, get fuel there and push on the last 300 miles to Chagos. The word “atoll,” by the way, comes from the language spoken in the Maldives as the whole country is made up of very low-lying coral atolls that are under threat of rising sea levels due to global warming. T

he Maldives are a conservative Muslim republic and the rules are: no foreign media (magazines, movies) to be brought on shore, no foreigners to be allowed on shore after dark and no locals allowed on foreign boats. Despite that crap, we hear that Addu at any rate is a friendly place only visited by yachts. So we will see what we will see.