Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Travel Diaries - Sri Lanka Day 3

In a super smooth operation we checked out of the Jetwing Blue early by 7 am but not before confirming that the revelry of last night went on till 4 in the morning. Incredible stamina from the party. We also managed to meet Gauri and Suhita and pecked at some of the delicious breakfast spread. The efficient staff checked us out efficiently and in response to my query about transport for a couple of kms down the road, offered to get me an expensive taxi ride. My sharp and deep training after losing plenty of money to pride in my life kicked in, and I caught the eye of the doorman - the fellow understood me immediately. He fetched me a tuk tuk (which I was surprised to find later, was one of the big things about the Sri Lankan experience - it adorns key chains, magnets and all sorts of memorablia). I had enough experience in Hyderabadi autos so it did not impress me any more - I found they have no such thing as a meter and we generally hoped to reach some agreement over the price. To their credit they do not get rude or offensive like our chaps, they may charge a little this way or that but very politely. Two kilometers down the road we reached the hotel where Raja and company were staying, dumped the luggage in one room and got set to head to Dambulla and the famous Sigiriya Rock (pronounced like Seegeereeya or something lovely like that).
Lovely water bodies on either side at the entrance
The eight seater was spacious, superbly maintained, as all cars seemed to be in Sri Lanka, shining, smooth, no scratches - slick imported vehicles. This was a Honda if I was not mistaken and ran smoothly. The driver, a dignified man named Fernando, is someone you instantly respect. He looks like he has seen enough of the world and knows more than he reveals. We started off on the four hour journey at nine on a sunny day.
A better view
It's a bit like Kerala in some parts with villages coming up seamlessly and Goa in some parts. The roads and the countryside are clean, not too many people around, an unhurried pace to life that reflects in traffic. No road rage, everyone waits patiently. No one is cutting corners, skipping lanes, cutting across, trying to get ahead (save a couple of buses). Fernando told me that all Sri Lankan cricketers live in Colombo and that cricket was their biggest game. We recalled some of the names and I asked if he was somehow related to Dilhara Fernando and he laughed. He told me Muralitharan was  from Kandy and Jayasuriya was from Matara near Galle.
4th century palace gardens at the Sigiriya Rock
After some distance I proposed to Fernando that we could perhaps halt for a break - tea etc. Fernando seemed to know every inch of the place and drove on after a nod, and after 20 minutes or so, we stopped at a nice roadside hotel. The staff was well dressed in the sarong and neatly pressed shirt and it was expensive by our Indian standards. Lots of jokes about the most expensive chai ever and stuff and we left. I was pretty impressed with the cheese and tomato omelette they indulged me with. But its well designed, well maintained and well worth it if you ask me. We passed Dambulla and sped towards Sigiriya. Rock of which all I heard was that it was a big rock with a big climb. I made up my mind to give up as soon as I could.
Sigiriya Rock - We have to climb this
As with most things so large, we do not see the Sigiriya Rock until it's right in front of us. Dense forest cover hides it from plain view. Fernando came and led us to the place where we buy tickets. We came to terms that we were foreigners despite looking a lot like them especially when we had to shell out a price of 1000 INR as entry fee. What? After we're used to paying 10 rupees or 20 rupees here for our sights this was a shocker. But what gives us comfort is that SAARC countries pay 1000 INR while others pay 2000 INR. Whoa! This was the first time we realised that the SAARC business was actually doing something.
On top of Sigiriya Rock - an hour or so after we began the climb
Fernando saw us in, told us how to get to the parking lot, and made off. Raja, Anu, Pooja, Prarthana, Vaseem, Shobha, Anjali and I were now left to ourselves to handle this huge imposing rock standing like a big petrified mushroom. It's green all over in the walkway and we quickly found out that Sigiriya is Sinhagiri or Lion's Rock, that it was constructed in 400 BC or thereabouts by King Kashyap (who constructed it after seizing control over the kingdom by killing his father and from his step brother who was the rightful heir - he moved the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya). The gardens are beautiful, with well designed water bodies on either side and the closer we got to the rock the more I wondered how one gets to the top and what's there. Up above the rock is a palace, gardens and gardens - now the palace is not there though. I could see ant like people climbing up the rock. Hmm. Oh, the original heir came back says the myth and Kashyapa committed suicide after his troops abandoned him misreading a signal from his elephant that the King is retreating when he was not. Kashyapa they say killed himself and his brother reclaimed his kingdom and moved the capital back to Anuradhapura. Sigiriya then became the abode of Buddhist monks.
The highest point on the Rock - three small steps
The path is lined by the 4th century remains and its very tempting to walk on the foundations of the walls or constructions until we see gentle signs that tell us not to walk on them. Too bad - no walking on history. Some water bodies on either side, well maintained gardens and we were at the bottom of the rock. It was a Sunday and it was crowded.
The topmost part of the rock
Well, we started the climb and pretty soon, after the first flight realised it was steep. Frescoes like the one we see in Ajanta, and the mirror wall etc were passed by. The steps got steeper and we had no clue where it would lead and where it would end. A good half hour later we reached what looked like flat ground and we stopped there. Here is where the entry to the highest part was - entering through an entry like a lion squatting on its paws, its paws on either side of the entrance. It must have been massive. The climb here is almost vertical. Anjali decided to do it, I decided to go, Pooja and Vaseem and Anu. So we began the climb on one of the most crowded single file staircases hanging on to the side of a huge rock. A good half hour later we were at the top of the Sigiriya Rock.
We came from that path - there is a huge Buddha statue for reference somewhere in the back there
As with anything else Anjali kept up all through without a word and enjoyed the climb. We walked about and posed for a couple of pictures, saw the distance we had come from and how much we had climbed (200 metres). There were the remains of what would have been a beautiful palace, gardens, a fine water body. Anjali and I descended first and sat with Raja, Shobha, Prarthana waiting for the others to come down.
Now tired but posing since I insisted - another view
And another

I was thrilled to find that Duran Duran's 'Save a Prayer', one of my favorites, was completely shot in Sri Lanka and has a part which includes Sigiriya Rock. These guys did not just make music!
And another
Down the rock and to the parking lot late in the afternoon. We told Fernando to take us to some nice road side joints and not the posh ones and he quickly found one. It looked nice - one thali and buffet type of a place but there was some kind of a fight going on so we found another. Nice little local cuisine and then I stopped by to taste the orange coconuts. Sweet.
The way down - gusty winds blow hard, see those steps below to the plateau
The evening was descending and all hopes of going to the caves in Dambulla were abandoned. We settled to see a spices garden where they offered some impromptu massages and many oils and creams. Shobha picked up some Sri Lankan varieties of mangoes.
The massive lion's paws - see people crawling on steps above for scale
Then the long journey back. I told Fernando that we must try some road side chai en route and Fernando knew the exact place. We drank some tea - black and with no sugar - they gave us a small piece of jaggery that we bite into after drinking some tea. Lovely.
Another view of the same
Then there were these hot Pol rotis made of corn and some stuff with onion and chilly sambol and I found that very tasty indeed and beating all the stuff I had eaten in all the fancy restaurants earlier. Another thing I wanted to get my hands on but did not finally was this pot of curds that they sold all along the highway. 'You can eat curds with honey,' said Fernando and it looked like a capital idea but somehow that got away.
A meditation rock, a theatre...
Not small pots mind you, two litre perhaps and I can imagine how the curds would be inside. You'd have stalls selling those pots by the hundreds.
Pol roti, sambol, jaggery chai spot on roadside - superb
Anyway we landed up back in Negombo at eight O clock or later, found ourselves a room, in this place right next to the sea and settled down to a drink and some dinner. Funnily the restaurants shut off by 10 and we barely found one  restaurant open. A walk on the deserted beach at 11 and it was back to dreamland. Nice. Tomorrow is another day.

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