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Travellers Tales #1 – Poignant Memories of Sri Lanka

In the first of the Travellers Tales series, our Founder Ian Forrester recalls his experiences in the Jewel of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka is currently one of the most popular “new” holiday locations. Since the civil war ended in May 2009, there have been major changes in the economy and landscape. On my last visit a couple of years ago, the most significant difference I noticed while travelling around the country were the abundance of new roads and the upgrade of many of the existing ones. Building and development has taken place on a large scale and funds that were previously allocated to the military operations have been diverted to civic building and development programmes.

Sri Lanka is one of those countries where the difference between rural and urban communities is very noticeable. One of my tips for travellers staying in Colombo or other major cities who want to see the sites is just to hire a local taxi. These guys (and they are mainly guys) are incredibly helpful and will run you around all over the city, stopping where you want to (not just where the tourist excursions necessarily gave pit stops) and all this for only a few rupees.

I was sipping a Vodka and Tonic in downtown Colombo with a group of Rotarians and experienced a rather amazing sight (and no, it had nothing to do with the Vodka). We were chatting away in the evening and what I thought was a huge flock of birds flew over and darkened the sky. I pointed this out to my companions and they laughingly told me to take a closer look. They were in fact Flying Foxes! This was the first time I had ever seen them. In terms of numbers they compared with a previous experience I had in Austin, Texas where a number of the residents and tourists turn out at dusk in Spring and Summer, to watch 1.5 million bats emerge nightly from underneath the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. As you can imagine, it is quite the spectacle!

The convivial company and pleasant coolness of the evening led me to thinking about the last time I had been in Sri Lanka which was early January 2005, a week or so after the Tsunami. I had been doing business in the country for a number of years and contacted a business colleague immediately after the tsunami hit to find out how he, his family and his business were faring. He told me things  were desperate and knowing that I had previously been involved in aid and rescue work, he asked me if I would be prepared to go out and help. I remember breaking the news to my family on boxing day that there was every likelihood that I would be away for the New Year celebration period. Within a few days I was able to raise some funds and basic medical supplies and headed out with a friend of mine who was a trained nurse and councillor. This is not the time or place to describe in any detail what met us when we arrived but suffice to say it was traumatic and that’s an understatement! We helped set up field camps and nursing centres and I quickly became a stand-in paramedic under her supervision. We were able to provide food, comfort and some medical aid to the remaining walking-wounded.

The reason I mention this now is because of how impressed I was at the resilience of the people who we met. I remember in particular, one old lady who would sit every day on the bare plot on the sea-shore where her house used to be, just waiting for someone to come and help. Unfortunately I learned that she had been waiting quite a while and that it was highly unlikely that anything could, or would, be done for a considerable time.  However, here I saw faith kicking in big time. The country is 70% Buddhist and regardless of one’s own belief the acceptance of the situation and the humility of those I encountered was a stark reminder of the benefits of having a faith. I will also say that during the aftermath of the tsunami when a good number of the official and military sector seemed to be unable to come to terms with the situation and provide much real support, the monasteries we encountered had thrown open their doors and were feeding the people and providing most of the effective help and succour.

It was also a time when buying “holiday souvenirs” took on a whole new meaning and I came back with some bits and pieces that I bought mainly as a way of giving money without offending the dignity of those who had been left with virtually nothing. I was presented with a drawing by an 10 year old boy which hangs framed in my house. It is a picture of the sea with palm trees barely visible and heads and torsos of the kids he was with, protruding above the surface. I think one of the most harrowing stories I was told was about similar kids who were on the beach enjoying themselves because the 25th of December is also a Buddhist Holiday. The first wave hit and deposited hundreds of fish which were left flapping around on the beach and kids, being kids, ran to collect them. It was the second wave that took them and as you can probably understand, I am filled with sadness thinking of this tragic event.

So, understandably I have a special place in my heart for Sri Lanka and its people. I am happy to say that my last visit was able to dispel some of the sadness I had carried with me. I spent a week or so in a Jungle camp in Wasgamuwa National Park deep in the Matale and Polonnaruwa Districts. My own charity “The Forrester Foundation” has been supporting Project Orange Elephant which is part of the Human – Elephant Conflict programmes for a number of years and I was out there, amongst other reasons, to see the progress of the Communications & Community Centre we are helping to build. I spent some time with my good friend Ravi Corea, the president and founder of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society on field trips and a general fact-finding mission and talking to the local community. I remember being especially honoured when asked to perform the Milk Boiling Ceremony in a local hotel. That was much more relaxed than being chased by an angry bull- elephant which threatened to overturn our Landover after we encroached on its “personal space” in an effort to get documentary photographic evidence as part of the field surveys we were performing! However, even that was less intimidating than being asked to accompany a jazz singer in one of Colombo’s top night club venues in one of the leading hotels. I was spared from a crushing death by 5000 kg of pissed-off elephant and the Sri Lankan people were spared the dubious pleasure of an out-of-tune rendering of an Eleanora Fagan ( Billie Holiday to her friends) number!

Speaking about the SLWCS and the Human – Elephant Conflict reminds me that fairly recently, the daughter of an acquaintance of mine went on a Volunteering Holiday there in fact actually staying in the same Jungle Camp as I did. She had a fabulous time, along with a group of her peers from different countries, and a full report of her experience is available in their newsletter. This is certainly another way of seeing and getting to know the country and is something that the Go Active Tours team can help arrange if anyone is interested.

While I was in Colombo I discovered an interesting fact about mosquitoes; the bane of many travellers. As I have written in my Travel Tips, I am never ceased to be amazed as to the locations mosquitoes turn up in. Witness to this are the little blood spatters decorating many walls in the various rooms from Ukraine to Norway and India to Kazakhstan that I have occupied over the years. Now in Sri Lanka malaria is not the scourge, it is Dengue Fever that you have to be prepped for. I was told that mosquitoes carrying Dengue Fever only breed in fresh water but apparently this is a myth. The problem is more prominent in big cities and the interesting thing I learned is that to control the spread Malaria and Dengue there are regulations in the cities requiring ordinary citizens to get rid of rain water puddles and fresh water residues. Googling this I came across the following; “turn buckets and watering cans over and store them under shelter so that water cannot accumulate”.  Apparently even sea water can host the little blighters!

Anyway, getting back to my travel log, whether it was the tea plantations high in the hills (from my understanding, the higher the plantation the better the quality of the leaves), the golden beaches, the steaming jungle where the humidly is close to 100% and the people have the widest grins, or the carnival and kaleidoscope that is Kandy; Sri Lanka has evoked some of my saddest but also most pleasurable memories and I can’t wait to get back there.

Of course, before I end my sentimental journey, it is only fair that I talk about new friends as well as old ones. I am fortunate to have met, through an acquaintance, the guy that now organises our trips in Sri Lanka. Sasanka is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable tour guides and for those contemplating taking one of our tours, I could not recommend a better pair of hands. Whether it is culture or nature you seek or simply wanting to have one of the most enthralling and exhilarating travel experiences, then Sasanka is the guy you need to have looking after you. With his help, we have selected four special tours which provide a wide spectrum of activities and provide excellent value. Of course, as always with Go Active Tours, we can make a bespoke package just for you. I thoroughly recommend trying to choose a time when one of the many spectacular festivals are taking place which will, like the excellent cuisine, add extra spice to your travel experience! 

If you’d like to know more about our tours in this country, please visit our Sri Lanka page or get in touch with us:
Phone:+44 (0) 208 467 4321.