We recently returned to Qatar from my 30th birthday celebration in Sri Lanka. Around 45,000 people employed in Qatar are from Sri Lanka. The Gulf country is known for its precious pearls, while Sri Lanka is often referred to as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean.”
Sri Lanka is an island nation 19 miles off the southern coast of India, roughly the size of West Virginia. Of the more than 20 million people, about 1.3 million live in and around Colombo, the nation’s capital city. Outside Colombo’s busy business districts is a country packed with tropical rain forest, wildlife and national heritage. Sri Lanka’s beaches are popular venues for surfing. In the ocean, boats take tourists to see migrating blue whales. The enormous sea creatures reach lengths around 110 feet and weights of 200 tons.Transportation by bus or car between cities is readily available. But inner-city movements are quickly provided by taxi drivers in a “Tuk-Tuk,” three-wheelers used to transport locals, foreigners and a modest amount of freight. The tuk-tuk, used throughout Asia, is often the best way to get around, since the undersized roads are frequently congested.
Sri Lanka has been the center of the Buddhist religion and culture in southern Asia since ancient times. Today, most Sri Lankans continue to follow the Buddhism faith. Monks are often seen in their traditional religious attire. Buddhists are provided places for prayer throughout the country. Eating cows isn’t popular in the country, since it’s against the prevailing religious faith. Aside form stray cats and dogs, it was entertaining to watch cows walk around with no ownership. They walked carelessly up and down the roads and beaches. Many Sri Lankans eat beef, but the monks and nuns are mostly vegetarians. The religious figures never eat after noon, since they feel food prevents them from properly meditating and praying. Sri Lanka also contains people following Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.
Galle is a popular southern coastal city with a population of 110,000 people. In this area, fishermen are well known for the way the prop themselves up on a stick in shallow waters. On Dec. 6, 2004, a tsunami thrashed the south and eastern shores. On that day, shortly after midnight, an undersea earthquake erupted in the Indian Ocean. The rumble resulted in a series of enormous waves along the coasts of the Indian Ocean. More than 250,000 people lost their lives in the events that followed in various countries. In Sri Lanka, 31,229 deaths were reported and 4,093 were missing. Nearly 2,000 of the fatalities were the result of a train destroyed by the storm. Many children were orphaned and many families were separated – 1.5 million had to relocate. A great deal of the tsunami’s devastation can be discovered in Galle, where we stayed during our vacation.
February 7, 2008
After landing at the airport on Feb. 7, we spent the evening driving from Colombo down to coastal city of Galle, riding right along the beach. The drive to the resort was a little longer than the flight from Qatar – about five hours – but we did stop for a light meal and drinks along the way. The Sri Lankan driver was helpful and explained a lot about his country. He picked up his son along the way. We immediately saw some of the destruction of the Tsunami – as well as some of the rebuilding. We caught a quick glimpse of a large Buddha statue built by the Japanese, honoring those who died in the Asian tsunami.
The five-star Lighthouse Hotel, even in its darkness that night, was beautiful. It was obviously carefully designed by an artistic architect. Before heading to bed, we had a great dinner at the hotels restaurant, right along the beach. Wrapping up the long journey to Galle.
February 8, 2008
On Feb 8, we woke up with a great breakfast. The hotel prepared magnificent meals and offered either an indoor setting to watch the ocean, or an outdoor table to hear it as well. The buffet breakfast included several local cuisines. A Sri Lankan chef cooked eggs inside thin bread bowls.
Since it was a bit chilly, instead of swimming, we toured the city to snap some photos. There hotel had two large outdoor pools and beach access to the Indian Ocean. A spa, detached from the hotel, was located by the pool closest to the beach. They had options for massage, facials, manicures, pedicures – in an Asian ambiance. We noticed most of the people working at the spa, and in the hotel, weren’t wearing shoes. Most walkways around the hotel are made of polished stone, making it inviting to run barefoot.Later, we hooked up with another helpful Sri Lankan man, a Tuk-Tuk taxi driver, who helped explain the city. He took us around Galle and showed us Sri Lankan culture. We watched laborers producing handmade textiles, apparel, wood carvings, leather and jewels. We made a stop at the big Buddha statue built by the Japanese. It stood facing the ocean with its hand up in blessing, a gesture that looked like the figure was is telling the ocean, “no more, please!” The driver who drove us out of Colombo said the Tsunami contained two major waves, both came from the ocean at over 30 feet tall only minutes apart, pushing apart everything in their path. “There is nothing we can do to prevent things like this – they’ll happen regardless, he said.
We went to an old fort in Galle, jam packed with antiques. There were a lot of Dutch, Portuguese and English artifacts – really old stuff in great condition. The people of Sri Lanka recently celebrated their political independence from Britain on Feb. 4, 2008 – 50 years since the peaceful separation in 1958. On Aug. 31, 1978, thirty years after gaining independence, the government finalized a constitution. Since the 16th century, long before British gained control in 1815, the country was also colonized by Portugal and the Netherlands. The nation’s occupancy was a result of its strategic location along a path of major trading routes in the Indian Ocean; it bridged commercial and military travel between Southwest and Southeast Asia. In World War II, Sri Lanka was an important location for allied forces fighting against the Japanese empire.
In the evening we both had a massage and ate dinner at the hotel.
February 9, 2008On Feb. 9, we continued to explore the area. The local paper that morning had explained some of the seriousness in Sri Lanka. The front page headline declared the country as the third deadliest place for journalist – second to Iraq and then Somalia. It explained how Sri Lanka was fighting terrorists in the North. We had wanted to join a local wildlife safari but the parks were closed by the military and police due to the civil unrest. Just a week prior to our visit, a suicide bomber had detonated himself on a bus in Colombo. Military and police were seen at various check points – more in Colombo than Galle.
We went to a sea turtle farm where a Sri Lankan was hatching eggs found by fisherman. The man keeps them for about a week after they are born and then sets them free. He kept a few adult turtles that needed medicating for various reasons. One had lost a limb in sea and couldn’t catch enough food on its own. The Tsunami destroyed the popular sea turtle farmer’s operations. He said the powerful seas also claimed his wife and children. Charitable organizations helped him rebuild his farm. Today, he remains dedicated to preserving some of the world’s most endangered species, due to the donations. He willingly shares his photos of the Tsunami, offering a first-hand and morbid peak into the disaster.
A large monitor lizard was running alongside the road while we were cruising around in the Tuk-Tuk. According to the driver, they bring good luck to the homes they visit. People are hesitant to shove them off – many welcome them in the front door.
We visited places producing and selling traditional Sri Lankan crafts, ceremonial masks, wood carvings, papaya, banana and cinnamon fields – as well as a moon stone mine. European colonist established much of the countries prolific plantations, including tea, rubber, sugar, coffee, cinnamon and various spices. These remain major exports today, in addition to apparel, gems and jewelry. The nation exported an estimated $7.6 billion in 2007, however their import costs were around 11.5 billion. That deficit is largely financed by foreign assistance, commercial borrowing and the incomes of an enormous expatriate workforce.
As we entered a mine, we walked through a farm of papaya, banana, allspice and cinnamon. The cinnamon was interesting to see growing and cultivated. By crumbling a leaf, a strong aroma affirmed the plant species. The leaves are broken down to oils. The outer layer of the branches is used to produce the spice. An inner layer is used for cinnamon sticks and the core is burned as fire wood.
At the mine, several men were using an old well and bucket to pull up land. They sifted through the earth, searching for precious stones and hidden gems. Each raw stones is taken to a small house were a few gentleman and ladies work with shining wheels.They would fix the stones to sticks with wax and then grind them down with a buffering wheel. The end result was frequently a beautiful piece for the nearby showroom.We went to another wholesale stone dealer who owns three mines in Sri Lanka. We purchased two star sapphires from him at an unbeatable price – going straight to the source paid off. They’re the same colors as our birth stones and I plan on designing a setting for a jeweler in Qatar.
We also toured a shop making traditional wooden masks and accessories. A Sri Lankan women provided a tour that explained the ceremnial masks and their expressions. A lot of their work used hard ebony and mahogany woods. We picked up a few of their hand-made wood carvings: a tiny Tuk-Tuk taxi, motorcycle and two fishermen. A lot of time went into making some really nice stuff for reasonable prices.
We also snorkeled for a little while but the waves were too much. Aside from getting water into the snorkel, they kept stirring up the sand making it difficult to see.
February 10, 2008
On Feb. 10, we checked out of the hotel and headed back toward Colombo in the afternoon, to catch our return flight to Doha that evening. Unfortunately, never saw elephants, jaguars or monkeys. Kandy is a city located near the mountainous heart of Sri Lanka, with an estimated 150,000 residents. A nearby elephant orphanage is a popular visitor venue. People frequently travel from Kandy to the national parks, to observe populations of elephants, monkeys, leopards, jackals, mongooses, sloth bears, and numerous species of exotic birds. If we ever return to Sri Lanka, we’ll visit Kandy.