Saturday, December 29, 2012

Time with Family in Nuwera Eliya

We’ve had a lovely Christmas in Sri Lanka.  The time is spent having lunches and dinners at my mum’s as well as my cousins houses next door.   We have also been to our church carol service and I’ve had a chance to reconnect with friends in the Youth Fellowship I attended as a teenager.

We leave at 6 in the morning for our holiday in the hills.  There are 16 of us and we pile into 4 cars.  2012 12 27_30 Nuwera Eliya1

Each car has their share of breakfast sandwiches and rolls but we have also planned a few rest stop along the way.  My cousin Ramani has arranged for us to stay at a bungalow in Nuwera Eliya which is our destination.  The Hill Country is my favourite part of Sri Lanka.  The hills carpeted with tea plantations in various shades of green, JPEGS2

waterfalls that tumble down steep hills sides, the cool climate and fresh mountain air is invigorating and conducive to long walks and time spent curled up with a good book.  Hence this part of the world is a favourite destination with both locals and foreign visitors alike.

On the way we stop at Labukelle where Lalith, my cousin Nimali’s husband has arranged a visit to the Macwoods tea factory.  Many in the group have not visited a tea factory previously and it was interesting to see the complex process the leaves go through before they are bagged and ready for sale.

We arrive at our bungalow for a late lunch.  It is is nice spacious house with plenty of bed rooms, a game room, and rooms to read in or watch movies in.  We tuck in to lunch and settle in for an evening of catching up and lazing around.  Someone puts a DVD in…and we settle in for an evening of entertainment at home.   

After a late breakfast the next morning we visit the lake for a boat ride and lunch.  It is lovely sunny day but the air is still cool and fresh.  In the distance a light mist envelopes the mountain peaks. 


After lunch at the Governor’s Lodge we head back home.  We spend the evening watching slides from my travels and in discussions of issues that arise from that.

We spend the next day visiting a local strawberry farm.  It is on the road to Horton Plains and the scenery changes from tea plantations to more rugged countryside.  The mist envelopes the area and lends an eeriness to the drive.  We arrive at the farm and order hot coffees to ward off the chill.JPEGS4

The last part of the drive is down a rugged 4 wheel drive track.  We transfer to the back of a tractor and cling on as he takes off down the steep incline.  Somehow my mum has climbed into the tractor as well….and is enjoying this bit of adventure.  JPEGS6

We have a fun morning and head back to the Hill Club for lunch.  We had always 2012 12 29 Nuwera Eliya (55 of 126)holidayed here as kids and it was fun to show Steve around.  Today is Anil’s birthday and he is also taking us out for dinner.  We have eaten so much on this  Sri Lankan holiday but the food is delicious and hard to resist.  I guess there will be time for diets in the New Year!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

50 and Fabulous

One of the reasons I have come back to Sri Lanka is to celebrate my 50th year with my girl friends from high school.  It is now 32 years since we left school and except for my close friends who live in Sri Lanka, I haven’t seen many of my class 2012 12 22 Ladies College Reunion (1 of 93)mates for a very long time.  Many of us had attended Ladies right from our Kindergarten days through to Grade 12, when we did our A Levels and parted ways.  

The idea of us holding this reunion had been born on facebook over discussions that had taken place more than 2 years ago. The organising had been done by the girls at home with some encouragement and support from those of us overseas….mostly through posting comments and ideas on our facebook page.

50 an Fabulous…..Yes…I think we proved that to be true!

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The evening had been well planned and ran like clock work.  The event was being held at the Mt Lavinia Hotel and started with cocktails on the terrace overlooking the ocean. giving us about 2 hours to mingle and reconnect with each other. Ladies College Reunion Jpegs

We then moved in to the Maitland Room where we would enjoy the evening’s entertainment as well as dinner.  The girls have asked me to do a presentation about my year away.  I am slightly nervous but the technology does not fail me and based on the feedback I received, presentation on Connections, Challenges and Chasing a Dream was well received.  I wanted to share my journey but also to inspire my girl friends to live in the NOW, to go in search of their destiny and to set themselves a few goals for the next 25 years of their lives.  The next reunion will be the judge of how successful I was at that!

The girls who have come from overseas have brought their partners and a few of guys who are local have also braved the event…

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It’s now time to sing the school hymn and cut our birthday cake.  Chintha and Sanshi who have organised the cake, do the honours on our behalf. Ladies College Reunion Jpegs2

After that w play a few games.  The organising committee have put together a couple of games that are fun and interactive.  The first one tests our Sinhalese language ability and the second one our agility as the 50 and fabulous ladies dart about with balloons tied to their ankles trying to burst each others balloons.  Mihiri de Mel wins the honours in the balloon bursting competition!

We tuck in to some fabulous food before the dancing starts.  It has been an amazing evening of fun, laughter and camaraderie.  It will be a long time before all of these girls who have travelled from Europe, Australia, other parts of Asia and the US will be together again. Ladies College Reunion Jpegs3

And so we danced the night away, we crown Arundathie as the Baila Queen of the night, with Hilmy and Mhiri Wu giving her a good run for her money.

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It has been a wonderful night.  The time at Ladies College was a special time in our lives.  We made memories that have lasted a lifetime.  As we set goodbye we were all hoping it won’t be another 25 years before we do this again…

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“Let your heart be your guide.  It whispers, so listen carefully.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Chilling out in Trincomalee

We spend two days in Trinco, relaxing in our ocean view room, going for long walks on the beach and splurging at the buffet…laden once more with yummy food including a wide variety of deserts.

We decide to do  bit of sightseeing on Day 2 so after a late breakfast set off for the Koneswaran Temple, a Hindu temple of great significance in these parts.  Trinco JPEGS4

The rituals here are slightly different to what we had seen in the ancient capitals but the religious fervour the same.  More devotees give donations to the temple and smashing coconuts in the hope of having their requests will be met.

It is more than 30 years since I was last here.  We had come here during a school trip and I remembered visiting the hot springs.  We hadn’t brought our bathers with us back then but the temptation to bathe in these hot wells had been too much for us teenagers.  We decided to bathe fully clothed and went back in our bus completely dripping wet.

The place seemed different to what I remembered.  It was slightly more commercialised but still appeared to be a favourite local hangout.  We didn’t bathe this time but chatted to the men washing there and took lots of photos…

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We had a quiet night, packed and got ready for drive back to Colombo.  It had been a lovely trip and Steve thoroughly enjoyed his first introduction to the sub-continent.

Monday, December 17, 2012


We have been staying at the Amaya Lake Hotel during our visit to Polonnaruwa.  It is a beautiful hotel designed by an architect inspired by Geoffrey Bawa, one of Sri Lanka’s Trinco JPEGSforemost architects.  The principle behind each of these designs is to incorporate the natural features of the environment in to the design of the building.  One interesting feature I notice almost immediately is the lack of guttering on the roof.  The water is diverted to large pots which are pierced to allow the water to percolate in to the ground without causing erosion. 

We are here during the North-East monsoon and rain has followed us during our visit but not hindered it till now.  We leave our hotel early in the hope of climbing Sigiriya before 2012 12 18 Trinco (12 of 82)we head for Trincomalee but it seems the rain gods had other plans.  In fact, we are lucky to get away from the hotel.  Both roads out are under water, the waters from the adjacent storage tanks have exceeded its capacity is starting to spill, resulting in floods.  We stop at the causeway and Naufer our driver removes the air filter as a precaution before we proceed.  Any later and we would have been marooned at the Amaya Hotel for a few days.

This region of Sri Lanka is dotted with “tanks” built for irrigation by the various kings that ruled these parts.  The monsoonal rains were fickle and the rainfall during the rest of the year sparse.  Hence in order to cultivate the staple – rice and keep the population fed, the ancient kings constructed an intricate system of canals and reservoirs that were perhaps the greatest in the world at the time. Trinco JPEGS2As it wasn’t possible to climb Sigirya, we stop off to admire another beautifully designed hotel in Sigirya.  We relax here for awhile after getting a private tour of the place.  It would be an ideal place to chill for a few days…if we could afford it!Trinco JPEGS1We drive to Trinco realising that we would have to put off climbing Sigiriya for another time.  We reach Trinco in time for lunch and check in to Chaya Blue, a hotel located by the ocean.  We’ll be here for two days and It’s time to chill in our room with an ocean view…….Trinco JPEGS3

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Another Ancient Capital–Polonnaruwa

We spend the afternoon visiting Polonnaruwa, one of the highlights of the Cultural Triangle.  The City functioned as the capital from 10 AD – 12 AD and ruined temples, palaces, Buddha Statues as well as various tanks built for irrigation dot the landscape. 

Pollonaruwa JPEGSThere are a number of cultural practices that must be observed while taking in the sites.  Besides removing shoes and any headgear, one is also required to walk clockwise around any temple and not turn your back to the Budda Statue if possible.  I don’t think this practice is strictly observed as there seems to be a statue at the head of every staircase. Pollonaruwa JPEGS1

One of the highlights of a visit to Polonnaruwa is the visit to Gal Vihare.  There are 4 statues of the Buddha from various stages of his life.  The first statue represents the time he gave up his life of luxury as a Prince at 29, the second statue represents his enlightenment at age 35 after 6 years of life as an ascetic.  The third statue is one of the Buddha standing and is very impressive.  It represents his selfless love for the people and the period he spent teaching the doctrines of Buddhism.  The fourth statue is that of a reclining Buddha and represents his death. Pollonaruwa JPEGS2

We have learnt lots in this city of incredible architecture, religious fervour and tradition.  Here’s one example - the moonstone at the entrance to most religious temples. This photograph was taken at the quadrangle in Pollonaruwa, a place that reminded us of the DSC00200Roman Forum. 

Originally from India and carved in concentric half circles it’s purpose is to concentrate the mind of the worshipper when entering a temple.  The half circles represent the spiritual journey from the endless succession of death and re-birth to Nirvana. 

On the outside are the flames of desire. Next come the geese which represent discernment because of their ability to distinguish between milk and water followed by various Buddhist animals.  The elephant symbolising birth, the horse representing old age, the lion illness and the bull death and decay.  These are the endless cycles of death and re-birth and in the centre is a lotus flower that represents enlightenment.

Dambulla Cave Temple

The nondescript town of Dambulla is famous for its Cave Temples and is certainly a destination not to be missed on a trip to Sri Lanka.

There are 5 temples, dimly lit caves with golden statues that stare back at you from every angle.  The cave walls and roofs are covered by art, some of it rather faded but with enough detail to give us a sense of what this place must once have looked at.

Dambulla JPEGS

Steve tells me the grottos remind him of similar places of worship in Greece.  It is lightly raining when we get there but fortunately the rains cease for long enough to take photos outside.  The custom here is that you remove your shoes before you enter.  Thankfully, the rains have cooled the rock so walking bare foot is not an issue. I still keep my socks on for good measure.  Monkeys dart about everywhere looking for scraps of food and once again devotees dressed in white go through each cave asking for blessings.   


Once the devotees and travellers have gone home, these caves would be incredibly places for meditation.  These temples are considered the spiritual heart of Sri Lanka and are masterpieces of Sinhalese Buddhist art.  We take our fill of photos and leave as the monks move in for their daily ritual ceremony.

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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Avukana Ancient Rock Temple

We check out of the beautiful hotel Palm Garden Village we spent our first night.  It is set amongst a rambling garden of 50 acres with individual chalets spread a fare distance from the main Aukana JPEGSrestaurant and pool area.  Not ideal for an older person to navigate but ideal if you want some peace and quiet.

The pool is inviting but nobody is in it.  The standard fare at these places is an all you can eat buffet.  The  tables are laden with both western and eastern cuisine and a variety of colourful deserts smile temptingly back at me.  This is not good for that diet I had promised myself I would get on.  Perhaps in the New Year?  

We set off in the morning to visit the Avukana Ancient Rock Temple.  We drive through beautiful fields carpeted by the green rice paddy plants Aukana JPEGS1that have emerged.  Both men and women work in the fields, spraying fertilisers to ward  off the bugs.

It is a beautiful rural area that couldn’t be more different from the congestion and urbanisation of Colombo.  I wonder what it would be like to spend a few days in one of these rural villages…experiencing the relaxed pace of life here…

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The Avukana Statue is impressive and towers over the surrounding landscape.  Carved out of rock over 3 years it attracts visitors from around the island.  It is certainly not a site to be missed. 

Similar to the ancient temples we visited previously, devotees from around the island mostly dressed in white worship at the feet of this statue, laying flowers as a sign of their devotion.  Foreign tourist record the experience on cameras and IPhones.

We leave for lunch, excited by the prospect of our afternoon visit to another National Park.

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"One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple." Jack Kerouac

Kaudulla National Park

Kaudulla National Park located in the heart of the dry zone elephant country is one of the 2012 12 15 Kaudulla (1 of 30)best places for viewing elephants throughout the year.  It is quite unique in that almost two thirds of its area is under water for parts of the year. 

Located in the Polonnaruwa District it is an idyllic setting for many species but we were mainly here for the elephants.   A long road leads through dense forest to beautiful grasslands adjacent to the Kaudulla Tank.  On the way, our first siting is of a peacock atop a tree.  I had never seen peacocks on trees previously or seen them that was a first for all of us. 

The elephants didn’t disappoint either.  It was mating season and the males were quite frisky.  We were treated to 2012 12 15 Kaudulla (3 of 30)quite a display….and we watched, fascinated by their antics.   I don’t think I have seen this many elephants in one place even in Africa.  The elephant gathering could include up to 300 elephants….but due to the wet season they were a little more dispersed today.  It was still a breathtaking site…and one that would be worth coming back for.

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After watching the first herd for quite awhile, we found two more herds a little further away.  It was too boggy to get close but we came across a lone elephant that treated us to a wonderful display at a water hole.  The park was also full of beautiful birds..from bee eaters to painted stork.  All in all…a wonderful afternoon on safari in Sri Lanka and certainly a highlight that would be hard to beat. 

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"To dream anything that you want to dream; that is the beauty of the human mind.To do anything you want to do; that is the strength of the human will. To trust yourself to test your limits; that is the courage to succeed". Reverend B.B.Edmonds

Friday, December 14, 2012

Wilpattu National Park

We spend the afternoon at the Wilpattu National Park.  It is one of the larger National Parks on the Island but I had never visited previously because it had been closed for most of the duration of the war.  The roads are quiet and mostly deserted now and I find it hard to imagine this peaceful place rocked by bombs.

It is the stories of leopard and sloth bear rather than those of the Tigers that has brought us here.  I was excited and not disappointed.  Not long after we had driven in, we spot a leopard in the bushes.  Our hearts are racing as we see this majestic animal emerge from the bushes.  He walks toward us and I will him to come closer.  Naufer cautions against getting closer as my mum is in the front seat.  For a lady who has just turned 80, she is still game for most things and doesn’t scare easily for which I am grateful.

Unfortunately, our leopard is only game to come so far and vanishes into the bushes, only to emerge behind our vehicle.

JPEGS Wilpatu1

We reverse slowly watching him for ages before another vehicle approaches and scares 2012 12 14 Wilpattu (15 of 34)him back into the bushes.  Shortly afterwards, a larger leopard emerges from the dense jungle.  We watch him too but he is more elusive and doesn’t get close enough to engage with us.

We didn’t see the sloth bear but the jungle is teeming with beautiful bird life.  I am lucky to capture a few good photos.  We also see a sambar deer and spot many bee eaters, spotted deer, water birds and finally a star tortoise as we reluctantly head back to our hotel as the sun sets and the sky darkens almost immediately. 

JPEGS Wilpatu

“If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb

Anuradhapura – Ancient Capital

Steve and I arrive in Sri Lanka to spend Christmas and the New Year with my family and also to attend a long awaited reunion with my high school girl friends.  It is a busy time of year to be here and I am excited at the prospect of introducing Steve to the sub continent. 

My mum has organised a 6 day trip to the cultural triangle and we leave the day after we arrive.  She has organised a very comfortable van, and Naufer, the man who drove me around the last time I was here will be our chauffeur again.

Our first stop will be Anuradhapura, our ancient capital from the 4th Century BCE to 10 AD.  It is a city with many ancient temples and religious devotees clad in white intermingling with the Buddhist priest in their bright orange garb.  We happen to arrive on the day the President of Sri Lanka has come to visit, so the place is a hive of activity and men in army fatigues poke their face at us from behind every tree.

2012 12 14 Anuradhapura (46 of 64)Culturally, Sri Lanka is a very religious place…and religious  beliefs intermingled with superstitious practice seems to dictate how life is lived.  It is very much a society that conforms to the practices that have been handed down for generations with little questioning or curiosity of discovering other belief systems…or exploring new ideas.

During our drive we come across a water buffalo who has just given birth to a baby.  We watch in fascination as the little guy struggles to his feet, part of the placenta still attached and takes his first faltering steps.  It reminds me, how close to the natural world rural life is. 2012 12 14 Anuradhapura










The little boy in the picture above has come to donate a coconut plant to the temple to fulfill a vow made by his mum when she came here to ask for a son.  Flowers are a 2012 12 14 Anuradhapura (54 of 64)common offering and the look of complete devotion and piety on the faces of the people above is not uncommon whether it be a Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim place of belief.

We also visit the Bodhi tree, grown from a sapling brought to Sri Lanka from India. Every temple complex has 4 main elements; a Bo Tree, the temple itself or Dagaba; statue of Buddha and the monks residence. 

We visited an amazing monastery, where humongous rice and curry bowls carved out of rock give us an idea of the hundreds of monks who once lived here.

This ancient city is steeped in history and I try to imagine the splendour of this capital and what life might have been like more than 2000 years ago. 

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“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”  Nelson Mandela

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mattias Klum

The last of our Opera House talks is by a Swedish photographer Mattias Klum.  Perhaps he is the most inspirational of all the speakers we have heard this year…although that is a hard call.  Mattias’ vision is to inform, educate and inspire people to act towards a mattias-klum-cv-picturesustainable tomorrow. 

As he begins to share his story his commitment to raising awareness about the fragility of our environment becomes obvious.

As I listen to these photographers talk I realise how incredibly talented and gifted a National Geographic photographer truly is.  Not only do they have amazingly good skills in photography, they are fantastic communicators and incredibly adventurous people who are willing to go places most people would rather avoid, and do the hard yards to bring to life the stories of endangered species. 

We hear how Mattias has scaled incredibly tall trees, walked through jungles in search of Asiatic Lions and had close encounters with some of the most poisonous snakes.  He has learnt the skills of communicating and connecting with nature to raise awareness and to be an ambassador for our planet.

Mattias works on some of his projects with his wife who is also accomplished in her own right.  They are raising two children as well and Mattias talks about the times he has taken his children on assignment with him.  His oldest learnt to walk in Antarctica and his second child learnt to walk in Panama.  We are amazed there are people out there who appear to have it all.

Once again, their are many kids who bravely walk up to the microphone to quiz Mattias on what it takes to be a National Geographic photographer.  What I brought back with me was that to shine in a world drowning in digital images, one must learn to be authentic.  Mattias talks about the importance of discovering what it is you love to do….then working on perfecting that.  He explains that in the world he inhabits, there is no Photoshop…no retouching of images to make them appear to be something they are not.  He encourages all the budding photographers in the audience to find their own voice…to create something original, however difficult that might be.  I leave feeling pleased I am on my own journey of discovery….

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Glamping in the North Shore…

We have tried to organise a camping weekend all year and sadly been thwarted by the rain.  We were beginning to feel that Helen – who had mostly volunteered to organise the outing – was somehow loved by the rain gods.   So this time Em takes the lead…only to have the heat gods rule otherwise.  We have settled for spending the day at Em’s house…lounging in the pool rather than camping in the heat.  It is a chance for us to catch up with our neighbourhood dispersed in the wider North Shore area…as one by one the families move out to accommodate their growing needs.












It has been awhile since I had a weekend of doing completely nothing but relax, swim and eat.  We’ve all brought food to share…and spend a great day sharing and catching up on news..before the Christmas rush begins.



2012 12 01 Emma's House

A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel

We are back at the Opera House to hear Annie Griffith share her story.  I am especially inspired because she is one of the first female photographers employed by National Geographic.  She has travelled to more than 150 countries and worked on 6 continents.  I’ve only been to 50 myself but I one up on her when it comes to continents.…having photographed Antarctica myself :).  Interestingly the audience today is mostly female….with a generous sprinkling of kids of all ages. 

Annie is an incredibly gifted speaker and we listen enthralled by her story.  So many times I am often confronted by people who say – “of course you can live an adventurous life…you don’t have the responsibility of kids!”  It is refreshing for me to hear Annie’s story…and know there are many parents here today who are hearing that indeed you can have the life of your dreams…and still bring up kids.  Annie took her 2 kids around the world on assignment right up to the point they entered high school. 

They were exposed to an education most kids would kill for.  There are two stories she related that stand out for me.  The first is one about staying overnight in a ranch in the rural US.  She was awoken by the sounds of horses outside in the paddock.  She grabbed her camera and ran out to take some brilliant pictures in the imageearly morning light before becoming aware of a couple of cowboys leaning over the fence in in curiosity. She then realised she had run out in her T Shirt and forgotten to put on her trousers!!  She told us this story to highlight the fact there should be moments such as this in all of our lives….where we are so excited we forget to put on our pants.  I reflect on the routine lives of most city dwellers…caught up in a rat race that locks them up forever in a gilded cage and wonder….will they ever find themselves so excited they run outside without their pants…?

The last picture Annie shared with us was one of her son as a little boy snuggled into the robes of an Arab man.  She recalls how she got caught up in a dust storm while working on assignment in the Middle East.  She had run in a tent with her daughter but her son had crawled under the robes of this Arab men.  He continued to sleep there long  after the storm had ended and Annie had caught a delightful moment…the look of shear contentment and peace on the face of her son, while he slept within the folds of this man’s robes.  Annie then reminds us of the prejudice of the world we live in where this man would be branded a terrorist because of the way he looked and the clothes he wore despite being a wonderful and kind man.  She shares with us her experiences in this part of the world where her kids spent a great deal of their childhood, riding camels and playing local games.  She shares stories of her friends in places like Syria and her horror at what is happening in that part of the world now.  I am reminded of my own travels there and the hospitality I too had experienced wherever I went.  

At the end of her talk we have an opportunity to ask questions.  Many kids line up full of questions, slightly envious of the lives her children have led.  I wonder…is it stability and a traditional education that our kids crave….or excitement and adventure and time spent with mum and dad?  What is more valuable…calculus and quadratic equations…or life skills and an appreciation of our planet?  It is a valuable lesson of life on the road…and I leave convinced that the opportunities to live an extraordinary life is there for the taking…if only we have the courage to dream.