Don’t rain on my elephant parade

Full moons have special significance to Buddhists because the most important events in Buddha’s life and early Buddhism occurred during full moons. In majority-Buddhist Sri Lanka, every day with a full moon is a national holiday and celebrated with prayers and festivals of varying importance. The largest full moon festival in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo is Navam Perahera, held annually in February. The highlight is a parade of dancers from different parts of the country and about 50 colorfully decorated elephants. We were lucky to be Colombo on the special day and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch it.

Getting ready for the parade. Is that elephant smoking a giant cigar?

We had spent the day exploring Colombo on foot (more on that later) and were very glad that the parade was to start after dark (at 7pm) because spending even more time under the blistering sun probably would have done us in. Because the streets around the parade close down as the appointed time approaches, we had to arrive about 6:00, get in position and wait for the fun to start. And wait. 7:00 came and passed. Somehow after the sun went down, the humidity went up, so our nighttime respite from the heat never arrived. We sat dripping with sweat, watching the crowd, until the parade started at about 8:15. After a troop of acrobatic dancers and a elephant in a glittering robe passed by, we felt a few sprinkles of rain — finally some relief from the heat! People around us grumbled and scrambled for umbrellas but we were enjoying it and wouldn’t let a little rain interfere with the exotic scene in front of us. Famous last words. The rain increased in intensity until it was like literally pouring down like buckets. The dancers and elephants retreated and the parade ground to a halt before it really got started. Here’s a video to give you a taste of the rain.

We know that tropical showers pass quickly, so we sat patiently and waited. And waited. At some point it became so ridiculous how wet were that we had to laugh. And laugh, and wait, and soak. The downpour kept up for almost an hour. Finally it tapered and the parade resumed, with more gusto than before because they were behind schedule. Dozens of troops of dancers in different sparkling ethnic dress, most performing with props of various kinds: deafening bull whips, spinning plates on tall poles, stilts, musical instruments, hoops, you name it. Between groups of performers, an elephant would come by with its handlers (and pooper scooper). Most of the elephants were covered in ornately sequined costumes, their eyes peeking out through cut-out holes, looking like they were heading to a Venetian masquerade ball. A few of the elephants seemed to have a role of special honor, decked out in electric lights and carrying what were possibly holy relics (it would have been nice to have a play-by-play announcer telling us what was really going on). Around 11pm it became clear that the parade wasn’t going to end any time soon, so we left, still soaked to the core.

A few more videos from the parade:

Colombo is a surprisingly easy city to get around in, by foot or in the ubiquitous 3-wheeled taxis called tuk-tuks. The roads and sidewalks were well maintained and drivers kept to their lanes and followed familiar rules of the road. If it weren’t for two factors, we would have found it a joy to explore: 1) the heat was unrelenting and 2) an endless parade of people (no elephants) wanting to give us a city tour. We couldn’t walk a block without someone approaching us. About half the time, the approach would be a friendly “welcome, where are you from” which would always end eventually with the man (always a man) pulling out a city tour brochure from his back pocket. Laurel eventually came up with a brush-off that worked better than the “no thank you” we had been trying: “we did the tour yesterday.” The most sophisticated tout chatted us up for a couple blocks without letting on about his motives. He told us about his time in Colorado going to school, joked about how white we were, subtly informed us about a chance to see the parade elephants getting dressed. But eventually we became suspicious (and very hot) and begged off to take an air conditioned break in a tea shop. It was only as we tried to pry ourselves away that his motives finally became clear. The faux-friendliness left a bad taste in our mouths and made us appreciate the tuk-tuk drivers who pulled-up and just asked us straight-up if we wanted a tour.

Hopeful tour guide noting Brian’s Seattle pallor

Sri Lanka is developing fast, apparent both statistically and visually. The tuk-tuks idle along with Mercedes and BMWs in the traffic jams. A whole new downtown is currently under construction just south of the old colonial downtown. The project is massive, with dozens of partially-built highrises and another huge area of new landfill that is being prepped for more. The details of the financing are a bit murky but China is heavily involved. Sri Lanka does seem to have a lot going for it, but it isn’t clear whether this “if you build it they will come” strategy will transform Colombo into the next Singapore or leave them with a ghost town and a mountain of debt. We have visited more than one developing country lately that has had to surrender valuable assets to China such as fishing rights to settle debts from ill-advised “development” loans.

A few miles from the new Financial City, Colombo’s Lotus Tower is now South Asia’s tallest self-supported structure (1,150ft) and lights up at night.

Laid back Sri Lanka

Most of the news you hear in the US about Sri Lanka isn’t good (if you hear any news at all). There was the horrible civil war that raged for decades and introduced the world to the explosive-vested suicide bomber. The country was hit hard by the 2004 Christmas tsunami, killing tens of thousands of people, more than anywhere except Indonesia. You may have heard earlier this year about a sort-of-coup that led to the prime minister being illegally removed from office by the president.

But on the ground in Sri Lanka, it is hard not to see the country as a success story with a bright future ahead. The civil war ended in 2009 and the country seems determined to put it in the past. The “losing” ethnic group now votes predominantly for the victorious general’s political party. No signs of the tsunami devastation remain. The supreme court reinstated the prime minister and the politicians grudgingly made up. It is still a poor country but the economy is growing fast, malaria was eradicated in 2016 and there is universal free healthcare. We saw almost no begging, homelessness or glaring disparities in wealth, a big difference from Seattle. The cities are tidy and the countryside lush. Overall, the vibe in the country is one of friendliness and optimism.

We started our trip to Sri Lanka in its second largest city, Galle (which we found hard to remember is pronounced “Gaul”). Galle is divided into two parts: the Fort and New Town. The Fort is a 400 year old walled city built by the Portuguese as an important European trading post for spices and other Asian goods. While the Portuguese left long ago, the Fort today is again occupied by Europeans but now they are tourists. We walked every cobblestone street in the Fort and the well-preserved colonial buildings were all filled with trendy boutiques, boutique hotels and restaurants. We were excited that the shopkeepers were so unexcited by our presence that we could browse unmolested. We were a bit torn about what to make of it. On one hand, it was very pleasant and picturesque (the giant stone walls of the fort have a beautiful ocean view) but we also couldn’t help thinking that it was missing the essence of the country by being such a Disneyfied tourist trap. But as we explored more of the country, we did learn that the tidiness and calm of the Fort was in character for Sri Lanka, though perhaps the Fort was the most extreme example of that unextremity.

The New Town of Galle is only “new” compared to the Fort and didn’t have the glistening skyscrapers we would see later in the capital Colombo. It was a real working smallish city that was just as easygoing and approachable as the Fort but clearly did not expect to have any stray tourists wandering about. No souvenir shops or fancy boutiques were visible among the busy storefronts. But they had something for sale that is the stuff of our dreams: piles of fresh mangosteens, our favorite fruit in the world, for about 10 cents each. In the rare times you can find a mangosteen in the US they cost at least 20 times as much and are usually rotten inside. Brian got a good workout lugging around 12 pounds of mangosteens while we finished our sightseeing.

Outside of town, we took a tour of a tea plantation. Sri Lanka shares the title of largest tea exporting country with China and Kenya(!). The tea is still harvested by hand and processed by giant iron machinery, much of it looks to be left over from British colonial times. The process of making tea is surprising complicated: plucking, withering, disruption, oxidation, fixation, sweltering, rolling, drying, curing, and sorting. When you drink a cup of tea, it isn’t just some shriveled up leaves.

A longer excursion into the countryside was a trip to the city of Kandy in the central highlands of the country. It is a traditional tea growing region and we flew over beautiful terraced fields on the seaplane we took there. The main attraction of Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth. The temple is a large complex built to house the left upper canine tooth of Buddha, one of the (too) many little bits of him that are said to have survived his funeral pyre and are housed and venerated in temples around the world. The tooth is kept in seven nested golden caskets which are housed in an ornate wood and ivory shrine inside a large temple. We were told by our guide that the temple is a popular destination for pilgrims, especially so because the tooth is sometimes taken out for public viewing while most of the other relics around the world are encased permanently in sealed structures called stupas. As we stood by the shrine being circled by worshipers from around the world, we asked our guide when was the tooth last displayed, hoping that maybe we’d get lucky. About 20 years ago.

Instead of flying back from Kandy, we took a train. Trains are always an interesting way to see an area from behind the scenes. We passed through amber fields of rice, watched several back lot volleyball games (the national sport) and peering into people’s back yards while they were doing their laundry. We did pass through some shanty towns built along the tracks but they were pretty nice as shanties go, with concrete walls and satellite dishes.

Our last countryside excursion was to Brief Garden. It was the estate of Bevis Bawa, a mid-century architect who, along with his brother Geoffrey, created the “tropical modern” school of architecture and landscape design. Bevis died without an heir and left his estate to his gardeners who now run it as a public park/museum. The official web site for the estate says that during his lifetime Bevis had to fend “off the unwanted attentions of Colombo society who saw him as one of the most eligible bachelors around.” The numerous statues and paintings of nude men around the house make it clear why he remained a “confirmed bachelor.”

The house and grounds are beautiful but unremarkable today because of the success of the Bawa brothers’ architectural movement. We’ve seen many similar places in Hawaii and around the world. But we can appreciate how amazing it is that a 90 year old house and garden still looks “modern”, not unlike seeing a Frank Lloyd Wright creation. We had some fun wildlife spotting on the trip: a troop of shy monkeys and many flamboyant birds in the garden, and a 5 foot monitor lizard strolling down the driveway as we left. We also saw one close-up basking in the sun outside the restaurant where we stopped for lunch.

This post is getting pretty long, Colombo will be saved for another day.

Mini-Manhattan in the Maldives

If you come across one of those Tropical Island Paradises calendars at a mall kiosk, the chances are good that the cover photo is a tiny green island surrounded by a ring of white sand and impossibly blue water. And that island will be in the country of the Maldives, a string of atolls between the Seychelles and India.

An island in Baa Atoll, tantalizingly out of reach for us because high winds prevented us from visiting it.

That is why we’ve been eager to come to the Maldives and experience some of that trademarked Tropical Island Paradise but our first stop in the country was the capital Malé, which proved to be an unexpected highlight. Its unexpectedness was the highlight. The Maldives economy is tourism-based but they have not encouraged tourism in Malé where about a third of the population lives, instead directing it to isolated high-end resorts on remote islands. The taxes, leases and salaries that these resorts pay flow mostly back to Malé, which has grown into a surprising metropolis of highrises and swarming motorcycles on a tiny island with about the same population density as Manhattan (albeit with only 110,000 inhabitants).

Malé island, that’s the whole thing, packed coast to coast

It was unlike anything we had seen before. Though the island is a very walkable mile square, everyone buzzes around on motorcycles which meet at uncontrolled intersections but somehow the streams of cycles pass through each other without a honk or traffic jam (video). The shops were well stocked with everything a modern city dweller could need and absolutely nothing geared to tourists. Some fellow travelers we talked to were disappointed that there “wasn’t anything to see or do” but that contributed to its unexpected allure to us. We enjoyed being the only obvious outsiders on the street but encountered no frowns or touts. We just walked around and soaked in life in a place that was at once both completely different and completely familiar. One of those familiar/unfamiliar sights in the city (which is short on both land and fresh water) was a small park where the grass and most of the trees were plastic and festooned with lights, now apparently in disrepair. Even the birds in the trees were artificial. It was a whimsical, colorful and absurd respite among the densely packed buildings.

AstroTurf and giant plastic birds of prey fill this city oasis

The Maldives is a Muslim country and until recently practiced a very relaxed form of the religion that didn’t emphasize public displays of piety such as headscarves and frequent prayers. But in the past decade, a more conservative vibe has grown in Malé, apparently as a tool by one of the local political parties and with the usual money and encouragement from Saudi Arabia. Now headscarves are almost universal on the street and every shop closes for 20 minutes during the calls to prayer. But this piety appears to be at least partly superficial. For example, we were wandering in a large shop when prayer time came. The staff apparently didn’t know we were there and turned off the lights, locked the doors and retreated into a back room. When we peeked in on them, they weren’t on their mats praying but instead sharing YouTube videos on their phones. We were able to escape the shop and noticed similar scenes when we peered into the darkened windows of other “closed” shops. The more liberal political party has recently returned to power so perhaps the pendulum will swing back.

So we had a good time in Malé but one day was enough. Now we wanted to see those calendar-cover islands and the colorful life below the water. But the windy weather that has followed us through the Indian Ocean continued during our visit and kept us out of the water for the next two days. Finally on our last day in the country, off South Ari Atoll, we had the great snorkel we had been waiting for. The fish were plentiful, of many varieties, good sized and not scared of us. All of those are positive signs that they are well protected from overfishing.

Healthy fish, dying reef

We also had a chance to see the fish while eating lunch in the world’s first underwater restaurant, at a resort on the same island. You descend from a dock down an enclosed spiral staircase into a glass dome. Inside is seating for maybe 20 diners. Someone periodically feeds the fish from above which encourages a constant parade of colorful visitors and even some small sharks. It was an amazing experience despite merely OK food at an extravagant price.

Fish for lunch

On a more depressing note, the coral was mostly dead, probably from a combination of warming seas and runoff from the resort. The fish are having a good time now, living in the skeleton of the dead coral and eating the algae that is fertilized by the nutrient-rich runoff. But the party won’t last long. The reef is visibly breaking down, eventually leaving the fish and the islands exposed to the wrath of the open ocean. The highest point of land in the Maldives is only 6 feet, so the entire country may disappear beneath rising seas within a few generations.

Here are some additional videos:

And as always, plenty of other photos: