I’ve been trying to put my finger on Sri Lanka and I’m having a difficult time doing it. The island nation has little in common with it’s large neighbor India to the north and they speak different languages. The people were very nice but they were also kind of distant. They were definitely island people but not like the islanders in the Pacific or West Indies. I guess I’d call them “old world” islanders. There was almost an Africa vibe to the place if that makes sense.
We flew from Mumbai to Sri Lanka and exiting the plane the humidity was immediately noticeable. This was a tropical climate and suddenly I felt a little over dressed. We made our way through to passport control and the people were very nice. We were greeted by a large sign proclaiming that the possession of any illegal drugs would be punished with death. Yes, death! They were very serious about this and we later learned that many people were put to death each year for drug offenses. Yikes!
When we got to our car we realized we had left the little bag containing the sari Christy had worn during her dunk in the Ganges so she had to wind her way back through security to retrieve it. Thankfully it was sitting right where we left it. Our lodgings were on the South Coast of Sri Lanka which was a two hour drive and we settled in for the long trip.
We were staying in a beautiful old Dutch Army Building that had been converted into a hotel. It featured high ceilings and tall windows, since we had a corner room the light was spectacular. I found it uplifting, bright and cheerful, perfect for writing and journaling. The beautiful setting even inspired me to get out my watercolors to do a bit of painting in my art journal.
Sri Lanka was colonized first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. It regained it’s independence in 1948 and became the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972.The spiritual tradition of Sri Lanka is primarily Buddhism and we found a mix of Theravadan and Mahayana traditions. There were also a number of Hindu temples. We visited the oldest Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka which dated from about the 12th century.
The shrine was formed by a set of massive boulders that created an almost grotto like enclosure. It contained a beautiful reclining buddha in the parinirvana position which is the position the Buddha was said to have died in, laying on his right side, head propped up on his right hand. We had asked one of the monks at the shrine to give us a blessing and it was very nice but a little odd since it used a string in an interesting way. Christy had been doing some reading about the spiritual culture of Sri Lanka and had learned that there was a strong branch of local folk magic woven into their practices and we believed the way the string was used was part of that.
We also visited the homes and gardens of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and his brother which was very interesting. Since our hotel was in the old Dutch fort we spent time walking around the large area. We walked all the way down to the sea and wandered through some old buildings that had been converted into shops. I did a little architectural photography and some people photography, I didn’t take any beach images because I didn’t find it to be that interesting. Spaces, shadows, light and people, are what I enjoy photographing.
Mumbai was a big congested city, and I mean big. The population hovers around 21 to 25 million people. The city sat on a peninsula like San Francisco and was surrounded by the Arabian Sea. I have a deep relationship with the ocean and I was excited to be in a coastal city. Traveling through the Mumbai, there was no shortage of signs of the former British colonial presence and I spied a number of gorgeous neo-Gothic buildings.
From our hotel, we had an ocean view that overlooked the Gateway of India Arch. Looking out the window at the small bay in front of the arch, I could see small tour boats moored on one side and small fishing boats on the other. The sunset was beautiful. We decided on dinner in the hotel at the modern Indian restaurant, We were seated next to the gentleman who was hand rolling, tossing and cooking roomali roti, known as handkerchief roti in english. They looked absolutely delicious.
We walked around a few places in Mumbai, one being an outdoor hand wash laundry and another being the lunch box people. While we were driving I saw a weathered wooden fishing boat up on the sidewalk next to a group of what looked like lean-to’s and shanties. This looked interesting and we stopped. It was a small busy community of fisherman. Judging by the looks of things it was low tide as men were being attentive to their nets and children walked about looking for ways to send their homemade kites high into the air.
I found Mumbai to be a very vibrant city and appreciated having a chance to see and visit the smaller communities and businesses that contributed their energy to the life of the city. No trip to Mumbai would be complete without discussing “Slum Dog Millionaire”, and our chat about the slums was pretty interesting. I can tell you that all the shanties have power and satellite dishes. Also due to their hard work and population density, the people that live in the slums make up an important part of the cities economy.
Udaipur lies in the southern region of Rajasthan, or as our friend Rohit says, it is Heaven. Having spend a few days there I can’t disagree. In addition to being Rohit’s hometown, Udaipur is a resort destination for both domestic and international travelers. It’s appeal was immediately clear.
When we arrived, we could see just how lovely the city was with it’s many lakes, rolling green hills and beautiful architecture. Also the air was fresh and the sky was blue. Across the lake from our hotel we could see the City Palace spilling down the side of a hill like a giant layer cake until it stopped at the waterline.
Visiting the City Palace was fun and it similar to many other Indian palaces we had visited except for the view which was really spectacular. I also really loved the shadows and light playing off all the lovely marble used in it’s construction. Windows of colored glass and mirrors showed off the shapes of the rooms and the columns.
Jumping on a boat it was really a pleasure to be out on the lake, tour around and watch the sunset. A few films had been shot at locations around the lake here and I remembered seeing the scenes. Rohit had us over for dinner at his house and we enjoyed an amazing home cooked meal as well as meeting and spending time with his family. I especially had fun sharing calligraphy with his niece. She showed me her notebook and pen and I showed her mine, inky fingers unite!
Our most profound experience In Udaipur however was spiritual. For me it was somewhat unexpected since I consider myself very grounded spiritually. This was something new and I think it something to do with the cumulative effect of spending so much time in India and being in so many powerful spiritual places. I’ll be telling that story soon.
We had been having good luck. With the exception of our first day at Bandhavgarh, we had great tiger sightings every day. Curiously, all the tigers we had seen were female. A male tiger sighting was conspicuously missing. Thankfully that was remedied in the fading light of the last hour of our last day.
He was a large 8 year old male and he was quite the character. We noticed he had an injury on the front of his left shoulder.
We followed him for for an entire hour and he was so much fun to watch.
He had a long name and number so we started calling him Sher Khan after the tiger character in “The Jungle Book.” Truly he was the king of the Jungle.
There was a tiger who roamed the hill top and she was a ghost. Our naturalist Partha told us that this was the tallest hill in Kanha. He said that from time to time there were paw prints that would be seen on the roads and paths that crisscross the area, the hill was rather remote, and the roads were rarely used. This tiger was talked about among the rangers and naturalists but all that was known was that she was a solitary female.
We had been driving and tracking all morning and the day was warming up. The ranger traveling with us suggested going to the top of the hill not so much in hopes of spotting a tiger but precisely because it was remote, peaceful, had great views and maybe if we were lucky we would see something. The road was windy and steep and none of us were thinking we’d see any tigers. We were thinking about lunch and bush breaks.
We stopped for a moment and there was absolute quiet and stillness. Suddenly the ranger pointed “tiger!” and there she was, maybe 20 yards ahead. Christy and I reached for our cameras and watched as she lay down in some tall grass and began to roll around. She was about four years old and very beautiful. We followed her for a few minutes while she patrolled and marked a tree or two before retreating into the jungle.
The ranger knew the area well and speculated that she was headed to a water source further down the hill so we followed the road for a while and turned right at a fork. Continuing downhill we met a busload of local children being taken for a tour of the park, the were adorable in their smiling faces and matching hats.
Continuing to track, the ranger knew exactly where to stop. there was a small break in the foliage and he said this was where she would come out. A few minutes later she did.
We had a little more time with her before she again went into the jungle. I asked Partha what her name was and he told us she was very shy, rarely seen and didn’t have a name. Apparently in Kanha many of the big cats had numbers instead of names. We decided to give her a name and looking at her markings I suggested Luna for the moon shapes on the top of her head. The Hindi word for Luna or moon was Chandra, we all agreed this was a good name. From that time forward she became Chandra.