More Dahl Please!

Eating Dahl in Sri Lanka was an existential experience; the kind of discovery where you realize your whole life is a lie, that you’ve been eating garbage and nothing will ever compare.  It’s that moment in The Giver when the main character starts to see colour.  Ayuna’s wife picks the curry leaves fresh from her garden right before adding them to the pot, that must be the secret that takes her Dahl from simply excellent to undeniably extraordinary.


Despite taking a tramadol and downing ¾ of a bottle of red wine on our overnight flight, my memories of that first day are still pretty lucid, thanks in part to the slow crawl of traffic from Colombo to Kandy and our genius idea to take the airplane pillow for car naps.  My friend and I didn’t have much time in Sri Lanka for all there is to see there so we decided to throw money at the problem and hire a driver.  It wasn’t much money though and I am sure we got the best bang for our buck in this circumstance.  A friend referred me to Ayuna through her friend; my friend would be travelling with him directly after us.  Ayuna is a popular guide and driver amongst the Aussie crowd and is often booked up but he has a network of guides he can refer you to.  We told him what we wanted to do and he handled everything else including a homestay with his family and one of the best meals of my life.

A Mahout sprays this bull with water to keep him cool at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Geographically, Kandy is not far from Colombo but because of the heavy traffic it took awhile to get to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which was the first stop on our tour.  I was a bit groggy from travelling and the aforementioned imbibing of substances so my main observation during this time was that is was HOT, like oppressively humid and when we were watching the elephants in the field there wasn’t much shade.  Nothing makes you feel like a trash bag full of rotting fruit quite like sweating out red wine and opioids after 5 hours on a plane and 1 hour of sleep in the back of a car; but there we were, and we had to make the best of it.  Fortunately, watching elephants stomp down the cobbled hill, past shops selling elephant poo paper, for a frolic in the river with the mahouts (elephant handler) was an excellent distraction.  Down by the river it was cooler, there was a languid breeze to uplift my wine soaked spirit.


The elephants completely take over the town on their twice daily excursion to the river.  They playfully eye the tourists, flopping their trunks around at you, as if to say, “Hey you, lady, let’s chat!” I sat on the edge of the river while a playful Mama elephant flip flopped her trunk and made eyes at me trying to get me to play with her.  She let me rub her trunk and she waved it back and forth as I laughed, she looked quite amused with the situation.  Elephants are such honest and beautiful animals, I’ve been fortunate to see them in the wild in Tanzania and Kenya as well as in the orphanage in Sri Lanka. From what I understand, African Elephants are much more wild and can be dangerous and aggressive to humans whereas Sri Lankan and Indian elephants are used to human contact and are more docile. I’ve never personally tested this theory but their similarity is their humanity; if you’ve ever looked into the eyes of an elephant, you’ll see their emotions and their intelligence, it’s quite startling the first time.  I was in a van in Tanzania when a family of elephants popped out of the bush, I could see them go through a range of emotions from being surprised, upset, and then afraid of the van; that image is forever etched in my memory.


Maybe you’ve heard the tales of animal cruelty and commercialism that many a travel blogger have condemned Pinnawala based on their feelings and opinions without a shred of actual research.  Obviously no one likes to see an animal in chains but there are circumstances where the chains are not only for human safety but that of the animals.  The elephants are rescued from abominable circumstances or are found orphaned, they are not a natural pack of elephants thus there are difficulties keeping all the elephants together, especially with aggressive males.  As to the commercialism of the conservation project, they have to make money to feed and care for the elephants and the easiest way to do that is through tourism.  I wholeheartedly object to zoos, I don’t see the point in having animals flown from other countries to sit in a box and have a bunch of people gawking at them, it doesn’t matter how you frame it.  I have been to animal sanctuaries that have the appearance of a zoo but the animals are local and have been orphaned or injured, or sick, and cannot care for themselves in the wild, this is an ethical way to see animals.  If you have questions regarding the treatment of the elephants at Pinnawala check out this article: the blogger gives a nice researched, balanced and reasonable view of what goes on at Pinnawala and why things are the way they are.


I recently finished reading Paul Theroux’s novels ‘The Great Railway Bazar’ and `Ghost Train to The Easter Star.’  In both novels he travels through Sri Lanka during a dismal period, the first time during a food crisis and the second while the country was on the verge of civil war.  Still he describes his train rides with such fondness that it makes me wish I had taken a trainride in Sri Lanka.  Meeting Ayuna and his family and his expert guidance made our short trip far richer than if we had gone it alone.  When you have limited time, it’s best to hire a guide and Ayuna is world class. We drove around Sri Lanka from Colombo to Kandy to Nuwara Eliya to Hikkaduwa in the back seat of his sedan, chatting occasionally and lazily while staring out at the lush hillsides, careening around the never-ending switchbacks, through tea plantations that convey a feeling of being transported to British Ceylon circa 1830.  Eric Weiner in The Geography of Genius describes this feeling while in Hangzhou “I could for a split second, feel that era.  The past is like that. It is absent and then suddenly not absent.  When this happens, when the past arrives uninvited, we greet it not with shock but recognition.”   I imagined British Generals with pointy mustaches supervising the the growing of tea, sipping it to test for quality while sweating in their beige uniforms and stupid hats declaring the tea to be too tepid or poorly strained.


Later that afternoon, after visiting a Spice Garden, we reached the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.  Apparently, one of four canines from Lord Buddha himself is preserved here and is extremely sacred, I presume the tooth was housed inside the dagoba (large white bell), as that is where Buddha’s relics are typically kept. I was fascinated by the flower offerings floating in water that apparently symbolize the fleetingness of life, and at that moment I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect.  The light of the day was on the descent, and while this day was a standout memory for me, I was but another tourist blip to all I encountered on their day to day. Travel is interesting like that, most of the time you’re just another tourist passing through; to the traveler though, seemingly mundane moments can be long lasting memories. Once in awhile you get to make meaningful and lasting connections and in the past you might have exchanged letters and photographs from time to time.  Nowadays you friend each other on Instagram and Facebook-occasionally seeing their posts, once in awhile writing a quick message.


Making an incense offering before prayer or meditation helps focus the mind.

We stayed with Ayuna’s family, they have a guest partition on their house with a balcony perfect for relaxing after a shower and hot day. We drank a few beers on the front porch amidst palm fronds and other greenery that I cannot name. Ayuna’s wife cooking rivals no other and in addition to the life changing dahl, we ate mee kiri-buffalo milk curd and honey. So blissfully stuffed full of food, my friend and I retired to bed, desperately needing a solid few hours of sleep.

A restless dog barking relentlessly through the night and the surprising cold kept me awake despite being completely exhausted. My friend turned out to be a total blanket hog too…(I still love her though).


The next morning, we ate breakfast and then Ayuna took us to the Buddhist convent next to his house that his family had donated land to.  All the nuns were off on some sort of retreat or mission except the oldest nun.  She was 90+ years old but she politely showed us around her home.  The convent was painted the same shade of yellow cake icing complete with white trim, as well as a soft hue of orange, there were white triangular flags and the blue, orange, yellow, and white Buddhist flags strung up all over the upper terrace and through the house were small glassed alcoves with statues of Buddha surrounded by flowers.  The nun, noticing how we admired the Buddhist flag, gave us each one and then wrapped a white prayer thread around our wrist to bless our onward journey.  I’m not a believer of religion but Buddhist spaces are the least austere, and ostentatious of the religions that I have encountered.  Every temple I have been to, honours the natural world around them and rather than dominate the landscape, blends with the forms and colours in the vicinity. Basilicas and Cathedrals, may architecturally fascinate me, but I certainly do not feel inspired by a godly presence under those heavy stone naves and buttresses. The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and in Muscat, even the Gaddafi Mosque in Kampala; these spaces have stirred a desire in me to lay down and meditate but I know I would not be allowed to do such a thing.  Buddhist temples make me want to find a quiet corner either inside or out to read a book or sketch with a nice cup of coffee, practice yoga and then meditate, for days.

Ayuna then brought us to Lankathilyaka Viharaya Temple that is both Buddhist and Hindu. Long ago when Sri Lanka was being settled (mainly by men) the men were Buddhist but they shipped their wives in from India who were predominantly Hindu so they built shrines to Hindu gods within the Buddhist temple so that their wives could pray at the same time and place as them.  Lankathilyaka Temple dates from the 14thCentury and houses certain deities from Hindu tradition that Buddhists also recognize for example Upulvan is identified as Vishnu, and Ganapathi is Ganesh.


Dagoba-where relics are kept

I couldn’t find any solid information to back up Ayuna’s information about the Hindu brides except that there is a legend of Prince Vijaya, the first recorded King of Lanka who sent emissaries to Pandu and the King of Pandu agreed to send Vijaya his daughter as his bride as well as other women for his 700 followers.  The story of Vijaya is a mesh of fact and fiction thus I cannot confirm details or really figure out if this is what Ayuna was talking about with regards to the temple except that the time of Vijaya was during 543-505 BCE and the temple dates from the 14thC.


Lankathilyaka Temple overlooks rolling, lush, green hills

We continued driving for a long while through lush, green hills and tea plantations until we reached Nuwara Eliya by late afternoon. In the mountains it was cold as balls and we were ill prepared for the temperature. Nuwara Eliya is a charming little town set on a lake in the middle of Sri Lanka, it was founded by the British as a refuge from the heat of the lower lands and was referred to as Little England at one point.  Many of houses still have their British style gardens and terraces and the post office in the centre looks straight out of small town Britain.




View from our Hotel in Nuwara Eliya
Postal Office in Nuwara Eliya

Sri Lanka is known for it’s sapphires, as the stone is abundantly mined there, Ayuna being a former sapphire sales man brought us to a jeweler and proceeds to negotiate 40% off the consumer price of the rings thus my friend and I both walked away with beautiful little sapphire rings. Ayuna told us that most guides will negotiate a cheaper price on rings for their clients but will take portion of the discount for themselves as commission for bringing them there.

Buses careening around switchbacks
Dense foliage all along the roads from Nuwara Eliya to Hikkaduwa


That night we drank a bunch of local rum with Ayuna but ultimately had to nod off. Our room was an icebox so we requested extra blankets.  They brought 2 blankets up-one thick, and one thin.  My friend commandeered the thick one (blanket hog) and the jerk wouldn’t even let me stick my icicle toes inside her thick blanket, hence another poor night’s sleep.  I normally sleep like the dead for a solid 8 hours so this whole 3 nights of interrupted sleep really did me in.  Despite the joy of driving through some of the lushest countryside I’d ever seen, I conked out on the stolen airplane pillow much of the next day as we careened around a million mountain switch backs.  Eventually I sniffed the air and smelled the unmistakable scent of the sea.

To Be Continued…


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