Whale Tails and Farewell to Sri Lanka


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January 23rd 2013
Published: January 23rd 2013
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January 15…We arrived at the hotel in Weligama in the early afternoon after an uneventful drive down from Ella. The scenery definitely evolved as we came down from the higher elevation (Ella sits at approx. 1,000 meters, about the same as Calgary). It would have been nice to spend some additional time in Ella, as there are numerous hiking opportunities in the surrounding area. Something to do next time, I guess.

The coastal regions of Sri Lanka were heavily damaged by the tsunami in late December 2004. I don’t remember hearing all that much about the impact here, likely because the civil war was still ongoing. 50,000 people died in various places along the coast and thousands more were impacted by the damage wrought by the sea. There is still much reconstruction to undertake in certain parts of the country.

The late afternoon was spent at Mirissa Beach, a few miles from the hotel. It’s got lovely, soft golden sand and the requisite beach joints so it was a pleasant way to spend a few hours before sunset.

Now, a few words on dining…it’s never quick and you better not be in a hurry (buffet offerings are the exception, for obvious reasons). I mention this only because dinner service at the hotel tonight was particularly appalling. We sat down at 7:30 pm, ordered drinks and dinner. Drinks were timely (really, how hard is it to pop a beer cap or make a gin and tonic?). The first meals arrived about 45 minutes later, while the final meal appeared about 9:50 pm – Adele said it was lovely, once she finally got it! It’s not the servers’ fault – all responsibility lies with the kitchen. It seems that everything is prepared to order so there are no big vats of curry bubbling away, ready to be served. Anyway, this particular meal service wins for slowest of the trip. Generally, if we were eating at the hotel restaurants, we pre-ordered and set a time for them to be served. This tended to work okay, but it was a pretty rare occasion when all the meals arrived together – there was usually a straggler or two. Another comment about dining – the food is rarely served hot, which for those with western palates isn’t so enticing. It probably relates to the fact that many Sri Lankans still eat with their right hand – food that is piping hot doesn’t lend itself to safe consumption, thus the lukewarm temperature. That said, the food has generally been tasty when it comes – we certainly haven’t starved!

January 16… A voluntary early morning today, as I was determined to get up and see the sun rise over the bay. It was lovely and peaceful, at least until I startled one of the dogs sleeping on the beach, and caused a raucous chorus of dogs baying! Oops! The pre-dawn glow was evident shortly before 6 am, and the sun fully above the horizon by 6:30. It’s such good light for photography at this time of day. Shortly thereafter, wedding couple #2 (as described in blog entry 6 a few days ago) arrived for their photo shoot. Much activity, all before a shower and breakfast!

After a short stop at a sea turtle hatchery nearby, we headed to Galle Fort – one final World Heritage Site to visit. The first fort was established here in the late 16th century by the Portuguese. The Portuguese fort was mostly destroyed by the Dutch in the mid-17th century, who then rebuilt a larger fortification. It was the main Sri Lankan port city until the late 1700s, as it lay on the shipping route between Asia and Europe. Galle Fort is very much a living piece of history, as there are residents, businesses and schools within the Fort walls, not just ruins. It was easy to wander along the top of the ramparts to get some nice sea views, but more interesting to wander the myriad of streets that make up the town. It was in Galle Fort that I encountered wedding couple #3.

January 17… Another early morning as four of us went rogue (Laura, Aussie Di, Stuart and myself) and headed off whale watching from Mirissa Harbour Thursday morning, leaving the others to head off to Colombo without us. It’s only in the last 6 or 7 years that scientists discovered that blue whales follow a migratory path around the southern tip of Sri Lanka, moving between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Blue whales are the largest animals on earth, weighing in at a svelte 200 tons and nearly 100 feet in length (180 metric tonnes / 30 meters) – see http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/blue-whale for additional whale details. We were fortunate enough to see a few of these creatures Thursday, albeit from a fair distance away. I counted the number of whale watching boats in the water with us – there were 9 or 10, which was more than the number of whales we saw. It took about 2.5 hours to reach the whales, we spent around 45 minutes watching them and then headed back to port. All-in-all, it was just over 5 hours on the boat for a pretty cool and worthwhile experience – I’m glad I went. We then took an arranged ride back to Colombo to meet the rest of the group in the late afternoon.

Our final dinner was along Galle Face Green, coincidently only a few hundred meters from Uncle George’s apartment. So, rather than heading back to the hotel for the final night, I brought my bags on the local bus to the Green (holy, what a ride down Galle Road!), dropped them at George’s and went for supper. All very convenient!

I was sad to say goodbye to our group as we started heading off in different directions – I really enjoyed their company. Travel’s not only about the places you see and things you do, but also about the people you meet and connect with. Thanks to Deva (our guide), Laura, Jacqui, Adele, Scottish Di, Aussie Di, Geoff, Stuart, Tom and Luke for making this trip a good one! I look forward to hearing about your next adventures.

January 18… Early morning #3 as George and I caught the 6:55 am train back down the coast to Mirissa. We travelled in style, as George had booked us in the Rajadhani Express car for the trip. Free wi-fi, movies (Inspector Clouseau and the Pink Panther, anyone?), electricity plug-ins – it was pretty lux for a Sri Lankan train carriage. Return fare = 1980 rupees, or approximately CA$ 16. It was a comfortable way to spend the 4 hour trip and we had the carriage virtually to ourselves.

We stayed at a property called Mirissa Hills, about 10 minutes into the hills by tuk tuk from the beach. It’s owned by the worldwide Chairman and CEO of the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather (which likely explains the quality of their website!). There’s the main house at the top of the hill, which was rented to some Russian oil oligarch while we were there, and
Sunrise Weligama Bay 4Sunrise Weligama Bay 4Sunrise Weligama Bay 4

Boat mechanic on his way to work
we were in rooms in the cinnamon museum down below. Perfectly adequate, if a bit overpriced, but the service was very good and the chef made some delicious curries for us during our stay. It’s a working cinnamon farm as well (more on that later).

We headed to the beach for a few hours and had supper at one of the beach joints – fresh fish (snapper, barracuda, tuna, parrotfish), prawns, jumbo prawns, lobster, calamari – all catch of the day. It was a nice meal.

January 19… Happy birthday to my dad! Early morning #4 in a row…off blue whale watching again. George was a bit skeptical about it all but agreed to go anyway. I'm pretty sure he's glad he did, as we had the most amazing experience – it was well worth the early morning! Even though we booked with the same person that we’d gone with on Thursday, it was a larger boat and crew. Instead of the 7 passengers like the first day, there had to be 25 passengers or more – it was a bit concerning as they kept coming on and on. A couple of the last passengers to board were Luke and Tom from the tour – a nice surprise to see them again.

The whales presented themselves about an hour offshore and we were treated with some close encounters for the better part of another hour – too cool. At one point, there were whales in pretty much any direction you looked! I think we saw between 15 and 20 whales – it's hard to know exactly. It was a good morning! George was impressed. It cost each of us 4000 rupees, or just over CA$ 30 - money well spent. (An apology to my family that are reading this blog who are also on Facebook - George hijacked my pictures so what you're seeing here he's probably already posted!)

Because the whales were relatively close to shore, we were back in the port just after 10 am, so had some time to wander around. The morning fish market was done, aside from cleaning the guts off the dockside, but the port was still a hive of activity – unloading salted fish, cleaning and fixing nets, drying fish on the shore and preparing for the next day's (or month's) journey.

Lunch at the beach, followed by afternoon naps and dinner back at the hotel made for a pretty relaxing remainder of the day.

January 20… No alarm clock waking us up this morning – rather the Muslim call to prayer (for nearly 90 minutes!) did the trick. No sleeping in for us. George has a mosque near his apartment in Colombo but it only goes for about 15 minutes – not sure what the imam in the south drones on and on about. It was a bit annoying to say the least.

The hotel manager took us around the cinnamon farm after breakfast. The property has been operating as a cinnamon farm for around 40 years and it was pretty enlightening tour. Much like the tea plantations, cinnamon trees are grown on steep hill sides. I think the density of trees is something like 3500 trees per acre – they are required by government regulation to give each tree a 3 ft x 3 ft plot. Cinnamon trees take three years to mature before they can first be harvested. You don't really get a cinnamon scent in the air from the trees, although you can definitely smell it if you crush the leaves and release the oil.

All of the harvesting is done by hand here with machetes – workers go out early in the day to cut the branches (maybe one inch in circumference, or slightly larger and 4 to 5 feet long) and then use primitive implements to scrape off imperfections and to remove the outer bark from the branch. The outer bark is tightly rolled and then left to dry for about 2 weeks. The inner core of the branch is used for firewood. Bundles have standard length requirements and cinnamon gets graded just like tea does. Unlike the tea plantations, both men and women work on the farm doing similar activities. The cinnamon from this farm is sold to local buyers, who then take it for resale at auction in Colombo. The next time I'm baking, I will certainly have a different perspective when I use cinnamon.

A couple more hours at the beach and then it was time to catch the train back to Colombo.

January 21/22/23… Lazy days at the apartment doing mundane (though necessary) things like laundry and editing photos. I need to be more ruthless with the photos though – since I left
Galle Fort - Muslim MosqueGalle Fort - Muslim MosqueGalle Fort - Muslim Mosque

I think it started it's life as a Christian church back in the day...
on January 1, I've taken 2500 images, deleted 600 but still have 1900 on my memory card. Yikes! I need to get better at this.

I picked up the jewellery pieces Tuesday – they are lovely. I also bought the sapphire ring I had debated about, so the credit card got a workout. No regrets though, as it's a beautiful piece. Thankfully George is headed home next week so I will send the pieces to Vancouver with him and won't have to worry about carrying them with me for the next couple of months.

I'm sending this Wednesday night from Delhi..if the ride in from the airport to the hotel is any indication, India's going to be wild!


Additional photos below
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Galle Fort Galle Fort
Galle Fort

Pizza Hut knock-off!
Faux Stick Fisherman Faux Stick Fisherman
Faux Stick Fisherman

There are these stick perches along the coast - this guy went out to pose but it was too dark to get a picture as he was "fishing"
Pre-dawn Mirissa HarbourPre-dawn Mirissa Harbour
Pre-dawn Mirissa Harbour

Whale watching with Stuart, Laura & Di
Sunrise Mirissa HarbourSunrise Mirissa Harbour
Sunrise Mirissa Harbour

Whale watching with Stuart, Laura & Di
Wreck in Mirissa HarbourWreck in Mirissa Harbour
Wreck in Mirissa Harbour

Whale watching with Stuart, Laura & Di
Mating TurtlesMating Turtles
Mating Turtles

Whale watching with Stuart, Laura & Di; there are actually 3 turtles here but you can't see the one in front


23rd January 2013

Great Stuff!!!
Love the pictures. Your purchase for self is just gorgeous. Your blog info is so interesting I check every day. Good to see the pics of those you travel with. Hugs Auntie Barbara
23rd January 2013

Fascinated by your entry yet, again. Thanks for sharing your excellent photography and blogging. It's fun reading while freezing my @#$ off in Calgary! Your jewels should be safe with an RCMP escort back to Canada . . .
23rd January 2013

Wow
More amazing pics - don't see how you can delete too many as these certainly are all worth keeping! Good to hear that you are also meeting people Should I have ever had the chance to travel very much, that would be very important to me as well!! Have fun in India!!
23rd January 2013

Wow
Great pictures and your travel notes are so descriptive -- have a great time in India -- lots of love -- Uncle Bill and Nicle
30th January 2013

Amazing Photos
Thank you for sharing your blog with the commentary of your trip and pictures - it sounds like an wonderful adventure. Your pictures are spectacular! Looking forward to more posts.

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