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Published: November 20th 2017
(Oct 11,2-17)I am in the final stages of packing for my 15th Habitat build which will be in Sri Lanka.(country number 101) The flight leaves tomorrow from good old YVR on Cathay Pacific and we will be switching planes in Hong Kong (four team members on the same flight. ) It is a long haul as we leave at 245 PM and are supposed to arrive in Colombo at 1110 PM.(just under 20 hours) The next wave of people from our team of 14 will start arriving early the next day.
As usual, the trip starts with an early ferry ride (0620) and includes the bus and skytrain legs to the airport... I have new Bose noise cancelling earbuds and have booked an exit row seat ($150 USD) so am looking forward to a relaxing flight.
As with many trips involving air travel, the schedule and reality did not coincide as the flight was late leaving Vancouver causing us to miss the connection in Hong Kong. The helpful Cathay Pacific staff quickly did a re-book and got us on a flight to Singapore and then on to Colombo. As a result we arrived in Colombo at 10.00 AM which
was about 12 hours later than the original plan. The four of us then caught a taxi to the Paradise Beach Hotel in Negombo. (on the flight to Colombo from Singapore on Silk Air, I watched a great movie-Battle of the Sexes-excellent) Most of the team is already at the hotel in the bar-some without luggage.
The hotel is a beach property with a busy street at the entrance. We quickly have to get into the idea of looking the other way before crossing the street as SL has the same road system as the UK. There are lots of souvenir stores along the street and tea, leather and wood carvings are the main items. Vendor tenacity is about medium in the stores but the beach sales staff are in a different class (hanging on to your legs as you walk away)
Sunday, with all the team on hand, we had our initial meeting with Francis who is our Habitat coordinator. After a very informative and encouraging session, it was off to the airport to pick up the missing luggage and then on to Kalutura and our next hotel. Our journey included a brief tour of Colombo and
we saw the first of many cobra dances (tame snake in a basket which will sway to flute music for a modest fee) Our bus is nice and roomy and the driver seems very skilled.
The hotel in Kalutura is the Roy Villa Beach Hotel and to my joy, it has a major rail line running through the property. To get to the hotel proper, there is a pedestrian overpass over a double track on which there are probably 30-40 trains per day. This is a good beach front hotel with a nice pool -and there is also a colony of giant fruit bats on the property. The staff are beyond great and the first meal was very good.
The next day we were shuttled to the site along very narrow roads in heavy Tuc Tuc traffic to the building site. Our bus driver is excellent and he pilots the vehicle like a down hill skier weaving in and out of the lanes. Just as it appears that a head on collision is inevitable, the vehicles adjust their positions and everything works out. There is a definite pecking order and the order appears to be as follows -
(low to high) pedestrian, bicycle, tuc tuc, car, bus and heavy truck. Cows appear to have more rights than tuc tucs. We saw no accidents.
Our arrival at the job site was greeted with great enthusiasm by the family and the immediate neighbourhood.After the usual safety orientation, we started work on moving and stacking concrete blocks while the masons finished the brick forms along the foundation. Our afternoon task was mixing and placing concrete into the forms and we got everything done by 4.00 o'clock. It was a good days work in +30C weather with very high humidity. Tired GV team members are good GV team members...
After work, everyone enjoyed the hotel pool and a round of Lions (local beer) The beach appears to be a death trap with huge wave action that is apparently due to a storm in the Bay of Bengal. One interesting feature is a herd of pigs which regularly pass by the hotel on their way to greener pastures. They appear to have the train schedules figured out and were not featured on the menu during our entire stay.
Day 2 brought another early start-we eat a good breakfast at 7.00
and leave at 8.00 for the site. Sri Lankans get their caffeine from tea so the team has had to do some technical work on the coffee device. I am the only non-coffee drinker so not sure what adjustments were made.
Today we worked on filling in all the room floor cavities with gravel. Another herculean effort by the team as we moved 12 to 15 cubic yards of gravel into the house by wheel barrow and bucket and finished up in good time. On the way home we went to a bank so people could get a supply of Sri Lankan rupees. The exchange rate is about 152 rupees to 1 USD. (1CAD is 123 rupees) Bank cards work fine here and lots of places will take payment in US.
We had another pool and beer hour before dinner. The pool site has quite a forest of coconut palm trees and this is why we have the bat colony (Indian Flying Fox Bats) They have wing spans of 4 to 5 feet and are quite noisy as they compete for the palm tree nectar.
Our third day, we worked on cinder block placement with the masons.
Mortar mixing is the hard part of this job and we do the batch mixes on the ground. There is a definite technique which is common to Habitat builds all over the world. We always dry mix the the ingredients and then add the water last (it is called building a volcano)
Today was a half day and we packed up after lunch to go do some sight seeing including a turtle recovery place and a tropical river cruise. Just before lunch, the local ice cream Tuc Tuc showed up which was popular. We also get daily multiple visits accompanied by a musical jingle from a bread Tuc Tuc.
The turtle recovery place, while interesting is also sad. There are green and hawksbill turtles on hand and the concept is to get locals who used to harvest eggs for food to bring in the eggs for hatching. They are paid for the eggs and the recovery place hatches them for release into the ocean. This increases the survival rate. In spite of these efforts, turtles are threatened by habitat loss, pollution etc.
Our next stop was a resort on the banks of the Ma Oya River where
we boarded two river boats for a trip into a Mangrove Swamp. We saw lots more fruit bats, some monitor lizards, a crocodile, and a few birds including an asian open bill stork. We arrived back at the dock at twilight and there was an immediate run on the bar. This is the Ayesha Jewelry Outlet which also has a bar and restaurant. We did a quick tour of the jewelry manufacturing division and then a few people helped the economy by purchasing some gems.
The next day (Thursday) (it seemed like everyone was in synch now with local time) we all enjoyed the usual good breakfast which typically includes eggs, sausages and toast. Before heading off for another day at the build site there was slight delay due to a large and intense rain storm. The rain added to the already humid conditions and we had to de-water the interior rooms a bit. We were scooping up water with pails until one of the home owners showed us how to poke in drainage holes in the floor!!!
After the dewatering, it was another day of wall building accompanied by lots of mortar mixing. The ratio is 5
wheel barrows of sand to one big bag (55kg) of concrete powder, then lots of shovelling and mixing.
Lunch was curry and lots of it PLUS ice cream. We worked until 4.00 and then it was back to the pool for beer etc and a visit with the bats. Today was delivery day for the gem purchasers followed by a great seafood dinner.
Our house project here is a bit larger than many of the builds we have done. Typically the houses are about 300 square feet whereas this one comes in at 655 SF. This is still modestly sized relative to North American standards. We are such space pigs.
Friday (our second last day) we had yet another early morning shower. At the site, we have high walls in place and the windows and door frames which are concrete are being installed. We also got to do more "brick dancing" as another truckload of blocks showed up just before lunch.After lunch, we got put the steel pillar forms in place and pour the first bit of concrete. The forms are bolt together pieces which are oiled so the cement doesn't stick.
One of our team
members (Nancy) turned 70 today so cake organization was being planned- at one point there were three cakes being independently organized but we managed to get it down to one.
It was also team picture day with the Canadian flag. I have now done 15 builds with the Canadian flag tradition- we sign the flag and turn it over to the homeowner. Another build tradition is the looney placement in the foundation as per the Gretsky centre ice hockey looney insertion, which I think was done for the Salt Lake City Olympics?? We were all in the pool again at 4.00 PM - having a pool is certainly an excellent amenity when the build day temperature and humidity is so high.
Saturday-our last build day. We are checking out early tomorrow so everyone is doing some advance packing work this morning. I was on the bridge early to get a few last train pictures and was rewarded by seeing our resident pig family foraging beside the rails. There was also a cat wandering along the tracks before heading off into someone's yard on some unknown mission.
Today we had the first of two medical issues. Big thanks
to our team doctor who helped a team member with a fungal infection and then assisted one of the homeowners ( the family matriarch) with a knee sprain. Part of the medical assist to the family grandmother was the fabrication of a cane from a tree branch- I suspect seeing a doctor is not a common activity for the average person in Sri Lanka.
We had a busy morning finishing the pillars, doing more wall blocks and parging the block seams. The tallest people were in high demand for this final stage. In the afternoon, work was starting to be in short supply and we had some fun with a frisbee and the neighbourhood child brigade. Soon it was time for the closing ceremonies including the flag presentation-lots of farewells and thanks/hugs from the homeowners. We then returned to the hotel for a last pool party and dinner.
This was a great 6 days of work and I would definitely welcome all of the team members on a future build.
The next day we boarded the Habitat bus at 7.00 AM for a 3 day Sri Lanka tour. The first part of the trip was on a
new freeway and then we turned on to a more typical road with the usual mixed traffic. One memorable stop was made at a fruit stand which had lots of unique products including delicious red bananas. The local monkey community were giving it a vote of confidence as there were dozens of them in the trees above the stand. We carried on to a natural herb and spice healing farm and got the hard sell from a farm tour guide. Quite a few rupees were left here for products such as pepper, cinnamon and sandalwood cream. Probably a bit of a ripoff as pepper in the grocery stores later proved to be a lot cheaper.
The next stop was at a tea factory where we learned everything about tea production. After lunch and a visit to carving place, we went to the Temple of the Tooth where we got to tour with the "world's worst guide" We should have known when he almost got into a fist fight with some other guides on the way into the temple. This was the low point of the day(trip) but it probably would have been a good experience with a competent guide.
He subscribed to the theory of information conveyance that includes 1) tell people what you are going to tell them, 2) tell them 3) tell them what you have told them. After an hour of tedium, we cut the tour short and headed off down the road to the Ramboda Falls Hotel. This was a spectacular drive up a narrow road in rain and darkness and took several hours. We finally arrived at 6.00 and checked into the hotel- dinner was at 8.00 at the end of a long day.
The next morning we awoke to a fantastic view across the valley at two big waterfalls. The air is noticeably cooler at this altitude and there are conifers beside the road. After breakfast we organized for a 9.00 AM departure to continue on to Ella. In the daylight the road is very scenic and we are definitely in tea country. The pickers who are mostly (if not all) women live in row housing and pick tea on a piecework basis. We were told that the minimum pick is 18 kg. It seems like there is some suffering so the world's tea drinkers can get their caffeine...The tea industry
was started by the British and we saw the top side when we stopped at a luxurious old British Hotel along the way. Presumably the planation owners were customers of this hotel.
We passed through Ella about lunch time on our way to the Edge Restaurant which was near a nearly dry waterfall. However while we are in the restaurant the skies opened and we had to delay our trip back up the mountain to the hotel-lots of mini mud slides. Our hotel in Ella was the Heavens Edge and it is way up the mountain side. Lots of marble and it was easily the best hotel of the trip except for no alcohol due to its proximity to a temple- desk clerk indicated this was a major flaw in the business plan. We went down town to the Chill Restaurant and had a great pizza dinner with beer- The Romans are everywhere.
Our final day of the Habitat build was Friday October 24,2017 and we are catching the train at 1045 AM. Before the departure, everyone checked out pepper prices and discovered the store price was less than 50% of the healing farm centre price-shocking news.
The train pulled in more or less on time and we loaded ourselves into the rear observation car along with a few other people. It has about 45 seats but there were only about 30 passengers. One downside was that the seats all faced to the rear which was a bit dis-orienting. This was our home for 10 hours which probably tested the patience of the team, most (none) of whom aren't train freaks like yours truly. The car was pretty warm when we got on but the windows opened so conditions were pretty good after we got underway.
I base toilet quality on a 1 to 10 scale with 10 (best) being the Rocky Mountaineer and 1 (disgusting) being the Podgorica to Belgrade train which was the worst ever even making Russian trains look good. I gave this one a 3 or 4. On a 10 hour trip toilet rankings tend to deteriorate...
The scenery along the route is truly spectacular and we did a steady climb up to 6300 feet. In places we were right on top of a mountain ridge and could see deep valleys on both sides of the track. In other places we
were in tunnels of jungle forest. There were also lots of real rock tunnels. The track is a bit iffy and we had slow orders down as low as 10 km/hr especially on the trestles. Locals tend to use the track as a walking trail and we saw lots of colourfully dressed families along the right of way.
This is a bit of a milk run and we stopped at virtually all the stations. I did a timetable check at Vansboda were we met the Habitat bus and we were about 1 hour late. We dropped off one person (Paige) at the airport and then continued on to the Paradise Beach Hotel for our last night.
The next day we had Michael, Gary, Bruce and Susan head off on other adventures, leaving 9 of us for an "Extra Days"travel adventure with Ravi the guide/driver and his assistant from Sri Lanka Tours. Our first day involved visits to two temples on our way to Sigiriya where we were staying at the Cinnamon Hotel. This is an excellent resort with a big pool and luxurious rooms. The buffet room had lots of flying insects so we opted for the a
la carte restaurant
The next day we had two people opting out of the days festivities, one sick and the other allergic to historic sites. This turned out to be the best day of the trip starting with the big climb up the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. We are starting to see lots of wildlife including monitor lizards, chameleons, coucals, indian pea hens( peacocks) etc. There was also a tame elephant having a bath beside the road. This site is 1000 years old and it is a 2000 foot climb up to the top - lots of other people, some in varying degrees of distress. I got nailed by a vendor for a "secret elephant box"
After lunch and a bit of a rest, it was off to a safari place under the leadership of Ravi whose last name would likely be Baksheesh. We ended up paying full price ($40 USF) for the safari at his "friend's " place. We discovered later there was big discounting going on due to it being slow season. Also there is huge surplus of safari jeep operators - some estimates put the number at 400 and the government is trying to set a
quota of 150. Once you get out on the site, it is bit like bumper cars- not exactly a wilderness experience. After we got home we heard that the drivers were on strike in protest against the government plan to limit the number of operators. For the elephants sake, lets hope the government holds firm.
HOWEVER we did see lots of elephants, some within 50 feet of the truck. I would guess we saw about 100 elephants in several family groups- very impressive and a great ending to a wonderful day. On the way in to see the elephants we saw lots of monkeys, more birds and a huge wasp nest. We got back to the hotel at 530 in time for a monster rain storm and then dinner.
The next day Lisa left us to return to Canada. Five of us got up early and did an excellent guided bird walk (20 USF) We saw 27 species of birds including some migrants from India (indian roller, asian paradise flycatcher, asian koel) After the bird walk it was off Anuradhapura for more temples and yet more ruins. In fairness there was a pretty good museum. This is a
huge site and it does have crafts vendors who are pretty persistent.
We bolted early for the next hotel (Rajarata) which quite a bit to be modest about. Lots of local insects had committed hara kiri in the pool. As a partial offset, the bar had Tiger beer which many of us prefer over the Lion variety.
The next morning we got to meet another of Ravi's "friends" who we were encouraged to engage at a cost of $20 USF each including guide services and admission fees. The guide services were a bit helpful but we saw no evidence of admission fee requirements. Ravi advised that the guide had a "special arrangement" with the security people... In any case we saw much more of the temple scene on a day when the locals were out in full force. Most of the tour took place in sock feet as shoes are not allowed- not a great concept in my opinion. Our final temple experience was Minitale which involved yet another climb in sock feet.
We then headed off to Wilpatta National Park to go glampng at the Big Game Safari Tent Camp. This was a very impressive facility
with luxury tents amid a dry jungle setting. There was beer. We had a barbecue dinner and then a guided night nature walk.
The next day we set off in jeeps for a game drive through the park. Once again there was lots of jeep traffic and we did a 5 hour drive in the hopes of seeing a leopard.- no luck but we did see lots of deer and birds, plus a memorable viewing of a standoff between a fairly large monitor and a serpent eagle. The bird highlights included jungle fowls, painted storks and some whistling ducks. Final bird tally 61 species
The low point of the day was the check out procedure back at the camp. Here are the highlights: Several people trying to check out at once, no one having exact change, a requirement to pay separately for food/beverage and the safari, a need for exact accounting of person charges in each tent and a lack of procedural knowledge by the staff- a very long process...
We then drove to the last hotel (Palm Bay Hotel) which was a beach property north of Negombo. Very nice place and we got to spend two
nights here before returning to the Paradise Beach. There is a gym and lots of services including massages, tennis lessons etc. The pool is huge. Across the street the beach is fairly wavy and only local fishermen are out in the water.
The resort is a popular spot for Russians and I would guess 75% of the guests are from Russia. Smoking has not been banned in their country.
We left the resort at 3.00 pm on the final day and went back once again to the Paradise Beach Hotel in Negombo
I was starting to feel a bit ill and am looking forward to getting home. Eating is not a good idea and cramps are getting bad.
Finally arrived home on November 2, 2017 after a bad 2 days. On November 3d I was in the hospital diagnosed with a kidney stone- Lucky I was able to get home. A great trip except for last few days.
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