0900hrs precisely we were outside the apartment waiting for Newton for our days adventures to begin.
His friend was taking us around in his Tuk Tuk and the three of us squeezed into the back of it, with Newton saying it is ok, he very small and not need much room. Bless him! Covered from head to toe with mosquito repellent we felt quietly confident we would remain bite free. As we drove along Newton pointed out landmarks and interesting things. We pulled in at the Buddhist temple for driver and Newton to give thanks to Buddha, and we were on our way again. We soon left the traffic behind us as we rode out into the countryside. As we passed a pond where the water lily's grow there was a fishing hut surrounded by fences in the water. It was for prawn fishing. At night the fishermen lower lights into the fenced area of the pond which then attracts the prawns and they just scoop them out.
Passing rice fields and rubber plantations on both sides of the road. The rice takes 6 months from planting to harvesting. We passed through pretty little villages and Newton explained that the one particular village all the people harvested the cinnamon. It was growing everywhere, and we pulled over for him to break some off. He crumpled it up in his hands and the smell was incredible. Not heavy at all, just really subtle. There was bird life everywhere, including a peacock, in the middle of a rice field. Our first stop off was a Moonstone mine.
We arrived and were taken around by a guide who pointed out different plants to us and showed us more cinnamon bushes. He explained that the branches were cut back twice a year and then explained how the cinnamon was harvested. The first layer of bark is stripped off by hand as it isn't flavourful, the flavour comes from the layer beneath. It's taken off using a small knife, then hung on racks to dry and roll into what we buy in the shops. Having seen the process I now know why it isn't one of the cheaper spices. Sri Lanka cinnamon is a much lighter colour and the best quality cinnamon available. It's also known as Ceylon Cinnamon. The climate in the south west of Sri Lanka is perfect for it's. Nothing is wasted. Once the branch has been stripped, the wood is then used for fencing and firewood. It's exceptionally strong and lasts a very long time. The leaves are put to dry in sheds and once they are dry they are put into a fire, and the oil evaporates from them and into a distiller. Once the process is complete you are left with cinnamon oil. That's it in a nutshell, although I believe it is a little more in depth than that! We were then given a list of ailments it would help with, colds headaches, ear aches, poor circulation. Me being a sellers dream, bought some along with cinnamon sticks. It was so cheap, less than half of what we'd pay at home, and probably better quality. From there we were taken to the Moonstone mine. I'm not sure what what I was expecting but it was smaller than what I expected. I think I was imagining something along the lines of Big Pit. The Moonstone is mined all by hand, the only mechanical thing involved is the water pump, this is because the water level is constantly rising. The men work 100 metres down, and climb down ropes and the shored up sidings of the mine. They work underground for 30minutes at a time and then come back up because there is very little air down there. The moonstone is in sand. The men fill the buckets with sand which are then hauled to the surface using a hand winch. The sand is then washed in pan like gold is, and the moonstone taken out. It comes in two colours, a beautiful blue and opaque. The blue is stunning. The mine is 100metrea deep and they are licensed to mine 20metres. The mine is the only one in Sri Lanka and is overseen by the government. Our guide had worked there for 20 years so I'm guessing it's not a bad job. From the mine we were shown tea plants and more herbs on the way to the workshop. The stones are all hand cut and their final polish is polished on wood. The classic dome shaped ones are precious the uncut rough ones , semi precious. Gems native to Sri Lanka are sent from all over for cutting and polishing, and they were beautiful. Having seen the cutting and polishing process we were then shown the setting, again all done by hand in silver or gold. There were some lovely designs and we were assured they could be found in the shop. Now this is where the hard sell occurred. We expected it as the tour was free, and also I'd looked into it before starting the trip. What I wasn't ready for was quite how determined they were to sell you something. I'd already seen what I wanted, but I had rings, pendants , bracelets and earrings literally thrown at me!! So although I'd decided, they put a LOT of pressure on you to spend more, I was offered a ring on managers special with free earrings thrown in, which was all very well except they were nothing special except what I chose.! In the end we had to be very firm to the point of rudeness before he gave up. He also looked like Mr Bean. Again, everything is overseen by the government, and because of that we were given a certificate of authenticity to go with the purchase, in case of any problems in customs.
From the moonstone mine, which was fascinating, we were taken to the Ayurvedic Spice Gardens. I was expecting garden centre sort of size but it was about the size of our back lawn. Again our guide was very knowledgeable and explained what herbs were good for what ailments and what they worked with. This pleased me no end as my witch potion collector side made an appearance. After a short tour which led us to a cool shaded area, where we were given a 'free' back neck arm and leg massage. I have to admit it was excellent and the herbs used hit the spot . It wasn't free we were encouraged to 'give the boy something' for the massage which was absolutely no problem. My problem was with being told it was free, and the massage was so good I would have paid double for it. A cup of herbal tea was bought to us whilst we relaxed and Si enjoyed his massage. Now this is where I got a bit miffed. Within the space of 5 minutes 'Rajh' told me not only was I old I was also fat. To add insult to injury he recommended slimming tablets and skin cream for the wrinkles. Twat. He told Si he didn't need wrinkle cream as he was young. I am done with that man for sure! The fact that he is correct is entirely besides the point. Just plain rude. So, we were taken next door and there I purchased the slimming tablets, wrinkle cream, massage and healing ointment and stuff for Si. Hurrumph fat and old huh??!! I repeat, twat.
Leaving there with my wallet significantly lighter if nothing else, we made our way to the Turtle conservation centre. Before being allowed in we were required to wash our hands so as not to spread any infection to the turtles. They have a breeding program there, and the eggs of the different varieties of turtles are buried half a metre down in the sand. The place is family run and has been going for over 35 years. We were lucky enough to be there at feeding time. The turtles are taken to separate concrete tanks for feeding, each one having the amount of fish appropriate for their size age and weight. They have to be separated for feeding because they are quite nasty and will fight over the food. In another holding tank were baby turtles which were being released in the next few days and in another were two Albino turtles. They will never be released as they wouldn't survive in the wild. A Dr comes weekly to check them over and give them any medication they need, but that is their home. There were several disabled ones too, the one had consumed so much plastic it floated. It's had several operations but there is nothing more that can be done for it. Sadly they confuse plastic bags for jelly fish in the ocean and this causes them all sorts of problems. I didn't think about turtles being nasty, thou see them swimming around and they seem so gentle and placid. Nope , not the case. The guy showing us around had a hell of a scar running the length of his forearm, from a turtle that goes by the name of sexy. The delightful sexy was in a tank with a turtle whose shell has collapsed and needs constant adr visits and medication, again who can never be released. The shell patterns on the Green backed turtles are absolutely stunning, and it's easy to see why tortoiseshell accessories are so sought after.
We were able to hold a few of them, their little flippers going 90 to the dozen, trying to get back in the tank. We held them long enough for a photo before releasing them gently back into the water. Bob came too and was lucky enough to go turtle surfing, like something out of finding Nemo!
There were some turtles we weren't allowed to touch as they are very susceptible to infection so they are kept covered at all times. We were allowed to see them, just not touch. The guide was telling us how bad hand sanitizer is for them and that it makes them really ill, also the same with dogs. During the Tsunami the whole project was washed away and they lost everything having to rebuild from scratch. Volunteers go for two weeks at a time. They spend one day feeding and cleaning the turtles and the next day cleaning the beach up of plastic. They are given certificates to say how much they have picked up weight wise, in the time they are there. The one
girl said it's really important work to do but boring. It also gets very competitive. Surviving on help from volunteers and the goodwill of visitors is all that keeps it going. We were invited to go and release the ones ready to go into the ocean, but unfortunately we won't be able to do it, so some lucky people will have that pleasure. The centre is so passionate about what they do it's actually really nice to see. Sadly the facilities are a bit tired, but the care given there is fantastic.
Next on our agenda was a lagoon safari. Thankfully the weather was holding off and we were still without rain. Getting into the boat was a giggle, and there were only Si myself and Bob on board. No life jackets just get in and off to go. Our boat steerer was happy chap, and knowledgeable about the lagoon, which is a national reserve that is protected by the people who work on it. To go under a few of the bridges we had to duck right down because they were so low and we'd have been headless if we hadn't. We passed huge prawn catching stations and they were caught there the same as they were at the water lily pond but on a larger scale. In the middle of the lagoon there were floating ships dotted around the place, selling refreshments and supplies should you want them. They, for some reason made me chuckle, I think it was the complete randomness of them. The very small islands in the lagoon were mostly all inhabited, some of them were accessible by a bridge,that would only carry a motorcycle and passenger, nothing heavier whereas others were only accessible by boat. More fishing huts were passed and as we were flying past some rocks in the mangroves we spotted a small crocodile sunning itself, quickly followed by an eagle and several cormorants. To our surprise we pulled up alongside a Buddhist temple . Quite beautiful, but I was mortified as my shoulders were exposed so didn't think I would be able to go in. That problem was solved by our guide who produced a shawl for me. We took off our shoes and socks and my bandana and were then taken around the temple where we were educated in the different Buddhas and their roles in the hierarchy. Really interesting. There was a toilet there, although I'm pretty sure it hadn't been used for many years it was a hole in granite rock that were piled up to make it.
There were several people working there, cleaning and doing maintenance and the one gave us a numnum fruit. A bit like a slightly under ripe plum which I really enjoyed. It had a large stone in the middle similar to avocado stone, and an outer skin like a warty toad. I'm not selling this very well but it really was delicious! Our guide took us in to speak with the Buddhist Monk. He tried my stick for comparison to his own wooden curved handled one, just in case mine was better. I think he concluded it wasn't! On the desk in front of him was a narrowed leafed book. Each page was a palm leaf. There was an instrument that scribed lines into the leaf to allow the monks to write on it. To write, they used a sharp scribe and scratched the letters in to the leaf. Once the page was complete, they mixed up charcoal and oil in the palm of their hand and using the other end of the scribe which was flat and spoon shaped, spread it over the leaf page and the inscription on it to bring out the lettering and seal it all in. Every single letter was the exact same size. The Monk showed us different statues and explained who they were and before we left tied on a white string bracelet while saying a prayer to give and spread good luck and good karma. A donation was requested and again, we had to fill in our personal details and how much we had given for the government.
We left the temple and returned to the boat and as we left, the rain came in. Not ordinary rain, but monsoon variety!! It was warm but we were soaked through in a matter of minutes. We were driving straight into it and the trip back was spent trying to keep Bob, the cash and phones dry! It was an experience that's for sure. The rain bouncing off the lagoon was epic in its proportions. When we got back we were served some lovely orange juice and once we'd drunk it we waited to see if the rain would ease off before getting back into the Tuk Tuk.
Our lovely driver had rolled down the rain covers to protect us from the weather, although as we were soaked through anyway I think we just steamed his windscreen up for him. After a quick refuel we made our way to the final stop of our day. The Tsunami Photograph Museum. The guide, is a man who saved his children by telling them to run before the wave hit. As a fisherman of 30 years he knew what was coming when the tide pulled back and wa able to save his family with that knowledge. Unfortunately many people didn't know. They were on the beach catching fish and just looking at the exposed sea bed, totally unaware of what they were to encounter in the next 30 minutes.
He showed us a map of Sri Lanka and there was only one part of the country it the top that wasn't affected at all. Every other part was hit in varying degrees. The number of dead numbered in the thousands, the missing again in their thousands and their bodies never found. Also there were thousands of souls unidentified. As it was a Boxing Day the train was full of people as it's a holiday and when the wave came in at over 30metres high it picked up the train and all eight carriages and swept it off the tracks, scattering the carriages and the passengers who had no chance of survival against the wave. In the days that followed bodies were retrieved and taken to hospitals, the ones that were identified were buried by their families. The ones who were unidentified were buried in three mass graves. The site is now marked by a 30metre high statue of Buddha, that was paid for by citizens of China who donated money for it. Incredibly, given the force of the wave, there are photos in the museum of Buddha statues that were completely untouched. There is a temple in the sea and the wave didn't touch it. Mind blowing, but also something to think about. In the museum the photos are very graphic and nothing is held back. The devastation and heartbreak is there for all to see and it was a hugely emotional experience. Two people came out before we went in and they were very upset by it.
Throughout the museum there are quotes and poems amongst the ohotographs many off them so positive and philosophical the face of such tragedy. The guide was telling us as a fisherman he worked and saved hard to build a nice home, all he had left was a clock that stopped at the time the wave hit, his sari and some family photos. His young brother and sister lost their lives to it and he has photographs in there which he honours with flowers and prayers each day. The rescue and recovery efforts went on for several weeks and the survivors lived in tented camps for quite some time. The guide, his wife and sister look after orphaned children with special needs. They get no government assistance and are dependent on donations to feed and clothe them. The children will never work and all have terrible problems and have no one. You are asked not to take photographs inside, which is completely understandable. I think to be honest that once you've seen the images they will never leave you. The guide has been officially honoured by the community (I think) for all his hard work in helping the survivors. An honour well deserved. He showed us a photo of the then Prince Charles who visited a few days/weeks after. He's now stuck a black sticker on the caption With a Gold 'king' and a crown on it.
Understandably he is incredible proud of what the community has achieved and the ongoing work with the survivors. He is a very humble man who is passionate and proud of his work. All donations have to be written into a book for transparency, but he is inherently grateful for any donation you are able to give, and grateful to you for visiting. Mother Nature is an entity not to be underestimated. What she gives you she can, and will. also take away.
It was an experience I can honestly say I will never forget. It is also one I recommend everyone take if they get the opportunity.
Looking at the area now it is difficult to see the and chaos the Tsunami caused.
After leaving the museum we stopped by the Buddha that was erected in memory of the people who lost their lives. It's a beautiful statue and the area, despite being on a main road is quite still and somber.
We had asked PushPa to make our supper for us and my goodness what a spread. I thought the family would be joining us going on the amount of food on the table. We had 6 tuna steaks, a huge plate of prawns, lentils curried vegetables, potatoes cooked in herbs and popadoms .... real homemade ones. It was the best meal I've tasted in a long time. We managed to heave ourselves from the table and into bed.
Lots seen and things ticked off the list.
A good day indeed.