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Sri Lanka Days

Before we get started, let me say I struggle a little with the voice of this blog. I really only intended to keep it for family and friends who wanted to check in (hi mom!) but I know from our planning experience last year how we stumbled into and followed other traveling families’ blogs, and what a great resource they were. We’re not trying to turn this into a lifestyle or business, nor are we on the tightest shoestring budget, so we don’t have that angle from which to preach, but we do LOVE to travel. We put an enormous amount of effort into planning this almost year. If anyone has questions about putting together something like this, please feel free to ask!

Now then, when I was Della’s age I had heard of Sri Lanka….as the place that Duran Duran had filmed Hungry Like the Wolf. I would feel more lame about admitting this, but the guide book still points out the location of that cafe in case you want to visit, what, 30 years later? Yikes.

When we decided the kids were going to spend two months in school in New Zealand, something had to come off our list of destinations. Yet it made us sad to drop India- our six weeks there in 2002 had surely been, while at times challenging and exasperating, ultimately some of the most richly rewarding and fascinating travel we had ever done. Sri Lanka presented itself as the perfect answer. It has some of the same flavors of southern India, which we loved, is undergoing a tourist boom in the wake of calmed tensions between north and south, it is culturally fascinating, and the compact size and shorter distances meant we could hope to make a dent in the two weeks we had to give. Sold!

Even coming from Dubai, the heat, humidity and chaos of Colombo smacked us down and drained us of ambition. I’m grateful that we managed to do any sightseeing at all, although we were distracting to the local school kids at the National Museum, who found Della and Miles far more interesting than the exhibits they were supposed to be looking at. The kids immediately took to getting around in tuktuks, the little three wheeled cabs that buzz around like mosquitos, but Della was struck by a little culture shock, registering right off the bat that Sri Lanka was like nowhere else she had ever been and she wasn’t quite sure how she felt about it.

From Colombo we took the train to Kandy, and settled in to watch the scenery bathed in that sweet, hazy, late afternoon tropical light, enjoying it even as the train jolted and rattled. Train travel suits me well. I’m an introvert and I’m not great at chit chat. What I like to do is observe, to watch normal life, and the train is perfect for that. In second class seats with the windows open and an easy speed I could see mangos, bananas and jack fruits hanging from the trees, little girls running through their yard, boys playing cricket in a field, a woman washing her hair, men working their rice paddies. At dusk big pterodactyl-like bats came out and started flapping around, entertaining us while we entertained everyone else in our train carriage by getting so excited about them.

In Kandy we were met by Nilam, a driver I contacted when we decided our planned patchwork of trains, buses and taxis was going to be too cumbersome for the amount of time we had. I’d never hired a driver before and didn’t know how it would work, but Nilam was a kind, fatherly man who shepherded us around, made sure we had enough water when he dropped us off at sights and ate safe foods. So much so good, but I had a hunch that we were planning to see and do too much and I was right. I blame Google maps, because when I plotted out our route months ago, they lied. Maybe they didn’t mean to, maybe the good folks at Google just don’t know how Sri Lankan roads work? I will tell you, even the best road, smooth and reasonably straight, doesn’t have a chance in hell of getting you from A-B in Google time once you throw in the swarm of bicycles, motorcycles, tuktuks, tractors, cars, vans, lorries and buses sharing the road. Oh, throw in some cows, dogs, monkeys and people, too. The buses take their half down the middle, everyone else swerves around the tuktuks and motorcycles, horns beeping. Nilam threaded this mess so capably and serenely, but everything took longer than we thought. After several long, swervy, car-sicky feeling days, our normal afternoon down time/school time having gone out the window, we were all feeling a little disgruntled. Which is not to say it was all bad; we clambered up the rock at Sigiriya, had a magical afternoon ride into Kaudulla National Park and saw hundreds of elephants grazing (moms, babies, teenagers, a few bulls) pulling up grass and shaking the dirt off of the roots before crunching away. We visited ancient Polonnoruwa (too hot and too soon for me, I’m still suffering ruin fatigue) and the cave temples at Dambulla. One stifling afternoon we took the kids to a nearby hotel pool, and after our young host at our guest house took the kids out for a spin in his tuktuk and let Della drive. The best part for me was dinner, when delicious home cooked Sri Lankan meals would appear as if by magic.

Then we went back through Kandy, where we had to say goodbye to Nilam- he had a court date in a landlord/tenant dispute that had been going on for 26 years. Twenty six years!! So long ago that it had started with his father, now deceased, and continues with him, involving his dad’s tenant who objected to a rent increase in 1988 and while the case drags on pays only $100/year in rent. We wished him luck but he did not seem optimistic that it would be resolved any time soon, saying perhaps his son would end up taking over when he passed away. Remind me not to complain about the American legal system ever again!

Nilam handed us over to Anoura, another sweet man, who drove us up the squiggly road to lovely Nuwara Eliya, an old British hill station surrounded by tea estates and tidy terraced vegetable plots. We visited a tea factory, and tried to take a hike before the monsoon rains turned us around. Then down, down, down we came to Udawalawe National Park for a morning game drive, starring dozens of glossy peacocks, more elephants (we wished you had been there Terra May!) two jackals, comical water buffaloes, exotic birds (we wished you had been there Doug!) and one small crocodile. From there finally, finally, thank goodness, we had one final short drive here to Tangalle where we said goodbye to Anoura and have four blessed days in one spot on the beach. From here we go to Galle via Mirissa for some whale watching, and then back to Colombo for a night before heading onto Singapore. It feels so strange to see Thanksgiving recipes and ideas go by on social media while we sit here and sweat, but them’s the breaks of this kind of life. For this year, that’s okay with us.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Julie H #

    Wow! What an adventure. #lessoninlifenotimeforschool
    Thanks for sharing your Sri Lanka experiences with us.

    November 16, 2014
  2. I feel hot and prickly just thinking of your long winding drives and if it weren’t for the sub-freezing temperatures here, I think my thighs would be sticking to my seat! Great colors and adventures. I know we are just getting the bare minimum and I can’t wait to hear the juicy bits and a couple of stories in their full and glorious detail. Your family looks great (Della is on the up and up!). Thanks for taking the time to keep us posted! Kirsten

    November 17, 2014
  3. Wonderful. Wonderful! Thank you.

    November 18, 2014
  4. Rebecca #

    Hi There! Loved your blog post about Sri Lanka! My husband and I are headed there next month and was wondering how you found the private drivers? Was it through a travel agent or website?

    January 3, 2016
    • jhitchcox #

      We actually found Nilam through Lonely Planet and contacted him directly. He lives in Kandy- I think that’s all you need to know to google him and find his information.

      January 3, 2016

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