Sri Lanka 9: A Drive on the Wild Side

Tsunami Coastline
Tsunami Coastline

Craziest New Year’s ever? Well, how about the crashing surf roaring through the midnight black, and mosquitoes hounding your haggard face? How about volcano-spicy shrimp peeled apart in ratty lawn furniture and a glassy-eyed chef staring at you over his motorcycle? How about a dingy backpacker dive with lizards and spiders crawling the walls, a water hose for a shower, rusted bedframes that scream army surplus sales, and burlap sheets stretched over yellowed mattresses?

“Please,” Andy said softly, “go into the bathroom first and chase away all the roaches and snakes.”

Welcome to our New Year’s shindig—a small guesthouse on the Southeast tip of Sri Lanka’s existence, a tiny little spot run by a man whose Singhalese name, for all I could ever understand, sounded exactly like “Rock City Parlor.” This was the man with a purring motorbike and a well-worn sarong, with eyes gray like overripe cotton and hands muscled up from a life gleaned from the sea, with a wife who fried up a mean catch of shrimp that old Rock City Parlor himself packed into his motorbike basket and personally delivered to us at his guest house at 11 PM New Year’s Eve.

Rock City Parlor himself, the next day
Rock City Parlor himself, the next day

Eating on the porch under a buzzing bulb straggling down by its wires, we chewed slowly and cast sullen, silent glances, trying to convince ourselves that Rock City Parlor’s royal guesthouse would look much different in the daylight. “It’s cheap. It’s just one night,” I reminded myself as much as Andy. “Just enough to catch Yala in the morning.”

We asked for sheets for the mattresses. Rock City Parlor walked in the unused room next door, stripped the sandpaper blanket from the mattresses and tossed them onto those already on our bed. He smiled so simply, so warmly, so humbly that I couldn’t find it in my heart to say I’d need crocodile skin to find these blankets soothing.

Then he loaded up his picnic basket with the dishes and puttered out the gate, his lone headlight fading into the black night, leaving us with the saw of crickets and croaks of frogs, alone on the verge of the Indian Ocean and the last bit of South Asia: the wild expanses of Yala National Park, where we would safari at sun-up.

That’s just past 5 AM, just a few hours away: better get some sleep.

Just then, a handful of wimpy fireworks spattered in the sky to serenade us good-night. The show lasted under two minutes.  We sighed.

Fishing in Yala
Fishing in Yala

New Year’s Day: waking in the 4:30 dark to chase the bugs from the bathroom, dressing by swinging beam of a headlamp, snacking on pre-sliced bread and pineapple jam as the sky gradually grayed, then yellowed, the blued into morning. A half-hour past pick-up time and no sign, no sound of the jeep or driver or Rock City Parlor to speed us out to the Yala Safari.

I started pacing the yard. Andy yawned that she could have slept that extra half-hour.

Yala Sunrise
Yala Sunrise

When the jeep actually arrived, we found the driver red-toothed from massive Betel leaf chew, and red-eyed from too much New Year’s. No matter, he drove fast, and that’s exactly what we needed—the skin-chilling ride in the open-air jeep through the shivers of the Sri Lankan dawn, a tingling wake-up call to a sparkling new year.

And as we left behind the village’s marked roads and snack shops, we were treated to the outer glimpses of the Yala experience: wide sweeps of wilderness alternating in lakes and swamps and well-damped plains. Buffaloes chewed serenely and contemplated existence in the sunrise. Volleys of cranes, kites, and kingfishers beat wings and rose to the immaculate cobalt dome basking overhead. The roads dropped from sort-of pavement to packed dirt, power lines stopped, and the primeval world of tree and root and wetland wild closed in around us.

We stopped for a ticket—not cheap, by the way—at park HQ, then the restroom, then bounded back out to the jeep. I clapped our driver on his bony back, and we bounced off past the entrance placard and into the official wild: Safari time.

Welcome to the Wild
Welcome to the wild–that’s a real elephant skull, by the way.

We’d already forgotten Rock City Parlor and his ramshackle guesthouse and our late pick-up; now we were on the hunt. And to understand the hunt, understand that Yala is a definite star in the Sri Lanka National Park system. It’s a big deal, a huge deal: the Everglades mixed with the Serengeti, the Outback and infused into South Asia, the mingling digs of elephants alongside crocs and leopards and bears and mongoose and peacocks and hogs snorting wild through it all—a world repository of migratory birds jungling up on the furthest speck of land furthest south for thousands upon thousands of nautical miles, a world-renowned Safari experience bristling, we soon found, with jeeps just like ours from a dozen different operators all scouring the paths and squeezing by each other in swamp-lined, pock-holed exchanges of glances and information. In the back seats, Westerners craned their necks and kept a twitching trigger finger ready on the shutter button. We nodded to one another as we scraped past, fellow foreigners in a land we could barely understand, the depth of which a day’s drive could scarcely scratch. We commiserated a moment and wished the other would get out of our way.

Here, piggy piggy
Here, piggy piggy

Guides bounced us all along and squeezed by each other’s jeeps, pausing a moment to pass a slug of Betel leaf and a few shots of Singhalese, a shrug or two, and a lurch forward into the maze and tangle of paths winding in and out of the swamps and forests and beaches and plains of the fabled Yala landscape. A hundred jeeps on the prowl for the big game, a thousand lenses ready eat the entirety of the wild. We were in the thick of it.

We slid past pools of crocodiles, we poked our noses into hidden thickets to peer through trees at elephants’ knees, we scanned through a thousand boughs to see the songs of neon birds pouring their melodious innards out to all glory. Buffaloes were already leaving the grazing to squish themselves in the gooey mud, and mongooses scurried through the dust. Bugs hummed in the heat, and the diesel engine rattled us on and on, deeper into the wild, east and west and north and south and in and around all the lakes and creeks that Yala offered us.

Crocodile sunrise
Crocodile sunrise

We came to admire our hungover driver—he’d be in the middle of bouncing us down the path, for all intents and purposes seeming to just milk the lazing morning to appease his headache, then stomp on the brakes and arrow an index finger to a tree a hundred meters away. He’d sing out the name of a bird—in two or three languages, usually—and then whisper some interesting facts about it. Maybe then he’d mimic its call, laugh and point and watch in childlike fascination, and then drive us away—and repeat the same act for a couple dozen other species.

Aside from all those gigabytes worth of information, he somehow crammed into his head all the winding maps of the parks’ trails, the ins and outs of all the jumbled scenes surrounding us on every side, and he somehow, most impressively, managed to rumble our massive jeep right into the frenzy of trucks swarming any potential sighting of a leopard. If a vehicle was stopped on the roadside, our necks started craning and our driver nailed the gas and soon enough we found ourselves skidding to a dusty stop mere centimeters from the neighbors’ bumpers and in a perfect camera angle.

You ought to hear this guy squawk
You ought to hear this guy squawk

When we had seen our fill, he somehow twisted and crawled that three tons of steel and rubber out of its toaster-sized parking spot and back to the trails.

He was also ruthless.

Once, at an elephant sighting, he gunned around one vehicle, cut off another, and thumped us to a perfect spot in prime photo zone. He flicked off the key with a proud flourish, leaned back in his vinyl seat and smiled to himself: Mission Accomplished. Never mind the fact that he plopped us smack-dab in the line of sight of a jeep-load of blonde French kiddos, now wide-mouthed and teary-eyed that their big moment with the elephant was just dragged through the rust and diesel fumes of our glorious ride. We got out of there as fast as we could convince the driver to give up his masterful spot.

A tiny traffic squeeze
A tiny traffic squeeze

Later, we ran across a massive roadblock clogging the ribbon of dusty trail alongside a verdant swamp the size of a basketball court.

“Gotta be a leopard,” Andy said from behind the Canon. “Only a leopard gets a crowd like this.”

Thanks to our magical driver, somehow we found ourselves right at the epicenter of the fuss. Around us, whispers rose and hushed and fingers traced around objects invisible in the leaves. Eyes strained at the impossible foliage.  We waited. We sighed. We waited again. Nothing but the wind ruffled through the shiny leaves.

Hierarchy, you see, is cemented in place here. Here’s how it stacks up: at the bottom sit the plants. Exotic, stalwart, clever, and flamboyant as these guys may be, plants always are the low draw.

It's a Green Bee-eater.  I wonder what he eats...
It’s a green bee-eater. I wonder what he eats…
Doves love to pose
Doves love to pose

Birds get more press, for sure. Cars stop and snap some distant pics—but you need zoom, miles of zoom—and for most of us, we notice the colors and marvel at their varied shapes, but birds are just birds. They sit in trees; then they fly. We don’t know much more. They’re birds. I know that’s a terribly broad statement and certainly not fair to the denizens of the globe’s broad skies, nor to the few dozen inhabitants of the globe that bird-watch, but it’s what you see in Yala. After a few miles of bird sightings, jeeps don’t even stop to snap the pics. Maybe if they’d stalk and pounce and drag a bloody carcass up a tree once in awhile, people would think they’re cooler.

Above the birds, ironically enough, rest the reptiles. Monitor lizards run rampant, crocs slip through brackish ponds, and somewhere in all this, snakes of all sizes crackle and ripple through the dry leaves and into the limbs. Reptiles, forked tongues and sharp fangs and no mercy, stop cars.

Say hello to my little lizard friend
Say hello to my little lizard friend

But they can’t compete with mammals.

Maybe we’ve got some latent sympathy lurking in our warm blood for our fellow live-bearing and lactating genus-mates. Maybe it’s because they’re furrier than the scaly reptiles. Maybe they’ve got better marketing strategies. Whatever the reason, mammals are show stoppers. Jeeps slam on the brakes and cameras beep on, and manners fly out the window as everyone scrambles to grab a glimpse of one of these guys.

But that’s not so simple; mammals even have their own totem pole of popularity. Buffalo and pigs are least impressive—too mud-sucking and fly-crusted and similar to their cousins back on our continent. But climb a little higher and you find the mongoose—super exotic on all counts, and the right size to make a pet (if they would somehow refrain from clawing and snapping, of course)—the elephants, whose gargantuan size, clumsy gentleness, and face-sprouting python of a trunk guarantee its fame wherever it treads—and finally, up at the top, at the peak of animal existence, lounge the bears and the leopards.

Could it be a pet?
Mongoose: cute, but could it be a pet?

Between the two, the big cats take the cake.

People come flocking for a minute’s glimpse of the svelte coat and rippling muscles hiding a lightning pounce within the fluff and the spots and the whiskers and ears. Leopards are loved universally. They’re the stars. They’re the subject of miles of travel and hours of fruitless wishing. They’re what people journey miles and miles for. They headline the postcards in tourist displays. You’d think they’d be more friendly. Maybe appreciative. At least decent enough to pop in and say hey.

Leopards: here's what you see in the ads...
Leopards: here’s what you see in the ads…

But they’re not—and for that they’re loved all the more. They spurn our affection and sleep in their trees indifferent to our love, and hardly anyone ever sees even a twitching tail of one. And there’s a lesson here: play tough to get and make the getting extra sweet. Sri Lankan leopards have this skill down to a science—give the public tiny glimpses in tiny doses, just enough to get some hope bubbling in the public’s mind, then steal away to the forgotten backwoods to laze and wile away the baking midday heat.

What you actually get to see on a good day.
and here’s what you see in reality–if you’re lucky.

We didn’t see the slightest speck of leopard. We’re a little bitter.

At mid-morning, a huge congregation of tour jeeps gathered at the beach—a beautiful golden beach, wide and long and bookended with mounds of rolling boulders, caressed by deep blue waves lapping at its fringes then bubbling back into itself. It was the perfect spot for a resort, a pristine strand as fine as any on the island.

“This place is awesome!” I took off for the beach. “Man, we should’ve stayed here!”

Then I noticed people looking at me, horrified. I slowed. I walked. They shook their heads and turned away.

Reptile superstar
Reptile superstar

Soon, but not soon enough, I was to learn two things: (1) the beach is a protected wildlife site for the marine animals of the park, and (2) there once was a popular tourist lodge here—but it was obliterated by the tsunami.

We were standing, walking, gawking at the very beach where 47 tourists were crushed by a wave nearly twenty feet tall, a wave that exploded deep into the park’s recesses and whose undertow decimated everything in sight as it raked trees, boulders, hotels, and concrete structures over each other on its terrible path back to the sea. Only the foundation of the building was left—well, that and a large broken limb halfway up a prominent tree—this marks the height of the wave.

Turning back to the ocean, it was hard to imagine what occurred in the same spot, almost exactly nine years ago to the day. Witnesses around Ceylon report the sea drew back, back, deeply back into itself that Sunday morning, and that when the wave came many men and women, overcome by curiosity, had wandered down onto the dried sand and rock deep into the former surf. Then, of course, with a roar of doomsday thunders, the wave struck—completely, utterly, purely unexpected.

It seems too beautiful to host a tsunami
It seems too beautiful to host a tsunami

“We’d never even heard of a tsunami before,” my friend Sam had told me earlier. “No one knew anything that was happening. It was chaos.”

Chaos and heartbreak, to be exact. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Sri Lankan who doesn’t have family or friends or someone scarred or buried by that wave.

And yet they’re happy people. Andy says they’re the happiest people she knows. She has a theory about that—something to do with so much sunshine and so many sweet coconuts, so many spicy plates passed between so many sharing hands, so much time forced to be so near one another on such a tiny and pretty little island. “Maybe that’s why,” she says sometimes, “all our Sri Lankan friends are always smiling and drumming and laughing about something.”

You know when it's getting hot
You know when it’s getting hot

It’s true what she says: we have some really remarkable friendships from that place. And sometimes, when it’s late at night and we’ve eaten well and they start thumping their island rhythms on the nearest coffee table and the porch door is open to all the starlight and friends that feel like waltzing in, it’s hard to forget they just ended a civil war that spanned three decades and left thousands dead.

Like I said, we have some amazing friends.

And that talent for resilience and smiling doesn’t seem to be limited to our small circle. Our driver, for instance, was willing to tell us about his family lost to the flood. At least, that’s what we think he was trying to tell us. He was also willing to tell us about the tourists washed away forever on that same golden sand where we stood. At least, that’s what we think he was trying to tell us. And he somehow could keep smiling.

Baby Croc -- only cute from a distance
Baby Croc — only cute from a distance

After the break, we remounted the jeep and rode some more. Even Andy, that timeless navigator who never lets a map far from her tiny little paws, stopped trying to figure out the game plan. We wove in and out of swamps, took pics of baby crocs—only cute from a distance, just so you know—and marvelous birds with beaks you’re sure are mal-formed and pitiful, but somehow croak and trumpet the most amazing caws that have ever rang across any wilderness. Then we doubled back on our trail, consulted with another driver, and took off through a hidden path, skirted around boulders and a field full of buffaloes and butterflies, Then we hooked back to a main trail, bounced along until our bladders were spilling over and we were sure we were going to pee all over the poor safari wagon. Then we shot off on another dusty tributary—sorry, no leaving the jeep, not even for an innocent potty break.

Moving on down the dusty road
Moving on down the dusty road

Up front, our driver remained unfazed. He became more chatty, then less, then hot and sticky and quiet. The sun got brighter, and the pictures more washed out. The memory cards filled up with shots of the low-totem wildlife: still no bears; still no leopards, and tour time was drying up. Plus we still really had to pee.

It’s hard to take a picture of a mongoose, no matter how fluffy and cunning and quick he might be, if your bladder is screaming emergency mode.

Jeeping It Up
Jeeping It Up

I was almost grateful when I recognized we were headed down an undeviating path back to park HQ. We stuck to a single road; we were headed home.

And that was our safari. Back at the HQ, we ate some milk rice with fried chili peppers and coconut, and we took off for good old Rock City Parlor’s magnificent resort. The sun was bright, the sky clear and blue, and the wide open spaces of Yala cruised by the open air of the jeep.

The beach back at the Rock City all-inclusive
The beach back at the Rock City all-inclusive

“It’s the first day of 2014,” I said to my bride beside me. “Who knows what this year’s gonna bring.”

She nodded, face bright behind the dark sunglasses, “With a start like this,” she said, pointing to the Rock City Parlor resort, “it’s gonna be something awesome.”

She was smiling. She is sarcastic. I love her.

And just for the record, Rock City Parlor’s place–turns out it has a pretty stunning beach.  And for a smiling host, you know it can’t be beat.  Maybe it’s more of an auspicious kick-off than it first seemed.

Don't forget the deer
Don’t forget the deer
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