Sunday, May 19, 2013

Travel Monday: Hairpin bends, monkeys and the Veddas of Sri Lanka

This week I feel like I'm in Road Trip Heaven (if there is such a place)! For me, it's a little like jumping on the back of a motorcycle, the wind in my hair, and there's nothing but the wide open road all in front of me. Sheer bliss.

So here we are travelling by car from Kandy and connecting onto the A26 Kandy-Mahiyangana-Padiyatalawa Highway. This particular highway provides some of the most scenic routes in Sri Lanka with plenty to see along the way.

As always there are no set plan as to what to see, do, or where to stop. Sure, we have some idea about what sights are along the way, but no plans have been made to definitively break our journey. Our only intention is to soak in the sights, go with the natural flow, and keep ourselves open to the unexpected.
As expected, the journey was enjoyable and scenic. It varied in landscape - in some places we enjoyed the wider roads, tall trees and gentle incline; in other places it became more mountainous with soaring expansive views looking down into the valley and reservoirs; and in all places the locals appeared to be at ease with their everyday life.

We stopped a few times along the way, as you do, to eat corn by the roadside, and buy fruits to enjoy on the journey. It still surprises me the abundance of tropical fruits in Sri Lanka. The avocados we ate were deliciously ripe and flavorful. We also bought a bag of small bael (beli) fruit as well as a bag of mangosteen and some pomelos. The fruit seller was an energetic and able local lady who was running the shop by herself. When I was leaving the shop she totally surprised me, when I said "Gihila enang" (which translates as "See you"  or  literally, "I'll go and come back"), and she replied "Welcome". She then explained to us that rather than saying an alternative srilankan response she wanted to convey that I'd be more than welcome to come back and visit. How sweet!

 More driving.... more to absorb...

We made one particular stop that we all thought was pretty cool. Unfortunately I don't know exactly where it was, as it was on one of the many mountainous bends along the KMP Highway. Initially we stopped to enjoy the views, take some photos and stretch our legs. But then, the little nearby shops caught our eye and our stomachs grumbled enough that we went in search of food and drink.

The shopkeeper was quite hospitable and offered us some freshly-made rotty served with katta sambal and a cup of tea. He thought he made the best rotty in Sri Lanka! I thought this was funny. As you come to expect around Sri Lanka, we had a nice little chat with the shopkeeper and his neighbour-shopkeeper about life in general. The topics varied from what kind of trees were being planted in the area; the rising cost of living; how to make rotty on a wood-burning stove; the 18 hairpin bend road that was to come; and where we were heading.

Driving along the KMP Highway we came across some interesting sights...

... a troop of playful monkeys gathered by the roadside. I counted at least 10-12 of them!

and one monkey who wanted to sneak across the road ahead of us...

With the knowledge that we would be coming to the 18 hairpin bend road, we felt a slight anticipation at reaching the infamous stretch of road.

Pretty soon we arrived at the sign that gave us a map of the 18 bends.

The 18-bend road was constructed by the British colonial rulers in the mid-19th century as an estate supply route. It connects Kandy to Mahiyanganaya and stretches up to Padiyathalawa. There is an observation stop where local and foreign tourists layover.

It was definitely an enjoyable experience driving the 18 bends and counting the number of bends at each location. We were slowly descending and you could glimpse us nearing the view we had glimpsed from above. It wasn't safe to stop, but we managed to take a few photos.

We kept driving towards Mahiyangana...

After passing through the town of Mahiyangana, I spotted the sign for the Indigenous People's Village in Dambana. I knew we'd probably come across the remote jungle village of indigenous Vedda (or Wanniyalaeto) people, but I wasn't sure if my travelling party would be keen to go check it out. Luckily however, my enthusiasm was infectious and we made the turn off from the KMP Highway.

Veddas are the aborigines or indigenous people of Sri Lanka . The Mahawansa (i.e. the Great Chronicle or continuous history of Sri Lanka) reveals that the Veddas are descended from Prince Vijaya (6th-5th century BC), the founding father of the Sinhala nation, through Kuweni a woman of the indigenous Yakka clan whom he had espoused. The Veddas were originally hunter-gatherers using bows and arrows to hunt game, and also gathering wild plants and honey.

The population of Veddas now consists of only about 350 families, a number significantly reduced from a once thriving community. Some observers have also said Veddas are disappearing, are at risk losing their traditions, and have lamented the decline of their distinct culture. Development, government forest reserve restrictions, and the civil war have disrupted traditional Vedda ways of life. There is some very interesting information on the website if you're keen to learn more.

Upon entering the borders of the village we were approached a number of times by lads or young local boys who spoke in what seemed to be the Vedda language. They were trying to insinuate that we'd need a tour guide / interpreter for our visit. But, after speaking to them in sinhala, it became apparent they were looking to make some money off local and foreign tourists. We didn't succumb to any of those ploys (though I did note later some foreigners who did) as we were skeptical and, dare I say, aware of how things can be at tourist sites. By the time we reached the entrance and car park area to the village it was evident that the commercial side of the modern world had already made its mark on the place with numerous stalls selling handmade craft, tonics and souvenir carvings of blunt tools. We didn't linger making our way directly into the village.

It is possible to wander through the open areas of the village; visit the museum which has old photos and artifacts on display (tickets are Rs30 local adults, Rs 10 for children and Rs500 for foreigners); meet and interact with the Chief or leader of the Veddhas ; and purchase tonics, oils, ointments, bee honey, books and traditional handcrafted items that are available for sale around the village (including at the Chief's house).

We did all of the above and I took some time to sit with the Chief Uruwarige Wanniyala Aththo. According to newspaper reports he doesn't speak sinhala, however, I beg to differ. I had a little conversation in sinhala with him (owu, tikak sinhala kata karanne puluan, namut hondata sinhala nehe) after exchanging names. He was very calm and hospitable, and in no way intimidating. I did, however, find it amusing that when it came to take his photo, he grabbed his traditional weapon for the shot.

Before too long our visit with the Veddas had come to an end. It didn't seem like there was enough time to absorb everything about the Veddas - the history, culture, religion, art, rituals, language, challenges, livelihood etc. I came away feeling awed at having visited and connected to something so ancient and linked to the history of Sri Lanka. Yet, also in some respects saddened that much has already been lost, diluted and disregarded. Such is the way of things.

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