Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Archive for August 2020

Lankan Ramblings in the Summer of the Pandemic

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On the road to Thiriyai in north-eastern Sri Lanka during an unseasonal squall.

In the time of the pandemic, visitors to the island dried up and the forests, ruins and beaches that magnetically pull so many from around the world were quiet and empty. Flights into Sri Lanka were suspended and protocols were put in place to minimize the chance for the virus to spread. These were strange and challenging days, that none of us had experienced before. Our family, like so many in the Colombo suburbs, was locked down for three months. The teaching and learning that governs our life’s rhythm shifted gears as we went online and operated classes from home. Time seemed to slow down and it required extra energy to complete basic tasks. We developed new routines to balance work with exercise. We had more time for introspection. In the end, we had it was relatively painless and we were thankful to be in a place where the virus was under control. When the summer holidays came in mid-June we happily set out around our island home, looking to explore the country’s dry zone.

Our family vehicle had been taken apart, restored and repainted over the first part of the year. The COVID crisis had significantly delayed work but there was nothing to do about that and we were locked down at home anyway.  After some rather serious chassis work and new additions, it was put back together in mid-June. It had to pass the annual emissions test, be outfitted with a canopy and have new tires put on and then we were ready to pack it up for an exploration into the dry zone of Sri Lanka.

A collage of summer reflections exploring parts of Sri Lanka’s dry zone. Scenes from Dehigaha Ela (Sigiriya area), Trincomalee, Passikudah, Arugam Bay and Tissamaharama.

Sigiriya, Kandalama & Dehigaha Ela

Our journey took us on a circular loop around the mountainous interior and through the dry zone, revisiting old haunts and then exploring sections of Sri Lanka unseen previously. Leaving Colombo and the wet zone behind, we drove through Kurunegala and Dambulla into the heart of the Cultural Triangle. This area near the rock fortress at Sigiriya sits on the edge of the intermediate and dry zones and sure enough we experienced several monsoon showers. We stayed at one of Back of Beyond’s Dehigaha Ela tree houses. This off-the-grid location was set up by our friend and fellow College of Wooster alum Yohan Weerasuriya. Aside from family visits, we have been using Dehigaha Ela and the nearby Pidurangala property for Week Without Walls experiences that I coordinate for OSC. The serene setting is a fine place to slow down, appreciate Sri Lanka’s rural landscape and explore on bicycle. Our family was joined by colleague, friend and KIS alum Andry DeJong. Because of the COVID-induced curfew, Dehigaha Ela had been closed and we were the first visitors after a long stint. Sigiriya was not open and we experienced the empty surroundings and lesser sites in blissful solitude.

Heat maps from cycle rides in the Dehigaha Ela area.

One of the exquisite tree houses at Back of Beyond’s Dehigaha Ela.

Trincomalee

Four days in this once strategic port gave our family an appreciation for the stunning coastal beauty, rich cultural heritage and sub-surface marine life of Sri Lanka’s east coast. We enjoyed time with our friends the Leighs, Presleys and Bargefredes. Snorkeling, dolphin watching and diving off of Pigeon Island and the Koneswaram temple were highlights. Our last outing was to Thiriyai, the site of an ancient vaṭadāge. It is known to be one of the oldest Buddhist sites in the country and is situated near to an important but long-lost port. The origins of this Buddhist site, with Pallava links, in an a historically Tamil area of the island, hints at a fascinating past of cultural diffusion.

Passikudah, Arugam Bay & Kumana

From Trinco we drove south, navigating its modest town, passing the China Bay airfield and various harbor inlets before crossing the Mahaweli Ganga and heading south towards Mutur. I still have warm childhood memories of Trinco’s inlets, the docks and Swami Rock, from a family visit in the winter of 1977. The geography and bathymetry of Trinco’s harbor and Koddiyar bay, with its deep trench cutting from the continental crust into the Bay of Bengal, are intriguing. Nautical maps give a sense of the submarine contours but don’t seem to do justice to the sheer natural magnificence of the area.

The conflict had rendered the area south of Koddiyar Bay off limits and impossible to get through for many years. Now  a decade or more after the cessation of hostilities, new bridges and surfaced roads make it effortless. Driving south to Passikudah you traverse rich, irrigated paddies and then pockets of deprivation in a sparsely-populated landscape. We overnighted in Passikudah, a crescent moon-shaped bay of large hotels developed after the fighting stopped. It would normally be teaming with foreign tourists in the summer season. In 2020 it was deserted and only a few hotels were open for business. Further south in Batticaloa and its environs, the eastern coastal belt is densely populated with commercial and agricultural communities. We had planned to dive on one of the wrecks off  Batticaloa but put it off for another trip.

In Arugam Bay we were surprised to find a relatively lively and bustling scene. The pandemic and the precautions of mask-wearing seen elsewhere were in little evidence here. Stranded tourists and resident expatriates had found their way to this seaside mecca of South Asian surfing. Our kids took surf lessons, we had Ayurvedic back treatments and we relished the food and fine coffee. We stayed at the tastefully designed Spice Trails, run by KIS alum Prithvi Virasinghe and his wife Silje. One of our mornings was spent visiting Kumana National Park with our recently graduated student and friend Luca  Feuerriegel. He had just completed an epic cycle ride from Colombo to Arugam Bay via several key birding destinations (see his excellent blog post for details). Having my cycle was a great boon and I took a series of solo exploratory rides south of Arugam Bay. Here amidst patches of scrub forest, paddy and meandering streams I enjoyed some of the most pleasant, scenic riding that I have done in Sri Lanka thus far.

Heat maps from the area south of Arugam Bay and Yoda Lake (Tissamaharama).

Pathways and paddy along the Heda Oya south of Arugam Bay.

Tissamaharama

On our loop back to Colombo we drove around the protected areas of Kumana and Yala, through Moneragala and Kataragama to Tissamaharama. We stayed with our colleague Kristin and her husband Madhu and daughters at their place Wild Lotus.  By this time we had been out almost two weeks and so we skipped visits to Yala and Bundala in order to get home for a while.

The Yoda Lake west embankment with the Kataragama hills in the background.

Summer Wrap Up

Just before school resumed in early August I had the opportunity to visit Wilpattu National park and the sacred city of Anuradhapura. This journey, exploring Sri Lanka’s dry zone biodiversity and cultural heritage, helped bring the summer’s journey’s full circle. The next two posts detail the encounters with the natural world of the dry zone and experiences looking for moonstones amidst the ruins of Anuradhapura.

PAST POSTS

“Pigeon Island Explorations” Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2015. Web.

“Amongst the Sacred and the Sublime in the Dry Zone.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2014. Web.

“Windows on the Long Road to Jaffna.” Ian Lockwood Blog. April 2013. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2020-08-24 at 9:40 pm

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