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SRI LANKA  DIARY 1

10/12 2013 - 10/2 2014

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 My main income is made from growing Asian orchids.  I have so fare only been able to study them in situ in the dry season, but this time, I should be able to observe, learn, measure and understand their preferred conditions during the growing season. I will analyse light, pH and concentrations of nutrition along with other factors like ventilation and animal interaction. This is a very little studied subject, and with 185 species of orchids found in a relative little but climate diverse area, Sri Lanka offers a perfect study.

 A few large botanical gardens need investigation. Further more, the plugs I use for the x-mass trees are produced in Sri Lanka, and I'm invited to a VIP tour at the factory. Additionally, here are surprisingly many tissue-labs, both commercial and experimental, , and I have to visit those I can.

 However, this present diary does not deal with those experiences; it merely describes the adventures I encored along with the studies, which took me pretty much all around this beautiful and friendly country. The scientific work will be published elsewhere, and used in my daily work. Learned the hard way, I know an assistant will be very useful, and I enrolled an old friend; Claus for the first tree weeks.

 Some facts about the country. (Jump to diary)
 Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, former Ceylon, is an island country south-east of India. It stretched for 400 kilometres north/south and 220 on the widest part, giving it a total landmass of 65.610 square kilometres - 50% larger than Denmark. The highest point is Pidurutalagala, reaching 2,524 metres.

 It gained its independence from United Kingdom in 1948 and became a republic in 1972. It is inhabited by 21.000.000 citizens, mainly Theravada Buddhists (70%), some Hindus (13%) and some Muslims and Christians. It first inhabitants were Homo erectus, and the cultural history dates way back! Numerous temples and other ancient buildings are scattered around the country. Here are also 3-4000 wild elephants and 300 domesticated.

 Sri Lanka is one of 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world, and it has the highest biodiversity density in Asia. Besides from the tropical rainforest and the mist forest in the heights, some rather dry areas can be found in south-east and in the north. 27% of the 3.210 flowering plants (1.052 genera), 22% of the 113 mammals, 20% of the 250-435 species of birds, 60% of the 171 species of reptiles and 90% of the 106 species of amphibians are endemic. Here are 242 species of butterflies. Here are 24 wildlife reserves, covering around 8% of the country; I hope to visit them all!

 Besides from the orchids, I would like to see the caudiciforms of Sri Lanka. Here ought to be Alocasia macrorrhizo, Dioscorea alata (Maha vel ala), Coccinia grandis,  Commiphora caudata, Corallocarpus epigaeus, Firmiana colorata, Firmiana pallens, Hewittia malabarica and even a cactus: Rhipsalis baccifera. Another interesting plant is the world's smallest flowering plant; Wolffia globosa.

 The local currency is Sri Lankan rupee (LKR), 1000 LKR (Rs) equals €5,57 and DKK41,57. I guess removing one zero and divide by two, is the easiest for me.

Diary, 10/12. The 40L back-pack is far from stuffed. On the last tour, I brought the real big one, because I just had to carry it out to the rented car. But; when the car broke down, I was forced to leave 20 Kg of expensive gear, not to be recovered. Besides from the instruments, I only bring two cameras, a 13" Mac, five sets of clothing, a big hat, an ultra light rain-poncho, Wellingtons, flip-flops,  a good road-map, a day-bag, a guidebook, my plan and a tiny toilet-bag. Oh, yes; not to be forgotten: Two Visa cards. Only 9,3 kilos in total. We have had the first snow and a hurricane, and it is time to fly south.

 Six hours flight in pure luxury with Qatar Airways. Brand new plane with loads of new and cool features, good movies and excellent food. Unfortunately the two 60 year old ladies I'm placed in-between have a hard time coping with the free bar. Doha airport is real modern, but surprisingly, they have a severe lack of a descent gadget-store. Classic Arabic dressing on the other hand, are quite common.

 11/12. After a couple of hours, I head on for last, four and a half hour leg to Colombo. Some good food and movies later, I arrived in Colombo a bit passed three in the morning. I get through immigration real fast, find an ATM, which after quite some errors unwillingly alludes me 20.000 LKR. I didn't find the guy with my car inside the airport, but he found me, after I call him on his cell. Quite, little Suzuki Maruti 800AC, with almost 100.000 km on the clock - or is 200.000?. It seems like I have to acquire a Sri Lankan driving license, but I can do that later today.

 It is pitch dark, but luckily, the $25 get him not only to pick me up in the airport, but to drive me to the hotel in nearby Negombo. It is, not that surprisingly, closed at five in the morning, and I spend the time driving the car-guy back to the main-road and then try to get some sleep in the backseat. A mosquito and a persistent wake-up call from my watch spoils that. A stroll along the beach and a chat with several tuck-tuck drivers, whom are so friendly. A few shadow crabs are found in the early morning light, on the steep shore with huge waves.

 It is a misty morning, and just like the hotel staff, the sun don't seem to be in a hurry. I get a Lanka Special Breakfast at eight, containing of some large slices of white bread, two fired eggs and two types of curry paste. All followed by a strong cup of tea for only 380 LKR - €3 - 20 DKK. My room is still not vacant, and I take a tuck-tuck to the large fish marked down town.

 This is the marked for the small boats, and the catch is equal small. However, it is made up by the share number of vendors. Mainly tiny "gobies" and "herrings", but also quite some squirts and octopuses. I walk through what I supposes is the centre, looking for a local power-plug, some oatmeal, sucker and cinnamon. It turns out to be real hard to locate the food. When I finally do, I have to pay 1755 LKR, and I can't even find the cinnamon powder! Five and one litre of water, and I am ready to head home.

 The room is ready, and I figure I better shout my eyes a bit, before driving straight through the centre of the capital, to get my Sri Lankan driving license. Despite I haven't closed my eyes for 34 hours, I find it hard to relax. Then the staff tells me, I shouldn't bother with the license, and I head for the immigration office instead. I need an additional extension on the visa for one month, and I can only obtain that at an office down town Colombo.

 I get a few emails from Denmark. The one telling me my Visa card has been closed, does cause my worries. The 30 km tour into Colombo is through dense city, with numerous roadwork and hazards in general. The GPS does not recognise any of the roads in the area of the office, and I end up driving to the larger area.

 Parking is an unknown feature, and I end up in a private yard. Make a photo of the front of the house, get a local to point out the location on my map, and of in a tuck-tuck. He stop to ask six times, despite I have a quite clear map. Finally we find it, but then, it turns out they have taken the afternoon of to do the Christmas decorations. "Come back to morrow morning, early, sir"

 Another tuck-tuck back to the car, in perfect time to reach the airport and Claus. Before long, the car's gear leaver malfunctions. Sometimes, I have second, sometimes forth's gear. Neither are suitable for the intense traffic. Never the less, I reach the airport half an hour before Claus, and then we make it to the hotel.  We have a lot of catching-up to do, and somehow, it turns into after midnight before we call it a day.

12/12. I get a reply from the car rental company, asking me to return the car. It is a 40 km drive in third gear, right through Colombo  - quite a challenge. I postpone the nightmarish drive quite some, but at eleven I leave Claus, and by lucky change, find the beginning of the express way after 10 km. The GPS didn't know the road for the office, but the only pro-installed "favourite" on the GPS is a "office", and it seems to be the right place.

 The express way terminates around 5-10 km outside Colombo, and the traffic turns hectic, interrupted by policemen and traffic lights, massive traffic and every road twist and turns constantly. When I reach the pre-installed destination on the fare side of the capital, it turns out to be wrong. I can dump the car at a sidewalk, but I have no map and no clue have to find the office.

 I ask the owner of a kiosk/tea-shop to call the office, and tell them I'm stranded here. They promises to send someone within half an hour. I get a cup of tea and a small, real sweet cookie, a bit like natural wine gum. After an hour, a guy turns up in a tuck-tuck, and I explain once again the problem. He fights the car the last 10 km to the company, but drives me one more kilometre up the road.

 They are so persistent about that Sri Lankan driving license, and insist I get one made. I'm dropped of at a guy, who follows me to a driving school, while the car goes back to the workshop. Here, I have to pay 13.000 LKR (550 DKK/€75) - no receipt, to a girl at the office. Then another guy follows me across the road to a huge complex with test drive facilities for the entire Colombo - or country.

 I'm dumped at one counter, who hand me a form to be filled out. He fills in the information on another piece of paper and on the PC, checking it against my driving license and passport. Then over to the next - and next - and next - and next - and next - and next - and the last. Seven people have checked my passport and driving license, and I end up with a computer printed form with only the info my Danish driving license had in the first place. Further more, it only last for one month, because that is what my visa aloud me. When I get a visa extension, I have to get a driving license extension - that will be the day!

 After one hour, I'm out at the guy, waiting for me outside, and he calls my driver. I have a chat with this very friendly and sympatric fellow for quite some time, and then I'm driven back to the car office and their workshop. Here, the technician gives in, and we drive to another shop. He fixes the error - turned out they actually repaired the gear-stick two days ago. I guess they forgot to fasten the bolds properly. I get the GPS turned into English, and that sure helps.

 At five, I am ready to head back to Claus. The first hour is within Colombo, and then it turns dark as I reach the express way. Another hour, and I'm home - rather worn out once again. We get some "devilled chicken"  with sticky rice - kind of wok, real tasty. We make plans for tomorrow, and pay the bill. 9000 LKR - I hope that will be one of the more expensive.

 13/12.  We decides to head down along the western cost, through Colombo. The clutch slips, and I consider going to the rental company's shop right away. On the other hand, I would like to go outside the buzzing city and see some of the wild Sri Lanka. It is a 145 km drive to Hikkaduwa, and a rather good highway starts on the other side of Colombo.

 It leads through wild forests and small patches of farmland. Here are coconut palm-trees, gum tree plantations, rice patches, screw-palms, kapok trees, kingfishers, white-headed kites,  rock-formations, divided by large rivers. A few water buffalos and some small zebu cows make up the stock. Large white herons, the small cow herons, buzzards, kingfishers and sometimes a glimpse of the ocean.

 We reach Hikkaduwa at two, and find a reasonable hotel with beachfront, right in the tourist trap of a village. Here are quite some pale people in ridiculous clothing, but then again; it is a perfect beach with a great surf. We head up the coast to get to the Moonstone Mine. Claus feels peckish, but the tourist trap only offers burgers to a real steep price.

 Further up the road, they have only heard of tourists, and we both get fried rice, half a mango and tea for half the price of one burger. They have a pond inside the house with 61, two day old sea turtles. They have bought the eggs from other locals, and will release the hatchlings in a weeks time. Some of the constructions of this awesome place is made up by whalebones. I get the great tour to most of the rooms, facing the water.

 Then it is time for the mine. Actually, here are several, and we head  for a small one. We walk through a cinnamon plantation, and see the cinnamon-oil factory. A huge boiler - a big barrow, is all it takes. At the mine, they dig a 20 meter deep hole, and then ten metres out to the sides. It is loose gravel with 20% small rocks in. Quite a lot is actually white- and blue moonstones, but also some gray, clear and blue quarts and other semi-gemstones.

 Right next to it is  big hole, and the three workers shows us how they work. Then we are gentle but determent pushed through the factory, polishing the stones, and mounting them in silver. Last, we reach a real modern and big store. Despite the girls' efforts, she can only sell us two blue, unpolished pebbles.

 Next point of interest is Hikkaduwa Lake. The directions are real weak, but finally we find this large lake. There is no road leading around it, but down to it. One resort have a boardwalk, another road end at some fishing locals. It is turning darker, and numerous large starlings and what appears to be Alexander parrots, passes over the lake towards the coast and the big trees along it. On a few trees, huge clusters of orchids are found.

 We reach the hotel just in the fading light, and make a writing/photo brake before dinner.  We find a small, but rather exclusive restaurant with authentic dishes. We get the full menu, which is prepared from the raw materials, and it is absolutely delicious. Despite the luxurious surroundings, we only have to pay 1500 LKR, including a coke and some nice tea.

 There is a cricket match on; Sri Lanka - Pakistan. I watched cricked while I lived in South Africa, and Claus have played it for years. We find a bar which stay open, and while I work with my photos, we watch the match, where Sri Lanka make a all-time record score of 211 on 20 innings. We later learns, they won the match. As usual, it passes midnight before we get to bed.

From here, we head down to the southern coast. The first slide-show.

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