Naked Backpacker Travelogue

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Location: Singapore

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sri Lanka: Isle of Serendipity?

The teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean is often known as the Isle of Serendipity. But today, this name is ironically, for Sri Lanka, synonymous with the ongoing civil war with the Tamil Tigers. It is a pity as this island has lots to offer to travelers: historical sites, stunning idyllic beaches, warm and hospitable people and much more.

The gem of Sri Lanka has to be its ancient city of Polonuwera. According to historical records, after the southern Indian Cholas stormed the city of Anuradhapura in 933 AD, they established a new capital in Polonuwera. Surrounding the city of Polonuwera is the huge manmade reservoir of Parakrama Samudra and till today, the inhabitants of Polonuwera still get their water from the reservoir. It must have been a real feat to construct such a colossal reservoir in those days.

Upon entering the archaeological site, we first arrived at the Royal Palace of Parakramabahu. . The residence is surrounded by two high walls, which form a gallery. Although a large part of the palace is gone, we could still see numerous wooden beams and stone staircases. It is not hard to visualize the splendor of this palace in its heydays when it is said to have over one thousand rooms.

Scattered around the Royal Palace are numerous temples, and many of these temples have been carefully restored in the last century. The numerous giant Buddha statues and the intricate architecture of these temples attest to the faith and the ingenuity of the early settlers.

If Polonuwera is captivating, then Kandy is alluring. Situated in the heart of the country, Kandy seduces and lures visitors with its cool temperature and its scenic landscape. Frequently used as a hill resort by the British in the last century to escape the simmering tropical heat, it has seen its population grows from a few thousand to over 100,000.

Today Kandy is designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List and a visit to Kandy would not be complete without a visit to the Temple of the Tooth. The Temple of the Tooth, which houses the precious tooth relic of Buddha is a small two-storey building that dates back to the 18th century. The Buddha's left tooth is enclosed in seven golden caskets in the shape of Dagobas.

An hour drive from Kandy brought us to one of the most intriguing places in Sri Lanka - the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Reputed to be the only one in the world, the orphanage houses over 100 baby elephants, who have lost their parents to the ongoing civil war and the mercenary poachers. The highlight for us was the feeding time at noon. The keepers would bring pails of milk and feed the elephants using milk bottles, giant milk bottles of course. Being babies, they would be quite mischievous, using their trunks to disturb their keepers or using their trunks to snatch the bottles from their keepers.

After meal, it was their bathing time. The elephants were herded to a nearby river where they had a jolly good time frolicking in the water and spraying water at each other playfully.

Traveling along the coastline, we spotted numerous coconut trees joined by two parallel coconut fiber ropes. Balancing tenaciously on them are the toddy tappers, who collect the slightly sour, milky opaque palm sap. This sap is then being distilled to make coconut liquor!

Another interesting sight lies in a non-descript building in Kogsoda. When we stepped into the compound, we discovered thousand of baby turtles. This is the Kogsoda Turtle Hatchery, a project by a group of conservationists to save the dwindling turtle population. To prevent the locals from consuming the turtle eggs, the hatchery came up with the ingenious idea of paying 1 rupee for every turtle egg that the local brings in. After incubating and hatching the eggs, the young sea turtles are kept for up to 3 days before being released into the sea.

Just as lovely as Kogsoda is Negombro, with its scenic Negombro Lagoon. Situated within close proximity to Bandairainaike International Airport, this town supports 65,000 inhabitants who make their living from tourism and fishing.

That day, I set out for a stroll along Negombro Beach. I reckoned that the pounding of the waves and the aroma of the ocean would rejuvenate my mind. I have been to many impoverished countries before but nothing could prepare me for what I am to encounter next.

Nestled amongst the five-star resorts of Negombro, lies a fishing village haunted by poverty and eluded by development. One moment, I was meandering through the chaotic array of houses, the next moment, he was beckoning me to his abode.

To describe the interior as spartan is an understatement. Except for a tattered mattress and a damaged rack, there was absolutely nothing in that room. Whatever little clothing they have, was stuffed in plastic bags and was scattered over the room. It was dark and dank and the only light that filtered in came from the solitary doorway. The room was much smaller than my bedroom and yet it housed seven people! They borrowed a wooden stool from their neighbours and insisted that I sat on it while they sat on the floor and surrounded me.

I felt a bit awkward by the attention that they lavished on me. They apologised profusely for not being able to offer anything to me other than a cup of red tea.

Dad, with his weather-beaten face worked as a fishing assistant on board a trawler and was the sole breadwinner for the family. He was barely able to make ends meet with his meagre income. During the past few days, the wind had been too strong for the trawler to move out. No fishing meant no income and they had not had any food for the last 48 hours.

Mom, who looked much older than her 35 years of age, is a mother of 3 children and a grandmother of 2. Years of hardships and sufferings had left their indelible marks on her face.

Managing a smile despitethe adversities"Only 2 of my children are left", she lamented with a tinge of sadness. "We lost our only son when he was abducted by the Tigers (Tamil Tigers) 5 years ago. They are so heartless; they take away my only son. He is such a poor thing, only 11 years old. We never get to see him again, we don't even know whether he is still alive".

"That war, that terrible war forces us to move down to Negombro. We lost everything, our house, our land, our son...," her voice quavering with emotions. "We come here with nothing, nothing but the shirts we wear, and till today, we still have nothing", she sighed in resignation. "When we first arrived at this village, the other villagers did not welcome us at all. We slept in the open and begged for food for months before we toiled to make this little place."

I glanced around this dark dingy hut; the thought of spending a night here made me feel queasy. Yet she seemed incredibly proud of this dwelling that they have slogged to build.

Her eldest daughter, at 18, is a mother of two - a 3-year old daughter and a newborn baby. "This poor boy has to go hungry most of the times, as my daughter doesn't produce enough milk," she lamented.

Her younger sister who is mentally handicapped had been staring blankly at me all this while. She is heavily dependent on her mother to look after her. I began to ponder: maybe being mentally handicapped is a blessing in disguise, at least she does not have to cope with the harsh reality that her family is facing.

Her emancipated frame, exacerbated by years of malnutrition and hardship, protruded dismally against her oversized T-shirt. I was appalled at her condition and could not help staring at her. Apparently, she was uncomfortable and began to shift around awkwardly.

It is amazing how they could still manage to carry a smile on their faces in spite of all these adversities that had befallen on them. I could not help asking them how they managed to remain optimistic in the face of all these misfortunes."

Actually we are very lucky to be alive. Many of our friends in the north have been killed by this war. Everything in our lives is fated. Our bad karma is due to the sins in our previous lives so we try to atone for our sins in this lifetime so that our next lives will be a better one."

Suddenly all my problems in my life seemed so trivial. A family whose survival is at stake can remain optimistic and be at peace with themselves. Their words, their lives touched and invigorated me deeply.

They taught me an invaluable lesson, a lesson on human perseverance and courage. They showed me their indomitable human spirit, a spirit so strong that can surmount any obstacle.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

Palau - Jewels of the Ocean

If paradise exists, then this is definitely the place!

As the plane circled and prepared to land at Koror International Airport, I caught glimpses of the coral atolls of Palau. The mesmerizing beauty and splendor of the scene rendered me speechless until I was jolted back into reality by a stewardess who was chiding me for not having my seatbelt on.

Adrenalin ebbed endlessly through my body as I stepped out of the Continental Micronesia Airbus onto the hot tarmac of the airport runway. It had been a tiring 36 hours, 3 flights journey to Palau. Not many know of its existence and even fewer know of its location. Its remote location, coupled with its dismal flight connections excludes it from the tourist circuitry of even the most intrepid travelers.

The Republic of Palau is one of the youngest nations around, having obtained its independence only on 1 October 1994. Geographically, it is part of the western Caroline Islands and lies in the westernmost part of Micronesia. The Palau archipelago consists of the islands of Babeldaob, Koror, Peleliu and Angaur, the coral atolls of Kayangel and Ngeruangel and of course the jewels of Micronesia - the Rock Islands. The Rock Islands are limestone islands and numbered about 200, stretching from north to south, covering a distance of about 125 miles.

The airport terminal is rather basic and drab. However the warm hospitality rendered by the staffs duly compensated this infrastructure deficiency. They spared no effort in assisting us to book our accommodations and in briefing us on the attractions that this wonderful country has to offer. A short drive brought us to the capital, Koror.

This is indeed a capital like no others. With a population of 12,000, it does not have the bustling feel of a city. A narrow two-lanes street serves as the main artery of the city. Non-descript buildings are juxtaposed on both sides. Traffic tends to choke up especially during the rush hour. There are few attractions in Koror but it is a convenient base to explore the Rock Islands.

The following day, we headed out to the small island of Peleliu. We endeavored to reach Peleliu by the local state boat, but it was a bad decision. The boat was clearly overloaded. Over a hundred people, together with their paraphernalia ranging from bicycles, trams to fresh food were sandwiched in a boat that were designed to carry no more than 50. Other than the blatant disregard for safety, the additional load caused a 3 hr journey to end up as a 5-hour journey. The weather was not too kind to us. The drizzle coupled with the rough open seas sent colossal sprays of water upon us, drenching us from head to toe thoroughly. But it was not all too bad. At least, the boat ride provided me with lots of opportunity to chat with the locals who were all too eager to find out more about us, since tourists always fly into Peleliu and foreigners are a rarity on the State Boat.

Peleliu, although only 5 square kilometer in size, was the site of one of the bloodiest battle during World War II. In two months in 1944, the fighting on this islands had left a casualty statistics of over 15,000. During its heydays, the population of Peleliu numbered in the thousands with settlements being found all over the island. Today, there is only one village on the northern part of the island with a population just above 500. Many villagers had followed the exodus to the capital in search of better career opportunities.

Peleliu does not see many tourists nowadays, which is amazing, considering the fact that it is a treasure trove of historical artifacts. Remnants of the war, ranging from tanks to warships to planes could be found at every little corner. Complimented by its scenic beaches and spectacular scenery, this island could be a hot tourist spot by its own merits.

Wenty Inn was our pre-booked accommodations on the island. It was staffed by a Filipino couple, Ray and Christina who happened to be one of the most gracious hosts around. From whipping up gastronomic meals to showing us around the island, they made every effort to ensure that we had a wonderful time on this island.

The attractions around the islands are too numerous to list but the following are definitely not to be missed at all costs. At Camp Beck Dock, an amazing number of WWII plane engines, ships and bunkers can be found.

The waters are enticing and a soak in it left us feeling completely invigorated. Snorkeling among wrecks can be a rather sobering experience. Honeymoon Beach and Orange Beach are superb for snorkeling. At the Peleliu Peace Memorial Park, we are able to spot Angaur Island to the south and view several dramatic blowholes exploding aggressively and the incessant crashing of the surfs on the headlands.Orange Beach is the site where the first US invasion forces first landed on Peleliu. Today there are two monuments with plaques dedicated to the sacrifices made by the US Army 81st Infantry Wildcat Division. There is also another monument on Bloody Nose Ridge, the highest point on the island, which provides a panoramic view of the entire island.

It was with a heavy heart that we bade farewell and boarded a six-seater plane for the 10 minutes flight to Angaur. Angaur, another tropical gem in the Pacific Ocean, has a population under 200 and a certain timeless South Seas charm. Lying outside the protective reefs of Palau, open seas pound the north coast endlessly, resulting in a spectacular sight of the sea blasting through numerous blowholes.

The population of Angaur is easily outnumbered many times by the thousands of crab-eating macaques inhabitating its forests. The monkeys were accidentally released in the early 1900s, when they were brought to the islands by the German to monitor the air quality in Angaur?s phosphate mines. Together with land crabs, wild fowls and giant chameleons, they contribute to the diverse and abundant fauna on this island.

Sadly, Angaur like Peleliu had also earned a notorious mention in the history text as its soil had been tainted with the bloodshed from the many who have died during the fierce battles that had taken place. Like Peleliu, the dirt tracks that interweave around the islands are dotted with remnants of war machineries, each with its untold tragic stories.

Our arrival, like the US battle on Angaur, was fraught with difficulties. Leon, the owner of the Island Villa, where we had reserved our accommodations, was nowhere in sight. A local lady driving a pickup that was falling apart (in the most literal sense) offered to drive us to his quarters. The search was futile and we had to settle for the only other lodging on the island, Kasiano's Guesthouse The Guesthouse had been in a state of neglect and it was situated a long way from the sea. To compound our problems, there was no restaurant at the guesthouse and canned food became our meals for the next three days. Our problems didn?t end there. The weather at Angaur was totally unpredictable - one moment it could be bright and shiny and the next moment, torrential rain could be pelting down. The sudden change in the climatic conditions was the catalyst for the nasty cold that infected us. The worst bombshell came on Monday when we were scheduled to depart. A heavy downpour caused the domestic flight from Angaur to Koror to be cancelled and for the next 10 hours, we were holed up in the guesthouse with absolutely nothing to do.

However, Angaur is not without its redeeming features. The magnificent blowholes, the rugged cliffs, the biodiversity of its ecosystems, the stunning beaches (Green Beach, Blue Beach, Ngedloch Beach, just to name a few), and the crystal clear waters are enough to mesmerize us for days and days. The island is relatively flat and it was quite a breeze for us to get around on bicycles.

Babeldaob was the next island that held out its affable hands and beckon to us. Our encounter with Babeldaob was brief but fruitful. Although Babeldoab is the largest island in Palau and is separated from Koror only by the Palau Japanese Friendship Bridge, it remained relatively untouched by development and under-populated with just under 4000 people residing on it. We had the opportunity to visit the Palau oldest bai - a beautifully wood and thatch bai that is carved and painted with depiction of Palauan legends. Bai used to be the traditional meeting place for the Palauan and was constructed without nails using native materials of wood and thatch on a stone platform. The visit was followed by a 4WD through the bumpy dirt tracks to a scenic lookout point in the hills. At this spot, we were rewarded with a 3600 breathtaking view that took in the Rock Islands to the south, the pristine forests and the rolling hills of Babeldoab to the north and west and the Pacific Ocean lapping the Palau reefs to the east.

The climax of our trip had to be the Rock Islands Trip. The Rock Islands are indeed the crown jewels of Micronesia. More than 200 rounded knobs of limestones, covered almost entirely by lush jungle growth, dot the waters for over hundred kilometers south and west of Koror. Over long period of time, the bases of these islands have been undercut by water erosion and grazing fish, resembling emerald mushrooms rising from a turquoise blue sea. As three major ocean currents converge in the seas of Palau resulting in an abundant food supplies, the waters surrounding the islands support an impressive array of marine lives. Over 1500 varieties of reef and pelagic fish are teeming in these waters. The island themselves are also the habitats to a wide diversity of wildlife, ranging from kingfishers, reef heron, black noddies, crocodiles and fruit bats. The dive sites will be too numerous to list; today our destination happened to be Blue Holes and the Blue Corners.

These two dive sites are Palau's most popular dive sites, due to its sheer abundance of underwater life. Manta rays, sea turtles, moral eels, and chambered nautilus are enough to take our breath away. But what really made hearts stopped are the numerous reef sharks swimming around us! Sharks!! But these sharks are totally docile in nature. They seemed oblivious to our presence and we had a field day observing them.

A short ride after lunch brought us to Jellyfish Lake. In the heavily forested island of Eil Malk, we took the plunge to have a close encounter with thousand of jellyfish, of various sizes. Yes, jellyfish!

The jellyfish here, due to the lack of predators, have lost their ability to sting. The close encounter with jellyfish is a spooky yet fulfilling experience that one should not miss. The lakes in the Rock Islands are former sinkholes that are now filled with salt water and have a limited exchange with the sea. Each of these 80 lakes supports a unique ecosystem, and provides the habitat for specialized creatures that have evolved in these waters over million of years.

All wonderful things must come to an end eventually. That night after the Rock Island trip, we had to catch a flight back to Singapore via Guam and Tokyo. That night at the airport, as I was waiting in the departure lounge, all the memories from this trip flooded into my mind. Deep inside, my heart was crying. I was overwhelmed by my emotions, touched by the wonderful experiences that the Palauans have given me. I knew that I had left my heart back in Palau and this tropical paradise will etch a place in my memory.