Sunday, 1 November 2015

Wild Postcards from Sri Lanka

An unedited version of my story published in the November 2015 edition of the in-flight magazine, JetWings

I furrow my brows, as the ringtone interrupts my hectic deadline. The number displayed on my mobile is unknown, but I continue to stare – something about it beginning with +94 seems deliciously familiar. I answer. Silence. Just as I return to furiously typing out the remainder of my email, it rings again. I absently answer the call, only to be greeted by rapid-fire talk in a language I don’t understand. Then it comes back to me, rusty as the memory is, from months of disuse. I get up from my chair, smile at no one in particular, and say “ayubowan.” The relentless chatter pauses. “No Sinhala,” I continue, like I’d repeated for three weeks, many months ago. The voice begins talking in an endearingly halting and lilting Hindi, “Main Prasanna bol rahaa hoon.” I can hear a smile, a shy smile. “Aapka letter aaya.” Instantly, my deadline is all but forgotten.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve, in south-west Sri Lanka, is the country’s only surviving primary tropical rainforest. Its pin-head size belies the fact that more than 60% of the flora and fauna found here are endemic to the region. Due to this high endemism, the forest has been declared a UNESCO heritage site.

Prasanna was my eyes and ears in Sinharaja, where the earth was as slippery as grease, and battalions of leeches clung to every human who dared brave the incessant rains. The sky flickered between innumerable shades of grey, and could barely be glimpsed through small gaps in the tall, dense rainforest canopy. The highlight of my trek was witnessing a mixed-flock hunt, with raucous drongos, frisky babblers, belligerent Blue Magpies, and even the dignified trogon, feasting on worms and insects emerging from the rain-battered earth. The forest trail yielded birds, fungi, flowers, snakes, and lizards of such varieties, that we were constantly surprised at every turn; even the endangered Purple-faced Leaf Monkey revealed itself on my last evening at Sinharaja.

At the end of each tiring day in the forest, I’d return to my room at Martin’s Simple Lodge, a place which is exactly as its name suggests, swapping sightings and experiences with fellow birding enthusiasts while savouring refreshing tea in the terrace overlooking Sinharaja’s dipterocarps, or while nonchalantly plucking leeches off our persons by the communal tap. The owner, a former guide and a wealth of information, is a man of few words; what makes him smile though, is visitors’ childlike enthusiasm at having seen a Red-faced Malkoha or a Ceylon Frogmouth up-close, in the forest he holds dear.

"Sinharaja’s villages don’t have pin-codes; how will my letter be delivered?" I’d asked, while saying goodbye. Prasanna just smiled, answerless. I needn’t have worried: the letter, along with photographs of Sinharaja, had reached him within a week of my convincing my neighbourhood post office that I was not ‘wasting eighty rupees in postage’.

“There is an error in your identification” Prasanna says, alluding to the contents of my letter, “This is a Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, not a Bear Monkey.” I apologise sheepishly for my rookie mistake. The mention of the Bear Monkey, though, swings me along to another place, another day.

Horton Plains National Park, located in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, is the country’s only montane grassland and cloud forest. Due to its high elevation, fog and clouds deposit a large amount of moisture, creating a unique ecosystem of moist grasslands, swamps and wetlands. The endemic flora and fauna have evolved to suit this peculiar habitat. Ohiya is a convenient base for exploring Horton Plains. However, due to extremely limited accommodation here, most visitors prefer to stay at the popular hill station Nuwara Eliya, almost two hours away.

The mountain railway at Ohiya snakes through dense foliage, from which peek colourful tin roofs. An occasional curlicue of smoke from a cooking fire is the only sign of habitation. Hiking along the tracks brought well-preserved, century-old sleepers and metal components my way. I was also rewarded with an encounter with the endemic Bear Monkeys, cousins of the species in Sinharaja. Over twenty of them, jumping from branch to branch, with a wary eye on me, looking improbably like monkeys with bear ancestors - to think, I wasn’t even within the national park boundary yet!

At Horton Plains National Park, the 9 kilometre trail meandering across grasslands, seasonal ponds, over undulating rock, sometimes gravel, and finally through dense forest, can be completed in 3 hours. However, stopping to admire bright orchids and gnarly trees, while looking for Bear Monkeys and elusive birds, meant that my trekking time doubled. My guide and I trekked anti-clockwise, beginning at the grasslands, moving on to Baker’s Falls, Large and Little World’s Ends, and finally, through dense vegetation. 

Old-man’s beard, a characteristic of Horton Plains, festooned all the trees in the last stretch, whose trunks and branches were also decorated with lichen and moss. A Sri Lankan breakfast of rotti, jam, and bananas, devoured while staring into World’s End, added to the air of fulfillment and quiet contemplation; the sheer escarpment here offers views till the coastline, on one of the rare clear days like that day.

I sigh, looking at the digital clock on my computer screen. The sun has long set, and I’ve been caught up in Sinharaja and Horton Plains. A flick of the switch illuminates the room. The paperwork on my desk lies un-tackled, held down by a pebble, smooth and rounded, as grey as the sea was that day. With white specks, as white as the sand looked, reflecting the sun’s generosity beating down on it. There I go again, carried along by a wave of memories.

Mirissa, a tiny fishing village in southern Sri Lanka, attracts visitors for two reasons: its laidback, picturesque beach and its whale-watching trips. Since it lies at the southernmost tip of the entire Indian subcontinent, whales migrating east to west must cross Mirissa. The abundance of food in the Indian Ocean makes it a favourite with these cetaceans, and even the otherwise-elusive Blue Whales and Sperm Whales are routinely spotted.  

At 5:30 am one morning, travellers gathered at the whale-watching agency’s office, upbeat at the prospect of guaranteed sightings of whales and dolphins. I, however, couldn’t bring myself to ignore the knot in my stomach, as I don’t take well to open seas. On the two-decked boat, all around me was laughter, anticipation and colourful life-jackets. The tantalising omelette station on board was crowded; just an hour later, the boat’s only restroom would be; so too the railing on the deck, with nauseous travellers bent over. Despite having resolutely stayed away from breakfast, I could feel my innards churning - quite an indication of the roiling Indian Ocean.

By the time we returned to shore after six hours at sea, we had become a statistic – the only boat in forty days to not sight a single whale. I held on to precious, fleeting memories of the dolphin pod we had seen, unfortunately far enough to look merely like grey flotsam. The next afternoon, travellers were agog at having spotted multiple whales. One had even breached the water, excited voices told us. All I could do was close my eyes and picture it, the waves lashing Mirissa’s beach adding sound to my thought. I smiled, as my imaginary Blue Whale emerged from bluer waters, magnificence personified. For this, I will brave the Indian Ocean again someday, I decided, sanguinely.   

“Wapas aaoge tab milenge” is Prasanna’s parting shot. He knows Sri Lanka’s allure – you just MUST return.  Sometimes, that’s all it takes to travel in time – a call you hesitated to take.