SRI LANKA: Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Part I, Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Tea plantations cover the highlands of Sri Lanka
My friend and fellow children's book writer Gretchen Woelfle recently returned from an exciting 16 day cycling trip in Sri Lanka. Here is the first of two installments about her trip. 
My latest sixteen-day cycling adventure took me to Sri Lanka, described as “land of spice and splendor” by Intrepid Travel, our Australian tour company.
Lunch time!
Our international group of sixteen took off north from the beach at Negombo and traversed a wide circle of coastline, farmland, mountains, World Heritage Buddhist sites, and national parks, down to the south coast, and ending in Colombo.

Local fishing boats still use an outrigger float for stability in choppy waters
We cycled along pristine beaches, some touristic and others filled with colorful fishing boats. 
Drying fish on the beach in Negombo
Shimmering rice paddies and coconut tree plantations dazzled in the sunlight. Many centuries ago Sri Lankans built huge artificial lakes to irrigate crops and these provide habitat to gorgeous birdlife.
Rice paddies share fields with coconut and banana trees
Traveling on two wheels down quiet lanes through villages, farm fields, and along lakes meant we saw, heard, smelled, and touched the countryside. For taste, Sampath, our superbly informed guide, arranged sumptuous meals for us in private homes and small local restaurants.
A delectable meal of rice and curry
Sri Lankan cuisine is similar to South Indian food, based on rice and curry with many coconut flourishes. Breakfast buffets offered tropical fruits picked ripe: oh-so-sweet pineapple, papayas, bananas and more.
Tea workers weigh their pickings several times a day
European invaders coveting the spice trade arrived in Sri Lanka 1505. First, it was the Portuguese, who were ousted 150 years later by the Dutch. The British took over in 1815, cleared vast areas of jungle, and planted tea. The highlands are blanketed in tea plantations and the leaves are still picked by hand, by women. It’s the lowest paid job on the island.
Mother elephant with sleeping baby
Our cycling days covered 25-45 miles a day, usually completed by lunchtime since we started early. Free-time activities included a train ride into the hills; climbing mountains; visiting a tea factory, raucous urban produce markets, and an elephant orphanage; lazing by hotel pools and swimming in the Indian Ocean.
Man with a cart at the produce market in Colombo

At a lush spice garden I learned the various spices in curry powder (5), garam masala (6), korma (7), vindaloo (8), and phall (9). Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka, so I bought a goodly amount. An afternoon’s safari in Yala National Park gave us close-up views of a lovely herd of elephants and a sloth bear. A traffic jam of other gawking-tourists’ vans kept us from seeing a leopard.

Sirigiya rock – site of a 5th century fortress (reached by 1200 stairs)!
What moved me most, however, were the Buddhist temple/monastery complexes – both archaeological and contemporary. Next week I’ll describe some of temples, stupas, and ceremonies we witnessed.

Intrepid Travel offers eight tours of Sri Lanka, from two to fifteen days.

Book recommendations:
The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka
Romesh Gunesekera, Noontide Toll. A novel of contemporary linked stories of the lingering impact of the civil war.
Romesh Gunesekera, Reef. A compelling coming-of-age novel about a servant boy (1960s-90s).
Leonard Woolf, Growing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904-1911. Before he met Virginia, Woolf spent these seven years as a British bureaucrat in (then) Ceylon.
Leonard Woolf, A Village in the Jungle. This 1913 novel is a powerful but gloomy portrait of village life.

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