Brian W Fisher

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Two Drops

Two Drops in the Ocean off India's south coast are highlights of any traveller's diary.
The larger one hangs precariously like a teardrop from the southern tip of India, oft called by poets and those in days past with literary imagination, Serendib, but called by its British colonial masters, Ceylon, before finally reverting to the Sinhalese name of Sri Lanka following the island's independence.
A much tinier one, a mere dot really, some five hundred miles south called Meerufenfushi, is one of the Maldives coral atolls barely above sea level that tantalises tourists to its white talcum powder beaches and azure-blue lagoons.

Both were victims of the Tsunami that devastated the entire region on that fateful Boxing Day not very long ago. Having visited many of those areas since, including southern India and western Thailand, to see at first-hand the aftermath of that ferocious wave and the efforts at reconstruction, I wanted to witness the effect it had on two of my favourite tropical destinations, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, two countries regularly featured in many major tour operators brochures as dual holiday escapes. I also wanted to know whether these once popular choices by British holidaymakers were still so and if not, what were the reasons?

Normally booking and confirming my air travel and accommodation independently, for this tour I strayed, by utilising the services of two tour operators, setting between them the task of tailoring a specific itinerary for my party of four. A test really to compare prices and facilities offered (and actually delivered?) with my usual, personal, direct contact arrangements.

I chose Thomas Cook and Kuoni, mixing and matching venues, lengths of stay, room grades, board terms, airline carriers and flight timings. Quite an assignment but necessary if my purpose was to be fulfilled with the least hassle and the most beneficial effect. I'm happy to say that both companies almost scored a perfect maximum (only one lack of international communication caused a slight hiccup, which an encouraging pat on the back and a few smiles soon cured).

A detailed study/comparison as to their charges versus direct booking by myself, proved to be a pleasant surprise. Taking all into consideration, such as ground transfers and local representation by knowledgeable personnel, the cost variation was minimal, only amounting to a few pounds per person. The age of package deals seems not to be over yet! As to the question often posed by holidaymakers and TV travel presenters alike...'Are package holidays good value for money in these days of the Internet'? Yes and no would be my answer.

If a person is prepared to study a number of tour operator's brochures carefully for the best match as to requirements, then take the time to visit their (normally) High Street shops and discuss in detail exactly what is wanted before finally negotiating a discount (most will agree!) then the end price could well prove to be favourable when compared with doing it alone So, having done just that, I led my party aboard a Sri Lankan Airlines Airbus at Heathrow and the tour began.

Sri Lanka is indeed a country of contrasts. Always tropically hot of course but large enough to have distinct seasonal weather patterns as far as rainfall is concerned. Therefore, if a rain-free holiday is for you, merely scan the back pages of tour operator's brochures and note which months fit your bill. I chose February and in the twenty days the tour lasted, we experienced just one evening of quite welcome, cooling rain. Rather than generalise, I have decided to let this report run in the same order as the physical tour took us, relating the experiences and opinions as encountered.

I had chosen Sri Lankan Airlines as our carrier, as from past experience, they were hard to fault. But not this time! The Airbus seemed tired. Frayed carpets, leaking toilets, lack of vital amenities and even broken and quite dangerous seats were certainly not expected. Although the cabin crew was polite, efficient and pleasant, their manner could not outweigh the aircraft's apparent lack of routine maintenance. That we landed almost two hours behind schedule did little to enhance the mood of passengers when added to the problems. Subsequent conversations with a number of them confirmed my own observations and more than one opined a decision not to fly with that airline again. A pity really as the country had (and still is) suffering from a distinct drop in tourism from European travellers.

Colombo airport is undergoing a major refurbishment (long overdue). Even so, passage though the usual systems proved to be painless and smooth and we were soon outside among the colourful throng of local folk and heading for our awaiting mini-van, which was to take us to our first hotel, Mount Lavinia, some 20 miles south. The journey took almost two hours, our driver weaving his way through every type of moving obstacles imaginable. Highly decorated and overloaded trucks belching clouds of diesel fumes, vans, cars, motorbikes with three (or more) up! cycles, pedestrians, cows, elephants, dogs, cats and potholes. The cacophony of noise was only outdone by our specially installed horn, one, as our driver explained, that was more essential than efficient brakes! We all believed him. Never mind Orlando theme parks, this experience never fails to thrill and pump adrenaline.

The white facade of the hotel was a welcome sight and visions of old colonial Britain merged with existing thoughts of a comfortable bed and a good night's sleep after some eighteen hours of travel. Mount Lavinia Hotel perches on a promontory, constantly washed by the breaking waves of the Indian Ocean. It's favoured (and rightly so) by many tour operators as it's perfect first-night stay prior to any of the numerous island tours, which, after a lavish breakfast, start from there. No roads in Sri Lanka can be classed as free flowing. European standards of surfaces are certainly not applicable here. Yet, our car journey from the west coast inland and upwards to the island's highest region of Nuwara Eliya (literally meaning City of Light) went smoothly. It's a small and delightfully pleasant town nestling atop a mountain some 6000 feet above sea level and crammed with interesting views and experiences.

Inside a cavernous building where tea is processed is another world indeed. Built by the  British in the Victorian era and clad with what looked like acres of corrugated tin sheets, nothing seemed to have changed since those days. Such buildings simply called 'tea factories' straddle many hillsides. They are hubs nestling among vast swathes of tea shrubs, which deceive the eye into believing that entire mountains have been manicured. Tamil women with large sacks slung on their backs, held in place by a band of cloth stretching across their foreheads, pick only the topmost, new, leaf-shoots and with unerring dexterity toss them over their shoulders and into the sacks. Each leaf is precious - none ever seem to miss the target because their very livelihood depends on filling that sack as many times in eight hours as possible. Just how they can return a wave and beam tourists a wide smile during such backbreaking and finger aching work will remain a mystery to me.

Experienced guides, brim full of knowledge, lead the way through each tea-making process. Huge wood-fired boilers provide the necessary heat; ancient machinery constantly mills, spins, shakes and sorts the leaves into the required size and type. Nothing is hidden from visitors prying eyes, their camcorders zooming into every nook and cranny. Finally, the way out from the noisy and quite dusty environment leads to a haven of peace and tranquillity, the teashop. More smiles are encountered on the faces of the young women who, like something out of a Dickens novel, serve beautifully brewed tea in china pots into equally delicate cups on white cloth covered tables already laid with the necessary accoutrements. The perfect end to a most interesting visit.

Keeping to the Victorian genre, I had selected a hotel befitting its surroundings, the St. Andrews. Set in immaculate grounds where the flora is mostly verdant green, its old-world style is reminiscent of many English country hotels. Wood panelling is predominant, guest's rooms are high-ceilinged and large, beds wonderfully comfortable and (if you must) the ubiquitous television set stands like some futuristic icon on a hand carved chest. The food here was of a standard not expected, akin to the very best cordon bleu. Not a single complaint could be heard from a room full of relaxed and satisfied diners.

The town itself is well worth exploring. Totally different to Colombo, narrow streets crammed with pavement shops, a bustling bus station next to a thriving market square laden with fresh produce. It is also worth noting that the region is famous for its vegetables, the growing skills of which were introduced there by the British a hundred years earlier and nurtured ever since. More evidence of the British influence is the magnificent eighteen-hole golf course, which, to the eye of yours truly (a non-golfer) would be given the thumbs-up by Tiger Woods.

Our tour schedule meant only one night here and so after breakfast and with many of the staff grouped at the hotel's front entrance to bid us farewell, we boarded our minibus and set off for Kandy, once Sri Lanka's capital city. Raja (our driver) was a mine of information, gave it freely and with considerable skill as we descended rapidly around corkscrew bends. At each thousand feet down towards sea level the scenery changed. Tea bushes faded from view to be replaced by conifers, which in turn gave way to the more usual tropical flora. Villages became more numerous (as did the population) when the terrain flattened and Kandy suddenly appeared as if it didn't want to be found. The answer came when we were told that it was the only city in the world hidden by mountains on all sides.

At its heart is the man-made lake, basically rectangular in shape, around which many of the most interesting buildings and cultural centres lie. Tourists and droves of Sri Lankans queue patiently for a moment's fleeting glance at the most precious and revered Buddhist item...his tooth! Hidden within a small box, which in turn is secreted in another and then five more, the fragment of worship is rarely revealed and only then to the land's most senior monks.

However, the Temple of the Tooth itself is well worth a visit to witness the frenetic drumming by seemingly non-exhaustible musicians and the beautiful interior architecture, decoration and rows of exquisite Buddha statues. Still in the culture mode we spent a most entertaining hour along with an audience of fifty or so Europeans, watching an indoor stage performance by Kandian dancers. They whirled like Dervishers, stamped their bare feet on the wooden floor and leapt in all directions to the beat of a quartet of drummers who, in a trance-like manner dictated the speed (and volume) of the show. All wore colourful and highly decorated costumes, bells on their feet and arms and most expressive make-up...and these were the men!
The mood changed to one of serenity when the women made their appearance. Demonstrating through the art of dance and exquisite hand movements, they took us into the world of rice picking and celebration of harvest to the accompaniment of a solo flute player...enchanting!

The whole show ended in spectacular fashion when everyone was ushered outside just as the sun dropped below the horizon and a bed of hot coal embers strewn on the ground became the main source of illumination. Fire-eaters blew streams of flame as they startled us and after a number of circuits (to exhibit their skill at close range?) they gave way to others, which seemed to be immune to walking bare-foot across the glowing coals to the amazement of us all. Each pass became more adventurous as they responded to the applause and cries of wonder. None of us took umbrage as, when the show ended, two of the participants stood at the gate holding boxes labelled 'TIPS, and wearing smiles (and sweat) on their faces. As almost the last to leave, I was pleased to note that my contribution dropped onto a pretty healthy pile.

Our base in Kandy was the Topaz hotel; one well used by tourists and featured in many tour operators brochures. Perched atop one of the peaks surrounding the city, the spectacular view was certainly worth the torturous effort to cajole our minibus up and around the so-called road which led to it. First gear was the order of the day as was a certain amount of holding ones breath until it managed to arrive at the hotel's entrance. Climbing wasn't over yet though, it was our turn to exercise leg muscles because the only way to the reception area was up not a road but a flight of what seemed never-ending steps.

'Adequate' was the only word that came to mind if I had to describe the hotel's ambience, facilities and staff. Not a place to linger (except for a while to admire the views) but not a bad place to lay one's head after a strenuous day full of interest and activity. On the outskirts of the city are the botanical gardens. An early morning visit the next day was delightfully rewarding. Acres of painstakingly maintained vistas brought many exclamations of approval to our ears. Specimens were thoughtfully name-tagged and professionally sited by what must have been persons of knowledge and expert horticultural experience. The quiet serenity engulfed our senses as we wandered oblivious of time and life outside the ornate gates and when we entered the orchid house, yet another world was opened to us.

Vibrant colours, delicate scents, intricate shapes and wonderfully amazing species had been cleverly sited or hung and tied-to small living trees and allowed to follow their natural habits in a quite superb way. It was little wonder that their keeper (and no doubt lover) was anxious to impart his enthusiastic, encyclopaedic knowledge to anyone who would listen. All four of us did with attentive ears and appreciative eyes. The visit became a regular topic as we journeyed-on westwards to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Began a number of years ago as a refuge for young elephants, which had, for whatever reason, lost their parents, the establishment thrived, initially on government and well-wishers grants and of latter times from the ever-increasing number of fascinated visitors who willingly pay to see them. The site itself is looking somewhat tired and scruffy and the number of elephants of all ages has reduced recently.

However, patience is rewarded handsomely when at nominated times of the day, the gates are opened and the entire herd crosses the busy road without a care in the world, makes its way down a narrow, souvenir-shop lined road that leads to a river, followed by admiring onlookers.
What happens next is a magical time indeed. Dozens of these highly intelligent animals trumpet their pleasure at the sight and smell of the river, tread surprisingly delicately across the boulder-lined bank to part submerge themselves in its cooling embrace. Mahouts, ever so protective of their charges, scoop hands-full of water over their hides, rubbing vigorously at the now darkened skins wherever the elephant proffers a reachable surface. They roll in seeming ecstasy as camera-owners jostle for better close-up angles, especially to focus upon the babies, which nestle closely to their protective parents. Digital images must fill memory cards galore to be re-lived by their owners on return to homelands.

Driving towards the setting sun some hours later brought us to the coast and my chosen resort of Club Bentota, which I hoped would prove to be a restful break after the quite frenetic pace of the past few days. Prior research had prepared me for what was entailed in actually getting to the hotel as maps had shown that it was sited on a spit of land with a wide river on one side and the ocean on the other. We bid Raja goodbye with grateful thanks for his constant flow of knowledge, skilful use of the van's horn! (he appreciated that friendly jibe) and his success in keeping us happy throughout the tour. He reversed and drove off, the horn blaring, one hand waving from the open window and the last glimpse was of his white teeth framed in a genuine smile as the vehicle turned left and disappeared.

We'd flown on a jet-plane, travelled well over a hundred miles by minibus - now it was the turn of a boat crew to ferry us and some ten other expectant tourists across the half-mile wide river to be met by yet more smiling faces, those of the resort's welcoming party. Club Bentota is an all-inclusive hotel set in acres of carefully kept grounds and aimed mostly at an adult clientele. There are various classes of accommodation including single-story bungalows. I'd booked these, which turned-out to be a good choice as they were well equipped, spacious and sporting a secluded balcony large enough for times of quiet conversations with friends, when reflecting on experiences so far. Although this is a large resort with hundreds of guests, there are enough facilities and activities to ensure an absence of queues. Food, as in most all-inclusive resorts is buffet-style with sufficient variation to satisfy the palettes of the many nationalities, which favour this popular hotel. Cordon-bleu it is not but we didn't choose the Sri Lankan equivalent of the Savoy to unwind either.

An evening boat trip inland along the river should not be missed. Within a half-hour of leaving the jetty, the small powerboat is steered into the mangroves, which line the banks. Engine off, we pull and push against the overhanging branches in silence listening to the mimicry of mynah birds and searching for a glimpse of the highly coloured parrots. Reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart and The African Queen, we finally re-emerged onto the vast expanse of this majestic river, wiping sweat from our brows, secretly relieved, sub-consciously savouring one of the cocktails, which would be (freely) available on our return. Four days here had charged the batteries enough for the next stage of our adventure, the Maldives. Not very welcome was the 1.30am departure from the hotel for the near three-hour drive north to Colombo airport to arrive at the mandatory three-hour pre-boarding time of the Sri Lankan Airlines flight to Male, the capital of the Maldives, where the only international airport is sited.

A little over an hour's flight on which a continental breakfast was served saw us touching-down on a runway, the end of which seems only yards from the ocean. Expectations suffered a degree of dampening and tempers began to fray as, after joining a snaking queue of disembarking passengers from many different airlines, that queue barely moved forward. Just why some immigration officials seem to take morose pleasure in witnessing ever-increasing lines of people just itching to spend their American dollars (the favoured currency of the Maldives and in which all resorts price their wares) has always been a mystery to me. Having visited the archipelago many times before and suffered similar waits, I had hoped that some high-ranking official would have sensed the frustration and put into practice a more common sense system, which would speed-up the whole process and give excited and anxious passengers a far better welcome. After all, tourism is a mainstay of Maldivian economy.

Finally through without so much of a smile when our passports were handed back, we were greeted by the tour operator's representative who soon had us organised to board what turned out to be the most impressive (and amazingly fast) sea passage to the coral island of Meerufenfushi. Its triple hull and two massive outboard engines thrust it and some fifty passengers across the azure-coloured ocean. Like a millpond ahead and abeam and a foaming, frothing turbulence of white crests astern, the craft rose like some untamed animal with only what seemed like its propellers glued to the sea.
We were treated to sights of flying fish skittering across the surface on either side and a trio of dolphins eager to prove their mastery of the environment to us delighted spectators before finally deciding that this man-made contraption was no match for them and so veered-off to play alone.
On the horizon ahead a darkened blob broke the line, which soon became clearer, to prove that palm trees really do grow on tiny coral atolls only a few feet above the waterline.

Once disembarked and into the thatched-roofed reception area, the resort's management (Austrian) immediately proved who actually paid their salaries - US! Ice-cool drinks appeared like magic, waiters hovered with towels, porters stood on the wings as the clerical staff (with a slickness that should be imitated at Male airport), produced the keys for the pre-booked accommodation. The waiting porters commandeered them and when we identified our luggage (by now unloaded from the boat and lined-up a few feet away) put it on a soft-wheeled cart and led the way.
We had opted to stay in one of the beachside bungalows; each set among the palms and only yards from the ocean, reached over soft, white powdery sand. Once again we had chosen well.

The air-conditioning controls worked exactly as they should and all the fixtures and fittings were in perfect order. The half-in half-out bathroom was a delightful touch. Totally private, yet one could have a shower whilst admiring the myriad of stars overhead (just turn off the light). I had never seen the Milky Way so clearly before! The head chef happened to be Swiss, with a team of many nationalities under his control. For such a large resort the food was amazingly good. Again buffet style but with many add-ons not usually found. Excellent freshly made breads were available at every meal, arrays of scrumptious desserts lay on starched, white cloths waiting to tempt anyone who felt the need to try after such earlier delicacies as local tropical fish, mouth-watering soups and curries to suit every palette.

As is usual at most Maldives resorts, drinks both non-alcoholic and otherwise were expensive. Being a Muslim country, the importation of alcohol is prohibited by visitors but each resort island is licensed to sell a price! The average for a small beer anywhere is around $4, with spirits much higher than that. Even a bottle of mineral water can set you back three or more dollars. My advice! Do your homework before choosing where to stay and on what board terms, as such costs do certainly add-up and unless you have configured these extras beforehand an invoice total on the day of departure can come as a shock. The dive school here is extremely professional and multi-lingual. All the equipment is in pristine condition and thoroughly inspected before use. Whilst conducting interviews with varying members of the team of diving instructors, I took the opportunity to witness the scrupulous attention to detail as guests were kitted-out for their particular level of diving skill.

With no house reef, Meerufenfushi has to rely upon the skippers of dhonis (the standard Maldivian mode of sea travel) to take diving parties to suitable reefs, many of which are a number of miles away. It was this absence of a close to shore house reef that proved to be the biggest disappointment for us and many others, who merely wished to snorkel in safe waters to admire the scenery beneath the surface. The only alternative was to join a party of like-minded folk (which we did), pay $6 each, board a dhoni and be taken to the nearest (about one mile off shore) coral area where fish and invertebrates could be seen, after jumping off the gunwales, a leap of some six feet. If the wind was even moderate, which it was on our chosen day, the waves at this location made snorkelling hard going indeed and the majority of swimmers made a quick return to the boat, dissatisfied and, if the truth were admitted, not a little scared.

This then was the downside of the resort if you had come prepared to enjoy safe snorkelling, all the more reason to search the published material about the various resorts before booking to ensure that your week in paradise lives up to expectations. I know of only one publication which describes in full and honest detail the amenities of every island resort and which is crammed full of details. Information as to the number of guest rooms, relative density of them in regards to the size of the island, even down to the price of drinks. Its title is Resorts of the Maldives by Adrian Neville. For anyone contemplating a holiday there, it should be compulsory reading. Ignoring the lack of good snorkelling, the resort boasts many other facilities like tennis courts, a golf driving range, bicycle hire, indoor game rooms and spa treatments. Again, most are charged for, so beware!

Despite all I have said, some of which may seem negative, Meerufenfushi enjoys a repeat client ratio envied by many other islands. The management must be getting most things right for such universal approval. Seven days here did fly by. There was time to relax, laze in the shallow lagoon or lull the senses by swinging gently in a hammock under the palm trees trying to read the latest blockbuster or concentrate on creative writing - but failing -  as ones eyes refused to focus for long enough. And so before dawn, we, along with a couple of dozen other reluctant passengers, boarded yet another speeding craft, which took us back to Male, negotiating the harbour entrance as the sun poked its head over the city's white-painted buildings, turning them a soft pink. Colombo awaited exploration and the plan was to base ourselves once more at Mount Lavinia and make daily sorties into the city. Suitcases were emptied, clothing sorted, swimsuits only required for the welcoming pool on the hotel terrace after hours of saturating our senses among the throngs of people, which populated this crowded metropolis.

No one can capture the soul of such a place in a matter of a few days. Around every corner of the city's central area the melange changes. Tall skyscrapers jostle for space with façades of a bygone era. Businessmen carrying briefcases and wearing smart suits walk purposely along the crowded pavements, most of which must have benefited from repairs a century ago. The widely used form of transport tuk-tuk taxis (Colombo's answer to London's black cabs but with no reverse and only three wheels) miraculously squeeze through spaces in the perpetual traffic to the utter amazement of any European brave enough to hail one, duck beneath the canopy and tell its driver the intended destination. Shopping here, like many other places in this part of the world can either be a frustrating experience for those lacking in patience or an entertaining battle of wills as prices are banded to and fro like Ping-Pong balls. What does it matter if it takes 15 minutes to buy a fake Rolex for a few rupees or that desired souvenir? Just go with the flow and enjoy the banter.

As for eating establishments, visitors are spoilt for choice. Whether it's gourmet food you are after or the delights of local recipes, Colombo has it in spades! I've always been an advocate of the old adage 'when in Rome' etc...and so seek-out establishments where local people fill most tables. Doing so has never failed to produce the very best food a city has to offer. Guide books list the many places of interest for visitors, whether it be an afternoon at the zoo or a trip inside the new Trade Centre skyscrapers, two identical towers that dominate the skyline. Take your pick. Wherever you choose you are certain to be welcomed with smiles...Sri Lankans just can't help it.

Recently there has been a resurgence of fighting between the Tamil Tiger group and government forces with bombings undertaken by both sides. Questions of safety have to be calculated when planning to visit countries with a history of unrest it would be foolish not to. However, to put matters into perspective, compare how many people have been killed by terrorism in England (many hundred and thousands injured) yet, to the best of my knowledge, not one single tourist to Sri Lanka has suffered either. Would I go to that country again? Yes, most certainly. On this tour we merely scratched the surface of what delights can be found. There are game reserves to be experienced, mountains to climb, white-water rafting to be thrilled by, temples to see and the eighth wonder of the world; Sigiriya Lions Rock awaits your effort to climb its many steps. World heritage sites like the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are there to be explored. The choice is up to you.

So, after twenty-one days the airport beckoned once more and a full-laden aircraft lifted off the runway to carry us back to UK. At the beginning of this piece I asked a question about the popularity of Sri Lanka and the Maldives with British tourists and what, if anything had affected numbers. The answer is mixed. Some resorts are back to average room occupancy while others are as low as 15%. Some country's governments like France for instance, positively discourage their nationals from visiting the first, which, in my opinion is quite absurd but a fact nevertheless.

The Tsunami effects have mostly been rectified and strenuous efforts have been made to ensure that demanded facilities are back to normal. I found that many have improved them to an even higher standard than before and await the confidence of British tourists to return. Time will tell but I feel that it will take a concerted effort by all concerned in the travel industry to recognise the progress that has been made and actively promote the benefits and delights that await the traveller.

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