As a cat lover (big and small), I was hell-bent on a leopard sighting. This solitary, secretive feline had eluded us on two different safari trips in Africa. Sri Lanka had to be the place.
Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is said to be home to at least 25 of these beauties. During our February tour of the island nation, we visited that park as well as two others. Sadly, no leopard showed his spots to us. We did see elephants, rabbits, a spotted deer, one wild boar, a mongoose, turtles, lots of birds including numerous peacocks. And, a sloth bear, a rare sighting according to the guide.
“Most tourists don’t see the leopard,” a guide later told me. However, we did learn that the day prior to our visit to Yala and the day after, lucky tourists did spot the evasive cat. We felt cheated.
No leopard, but lots of magnificent elephants. Some 4,000 Asian elephants, an endangered species, make their home in the tiny nation. Herds of 200 or more are a common sight in August and September in Minneriya National Park. The herds we saw in that park were much smaller, 25 to 30, but fascinating. The pachyderms are obviously accustomed to tourists and come very close to the safari vehicles. Guides know many of them by name.
I was intrigued, touched, with a mini-family grouping. A crippled mother and two offspring, one four years old and the other eight years old, were alone, apart from the herd. The guide explained that the mother, about 40 years old, had been hit by a train. She was left with a bad limp, forcing her to move very slowly. She could not keep up with the herd. Her two offspring stay with her to protect her, he explained.
Elephants need about five square kilometres each to support their 200 kilograms per day appetites. Deforestation and over development in Sri Lanka have diminished their habitat. As in Africa, they encroach on farmland. As in Africa, it’s elephants vs. humans, a challenging conflict.
White birds hang around the elephants we saw. We learned that the elephants, grazing on grass, shake the stuff before eating it. Worms fall out – a tasty meal for the birds.
Sir Lanka is a paradise for birders with 400 different species, 26 of which are unique to the country. We saw many on our safaris.
On a visit to a turtle hatchery we learned about the island’s sea turtles which lay their eggs along the coast. Eggs not collected by poachers (turtle egg omelettes are popular) hatch after several weeks and hundreds of baby turtles make their perilous way to the sea. Few survive. Many are devoured by fish and birds. At turtle hatcheries, eggs are collected and hatched in an incubator. After just one day, they are released into the sea at night. Even with this method, only one in 100 survive, about the same as in nature.
The conservation benefits of the hatcheries are limited, but the tiny turtles are adorable. Adult turtles of varying sizes also swim in hatchery tanks. Many have been injured and would not survive in the sea.
The hatchery we visited had been started by the owner’s father in 2000. He died shortly thereafter and his sister took over. She, another sister, their children and his mother all perished in the devastating tsunami which ravaged Sri Lanka in 2004, killing roughly 40,000 of its citizens. The owner and his surviving brother refurbished and reopened the hatchery.
No doubt more popular than its animals and safari parks are Sri Lanka’s beaches. They are grand, but the mountainous interior was my favorite. We spent two nights in the hills above Ella, a picturesque area of tea plantations with splendid views, hiking trails and cooler temperatures…a paradise.
For more on Sri Lanka, see previous post: Wonders of Sri Lanka.
Nimal De Silva, (firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com) chauffeured us around his country, made hotel arrangements, arranged local guides at many places — and taught us much about this fabulous country. He is a delight, very patient and accommodating. We were happy with all.
More photos of Sri Lanka follow.
At last, a new recipe and just in time for those summer blackberries. Click on photo of berries, upper right, for recipe, and scroll down for more recipes.
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Gerlinde trekked for 12 days in northern Myanmar, a region with no roads, only accessible by small plane and requiring special permission to visit. “It was the best trip ever, such an adventure, no tourists. We did not see a white face for five days,” she said.
Erich traveled by camel, through the Jordanian dessert for a week. He camped in a cave used for burials. “It was very romantic. Normal tourists don’t do this,” he said. He recalled other past adventures: Driving from Germany to Iran; being robbed, a knife at his neck, in eastern Turkey.
I wrote this article for the magazine German Life (www.germanlife.com) where it was recently published. As soon as I conquer a new operating system on my computer, I hope to post more on Sri Lanka.
Sepp has climbed mountains in Pakistan, India and Nepal. He and his wife Inge have been to Morocco, Mauritius, Uzbekistan, all European countries, and recently to India for the fourth time.
Annette returned to Rwanda for the fifth time to hike uphill through dense bamboo forests to observe mountain gorillas. “I am addicted,” she explained.
Many Germans, like those mentioned above, are passionate about travel. While the above adventures may not be among the pursuits of the average tourist, Germans are known, not just for their travel lust, but for seeking out exotic destinations and unique experiences…sometimes too unique
Ivy, a staff member at a safari lodge in Botswana, told a horrifying tale of a German couple who were driving through the game park in a rented car which broke down. The husband left his wife and set out on foot to find assistance. His wife stayed in the car and was rescued. He never returned…only his boots were found.
Most tourists visit the game parks with a group and guide, Ivy said, but “the Germans prefer self-drive.”
Comments on German travelers from a travel web site included this from someone who had worked at a resort hotel in Eilat, Israel: “From all the nations that would make our guests (and workers) it seems that the Germans were the most traveled people.”
Another comment: “I was recently in South Africa and let me tell you that I think I met more Germans than South Africans. They are everywhere!!” With six weeks of paid vacation per year, Germans have more time to travel than the average American. Travel they do, especially in winter to escape the oppressive, cold and dark days.
Norbert Fiebig, president of the Deutscher Reise Verband, sums it up on the organization web site: “Germans attach great importance to travelling. Most Germans are fascinated by relaxing holidays and discovering cultures and landscapes that are foreign to them.” Blogger Andrew Couch, who writes about Germany, finds “the quality of life idea of having vacation time is deeply a part of German working culture.”
Perhaps Germans are inspired by the country’s literary giant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His Italienische Reise (Italian Journey) is a classic. “Für Naturen wie die meine ist eine Reise unschätzbar: Sie belebt, berichtigt, belehrt und bildet, ” he wrote in a letter to Schiller in 1797. “For natures like mine a journey is invaluable; it animates, corrects, instructs and develops.”
Last year I accompanied a German tour group to northern India. Most of the group, like Sepp and Inge, had been to India numerous times, as well as many other countries. They especially like the friendly people in India, the culture, and “last but not least, the good food,” said traveler Rainer.
Our Indian guide, Rajesh Mendiratta, has been leading German tour groups for 25 years. He started out in the tourist industry working in a hotel. German guests complained that the
guides did not speak good German, he recalled. He decided to learn the language, studied at the Goethe Institute in India and became a guide mainly for Germans.
“The Germans are interested in learning about everything. They are very correct people. They are appreciative,” he said.
Most in our group knew Raj from previous trips. He has visited some of them in Germany. “They invite me in their homes. I value their friendship,” he said.
For the second portion of our trip, a younger Indian guide, Alok Tripathi, took over. Like many Indians he speaks English, but he decided to learn German and focus on German tourists because “there is too much competition with English.”
He agrees with Raj and has found that “Germans want to learn everything, the culture; traditions…Americans just want to shop.” Yet, Americans get a plus for tips. They are more generous, he said.
According to Raj, Germans rank as the number one nationality visiting India. “They saved us,” he said, referring to the slump in tourism 10 years ago when other nationalities, including the British who had been at the top, cut back on travel to India. Germans kept coming.
While Germans love India, it is not their favorite foreign destination. That distinction goes to Spain, followed by Greece and Italy. “Greece is currently having the strongest growth with booking plus of 41 percent compared to last summer,” said Susanne Stünckel, a spokesperson for TUI Deutschland, the largest leisure, travel and tourism company in the world.
Long-distance destinations such as the U.S., Mexico, South America, Canada, Indonesia and the Seychelles, are also “growing rapidly,” she said. New York is the German favorite in the U.S., followed by Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco.
More Germans, like those previously mentioned, are venturing off the beaten track, Stünckel noted, “moving more and more into exotic destinations with increasing travel experience.”
One such place is Iran, which travel agent Bettina Rohleder in Karlsruhe termed “very popular.” Travelers, including Gerlinde who visited Iran with a guide, find the country friendly and fascinating.
Yet Germany is considered the most popular overall destination of Germans who are happy with short travel distances, the close proximity of attractions, and being able to speak the same language.
“Hiking in Bavaria, swimming in the Baltic Sea, culture and history in Berlin – it’s the variety that people love,’’ said Karl Born, professor of tourism management at the Harz University of Applied Sciences in Saxony-Anhalt.
Hamburg is tops for culture this year with the recent opening of the Elbphilharmonie, the city’s new concert hall acclaimed as one of the largest and most acoustically advanced concert halls in the world. The glassy construction resembling a hoisted sail was designed by Herzon & de Meuron and is attracting visitors from around the world — not just Germany.
According to the German National Tourist Board (GNTB), culture is the number one drawing card (75%) for visits to the country, followed by the outdoors and countryside. Whatever the motivation, more and more international tourists are joining the Germans to experience the wonders of Deutschland. The nation’s tourism numbers have been up consistently for the past six to seven years.
“Germany’s reputation as a stable, safe and affluent nation has boosted its status as an attractive travel destination in recent years, especially as tourists increasingly find themselves in the crosshairs of international terrorists,” notes Deutsche Welle, the country’s international broadcaster.
With 35 million international visitors in 2015, Germany placed eighth in world tourism rankings by the United Nations World Tourism Organization. France took top honors that year with 84.5 million visitors. Most foreign visitors to Germany come from the neighboring Netherlands, followed by Switzerland, with the U.S. in third place.
The top attraction in the country: Neuschwanstein Castle. Other favorites are the Berlin Wall,
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Heidelberg Castle, the Cologne Cathedral and the Romantic Road. Berlin is the most popular city, followed by Munich.
“Germany is full of attractions,” says my friend Wilma who lives in Darmstadt. “I like the Rhine. I like Bavaria and the mountains. I like the cities, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg. There are so many old and interesting things. Germany would be the best country for travel if it weren’t for the weather.”
Never mind the weather, Germany was number one in the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Countries” index.
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The treacherous climb to the top of Sigiriya, Lion Rock, is a tourist must. We had told Nimal, our first-rate Sri Lankan driver and mentor, that we were reasonably fit and up for moderate hiking. That was before I viewed this massive monolith of stone with steep vertiginous metal staircases attached to its walls: definitely more than moderate. I wanted to wimp out. My courage and determination dissolved.It was hot, very hot. There were no trees to provide shade en route to the top. It was crowded, a single file of slowly moving bodies inching upwards on those dreadful stairs. This did not look like fun. Was it worth it? Could I make it? After the Chinese disaster (See previous post: “China II: The Fall”) I could not risk another crash.
“You can do it,” Nimal assured us. He arranged a local guide. I let him carry my camera and water and concentrated carefully on every step. Fortunately a landing with a gallery of remarkable frescoes provided a welcome break en route up. The reward, stunning vistas atop, was well deserved. It is generally believed that Sigiriya was a royal citadel during the fifth century, although another theory maintains that it was a monastery and religious site. Our guide adhered to the citadel theory and told us that King Kassapa had 500 concubines, for whom he built swimming pools with diving boards.
There are many more astonishing sights in Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of India. Although not much bigger than Wales, Sri Lanka packs a lot into a small area: glorious beaches, ancient temples, hillside tea plantations, wildlife sanctuaries, rain forested peaks, more challenging climbs.
The country’s 30-year civil war, which ended in 2009, kept visitors away. That has changed dramatically. At Sigiriya, and just about everywhere we went during our two week tour of the country in late February, we encountered lots of tourists.
We visited many other sites, temples and ruins. The city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s ancient capital, is a complex of archaeological and architectural treasures. We followed a parade of worshipers walking along a giant piece of orange cloth, 300 meters long according to Nimal. It symbolizes Buddha’s skin, he told us, and was to be wrapped around Ruvanvelisaya, a magnificent white dagoba or shrine for sacred relics.
The climb at Mihinthale, another temple complex, was beyond us: 1,843 granite slab steps with the sun blazing down on them. No shoes allowed –you had to ascend barefoot. No way.
Polonnaruwa was Sri Lanka’s medieval capital from the 11th to the 13th centuries before it was abandoned to invaders from South India. We – and many others — toured the area by bike with stops to admire and photograph. The major attraction is the site with colossal Buddhas carved out of rock.
At Dambulla Royal Rock Temple, some 150 different Buddhas are enshrined in five caves. The Disney-like entrance to the site, with a monstrous Golden Temple and
mammoth concrete Buddha, seems out of place, but the gentle climb along a wooded path to this hilltop temple complex is easy and pleasant. Entrance to the caves is controlled with a certain number admitted for each visit. It is well worth the wait to see these remarkable statues in this dimly lit, mystical ambience.
Both tourists and worshipers flock to Kandy, a lovely hill town whose magnet is the Sacred Tooth Temple where one of Buddha’s teeth is said to be hidden inside a golden shrine or casket which in turn contains six more caskets, much like a Russian box. We joined a large crowd and patiently waited in line for a night time opening of the heavily guarded room containing the tooth shrine, and our turn to file by the relic casket. Although there was little to see, the holy ritual and huge temple complex are intriguing. According to Lonely Planet, Sri Lankan Buddhists believe they must complete at least one pilgrimage to the tooth temple.
Nimal De Silva, (firstname.lastname@example.org and dsltours.com) chauffeured us around his country, made hotel arrangements, arranged local guides at many places — and taught us much about this fabulous country. He is a delight, very patient and accommodating. We were happy with all.
More on Sri Lanka in coming posts: flora and fauna; food, markets and produce, beaches and hilltop retreats.Don’t miss it. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared.
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It’s time to start thinking summer 2017…but first, a look back at summer 2016. I should have posted this long ago… better late than never. After eight summers of renting our guest apartment to tourists, we officially closed last August – no more paying guests, but time and room for friends and relatives.
It was a rewarding experience. We met interesting folks from many countries. Some have become friends. We learned about their lands.
Austrians Klaus and Eva were our first renters of the season, as they have been every summer for the past six years. We have become friends and are delighted they will come back this year, not as renters, but house sitters when we travel to Germany.
They always arrive with bounteous gifts of Austrian delicacies. A roof rack on their car holds Klaus’ ample supplies for their stay, including Austrian beer and wine. Of course they appreciate Provence wine too, especially summer rose.
Isabelle, who works in a bank, and Jean Christophe, who is in the insurance business, arrived from the Paris region in a spiffy Mercedes convertible. They had been to our region many times and were happy to be back. After a day’s outing, they often played boule in our driveway, although it is definitely not the best terrain for this Provence favorite.
We enjoyed Belgians Jeroen and Anika, both teachers, and daughter Stans. They came loaded down with two bicycles, plus baby supplies: baby stroller, baby bed, a plastic pool, pool toys. They had fun introducing Stans to the big pool. They biked, too.
Jeroen is one of those super cyclists who have conquered Mt. Ventoux many times. “Any serious Belgian cyclist must climb Mt. Ventoux,” he said. He did, as well as the Mountain of Lure which he says is beautiful. “It’s only 100 meters less than Ventoux, but no one knows about it.”
Anika’s passion is markets. They visited six in the region. Her favorite: Apt.
Friends and family also visited in summer 2016. With my brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie we enjoyed a mini-trip to visit the fascinating Chauvet- Pont d’Arc Cavern with replicas of prehistoric cave art dating back 36,000 years. The original art was discovered in a nearby cave, but it is closed to visitors to protect the treasures. The replica cave and art are mind boggling.
Step-children Kellie and Rob with grandsons Lang and Sam joined us in June. Good times in the pool were enjoyed by all. Bob even joined in – a mini miracle. He is not a water person, and almost never goes in the pool. I make up for him.
Summer ended with a visit from Colorado friends Kathy and Bob, whom we know from our days n Germany long ago.
Now that I have finally put summer 2016 to bed, time to move on to new adventure and travel. Abu Dhabi, Sri Lanka and the Maldives – here we come! Watch this blog.
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Huanggang was not like the China we had seen with sleek skyscrapers, luxurious hotels, Starbucks, 711s – and crowds everywhere. This tiny rural village of simple wooden houses where farmers live and toil as they have for ages was the China I had been eager to see and photograph. Unfortunately it was my downfall, literally.
Our guide had given us free time to wander around, take photos, explore. Voila — a wooden footbridge over a canal of raging water with a pagoda downstream. The perfect shot awaited from the middle of the bridge, or so I thought. In eager anticipation of getting that super shot, camera ready, I stepped on the first plank. Crack! It split, broke in two. Into the canal I went. I seized the canal wall, hoping someone would extricate me before I plunged into the nasty, brown, turbulent water. No such luck. The pain in my arms became unbearable. I could hang on no longer, let go and dropped into the churning canal. Fortunately the water was only about waist deep and I was not swept downstream over the Yellow Fruit Tree Waterfall. But, my precious Canon was history.
Husband Bob and a few others rushed to the scene. The rescue effort was challenging. My arms were shot. I could not use them to hoist myself, even with their help. They pulled me by the arms. Ouch!
Once safe on the ground, I was in disbelief. How could this have happened? It was so unreal, like a scene from a slapstick comedy. Except — it was really me and it was not funny. I had been so excited and thrilled with this trip – finally a chance to visit China, a destination that had beckoned me for years. Now what?
Guide Xiaoxaio rapidly arranged for a driver to take us to a hospital. He insisted on accompanying us, leaving the group behind. The hour long ride over twisty, primitive roads was scenic, but hard for me to appreciate. The lower half of my body was soaked. I was in denial, depressed, devastated. My arms, my shoulder, hurt.
The hospital – not the Mayo clinic, but thanks to Xiaoxiao there was no emergency room wait. I was quickly sent to X-ray. The equipment seemed on the antique side. Each X-ray, and they took many, seemed to take ages. I feared a Chernobyl dose of radiation. While waiting for the results, I asked Xiaixiao if he could find a shop and make a purchase for me. My clothes were slowly drying out, but my shoes were like overloaded sponges. I have very large feet, bigger than most Chinese feet I feared. Not to worry. Within record time, our trusty guide reappeared with a very comfortable pair of shoes, perfect fit.
None of the doctors spoke English. Xiaoxiao, who speaks perfect English, relayed the diagnosis: broken collar bone. The doctor said surgery might be required. Continuing the trip with our group was out of the question. Our compassionate guide arranged for us to return to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province, where we had started our tour.
Chinese efficiency in action. We were whisked to a larger town, met by a guide and interpreter who accompanied us in first class splendor on the bullet train. The train was spiffy – roomy and comfortable with a stewardess who served meals. We were too shattered to eat, but were impressed with the smooth, quiet ride. It was impossible to believe we were traveling at up to 246 mph.
The arrival station was so futuristic it was almost scary: minimalistic, spacious, spotless, quiet. Passengers paraded swiftly, silently down long, wide corridors (no shops or advertising signs en route) to exits. Here our train guide turned us over to Miss Koo, the local rep of Spring Travel, the travel agency which had arranged the trip, and Tingting, a bubbly young translator. Both were delightful and showered us with TLC, treating us like dignitaries. They felt I should see another doctor at the big city hospital. They had purchased fast-food burgers for nourishment en route. “Since you are Americans, we figured you would like burgers,” Tingting said. We did indeed.
This hospital was more up to date, but still no English speakers. Waiting rooms were packed, but we were ushered in ahead of all. Here the emergency room doctor confirmed the break, but said no surgery would be required. Maybe we could continue the trip after all?
Since there had been collar bone confusion – surgery or no surgery, I asked if I could see an orthopedic specialist the next day with hopes that he might reconfirm the no-surgery assessment and we could salvage our trip. Thanks to Spring Travel, we spent the night at the five-star Kempinski hotel. Our guardian angels arrived the next morning to escort us to the orthopedic specialist. No English, but lots of back forth conversation and phone calls. I had told Tingting to tell the doctor that even though I am an old lady, I am still active and wanted to continue to enjoy some sports. She said in that case he advised I return to France and see a doctor there.
That did it. End of trip. More whirlwind action and mind boggling efficiency. We could take a flight that night back to France. No time to think. No time for tears. Just pack and get moving.
Before departing for the airport, Tingting and Miss Koo arranged a mini b’day celebration. In all the stress, we had forgotten — it was Bob’s birthday. We sat in the elegant lobby and enjoyed a delicious birthday cake.
Once home, the reality sunk in. The 18-day trip to China had been slashed to 3 ½ days. We saw very little of this intriguing country. We never made it to the Society of American Travel Writers Convention, which had been the main purpose of the trip. And, I had a very painful shoulder.
A broken collar bone is much like broken ribs –not much to do except suffer and reduce movement when possible. After six weeks, I thought the
worst was over, but the black Chinese cloud resurfaced with more bad luck. Somehow nerves had become compressed. My left hand is only partially functional. I cannot type with two hands – which is driving me crazy. I have shoulder pain when I walk. Doctors tell me it is not “grave” (French for serious) and the nerves will come back. When? No one knows, but it could take a long, long time, up to a year, I am told.
My lust for travel has not been squashed. I still crave adventure. It could have been far worse. Spring Travel, Xiaoxiao, Miss Koo and Tingting are to be commended. Thanks to their care, consideration and kindness, we even managed to smile during these traumatic times. Chinese hospitals and the bullet train count as interesting experiences. Spring tried to get a refund for me – faulty bridge. But, they learned the government had not built the bridge. Nonetheless they provided a small sum.
Please feel free to comment – just scroll down and add your thoughts. We are not down yet. Soon we will be off to Abu Dhabi, Sri Lanka and the Maldives — where I will avoid wooden bridges. Don’t miss future posts. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared