Elephants, Tigers, Tea and Topaz - Andamans to Sri Lanka

The Elephants on Havelock in the Andaman Islands take their bath in the sea,
curling their trunks up like a snorkel so they can breath. Two female
elephants, aged 50 and 47 wallowing like, well like elephants, rolling
around and squirting water over themselves. In best Indian bureaucracy, the
price of rides was fixed at 20 Rupees - about 20 pence (most goods are
marked with the maximum retail price). All 4 of us clambered on her platform
and we were off at perhaps 2 mph. It's a bit like sailing, and I imagine
trying to shoot a tiger from up here is a bit hit or miss.

Sunday we sailed 30 miles back to Port Blair, and met Ravi on Monday to
start the clear out process, and provisioning. Beryl bought veg in the
market, while I got fuel and water, then went to see the Harbour Master. He
approved our 'love-letter' (a written request to leave Port Blair) sent us
to the supervisor who sent me to the under accountant who laboriously
calculated our harbour dues (Rs 550 - about 6 pounds), this was checked by
the accountant returned to the Harbour Master who checked it again, then
wrote out a No Objection Certificate (NOC - and bear in mind this was just
the first of 3 stages). The Harbour Master then gave me
his personal email address and asked for a frank account of my impressions
of their clearance procedure! I prepared it next day, a 2 page blend of
suggestions to treat yachts like tourists, and tackle the bureaucracy that
breeds corruption. Then Customs, then Immigration.  Ravi is a taxi
driver who is trying to transform himself into an agent but is almost too
honest. In all
we paid him Rs 2500 (about 28 pounds) but this included 2 days of taxi
rides, and he probably saved us 2 days of bureaucracy by persuading the
authorities to see us more or less on time. (nagoorravi@yahoo.com)

The evening before we had been to the sound and light show at the huge 500
cell cellular prison which is now a national Indian monument to its freedom
fighters (terrorists to the Government of the day). Its slightly unnerving
to hear a booming Indian voice describing the atrocities perpetrated by
British and Indian jailors on Indian freedom fighters - although in best
British style the cruelties seemed to centre on complaints about the quotas
for work the prisoners had to do, (producing oil from coconut husks)  rather
than pulling out finger nails etc. The Japanese occupied the Andamans from
1942-45, and there were some real atrocities then.

A special permit is required to visit the Cinque Islands, part of the
Andamans, but we risked a visit anyway on our way out, easing very gently
past rocks and coral, anchored then snorkelled on a bewildering array of
fish and new coral, before sailing off west towards Sri Lanka 800 miles
away, catching a hard fighting 5Kg Tuna within 2 hours to ensure we had fish
to eat all the way.

I cook, Vasco de Bernard washes up (not easy in a rolling boat), Beryl the
Bountiful keeps everyone cheery and wins at crosswords, Nicky the Navigator
navigates, bakes bread and looks after the reverse osmosis water maker.. We
finally managed to contact the Windsor agents in Galle who  advised the Sri
Lankan navy of our estimated arrival so they don't blow us
out of the water when we arrive as suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bombers.

Sri Lanka has had a civil war for the last 30 years - well, 1500 years if
you examine history. Sinhalese regarded themselves as defenders of an
especially pure form of Buddhism, and have been trying for years to get rid
of Hindu Tamils from India who had come across the shallow and narrow
straights separating India from Sri Lanka, and settled in the North and East
of Sri Lanka.  The British Tea Planters from 1880 on found that the
Sinhalese were unwilling to work on tea plantations so imported about 1
million more Tamils to work the central and southern tea plantations.

The Sinhalese thought that independence gave them the chance to 'ethnically
cleanse' the island of Tamils, and tried to remove the vote from most
Tamils. Indeed a Buddhist monk assassinated the Sinhalese PM because he was
'too soft in talking to the Tamils'. After 2 decades of discrimination
during which the Tamils tried to emulate Gandhi-like peaceful resistance,
younger Tamils decided that if this went on, then in the long run they would
indeed be destroyed as a race in Sri Lanka, and formed the Tamil Tigers of
Eelam (LTTE). The Sri Lankan army and navy have been able to maintain a
route to Jaffna in the north by sea, but essentially its just a bridgehead
in strongly pro-Tamil territory. The Tigers are now also fairly awful - they
recruit child fighters, use suicide bombers, and oppose any peace moves by
moderates which they think will weaken their fanatics, so for example they
boycott elections rather than building up an opposition.

Generally tourists are unaffected by the war however. We had to be checked
by the navy before we entered Galle, and Intrepid had to go round 2
anti-mine nets, and is watched over by 4 layers of navy guards with
well-oiled and clearly used submachine guns, and moored at a jetty opposite
which is a large landing ship with guns sprouting in all directions. By day
the sailors play cricket. At night small depth charges are let off to deter
divers, which are alarming on the first night. The Tigers blew up one ship
in Galle Harbour last year - but it was a civilian tug. Overall it's a bit
like London when the IRA were at the height of their campaign - dangerous,
but still less of a threat than say traffic accidents.

We had to change agents to get electricity, (one drawback of being in a
bonded harbour is the need to use agents who charge $200 for acting as
intermediary with the authorities - but often just add another layer of
bureaucracy). Travel Agents vie for business, (a car and driver costs
$50/day, hotels about $30-50/night B and B), and Nicky
and I had arranged a 10 day tour inland; Nicky also helped Marlin
organize a trip to Colombo with 15 other yachties for the new moon parade.
Bernard and Beryl had to fly back to Thailand that evening so their last
night was quite a send off. The roads are so bad it takes 5 hours to go 120
kms. But the Parade was worth it - 53 elephants (Nic counted) dressed in
sequin covered coats, interspersed with whirling dervishes, massed costumed
drummers and Indian pipers, Buddhist monks, people spinning tops on
poles, stiltmen on stilts 15 feet high (!) and finally 3 massive bull
elephants with sacred relics lit up with 1000 bulbs connected to a generator
driven along behind. The whole parade took 3 hours, and council workers were
on hand, any time an elephant deposited dung, it was instantly swept
to one side to avoid dancers putting their foot in it (not a pretty
thought).

However on 2nd February I heard that my mother had died just 2 hours before.
We had been with her for 2 weeks at Christmas, when she was increasingly
frail, and her memory going,
but her death was still unexpected. With Marlin's help I obtained a flight
back to UK within the next 12 hours and over the next 2 weeks, with my
brother and sister we did what was needed, ending with a packed church
service of celebration for a great lady (who incidentally was one of the
first recipients of these emails). In between I also corrected the proofs of
'Get That Job! and did the index.

My sister Hilary and I returned to Sri Lanka on 15th February where Nicky
had arranged a severely
shortened tour. The elephant orphanage is a sight to lift anyone - 50
semi-tame elephants mostly orphans spend an idyllic life eating and bathing
in the shallow river as a family group, ages ranging from 1 week (so small
we constantly feared it would get stepped on as it kept in the shade of its
mother), to 60+, jostling, holding trunks (really), mating (I missed this),
wandering off, and being cajoled back and generally having a good time, the
orphans are bottle fed with 40 litres of milk/day. So different from 1 or 2
or 3 elephants in a concrete zoo.

Then south to Kandy, the main inland town where the temple of the sacred
tooth is. This is supposed to have been taken from the Buddha's funeral
pyre, and smuggled out of India in a lady's hair. The Sri Lankans believe
that whoever holds the tooth, rules Sri Lanka; the Tamils blew up half the
temple in 1998, but it has been rebuilt. So venerated is the tooth that
people are only allowed to look at the cask containing the tooth for 10
seconds each (10 minutes/day). The actual tooth is displayed once/7 years.
Queens Hotel is a Victorian relic directly opposite the Temple, and one of
the best places we have stayed.

Nuwara Eliya (Lankan script has the curly alphabet evolved from Sanskrit so
all names are transliterations anyway) is the major Sri Lankan hill station
and tea estate centre. We caught the packed train for a 5 hour trip winding
its way up through noisy villages and refined tea plantations in the company
of Sri Lankan families going for a weekend away. Most hotels are ex bungalow
retreats of colonists - indeed the whole place is called by the Sri Lankans,
'Little England'. At some 1600 metres it is quite cold and we had a roaring
fire in the Glendower where I watched Arsenal play Blackburn in the FA Cup
on a big screen in their pub. Surreal.

English Breakfast tea is a blend of largely Sri Lankan tea, so it's as well
there are some 800 tea estates. Tea the world over is from a single variety
of bush - the difference is in the way it is treated after picking. We
toured Pedro's estate, now a quoted company on the Sri Lankan stock
exchange; it supplies Twinings, etc with 4000 Kgs/day of refined tea leaves
from 15,000 Kgs of fresh leaves picked daily by Tamil ladies. The machinery
to dry, sieve, twist, dry some more, and sort dates back to 1930's, made in
Manchester, still working well. Tea needs well drained sloping soil, and
every inch was planted with tea. The tea is packed and sold at auction -
prices are about of what we in UK pay for tea in a supermarket, which I
suppose is why the rich world stays rich. Tea is far and away Sri Lanka's
main export, but they also produce garments - jackets for Helly Hansen and
North Face for example. Some of these find their way into the local
marketplace, so there is some heavy selling pressure to buy a jacket.

We returned to Galle by road the next day. Sri Lankans roads are pretty
awful - they claim that the roads were built by the British so it's our
fault, but poor maintenance may be more to blame. All parts of the road are
used by vehicles in both directions, and overtaking on blind bends normally
involves waving and hooting at the oncoming traffic to get out of the way.
Hilary shut her eyes most of the 8 hours down.  We stopped at an idyllic
hotel for breakfast next to a river that could have been pre-London Thames
(its illuminating how lovely rivers are before they are tamed by embankments
etc), then stopped at a sapphire mine. Sri Lanka exports a lot of sapphires
and topaz, mostly from hand dug mines about 10-15 metres deep into alluvial
deposits. The miners work in teams of about 10, each team member receives 4%
of the value of any gems the team finds, so there is an incentive to declare
anything found.

On the way back we passed the site of the worst ever train disaster - 1200
people killed by the Boxing Day Tsunami. Villages along this part of the
coast are being rebuilt by NGO's and individual countries - its slow work,
there are claims of corruption etc, the aid tends to go to those who lobby
hardest rather than those in greatest need, and the first response of some
NGO's seems to buy shiny new land cruisers, but overall the area is
recovering. What the country really needs is an end to the war, as tourist
numbers are way down, and that was the main income of this area.

Unfortunately we missed by one day the elephant polo - not a tradition at
all, but guaranteed to stimulate the interest of any news channel eager for
an unexpected news item. So when a bull elephant ran off with its American
lady rider and battered the Spanish team's minibus, this featured in most
global newscasts. Its all good publicity.

Galle was the original Portuguese then Dutch then British base, massive
walls guarding a small peninsular overlooking Galle harbour. The walls even
protected the 400 houses inside from the Tsunami, and many are now being
redeveloped by foreigners as boutique hotels or shops. The houses date back
to 1700-1800's - the Dutch even installed a system of sewers that is cleaned
by the tide and bred musk rats in them for their scent.

But we also had to provision and clear out, so after yet another day with
agents, we finally washed Intrepid of the cement dust that had settled on
her from the ships offloading, crept round the harbour defences and set off
for Maldives.

The weather here is supposed to be entirely predictable - NE Monsoon winds
blow at about 10-20 knots, '0% chance of gales'. So it was a surprise to
find initially no wind (perhaps the sea breeze or wind shadow from the whole
of Sri Lanka), then 36 hours of full gale, 30-40 knot winds with 3-4 metre
seas. Having briefed Hilary on the basis of the forecast weather, we were
somewhat concerned, but she managed her 6-9am watch well, clipped on, and
blanched only slightly when a tanker altered course towards us just as we
also altered course to avoid them, and at one point we were 1 mile ahead of
their huge bow.

But we are averaging 7 knots with perhaps 4 square metres of main-sail, and
1 square metre of genoa, and should arrive in the Maldives (400 miles) in a
little over 2 days.

Its been an eventful month, but we are looking forward to Maldives, and
Nicky found the hill country and Kandy in Sri Lanka close to perfection.

We wish you a very pleasant spring/autumn wherever you are.

Andy, Nicky and Hilary.

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