Looking for tuskers - Smiling Sri Lanka - CycleBlaze

February 11, 2020

Looking for tuskers

Heart 1 Comment 0

WILPATTU - One of the risks of swimming here is being grabbed by a crocodile. One of the risks of camping is to trampled by an elephant.

Well, to be truthful, elephants aren't much of a problem because camping in Sri Lanka is out of the question. There are few campgrounds and wild camping is impractical.

There are many fewer elephants than there were. Many were slaughtered in the days of the Raj and before it. Trophy-hunters left the bodies to rot and made off with the tusks to display them above fireplaces as symbols of bravery.

Elephants live longer than humans, so their numbers increase slowly. Now they are protected but, for all their romance and symbolic status - there are rows of wooden elephants outside many a Buddhist temple - they are a pest. A single elephant will destroy huge swathes, tearing bushes and even trees from the ground to satisfy its hunger.

Elephants, a favourite symbol of many Buddhist temples
Heart 2 Comment 0

This habit doesn't endear them to rice-growers, who employ guards to spend the night in watchtowers and blow whistles and throw firecrackers to scare them off.

Watchmen throw firecrackers from towers to scare off elephants looking for a midnight snack
Heart 3 Comment 0

The watchmen will soon be out of a job for another year because the rice is almost harvested. Which is as well because there's a full moon at the moment, perfect for elephants and their struggling eyesight. It also suits leopards, who can get the hunting done in the cool and sleep off their lunch as the day grows hotter.

Supreme self-confidence
Heart 3 Comment 0

We saw an insomniac leopard today as it strolled across our path in Wilpattu national park. It wandered supreme in the knowledge that it was king of the jungle. Any fight would be one-sided and unwisely started. It glanced at mere humans and slid off into bushes on the other side of the path.

A bit of sun glare, but you get the picture
Heart 1 Comment 0

Madhu, who runs the homestay at which we've spent the night, appeared this morning in a sari. This is a big day for her because she has to talk to other people in the area who run small businesses. That's her job: small-business adviser.

"I don't usually wear a sari," she says. "But it's expected when I give a talk." 

Madhu is 29 and worried that the stress of two jobs makes her look older. We assure her that she doesn't but she won't be convinced.

She and her husband run the splendid Ceylon Resort a few kilometres from the national park. In reality Madhu runs its by herself, with the help of an employee she addresses as "Auntie" because of her age. It's a sign of friendship and also of respect. You have to get used to being asked your age in Sri Lanka because it's how people fit you into the social kaleidoscope.

Her husband is rarely there because his work in civil engineering obliges him to stay away all week, often driving home late at night, tired and hungry. Madhu worries he will drive into an elephant on the unsurfaced jungle road that leads from town.

Civil engineering is an art in Sri Lanka. It builds new roads and bridges and it constructs dams to create reservoirs. Elsewhere, to work in mud and brick is the choice of the oddballs at school but, here, it is a prestigious occupation.

There are photos of Madhu and Roshan on the wall at the end of the dining room. They are wearing their university graduation gowns, Roshan's white and Madhu's dark blue because they went to different universities.

"I have a BSc in management," Madhu says. "I will always be grateful to my mother, because she insisted I have a good education. And that's what I'm trying to do with our own son, even if some days he doesn't want to go to school."

He goes to a Montessori school and learns in English. Modhu's mother, who keeps a shy watch from a distance, is head of gardening. She has just returned from hospital, which like all medical services in Sri Lanka is free.

There are just two rooms at the Ceylon Resort, with plans to build more. But that puts Madhu in a difficult position. She can't work more at the homestay without giving up her main job, which she's not keen to do. She doesn't know which way to move.

Roshan is no slouch but we suspect that, being away all week, he doesn't entirely understand the work and strain. But we don't discuss it.

He is proud that he has just harvested "enough rice for us all year and for the tourism. I remember my grandfather doing it, with a buffalo tied to a pole. It walked round and round all day. We're a bit more modern these days but I still keep to some of the old ways."

Roshan is right-handed: the nails on that hand are short but those on the left are elegantly manicured and project five millimetres beyond his finger tips. We don't know why. Mandarins used to grow their nails impossibly long to show they did no work. But Roshan works on engineering projects during the week and in the rice fields at the weekend. For a moment, it's a social mystery.

Back on the bikes tomorrow.

Rate this entry's writing Heart 9
Comment on this entry Comment 0