Our Christmas Trip (part three)

Christmas Eve! The day that Kris and I have our annual ritual debate over when to open presents. Kris always wants to open presents during the evening on Christmas Eve. Just to keep the debate going, I always take the side of insisting we wait until Christmas morning. This discussion gets ever more pointless as the number of actual presents involved gets smaller and smaller. Really, staying at the Kandalama is our Christmas present to each other. Kris prepared a gift for each of us, partly so we do have something to open, partly to keep the yearly tussle over when to open the gifts alive for another year.

We did not have much scheduled for the day, so we dawdled over breakfast. (It was a good thing our hotel room did not have a bathroom scale.) We checked out the library on the top floor of the hotel. It was both interesting and disappointing. It was disappointing in that there really were very few titles. It was interesting as there were some very interesting titles. There was a volume of all the graffiti from Sigiriya. There was a book of lithographs of scenes of Sri Lanka from colonial times. There were some architecture books that included discussions of Bawa’s works (of course).

Somewhere in there it was time for lunch. So we paid the $50 and had lunch for an hour or two. Then we wandered over to the jewelry store. Given that Sri Lanka is so famous for gems and me being a solid-state physicist, I have a desire to buy some kind of gemstone as a souvenir of our stay in Sri Lanka. Recently I became attracted to blue topaz. Blue topaz is one of the cheapest gemstones in the world (so I might be able to buy something of larger than microscopic size) and there is a physics connection. The connection is that natural blue topaz is extremely rare, so that essentially all available blue topaz is created by intensely irradiating colorless topaz to make it blue. (This is also why it is cheap, as any treated gemstone is considered less desirable than a gemstone that gets its color “naturally.”) So we asked to look at their supply of blue topaz in large sizes. They had some “rocks.” We looked at one that was more than 300 carats. While we were in the store, we let them show us their ruby and sapphire stock as well.  :^) Needless to say, there was nothing desirable in our beggarly price range, but it was fun to look and to learn more about gems.

Then it was time to take our walk with the hotel’s naturalist to the top of Kandalama Rock,

Frog on Kandalama Rock trail

Frog on Kandalama Rock trail

behind the hotel. Kris had very carefully checked with him the day before to see if she needed better walking shoes than just the sandals she had brought with her. “No problem!” he says. WRONG! The crude, unmarked trail involves scrambling up the side of the rock face in places. It had rained a bit earlier  and the rock face was slippery in spots. The trail through the woods was strewn with large rocks and fallen tree branches. All in all, it was a trail where one wanted to have the rigidity of sole and the ankle support of a lightweight hiking shoe and not just a pair of sandals. Kris was a trooper, making it to the top, but suffering one hard fall.

Once we did get to the top, it was lovely. Being above the trees we had a nearly 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside. The late afternoon light was soft and golden, a  mist still in the air from the rain. We could see Sigiriya Rock to the northeast. We were almost at the soaring height of the two Brahminy kites that frequent the area, so we could look at them straight on as they glided in lazy circles, scanning for prey below. There was a cool breeze at the top of the hill and we considered not coming down. However, we did not want to navigate the trail in the dark and we wanted to go to the church service at 6PM. So we picked our way slowly downhill and back to the hotel.

After resting, bathing, and the putting on of fresh clothes, we headed for the top floor of the hotel where a Christian service was scheduled to begin. The service was a Sri Lankan Catholic Mass officiated by a Sri Lankan priest. We were among the first to arrive, and Kris was pressed into service (if you will pardon the pun) and asked to do the first reading. I was a bit disappointed, but the priest could hardly have known that I, not Kris, had rehearsed endlessly for the third grade (the year my voice changed and they rather rudely removed me from the choir) Christmas pageant to prepare to read those immortal words “And it CAME to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that ALLLL the world should be taxed…” It could have been my big moment. Finally, I might have atoned for having had such a squeaky voice (and an apparent problem of needing to adjust the crotch area of my pants every sixty seconds or so no matter who was watching) that, in a competition with two other boys, I came in third. I was thus relegated to doing the reading for the assembled students only, and not for the two pageants that were attended by parents. I have suffered from this humiliation for years, and apparently will continue to do so, since this atonement opportunity passed me right by.

The service was very intimate and sincere. There was a choir that seemed to have been formed from some of the hotel staff. They sang Sri Lankan Christmas carols, which were very nice, but not at all like the carols we are used to. They carols had an almost oompah band beat and there were hints of country western in the accompaniment. The congregation was mostly Sri Lankans, presumably Christian Sri Lankans from the hotel staff, and a few Western hotel guests. Kris (and I, of course) declined to take communion. Kris declined because  generally Catholic churches  prohibit non-Catholic Christians from taking communion. However, as Kris thanked the priest after the service, she learned that Sri Lankan Catholics do not abide by this discrimination and welcome all Christians to take communion with them. The homily recalled the true meaning of Christmas, the celebration of God becoming Man to enable Man’s salvation.

And then we returned to a familiar theme on this trip, eating. The hotel put on a food extravaganza. They prepared every dish they serve. They brought out ice sculptures. They had live music. They had a raffle. We had wine, indulged in thirds, and generally watched the goings-on from a table with a view more of the night outside than the celebration inside.

In my last post, I mentioned that the Kandalama was a five star hotel and gave the definition therein. The wine was a case in point. Kris and I like a bit of champagne on special occasions. There was no champagne available for less than $140/bottle and the prices went as high as $500/bottle. So, no champagne. There were some wines simply listed as “California wines”  for $40/bottle, so we inquired as to which vineyard they came from. The waiter had to consult someone in the kitchen and returned to tell us that the California wines came from the Gallo vineyard. Well, I’ll be damned if I am going to pay $40 for a bottle of what is, no doubt, Ernest and Julio’s finest, so we settled on a South African wine instead for about the same price. No doubt we bought the South African equivalent of Gallo, but my ignorance of wine is such that I can pretend otherwise. And it tasted pretty good at that.

Off we tottered to our room. We opened our presents. Both of us got books. Kris thoughtfully bought me another book on the birds of Sri Lanka to help me identify the birds we are seeing, as well as an early 20th century traveler’s guide to buying gemstones in Sri Lanka. Kris also thoughtfully purchased “The Jam Fruit Tree” for herself, a quasi-fictional account of the Burghers of Sri Lanka. However, we were unable to keep our eyes open in order to read, so we fell, insensate, into bed.


On the photography front, the only photo that turned out well that day was the frog, above. Thus, there are no additional photographs on my Picasa web site.



  1. Kris said,

    January 13, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Hi, Tim! I don’t remember that you had your camera with you on Kandalama Rock. I do remember the humidity, though, which at 99% probably fogged the lens. We were both soaked through by the time we got back to the hotel. And thanks for the compliment. My knee was sore and bruised and I felt very fortunate to be able to give it a rest the following day, aided by Tylenol. Now that I know of your passion for Christmas reading, maybe your big chance will come next year?

  2. SHANNON Jackson said,

    January 14, 2009 at 2:11 am


  3. Tim said,

    January 14, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I should recant my slander about Sri Lanka and leeches.We have been informed that there are really only two places with a leeches in Sri Lanka: Kandy and the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. To be honest, we have not seen hide nor hair of a leech since Kris’ incident that we blogged about, so they may be seasonal.

    The leeches of Sinharaja are reported to be a real downer as Sinharaja is the number one birdwatching destination in Sri Lanka. The reserve has the most number of species per unit area and the most unusual and exotic species to be found on the island, in some cases, species that are only found in Sinharaja. I read the advice on one birding website, presumably directed at hard-core birders, that you can’t watch for birds and watch out for leeches at the same time, so (if you will pardon the pun) just suck it up. Leeches do not carry disease and they naturally anesthetize your wound, so keep your eyes on the birds and brush the leeches off once you get back to camp. I decided that, if I was any kind of birder, it was definitely of the soft-core variety.

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