Our Christmas Trip (part four)

The next day, Christmas Day, Kris and I went our separate ways. Kris’ knee hurt from her fall the previous day and so she backed out of an early morning birdwatching boat trip on Kandalama Lake crw_6112crwfollowed by a 1202 step climb to the top of Sigiriya Rock. So you will have to check in with her to learn about what she did on Christmas Day and I will tell you what I did that day.

I met the naturalist at 6:30AM (no, really, I did). He took me on the short walk to the water’s edge, during which I shot some photos of an apparently tame, spotted deer on the hotel grounds. We boarded an aluminum boat that had a flat deck mounted on two pontoons. The naturalist and I sat cross-legged near the front of the boat (near the “bow” in nautical lingo) and two men straddled the pontoons near the back (“aft” for the cognoscenti) and propelled us through the water with paddles. This primitive propulsion system had the advantage of being nearly silent, allowing us to approach water fowl rather more closely than twin Yamaha 350HP V8 outboards might have, though this meant that our time on the water was in excess of one hour when, with outboards installed, the entire distance could have traveled in less than five minutes, thus achieving much higher efficiency in terms of bird species sighted per unit time.

This slow means of locomotion did give me the opportunity to take some photographs of several bird species. Not to say good photographs of bird species, however.

Great egret

Great egret

I have posted the bird photos from this expedition on my Picasa web site, but I must warn you that my quality control standards for my bird pictures is considerably lower than my usual photographic quality control standards. For bird pictures, the rule is that if the photo is clear enough that you can identify the species of bird, that is good enough. A little out of focus? No problem. Under- or over exposed? No problem. Blown up from about 10 pixels by 10 pixels in the original file? Can you tell what it is? No problem! Great photo!

Here is a list of the birds we saw (an asterisk indicates that there is a photo of that bird on my Picasa web site):

  • Indian pond heron*
  • Great egret*
  • Indian nest swifts
  • Brahminy kite*
  • Green bee eater*
  • Common coucal
  • Common sandpiper*
  • White-bellied sea eagle*
  • Spot-billed pelican*
  • Indian comorant
  • Scaly-breasted munia*

In addition to birds, I also got a close up look at fishermen tending their gill nets.

The boat slowly, quietly made its way back to our starting point and I returned to the breakfast trough to join Kris. We used our new found naturalist’s skills at the buffet. We would split up to do a survey of what was available that morning, then get back together to compare notes. Then we would take our plates carefully out of the warming racks and stalk our buffet prey. Generally successful in capturing our sluggish prey, we got back together at our table to sip coffee, clean our plates, and admire the view of the lake out the windows.

Then it was time for me to go to Sigiriya Rock. We had arranged for a car and driver through the hotel. The drive took about 45 minutes. As we approached Sigiriya, we came upon two elephants that had been decorated with what looked like sidewalk chalk and were staked out by the roadside. You have already seen one in our Christmas “card.” The other

Decorated elephant

Decorated elephant

had what I presume were similar sentiments written in Sinhala, though I hope that one of my Sri Lankan readers will correct me by posting a comment if I am wrong. Both elephants seemed to be celebrating Christmas by “dancing,” swaying back and forth, weight shifting from one front foot to the other, trunk actively moving around. I like to think these were happy elephants putting on a show, but I have also been told that these ritualistic movements may be signs of elephants in emotional distress.

The car drove up to the entrance and I was transferred to the care of a local guide. Kris and I are somewhat ambivalent about the use of guides. If you do not know anything about the site, then a guide is definitely in order. But it seems like the rare guide who knows more than what can be found from a little reading. Or, as in Sigiriya,

Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya Rock

the guides knowledge is entirely based on local mythology, unleavened by any archeological research. Sigiriya is an extreme example. Local lore has it as the palace and citadel of an ancient king, King Kassapa, with 500 wives. This explains the rock paintings of beautiful women, the enormous bathing pools, and the buildings high up on this granite rock. Archaeological research, however, indicates that the site was always used as a Buddhist monastery and never as a palace. My guide stuck to the local lore exclusively. Despite that, I accepted a guide on this trip out of lassitude, the hotel had arranged for a guide. In the end, I was glad I did, but not because of my guide’s knowledge of history.

It was Christmas Day, of course. The site was packed with visitors, mostly Sri Lankans. Christmas is one of two national holidays allocated to the Sri Lankan Christians. This means that most Sri Lankans, not being Christian, have a day off with their families with no rituals to attend to. I am told that on most days, Sigiriya has only a few foreign visitors, but today the trail up the rock was overflowing with a festive, holiday crowd. I was also somewhat taken aback to discover that a man began making sure I did not fall on the sometimes uneven steps. At first, it just seemed to be the guy behind me in line being nice, as so many Sri Lankans are. But then it got too regular. He was still there after my guide would stop and explain some feature to me. I knew the drill. Not asking for money now, he would expect to be paid at the end. But we had gone someway up the trail by that time and it was hot. So I said, what the heck! and turned him into my bearer. He both carried my camera bag and gave me a lift under my arm during much of the climb. This was a bit embarrassing, and I am pretty sure that I would have made it up the 1202 steps by myself, but it did make the climb easier. My guide ended up saving me considerable time by knowing ways to bypass the line. There was some awkwardness when we rejoined the line, but the guide acted like he was a park official and I soothed my conscience a bit by telling myself that Sri Lankans were used to cutting in line, that I was paying my bearer and guide to negotiate the line in the Sri Lankan way, and that I was, only this once, taking advantage of a queuing system that I had been so often inconvenienced by in Sri Lanka. (I know, situational ethics is never very pretty.)

Sigiriya is most famous for some remarkable and mysterious paintings. The paintings, originally numbering about 500 but with only a handful remaining, are almost modern in their use of pastel colors, almost like they were painted by Gauguin. They are realistic, but with some exaggerated features.

Sigiriya cave painting

Sigiriya cave painting

They are typically dated to the 6th century CE but modern scholarship indicates much is very uncertain. But the biggest mystery is who the paintings are of (if they are of real people), or who the paintings represent (if they are representative of mythological or religious characters). There is a bit of titillation about the paintings as they are all of women, all of beautiful women, and mostly of rather scantily clad women featuring, in the rhyming Cockney slang used by an Oxford trained colleague at Peradeniya, enormous, and often bare, “bristols.” So are these women the 500 wives of King Kassapa as local legend would have it, are they representative of the angelic dancers, the Hindu “apsaras” whose representation in sites as far away as the former Cham kingdom in Vietnam also often feature large, bare, “bristols”, or do they represent Tara Devi, a very rare image of an important Mahayana Buddhist goddess in an otherwise monolithically Theravada Buddhist culture?

The rock paintings are also interesting technologically. When modern recordable DVDs can not be trusted to last more than about a year or so, these paintings have lasted 1400 years or more, outdoors, protected from direct sunlight and water only by being under a rock overhang on the north side of Sigiriya Rock. Many more would have survived except for several incidents of vandalism, presumably perpetrated by those morally offended by the subjects of the paintings. I did not take notes on the techniques used, but from what I remember, the rock face was covered with a plaster and, before the plaster could dry, the paintings, which use only vegetable-based paints, were executed. This allowed the paint color to seep deep into the plaster. Then, the paintings were covered over with some kind of clear glaze to protect them.

Another interesting feature at Sigiriya is a wall that has preserved graffiti for centuries. The graffiti is so old that scholars have used the graffiti to follow the development of the Sinhalese script over the centuries.

Sigiriya Rock graffiti

Sigiriya Rock graffiti

Reaching the top of the rock is a bit anticlimactic. The view was remarkable, a 360 degree view of the flat land and tanks surrounding the site, the foothills of the Hill Country to the south. Better still for the weary climber was a steady, cool breeze. There are ruins at the top, but they are just that. At the highest point, there are two steps to nowhere, the two in the 1202. My guide wanted to take my picture at the top of the steps (guides often seem like the hired emcee at a wedding reception, making sure that all the cliched conventions are performed). I stuck with only climbing 1200 steps, but the guide’s photography skills would come in handy once we got back to Terra Firma.

And, after a restful pause to look around the ruins, photograph an unfamiliar snake that the guide warned me was venomous, but later identification indicated was harmless, we headed back down. At the bottom, there was a snake charmer. Though knowing that the entertainment would not be free, I decided to take an advantage of an opportunity to take some close up photos of snakes. I mean, how many snake charmers are there in Ohio? I was also well aware that snake charmers de-fang the venomous snakes and that a well-fed constrictor is pretty harmless to a human, so it was all perfectly safe.

It was great fun. I got some great shots of the cobras and a large number of the other visitors took myriad camera phone shots of the crazy foreigner playing with the snakes. So here is one shot of a cobra:

Wrong end of cobra

Wrong end of cobra

This next shot (by the guide, obviously) I dedicate to my sister Shannon. Shannon posed in a similar fashion some years ago as I snapped what turned out to be a nice sequence of pictures of her with a boa constrictor wrapped along the length of her body. On that day in Seattle, she had taken me along on a visit to an amateur herpetologist who ran a kind of one-woman Humane Society for snakes and lizards in her two bedroom apartment in the Queen Anne neighborhood. (I have often wondered what the landlord thought of that.) I learned a lot that day, including the fact that, visual evidence to the contrary, snakes are not slimy and cold. In fact, it is pretty much all muscle aft of the head and the skin has the pleasant texture that makes snake skin purses and wallets so desirable. So, much to the delight of many onlookers, I jumped right in with the following results:

Tim and his new friend

Tim and his new squeeze

At this point, I was feeling pretty happy about the excursion. Then it got somewhat less pleasant. On the way into the site, I was approached by a man who wanted to sell  me a carved, wooden, box in the shape of a moonstone. Kris loves wooden boxes and the moonstones have been something we have enjoyed learning about. Also, the way to open the box was kind of like a Chinese puzzle, you had to know the correct sequence of steps. This was a pleasant reminder of the handsome almirahs here, some of which have secret drawers. Since we are unlikely to be able to return home with an almirah, this box seemed like a nice remembrance. So I expressed some interest, but was not about to haul it to the top of Sigiriya Rock. So the man said he would meet me when I got back down.

Sure enough, he was waiting for me near the parking lot. I still value things with my US sense of worth and made a poor bargain, giving him about $30 for the box. I also purchased a softbound book about Sigiriya including many photos in order to share my excursion with Kris when I got back to the hotel. Then it was “time to say good-bye” to my bearer. Boy, these guys had this down to an art. Neither the bearer or the guide would name a price for their services in advance, saying only that I should pay whatever I felt it was worth when the tour was over. Several times during the climb up and down, the guide remarked about how today, Christmas Day, was his birthday. Maybe it was, but by now I am so used to being lied to that I did not believe him, nor did I care,  assuming it was just one more trick to get more money out of me. For reference, by the time it was “time to say goodbye,” the guide and the bearer had been with me for about three hours.

Like I said, I was in a pretty good mood and prepared to pay what I thought was a generous amount. I have adopted the policy to be generous especially when I get really good service. Hence my habitual overpayment of our loyal tuk-tuk driver, NS. So, I gave the bearer the equivalent of $20. He huffed off without a word. Then it was time to “say goodbye” to the guide. I gave him about $40. “Was there something you were unhappy with, sir?’ What? This is a country where the average earnings is $1600/year or $0.80/hour for a 2000 hour work year. I had just given this guy more than $13/hour and he was unhappy? Sixty bucks is more than I paid to get into Disneyland (at least the last time I went). I gave him another $10, but my mood was considerably deflated.

Then another, very persistent man attached himself to my “retinue.” He wanted to sell me a carved wooden box with a secret compartment, but this time in the shape of a book. I made the mistake of remarking that I wish I had seen his first because it seemed to be made from a nicer quality wood, but that I had already purchased a carved wooden box with a secret compartment and that may already be one more such box than I really needed. But, he pressed on, undaunted. “Here, take it, try to open it.” Been there, done that. “It is in the shape of a book. You can hide it on your bookshelf.” Yes, I get it. Really, I do. But don’t you think that a carved wooden book would stick out like a sore thumb in a bookshelf? That if you really were in the security business you might make it out of a book, perhaps? “Look, carved out of rosewood.” It did look kind of like rosewood, but I don’t believe or disbelieve your statement. (As it turned out later, the moonstone box was made out of such green wood that the lid to the secret compartment has already badly warped, and we haven’t even returned yet to a dry, air conditioned climate.)

Do not get me wrong. I feel for these guys. Tourism is way down and these guys need to sell this stuff to eat. But I am not an ATM with a public password and I do not feel it is right to treat me as such. Then I made another error. I offered to trade him boxes straight up. By this time I was climbing into the front passenger seat of the car. Counter-offer: Trade plus $20. I have sometimes found that showing the offer in actual currency will close a deal. I pulled $10 out of my wallet. Trade plus $10. Big mistake. Like chumming for shark. Suddenly I am being prevented from closing the car door. Arms are reaching for the money in my right hand (which is my side away from the door in this country). I find myself in the childhood situation of using my older child height to hold something wanted by my little sister, Anna, just out of her reach. I tell the driver to “get me out of here.” He acts confused and does nothing. My God, they are all in it together! Counter offer: $15 and no trade. Done! Box comes in the door, $15 goes out the door, and off we go.

Whew! We start back for the hotel. I know a $25 charge for lunch awaits me, so I tell the driver to stop somewhere for “shorts” along the way. We pass several likely looking places. Where is he taking me? Probably looking for someplace that will give him a kickback, replies my either paranoid or getting smarter mind, I don’t yet know which. So I spot a bake shop in Dambulla and order him to stop. The proprietors are surprised but happy to see a foreigner in their shop. Are they tired of drivers taking all the business to restaurants that offer kickbacks? They charge me the going rate and I have a delicious lunch for less than $2.

Finally, I get back to the hotel and catch up with Kris. Kris relieved my mind, unhappy with itself for overpaying for the wooden boxes, by being delighted with both boxes. I sorted pictures on my laptop until it was time for dinner. Dinner that night was not quite the same extravaganza as the night before, but lets just say they did a nice job, with the previous night’s leftovers adding to the range of choices usually available.

So Christmas night ended quietly for us after a busy day, at least for me. I hope that Christmas night found all of you at peace as well.


More photos from Christmas Day (plus my Christmas Eve frog) can be found on my Picasa website.



  1. SHANNON Jackson said,

    January 15, 2009 at 3:36 am

    Not to be too picky but boas are New World animals. While I don’t recognize the exact species, it is probably a python which fill the same niche as boas do in the Americas.

    As for defanging I have never heard that charmers do that. There are only a few people in the world (one of them here in the Northwest who successfully de-venomize their snakes on a lasting basis. I think if you defanged a snake it would be so damaged it might not live very long and probably wouldn’t eat. Fangs are the first grip a snake has on the prey, alive or dead to begin the swallowing process. Snakes do not respond to music as they have no ears. Their vision is usually not good. They pay attention mostly to lateral movements. The charmers I’ve seen on TV usually are swaying back and forth with the musical instrument. Not sure how they get them to go back into their baskets. Carefully, I presume. Another factor is strike distance which is usually 2/3 the length of the body. One could stay just out of range.

  2. Kris said,

    January 15, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Thanks, Shannon.

    My day was not as exciting as Tim’s, but it was a welcome luxury to read (God of Small Things) and a relief to keep my knee up and the Tylenol on track. I had slipped and fallen on a rock that scraped and bruised my leg, and re-awakened an old knee injury. I luxuriated in the jacuzzi and explored the hotel a little more–it has enormously long hallways, leading to sculpture and more swimming pools and new views. I had lunch on the terrace and visited with the head waiter, who must have thought I was lonely. It must be difficult to be nice to so many people who leave after a day, but I preferred my book. I watched the monkeys from our room, and then Tim was “home.” Merry Christmas!

  3. Tim said,

    January 15, 2009 at 6:16 pm


    My snake identification came from the book A photographic guide to snakes and other reptiles of Sri Lanka by Indraneil Das and Anslem de Silva (New Holland Publishers, London, 2005). They claim there are two species of constrictors in Sri Lanka, the sand boa (eryx conicus) and the rock python (python molurus), though, of course there is no guarantee that the snake was not imported, perhaps illegally. Originally when I looked at the photos, I thought the pattern on the snake skin most resembled the sand boa and so that is what I went with.

    Thanks to your comment, though, I went back to the book to check more carefully. I found that the sand boa is not supposed to grow larger than 60cm (24 inches). Between that fact and reexamining the pictures, I now think that the more likely identification is the rock python.

    In response to your comments about the difficulty of de-fanging a cobra, I did a little research (i.e., I typed “snake charming” into Wikipedia) and discovered that I should not have been so cocky by assuming that the cobras were de-fanged. I can distinctly remember when I was shooting closeups of the cobra in the pictures, I suddenly noticed that I was very close to an open basket containing a second cobra. I reminded myself it was de-fanged and finished shooting. It is one of my goals in life NOT to win a “Darwin Award” and this could have been an award winning performance, since Sigiriya is situated in an area where it might have taken me some time to get medical treatment.

    But, sad to say, despite the harm to the animal, it is apparently a common, although not universal, practice for snake charmers to de-fang their venomous snakes. This results in the harm you describe and Wikipedia gives an estimated life span of six months for a snake charmers snake. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that snake charming is now illegal in India. If I had known about the likelihood of harm to the snakes, I would not have patronized the man. Live and learn.

    Thanks for sharing your herpetological expertise.

  4. Anna said,

    January 29, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Yeah, yeah, forget the snake…what is all this about outreaching me when I was little. I thought you were getting stuff FOR me. Nice. You may have been taller, but I was faster.

  5. February 14, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    […] flash was not prohibited, it should have been. But I was very much taken with the style of painting I first saw at Sigiriya. The paintings in the National Museum, Kandy are replicas, but still captured the light, color, and […]

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