Elena Brebner

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FREEDIVING IN THE MALDIVES & ADVENTURES IN SRI LANKA

MALDIVES

On the outward flight a large part of a back tooth came out, leaving the remainder resembling Santorini. This didn’t seem like an auspicious beginning, but, well, you shall hear all…….


I spent a week in the Maldives on a Freediving trip – that is diving as deep or for as long (or both) on one breath. In the mornings we mostly practised technique, diving next to vertical ropes (I can get to a depth of about 20m) & in the afternoons we dived down when we felt like it, enjoying the phantasmagoria of fish & corals, that I personally find the most beautiful habitat in the world. With their rich, metallic colours & patterns, the reef fish are as living jewels, more subtle & perfect than anything fashioned by human hand. The corals I see as natural sculptures, with their more delicate hues & endless variety of form. Some of them were ominously bleached white, which is set to increase as climate change takes hold, & these fragile ecosystems become all but annihilated over the next few decades.

But I tried not to think too much about all that.

I had the great joy & privilege of swimming for several minutes just above a green turtle, & on another occasion, a manta ray, as it flapped gracefully before me.

See “Important Announcement” at the end!

 

SRI LANKA

I arrived at Colombo airport at a civilized time in mid morning, & met my driver/guide, whom I shall refer to as “N”. He was professional & courteous throughout, & touchingly considerate, for example giving me his (clean) hanky when sweat was getting in my eyes. He is a devout Buddhist, embodying all Buddhist qualities & was a serene & peaceful presence.

He greeted me with a garland of purple orchids, which he solemnly placed around my neck. This was a wee bit prickly, the orchids being attached with bits of wire, so I doubled it up & wore it as a crown instead, as we drove to the town of Kandy in the hilly heartland.

On this journey I had my first king coconut of the trip (I would subsequently have one each day). These are sold at little stores by the roadside (as well as bananas, of many varieties including most delicious red ones.) The vendor hacks a hole in the top with a specially designed knife/machete -thing, & you drink the delicious milk with a straw. Then he or she cuts the coconut in half & creates a scoop out of part of the shell for you to gouge out the (also delicious) flesh, which is much softer than in normal coconuts.

We stopped at an elephant orphanage, where the young ones were having their daily bath in the river. I fed them with bananas, & their trunks felt all funny as they curled around my hand. I told Julian about them on the phone, emphasizing adorability. “NO, we HAVEN’T GOT ROOM!” he said.

In Kandy I encountered my first “health faucet”, a mini-shower attachment next to every lavatory for you to wash your bottom while sitting on it. I later bought one for Julian as a Christmas present, as well as one for myself, which caused dreadful suspicions when I went through baggage X-ray.

We headed (via a tea factory) to Nuwara Eliya, a winterly spot high in the mountains.

Now, I had intended to do a load of painting on this trip, so I tried to find somewhere where I could paint sitting inside the car (a trick which worked satisfactorily in my own, comfortably grubby car in Ireland) as it was the rainy season, with sudden, heavy downpours occurring sporadically. It didn’t work here. It is difficult to find a place to view a good composition at the best of times; more so from a car. Having eventually found a not particularly inspiring one, I VERY nearly spilt VERY purple paint-water on the driving seat of the VERY smart company car. Thus ended my painting aspirations for the trip. After much inner struggle I abandoned all idea of arriving home with a nice portfolio, & decided just to have a good time.

We headed West, passing much beautiful scenery of verdant mountains with clouds swirling in the valleys, until we came to a shop doing white water rafting; so I did. It really is quite exciting whooshing over the rapids. Sometimes I had to crouch right down in the bows as I was engulfed in a powerful deluge. In a calmer part I got out & had a lovely swim, peaceful, pristine rain forest all around. A bright blue kingfisher zipped by.

The day started with meeting a jeep at 6.00 am, to take us on safari in Udawalawa National Park. This was full of elephants, peacocks, water buffalos ….. & macaques. One of the cheeky buggers stole my Medicine Pot & took it up a tree to bite it open. By much tempting with watermelon & throwing of stones, the guide got it back – complete with a large hole in the bottom.

I had a bit of a tummy upset, so N took me to an Ayuvedic chemist, which sold me some tablets resembling guinea-pig droppings. Then I was prescribed a cup of strong black coffee with lime juice (& sugar), which they drink a lot in Sri Lanka, & is delicious. I thoroughly recommend it. These seemed to do the trick.
The next stop was Kirinda, on the coast, where I bimbled contentedly along the tide line, picking up exotic shells. (One of my Very Favourite Pastimes)

Up for a 6.00 am start again, for a safari in Yala National Park. This time it was crocodiles, ibis, hornbills, spoonbills, a monitor lizard, a civet & a mongoose.
We visited a Buddhist monastery, where retreats were built into caves for meditative solitude. The road to this had a large tree growing in the middle of it, as the monks wouldn’t have it cut down when the road was made. I found a bright, iridescent blue-green dung beetle, diligently rolling its ball of macaque poo. We passed a lake containing a large sort-of cage, which the monks bathe in, so as to be safe from crocodiles. There was a notice saying “no photographing”, which N explained to me was because of the bathing monks. I said, “We can’t have people photographing naked monks, can we?” He replied, very seriously, that the monks always wore bathing towels.

A long drive to Sinharaja National Park – a tropical rainforest. The last part of the journey was in a tuk-tuk. These are small, three-wheeled vehicles that the Sri Lankans drive about in, over just about any terrain. There are ones that sell pastries, & these endlessly play the first few bars of Beethoven’s Fur Elise to announce their presence. A large pile of bricks in the middle of the mud track (it was being converted into a road) meant we had to wait while this was removed, brick by brick.

I made two long treks in Sinharaja, on consecutive days, with a guide, whom I shall refer to as “R”, who could spot the most camouflaged or distant of beasts. He was also a very good photographer, &, as I find taking photos interferes with my experience, I ended up handing him my camera to photograph whatever he saw fit. For the first trek N joined us. We had to wear special leech-proof socks & sprinkle our boots with salt. I said to N, “we don’t want leeches getting in your trousers – they will go up & up & up….” He is so very polite & proper, I couldn’t resist teasing him. He pretended not to understand. R just wore flip-flops, & sometimes had to remove leeches from between his toes - & very wiggly they were. Too wiggly.

A bracket fungus, striped with subtle shades of pink & orange like agate, grew from a log & there were red ants’ nests made from still growing leaves, stuck together with stuff that the workers squeeze from the larvae, using them like tubes of glue. (Not that I actually witnessed this: it is the sort of thing you remember from a zoology degree) R scrambled down a gulley & summoned me. There was a (deadly) green pit viper, coiled motionless, with an air of complete self-containment.

We reached a building where about twenty-five Sri Lankans were standing in a semi-circle around a very male dog, rolling on its back. I announced that in England dogs don’t generally have bollocks: “in England, snip-snip!” I explained, making a scissor action above the relevant part of his anatomy. They smiled & shuffled about a bit. Sri Lankans are all extremely polite.

We came to the lovely, tumbly river Ging. I had a glorious swim, scrambling & whooshing about in the rapids. This was somewhat marred by the Twenty-Five arriving & chattering away: Yakety-yakety. I got really pissed-off & shouted at tem to be quiet & stop spoiling the peace. They smiled & shuffled about a bit….

On the second trip, it was just myself & R. He picked up a (harmless) green vine snake & gave it to me to hold. It was an elegant, slender beast, which twined effortlessly around my hands, as if levitating, weightless. There were purple-faced leaf monkeys leaping about in the trees, just like on David Attenborough. I had a similarly wooshy-scrambly swim in another part of the river, this time in peaceful solitude. I was serenely happy. It was one of those times you want never to end.

I was introduced to several giant millipedes, clearly seeing the wave-like motion of their legs as they walked. I was reminded of a story, in which somebody asked a millipede, “how do you know which leg to move when?” The millipede thought about it a bit, realized he didn’t know, & was subsequently unable to walk at all.
As we neared the end of the trek, N came to meet us: “There is a friend waiting to see you!” he told me. When we got back to the guest house, there was a bucket upside-down on the ground. N lifted it, revealing a HUGE black scorpion, waving its claws at me. He told me there are even bigger ones, but this one looked pretty big to me.

We continued our drive. We stopped by a very large standing Buddha statue & met a snake charmer, playing a wooden flutey-thing while his cobra swayed about. I got a bit close, & the cobra lunged & hissed at me. N hastily pulled me back, saying “I’m supposed to be looking after you!” In another basket the snake charmer had a hefty python. It draped & coiled around my neck & shoulders. I thought it would be nice to have one in my bed. Call me a weirdo.

We came to Meethiya Goda, The only place where blue moonstone is mined. I was given a tour of the mine & place where the jewels are processed, & shown into a contrastingly smart shop, where I bought earrings & a pendant of this mysteriously luminescent stone.

I had a deep and very oily massage, accompanied by a thunderstorm.

We visited a turtle hospital where they incubate the eggs dug up from the beach & nurture the dear little creatures until they are big enough to face the world. They also care for rescued adult ones. I was allowed to pick up a little loggerhead turtle & place it on the beach, & watch it waddle clumsily into the sea.

Next morning: a boat trip up the Madu River. We passed through caves of mangrove trees, seeing several water monitor lizards, until we reached the island of Kothduwa Temple. There were very tame giant squirrels, which I fed with bananas, & large fruit bats hanging in the palm trees. A radiantly smiley monk gave me a blessing & tied a piece of cotton round my wrist.

Another island was called Kurundu Doowa, or “Cinnamon Island”, & there we met a young girl called Sadica, who demonstrated the process of preparing this. Her parents had deserted her & her brother, & they lived on this island with their grandparents, cultivating & processing the cinnamon they grew there. Then we visited an island specializing in “Fish Therapy”: you put your feet in the water & lots of fish nibble away the dry skin. I opted for the larger fish to give me a stronger treatment. “What about those ones?” I asked, pointing to some very big fish. “Oh no! They are TOO big!” I was told. I wondered if these ones would bite my toes off….

As we continued on our way, we had to circumnavigate a cow, sitting in the road. It is a tribute to the gentle Sri Lankans that dogs often do this & never seem to get run over.

Later on I had a “Doughnut” trip. You sit in a big rubber ring & get pulled along behind a motorboat. It was quite fun until the chappie in the boat said “Would you like to capsize?” I thought “well, go for a nice swim….” & agreed. The boat went really, REALLY fast & veered round, flinging me hard onto the water. It was more like a f***ing road accident than anything else. I really don’t know what the enjoyment was supposed to be. I was stunned.

I spent a most happy hour leaping about in big waves (another of my Very Favourite Pastimes) feeling fine, but that evening as I started my packing – a lengthy process, since I had been flinging stuff in & out of the car boot all trip – my left shoulder began to hurt, & I woke up at 3.30 in quite a bit of pain, & sat ruminating on the prospect of not being able to drive, play the piano, wash my hair or put my bra on. But at least it was on my left side & on the penultimate day of my trip. Never mind, I thought, & then felt a deep peace of acceptance come over me, which has remained with me.

When N met me at 9.00am I told him I needed medical treatment, so he took me to Derdens Private Hospital, where it cost me the princely sum of 300 Sri Lankan Rupees (about £1.50) to see a doctor, & 400 Rupees for an X-ray. There was nothing wrong with my bones (I didn’t think there would be) so I was prescribed some pain killer pills; some pain killing cream (like Deep Heat but orders of magnitude stronger. Deep Thermo-Nuclear Reaction, more like.) And a sling to hold my arm so I couldn’t move my shoulder.

I said to N that they really shouldn’t do that capsizing thing – it’s bloody dangerous. He replied, very gently, that it was meant for young people, & I was “elderly”. I burst out laughing; this is the first time (but I guess it won’t be the last) I’ve ever been called “elderly”.

We had a final lunch in Raja Bojun Resturant, where there was a buffet with an amazing selection of dishes & a life-size plastic elephant, slowly flapping its ears & blinking.

The ten-hour flight home was rather enjoyable, listening to Chopin on my phone & watching mountainous landscapes go by. I arrived home with my arm in the sling. Julian wondered what on earth I had done to myself, but strangely, the pain evaporated over the next few days & now there is just a slight muscular ache. So none of the things I dreaded have come to be, & I am left with just the abiding sense of peace.

 

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT!
My dive-buddy, Paul Syms & I are planning a freediving trip to the Great Barrier Reef, hopefully for April-ish 2017. We won’t be diving very deep – maximum 10m & mostly a lot shallower. It might be your last chance to see this Natural Wonder of the World before it begins to die altogether. If you or anyone you know might be interested, do contact me via the Contact page above.