Colombo is a long narrow city that has grown up along the highway that heads south to Galle. It took what seemed forever to get out of the city, but at last we could see the ocean to our right and the palm-lined beaches with their crashing waves. We settled in to watch the scenery pass by and now and then our driver would point out places of interest along the way.
As I watched out the window I noticed a large white dagoba, (a smooth, white-washed bell-shaped structure distinctive to Sri Lankan Buddhist architecture), come into view. It was time to take a break, so I suggested to the driver that we stop and take a look. He seemed very pleased that we were interested in seeing a religious building of such significance.
We stopped along the street and bought some flowers before taking off our shoes and entering the temple. I was immediately struck by how clean the surroundings were and how calm it was inside. I have always enjoyed the Buddhist temples that I have visited and this was no exception.
Back on the road, Adia gave instructions to the driver for the turtle hatchery that we wanted to visit along the way. Turtles come ashore as adults to lay their eggs on the beach where they were born, and the west coast of Sri Lanka sees turtles laying eggs throughout the year. Unfortunately, the local residents dig up the eggs to sell in the market and this only adds to the problems the turtles have trying to survive. We had read that only 1% of the turtles that hatch live to maturity and of course only the females return to lay the eggs.
We stopped at the small hatchery at Bentota and were welcomed by the staff . There was one other family visiting during the time we were there so we were given a tour by one of the very friendly staff members. The hatchery survives on the small admission fee, donations, and proceeds from the sale of gift items. There was absolutely no pressure to donate money and we were surprised how low key the whole operation was.
Before we knew it, we were taken over to a cement tank filled with two-day old baby turtles. I didn’t expect to be allowed to hold them, but before I knew it, one was scooped up and placed in my hands. I was glad that I had held a tortoise before, or I think I might have been more squeamish that I was. We were shown several tanks with the babies and then led to what looked like a sandy garden with stakes placed on top of small mounts of sand. These stakes indicated the various nests filled with eggs and the date they were buried at the hatchery.
The guide explained that the hatchery buys the eggs from the locals who dig them up from the natural nests. The eggs generally sell for Rs 8 in the market, and the hatchery pays Rs10 to anyone who will bring the eggs directly to them. The eggs are buried in fenced enclosures so that they are safe from predators and when the babies emerge they are placed in the tanks for two to three days before they are released into the sea.
The hatchery is also home to several adult turtles who have been injured or maimed in the wild. ‘Tripod’ is missing one flipper, ‘Bicycle’ is missing two and there is even an albino turtle called ‘MJ’ (Michael Jackson), that would not survive long in the sea. He is too easy to spot without the natural colouring on his shell. We noticed that algae is beginning to discolour his otherwise white shell and eventually it should be dark enough to help him hide from predators. When the time comes, he will be released to fend for himself. The others will remain at the hatchery, they cannot swim well enough to survive anywhere else.
We didn’t buy any of the merchandise, but we did make a donation to this worthy cause. It was a great educational experience and I knew that my brother David would enjoy seeing my photos of the turtles. He has two pet tortoises back in Canada, and these are really just very distant cousins after all.
It was time to get back in the van and head for our hotel in Unawatuna. Along the way we passed the west coast beaches that were the most heavily damaged by the tsunami on Dec 26, 2004. It was almost Christmas now, five years since the terrible tragedy and I wondered how the people of the region would commemorate the loss of their family, friends and livelihood. At one point the driver drew our attention to the railroad line just to the left of the highway. It was in this region that the tsunami struck a fully-loaded passenger train and killed the over thousand people trapped inside.
It was a little hard to get excited about spending the coming holiday on a beautiful Sri Lankan beach when something so devastating happened just a few short years ago. Still, the country has just put an end to a long, drawn-out civil war and a surge in tourism is just what is needed to help those looking for work in the aftermath of the unrest and the tsunami. I think as long as tourists are sensitive to the feelings of the Sri Lankan people, it’s good to come and travel and vacation here. Adia tells me not to dwell on the past, but to enjoy the opportunity to experience all that this lovely island has to offer. The welcome we had has so far bodes well for the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010.