Passage from Thailand to Sri Lanka
I loved every minute of our time in Thailand and was loath to leave. Consequently I grabbed at any and every excuse to delay our passage. When I finally ran out of excuses involving boat repairs I managed to convince Dee to stay a few more days so I could undergo a colonoscopy at the hospital in Phuket which would be much cheaper than in the US. If nothing else I've written about Thailand convinces you how much I enjoyed the place staying for a colonoscopy is about as desperate a reason as you can find. .
By the time the colonoscopy was finished it was only two days before Barak Obama's inauguration and since we had both worked for his campaign while in the US we were anxious to stay and hear his speech. We managed to get a local bar to tune it in on CNN so we could watch live until 2 am Thai time. Finally out of excuses we headed off to the Similan islands 50 miles away for a few enjoyable days of scuba diving before sailing westwards.
On January 26, 2009 we got underway across the Bay of Bengal and Northern Indian Ocean. Our destination was Sri Lanka over 1,000 miles away. With only light winds we motored along until about 11 pm when our engine coughed and suddenly died leaving us becalmed. Dee had been asleep but then came on deck to steer while I dove into the engine room with a flashlight in my mouth to try and diagnose the problem. An hour later I had no answers and since Thailand was 50 miles behind us and Sri Lanka 1,000 miles ahead we turned around and began sailing back towards Thailand at about 2 knots. Another hour and a half later after alternately sucking on and blowing through all the fuel lines and filters I had a solution by rigging an alternate fuel line with some spare hose I carry for emergencies. Rigging the line took awhile but this got the engine started again so we made another about face and with the building breeze began sailing westwards towards Sri Lanka. It was now 2 am and Dee stayed up on watch while I went below to rest while belching and burping with the taste of diesel fuel in my throat.
After that the rest of the 9 day passage was mostly uneventful. I caught a nice tuna about 3 minutes after putting in my line one morning. We watched dolphins surfing our bow wave; we went through a great many sail changes as the wind continued to shift, build and die. In the afternoons we ate fresh baked bread and watched DVD's of The West Wing. Mostly we just whiled away the time if not exactly on smooth seas at least only mildly uncomfortable ones. Our new mainsail performed well and we had a 1-2 knot current helping us along. Two days before arrival we had a brief scare when our engine would not start but I found the electrical problem and fixed it. Losing our engine would be critical not just for motoring in calms but also for charging our batteries which run the autopilot and everything else on board.
Our first encounter with Sri Lanka was a boatload of fishermen chasing us and coming dangerously close alongside. They alternately held up a 4 foot shark and a bunch of drinking coconuts which I assume they wanted to sell us. Waving them away and saying NO seemed to have little effect as they just continued to chase us and shout things we could not understand. Finally I had Dee put a package of cigarettes (which we keep only for these occasions) in a zip lock baggie. I then blew up a kid's toy balloon and duct taped the baggie to it and tossed it overboard into our wake. That did the trick as the fisherman stopped the chase to turn back for the package and then shouted their thanks and went back to their fishing.
The next morning as we neared the harbor we saw dozens and dozens more fishing boats and while they did not chase us they followed a custom common in this part of the world. Being faster and more maneuverable they would race towards us at high speed until a collision looked imminent, then at the last second they would swerve towards our bow and cross directly in front of us. We have been told they do this so the evil spirits will be shaken off their boat and land on ours. I wonder if they ever consider our evil spirits could get onto their boat, hmmm......
I am sure there are good reasons to visit Sri Lanka, unfortunately having just spent 10 days there none come to mind. I guess the best that can be said for sailors like us on the normal route to the Red Sea is that Sri Lanka gets you ready for the incredible difficulties of dealing with the Egyptians. Dee and others would certainly be more generous in describing the country, but Rob writes the web blogs- and I just did not like the place or the people. Having just come from Thailand, one of my favorite countries and favorite peoples the contrast was all the more extreme.
The official position of the Sri Lanka government and its people is that you as a foreigner have lots of money and they don't-- therefore you should give them all of your money. If you absolutely insist that they provide something in return such as a hotel room or restaurant meal they will grudgingly do so but they really feel that is terribly unfair and demanding on your part. For sailors the difficulties start even before you arrive with the fishing boats chasing us and coming dangerously close while begging for anything we will give them. Next comes clearing in through customs and immigration- you are required to use an agent which cost $ 225- by far the most we have ever paid anywhere (most countries are free or nearly so). After paying the $ 225 the customs man only asked for a bribe of only one whiskey bottle- we declined.
Because of the ongoing fighting with the Tamil Tiger rebels the harbor is an armed camp with AK 47 toting guards everywhere and a net across the harbor mouth which is closed off every night. During the night you are periodically awoken by the depth charges they randomly drop throughout the harbor to discourage scuba clad rebel saboteurs. Coming and going from your boat you must go through a military checkpoint manned by guards in a sandbagged machine gun emplacement and since no locals or even taxis are allowed in or out you must carry all your groceries, gas, water jugs etc about 1/4 mile to your boat.
Ventana's SSB radio needed repair and had I been lucky enough to find someone who could do this I would have had to pay the agent a fee to get it in and out of the harbor as well as pay customs dues on my own radio- we left without repairing it.
Upon advice from others we took a 5 day inland trip via minivan. Mostly we spent 5 or 6 hours driving each day to get to a tourist site where we spent an hour or two being mildly impressed. The Pyramids, Great Wall, Grand Canyon, Taj Mahal, Angel Falls- all seem to be located in other countries and I urge you to go visit those places at your first opportunity.
It is not that Sri Lanka has no impressive sights- it is just that there are so many more interesting places in the world. The best sites were Buddhist temples- one in a cave called Dambulla and another atop a large rock outcrop called Sigiriya. Besides the rather expensive mini van travel the hotels and restaurants were all at least double what we paid elsewhere in Asia and the quality was lower. Most of the hotels told us they had hot water but few did- with one very notable exception. The hotel that did have hot water had an adjustment knob attached to the faucet, but when I reached up to make it hotter I nearly got electrocuted. I normally start my day with a Red Bull but that is nothing compared to standing soaking wet in a shower with your feet well grounded to the concrete floor and having 220 volts course thorough your body. My entire arm tingled for hours.
The long drives in the mini-van were broken up every 30 miles or so by a military checkpoint. Usually we just slowed down and continued on but at one of them the 18 year old kid with the AK 47 rifle motioned us to a stop and our driver then raised his hands and politely waited with hands in the air while the gun toting children looked inside the van for the bomb that the three white tourists no doubt had sitting on the seat between them.
In some countries it is the people that are special enough to make your visit memorable- alas not Sri Lanka. Almost all our exchanges with the locals were based only on our providing them with money. Mostly they look at us with mistrust or suspicion - on the rare occasion our smiles were returned it was fleeting. It was not uncommon to buy a ticket to visit a site and then have some official inside ask for a tip or a bribe to actually let you see the site you had already paid for.
Fortunately there was one group of Sri Lankans who provided a welcome divergence from the norm. The tuk- tuk *drivers and fixers just outside the harbor gate who specialize in helping the yachts were all wonderful people. They helped with laundry, gas, finding special items, groceries, etc. They charged a fair price for their services and to them we are grateful.
* A tuk tuk is usually a 3 wheeled motorcycle based taxi with room for a driver in front and 2 or 3 people behind. There is a cover over it all but no doors. They are ubiquitous in S.E Asia.
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