The rain was pouring in that night in Kandy, drenching the wooden confines of the Mango Garden hotel. It was late, but I could hear the staff moving around in the corridors closing all the doors and windows, in a futile attempt to keep the insides of the hotel dry. It was quite late and I was in my room, browsing aimlessly on the internet, hoping that I would bore myself to sleep, when I stumbled onto an article on the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. As an animal lover, the place appealed to me at once and over the next couple of hours, as the ruckus in the corridor continued, I gathered more information about the place.
The village of Pinnawala is 3 KMs from the town of Rambukanna, which is about the halfway between Colombo and Kandy. There are quite a few trains from Kandy to Rambukanna and the journey takes about an hour and a half. Many tour operators organise day trips to the orphanage from Kandy but since I wanted a more hands-on experience, I decided to take the first train to Rambukanna, the next morning.
The dusty little town of Rambukanna has nothing spectacular to offer to its visitors. It has a busy bus station from where you could board a bus to the nearby cities and towns. There are a couple of colourful markets, with fresh vegetables, flowers, fruits, spices, clothes, and cheap electronics on offer. It was half past eight and the station was buzzing with the office crowd. I walked along the road leading out of the railway station, in search of a place where I could have my breakfast before trying to find a ride till Pinnawala.
Right next to the bus station was a small rundown cafe which was buzzing with people having egg hoppers, fish curries and tea. The walls, which seem to have been painted yellow few decades ago, had spider webs and dark black stains. There were a couple of big round wooden tables, with a few creaky chairs surrounding each of them. The waiter, an old lady with a kind smile, brought me a big plate of bread and cakes as I took a seat next to an old man who seemed too involved in his plate of fish curry to notice me.
This is what I did not know about the local joints of Sri Lanka: You are served with a plateful of different types of breads and cakes on offer; you pick and choose the ones that you want to eat. Once you are done, the waiter would figure out which of the kinds were missing from the big plate and charge you for those. The whole process is very simple and efficient for a guy who knows his way around these joints. Unfortunately, I did not.
Being my first time, I sat around trying my best to make the lady understand that I was not a monster who could eat fifteen kinds of bread in one sitting. I took a couple of breads from the big plate to my smaller plate, and handed the plate back to the lady.
But she stood there, smiling and saying something in Singhalese. She kept pointing at the breads on the bigger plate and then to my smaller plate.
Finally she gave up and took away the big plate, with a loud sigh. Her ordeal with me continued when I called her for a cup of coffee. She, apparently, did not know what coffee was. So, the whole process started again with me bouncing off every word related to a cup of coffee, hoping it would ring a bell.
“Coffee? You know, served in a cup. Hot. Smells nice. No?”
She would shake her head, with a look that said “Why don’t you just finish your bread and leave.” The kindness of her face was slowly wearing off and frustration was starting to creep in. But having slept for just 3 hours the night before, I really needed the coffee. The ordeal ended when an eight year old boy from the other table, who was apparently eavesdropping and a master at dumb charades, shouted out “Nescafe!”
The lady looked at the boy, then back at me and asked “Nescafe?”
You could feel that she really wanted me to say yes. She was the only waiter at the joint and desperately needed to attend to the other customers, who were waiting for their plateful of breads. She let out a wide smile, when I said yes and rushed off to the kitchen area, patting the little boy’s back as she passed him.
Pinnawala was a short bus ride away. The pink minibus drove along a narrow village road, under the shade of trees with bright green leaves, passing quaint houses, with popular local songs blasting out of its worn out speakers. Ten minutes later, it dropped me off right in front of the gates of the Elephant Orphanage.
The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is currently home to eighty odd elephants that were abandoned by or separated from their herds. There are also elephants living here which were disabled by land mines and rescued from tusk smugglers. They are brought here, raised and then either sold to private bidders, donated to temples or retained for captive breeding. The income coming from the visitors is used to maintain the orphanage and to take care of the elephants living here.
As a visitor, you can feed fruits and milk to the elephants. You can get your picture taken with them. You can see them play around, blowing dirt all over each other. You can hear them trumpeting. There is elephant poop smell all around which is a bit disgusting but after a while you either get used to it or temporarily lose your sense of smell. But most importantly, you get to spend time with one of the most majestic animal God has ever created.
The best part about spending a day at the orphanage, however, is to follow the herd to the banks of a nearby river, across the road from the orphanage, and seeing them take a bath. Some elephants lazed around in the stream while the staff scrubbed them with coconut shells, while others took a stroll in the knee dip water, using their trunks to playfully spray on each other occasionally. The greenery and the blue sky in the background painted a beautiful picture.
It was early evening by the time I returned back to Kandy. The sky was turning dark with the orange-ish hue of a setting sun. The lights of the Tooth Relic temple were on, and prayers had started. The market area was busy with people and vehicles. The aroma of flowers and fruits filled the air as I walked past the street vendors. The sidewalk along the Kandy lake was busy with locals coming back home from work. The birds were settling into the trees. The grocery shop owner, near my hotel in the quieter side of the lake, pulled down the shutter noisily, and smiled as I walked past him.
As I walked along the road leading up to my hotel, the realisation set in that this was going to be my last evening in this beautiful city. Early next morning, I would board a train up the hill country to the town of Ella.
(Like this post? Check the first post in the series “A Trip Through The Island Nation”)