Travel: Long Haul - Serendipity strikes in Sri Lanka

Among the temple flowers and free-roaming cows, Nicola Bray lost her fear of being shot, and learned to love travelling alone
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The Independent Culture
The word "serendipity" - the faculty of making unexpected discoveries by accident - is interwoven in the history of Sri Lanka.

It was therefore, perhaps, not unexpected that as a single female, booking an eight-day guided tour of north Sri Lanka to meet like-minded individuals, I was faced with an ironic quirk of fate: Kuoni told me I was the only one on the tour. I suspect that it would have been easier for everyone if I had cancelled or switched to another holiday, but to its credit the company was prepared to take a solo traveller.

What's wrong with everybody? was my first thought - and one that I loudly imparted to my parents when visiting them that evening. My mother peered at me over her spectacles. "I'm not surprised, dear". Her voice took on the irritating quality of the Beattie character in the BT ads: "The last two times you've been on holiday you've managed to hit on war zones. Israel, you got bombed. Egypt, you got followed by the secret police". She opened her palm heavenward, and then concluded, with some conviction, that the Tamil Tigers were probably going to finish me off.

A few weeks later I found myself standing in the departure lounge feeling something that I've not felt in years: a real sense of anticipation and excitement about my holiday. There is something both exhilarating and formidable about travelling by yourself for the first time - there's no one to lean on, no one to pick on and no one to comfort you in hospital when you get shot.

When I landed in Sri Lanka, my first impression of the capital, Colombo, was of rusted corrugated iron, half-finished buildings, bamboo-stick scaffolding, traffic jams and humid heat. Two hours later, I arrived at my hotel in Mount Lavinia - a beautiful white colonial-style building with a strange combination of dark and dingy passageways and exquisite, unforgettable views of the Indian Ocean. I stepped through my balcony window into the warmth of the sun, breathing in the fresh scent of the ocean.

The view was breathtaking. Brilliant blue sky, deep-golden sands, dusky bodies playing and plunging in the waves, and the liquid amber swell of the ocean crashing against the rocks below. I lay on my bed later that evening, with the sound of the sea penetrating the closed balcony windows, and drifted off to sleep.

The following day my tour guide, Brian, met me with an air-conditioned car, instead of the usual group mini-bus. As we set off for the first leg of the tour - a five-hour drive north to Anuradhapura - I quizzed Brian about Colombo. En route we passed the World Trade Centre, which had been bombed several months earlier. The impact was evidenced by the hundreds of shattered windows and many hotels that were still only semi- operational. I reached for my camera, but Brian warned me that photographs were forbidden.

After the heat and hustle of the capital, the true beauty of Sri Lanka started to unfold. The country - only 270 miles long by 140 miles wide - has a diverse climate, culture and religious influences, and a colourful history and natural beauty. For me, it was some of the idiosyncrasies of the country that made it so special. Many local people have belief in the "evil eye" and post human effigies on the roof or in the grounds of their homes to ward off evil spirits (to fool the spirits into believing that someone is at home).

Village roadsides are decorated with beautiful white ribbons and home- made bunting to signify that somebody in the village has died. Yellow dogs and cows roam freely, relaxing in the roads, and the scent of the beautiful "temple flower" tree, with its dark green leaves and lily-white flowers, pervades the air.

Some homes are colourfully branded with pictures of consumer products - like yellow soapboxes or blue-and-white toothpaste blocks - the painted colours cheerfully clashing with the surrounding peaceful, lush green vegetation.

The rivers are crowded with women washing clothes and stretching them out on the banks to dry in the sun. At the beginning or end of the day, men and women can be found bathing, fully clothed, normally in segregated areas, then making the uncomfortable walk home, dripping wet, modesty intact.

As I reach Anuradhapura, the temperature is sweltering. I am amazed at the wealth of historical sites and religious monuments available, and walk with Brian around the sites in my bare feet (shoes and hat must be removed at many religious sites). I quickly develop the art of speedwalking between the shady bits, much to the amusement of my guide, who had leather- soled feet.

Many of the places on the main tourism thoroughfare are in close proximity to each other - including the Bo Tree (a sapling of the original tree where the Buddha gained enlightenment), Gal Potha (the rock book), the Shiva Temple (worshipped by Hindu women seeking blessings for conception - with offerings made to a stone penis) and beautiful dagobas (bell-shaped buildings). However, the place to visit - and one definitely not to be missed - is Sigiriya Palace (also known as Lion Rock) - an impregnable palace built on top of a huge rock, with the only access, originally, through the carved mouth of a lion.

The climb is not for the faint-hearted - you need a head for heights and some stamina - but it is worth it for glimpses of original frescoes, pleasure gardens, mirror wall and palace ruins. The workmanship is truly astounding, and the view will take your breath away (although the climb had already done that for me).

The closer we got to the rebel-held territory, the more military checkpoints there were to be negotiated with the help of special travel permits - but any fears I might have had of being shot by Tamil Tigers were somewhat alleviated by the brilliant array of pot plants and colourful flowers set on top of the paint-patterned oil drums, placed in alternate rows across the road.

Two days later I was finally delivered back to my original hotel, Mount Lavinia. Throughout the tour I had had the opportunity to do many things - an elephant ride in the jungle; and visits to an elephant sanctuary, a batik factory, a mask factory, a spice plantation, a wood-carving workshop and a gem factory. I had also sampled the local cuisine, hoppers (a type of pancake, with raised sides, with fried egg at the bottom, eaten with a variety of curry dishes) and had acquired a taste for a spicy breakfast.

Having a guide all to myself meant that I had no time to feel lonely; there was so much to see, do, listen and learn.

I accumulated a wealth of knowledge about Sri Lanka, the people and the language - which would ordinarily have taken me months.

This holiday gave me empowerment. I am no longer scared to travel by myself or to hire my own guide for trips abroad. It's an exciting world out there, and one that I now have the courage to discover.

Nicola Bray paid pounds 1,118 for a two-week holiday in Sri Lanka with Kuoni, booked through Thomas Cook. The price included all travel, accommodation, most meals and a side-trip to the Maldives.

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