Searching for “George” in Wilpattu

Sri Lanka is a myriad of different colors, and the people in Wilpattu especially love to stand out. Women wear t-shirts with long skirts, often patterned with different colors. The younger women sport narrowly shaped skirts while the older Aunties stick to floral or rainbow colored patterns. The men too, explore different options from pink shirts to yellow sarongs. School children, however, stick to white uniforms, strikingly white, against their beautiful dark-colored skin.

The animals you find in Wilpattu National Park don’t lose out against the people. Wilpattu is a birders’ paradise, and even our faint interests in birds were piqued when we saw the striking blue Kingfisher, the rooster-like Jungle fowl. Watching the hornbill balance on a tree branch over the lake while he spread his feathers out to dry was a real treat. Our earlier conversation with Suraja, an experienced safari tracker, was kept at the back of my mind, and I mindfully paid detailed attention to the small critters who came to greet us.

Dinner time

During our evening safari drive, we passed several other jeeps with customers who look disheartened. They had spent a full day and saw less than what they had hoped to. We smiled and went on our way, holding on to our hopes to see the big three animals — the sloth bear, leopard and elephant. After two hours of spotting deers, monkeys, and buffalos, we were getting restless. “ I want to see an elephant so badly, that the trees are starting to morph into elephants”, Lina said. I have seen leopards and elephants before, in Kruger national park, and so wasn’t as desperate, but her eagerness spread to me, and I wished harder on her behalf.

The sceneries in Wilpattu help to ease your mind as you pass through long roads of old trees on either side, and come across clearings marked by lively lakes. There is an infectious calmness that Wilpattu exudes. We spotted two wild dogs laying by a lake taking a nap, and it makes you envious of these wild animals, whose only worries of finding shelter and food don’t seem to affect their state of mind as much as we allow our worries to affect our happiness.

It takes a good hour from the western entrance of the park to reach the usual sighting spots, and so opting for a full day safari would be wisest. They charge 3000 rupees (+ or — 500 rupees) for a single entry ticket per Jeep, so they definitely don’t adopt a night club’s policy, where you get a stamp on the wrist and get to go in and out of the place. Once you’re in the park, the usual sightings of peacocks, gray langurs, spotted deer, and different species of birds will greet you. And then begins the eager search for “George” (I named the elephant we later spotted).

I started to think that searching for “George” is like when you badly need a taxi. When you’re 30 mins late for a meeting, taxi drivers seem to smell that desperation and suddenly disappear to play tricks on you. When you haven’t a care in the world however, they appear everywhere. So, I kept telling the universe I didn’t need to see an elephant, who cares about an elephant, I just want to see a leopard.

My theory was proven right, because just as we were about to finish our evening safari drive, and were on the way back to the entrance, a Jeep tipped us off in the direction, and we found a leopard. This leopard was curious and fearless. She stood only meters away from the 4 or 5 jeeps that have gathered around to see her. She strode back and forth, in gracious strides, unguarded and relaxed. She looked right back at us, as if trying to figure out what kind of animals we were. When she couldn’t be bothered anymore, she slid away quickly in a matter of seconds, and off we went too.

Lana the lady leopard

Leopard Trails was hosting us at their luxury safari campsite for a night, and like royalty did they treat us. We noticed lanterns on either side of the dirt path while entering the campsite, and then the most romantic view greeted us. Lanterns were lit everywhere along the paths, some on the trees, and a bonfire had just begun to crackle. They handed us cold lemon grass scented towels to wipe the dust off our face and ushered us to our outdoor bar. Two deck chairs were placed to face the fire in the distance, separated from us by a small pond with frogs leaping from pebble to pebble.

Dirt covered girls with our guide, happy to see a bar
Them boys waiting with cold towels and coconut juice

Dhanu, our guide from Leopard Trails, had graduated from the top university in Sri Lanka, with a degree in zoology. While we sipped on our gin and limes, he told us how he got to be a safari guide. He had always loved the outdoors, and studied hard all throughout his childhood so he could pursue his passion in state-funded university. He told us that he’s Buddhist and does not drink, because he promised his grandfather that he never would. The passionate way that Dhanu talks about Sri Lanka, his values, and his interests, is not so different from many other Sri Lankan people we’ve met. I begin to wonder why I haven’t met many Sri Lankans before, and realized I feel a warmth with them, one that I only get with close family.

That night over dinner, Lina and I shared some of our personal stories with each other. The food was delicious, the environment was beautiful, and the service from the Leopard trails staff was impeccable. There was little to fan any worries we had in our minds, and instead, we were filled with anticipation and excitement for our morning safari drive the next day.

That morning, still dizzy from the pampering, I figured it wasn’t that bad even if we didn’t see an elephant. We had already seen heaps, including a herd of buffalos and lady leopard “Lana” (She looked like a Lana to me). We drove around the park, to different lakes and saw a tiny crocodile as well. You could sense our driver was motivated to show us the best parts of his playground, and perhaps find us that elephant before we left that day. Eventually, we gave up, and Dhanu apologized even though he didn’t have to. We were headed to our breakfast spot, where the only toilet facility is in the park, when “George” appeared right in front of our eyes!

He had been waiting for us all along! There he stood, twirling a bunch of leaves with the end of his trunk before placing into his mouth and taking satisfied munches. He seemed completely indifferent to the hoard of people who started to crowd around him. He could see us from the corner of his eye, I’m sure, but he was unfazed, and even posed quite a few times for our cameras. I couldn’t believe his presence, and so I stood there for quite a while, just admiring his graceful movements. He would twirl a bunch of leaves, smacking off insects, dirt and sand, put them into his mouth and chewed, while he got the next bite ready. Elephants eat about 150kg worth of food everyday, and eat for roughly 20 hours a day, sleeping very little. No wonder he couldn’t care less about us, “George” had work to do if he didn’t want to wake up hungry.

I stood about 30 meters away from him, eating my coconut-filled pancake, and pretended we were having a picnic together. When he got tired of leaves, he waded through the lake and had some water-weeds instead. When I was done with my coconut pancake, I moved on to some papaya. In my mind, “George” was telling me all about his bachelor life, and how he’s choosing between a couple of ladies. Bachelor elephants travel alone, until they decide to find a mate.

I guess you could say Lina and I were one of the few lucky ones, who got to see 2 out of 3 big stars in Sri Lanka. The sloth bear will be our next lucky find, but until then, the glimpses of “George” and “Lana” will make me feel like the luckiest girl in the world. Wilpattu is a good alternative to the hustle and bustle of Yala National Park, and there, we found passionate guides, extremely experienced drivers and beautiful sceneries.

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Life Lessons from Kite Surfing

I thought I knew my left from my right, but clearly, my kite surfing instructor, Magali, wasn’t convinced. “ Steer left!! The OTHER left “ she shouted from behind me, as she held both hands on my harness to keep me from flying into the air.

It took me a good 90 minutes to learn to use my weight against the power of the kite. It then took me another 90 minutes to learn to trust her, and follow her instructions carefully, without trying to take control of everything.

In kite surfing, you learn one of life’s most important lessons – to let go when the wind is forcibly competing against you. On your first day, your most important task is to get comfortable with steering, and keep your kite at an ‘at-ease’ position. The kite is the easiest to manage when it is at a 12’o clock position, right above you, neither pulling you left, right, or forward. The best way to keep the kite in this position, is by pushing the handles away from you at mid-position. In some way, you’ve got to physically let go of the steering, and hold it at a distance where you have some control over it, but not too much that the kite starts to gather wind from all over the place and jerks you around.

“ Push away, and be at ease, “ Magali told me. “ The more you try to pull it towards you, the more you will lose control” At some point, I wasn’t sure if she was teaching me life lessons or kite surfing. But over a good 3 hours, I finally learnt how to comfortably get the kite up in the air, steer it from left to right, right to left, and be in the present moment.

Kiting really is about being in the ‘now’, the wind is a major condition that cannot be controlled, and so the only thing you really have, is the ability to go with the wind. To feel where the wind wants to take you, roll with it, and let it surprise you. I met a pro-kite surfer, Aya, who said to me “ sometimes you can have the best conditions, good wind, flat water and perfect equipment, but if your body is not in the mood, then you have to listen to it.” I watch one of her videos, where her usual relaxed mannerism is juxtaposed by her focused and sharp movements as she whacks out a mid-air spin, followed by another trick immediately after.

I’ve taken wind surfing lessons before, and thought kite surfing would be as tiring, if not more, since it included harnessing the power of the wind. It was a pleasant delight to realize how light the kite was, and how natural it felt to steer it. It was, in the most basic sense, flying a kite while you’re in the water, with a couple of more fancy equipment versus your usual reel and line. After 3 hours of kite surfing, I felt more or less like I would after a 15 minute run, energized and ready for a day’s work.

Lunch time came and went, and then came the actual fun parts. We were going to do body drags, which is basically steering the kite at 1-2’ o clock and 10-11’ o clock positions so that the wind could propel me across the water. The lagoon was a perfect place for these exercises, because of the shallow waters and the soft banks. I took a while to get my body in a stiff position, point my arm to which ever direction I had to go into, and keep my legs closed so I effectively became a surf board. In minutes, body dragging became my favorite activity. It was such insane fun, feeling myself go full speed ahead across the water, as if I were a stream-lined surf board. I swallowed a good amount of sea water because I was hysterically laughing so much, like a 5-year-old on the swings for the first time. Body dragging was a pivotal lesson, to help ensure I was ready for the addition of the board itself.

“Always keep your knees bent, and when you feel the power of the wind, I want you to push against the board and try to stand up,” her words were repeated in my head over and over again. I wanted so badly to stand up for just even a second, to prove to myself that I could pick this sport up fast. I tried and I tried and I tried, again and again, but it never happened. Magali never stopped being patient with me, and I realized she was repeating herself over and over again, so I must have really not been listening to her at all. Yet, she never once lost her temper, never once gave up on me, and kept checking on me to see if I needed a break.

On our final try, I told myself to screw it! Who cares if I can stand up, who cares if I face plant into the water, I just want to have some fun while I can. I steadied my feet, pushed the kite into position, waited for a chance to dip the kite a few times and boom! I stood up! Just for a second before I was thrown back down again but in that second, I felt invincible. It took me 5 hours to realize the one simple concept Magali had been trying to teach me from the start – to feel the wind and be in the now. The techniques could definitely have been stronger, the wind could have been more consistent, but all these conditions, even if met, are not as important as the little moments of opportunities I missed, because I was trying to get everything else perfect.

Kite surfing taught me to live in the present, to enjoy the current seconds that don’t fly by as quickly as we think they do. If you would just calm your mind, and breathe deeply through your core, time stops for you, and in those moments, happiness visits and stays with you for as Long as you want it to.