(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Carrots in a Cage — جزر في قفص

Sri Lanka Part Five

Sri Lanka Part 4
Sri Lanka Part 3
Sri Lanka Part 2
Sri Lanka Part 1

Yala National Park is not fun. It may have once been fun, but it is certainly not now, and I’m mad at everyone Google found that tried to convince me otherwise. Except, actually, now that I’ve followed their bad advice, I wouldn’t redo it all any differently.

It is supposed to be one of Sri Lanka’s prime destinations for wildlife spotting — thousands of kilometers of open area where majestic island creatures roam, discoverable only from the back of a hired Jeep. Buffalo, leopards, beautiful wild elephant — Yala is your gateway to a personal, personalized experience with Sri Lanka’s wild fauna. Yours and five-hundred other tourists, in six-hundred jeeps, making every breath feel like sucking from the back of an exhaust pipe.

Our tour began outside a hotel we hadn’t stayed at 5:30 in a pitch black morning. It all started so well — a private jeep, gutted, gunning down dirt roads that seemed deserted as the sun came up. But then we pulled up to a circle of identical parked jeeps with tired looking people just waiting. The best part of the day came and went after our driver (wheezing and coughing) disappeared to redeem the tickets we thought we already had, and as the hot sun rose over an area more National Parking Lot than National Park. By 7:30, we were moving, and at the official militarily guarded entrance, an elephant lumbered in the far distance.

“Lucky!” sneezed the driver.
I hadn’t yet turned completely sour. “Yes… lucky lucky.”

Later on, we roared on up to a sleeping leopard, nestled deep in a thick forest. This, our driver impressed upon us, was very lucky. Everyone else though so, too — at least thirty jeeps squeezed into the narrow dirt road, spewing fumes and rumbling, tourist trapping us in a zoo of sweaty day trippers and digital cameras. I didn’t want to look at the tiny far away sleeping leopard head anymore. If everyone else was looking at it, right then and there, it wasn’t wild anymore… I pointed my camera back at the other tourists.

Before the end of the leopard’s nap, we escaped down a road less traveled. I was complaining as our jeep blazed a path guarded by nothing but tall, thick shrubbery. “Elephants don’t live here,” I said. “They’re big. They like big spaces.”

And then there one was. Big and grey, just like they are supposed to look — and actually, I had to tell myself, in the wild. For the first time all morning, there were no other jeeps in sight.

“Can we get out?”
The driver didn’t seem to respond, so I popped open the back door. I eyed the big, grazing animal no more than twenty feet away.

Run for it.

Every part of me that is good at anything told me to run — to run into the brush, to find out if elephants are hairy, to find out if they’d never forget me. But I made the mistake of looking back, of seeing our driver making urgent hand motions and looking pained. It’s a lot harder to break a rule when it’s being explained to you than it is to pretend you never knew there even was a rule, that it was against park rules to cow tip or elephant hug.

And then came the jeeps — mine and the park’s wild side muffled in clouds of tourist dust.

“Tourist trap,” could never be more accurate. We’d pulled ourselves in the direction of something we thought was attractive, like a hapless rabbit hopping for a carrot in a cage. We cut short other half-baked plans to allow for this, the one thing we had really heard of. Still, though, without a doubt, it was all entirely for the best (and not just because of the really cool monitor lizards hanging from trees). Our trip to the southwest brought us to into the town of Tissamaharama, where the night before we’d met people (in a waist-deep riverbed) that made the whole trip worth it.

(More next time.)

Tons more pictures from Sri Lanka right here

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