Sri Lanka - From the sandy beach to the rainy mountains
I feel a little guilty about this trip. When I booked my India ticket I chose a date that seemed convenient, without realising that I would be in India for 97 days. That’s an issue because my visa only allows me to stay in India for 90 consecutive days. The solution is to go on this trip to Sri Lanka. But it’s too short to organise any meaningful work, leaving me with a short holiday trip while I’m in India to do communication work. On the other hand, if I had booked my ticket to stay in India for 90 days, I would have had the same amount of time to work anyway. And at least this way I got to meet a fellow communication enthusiast, which was a great blessing.
On the flawless highway I arrive at the NCM center. Happy to finally go to one, after all that I’ve heard about it. It’s not what I expected and my guess is it’s built to accommodate the rather luxurious basic needs of visiting Westerners. But then again, there’s plenty of electric cars around here so maybe this whole area is richer than I thought.
After some miscommunication about my taxi, I reach my train and a very friendly government worker makes sure I get a good seat on the beach-side. It’s an idyllic ride, with beach scenes and villages. In my mind the images of the tsunami of 2004 are playing.
The place I stay at in Galle is huge and empty, but the owner is very friendly. It carries a big sign saying “foreigners only”.
My first local bus experience has me standing in the still open door, hanging on to the bars, but I’ve seen so much in India that this feels normal. Overall Sri Lanka has welcomed me into a very pleasant environment, that is a lot less crowded and chaotic than my Indian travels.
The Galle fort is an old Dutch settlement, and reminds me of Colonia in Uruguay, an old Portuguese town. But the beauty award goes to Uruguay, and I’m not sure whether that’s because of Dutch architecture or Sri Lankan maintenance. Nonetheless, there are some interesting scenes inviting to be photographed. The view that captures my imagination the most is the ocean. A straight line of 8218 km of open water would bring you to Antarctica.
Tripadvisor leads me to a tiny restaurant with only one 4-star rating, and about 100+ 5 star. It was mind-blowing. Good food draws people together, and in this small and tasty setting it even works for bringing strangers together. I met two older couples, and I can only hope that my retirement days look like theirs. Although it also confronts me with the possibility of a sense for adventure and travel standing in the way of relationship: The American woman tells me how Thanksgiving is not her favourite holiday, since her husband might just be trekking in Nepal.
The following morning a 3-hour bus journey with Sri Lankan pop and rock along the coast brings me to a secluded beach resort that is even prettier than I had hoped for. My room is a treehouse, the food is amazing, and the beach empty. To continue the confrontation of relationships: The only people staying here are four couples and me.
I tell myself not to be on my phone or behind the camera, but to enjoy the moment. So I take a stroll on the golden sand, with on one side the open and green palm tree forest, and on the other the blue waves crashing onto sharp rocks. After wadding through a small river, I watch two boys fighting the waves to keep their stand. They have been ‘harvesting’ mussels, and invite me to join them. Under the shade of the palm trees they are cooking the fresh mussels on an open fire, and serve it to me with some sauce and drink. For a second I hesitate, after 2 months of avoiding stomach issues do I really want to risk it now for some mussels? Yes. Yes, I do. They’re so fresh, what could go wrong? It’s amazing how good something can taste without any extra spices, with only the raw meat and salt of the ocean. On my way back to my room, I dare a short swim in the rough waves. My stomach is feeling funny, but I tell myself it’s my head playing games. Back at the room, I’m proven wrong and I spend the next half hour on the toilet. Was this really worth it? Yes. Yes it was. And luckily that half hour was the only stomach upset, nothing more afterwards.
I had deliberately left my camera back in the room, thinking I would take pictures at sunset. But the lush and beautiful clouds had turned into a grey and rainy haze. Oh well. After a wonderful fish curry I wasted/spent some more time shooting pictures before cuddling into my picture-perfect bungalow for a great sleep.
My alarm goes off at 5:30. Many of my days feel like two days packed into one. Today is definitely one of them, from the sandy beach to the rainy mountains.
Since I’m only here once, and romantic breakfasts are not really an option, I’ve decided to go for an early morning surf lesson. My instructor has the obligatory surfer dude looks, and assures me I would be riding waves in no time, which he isn’t too wrong about. It is definitely an exhilarating feeling to let a crashing wave accelerate you towards the beach. This legendary interview of a surfer came to mind: “Oh brah it’s just like dude you get the best barrels ever dude it’s just like you pull in and you just get spit right out of ‘em”. Yeah, dude. It is also definitely very exhausting to be paddling with your arms the entire time.
There is a bus line from Tangalle to Ella, my next destination. But it is slow and crowded, so the price I have to pay for puzzling together a 5-day trip with so many stops is paying for 3 hour taxi ride. It’s surely one of the most beautiful taxi rides I’ve ever taken. The view alternates between Sri Lankan jungle and rice fields. The small rain drops on my hand give me the sensory reminder of home and I’m feeling all the good things at once, reminiscing about home, enjoying the views, and thinking about the people that mean something to me. What really sets a smile on my face is seeing a 1,5m lizard emerging from the bushes to cross the road.
Winding uphill roads bring the journey to an end in the delightful backpacker’s town of Ella. The rustic feel, Patagonia-clothed Westerners and fresh air create a small happiness boost because this is how a mountain village feels like. It’s exactly like El Chalten where I was in the beginning of the year, and I’m happy. On my trips in India I always have mixed feelings towards fellow ‘foreigners’, aka white people.I guess I feel so arrogant to think that I’m the one ‘going local’, while they’re just here as a tourist invading my local experience, which is of course utter nonsense and I have no idea why I feel like that. But here I don’t mind, probably because I view them as fellow hikers, rather than pestering tourists.
After another amazing Sri Lankan meal, I meet Oshan. What a privilege to meet a local who takes you to his home in a remote mountain town in Sri Lanka. Oshan shows me around the church, before we head into town to see some sights and get soaking wet. In the morning the rain warmly reminded me of home, but now it’s annoying the crap out of me. At least it provides a glimpse into monsoon life. I had already found out that sidewalks don’t exist, because where they’re supposed to be you only find shops. That makes it all the more difficult not to get wet feet, or to be splashed by passing vehicles.
My next plan is to take the morning train to Hatton, and from there to hike up to Sri Lanka’s highest peak. But the weather thinks otherwise. All trains are cancelled, leaving me stranded. A hectic 5-day tour now makes way for a day where I don’t even leave the house. I’m astonished where all the water goes that is gushing down from the sky. It is cold, humid, wet, and my clothes definitely won’t dry. Just wearing my wet shoes for one minutes makes my feet smell like I’ve been wearing the same socks for two weeks in a row. What makes all of this completely worth it is talking with Oshan about cameras and church. The following day I’m taking the bus to Colombo, a mere 225 km that takes 9 hours because of winding roads and detours caused by landslides. By the time I reach the NCM center I’m physically and emotionally drained, but a flush, warm shower is a great comfort. And sending my friends and family a voice message forces me to reflect and be grateful for the good things. Also, you can’t help but be affected by the energetic and humble attitude of the man who’s serving me dinner and preparing my room.
It was a short trip, but Sri Lanka has charmed me. I would like to come back. In fact I have to after promising all the people that I’d come back and bring my wife next time...