Just one more post on Sri Lanka and then I think I’m done. The further away we move from that frantic week, the more I realise that we probably did it a little bit wrong: way too much way too fast. A friend and fellow blogger has just moved to Delhi and is experiencing her first proper writer’s block, senses pulled this way and that as India absorbs her into its new adventures. She has managed her first post and there is going to be a lot for her to grasp. Sri Lanka being a neighbour of India, and sharing certain similarities, I find I’m undergoing my own case of tongue-tie. Just four more snippets.
My family tease me for being a WhiteFluffyTowel girl, a fact that I continue to reject: I do NOT need my towels to be white and fluffy, you can put me where you like, as long as there are marks of thoughtfulness, and as long as we get a solid base to decamp before setting off again. Good food and a peaceful night’s sleep are also up there on the requirements list and actually any old towel will do and I only need one, and I’m happy to share that one between the three of us, but it must be clean, free from stains and at least slightly absorbent. That’s it. Not always so easy to find.
We are a family who enjoy a bit of this and a bit of that – to ensure we maximise our travel lust we are careful with the cash, but mindful of things like bed bugs and rubbish quality sleep. Armed with those requirements, we found it hard to plot a mid-course through Sri Lankan guest houses.
Everyone we talked to had gone four stars or higher (apart from the 20-something backpacker brigade on Tripadvisor, making friends with bed bugs as they worked their way around the country). During the planning stages, our driver had generously insisted on doing all the bookings. First he read us wrong and took the top-star route, lavishly booking us into places with names like Cinnamon, Jetwing, Lighthouse – expensive boutique places that we felt weren’t necessary. Trouble is, once you’ve turned that lot down, there’s a whole different line-up of interesting experiences just waiting to bite you on the lower leg or rustle in your ear all night. When we asked him to tone it down a bit we found ourselves looking down the half-star barrels of places that had not – and will never – get anywhere near Agoda. We got there in the end, but it was a stringy assortment of places, some good, one really very lovely, and others notsogood.
It’s hard to plan for guests when you’ve never met them, and it didn’t always work out the way we all wanted. Most disarming was the two examples of us pulling up to the door of a great-sounding guest house (and we knew they were great-sounding because we had researched them all at home and then printed out all the details, as you do when you can’t quite leave the bookings to someone else) only to notice as our driver parked up and switched off the engine that the name above the door was entirely different to the one on our list.
‘Ah well,’ Gamini would wince, ‘in the end, very hard to get into that place so we are here instead.’
‘A little notice, please,’ seemed a completely foreign concept because, well, it is. Change is just how things happen in SL. Too bad. Here’s how it worked out in the end:
Night One, Kumudu Valley, Negombo: Neglected riverside shabby without the chic, the only good fortune being that we were in it for the least amount of time. Evil-looking guards, stained sheets, a rash of bites on Jonah’s legs and no guests. Dismal. Our worst night.
Night Two, Mountain Breeze, Kandy: Simple guesthouse on a mountainside road: peace & quiet, good food, great views and lovely people. Highly recommended.
Night Three, Araliya Green Hills, Nuwara Eliya: Not the Hill Club, then? No. Not the sepia-tinted, much written about fancy hotel, our token posh hotel for which we had packed one posh outfit for the one posh meal in the one posh restaurant? No. Instead this was a just-built, over-blown, faux posh layer of corridors and carpets that made it second to the bottom of our list, thanks to being unfriendly, uninteresting and unfinished with plastic food, zero ambience, guards swarming the entrance, minus points for unhelpfulness at Reception and a nasty wobble to the lifts. You can keep your white linen tablecloths, I was only after a map of the town.
Night Four, Ambiente, Ella Gap: Not the Ella Gap Panorama, then? Oh God, never mind – for Mr PC at least, this place turned out to be a favourite but got minus points from me thanks to serious mould and dilapidation and what seemed on arrival to be zero niceness. In fact we were soon won over by our awesome slow-cooked curry dinner and the loveliness of the staff. We’d arrived in the dark, in the rain, after the mother of all train rides and could only guess we were at a high altitude because of the way the car had been taking ominously tight turns on approach, and because of how we had all been pointing very definitely up on our ascent. Next morning when I drew back the curtains I was cross to find that we’d been given a room facing a white wall – but no, that whiteness was sky, miles and miles of it, with astounding views of tiny roads far, far below and elegant birds flying some way under our terrace. While Mr PC lost himself in curry pleasure (again) in the breakfast room, I took pictures of far-off waterfalls on mountainsides several hundred metres below us, and fretted about how on earth we were ever going to get down.
Night Five, Dickshon Campsite, Yala: Gamini insisted on us staying here, despite it having no write-ups anywhere. In the end a write-up suddenly appeared just before we left, and I talked to the guy who wrote it because he scored it rather low. Having been assured by the writer that it was a safe place, just not fantastic, we pressed on with plans to stay. It’s a newish place, that’s all, run by a kind family trying to make a go of life. ‘For once,’ said Mr PC, ‘won’t you just leave something to chance?’ So we did. And it was bonkers, and it was a bit half-ready, but, you know, it was lovely, actually. Jonah scored this place highest, because ‘the dogs were kind’. We loved its peaceful location by a lotus-filled lake. After four dusty days on the road, to unfurl among herons and waders, with bee-eaters playing chase through the trees, the sun setting over straw rooftops and Jonah throwing sticks for the kind dogs, was heaven on earth. Even massive holes in the mossie nets, scrappy curtains not covering the windows, dead things in the shower and flies all over the beds at night didn’t detract from its simple gorgeousness, and extra marks given for the super-nicest hosts of our trip.
Nights Six & Seven, Mama’s Guest House, Galle: Being a town girl this was my fave, the only one we booked ourselves, and the place we stayed at for longest (two whole nights). A rooftop restaurant with just two rooms, ours had a perfect view right down the street to the ocean. It was a bit noisy at night but so pretty, in an amazing spot full of cafes, little shops and buzzing with life, and with a yummy evening meal and fantastic roti breakfast, all with unbeatable views of the Lighthouse and walls, from both rooftop and room. Did I mention the location? Very recommended.
Curry. Divine. Don’t have Western, at best you’ll get oven fries, at worst a wet tomato sandwich. Curry is what the country is famous for, so soak it all up. We also liked curd (a form of yoghurt) with honey, and naughty sesame candy. John gamely tried a weird stinky fruit that, rather like durian, tasted better than it smelled (he said). Jackfruit, rambutan and watermelon can all be found and papaya is everywhere. Our favourite roadside snack came in the form of salted husks of boiled sweetcorn sold in bags and so searing hot that you had to hang them from your fingertips before eating – if you’ve been foolish enough to self-drive, don’t do both at the same time.
I’ve not really noticed my femininity for a while. I don’t really do bikinis any more and I’m mindful of what I wear, but happy enough with my shape: it’s all I’ve got, it’s impossible to change and it will have to do. Luckily I live somewhere where none of this really matters – clothing in Singapore is minimal because it’s just too hot to wear very much, so legs and arms are exposed most of the time, apart from in air con (often) or when we go into temples (not often). The national costume is ‘casual’, and it’s not unusual to see professional and office workers in teeny cocktail dresses and short shorts. I’m speaking in general terms and don’t mean anything by it – I love the fact that I’ve not worn tights in four years.
Hit Sri Lanka and it’s a different story. The locals are marketed as being smiley, happy people, another sweeping generalisation, and it’s certainly true that we met some completely lovely people. My aforementioned Delhi friend has just written in her first blogpost after moving to India that she is getting used to going for walks all the while being observed by ‘silent starers’, something that just doesn’t happen that often here, and that’s something I noticed in Sri Lanka too. I felt self-conscious for the first time in ages. Fortunately I’d had an idea that this might be the case and had packed appropriately, taking sensible outfits like long sleeves and trousers, and demure calf-length dresses, and wearing shorts only when I knew it was completely OK. Even so, I spent most of the time feeling like I was walking around half naked.
On a sunset stroll in Galle, when the whole town comes out to walk the walls before nightfall, the boys left my side to go and look at something for all of two minutes. In the very short while that they were gone I was approached no less than three times by different groups of men asking where I was from and who I was with. I wasn’t wearing a bikini or juggling ping pong balls, just doing a very ordinary bit of fully clothed walking. Clearly, I have been spoilt, here in bare-limbed, casually-attired Singapore. I’ve forgotten that the lone female traveller must always keep her wits about her wherever she is. The lone *any* traveller. Common sense, I guess.
You can’t get around Sri Lanka without this subject coming up, it is the biggest elephant in the room. ‘I won’t ask Gamini about it,’ I’d said on Day One in a show of Touristic Magnanimity. ‘I reckon he’s bound to be tired of everyone asking.’ What nonsense. The Tsunami of 2004 has become so much a part of Sri Lankan history that to not talk about it would have been more hurtful, and in the end he brought it up first, not me.
The year after the Tsunami, he said on our safari evening, as we sat by the bonfire, there were virtually no tourists in Sri Lanka. He said it has taken the full ten-plus years to get back to something approaching ‘normal’ in terms of tourism at least. He and his family, living in Kandy, were fine but yes, he knew of people affected.
As we journeyed through Sri Lanka with Gamini, his job as a tour guide and driver involved pointing stuff out, birds, temples, events on the road (monk’s funeral, sports day, food stands). It was only as we drove along the south coast from east to west that the snippets became interjected with Tsunami miscellania: ‘there’s a memorial… there’s a cemetary… place where entire train drowned… ruins of houses… more ruins… ruins again…’
I thought about my O Level school trip to the Somme in 1984 where lines of white gravestones dotted Vimy Ridge, and how it had been the first time I’d come close to appreciating a school outing, possibly because it was the first time I’d been able to compare the theory of something written down with the awful reality of it having happened.
I caught a bit of WiFi in Galle and did some research – by the time we were driving north to Colombo and the airport, Tsunami facts were embedded in my virtual scrap book. View of the cricket stadium from the Galle walls? That’s where they were all stuck on the top floor until the waters went down. Beautiful train tracks right by the beach? That’s why the train toppled over. Piled high with passengers, few of them stood a chance.
‘No one had seen anything like it,’ said Gamini. ‘The fishermen – everyone – all came down to the beaches to see what was going on. And, then, the wave.’
During another story, he talked about what happened next. A few days later, he said, they all drove down south to see what they could do. Everyone wanted to help. What they saw… He waved an arm helplessly around the driver’s space, nodding at the land speeding past outside our car window and shaking his head. He didn’t need to spell it out.
You just can’t come here and not think about it, so go ahead and give it a bit of your time. I think everyone should.