Sri Lanka has been a wonderful experience, we have had the opportunity to visit many sights and relax a little as well. The country and its people have surprised me – everyone is open and friendly and smiling. Perhaps it is 6 years that makes the difference, but traveling in India with 2 of my girlfriends in 2010, we didn’t feel safe all of the time. We were constantly stared at and photographed and generally ogled by men, with women paying us very little attention. Here I have not had the same experiences at all. Perhaps, it is more likely explained in the fact that now I travel with my husband and not girlfriends, but I definitely get a different air about this small island, with its own identity, separate from its northern neighbour.
Collection of our favourite moments:
Whale Watching, Mirissa – (spoiler alert : 7 hours of complete nothingness)
We woke on the first morning of the ‘relaxing’ portion of our trip to blaring alarms at 4:50 am to board a boat for a whale-watching excursion. It was a boat full of other young travelers on the top deck and Chinese tourists on the lower, covered level, all looking forward to a morning of adventure. 7 hours later, we arrived back at port, somewhat haggard and sunburnt. We managed to be on the slowest boat in the history of time. We were passed by fishermen rowing and flying fish, even the dolphins seemed to be laughing at us. We approached the sight for the whale watching for what seemed like an eternity (where all of the other boats that left after us had already arrived). We could see the gang of boats in view 15, 30, 45 minutes passed before we finally ‘caught up’ to them. By the time we arrived at the sight, people were already panicking about their departure times from the port. The excursion promised to be a morning tour and many guests had to leave that afternoon on a bus or check out of their hotel, etc. However only arriving at the whale sight at 12pm left no chance of making those connections.
Once at the sight of the whales what followed was mass chaos of people running from one side of the boat to the other, cameras and selfie sticks in hand, hoping to catch a sight of a whale’s back as it breached. We managed to witness this a few times, but never could forage through the crowd well enough to get a good view. We had one monumental experience as a whale approached our boat and swam directly underneath us, slightly unnerving, but incredibly amazing. Luckily Lag had our Go Pro ready for this action, and we were thrilled to discover later that he filmed the great abyss – you could hear the excitement of the fellow passengers and the ooohs and ahhhhs, but no whale could be seen on film. One for the memory bank anyway. The way back left us all in full sun, with the European travellers all fighting for a square patch in the shade, arms, legs and bodies draped anywhere to keep our sensitive skin out of the direct 33 C degree sunlight.
Cooking Sri Lankan Style – Akuressa
We spent an afternoon visiting with a local tsunami survivor, who Lag’s family has known for 10 years already. His family sponsored her through school after the tsunami in 2005. Her parents and sister died in the tsunami and she was the sole survivor of her family at 10 years old. Her family had been traveling back from spending Christmas in Colombo. They were in a train when it hit, there were very few survivors of the trains that were struck by the tsunami, for obvious reasons. Today, Uththara is 21 and a beautiful, happy woman, living and working in Colombo as an accountant for a wedding events company. When she visited us, her adopted auntie and uncle accompanied her. They invited us for dinner the next day. We agreed to go to dinner at their place as long as they would let us help prepare the meal and teach us some Sri Lankan dishes in the process. What resulted was three young twenty-something girls, two aunties, one supervising uncle and Lag and I in the kitchen for several hours, sweating buckets whilst we learned how to make nearly every Sri Lankan dish known to man. We made string hoppers, pittu, fried tuna fish, dahl curry, hoppers, egg hoppers, bongee, pol sambol, katta sambol, cobra chilli salad, red rice and chicken curry (they had prepared this one before, just in case there wasn’t enough food?). Many photos and videos were taken, we were laughed at a lot, and translation apps were used to communicate our gratitude to the aunties.
This was such an enjoyable evening and we really felt like part of a Sri Lankan family. At the end when all of the dishes were lined up it was a true feast – and then they set out 3 plates, 3 chairs and 1 fork around the table and waited for us to dish and eat (including our driver). The aunties literally watched us eat with the biggest smiles on their faces and then kept coming around to try and dish more onto our plates. Lag suggested afterwards that he took one for the team (a lie!) by having about 4 helpings of the feast as the aunties served him. It was beautiful food and cooked with a lot of hard work from all. We were so fortunate to have had this experience and we were treated like royalty. For a family that lives with a very meagre existence, we understand that this meal is a very big expense for them and so very generous. They also never ate in front of us at all. When we finished and waved goodbye we can only hope that they went in and feasted themselves after we were on the road back to our hotel.
Blessing at a Hindu/Buddhist Temple at Seenigama
We arrived in Seenigama around lunchtime today and witnessed a procession of people praying and offering fruit baskets outside. We pulled in to see what was going on and it was explained that they do this offering every day to bless the food. As we walked towards the Temple, many people offered us fruits from their tray, which we graciously took a piece of. Lag was interested to have a blessing of our marriage so we walked a hundred metres or so up the street and found a food stall that was cutting fruit and preparing these baskets for offering. 400 rupees later (about $3) we had a basket containing 7 different fruits for offer (bananas, king coconut, passion fruit, sugar cane, pomegranate, apple, orange). We walked back to the Temple and paid a small donation outside to an administrator who wrote down our names and wishes on a receipt, we waited in line behind one other couple and handed our receipt to the Priest when it was our turn. He proceeded to serenade us for about 5 minutes in Senhala with blessings. We had our marriage blessed and also for good fortune and happy lives. He also gave us string to solidify the marriage by each tying a strand around our wrists. We also lit a coconut on fire and broke it together in a sacred spot as an offering for the prayers.
Once finished with the Priest, we took the fruit basket around offering it to people on the streets. Everyone accepted and always took one, graciously. We had probably about 30 pieces of fruit, so it took some time to find enough people, but eventually a truck with building workers piled in the back pulled up and we gave them the last of our offering which they gladly took. The final fruit left was a king coconut which we took back to the fruit vendor and he opened it for us and we were to each drink from the same coconut as a symbol of the union.
What was interesting about this experience was that it is a true exercise in giving and receiving, something that many people do every single day. For us it was a unique cultural experience where you engage with people that you wouldn’t normally have a chance to interact with in this way, but an opportunity for us to engage with everyone from the tuk tuk driver, to the truck full of workmen, to the man with one leg outside of the temple and to offer them something. This temple in particular is also unique in that both Hindus and Buddhists use it together. In our world of division, especially religious division, we noted that this collaboration is admirable.
Visiting the Foundation of Goodness
A dear friend of ours in Stockholm recommended a stop to see the foundation that she was working with for around 2 years. It is a wonderful organization that has been around since 1999 but was established after the tsunami as a relief centre for poor families and those in villages without much support. A local businessman donated his home to the cause and they have turned it into a centre for everything you can imagine in bettering the society. They have everything from pre-school through to adult education and women’s education; doctor; dentist; counselling services; sports facilities; a dive centre; sustainability store – a true enterprise aimed at empowering impoverished youth and adults alike. We met the doctor, who literally stopped what he was doing (checking a patients blood pressure) and with the patient sitting there ‘patiently’ arm still in hand, cuff firmly attached, he explained to us his work with the foundation. We also met the dentist on staff who said she travels 1.5 hours each way each day for work. Many of the staff have come up through the educational programs to become employees and many volunteers come for months to years to work as educators or facilitators. The dorm rooms for volunteers were tidy and empty at the moment, they are expecting 22 Kuwaiti volunteers to come tomorrow, they will stay for 2 weeks and build a library, including purchasing all of the books to fill it. The swimming pool is called Bryan Adams Swimming Complex as the singer auctioned off one of his guitars and gave the proceeds to the centre to fund its swimming pool. It is truly a marvellous centre for education, and we were thrilled to have been introduced to it, we are very proud of Quen for having played a part in its success. Even a few years since she departed, they still speak very highly of ‘the Queen’ and her reign with them.
Tomorrow we will travel back to Negambo where we will find a hotel room fairly accessible to the airport. We have a bit of touring to do on the way back, via the turtle hatchery and some temples, the tsunami photographic museum and perhaps some gemstone shops so we will take the so-called normal road vs the express-way – which is a marvel in itself. Sri Lanka has changed a lot even in the 3.5 years since Lag last visited in 2012. A destination that is becoming a tourist hot spot and soon to see a lot more traffic in that direction. With perfect weather, beaches for all sorts of activities (surfing, kite/wind surfing, snorkelling, diving, water sports…) a relatively small island that you could choose to visit many of the attractions in one visit or as we did, just see the coastal route for this first, but definitely not last, visit.