“Why are you going to Sri Lanka?” I’ve been asked at least a dozen times in the past couple of weeks. I stutter as I try to find an answer that would provide at least a morsel of acceptance to the person asking me when all I really need to say is, “why the fuck not?”
Sri Lanka, originally named Ceylon, which gives you a hint about what grows there, is a small country south of and separate from India. It was colonized by the usual suspects once upon a time but gained independence midway through the 20th century. A walk around the southern coastal fort town of Galle feeds you a delightful dose of colonial style architecture, which now houses quaint little shops that smell of tourist moolah. From the lighthouse is a spectacular view of the Indian Ocean and the Japanese Peace Pagoda in Unawatuna across the small bay.
So I chose Sri Lanka as my next stop in life because of its proximity to India which is where I will head next month to finally study yoga in the world’s yoga mecca. But it’s not the only reason I chose Sri Lanka. I chose it because I don’t know anything about it and I like surprises, even when discovery involves large snakes, massive spiders, and humidity that makes your skin slicker than a car salesman. Because the beaches are incredible. These are not the quiet, washed-up feeling, tranquil beaches of Indonesia’s remote islands. They’re lined with tall, hearty palms and mountains of cashew-coloured sand. The surf is wickedly inviting, or uninviting, depending on what level of surfer you are. I’m the kind that just appreciates watching dark handsome surfer guys ride things, like waves for example. I wouldn’t dare approach that booming surf.
Settled in a village between Unawatuna and Talpe, both coastal towns in the south, is the little home I’m renting for the next few weeks. Accompanying me is my beautiful friend Delphine. We’re surrounded by dense jungle and dirt roads leading to paved ones. Twice a day the bread tuk tuk makes its rounds down our road. The signalling morning jingle is Für Elise. The afternoon jingle is, as you would expect, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which I’d say is fairly accurate given the delicious curry type thing wrapped or rolled in yummy bread/pasty type stuff being sold. There are a few local families nested around the neighbourhood and they stare and smile as we come and go. Most people speak English quite well, which means I can default to my innate laziness and still be able to communicate with the locals. Perfect. But the two official languages are Sinhala and Tamil. In Sinhala, “āyubūvan” is the phonetic spelling for the common greeting, accompanied with prayer hands and small bow. It literally means “may you live longer”. Isn’t that nice?
While my initial impressions of this tiny little slice of Sri Lanka show me that it is not India, I will say that it feels like a gentler version of India, perhaps the Beginner’s India for those who are slow to warm to things. This is relating it to my past stay in Calcutta several years ago, which shocked, terrified, and humbled my ass right back to Spain after just three weeks. It’s a much cleaner dirty, its streets a more organized chaos, and the men make friendlier obscene gestures than in India where the deadpan stare is ubiquitous. We’ve had a couple of pink tongues flash us as we drive by, which when you consider what it’s like to walk past a construction site in midsummer in Canada, is quite a tame gesture.
But the driving is not for the faint of heart. It’s an extreme sport. If you feel too chilled out, perhaps you’ve smoked too much ganja and want a dose of afternoon anxiety to balance things out, hop on a motorbike and hit any major street in this coastal town, but maybe not right after a blaze. The gigantic flat-faced buses bully on down the road at mach four speed, taking any available lane without regard for the little guy on the bike, or any other vehicle. It’s what might happen when we give the guy with the small-man complex keys to the bumper cars. And the horn is an irritating jacked-up squeaker toy that will likely result in a heart arrhythmia by the end of my stint here. Thankfully, there are signs reading, “Do Not Enter the Expressway Drunken” just outside the expressway. Obvious head-scratcher aside, do drunks note road signs as they drive?
As I was trying to pull out into traffic the second day, a massive entourage of vehicles bombarded down one of the main streets. Painted faces and flags sprouted from cars and trucks and people hooted and hollered. It went on for several minutes. WTF. Civil unrest? No, cricket. So not unlike any other city in the world.
The energy in these streets running alongside the coast is colossal but when I turn up a side street towards my temporary home, all of a sudden the world is quiet, small, rural. Pavement becomes dirt and stone, motorbikes become pedestrians, and those pedestrians are gorgeous dark-skinned people with flashy white smiles and they hold colourful umbrellas to block the burn of the sun. I feel like I am in a foreign land. I feel like a tourist once again. I don’t want to be that one out walking around taking stock photos of villages and local people but I simply can’t help it because my surroundings are just so gorgeous.
This is no longer the South East Asia with which I’ve become familiar and accustomed to, though there are still clear and delightful Asia-isms. I’m no longer in the Far East. My impressions are premature, naive, belonging to a person just beginning to travel, which is what makes entering a new land such a great thing. Unsettled settling, joyful complications, expected uncertainty. This is the obvious reason for choosing any new place to travel. I will discover why I’m in Sri Lanka a little bit every day.