February 21, 2013
Because the hotel in Mirissa is booked-out, we have to move on again. After cycling 10-20 kilometers and unexpectedly passing a white colonial-style house on the side of the main road in Weligama that has an enormous sign advertising the CHC, Ceylon Hotel Corporation, the chain we stayed at in Polonnaruwa, we stop to look at the rooms which are beautifully spacious and clean and – as in Polonnaruwa – the hotel provides excellent value for the money. The main building, which was once an English officer’s home and still exudes an old school colonial flair, is used to house the dining rooms and a lobby, and has a white pillared wrap- around porch offering ample seating for afternoon tea and drinks.
A modern tasteful addition provides clean, comfortable guest rooms equipped with private luxurious bathrooms. The Indian Ocean is just across the street and so, although we’ve hardly done any riding, we decide to stay and step across the main road for a dip after checking in. A small island offshore is crowned by a villa built by the French Count de Mauny – Talvande in 1922, who described his first sighting it in the following manner:
“shall I ever forget that morning in September, when, quite by chance I first saw Weligama Bay, and in the centre of it the red granite rock, covered with palms and jungle scrub, rising from the Indian Ocean: an emerald in a setting of pink coral. I swam across the narrow strait, scrambled over rocks and briers, and reached the top of the rock. The view from here was admirable: below me was the Bay outspreading its long arms towards the ocean; until they were lost in the haze of the far distance; the coral reef, sparkling with the diamonds of the spray; the sea, turquoise blue, streaked with amethyst-purple. Beyond, far beyond, the bare horizon; there was nothing between me and the South Pole.”
The entire island, which can now be rented by the week, is a lovely, protected retreat still accessible only by boat or by wading across during low tide.
Although it’s not a bathing beach, I swim out beyond a row of colorful fishing boats in divinely warm water which is again quiet and calm after the storm. When Christof – who is waiting for me on shore – disappears from view for the brief moment it takes for me to swim around the boats, I immediately get the aggressive type of attention that feels threateningly uncomfortable. Indigenous women rarely bathe, and when they do so they are fully attired.
Stands along the roadside display the catch of the day, laid out on plain wooden boards without ice and often covered by swarms of flies. Only one of the stand owners manages to keep his fish fresh, vigilantly chasing the flies away with one hand while regularly sprinkling (them) the fish with cold water with the other.
Close to shore, fishermen, dressed only in a bunched- up sarong and a cloth wrapped round their heads for sun protection, perch on poles stuck in the water, using their left hands for balance while casting lines out with their right ( conveniently draping a plastic bag onto the pole for the catch ) are a picturesque, exotic sight. Apparently they aren’t fishing, but merely posing for tourists who, if they stop to take a photo, are obliged to make a donation.
The practice of pole- fishing isn’t as ancient as it looks, but originated, it is thought, sometime after WWII when, during an acute food shortage, all the fishing spots on land were occupied, and a group of enterprising men came up with this solution which worked well until their shacks were washed away by the 2004 tsunami. Without an income and forced to move inland, they were no less enterprising than their ancestors , and went from catching fish to catching tourists.
On weekends large family groups picnic in the shade, without any of the cumbersome accoutrements that often accompany meals taken outside in cooler northern climates, coolers, ice and plastic water bottles. How do the Sri Lankans keep their food from spoiling in the hot tropical climate?
Perhaps the spices used in food preparation preserve it? All local dishes are well spiced, rice accompanied by daal – spicy lentils – vegetable curries and diverse chutneys, sambals and ‘short eats’ – spicy meat, fish or vegetable mixtures covered by a pancake or fried dough. An abundance of fresh fruit and juices, bananas, coconuts, mangoes and papayas completes each meal. The food is wonderfully fresh and healthy and we’ve yet to spot a fat person. Only a minority of the population owns a motorized vehicle, and because they are obliged to walk everywhere (they) the Sri Lankans are remarkably fit, especially the old men dressed only in sarongs, bare-foot and bare-chested – a style few of their western counterparts could duplicate with similar elegance.
In the late afternoon, we engage a tuk tuk to take us into Galle, a city 29 kilometers away.
– Where you from, our driver asks as we slip onto the back seat of his taxi.
– Germany, Christof answers.
– I love German people, he responds. I not like English and French people. Especially not like Russians, very bad people.
– What’s wrong with Russians? I ask.
– Drinking too much, drugs, very bad people.
I see a bottle of Arrak tucked into a bottle holder conveniently placed near his right hand, and perhaps for this reason think I detect a faint whiff of alcohol on his breath. Scrutinizing him carefully, I discover he has a rough-looking unpleasant face which he restlessly turns from side to side, displaying a fresh, barely scabbed- over wound on his cheek. He seems to be on the look-out for danger, which unfortunately distracts him from reacting to the abundant traffic hindrances in a timely fashion. As I become aware of our small, precarious vehicle weaving its way through honking buses and heavy dump trucks, the joy in taking this outing vanishes and is replaced by an endless, nerve-wracking arm-rest-clenching endurance test.
In Galle we agree to meet up with the driver near one of the gates of a walled European-style city, and fascinated by the immense fortress before us, pass through the gate and climb a stone staircase next to the city wall that leads up to a wide, grassy promenade on top of the fort’s wide walls.
Galle, Sri Lanka’s oldest port town, wasn’t superseded by Colombo until the 19th century, and today still prides itself on being the harbor King Solomon’s ships sailed to for spices, gems and sweet smelling woods. Whether these mythological references have any factual reality is obscure, but undoubtedly Galle was an important port on the route between Europe and Asia.
In 1587, the Portuguese, who had landed in Sri Lanka nearly almost a century earlier, returned, this time to stay, ousting the Sinhalese and commencing work on a fort on top of the promontory. In 1640 the Dutch arrived, overthrowing the Portuguese, and strengthening and improving the fortifications they had started, staying in Galle until ( a century and a half later in 1796) they in turn were pushed out by the British, who remained until 1947 when Ceylon finally freed itself from the yoke of colonial rule after almost 400 years. In 1988 the Old City of Galle – which through the years had become a fascinating mix of cultures and styles – became a World Heritage Site.
From the top of the wall we observe a traveling amusement park, set up on a field outside the city, groups of children dressed in colorful shining costumes waiting for the evening performance to begin, boys playing cricket and soccer on scrubby dusty fields, and tourists and locals out taking the pleasantly mild evening air.
In a large opening atop the wall, homecoming photos are being taken of a beautiful woman in a red sari, posing with her new husband and her sister’s family. A special festive occasion is the moment a newly married couple returns from their honeymoon wearing the finery, purchased specifically for this moment long before the wedding.
We roam the streets of the town, comforted by the beauty of its harmonious architecture which is particularly satisfying after having passed through so many tasteless, concrete towns. As we relax, realizing that we’ve been uptight and breathing as shallowly as possible ever since we stepped out of the plane, the warmth and security emanating from the historical architecture feels like an invitation to breathe out and relax. Ugliness causes an instinctive, unconscious tightness, as a way of distancing oneself from what lacks aesthetic appeal; beautiful architecture does the opposite, providing a backdrop for visitors to let down their guards and feel at home.
The fact that foreigners have been buying up the run-down old buildings, renovating and transforming them into sparkling jewels is causing consternation in Galle. Gentrification has increased both property values and rents, chasing away a segment of the population that can no longer afford to call the city their home.
Just for fun, we allow the manager of a posh hotel to show us around a stunningly beautiful Asian oasis where the prices, which start at $160 a night, though way beyond our budget, are actually quite reasonable considering the luxurious atmosphere of the well-renovated historical building located in the center of a wonderful city.
We sit down for a bowl of soup and a desert in a romantic old courtyard enjoying and soaking up the exotic mix of Asian and European influences, leaving the city – after the meal – through the prearranged gate, where we find our driver napping on the back seat of his three wheeler.
His driving skills have, thank God, improved greatly, and Christof whispers that he, was most likely, far too exhausted to concentrate properly before his nap. Shortly before reaching our hotel, he pulls to the side of the road, asking us permission to stop and get some rice, which he says will only take five minutes. Touched at the image of a dutiful son shopping for his mother, we agree to wait, but as five minutes turn into ten, fifteen, and finally twenty, Christof gets out of the taxi to see what the hold-up is.
We’ve been sitting in the dark surrounded by men stopping dump trucks, three wheelers, cars and mopeds and going into what must be a local fast- food joint. The driver comes running out when he sees Christof, and apologizing effusively, excuses himself by saying that the restaurant is unusually busy. After a 25 minute wait on the roadside, he drops us off at the hotel which, it turns out, was only just round the corner!