Srilanka Through My Eyes
In the year 2019, all I could dream of was to visit Japan. I spent hours researching the best possible places to visit. Somehow I could never reach my optimal budget, or should I say, come down to my optimal budget. I decided to push Japan to mid-2020. In the job scenario, I had put down my papers and was ever so eager to travel. I was intrigued with Vipassana Meditation, even before the travel bug had bitten me. This led me to find nice quaint places in India that also had Vipassana centres. For many reasons, I could not find the right centre in the South of India.
There were a few centres in the North, but the closest centre that met all my travel requirements was in Kosagama — a small village on the outskirts of Colombo. The flight to Colombo was less than an hour from Bangalore (it would have taken me more time to travel to any of the North Indian centres). The trip wouldn’t need a visa application & entry was free. It was the perfect lure.
I booked my place in the Vipassana centre for January 2020 and immediately booked my return tickets — giving myself about 20 days to explore Srilanka.
The plan: Colombo — Kosagama — Kandy — Ella — Galle — Colombo
1. Finding Colombo: My rucksack was full! I planned to make this trip as environmentally friendly as possible, I carried more reusable items with me (check out more about this here). As an unkempt traveller, I was never big on Airport looks. With a pair of jeans and a hoodie, I reached the airport. After going through the security and immigration, I found a seat near the boarding gate. Much to my surprise, found the Srilankan cricket team sitting right next to me! I was going to be on the same flight with them, and they were surrounded by fans! I think they had lost the match to India, but the players obliged to every selfie/autograph/stare. The flight was smooth. Fancier than I had anticipated. But then, you can’t take a world-class cricket team on a budget airline and not make it feel world-class.
I had friends of the family who lived in Colombo and had met Sandhya aunty on several occasions here, in India. I sent her a WhatsApp text telling her that the flight was about to take off. She told me that her husband, Lal uncle, would pick me up and since he had never seen me, & to send her a picture of how I looked! I sent her a selfie. They were kind enough to lend me a room in their house & pamper me with all the Srilankan delicacies I was unaware of! Just before the flight took off, I had this itch that I had missed something. Something really important. I took out my phone, reconnected the data, and opened Whatsapp to scroll for messages. Among the myriad of group texts and farewell messages, I saw a friend’s message with an image attached. I downloaded the image and saw that my airport look had been featured in one of his friend’s WhatsApp forwards. Of course, the post caption had something to do with the Srilankan Cricket team, but my groggy, grumpy self was also as prominent as the airport’s blinding lights. I chuckled. The world is too small and social media is making us realise that now more than ever. The flight took off & mid-air I realised I had no means to recognise Lal uncle. I had never seen him before!! That is why I had subconsciously opened Whatsapp! Damn you, social media distractions!
The minute I landed, I rushed through the immigration process, got my 1-month free visa (Thank my stars for this) and bolted towards the service provider station. I got myself a local sim — finally relieved that I would be able to contact my hosts in Colombo. But all my hopes came crashing down when they told me it would take a minimum of 1 and a half hours for my sim to activate. So here I was, all alone in a strange country (which has had some minor unpleasant history with India in the past) and I had no idea whom I was going to meet. Cautiously with a facade of confidence, I stepped out of the airport. I was interrupted by a man, trying to ask me something. I couldn’t hear much behind the huge wall of fear and fake confidence I had put up. I tried to brush him away, thinking it must be some stranger trying to strike up a conversation. Finally, after multiple polite gestures, the man raised his voice enough for me to look at him. “You’re Aarti, right?” he asked me. That is when I realised it was Lal uncle! How could I have been so daft? I felt embarrassed and guilty. It seemed presumptuous, rude and so obstinate of me! But I am glad uncle was pretty cool about it. And their family grew on to become one of the most cherished places I will ever visit in Srilanka.
We got in the car and it coasted through the empty roads of Colombo. The cool breeze gushed through, the roads glistened with the help of the street lights. A slightly bumpy start, but I knew I was going to have the best time of my life.
I was greeted by aunty with some lip-smacking Srilankan Fish Curry (and a vegan alternative). The closeness of Srilankan cuisine to Indian food is uncanny but it tastes a world apart. I slurped the meal like a hungry child & rested for the night. I might have dug my ravenous hands into the non-vegan version as well.
I woke up to a beautiful Srilankan morning the next day. It was a bit chilly and humid at the same time. The air was crisp and the skies were clear. After a nice hot cup of Srilankan tea, we decided to go for a nice ride across the city. We wheeled past the parliament, which was an architectural delight. Surrounded by water on all sides, the building looks nothing like a political office or a house of power.
Later in the evening, I accompanied aunty on a pleasant walk through some of the bylanes of Colombo. We ended our walk with the Buddhist temple. Aunty told me about her Christian history and how she then became a Buddhist. It was such a pleasant insight into her life, I wish I could have remembered more! The Buddhist temple was a small cylindrical shaped structure. It wasn’t a temple as such, it was a small space for worship, which could barely accommodate 2 people at one time. It was in the centre of one of the smaller quieter roads. We lit some candles and circled around the premises. Aunty said a prayer or two. I couldn’t understand most of it, but I knew I would understand the sentiments, soon.
It was my host’s daughters’ birthday the next day. The house was brighter than before. I gorged on some of the tastiest authentic Srilankan food — from the flavourful Jackfruit curry to the spicy & tangy sambal to some sweet and soft Srilankan sponge cake. Relatives came pouring in, and I found myself talking about the interconnectedness between the two countries. I left the party hastily since I had to report to the Vipassana Centre before 4 pm. It was an hour from the main city. Uncle was kind enough to book a cab for me. We waded through the city (which did not seem to have a lot of traffic) Was it a weekday or a weekend?
2. Kosagama — Peace & Chaos: Vipassana was a wonderful experience & I will write a separate blog about my experience. I found peace within chaos, old wounds healing, and a lot of solitude and perspective. I shared an unspoken bond with many, which I shall take with me for a long time. We are not supposed to look, talk or interact with anyone who is part of the 10-day silent retreat. But you are assigned tables to sit and eat, and cushions to meditate on. I shared a very strong connection with my eating partner. She was caucasian — a proper hipster. We spoke in silence. On the very last day, when you are allowed to speak, we gave each other the tightest of hugs. She was a sailor from Holland. She looked strong yet was gentle and compassionate. I only saw her dressed in khakis and cottons. Maybe because of what we were doing? We spoke for hours. I also befriended a fellow Indian. All the Vipassana attendees had finished their long, exuberant and exciting vacations and had ended the sojourn with a peaceful and calm retreat. But I was doing the opposite. My vacation had just started. My adventure had just begun. Did I make a mistake? Was all the high from the meditation juices going to make me un-enjoy?
String hoppers with Sambal, coconut curry & fish fry
3. Dandy in Kandy: Here’s how I landed in Kandy. I took an auto from Kosagama (Dhamma Sobha Vipassana Centre) to Avissawella Central Bus stop where I knew I would find a local bus going to Kandy. Three other friends from the Vipassana centre and I hailed an autorickshaw that stopped right outside our centre. En route (it was a 1-hour ride) I learnt how one of them — Silke from Holland was a professional yoga instructor & had come to Srilanka to learn different styles of Yoga. The other companion was a professional surfer & artist. She would paint on surfboards, which I found was extremely cool. They were all going to different parts of Srilanka, so I knew I had no companion to Kandy.
I waited at the bus station for an hour. It looked like any other Bus station I would see in Bangalore. A row of buses waited across long payments with bus routes written above. Small confectionery shops aligned to one edge of the pavement. Although it seemed like any Indian bus station, it was a lot cleaner. I pushed my head into a local snack stall to ask them if this is where the Kandy buses come. He nodded politely, with a gentle smile. I bought some biscuits from him to repay the debt.
With a honk and a toot, the Bus towards Kandy arrived. I jumped in (the Indian in me almost pushing everyone else). Srilankans are surprisingly daintier than I thought. I scanned for the best possible seats. Not too close to the driver and not too far at the back. Luckily I found a window seat. Unsure and extremely possessive and rested my rucksack on my lap. What could have easily gone underneath a bus seat or on the hatchet above, I chose to bear the discomfort of an extremely weird need for tidiness. My bag kept slipping off my thighs and each time, I had to pull it up, till eventually, it covered my entire face.
The Bus was quite similar to a local bus in Bangalore. It felt familial. The faces were similar to home, the surroundings were similar to home, the smell was similar to home & the food looked similar to home. But still, in so many ways, worlds apart. I don’t know why, but I stood out like a sore thumb. Throughout my trip, I was always recognised as a foreigner. But did I not look exactly the same as any Sri Lankan in their late 20s? Well, people had a way of telling.
From busy city streets, we met a long and beautiful green patch, that seemed never-ending. Lush green trees & plantations of every possible shade whizzed past. Lots of people got in & out, in & out. My ride partners kept changing. The bus to Kandy was about 3 hours. In the final hour of the ride, an elderly gentleman sat next to me. I had no access to the internet, so I had no way of knowing how/when I am to reach my hostel — Clockin Kandy.
I struck up a conversation with him and since I had written everything down in my journal, I asked him to help me find my hostel upon reaching Kandy bus station. I took an overpriced Tuktuk to Clock-Inn Kandy.
Clock-Inn was a small building on one of the busy streets of Kandy. I unpacked my bags and checked the barrage of messages that poured in. I was untethered for 10 days, and a lot of things had happened in my life that I had no clue about! After going through a bit of an emotional rollercoaster with the turn of events that happened during my Vipassana Journey, I got ready to go sightseeing.
I went to the Temple of Sacred Tooth Relic, followed by a walk around Kandy Lake & ended my day with a visit to the Big Buddha Statue. All these places were crowded, and yet there was a sense of quiet in them. There was peace within the chaos. I came back to the hostel, a bit tired. But I also missed all the company I had during my time at the Vipassana centre.
Sacred Tooth Temple
I missed how I bonded with so many without ever speaking a word, making eye contact or communicating. This bond, I will cherish for the rest of my life. After resting for a bit, I came down to the corridor at sunset. As I sat in the common corridor of Clock-Inn, I saw a bunch of fellow residents, giggling and having a merry time. They were about to leave to go somewhere. I was a bit jealous of that friendship. I wish I had some friends I could go out with! While I sat there, shamelessly staring at the group, looking absolutely dejected, one of the girls in the group looked straight at me and asked from across the table “would you like to join us?”
I was surprised! I had never been randomly asked by a group to join them. Without thinking twice, I stood up and joined them. As it turned out, they were all solo travellers and had met up just that day. We were all strangers. And yet we hung out as though we knew each other from before. This was one of the best nights I spent was at Kandy. We went to a psychedelic Srilankan Bar, walked across the Kandy Lake in the darkness, holding bottles of local beer and giggled at lame jokes. We were 2 Australians, 1 Russian, 1 Chinese and 1 Indian. It was a blast!
The next day we hired two Tuktuks to take us around the city. One of the drivers was particularly fascinated by Indian culture, and we ended up singing old Hindi songs all along the way, leaving the other foreigners perplexed.
We visited a Dutch/British cemetery which was serene and empty. There were luscious patches of greenery with neatly carved out gravestones. It was eerie and beautiful.
We then drove to a tea factory. We spent hours there understanding the wonderful art of tea harvesting and brewing. It was quite an immersive experience. There were so many kinds of tea plantations, so many varieties of tea and so many ways of drinking it. We asked several questions and our host was kind enough to patiently answer them. It was then followed by an elaborate tea tasting session. A tray of teacups was placed before us. Each cup looked, smelled and tasted different.
Afterwards, we stopped at a spice plantation where we were introduced to some fragrant spices. They also offered a quick massage at a modest price. I quickly jumped at the opportunity and got myself a nice back & shoulder rub.
We returned to the hostel & thanked our wonderful driver. One of my fellow travelling buddies from Australia suggested we go to a small food fair happening nearby. I accompanied him to a fun night filled with yummy Srilankan food followed by a wonderful folk dance. The fair was set up right outside an old prison. I wasn’t sure if the prison was still running (and felt rather guilty for enjoying the rather outlandish festivities). The structure seemed old — probably built during the colonial era.
I was also amazed by my friend, who not only took part in a spice eating competition but also won against a bunch of local Srilankan boys. Just like me, he too had set out travelling post-Vipassana & I sort of knew where he got his strength from.
We returned back to the hostel and reunited with the rest of the gang. This was the last night together, and although we had known each other for only 2 days, I felt bummed leaving them. I had grown close to them. They were fun, intelligent and kind. We spent the last few hours recalling the fun times, making promises to meet up and about this novel coronavirus.
We talked about it casually. Just as a matter of fact. Except for our Chinese friend who had left the country to travel long before the virus had hit China, none of us had any connection to this. We spoke about it as a tiny, minuscule part of what was going wrong in the world then.
Little did we know that it would rock our worlds for the worse. I still think back to that naive conversation we had. Bunch of kids talking about international politics. Talking about forest fires and deadly viruses with no foresight. I still replay this conversation in my head. And how things would have played out differently had the world not been hit by a pandemic
4. Fellas of Ella
One of the most popular train routes in Srilanka is from Kandy to Ella and vice versa. The 2nd class train tickets are prebooked for months. I was unable to make the booking online, so I decided to go with the flow at the train station.
I packed my bags and waited in the lobby area of the hostel where I met a fellow traveller from Spain who was at the same hostel. I asked her if she was also travelling to the train station and if she would want to hitch a Tuktuk ride with me. She agreed and we reached the railway station way before time.
Srilankan train stations are pretty much like Indian stations but many folds cleaner. We stood in line to buy tickets but were told that only first-class tickets were available for that day. We decided to travel by first class. It was pretty fancy.
Cristina and I became friends almost instantly. We talked about each other’s countries. About our jobs and passions. We talked about travelling and life.
The train journey was 7 hours and the beautiful parts were to only come towards the end of the journey. I did not realise how time flew!
The best thing about the first class was that it was right after the main engine where the driver would control the train. I.e. it was right next to the front end of the train. We were lucky enough to go to the engine/driver bogey of the train. We could see the lush green landscape first-hand as the train swayed and turned. Through tunnels, hillocks, through every shade of green. It was spectacular. I had never been to that section of a train before. Seeing everything right in front of your eyes brought smiles to our faces.
I wish I had better pictures of the train journey. But most of us were in quite a bit of awe to take out our phones. Also, I was enjoying the chilly breeze blowing way too much to do anything.
Cristina got off the train at Nuwara Iliya, which was three hours away from Ella. I continued the rest of the journey alone.
View from the Engine
Ella was chilly. I had a jacket on but it still felt cold. It was a quaint and beautiful hill station. I took a shared tuk-tuk to my hostel.
Hangover Hostel, Ella was just off the main street. A lush green backdrop covering this beautiful hostel made me instantly fall in love with it. As I was unpacking, I saw a familiar face at the check-in counter.
Hey, weren’t you at Clock-in Kandy a few days ago, I asked the stranger? She replied with a Yes and we immediately decided to make a day of it. Rosie had flown down all the way from the USA. She was to work in Chennai and I was more than happy to help her way around India.
This was her last day in Ella and she wanted to make full use of it. Without any hesitation, I dumped my bag in my room and took off with her. The Main Street of Ella looked like it was taken off from a children’s book. Shack like restaurants with wooden structures and small little tuck shops made it look magical. We stopped for a quick snack at the curd shop. We ate curd and honey — which was quite literally Indian curd with honey.
9 arch bridge
In order to get the best view of the 9 arch bridge, we had to hike to a certain point. I remember being hounded by travel guides & don’t remember if we actually took one. After reaching a certain point, the bridge was clearly visible. For a second it felt like I was in a JK Rowling book, would the train to Hogwarts pass-through this track? Would I find magical creatures along the forests and trees that covered the bridge? The bridge was indeed stunning and looked medieval. It was quite a popular attraction and totally worth the hype.
Little Adam’s Peak
We then decided to hike and zip line across Little Adam’s peak. We met two travellers from Portugal who accompanied us to the zip line. Zip lining across the hills was exciting, the whole process of zipping past on a rope across hills gave me a huge adrenaline kick. The view of the beautiful valley as you make your way from one end of the zipline to the other also made the whole experience worth it. I had never pulled off a stunt like this and felt the adrenaline gushing as I swooped past with a tight harness on a relatively thin rope. We then proceeded to climb up Adam’s peak. After about an hour of walking, we finally reached the peak, or what we thought was the peak. Several travellers had accumulated there. All unsure of whether we have reached the top. There was a vast plain ahead but there wasn’t a climb or an incline we could see. Just more scope to get different views.
At the top, we were surrounded by hills and greenery. We could see the vastness of Ella. Before this, Ella was just a small street for me. Now, I saw how vast the town stretched.
We returned back to our hostel. I made plans to go to Chill cafe for dinner with my roommate who was from England. Chill cafe had a distinct vibe & I knew I was going to visit it again. A bunch of travellers from the hostel joined us for dinner that day. We tried a host of platters. Some looked very Srilankan and were delicious. As I returned back to the hostel, I saw a flyer with a bunch of activities that they were offering. I decided to pick up the early morning hike to Ella Rock.
We got ready by 4 am, there were about 7 to 10 of us in the group. Our guide was a Srilankan Tamilian and he was exceptionally happy to know that I was an Indian who could find my way around Tamil words. His dialect was so different that I did not understand a word he said throughout the hike. But I was too polite to break his heart and I let him have this one.
I cannot say much about the route to Ella rock. It was pitch dark and we had flashlights & torches on. However, I do remember a long and beautiful stretch through the railway tracks. It seemed like a noir movie. The path looked like it was getting carved for us as we marched on. With each step ahead a path would light up for us. It reminded me of the fact that we could never make such an audacious move on Indian railway lines.
Our guide had arranged for some snacks for us. I had been a bit under the weather the past couple of days, which made this hike a little challenging for me. I lapped up the snacks like a hungry animal feasting on fresh meat.
As we reached the peak of Ella rock the sun had just begun to rise. The rays sprinkled over the cast green hilly region making it one of the most picturesque places in Ella. People with fancy cameras jolted forward to click pictures. I too humbled (& tumbled) my way to the very edge to get a sunrise picture.
The hike had been a mental and physical challenge for me, and I was overjoyed at being given such a sweet reward for this endeavour. Most of my hike companions were Europeans, and I was marvelled at their strength and agility.
The climb down was exceptional. We could finally see the route we came up from. Small streams passed through patches of lush green vegetation. It was pristine, to say the least. Not a single wrapping paper or plastic bag. It seemed untouched and yet so many passersby had given this route a visit.
As we reached the railway track, the path shone brightly under the pleasant sunshine. It looked resplendent & elegant. We walked back on the same hobbled track path laughing and joking merrily about our experiences. We stopped by a quaint little breakfast place right next to the hostel.
I was amused by how easily I was able to befriend complete strangers. I would have never gone hiking, travelling or for a breakfast with strangers otherwise. It felt as though a part of my cocooned self was slowly emerging out. One layer at a time.
Some folks from the hiking group decided to go to a waterfall nearby. I don’t remember the name of the waterfall, and I’ve forgotten the name of my amazing companions but I do remember they were all from Europe and Australia. I packed a pair of shorts and a tank top along with a towel.
We squeezed into an 8 seated van and drove up and down a winding hilly road. We finally reached our destination. It was a vast waterfall with lots of local Srilankan families enjoying it. One of our group members knew another spot — deep within the rocky terrains of the waterfall, which was more secluded.
It was a mini hike, climbing up and down large greyish stones seemed like an adventure within an adventure. I must have slipped and hurt myself 3–4 times during the span of 15 minutes.
And then came the waterfall within a waterfall. It felt straight from a batman movie. A Batcave of sorts. All of my European and Australian counterparts started changing into their bikinis and swimsuits. I looked at them and then looked at myself. My Indian self could not compete with them: be it in terms of sporting a bikini with confidence or having an extremely fit body.
I dipped into the icy cold pool of water, small fish nibbling onto my toes while the backdrop of the tiny waterfall produced a gentle gushing sound. It was calming indeed. I closed my eyes and let the water take me away!
We came back rested for a bit and headed out to a small diner, where they served beers in teapots! We walked through the streets of Ella, parts of which were beautifully lit with yellow lights and other stretches were pitch dark. Ella is just one very long street. The roads with cafes and restaurants borrow lighting provided by those beautiful cafes. The stretches that don’t have eating joints are pitch black. We crossed a few pitch-black stretches to reach this particular diner. It was a level above the ground and I remember the stairs being narrow, wooden and rickety. We sat at the table with the street view.
I remember listening to stories about Berlin, Melbourne, and London. I also shared a few stories of my own. It’s always hard to talk about India without giving people context! I thought to myself.
Later the group decided to bring some alcohol and snacks. The aim was to play a guessing/drinking game. I don’t quite remember what it was, we were sitting on one of the lovely long wooden benches of our hostel. Being a bit too loud and uncouth. We ate some Srilankan sweet, I don’t quite remember the name. They were star-shaped sweet biscuits with flavours of coconut and spices.
I retired way early that night. But I could hear the laughter and chatter and the fun everyone was having. A ting of jealousy hit me. I was going through some intestinal discomfort and I did not want to punish my body with more booze and snacks. I had one entire day left in Ella, and quite honestly I did not have anything planned for it.
While chalking the itinerary, I had thought of going to Nuvara Elia for a day and then return to Ella. But travelling to and fro seemed like a waste of time. So for the first half, I sat and meditated on the large hostel balcony.
It was an open space just next to the check-in. The balcony faced small hillocks and lush green patches. The cool breeze and the calming sounds of birds and insects made it a rather peaceful morning.
I then took my backpack and aimlessly walked through the day. I popped in random cafes. Ordered one customary item so as to not come across as a freeloader. Ultimately I had my lunch at Chill cafe. I don’t know why, but I was drawn to it completely.
I came back in the evening only to bump into my train buddy Cristina. I had already bumped into many of my vipassana friends en route. She had taken a room in the same hostel as I, except that she had just come to Ella and I was leaving the next day.
We ate dinner at Chill cafe. I remember talking about sustainability in depth. I also spoke about how I could never imagine wearing a bikini in India. She seemed a little shocked at this. What completely different worlds we come from, and yet we were so comfortable in each other’s company. I remember thinking how people’s differences can be a bond for interesting conversations and long-lasting friendships.
We ended the night with a hug, I packed my bags for the next day. Next stop: Galle.
5. A ball at Galle
How the hell do you pronounce Galle? Is it like Ball? or G-a-l-e? These were my thoughts as I waited at the Ella bus stop to catch a local bus to Galle. Galle was about 6–8 hours from Ella. I boarded the bus which was Full! Oh my gosh, would I have to stand the entire duration? I was already sick and I did not know how much I could withstand. Luckily, a seat got vacant soon enough. It was the front row between two really old men.
I had not eaten well in the past week and the full-blown signs of weakness started showing. I felt like my body was slowly slipping into a coma. My head felt dizzy and my body fell limp. A cloud of intense fear shadowed me. I was too weak to feel anything but fear. Was I going to die on this bus?
Thankfully I had some chocolates and biscuits with me. With every ounce of energy I had, I leaned forward, stretched my arms towards the zip and opened up the pack. I wasn’t hungry. Or at least my body did not tell me that I was hungry, but I wolfed down the chocolates and biscuits as though they were the last meal on earth. I graduated from the middle seat to the window seat, rested my head on the window grill and passed out.
I woke up as the bus stopped at a rest station. My energy was slowly returning. I could feel much stronger, so I decided to give the old Jon a visit. Being so used to Indian loos, I was all set to close my nose, carry sanitiser bottles and ensure that I look anywhere else except for the toilet.
I was shocked at how clean the toilets were. There was no stench and a stream of clean water supply. This is when I realised how clean Srilanka is. It’s India but many many times cleaner.
We descended from the hills and finally hit the coastline. The smell of the great ocean had a great effect on me. I felt soothed by the sounds of the shore. My discomfort came to a grinding halt. After coasting through the shore for a good hour or so, we finally hit Galle. I got off before the bus station and walked to my hostel.
This was going to be my last hostel stay. I was a bit disappointed with it. But the owner seemed nice and friendly and arranged for a scooter for me. So I don’t have any complaints.
That evening I walked inside Galle Fort. It was beautiful. I went to a local seafood restaurant which was tucked on one edge of the fort, facing the gushing ocean. I ordered a seafood platter but asked them to remove all the meat. The waiter looked at me puzzled! I am not sure whether I lived up to my vegetarianism that day.
The food was delicious, and as I slurped the soupy delicious Sri Lankan curry, I realised a friend from Vipassana also lived in Galle. I sent Ellen a quick message and she asked me to come over and spend the evening with her. She stayed about 7kms from my hostel, so I decided to take a cab to her house.
The cab pulled over in front of an enormous house. At that point, I had not even seen the house, but the massive gates surely gave me the right impression.
The gates were wooden and looked old. I rang the bell and to my surprise, the gates opened by themselves! How could such an old structure have such a modern touch?
The gate opened to a vast front lawn with a pebbled path to the entrance of this mansion. It was an old dutch house, completely refurbished. The house was made of stone and wood, with all the modern amenities.
There were multiple rooms and a small fountain and courtyard in the centre of the house. I wish I could live in such a delightful mansion, I thought to myself. Ellen was really kind and sweet. She introduced me to her lovely family. She used to be a flight attendant and was easily 6 feet tall. She was going to one of her friend’s daughter’s birthday party and asked me to join along.
I had no plans or friends in Galle, so I decided to take her up on the offer. It turns out that friend was married to some Bollywood celebrity. The party was lavishly spread. There were food and drinks. I felt a little out of place. I was wearing worn-down shorts and a tank top. I was ready for a beach, not some elite party.
Everyone seemed dressed for the evening. The venue was on the beach — making that section private. Children were enjoying the waves and swimming across. There was a canopy in the centre with beautiful lighting, and layered below were some exquisite mattresses.
At the party, I befriended two very kind women who were well beyond their 60s. They were Australian/British but had been staying in Srilanka for a long time. The conversation went on so smoothly and freely that we lost track of time. Dawn and Andree made this very uncomfortably gawky Indian feel warm and welcome.
It was time to leave since I was going to hitch a ride with Andree, who lived right next to my hostel. I hugged Ellen and thanked her for the lovely time.
The three of us boarded a Tuktuk to Dawn’s place where Andree had parked her car. The ride was filled with enriching conversations. About their children and their partners. About the countries, they had visited and the experiences they had gained over the years. There was so much to learn from them, and so much I did learn in the really short time I spent with them.
The next day, I rented a scooter and drove across the coastline. Ellen had told me about some beautiful beaches — but here’s the thing about beaches that I learnt — you cant enjoy them alone. I saw families and friends crashing with the waves. I dipped my toes and then moved along. The coastline drive was so much fun! I stopped at a beachside cafe for some food.
I then drove down to a sea turtle hatchery where they protected sea turtle eggs and rescued and rehabilitated injured turtles. A nice tour was organised, where we were introduced to different species of sea turtle. We also go to pet and hold a few baby turtles.
In the evening I visited the famous Galle Cricket stadium and explored Galle fort. There were small shops that sold clothing, jewellery and other fashionable items. I was wearing a tank top which was torn, and an odd pair of shorts, so naturally I ignored all the beautifully decorated stores. I went to an Italian restaurant and ate some dinner. I decided to head back early and get some good night’s sleep.
6. Return to Colombo
My final local commute! I decided to take the train from Galle to Colombo. The train ride was only a couple of hours, we cruised past coastal Srilanka. A cool & Warm breeze blew on my face and I could smell the ocean. The train seemed to be on the edge of the land, almost diving into the sea. It was truly a beautiful end to my enlightening journey. I shed a few tears. The train was extremely clean, the seats were clean, and everything in Sri Lanka is clean! I got off at the main station in Colombo. Took an Uber to my guardian Sandhya Aunty’s place. She greeted me with the same warmth and smile that I received when I first landed. And it made me fall in love with the country all over again! I couldn’t hug her, because I was filthy. All the travelling had made me forget personal hygiene. I took the longest shower of my life.
I gave her a tight hug. She had made my favourite Sri Lankan string hoppers with sambal! My last Srilankan meal and oh my god, it tasted like heaven. That night, for the first time in my life, I wore a facemask. Covid had crept its way into Srilanka. I left the country with memories that can fill a book and emotions that cannot be described in mere words
Srilanka! Thank you for being a kind mother to this aloof traveller. Thank you for showing me the beauty of friendships, and the fierceness of nature. Thank you for the holding me close, on days that felt terrible, for the extra push on days when I had no energy to move forward. Thank you for laughing with me in silly instances and forgiving me for callous mistakes. For being a patient teacher and a gentle friend.
But thanking Srilanka for moulding me into a finer, better and enriched human being is not enough. Because Srilanka is the culmination of the truly beautiful people it hosts. And thanking them should be on the top of my list.