It’s a strange feeling, returning to a country you already know so well, or think you know well. Despite the four year gap since my last visit, when my plane arrived in Sri Lanka I somehow felt instantaneously at home. There were the same palm tree lined streets, the same shops (anyone visiting Sri Lanka will have seen Cargills Food City and The Lover), voices singing out in recognisable Sinhala, and of course the comforting smell of rice and curry leaking from every restaurant within sight. But one thing was different: the soldiers and police, who had once lined the streets of Colombo en masse, were no longer in sight. Sri Lanka post-war, ah! What an amazing thing to experience.
My flight to Sri Lanka was long and stressful to say the least. I flew with Emirates into Dubai, waited there for three hours, and then took another plane to the Maldives where I had to wait six more hours before catching a flight to Sri Lanka. By this time I was totally exhausted and fully jet-lagged, however I managed to get upgraded to business class which was somehow a curse and a blessing given that it was only for one hour, after about 12 hours of flying. I did, however, get served champagne and a very tasty meal. I was also rather impressed by the fact that in business class your chair gives you a massage! You can’t get better than that really.
My first night in Colombo was fairly uneventful, but the following day I made plans to leave that morning to go to Kandy to meet a Sri Lankan friend I had made on my first visit, Maneka.
I caught the bus to Kandy and arrived three hours later, met up with my friend and went to stay at his cousin’s hotel. The weather in Kandy was absolutely awful and I was beginning to wonder if I would actually see any sunshine whilst I was in Sri Lanka. I did, however, eat like a queen. I think Kandy might possibly be the best place for food in Sri Lanka, or perhaps it was just that my friend showed me to all the right places, but I found one breakfast bar that was totally amazing. It served string hoppers, a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast that consists of circles of what looks like noodles, with spicy curry and coconut sambal. I also ate some absolutely delicious curries and couldn’t help thinking to myself that Sri Lankan food is vastly underrated in the Western world. I’ll take a Sri Lankan curry over a tikka masala any day. I also visited the temple of the tooth – a temple that supposedly has one of buddha’s teeth residing in it – and the botanical gardens, which weren’t as impressive as I had thought they might be, but I did get to see a large bat up close so that was fun. There are bats literally everywhere in Kandy, I never noticed it before, but once my friend pointed them out to me they were quite simply unavoidable. They were hanging off trees all over the place like dark fruit.
After Kandy, Menaka and I headed up to Trincomalee, which is where he works as a diving instructor. I actually met him in Hikkaduwa, but since the war ended all the divers from Hikkaduwa who could once only work for six months a year whilst the South was in season, now migrate Eastward to Trinco for the other six months, as the season there begins when Hikkaduwa’s ends. I had read in my guidebook that Trincomalee was something akin to ‘Baghdad-on-sea’ so I was surprised when I arrived to find a nice little city, not nearly as war-torn as I had expected, brimming with hope and promise and with plenty of charm. Although it is still lacking in a tourist infrastructure, rapid development is taking place in Trincomalee and I have a feeling it will be firmly on the map in a few years time. I stayed at a nearby beach called Uppuveli, where my friend left me to go work on another slightly nicer beach 20 mins up the road called Nilaveli, where all the hotels were out of my price range.
The hotel Maneka chose for me was run by a group of his friends, and another diving company, and he introduced me to them and told them to look after me whilst he sorted a few things out, promising he would come back for me the following day to teach me how to dive. Sadly after that Menaka got sick, and then someone in his family died so he had to go back up to Kandy, so for the whole first week I was left alone in Trincomalee. This, however, was not a problem, as I made great friends with two of the diving instructors: Praveen and Gayan, and spent most of my time hanging around with Praveen, trying to learn Sinhala, drinking plenty of Arak (Sri Lanka’s national drink – a kind of coconut rum), and taking the occasional trip to pigeon island to do snorkling. Pigeon island is about an hour from Uppuveli and is this tiny little place surrounded by clear water and beautiful coral. Apparently it was impossible to reach until just recently, as the war restrictions meant that boats couldn’t get out there, but now boats sail out twice a day for diving, and snorkling trips. Weirdly enough, the island still has an army base on it, where two grumpy looking soldiers were always standing guard. Against the background of sparkling water, sunbathing families, and children splashing around in the sea, the camouflaged soldiers and their machine guns looked rather out of place. I wonder how long it will take until they move off the island.
After a week, Menaka came back and he asked me to come to see him in Nilaveli so he could teach me how to dive. I was so nervous, but Menaka assured me that it would be fine and that there were no dangerous sharks in the waters around Pigeon island (my biggest fear about diving). We took the boat out to the island and then he taught me how to equalise, clean my mask under water, signal various things, and get my air thingy back if I lost it. Then we swum down. It was so strange, like a completely different world. Somehow being under the water felt much less scary than being on top of it, and I swum around looking at all the nice corals and fish, fascinated. I was strangely clumsy under water, and seemed a little unable to control what I was doing, so I seemed to somehow spend most of my time floating unpside down, with my flippers facing skywards and my arms desperately reaching out to balance me, even though you are not supposed to use your arms. I saw some lobsters hiding behind rocks, lots of squidgey white anemones that felt nice to touch, clown fish and some tropical fish I didn’t recognise, and an octopus that kept spitting out large clumps of sand. About half an hour into the dive there was this huge explosion. For a few seconds I thought that my lungs had exploded – I had remembered something on the diving video that I watched before hand that said something like that could happen – but then I noticed that all the fish had jumped too, and Menaka was looking worried. He signalled that we go up to the surface, so we swam up and when we reached the top he started looking around us, but there was nothing there. “What happened?” I asked, and he explained that it was dynamite fishing. He said that fishermen just literally light up dynamite in their boats, throw it into the water and then collect the dead fish that float to the surface. Apparently the explosion we felt must have been quite far away, or we would have seen a boat when we came up. That really amazed me, it felt so strong, I can’t imagine what it must have been like if we were near it. Dynamite fishing is illegal in Sri Lanka, but it still goes on, and poses a huge threat to both divers and the coral reef so it is a big problem.
After the dive, Menaka wanted to go snorkling for a bit out to a different area where it was too shallow to dive. I had cut myself on about a thousand pieces of coral and was bleeding profusely, so I wasn’t highly pleased when Menaka told me that we were going snorkling in the area where you can usually see sharks. Luckily I only saw one baby shark, and wasn’t scared at all but Menaka told me he saw a shark that was my size swim right past us when I wasn’t looking. He didn’t point it out to me because he thought I would have freaked out. I think he was probably right. That evening it was Menaka’s birthday, so Praveen and I went over to his for drinks. There was this hilarious old guy there who kept telling the most obscure stories ever in a very comical manner. I had a video of him, but unfortunately I lost one of my memory sticks with almost all of my Sri Lanka photos on and the video of him was on there, so I no longer have it.
A few days before I was set to go home, I travelled up to Colombo with Praveen to stay with his family for a day before heading off to Hikkaduwa for a festival. Praveen’s family were so kind to me, and literally showered me with presents and compliments. I was even told that Praveen’s sister’s children were refusing to go to school because ‘they wanted to meet the foreigner’! I met lots of Praveen’s friend who were all very cool and spoke perfect English which I found a little surprising, and Praveen and I even went to a funeral, as his friend’s Grandfather had recently passed away. We had to wear white and go into this room and sort of put our hands together for a second near the body, which was lying on a table in the middle of the room, not even in a coffin or anything. It was a bit weird standing right next to a dead body, but not scary or anything really. Just odd.
I reached Hikkaduwa by train and discovered it was Praveen’s first time travelling by train. This really suprised me, but when I asked why, he told me that after seeing what happened to the train in Hikkaduwa in the Tsunami, he had not wanted to travel by train. The Hikkaduwa train was pushed right of the tracks by the Tsunami and loads of people died. When I last visited Hikkaduwa, the train was still in the place it got washed to, in memory of those who were killed, but now it has apparently been moved to a museum. I spent most of my time in Hikkaduwa going to parties, and it was nice to go back and visit some of the same clubs and restaurants that I went to on my last visit. I thought a lot whilst I was there about how much I’ve changed since I was 18. I’m so very different in some ways, but then in other ways I suppose I’m almost the same. Anyway, it made me think a lot and it was nice. I started to think about how much I was going to miss being near the sea, it makes me so happy just listening to the ebb and flow of waves. I wasn’t looking forward to returning to London at all. One thing I noticed in Hikkaduwa that I didn’t see last time was how many fireflies there are. Gayan caught one for me and held it between his hands so I could have a close look, and I thought it was just amazing. It looked like it had a lime green neon light strapped to its back. Also there were so many hermit crabs – some tiny ones and then some really really huge ones. I took a video of one of them because I thought it looked so funny:
My three weeks in Sri Lanka finished far too early. I came back to England so soon because I was supposed to have a job in Korea, but my documents didn’t arrive in time to start this term, so now I have to reapply for the february term. It feels awful being back in London, jobless and missing Sri Lanka like crazy. I’ve been thinking that I might try and get a job out there for a few months until I start work in Korea. Just a bar job or something simple that would just give me a room and some food in return. Anything to get back. Sri Lanka was my paradise even when the war was in full-swing, now it is completely perfect. There is just something about it that has me completely besotted and I just have to go back there again.
I made a little video of a few things in Sri Lanka. It’s not very good because I lost most of my footage, but you get the idea…