Happy New Year

Trip Start Dec 30, 2012
Trip End Jan 11, 2013

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Sunday, December 30, 2012

Due to the incompetency of Sri Lankan Airlines, my arrival in Sri Lanka started badly. I'd been due to take the Air Taxi to Koggala, from where I would have had an easy trip to Galle. However, the four hour delay on my flight meant that I'd missed the Air Taxi, and would have to do the journey by a road car put on by the airline. Looking on a map, Colombo and Galle aren't far away from one another at all and you would think that the journey would be a nice easy one - and the new expressway that has been built between the two cities should make it all the more easy. However, this is not quite the case - the expressway is almost devoid of traffic and thus allows you to eat up the distance in an hour, but unfortunately it starts to the south-east of Colombo, and the international airport is some way north of the capital, at Katunayake. The journey time through the traffic from Katunayake to the start of the expressway is two hours, meaning that you cover as little as a quarter of the journey's distance in two thirds of the journey's time.

Eventually, around midday, I finally arrived at Brontė's front door in Galle Fort, to be greeted by her, her brother Ivo, boyfriend Tom, and Lou, one of my flatmates. I'd had hardly any sleep, but seeing all these lovely cheerful people gave me a little burst of energy. Immediately, I thought back to a question asked weekly on the back pages of the Independent's travel section: Is it better to travel or arrive? Personally, I wonder why they even bother asking, because if you prefer hours of being cramped up and bored to the thrill of stepping out into a new place, I don't think you should be travelling full stop.

My excitement was increased the minute I crossed the threshold. The house is one of those stunning colonial buildings with high ceilings, an open air riad-style pond in its centre, ancient wooden doors and a rickety staircase taking you up to the roof. It was here that we immediately went, where there is a seating area which overlooks the ramparts of the fort, over the foliage of tall palms, and out across the bay. Romanticised imagery of the Raj flooded my brain as we sat there relaxing and chatting, occasionally waving at the Sri Lankans and tourists who slowly meandered their way past below us. To arrive in such a fashion is pretty special.

One thing I had noticed about Galle, and the Fort district in particular, is the amount of white people there. Driving from the airport, I had seen no evidence of tourism whatsoever, but the minute I entered Galle white people seemed to pop out of nowhere, rambling along the seafront, cramped up in the back of tuk-tuks and bartering for fish at roadside stalls. Evidently, this part of the world is ex-pat and tourist central, and my stay here I think will offer me a third way of viewing a country. Many tourists will spend their entire time on holiday at their resort, and even backpackers on a budget will eat, drink and stay in establishments geared primarily for tourists. Other forms of travel and other travellers will, however, make more effort to get involved with local culture, using local transport and going to places where the sight of a tourist is still unusual. The experience living with ex-pats, then, bridges this gap: ex-pats know their neighbours, they know how things work and where they are, but they retain their 'difference' - their standard of living, social groups and so on.

It was this knowledge that gave me my first truly memorable experience in Sri Lanka. Brontė called her favourite tuk-tuk driver and told him to take us to a nice, local kade (a family-run small shop/ bistro) for my first proper Sri Lankan curry. I didn't have my bearings at this point, so I've no idea where this was, but it was nonetheless outstanding. Contrasting drastically with any ideas of Indian Curry we might have in the UK, Sri Lankan curry is a communal affair, with small tapas-style curries, sambols (spiced, grated coconut), chutneys, dhal, and vegetable dishes served in the middle of the table, to be mixed with rice and roti, and it is eaten with fingers, not forks. There is no better way to get stuck in to Sri Lanka than dining out on their spread of delicately fused flavours - chilli, coconut, lime, fenugreek, turmeric, garlic and ginger making the bulk - in a small restaurant, surrounded by locals curious at your presence. I've eaten curries all my life back home and loved them, but this experience showed me just how much better a curry can be than those that arrive at your front door in a foil tub.

Following the fantastic curry, we took the tuk-tuk further along the coast, to Wijaya, a beach bar that seems to be the place to see and be seen if you're an ex-pat, or friends with an ex-pat. The prices are dear, but in return you do get a two-tiered setup with comfy seats and tables looking out over a fabulous beach. Furthermore, the right hand side of the beach as you look at it is good water for surfing, with waves pouring in through a narrow channel between the rocks that extend from the headland to the right, and the reef which stretches in a diagonal from the rocky headland at the other end of the beach. All in all, it is a pretty relaxing place to be, and its role as the daytime focal point for the ex-pat community means there's always people there that Brontė knows. During my time in Galle, I've been taken to Wijaya pretty much every day.

That night, Brontė and Lou cooked a lovely dinner, with her mum, Olivia, and her boyfriend Alex providing plenty of wine and the remains of the Christmas cheese for afterwards, before eventually all the good food and drink got a bit too much for me, still operating from about an hour's sleep, and I made my way to bed. The next morning had yet another treat in store - breakfast at Amangalla, the hotel which is managed by Brontė's mum. This is a boutique hotel with an outstanding reputation, and rather than being a purpose-built resort, it is found in a former Dutch colonial garrison building right in the middle of the Fort, which for me sets it apart from other boutique resorts for having its own unique historical and architectural character. For breakfast, I was recommended 'hoppers', and having never eaten them before, of course that's what I had. Sri Lankans traditionally eat these in the evening, but since they are wafer-thin, crispy pancakes moulded into a bowl shape and sometimes served with a fried egg in the middle, they fit into a Westerner's breakfast taste. Alongside are served different chutneys, and different sambols, some adding a coriander and limey freshness, others an intense sharpness of chilli. While I waited for the food to arrive, I was taken on a tour of the hotel, around its spa, gardens and library, which ticked off the first luxury resort on my list that I have from Comfy Class. It was a rarity for me - a morning that was both enjoyable, and productive!

The rest of the day involved a trip to Wijaya, before we split up to do some shopping. A barbecue was planned to see off 2012 in style, so Tom, Ivo and I went off to buy some tuna and prawns; Lou and Brontė were to get chicken and veg. The markets in Galle are something I'm going to have to go back to - I've always been enticed even by the spice section in Tesco's, so for me Sri Lanka is a dream, with exotic masalas or vanilla pods that even in this day and age are hard to come by or expensive in the UK just itching to find a way into my suitcase. We shared duties for the barbeque - Tom prepared the tuna, Ivo was in charge of the prawns, and I marinated some drumsticks in yoghurt, lime juice and a blend of whatever spices I thought would go well (I can't remember now). I also squeezed some mangos, put them through the food processor and then sieved the pulp to make the base for some mango juice, which would go very nicely in some mango daiquiris later. Lou did the same with passionfruit and watermelon, and added to the collection of beer and arrack (a coconut-based spirit), we had plenty to keep busy with. Some of the Richli's friends came round for the barbeque, before we all headed off to a place called Flirt for a pretty exclusive party where we saw in the New Year, before spending the rest of the night at Wijaya (a portion I don't remember at all). However, I do recall returning chez Richli just after dawn, and sitting out on the roof watching the birds flying in and out of the palms silhouetted in the morning haze, which was a lovely way to see the first light of the new year.

As always, January 1st proved to be the antithesis to 'Start as you mean to go on'. I certainly don't mean to spend the rest of the year asleep, eating noodles and watching movies. Nonetheless, we had recovered enough the next day to take a trip to a temple near where Brontė used to live out in the rice paddies. Like other Buddhist temples I've been to, this was found atop a hill, and consisted of a stupa and a main building containing statues of the Buddha and other figures from the mythology, as well as a few outlying shrines. We wandered around here for a while, and while it was not the most ornate or spectacular temple I've ever visited, it certainly made up for it by being deserted (save for a few orange-clad monks), and, out in the lush paddies, made for a really peaceful morning. It was certainly more a more peaceful place of worship than the mosque around the corner from Brontė's house, where the adhān can be heard five times daily across the Fort.

Following this, we stopped at a kade just around the corner and, packed tightly in to the small eating space, ate the remainder of the rice, curry and dhal that the kade had, supplemented with several roti wrapped up into parcels and filled with a delicious, spicy mixture of potatoes and vegetables. Then, we returned once more to Wijaya, and spent the afternoon there, with the intention of watching the sunset. We caught the sunset, although unfortunately the variable weather at this time of year meant that the sun disappeared some time before it was due to reach the horizon.

That evening I once more benefitted from Brontė's mum's position as manager at Amangalla, as this time we had a full meal there, preceded by cocktails. It's a while since I've eaten formally abroad, and perhaps predictably I ignored the seared barramundi and other delicious-looking choices on the menu and went for the curry option, which I shared with Lou and Tom. This was as delectable as any kade curry, but it made a change eating with cutlery, dressed smartly and washing the whole thing down with plenty of nice wine, and a Tamil pudding called wattalapam. There is never just one way to skin a cat.

After the meal, already sufficiently lubricated, we left Brontė's mum and Alex at the house and headed for a bar at Unawatuna, the next bay east from Galle. I have to say that any going out choices in Galle are nothing to do with me, since I know nothing about the local social scene, but it seemed that this was the place to go, and also a somewhat important symbol of Sri Lanka's recovery from the 2004 tsunami, where all the buildings along the beach were ruined. At a dive bar at the eastern end of Unawatuna beach, we met up with some people we'd chatted with earlier at Wijaya, but the entire beach seemed a bit quiet - not that this bothered me at all, considering the food baby that was nestled in my stomach. We did spot some flashing lights from the opposite side of the bay, however, and occasionally music drifted across the sea - clearly, if anywhere, this was the place to be. On arrival, it was - a beach party with decent music and flowing arrack, and we had a lot of fun there until it was time to go home.

The next day was to be my final day in Galle before my trip up to the northeast, and it was also Ivo's last day before he had to return back to the UK and back to school. Alex runs a business that takes tourists on gentle bike rides around the city and into the countryside, and by all accounts this is a really good experience, and one that, after it had been offered to us all for free, I was really looking forward to. Alas, the weather put a downer on the entire day, with a torrential downpour lasting several hours through the afternoon. That evening, we got Indian takeaway (these curries were still more interesting and tasty than those you get in Britain), and the drink flowed again. I had to be at an airstrip just south of Colombo for 6:30am the next morning, so I stayed up until just before 3 before trudging through the rainy night, out of the fort, past the cricket ground and onto the express bus heading up the coast road to the capital. A tuk-tuk from Brontė's house to Wijaya costs 500 rupees; this bus from Galle to Colombo cost me just 120. Hopefully some savings should be made when I'm up in Trincomalee!
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