Thymeoff to be a Tourist

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Sri Lanka  , Central,
Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Truth be told, I didn’t actually take time off to be a tourist, but rather a traveller..........and there is a difference. A real tourist isn’t likely to tolerate five hours of curvy roads in a hot, overcrowded local bus, or to sample unknown delicacies at makeshift roadside stalls, or even to wade through muddy terrain on a climb to the top of a waterfall - just for a quick dip in the cool water pool at the top. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My Polish friend Ania managed to find a cheap internet flight to Sri Lanka, so I decided to join her and a friend Bogusia on their two week holiday. Meeting them at the beach in Unawatuna, I was shocked to see the extreme changes to the once tranquil, laidback village with great snorkelling  It apparently wasn’t tourism alone that changed Unawatuna from an idyllic place of dreams into an unattractive, unending string of guest houses and restaurants. The very generous foreign donations that flowed into the area after the 2004 tsunami resulted in greedy and often unplanned, shoddy reconstruction too close to the beach. Eating lunch in one of the restaurants, we were affected only by the constant spray of the nearby waves, but a few years from now the entire restaurant may have washed into the sea. And as for the exotic tropical fish and coral reefs - they too are now only memories.

Leaving the mayhem behind, we chose to walk through sometimes dense forest growth in order to reach the more isolated Jungle Beach, a place where some of the local families prefer to picnic and to frolic in the water, often fully clothed. Alternately, a ten minute bus ride would take us to the old fort city of Galle where a day could easily slip by without our noticing. What with relaxing ayurvedic massage at only $15 per hour, groovy outdoor colonial cafes offering specialty coffees, and lots of little boutique shops hidden behind the decaying Dutch colonial buildings, we could easily have spent a week in this enchanting UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ah, but the life of a traveller is just that - always on the lookout for an even more exotic location in which to revel. Continuing eastward, we stopped for a few days at the idyllic, crescent shaped Mirissa beach to do our duty - NOTHING but swim, sunbathe, and indulge in yet more massage. In the evenings, we enjoyed selecting one of the many restaurants with candle-lit tables right on the sand, where we could savour prawns, red snapper, or any other “catch of the day”. Although dozens of guesthouses lined the beach, we chose to rent rooms from a family living on the other side of the road. Twenty-six year old Bodhini had tears in her eyes as she recounted her experiences during the 2004 tsunami. Without warning, a giant wave scooped Bodhini and her grandmother up and lashed them against a wall at the back of the property. Bodhini might have climbed the wall to safety, but decided to stay by the side of her injured grandmother who was unable to move. A second wave washed Bodhini up and over the wall, but sadly, she returned to find her grandmother had not survived. Some of the funds raised for tsunami survivors were used to construct the house we rented from Bodhini and her family.

Ella is as different from Mirissa as day is from night. One of my favourite places in all of Sri Lanka, Ella exemplifies the cooler climate and the spectacular lush, green scenery of the Hill Country. We spent hours wandering along narrow paths through the tea plantations, likening the sea of shiny dense tea bushes to blankets of velvet, marveling at the endurance of the tea pluckers and sympathizing with their sometimes abhorrent living conditions. However, we selfishly forgot about their hardships as we returned to our comfortable guesthouse for a scrumptious rice and curry feast, to be followed by Shiro Dara - a purely blissful Ayurvedic treatment where hot oil is slowly dripped onto the forehead and smoothed gently into the temples. But personally, I find that nothing can surpass the quiet beauty of watching the sun rise through Ella Gap.

The train journey from Ella to Nuwara Eliya is reputed to be one of the most spectacular in the country, so we were advised to purchase special tickets for the observation car. Fat lot of good it did us, as the day we selected to travel was the day that dense clouds rolled in. Disappointed as we were, we did see enough to convince us that this is a route to be added to our “do it again” list.

By the time we arrived in “Little England”(Nuwara Eliya), it was raining hard, a dense mist had settled over the hillsides, and the weather forecast predicted more of the same for the next two weeks. Wanting simply to climb under the blankets for a snooze, we resisted and instead donned our umbrellas as we set off in search of some lunch. We could almost feel our new tans washing off as we walked along the potholed roads in the bustling town centre, attempting to avoid the splashing of puddles by passing vehicles. Feeling much better after some fresh fruit juices and spicy short-eats (vegetable rolls, egg roti and mutton samosa), we decided to forget the rain and treat ourselves to afternoon tea at St Andrew’s Hotel. Along with the Grand and the Hill Club, St Andrews is part of Nuwara Eliya’s upper class colonial past. We ignored the subtle stares at our disheveled appearance, walked proudly into the elegant lounge, and thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon treat.

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