Unawatuna, Sri Lanka
07 January 2013
A recent day found us nestled onto our hilltop balcony here in southern Sri Lanka, our attention captured by an eagle gliding on invisible airwaves at eye level. Refreshed by the cool sea breeze and listening to the crash of the waves on the beach far below our eyes also wandered out to sea where we are amazed by the nonstop parade of vessels steaming by in the distant shipping lanes en-route to India or the Middle East or to Europe in one direction and maybe to China or Japan or the US in the other. It is astounding to see so much commercial sea traffic. Though we ARE at the bottom of Sri Lanka, an ancient crossroads for mariners plying these waters carrying rich and pungent cargos between exotic locals. From here, only 6 degrees north of the equator, the next point of land south is Antarctica, thousands and thousands of miles away. Due east is Indonesia; to the west many miles, Africa; and north, barely a stones throw away, is the south of the Indian subcontinent. But we digress. Our story doesn't begin here...
With our 90 day visas in hand we touched down in Colombo, Sri Lanka in the wee hours of November 7th, working our way south as soon as we recovered from two and a half days sprinting around airports and catching cat naps miles high in the sky. Flying across the Pacific Ocean to Japan, for a night that will be remembered as our best ever layover, across more of the Pacific south and then west into Singapore, over the Andaman Sea, and the Bay of Bengal, finally touching down on this little island plopped in the Indian Ocean like a tear drop falling off India's southeast cheek. The long journey left us weary, but jubilant to begin our south Asia adventure.
We immediately fell in love with the people, the warm temperatures, the spicy food, as all our senses were treated to an extensive new workout. Each country we journey to sets our mouths to watering months before we actually step foot off the plane onto foreign soil. When we read in preparation we can't wait to see, to taste, to smell, to feel and to hear all that awaits us.
Of course the moment you leave the artificial confines of the airplane and set foot in the tropics one feels the heaviness of the heat that often smacks with a sultry humidity giving the sensation of swimming as you walk, so thick is the moisture in the air. Arriving at the end of the monsoon season we also felt plenty of raindrops that first week. The soothing feel of moist warmth was balm for the soul after many weeks in the Arizona desert. Soon we'd be feeling the soothing caress of the ocean itself on invigorating swims that were to become the best part of our days in Unawatuna.
Quickly following the welcome feel of solid ground beneath our feet we began to feast our eyes on new sights...the cinnamon brown skin tones of the Lankan's and the vibrant colored saris worn by many women. Just the first of many exciting sights that lay ahead.
What better introduction to a new land than tasting their cuisine? A quick trip to a restaurant after arrival got the juices to all of our senses flowing. The sight of our surroundings and the food being served at other tables; the feel of the space and of the people who served us; the undulating fragrance of the savory treats set before us, and our taste buds dancing wildly, happily, amid the new flavors.
After experimenting with many restaurant meals that week we sought out the knowledge of how to cook these delectable dishes ourselves. Quickly solved with a cooking lesson taught by an effusive local woman, we learned where to shop for the finest ingredients and how to prepare various indigenous curry dishes. Sri Lankan cuisine leans heavily towards the use of curry, turmeric, and chili powders as well as cinnamon sticks and chili flakes - exotic tastes that adorn almost every edible creation. Recipes that bend towards more Indian flavors use powdered mustard and garam masala. And most everything utilizes the coconut that grows prolifically everywhere on the island. Highlighting the coconut concoctions is sambal the spicy dry condiment served with many meals and sprinkled over dishes such as dhal - lentil curry - that, along with rice, are mealtime staples in Sri Lanka.
The best taste sensations are easy to encounter in this Garden of Eden bursting with tropical fruits of every variety. Succulent, dripping mangoes, passion fruits pregnant with seeded juices, sublimely sweet pineapples and a handfuls of banana varieties star on every menu served as juice in the morning or simply sliced for a refreshing dessert plate. While acclimating to the exhausting heat after our arrival we sucked down plenty of fresh juices. In this part of the world fruits are also used frequently for making lassis - the South Asian version of a smoothie - fresh fruit mixed with the divinely rich and thick buffalo curd. Leagues better than the best Greek yoghurts we've tasted, the curd is made from the milk of roaming herds of water buffalo and is sold in terra cotta crocks everywhere. Curd is also served as a sumptuous dessert when drizzled with kitul, a honey like syrup made from the brown sugar of local jaggery - collected from kitul palms. That, with a sip of local rum, is Ken's favorite after dinner treat.
Our first few days in the country were spent in the beachside fishing community of Negumbo, followed by a whirlwind weekend in Colombo with an Arkansas family Ken had met on an expat website. But anxious to get settled somewhere we quickly bussed south and, from a quaint guesthouse inside the Galle Fort, we began a seaside search for adequate lodging. We first zeroed in on which community we felt we'd be most happy living and soon happened upon our first apartment a short walk from the beach in Unawatuna. We loaded up a valiant little tuk tuk to the gills and relocated, in Beverly Hillbilly style, to our first apartment in a single trip.
With another motor jaunt back into Galle we bought enough wares and supplies to stock our new home. Curry dishes here are cooked over a one-burner gas stove in a simple bowl shaped aluminum pan, part of our new purchases that broke the bank at under 3 bucks. A rice cooker was another essential buy in our cooking arsenal.
Just when we had settled into our routine over the course of our first month here an unanticipated need to change apartments, and a cool and rainy weather pattern succeeded in stirring things up a bit. That often meant not getting in our beloved daily plunge. I'm sure I can hear the collective sighs of sympathy.
Sight is a gift unparalleled to all the other senses. Trading in our first balcony's garden view, our new apartment boasts a far more spectacular vista, overlooking the lush green treetops down to the beach and out further yet to the shimmering sea. Our 3-story building, reached by hoofing up a steep hill and over a hundred stair steps, is perched on a gigantic rock, each story one apartment. Arriving before the normal tourist hordes we had first pick and we wisely choose the top floor even though it added another twenty steps to our already mountainous climb. The visual payoff is well worth the extra exertion. When we return home, huffing and puffing from the arduous climb, we are rewarded with a mind-blowing view, a fresh sea breeze and a veritable menagerie of wildlife that surrounds our aerie.
Constant wild entertainment lay at our fingertips. Blue bearded monkeys are the multi talented stars of the show with unscheduled daily appearances in troupes, often performing tree acrobatics, but mostly dining on the treats provided in the tropical flora.
Since we have a bird's eye view up in the higher canopy we often see wild peacocks, always an amusing surprise to spy jumping from rooftop to rooftop showing off their beauty in fashion runway style. Far smaller winged wonders, feathered in shimmering fluorescent colors, rival their beauty. Eye popping oranges and yellows, neon chartreuses and vibrant purples. Sri Lanka is home to more than 400 species of birds, 26 of which are only found here and in the very southern reaches of India. The tropical climate and habitat diversity serve to endow this small country with its abundant birdlife. We've even laid eyes on an elusive hornbill and a black-rumped flameback woodpecker.
After spotting a mongoose the other day we now understand why we aren't encountering the snakes of every poisonous variety that were part of our daily lives last year in Thailand. And we were also treated to a visit from an enormous monitor below the balcony, his foot long snake-like tongue searching the underbrush for a lizard's lunch. And bats. Did we mention the gargantuan fruit bats that swoop past after sunset?
With the birdsong and monkey calls in the plush foreground, and the luscious Indian Ocean backdrop, the muted roar of the waves crashing below lulls us into a deep state of relaxation unlike any we've ever known. We both agree that this is, by far and away, the best location we have ever called home. All for a pittance of what the privilege would cost us elsewhere.
What always brings us out of our Zen state and back down to earth, though, is the ever-present unpleasant sounds reaching our ears in the way of throbbing techno beats from varying bars and tenacious, town-wide, dog barking marathons. Both unwelcome music styles challenge our slumber after dark most nights. In a town rife with both temple dogs (Buddhists LOVE dogs) and beach bars, we are stuck with the nightly choruses disturbing the peace in paradise for the duration of our stay.
And, truth be told, a special kind of noise wafts over from the nearby Buddhist temple where nearly 2 hours of amplified prayers drone on daily before sunset. We found the frequent, but brief, muezzins' calling Moslems to prayer in South Thailand hauntingly exotic. The racket coming from the temple here, however, is monotonous, lackluster and highly repetitive night after night. Every Poya - a holy day celebrated every full moon day with the intent of strengthening ones Buddhist practice - extends the chanting for many hours longer. In olden times it must have been a spiritually arousing gift to listen. But with the need to broadcast the message via abrasive and squawky antique speaker systems these days the rose has lost it's blush. Mind you, we have no problem with the message. It is more, as is often the case with religions, a simmering dislike of the messengers and their delivery. We'd like to think that Lord Buddha himself couldn't muster up his usual smiles during these 2hour chant-fests.
But the noise grievances don't subtract enough from the stay to wish we'd chosen elsewhere to live. Nor does it negate our exquisite stay on a heavenly hill overlooking a picture perfect beach in an incredible country filled with beautiful people.
The country experiences 12 poya days per year, all national holidays with government offices, schools, and many businesses closed and no alcohol sold. It was on the poya festival - December 26th, 2004- when waves of a great tsunami hit Sri Lanka's east and south coasts with a vengeance. 30,000 people were left dead with thousands more injured, orphaned or left homeless as they were caught celebrating on beaches across the nation. The day after Christmas this year marked the eighth anniversary of the tragic event that affected so many of the people we call neighbors now. Particularly here in Unawatuna, many lost someone that day. Even though the loss lingers they have gone on with their lives and appear to be happy until we ask about their families. A shadow of sadness comes over their faces as they remember their lost mother, their son, their Auntie. Tragic.
As our precious respite in this lovely paradise nears the end we are set to planning the more active part of our trip. Much remains to be seen, and tasted, smelled, heard, and felt in Sri Lanka. In mid January we will set forth by train north and bus away from the coast inland where we hope to visit numerous sacred sites and the captivatingly beautiful tea growing plantations in the central hill country over the course of 2 weeks.
In the first week of February we will fly to Mumbai, joining cruising friends Doug and Rayene, for a 2-3 week motor trip through Rajasthan and thus beginning a 3 month tour of the subcontinent. We are quite aware that the workout our senses have been delighting in here in Sri Lanka will turn quickly into sensory overload once we hop into our first cab heading into the city. The sights and sounds and smells will no doubt astound.
But for one more sweet and sanguine week we will laugh at monkeys, thrill at birdsong, swim in the sea and saunter the beach, meet more friends and grumble about the chanting.
Side Track: SRI LANKA FUN FACTS
We knew precious little about this island before setting our sights on a visit. An introduction to a country's past and recent history as well as their religions, economies and politics always helps us become aware of events that have led the current populace to get to where they are today. One of the joys of travel is learning. One of the sole purposes of continuing our blog is to let you share in what we've learned as we travel the globe. So bear with the history lesson for a few paragraphs as we endeavor to share our woefully limited knowledge.
Tiny Sri Lanka has a largely rich and varied past due to its geological position along hundreds of trade routes to and from India, Asia and the Middle East, making it a melting pot of ethnicities and religions. Lord Buddha, possibly the most famous of those visitors, is said to have come here on 3 occasions during his lifetime and the practice of his teachings still deeply affects day-to-day life on the island spiritually, culturally and politically. Buddhism is the predominant religion on the island, with Hinduism, Islam and Christianity also widely practiced.
The long line of folks who've claimed this island as their homeland for 34,000 years includes the hunter-gatherer Veddah's - with a tiny smattering of their modern day counterparts still hanging on by a thread; a virtual onslaught of kings and princes for multitudes of centuries; and European traders who wanted to capitalize on this important location along the trade routes and who colonized the area beginning with the Portuguese in the 1500s, followed by the Dutch a century later. The Brits laid final colonial claim after conquering the island in 1815 and for the first, and only, time in its history Sri Lanka was ruled, in its entirety, by a European power.
It was the British who were responsible for introducing tea to what was then called Ceylon after all the island's coffee crops were decimated by disease. The desire for tea pickers and the refusal of the prideful Sinhalese to labor on plantations caused the British to import almost a million Tamil laborers from South India into the country, setting the stage for years of heated conflict far into the future.
For decades Tamils and Sinhalese worked side by side to liberate themselves from British rule. But, soon after Sri Lanka gained full independence in 1948, the ruling United National Party decided to deny the "Plantation Tamils" citizenship trying to implement a plan to repatriate them to India. As Sinhalese nationalism grew so did the resistance by the Tamils, especially after lawmakers made Sinhalese the official language of the country in an attempt to further disparage job opportunities for the well educated and English proficient Tamils who the Sinhala felt were over represented in universities and public service jobs.
The seventies brought about the tipping point and the birth of the militant Tamil Tigers (LTTE) who began advocating for an independent Tamil state. Clashes between the LTTE and the Sinhalese soon escalated into a violent civil war that lasted over 25 years, claiming 100,000 lives.
A totally unpredicted event in the form of the horrendous tsunami that hit the island on December 26th, 2004 took 30,000 more lives. Hopes of that tragedy reunifying both sides soon faded into arguments about aid distribution and land tenure. Fighting continued through numerous foreign-brokered cease fires and finally came to a end in May of 2009 with the surrender of the last holdouts of the LTTE.
Although resentments remain, for the most part Sri Lankan's are weary of war. From where we sit they seem to be remarkably tolerant living side by side quite peaceably now. We have heard rumor that tsunami aid money coming in from other countries has been used solely to rebuild the south, however, and resentments are building in the north. Indeed a new airport is being built here in the south a mere two hour bus ride from the international terminal in Colombo, while roads in the north remain cratered from bomb blasts. But we are not here to invoke politics.
Sri Lanka is slightly smaller than Ireland only with 4.5 times as many people to support. Encircled in it's entirety by sandy beaches of every variety the country lays claim to much more than sunbathing by the sea. The coastal planes of the south rise up to the hills that house picture perfect tea plantations. Sri Lanka enjoys its spot as the second most important tea producing country behind India. Branded internationally as Ceylon Tea, it represents 15% of the economy.
Of course the best part of this country so far are the effusive locals. Within hours of our arrival we were invited by an elated young busboy to accompany him to his hometown the next day. If we hadn't just spent 2 full days getting from LA to Negumbo and the visit didn't include another 7 hours bouncing around on a rattle-trap bus we might have taken him up on his gracious offer. And on several occasions when shop owners here in Una don't have the proper change for one of our larger bills they send us off with the goods until we can come back, at our leisure, with the proper change. They are trusting, engaging, industrious, and intensely happy folks. And we enjoy every moment spent in their midst.
That's a bare bones look at the amazing little country that has graciously cradled us this season. We chose wisely!