Sri Lanka 10: Notes on the South Coast
“This is ridiculous,” I hissed. “This is the most—”
“Smile and say, ‘Rupees!’” Andy snapped the photo of the feeble jet of water squirting from the rocks. “Relax. At least it’s not the gouging we got at Sigirya.”
“Wait,” said the park ranger. “Another is coming. One moment more…”
The site—Tangalle. The scene—the blowhole billed as one of the chief must-sees of Sri Lankan’s south coast. The price—about twenty times what a local is charged. I was still grumbling when—
“She arrives!” the guide shouted, and sure enough, another feathery spume struggled toward the steaming blue heavens.
“Do they have an asthmatic dolphin down there or what?” I asked, leaning over the guardrail and peering into a rocky outcrop of ancient granite—the crevice sculpted by mounds of untamed ocean smashing themselves to pieces on the stubborn rock. Somehow, the unique erosion here has carved a tiny pool and a sizable natural tube in the rock.
What’s that? Doesn’t sound like something you’d part Rupees with to see? Well, consider this: When the waves strike it right, the saltwater erupts into a glorious rooster-tale of thirty meters, soaking the gathered sightseers in a laughter-splash of refreshing blue bliss. The crowds come thick and sweated and ready for water. They come thirsty and buy coconuts and crank the music. They lounge and chat and wait for the next wave to drench them giddy all over again.
But that’s when the seasons change—sometime around September. Show up in January like us, and you’ll get the asthmatic dolphin effect.
But even so, locals here know how to build the press up—they market their blow hole; they make sure no tourist slips by without a visit. And an inflated entrance fee.
Andy was off photographing the stoic cliffs lording over the balmy waters—the jewel-blue waves cresting and slapping their mild thunder onto the numb, gray face, and all this iced with sumptuous jungle draping rich green boughs over the lip. Bleached-white clouds crooned overhead like thought bubbles rising out of the landscape itself.
I slid over next to the ranger, and he fidgeted—perhaps sensing my complaints for the price. “Been here long?” I asked.
Only us and a two other families were present—a gray-eyed Danish troop of youngsters and a couple speaking German. The guide was sweating to summon up a huge splash for us. He would have given his right arm and his best sarong to conjure a twenty-meter burst in that moment. His knuckles whitened in their grip of the salty rail. He may have even shaved and traded in his voluminous mustache to make it happen. But I felt sorry for him—the best he could do was stare out over the flat blue expanse stretching to the horizon, notice the slightest wrinkle of a swell far off the shore, and let us know, within fifteen seconds, when the hole would splash.
We held our breath.
The pause lingered.
I began to suspect the ranger was pulling our legs.
Then it struck with the roar of a frightened puppy. A jet stream fit for a water fountain slipped up from the rocks and reached the glorious height of my belly. The poor ranger was crestfallen. I sighed. and glanced around. I guess I better try to cheer him up.
“How do you do it?” I asked. “How do you know when they’ll hit?”
The man straightened his shoulders and hitched up his sarong. “I see wave, sir, and I see how far away, and with wind and with tide, I judge.”
I nodded. Andy was strolling back down the rock-strewn path. “Jaliya and Ganga,” she called to me, “have a picture here with the kids. The splash is huge!”
“Largest natural blowhole in world,” the ranger said, his pride back on its feet. “I work here fourteen years. I know the waves. I see spray up to—”
“Thirty meters. I know.”
“Yes, sir. Problem, sir, is today seas calm. Better day for beach than blowhole. She arrives!”
We cringed. We covered the camera. We stumbled backwards in our flip-flops as—
“Better in season change. Come back September,” the ranger sighed.
“And again pay twenty times as much as—”
“Just drop it,” Andy whispered. “Can’t you see it’s his baby? Fourteen years!”
She was right, of course. She tends to be like that. Mister Ranger was already gazing out into the deep, deep blue and the shine so bright my eyes squinted shut. Still he stared.
“Four minutes and half.”
I dropped a few extra rupees in his hand. He was good. He knew his stuff. I’ll have to sneak back in some September, snake myself back through the maze of bamboo shacks selling home-made curds and roasted peanuts and machete-carved coconuts, twist and follow the spray-paint-on-scrap-wood arrows scrawling the path back to the ranger with the eye for the waves.
In El Salvador, they manufacture these things—they bore a huge hole into the seaside cliff at low tide and drop a pipe in, and—voila—next high tide you get the splash and the fun of the blowhole at every resort up and down the cliffside coast. It’s fireworks in saltwater as you scarf pupusas and seafood.
But I didn’t tell that to Mister Ranger. It wouldn’t matter much to him. He has his baby. He’s given her fourteen years of himself and the manmade blowholes of El Salvador would only kindle his wrath.
It’s a beach town with a naval academy, a run-in with a tsunami, and government-subsidized rest house. Jaliya and Ganga scored us a solid room for a minimal fee. “We’ve stayed here before,” Jaliya told me as we strolled toward the beach. “They set it up many years ago for tourists traveling through. Even after the tsunami, they rebuilt it.”
It had seaview rooms for reasonable Rupees—even cheaper since we opted for no AC. We were happy.
If you ever find yourself in Tangalle, here are a few things to try:
(1) Wander up the hill to get a view of the sunset. Get chased away by navy guys because you’ve somehow wandered onto their training base. Say to yourself, “So that explains all the artillery pieces lying around here.”
(2) Try to catch a monitor lizard. You wouldn’t think this would be too hard, since they hang out right there on the beach. The locals didn’t even seem to notice. I tried to close in for a nice mug shot, but the cold-blooded villain just hissed and forked his snaky tongue at me, so I backed off. But only because my wife told me to. Otherwise I would have shown him who’s boss. Yeah.
(3) Cruise in a pimped-out tuk-tuk. After a few months in Jakarta, tuk-tuks of Sri-Lankan feel like a Rolls Royce: a four-cycle engine purring you along, neon lights lining the trim, bass thumping in the back seat to Bollywood mega-hits, a silver shovel affixed to it somewhere (don’t ask me why—not even Jaliya could explain that one)—it’s enough to convince you that if you die in a fiery wreck while being slung through street traffic that more than anything else resembles a food processor on Red Bull, well, at least you had a pretty sweet final ride.
(4) Sunset on the beach. The toughest part of this one is choosing a place. The crescent gold beaches are full of spots serving up sweet cuisine to the tourists trickling back to Ceylon after so many years of turbulent politics and natural disasters. Local lore holds that back in its heyday, Sri Lanka was one of—if not the—top destinations in all South Asia. But that’s local lore: take it with an enormous chunk of salt and a skeptic’s promise to yourself to google that fact later. War and strife aside, the island’s past is, well, past, and a nice dinner with a pomelo-bright sun slipping into the broad sea before your eyes is hard to beat. For local fare and local prices, though, you’ll probably have to head back inland.
Andy and I lounged deep into the bamboo chairs and sipped more coconut, watched the football match in progress between shirtless natives and long-haired backpackers, and gazed on as the local hawkers loaded the boats in the near-dark. These guys arrive early and work the beach during peak tourist hour, trudging up and down the hot sand, peddling sarongs and knick-knacks and gizmos. Sometimes they make a sale; sometimes they get yelled at; most times just get brushed away. I’m guilty of this myself. At nightfall, they pack up and commute back over the waves to whatever beach they motored in from. They are strangers here, unwelcome visitors on their native shores, second-classed to any moneyed guest, to anyone with English or Russian on the tongue. They load their boats of merchandise in the dark. Tomorrow will be the same.
Consider these guys a moment. Drink in the sunset, and stop to contemplate the intoxication of colonialism and its centuries-long hangover—if you refrain from sunset selfies and instagrams for a moment or two.
(5) Swim. The waves are perky and fun, the strand wide as an interstate, the water warmed by the grinning equator himself. Soft, yellow sand coddles each footfall—this place is heaven for beach soccer—or cricket, maybe—and lounging. Enjoy the waves.
(6) Repeat. Repeat until you have to leave.
Which for us was the next morning. We soaked up the Tangalle moment, then packed our bags, breakfasted with the Rest House staff, looked through photo albums of the tsunami destruction, and pointed ourselves west—further down the sunshine coast.
Miles of sun-drenched highway carry you across the island at shockingly fast speeds. After crawling up and down the crooked, foggy mountain routes, I saw these highways and knew, I just knew, I was somehow transported to a different island.
Some say the infrastructure difference is due to not having ungainly piles of mountains cragging around all over the place. Others claim it’s because the president hails from these parts and builds the best roads through his old cronies’ stomping grounds. Others say it’s for the beachmongers and hippy-backpacker dollars. Those people are wrong, of course: tourists of such ilk are notoriously cheap in parting from their cash. Backpackers rent the cheapest hostels and frequent the greasiest buffets to make their trip last the extra miles and extra days. Unless there’s beer around, of course, then the bills come out of hiding and they let the brew flow. But even so, I don’t think this crowd is the reason for the roads.
Whatever its cause, take advantage of the faster travel to stop more often. Here are our suggestions:
(1) King Coconut. My current kick is to sample the coconut in every land I step. Currently, Sri Lanka is king. Hands down. Sweet? Check. Robust? Check. Plentiful? Check. Cheap? Double check. Don’t miss this. Stop often and order many. Drink deep and thank the good Lord for Sri Lanka and coconut trees.
(2) Buffalo Curds. I know it this one don’t sound half as exotic as a giant orange coconut at sunset, the husk so cool and the air so warm that sweat is dripping into the crunchy sand, but trust me on this one. A Ceylon specialty just so happens to be the curds of buffalo milk, chilled into clay red disks and served with honey and syrup. The cool gooey smoothness coats your mouth in a yogurt tang and the syrup dances in and finishes off your swooning taste buds. Do yourself a giant favor and order up some curds.
(3) Woodapple juice. I admit, I’d never heard of this concoction either. Its success hinges on the presence of a ripe woodapple—a strange fruit in size like a grapefruit and texture like a dried walnut shell. Hold one in your palm and you’d think these could be used as cannonballs. Or at least cricket balls (not that there’s much difference in the two). Take that giant woodapple and pound it between the pavement and your machete (how else were you going to split nature’s miniature bowling ball?) until the slightest fracture appears. Then wedge your blade in there and keep on pounding and rotating until it splits a-sunder and lets you at its sweet, sweet innards. Scoop those into an industrial size blender with blades tough enough for Satan’s torture chamber and whirl it away. Toss in some sugar and water to get a nice, pulpy blend. “Pulpy,” Andy says, “is an understatement. It’s more like drinking acorn cement.” OK, so not everyone’s favorite. But pass her another plate of curds and enjoy your woodapple juice.
(4) Dried fish. This is not for the faint of nostril—be fairly forewarned—but dried fish is a specialty at these places, and many operations are homegrown affairs: families buy in bulk from the fish markets and scatter their bargains on extensive planks striping their yards. The process seems simple: let the fish wither a week, let them crinkle and wrinkle and shrink in nature’s oven until the bacteria are blazed out and the flavor sealed in and a stroll among the stacks of crispy fish will yield you raw material for a broth as rich as the five cruelest kings of Renaissance Florence. Ganga was smiling up a storm. She fairly skipped between the stacks and recited recipes. I backed away with a foreigner’s shy, “I’ll pass.”
All four of these distractions, by the way, are aside from the ever-present milk tea.
Eventually you’ll make it to Galle, that old colonial stronghold on the southwest corner of isle. The Portuguese fort still stands, but these days it’s manned by battalions of balloon and cigarette hawkers–and of course the tourists they track with greedy eyes–but it’s kind of fun to stroll around and wonder what this city must’ve been back in its heyday—imperials and smugglers and slaves: all the colors and pastimes of the world, except for law, order, and truth, and human decency, perhaps. Rum for small cash and spice enough to govern a country ten thousand miles distant and corruption for the ages… but of course my version of history is circumspect and impressionistic. Maybe there were exceptions. Maybe a guy once came through with currency in his pockets and altruism in his mind. It’s possible.
Galle Fort is a skeleton of colonialism’s shady past, but its beaches have fared much better. You’ve got choices here, up and down, back and forth, any way you turn but inland is a gorgeous beach. Ceylon seems to think it’s serving up a beach buffet and all Asia’s stopping by for a bite. Sands glow in the sun, waves sparkle as they trip playfully over each other, and the locals are so laid back they try to talk you out of buying something because they don’t feel like crawling out of the hammock to sell it to you.
Personally, Andy and I are bonkers for snorkels, so when we caught wind of a snorkel spot not far off—a tuk-tuk ride to nearby Unawatuna and the exotic “Jungle Beach”—we were off. Sure, that afternoon we had a bus bound for Colombo, but we just can’t resist when the crystal waves and neon critters start calling.
This particular little hideaway carried us up and over the be-Buddha-ed hill and around an inlet to a tiny cove—so remote that no local was selling a thing besides a massage. No one cared about that, though; we slapped on the sunscreen and stumbled down the beach in our rented fins. Fish awaited—rainbow and fluorescent and flicking tails to arrow away and disappear, We dove into the surf. We stuck the goggles onto our faces. We ducked under the wave, and we saw—
sand. Nothing but sand.
Now don’t get me wrong: sand makes a great beach for swimming and splashing. It’s amazing for carefree loafing and lighthearted nothings with your buddies. Riding the surf in over sand is something from heaven. But if you’re planning on snorkeling, well, sand ain’t your friend. Waves kick it up and kill your visibility; no coral means no fishies, no color, no life but microbes, and if you’re into seeing sand, well, you can do that on the beach, or in the desert or even a quarry, and save yourself five bucks in snorkel rental fees.
We swam out further—only sand. We swam even further—still sand. We peered as far as we could through the murky water—you guessed it, more sand. We scooted over the rocky outcropping—san—wait. There was a fish! And—oh. Maybe that was it! Yes! Yes it was! This was the site of a half-dozen buds of corals and two dozen fish. That’s it.
We flippered back and forth for an hour seeing these same six coral, those same friendly fish over and over again. We could have named them, swapped numbers and made facebook friends. But we didn’t. We were happy we got to see something besides sand. Jungle Beach, for all the other treats it offers, just ain’t the snorkeler’s paradise.
THE BUS TO COLOMBO
Snorkeling over, we hauled ourselves and our wet clothes up to the tuk-tuk, scampered back to the budget hotel, threw our wet clothes into plastic sacks, and struck out for the bus station. Of course we took the bus—they told us it leaves every twenty minutes, they told us it’s cheap, and they even told us we have a choice of routes—follow the sunshine ribbon of the coast or take the new toll road a bit inland.
We planned on a nice lunch at the bus stop—a chance to sit down, to check for wi-fi, maybe even to finally buy ourselves a Sri Lankan SIM card to help us meet up with our Colombo buddies. We planned on quiet and reflection and conversation.
Instead, here’s what we found when the tuk-tuk stopped—a hive of chattering voices sweeping over and around us like waves on a reef. The crowd swarmed up and down and all over the sidewalks and through the crosswalks and up into stalls of the station—even into the buses themselves. The hubub was uninterrupted, unavoidable, unbearable. I gulped.
Swim through the crowd and into traffic. Cross the chaos of the street. Arrive at the bus station. No time to breathe. It was tight and hot and there was no AC. People were shoving and bustling and staring at us—not many foreigners opt for these buses, apparently.
Andy grabbed the guy at the info desk and worked him over for the times for departures to Colombo. He glanced at us, at the roar around him, and without saying a word, he set his half-finished samosa on a newspaper and walked out the back of his office door. We scurried to follow him through the hornet’s nest and into the piles of buses and passenger queues and honking and rumbling and exhaust and fried food and screaming children and thumping Bollywood megahits. In a minute, we arrived at a nearly full bus. He gestured briefly at the bus and disappeared into the crowd and the noise, back to his beloved samosa.
“So… should we just get on?” I yelled over the roar.
Andy shrugged, “It says it’s going to Colombo,” she shouted back.
And for that brief moment, all the buzzing slowed to a hush that might forever determine our fates hereafter—to board the bus or wait it out? We had been in the bedlam of the station for all of 3 minutes, and here was a ride ready to depart. We looked at one another in a surreal swirl of background clamor that faded to a hum. Andy’s eyes glowed. We turned and gazed on the steel behemoth. And we did what any seasoned traveler would never, never consider—we chucked our baggage on board and climbed over fifty persons’ luggage toward the sole remaining seats in the bus—a pair right behind the driver.
No lunch, no ticket, no idea where we were headed except a faded name half-keyed-out over the driver’s seat: Colombo.
Seats were full; passengers were sweating, aisles were stuffed knee-high with makeshift bags and packing-taped boxes that passed for luggage. Haggard faces stared at us from every seat.
“Knuckles on the sweet ride!” We pounded it and climbed into the open seats.
“But I wonder,” I grunted as my shin raked across the last cardboard-box-subbing-for-a-suitcase, “why no one took these.”
Andy grinned like a panda at a bamboo buffet; she pointed a slender finger skyward.
“Yes, I know we should be thank the Lord—”
I followed her finger upward. Above our seat, a yellow placard was posted in Singhalese, Tamil, and English: “Reserved for Clergy.”
“Clergy seats? But why—” The doors closed. With a groan and a creak and an ancient lurch, our metallic missile with AC nosed into the honking tuk-tuks and swerving motorbikes and indolent dogs that pepper so much spice into Ceylon traffic.
“I think we’ll find out soon enough,” she said, and squeezed my hand into hers.
We did find out—and it was very soon. Clergy seats are so priests can witness firsthand the atrocities the drivers hurl you into, and so they can pray like a wildfire for cosmic protection—and possibly forgiveness for that scoundrel’s blackened soul.
Here’s a glimpse of what I’m talking about: we just left Galle’s honking, cursing congestions, started cruising on a two-laner just outside the city limits, and we see a school bus stopped ahead: a handful of kids ran into street; a cow sauntered on the shoulder, and a raging cement mixer bore down on us from the opposite lane.
Andy tensed. Our hands squeezed tight. We weren’t slowing down. The driver was staring at the unraveling death scenes flashing before our eyes. Still he sped on.
We were a hundred meters out. The kids were still laughing and leaving the bus. Now some moms were on the other side. The cement mixer rumbled toward them. We rocketed toward them. The cow swung her lazy head and chewed. 50 meters. Andy covered her eyes. Our driver—
yawned and yanked the horn and bellowed a few foghorn blasts to scatter the kids. The moms took them by the hand. The mixer barreled across the scene with one tire on the shoulders. We whipped over across the center stripe to miss the school bus, and rammed right through the center of the mess, cement mixer crashing by Andy’s window mere centimeters away, the school bus on the other window. Cow, kids, moms all safely still on foot.
No one fainted. No one even blinked. No evidence appeared on any face to suggest that this was anything out of the ordinary.
“I’m going to be sick,” Andy whimpered.
“It explains the clergy seats, alright,” I said.
It would be one thing if that were an isolated incident. But it wasn’t. Our driver knew two things: how to chew betel leaf, and how to ram his bus through narrow splits of traffic at 50 kilometers per hour.
I can’t explain to you how many times we were rolling through a tiny village and he’d take off on a wild gander to rumble over to the other lane to pass a tuk-tuk, never mind that the road was basically one lane, and that another tuk-tuk was headed toward us, or that a pickup was nosing into the stream. He just didn’t care—they’d take to the sidewalks or be crushed under our bus.
The horn blasted so frequently it became a background noise – like a cardio monitor in a hospital room. We pushed and bullied and blasted our way along the tiny coast road; the only reaction we ever saw from the driver was to spit his betel nut out the window and plug a fresh one in its place.
Intersections here often bore a lotus-seated Buddha calmly meditating and serenely smiling. Buddha seemed oblivious to the murderous rampage playing out before his very face. “Peace, peace,” he seemed to preach, when there was anything but peace along that dusty, honking road.
It was almost four; the sun was blasting deep yellow rays all around; dogs lolled lazily over the baking haze of asphalt, indolent and proud and defiant as all death-wishers; and our bus came chugging and rattling through, leaving a wake of a dust cloud, and a dog that couldn’t seem to care. We were making great time.
It’s too bad I ruined it.
I wanted a video of the craziness. We have a friend back home who says he’s going to drive in Sri Lanka when he comes. He says it ain’t no thing. He says anyone can do it and it can’t be so crazy as people say.
So I grabbed the Go-Pro and began: Gold mine—I got a near collision with a construction truck and a tuk-tuk pilot blanched white in fear for his life. I was ecstatic—I thought I was going to be a you-tube star with this footage.
But the ticket-taker spotted me, and he stepped in front of the camera and to the driver’s side for a consultation. I think he told him what I was up to. I think the driver must have gotten scared of being reported to someone. But after that, the ride slowed, traffic laws suddenly seemed to matter again, and we chugged through the ever-increasing villages at a reasonable pace.
“You should’ve started filming earlier,” Andy mumbled in the afternoon heat, “maybe then we could get more rest.” My eyes were closing, sleep taking over. Colombo was just around the bend, the magical riches of the South Coast rolling away behind us and into memories.