“See dis,” our driver waved enthusiastically at a faded red and white statue as we flew by. “Dis San Sebastian, he my hero when I was small,” he explained, his energy making up for his broken English.
“What did he do?”
“He have many story, but don’t worry about dem. He good rider. Horserider.”
“I like dis.”
His head wobbled slightly as he swung our surfboard packed van onto a crowded highway, my eyes drifted into the lazy chaos outside. Tuk tuks, the transport so nice they named it twice, crossed lanes packed with scooters, trucks and tractors loaded with decaying vegetables.
Welcome to the Indian Ocean teardrop paradise; Sri Lanka.
The overpowering scent of incense, fruit left in the sun and sewage leaked through the aircon. I was headed south from Colombo in a van with three of my best friends and five surfboards, to Hikkaduwa, a west coast tourist area and apparent November surf spot.
The island of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) has a treacherous history for somewhere so relaxed and aesthetic. The people are happy, and humourous, but most of them have lived through a 26-year civil war. A war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist group that fought for freedom under the ‘Sinhali only’ law, which saw a Sinhali government, prioritising of education and jobs for Sinhalese people and Sinali recognised as the national language. The war saw a death toll of up to 100,000 people, with many Tamil civilians being killed in collateral damage. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami killed 30,000 people, leaving the small island crippled in its wake. Now, although the war has been over since 2008, unrest continues in some areas of the north, with many young Tamil boys forced to flee to new lands, as it is common for them to disappear in an effort by the government to prevent the resurrection of the Tamil Tigers.
This war came after continued occupation well into the past, by the Indians, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.
Where we were, there was no trace of such history.
It was sticky, palm trees battling the midday westerly trade wind leant across the beach. The highway ran close to the sand that angled steeply into the water. We stayed only for a few days, in an upstairs room with a faded concrete balcony, overlooking the umbrella covered beach, surfing in the morning and the afternoon, in an aggressive pack of average angry European surfers.
We got clothes made by a tiny lady in a tiny shop packed with vibrant textured fabrics. She laughed at our enthusiasm and sewed with such speed. She was frankly adorable. We started the tropical diet of fruit and lassies, and curry, oh so much curry.
We headed further south after a few days to Mirissa, in two tuk tuks with boards loaded on the roof. The scenery was so different to how I’d imagined. I’d pictured arid land, littered with sparsely populated palm forests, bumpy roads and cities patch worked with cricket pitches and rice paddies.
Instead it was lush jungle and tall palm trees sticking their heads above the dense undergrowth, leaning over the sea on rocky headlands, casting their coconuts into the ocean, violently crashing into the water and drifting to the horizon like bodyless heads in search of new shores.
The towns spread along the smooth road, one village blending into another, old men in long sarongs riding rusted push bikes slowly on the fringes, café racers mixed with entire families packed onto a single scooter, helmetless children standing in the front, fast cars and slow moving vans. Buses that hurtled blindly, death machines that ruled the road, stopping for nobody and flinging the unknowing scooter rider into the ditch as they overtake at top speed then stop abruptly for just enough time for passengers to leap, flustered, into the gravel and be gone.
Mirissa was delicious. A lazy right hand point break that rolled along a shoreline of smooth dark rocks, water that glittered in the morning sun and thick palm tree forest that watched from above. The wind turns onshore for the middle few hours of the day, when the sun burnt our scalps and sent us scuttling for the shade. By the afternoon it was usually raining, some days filling the road with water so thick the tuk tuks were practically thigh deep. The rain killed the wind and by sunset it was peachy and radiant and the ocean was clean and shiny.
There was one day we drove south, two of us on each bike, just to see what was there. We swung into a small curry shop, that resembled a shed jammed in between two patchy painted houses. With only two small tables inside we sat down and asked the lady for rice and curry. She wobbled her head and proceeded to present us with a selection of curry and five huge plates of rice. Without asking us which curry we wanted and running in urgency when she saw the ravenous looks on our faces. In all of five minutes we had sat and eaten until no more food could physically fit in our stomachs. She gave us wood apple juice that we could hardly drink the flavour was so intense and laughed when we didn’t really know what to do. It rained so hard on the way back, the drops were like spears in my eyes and the buses flung water over us like tidal waves.
We headed south again a few days later. This time in search of waves and a little further than before. A lot further in fact. Flying through a crowded city, nearly being run into a tractor by a slow moving car that pulled out in front of me. Down south was incredible. It’s strange when words you hear to describe things all the time, that are used so often their meaning is lost until one day it suddenly rings true and all it’s meaning comes flooding back. Like the word unreal. What does unreal really mean? I found out that it means deep south Sri Lanka. It seriously, does not seem real. Water so blue it looks dyed. Stretching white sand, and silence. So quiet. A few huts with palm frond thatched roofs and quiet chit chat from one or two foreigners and quiet locals. Lazy families of beach dogs. All at the end of narrow roads, rock pathways. It seemed like another world.
We didn’t surf, it was flat, but we swam in the clearest Indian Ocean you could imagine. It was dreamy.
We spent the rest of the week reveling in our relaxation. Surfing no more than 20 minutes from where we were staying, quiiet paths and friendly Israelis. Black coffee and banana lassies.
When: November to March in the southwest, April to September in the East.
Budget: Approximately 20AUD per day inclusive. Can be more or less depending on type of accommodation and whether you eat in random sheds on the side of the road for AUD1.20 or spend 10 bucks on beach front resort food.
Transport: A train runs up and down the coast three every three hours for around two Australian Dollars. It takes about three or four hours from Colombo to Mirissa. Tuk Tuks are handy and for local and intercity transport but can be costly for long distances. Renting a scooter, although they can be slightly tricky to find with board racks, is probably your best bet. For around eight bucks a day they are super convenient and really fun as the highway runs close to the beach almost the entire west coast. It may take some practice to get used to the traffick though.
Visa: Thirty-Five USD on arrival for 30 days and can be extended in Colombo for longer stays.
Climate: Hot and humid. Water temp is around 29 degrees, so boardies and bikinis only.
Boards: Definitely bring a fun board. This isn’t Indo. It’s playful and easy. A fish or a groveler will be perfect.