“Hanuman said, ‘Dear brothers, Sri Rama has infused special powers in my life. I am sure I shall be able to cross this ocean in one jump.’ Everyone was delighted and shouted ‘Jai Sri Rama’. Hanuman made himself big and tall and flew off to the distant Lanka across the ocean.” –Ramayana
At the end of March, Kyle and I did ‘the Hanuman Hop’ from Kochi over to Sri Lanka. We were met in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, with a wave of wet heat – 37⁰C and 70% humidity. I began to pour sweat immediately.
We were there to visit our friends, Jonathan and Vera, global workers, and their little boys, Paul and Daniel. After many hard years spent in Ukraine and China, Jonathan and Vera were able to share with us their beautiful beachside home, complete even with a shower (What luxury! So long, bucket baths!) and air conditioning!(A panorama from Jonathan and Vera’s apartment building roof.)
We spent about half our stay in Colombo. Our time there was relaxed, mornings spent enjoying the warm, undulating waves, and watching fishermen pull in their nets, loaded with silver fish flipping frantically together for an audience of dozens of hungry onlookers. The scorching afternoons were spent indoors, reading, napping, and making shark rescuer submarines out of plastic bottles and straws. In the evenings we enjoyed Vera’s cooking and Sri Lankan delicacies, followed by great conversation over Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s former, British colonial name) teas.(Having burgers at Cheers Club — the kid-friendly section of Cheers Pub.)
Vera’s Western home cooking was so good that we didn’t know we missed it until we tasted it. Every day we enjoyed French-pressed Kirkland roasted Starbucks coffee; we had penne with homemade pasta sauce, using her mother-in-law’s authentic Italian recipe, topped with *gasp!* real parmesan cheese; we ate grilled cheese made from melty Velveeta and whole wheat bread, veggies and dip on the side; fajitas stuffed with spiced chicken, fresh lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and real cheddar cheese; and homemade granola with fresh milk (not from an unrefrigerated box!). We also tried Ukrainian chocolate, perhaps one of the most delectable in the world. All of this felt just as novel and gourmet to us as having feasts of blue cheese, grapes, and port wine in Canada. What a treat!(Fresh bread at a nearby cafe.)
One morning Jonathan took us on a walking tour of Mount Lavinia, their neighbourhood, and we explored the stunning, five-star Mount Lavinia Hotel. The hotel received its name from a Sri Lankan dancer. In the 1800s, the hotel was the home of the British general, and when the talented Ms. Lavinia came to give a dance performance, he fell in head-over-heels in love with her. As the story goes, the general built secret passageways and entrances in order to smuggle Lavinia, his lover, into his home and when the mansion was later converted into a hotel, it was named after the Lavinia legend.
We wandered down afterwards, to a turtle conservation centre, which looked after a variety of rescued sea turtles, including hawksbill, green, and even a rare albino, sadly most of whom had suffered maiming by fishing equipment. Some of the turtles there were over one hundred years old, which is still only half of their lifespan! We got the chance to hold a few full-sized turtles. How surprisingly heavy they were! And how ferociously they flapped in protest of being removed from the water, whapping their tough flippers against the backs of our hands.The most amazing thing, though, was to feel their soft bellies inhale and exhale, pushing our fingertips in and out, as we held them.
Later on the trip we had the chance to release, from a different conservation centre, the most adorable, tiny, turtles – their two-inch long shells mottled and black – into the ocean by night. As we watched them swim into the rough break, the waves big and angry and the babies tiny and vulnerable, both Kyle and I got an unsettled feeling. While we knew that this was a journey they would inevitably have to make – and, heartbreakingly, in nature only one to three of one thousand baby turtles survive – we found out later that their chances of survival are significantly decreased if they spend their first few days in a ‘conservation centre’. We learned that baby turtles are born with a built-in food sac that is meant to help them complete that hard journey from the beach and into the deep. In a ‘conservation centre’, they consume that energy and have nothing for the road. Futhermore, they don’t have a chance to bond with their birth beach, confusing the natural phenomenon of mature females returning to the beach on which they were born to lay their own eggs. Essentially, turtle baby ‘conservation centres’ are there for tourism. I only wish we had known that before we were reeled in.(At the Mount Lavinia conservation centre.)
We enjoyed one big tour day of Colombo city proper. We visited the Colombo National Museum, which had an excellent collection of objects, but unfortunately had no air conditioning or air flow. That museum managed to make it a relief to leave the building, escaping into 35⁰C weather. On the positive side, they did have an eleventh-century, ornate, elephant oil lamp, which amazingly self-regulated its consumption of oil by using the elephant’s body to store oil, and when more was needed, the elephant would literally pee some out into a tray below it.
We also visited an eighteenth-century, Dutch church, guarded by a cat so friendly that it plunked down directly on my feet when I started to scratch it. The most striking element of our visit was when I realized, looking at the gravestones surrounding the church, that people in the 17th and 18th centuries were truly lucky if they made it to forty years old. Gravestones marked people who held prestigious positions, such as general or physician, reaching the end of their lives at twenty or twenty-five. Marker after marker memorialized babies and young children. Sure, it’s a well-known fact that we have exceptional lifespans today, but never did it quite hit me until I saw that memorial collection.
Our tour of Colombo also included a visit to Pettah Market, an expansive clothing bazaar that sent Kyle into such an immediate shopping panic that I suspect our stay mustn’t have been longer than three minutes. But, really, how many pairs of Ali Babba pants does a person need, anyways?
Finally, the tour ended with a feast of hoppers, a Sri Lankan favourite. Hoppers are a sort of Sri Lankan crepe, fried to come out in a bowl shape. They’re thin and crispy at the top of the bowl, thick and fluffy at the bottom, and you enjoy them with hot, chili chutneys and sambal (onion chutney). Our favourite hopper had a fresh egg fried into the bottom of the bowl. It was completely delicious!
Sri Lankans enjoy some very special foods. Their bread and butter is rice and curries, and they also enjoy treats such as pan kottu, thin, spiced strips of roti made into a pad thai-type dish; thick, creamy buffalo curd from clay pots, drizzled with Sri Lankan treacle, made from kitul palm sap; and puff pastries filled with sambal. Fish is a dietary staple there, as well as – like in India –dal (lentils). Fast food is called ‘short eats’, and then, of course, there’s hoppers.(Rice and curries topped with papads.)
There are only two unfortunate things about Sri Lankan cuisine. First, (and this could just be me being a coffee snob) their coffee reminds me a little bit of earthy, silt water. However, it typically came in gigantic teapots, so you always had more than enough. Second, apart from only a couple exceptions, their restaurant service is as slow as Mizoram’s appalling internet! Each time we’d go out to eat – no matter how small the snack – it would take an hour and a half…if we were lucky. And, of course, a 10% gratuity is already included. Thankfully, spiced deliciousness almost always made up for the wait.(That’s a lot of coffee!)
We attended an evangelical church service with Jonathan and Vera on the Sunday we were there and were incredibly surprised to find the church, not only out in the open, but large and well attended. The service was in English (we learned that some Sri Lankans are raised speaking only English, not Sinhala or Tamil), the format was familiar to the typical North American protestant, and even the songs were your usual Chris Tomlin-type.
Furthermore, after nearly thirty years of civil war, which ended only in 2012, and came with persecution of minority Christians in Sri Lanka (for not being Buddhist, Sri Lanka’s dominant religion), we certainly expected the church to be a little more below board. Actually, it was impressive to see how quickly Sri Lanka has snapped back from so many years of conflict between Sri Lanka’s two major ethnic groups, Sinhalese and Tamil. When I needed to buy a new pair of glasses in Colombo’s Majestic City mall, even the optometrist and the technician were laughing with each other, pleased to inform us that he is Tamil and she is Sinhalese and, Look! We are working together!(My technician friend.)
Kyle and I took an express bus that afternoon to the southern town of Galle. We stayed in a beautiful homestay on the outskirts of town and took a full day to explore Galle Fort. Galle Fort is a fantastic, quaint, almost European-looking town developed within a closed circuit of 16th century Portuguese ramparts on the ocean that the Dutch fortified in the 17th century. The fort was originally built for Sri Lanka’s booming spice trade, and though the ramparts are now old, they were so well-built that they completely protected Galle Fort from the devastating tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. Galle Fort is a lovely, tourist destination and made for a great day of wandering through handicraft shops, stopping for enormous, white teapots full of silt coffee at restaurants, and giant sea turtle-watching from the ramparts.(Our homestay room near Galle Fort.)
We explored the fort’s Dutch historical sites, such as a large church with a beautiful, white façade, which left us inspired by its beauty but also frustrated by the fact that the wooden benches inside had been carried in on the backs of slaves. We also visited the Galle Maritime Museum, which was advertised as flashy and modern, but in reality, was a dusty place where staff kept only the minimum number of lights on in order to conserve power. Kyle was pleased to see an inscribed, stone declaration etched by the famous Chinese navigator, Zhang He.(The Maritime Museum)
The next day we moved to the southern tip to Unawatuna Beach where we kicked back and enjoyed, with about two hundred Russian tourists (you can tell by the men’s speedos), the brown sugar sand and the brilliant turquoise water. The sanitation of the beach restaurants was less than desirable, apart from the readily-available, sealed Lion beers, brewed locally. We took an excessively sweaty walk up to an enormous statue of the Buddha on a hill at one end of the beach and, despite my best efforts, my shoulders were still pink by the end of the day.(I feel like Starbucks might have a problem with this.)
We travelled also to a Handunugoda Tea Centre, a 200-acre tea plantation in the area. We had a wonderful time learning about tea making, including which leaves on the bush are used for different types of tea, what types of equipment are required for tea processing, and what processing is required for different teas. This particular plantation used almost all century-old equipment for their processing.(Tea leaves drying.)
The specialty of Handunugoda is virgin white tea. The plant practices the ancient Chinese method for producing this exclusive tea. Tea leaf buds are snipped off of the plant into a bowl at dawn, using scissors wielded by gloved hands. It is said that the sweat of the worker can impact the pure flavor of virgin white tea. The tea is treated gently and isn’t fermented. Traditionally, the Emperor’s lips are the first human contact the white tea makes. (Also, traditionally, only virgins are employed to harvest the tea, but I doubt if Handunugoda follows this requirement.) Today, the cost of the tea is higher than silver! At the end of our tour, we got to taste about thirty of the teas Handunugoda produces, including their virgin white tea. To my dismay it tasted rather like cabbage water.(Spooning tea into a sampling glass.)
We bussed back up to Colombo and had a magical, final dinner with Jonathan, Vera, and the boys. We went to Nugu Gama, a buffet restaurant in a re-created, traditional Sri Lankan village setting. It was a hot night, a storm had been brewing, and the clouds let torrential showers loose on our arrival. We took refuge under soft-lit, bamboo-thatched shelters, our meal serenaded by giant droplets pounding and a three-piece band (violin, hand drum, and harmonium) gently playing Sri Lankan folk songs. Paul and Daniel were mesmerized and later overjoyed when the musicians let them try their instruments. We sprinted back and forth between our shelter and the buffet house to load up our plates with unbelievable dishes, including black tomato curry; whole, mud crab curry; string hoppers doused in fresh coconut milk; coconut curried cuttlefish and prawns; spicy pineapple and guava chutney; and about twenty more sensational dishes, including traditional sweets wrapped in banana leaves (which I obliviously ate, still wrapped, while the band looked on, surely in stitches).(Me, Kyle, Vera, Daniel, Paul, and Jonathan after our dinner.)
We left the next morning while it was still dark, sad to leave beautiful Sri Lanka but excited to return to India, the country which has surprisingly started to feel more comfortable, like home.
“At last Hanuman jumped in the waters of ocean and decided to return to his friends on the other side of the sea.” –Ramayana