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Surfing and Soul-Searching in Sri Lanka

November 19, 2013

Jeninne Lee-St. John goes searching for herself in Sri Lanka, and finds surfing, seer fish, shirodhara—and maybe even a little of the marrow of life.

Published on Nov 19, 2013

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I went to Sri Lanka, to borrow from Thoreau,

because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

There are points in life when you’re feeling stagnant and restless and anxious. That was me this spring. Bangkok is a world-class city full of lots of distractions, but I needed to get out, to get away from them all and back to myself.

As it happens, the southern coast of Sri Lanka is an ideal place for a girl to reconnect with herself. Not only are these cinnamon-scented shores overflowing with natural beauty, boundless blue seas and a health-oriented culture including subtle cuisine like lamprais (steamed rice and curries wrapped in a banana leaf) and the holistic healing of
ayurveda. But the Teardrop of India also pulses with layers of history replete with girl-power icons from Queen Anula—Asia’s first female ruler, who held the throne 47 to 42 BC—to M.I.A, the contemporary dancehall star who sings about refugees, immigration and guerrilla war, all issues with which she had experience growing up the daughter of a Tamil activism leader. With that 26-year conflict now peacefully in the rearview, explosive GDP is bringing resorts and tourism infrastructure to small towns, in which you’ll quickly become accustomed to the constant gentle calls of the honorific nona (as in, “Jeninne nona,
do you like elephants?”). And getting there is increasingly convenient: the launch of the Southern Expressway connecting Colombo to Matara combined with the christening this March of a new international airport at Matalla mean easier access to paradise.

Maybe it was my state of mind, but I can’t imagine there’s ever been a better yoga experience than just after dawn under a palm canopy on a beach outside Tangalle. (Thank you, investment banking, for burning out Michael Lear in Chicago and turning him into a soothing but exacting Trager practitioner in Sri Lanka.) I’m nowhere close to a morning person. But the pervasive tranquility and individual senses of place, unique to each sandy nook or rocky promontory of the private cove that makes up the Amanwella resort, rousted me out of bed early everyday ready to walk and write and swim and smile.

Another thing that jogged me from my dreams each daybreak was the intense crashing of the waves, which, ironically, also ensured that I slept the sleep of the dead every single night. Literally right outside the window of my villa, the ocean hit so strongly and steadily I could practically feel the spray. Poseidon’s power shouldn’t have surprised me: from my spot at the exact center of the bottom of Sri Lanka, the next land due south was Antarctica.

Confronting that geographic solitude was a bit daunting, especially considering the fact that the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit here while the resort was under construction, and I found myself in a feedback loop of life and love and death and meaning. So, to get out of my own head, I tried conquering my fears. There’s no time to think when you’re terrified for your life—or dignity. I’d always wanted to learn to surf, but had been afraid I wasn’t a strong enough swimmer. Or just strong enough. Or that the board would smack me in the head and I’d drown. Or that I’d look like a total idiot.

Luckily, our amiable expert, Bandula, had found the perfect cove, Nilwella, with soft rolling waves that were most gentle in the morning. The first day was a group lesson. Three nervous beginners and one overly optimistic instructor didn’t bode well. Boards on the sand, we ladies learned to turn, pop and stand. That part alone felt like a tough workout; we were thus a little anxious about hitting the actual water.

But, under Bandula’s direction, out we paddled. We sat up and straddled our boards until the next cycle of six waves came along. And, on Bandula’s signal, we lay down and turned around and paddled like crazy. And on the very first wave, one of us (not me) not only caught it but stood up! Well, if that wasn’t inspiration enough for me to be able to stand up too, I don’t know what could have done it. Back and forth I went, from shore to the break line, bruising my ribs and wearying my arms. Paddle too slowly and you miss the wave. Pull your knee up too soon and you flip over. Stand up with your weight on your back leg and you wipe out. And these are just the obvious mistakes.

I wanted to cut a broad swath and shave close.

I wanted to surf.

Finally, a couple of hours in—after that damn surfing prodigy had enough of her success and our third classmate had given up due to lack of it, with them and our driver and some random passersby watching from the shore—I stood. I rode a wave upright all the way in. It was glorious and fulfilling and... revealing. My top had come down. Even in
triumph, so much for dignity.

This was actually a double faux-pas. For, private citizens lived just behind the tree line on that beach. In a very modest culture, one woman had already politely requested that we cover up our bathing suits when walking from the car to the shore. I can only hope that she wasn’t witness to my, ahem, glory.

Two days later, I took another lesson, privately this time and with my top better secured, and after getting reacquainted with the water and my sense of balance, successfully rode wave after wave after wave. It was one of the most electrifying days of my life (and I’ve jumped out of an airplane). Besides learning how far I could test the limits of my strength, I also got schooled in Sri Lankan surf culture. It’s a relatively new phenomenon, Bandula told me, that really picked up speed in the past decade or so when international surfing competitions started going there. For his part, Bandula taught himself to surf back in the eighties, and, in a male-dominated wave-riding community, is determined to make his preschooler daughter into the country’s first Bethany Hamilton.

His drive, good humor and warmth seemed to me perfectly emblematic of everyone I met on the south coast—as was his addiction to the ocean. Whether from the boats whose lone lights sparkled out on the night horizon or the fishermen who balance with their legs wound around the tops of bamboo poles plunged into the seabed, the fresh seafood is beloved, abundant and astounding.

Grilled lobsters and San Pellegrino, seer fish and tomato curry and a chilled Sauvignon  Blanc go a long way, but, alas, they cannot relieve all stress. To get some perspective, I had to truly consider my context. The strata of history and tradition coursing through Sri Lanka are plentiful enough to make a mille feuille, and I spent a lot of time there contemplating all the life that had come before.

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