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, 2013Page : 1 2 3
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.
I wanted to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms.
Mulgirigala, a 210-meter-high rock containing cave temples with Buddhist murals and a monastery dating back to the 2nd century BC, remains a sacred site today. After ascending three-quarters of the way up via somewhat level carved steps, you have a choice: take the winding, relatively new set of stairs up to the left, or, to the right, the rotting old iron ladder less (recently) traveled (and more fun) leading to a horizontal path of foot holds across which you must shimmy to the path to the peak. The jungle view from the top sound-tracked by the 6 p.m. daily chanting provided a sense of peace that, the next day, was
matched by the safe haven of Uda Wallawe National Park. A sprawling nature preserve, it’s ideal for a 4WD elephant safari, sprinkled sightings of a billion kinds of birds, langur monkeys, monitor lizards and the odd jackal.
Ceylon may be synonymous with tea today. But the crop only became important to the country in the 1870’s, after a fungus ruined the previously thriving coffee industry. Grand scheme of things, that doesn’t seem like so long ago. And then you visit the Hundungoda Tea Estate, outside Galle, which provides a botanical, industrial and literal snapshot of times past. Check out sepia photos of the halcyon days: the small family of white owners flanked by their enormous Sri Lankan staff. If a tour of the estate’s rolling hills and sipping tea on the main house’s porch don’t transport you, you’re sure to do a double-take at the original monstrous machines manufactured in the U.K. before the turn of last century that are still chugging away, processing tea in the factory.
Of course, if you want a real layer cake of history, Galle is the shockingly well-preserved wedding tower. The Portuguese first landed there in 1505, building the Black Fort. One-hundred-thirty-five years later, they yielded it to the Dutch after a battle so bloody it spawned the saying, “Gold at Malacca, lead at Galle.” Despite having built and reinforced the fort ramparts over the course of a century-plus, the Dutch peacefully handed Galle, in 1796, to the English, who subsequently erected the lighthouse and military barracks, and
introduced carrier pigeons, the telegraph and tea. To this day, a Franciscan chapel, Dutch Reform church, Anglican church, Buddhist temple and a mosque—the oldest, 470 years; the youngest 104—safeguard this tiny town of just 16.5 square kilometers.
It’s the legacy of the British that’s most obvious today, and best exemplified by the Amangalla, formerly the New Oriental Hotel (formerly a British garrison, formerly the Dutch officers’ HQ). High-tea on the ceiling-fanned front veranda facing a cobblestone street and the fort’s grassy ramparts... Immaculate butler service that included, for me, an informative but relaxed amble around the fort at dusk with the endearing Indika... A library stocked with books, old maps, ancient Life magazines and the hotel’s beloved long-term proprietor Nesta Brohier’s mementos and expansive notes—including one that lists, among “People not likely to be interested” in staying there, “Loudly spoken noisy people.” (She never met me.)
Amangalla is in no sense pure Anglophile, though, and its ayurvedic-focused spa well-demonstrates this. Though the piece de resistance is the large private baths that each feature steam and sauna rooms, hot tubs and cold plunge pools, the main spa is made up of a row of former shop houses now connected by an Escher-esque tiered series of archways.
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.
Ayurveda is meant to be holistically soul-affirming. So you can book the treatments à la carte, but the proper program involves an extensive evaluation with an ayurvedic doctor, who then prescribes the treatments and meal plans best suited to your constitution. Rather, I should say, your doshas, three bio-energies that represent the balance of air, space, water, earth and fire in your system. I am mostly pitta—meaning I have strong metabolism, leadership skills and pulse, among other things—with a little bit of vata, hopefully because I’m creative (but also maybe because I can be unreliable?). The classic shirodhara treatment, in which oil is slowly dripped onto the third eye, did what it was supposed to: left me calm and clear-headed. But, oddly, I found the full-body oil rub-and-bath of The Anointment more soothing—despite effectively being ground into and sloshed around a hard wooden table for more than an hour.
If life were sublime, I wanted to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
White-frocked schoolgirls in braided pigtails hold hands, Technicolor tuk-tuks roam the streets, and the near-grid of low-rise old buildings has been filling up with shops plying hipster paraphernalia; locally inspired loud homewares; high-end resortwear; and reams upon reams of the Crayola-colored textiles for which Sri Lanka is famous.
This is Galle—and it’s best served with rice- or wheat-flour, crispy-edged pancake hoppers cradling a runny egg and chili-coconut sambol. Yes, I’d call that sublime.
Paradisiacal beach hideaway four hours’ drive from Colombo. Luxuriously long villas feature plunge pools and porches; privacy abounds. Bodhi Mawatha, Wella Mawatha, Godellawela, Tangalle; +94 47 224 1333; amanresorts.com.
Historic hotel immaculately restored to a whitewashed, four-poster-bedded, ceiling-fanned, garden-filled colonial throwback in the heart of Galle fort. Simply perfect service. 10 Church St., Fort Galle; +94 91 223 3388; amanresorts.com.
The cool coral main wall alone is worth a visit to this courtyard café, but the salads are good too. 9 Church Cross St., Galle Fort; +94 91 223 3415.
Mama’s Galle Fort Roof Café
Hit the westward-facing terrace for the best view of the Fort, ramparts and the mosque, especially at sunset. 76 Leyn Baan St., Galle Fort; +94 91 222 6415; mamas-galle-fort.com.
Coffees, smoothies and hearty meals. 92 Pedlar St., Galle Fort; +94 91 222 5333.
The Coat of Arms Bar
Sundowners on the terrace of Jetwing Lighthouse, one of Geoffrey Bawa’s last hotels, on a jetty 10 minutes north of Galle. Dadella, Galle; +94 91 222 3744; jetwinghotels.com.
Reams of rainbow-colored fabrics; crazy-patterned clothes,
shoes and accessories; local teas, oils, paintings and gifts; and lots of books. 41 Pedlar St., Galle Fort; +94 91 222 6299; barefootceylon.com.
Church Street Gallery
Fun old-school airline and Bollywood posters good for souvenirs. 35 Church St., Galle Fort.
Gorgeous women’s clothing. 66 Pedlar St., Galle Fort.
Beautiful Sri Lankan bling beloved by residents in the know. 30 Hospital Street, Galle; +94 77 790 0170.
Eccentric hand-painted puppets, masks, boxes, reclaimed wood, etc. 56 Leyn Baan St., Galle Fort; +94 77 791 4277.
You’re going to want to deck out your whole house in these Sri Lankan-inspired candy-colored patterns. Great gifts. 58 Church St., Galle Fort; +94 91 222 2358; souk58.com.
Patient Bandala will having you ruling the waves, and your willing driver will snap pics from the beach. Amanwella; Bodhi Mawatha, Wella Mawatha, Godellawela, Tangalle; +94 47 224 1333; amanresorts.com.
The Baths at Amangalla
Full-board programs including consultation with ayurvedic doctor following by personalized diet, teas, tonics, treatments and baths. Or opt for just a consultation and/or à la carte treatments. 10 Church St., Fort Galle; +94 91 223 3388; amanresorts.com.
Mulkirigala Rock Temple
Cover up and wear solid shoes. 20 kilometers north of Tangalle.
Uda Wallawe National Park
More than 400 elephants. 12 kilometers from the Ratnapura–Hambantota road.
Hundungoda Tea Plantation
Tour the fields and factory, see rubber plants, sample all the teas. Tittagalla, Ahangama; +94 77 329 0999; virginwhitetea.com.
Run by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle, the 243-hectare wetlands are filled with obscure animals. 18 kilometers northeast of Galle off the Udugama Rd.
Sea Turtle Farm and Hatchery
Incubates turtle eggs until they can survive in the wild and cares for injured adult turtles. Silver Green, Habaraduwa; +94 77 783 6115; seaturtlefarm.org; admission by donation.
Sri Lankan Airlines (srilankan.com) runs direct flights to Colombo from Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.