Paradise after the tsunami

2010-02-27 00:00

ARRIVING in Colombo in the early hours of the morning is daunting for most first-time visitors. The initial impression at this time of the night is of a grim, dark city. If it weren’t for the dense tropical foliage, you could imagine yourself in Dickens’s London, except here the walls are blackened not by soot but by damp and mildew.

It is 50 or 60 km along the A2 — the Galle Road — before one glimpses true forest and open farmland. The seascapes, too, become less hidden by the seemingly endless barrier of workshops and houses. To find the seaside resort of Unawatuna, you must know — either from previous experience or from a well-informed taxi-driver — which of the innumerable side roads to take.

The first impression of Unawatuna is of an untidy mix of small hotels, guest houses, some shops and a web of power and telephone lines. However, behind the walls, bounteous tropical gardens can be found dominated by coconut palms that stretch well above the resort’s tallest structures. It is on walking down the narrow paths between the sea-fronting buildings and on to the beach that the true charm of the resort is revealed. There are numerous small restaurants with seemingly insecure decks that jut out over the shore-break. This arc of restaurants and sundecks is broken now and then by narrow beaches shaded by palms and some big-leaved trees. The sea here is a clear bottle-green as the turbulent waters of the Indian Ocean are kept mostly at bay by a series of rocky islands and coral reefs — only the tsunami of 2004 managed to break past this natural barrier.

It is hard to imagine the devastation that the tsunami caused. Now there is only the occasional ruined building, although in Sri Lanka that might equally be the result of …well … being Sri Lankan. Sri Lankans are accustomed to the question “Where were you when the tsunami hit?”. Almost everyone here has a story to tell. One local told me he was on his motorcycle on the A2 when the first wave struck. He was swept off his bike, but managed to scramble up a coconut palm. When he saw the second — and bigger — wave coming, he climbed even higher. He was up there for half an hour before being rescued. He tells me he is still saving up for a new motorbike. We all know that the 2004 tsumani was a freak occurrence, but second-floor rooms with balconies are still preferred by most tourists — expect to pay somewhat more money for your peace of mind.

Many of the young locals of Unawatuna are hip to be sure. There is a surfing scene going on here. Foreign visitors, however, are a mix of ageing hippies trying to recapture a fading past, as well as a new generation of well-heeled East Europeans. The new Russians dress as if they have stepped out from the House of Prada.

I wish my son was with me. I would like him to meet the locals — a strong, friendly people mostly content with their simple lot. There is a delight in uncomplicated pleasures epitomised by their child-like play in the water. I’d like my son to come with me on a fishing tour to Rock Island, not in a fibre-glass speedboat but on an oruwa, a traditional outrigger. I’d like him to see how some women supplement the family income by offering lessons in local cooking. I’d like him to visit the sea turtle farm and hatchery in nearby Habaraduwa. Here is a small enviro-educational project that functions successfully due to the passion of a man of modest means. Abeyedeera buys his turtle eggs from the “egg robbers” at a price higher than the restaurateurs and jewellers are prepared to pay. Five of the world’s seven species of turtle are hatched here in his beach garden. Most hatchlings are released immediately but a few specimens are kept for up to five years for research purposes — and for the visitors to enjoy.

There is a “jungle beach” not far from Unawatuna. You can get there only by boat or on foot. Nearby Galle is a world heritage site and well worth a day’s visit. The old Dutch town with its narrow streets, sea ramparts and museums needs some time to explore. The annual literary festival was taking place when I was there — lectures and readings by a library of writers — local and world-renowned. There were recitals too — the one in the Dutch Reformed Church ended just as I got there. One could plan one’s entire visit around such a festival.

Back in Unawatuna, there is much lying around to be done, great curries to be tasted, followed by a cooling off in the bay night or day.

Unawatuna is sometimes touted as a surfer’s paradise. For someone like me brought up with the impression that — beyond Hawaii — surfing was largely a white man’s sport, it took some getting used to seeing dark-skinned Asians hanging out like real surfing dudes. Each one is conscious of his cultivated image: dreadlocks, body piercings and very much off-the-hip baggies. This contrasts with the unconscious frivolity of Lankan families often bathing in their underwear. Be cautioned, however: Sri Lankans are not very tolerant of “unblushing behavior” (as one municipal beach notice warned).

Full moon is party time in Unawatuna. Don’t expect to sleep even if you’re staying in. The music pounds like an amplified heartbeat. Every half-hour or so, firecrackers and rockets are let off. Laser beams flash among the coconut palms. And next morning, don’t be surprised to find your regular restaurateur fast asleep on the breakfast table.

It seems that everyone in Sri Lanka wants to be your friend. And I think in most cases the friendship is heart-felt — although as a traveller one needs to be ever vigilant for the pickpocket, the trickster and the fraudster. Fortunately, I met nonesuch. Be prepared to tip generously. Most Sri Lankans are poor in comparison to the visitors whom they welcome. They are not afraid to ask for that little bit extra if they believe they have served you well. And I can assure you, you will be well served.

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