Beautiful Bathers


It’s hard to adapt to the sybaritic rigours of beach life, but we have been working at it for 11 days now and feel we are finally getting good at it.

After our fascinating safari days in Tissa, we hopped a bus along the coast towards Tangalle. We got out about 3 kilometers before Tangalle and found a tuk tuk to take us to a beach resort I had booked on the internet. These southern beaches are experiencing a tourist boom. Things will only get busier now that peace is here, more power to them they are building guest houses like mad but so far supply doesn’t quite seem to meet demand so we decided it was prudent to book.

The beach area we chose was stunning — without exaggeration miles and miles and miles of white sand with hardly a soul on it. In contrast to some SE Asian and Indian beaches, there are no vendors, in fact no onlookers at all. Just the rare group of tourists dotted here and there. The swimming is good at Tangalle, though the breakers can be a bit high, but we took great care, as it was a steeply shelving beach and we are careful of currents and the sucking action of big waves. Not anything like as dangerous as Guatemala’s Pacific though. The temperature of the water is perfect, and so clear it has that sparkling effervescent quality that only tropical water has.

I was quite excited about the idea of a “hotel” as opposed to a guesthouse, and though the road in was more like a goat track and our tuk tuk had to ford a stream almost up to the floor boards at one point, the open air lobby looked fairly flash when we arrived. The setting of this place is spectacular — they must have several acres of beach front, the foreshore dotted with coconut palms, and just 7 little two storey cabanas scattered about, all with balconies facing the beach. Our room was good — white tile and a huge bed with what Doug has been craving, a real thick mattress. Bathroom a bit cracked and what not, and more about the termites later, but hot water, towels, etc, all mod cons and of course the lovely balcony overlooking the beach. All these places were completely wiped out by the tsunami so are relatively new, the only way you get a good bathroom in the tropics.

Doug immediately began to undergo a slight crisis about how we could possibly occupy ourselves for the seven days we had booked, we would go crazy with boredom — we have never spent much time on beaches in our trips for this reason, we both prefer to roam about, but when we left home this time, I thought we needed a bit of a restful holiday and it seemed that since this place is famous for its beaches, we should try. As it turned out, there was plenty to entertain us.

It was Valentine’s Day when we arrived and the young, and I could already tell, extremely slothful manager, approached us with the Valentine’s Special — grilled Jumbo Prawns (and what they call Jumbo Prawns in this country are the size of lobsters) and — wait for it — a bottle of white wine! Chilean as it turned out, and probably the least appealing Chilean Sauvignon Blanc I have tasted, but the first wine since the Cathay flight! Food was great, and we retired to bed as an intense tropical storm hit, raining as it can rain only in the tropics.

Our room was cozy in the storm, and Doug couldn’t get over the wonderful bed — it is not that we mind the guesthouse beds, though we have had some funny ones this trip, but a couple of inches of foam is not the same as a spring filled mattress — king sized at that. The rain was beating down on the roof as we went to sleep — and when we woke a couple of hours later, it was still beating down, but now on the bed… We managed to shift to a dry area, lucky it was such a big bed, and slept on til morning. We then repaired to breakfast and informed the young manager of this circumstance. “Oh dear, what to do?” He seemed completely nonplussed. Fortunately some workmen were on site building a new beach bar, and he wandered diffidently over and got them to take a look. They of course had no ladder that could reach the roof but thought they might procure one by the next day. “Oh dear, I hope it doesn’t rain again,” giggled the manager.

We stripped the bed and dried the mattress by turning the AC on full blast and leaving it for a few hours. That did in the ancient and creaking AC. “Oh dear, maybe we can change your room…but we are full…” I had decided that the AC was an unnecessary annoyance anyway as it clanged and banged, the place was fully screened and breezy on the second storey so I much preferred the ceiling fan. Not letting on, I fixed him with my gimlet eye and demanded a substantial price reduction for the duration. The price was already rather lower than it should have been, as they had a particularly gruesome double murder there at Christmas time and are trying to pretend they are another hotel entirely by renaming the place. Don’t worry, it was a government thing, it’s not drug lords here, it’s government officials who travel with body guards, amazingly to Sri Lankans all 11 involved were clapped into prison where they languish still awaiting trial — I think maybe they shouldn’t have done it in full view of a hotel full of tourists, as I said tourism is set to be their next really big thing. The poor man caved immediately.

I also chose that moment to tell him that the pool filter was clearly not functioning (didn’t matter to us, we never swim in a pool if there is an ocean) and that termites were gradually finishing off the frame of the antique mirror in our room and the sawdust accumulation had to be seen to be believed, inches piled up within an hour of cleaning it up. He could process neither bit of information, looked sadly towards the pool, and said, “Do you think so? I think they are putting the chlorine every day…”

Of course, as anal as we are, Doug and I sat there figuring out the simple thing it would be to make the place truly top notch — ie some elbow grease on the part of the staff who mainly played volleyball on the beach between breakfast and dinner. The only person who did any work was the tiny Tamil lady who painstakingly swept the entire enormous yard of its leaves every day. Gardening in the tropics means an unbelievable amount of maintenance, imagine raking fall leaves every day of the year. We renamed the place (for the third time) Fawlty Towers, Sri Lanka and entertained ourselves wondering what would happen next. The next day the water pump broke down, right when everyone had come in from the beach and was trying to shower. No one seemed pleased. About then a new manager arrived, older, more pompous, vastly less charming, but equally as incompetent as the old one.

The water got fixed, and the next day, someone forgot to renew their beer license so there was no beer. That night no one ate dinner there, by this time we had taken to going down the beach where there was a fantastic restaurant. The cook at our place was really good, but the boys in the dining room were passionately fond of the most annoying techno dance music to which they performed peculiar gyrations while serving the meals. They only had one CD and played it over and over and over…after the second night we started going down the beach.

Then with different guests, the water failed again, this time first thing in the morning while people were trying to get ready to check out. Fixed it again, after the manager really put everyone in a good mood by asserting that he had no idea when, or if, it could be fixed… We were in hysterics by this time and couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.

The next morning the cook and the boys in the dining room went on work to rule and didn’t get out of bed until 8:30 while everyone waited for breakfast. The pompous little manager actually attempted to make tea and brought out the most pathetic fruit plates you’ve ever seen (we are so spoiled). By this time, we never wanted to leave the place, and it was by the merest chance that, glancing through my email while waiting for breakfast, I noticed that we were booked in Mirissa that very day. Oh no, oh well, off to the bus and down the road. Both of us had lost track of the days.

Not to think we were completely idle while there — we walked the 3 or 4 kilometers to Tangalle along the beach path/tuk tuk road a few times, they had a good Sunday market and we went to the Cargills to stock up on lunch supplies (crackers and Laughing Cow cheese, ubiquitous through Asia our daughters are sickened by the sight of it, bad memories from their childhood backpacking days.) We also went to a very interesting cave complex with Buddhas in various postures, even the posture of death which we didn’t remember seeing before — you can tell by his feet not his eyes which remain open — and some lovely fresco work on the walls and ceilings, kind of a mini Dambulla and Sigirya combined, very ancient. Another day to a modern temple with a massive Buddha, thronged with worshippers, and to a small co-operative where tsunami affected women are being taught the traditional Sri Lankan skill of bobbin lace making. Just charming, and thank goodness there was a blouse I could buy, I really wanted to help them. The tsunami stories here are just heart breaking.

Marissa turned out to be quite different from our area of Tangalle. The beach is a beautiful white crescent of sand, with much calmer water for swimming — but the whole thing is packed with restaurants fronted by beach chairs full of mahogony coloured Europeans during the day, and tables for eating and mainly, drinking, in the evening. By all accounts much quieter than the famous ones farther west like Unawatuna and Hikkadewa. However, we were a bit horrified at first glance. By the greatest of good luck, I had found on Trip Advisor (which Doug hates and refuses to read but there is no other way to find new places as our guide books are so out of date, and new is really, really important at a beach where everything deteriorates super fast) a nice sounding guest house. It turned out to be tucked at the very end of the bay, kind of like Toad Hall, so really quiet and separated from the restaurant/guesthouse strip. Just a real find, sort of an upmarket guest house but we have a good second storey room with a balcony overhanging the pounding surf, and those of you who sympathize with Doug will be pleased to know, another huge bed with a proper mattress. This one is a four poster hung with mosquito netting and so high up in the air that the first time I got out in the dark I miscalculated the considerable distance I had to jump to the floor and ended up crashed on the concrete floor — D was a bit startled but I was unhurt.

The owner is Sri Lankan-Canadian. He worked in Canada for 15 years to get the money together for this place. He acquired the property from family members and started to build just before the tsunami wiped the beach out. Worked two jobs in Canada and persevered. He is a chef in Toronto and goes back 6 months of every year to manage a large restaurant there, then he is here 6 months overseeing his business. He uses Canada Food Safe rules in his kitchen, says it is taking time to train the staff but he has huge plans for an open concept kitchen like in Toronto, and is actually purchasing a restaurant dishwasher! Must be the only one in Sri Lanka.

The area is truly stunning, calm waters to swim in, and in front of our place a surf break so we can watch the surfers doing their tricks out front. Our room is guesthouse style but with brand new pristine bathrooms and tile done by someone who knows how. Also lots of furniture which your basic guesthouse does without — i.e. a table to put the back packs on, and a large cupboard shelf unit with a mirror (gasp) so that you can set your things down. Good furniture on the patio, such comfort. Our meals are included in the price here and so we tell them each morning what sort of seafood we would like grilled for us in the evening — soup and dessert as we wish. With less exercise (except swimming and beach walks) sadly I fear we will gain the weight we have taken off, our Christmas fat. The days here have flown.

There are quite a few Europeans with small kids here and I find it interesting to observe them. They are very free, they play on the beach clad only in bikini bottoms (male and female) but don’t seem to burn, they must use heavy duty sunscreen on them but you never see them put it on. They get fairly brown, which is gorgeous as they all seem to be white blondes. The downside to me is that their parents all go out to dinner at 9:00 at night and drag these poor tired kids with them. When we traveled with our kids, we always had them fast asleep by that time and some of these kids really need it. Also, the non smoking message has clearly not penetrated Europe, as one and all smoke like chimneys and I mean chain smoke, whether their kids are sitting with them or not. Even the young backpackers all smoke, a demographic you would never see smoking in Canada, clearly these are well to do people. Also it is quite a sight to see how much they lie in the baking sun to tan, and a 300 pound woman wearing a thong bikini (at least I guess so, it was lost in the folds) the colour of mahogany accompanied by her man wearing a Speedo completely obscured by his belly in front — well it kind of takes your breath away and it is not rare. I feel really conspicuous in my 1-piece bathing suit, among the hundreds of sunbathers when we go on our walk down the beach (have to get some exercise) twice a day, I have only seen 3 others. The French women my age are skeletally thin, and basically kippered from the smoke and the sun, but bravely continuing on in bikinis. Have to admire them, we are obviously way too conservative.

We had one excursion here. Went by tuk tuk down the road toward Galle hoping to see the famous stilt fishermen. They stand on poles anchored in the water which they access at low tide, and fish from there. Unfortunately the sea was rough so none were in action — saw some spectacular surfers on the difficult breaks at Welligama though. We also wanted to see the Kogalla Lagoon which has a lot of bird life but it could only be accessed through a “Spice Garden” which is where Doug had a portion of his leg depilated using an “all natural” cream that, the shyster running the place asserted, was used by all the Buddhist monks to keep their heads bald. After only 6 applications your hair will never grow again… “Buddhist monks don’t lie,” he asserted. We were with a pair of Swedes and when he cast about for a subject for his demo, for some reason he picked my exceedingly hairy husband! We were laughing at all the outrageous claims for his remedies, but the Swedish girl was extremely taken, and we left them purchasing vast quantities of “all natural” remedies for this and that — unclean blood, kidney issues, slimming drops — she looked young and healthy to me, can’t imagine what she was thinking.

We also visited a museum set up in the birth and death place (ancestral home and grave about 10 feet apart) of a very famous Sri Lankan writer, Martin Wickramasinghe. The museum was very interesting, devoted to traditional Sri Lankan village life and culture. They had a great collection of dance masks, really old ones, and the life sized puppets used in traditional puppet theatre. Oddly none of this seems to be in evidence now. Even in Burma where puppetry has had to go underground they have struggled to maintain the art. We have looked here for such things but to no avail, aside from a very average “cultural show” in Kandy we have found nothing like that.

Martin Wickramasinghe wrote in both Sinhala and English. He is credited with making Sinhala a language of modern literature and received numerous awards during his life. Clearly he is taught in schools as 11 bus loads of school children visited the place while we were there. The school kids here are immaculately attired in school uniforms, all wearing shoes, and extremely cute. Even little 3 and 4 year olds attending pre school (which is very popular, Sri Lankans seem determined to get their kids educated no matter what sacrifices they have to make) are attired head to foot in cute blue and white uniforms, the girls with matching hair bows. These children were in marked contrast to those we saw on field trips in Jordan — extremely orderly and well behaved, though like nearly all Sri Lankans extremely keen to greet us and ask a few questions.

The author was part of the Burgher population which was extremely powerful and influential up until the second world war. Our Canadian writer and Booker prize winner, Michael Ondaatje is from that group — people of mixed cultural heritage — Dutch, Portuguese, Tamil, Singhalese. When asked by an English governor about his ancestral heritage, one of Ondaatje’s uncles replied: “God alone knows, sir.” They produced an inordinate number of artists, writers, architects, and members of all the professions, the judiciary and the government bureaucracy. English was their language of choice, though they did not associate with the English,, considering them, according to Ondaatje to be “racists and snobs.” His memoir of the 20’s and 30’s when his parents were in their heyday, “Running in the Family” is a small masterpiece, a fascinating story and also a study of the way memory works. Most of them left the country for overseas, as have all but one of Ondaatje’s siblings, when the tide of Singhalese ultra nationalism became oppressive to them as to all minorities. Anyway I was interested in this writer and came away with one of his novels, translated into English. We will tear ourselves away from here on Sunday and head on to Galle, a historic fort city where we will stay in the fort itself. Last bit of history and culture, and maybe some shopping — nothing much to buy here, this is the first country in the last 25 years that I haven’t purchased a pair of earrings — that will change as tourism increases. Now we are starting to think about our trip ending, will be so sorry to leave but of course glad to see family and friends again. Eight weeks is really too short for us.

Hope all are well, your intrepid relaxers, Carol and Doug.

Sent from my iPad


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