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It was the early hours when Angela and I arrived at Colombo International Airport. After clearing the pleasantly efficient customs control, we were bundled into a minivan for the two and a half hour journey to Beruwela, a beach resort south of the capital.
As we drove through the near deserted suburbs of Colombo, our van suddenly pulled over to the side of the road. It was an army checkpoint. “Do not worry, This is normal,” said our driver as we came to a standstill. Outside, a uniformed man with a gun shone a torch into the minibus letting its light linger over us. Seemingly satisfied with what he saw, the guard waved us on. We drove off, heading south.
Beruwela is a small fishing village on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. We were staying in one of the western-style hotels that adjoined the beach. It was one of the hotels damaged by the Tsunami of 2005. I'd seen footage of the tide rushing in, submerging the place where the swimming pool now was, before ebbing back, taking masses of flotsam and jetsam with it. Looking at the Eden Hotel now, it was hard to imagine the devastation
Cloth sold on the beach
that had occurred.
The next morning, we had our first proper look around to take in our surroundings and were soon taken aback by the heat. “I thought Delhi was hot...but this is something else,” said Angela as we ambled along the lush tropical beach. All along the seashore, stalls had been set up selling hats, sari's, shells and turtle mats. “But I don’t mind because it's so beautiful here.”
Back at the hotel, Angela went for a swim, so I went lizard hunting. I was not disappointed. Small orange-yellow geckos hung on the sides of walls and branches. Chameleons and other types of lizard patrolled tree trunks and flower beds. I tried to catch some of them, but they were far too quick. Even a large green chameleon I spied in a bush moved like the clappers when I tried to capture it.
That afternoon we decided to go on a boat trip. A couple of men hanging about by the shore offered their services saying we would see all sorts of wildlife. “You will see everything!” they promised. “And at special discount!”
It was a spectacular journey. We saw fish eagles soaring high above
Chameleon in our hotel
the shoreline, no doubt spying the barracuda which swam in the river. At one point, we edged our way to the riverbank and our driver climbed out, shaking some branches of a tall tree. Immediately there was a flurry of activity and out flew a squadron of huge fruit bats.
“Water monitor!” said our guide “Look!”
Further along the riverbank was a huge lizard, strolling along, oblivious to our interest. It must have been over six feet long. As we got closer, it flicked its tongue and waddled into the sea, disappearing from sight.
We soon hit the mangrove swamps; with large roots sticking out above the water and branches dangling down to reach our heads. This was the tropics I'd imagined - hot, swampy and looking like the jungle.
“Look at that woman,” said Angela as we cleared the mangrove. Sat on a small wooden jetty was an elderly woman in a sari. She was washing her hair with bucketful's of river water. She waved as we passed her by and just along from her, masses of litter and debris seemed to be compacted into the shoreline. Tree stumps and downed wooden fences were also
evidence of something massive that had occurred.
“Tsunami damage,” our guide told us.
Up ahead, there was a man in a small wooden canoe. He steered his boat towards us. The man in the boat reached into his vessel and brought out a small crocodile, about a foot and a half long. Even though its mouth was closed, I could still see razor sharp teeth. And its jaws were not tied shut. The man passed the crocodile into our boat and Angela got to handle it first, followed by me. The man gave its mouth a little flick and the reptile opened its jaws wide, revealing a full complement of teeth.
It was placed on the side of the boat where it began to bask in the sun. A small shrimp was placed by its side and quick as a flash, it grabbed it, swallowing it in seconds. “Fat crocodile!” joked its handler. We finished the boat trip well and truly happy with what we had seen. Giant lizards, crocodiles and mangrove swamps. What better way was there to spend the afternoon?
The local beer, Lion Beer was a refreshing drink. At an
alcohol store in Beruwela town, a large bottle of it cost a measly 120 rupees, or 60p. The town itself was quite small, and we caught an auto-rickshaw to the centre. It was only minutes away from the hotel. The roads didn't seem anywhere near as chaotic as in Delhi, but there were still a few cows wandering around, crossing roads, and cars and buses swerved in and out of lanes like there was no tomorrow. The central road markings might as well have not been there. Lorries and auto-rickshaws crossed into the paths of incoming traffic without thought before nipping back over at the very last second to avoid a head on collision. But at least the beeping was only every other second as opposed to every second in Delhi.
A few days later we caught a speed boat to a small island with a British-built lighthouse as its centre piece. Along the way we passed the Kitchimala Mosque, a small but grand looking white building built on a small headland. When we reached the island, the temperatures were hellishly hot, but the island looked truly tropical, a place where pirates could bury their treasure.
Water monitor - big!
to climb lighthouse?” said a small man who told us he was the lighthouse keeper. “I take you up for 100 rupees each.”
The climb, up the spiraling metal staircase was hot and sweaty. “140 steps,” informed the man. “And the lighthouse was built by British about one hundred years ago.”
The view was amazing from the top - as was the breeze on our face. We could see Beruwela town and even the mountains in the distance. “Look,” said the lighthouse keeper, pointing further inland. “Giant Buddha.” We could make out what seemed to be a gigantic yellow Buddha rising from a lush green forest.
At the bottom once more, a man asked us if we wanted a fresh coconut. He was pointing up towards one of the coconut trees that dotted the island. “I climb for you!”
For the next few minutes the man shimmied up the coconut tree, stopping half-way to perform some acrobatics. With no harness or helmet, he got to the top where he began twisting and turning coconuts so they fell onto the ground with an audible crash. He climbed down and brought us a ripe green specimen which he
hacked until he managed to open a small hole in the top. He passed it to Angela who took a sip of the liquid inside. “This is gorgeous. Really refreshing,” she said smiling. It was passed to me and l was shocked at just how much liquid there actually was. It was almost full to the brim. And Angela was right, it was delicious. Cooler than I expected too.
Beruwela harbour was a mass of brightly coloured fishing boats. The smell of fish became stronger as we approached the harbour's edge. Dried fish stood piled up along the jetty. We were making our way to our pre-booked auto-rickshaw to see the turtle hatchery, located just a few minutes away.
“These turtles are one day old,” said the man in charge of the turtle conservation centre. He told us he’d worked there for ten years but the centre had been there for twenty. He removed a metal screen to reveal a swarm of cute baby turtles, maybe 6cm long. “Please, pick one up, they will not bite.” We did, and their tiny little flippers caressed our palms.
The man spoke again. “After three days, we let them go
back into the ocean. We do this at night. Hopefully one day they will return to lay eggs.”
We followed the man to see some older turtles, some quite large. “You pick this up!” he told me, pointing at a large turtle in a tank of its own. “But be careful - very heavy!” He was correct; it was a real effort getting the turtle out of the tank, especially with its flapping flippers trying to flip me over.
We were taken to an enclosure with lots of small wooden signs poking out of the sand. “This is where the eggs are buried,” said the man. “They are one metre down in the sand.” He told us that he bought them from local people for about fifteen rupees each. “Otherwise these eggs will be sold to market.”
In another tank was a large white turtle. An albino. “For every half million eggs only one will be albino. Its shell is very soft. For this reason we cannot let him go. He will be eaten by shark. But he like to be tickled, watch.” The man put his hand in the water and began to tickle the shell
of the white turtle. It immediately began to twist and turn with its flippers akimbo. But then it came back for more. It obviously loved its tickling treat.
“Plastic bags are real problem,” said the man. “Turtle see plastic bag floating in sea and think it jellyfish. They eat plastic bag and suffocate. Very sad. Especially since some turtles can live two hundred years.”
The next day we decided to get a taxi to the giant Buddha statue we’d seen from the top of the lighthouse. It turned out to be only five minutes from our hotel. As the car drove along a narrow road lined with shops and shacks, we could see the massive structure jutting out above the tree line. The car pulled up in a central courtyard. As we climbed out we saw an elephant being tended to by a Buddhist monk in an orange robe.
Our taxi driver also acted as our guide. He led us around the massive white and yellow Buddha, pointing out that it was rude to point our backs at the statue. All along the edge of the Buddha, on a platform were flowers, placed there by local people.
At the rear of the statue, the fence overlooked pure jungle. Green coconut trees as far as the eye could see. After a complete walk around we were taken into the temple itself, full of pictures and artwork depicting the life of the young Buddha.
At the entrance to another building, we were warned not to take any photographs. It turned out to be a strange sort of museum. It didn’t have anything to do with Buddha or Buddhist Temples; instead it was full of coins from around the world. Why photography wasn't allowed, we couldn't fathom. On the way out, I paid a donation of 50 rupees to a man sat at a counter. In return I received a slip of paper written in Sinhalese. I had no idea what it read but I stuffed it into my wallet nonetheless.
After seven days in Sri Lanka, our trip was over. Angela and I headed back to Colombo airport wishing we could have spent even longer in such an amazing country. The Tamil Tiger problem that was talked about so much in the media had never troubled us once. And every local person we met was friendly and
hospitable. Sri Lanka - a tropical paradise.
Lush tropical setting
Lots to see
Tourism has not spoiled the country yet
Like everywhere, taxi/auto rickshaw drivers trying to rip you off
Long transfer times from Colombo Airport
When it rains, it really rains!
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