Sri Lankan Dreams
As a traveler in a foreign land, how often do you have a country to yourself?
That’s the question that my wife and I kept asking ourselves as we ventured through the myriad of jaw dropping wonders that the mystical island of Sri Lanka had to offer. ..Where were the tourists?
Like so many other curious travelers perhaps, there was a legitimate reason Sri Lanka had not been the hot spot for decades. Over the years we had put it off because of the civil war that raged in the north between the Tamil Tigers rebels and the Sri Lankan government. It was a tragedy, certainly, but there was always a question of how much the conflict affected the rest of the country and how accurate the reports were to begin with. When news spread around the world that the two sides had reached a truce, we were on the next plane.
With 30 countries under our belt, there are many moments that we have shared together on the road that are stashed in a treasure chest of exquisite memories, but after completing a mere three weeks cruising through this obscure and little visited country we felt certain that not only was it safe, but it was near the top of our list.
Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike International Airport was just a forty-five minute airline hop from the southern-most shores of its mighty neighbor, India. The gleaming, clean building was a shock after the dirty mayhem that giant continent had put us through and was our first introduction to the civility and noble nature of this sovereign state. We were whisked away by taxi to Negombo, a nearby beach city where we hired an old Toyota Corolla from Suranga Perera and his small gang of diligent mechanics. It was nothing special, but with its worn tires, dark, tinted windows, faded vinyl dash and cracked seats we felt somehow perfectly incognito as we rattled and bounced out of Negombo and headed north to the archaeological wonders of Sri Lanka’s ancient Buddhist empires.
It had been less than 2 hours since we’d touched down on Sri Lanka’s soil and we were suddenly totally independent of public transportation. We felt free…and hungry. Something we have come to prioritize as a leading factor when considering the credentials of any country is cuisine. Sri Lanka never failed to deliver. We stopped at a roadside restaurant, more of a dilapidated corrugated iron box than anything. It’s not uncommon to stumble across little gems in the middle of nowhere in this country and that was just what we discovered at our first meal. We marveled at the buffet of fish curries, collard green-like stews and chicken-soaked soups set out in huge clay pots to drool over. There was a bean dish and other tasties that suited my wife’s vegetarian diet so were in heaven. We pigged out and left deeply satisfied to the most beautiful smiles from its Sinhalese patrons you could imagine. No word of English had ever been spoken, and it only cost two dollars…for both of us.
Sri Lanka was called Serendib (hence, “serendipity”) by Arabian traders for hundreds of years. Marco Polo called it the most beautiful island in the known world. It has been called The Pearl of the Ocean. The name itself derives from Sanskrit, “sri” ( venerable ) and “lanka” ( island ) but the nicknames are endless. On that first day we decided to coin it simply…paradise.
The lonely highway from Negombo plunged immediately into a rolling, uninhabited land of that tropical, lush greenery that almost seems psychedelic it’s so gorgeous. The skies were an unbeatable blue and the heat, well, it was the tropics…what do you expect? We smiled at a sign that said “No Horns Please” (anyone who has been to India will get that) and stopped at another that was simply a depiction of a mother and baby elephant crossing the road. Once in a while we paused to gaze in silence at the graceful curve of massive Buddhist stupas rising from steamy forests that looked lost in time. A tremendous monsoon storm suddenly struck us and for a while we drove with trepidation on the one and only dirt highway that became a red clay bath and test for our little car.
It was well past nightfall when we arrived at Anuradhapura, one of three ancient cities in north-central Sri Lanka that UNESCO has given protected status. Dragon flies and mosquitoes were out in full force, there was no such thing as street lights and every road seemed like a lumpy wave of mud as we searched for our little Lonely Planet recommended hotel and dodged dark skinned, smiling faces on bicycles. It had been a long day. We were exhausted. We had crossed an ocean, gone through the mental challenges of navigating jungle roads and digested new languages and tastes, literally.
But none of it mattered. As we bedded down for the night under our mosquito net in our humble hotel room we both had a huge grin on our face…after all, we had just completed our first day in Paradise.