Sri Lankan beach bum

Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
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Trip End Nov 18, 2002


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Where I stayed

Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Friday, March 1, 2002

"Have you ever seen someone killed?" I asked Affan. A question which would, in any other time and place, seem terribly inappropriate.

"Yes, yes I have" he paused slightly as his face went from laughter to a somber stare.

"How?" I probed deeper.

"Tires, they put them in tires and WOOSH" he said in his thick Sri Lankan English accent, gesturing in the air with his hands.

Sri Lanka has seen it's share of terrorism. The current rebel group, the LTTE, resides in the north of Sri Lanka. Although Affan assured me it was safe to go to the northern regions of Jaffna now that the LTTE has a peace agreement with the government, it hasn't been safe to venture there for years.

"Will the peace agreements hold this time?" I asked

"I hope so, I hope so..." he said

Sipping Arrack, a sweet potent alcoholic drink made of coconut extract, under the flickering neon lights of a local restaurant-come-bar, Affan, the owner of the Light House Lodge, gave me a Sri Lankan's views on the political strife which afflicts the Country. Tamils, a Hindu minority in Sri Lanka, are fighting for a separate state in the north. Something, which I am told will never happen. Since the attack on the International airport in Colombo where 20 suicide bombers armed with rocket launchers and strapped with TNT blew up 6 airplanes a few months ago, tourism has suffered dramatically.

"Last year this time, all hotel full" the bell boy at the Villa Guesthouse tells me.

"It's because of the airport, and the rebels you know"

The pleasant side effect of terrorism, if you'll allow me to take a look at the bright side of a horrible conflict, is that the country is pleasantly lacking in tourists.

Aside from the odd pasty white skinned German tourist wandering the ramparts in Galle, I hadn't seen any others until I reached the beach.

With the low demand for hotel rooms, I managed to haggle a reasonable price for a posh room in an upscale hotel on Unawatuna beach. After seeing a spider the size of a softball scurry across my bedroom wall on my last night in Galle as I unbolted my door, the Air conditioned room with, warm water, high ceilings and a wonderfully large victorian canape bed was a welcome luxury. Finally a good nights sleep... or so I thought. Jet lag wouldn't let me free that easily.

--- The beach

Unawatuna, a calm, quiet, and siren beach with a handful of tourists was the ideal first destination for a Canadian coming from a dismal snowy and cold country. Walking down the beach during sunrise, local fishermen bring in their catch of stingrays and fish so big that only 3 or 4 fit into their milk crates.

Unawatuna, nirvana...

-- First encounter

Having been in Sri Lanka for 3 days, I had yet to meet any foreign travellers. Affan, Wijara and Uma, all Sri lankans, had been the only people that I had met, and I was beginning to crave meeting someone travelling through South east Asia (SEA) like I was to get the 'scoop'.

The rain came from out of nowhere, and it came down in drops the size of marbles. Not wanting to get my bags wet I ducked into an Internet shop to catch shelter. Trapped by the terential rains outside, I met Sophie, a 21 year old Swedish girl who had been travelling through SEA for several months. I met Sophie later that night for drinks.

"400 rupes a night? " Sophie said with an astonished look in her face.

"I am paying 200!" she continued, as she explained how she paid no more than 3$US per night, not because she had to, but rather, that it was the best way to travel.

Sophie was the poster child for a backpacker subculture that believes that spending more than pocket change for a hotel room, a tuk tuk ride and dinner was sin. I didn't tell her I had spent 3000 rupes a night for my luxury suite at the Villa.

We exchanged email addresses after a few Arracks and promised to meet in India.

-- Malaria or Lariam... that is the question.

Lariam, also known as Mefloquin, is one of the most potent Malaria medications available, and I have a 5 month supply of it. After taking it for 2 weeks now, the side affects have me wondering if risking malaria might be better than continuing with the meds..

"Vivid dreams" the doctors call it. There are many side effects to Larium but having nightmares is the "standard" one which most travellers are subjected to while taking this drug. Aside from the occasional night of waking in a cold sweet from an all to 'vivid' dream, the side effects were bearable until now. The second side affect to start recently, is the unpleasant taste in my mouth which is like sucking on a handful of rusty nails. Food and drink is awful.

Although all of the travellers I've met so far aren't taking any malaria meds, I'll give Larium another week or so before I decide to do anything about it.

-- Mirissa, the journey begins

Mirissa is a quieter beach 15 km from Unawatuna. Affan picked me up and drove me there in the morning. Once there we discussed his recent proposal to drive me around Sri lanka in his air conditioned van for 190$ US for 6 days, an offer I wasn't too keen on until...

"No Jafna is safe." he insisted

"I not been but I think we must go, now is safe, since peace last week I think."

I'm not so sure that the mine riddled northern part of Sri lanka which had been violently held by the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) until last week, is safe, but I'd love to go. Last week the rebels signed an agreement with the government opening all of the roads and promising safe passage.

"Wajira, my driver wants to take me to Jaffna, is it safe?" I asked Wajira from the hotel phone in Mirissa.

"I think so, you are very lucky to be here now. If it was ever possible to go, it would be now." he assured me.

Perhaps Affan was right, maybe it is safe. I decided to accept his offer for the 6 day ride around Sri Lanka. When we arrived in Anadhapura, the most northern point of 'safe' Sri Lanka, we would ask the local bus drivers, which had been to Jaffna if it was safe.

"What happened last time the peace negotiations broke down?" I asked Affan as we planned the route in my lonely planet guide map over a cold lager.

"It was a misfire, a short circuit, you know?" he tried to explain.

"So what happens if there is a 'short circuit' when we are there?" I asked, now beginning to get concerned.

"Then we pray to our gods" he said, rolling his eyes to the sky and laughing loudly.

-- The plan

Not feeling too comfortable with the trek up north to the rebel stronghold, we agreed to start the 6 day journey through Sri Lanka Friday. First Affan would have to go to his Muslim friend's wedding. Affan promised to lend me a white shirt and tie so that I could attend the wedding with him and his wife Uma. Then we'll head off for a safari in Yala National Park then up to Adam's peak and the ancient cities. Once in the northern part of our trek, we'll decide whether it's safe to push on north bound for Jaffna. Just in case, Affan will have the van stocked with water, beer, pillows and blankets for the journey should we have to sleep in the van.

-- Sunshine, Jetlag and Valium

My stay in Mirissa consisted mostly of playing checkers with some local Sri Lankan boys on the sunny beach, reading the paper searching for information on the "Jaffna situation" and waking at 4am every day. the jet lag still hadn't worn off and I had been up at 4am every day since I arrived in Sri Lanka. One advantage of waking early is being able to wander the peaceful, desolate beach, completely alone to witness the beautiful Sri Lankan sunrise ( See pictures ). My last day on Mirissa, I awoke at 4am, like clock work. It was pitch black with only the moon lighting the way to the beach. Alone on the tranquil beach, I could see the fullest, brightest and most spectacular moon I had ever seen, it was Poya day. Poya is a national holiday in Sri Lanka and is celebrated with every full moon. The next morning the Sri lankan papers announced that NASA had reported the moon to be the brightest that it had been in a full year. Spectacular.

Leaving the safety of my isolated beach complex, I strolled down the pathway to rural Sri Lanka to find a remedy for my newly found, and unwelcomed sleep disorder. A few kilometers down a dirt road passed cows, tuk tuks and speeding local buses, I stumbled onto a "pharmacy". A small whole in the wall where a man was sitting behind a glass medicine cabinet.

"Hello sir" the man smiled, as most Sri Lankans do.

"I can't sleep, do you have anything?" I pleaded

He squinted as if to understand what I was saying, paused, then suddenly his eyes sprung wide as he reached for a yellow labelled plastic bottle. "is Valium sir."

I couldn't see the word Valium anywhere on the label.

"Is same same, you know? " he insisted, still smiling wildly.

Valim saved the day on my previous trek to Cambodia, this would do the trick just fine.

"How much for 5?" I said pointing at my wallet.

"1 Ruppe for 5 sir"

One Ruppe is the rough equivalent of 2 Cents Canadian. That would do just fine.

-- And now, it begins...

Having spent 4 days on the beaches of Southern Sri Lanka my feet were beginning to itch, begging to be scratched by the soil of mainland Sri Lanka. And now, the adventure begins.
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