Missing out seems to be a theme for this particular trip, and this chapter is no exception. This time, however, the missing out was not due to my own inadequacies as a planner.
The plan had been to drive back up the coast from Tangalle to Negombo, via Mirissa, where I was to experience the life long fantasy of seeing a real-life whale in it’s natural habitat.
I learned so much during my time in Sri Lanka, the most poignant lesson being that sometimes it’s best to leave the fantasy in your head. Not because the experience wouldn’t live up to your own cerebral version of it, but because sometimes you’re destroying the thing you love the most by getting close to it.
Whale spotting is sadly something I’ll never experience. But I feel good about that, because to be a part of their destruction, even just a tiny bit, would haunt me.
Marine biologists have learnt recently that the reason there are so many blue whales off the south west coast of Sri Lanka is very possibly due to the fact that these particular whales DON’T MIGRATE. There are vast quantities of krill that live and breed in an underwater crevasse, and blue whales just can’t get enough of that flipper-licking krill. As there’s an abundance of food, these whales pretty much stay where they are, chowing down.
There’s an interesting video about this here. It’s a bittersweet truth that the only good to have come out of the civil war in Sri Lanka – ironically – was peace and sanctuary for the blue whales.
Please be aware – the tours that take you out whale spotting CHASE THE WHALES. As soon as one of those immense creatures is spotted, tens of loud, polluting, crowded vessels speed after it to give the tourists a better view. If this is allowed to carry on, the whales will be so traumatised that they’ll be forced away from the home they’ve been enjoying for god-knows how long. Blue whales are already verging on extinction, so ask yourself: do you want to see one that badly that you can live with the fact that you were a part of encouraging this behaviour? If you truly don’t give a toss, maybe you should just go to Florida. There’s lots of captive sea mammals there, and you don’t have to get wet.
The coast road takes you through several towns, some big some small. All along the south west coast of Sri Lanka are the terrible flotsam and jetsam from the 2004 tsunami. Boats, left where they were depositedby the big wave as memorials of the tragedy; houses bruised by the tell-tale splodges of water damage, left vacant and windowless; mini-cemeteries. Happily, the families and friends we encountered along the way had lived to tell the tale of their brave escapes.
There are plenty of workshops along this stretch of road, where you can buy hand crafted wooden masks, sculptures and carvings directly from the artist, rather than the mass-produced trinkets to be found in many tourist shops.
Another famous sight are the Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa. I was very impressed by the speed at which they alighted their sticks and confronted me for money after taking their picture. This lead me to wonder: at what point did they realise pretending to fish was more profitable than actually fishing? It’s a funny old world.
Finally we arrived at Negombo. When we left Tangalle, I had accepted the fact that we’d be hard pressed to top it, and was fully expecting our final destination to be less than perfect. I wasn’t prepared to be confronted with the polar opposite of Tangalle.
Tangalle and Negombo, respectively, are akin to the before and after photos in a ‘Faces of Meth’ campaign. Where Tangalle is natural, Negombo is gaudy; where the people of Tangalle are gentle, the people of Negombo are hard; where Tangalle is pristine, Negombo is filthy.
The beach was tattooed with black streaks of motor oil, every depression in the sand filled with plastic wrappers, cans, sanitary products, syringes, shoes. Crap, basically. It was thoroughly depressing to see what was once probably every bit as beautiful as Tangalle in such disrepair.
Hotel J was nice enough, and did a wicked rice and curry. They have a roof top bar from which to watch the explosive sunsets, but where they would have created a chilled ambience by playing some mellow Sri Lankan music, they blared out all the crappy pop music I’d hoped to escape from. We struggled to find Sri Lankan food in any of the restaurants we tried. It was as if all of the Sri Lankan flavour had been washed away and replaced with something resembling Benidorm after a really bad night.
Don’t get me wrong – life always throws you a bone when you’re feeling blue, and this was no exception. The roof terrace proved to be a phenomenal vantage point from which to watch the dramatic lightning storms that took place nightly, as if on schedule. Again, I was truly amazed.
Another highlight was a cheap Indian restaurant we dined in – the only one we could find that didn’t have at least two thirds of the menu filled with Western dishes. They didn’t have an alcohol licence, so we were served our Lion beer in a tea pot. And I must say, it’s not just tea that tastes better from fine china.
I am told that many folks travel to Sri Lanka for the weekend who work in the Middle East. The farthest they travel from the airport is to Negombo, where they sunbathe and get pissed. This thought was comforting to me. These people wouldn’t embark on the journey we had undertaken to find paradise. Not worth the hassle if all they want to do is lie, pink and bloated on a sun bed, barking orders at people and walking around in their pants. Until the plane journey home that is, where I discovered in the in-flight magazine that an airport has recently opened in the south of the country. The thought of southern Sri Lanka descending to the depths of Negombo made me thoroughly depressed.
It was a thought provoking end to an amazing trip. We all agreed that two weeks is barely enough time to see even a fraction of this amazing country. I’d say to really experience everything Sri Lanka has to offer, you’d need at least three – six months. Every town we stopped in had a plethora of natural phenomena, temples, wildlife and culture around it, like never ending travel fractals.
I dearly loved the place and the people, and pray that any future development is performed with the care and thought necessary to ensure Sri Lanka never loses it’s Sri Lankan-ness. If that ever happened, the Earth would lose one of it’s brightest jewels.