Smiling faces, wild beaches, and a prevailing sense of quietude. I’m in Weligama, a quaint little Sri Lankan fish town, passing place for tourists en route to Mirissa of whale watching and beach bumming fame. Yet I find myself rooted in this town that boasts no real attractions;
but there is Nandipal who came running to me and my friend, fresh off the afternoon bus from the capital and wandering around in search of hotels, and led us to a guest house by the beach that was just what we had in mind.
Our large open balcony overlooked the wild waters of the Indian Ocean that broke on a shore where a lone man was selling coconuts chock-full of succulent cream,
and children ran amok and away from the crashing waves, and sometimes crashed right into them. There is also the wooden house next door, not quite a restaurant as there isn’t anything very commercial about the place or the people working there. A languid hour after we order they serve up twice the number of dishes requested, cooked with relish and heart, and if you’re thinking Oh how wasteful, let me tell you that wiping clean
a bowl each of cuttlefish curry, dahl, spiced potatoes and coconut sambol is one of the easiest things you’ll do in Weligama.
We breakfast at the wooden house the next day, when out of nowhere Nandipal appears, a bag of sliced mangoes in hand. They are from his garden and he would like us to have a taste. While we chomp on this early morning delight, still getting used to all the warmth and friendship, we go over our plans for the day. They are whittled into shape by Nandi, and in less than an hour we are headed to the nearest dive centre, where we rent snorkelling gear and wait for the boys who are supposed to guide us around the corals.
The boat they take us on is not unusual in Sri Lanka, although to our unaccustomed eyes the oruwa is quite amusing. We drop our things to the bottom of this thin wooden row boat, prop ourselves on top of the hull, its sides so close together they serve as a seat, and move along towards the reef, legs dangling above little waves, our faces awash in their spray.
The ocean has always filled me at once with a sense of thrill and of calm, and it is this strange mix of opposites that makes me feel at home in the water. But no one I know is as much at ease with the sea as the two boys who lead us on through the corals, gliding along like what could only be mermen. Every few minutes they turn back and beckon us, pointing out parrot fish and sea cucumbers, playing hide-and-seek among corals that are so luminous as if to give you a sensation of being in another world.
We spend hours learning the paths in and around the reef, stare back into the goggle eyes of many a fish, float on our backs with our face to a nourishing sun. By the end of our adventure I am so comfortable in the water that I swim alongside our boat on the way back to shore.
The matter of payment has not been discussed prior to our trip. When we ask about the costs we receive coy smiles of refusal. Our hands are pushed back and the notes declined repeatedly. We almost feel bad for offering to pay for an experience afforded to us by sheer goodwill.
In the afternoon, a couple of hours before sundown we hire a tuktuk to take us to Mirissa. A more common sight meets our
eyes at the crowded beach. Surfers ride the popular Mirissa waves that break on a shore lined with busy restaurants boasting international menus. There are palm-covered hills in the background, and the tourists dressed in Hawaiian shirts and cornrows are sipping cocktails and beers and taking in the beginnings of a tropical sunset, shaking their heads to the first dance beats of the evening.
We break away from the beach party to take a walk around town. The streets leading away are lined with backpacker-friendly guest houses and souvenir shops. We stop to take a look at shell jewellery and fridge magnets and are a little surprised by the prices. Perhaps we have gotten a little too used to the friendly practices of Weligama that bring to mind Gonzalo’s trade-free commonwealth.
Soon the guest houses give way to local homes and wild gardens, bicycles parked against the walls. A drizzle has sent the few people on the street to their houses, but an elderly man selling coconuts waits to see if we would like a drink. Buying one every time we chance upon a coconut seller has become custom with us, and as we sip on our umpteenth coconut, we get to chatting with our good-natured vendor. He asks us more than the usual questions of a local meeting a foreigner and betrays his knowledge of a world beyond what’s enclosed within the bounds of his coastal province. He is retired and after years of working in a company in Colombo, chose to withdraw into a quiet life in the south, far enough from the noise of a city, but with enough tourist activity nearby to be able to sustain a livelihood selling coconuts from his trees to straying visitors.
His life which seems so ideal to me this rainy evening in Mirissa and the almost unreal experiences in Weligama that cure me of much of my cynicism bring me back to Sri Lanka’s southern coast again a year later. The smiles that greet me are still as warm as the sea, and soon I am wading through the water towards the first coral reef I have ever seen. But the sea seems to have turned murky, and as I strain my eyes to spot those beguiling creatures I had met a year ago I think about what Nishantha*, my tuktuk driver told me in Mirissa the day before, about the travails of living in a little island country, and how much he wants to leave.
Read Nishantha’s story here.