All’s Well in Weligama

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;

balcony with a view
Balcony with a view

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,

children at the beach in weligama
Children at the beach in Weligama

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

part of our lunch
Part of our lunch

a bowl each of cuttlefish curry, dahl, spiced potatoes and coconut sambol is one of the easiest things you’ll do in Weligama.

One of our snorkelling guides buoying the oruwa

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.

a fishing boat in the distance / weligama is primarily a fishing town
A fishing boat in the distance / Weligama is primarily a fishing town

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

sunset in mirissa
Sunset in Mirissa

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.

the coconut seller cuts open the fruit so we can eat the succulent cream
The coconut seller cuts open the fruit so we can eat the succulent cream.

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.


Trapped in Paradise

“Please wait here, okay? I’ll come back in ten minutes.”

Puppy on board! Nishantha holds up his dachshund pup so I can take a photo.

It’s a hot day and we have already waited thirty minutes outside our guest house, so we have no choice but to agree. We are also a little taken with the tuktuk driver’s disarming request, and no less bemused to see wrapped in his left arm a tiny dachshund puppy. He’s wet and shivering, and we learn that our tuktuk-driver-to-be has just given him a bath (at the ocean?) and needs to take him home where there are dry towels and puppy food. They disappear around the bend going towards Weligama’s town centre, and we hop down from the pavement to the stretch of beach for a stroll, keeping an eye out for Mirissa-bound tuktuks, with or without cute animals on board.

Another thirty minutes later we see the green-and-black three-wheeler turn onto the main road, the driver inside waving and all smiles to find that we’ve still had no luck.

“I’m not a tuktuk driver,” he tells us as we finally head to Mirissa for the evening. As my partner and I exchange suspicious side-glances, he gives us his name and an explanation. The tuktuk belongs to his parents, who live on a small farm in Weligama. When they were thinking of getting a car, a low-maintenance runabout made more sense for a town as little as theirs, and a tuktuk was purchased instead. Nishantha* is in town visiting and uses the rickshaw to run errands for his family, to go to his friends’ houses, and as it turns out this afternoon, to offer rides to helpless tourists.

The high road that passes through Weligama sees few tourists in the summertime.

July is not high tourist season, and so far we have seen no other foreigner in Weligama. The coconut shop on the beach has not opened once during our stay, and even Nandipal, who I had met when I was here last year, has moved east to Arugam Bay to be the summer manager at a guest house packed with surfing enthusiasts. We are scheduled to go there in two days—Nandipal’s endearing orders.

In Mirissa we expect to see more activity. Despite the hot season, its popular beaches and whale-watching possibilities lure at least some tourists all year round. This is also my partner’s first time in the country, and after spending some days in a decidedly local atmosphere, we want to visit a more well-known haunt. Nishantha is more than willing to take us to the best beaches, and there is no doubt that the beach where he drops us off is splendid, the sand like horseshoes in the ocean, their concave curves facing each other to form a narrow walkway leading you far out in the water. It’s a first time for me too, on this part of the coast, and the scene here is different from last year’s beach, boomboxes and pink and yellow cocktails replaced by local boys playing cricket and doing cartwheels in the water, the air full of their cheery energy. It’s only a few months out of a year that they have the beach to themselves.

Local boys play a game of cricket at this popular Mirissa beach, almost empty of tourists in the low season.
Local boys play a game of cricket at this popular Mirissa beach, almost empty of tourists in the low season.

Nishantha has joined us on our walk, and picking up on our travel interests he offers to take us to some spots he claims are not known to tourists. We don’t want to offend the setting sun in the middle of its spectacle, so we wait for it to disappear before getting back on the road.

In less than ten minutes we have arrived at another beach, a short walk down an unpaved road from where Nishantha has parked the tuktuk. Under a half-moon sky still streaked with purple, we find a million unbroken shells, and after he tries out my camera and takes some photos of the beach, Nishantha continues to tell us about himself.

Growing up on a farm, he had always appreciated the simplicity of a country life, but his college education had made it necessary for him to move to Colombo, where he now works as an office secretary at the Indian Embassy. He comes to Weligama as often as he can, but his constant interaction with the enterprising city people and the foreigners at the embassy has produced in him longings for a life more exciting than his fishing town allows.

“So you prefer living in Colombo now?” I ask.

He does, although Weligama will always be home. But he doesn’t want to live in Colombo either. It’s true that in the city he can have a more varied life, but perhaps he is always aware that no matter where he is in Sri Lanka, he is still on a small island country that doesn’t feature in most geography books, that recently saw the end of one of the longest civil wars in history. “I want to look for jobs in Australia,” he says in the most practical of tones.

We spend the rest of our trip in Sri Lanka catching up with Nandipal in a busy Arugam Bay, spotting wild cats and crocodiles at Yala National Park, swimming over the gorgeous corals of Trincomalee. Almost every day we hear from Nishantha—he texts us his greetings and makes several calls as well, asking about all the details of our trip and then some. We are a little unsure about what to make of all this excited friendliness. Does he want to keep in touch with us because we’re foreigners and therefore a point of contact for him with the world beyond? We feel awkward that this thought occurs to us—it would be much more ideal if we could be sure that his eagerness for communication was due to the charms of friendship alone, and yet we can’t seem to shake the feeling that it is not the case.

A morning scene from Weligama in July last year.

Our last day in Colombo we make preparations for our stay in the next country we’re visiting—the Maldives. It’s made wholly of atolls, and the Hulhumale airport is an island in itself, from where we are ferried to Malé, another island and the capital. The novelty of all these experiences is astonishing, and between that feeling and the rush to get a new phone number to stay in touch with my habitually anxious parents, I dispose of the Sri Lankan sim that contains Nishantha’s contact information.

My partner and I talk of him a few times as we go around another island nation, accumulating new experience after new experience. Eventually our traveller’s exhilaration wins and he slowly drops out of our conversations, waiting perhaps at his embassy office as people come and go with their passports, for a reply to his last unanswered message.

*name changed

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