Sri Lanka

A Vacation from Traveling

Fishing Boats Tangalle.jpg

I think one travels more usefully when they travel alone, because they reflect more.” — Thomas Jefferson

Tanglalle Fishermen.jpg

I’ve spent the last few days working my way from Tangalle on the south coast, to Unawatuna, to the fort city of Galle and to my last stop Negombo on the west coast. The only reason (and the best reason) anyone goes to Tangalle is for the beaches - and it did not disappoint. My hotel was at the end of dirt road and out my window was nothing but white sand and palm trees. I got up early in the morning, before it got too hot, to watch local fisherman bring in their catch, and then…well, that was pretty much the activity for the day. I sat under an umbrella, watching the waves crash, swimming, walking the beach and pretending to read.

My mantra is usually “what’s next,” but I have started to realize that sometimes, (just maybe), it’s as important to stop, to look, to listen and really be some place - not planning on how to get to the next one. These few days on the beach were my chance, before my trip came to end (and real life came rushing back), to really enjoy the ride, to relish what I had seen and to just be here, in one spot, with no plans for a few days. Call it intervention by vacation. I soaked up every minute of the sunshine, then packed up and headed north.

Galle Fort

I stopped for two days in Unawatuna - another amazing beach, and just a 20 minute bus ride from Galle. Galle is a fortified city, established by the Portuguese in the 16th century, taken over by the Dutch and eventually by the British. But long before the western incursion, it was the main port on the island and a trading point for spices and goods. It is a confluence of architectural styles, a World Heritage site and the largest standing fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. It is surrounded on all sides by huge walls facing the sea and the land. To this day, you can walk almost the entire perimeter of the city on top of these walls. After doing just that, it was time to head back to the beach for one last day in the sun.

Traveling for nearly three weeks is an amazing opportunity. It can also be challenging. But it is always memorable - haggling with tuktuk drivers to try to get somewhere, trying to decipher a train schedule in a foreign language, or standing for two hours on a moving bus. It is an opportunity to learn about other cultures, and a chance to learn about myself - what I love, what I hate, and what inspires me.

It is also a stark reminder that the world keeps turning while I’m away. That is not a bad thing. In fact it means that the mundane stuff that consumes so much emotional and mental energy, is just that. mundane. The world is a magical and wonderful place. Watching couples walk hand in hand through a garden, teenage boys swimming in the ocean, old men sharing a breakfast on the beach after hauling in the days catch, families working together, and swapping stories with fellow travelers. That’s the good stuff.

We have but one life. The days are long but the years are short. Make the most of it. Find joy.

Tangalle Fisherman.jpg

Over and Through the Mountains

Adams Peak.jpg

I thought of this trip in three stages - the cultural triangle of the north, the Hill County in the southcentral region and finally the south and east coasts. The Hill Country is many things – green, mountainous, bisected by waterfalls and rivers, cool climate, lush farms, tea plantations and by all accounts one of the best train journeys in the world. 

Tea Plantation Worker

I boarded the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, one of the highest points in the country. The town, known as Little England, with Victoria Park at its center, is surrounded by acres and acres of tea plantations. Tea growing, harvesting and processing is done almost exclusively by hand and is back breaking work. Pickers climb the steep hillsides picking the tender leaves and buds. The baskets they carry are strapped to their heads and they are paid per kilo of leaves collected. The bags of leaves are picked up from the fields and brought to the factory, During the initial drying or withering, leaves in the giant troughs are turned by hand, then fed manually to the rolling machines. Once rolled the leaves are sorted, fermented and dried again. Each step the tea leaves are handled by people. The process is old and so are the machines. Most wood-fired drying machines came from England or Ireland in the late 1800s and are still in operation today. The tea estates bag the leaves and sell the tea at the auction houses in Colombo to buyers like Lipton, who blend the leaves from many estates. Some tea factories retain a portion and sell estate grown teas under their own label…a little like winemakers and grape growers. 

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But it’s not just tea, the area is perfect for growing all kinds of vegetables – especially as my tuktuk driver said, “English vegetables” - carrots, peas, cabbage and leeks. The narrow mountain roads are lined with vegetable stands, precariously perched between the cliff and roadway.

From Nuwara Eliya I hoped the train again to Ella. The trip through the mountains was even more spectacular than I could have imagined. Everywhere you looked there was green, and the people, especially women in vibrant saris, lined the tracks at each station or walked along behind the train. It was almost sensory and color overload.

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Ella is the heart of the Hill Country. Over the last few years it has gained a reputation as a backpacker destination - surrounded by the mountains, more tea plantations, and a small downtown, filled with cheap eats and Western style cafes. It is a hiker’s paradise – start walking in any direction and the views are amazing. I walked nearly 20 miles in two days - climbing Little Adam’s Peak, walking along the railroad tracks to Nine Arch bridge, hiking to waterfalls, and cave temples. It is also was one of the few places in Sri Lanka to take a cooking class – which was my reward after a day of many, many, many steps up the mountains.

I’m not sure that there was an “aha” moment, or lesson learned by traveling to the Hill Country, but I know I will never forget the sights, the colors and sense of being in a place that practically begged to be seen and explored, and then enjoyed with a cup of tea or (or a beer).

Nine Arch.jpg