10. Real love and waves
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
After a crazy sweaty train ride, for an hour-and-a-half of which nobody could even lift a hand to scratch their nose and three or four people had to hang out of each train door as we moved, I arrived in Hikkaduwa, a beach town on the west coast between Colombo and Galle. I’ve started to embrace the sweat now. Morning showers leave you feeling fresh and revitalised for a while, but if you try to maintain that feeling you only get frustrated when the inevitable perspiration begins. So now I step out each day and take a deep breath of the heavy air, put my sunglasses to the sun, and let my pores do as they please.
I checked in at the hostel and then went for a stroll along the beach to suss out the surf and on my way noticed a crowd of people on a small spit of sand by the Hikkaduwa coral reef. I went to find out what was going on. Tourists were stood around smiling at a couple of huge boulders in the shallow water. Some people are into weird shit, I thought. Maybe there was a geology field trip in Sri Lanka. Then the boulders started moving around and I realised they were sea turtles the size of islands. Pretty sweet, but the surf break around the corner looked a bit advanced for me so I refrained from an evening session. Maybe I should have gone for it. Maybe I should’ve just given it a go. But the fact the break is over reef unnerved me a little too. (Proud of me for holding back, Mum?) Instead I decided to head back to the hostel for food. On the street I heard a weird noise, like monsoon rain. That didn’t seem to add up because it’s the mild and dry season here in the southwest. I looked up and found I was about to enter dangerous territory. Crows were taking up the entire telephone wire and their turds were peppering the tarmac at a rate I’ve never seen before. I hailed a tuk-tuk and let the canvas roof take the impact.
Back at the hostel, as I was about to launch into a kottu, two people around my age shuffled in on the bench to my left. It wasn’t hard to tell they were very happy. There was a sublime easiness between them as they spoke over the menu and laughed. We got talking. Rosa and Ralph; a Dutch couple in the first few days of a fortnight away. Two of the friendliest people I’ve ever met; two people sincerely interested in finding out about other people. When two huge bats sneaked in and began circling around the jungle-style café part of the hostel after our meal, we bailed and went for a drink at a beachside bar with the waves lapping by our feet as we sat, and here Rosa said something which gave me goose bumps and I’ve been thinking about a lot since. We somehow got onto yoga. I should say that Rosa was not wishy-washy or saying anything for the sake of it. She was being completely honest and just saying it how it was. She said the yoga makes her feel connected and calm. She always feels better after a session, she said. But she also sometimes cries afterwards because of the intense and serene sensations it induces. She started laughing. I asked why. She looked at Ralph and said, “Sometimes I also cry because I just think about how much I love you.” Wow. A couple more beers in me and I would’ve flooded into more tears than when I first watched Star Wars episode three and witnesses Anakin’s unstoppable transition to Darth Vader, but for the opposite reason. It was so beautiful. Ralph looked at me and smiled his warm smile. There was no doubting his contentedness. He basically never stopped smiling the whole time we were together.
That is, apart from when we met up again the next morning at the Tsunami Museum just north of Hikkaduwa. Nobody smiles there. Obviously. Sobering is one word for it. Harrowing another. Some of the photos are of dead bodies floating in sea water or of trucks bucketing soil over mass graves. Sri Lanka was second worst hit, in terms of fatalities, after Indonesia. Outside the museum is the salvaged wreckage of a train that was knocked over by the monumental wave. The trainline is close to the beach, maybe two-hundred metres off it. Of over one-and-a-half-thousand passengers on that train, ten survived. Further down the road is a Buddha statue which Japan donated and opened on 26th December 2006, two years exactly after the tsunami. The second wave that fateful morning was thirty metres tall, which apparently correlates to the height of the shoulder of the statue. It’s basically incomprehensible. We asked the lady at the museum whether people still suffered the effects of the tsunami today. She looked up and answered our question by telling us that every single person in the area still feels the impact of that half hour more than thirteen years ago. The beach across the road from the museum is white-sanded and empty and the sea is azure and gentle. But you look at it with different eyes after reading about what happened and seeing photographic footage. There were lots of remarks about the dual character of Nature in the museum, and you start to see it. On the one hand it can cause brutal destruction and catastrophic pain to millions. On the other it produces some of the best fun people can have in the form of kind, surfable waves. I felt a deeper appreciation for the latter.
Back at the hostel, after Ralph and Rosa headed south for Mirissa, I got talking to three girls around the communal benches. The best bit of hostels is how easy it is to talk to anyone. A girl from the USA, Tess, said she’d woken up at 5.30am and taken her book on existentialism to the beach to read. Amazing. But I then felt obliged to reveal that, as a guy travelling solo, I’d the day before finished reading The Bridges of Madison County. To be fair, it starts as the kind of slightly corny and classic romance of a stranger and a farm wife during a hot summer that I expected it to be. But I’d recommend anyone to stick with it. It’s deeply moving and as opposed to, or because of, being about love in its purest form, it’s about life and human spirituality. (Did I mention I’m trying to find myself here in Sri Lanka?) If you read it, you have to also see it through the postscript and interview with “Nighthawk” Cummings at the very end. They’re possibly the best two sections. I genuinely shed a tear while sat on the floor outside the bathroom on the Colombo-Matara train, the one which brought me to Hikkaduwa. The Sri Lankan train conductor stood next to me didn’t know which way to look.
Tess, who lives and teaches in Shanghai, talked about the Chinese culture towards women and relationships. About how when women marry they sign over more or less everything to the man, and how families organise blind dates for daughters in their twenties who don’t have a partner yet. You learn about other cultures when travelling, not just of the country you’re in. Bhutan seems an interesting place to visit. An Italian guy Adam and I met in Ella was heading there later in his comprehensive tour of Asia. Apparently in Bhutan the restrictions on tourism are tight (at least, for Westerners); in numbers and in tourists’ permitted behaviour. Visitors have to adhere to the cultural nuances and chose specific dates on which to enter and leave, as opposed to having a visa for a limited time but often with an unspecified leaving date. After being in the overrun town of Hikkaduwa for two days – inundated with holidaymakers, backpackers, and establishments effectively bowing down to the wants and needs of them – I see a lot of good in Bhutan’s policies and attitudes towards tourism. But I am of course a massive hypocrite by the very fact of being here. And I have to say, after eating my weekly burger last night (I treat myself to one big meaty burger per week to settle me, the rest of the time having vegetarian local cuisine because it’s cheap and the local meat dishes are full of gristle and bone), and sitting right now overlooking the beach at Hikkaduwa drinking coffee, it’s a tourist’s paradise with good reason. Stunning, cheap, warm weather and warm water, nice locals; I could sit here (nursing a small arrack hangover) watching and listening to the waves roll in for a long, long time.
But I have to go now. It almost feels like the trip is coming towards an end already. Tonight I’ll be in Weligama, and there I shall remain for the final eight nights. I have a new hostel for tonight – there are so many inexpensive, awesome-looking guesthouses and hostels that it’s actually fun just shopping around and trying a few out (like shopping for tights) – then it’s Spindrift for a week. In the first few posts of this Sri Lankan adventure blog I really raved about Spindrift. Now there’s back up: I was not surprised at all to hear that a week ago it was awarded, by Hostelworld.com, best hostel in Sri Lanka. Normally my opinions are bad. It’s nice to be right for once. I’m looking forward to staying there again and settling in for a surfing-packed week. It honestly feels like coming home before going home.