It's hectic out there — speedy Tuk-Tuk cabs, rundown buildings, locals with sparse teeth and pretty smiles. Sri Lanka is beleaguered and bumpy, but good and gentle at its core. Contributing editor Alyssa Shelasky goes on a far-off journey of elephants and enlightenment.
SRI LANKA – A few months ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to Sri Lanka by a friend who works at the embassy. Normally I travel like a vagabond, but they insisted I roll like a VIP. Here's what happened.
I am moaning like Carrie Matheson in a motel room as a lady dressed like a genie presses her fingers into my needy neck at the Express Spa in the Dubai Airport. In between yessss and haaarder, I ask myself if it's Saturday, Sunday, or maybe Monday. This has been the longest travel experience of my life: thirteen hours from New York to Dubai, an eight-hour layover in the Emirites business lounge (where even the jetlag comes in Cartier), and an impending four-hour flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.
My universe inside the lounge looks like this: Vodka. Baklava. Washcloth. Wasabi nuts. Facebook. Tea. TMZ. Mimosa. Twitter. Toilet. Handsome stranger. Mini croissant. Massage. I playfully send dirty pics (taken on better days) to an ex-boyfriend back in Brooklyn. Kiki de Montparnasse, meet the Middle East. Tick. Tock. Allah. Shalom. Just as it's time to board, the ex texts, "holy shit" and asks for more parts...that don't belong in these parts. All queue'd up with the sarees, birqas, bindis, monk robes, and minks, I think, holy shit, indeed.
Landed. Car sickness: a lifetime affliction. Three men have escorted me off the plane and taken me to an unmarked van. It's all very VIP-slash-24. We pass a dirt road that, they say, will soon make the trip from the airport to Colombo only twelve minutes long. Not yet, though. An hour and a half to go. FML in Sinhalese. To distract myself from my nausea, I tell my Buddhist handlers that my sister is "kind of Buddhist, too." This, because she likes yoga and uses leftie scissors. I sink into my seat, under my shades, as my face turns Goyard green. Please don't let my story be Eat, Pray, Puke.
I arrive at the Taj Hotel in Colombo unscathed. Seems nice, though I can't see straight. My driver says my friends are expecting me at the The Fortress Resort in Galle on the southern coast. I have twenty minutes to transform from strung-out to swank. In the no-frills room, I undress and shower. Dripping wet, wrapped in a tiny towel, I open the drapes to explore the view. Oh! Hi, little Lankan man straddling my balcony, washing my windows, waving hello. I go with it.
Worse for the wear, we head to the Fortress. I try to observe the streets with some grace this time. It's hectic out there — millions of men in mini-sarees; doorless, speedy Tuk-Tuk cabs; zig-zagging buses; rundown buildings; a decrepit Fashion Bug; a plethora of people with sparse teeth and pretty smiles.
After a two-hour drive, I'm not sure what to make of Sri Lanka. Shithole or sanctuary? One thing is for sure — there's no sense of danger or shadiness here, which, as a female who likes to travel alone, I appreciate. Five years after a savage, 26-year civil war, Sri Lanka feels safe. Beleaguered and bumpy, but good and gentle at its core.
I find my friends drinking spiked black tea over a gorgeous infintiy pool on the Indian Ocean. Tired as sin, I order a guava-tini and cashew-and-green-pea curry. A small taste of nirvana after two nights of no sleep.
I wake up human! Down at the hotel's buffet (Sri Lankans love a buffet), I try my first hopper, a traditional Sri Lankan dish. Imagine a crispy thin crêpe shaped like a bowl, usually with a fried egg inside. It's served with a variety of spicy chutneys and condiments. Like most food in Sri Lanka, you eat it with your hands. Hell yeah. Hits the spot.
A rain storm sneaks up on us like a bad back. It's pouring, and our plan to visit the paradisiacal Passikuddah beach farther up the coast is made impossible by flooded streets and roadblocks. Infrastructure is an ongoing issue in Sri Lanka. Luckily, arrack, the local drink, is not. So we head inland to the Kandy region and check into Heritance Kandalama, turning our gloomy day into a glamorous one of strong drinks, spicy chick peas, and sparkly caftans.
Everyone is spellbound by the eco-luxe hotel built in between two mammoth rocks. I love it too, but, as a lame wimp when it comes to small animals, I am freaked-the-f-out by all the monkeys and bats abound. Not exactly the jungle fever of my fantasies.
The weather continues to deteriorate, but it's not the Sri Lankan way to take it lying down. Unless, of course, "it" refers to a 90-minute massage on a floor mat, which is how I spend the night. It clonks me out cold.
We wake up to better weather and a beautiful breakfast — baked yogurt with vanilla bean and cardamom (heaven), hoppers with caramelized onions, passion fruit, mango, papaya, watermelon juice, coconut juice, and killer coffee.
I take an elephant ride on a big mamma named Monica. We see antelope and anteaters along the way. And to think, just a few days ago, my idea of wildlife was East Williamsburg.
We head to Kandy to visit the Temple of the Tooth (Buddha's pearly white is there). Hundreds of people are praying and chanting with extreme devotion. But what is everyone wishing for? If material possessions are forbidden in Buddhism, and the goal is want not, what gives? Certainly someone is slipping in a request for a Gap sweater or the Girls soundtrack?
I stare long and hard at the tethered and tender faces. And suddenly, I start to tear. It doesn't matter what we're praying for — enlightenment, excitement, apartments — we're all human, and we all need a little help from someone, somewhere. I close my eyes and let the thick beat of the drum, which is played not for music but to ward off evil, sink in.
We check into the lovely Mahaweli Reach Hotel. Buddha says life is suffering. So is my stomach. I skip a restaurant known for the mutton and eat a Mars bar in my room. Any port in a storm.
At 6 a.m. I am awakened by chanting and by a mosquito in my mouth. Time to head back to Colombo. But not before visiting a lush spice garden to gather cinnamon, cumin, and cardamom, followed by a visit to an unbelievable elephant orphanage, where I imagine Anderson Cooper would keel over from the cuteness.
With three days in Colombo, we hit the chic Dutch Hospital hub to get daytime drunk. We stroll Main Street, modeling sarees and flashing our undies in the fabric aisles. We visit the make-believe village Nuga Gama — a little Disneyland, a lot delicious. We walk the Galle Face waterfront for street food and souvenirs. On our last night, we're fed by Publis Silva, Sri Lanka's most famous chef, who finally teaches me to eat with my fingertips, and laughs hard when I lose my shit — not from the curry, but over a chipmunk.
Driving home from dinner, I reflect on my trip. Sure, there were moments when my bath water was brown and the dahl tasted like detention. But that's all nonsense compared to the kindness and hospitality of every single, solitary Sri Lankan I met, the sweet surrender of the Temple, the incredible, earthy cuisine, and the cold Lion beer by the silver-blue sea. I'd come back in a second.
A driver arrives to take me to the airport. I shiver at the thought of that rough road again. As we pull away, he turns on some glorious chanting on the radio. "It's very calming, madame. Have nice thoughts, madame. Close your eyes, madame..."
WHEN TO GO
The weather is nice and hot, if a bit unpredictable, year-round. December to March is the most popular season. July/August is the Kandy Esala Perahera, the ten-day festival celebrating the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly: Sri Lanka's main airport is the Bandaranaike International Airport, about an hour and a half from Colombo. It's most common to fly in via Emirates Airlines with a stopover in Dubai or via Qatar with a stopover in Doha.
Visas: American citizens need a visa to visit Sri Lanka.
WHERE TO STAY
Amethyst Resort in Passikudah is sublime for the beach.
Take cheap, if nerve-racking, tuk-tuk cabs wherever you can. On that note, bring motion sickness meds if you're prone to that.
Pack for warm weather, but bring rain gear just in case. Also, bring one all-white outfit for some of the temples.
Skip the wine. Go for the cocktails.
If you're vegetarian or kosher, there are plenty of good options, including halal. If you're not keen on curry, there's an abundance of grilled fish, simple rice dishes, and fresh fruit. You'll be fine, picky eater!
Look out for Kylie Minogue and Angelina Jolie.